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The best of writing, photography, art, and argument –
on everything from film to foreign policy.

“Ever dreamed of subscribing to a cultural magazine that doesn’t seem to be eating out of the hand of half a dozen media magnates?  Something pluricultural and unassuming but nonetheless covering everything worth seeing, reading, doing or listening to for a season?   Well, it exists, and in Canada to boot!”
“There is no on-line version or web site, which either makes John a dinosaur or a man of character. (I opt for the second, since the editorial team occasionally has a kind word for me.)”

John Howe — Canadian artist and co-conceptual designer on all three “The Lord of the Rings” motion pictures.

* Editor’s Note: The age of the dinosaurs has at last come to an end — with the arrival of this website!


Editor’s Notebook

© by John Arkelian

On February 28, 2018

The Lamentable President

© By John Arkelian

In an interview with Larry King prior to the November 2017

“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” (So saith President Trump in February 2017; but, he didn’t specify what kind of machine he had in mind.) Illustration © 2017 by Linda Arkelian.

presidential election, the actor Richard Dreyfuss summed up what he thought of Donald Trump in one word:  “indecent.”  That word seems as apt as ever.   A braggart, blowhard, and bully, Trump seems to embody a man of low character.  Dispensing cant as though it were wisdom and brazenly telling bald-faced lies, his very instincts seem to impel him to all that is intemperate, petty, unseemly, and vindictive.  He’s quick to ridicule others, while praising his own real or imagined accomplishments to the heavens.  Every word that comes out of his mouth is the stuff of egregious hyperbole – variously proclaimed or condemned by him as ‘the biggest,’ ‘the best,’ or ‘the worst’ instance (of this or that) in the annals of recorded history.  The apparent dearth of private or public virtue in the man is an affront to people of integrity and a canker on the body-politic.

Consider the man’s pernicious attacks on the nation’s institutions.  Referring to the U.S. justice system (which is the envy of the world), he said, “What we have now is a joke and a laughing-stock.”  Talking about the free press (which was considered so important to the health of democracy that it was expressly protected by the nation’s founders in the Bill of Rights), Trump has derided it as “nasty,” “vicious,” and “fake.”  Citing such major news organizations as the New York Times, CNN, ABC, CBS, and NBC, he said, “The fake news media is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people!”  Actively hostile to criticism, he didn’t hesitate to threaten the media:  “Network news has become so partisan, distorted, and fake, that [broadcast] licenses must be challenged, and, if appropriate, revoked.”  Questioned about the many unfilled vacancies in the State Department (the people responsible for conducting America’s relations with other countries), Trump didn’t hide his egotism:  “Let me tell you, the one that matters is me.  I’m the only one that matters.”  Freudian slip, anyone?

After his State of the Union Address on January 30, 2018, Trump derided those who sat stony-faced and did not deign to applaud his trumpeted achievements, and he agreed (half-jokingly, he says) with subsequent suggestions that those who failed to applaud his self-proclaimed greatness were “treasonous.”  Maybe he was exaggerating to make his point; but such accusations are not fit for a president to direct at his critics or opposition.  They’re the attitudes of a tyrant, and the United States was founded to overthrow and forever repudiate tyranny.   And, now the man is intent on having a vain-glorious military parade, à la the ‘triumphs’ of ancient Rome.

Donald Trump’s presence as a public figure, let alone as leader of the free world, befouls the public discourse; nay, it befouls the polity itself.  His grotesque self-absorption, shameless mendacity, and instinctive nastiness of character mark our arrival at society’s lowest common denominator.  He has conned too many into thinking he’s a down-to-earth (and earthy) champion of the common man’s welfare – but he’s clearly a plutocrat masquerading as a well-intentioned populist.  We can do better; we must do better.

John Arkelian is an award-winning journalist and author.

Copyright © 2018 by John Arkelian.

Illustration © 2017 by Linda Arkelian.


On February 27, 2018

On Arms and the Man:
Distorted Notions about the Right to Bear Arms in America

© By John Arkelian

Should teenagers be allowed to have machine guns?  Yes or no?  It’s really as simple as that.  The carnage wrought recently at a Florida school was perpetrated by a disturbed teen in legal possession of what amounted to a machine gun.  In a sensible world, those words, being “in legal possession of a machine gun,” ought to be self-contradictory nonsense.  Who in civilian life ought to be in possession of a machine gun, ever?  Such weapons, whether they are technically described as “semi-automatic” or “automatic,” are designed for a battlefield:  They have but one purpose – to kill people as quickly and efficiently as possible.  They do not belong in civilian hands – period.  But, that eminently obvious proposition runs headlong into the absurd contention that the Second Amendment precludes any and all regulation of guns in America.

The United States Constitution is the highest law in the land.  Its first ten Amendments form the Bill of Rights, which protect our inalienable rights by limiting the power of the federal government to act in those areas.  Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and protection against unreasonable search and seizure are among the rights enumerated there.  And so, too, is the right to bear arms, which is set out in the Second Amendment:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

 But no right, however precious, is ever absolute.   To use the tried-and-true law school illustration:  No one has the right to falsely shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.  Doing so is apt to cause injury or trauma to others, so the speaker’s right to free speech is circumscribed to the extent that it collides with the right of other people not to be gratuitously harmed or traumatized.   A right, even an inalienable right, is in no way exempt from being limited in ways that are reasonable in given circumstances.  And it must give way when its exercise tramples on other rights of other people.   (Sadly, however, in wake of 9/11 and the unending “war on terrorism,” we’ve been duped by our own governments into acquiescing, among other things, to grotesquely intrusive mass surveillance of one and all.  They argue that we must give way on fundamental rights for our own protection:  The result is a cynical, pernicious, and grossly unjustified trade-off – of fundamental rights for illusory ‘security’ – that adversely affects every single one of us.  Oddly enough, the vociferously indignant champions of guns are strangely silent when it comes to this egregious infringement of human rights that really matter.)

Unregulated access to firearms poses an obvious danger to public safety.  True, an aggrieved person, a deranged person, or a person who is intent on harming others in the name of some noxious ideology can do so in any number of ways – by running amok with a knife, by igniting explosives, by hijacking an aircraft, or simply by driving a car or truck into a crowd of people.  But the simple fact is that most acts of mass violence in America are perpetrated with firearms.  And semi-automatic and fully automatic firearms are the weapons of choice for those who are intent on inflicting mass casualties.   No other weapon can match them for their speed and efficiency in slaughtering people.

Universal access to such weapons (and their ubiquitous presence in civilian hands) is incompatible with the common good.  It also incompatible with the fundamental rights to “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” set out in that other founding document of the United States – its Declaration of Independence.  Ready, unregulated access to what amount to ‘weapons of mass destruction’ puts others at unreasonable risk and directly threatens their lives and their pursuit of happiness.   It is also at odds with the spirit of the Preamble to the Constitution of the United States, which sets out that governing document’s overarching purpose:  “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”    Where’s the “justice” in putting the lives of the many at risk to grant a disturbed teen the “right” to have a machine gun?  How is the currently feebly regulated ease of access to firearms of all kinds consistent with either “domestic tranquility” or the “general welfare?”    The answer is that it is not.

The rabid extremists (the National Rifle Association included) who insist they they’ll brook no “infringement” of any kind on their right to bear weapons of any kind espouse a position that is absurd both at law and in practice.  Restrictions already exist.  So far, we haven’t heard of anyone espousing the right of a ten-year-old to carry a handgun to school or of anyone to bring a bazooka to a crowded public event.  If some regulation is both reasonable and practiced, as it clearly already is, there isn’t a practical reason under the sun why other restrictions aren’t likewise reasonable and consistent with the Constitution.

The United States can and should impose reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, including such obvious basics as thorough screening (for age, for criminal records, and for mental instability) and sensible limits on the kind of guns deemed fit to be in civilian hands.  It should make such requirements universal, by eliminating current loopholes (like firearms purchased at gun shows).  It should ensure that screening is effective and that set methods are prescribed for documenting instances of people who have, for example, demonstrated mental instability by making threats online or in disputes with school staff or law enforcement authorities.  Are “open carry” laws reasonable, ever?  Are they consistent with a civilized society?  Does a right to carry “concealed weapons” meet that standard, either?  The United States can and should impose reasonable restrictions on the kind of guns deemed fit to be in civilian hands.  It may be that very few of those in possession of semi-automatic or fully automatic weapons will ever use them against others.  But the terrible devastation caused by the very few who do is sufficient to make their possession by any civilians unreasonable and incompatible with the general welfare.

Notwithstanding the language used in the Second Amendment, governments (federal and state) already “infringe” the right to keep and bear arms in a myriad of ways.  There is no legal or constitutional impediment to reasonable regulation in the interests of public safety and to preserve of the right of others to life and the pursuit of happiness.  The high school kids in Florida were robbed of those inalienable rights by the competing (and conflicting) “right” of a disturbed teen to have a machine gun.

Besides the duty of governments to protect competing rights by acting as a referee when said rights collide, common sense also plays a role in interpreting constitutional rights.   Remember the words:  “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”   They were composed in the late 18th century, when a mostly untamed continent posed many potential dangers for the newly formed nation hugging its eastern seaboard.  Predatory wildlife, hostile indigenous people (perhaps resentful at being displaced from their lands), and possible conflict with European colonial powers posed dangers to the new nation – and to its people.  The solution was the ability to defend oneself and one’s community by having a musket close to hand.  The two clauses of the Second Amendment were clearly meant to be read together:  Because a ‘well-regulated’ citizens’ militia was essential to the security of Americans, their right to “arms” (as that term was understood at the time) was not to be infringed.  There is a clear and necessary causal link between those two propositions, as follows:  ‘We need a militia, therefore the people who will form that militia, when called upon to do so, must have firearms at the ready.’   To put it another way, people are assured of access to firearms specifically because they may at a moment’s notice be called upon to serve in a militia.  The U.S. Supreme Court squandered its chance to endorse that causal connection and to make it explicit:  Your right to bear arms may not be infringed – to the extent that it coincides with your service in a citizens’ militia.  (And, “a well-regulated militia” obviously does not include a bunch of self-appointed crackpots in the woods, fueled by some conspiratorial notion that the government is out to get them.)  This reading of the Second Amendment would grant greater access to weapons to those who serve in part-time citizens’ militias (local variants of state national guards).  Such participants might even have access to ‘machine guns,’ but they’d be subject to strict restrictions on their use and storage (probably in locked militia safes).  And they would be obliged to do training and regular service with a regulated militia at fixed intervals.  In the event of natural disaster, foreign invasion, unlawful armed insurrection, or our own government turned despotic, these latter-day “Minutemen” would be a part-time citizens’ militia charged with defense of our country and our Constitution.

Where, oh where, is rationality in the endless war of words over firearms?  Clearly, farmers, ranchers, and those living in remote rural places have legitimate reasons for having reasonable types of firearms.  That rationale, however, manifestly does not apply to people living in urban settings.  And, there’s an overarching question:  When will we learn that ‘money shouldn’t talk’ in politics?  Whether it’s the NRA on guns, or any number of other corporate or moneyed interests on other issues, we need to get the pernicious, corrupting influence of money out of politics once and for all.  Only then can we dare to hope that our elected representatives will serve the public interest rather than the self-serving imperatives of their own reelection financing.

John Arkelian is a former federal prosecutor and a legal adviser in constitutional law.

 Copyright © 2018 by John Arkelian.


On February 27, 2018

The Case for Intervention in Syria

© By John Arkelian

Popular protests in Syria during the ill-fated Arab Spring in 2011 turned into a bitter civil war that is still raging seven years later.  It’s a pity the West failed to intervene in a meaningful way in the beginning, before things turned intractably violent.  The conflict has created some abhorrent factions, including ISIS and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front – extremist groups which have too often dominated the armed opposition to the government.  But, all along, the Syrian government itself has been an equally repugnant player.  The ensuing conflict has killed thousands and generated millions of refugees, whose flight from their country (and from the region generally) has created a humanitarian and political crisis in the West.

Now, in February 2018, there are renewed reports of the regime’s forces bombing civilian targets and using outlawed chemical weapons.  Those actions are intolerable.  In response, the West should simultaneously pursue all of the following counter-measures:  (1) We should attack Syrian military aircraft on the ground to degrade (and if possible destroy) their ability to continue to bomb civilian targets.  (2) We should push for the indictment at the International Criminal Court (ICC) of Syria’s president (Bashar al-Assad), key members of his regime, as well as his enablers abroad in the governments of Russia and Iran and in Hezbollah (the militant group based in Lebanon).  There is a glaring prima facie case against them all for war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Charges should be laid by the ICC, and those responsible should be arrested and extradited to that court if they venture within the reach of the West or its allies.  (3) We should pressure troublesome external players like Russia, Iran, and our own ally Turkey to get out of Syria and impose sanctions should they fail to comply.  (4) We should tirelessly strive to convene peace talks and push to keep those talks in session until a solution we can live with is achieved.  (5) And, if they fail to immediately cooperate by participating in peace talks, we should target the top leadership of the Assad regime for lethal ‘decapitation’ strikes.

Our justification for taking those actions (including the unilateral use of force) should be the “responsibility to protect” doctrine recognized by members of the United Nations in 2005.  The Syrian regime has made war upon its own people; it has targeted civilians (and/or shown a criminally reckless disregard for their safety); it has used proscribed weapons of mass destruction; and it has wrongfully prevented humanitarian aid organizations from accessing civilian victims of the brutal conflict.  For those reasons, the Syrian regime is lawless and illegitimate.  For those reasons, the West has the right, and the moral obligation, to intervene.

John Arkelian is a former diplomat who has advised the federal government on international law.

