Sunday, November 28, 2010

Wake Up: Arbitrary Rule is All Around Us

We live in a dangerous, disordered time. The flashing signs are there to warn us that, both at home and abroad, those who are at the helm of the socio-political order do not preside over outcomes that make even a modicum of sense. Arbitrariness is the order of the day.

We see this alarming reality in decisions being made close to us as well as in other parts of the world. Here are six stories, some more important than others, that convey the capricious disorder of the times in which we live.

1. In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit that reviews complaints against police has released a report that concludes that in two specific cases during the G20 summit in Toronto last June, excessive force was used. But just when it appears that the system might work and deliver some semblance of justice, that hope is instantly dashed. SIU director Ian Scott has concluded that the offending officers cannot be identified and, therefore, cannot be charged. In the case of one man who was arrested, and sustained a fracture below his right eye, the SIU determined that the police used excessive force. But the badge number on the man’s arrest sheet did not correspond to the assigned badge number of any Toronto police officer. Even Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has acknowledged that up to 90 officers were not wearing their name-tags during the summit weekend. He says he will discipline the officers who chose to make themselves unidentifiable, but they are not being charged with an offence.

The only conclusion we can reasonably draw is that a large number of officers were out of control during the policing of the summit. Because the police won’t come forward to testify against their fellow officers, the cover up works. Officers who assault people on the street, even when the assaults are videoed, get away with it because follow officers won’t say a word against them. When the police act more like a gang of thugs than like professionals who uphold a set of standards, they become untrustworthy, a force that neither serves nor protects.

And what do those in charge do about this? Next to nothing.

2. A shocking video plainly shows Ottawa police officers violently subduing and strip searching a woman, in an incident that occurred two years ago. Stacy Bonds, whose only crime was to ask police officers why they had stopped her in the first place was taken to a police station where a male officer cut off her shirt and bra. We only found out about this disgraceful incident because a judge was appalled by the behaviour of the police and ordered the public release of the video. After he watched the security camera video, Ontario Court Justice Richard Lajoie stayed charges against Bonds for assaulting police and condemned the police behavour as a “travesty” and an “indignity.”

What was the crown thinking when it went ahead with the prosecution of Stacy Bonds in this incredible case, in which she was the victim and the police were the perpetrators? In how many instances, where there is no video and no judge who blows the whistle, do prosecutors go along with brutal cops in bringing charges against wholly innocent people?

Now, we are going to get an internal investigation into this incident, an investigation that could take months. What will happen to the officers---a slap on the wrist?

3. The next issue takes us into the realm of national politics.

Why did the federal Liberal Party aid and abet the Harper government’s decision to extend Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan beyond July 2011?

Instead of holding the Conservative government to account for doing a U Turn that will keep close to one thousand Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan after the date when parliament had decided to withdraw them, the official opposition has joined forces with the party in power.

Canadians have long since concluded that the war in Afghanistan is not about a struggle for the rule of law, the rights of women, and democracy, but is being waged on behalf of a corrupt regime that is closely tied to warlords and the drug trade, a regime whose hold on power was sustained in a deeply flawed election. At least, with the passage of time, Canadians had a right to anticipate an end to a mission that has seen 153 of our soldiers killed and billions of tax dollars poured into a bottomless pit.

Now an understanding between the Conservatives and Liberals---a deal in all but name---has arbitrarily extended a mission whose architects know full well that it is military in character. Soldiers, who are posted in a theatre of war, even if they are involved in training, stand in harm’s way. The price of this mission, in blood and treasure, has already been too high as far as Canadians are concerned.

Behind closed doors, Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have made a mockery of the Canadian parliamentary process.

4. Abroad there are stories that illustrate what happens when the people in charge are so rich that they simply have no contact with everyday human reality.

New York’s billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed a millionaire media executive, Cathleen P. Black, as chancellor of New York City’s public schools, the largest public school system in the United States. Black, a corporate executive and magazine publisher, has no educational experience whatsoever. Under New York State law, a candidate such as Black, who has no qualifications for the job, requires a waiver from Education Commissioner David Steiner to obtain the position. The law states that a waiver can be issued only to those “whose exceptional training and experiences are the substantial equivalent of such [educational] requirements and qualify such persons for the duties of a superintendent of schools.”

Not only does Bloomberg’s appointee lack any such “exceptional” training, she did not attend public school herself and sent her own children to private boarding schools in Connecticut.

