Monday, March 31, 2014

60 Minutes and Michael Lewis tell us stock market is 'rigged' and how "iex" injects trust and transparency

Appearing on CBS' 60 Minutes last evening, Michael Lewis, author of a new book entitled Flash Boys, outlined how his reporting has revealed that the stock market is "rigged"....and that millions of people are losing millions of dollars to what is commonly known as "front running". Speaking to reporter Steve Kroft, Lewis put it this way:
Machines with secret programs are now trading stocks in tiny fractions of a second, way too fast to be seen or recorded on a stock ticker or computer screen. Faster than the market itself. High-frequency traders, big Wall Street firms and stock exchanges have spent billions to gain an advantage of a millisecond for themselves and their customers, just to get a peek at stock market prices and orders a flash before everyone else, along with the opportunity to act on it.
Michael Lewis: The insiders are able to move faster than you. They're able to see your order and play it against other orders in ways that you don't understand. They're able to front run your order.
(It) means they're able to identify your desire to, to buy shares in Microsoft and buy 'em in front of you and sell 'em back to you at a higher price. It all happens in infinitesimally small periods of time. There's speed advantage that the faster traders have is milliseconds, some of it is fractions of milliseconds. But it''s enough for them to identify what you're gonna do and do it before you do it at your expense....So it drives the price up, and in turn you pay a higher price. (from 60 Minutes website, March 31, 2014)
This process was initially discovered and exposed by a Canadian then working as a New York trader for the Royal Bank of Canada, Brad Katsuyama, who, following intense investigation realized that the "front runners" were costing investors money, simply because they were faster in placing his order than he was and were able to secure a higher price for orders placed by his clients through him and his team. After having what Katsuyama says was a very difficult conversation with his wife who was naturally sceptical, he decided to open his own stock exchange, iex, dedicated to putting trust and transparency back into the system, on behalf of investors. Katsuyama is almost amazed that such a simple concept, trust and transparency, achieved through technology that effectively thwarts the "front runners" by keeping them out of the game until the iex order has been completed, can be so powerful an instrument in stock trading.
According to those interviewed by the 60 Minutes crew, most predict that iex will be quite successful. For his part, Katsuyama turned his back on a considerable salary package from the Royal Bank to initiate iex (investor exchange), when he brought a number of his Royal Bank colleagues to the new exchange.
As a sidebar to the 60 Minutes story, we also learned that the New York Stock Exchange has become merely a photo-op for the industry, having been replaced by trading that takes place inside huge and very fast computers programmed to operate almost without human intervention, on behalf of those who own time and the software that directs the activity of these 'robots' now at the centre of the trading industry.
What Katsuyama and his former Royal Bank colleagues have done, initially for their own and their clients' protection, as well as for his employer's credibility and protection, is to expose how the system was rigged, and to provide an alternative route without 'front runners' who legally 'scam' the system and the client without either  breaking any laws or having to account for their activity, simply because no one knew what was happening.
In stock trading today, and tomorrow in whatever sectors the computers become the 'runaway' opportunists, we will increasingly need to develop an army of people who are as persistent and as determined and as ethical and courageous as Katsuyama and his team.
And, what's more, it will take a different army of equally persistent, determined and courageously ethical reporters, with the resources to investigate and to report on the inside story from wherever the story develops, in whatever dark corners of our world, when dark includes activities previously kept secret by those whose insider knowledge and ambition and greed place the public, innocent and naïve, at great risk. At the current rate of atrophy in most large network newsrooms, including those with the capacity and the resources to probe the story behind the story with which the public has become almost etherized, there is a real danger that the public increasingly will be robbed of the kind of information that Kroft and his 60 Minutes crew exposed last night. And as the stories of the secrets that endanger the common folk grow in both complexity and frequency, the public good  becomes increasingly more in need of protection and the resources that make that protection feasible.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Forms: a Canadian fetish

With some 3.6 million "civil servants" on the Canadian employment rolls,  approximately 1 in 4 adult workers "working for the government" in some capacity, there can be little doubt that flowing from such a cadre of workers comes a cataract of cover-your-ass forms that are quickly strangling everything from health care to education to public safety to garbage collection, and social policy.
I recently heard a story from one of those 3.6 million that went something like this:
I was attempting to complete arrangements for a procedure that required several offices sign-off in order to be scheduled. When I forwarded the required information to one department, I received an e-mail informing me that I had not submitted the "orange form" that was absolutely required in order for the procedure to be entered in that department's scheduling program on their computer. Since I had never even heard of the "orange form" I began to investigate its purpose and source, so that I might comply with this specific requirement. When I finally discovered where I might acquire such a form, I was told, by one of that department's workers, 'We have a form but it is not orange, but here it is nevertheless!' So upon retrieving the form (merely an ordinary white bond paper form) I proceeded to enter the requisite details onto the form by hand, (since I did not wish to elevate its importance by scanning it and entering the information digitally) and marched it over to the department that had originally demanded it. "There is your precious 'orange form'," I coldly told the recipient. "Now can the procedure be scheduled for Tuesday, as required?
Once, while working in the U.S. I learned of a program initiated by the regional office to support outlying divisions through a support program geared to growth production. As one who considered it an integral part of my job description to generate growth in the division for which I was responsible, I approached the head-office 'head' of development, thinking and believing that, having initiated such a program, and expecting there to be several applicants for the assigned sum of program cash, that "head" would have had his office staff prepare an application form, in order to enumerate the details of both the current status of each applicant and the projected growth that the program was targeted to achieve. In that way, applicants could and would be evaluated, and awards of the support program could and would be allocated proportional to their need and prospects for achievement. I was first greeted with the comment, "Oh yeah, you're from Canada, I forgot, so I had better draw up a form for you!" When I completed the relatively simply form and submitted it for review, I waited what I thought was a reasonable time for a response and then called the 'head' of development, asking what was going on with the program, and whether or not he had reviewed our application. "I lost your form when we moved offices," he replied, as if to confirm his initial negative response to my original request for a form. I never heard of the program, nor of its specific application to any of the struggling regional divisions, nor, of course, to any of the successes which might have authenticated its original purpose. The program was nothing but hot air from a newly appointed 'head of development' (friend of the CEO) that allegedly provided a newsletter headline to indicate his own grasp of the need for such a program, without any intention of walking the talk.
The sheer scope and magnitude of the "form fetish" (many would call it a national addiction) in the Canadian bureaucratic culture, has to have some value in requiring those responsible for policy design and those responsible for implementation to be able to point to some "value" for their pay cheques at the end of the government's fiscal year. (And, of course, this statement applies to the national government in Ottawa as well as to the various provincial governments.) Some method of monitoring the impact of all of those juicy and chic lunches for all of those middle and high-ranking public servants and the conversations that take place in all of those swanky restaurants, all of them on the public tab, has to be found and sustained, so that those in power, the elected masters, can and will demonstrate their effectiveness when it comes time for a cabinet shuffle, or more importantly, when the election rolls around and the campaign needs talking points to demonstrate value and the virtue of re-election of incumbents.
However, that process turns upside down the way government is supposed to work. It is primarily to serve the needs of the public, not to serve the needs of those elected to carry out public policy. And the forms, (so irritating in their very existence and so complicating in their interruption and often obstruction of the kind of process that would be greased far more effectively and efficiently by the establishment of trust among and between professional colleagues,) exist, and grow in number and in significance as the process has shifted to serve the power needs of those holding the levers of authority (and presumably responsibility) in demonstrating their value to either supervisors or voters.
We have become a country of forms designed to be filled by those who report to the people designing the forms, who in turn, can demonstrate to their superiors just how effective they are in carrying out the directives of those supervisors. In other words, 'covering-your-ass' (CYA) has become more important than the generation of policies and procedures that would and could bring more attentiveness of the spending of public money on the legitimate needs of the public. And we all wonder just how much pressure from the weight of this blizzard of both hard copy and digital "forms" the economy, not to mention the hierarchical systems which have come to require these forms, can bear. We are a nation with a considerable natural resource base of forests, streams, lakes rivers and even access to oceans. Paper production has been one of the staples of our manufacturing capacity, forests being so readily and easily and cheaply available. However, just as Canada consumes more water per capita than any other country on the planet (once again given our abundant supply, historically) we also are far more dependent on "forms" from paper from trees than any other country on the planet.
And, addiction to forms effectively strangles our collective thought process, as well as our management effectiveness, including our capacity and willingness to discuss face to face with all levels of the organization chart, approaches to achieve the goals of the organization. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address took a mere three minutes to articulate, after years of reflection, war and the  loss of life. Yet, its effect was monumental for many reasons, one of those being its crystal-clear simplicity.
People who do what they say they are going to do as demonstrated in their footprints, hardly need those forms to justify their pay nor their value to the organization. People who prevaricate, who pontificate, who preen their political feathers in the service of their career advancement will consistently require those forms. And the more we inculcate the need for forms the more we will continue to develop in our new hires, and in our developing student population, a capacity to cover your ass, and not to initiate new ideas, propose new ways of doing business, and new benchmarks by which to judge the success of the enterprise, regardless of the arena of practice.
Forms depend on obsequiousness (false servility to power) and both depend on the neurosis of our leaders. And a country whose bureaucracy is infected with an epidemic of fawning, and a hierarchy of neurotics is a country unworthy of participating with integrity and authenticity on the world stage.
And if our institutions perpetuate this march of the forms, and this genuflecting of the peons, and this neurosis of the leaders as if they were normal and our only option, then where will our break-through ingenuities come from? Certainly not from our education systems.
Someone once said, "When you scratch an American, you find a salesman underneath; when you scratch a Canadian, you find a civil servant underneath!" ...(and probably suffocating under a blanket of unread forms!)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Preventing suicide; author posits that "we believe each other into being"....