Copyright © 2018 by John Arkelian.


On May 10, 2017

The Transformational Yukon

“I Hear You” – Copyright © 2017 by Priska Wettstein

© By John Arkelian

“I am among the giants.  They loom below, immense, silent, and

insouciant – their unbowed crowns cloaked in the whitest of ermine, their enormous shoulders cast of rock primeval.  I have come to the world of winter.  Even time grows large here, measured in glacial epochs.  Deep frozen rivers of ice below ebb and flow beyond the ken of the human eye:  And there is nothing human here, for as far as the eye can see.  Yet this place, this heart of the Yukon, whispers to me:  ‘Something hidden:  Go and find it.  Something lost behind the Ranges.’ … Here is a place of transformation, a place of reawakening, a place of rediscovering freedom, a place where the spirit quickens, a place in which one can find what is hidden and reclaim what is lost….”

Our major travel essay on the Yukon, “The Yukon: Transforming the Human Spirit,” accompanied by the compellingly evocative photographic art of Dawson City’s Priska Wettstein, can be found at:  http://artsforum.ca/travel


On February 14, 2017

Of Mortal Life, The Flower

Photograph © 2016 by Debra Konrad.

© By John Arkelian

“So passeth, in the passing of a day, / Of mortal life the leaf, the bud, the flower, / No more doth flourish after first decay, / That erst was sought to deck both bed and bower.” 

On Valentine’s Day, our thoughts turn to love, beauty, and the flower:  Are we as bewitched by the fragility of a flower as by its beauty?  What could be more ephemeral, after all, with petals soft as tissue?  Why, mayhap, our own short lives:  Buds turn to glorious blooms, the shimmer of our prime draws the eye and the ardent admiration of suitors, and then we fade and pass out of the ken of those we leave behind.  But, we endure, in the hearts of those who knew us, and in the realm of the eternal, where nothing that reflects love ever perishes.  Floral beauty in abundance is on view in the photography of Debra Konrad, a sampling of which adorns our “About Us” section:


“Gather therefore the rose, whlist yet is prime, / For soon comes age, and that will her pride deflower: / Gather the rose of love, whilst yet is time, / Whist loving thou mayst loved be with equal crime.”

Quoted verse is by Edmund Spencer (1522-99) from “The Faerie Queen.”


On October 24, 2016

Presidential Politics 2016:  Cry the Beloved Country

© By John Arkelian

How can it come down to this – in the greatest nation on Earth, the best hope for mankind, the land of the free and the home of the brave?  Have the lights gone out in that shining city on a hill?  The presidential election campaign poses precisely those questions, with its choice of two unsatisfactory candidates for the most powerful job in the world.  Consider Donald Trump.  Every time he opens his mouth, he confirms our impression that he is an obnoxious, bloviating bully and a vulgarian.  The very antithesis of a thoughtful, well-informed figure, his stock-in-trade is broad generalizations and stereotypes.  It’s a puzzle that anyone was surprised by his ever-so-crude sexual words caught on tape some years ago:  It has been crystal clear from the get-go that he is a crude man.  Is there a word for the diametrical opposite of “classy?”  If so, he is its walking, talking definition.  Why his appeal?  For some, he appeals to their thinly veiled prejudices and fears.  Others like Trump’s unvarnished demeanor.  But far more people have found in Trump an unlikely answer to their deep craving for change.  Now that’s something with which we can find common cause.  The status quo is not serving the interests of America or most of her citizens.  Trump isn’t part of the political establishment.  He isn’t even a politician.  And that has a certain superficial appeal when partisan deadlock and abject neglect of the 99% are the order of the day.  But, there is nothing about Trump that suggests that he would be a balm to those injuries to the commonweal.  He is merely a celebrity, in a society which is entirely too fixated with celebrities.  He is not the white knight, the exemplar of just reform that America so desperately needs.  Bernie Sanders, on the Democratic side, maybe, but not Trump.  Rather, his rashness, impulsiveness, pettiness, and unbridled egotism, combined with a seeming dearth of good judgment, leave him unfit for high office.

What of Hillary Clinton?  Her supporters point to her years of public service – as First Lady, as a Senator, and as Secretary of State.  But Clinton is nearly as disliked and mistrusted as Trump.  Clinton’s ethical and practical shortcomings abound, whether it was vouching for her husband to get him elected (when it is likely she knew she was telling bald-faced lies about his fidelity); contributing to the mess that poorly-planned Western intervention wrought in Libya; selling access to power by granting donors to the Clinton Foundation preferential access to herself as Secretary of State; taking large sums of money from Wall Street and pledging her allegiance to them in leaked confidential talks; using dirty tricks (in cahoots with the leadership of the Democratic Party) against Bernie Sanders to impede his bid for the presidential nomination; being part of the so-called ‘war on terror’s’ insidious attack on inalienable human rights (through the routine assassination of real or perceived foes by drone strikes, and through the unconstitutional mass surveillance of law-abiding citizens) under the Obama Administration; or glossing over her reckless breach of secure-handling requirements for classified emails while she was at the State Department.  Clinton may have 30 some odd years of public life, but what has she got to show for them?  Where are the lasting policy successes, the reforms, and the commitments to real change or to improving the lot of ordinary citizens?  There’s a hard-to-pin-down (but awfully off-putting) sense of entitlement about Clinton:  Many suspect that she feels entitled to the post, that this is “her time.”  Clinton and her supporters have been so bold as to suggest that we should vote for her because she’s a woman, and that her election to the highest office in the land is part of some ordained victory against gender barriers.  In fact, however, Clinton’s gender ought to be irrelevant to voters:  Her gender is neither a reason to vote for her, nor against her.  What’s far more relevant is the fact that Clinton is part of the establishment, when there is a justified hunger in the land to be rid of the establishment’s yoke.  The paradox is that Trump is a dream-candidate for Clinton:  He manages (almost) to make her look ‘good’ by comparison.

One candidate likes to talk about the process being “fixed.”  And maybe it is, in ways that don’t seem to occur to him.  Third parties are shoved aside, effectively blocked from participating in presidential debates that are run by the two main parties.  Democrat and Republican.  How different are they, really?  Both seem to neglect the 99% in favor of the narrow interests of one-percenters.  Maybe they are just a good-cop, bad-cop tag team, an unholy pairing that gives us the illusion of choice, when, beneath the rhetorical ‘differences,’ each of those parties is one-half of a single Janus-faced party of the status quo.

And the status quo is unacceptable.  Critical issues face America.  Few of them are even being mentioned by Clinton or Trump.  Politics in America is corrupted by money.  The U.S. Supreme Court perversely endorsed the notion that money should talk.  Why is neither candidate calling for a constitutional amendment to attack that systemic corruption at its root?  Inequality is a crisis that demands action, as the chasm between rich and poor grows ever larger, undermining the existence of the strong middle class which has long guaranteed the nation’s stability, prosperity, and democracy.  No one mentions the gerrymandering of electoral district boundaries by individual states, a political ‘fix’ that predetermines the result in many states before the election is ever held.  Who has a plan to bring rationality to the debate over firearms and find ways (by constitutional amendment, if need be) to impose reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, including such obvious basics as thorough screening (for criminal records or mental instability) and sensible limits on the kind of guns deemed fit to be in civilian hands?

We concentrate on the dangers posed by terrorism and extreme fundamentalism while we neglect the looming geo-political rivalry with an expansionistic China.  Trump is challenging so-called ‘free trade’ pacts, but neither candidate is getting to the heart of the problem:  We have been sold a fraudulent bill of goods which asserts that “globalization” is both inevitable and good for us, when it is neither.  In the interests of the few, we have de-industrialized the West, transferring industry and jobs to the Third World (especially to China).  It is a profound betrayal of the West – and it poses a clear and present danger to our security.   What about environmental protection?  There are tough choices to be made there.  Why aren’t we hearing coherent plans about protecting the environment from the two main parties?  What about the grave risk to our freedom posed by the security state?  Why has neither candidate pledged to dismantle the unconstitutional measures, enacted in the wake of 9/11, that are intimations of Big Brother?  Why are we still unlawfully holding prisoners in Guantanamo Bay (and perhaps elsewhere) without charge or trial – in open breach of our most fundamental legal guarantees?  Why are we still propping up noxious, dictatorial regimes?  Worse still, why are we selling weapons to them?  Why aren’t we more discerning about who we call allies?  (Tyrannies like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, to name only two, don’t belong on that list.)  Why aren’t we insisting that a genuine friend, Israel, stop ignoring its own long-term interests (along with everyone else’s) by continuing to build settlements on land it does not have lawful claim to while endlessly postponing the compromises needed to try to heal the perpetual wound of conflict with the occupied Palestinians?  Why aren’t we insisting that China rein-in its reckless ally North Korea?  If China refuses, it is a direct part of the problem and needs to be sanctioned itself.  Why is America unwilling or unable to control the movement of people across its southern border – and what should we do about it?

Why are we not taking urgent measures at home to dismantle oligarchy in favor of real democracy?  Why are we not ensuring that wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share?  Why are we not reversing the reckless trend to militarizing our domestic police forces?  What are we doing about the ubiquitous presence of pornography, fraud, gambling, and misinformation on the internet?  Why on earth are we not dismantling large corporate conglomerates in favor of real competition and diverse choice for consumers?  It is intolerable that so many television networks, newspapers, and radio stations are held in so few (corporate) hands, when democracy needs a multiplicity of competing voices.  The Obama Administration elected not to hold the financial racketeers among our bankers and investment companies accountable for the criminal activities that nearly derailed our economy in 2008.  None of them were charged with an offense.  Why is neither of the candidates promising to lay charges against those whose greed, fraud, and recklessness did so much harm to so many people?  Why aren’t they promising to reform the operations of Wall Street, and bring it under strict control in the public interest?  And why is neither candidate promising to reverse the egregious misuse of the Espionage Act against whistleblowers and to instead guarantee protection of those who draw back the curtain on governmental or corporate wrongdoing?

Who is addressing the troublingly massive national debt and our large annual federal budget deficits?  How are we to get back to balanced budgets?  What about making health care universally accessible to all, regardless of their financial means?  (Other industrialized countries have done so:  Why not the United States?)  What about improving education?  What about reversing the inane notion of letting banks and polluters police themselves?  What about undoing the perverse trend to privatizing prisons?  Who is talking about sensible ways to reconcile two competing needs, that is (i) to ensure that the military might of America remains second to none and (ii) to ensure that we get the most bang for our buck in a defense budget that eats up the lion’s share of national spending?  And, why is no one talking about the acute national security threat that has been created by our foolhardy headlong rush to connect everything online?  Military command and control systems, critical infrastructure, sensitive government communications, electronic voting machines, and personal information about ordinary citizens – all of that, and more, needs to be unhooked from the internet.  But neither candidate is saying so.  And, why is neither of them addressing the deplorable decline of civility in public discourse – a decline that predated this election by years?

We have been reduced to two utterly unsatisfactory choices for chief executive. The very qualities we need – integrity, humility, decency, compassion, forbearance, self-control, and the wisdom, instincts, empathy, and grace of a statesman – are conspicuous by their absence.  The best we can do in this election is to consider the more substantive policies being advanced by the candidate for a small third party (specifically, Jill Stein of the Green Party) and cast our vote there until such time, if any, as the two main parties can be reformed and renewed.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian.

John Arkelian is an award-winning journalist and author.  A former diplomat, who worked in London and Prague, he also served as a Federal Prosecutor and as a Professor of Media Law.


On October 24, 2016

Presidential Politics 2016:  The Riddle of the Skittles

© By John Arkelian

A few weeks ago, Donald Trump’s son used a confectionary parable to illustrate his father’s concerns about the danger that a real or potential extremist might get into the United States along with throngs of refugees from such war-torn places as Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan.  Imagine, he said, that you had a bowl full of ‘Skittles’ (a small hard candy).  If you were told that three of the candies in that bowl would kill you, would you take a handful?  Most of us would say no.  But, as an analogy for the entry of immigrants and refugees into the U.S., the parable was inapt.  Here’s a better one:  Forget about the bowl.  Instead, imagine an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled to the brim with Skittles.  Now, imagine that you were told that one of those candies might potentially be harmful, but that even if it did prove to be harmful, it would probably be harmful only to one person out of, say, 50 million.  Would you take a handful then?  Yes, most of us would.  Why?  Because the odds that one Skittle might be poisonous and that we’d be the person to unluckily pick it from the large pool would be very, very small.  The pool full of Skittles, with only the possibility that one might be harmful, seems a more realistic accounting of the odds that a refugee or immigrant is (or might become) a would-be terrorist, and the even slimmer odds that any given terrorist act would directly harm you.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian.


On July 30, 2016

“In the Land of the Lotus Eaters:
The Sorry Spectacle of People Addicted to Gadgets”

Artsforum Coins a Phrase: Behold the ‘Hand-Held Self-Affirmation Device’

© By John Arkelian

Our (negative) review of the new movie “Nerve” coins a phrase for

Keeping One Eye on What Really Matters – Illustration © 2016 by Linda Arkelian.

those ubiquitous telecom devices into which so many faces intently gaze – as though transfixed – these days.  Here’s an excerpt:  “Any movie that revolves around people’s pathetic addiction to their ‘hand-held self-affirmation devices,’ if we may pause to coin a phrase, better known as so-called ‘smart-phones,’ isn’t worth the celluloid it’s printed on (or, nowadays, the digital space it occupies)…. This film consists of boring electronic toys in the hands of fools, nothing more, with plenty of fruit-themed electronic product placement.  Skip it, and, for heaven’s sake, put your confounded idiot box away!”

