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Signs of Hope at the Women’s March

© By Denise Roig

These are the signs of our times:  ‘Make America Kind Again.’  ‘My Dignity Is Not Up for Grabs.’  ‘If You Are Not Angry, You Are Not Paying Attention.’  Or my favourite, held by a man in his thirties outside Washington’s National Mall:  ‘Usually Not a Sign Guy, But Holy Shit!’   More even than the galvanizing rally speeches of Michael Moore, Gloria Steinem, and America Ferrera on January 21st, the homemade signs raised above heads, propped on strollers, strung around necks at the Women’s March on Washington felt like our voices.

On the long, chartered-bus ride from Toronto to Washington the night before, there’d been hours of talk with my fellow Democrats Abroad about our need to be heard.  Many, especially those of us who came of age in 60s and 70s America, had protested over the war in Vietnam, the proliferation of nuclear arms, the invasion of Iraq.  Last April, the night before the New York primary, my family and I drove to Buffalo with ‘Dump Trump’ signs.  We faced a line of policemen as supporters filled the convention centre to hear a billionaire’s promises and lies.  But the descent on Washington felt different.  It felt imperative.  Enough fuming over headlines, enough breast-beating (why didn’t I call people on my Democrats Abroad phone list before the election?), enough signing of online petitions since the election:  Time to get a move on.

“Feel like a march on Washington?” emailed a childhood friend just days after the election. Our mothers – political hell-raisers in their day – had been dear friends, despite living on opposite sides of the U.S. for 50 years. That morning Trump had announced his first appointee: Steve Bannon, former executive chair of race-baiting Breitbart News, for chief strategist and senior counselor. “I’m in,” I wrote back.  For the past two months the prospect of this march buoyed and comforted me.  I would be marching for my mother, who, two days before she died, insisted on being propped up in bed so she could watch the PBS News Hour and argue with any and all Republicans.  I would be marching for my sisters around the globe, and for my daughters and granddaughter.  Yes, they live in kinder, gentler Canada, but we have bullies on the rise here, too.  I would be marching for my Jewish family, my Puerto Rican family, my African-American family, my Mexican sister-in-law, my Turkish brother-in-law, my gay, disabled, mentally ill brother, and my Indian cousins.

We are the united people of America.  Or we were.  A man with a hole in his soul now threatens the hard-fought rights of women, Muslims, same-sex couples, people of colour and people with disabilities.  He’s out to get immigrants, journalists and Hollywood.  Next up: the Affordable Care Act, Planned Parenthood, NPR, PBS, and the National Endowment for the Arts.  And since no human should have the right to destroy what is just and good and actually working, I donned a hastily knit pussyhat this last Saturday and joined 500,000 fellow citizens on a vast swath of muddy grass between Capital Hill and the Washington Memorial.  We’d been advised by Democrats Abroad to focus our signs on human rights and not make the slogans pointedly about Trump. But marchers’ fury, creativity and senses of humour could not be quashed.  What I will remember most about this remarkable day are the signs and the people who carried them.

There was the family of four – mom, dad, two little kids – in matching dark pink pussyhats with a sign that said simply, ‘We Never, Never Give Up!’  There was the twenty-something Asian man carrying a placard that read, ‘This Is What an American Looks Like.’  There was the trio of women in pink blankets, black letters warning: ‘Tomorrow, There Will Be More of Us.’  On a speeding Metro car packed with pink hats, I caught sight of: ‘OMG GOP WTF?’  A carousel set up incongruously near one end of the Mall drew tired families, but one girl kept her sign held high.  ‘Do Not Concede! Demand We Keep Moving Forward!’ went around so many times I began to believe it.

The day’s crowning moment came after we turned our backs on the Capitol Building.  With 300,000 more participants than expected, the march took on a free-form, anywhere-goes spirit, with crushes of people going in one direction and others swarming in the opposite.  Eventually we spilled onto downtown streets, landing providentially on the steps of the Trump International Hotel.  And this is where we laid our signs, the fruits of our fury and our imaginations, in a rising mountain of protest.  That day we had our say.  We will keep having our say.