Appearing on NPR's On Being with Krista Tippet yesterday, Jennifer Michael Hecht, author and poet on suicide, resilience, and community says, "We have secret web-like connections to each other. Sometimes when you can't see what's important about you other people can."
In her attempt to answer the single truly important question, "Is life worth living?" Ms Hecht considers the goal of "man's search for meaning" (from Victor Frankl) is not exclusively an individual search, that in fact all people assist in each individual's pursuit of meaning. Knowing and acknowledging that each of us do, from time to time, fall into deep pockets of sadness and depression, Hecht exhorts us all to resist letting those times remove all memory and consciousness of periods when we did not experience sadness and depression. She urges us to write from one "mood" to another, in order to remind ourselves that a single mood does not define us, no matter its strength or duration.
She also, (and this I found most intriguing!) believes that individuals, all human beings, "believe one another into being"....given that only others can and will, at times, be able to notice and to acknowledge our worth and value as human beings, even and perhaps especially if and when we are unable to do that for ourselves. And if her observations and nuances reflections have any validity at all, then we are all much more "connected" to each other, in more intimate and intricate and engaging ways than most previous sociological and even religious perceptions held. And if that is true, then Hecht's observations could lead us to a state of mind/heart/being in which true community could become something we could envision, and gradually incarnate. Here is a brief quotation from her latest book,  Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It:
“None of us can truly know what we mean to other people and none of us can now what our future self will experience. History and philosophy ask us to remember these mysteries, to look around at friends, family, humanity, at the surprises life brings — the endless possibilities that living offers — and to persevere. There is love and insight to live for, bright moments to cherish, and even the possibility of happiness, and the chance of helping someone else through his or her own troubles. Know that people, through history and today, understand how much courage it takes to stay.

Bear witness to the night side of being human and the bravery it entails, and wait for the sun. If we meditate on the record of human wisdom we may find there reason enough to persist and find our way back to happiness. The first step is to consider the arguments and evidence and choose to stay. After that, anything may happen. First, choose to stay.”

~Jennifer Michael Hecht, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It
There is clearly a Jungian flavour to this perception, in that the dark side of being human (Jung's Shadow) holds all of those memories and experiences and reflections that were unbearable at the time of their original existence, and had to be buried in order for us to continue without becoming overcome by their negative power. Holding on to the belief and the perception that we each can bear witness to that dark side, especially when we also hold that others can and do see us very differently from how we see ourselves, and that life continually surprises us with experiences, not only dark but also of 'light' when we least expect it, can and will make it more likely that we can persevere, or as Hecht puts it "stay" and not resort to suicide.
According to Hecht, suicide is the single most frequent cause of death among college-age students, trumping even drugs. It has become statistically more frequent that death on the battlefields for American soldiers in both of the recent conflicts in Iraq and in Afghanistan. We are also learning that suicide deaths, resulting from heroine addiction, are growing among the middle and upper class particularly in New England.
So far, most attempts to develop community have been so tepid and so fleeting and so "task-oriented" that the individuals comprising community take a back seat to the over-riding purpose of the "group" the performance of the task or goal. Sharing a common set of dogma, among religious communities, seems to provide more opportunity for division, difference, friction and even factions, certainly not community. And while most argue that the spiritual life is one primarily of private reflection, contemplation, prayer, reading, meditation, the manner in which we are all connected has often been omitted from those collective and individual perceptions, attitudes and the potential for their full flowering in authentic community.
Hecht's views, by the way, are not based on some religious principles, but rather on her deep conviction that we are all, indeed, mysteriously and meaningfully and empirically connected to each other, no matter how separated, alone, worthless and depressed we might and will become. And the confidence that the over-arching connection through belief into being can sustain us when life darkens, as it inevitably will, inspires at least this single scribe, more than most of the theological and religious insights I have encountered. And for that I thank Ms Hecht most profoundly!

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Reflections on the Ukraine...

Reuters, through The Globe and Mail, is today reporting an IMF staff level commitment to Ukraine of some $14-18 billion in loans, that with other credits could bring the total to some $28 billion over the next two years. On the same day, the Ukrainian government announced a 50% increase in the price of gas, something the IMF required in order to complete its bailout agreement.
While the bailout from the International Monetary Fund is welcome, given the fact that the Ukraine economy is in tatters, after the corrupt Yanukovich regime, there are still questions about the designs Putin has on that country. Everyone listened as U.S. Defence Secretary Hagel told the world that the Russian Defence Minister told him "Russian has no plans to invade Ukraine," but too many people also listened to Chamberlain when he returned from another commitment to restraint in Munich, and Hagel's words are of little comfort either to the people of Ukraine or to the rest of the world.
While the IMF has acted, thankfully, giving both needed economic support and the cover of some political support without actually committing countries like Germany whose dependence on Russian energy is estimated to be around 30-40% of its needs, the capacity of the EU to provide support, separate from the IMF, when the crisis was in its incubator, and not after the Russian takeover of the Crimea, is still somewhat baffling.
Obama in Brussels yesterday attempted to calm both his own American people and the people of Europe that this was not the beginning of another Cold War, that Russia does not command the decisions of a group of countries, in spite of the "caesarian" grab of the Crimea by Putin and the rumours of a planned access corridor for Russia through Russian-populated cities in east Ukraine and along the southern border into Crimea.
Invoking Iraq, as Obama did in his speech, as an example of how the Americans did not want to take over that country, but rather to leave it to the people of Iraq, following the removal of Saddam Hussein, however, stimulated both shame and anxiety in some quarters, given that Putin can and has and will continue to use the American invasion of Iraq that saw hundreds of thousands of people killed, maimed and displaced, because of the overreach of what the world views as a kind of American imperialism. While that imperialism was not directed toward a political takeover of the Iraq governance, it was motivated by an ambition to secure access to Iraq's rich oil deposits. And for too long, the American pursuit of the energy to drive its once formidable industrial complex, (which incidentally also comprises its military complex, with much of that industry dedicated to the production of military materiel, including planes, ships, missiles, bombs and all of the technology that undergirds those "gems" in the American arsenal) has driven U.S. foreign policy.
Shrouded thinly in a veil of "promoting democracy", Americans have initiated conflicts the damages to human life from which far exceed the short-term human impact on Crimea and the Ukraine by Putin and his masked 'marvels' in fatigues without any insignia to disclose their nation of origin. One has to wonder if, under the new Putin, the lessons learned from service in the former KGB of stealth, secrecy, devious intrigue and alacrity are the signs of the new Russian engagement with the rest of the world.
While the Americans have for too long pursued access to fossil fuels as the driver of foreign policy, Putin is now "in command" of some of the richest oil and gas deposits in Europe and through their development, perhaps he believes that he can and will manipulate the geography and the economies and thereby the people who rely on Russian energy for the heat for their homes and the engines in their factories, and the fuel for their transportation, without any real competitive risk. America too has discovered its own deposits of natural gas as well as new deposits of crude, and is rapidly developing those resources. However, according to some reports, ramping up the production and delivery of those resources will take longer than would be required to compete with Putin's ready and available access to Russian deposits. So, for now, Putin "reigns" in his own secret little mind, while attempting to fend off any annoying "flies" of sanctions imposed reciprocally on a circle of both Russian and American leaders. His and Russia's removal from the G8, while somewhat inconvenient, will not stop Putin should he execute further ambitions in Ukraine. Nor will it stop the purchase of Russian energy from countries whose leaders find his "coup" unacceptable.
So for now, both sides will continue to utter "words" of such hollow-sounding rhetoric as to remind us all of the T.S. Eliot poem, "The Hollow Men," given the vacuity and the earnestness with which the diplomatic drama is performed.
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;

These are the opening words of Eliot's masterpiece.
These are the words that none of the current leaders would ever use to describe his/her influence; nevertheless, only if and when they, and we, come to the place where we accept that much of our own words are "quiet and meaningless as wind in dry grass" will we reach a place of acceptance and tolerance of both our ambitions, however lofty, and our desperation, however low.
And then, perhaps, we will be able to have leaders who speak with an authenticity that would put the current melodrama of "shape without form, shade without colour, paralysed force, gesture without motion' to shame. The people who are the pawns of this pretentious and pompous vacuity deserve much better, especially the people of the Ukraine.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Christian right is catalyst for decline of Christian faith in U.S.