There you have it, an apt moniker for the trivial gadgets that have inexplicably addicted young and old the world over: “Hand-Held Self-Affirmation Devices” (or ‘HH-SADs’). And here you thought they were for phoning, texting, and looking up all manner of fatuous trivia online.  No sir, their appeal transcends mere telecom service:  They mesmerize the unwary with the trite and the inane, triggering an unearned rush of endorfins, right on cue, each and every time we get an incoming text or email.  The omnipresent ‘HH-SAD’ ostensibly promotes and expedites more “communicating;” but most of it is of the most superficial sort.  A virtual, if globally dispersed, Tower of Babel.  (Or babble.)  A headlong rush to the lowest common denominator.

In a theater?  In a car?  Walking down a busy city sidewalk?   Sitting at a dinner table with friends or family?  No time or place seems to be the wrong time or place for these portable light-and-sound cued response stimulators.  Where we go, they go.  Users need to get their fix – and often.  But, mayhap this man’s garish glare is your warm comforting glow, a subconscious visual prompt to infancy, when each of us was the center of someone’s attention, the apple of someone’s eye.  Now that eye is an insensate bundle of circuits and ‘apps.’  And that electronic eye never sleeps, never averts its gaze.  It’s a jealous lover, too, for it expects us never to avert our gaze from its own unblinking eye.  But it’s a pretty poor (not to mention insidious) substitute for looking into the face of another (physically present) person, reflecting on the state of the world, holding the powerful accountable, or simply seeing, hearing, and responding to the physical world around us.

Pretending to better connect us, instead, these devices disconnect us, offering virtual connections in place of the real ones they’ve stolen, wrapping us in glowing cocoons of self-preoccupied obliviousness.  They offer false self-affirmation to the many, drawing our gaze to the Pool of Narcissus and binding it there (“And in the Darkness bind them”), reducing us to an unthinking captive audience trapped in self-absorption of the most banal kind.  Pavlov’s dogs, anyone?   It’s cheap, it’s easy, it’s pervasive, and it’s well-nigh universally popular.  No coercion necessary for this little trick:  On the contrary, people line-up to be caught in this variety of amber.  Gotta get the newest model, the latest apps.  Those who need our votes (and later our quiescence) buy our affections cheap, displaying their supposed common touch with so-called ‘selfies.’  And why not, the lure of the Self is strong.  By accident (or by design?), these HH-SADs have the effect of stupefying, isolating, and, maybe, by increments enslaving the unwary.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist with a background in international and constitutional law, criminal prosecutions, and diplomacy.

Linda Arkelian is a dancer, choreographer, filmmaker, actress, artist, and teacher.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian

Illustration © 2016 by Linda Arkelian

Illustrator’s Note:  This picture combines an impression of the Buddha with imagery depicting meditation, ‘levitation,’ the yoga pose known as the lotus, a waterfall, legs forming the symbol for infinity, sly references to ‘tuning in’ to ‘higher waves’ (represented by the wi-fi power bars), and, of course, a smart-phone – all in the counter-intuitive context of meditation that’s intended to settle the mind and rid it of distractions.  Rumor has it that yoga students will take class with their cell phones near their yoga mat – and that’s a real a no-no.  Keeping one eye on what really matters, indeed.


On June 19, 2016

Unfit to Govern in America

© By John Arkelian

Those who seek to keep the truth from the people are unfit to govern that people.  In an egregious abuse of process, the Espionage Act is being used to prosecute whistleblowers in the United States.  Under the Obama Administration, there have been nine prosecutions under that Act – three times more than under all other American Presidents combined.  It’s a shameful and deeply troubling record.  Instead of using the Act for the purpose for which it exists – to prosecute spies – it is being grotesquely misused to crush whistleblowers and those who leak classified documents to the people.  Thomas Drake, a former senior executive at the National Security Agency, says that the U.S. government has decided ‘that whistleblowers should be extinct’ – and it is utterly ruthless about attacking (and crushing) those few brave patriots who dare to expose wrongdoing by the state.  As Jesselyn Rodack, a former Department of Justice attorney, has said, “[They] are trying to cover-up some of our worst sins as a country, whether it was a war crime or… secret domestic surveillance or… torture.  [An Espionage Act prosecution] is the most serious charge that can be leveled against an American.  It’s saying, ‘You are an enemy of the state.’”

But the state has it wrong:  By committing noxious crimes like torture, imprisonment without trial, search without warrant, the use of secret ‘evidence’ before secret pseudo-courts, rendition, mass surveillance, and assassination by drones, and then by hiding those crimes from the people, it is the state which makes itself into an enemy of the people.  Rodack says, “I’m fighting to have my September 10th country back.” Even those who reveal such state malfeasance not to the press but to Congress have been hunted down and attacked as though they were the proverbial ‘public enemy number one.’  Drake says that ‘the primary objective of national security is to now trump the Constitution.’   Former CIA officer John Kiriakou says, “I’m not sure anymore exactly who the good guys are.  So much has changed since September 11th in our country that what a decade ago would have been insanity, in terms of policy, is now the norm.  And, it’s as though if you don’t buy into the policy, you’re an enemy.”  Kiriakou took a stand against water-boarding – because it is torture and “because we’re Americans and we’re better than that.”  Simply confirming a name put to him by a journalist who contacted him, landed Kiriakou with an Espionage Act charge – with the ironic result, as Rodack has pointed out, that “[he] is the only CIA agent who will be going to prison with respect to torture, and he didn’t torture anybody!”

The administration of Barack Obama has proven itself unworthy to govern, because it has shown itself ready, willing, and downright eager, as Drake says, to punish people ‘for simply standing up and telling the truth.’  And it has done so by the grossly improper ‘nuclear option’ of treating leaks and whistle-blowing as though they were espionage.   Their ruthless suppression of truth-tellers is at sharp odds with their oath to protect the Constitution.  Those whom we elect to govern our country in our name and on our behalf are sworn to obey the letter and the spirit of the law.  We entrust them with a vital responsibility.  When they deviate from that course, we should celebrate those who shine the light of day on the secret dirty abuses that hide in the murk and which threaten, if left unchallenged, to subvert our most precious rights and to undo liberty’s priceless legacy.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist with a background in international and constitutional law, criminal prosecutions, and diplomacy.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian

Note:  Quoted passages above are from the excellent documentary film, “Silenced: The War on Whistleblowers,” produced by Daniel J. Chalfene & James Spione (© 2014 Morninglight Films Inc.) which was broadcast on “The Passionate Eye” on CBC News Network in March 2015.


On June 19, 2016

Unfit to Govern in Canada

© By John Arkelian

No one wants to be harmed by a terrorist attack, but there’s a greater chance of being struck by lightning than being the victim of a terrorist.  Of course, we all sympathize with (and grieve for) the tragic victims of extremist violence; and of course we should take reasonable precautions to forestall such outrages.  But, however horrific the crimes killers commit in the name of whichever noxious ideology is in vogue these days, their atrocities are few and far between.  Even if that were otherwise, protecting ourselves from them does not, cannot, and never will justify subverting our fundamental rights and our way of life as a free and open society.  For one thing, no amount of intrusive security measures can ever be a guarantor of perfect safety.  If a would-be killer is intent enough on doing harm – whether he is fueled by inner demons or radical beliefs – he is apt to find a way to do so.  So, there’s the practical objection:  Surrendering our freedom in the name of security will leave us with neither.  But, more important still is the principled objection.  The West stands at the pinnacle of human accomplishment and human civilization:   We stand for liberty, justice, democracy, equality before the law, accountability of the state for its actions, separation of church and state, protection of minorities, and the fundamental importance of inalienable human rights.  No one, no state, no cause, and no danger should, ever, supersede those inviolable human rights.  That’s what our constitutions say, that’s what we pledge our allegiance to, that’s what binds us together despite our differences, and that’s what our forbears have fought (and died) to secure and defend.  And yet, governments in the West have shamefully betrayed the very essence of who and what we are – violating and subverting supposedly inalienable rights in the trumped-up name of protecting us from terrorists.  In reply, we say:  Better some danger from a madman or fanatic with a gun or bomb than an incrementally constructed police-state where we have lost the very things that make us who we are.

Canada, like its sibling south of the 49th Parallel and its friends elsewhere in the West, adopted practices, policies, and repressive laws in the wake of 9/11 that pose a graver threat to all of us than any nut with a gun or a bomb ever did.  Our governments’ disdainful and perfidious disregard for our core rights and first principles pose an existential threat to our entire way of life – a threat no band of murderous thugs can ever hope to match.  One year ago, in June 2015, the Anti-terrorism Act, 2015 (a.k.a. Bill C-51) became law in Canada.  It wasn’t the first such unwarranted, unconstitutional, and repugnant measure to be adopted here, only the latest.  It allows the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) to obtain warrants to commit just about any crime.  Indeed, it gives judges power to authorize CSIS to violate even the paramount law of the land – the constitutionally-entrenched (and supposedly well-nigh inviolable) Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  The Canadian Bar Association (CBA) argued that such provisions could bring “the entire Charter into jeopardy” and that the Act “undermines the rule of law and goes against the fundamental role of judges as the protectors of Canada’s constitutional rights.”

The CBA also decried Bill C-51’s “vague and overly broad language.”  It criminalizes speech, vaguely making it unlawful to “advocate or promote” terrorism, even in the absence of any intent to commit violence.  It gives CSIS an expansively vague authority to “take measures” to counter activities which it deems to threaten Canada’s security.  And it expands the definition of threats to national security in such a way as to potentially encompass almost anything and everything, potentially even legitimate non-violent protest by environmentalists, aboriginal groups, or other dissidents.  It greatly expands the power of CSIS and a myriad of other government agencies to share information about people who simply engage in protests:  Indeed, it outrageously permits them to disclose our personal information “to anyone, for any purpose,” as they see fit.  It further lowers the bar on what we would otherwise rightly call unlawful confinement, calling it by a more palatable name (“protective custody”).  It mandates an unprecedented attack on personal privacy, opening the door to what the federal Privacy Commissioner warned would be a new governmental power “to know virtually everything about everyone” – words that smack of an Orwellian Big Brother, not the Canada we know and defend.  And it abjectly fails to build-in strong (or even adequate) all-party Parliamentary oversight of CSIS and other agencies acting in the purported name of national security.

That seems a clear enough warning, a clarion call even, from the country’s legal professionals.  But the Conservative Government of Stephen Harper was contemptuous of the havoc their new Bill would wreck upon our core rights and our core values.  And, they were supported by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals (who were then the third most numerous party in Parliament):  Trudeau and Company professed to be uncomfortable with some unspecified parts of Bill C-51, but they nevertheless supported it in toto, promising to revisit the new law if and when they took office.  In contrast, despite initial prevarication, the NDP under Thomas Mulcair (which then constituted the Official Opposition) ended up in four-square opposition to Bill C-51:  Their past leader Ed Broadbent rightly observed that it “undermines our rights and liberties and does a disservice to every citizen and to the free society we all cherish.”  At the time, it was widely supposed that the Liberals disliked Bill C-51 but cravenly feared that voting against it would permit the Harperites to paint them as “weak on national security.”  So, it was supposed, they held their noses and voted for the noxious new legislation, subject to their promise that they would revisit and modify certain (unspecified) provisions, when and if they came to power.  Come to power they did on October 20, 2015, with a majority government and nice-sounding promises to replace the dour Harper style with a sunnier one of their own.  Eight months later, in June 2016, they have not lifted a finger to revisit, let alone modify, a piece of legislation that they ought never to have voted for in the first place.  By voting for Bill C-51 – a set of provisions which are utterly inimical to our core rights, our fundamental values, and our constitution – in the first place and then by failing to revisit it once they achieved control of government eight months ago, the Liberals, like the Conservative before them, have rendered themselves unfit to govern.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist with a background in international and constitutional law, criminal prosecutions, and diplomacy.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian


On June 19, 2016

Where Liberty is and where it is not

Here are words worth repeating – particularly in a time and place where our precious legacy of liberty is being daily eroded by complacency (and by fear of real or imagined dangers), subverted by the self-interest of the powerful, and perilously neglected by its ordinary citizens (and by their once vigilant watchdogs in the form of the press):

““Where liberty is, there is my country,” Benjamin Franklin once said to [Thomas] Paine.  “Where liberty is not, there is my country,” Paine replied.  For Paine, the role of the citizen extended beyond national borders.  The fight of those living under any system of tyranny was his fight.  “When it shall be said in any country in the world, ‘My poor are happy; neither ignorance nor distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars; the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive; the rational world is my friend, because I am a friend of happiness’ – when these things can be said,” wrote Paine, “then may that country boast of its constitution and its government.””

Note:  The foregoing passage, which quotes Paine and Franklin, is from “Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt” by Chris Hedges (Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2015) at p. 155.  See Artsforum’s review of that book at:  http://artsforum.ca/books/featured-book-reviews


On February 23, 2016

The Big Lie that is Globalization:
When a political and economic system benefits the very few at the grievous expense of the many

© By John Arkelian

Vaclav Havel said, “Systems are there to serve people, not the other way around.”  Well, the truth is that our political and economic systems no longer serve the interest of ‘the 99 percent.’  For years now, we’ve heard the mantra of the system’s new idols:  Out-sourcing, down-sizing, industry rationalization, de-regulation, free trade, corporate concentration, mergers, wanton speculation by banks and stock markets, and globalization.  Our political and economic leaders tell us that those things are inevitable.  It’s progress, they say.  And not just inevitable.  We’re also soothed by assurances that such policies are good for us.  Sure, we’re told, there may be painful transitions for some; but, in the end, we’ll all be better off for the changes.  In fact, globalization and its ilk are neither inevitable nor beneficial to the majority.  On the contrary, most of us are extremely ill-served by policies that enrich the few at the expense of the many.  We reduce or drop protective tariffs to favor freer movement of goods across national borders.  Doing so certainly favors corporations:  It frees them to export jobs en masse to the Third World, where labor is cheap, and where environmental standards and worker health and safety safeguards are lax.  Products from China are routinely adulterated by toxins; garment workers in Bangladesh are locked inside ramshackle sweatshops, where they burn to death when fires break out – for want of the most basic safety measures.

