Friday, September 28, 2007

Bush, Harper and Friends: An Environmental Production in Five Acts

At a White House-sponsored climate change conference in Washington DC this week, President George W. Bush told participants that he favoured a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as long as each nation decides “for itself the right mix of tools and technology to achieve results that are measurable and environmentally effective.”

Bush steadfastly refuses to commit the United States to any scheme of mandatory emission reduction obligations. The US-led process---Stephen Harper is an enthusiastic participant---is transparently aimed at sidelining the UN-organized talks that are to begin in December in Indonesia. The UN talks will attempt to draw up a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which would take effect in 2012.

The UN agreement would involve tough, mandatory commitments of the kind the Bush administration rejected when it refused to sign on to Kyoto. Even though Canada ratified Kyoto, the Harper government has dropped any attempt to reach its targets and supports the Bush administration’s view of the way ahead.

The Bush approach has been evolving for years. To avoid inconvenience to big corporate polluters and the free enterprise system, the Bush approach has been an unfolding drama in five acts: deny; deceive; delay; defang; and deep-six.

1. Deny. Act One was the outright denial that if global warming was occurring at all, it was being driven by the emission of greenhouse gases as a consequence of human activities. Following in the footsteps of Ronald Reagan who believed that trees were a source of pollution, George W. Bush and Stephen Harper thought the global warming theory was a sneak attack on free enterprise cloaked in the garb of science. Beneath that garb were anti-capitalist demagogues.
2. Deceive. When outright denial became an embarrassment in the presence of people who could read and write, the corporate allies of Bush and Harper turned to deception, in the form of cooked “science”. Petroleum and coal companies sponsored their own studies, designed to cast doubt on the validity of the global warming hypothesis. Corporate funded “experts” emerged to claim that no evidence existed to suggest that human activity was responsible for climate change. The “experts” were much like the tobacco company-financed “scientists” who used to pour cold water on the connection between smoking and lung cancer.
3. Delay. As the case made by genuine scientists became more definitive, and almost universally accepted, Bush, Harper and friends turned to delay. Instead of signing on to the Kyoto targets and the process which will design more rigorous targets for the future, they changed the subject to that of finding ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions “while keeping our economies growing” as Bush said this week. For Bush and Harper, economic growth was the lodestar that was never to be compromised. If reducing greenhouse emissions could be achieved without slowing growth that would be fine.
4. Defang. Not happy with the Europeans and others who were determined to reduce emissions even if this proved costly, Bush, Harper and friends have launched a process with a cheerier outlook. They are joining the battle against greenhouse gas emissions as long as this does not discommode big industry and big energy. It will all be voluntary, putting the future of humanity in the hands of technology and the corporations. If the free market can’t save us, then what can?
5. Deep-Six. This week George W. Bush, with the support of the Harper government, launched a flank attack on the international campaign to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto process has been a unique initiative in the history of our species to counter a unique threat. Bush wants to share in the rhetoric of that struggle because he has no political choice. But his loyalty remains where it has always been, with the great corporate legions, and their drive for profits. That loyalty, the product of ideology and material greed, is rooted in the faith that the corporations will come up with an answer and catastrophe will be averted. And if not, at least this generation of corporate leaders will still reap their rewards.

Friday, September 21, 2007

John Tory: Where’s the Beef?

John Tory looked every inch the premier in last night’s televised leaders debate. Or, at least, he looked like the old time Conservative premiers of Ontario in the days before Mike Harris. I can remember an evening at Queen’s University decades ago when John Robarts was premier and Bill Davis was an up and coming star. They both wore scrumptious navy blue suits, just like John Tory did.

Meanwhile Dalton McGuinty seemed to be a very thin hare caught between Tory and Howard Hampton.

With John Tory as their leader, the Conservatives have found a man who gushes compassion. They have dispensed with the “axe-murderer” look achieved by Mike Harris and by the man with the slick-back hair, Ernie Eves. Tory painted McGuinty as a premier who has allowed people to suffer for the past four years. Tory appeared to care about students, seniors, wage and salary earners and he even took a shot at the super rich for the low taxes they pay in comparison to low income single mothers. Fortunately, I had a box of tissues on hand so I could weep along with him.