Let's look at some of the serious and seriously negative impact the religious right is having on the United States, as it continues to wreak havoc on both the government and the religious institutions it allegedly supports.
In advocating for smaller government, and for a dysfunctional Congress, by blocking everything with a Democratic name attached to it, including anything proposed by the current president, the fundamentalist Christian right has effectively paralyzed Congress, eunuched the president in international affairs, and depleted what he had worked hard to restore in American respect and credibility on the world stage. In defying all attempts to "give a hand up" to those struggling with unemployment, and even in attempting to de-rail the Health Care Reform Act (Obamacare) they have showed a disdain for protecting those dozens of millions of Americans who have lived with a pre-existing medical condition who could not purchase insurance, and those who for reasons of poverty could not afford health insurance. One would have thought, from the outside that both of those objectives would have compelled themselves to the "Christians" among those in Congress; however, getting Uncle Sam off the backs of Americans, as the cliché goes, trumps any effort to ameliorate the lives of millions who might, with health care, be able to afford their meds, food, and possibly a step toward an education that would make them more employable in a rapidly changing economy.
In its pursuit of the wedge issues like contraception and abortion, it has effectively forced the Republican Party into a position where it is quickly becoming a party of old white men, leaving most women wondering why they struggle to find a place of leadership in the GOP. In resisting all attempts at comprehensive immigration reform, which would permit some 11 million unregistered immigrants access to citizenship, the right is also preventing the integration of an energetic and committed work force whose single life ambition is to have a better life by coming to live and to work in the United States. Embracing the world's impoverished, its sick and its persecuted, as the Statue of Liberty declares on Ellis Island in the New York harbour, has fallen off the radar of these "Christians" in their misguided attempt to purify the country from "government" thereby effectively leaving it to the 'wild west' of individuals running amuk when and wherever they please. And we all know, from movies based on the Wall Street culture what that does look like. The crash of 2008 also demonstrates what happens if and when Wall Street runs unregulated.
In continuing to imprison especially blacks and Hispanics at rates that far exceed those of whites, and passing laws that result in the highest incarceration rates on the planet, as well as laws that justify both carrying and using arms, if one feels threatened, (and who knows how far that statue will be abused, as well as included in state statues across the country?), the "Christian right" is supporting a penal colony mentality that evokes shades of Dickens' nineteenth century Britain.
However, there is a brighter side to this development of the power of the Christian right. And it has a decidedly ironic twist.
It is the Christian right who, some believe, has to shoulder much of the responsibility for the decline in the numbers of Americans who have a faith at all. And as one who once attempted to push back against the Christian right, from my teen years throughout my adult life even into the practice of active ministry, no one is more pleased than I that their efforts are proving just how narrow, short-sighted and punitive is their interpretation of scripture, and their actions, attitudes and perceptions of their own righteousness trumps their application of their faith among their neighbours.
A recent piece published in points to the impact the Christian right is having on the very christian churches it purports to support. Sometimes, what goes around really does come around, to "bite itself in the ass".
Research suggests Americans raised in Christian households are increasingly shunning the faith of their parents
The fastest growing religious faith in the United States is the group collectively labeled “Nones,” who spurn organized religion in favor of non-defined skepticism about faith. About two-thirds of Nones say they are former believers. This is hugely significant. The trend is very much that Americans raised in Christian households are shunning the religion of their parents for any number of reasons: the advancement of human understanding; greater access to information; the scandals of the Catholic Church; and the over-zealousness of the Christian Right.
Political scientists Robert Putman and David Campbell, the authors of American Grace, argue that the Christian Right’s politicization of faith in the 1990s turned younger, socially liberal Christians away from churches, even as conservatives became more zealous. “While the Republican base has become ever more committed to mixing religion and politics, the rest of the country has been moving in the opposite direction.”
Ironically, the rise of the Christian Right over the course of the past three decades may well end up being the catalyst for Christianity’s rapid decline. From the moment Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority helped elect Ronald Reagan in 1980, evangelical Christians, who account for roughly 30 percent of the U.S. population, identified their movement with the culture war and with political conservatism. Michael Spencer, a writer who describes himself as a post-evangelical reform Christian, says, “Evangelicals fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith. Evangelicals will be seen increasingly as a threat to cultural progress. Public leaders will consider us bad for America, bad for education, bad for children, and bad for society.”

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Is the world more depressed?...reflections

The question of whether or not the people of the world are more depressed today, say, that twenty-five years ago, while analysed and dissected by anthropologists, is nevertheless one that we all have a stake in the answer.
Its is from a non-specialist perspective that these observations emerge, and not from a documentation of the number of  suicides or prescriptions for depression, or even the number of family violence calls to a specific police department, or the number of students who have been 'suspended'  or 'expelled' from school in any jurisdiction, just some of the normal benchmarks for assessing the "mental state" of the population.
Television is clearly pushing the envelope on both sexuality and violence, given that behind those shows are men and women who know that they will be better able to sell their clients' products, with a larger audience that is assured through both sex and violence. Of course, writers will mix in a level of intrigue, suspense and much of the dark side of human identity, in order to put the sauce on the meal they serve. Some shows are now exploring what appears to be the dark side of the paranormal, including people returning from death, and uber-transformations, that previously would have been considered the accepted fare of the tabloid press.
Last evening, I listened to one up-and-coming country and western female singer whose song told the story of her betrayal on her wedding day, and that the only reason she, "with her itchy finger on the trigger," didn't shoot her male betrayer was that she did not look good in "orange" (prison garb) and she doesn't like picking up trash (her metaphor for the life of the average prisoner).
Verbal violence saturates social media, by all accounts, and those participating on both Twitter and Facebook, are warned to be ready for any criticism, given that they have chosen to participate on those platforms, where the public right to exchange views is unbridled. The Toronto Maple Leaf goalie, whose recent record of losses trumps his record of wins, found his wife attacked on Twitter, to the point where she should secretly stab him while he slept, so the fortunes of the hockey team would improve. Reports of the exchanges provoked a flood of positive and supportive messages for both the wife and her goalie-husband...only after the depth to which the critics had reached was made public.
Civil strife, global warming (about which very little is being done to ward off the serious implications for survival) rising inequality, rising food prices, increased apathy and withdrawal from social institutions, evidence of corporate malfeasance (both GM and Toyota have recently been found to have betrayed hundreds of thousands of customers, with their vehicles resulting in injuries and sometimes death), dangers of food additives including a serious over-consumption of the many forms of sugar that have been inserted seductively into our processed foods without our knowledge, not to mention cyber espionage, and all of the nefarious plots on the international geopolitical stage....these have to be having an impact on how we perceive our current situation, and the future for our grandchildren.
And to cap it, we have what seems like an infinite supply of negative information, so large and so overwhelming that even what used to be regarded as "national" newscasts are now running "good news" stories every evening, as a vain attempt to counter the weight of the dark side.
There is a perceived and possibly real "loss of trust" between individuals and between individuals and the institutions in which people used to have a (perhaps naïve and less informed) confidence. Individual lives are paraded on digital media, as never before, and public debates focus on the abuse of power by those charged with public affairs, including elected officials, appointed civil servants, and appointed corporate executives, whose earnings have grown so quickly that what used to be normal ratios to "factory-worker" wages of 10:1 are not sometimes 50:1, without a corresponding increase in the perceived quality of their performance.
Everything is under scepticism, in that there is no body of facts on which most people can and do agree. Competition both between individuals and between organizations has been unleashed, and the change is accepted as just the normal way of  "doing business" now the highest achievement of the human enterprise (another seductive lie) as what McGregor used to call the "human side of enterprise" has atrophied into the corporate balance sheet, and all initiatives must bow to the sacred cow of company profit (including the re-election of those already in power).
As you ponder these many impacts on our lives, individually and collectively, you might consider ways that together we might elevate the poetic, and the pastoral and the empathic and the uplifting aspects of our "better angels" to occupy a place in our lives that has both our respect and our commitment to affirm its worth.

Monday, March 24, 2014

At what point does ethnic cleansing rise to merit international attention?...and what can be done to reduce its incidence?