Corporations need to be ever larger, we’re told, in order to compete more effectively in the global marketplace:  In the process, we get more and more corporate concentration in fewer and fewer hands.  But true competition, which is the heart of capitalism and the market economy, requires many players, not fewer.  Fewer options mean a captive consumer, at the mercy of near-monopolies or cartels:  The piratical fees and usurious interest rates imposed by Canadian banks, cable companies, and wireless telephone firms spring to mind.  North America can’t compete with cheaper labor costs in the Third World, we’re told.  The de-industrialization of the United States and Canada is progress, we’re told.  Factories, nay, whole industries, that long thrived here, suddenly collapse or move offshore.  (Cities, like Detroit, and sometimes, entire regions, lay destitute and ruined in the process.)  And why shouldn’t industries pick up stakes and move?  There’s no honor, loyalty, or patriotism in the board room, among the ranks of those callously intent on stealing our jobs.  Corporations serve the profit motive and nothing else.  But, it wouldn’t profit them to desert North America if they hadn’t first induced our political and opinion leaders to adopt so-called “free-trade” agreements that let them take our jobs overseas and then sell their foreign goods here without hindrance or tariff.  Wander any store selling clothing, appliances, or home décor:  it seems that well-nigh every product we buy in the West is now made in China (and only in China – there are no ‘made in North America’ alternatives on offer).  It’s nice for them:  Years of massive economic growth, a rich harvest of jobs, prosperity for many, and, for some, great wealth.  But those jobs and that wealth are jobs and wealth that were scooped up from North America and transferred there.  Our own ‘one-percenters’ profit from this massive transfer of jobs and wealth; everyone else in the West is robbed of employment or real growth in income.  We get cheap (and often shoddy or toxically tainted) goods; but we lose our future.  Unemployment rises (to levels suspected to be much higher than those admitted by official counts), while those who do manage to cling to jobs are often obliged to accept a declining standard of living.  Politicians make concerned sounds about encroachments on the middle class; but they ignore the looming elephant in the room – their own unforgivable complicity in undermining the industrial might of the First World.

The West, the Western World, is the home (and guardian) of democracy, equality, inalienable human rights, the rule of law, and, something even bigger.  Shall we call it civilization?  In science, technology, philosophy, law, literature, music, cinema, and art, the West has no peers, not even close.  For all its vaunted long-vintage as a ‘civilization’ of sorts, China has never managed to organize itself as a free and democratic society.  How civilized is that?  The values of its oppressive regime are antithetical to ours, yet our leaders collude in state-controlled Chinese companies buying up sections of our resource and telecommunications sectors.  We transferred our wealth to them; now they are buying us out.  Don’t be too proud of Western civilization, say some.  There are other ways, they say.  There may be other ways – ways, which in some Muslim countries, for example, legitimize misogyny and the moral effrontery known as ‘honor killing.’  Not all societies, not all so-called civilizations, are created equal.  People are, yes, but not the systems that they live under.  The West’s hard-earned position as the home of enlightenment and liberty is to be preferred (and, yes, trumpeted) over all the alternatives.  The West is humanity’s apex.  Alas, however, it is under siege – a siege from within that threatens to undermine or social cohesion, our security, and ultimately our moral compass.

Is globalization good for us?  No, it is not – not unless you happen to be a member of the one-percent. Is globalization inevitable?  Not, it is not.  On the contrary, it is directly attributable to conscious choices made by the few and foisted on the rest of us.  The fact is that the combination of the United States and Canada, even if they stood alone, constitutes a market of such vast size and (still) wealth, that it could (and should) manufacture its own goods for its own population.  North America is an indispensable market.  What we insist upon matters, if we will but demand what is just – not for the small wealthy minority, but for the overwhelming majority of our populace.  People in North America are well-educated, hard-working, inimitably resourceful, and, most important of all, blessed with freedom.  We do not shuffle and bow before potentates or tyrants.  We are not cowed by the powerful.  We speak our minds.  We practice tolerance.  We celebrate diversity.  We welcome newcomers.  We hold ‘the powers that be’ accountable.  We hew to government of the people, by the people, and for the people.

How should we respond to globalization?  By calling a halt to it.  If needs be, we can build Fortress North America.  ‘Autarky’ (or complete self-sufficiency) is an option for North America:  With our resources, wealth, large (and highly educated) population, and endless resourcefulness, we can stand alone – and thrive, doing so – if we have to.  But, we don’t stand alone:  The West also comprises Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and close allies like Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.  What do we do?  We exit the ill-advised free trade pacts that throw open our doors to foreign goods and services.  In their place, we pursue ‘fair trade.’  There’s ample precedent in the near-past.  The Auto Pact between the United States and Canada stipulated that American automobile manufacturers could sell cars in Canada without tariff obstacles, provided that they made a certain number of those cars in Canada.  North America has the great size and strength as a market to impose such conditions upon Third World trading partners.  We can also require that, as a condition precedent for reduced tariffs for goods coming into North America, Third World countries like China, India, and Bangladesh must enact and strictly enforce environmental protection laws, child labor laws, and worker health and safety laws that are as least as stringent as those that exist in North America.  (There is no reasonable rationale for tolerating differential standards in such basic public interest safeguards.)  We should also insist that goods being imported here originate in places where workers are paid a “fair living wage.”  What constitutes a fair living wage may not be the same amount here as it is somewhere else; but it lies within our power to eliminate sweat-shop wages and to thereby partially ameliorate the labor cost differential between the developed and developing world – not by reducing wages here, but by mandating their rise elsewhere as the price for free access to our market.  And, for its part, Canada should belatedly act on what has been glaringly obvious for decades:  that it should make things with its resources and not just sell raw materials to others, for them to transform into finished goods and resell back to the resource producers at a higher price.

“The market economy is as natural and matter-of-fact to me as the air.  After all, it is a system of human economic activity that has been tried and found to work over centuries (centuries? millennia!).  It is the system that best corresponds to human nature.  But precisely because it is so down-to-earth, it is not, and cannot constitute, a world view, a philosophy, or an ideology.  Even less does it contain the meaning of life.  It seems both ridiculous and dangerous when, for so many people… the market economy suddenly becomes a cult, a collection of dogmas, uncompromisingly defended and more important, even, than what that economic system is intended to serve – that is, life itself.”*

*Vaclav Havel, Summer Meditations (translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson), Knopf Canada, 1992

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist with a background in international and constitutional law, criminal prosecutions, and diplomacy.

Copyright © 2016 by John Arkelian


On November 9, 2015

Ice Blue Castles at the Top of the World

© By John Arkelian

Sometimes a few words, or a single photograph, can create a visceral

Photograph © 2015 by Belinda Martschinke.

Photograph © 2015 by Belinda Martschinke.

sense of a place we’ve never been – and bestir a powerful desire to take flight and wing our way to the very place that has conjured such yearning in our mind’s eye.  The longing thus awakened may be wrenching or it may be soft as down, but it persists, like a compass pointing to the heart’s True North.  These few words about Greenland, from Artsforum’s German correspondent Belinda Martschinke, awoke such a desire in us – the intimation of a place as yet unvisited but somehow lodged in our very marrow and in the soft whispering of the soul:

“Never before had I such an intense feeling that nothing else mattered than the single moment, nothing past, nothing in the future, nothing at any other place than where I was at the time. This gave me an incredible peace with myself.”


On August 12, 2015

A School for Scandal:
Duffygate & the PMO are only the tip of Canada’s Senatorial iceberg

© By John Arkelian

The dysfunction that permeates Canada’s Senate is far more pervasive than the revelations of unethical expense claims of recent months and the pernicious attempt by the Prime Minister’s Office to cover them up – however squalid those events are.  Mike Duffy had no business claiming housing or living expenses in Ottawa (which was clearly his principal residence) on the flimsy fiction that his primary residence was in Prince Edward Island.  Even if the Senate rules were so abjectly inadequate as to technically ‘permit’ such a claim, making such a claim had everything to do with cynical self interest and nothing to do with honorable stewardship of the public interest (and the public purse).  Selfish greed and personal integrity are mutually incompatible.  We now know that Duffy was far from alone in taking undue advantage of flimsy Senate rules:  Other Senators, too, have chosen to put personal profit over personal integrity – by cynically using weak expense claim rules and weak oversight to their own advantage.  Such behavior is insupportable – and it should result in permanent expulsion from the Senate, with a termination of the malfeasors’ Senate salaries and pensions.  Equally outrageous is the fact the Senate has operated for countless years without adequate rules governing expense claims – without adequate rules, adequate oversight, or public transparency.  There is no mystery as to how to establish such rules, oversight, enforcement, and public transparency.  That they have been lacking all these many years suggests that the people we entrust with the levers of government prefer flimsy regulatory systems that they can twist and turn to their own selfish advantage.

Furthermore, it is long overdue that clear, sensible, transparent, and enforceable rules be established to govern precisely what constitutes “residency” in a particular province or region sufficient to qualify a person to represent that province or region in the Senate.  Up till now, the government has clearly preferred lax, vague, and flimsy rules – to enable them to appoint a political crony who may have only a tenuous connection (like Duffy’s summer cottage) to the province they are purporting to represent.  Lax, flimsy, and vague rules are all the better for manipulating things to the partisan advantage of whichever party happens to be in power.  That’s no way to run a modern democratic country.

Then there is the involvement of the PMO. As the tab for Duffy’s dubious claims grew, the hitherto indulgent Prime Minister finally decreed that Duffy must repay the money, lest the growing political scandal damage Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party brand.  Duffy refused.  But a solution materialized.  Nigel Wright, who was Harper’s chief of staff, paid the $90,000 bill himself, while the taxpayers were actively deceived into believing that Duffy had relented and was repaying his own contentious expenses. Before that happened, however, Wright told Duffy that he needed to run the plan by his boss.  “Good to go from the PM” was the message Wright subsequently sent Duffy.  Does anyone, can anyone, reasonably believe, in light of those words, that Stephen Harper himself was aware of, and approved of, the indirect repayment of Duffy’s tab?  The payment in question is being characterized as bribery by the RCMP:  It’s part of the 31 criminal charges against Duffy for fraud, breach of trust, and bribery.  But, here’s a glaring puzzle:  How can the recipient of the bribe (Duffy) be charged with a criminal offense while the man giving the bribe (Wright) is not?  It makes no sense – legally or ethically.  And the optics are rotten:  It smacks of selective prosecution.  And, is there anyone who believes that Nigel Wright was truly making a gift of $90,000 of his own money to Duffy?  We’ve heard that there are “discretionary funds” within the PMO and perhaps also within the Conservative Party. Basic common sense (and human nature) suggests that Wright would be quietly reimbursed from one of those sources (away from public scrutiny) for his grandly benevolent out-of-pocket “gift” to Duffy.  True, there has been nothing in the news to suggest such reimbursement was in the wings; nor have we seen media speculation on the point.  But what reasonable man can believe that some such scheme was not quietly in the minds of those involved?

Those are the some of the recent indictments in the court of public opinion against Duffy, the Senate, and the PMO. But there is an even deeper malaise – one that goes back to the very founding of the country.  It’s the ill-considered manner in which the “Fathers of Confederation” established the upper house of the Canadian Parliament in the first place.  Why are Senators appointed (rather than elected)?  Why are they appointed by one man (the Prime Minister)?  Why were they appointed for life for most of the Senate’s history (with a retirement age, of 75, only being added later)?    Remember the mantra of the old Reform Party, that the Senate should be refashioned to become “Equal, Elected, and Effective?”  That model is the only acceptable one. Senators should be directly elected by the citizens of Canada – for fixed terms, and with term limits.  There should be an equal number of Senators from every province (to balance the representation according to population model that applies, more or less, in the House of Commons).  Or, if Canadians prefer, we could have an equal number of Senators from each region of the country (rather than each province).  And, the constitution should be amended to provide a meaningful, effective role for the Senate vis-à-vis the House of Commons:  If it doesn’t have real, meaningful powers, then there is no reason for it to exist.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist with a background in international and constitutional law, criminal prosecutions, and diplomacy.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.


On January 19, 2015

‘Qui est Charlie?’  The Contagion of Terrorism

© By John Arkelian

In the aftermath of recent murderous events in Paris, one can only feel profound revulsion.  What can possibly be in a human being’s mind to prompt him to take other lives with such casual, cold-blooded brutality?  And how can anyone professing to be religious, commit such horrors with (what they believe to be) the name of God on their lips? “Allahu Akbar!” (“God is Great!”) shout those in the act of bloody murder, grotesquely oblivious to the monumental blasphemy of their words and actions.

Wonderfully perceptive, literate, and erudite, the late Polish essayist and foreign correspondent Ryszard Kapuściński described the poisonous characteristics of extremism so adeptly back in 1993 that his words sound as though they were written to describe the brutal violence perpetrated in Paris in January 2015.