Who’s kidding who!

John Tory plans to drop Ontario’s health tax at the same time as he claims to care about health care. He bleeds for students but will do nothing to hold down their tuition. He is a dedicated crime fighter, but failed to commit himself to supporting a call for the banning of hand guns in the province. He complains about the province’s job creation record, but is a member of the party that at the federal level is sandbagging Ontario with its full steam ahead approach to the Alberta oil sands---which are spewing out greenhouse gases, driving up the dollar too quickly, causing massive job losses in Ontario, and bringing in insufficient royalties for Albertans. He claims to support public education, but he would deliver hundreds of millions of dollars a year to faith based schools.

Where’s the beef, John Tory?

That’s the question that needs to be posed over and over again in the closing weeks of the campaign. John Tory’s compassion is not backed up by commitments to make life a little less comfortable for his friends on Bay Street and the Post Road, so that much more can be done to help those who need help.

On the other side of the bruised premier stood NDP leader Howard Hampton, who does have some very intelligent ideas. His proposals for saving energy instead of building nuclear plants, and for holding down electricity rates to help keep Ontario competitive are excellent. So is his commitment to roll back tuition fees for students. Many of my students now go to school part time because they can’t afford the tuition. Hampton’s pledge to raise the minimum wage to ten dollars an hour immediately is crucial. In a province, where the rich have never had it so good, it’s time for those at the other end of the spectrum to get a little closer to a living wage. Hampton’s platform is well thought out. Alone of the leaders, he actually has ideas for strengthening Ontario’s economy during a time of difficult transition.

Monday, September 17, 2007

CNN’s Lou Dobbs: America’s Jean-Marie Le Pen

In France, the former paratrooper, leader of the Front National, Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been the tribune of prejudice against immigrants, blaming them for unemployment among the French, campaigning to shut off future immigration, and even demanding the expulsion of millions of immigrants from the country.

In the United States, the man who beats the drums to warn Americans about the dangers of immigration is not a political leader. He is a broadcaster, CNN’s Lou Dobbs, whose weekday show Lou Dobbs Tonight (6.00 p.m. ET), is devoted to haranguing his fellow countrymen about the myriad ways illegal Latino immigrants are harming America.

Dobbs’ show is a soapbox for his cause. Night after night, he rants about what he calls the “War on the Middle Class.” He has written a book with that title and shamelessly uses his program to flog it.

Many of the problems of the middle class, by which he means wage and salary earners, can be laid at the door of the illegals, according to Dobbs. They hold incomes down and they flood into neighbourhoods and transform their cultural character.

In his broadcasts, Dobbs has charged that Mexican immigrants conceive of themselves as an “army of invaders” who are determined to occupy the southwestern United States in order to reverse the outcome of the Mexican-American war of 1846 and return a giant swath of the USA to Mexico. He once declared that “the invasion of illegal aliens is threatening the health of many Americans” as a consequence of “deadly imports” of leprosy, malaria and other diseases.

America’s borders are not secure, they are "broken", Dobbs warns in nightly jeremiads. He is mostly talking about the frontier with Mexico but he throws in the Canadian border from time to time. Dobbs became alarmed last month when Presidents George Bush and Felipe Calderon held a North American summit with Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the Chateau Montebello on the Ottawa River. He imagines that far from the US dominating its neighbours the US government is shedding sovereignty on behalf of pesky Mexicans and Canadians.

Dobbs sometimes broadcasts from sites next to the Mexican frontier, where he hosts open forums with guests who specialize in bashing Mexicans. The odd Latino gets on the show to complain about bias, but nothing is ever done to introduce even a modicum of balance into these exercises.

Other favourite Dobbs takes on the story include:

• Chastising Congress for not locking down the borders.
• Railing against municipalities that are sympathetic to Latinos and refuse to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Never appropriately acknowledged on the Dobbs show, as is the case with the narratives of Le Pen in France, is the extent to which the United States and American employers have come to depend on Latino labour.

Even more noteworthy than Lou Dobbs, with his obsessive negativity about immigrants, is the willingness of CNN to broadcast this torrent of abuse, month after month. CNN and Lou Dobbs cry out for action by the derelict Federal Communications Commission whose job it is to decide which broadcasters deserve a licence.