Continuing the control of public schools by elites who have established about one hundred privately run charter schools in New York in recent years, means more opportunities for profit-making educational institutions, more years of crowded classrooms in public schools, and a future in which those at the helm have no clue about the needs of students whose families are bearing the burdens of the economic crisis.

Let’s see if Black gets the waiver.

5. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, a coalition government is in charge, led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the descendant of a long line of financiers who intermarried with royal and aristocratic bluebloods. Cameron attended Eton and Oxford.

Surrounded by “Old Etonians” on the front bench of his government, Cameron has slashed public sector spending in the most drastic cuts in Britain in half a century. Over the next four years, the UK government will axe half a million jobs from the public payroll, while sharply reducing welfare payments and trebling the tuition fees of university students. The draconian cuts to employment in the public sector are certain to lead to a loss of private sector jobs dependent on the demand formerly generated by the spending of those whose public sector jobs are being eliminated.

In Britain, the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population is returning to levels not seen since the end of the First World War in 1918. The chief executives of companies listed on the UK’s FTSE 100 are now annually paid an average of 4.9 million pounds, an increase in one year of more than fifty per cent. That equates to two hundred times the average wage in the country.

While wage and salary earners are facing very tough times, the wealthy whose economic thinking caused the crash, are doing better than ever.

But don’t imagine that David Cameron isn’t thinking of the mass of the population. He’s declared that the day that William and Kate tie the knot at Westminster Abbey next spring will be a national holiday. The man has a heart.

6. Last week, the United States celebrated Black Friday, the day that retail companies hopefully move over to the black from the red as customers charge through the doors to get their hands on the goodies. Black Friday is now so important that the day notionally begins earlier in the week, before the turkey is served and while it is being served, and it continues all weekend long and into the following Monday.

It took decades for Americans to amass personal debts that today amount to about $12 trillion. The indebtedness of Americans as individuals and the indebtedness of the U.S. government----now about $14 trillion---were hugely important factors in triggering the economic crisis in which the world is mired.

But to save America and its economy, the debt-ridden American consumer needs to be prodded, cajoled, tempted, beseeched and implored to head for the malls to spend, spend, spend. A disproportionate amount of the goods they buy are made in China and their heroic spending efforts will drive up the nation’s trade deficit and its indebtedness.

What we are seeing is lemmings stampeding for the cliff. Call it Lemmingnomics.

These stories of arbitrary rule and of regimes in which the wealthy casually make decisions that hurt most of the population are linked. Brutal cops, governments that violate the norms of parliamentary government and leaders who enrich their own class of people at the expense of everyone else are the consequence of the shocking inequality of our age. The idea of citizenship is in retreat, democracy is declining and money is calling the shots.

Time to do something about it?

Sunday, November 14, 2010

On Afghanistan: How about a Little Reality from the Opposition Parties?

The other day, in separate interviews, NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar and Liberal Foreign Affairs Critic Bob Rae spoke to CBC News about the future of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.

From their tone, they sounded as if they were musing about the pros and cons of an extension of the TransCanada Highway and how many clover leaves the road ought to have. From neither of those worthy gentlemen was there the slightest hint that we are talking about an ill-conceived mission in a disastrous war, about which people have been repeatedly misled for years.

Dewar said that Canada’s military mission should end in July 2011 as scheduled and that after that date Canada should shift its attention to civilian projects in Afghanistan. He pointed out that to date ninety per cent of our effort has been military, that we’ve done our part on that front, can hold our heads high, and should now shift to civilian aid. He speculated that the Harper government’s about-face on extending the military mission, without a vote in Parliament, might have been cooked up in a deal with the Liberals.

Fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

In his CBC interview, Bob Rae, who traveled to Afghanistan a few months ago, and later opined that the Liberal Party supported a Canadian commitment that could “include a role in training the Afghan army and police” after 2011, was critical of the Harper government for its lack of clarity about the future of the mission. Tell us exactly what you have in mind, involving how many soldiers, and costing how many dollars and we might go along, Rae seemed to be saying to Harper.

He appeared still to be prepared to countenance the training of Afghan troops by Canadian soldiers and said he couldn’t understand why the NDP didn’t want to train a single soldier.

If I have to choose, I’ll take Dewar’s line over Rae’s.

But what’s missing in all this is any frankness about what’s gone on in Afghanistan. For years, Canadian soldiers have been fighting in this dirty war. One hundred and fifty-two of them have died, fifteen hundred of them have been wounded and Canada has so far spent $18 billion on the mission.

We’ve been fighting on behalf of a government that is deeply implicated in corruption, that is tied to warlords, and that has close connections to the drug trade.