There is always more to any story that first appears. Such is the case with the question of ethnic cleansing in Israel. Today, reports out of Tel Aviv indicate that Christians living in Israel are pleading with the EU to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing of Christians in the Middle East countries, except
Israel. One story alleges that Christians are targeted in Islamic countries and are being driven out, except in Israel.
150 Christian citizens of Israel demonstrated today (Mar. 23) outside the European Union’s delegation in Tel Aviv against the EU’s silence in relation to what they termed “the ethnic cleansing of Christians throughout the Middle East.” The protesters demanded that the EU act on their own cry for human rights and fight for the Christians throughout the Middle East, who are quickly becoming extinct everywhere but Israel.
Father Gabriel Nadaf, a Greek Orthodox priest from Nazareth and strong proponent of Christian enlistment in the IDF, demanded that the attacks on Christians be stopped and thanked Israel for being a warm home for Christians.
Shadi Halul, spokesman of the Christian Lobby (CL) which organized the protest, stated: “We have witnessed in the past how the world was silent as six million Jews were slaughtered. Here in Israel, where we are enabled freedom of worship, protection and a normal life, we have decide to cry out and call on the European Union to safeguard human rights in Israel and throughout the world. Become active, do not repeat past mistakes. We constantly receive reports from our Christian brethren throughout the Middle East imploring that they be helped, envious of our status as Israeli citizens.” (By Aryeh Zavir, Tazpit News Agency, The, "Christians to EU: 'Stop the ethnic cleansing in Arab Countries,' March 23, 2014)
Is it not feasible for the people of the world to begin to work together to reduce the impetus to cast out those who are different, whose faith, language, culture and entire ethnicity are not the same as that of the dominant group in any region, province or country?
The tide, however, seems to be moving in the direction of increased "purification", without the need to draw direct comparisons with the brutal and historic extermination of the Jews by the Third Reich.
Is this kind of story so "under the radar" that, unless and until there is actual violence against numbers large enough to make it to the international press's headlines, it remains in the shadows?
It would appear that no country and clearly no individual leader, has an answer to the problem. And it would also appear that there is insufficient political influence among those directly impacted by any attempts at ethnic cleansing to make any difference in reducing the scourge.
Today, in Cairo, it is reported that some 500 supporters of outsted former Islamic Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi are being executed.
CAIRO — A criminal court here sentenced 529 people to death on Monday after a single session of their mass trial, convicting them of murder for the killing of a police officer in the city of Minya during riots after the ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood, state media reported.
The swift conviction of so many in one stroke was a sudden acceleration of the sweeping crackdown against Mr. Morsi’s Islamist supporters and against other dissenters that has unfolded since his removal last summer. After the overthrowing of Mr. Morsi, the military-led government killed more than a thousand people in shootings during protests against the takeover, and since then it has arrested many thousands of others as demonstrations have continued at universities and in the streets. Most of those arrested have been detained without charges or trials.
The verdict on Monday underscored the continuing determination of at least a part of the Egyptian judicial system to treat support for the ousted president as treason. (By David Kirkpatrick, New York Times, March 24, 2014)
Of course, this story does not have the intellectual 'right' to be included in a piece about ethnic cleansing, because of the charge of treason that covers the motivation of those conducting the executions. However, is it not tantamount to a kind of internal ethnic cleansing of people whose actions, beliefs and religious practices do not conform with what is expected by those in power in Cairo?
Does this story not fit into a global pattern of extermination of groups of people whose beliefs, attitudes and cultures are unacceptable to those with either legitimate political power, or self-declared power of some variety, including various brands of terrorism?
One has to wonder if we are not becoming so detached from the plight of minorities targeted for extermination that these stories literally bounce in front of our eyes and out of sight and out of mind, given the kind of headlines we are being fed about the 'hot button' topics of the international and national media editors.
Clearly, in spite of all the lip-service toward 'tolerance' of differences, and either  a 'melting pot' of assimiliation (the U.S. model) or a mosaic of diversity (the Canadian model), or some other concept that helps to build bridges between indigenous and immigrant, between members of one faith community and those of differing communities, or one linguistic group and a different linguistic group, these attempts are being confounded by attempts to divide, conquer and eliminate.
Putin has used the argument of 'bringing Russians back into the homeland' in his march into Crimea, backed by a sizeable plebescite on which the choices were neutrality or return, with a predictable outcome. Will he mandate those 20,000 troops on the eastern border of Ukraine to take the several cities and towns in which people with Russian roots live back into the Russian Federation? And if so, what will the counter-argument be coming from the leaders of the 'west' including the EU, the US and the meeting of the G7 (minus Putin) today?
There is a very fine line between ethnic cleansing and what Putin is determined to accomplish on what he perceives and presents as the "high ground" of welcoming the "displaced Russians" back into the Russian homeland.
At what level do these various ethnic cleansings rise to the level of the kind of ethnic cleansing that the world witnessed in Bosnia in the 1990's, of the Bosnian Serbs? At what point do these crimes against humanity rise to the level of public consciousness, irrespective of the religion or the political ideology or the linguistic and cultural roots of either  the power-brokers or the victims of the abuse of that power?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ethnic Cleansing charge levied against Israel by UN Human Rights Observer

The biblical story of the tower of Babel wrent people into linguistic and cultural tribes, the kind of social and cultural rupture comparable to the eruption of a Vesuvius with its lava ash and fire.
It seems that humans cling to a perceived and "enriching" linguistic, cultural, religious and geographic tribe, each of which takes specific steps to exclude those who do not "fit". Ethnic homogeneity (not purity) for there has been so many massive shifts in where people chose to live, given changed in the political climate, the need for improved opportunity, the pursuit of higher education, the need to escape persecution and the availability of legitimate and illegitimate agents of transport and transfer, continues to occupy a relatively high position on the various totem poles of cultural and political and even religious values that identify a people, or a region.
In Quebec, the current election is being fought on the Parti Quebecois' singular ambition to break away from Canada and form a separate country, thereby enabling the new government, in its perception, to protect the French language and the cultural heritage that accompanies that preservation.
Canada, in creating what we know as "reservations" for First Nations peoples of many tribes, has its own kind of apartheid, in segregating the predominantly white population from the "different" indigenous peoples. There was even a substantial campaign to "convert" these people to a kind of Christianity that robbed them of their authentic native spirituality, given the "Christian" perception that native spirituality was heathen, and either agnostic or atheistic.
In South Africa, apartheid, practiced by white Afrikans against the predominantly black population, was only partially eroded, at least on the legal and electoral surface, following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison after twenty seven years, as the icon of protest and rebellion against that system. Today, both sides claim him as their hero, given the significance of his platinum character and life before, during and following his release from prison. His recent funeral, watched and "attended" by millions around the world, testifies to his preferred "forgiveness and reconciliation" approach to his white captors and imprisoners.
When we look at the list of "conflict" around the globe, the common theme that connects each of them is that one group is engaged militarily, or quasi-militarily, or in terror campaigns against another group that is not "them". In the United States, the legacy of this theme continues in and through their casual reference to all people not born in the United States as "aliens". Having working in that country for a few years, that was one of the most offensive "official" terms used against my person, especially since it was the adopted official designation, for legal purposes of my status.
Rural communities, it seems in many if not all countries, are extremely sensitive to 'newcomers' who do not fit or belong to the established community: they do not know the people, the traditions, the local humour, the local names for specific geographic landmarks, and they bring "new ideas" and perceptions and values and even changes to the existing status quo. They are generally considered "dangerous" even if they do not commit acts that would warrant such attitudes.
It is an inconvenient truth, for all of us, that we are tilted in this direction of separating ourselves from those we consider "different" or incompatible with our perceptions of how things ought to be. Even the kind of worship segregates people, as the history of Northern Ireland demonstrates. Roman Catholics and Protestants have for centuries fought over their perceptions of the way to worship God, including their deep separation on the role and value of the Papacy and the Vatican. Purgatory, Transubstantiation, Papal Infallibility, Immaculate Conception, saints...these are just some of the words used to describe differences.
And in Israel, this global inconvenient truth about human struggle with those who are different, and who have shown actions and attitudes that continue to warrant their exclusion, is rearing its head, only now it is not coming from the Palestinians themselves who have been the normal protesters of their treatment by Israel. This time the charge of Ethnic Cleansing is coming from the United Nations official observer on human rights in the Middle East. A legal scholar and professor emeritus from Princeton has publicly declared this assessment in his recent, and last report prior to his retirement. Perhaps one could conclude that his retirement made it more feasible for him to say these things, given the storm of protest that he knew it would ignite.
GENEVA: A UN rights expert who probes Israel's conduct towards Palestinians on Friday accused the Jewish state of a campaign of ethnic cleansing and apartheid policies.
"The realities on the ground are worsening from the point of view of both international law and from the point of view of the Palestinian people," Richard Falk, an 82-year-old American who is an emeritus law professor at Princeton University, told reporters.
Falk is due to step down this month as the UN Human Rights Council's monitor for the Palestinian territories taken over by Israel in 1967 -- the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.
Since he was appointed in 2008, he said, Israel has built more settlements in Palestinian territories, imposed "collective punishment" on Gaza, demolished homes and repeatedly deployed "excessive force".
He also accused Israel of a "systematic and continued effort to change the ethnic composition of East Jerusalem" by voiding Palestinians' residence permits, confiscating property and allowing unlawful Israeli settlements there.
"This is systematic discrimination on the basis of ethnic identity, with the objective of creating a different demographic in Jerusalem," he said, calling it a form of "ethnic cleansing".
"All of these features that are objectionable from the point of view of international law have continued and intensified during my six years," he said.
"What is called occupation is now more widely understood to be a form of annexation, the embodiment of apartheid in the sense that there's a discriminatory dual system of law, giving legal protection to the Israeli settlers and subjecting the Palestinian population under occupation to a continuing existence without rights," he added.
Read more:
(The Daily Star :: Lebanon News ::

Our question is, "What will the Israeli government do to counter these conclusions and to amend public perceptions and attitudes as it goes forward in negotiations towards a peace settlement for which the world has been waiting for decades? 

Friday, March 21, 2014

News Round-up in this Spring Equinox that seems committed to resist any thaw!