Denise Roig is a U.S.-born author of three short-story collections (“A Quiet Night and a Perfect End,” “Any Day Now,” and “Brilliant”) as well as a memoir titled “Butter Cream: A Year in a Montreal Pastry Shop.”  She lives in Hamilton, Ontario.

The foregoing article was originally published in The Toronto Star on January 24, 2017.  It is reprinted in Artsforum Magazine with the permission of its author.

Copyright © 2017 by Denise Roig.

Editor’s note:  The Women’s March described above took place in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, January 21, 2017.   Marches also took place that day in many other places, large and small, in the United States, Canada, and other countries around the world.


Why Brexit isn’t a done deal

© By Steve Paikin

So, recapping… The majority of Britons have voted to quit the European Union.  Two trillion dollars of wealth evaporated in a day. David Cameron will soon resign as prime minister.  Scotland, whose citizens voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU,  is none too happy about being forced against its will to throw its lot in with England and thus will no doubt want another independence referendum, allowing it to stay with the European project.  Divorce negotiations are likely to be problematic, as the EU tries to make an example of Britain and prevent other member states from quitting.  The mother of all generation gaps has exploded among older Brits, who want things the way they were, and millennials, who feel that their future options have been kneecapped by a bunch of selfish older folks, who’ll only have to live with the consequences of this vote for a few years, while the kids face a lifetime of hurt.

This surely seems like one of those pivotal moments in history where the toothpaste simply can’t be put back in the tube.  Or can it?  Already, there are significant moves afoot to allow Great Britain to reconsider its Brexit.  Paul Summerville, a former chief economist with Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Capital, is adamant that reports of the death of Britain’s relationship with the EU are wildly premature.  Summerville has watched this relationship from a variety of perches during his impressive career as an investment banker, a business professor at British Columbia’s University of Victoria, and now an entrepreneur.  Born in England, he has also run twice for the Canadian Parliament.  He lives part of the year in London and urges everyone to take a deep breath, saying:

• The referendum, legally speaking, isn’t binding.
• The vast majority of MPs elected in the 2015 election favor staying in the EU.
• As we’ve learned in Canada with two Quebec referendums, a vote of 50 per cent plus one is no longer considered a high enough bar to clear to break up the country. Less than 52 per cent of Brits voted to leave, well short of the 60 per cent “supermajority” many would argue should be required on the biggest existential issues of the day.
• In addition, voter turnout in the U.K. was 72 per cent. That’s a high turnout compared to most elections, but to many it’s much too low to truly determine big questions. For example, the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty had a turnout of 94 per cent.

“I think that over the next few months, a powerful consensus will emerge that not enough has been done to give anyone the authority to take the U.K. out of the EU without an election that sends members to Parliament with that mandate,” Summerville emailed me from London.  “That’s the very democracy that the Leave campaign was fighting for.”

So, how might the future unfold differently?  Summerville asks us to imagine a political future in Britain where these shortcomings start to become a tsunami of political concern.  Already, 3.8 million people* have signed a petition urging Parliament to reconsider the Brexit and to call a second referendum.  He also imagines the new head of the governing Conservatives, having won the party’s leadership, but having no mandate from the people to serve as prime minister, calling an early election to confirm his or her right to take Britain out of the EU.  And what if that leader, possibly pro-Leave leader and former London mayor Boris Johnson, loses that election?  Or captures only a minority government?  “There will be an election next spring to determine the issue,” Summerville says, insisting Britons are already suffering from buyers’ remorse, “and most likely, the party that supports staying in the EU will win, and this storm will have passed.”

I know the first draft of history has been written on the Brexit, and so far, it’s looking like a categorical volte-face in European history.  But what if it isn’t?  Voices such as Paul Summerville’s – and there were a lot of them in the British press over the weekend  ̶  require us to keep an eye on the second draft of history, which may not be as inalterable a narrative as the first draft suggests:  As Summerville said in the final line of his email to me “Britain will not leave.”

Journalist Steve Paikin is host of “The Agenda” weeknights on TVO.

Copyright © 2016 by Steve Paikin.