“Three plagues, three contagions, threaten the world.  The first is the plague of nationalism.  The second is the plague of racism.  The third is the plague of religious fundamentalism.  All three share one trait, a common denominator – an aggressive, all-powerful, total irrationality.  Anyone stricken with one of these plagues is beyond reason.  In his head burns a sacred pyre that awaits only its sacrificial victims.  Every attempt at calm conversation will fail.  He doesn’t want a conversation, but a declaration that you agree with him, admit that he is right, join the cause.  Otherwise you have no significance in his eyes, you do not exist, for you count only if you are a tool, an instrument, a weapon.  There are no people – there is only the cause.  A mind touched by such a contagion is a closed mind, one-dimensional, monothematic, spinning round one subject only – its enemy.”**

Such is the foe of civilized man.  How then does civilized man respond to violent extremists, to the monomaniacal savages who perversely purport to wield hatred, terror, and murder as though they were the instruments of justice and devoutness?  Kapuściński’s next words should prompt us to caution:

“Thinking about our enemy sustains us, allows us to exist.  That is why the enemy is always present, is always with us.” **

We need to take care that we do not succumb to a symbiotic relationship with those who want to harm us – each side needing the other as its implacable foe, a mortal enemy that must be crushed at all costs.  If there is no reasoning with terror; there is the hope that better education and vigorous outreach can dampen its supply of new adherents.  Maybe we need to consider limiting how many new immigrants we import from places whose history and culture are more likely to make some of their expatriates susceptible to the siren call of extremism.  Maybe we should ensure that we do not import large numbers of immigrants from places with alien ideas or retrograde norms faster than our society can digest them.  Maybe we just need to work harder at assimilating newcomers into Western culture and norms.  Maybe we need to find better ways to counter the ideological indoctrination that finds a receptive audience among the dispossessed, the dysfunctional, and those otherwise neglected on society’s fringes.  Those who feel included in society, surely, are less likely to strike out against it in violence.

Gradually, but relentlessly, putting in place the devices of a police state (surveillance, warrantless searches, imprisonment without trial, torture, assassination of real or perceived threats, and creeping infringements on free speech), as the West has been doing ever since 9/11, is to admit defeat – to subvert our own societies from within and destroy what’s most precious about them.  That is the terrorist’s goal:  We must not do his destructive work for him.  There are tried and true criminal investigation and prosecution mechanisms in place to combat terrorism.  Terrorists commit crimes – shocking crimes, yes, but crimes nonetheless.  Let our criminal justice system and law enforcement agencies use the normal implements that have always been at their disposal to respond to this threat.  The ordinary implements of our legal system are more than adequate to deal with the particular crime of terrorism.

Instead, there’s talk in Canada (and elsewhere) about further restricting core human rights – by lowering the evidentiary threshold required for criminal investigation or prosecution; by ever greater surveillance (which already unconstitutionally catches in its universal net every law-abiding man, woman, and child); by diluting the essential requirement that a search warrant be issued by a court before a person or premises be searched by the state; or, alarmingly, by employing some kind of “preventive detention,” locking-up potential threats before they can hurt us.  Such measures are anathema to a free people.  If those intent on violent crime merely conspire to commit it, they are subject to the reach of our criminal law:  It is more than capable of dealing with them – without extraordinary police powers or unconstitutional deviations from our most fundamental human rights and freedoms.

In the aftermath of the murders in Paris, it became popular to declare “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”), in reference to the cold-blooded slaughter of editorial cartoonists at the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” and the murder of mere bystanders at a grocery store.  But, ‘Qui est Charlie?’ (‘Who is Charlie?’), after all?  We are right to defend freedom of speech – including the freedom to criticize and lampoon political and religious figures.  Such speech (nowhere more so than in the fine art of political cartooning) can inform, console, or critique.  Sometimes it can be scathing.  Sometimes it can sting, sometimes deeply offend.  But it is invaluable in a free society.  And, if we are willing to sometimes offend the minority, we must likewise tolerate speech that offends the majority.

Arresting the controversial (and ostensibly obnoxious) French comic Dieudonné M’bala M’bala for utterances that apparently seemed to sympathize with the terrorists’ murder spree seems inconsistent with our impassioned rally to the cause of free speech.  Committing violence, or simply advocating it, is a crime – not free speech.  Likewise, shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater as a prank is not a protected form of free speech.  One person’s freedom ends when it causes actual harm to another person.  But that leaves us with much speech that is ignorant, deplorable, or prejudiced.  Provided that such speech, as noxious (and possibly hateful) as it may be, stops short of advocating violence or other criminality, it is to be protected.  Freedom for decent people means extending freedom (of thought and speech) to those who are indecent.

A free people cannot afford to sacrifice core freedoms in the spurious name of greater security.  And spurious it is, too.  No amount of arbitrary state power will completely protect us from the danger of an extremist cabal or a lone crazed gunman intent on violence.  If we sacrifice freedom for security, we will end up with neither.  Further, we have far more to fear from the incremental moves toward police power trumping civil rights than we do from the terrible (but ever so remote) possibility of being killed by a terrorist.  Lest we forget, police in Toronto corralled (or “kettled”) and unlawfully detained scores of law-abiding citizens, among other egregious human rights abuses, during the G-20 conference held there in 2010.  That happened despite our constitutional guarantees (in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms), despite a mature legal and law enforcement system, and despite supposed systems of oversight and accountability.  (To date, Toronto’s chief of police, Bill Blair, has, shamefully, been excused from testifying about his role in authorizing such gross excesses.)  If the safeguards failed us then, as they manifestly did, how much more probable is it that the feeblest safeguards extant in the realm of counter-terrorism and surveillance will signify for nothing at all?  Meaningful oversight and public accountability are all but illusory in the murky world of state surveillance and counter-terrorism measures.  That’s why Canada, of all seemingly benign places, was complicit in past unlawful U.S. “rendition” of prisoners to secret interrogation sites abroad.  That’s why Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan were, for a time, handing over their prisoners to local authorities who were very likely to torture or kill them.  If we honor the metaphor of “Charlie,” we must stand fast against the seductive temptation to give away our core values and our inalienable human rights.

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist with a background in international and constitutional law, criminal prosecutions, and diplomacy.

Copyright © 2015 by John Arkelian.

**Quotations are from “Imperium” by Ryszard Kapuściński (page 248); translated from the Polish by Klara Glowczewska.  (Vintage International, N.Y., 1995)  Originally published in Polish in 1993.


On January 19, 2015

Fight the Future

As they used to say in “The X Files,” fight the future, by signing this online petition to stop Canada Post’s addle-brained plan to end home mail delivery:


The online petition was started by a concerned Canadian, Susan Dixon.  To date, it has attracted over 210,000 signatures, to no apparent effect, as far as Canada Post and its government overlords are concerned.  Not for the first time, the will (and best interests) of the people seem to count for nothing by those who purportedly represent us.

And see below for “Postal Follies,” our March 26, 2014 editorial decrying the insupportable move by Canada Post management to unilaterally abdicate their core responsibility.


Artsforum in the Eyes of Others

We happened to come across this nice assessment of Artsforum in the online magazine Offscreen:

Offscreen Notes:  Artsforum Magazine — July 6, 2014

“Recently discovered this Canadian wide-ranging cultural issues online journal [Artsforum Magazine] which reminds me in its scope and literary bent of the excellent print magazine, The Believer Magazine, perhaps with a more politically driven interest (and from a Canadian perspective).  Still, it is an ‘old-fashioned’ (I mean this in a good sense) liberal arts style magazine with a critical interest in all the arts (film, poetry, painting, photography, music, television, theatre, fiction).”

Donato Totaro, Ph.D
Offscreen (an online magazine)

Visit Offscreen at: http://offscreen.com/notes/view/artsforum-magazine


On May 27, 2014

The Tin-Pot Pharaoh

Egyptian democracy crushed under the boot of another military ‘strongman’

© By John Arkelian

“Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” The more things seem to change, the more they stay the same.  Nowhere is that more true than in Egypt, which has fallen back into the rigid embrace of military tyranny after a painfully brief flirtation with democracy.  In February 2011, a protracted popular uprising, part of the so-called “Arab Spring,” swept one general turned president-for-life, Hosni Mubarek, from office after his nearly 30 year autocratic reign.  Parliamentary elections in November 2011 gave Islamist candidates two-thirds of the seats, with half of those bearing allegiance to the 85-year-old Muslim Brotherhood movement.  Then, in June 2012, a member of that movement, Mohammed Morsi, was elected president with 51.7% of the vote.  It was a first for Egypt, despite that country’s long history – the democratic election of a civilian head of state.  While this magazine holds no brief for Morsi or for the Muslim Brotherhood, it does appear that their electoral success was free and fair.  Likewise, it appears that they adhered, more or less, to lawful measures once they assumed leadership of the government.  But they remained bitterly unpopular with a large segment of Egypt’s divided population.  Those who opposed them took to the streets en masse to angrily demand their ouster.  Egypt’s military was only too happy to oblige, especially after the Morsi government amended the constitution in a failed attempt to bring the military under civilian control.

In July 2013, barely a year after he took office, Egypt’s first democratically elected president was forcibly (and unlawfully) removed by a military coup d’état.  If that were not bad enough, the West acquiesced in the coup, declining even to call it by its rightful name, lest our own laws oblige us to suspend our sizeable military aid to the Egyptian generals.  In the months that followed the coup, a travesty of justice has ensued, moving from one excess to another.  An estimated one thousand Morsi supporters were slain in the streets while protesting the military overthrow of the elected government.  Journalists have been suppressed and in some cases arrested.  More recently, kangaroo courts have pronounced mass death sentences on hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, on what gives every indication of being grossly trumped-up charges:  On one occasion, 529 defendants were sentenced to death at the same time; on another occasion, an additional 683 were sentenced to death – among them Mohammed Badie, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.  Unsubstantiated charges of “terrorism” were levied against Morsi, allegedly pertaining to his dealings with the Hamas administration in the Gaza territory that borders on Egypt.  Morsi has been reduced to appearing in court isolated – from his lawyers and everyone else – in a soundproof glass cage.  Apparently, Egyptian “justice” is not just blind, she is also deaf.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s new man on a white horse, General Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, not content to exercise an iron grip behind the scenes, answered the (real or imagined) ‘call from the people’ to throw his camouflage helmet into the ring as a candidate in today’s (May 27th) presidential election.   Having killed, cowed, or imprisoned his strongest rivals, effectively disenfranchising half of the nation’s population, this tin-pot pharaoh is a sure-bet to take the reins as Egypt’s latest military dictator.  It’s quite an accomplishment for a man who previous claim to fame was defending the so-called “virginity tests” perpetrated by police on female protesters in Egypt’s 2011 popular uprising against tyranny, nepotism, and corruption.  The tangle of competing motivations and aspirations that embroiled Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other flashpoints is difficult to sort out; but one thing is clear.  Among those clamoring for change in 2011’s ill-fated Arab Spring were idealistic voices calling for true democracy, rule of law, respect for minorities, and secular government.  Those who sought true democracy, freedom, and justice have been betrayed – by Egypt’s military, and by the rest of the world for acquiescing in the violent overthrow of a government which we may not have liked very much but which had in its favor the unique distinction (for Egypt) of having been freely elected.  Sadly, too many in Egypt have been jubilant at the return of an autocrat.  What a wasted opportunity for the Arab Spring to bear lasting fruit.

John Arkelian is an international affairs analyst, lawyer, and former diplomat.

Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.

Editor’s note: A tin-pot dictator (including those of the pharaonic variety) is an autocratic ruler who has little or no political legitimacy but abundant delusions of grandeur.


On April 15, 2014

How the Shirtless Czar Became a Naked Aggressor and Cowed the West

Putin’s aggression in Ukraine and the West’s weak response

Vladimir Putin doubtless indulges delusions of imperial grandeur, but the Shirtless Czar is nothing but a KGB thug.  And his autocratic regime certainly knows how to act the part.  Putin’s interference in neighboring Ukraine crossed the line into naked aggression and lawlessness with his recent seizure of Crimea.  How then ought the West to respond to Great Power aggression?  Today, it is Russia; in the near future, it is just as apt to be an expansionistic China.  Alas, however, the West has thus far confined itself to stern words and vigorous finger wagging – empty gestures which can only embolden Putin to stay his aggressive course.  A host of meaningful measures sit idly on the table, awaiting only our resolve to put them into place.  Author and international affairs analyst John Arkelian sets out a measured response by the West at:   http://artsforum.ca/ideas/the-wide-world

Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.


On March 26, 2014

Postal Follies

Canada Races to Enter the Ranks of the Third World

© By John Arkelian

In December 2013, Canada Post shocked Canadians by abruptly announcing a perverse plan to end door-to-door delivery for the millions of people who still have it and to practically double the cost of domestic postage.  Those destructive policy plans make an insolent mockery of public service – and of Canada Post’s very raison d’être, which is to deliver the mail to all Canadians. It is an unacceptable abdication of the post office’s core responsibility.  Canada Post should be extending door-to-door home delivery to everyone, not ending it for those of us who still have it!  If fewer people are sending first-class mail, why drive the rest of us away with exorbitant price increases and a unilateral withdrawal of door-to-door service?  Canadians would rather pay more and keep door-to-door service; or, if need be, sacrifice one day of mail delivery each week.