The MH370 is still missing, although glimmers of clues have allegedly emerged somewhere 2500 kilometers off the west coast of Australia.
The Malay government is under fire for keeping their reporting on the missing plane so secretive and restricting access to the search process for too many important days. We have a long way to go to equip the whole world with state of the art radar and monitoring technology so that people travelling anywhere on the planet will have the confidence that the multitude of national "air systems" are both well supplied and co-ordinated in their shared responsibility for flight safety and security.
The Russian government is under fire for endorsing Putin's coup by stealth in Crimea, with more grabbing of territory to come, "to protect Russian people" living in cities in the eastern part of Ukraine. Angela Merkel declares "there is no G8" in the current political climate, thereby suspending both the joint actions of the group and its scheduled meeting in June, to have been hosted by Putin himself.
Stephen Harper, current Prime Minister of Canada, attempting to "punch above our weight", will be the first G7 leader to visit Kiev, offering a spate of support in loans, grants and the obvious theatrical symbol of his physical presence, as the first western leader to risk whatever is happening in Kiev (excepting Secretary of State, John Kerry who walked the streets of Kiev to demonstrate the safety and security of those streets and of the people gathering there, to counter Russian claims of the opposite).
Ban Ki-Moon travels to Moscow to attempt to inject some heat into the ice-veins of Putin, while Kerry is lectured by Russian  Foreign Minister, Lavrov, that the take-over of Crimea is complete and should not be opposed by the west.
Neighbours of the Russian federation, fearful that they too live under the covetous eye of Putin and the Russian Duma, given the absence of western appetite for military conflict, and an open playing field for aggrandizing the Russian dictator and his puppets, many of whom have allegedly grown extremely rich under the current regime. John McCain, senior Senator from Arizona, now named on the tit-for-tat Russian sanctions list, declares, "Russia is a gas station trying to act like a country!"
Starvation, bombing and the river of refugees pouring out of Syria all continue unabated, under another Putin puppet, supported openly and seemingly with resistance from the west, Assad, who is now reported to be "in the ascendancy" and "could likely win re-election," according to some reports from that country, in which people say, now that they have seen the face of the Islamic terrorist rebels, would prefer a return to the Alawite Assad.
Boko Haram remains very active in Africa with reports continue to paint a picture of the ravages of their terror on innocent women and children, all in the name of Allah.
Israel continues to demand, through her Prime Minister, that the Palestinians declare publicly their support for Israel as the home of the Jewish people, although three attempts inside the Kenesset to define what that phrase means have failed to come to a vote. One of the members of his cabinet tours North America declaring his opposition to the "two-state" solution, offering instead a commercial model of building trust and reciprocity between Palestinians and Jews which he hopes will lead to a more lasting and sustainable peace between the arch-enemies.
Iran, with its political foot-on-the-peddle to acquire enriched uranium for the alleged purpose of providing energy (not a nuclear bomb) continues to resist closure of one of its reactors, pleading the innocence of its operation. The world remains highly sceptical of their claim.
Toyota agrees to pay $1.4 billion to the U.S. Treasury the largest settlement of any car company in history for lying to the public about the safety of their cars for many years, prior to finally succumbing to the pressure of death, injury and public pressure. :In this case the price of lying is very high.
Sad, that the price of lying, in Putin's case, is so low, and there is not a regulatory body to impose a similar sanction on the political process generally. Lying to the public, in any country, ought to be an action for which there is more immediate and more definitive punishment that simply a slap on the wrist. Unfortunately, dissembling is one of the "core competencies" of the political class, developed and sustained over centuries of practice, under the umbrella that different perceptions constitute different realities, and that no reality embraces the whole panoply of information about any situation.
BP, having just leased more territory in the Gulf of Mexico, would do well to examine the Toyota case, in the unwelcome likelihood that another of their rigs blows up and contaminates the Gulf ecosystem a second time, because of the complicity and cover-up of regulators and monitors paid off by the energy companies to "give too much slack" to the behemoth energy corporations, from whose hoses our of our vehicles drink voraciously.
One wonder if Charles Dickens would see such a round-up as "these were the best of times; these were the worst of times" or whether the first half of the famous phrase would have to be deleted, were he to revisit our 'world community'.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

21st century off to a very discouraging start in world diplomacy

Ultimately, Putin's appeal to history makes sense in two strands of his political thought: the memories of a Russian empire that drive his plans for a Eurasian Union and his argument that the West's international dominance is decadent and undeserved.
Where he trips up, however, is in his belief that history can act for a justification in Crimea. History is often complicated and incoherent: Europe’s ever changing borders don’t necessarily justify yet another change. (By Adam Taylor, "What history can tell us about Russia, Crimea and Vladimir Putin," Washington Post, March 18, 2014)
Whether Putin's pointing to Kosovo, or the more current referenda in  Scotland and Catalonia for independence, as justification for his recent actions in Crimea, and potentially in the rest of Ukraine, make sense to any individual or body participating in the unfolding history of Europe, or not, Taylor's phrase "the West's international dominance is decadent and undeserved" needs much more attention from the world community.
There is a tidal wave of data washing over the public consciousness every moment of every day. No one, not even those charged with briefing national leaders in all countries, can or will keep completely abreast of all the fine print in those waves of information. However, there are reasons to be sceptical of the degree to which the United States especially is engaging in a sanctimonious and self-righteous campaign of both overt and covert dismissal and denial of its own many engagements in the affairs of "foreign" nations, to which Putin and his allies can and will point, when taking analogous, if not identical moves in their own "national interests."
It is not usual to use data obtained through research into the relative achievements of school children to help explain national and international geopolitical entanglements. However, given the U.S. evidence that points to the need to restrain the efforts by educators in that country to pump up the self-esteem of students in American classrooms, because it has been resulting in too many students believing they were more capable than they really are, and leading to a kind of complacency among American youth, especially when their test results are compared with the achievements on standard tests of other less "inflated" ego's of youth in other countries. For many Americans, George W. Bush's intervention in Iraq is still regarded as a successful foreign policy achievement in ridding that country of a dictator and significantly changing the face of Middle East politics and history.
Unfortunately, those Americans are on the wrong side of history, regarding the Iraq debacle. It was the American government of Ronald Reagan, specifically then envoy Donald Rumsfeld, who met with Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, as part of a campaign against then then  shared enemy, Iran, in the mid-nineteen-eighties, and proferred those  later detested and still unfound "weapons of mass destruction" to Hussein. That conflict unleashed one of the more protracted and seemingly untameable crimes against humanity, both inside Iraq and in the region more generally, that will scar the people of Iraq for generations, not to mention the people of Syria and Libya and even Egypt for decades, if not this century. Many around the world still hold the conviction that George W. Bush and his Vice-president should be charged with crimes against humanity under the International Criminal Court for their invasion of Iraq. Let's leave it to more schooled and experienced international legal arguments to settle that debate, while not failing to once again point to the serious flaw in U.S. foreign policy in not becoming a signatory to the I.C.C. It is not particularly profound insight to note that Bush's intemperate and impulsive reaction to the 9/11 attack has clearly generated more combatants who target the United States specifically and the "west" generally. The lines, in that conflict, are blurred as to whether the terrorists are motivated by religious and or political redress or both.
Assuming the role of international "cop" for many decades has earned the United States the contempt of many who still see U.S. participation on the world stage as stereotypically that of the "bully" in spite of the deep and profound attempt by the Obama administration to curb and deflate that blow-up caricature of the United States. That perception is noted here not to help justify Putin's current pre-occupation with Russian hegemony but to place Putin's actions in some other context than that of the hollow and vacuous rhetoric of Secretary of State Kerry in denouncing Putin's take-over of Crimea.
National interests, as perceived and pursued by those "who can" perceive and pursue their own vision of an aggrandized future for their own narcissistic personal ambitions and the perceived or envisioned links between the personal and the national interests, as Taylor notes, have been and will continue to be messy, untidy, unable to be fitted neatly into some legal framework (the laws often follow events in order to make justification for those events seem pre-existent and provide a revisionist history of those events).
That view of "nation building" relies to a significant extent on the power brokers' conviction that the "people" have a very short memory, linked to busy lives making a living and shovelling snow from their driveways and mowing their lawns. Putin himself, following in the path of too many previous leaders in too many countries, is currently re-writing Russian history texts used in Russian schools and colleges, to air-brush his accomplishments and provide testament to a glowing and indisputable legacy of success, on behalf of his comrades and country.
Similarly, while perhaps slightly less blatant and directly publicly funded (not actually commanded by the state), there are likely doctoral theses being prepared today in many of the best United States colleges and universities, that paint George W. Bush as a visionary in U.S. foreign policy history.
The fact that public money, along with private money, is also available for an opposite and competing view of the Bush presidency, while not garnering headlines in the media, nevertheless, provides a modicum of hope that students over the next several decades might acquire a balanced view of the first decade of the twenty-first century in U.S. foreign policy, as compared with the view of their country that will be taught and acquired in St. Petersburg.
Nevertheless, the kind of conversations that are needed today, over Crimea, Iran, Syria and even North Korea, along with the many hot-spots of erupting Islamic terrorism, in any authentic effort to resolve the tangled and gnarled and perplexing and very dangerous and conflicting visions and goals of the participants, have to begin with acknowledgements from all, that the collective and individual pictures painted by the previous actors on the world stage have consistently been misguided, misconstrued,  mis-apprehended, and certainly mis-interpreted. And there will never be a unified theory, in any single nation, or encompassing world history, to embrace the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth (so help me God) on which the legal systems in the west depend.
And so, linking a partial memory, an even more partial grasp of the whole truth of any situation, and the unfettered ambitions of elected, appointed and militarily-backed leaders, sometimes riding waves of public adulation as Putin is in Moscow this week, or facing storms of protest, as Yanukovich did in Kiev a few weeks ago, history has a way of unfolding and being assessed in immediate journalistic versions, in more reflective pieces in the medium term, and in substantive and profoundly insightful theses of scholars decades and even centuries hence.
Playing for the applause of the immediate "rock-star" fame, as Putin is currently doing, is not, however, much as he might like it to be, the final verdict of history. Obama and Merkel and Cameron, on the other hand, while more detached and more objective about the current unfolding drama, while having an eye on their own historic footprint, nevertheless, also have to put some imprints of that footprint in the sands of today's newspapers, television interviews and Security Council Resolutions, and earn and secure the confidence of both their own electors and the wider global community. We may have short memories, but today, more than ever before we have access to public records while sitting at our own keypads, linked to the best scholarship in all the best libraries in the world. And while we are still learning how to best access that scholarship, it is rapidly becoming part of the current discussion in pubs and classrooms across the globe.
So a Canadian view, now, cannot be balanced and relevant without more detailed reference to the insights of those around the world whose views would previously remained under dust in the archives of national libraries and university stacks. And our grandchildren, too, will be reflecting on the relative merits of both George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, in their turn at combing through the record, on their way to their own scholarship.
Depending on the social media's assessment of legacy, however, is like indulging in a diet of "fast food"....neither nourishing nor healthy but debased in both content and in lasting healthy achievement. We have, in the west, produced at least one, if not two or more, generations of people stuffed with fast food, a dream of wild and untamed access to money and fame, and governments that support both failed national fantasies. So wishing that organics and fruits and vegetables will still be available and accessible to all people regardless of their income or social and political status, and that fast food will quickly fade into the pop culture museums, we continue to hold out hope for more healthy grandchildren than the current crop of young people. Similarly, on the diplomatic front,
we can only hope for a more reflective and more balanced and less "narcissistic" chapter in the history of world diplomacy to be written by leaders whose raison d'etre is based more on international common needs, purposes and goals, than on personal and national hubris and fame. The twenty-first century is not off to a good start in that direction, and those are the footprints that this generation of leaders will leave behind in those archives and in those museums.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Man's inhumanity to man, in the name of any deity, has to stop