*As of on or about June 27, 2016

Editor’s note:  The so-called Brexit vote occurred on Thursday, June 23, 2016 as an advisory referendum called by the Conservative government of David Cameron on the future of the United Kingdom in the (still) 28 nation European Union.


The ‘Globalization of Indifference:’
The Pope Gives an Ecology Lesson to the World

© By Stephen Bede Scharper

Twenty years ago, I taught a course on religion and the environment at the University of Notre Dame.  When people heard this, they would often scrunch up their faces and ask, “What does faith have to do with ecology?”  In the past few years, teaching a similar course at the University of Toronto, this question is posed far less often, and the faces are far less scrunched.  And now, thanks to Pope Francis, I may not have to answer this question again for some time.

On June 18, 2015, Francis planted what Greenpeace founder Robert Hunter might have called a “mind bomb.”  Promulgating the first papal encyclical on the environment, Francis sent shock waves across the speaking notes of climate change deniers worldwide and Republican presidential hopefuls in the U.S.  “The pope ought to stay with his job, and we’ll stay with ours,” declared James Inhofe, the dean of climate change deniers in the U.S. Congress and chairman of the Senate environment and public works committee.  Roman Catholic Republican presidential aspirant Rick Santorum, perhaps forgetting Pope Francis’s background in chemistry, declared that the church would be better off “leaving science to the scientists” and focusing on what the church is “good at, which is theology and morality.”  And fellow Catholic Jeb Bush, also seeking to take up residence in the White House, told news reporters that he doesn’t take economic policy from “my cardinals or my pope.”  He didn’t say where he does get it from.

These, sadly, are representative, rather than rogue, voices.  According to The Guardian, most Republicans in Congress deny the existence of climate change and actively resist legislation limiting greenhouse gas emissions.  Among the uber-conservative Tea Party members, climate change skepticism runs near the 80% level, according to the Pew Research Centre.  And of the nearly twenty Republicans in the presidential primary chorus, there is only one voice, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who dares to sing of the perils of climate change.  When Pope Francis addresses the U.S. Congress this fall, the first pope in history to do so, he might well confirm that the emperors of climate change denial have no clothes.  (Half of the legislators in attendance may indeed experience wardrobe malfunctions during the pope’s address.)

But, beyond the maelstrom of U.S. political discourse, Francis’s encyclical, as an authoritative teaching document to be used in Catholic schools and parishes throughout the world, will likely have a powerful impact for generations to come.  Affirming that climate change is both real and human-engendered, Francis takes aim at a “throwaway culture” of unbridled consumerism, challenging not only Catholics, but the entire human family, to fashion a new, integrated and sustaining relationship with the planet.  Beyond the fact that the detailed encyclical, entitled Laudato Si (“Praise Be”), echoing a canticle of the pope’s namesake, St. Francis of Assisi (c.1181–1226), is an authoritative teaching document that will be shared among the 1.2 billion Catholic faithful, it will, for several additional reasons, have special resonance beyond the Catholic world.

First, addressing not just Catholics, but “every living person on this planet,” the pope declares “nothing in the world is indifferent to us.”  Echoing his sermon on the plight of thousands of desperate North African refugees when he spoke of the “globalization of indifference,” Francis here declares that not only human suffering, but the suffering of the earth, with rapid species extinction, coral reef destruction, and alarming climate change, must be embraced by Christian compassion.  Second, Francis directly links Catholic social teaching on poverty with an emerging concern for creation.  The Pope invokes a book title by Leonardo Boff, the twice-Vatican-silenced Brazilian liberation theologian, who spoke of the Christian duty to respond to both “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”  This brings together the two most important moral crises we now face.  Third, Francis advocates not just for a pastoral reorientation toward the planet, but a seismic shift away from “rapidification”* and “irrational confidence in progress and human abilities” toward a culture of social and ecological inclusion, to protect, in the words of St. Francis, “Mother Earth.”

What does faith have to do with the fate of the earth?  Ask the pope.  He knows.

Stephen Bede Scharper, a Senior Fellow of Massey College, is associate professor of environment and religious studies at the University of Toronto.  His column in “The Toronto Star” appears monthly.