Americans are treated to a multi-channel media universe from which they can draw a minimum of useful information, and a very limited range of viewpoints. In the land of the free, people are free to imbibe the ravings of the loud and the call of the ignorant.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

In America: Bitter Recriminations About the War in Iraq

From the heights of the political and business classes to the ranks of the people, Americans are finding the lessons of Iraq unendurably unpalatable.

Consider the illusions that most Americans had at the time of the invasion in 2003:

• Saddam Hussein’s regime, which was implicated in the attacks of September 11, 2001, was developing weapons of mass destruction that could be used in a sneak attack on the United States.

• Victory in Desert Storm in 1991had been easy. It was time to finish the job in a march to Baghdad to topple the tyrant.

• The American military, the most formidable, well-lubricated instrument of naked power in human history, would have no trouble carrying out the mission.

The first three acts in the drama exceeded expectations: the pyrotechnics of “shock and awe” in the sky above Baghdad on the first night of the attack; the toppling of Saddam’s statue; and George W. Bush’s landing on the aircraft carrier to declare “mission accomplished.”

That should have been the happy ending.

Then came the militias, the suicide bombers, the rising toll of American soldiers killed, the collapse of the Iraqi infrastructure and economy, the flight of four million Iraqis from their homes, the rise to power of an Iraqi government dominated by the Shiite majority from which Sunnis and Kurds recoiled, and the dispiriting revelations that there had been no weapons of mass destruction and that Saddam hated Osama bin Laden and had had nothing to do with 9/11.

Wind this film back to the beginning though and what stands out is that almost all Americans stood behind George W. Bush from the early days after the terror attacks until things started to unravel in Iraq. And that included most of the leading members of the Democratic Party. The idea that their country had the right to invade another country which had not attacked them was OK with most Americans. The problem was that it didn’t work.

Whose fault was that?

The majority of Americans blamed two sets of culprits for the debacle: Iraqis themselves and their political leaders; and President George W. Bush and his closest advisors.

The charge against the Iraqis was that, having been liberated by the Americans and their allies, they failed to establish a viable government that could foster unity and security. One of the most common narratives in the US today is that unless the Iraqis get their own act together, the Americans should leave. If the situation were not so tragic, this would qualify as macabre humour.

Americans, including those running for the presidency in both parties, are chastising the nation the United States invaded for its failures.

The other culprit was the once supremely popular president, George W. Bush. His approval rating plummeted, not because he launched the invasion, but because it came to grief. Americans, who had praised him for being an uncomplicated leader, who knew where he was going, turned on him for having planned the invasion and its aftermath poorly and even for having led them into the wrong war.

The idea took hold in the United States that the occupying army had been too small and that Saddam’s army should not have been dismantled.

What did not gain traction in the US, except in isolated circles, was the notion that most Iraqis never saw the Americans as liberators, but as foreign invaders who did not belong there. In that respect, Iraqis were not much different from most peoples in the world. They did not want US soldiers on their soil and regarded the US as an imperial power that was bent on controlling their oil and the Middle East.

For George W. Bush, the journey from lionized commander-in-chief to hapless incompetent, did not take long. To a man, incurious about history, it must have seemed that many of his own people had betrayed him, just as many Americans came to feel betrayed by their president.

For Americans who live in the bubble of their nation and its identity, who have been raised to believe they are the freest, richest, most fortunate people in the world, it was not surprising that the war was perceived in terms of Iraqis who couldn’t get their act together and a president who had let them down.

If you don’t know much about the rest of the world and are sure that your country is at the centre of it, it is natural to think in personal terms about failure and betrayal.

What still has not penetrated the consciousness of the American people and its political leaders is that their country presides over a global empire. The question that looms over their future is whether their empire is desirable and even sustainable. Until they face up to that, Americans will be trapped with a spectrum that extends from the highs of national ecstasy to the lows of bitter recriminations.