It took 134 minutes of watching "Twelve Years a Slave" for me to grow sick to my stomach about the veneer of smug, arrogant hypocrisy provided by the Christian church for the horrible adventures inflicted, with impunity, on millions of people, throughout the crusades, the slavery tragedy, the repression of women and more recently of gays and lesbians.
Linking "scripture" as the 'holy book' to justify whatever it was at the moment that tormented those who had or took the pulpit, as if authority for and from God accompanied that status, included the vicious beatings, rape and smug patronizing that segregated rich white folk from the underclass of blacks. And today there is a similar kind of arrogant, smug hypocrisy that accompanies, indeed supports, the patronizing attitudes of some toward those whose lives "don't measure up" to whatever is considered by the ruling class to be appropriate. Of course, there are no owned individuals, in the legal and contractual sense, at least not in developed countries. Yet there are millions who continue to have to choose between a meal and a medication, a bus ticket to send their kids to school and another cup of coffee, a pair of socks and a box of band aids for an accidental wound.
And there are even child soldiers who have been literally kidnapped into the service of warlords in too many corners of the developing world.
And behind all of this physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological abuse, the justification is linked to some interpretation of the words and will of a deity.
It is not only disgusting and criminal; it is abhorrent and reprehensible.
And it accompanies all of the worlds' major religions, as if to belong to the faith community provides cover for acts that would otherwise be rejected as unspeakable.
Even between sects within an alleged faith community, there are horrible wars, and savage attacks, as if to prove one side has god's will and intent for the people right, while the other has it categorically wrong.
What's gone wrong?
Have we become so dependent and needy on absolutes, as if we are capable of discerning such things, that we have become addicted to our weakest trait, our vulnerability to the mystery of the unknown? What's wrong with no knowing, and with continuing to work toward understanding, in a spirit of discovery and openness? What's wrong with those leaders of all faiths that they have to claim "superiority" for their brand of faith, as if to claim anything less would undermine their success and the status they have achieved with their very dependent and permanently infantilized followers?
We have done wrong to all deities, and all faiths, for a very long time, if and when we project our deepest fears and insecurities onto some platitudinous epithets and then fire those epithets at other human beings who just happened to be in our line of fire.
And when, centuries later, we finally come to our senses, in a very limited and proscribed manner, about a specific issue, we turn our tragedies into dramas that reflect our greatest inhumanities to our fellow planet dwellers. Why can't we take deliberate and decisive and collaborative efforts to face our greatest strengths to be found only in the acknowledgement of our greatest weaknesses, and stop pretending that we are not weak, that we do understand, that we are blatantly inflicted with a hubris that will eventually consume the very species that refuses to look into the mirror and become broken, as the green-back horse is broken, for our own sake, not for the sake of some far-off deity, or some more proximous charismatic leader who requires our obsequiousness and our obedience.
The masculine bravado at the centre of our collective and our individual tragedies, siamesed to the instructions and directions of any deity could well eventually prove fatal for humanity, unless and until we waken to our own blind hubris, call it for what it is, and turn our backs on this pathological lie.
It is an act of which human beings are both individually and collectively capable. Yet, after thousands of years of failing in our limp and lame attempt, we are still wearing blinders to our own self-sabotage, and doing it, for the most part, in the name of and in false service to any deity worthy of the name.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Putin struts while the west "pirouettes" with a list of restrained and inconsequential sanctions

No one in this part of the world is happy about what Putin has attempted, with barely a shot being fired, in Crimea, and potentially in Ukraine. All the western leaders, while imposing "sanctions" on individuals they consider "responsible" for this unconstitutional act, cry foul, while the Russian leaders who have been, like puppet-stooges for Putin and the Duma, appear on Russian television literally laughing at the sanctions. One even ridicules them "because I have no assets"....and the world's stomach turns another revolution in dismay.
While Putin laughs, Crimea rejoices in its overwhelming "choreographed" 97% vote approving a return to the Russian Federation, "returning home" as many of them put it. Meanwhile, the west watches, apparently in vain, as this little man, with a sizeable army, especially compared with that of Ukraine, struts in Moscow and on the world's electronic stage, apparently immune even to the abstention of the Chinese representative at the Security Council, when the vote condemning the Russian take-over of Crimea was cast.
He has neutralized western participation in Syria, through a cunning and opportunistic pawn of chemical weapons removal and destruction, while the civil war conducted by the Assad regime, supported by even larger shipments of Russian weapons and artillery than prior to the chemical weapons agreement. He has helped to draw out the Iranian negotiations on that country's fixation on acquiring, through their own building, a nuclear weapon. One has to assume that Putin also has a hand in the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, neither of which group can come to a detailed definition of the meaning and appropriateness of the phrase, "Israel is recognized as a state of the Jewish people".....presumably pointing toward a similar phrase being applied in any final agreement to the State of Palestine.
Malaysia airlines has lost a plane, with some 239 human beings aboard, and according to The Telegraph, a witness in another court case against Islamic terrorists, has told the court, just last week, that he has met and talked with some people from Malaysia, one of who is allegedly an airline pilot, and learned that these people were planning to turn another airplane into a terrorist act. And so, the world watches and waits for the Malaysian government's explanation for its extremely tardy release of information about the whereabouts of MH370, especially as compared to other missing  passenger jets, for example one of French origin that went missing but about which the world was completely informed within a few days.
What does the Malaysian government have to hide, given its reluctance to disclose?
What role is Putin playing behind the scenes in this investigation, if any?
It is not rocket science to consider such a question given his already demonstrated flexing of his "gazmuscle" and his obvious relish in the tepid response from the "west" including from the United States, Germany and the UK and the EU. When the number of individuals on a "sanctions list" is public compared (Canada at 6, the EU at 21) in order to demonstrate how strong is the response, everyone watching and listening knows that Neil MacDonald of CBC television news is right when he calls the sanctions "an inconvenience"....and there is literally nothing but smoke and mirrors in their application.
Holding out hope for a "diplomatic solution" as Obama announced he is doing today, and therefore restraining the initial level of sanctions, seems to many, including this observer a hollow hope, coming from one whose biography is entitled, "The Audacity of Hope. Today, Obama has neither legitimate hope nor an ounce of audacity, and it could easily be argued that Putin has turned the president's title on its ear through his political satire, albeit conducted under false pretense that there is indeed a potential fascist core leading the protesters in Kiev.
We are watching what no one in the west could have dreamt as possible only a year ago: the embarrassment of the whole western political community, by a simple, if pretentious and audacious take-over of a segment of Ukraine, as a prelude to more of the same, in additional segments of that country, given the outrageously timid response confronting Putin.
The Canadian prime minister is going to Kiev this week to give "credibility" to the new government, along with a few shekels of cheques and loan guarantees. Meeting on television with the Ukrainian ambassador, Harper attempted to demonstrate both his bona fides as a world player and his choreographing of his own political fortunes and future, with rhetoric that sounded as if John Baird wrote the script, hollow and blustery, signifying very little.
At the very time when the world demands strength, not necessarily military strength, but if santions are the weapon of choice, then they need to be imposed with vigour and need to be of a strength and a duration that they will get Putin's attention. These announced on both sides of the Atlantic today clearly did not, and will not get the little man's attention.
Smug is the word that comes to mind while watching his appearances on Russian television pinning medals of achievement on Russian school children. And of Obama, today's performance has to be one of his deepest nadirs, in his six years in the White House.
While the Russian neighbours worry about their futures, if Putin decides to extend his cleptomanic machine, NATO remains silent, Merkel is lukewarm tea, and Obama is standing in the wings.
Sending Harper and Kerry into Kiev is not exactly what I would consider "support" if I were a member of the new government in Kiev. Either what Putin has done, and potentially will do, is totally unacceptable or it is not. Saying it is, and responding with a pirouette as if this were some silly ballet, simply is not adequate.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Are the energy markets the new military surrogate in the crisis in Ukraine?