Delivering the mail to Canadians’ doors should be regarded as a public service; not a business decision based on profit and loss calculations.  It is in the public interest to encourage Canadians to maintain their age-old custom of corresponding and sending greeting cards – keeping in touch with scattered family and acquaintances is the glue that helps bind us together.  It makes us more civilized.  Group boxes are insecure – they are susceptible to vandalism and mail theft – and they are enormously inconvenient for seniors, for disabled people, and, yes, for everyone else who relies on convenient daily access to incoming mail.  People with community boxes often fall out of the habit of checking the boxes every day; some do not bother even checking the boxes every week!  Substituting community boxes for delivery at the door thus exacerbates the alleged underlying ‘problem’ (of purported declining reliance on hard-copy mail) by conditioning Canadians to care less about hard-copy mail and to accordingly use it ever less.  Far from responding sensibly to a perceived long-term trend, Canada Post has opted to ‘switch sides’ and actively drive mail users to abandon hard-copy mail altogether.  It should also be pointed out that having a mail carrier walk a route serves a socially useful purpose:  Carriers often greet people on their route and come to know them; in the process, they detect when something is amiss on their route – maybe a shut-in is in trouble or a home has been broken into.  And, in a country whose main export in recent years has been its jobs (most of them destined for Asia in the spurious name of “globalization,” more accurately known as maximizing enrichment for the one percent at the expense of everyone else), Canada Post mail carrier positions constitute a much-needed source of good jobs for Canadians.

And Canada Post’s cries of financial hardship are clearly absurd.  Canada Post ran a steady stream of full page and three-quarter page color advertisements in big Canadian newspapers, as well as commercials on prime-time television, in December 2013 and January 2014.  Such advertising comes at an enormous cost in dollars.  How did they find the mountain of money to pay for those pointless advertisements, if they cannot afford to deliver the mail?  Even worse, all that advertising did was to state the obvious – that Canada Post delivers parcels.  Canada Post may as well run ads telling us that the sky is blue!  If funds are so short that Canada Post and the federal government want to cripple existing mail delivery, why waste supposedly scarce resources on redundant advertising?

And then there is the matter of the grossly exorbitant sums with which Canada Post is remunerating its own senior management.  Its CEO, Deepak Chopra, “earns” $650,000 per year, including a bonus – a figure that is six times higher than it ought to be.  And his fiefdom is positively bursting at the seams with senior subordinates – there is an oversized compliment of 22 vice-presidents.  Who needs that many senior managers – particularly when they cannot even do the job they are paid for?

Replacing door to door mail delivery with community boxes is another step in Canada’s headlong decline from a respected member of the developed world to a Third World has-been.  Henceforth, we will be the only country in the G-7 group of leading economic nations to be without door-to-door mail delivery.   One suspects that we may be the only country in the much larger OECD group of developed countries to have that pathetic distinction.  Canada Post has raised postal rates by a few cents every year for years on end; apparently those endless increases have not been sufficient to keep paying its top executives like kings.  Now, they intend to dispense with small increases and to instead nearly double the cost of domestic mail.  An increase of that magnitude is nothing short of highway robbery.

Canada Post’s plans are wrong-headed and an insupportable affront to its customers – the Canadian taxpayers who rely on Canada Post to maintain (and even improve upon) its longstanding level of excellent door-to-door delivery and affordable rates.  Instead of endorsing this embarrassing race to the bottom, our inept federal government should immediately direct Canada Post to abandon its reckless plans – and insist that they fight to keep its loyal customers instead of driving them away!  The moment Canada Post announced its scandalous plans, its entire cadre of senior management should have been fired, without severance compensation, for their abject, miserable failure to do the job for which they have been so handsomely overpaid.  Otherwise, if the government continues to acquiesce in the shameless reduction of Canada to the postal equivalent of a Third World country, why not go the extra mile and close Canada Post entirely?  If it refuses to provide its core service to Canadian taxpayers, Canada Post no longer serves any useful purpose by existing at all.

Copyright © March 2014 by John Arkelian.


On November 20, 2013


Shame on You, Mr. President

In the wake of this summer’s revelations about the unprecedented scope of the United States government’s massive covert surveillance of Americans (and countless others), the nation’s purportedly ‘liberal’ president, Barack Obama, had the shameless temerity to say that the state apparatus over which he presides is showing commendable “restraint” in wielding its unconstitutional police-state powers and that we should therefore simply ‘trust’ its countless (and nameless) minions not to abuse those unwarranted powers.  Those nefarious powers include the power to intercept all of the telephone calls and emails of every person on the continent — without a search warrant, let alone any ‘reasonable and probable grounds’ to believe that those being indiscriminately eavesdropped upon have committed any criminal offense whatsoever.  And, lest we forget, there’s the power to hold prisoners without charge or trial (in flagrant violation of our most basic legal guarantees); to implement assassination by aerial drone as a routine part of state practice; and to ignore the law (and common decency) by torturing prisoners.

The post-9/11 world is one of all-pervading state surveillance of its own law-abiding citizens and an ill-conceived, open-ended ‘war on terrorism’ that is being used to justify every manner of lawless encroachment on fundamental human rights.  Sadly, in that world of egregious state misconduct, most of us have chosen to ignore the relentless attack on our supposedly cherished rights and freedoms.  Into that moral and legal vacuum come the few who still feel inclined to act on their conscience — people like whistleblowers Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning and freedom of information advocates Julian Assange and Birgitta Jonsdottir.

For his part, Snowden did the world an immense favor by revealing the clear and present danger posed by security state apparatus in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere in the supposedly free West, an apparatus that began, soon after 9/11, to intercept our telephone calls and emails at the alarming rate of 60,000 per second, turning every citizen into a potential suspect and crushing any semblance of privacy or due process.  We have shamefully allowed ourselves to be cowed by the threat of terrorism into accepting the relentless erosion of the very freedoms and rights and sacred principles upon which our very civilization is founded.  In much the same way, we accepted untold oppression and war abroad in years gone by on the equally flimsy basis of our struggle against the malign ideology of communism.

There’s courage, heroism even, in those who seek, often at considerable risk to themselves, to inform the public of what every free people has an absolute right to know.  For, surely, a free people has the right to know the real costs of the wars being waged in our name — witness the infamous “Collateral Murder” video of an Apache helicopter gunship mowing down innocent civilians in error in Iraq.  And, if we are to vouchsafe our precious liberty, it is imperative that a bold, unflinching light be shone upon the deliberate efforts to spawn nascent police-states in the very heart of the free world.

Whistleblowers and truth-tellers, like those named above, are nothing more or less than men and women of conscience.  They are too few in number.  But they serve a vital public interest.  Only an informed public can make informed decisions.  Only an informed public can hope to hold its own government (and private sector power brokers) accountable.  By their determined undermining of fundamental rights, our own governments have rendered themselves untrustworthy.  So, “Shame on you, Mr. President,” we say to President Obama, and far too many other, like-minded leaders of the increasingly less ‘Free World.’  It is not their so-called “restraint” that we must rely upon, but rather our own zealous, ever-vigilant scrutiny of their covert actions that will safeguard our liberty and our battered democratic way of life.  As George Orwell said, “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”


Copyright © 2013 by John Arkelian.

The author is an international law and international relations analyst, a former diplomat, and a public interest journalist.


On July 9, 2013

Riding on the Whale’s Back

“The Cabot Trail is an organic thing – playful, daring, and exuberant as it

Cap Rouge, Cape Breton Island — Copyright © 2013 by Warren Gordon

swoops and turns, plunges and climbs, clinging to looming mountainsides, lingering by rocky shores, darting into immense woods, and boldly descending at break-neck angles toward the glistening sea.  To traverse the trail is to ride the whale’s back, thrilling all the while at its wild life coursing beneath you…. Can a place, as well as a person, be a kindred spirit?  I find such a place near Ingonish.  There, the Middle Head Peninsula points like an impossibly long, rocky finger into the deep blue heart of the sea.  Buttressed by steep cliffs, with the pounding surf as its moat, this fortress of rock and forest is my heart’s true home – a sanctuary of beauty and tranquility that befits the idylls of a king.”

Our acclaimed travel feature on Nova Scotia, compellingly illustrated with the breathtaking photography of Cape Breton Island’s own Warren Gordon, can be found at:   http://artsforum.ca/travel


On February 5, 2013

In Torture We Trust?

If we stoop to the vile, deplorable methods of our basest enemies, how is our cause any worthier than theirs?  We in the West stand for liberty, justice, and the rule of law.  Inalienable human rights and human dignity are at the very heart of what we are as a civilization.  And yet…  And yet, we are all too quick to embrace the opportunity (and convenient excuse) offered by the bête noire du jour (once communism, now terrorism) to throw our most cherished principles — the very values for which our forbears fought and died — into the foulest muck by indulging in the dark ‘arts’ of torture and assassination..  And make no mistake about it:  In the wake of 9/11, torture and assassination (in the form of lethal drone strikes) have become routine implements of state policy and practice in the West.  The extent to which torture was used in tracking down the leader of al-Qaeda, Osama bin Ladin, is a disputed matter.  What is clear is that the Hollywood film “Zero Dark Thirty” posits that torture was instrumental in locating America’s most wanted mass murderer.  What is noxious about the film (which has garnered considered box office and critical success) is its complete dearth of moral qualms about such repellant abuse of prisoners.  Nor is the film at all reticent about showing us horrors like waterboarding with its camera’s unblinking (and unjudging) eye.    Stephen Bede Scharper takes the film to task for these failings in “In Torture We Trust?” at: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/the-wide-world



On October 15, 2012

Teddies and Tyrants

“Cannon to right of them; cannon to left of them… Into the valley of Death floated the six hundred.”*

*With apologies to Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who wrote “The Charge of the Light Brigade” in 1854.

One fine day this summer, the sky above Minsk, in the former Soviet republic

The arsenal of freedom includes laughter! Illustration © 2012 by Linda Arkelian.

of Belarus, was filled with aerial invaders intent on attacking the despotic regime of Alexander Lukashenko.  Scores of paratroops descended on the city bearing messages in support of free speech.  Unarmed, save for the pointed barbs of the words printed on the placards they carried, these airborne protestors proved that no tyrant is too powerful or too feared to be denounced as an enemy of freedom.  It was done with panache, and it was done with humor:  For the paratroops were small teddy bears, transported across international boundaries by a single-engine airplane.  The great teddy bear escapade was the brainchild of two Swedish advertising executives, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Frey.  Correctly reasoning that a tyrant’s power is founded in its appearance of strength, ruthlessness, and the ability to crush dissent, these creative protestors concluded that the best way to undermine a dictator is to make him an object of laughter.  The tyrant can muster brute force; the dissenter need only muster the courage and resolve to speak truth to power to expose its illegitimacy.  The airborne assault on the undeserved dignity of the tyrant of Belarus was a daring one:  Mazetti and Frey risked interception (or worse) by the country’s air defenses.  And their aim of embarrassing Lukashenko was clearly successful:  He pulled his embassy staff out of Sweden and expelled Swedish diplomats from Belarus in angry reaction to the furry paratroops.  Best of all, this audacious example of how to stage a peaceful invasion, and thereby discomfit a tyrant, is a sterling template for creative protest in action.  It’s an example the rest of us should emulate whenever and wherever we encounter injustice, oppression, or the abuse of human rights.

Text © October 2012 by John Arkelian.
Illustration © 2012 by Linda Arkelian.


On October 15, 2012

Is Canada Open for Cyber-Espionage Business?

This month, the U.S. House Intelligence Committee found that the Chinese telecom giants Huawei and ZTE pose grave risks to the national security of the United States and its allies.  But in Canada, one or both of those companies already have deals with counterparts like Bell, Telus, Sasktel, and Wind Mobile, and they are all set to bid on the creation of a new “secure network” for the federal government.  Thus far, governments in Canada seem intent on blithely dismissing American concerns, preferring instead to curry favor with the one-party dictatorship in Beijing.  For more, go to this link: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/regional-perspectives


On August 26, 2012

The Tiger-Slayer Confronts Three Kittens

Comrade Putin’s brave vanquishing of the three feline-inspired young protestors from “Pussy Riot” is the topic for some sober musings by one of Artsforum’s very own voices of Europe at this link:  http://artsforum.ca/ideas/the-wide-world


On August 8, 2012

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

(I) The Good: Excellence in Advertising — A Celebration of Canada in 96 Seconds

We may only be two-thirds of the way through 2012, but the race is run as far as assessing the year’s best television commercials is concerned.  And the gold medal goes to a wonderful celebration of Canada in 96 seconds created by the RONA hardware, home renovation, and gardening store chain to air during the current Summer Olympic Games in London.  The commercial is as much a paean to Canada as it is an ad for a retail chain.  It takes the form of a coast to coast relay race, while ingeniously referencing a host of different summer Olympic sports (watch for fencing against a grizzly bear), and it is a gorgeous road-trip between two of Canada’s three oceans.  The music, a selection from Ennio Morricone’s score to Sergio Leone’s 1966 motion picture “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” is note-perfect.  In the film, the musical selection is used when Eli Wallach, as Tuco, the film’s eponymous “Ugly,” runs through a sprawling cemetery searching hundreds of gravestones for the one that conceals buried gold.  The expression on his transfixed face is a mixture of determination, exhilaration, and anticipation.  He is close, painfully close, to realizing his dream of gold.  And Morricone’s name for the selection is “Ecstasy of Gold.” If that’s not a sly allusion to the athletic quest for gold at the Olympic Games, then it’s a record-breaking coincidence!   (Observant film trivia-buffs may notice another point of convergence:  A solitary dog barks at about the same point in the film and in the commercial.)  The tone of the commercial is at once exciting, inspiring, and playfully funny.  It cries out to be seen on cinema screens, and, watching it, you’ll see why it’s no wonder people say that North America is God’s Country!  With only minor tweaking, this smart, cinematic, superlative commercial could be (and should be) reissued as an irresistible promotional piece for Canada for broadcast abroad.  As it is, it is Artsforum’s pick as the Best Television Commercial of the Year! For those who have not seen it, enjoy:


Produced by Visant Le Guennec and directed by Ivan Grbovic, the commercial is the work of a Montreal-based advertising firm called “les enfants.” They aim to be “a place where artists once again dream without limits, without cynicism, and with all the innocence and wonder of our most cherished childhood dreams.” They have accomplished all that and more — bringing artistry and heart to the medium of television commercials.  Bravo!