Monday, September 10, 2007

On the 6th Anniversary of September 11: Utopianism and Reality in Afghanistan and Iraq

The US-led invasions that followed the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, in Afghanistan and Iraq were nothing less than vainglorious attempts to remake countries in ways they could not be remade. These have been latter-day crusades, just as much the product of apocalyptic religious fervour as those undertaken in the Middle Ages. They will end just as badly.
The September 11 attacks provoked a wave of messianic thinking of the sort that previous crises have generated at other times in American history. The Bush administration responded with the idea that to counter an act of such evil, a war must be declared whose purpose was to banish evil itself. A year after the attacks, George W. Bush declared: “Our responsibility to history is clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.” In his Second Inaugural Address on January 20, 2005, Bush focused on the positive side of the determination to rid the world of evil: “America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world and to all the inhabitants thereof.”
It is not that the US did not have material objectives in Afghanistan and Iraq. Oil, the transportation routes to oil and natural gas and the quest for strategic military advantage in the Persian Gulf and Central Asia mattered. But the language of the President was apocalyptic and absolute.
To understand the invasions, Bush’s words need to be taken seriously. The most important motive for the military missions was to transform Afghanistan and Iraq in America’s image. Without the messianism, the idea that it was America’s God given task to remake the world, these invasions would have been unthinkable. Following the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush told Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas that “God told me to strike Al Qaeda and I struck them, and then he instructed me to strike at Saddam, which I did.”
Certainly the president was reaching out to the religious right with these statements. But it is a mistake to think that Bush and his advisers are not subject to the messianism they express.
Hard as it is four years after the assault on Iraq to remember this, the invasion was undertaken in the last flush of the triumphalism that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was the brief era of the End of History and the Borderless World when the notion reigned supreme that liberal capitalism was the way ahead for all of humanity. The architects of Operation Iraqi Freedom actually believed that American forces would be met by cheering crowds and feted with bouquets of flowers.
Those who launched the invasions did almost no serious thinking about long-term consequences. In Iraq, the invasion unleashed chaos and suffering---four million people have become refugees. It gave Al Qaeda a foothold in Iraq which it had never had before and it handed enormous power to Shiite theocrats with strong links to Iran. The report by General David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, that there has been modest military progress in the country as a consequence of the surge in American troop strength there, has been treated by observers as little more than a political message to improve the position of the US for its endgame in a failed war. In war, it is a rule of thumb that statements by a commanding general are aimed at winning the propaganda struggle, and are not exercises in truth telling.
In Afghanistan, the invaders have wandered into a thicket of long-existing struggles between the Pashtun in the south---from whom most of the Taliban emerged---and other tribal groups in the north and other parts of the country. Without being sufficiently aware of what they were doing, the western invaders became embroiled in tribal and factional struggles that extend from Afghanistan into neighbouring regions of Pakistan.
The Harper government and other proponents of Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan like to portray their approach as one of hard-headed realism. They are sailing under false colours. From the start, the idea that the West could successfully conquer Afghanistan and impose a western style government on that country has been a utopian fantasy.
The Taliban has had the tactical wit to align itself with the poppy growers and drug warlords they formerly opposed when they ran the country. That has drawn the US, Canada and other western powers into an opium war so that many Afghans now believe the West threatens their livelihood and that the Taliban is their protector.
The government of Hamid Karzai has begun quiet negotiations with elements of the Taliban. A deal in the not distant future is entirely possible. The result of such a deal would not be democracy, the rule of law and equal rights for women. It would mean an altered configuration of power in Afghanistan, with new Pashtun and Taliban elements in the government and some former Northern Alliance factions out of it. It would not bring peace, but rather a continued armed struggle, with a different list of players on the opposing sides.
The US and NATO could well seize on a deal with parts of the Taliban to declare victory and pull most of their troops out.
In the meantime, Canadian soldiers are fighting and too many are dying in campaigns to retake terrain they have previously taken only to have the Taliban reoccupy it later. Small gains are made building and opening schools, but these are often nullified by an insurgency that remains potent.
The Harper government and other backers of the war have resorted to hiding behind the soldiers to escape their own responsibility for the mess we are in. The exhortation that we must all “Support Our Troops”---something, which if meant literally virtually all Canadians do---is being used to silence critics of the mission.
The preposterous result is that a Canadian government that calls itself “conservative” is floundering in a failing crusade. Meanwhile those who want our troops brought home are the ones who adhere to the traditional conservative idea that wars should only be fought when they are unavoidable and that they should never be fought in aid of messianic missions to reconstruct the world.
Our politics has been turned inside out in ways that are deeply puzzling to almost everyone. Conservatives have become utopians, even if at times they are embarrassed by the rhetoric of George W. Bush. Meanwhile those in other parts of the political spectrum have become the skeptics, those who warn that the world cannot and should not be subjected to violent campaigns to transform it in the name of liberation, campaigns whose tangible results are death and dislocation on an enormous scale.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