The Karzai regime, with the backing of the Obama administration, has been negotiating with elements of the Taliban to end this phase of the conflict.

While figures in the Pentagon and the U.S. foreign relations establishment have recently signaled a willingness to prolong the military mission well beyond July 2011 the date when the Obama administration has pledged to begin a major withdrawal of troops, the point of the new emphasis is to convince the Taliban, the Afghan regime and U.S. allies that the Americans are determined to continue the fight.

Meanwhile, the White House has been insisting that there is no change in U.S. planning. Americans are weary of the war in Afghanistan, and much of the base of the President’s party wants a firm timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals.

What is now underway is a drive to come up with a settlement between the Karzai regime and some of the insurgents so that Obama can claim success and start bringing American troops home in time for the 2012 presidential election campaign. The peace settlement that may be in the works will not be one that will gladden the hearts of those who hope for an agenda in Afghanistan that will extend human rights, the rights of women in particular, and progress toward democracy.

Canadian political leaders, especially members of the opposition, should address the hard realities of the conflict we have been engaged in when they speak in Parliament this week. Canadians are sick and tired of phony assurances about the progress being achieved by the West’s military mission in Afghanistan. For once, how about the truth?

Friday, November 12, 2010

On Afghanistan: Harper’s Casual Betrayal of Canadians

Far away from home, while Parliament is not sitting, the Prime Minister of Canada announces that Canada’s military mission in Afghanistan will be extended beyond July 2011, the date when it was due to end. Prior to his stunning about-face in Seoul, Harper had insisted that after the withdrawal next July only the “odd (military) guard” at an embassy would remain.

Overwhelmingly, Canadians want to end this tawdry mission, which has never been about the goals members of the Canadian government have claimed we are fighting for. To date, 152 Canadian soldiers have died in Afghanistan, and 1500 have been wounded----to return to a country that has made few plans for their long-term care. Others have come home with serious psychological traumas.

Canada has spent $18 billion to date on this mission, which has supposedly been to assist a government that is committed to the rule of law, the rights of women and, with the passage of time, a fully democratic regime. At best, the Karzai regime is “Taliban light.” Whenever Karzai has found it politically convenient to shore up his alliances with warlords and fundamentalists, he has been prepared to throw the rights of women to the wolves. Then, in response to tut-tutting from the West, Karzai dons his human rights garb for the cameras.

Not only is the regime we support not committed to human rights and democratic government, its close collaborators are profiting from the drug trade.

This is a regime that runs foul detention centres, for those taken prisoner in the war. The vile conditions and abuse of inmates in these medieval establishments has been repeatedly reported by reliable observers, among them Canadians. Despite efforts by members of the Canadian government and military to hide the facts, Canadian forces have been shown to have handed over prisoners to those who proceeded to abuse them, as we knew they would.

Haven’t we had enough of this?

Everyone knows that Karzai, with the approval of the Americans, is now negotiating a deal with elements of the Taliban to end the war, or more accurately, this phase of an ongoing war. The Obama administration wants out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. As in the case of South Vietnam in the early 1970s, the idea is to win a few military victories on the ground, endorse a deal with some members of the Taliban, and get out.

Media reports suggest that the Conservative government is planning to offer close to one thousand military instructors and support staff to serve in Kabul from 2011 to 2014. This is an extension of the military mission, pure and simple. The term “trainer” is often used as a euphemism for those who go into battle with unreliable troops to make sure they fight. The Conservatives are claiming that the trainers will operate “inside the wire” and will not actually go into conflict.

Can we believe a word the members of the Harper government say, when they have misled Canadians at every turn on the mission in Afghanistan?

If Harper gets his way, more Canadians will die, and billions more will be spent.

For members of the Canadian and other western governments, for private security firms in the U.S., and for many others, Afghanistan has become an industry. The powerful, who are deeply implicated in what has gone on in this war, are seeking a way to cover their tracks and get out of this quagmire without provoking the fury of those back home whom they have deceived. Their day of reckoning will come.

It’s time for Canadians to get out of Afghanistan as a first step toward playing a role in the world in line with the values we proclaim, values that now ring hollow in the mouths of the prime minister and his cabinet colleagues.

Monday, November 08, 2010

The Demagogic Right Plays a Tough Game in Tough Times

Two years after the great crash of 2008, an economic meltdown that exposed the forces of greed for what they are, the political right is more ferocious than ever. Having presided over the unleashing of the most severe economic crisis since 1929, the right concedes nothing and claims everything. It’s exactly what we should have expected.