Incidentally, RONA is one of the few corporations based here that is still Canadian-owned.  Ironically, given the celebration of Canada embodied in their commercial, the talk is that RONA may soon be bought out by a foreign concern.

(II) The Bad: Selling Out Canada’s National Interest to the Highest Bidder

It was announced recently that a state-owned company from China (the China National Offshore Oil Corporation) wants to buy a Canadian energy company (Nexen Inc.) for $15 billion.  What defies human understanding is that governments in Canada even need to consider whether or not to permit such a flagrant threat to our national interest.  It’s a sad truth that large swathes of the Canadian economy are already owned by foreign interests.  No self-respecting sovereign state should countenance the high degree of foreign ownership that has been the norm in Canada for many, many years.  But the situation goes from very bad to egregiously intolerable if we start to allow foreign governments to purchase portions of the Canadian economy.  As a general proposition, foreign states should not be permitted to invest in this country, either openly or through the indirect expedient of proxies that they control.  That prohibition should be iron-clad in sensitive areas like energy, high technology, aerospace, transportation, communications, agriculture, water, resources, armaments, and cultural industries.  Furthermore, foreign investment of a non-state sort in those broad areas — as vitally sensitive as they are to Canada’s national interest — should be restricted to minority shares, with a view to keeping effective control of companies in those areas of economic activity in the hands of Canadians.  But there is an added layer of madness to the specter of Chinese state-controlled companies increasing their control over Canadian oil, natural gas, and other resource production.  That aggravating factor is the nature of the state in question: China is a one-party dictatorship, a totalitarian regime which is utterly hostile to our way of life — assuming, that is, that we really care about the liberty, inalienable human rights, rule of law, and democracy which we profess to hold so dear.  Should an ugly dictatorship be allowed in invest anywhere in the Canadian economy, let alone in the vital area of energy and resources?  Not if Canadians care one whit about our national security and national sovereignty!  If the federal and provincial governments in Canada can not see that blindingly obvious truth, then we urgently need new and better governments.

(III) The Ugly: Crushing Free Speech and Creative Dissent in Putin’s Russia

Three young women (all aged 20-something) are currently on trial in Moscow for daring to stage a creative protest against Russia’s autocrat, Vladimir Putin.  The women (Maria Alyokhina, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, and Yekaterina Samutsevich) are members of a girl-band called “Pussy Riot.” In March 2012, they entered Moscow’s main Orthodox cathedral, when the church was not in use, to stage and film a brief mock-religious song in the form of a “punk prayer,” asking to be spared more years of Putin’s autocratic rule.  Putin, it should be remembered, subverted constitutional term limits by arranging a job-swap with his trusted supporter Dmitry Medvedev.  After ruling Russia from 2000 to 2008, Putin installed Medvedev as nominal President while he himself waited in the wings as Prime Minister until he could resume the presidency in Spring 2012, after an election of dubious legitimacy.  The young musicians broke a second taboo when they implied collusion between the Kremlin and the Orthodox church.  The defendants in this political show-trial face serious criminal charges, which carry a maximum sentence of seven years imprisonment.  Apparently, Putin has urged his kangaroo-court to show ‘leniency,’ so the prosecution is seeking a sentence of ‘only’ three yearsIf there were in fact any “culpable” element to the Pussy Riot protest, it amounts to no more than non-criminal “nuisance,” for which even an overly stern society would seek to impose no more than a probationary slap on the wrist.  But, the fact is that all these women did was to exercise free speech and freedom of expression in a country where those basic rights are scarcely more than notional.  To criticize Putin and to impugn the reportedly cozy relationship between secular and church power in Russia is to run dangerously afoul of the authoritarian powers that have Russia in their relentless grip.  The outrageous, unjust criminal prosecution mustered against three brave women who dared to protest the undemocratic state of things in Russia is a political show-trial.  But what it shows to the world is the criminal injustice of the Russian state itself.

Copyright © August 2012 by John Arkelian.

The author is an international law and international relations analyst and a former diplomat.

Editor’s Note: On Friday, August 17, 2012, the three “Pussy Riot” protestors were each sentenced to two years imprisonment for “committing hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.”   It seems Putin & Company didn’t find the dissidents’  mock-prayer pleasing to their tin-ears.  If this doesn’t make Putin and his lawless regime a laughing-stock — and a pariah — we don’t know what will.  It’s a travesty, and its consequence should be a suspension of Putin’s invitation to attend G-8 summits, as he is clearly unfit for civilized company.  But then, events in Chechnya, and in Georgia, and the thinning ranks of independent journalists in Russia already made that clear a long time ago.


On July 18, 2012

When the ‘Cure’ Causes the Disease:
Zostavax Vaccine Can Cause the Very Disease (Shingles) it was Designed to Prevent

A healthy Canadian woman (let’s call her Jane Doe) was given an injection of Merck’s “Zostavaxvaccine as a prophylactic measure to prevent her from contracting shingles.  Instead of protecting her from acquiring that illness, however, the vaccine gave her the very malady it was intended to prevent.  She contracted shingles from the vaccine and was immobilized with severe, painful symptoms for many weeks.  Read more at: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/regional-perspectives


On April 22, 2012

Jonathan Frid: Canada’s late, lamented exemplar of stage, screen, and television (courtesy of J. Frid).

Our Revels Now Are Ended

Canada lost an unsung titan of stage, television, and screen this month, with the death of the eminent actor Jonathan Frid at the age of 87.  Almost unknown in his native Canada, Frid became an enduring icon of popular culture in the United States for his memorable portrayal of a tragic antihero on the television drama “Dark Shadows.” A personal tribute to Jonathan Frid from a friend can be found at:  http://artsforum.ca/other-media/tv-radio


On April 15, 2012

A Voyage to the Uttermost North

“I have been to the Uttermost North, a place to which I have long been drawn.  I swam in a lagoon the color of blue milk with drifting

Copyright © 2012 by Rebekka Gudleifsdottir

mists floating above its surface, felt my heart leap in joy at the sight of mighty breakers crashing on a remote black beach at the top of the world, trod upon an ancient glacier, traversed moonscapes of breathtaking beauty, walked up a small mountain, and visited an islet by boat for the lighting of a peace tower that hurled beams of blue light into the obsidian infinity

of the night sky.  The place was Iceland, and it has left me with a ceaseless longing that only a return can quell.”

Our travel feature on Iceland, compellingly illustrated with the drop-dead

gorgeous photography of Iceland’s own Rebekka Gudleifsdottir, can be found at:   http://artsforum.ca/travel


On March 6.12

Despicable Thee — Canada Condones Torture

It recently came to light that the Government of Canada has approved the use and dissemination of information that “may have been derived from the use of torture or mistreatment.”  That was the directive from Canada’s Minister of Public Safety, Vic Toews, to Canada’s spy agency, CSIS.  It overturned the existing policy that CSIS was not to knowingly rely on information obtained by such repugnant (and illegal) means.  Apparently, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper — precisely like the morally discredited former administration of George W. Bush south of the border, which it so closely resembles — has concluded that real or imagined expediency trumps not only the law of the land and binding international treaties (which outlaw torture), but also the core values upon which our nation is founded.  A government that is prepared to rely on torture is hostile to the fundamental principles which bind us together.  Such a government has betrayed its trust and forfeited its legitimacy to govern, opting instead to (in effect) wage war upon its own citizens.

Squalid Endings Make for Squalid Beginnings:  The Unfortunate Murder of a Tyrant

Moammar Gadhafi was a ruthless tyrant who ruled Libya for 42 bloodstained years.  The rise of overt opposition to his tyranny in 2011, as part of the so-called Arab Spring, was certainly to be applauded.  Canada did its bit, with the United States, Britain, France, and other allies, in belatedly securing Gadhafi’s downfall, even though we were quite prepared to do business with him at various times during his reign.  The NATO members and other countries which engaged in last year’s massive aerial bombardment of Gadhafi’s forces (and in the surreptitious on-the-ground organizing and arming of ragtag opposition forces) were not honest enough to admit that our real objective was regime-change.  Instead, we abused the terms of the limited mandate granted by the U.N. to protect non-combatants.  Still, few would lament the demise of such an ugly regime.  What we should regret, however, is the murderous end of its despotic head.  Gadhafi opted to stay and fight, until he was finally cornered in the town of Sirte.  Captured by his enemies, he was murdered by them in cold blood:  He begged for his life, and they deliberately put some bullets in him to kill him.

Some might regard death by murder as a fitting end for a man whose regime perpetrated the self-same lawlessness for decades.  But we do not agree.  The only civilized response to criminality is justice — and that means apprehending the villain and according him a fair and open trial, ideally, in this case, at the International Court of Justice, rather than in situ.  How can Libya hope for a better future when it starts its new chapter with more of the same bloody violence and murder that afflicted it for so long?  And what has the legacy of that lawlessness been to date?  According to Amnesty International, the same militias which ousted Gadhafi (with our all-important help) are now routinely torturing detainees suspected of being Gadhafi supporters.  Evidence of torture and other abuse was found at ten of the eleven detention camps A.I. visited in the first two months of this year.  The ramshackle provisional government we helped install controls neither the detention camps nor the armed brigades that run them.  And, a few days ago, armed men desecrated an Allied war cemetery in Libya, smashing the gravestones of Canadian and other soldiers who died there fighting Axis forces in World War Two.  It doesn’t get much more ‘squalid’ than that!

Kowtowing to China: Doing Servile Obeisance to Tyrants

Having inexcusably permitted (and abetted) the wholesale export of our manufacturing sector, and the thousands of jobs that went with it (a boondoggle perpetrated in the spurious name of ‘globalization’ that doubtless benefited corporate tycoons, even as it wrecked havoc and ruin upon ‘the 99%’), the political and business leaders of the United States and Canada now rush to ingratiate themselves with the Chinese regime.  Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was the latest to lead a pilgrimage, er, entourage, to do abject obeisance to the tyrants of the East, smiling in the best servile fashion and (figuratively) bowing in his cap-in-hand mission to drum-up trade and investment.

And, so it goes:  China gets our jobs; they make all the shoddy consumer goods we buy; and, in return, they buy our raw resources.  It never seems to dawn on our leaders to insist on our oil, lumber, minerals, and other natural resources being processed here.  Instead, Canada ploddingly does what it has always done:  It sells raw materials, and then buys them back — for a lot more money — in the form of processed goods.

Gone are the days of Harper’s public criticism of China’s lethal contempt for human rights.  While he was shamelessly cozying-up to China’s anti-democratic regime in pursuit of trade, what were his hosts doing?  Why, only gunning down two unarmed Tibetan protestors and vetoing (along with their fellow autocrats in Russia) a milquetoast resolution at the U.N. which dared to mildly admonish the murderous regime in Syria for making (very literal) war on its own people.

China is implacably hostile to the precepts of liberty, justice, and democracy.  It is an enemy of human rights.  That makes it our enemy; and its totalitarian regime should be anathema to our leaders.  Instead, they curry its favor, because that’s where the money is these days.  Befriending such a noxious regime and pretending that it is fit to be welcome in decent company among nations which recognize and vouchsafe basic human rights is to shamelessly substitute mercantile expediency for protection of the fundamental principles we in the West allegedly hold so dear.

The Banana Republic of the North?

The “robo-call” scandal that hit the news in Canada in recent days is a distressing sign that there is something rotten in the state of the true north strong and free.  Nearly a year after the May 2, 2011 federal election, we are belatedly learning about what looks to be deliberate, orchestrated attempts to subvert the democratic process.

It turns out that more than 31,000 complaints have been lodged with Elections Canada about telephone calls which misdirected voters to bogus polling stations.  Some calls were placed by live callers, others by the automated messages dubbed ‘robo-calls.’  Those doing the calling, whether in person or through a ‘robotic’ intermediary (i.e. an automated system programmed to make calls on someone’s behalf), fraudulently identified themselves as Elections Canada officials.  It seems their objective was to disenfranchise as many voters as they could.  And early indications suggest that opposition voters were the primary recipients of these fraudulent calls.  The practice is alleged to have taken place in dozens of ridings across Canada — including some where the victors (usually Conservative, it seems) won by margins as low as 18 votes!

We are told that Elections Canada and the RCMP are investigating.  The full force of Canada’s law enforcement resources needs to be brought to bear on this grievous affront to democracy.  In government, as in legal proceedings, justice must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.  The current situation raises deeply troubling questions about criminal interference with the functioning of democracy in Canada.  Until it is satisfactorily resolved, it also raises grave concerns about the legitimacy of the result of the 2011 federal election.  No effort should be spared to get to the bottom of the alleged vote-tampering.  Those responsible should face the full force of sanctions under both elections law and the criminal law — up to and including penitentiary sentences.  In each riding in which a reasonable doubt can be made out about the legitimacy of the result as a consequence of criminal interference, said result should be nullified and a by-election called.  And, should the problem prove to endemic across many ridings, the current government should resign and call a general election to clear the air.  No self-respecting democracy can afford to live with nagging doubts about the legitimacy of its elected government, not, that is, unless it is to assume the ignominious mantle of the ‘Banana Republic of the North.’

© 2012 by John Arkelian.