"A coup by stealth," could well be the headline, following today's rigged vote in the Crimea, where 2 million Russian-aligned voters will cast ballots to determine whether Crimea joins the Russian Federation or becomes an independent state. The option of remaining under Kiev, as part of Ukraine, is not available on the ballot.
While Republican leaders in the United States accuse President Obama of screaming loudly and carrying no stick, (a scathing indictment of his failure to grant arms, ammunition and military support to the new government of Ukraine, echoing Teddy Roosevelt's "walk softly and carry a big stick" foreign policy adage, the Obama administration seems to have become paralyzed, as far as the public is permitted to know.
Like the missing MH370 from Malaysia Airlines, it is not the Russian army that Ukrainians are worried about; it is the secret Russian agents who are allegedly moving into several areas in the Ukraine, based on the Russian denial of legitimacy of the new government in Kiev which Putin claims is either controlled or at least infiltrated by fascists and right wing extremists, and on a previously deployed 'incursion' into Afghanistan in 1979 by a cadre of the Spetsnaz, the Russian military’s highly trained saboteurs, spies and special operations forces.*
It is not only the people and the government of Ukraine who need physical evidence of support from outside, including the White House, along with the governments of the UK, the EU and NATO; it is also the people in neighbouring states like Poland who have serious and legitimate concerns that Putin's voracious appetite could impact their people and their nations.
In some quarters, energy (specifically oil and gas, both their untapped reservoirs and their refineries) are becoming the new pieces on the global chess board. If Putin has already taken over gas production facilities in Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine, while supplying a considerable percentage of the energy needs of countries in the EU (39% of Germany's natural gas, for example) Senator Lindsay Graham and former House Speaker Gingrich, in an opinion piece on CNN today, urge Obama to step up US permits to additional natural gas production facilities, and to compete directly with Putin in supplying additional U.S. exports of natural gas to EU countries, thereby confronting Putin on his own lifeline. (The Russian economy is almost exclusively dependent on the revenue from the sale of energy to "satellite" and neighbouring countries.)
However, using the market to "fight" Putin will inevitably take months, if not years to accomplish.
Today, with the vote taking place in Crimea at this moment, and the outcome in no doubt that Crimea will choose to join the Russian Federation, and the "consuming" passion of Putin to restore Russian "greatness" including a stable and growing economy with additional supplies for additional sales and revenue from energy sales, turning the world's need for fossil fuels into a "military surrogate" in a foreign and diplomatic struggle for the future of the Ukraine, and potentially other countries neighbouring Russia, seems both dangerous and short sighted.
Leverage, the favourite word in the diplomat's lexicon, is only attainable when the actions that achieve it are responsible, credible and sustainable for all sides. The U.S. is only recently poised to become fully independent of Middle East oil and natural gas. Exporting that new-found "commodity" into the EU, in order to combat Russian sales, and the crimp those sales/purchases place on leader like Angela Merkel of Germany, while appearing to be another quick fix in this situation, seems to put the markets under the thumb of the State Department, to a degree that neither the markets nor the diplomatic core would appreciate, not to mention writhe under. Using capitalist markets that are owned and controlled by the energy behemoths is not comparable to Putin's using the state-owned Russian energy company as a weapon for hegemonic ambitions.
The U.S. and the west generally, have attempted to keep corporate and state "levers" separate and independent for a long time, while never shying away from encouraging corporate interests to supplement diplomatic interests in developing countries of the 3rd world. Putin's access to his energy "levers" is more direct, more immediate and more rapidly deployed than a similar initiative by  Obama could be. However, just because Ukraine is not a formal member of NATO, neighbouring countries are NATO members, and just because the U.S. is war weary and also war-poor, there is no reason that, joining hands with other NATO members in showing a force in Ukraine, Obama could not demonstrate U.S. and 'western' support for the new government of Ukraine, adequate to at least get Putin's attention.
Even that meagre objective (getting Putin's attention) has not yet been achieved in spite of a spate of face-to-face meetings between Secretary of State Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. The Obama administration risks being portrayed as "one hand clapping" while Putin's agents surreptitiously march into Crimea and Ukraine in a demonstration of "real politik" that will have lasting and negative impact on U.S. interests and foreign policy in the near and mid-term future.
Sadly, while George W. Bush demonstrated one extreme of U.S. involvement in the outside world, through deceitful and belligerent invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama could have pulled back too far from the spectre of military conflict, given eminently good reasons to avoid another round of a cold war with the 'new' Russia.
China's abstention in the Security Council vote condemning the "incursion" by Russia into Crimea, while not a military or an economic "lever," could stand as a slight if momentary brake on Russian hegemony. With the west committed to talking without effect, and Putin determined to continue his shadow war, the world needs China to broker this potentially volcanic and violent military and diplomatic tension to a negotiated settlement, and their interest in so doing could also demonstrate some trust among the community of nations that they will not make a similar "incursion" into Taiwan.
While the diplomats and world leaders like to speak about different "pieces" on the chess board, as if they were discreet from each other, there is no geopolitical file that does not have some spill-over into many other geopolitical files. And the United Nations, without an army, navy or air force, and without its own intelligence apparatus, is somewhat hampered in its attempts to bring opposing views and their proponents to a negotiated settlement.
The people of Ukraine fear additional Russian intervention, including a total rejection of the new government in Kiev; the people in countries  bordering Ukraine are somewhat anxious that Russian ambition might look for and find a pretext for similar incursions into their countries. The whole world is anxiously watching this drama displayed on the signs where we all purchase our gas for our own vehicles, knowing that those prices are impacted by whatever tremors are being felt, whether geophysically or geopolitically, around the globe. So, once again, we truly are "all in this together" whether we like or admit that or not.

*By Eli Lake and Anna Nemtsova, The Daily Beast, March 15, 2014
Forget the military forces massed on the border and brief incursions into Ukrainian territory and airspace. Russia is invading Ukraine in the shadows. The same special operations forces that appear to be rigging the election in Crimea are quietly escalating tensions inside other parts of eastern Ukraine. 
This week the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) arrested a group of people led by a Ukrainian citizen who were said to be scoping out three of its most crucial military divisions in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson.
In Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, press reports from the ground say that Russian provocateurs have attacked Ukrainians who organized anti-Russian street protests.
The forces behind these operations, according to U.S. officials briefed on the updates in Ukraine, are likely the Spetsnaz, the Russian military’s highly trained saboteurs, spies and special operations forces who may change the face—and the borders—of Ukraine without once showing the Russian flag on their uniforms. Or, for that matter, without wearing any particular uniforms at all.In 1979 the Soviet Union was able to take over Afghanistan with less than 700 Spetsnaz soldiers. These same operatives are now spreading out over Ukraine, according to U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. One of these officials stressed that while U.S. intelligence assesses there are more Spetsnaz forces surging into Ukraine, there is no reliable number on how many are inside the country and ultimately whether their presence is a prelude to a more formal invasion.
On March 5, Jane's Defense Weekly ran an analysis of Russian troop movements near Ukraine and noted similarities with the USSR's special operations campaign in 1979 before the full invasion of the country. "A significant indicator of Russia's next steps would be the arrival in Crimea of personnel from Moscow's GCHQ-NSA equivalent organization, previously titled the Federal Agency of Government Communications and Information (FAPSI), to carry forward the situation," Jane's wrote. In the last seven weeks, two recordings of high profile telephone conversations featuring European Union and U.S. officials have mysteriously surfaced on the Internet, suggesting Russia's technical intelligence services have been active during the Ukraine crisis.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Reflections on the Ides of March