The hard right feeds on the carrion by-products of societal breakdown. It revels in the divisions of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation that can be sharpened among the people during hard times. It stirs the resentment of non-union workers against those who are union members, the antipathy of private sector employees against those in the public sector. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the hard right used the fuel at hand to play the same games, to considerable effect in North America, and to catastrophic effect in continental Europe.

In the United States, Canada, and Europe, the face of the hard right is etched on the politics of our time.

While Barack Obama was fighting to save capitalism and Wall Street from itself, spending his political capital on corporate bailouts, the far right was sliming him with hate. For some among the ranks of the far right, Obama is an alien, born outside the United States, who has illegally come to the presidency. Last week, Tea Party darling Sarah Palin used Twitter to list as a “favourite” a tweet linked to a photo of a sign labeling the U.S. president a “Taliban Muslim.” This week, she thought she had gone a little too far and claimed that this had been an accidental “favouriting.”

Others portray Obama as a centralizer, determined to take all power into the hands of government, so he can destroy the American way of life.

Obama’s Democrats were routed in elections to the House of Representatives by candidates whose top priority is to ensure that the Bush administration’s tax cuts, for those making a quarter of a million dollars a year and more, remain in place. Funded by the billionaire Koch Brothers and hosted by Fox News, the Tea Party populist revolt corralled angry voters to take aim at Obama while ignoring corporate assaults on the environment, ensuring that the super-rich are lightly taxed and that financial institutions can go back to being unregulated.

The right’s political recipe----a quick return to balanced budgets----would dispatch the United States into a depression, if implemented. Meanwhile, it has been left to Obama to keep capitalism intact by doing the heavy lifting on behalf of Wall Street, while the right prepares to take the White House in 2012.

In truth, if American right-wingers win the White House and majorities in both houses of congress two years from now, they will quickly drop the idea of the balanced budget. From Ronald Reagan to John A. Boehner, from George W. Bush to Sarah Palin, the right has not cared about Washington’s fiscal health. All they care about is letting corporate giants do what they like, while not having to pay for it, or being required to clean up the mess. For the American right, the deficit is an ideological weapon to be wielded against Democrats. It is a convenient flag under whose folds, the right gets to rail against serious spending to rebuild America’s crumbling infrastructure and to reconstruct the country’s transportation systems and its cities to combat climate change. The right loves to rant about the picayune cuts it would make by abolishing the Department of Education, National Public Radio, and the National Endowment for the Arts.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy deports thousands of Romani people to Rumania and bans the wearing of the burqa to distract attention from the right-wing government’s legislation that will raise the age of retirement in the republic. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel proclaimed that attempts to turn her country into a multicultural society had “utterly failed.” “We feel connected to the Christian view of humanity that is our identity,” the Chancellor said in a speech to the youth wing of her Christian Democratic party. People who do not accept that view “don’t belong here”, she concluded in a speech widely interpreted as pandering to anti-Muslim sentiments in an effort to boost flagging support for her government.

The city of Toronto has its own tea potty in the form of mayor-elect Rob Ford. Within minutes of being named the winner by local TV stations, Ford declared an end to “the gravy train at city hall”. Ford, whose wealth comes from the label company his late father founded, talks vaguely about corruption at City Hall. But the men and women who are his real targets are those who collect the garbage and drive streetcars, buses and subway trains. He wants to contract out garbage collection, a way to cut the pay of those who do the job. He also hopes to make the Toronto Transit Commission an essential service, to take away the bargaining power of TTC drivers. In addition, he’d dump Toronto’s “fair wage” policy, which ensures that contractors doing business with the city must pay about the same wage as city employees doing comparable work. This rich man’s idea of showing respect for taxpayers----his mantra---is to make the people who work for the city do their jobs for a lot less pay.

Fordism is about making Toronto a city whose employees can’t afford to live in the municipality they serve.

The new mayor has views that range far and wide. On bike lanes: “I can’t support bike lanes. Roads are built for buses, cars, and trucks. My heart bleeds when someone gets killed, but it’s their own fault at the end of the day.”

On police crackdowns at the G20 summit: “I think the police were too nice. I would have had a zero tolerance approach.”

He’d cut off any municipal funding for Pride Toronto, has mused about Toronto already having enough immigrants, and thinks Oriental people are slowly taking over because they “work like dogs”.

In tough times, the members of the political right play tough. They foment prejudices and hatreds among the Have Nots to ensure that no one effectively takes on the Haves.

Are they prepared to compromise? You’ve got to be kidding.