On Education: John Tory Starts a Culture War

John Tory, Ontario’s Conservative leader, has enjoyed a reputation for moderation and judgment. In light of this, it has come as an unwelcome surprise that Tory has embarked on a radical strategy, no less disruptive than Mike Harris' Common Sense Revolution, in his bid to lead his party to power in the upcoming provincial election. The traditional approach for a moderate opposition politician, as Tory was presumed to be, is to campaign on the defects of the sitting government, showing how it has failed to keep its promises, and capitalizing on scandals and administrative lapses.

Tory and his handlers have obviously decided that this timeworn method will not succeed in toppling Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals. Instead Tory has started a culture war. He hopes to win by injecting highly divisive hot-button issues into the campaign. The tactics are borrowed from the playbook of the American hard right.

At first glance, Tory’s proposal to provide public funding to faith based schools can be seen as nothing more than an attempt to extend to other religious denominations what Roman Catholics already enjoy.

In fact, his goal is not to engage in a debate about the rights and wrongs of public support for Catholic schools, a policy that is rooted in the Constitution of 1867. His goal is to launch a 21st campaign to stress the fault lines in Ontario society and to win power in the process.

If the Ontario government were to fund faith based primary and secondary schools, two consequences would be highly likely. First, public funding for Jewish, Muslim, Orthodox Christian and other faith-based schools would inevitably open the door to legal challenges from still other faiths and sects for the funding of their schools as well.

Analogies with the Catholic case for funding are misleading because the existence of Catholic schools, whatever one thinks of this, is constitutionally based. This means that the presence of publicly funded Catholic schools cannot be used as the basis for court challenges on behalf of other faiths. Once some other faith’s schools are funded, though, this situation would be completely altered. Tory’s proposal, if implemented, would throw the courts open to plaintiffs arguing for the support of all manner of sectarian schools.

Second, assurances from advocates for the public funding of faith based schools that this would not lead to a massive exodus of students from public schools provide cold comfort. In a rapidly evolving multi-cultural society such as Ontario’s, against the backdrop of rising assaults on secular norms in many countries, it is foolhardy to suggest that the availability of publicly funded sectarian schools would not lead to a flight from public schools.

At present, public schools are a meeting ground for people from diverse backgrounds, a key to Ontario’s success as a society that has done better than most others in realizing the benefits of diversity, and avoiding the pitfalls. Public funding of sectarian schools is bound to generate campaigns to win parents over to the idea that to be true to their faith they should send their children to a school whose students are members of their faith alone.

That Tory has his sights set on a radical debate about public education can be grasped from his flirtation with the idea of introducing creationism into the school curriculum. The Conservative leader threw this stink-bomb into the debate and then appeared to back off a little.

His mention of creationism sent a coded message to those whose religious convictions motivate them to launch a wide-ranging attack on what they see as today’s Godless, secular society.

Creationism, the idea that the earth was created by a divine-being a few thousand years ago and that humans once walked with dinosaurs, is bogus science. It has no more place in a school curriculum than the notion that the earth is flat or that the sun revolves around the earth---ideas that were once held by powerful religions whose leaders were prepared to execute those with different views on the nature of the universe.

What Tory was doing was letting religious fundamentalists know that he is not unsympathetic to their aspirations.

Beyond the fundamentalists, there are other interests at play. Look at the coalition Tory has supporting him on the funding issue. In addition to those who support public funding for faith based schools there are the advocates of public funding for private schools. It is not accidental that private schools that draw their students largely from upper middle class families see the current election campaign as a golden opportunity for their own cause.