March 15, known as the Ides of March, is famous for many events, but none more well known than the one in 44 BC - Julius Caesar, Dictator of the Roman Republic, is stabbed to death by Marcus Junius Brutus, Gaius Cassius Longinus, Decimus Junius Brutus and several other Roman senators on the Ides of March. (From
When engaged in discussions about the Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar, of course the "Ides of March" comes up, the date in the middle of the month, but few if any thought about the notion that every month has an "ides," that date in the middle. And through history, the Ides of March has acquired a history of foreboding, that like Caesar, individuals could succumb to fateful events on that day.
The most momentous March 15 in my life occurred in the early 1990's when, on a cold, moonlit night in what seemed like the dark of winter, an ordination ceremony took place in a small "stuffed" (and slightly 'stuffy') Anglican church in central Ontario, when a bishop ordained a very innocent, somewhat idealistic, highly charged and extremely hopeful and 'urgent' candidate to the priesthood in that church.
Of course, it was a turning point, given the previous five decades were spent in learning and teaching and coaching and playing out a Walter Mitty dream of the free-lance journalist. "I found reporting to be my form of hunting and fishing, only my targets were municipal politicians," was how I explained by hobby. It was with a sense of deep knowing that I was far too committed to the pursuit of extrinsic rewards like the "applause" that comes from public performances starting with an early exposure to encouragement from people who listened to me perform in piano recitals, at ladies nights of local service clubs and the like that seemed to point me in the direction, not of more books and more essays for another academic degree, but rather 'inside' into a protracted reflection on the questions of identity linked to spirituality and to a relationship with God, who and what such a metaphor may be to me and to many others, that drove my energy. I did not approach the business of entering the church from the perspective of 'saving the world" in the sense of turning the lives of other people toward God, and a life of purity. Extremely conscious of my own many and seemingly permanent failings, especially to those who seemed to be most important in my life, through such industriousness, purportedly for some public adulation or respect or engagement or association with "power people"...I believed I needed to pursue different things like calming my person, and pausing to considering the more subtle and nuanced realities of both life and literature, and mine those for their nuggets of both wisdom and compassion. I had seen and experienced just how fickle and fleeting were the expressions of 'applause' that accompanied too many professional exchanges, while the attitudes that opposed one's excessive and narcissistic ambition were restrained, even repressed in what could be deemed a collective and collaborative campaign of hypocrisy and deception.
There was, from my vantage point a kind of mask worn in public by many individuals, especially those in the public 'eye'...with a few notable and dramatic exceptions.
One of those exceptions, comparable to an earlier life mentor and coach, WHG, of whom I have written elsewhere in this space, was a local defense attorney, whose 'hobby' was the leadership of the local town council, and whose reputation for incisive thought, panoramic vision, and public ridicule of anyone addressing council who had not prepared their 'brief' was the stuff of local legend. I was honoured to be in many conversations with Richard Francis Donnelly, about whom his legal instructors at Osgoode Hall observed they had never witnessed one more capable in cross-examination.
 Those conversations over coffee began with my pursuit of his knowledge and insight about specific issues before the council, given his command of the files and his adopted role of leader and mentor to all new aldermen and women. I was looking for a news story, the 'insider' or backgrounder most of the time. Only occasionally did I uncover a headline. That was not the business Mr. Donnelly was in. He had a vision for the path of growth and development of the northern Ontario town and wannabee city that included not only adequate housing for those with modest means, transportation routes for annexation of surrounding townships, effective hospital and education facilities, personnel and practices and sound, progressive fiscal management. A single man, Mr. Donnelly constantly pursued new learning, especially of the English language. One request, I recall he made of me, one I failed to provide, was of a compilation of the Rules of English that superceded the usual manuals available in and through school publishers. Already considered a master of the language, in both explication and interrogation, Mr. Donnelly nevertheless continued to prod his colleagues toward new discoveries, as he modelled both in the courtroom and in the council chambers. Well known for taking the cases of young offenders who had fallen off the 'straight and narrow' and whose resources were minimal at best, Mr. Donnelly was capable of inflicting considerable discomfort on police officers who too had failed in the preparation of their evidence and any gaps in their evidence were easily and readily exposed, to the benefit of Mr. Donnelly's client, and to the tarnishing of the reputation of the officer.
Being permitted modest and impermanent entry into the circle of decision-makers among both civil servants in city hall and politicians who provided the public face and the debates and television interviews for the many issues facing the town afforded me not only an opportunity to grow and develop skills in communication (never having been trained in journalism), learn about the 'inner-workings' of the town council, including the building and deconstructing of coalitions on issues, the personal relationships between and among the elected men and women, the path of power and influence including its capacity not only to build and grow and change the shape of a city as well as its capacity to bring an individual to his or her knees in the public arena.
It was as if I were engaged in a laboratory of human enterprise that encompassed public and private individuals, attitudes, funds, cultures, personal and local history as well as the relationship between town and province and town and nation. And while engaged, I was not facing the intense scrutiny that accompanies political life especially in small towns where local news is featured daily on the front page of the single daily. Naturally, I had biases that paralleled those of Mr. Donnelly, first probably because he unconsciously or not intimidated me, as he did to most who refused to get to know and to confront him. Later, I learned that his 'red tory' bona fides were a light into public issues and discourse that I came to respect and today long for its return to our national agenda.
Mr. Donnelly's intellect, his pursuit of himself to be the best he could be on every file, for every client and with any who chose to seek him out, while strong, paled beside his public courage to speak his mind, to curry no favours and to remain 'his own person' throughout the hurly-burly of the life he led. More his own person than most, Mr. Donnelly's influence on me, and on many others whose paths crossed his, is hard to overstate.
While he practiced law, and did it with considerable dramatic relish and panache, he nevertheless did not tolerate fools kindly. Sometimes unfortunately, neither do I. And those in public life whose arguments were patently flawed, leaving holes like Swiss cheese 'to drive trucks through' were fair game to Mr. Donnelly. His example spawned better decisions at the council table, as well as better news coverage generally and an interest in the processes and the issues that circled in and through city hall. The son of a Supreme Court judge, the brother of another professional barrister, Mr. Donnelly drove Cadillacs in a town where his was one of less than a half dozen such cars, wore suits comparable to, if not actually named and sewn by, Hardy Amies, and in his truncated stature strode the city like a colossus, at least in and around city hall. His brain and his command of the language and his fearless and almost clairvoyant-like insights were the nourishment for a generation in 'our town'.
And, yet, while walking in his shadow, I felt a need to grow, and to be more courageous and more confrontative and less "grey" (as in the 'man in the grey suit' image of the 1950's). I also felt that such growth and development needed a spiritual foundation, including a deepened recognition of both my fears and my hopes. And both of these could and would be brought into focus and possible refinement through a concentrated period of reflection and challenge, not so much intellectually as psychologically and emotionally and, at the time I did not know of a better path to such experience, of the inner life, than to submit to the rigours and the discipline of daily prayer, reflection, some imposed and enforced 'community' and the scrutiny that comes from Clinical Pastoral Education. This program was designed in the United States for mainly middle-aged men and women whose first few decades were spent in feverish activity in careers, parenting, social-climbing and status-seeking. In order to accomplish these "activities" their emotional and spiritual needs were necessarily neglected. In order to unpack and possibly to resolve early life trauma, early life neglect and early life decisions that were likely to have been less than healthy, strategies and tactics in direct conversation, listening and reflecting on 'verbatims" (those conversations held between chaplain/counsellor and patient/client that shed light on how power is abused when dealing professionally with the vulnerable among us) and confrontative and challenging supervision were deployed as a concurrent curriculum for those studying theology and entertaining entry into the priesthood.
And so, for four years, I walked on a path that 'culminated' on the Ides of March, 1992, in that little church crammed with people who supported my decision, neither they nor I knowing that the seeds of incompatibility between who I am and the church's need for a more "politically correct" posture had been planted long ago by the forces of the universe, including God, and that the relationship would eventually run asunder, for the mutual benefit of both the church and my own development.
However, when I read the list of those things people say they regret just prior to their death, I feel grateful that on at least three of them, I have no regrets.
From Barking up the Wrong Tree blog
1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I have no regrets about numbers 1, 3, and 5...while I do have some modest regrets on 2 and 4.
And the path that began on the Ides of March, 1991, has taken me into conversations, books, movies and experiences, including the capacity to see things differently, for which I am extremely grateful and humbled (to the extent that I am capable of humility!).
Unlike Julius Caesar, I was not murdered on this date; however, there certainly were motives and decisions and actions of others that were directed to my personal and professional demise that emerged following this date and its implications in my life that have shaped an understanding of the capacity of human beings for revenge, jealousy, sabotage and hypocrisy that I never would have had to confront as directly or as painfully as those many years serving inside the ecclesial establishment provided. My experience tells me that anyone seeking a life in ministry in the christian church needs more than an elephant's skin, a 'Donnelly' intellect, a capacity for patience and endurance beyond that of a martyr, and a sense of humour that would eclipse that of both Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld together. S/he needs the grace of God and an vulnerable receptivity to accept that grace from each and every moment, every encounter and every discomfort and attack. For there will be more than anyone can or will imagine. The Cross and the Crucifixion were not a single event in history; they are alive and currently being re-enacted in too many congregations as if to do so brings the perpetrators closer to their own spiritual fulfilment. And that is the most profound and most tragic misapplication of the Gospel. Projecting our fears and our neuroses, as well as our ideals and our fantasies, onto a clergy person, while unconscious, is nevertheless a war for which preparation is still MIA. Discerning both its existence and monitoring its amelioration is the stuff of ecclesial leadership for which many in those positions of responsibility have never been trained, having never even done the hard inner work of their own spiritual development and growth. There is still to much work to do in this field of spiritual drought and sadly, the pursuit of money and bums in pews is still considered the role of the priest, the bishop and the professional clergy. Only this week, another corporate "icon" from Proctor and Gamble was installed as an Anglican bishop in Vancouver, for her reputation to "grow" the church numbers of both people and dollars. One has to wonder where her spiritual life is at, if the pursuit of extrinsic success trumps the intrinsic, the less dramatic and less measureable and less visible.
On this Ides of March twenty-plus years later, I wish for my grandchildren lives that hold them true to themselves, and not to the expectations of others, that express all of their feelings all of the time (not necessarily to those who have no interest or engagement with them) and that when their lives reach a sunset, an autumn, just prior to the winter of death, they too will know that they did indeed let themselves be happy.