On January 11.12

Case-Studies of Creative Protest in Action

A reader from Germany offers a delightful account of creatively opposing life’s little injustices.  Taking a stand (constructively) and engaging with the world around us, in microcosm or in macrocosm, is the sine qua non of a free and healthy civil society.   For an entertainingly original approach to standing up to the indignities that too many of us meekly endure, see here:  http://artsforum.ca/letters

On July 24.11

A Sad Loss for Canadian Cinephiles

I note with sadness the passing on July 22, 2011 of Elwy Yost at his home in West Vancouver at the age of 86.  As many of you will recall, Elwy was the avuncular film buff who hosted “Saturday Night at the Movies” on TVOntario from 1974 to 1999 (he also hosted another film-show, “Magic Shadows,” on the same network from 1974 to about 1985).  Genial, infectiously enthusiastic, and always down-to-earth, Elwy brought an irrepressible love of (and wealth of knowledge about) movies to his countless interviews of actors and filmmakers.  He might have been a tad effusive in his interviewing-style, but there was never any doubt about his passion for the cinema, and that wonderful authenticity endeared him to his viewers.  Elwy was a longtime reader (and supporter) of Artsforum (needless to say that publication’s ever-increasing coverage of all things cinematic always attracted his particular attention); and, Elwy’s unique exploration of movies through conversation was one of the inspirations for our very own Cinechats.

On May 9.11

“The Unbearable Lightness of Being Canadian During a National Election”

A thoughtful person, let alone a patriot, who endured Canada’s spring 2011 election might be forgiven for dismissing the assorted partisan contestants and the truly perverse result of May 2nd with an angry, exasperated cry of, “A plague on all their houses!” See the full opinion essay at: http://artsforum.ca/ideas/regional-perspectives

On May 6.11

The Death of Osama bin Laden

As to bin Laden, he was responsible for grievous criminal acts; but I would have much preferred that he be arrested and given a fair trial.  Shooting him, when he was unarmed, smacks of deliberate execution and arguably reduces us to his level.  And the crowds of college students who gathered outside the White House (and worse still) at the site of the World Trade Center chanting “USA, USA” and a popular soccer cheer were an object-lesson in poor taste.  As an Egyptian-American journalist said, it seemed like a frat-party atmosphere.  As such, it lacked the dignity of what ought to have been a solemn, respectful remembrance of the victims of 9/11 and of other terrorist crimes elsewhere in the world.

I haven’t heard anyone else raise this idea, and I hate to contribute to our culture’s absurd over-inclination to embrace outlandish conspiracy theories; but, what if bin Laden was really captured instead of being killed?  What if they did capture him, and then took him away in secret to be tortured for the rest of his life?  I’d hate to think of anyone being abused in that way — no matter how loathsome their ideology or crimes.  But, surely, he’d be regarded as a mother-lode of information by intelligence and security agencies.  Wouldn’t they have an irresistibly strong temptation to take him alive?  Claiming he’s dead would eliminate the need for a pesky trial and allow ruthless people to torture him without anyone ever knowing.  It’s probably just a fanciful notion, but, still, I wonder…

On July 27.10

The Decline and Fall of TIFF

Yes, that’s right, TIFF, better known as the Toronto International Film Festival, has a new moniker, one that better describes its unattractive new modus operandi.  Forget about the current cinematic fad known as 3-D; the festival does it one better, having cornered the market on “4-D:”  “Discourteous, Disorganized, Disingenuous, and Disdainful.”  Gone are the days of civility, a warm welcome, and public transparency.  They’ve been left on the cutting-room floor.  In their place stands a coldly arrogant edifice comprised in equal parts of hype, hubris, avarice, and a haughty disdain for all but the favored few.  The people who run the festival fawn over supposed celebrities, the self-anointed Demigods of Tinsel Town before whom they shamelessly bow, even as they show nothing but contempt for the rest of us mere mortals.  Sure, there are still some good movies at the festival; but there have been fewer and fewer truly outstanding ones in recent years.  Quality is as endangered a species as civility at TIFF.  Cinephiles will have a far happier experience if they stay home and rent quality films on DVD or through one of the lawful download-providers.

Like too many of its movies in recent years, the festival leaves us cold with its endless queues; the over-crowding and insufficiency of repeat screenings that make it all but impossible to get into the films you want to see; the lamentable caste system pervading the whole affair that dismissively looks you up and down to determine if you’re a ‘somebody’ or (more likely) not and treats you accordingly (who’d have guessed that even the attendant press corps is ranked according to perceived import and that its members are susceptible to being demoted from prioritized to plebian without warning, explanation, or right of appeal); the excessive price tag on everything from admission tickets to the program book (a book whose production costs ought to be more than defrayed by its many full-page color corporate ads); the over-abundance of immodest hype; the general air of corporatism and clubbiness that distances the whole thing from ordinary folks; an inexplicable doltish readiness to tolerate the ubiquitous use in darkened cinemas of cell phones and text devices, whose display screens beam a blinding light into the unwilling eyes of other filmgoers; and an unseemly preoccupation with a planned $196 million corporate headquarters cum showpiece, the so-called “Lightbox.”  Just what an ostensibly not-for-profit organization is doing (besides empire-building) devoting so much of its energy and resources to the pursuit of a massive real estate development in pricey downtown Toronto is hard to fathom.  It seems that the palatial new digs will not come close to being able to accommodate all of the festival screenings (there’s been a crying need for years for more screens, bigger venues, and far more repeat-screenings).  That being so, what in the name of the hallowed silver screen is the festival doing as a would-be player in the worlds of high-finance and real estate development?   Sadly, it seems that the curtain has fallen on the festival Torontonians once knew and loved.  If you’re wise, you’ll avoid the unrecognizable thing that has usurped its place like the proverbial plague.

On June 27.10

A Billion Dollar Boondoggle

It’s a sad state of affairs when you can pretty much count on the powers that be to do the wrong thing.  That clearly goes for the lame-brained decision of the Government of Canada to host the G-20 Summit this weekend (June 26-27, 2010) in downtown Toronto.  Turning the heart of this country’s biggest metropolis into a bristling armed camp – complete with legions of black-clad police in full riot gear, military helicopters overhead, and a miniature version of the Berlin Wall surrounding several city blocks – has made for a sorry spectacle.  Spending nearly a billion dollars (yes, that’s a billion) on security for a meeting that lasted barely more than a day is sheer reckless irresponsibility.  Squandering such an enormous sum for the sake of what amounts to not much more than a photo-opportunity and bragging rights shows a brazen disregard for responsible stewardship of the taxpayers’ money.  It also flies in the face of professed concerns for government spending restraint.  And, let’s not forget that $57,000 “fake lake”-  a glorified wading pool set up in the building set aside for media covering the summit.

It’s not clear that anything of real value ever results from these multilateral get-togethers.  Sure, there are some vague, unbinding statements of intent in the form of summit communiques, but these (usually) empty “promises” are worked-out ahead of time by bureaucrats.  It’s all but unheard of for heads of government to do more than sign what their underlings have already prepared in advance of the summits.  If a group chat is nevertheless wanted, why not have it by video-conference, at a cost of next to nil?  And, if our leaders (democratically elected and otherwise – to wit, China and Saudi Arabia) still insist on some non-virtual face-time, why not find a remote, easily defensible location?  Alcatraz Prison gets our vote.  That site (which is now a museum) is on its own island (in San Francisco Bay) with easily controlled access, and it is already surrounded by high walls.  Besides, such a venue might be more conducive to keeping our leaders humble than the current luxury resorts, limos, and black-tie dinners.

On a more serious note, there are plenty of practical measures that could tame the runaway costs of hosting these summits.  First of all, why not drastically cut back on the size of national delegations, which currently number in the multiple hundreds for some countries?  Such absurdly long retinues are not necessary.  Secondly, why not dispense with the luxurious trappings?  Are heads of government there to work, or to live like princes at our expense? Thirdly, keep security arrangements to the bare minimum needed to protect the physical safety of visiting leaders.  Not so long ago, visiting leaders used to walk the streets of host cities with only a few bodyguards; now, they’re being treated like mega-celebrities.  Lest we forget, they’re supposed to be our representatives, not our overlords.  Last, but not least, never again make the absurd mistake of staging a spectacle like the one currently unfolding in Toronto in the heart of a big city.  It is a city, after all, not an armed camp.

Barbarians Inside the Gates

As perversely thick as it was to hold a summit that was guaranteed to attract violent protesters in the midst of a metropolis where millions of people live and work, it is just as much a cause for dismay to witness the usual mob of itinerant hooligans and troublemakers unleashing their own special brand of violence, vandalism, and mayhem on the hitherto mostly peaceable streets of Toronto.  Summit leaders ought never to be shielded from the sights and sounds of peaceful protest. Doing so is an affront to democracy.  But, neither they, nor the hapless citizenry who are paying for their five-star weekend getaway, should have to endure smashed windows, burning police cars, and threats of personal injury at the hands of masked mobs of thugs, masquerading as activists, on the city’s streets.  There is no excusing the mob’s despicable actions, but they should have been anticipated – and avoided, by holding the summit somehere else.

Being Paid Like Princes

In May, Andrea Horwath, the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, proposed a cap on the salaries of civil servants.  Her idea was that no civil servant should get paid more than twice what the Premier makes.  Since the Premier makes $200,000 per annum, civil servants would be capped at $400,000.  Horwath was right in recognizing that salaries at the top end of the public payroll are excessive, but her proposed corrective measures don’t go nearly far enough.

Instead, we propose that no one who is paid in part or in whole from any public coffers (and that means federal, provincial, regional, and municipal) should make more than $175,000 per year.  That includes: elected political leaders, bureaucrats, presidents and other senior administrators at universities, colleges, hospitals, and crown corporations, judges, doctors, and senior executives at public transit agencies, public utilities (power, water, and the like), museums and public art galleries, police and fire departments, libraries, public communication and broadcasting organizations (like the CRTC, CBC, and TVO), publicly-funded scientific, health, and educational agencies, publicly-funded transportation agencies (like VIA Rail, or Air Canada before it was privatized), and lottery corporations.  There are currently people in most or all of the foregoing categories who make enormous incomes at the public expense.  (Have a look at the annually-published “sunshine list” to discover some of them.)  It is sheer unadulterated nonsense to suggest, as apologists do, that these jobs will no longer attract “the best people,” without princely incomes ranging to many hundreds of thousands of dollars.  On the contrary, the best people are the people who are motivated more by genuine public service than by becoming wealthy at the public expense.  There are plenty of eminently talented people who will assume leadership roles in the public sector for a “mere” $175,000!  It’s time to roll back the riches, if government “restraint” is to be taken seriously.

What Have They Got to Hide?

What a relief that our secretive Members of Parliament finally relented – in the face of public indignation – in their strident opposition to the Auditor General’s quest to audit their expenses.  Apparently, those expenses amount to a half-billion dollars a year! But, M.P.s from all federal parties (save, ironically, the separatist Bloc Quebecois) wanted to perpetuate the practice of having only a committee of fellow M.P.s (the so-called “Board of Internal Economy”) oversee their spending.  C’mon! They can’t seriously expect us to be content to simply trust them with such large sums of money — not after the recent spectacles of massive misspending among British M.P.s and at public agencies like e-Health Ontario and the Ontario Gaming and Lottery Corporation.  Members of Parliament seem to have forgotten that they are our employees:  They work for us, they are spending our money, and we have an absolute right to hold them accountable.

On May 14.10

The Blob That Ate Oshawa: Contaminant Enters Lake Ontario

Phosphorescent orange gunge flows freely from park into Lake Ontario

The Gulf of Mexico has a disastrous oil-spill to deal with.  But good old Lake Ontario has to suffer a few man-made indignities of her own.  A couple of weeks ago, I happened upon a noxious-looking, oily, phosphorescent orange liquid oozing out of a large drainage pipe on the beach at Oshawa’s Lakeview Park and making its way across three or four feet of sand before entering the lake.  In a quixotic attempt to do my civic duty, I contacted environmental officials with the regional, provincial, and federal governments to raise the alarum.  None of them were initially inclined to take meaningful action.  (I simply suggested that someone familiar with hazardous substances inspect the leak and take a sample for chemical analysis.)  Indeed, one spokesperson, who was remarkably short on tact, proffered the sarcastic rejoinder that if the public wants the provincial government to test possible contaminants, we should first be prepared to pay higher taxes.  (Hmmm…)  Anyway, action was finally taken — perhaps giving credence to the old adage that squeaky wheels get the grease, even if leaky pipes do not.  Apparently, the pipe opening was temporarily sealed, the pipe contents were sucked up by a vacuum truck and taken away to points unknown, and whatever residue is left will be flushed out of the pipes – right out into the lake, one supposes.  Best of all, samples were finally taken for analysis.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come back positive as concentrated death, as an unknown quantity of it made its way into the lake before anyone in officialdom lifted a finger to investigate.  Their  sudden flurry of belated activity suggests that the powers that be shared my concerns that the stuff entering the lake certainly looked toxic!  A photograph of ‘the Blob that Got Away’ accompanies this post, in case you’re curious about what you’ve been drinking lately.

Postscript (on June 27.10): It seems that a number of chemical analyses were done.  Most organic chemicals apparently came back below detection levels.  Some coliform bacteria was detected, but, apparently, not in dangerous amounts.  (According to an Ontario Ministry of the Environment spokesman, coliform bacteria is present in most water.)  The samples tested as “rather high” in iron, manganese, zinc, and chlorides.  Provincial staff are still assessing what the various materials identified in the test samples are actually from, though they think the source is unlikely to be paint (which is what the orange liquid resembled).  When I pointed out that the orange gunge was still there (and full of dead gnats, for whom it had proved lethal) several weeks after the pipe was supposedly flushed-out, provincial staff revealed that the one hundred feet of the pipe closest to its terminus on the public beach had not been flushed after all, since city equipment could not reach it.  Thirsty, anyone?  (Lake Ontario is the source of drinking water for millions of people.)

© 2010 by John Arkelian.


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