And they are not the only ones. A campaign is in full swing in the United States to establish a new multi-billion dollar market for the private sector through the privatization of much of the public school system. Education is seen as a lucrative field in which private companies can move into the designing, managing and supplying of schools. The neo-cons and business interests who support the establishment of charter schools (some public, some private) and other privatization initiatives make the case that the public school system is an unproductive monopoly dominated by teachers and teachers’ unions. They look forward to the day when this public monopoly will be dismantled and parents will be free to “choose” the types of schools their children attend.

In the process, the public school system will be reduced to a last resort option for the poorest and least powerful segments of society. Out of this will come billions of dollars in profits for those who have had the foresight to spot a golden opportunity.

The Ontario Conservatives are not telling the electorate where the path they have chosen will lead. But we were not born yesterday, Mr. Tory. We have seen this motion picture before.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Jim Flaherty: The Auto Workers’ free-market friend in Ottawa

G M’s announcement last week that it will cut 1200 jobs at an Oshawa, Ontario truck plant is the latest signal that the nation’s manufacturing sector is in deep trouble.

CAW economist Jim Stanford told the Toronto Star that “economic research over the years has shown that the spinoff effects in total add up to about 7.5 jobs” for every automobile job that is eliminated. The effect, therefore, of the GM job cuts will be the loss of about eight thousand jobs in a host of companies that supply the Oshawa truck plant as well as in local restaurants, building businesses and a variety of service industries. Many of the lost jobs in the auto parts sector will be south of the border in American plants that supply the truck plant.

Manufacturing layoffs are becoming an ever more common occurrence in Ontario, as core industrial employment is cut back, and the nation’s heavy industries are hollowed out.

Because the overall economic health of the country appears relatively robust, the growing crisis in the auto sector and in manufacturing as a whole has been masked.

Since the late 1990s, about 10,000 auto assembly jobs have been lost in Canada and over the past six years, 13,000 jobs have been cut in the auto parts sector. This year in addition to the General Motors jobs cuts, Chrysler has decided to eliminate 2000 jobs in Ontario.

One might expect that Jim Flaherty, Canada’s Finance Minister, who represents the riding of Whitby-Oshawa, where many of the workers who are about to lose their livelihoods reside, would be working overtime to save auto jobs.

On the contrary, he seems philosophical, content with the stance his government is taking. He told a reporter that he was “concerned” about the GM announcement and mentioned his recent budget’s faster write-offs for capital investments in machinery and equipment for manufacturers as evidence that the government is doing a lot for the auto industry.

At a time when the effects of the rapid surge in the value of the Canadian dollar and the slowdown in US auto sales are combining to threaten thousands more auto jobs, Flaherty’s faster write offs will be about as effective as a finger in a dike during a storm surge. Everybody knows that in a slowing market faster write offs don’t generate additional capital investment.

Flaherty is, and always has been, a staunch right-wing conservative, proud of never having interfered with the celestial functioning of free markets. That’s why he can be philosophical about the loss of good jobs in his riding. “People who have been losing jobs have been getting other jobs,” he noted.

He makes it seem so easy. What alternative jobs will those who are laid off be getting and for what kind of pay? What about workers in Oshawa and Whitby who are trying to pay down their mortgages?

While Flaherty fiddles, we stand to lose a big chunk of our manufacturing sector. And we’re not likely to get it back.

It’s hard to know whether Flaherty is intelligent enough to understand that his ideological outlook favours capital at the expense of labour, or is a bone-headed true-believer who thinks free markets are socially neutral. For the auto workers in his riding, it doesn’t much matter.

Their powerful MP won’t do a damn thing for them. Flaherty and the other members of the Harper government don’t believe in the concept of an industrial strategy to nurture and protect high paying jobs in key industrial sectors.

The trouble is that although the ways they do it may have changed, the French, Germans, Italians, Swedes, Japanese and South Koreans carefully protect their vital industrial sectors. And the Americans do exactly the same thing through the backdoor route of defence spending to procure equipment from key industries, including the auto industry.

Maybe it’s time for auto workers to find an MP who isn’t a neo-con boy scout who is dumb enough to think our competitors play by the free market rules they profess and don’t follow.