The foregoing article was originally published in The Toronto Star on June 22, 2015; it is reprinted in Artsforum Magazine with the permission of its author.

Copyright © 2015 by Stephen Bede Scharper.

*Author’s Note:  I think the pope uses the term “rapidification” to talk about two phenomena: (1) how technology and computers make the pace of life move so much faster and people are stretched in their daily lives to do everything more quickly; and (2) how, in a “throwaway” culture, things (including water) are commoditized, used, and discarded rapidly.  Many things are disposable, not built to last, but rather intended for one-time use only, leading to incredible waste and a diminished appreciation for the things – like relationships, faith, and spirituality – that need to be ‘slow-cooked’ rather than ‘microwaved.’  (The cooking terms are mine, not Francis’s!)

Editor’s Note:  As the late Vaclav Havel once said, the economic system we employ should serve the general welfare of human beings, not the other way around.  Pope Francis makes a similar point in his recent encyclical:  “We need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that the problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”


ISIS: Parvenus in the Long and Wretched History of Man’s Inhumanity to Man

© By Scott Gilmore

It takes more to shock us than it once did.  At least, this is what Islamic militants think.  They continually look for new ways to grab our attention, to terrify us with their fanatical determination.  The gothic horror of burning a caged hostage alive was an example.  So too was their less graphic but equally nihilist destruction of the ancient city of Nimrud.  Each of these acts was intended, at least partly, to cut through the noise, to startle and dismay us.  In this regard, the terrorists must solve the same problem facing the manager of the local movie theatre:  When everyone is constantly inundated with distractions, how do you get anyone to pay attention?

While traditional media outlets like newspapers may decline, the amount of information being transmitted has never been greater.  We are drowning in stock quotes, cat videos, junk emails, and breaking news; all pumped directly into the computers on our desks, the phones in our pockets, and now the watches on our wrists.  The only way for ISIS to stand out is to commit increasingly horrifying atrocities.  The terrorists are actively helped by our politicians, who shamelessly amplify the acts of these desperate men.  Instead of dismissing them as the shabby criminals they are – on the run and forced to hide in distant desert wastes – our political class cynically and preposterously elevate them into “existential threats.”

ISIS’ talent for the grotesque, abetted by our political class, creates the impression that mankind is plumbing new depths; that these are surely the darkest of times.  Sadly, this is not true.  The only thing new about these crimes is how relatively rare they have become.  Human history is unfortunately filled with groups who ‘surpassed’ even ISIS.  The genocide in Rwanda was only 20 years ago.  Twenty years before that the Khmer Rouge murdered over 1.5 million Cambodians, many by torture.  The Pakistani army killed over 300,000 Bangladeshis a few years before that, and displaced another 8 million.  The Rape of Nanking, and the Jewish Holocaust remain in living memory, and just beyond that lies the Turkish genocide of the Armenians.  In the 19th century, the Belgians killed over 10 million Congolese.

Century after century, the horrors continue.  During the Thirty Years War, European Protestants and Catholics massacred over 8 million people.  The Mongols and the Persians eliminated entire races.  When the Romans conquered a tribe they were not content to kill and enslave every man, woman and child; they plowed the ruins to erase all memory of the culture.  Remember Nimrud, the archeological ruin that ISIS just bulldozed?  It was built by the Assyrians.  They went even further than the Romans, sowing their conquered rival’s land with salt to poison it for generations.  ISIS looks almost quaint in comparison.

It is important we remember this.  Regardless of what our politicians claim, these ragged militants are not some new, world-ending form of evil.  They are merely pale reminders of the horrors mankind used to commit with regularity.  Don’t let them or anyone else shock you.  The only thing unique about them is that they are now outliers, a reminder that for the overwhelming majority of the planet, life is far more peaceful and far safer than it has ever been before.  And soon, like the Assyrians in Byron’s poem “The Destruction of Sennacherib,” ISIS, too, will falter and disappear, ‘their lances unlifted, their trumpets unblown.’

Scott Gilmore is a former Canadian diplomat, who covered the conflict in East Timor early in his career.  In 2004, he launched the charity “Building Markets,” which aims to marshal entrepreneurship as a way to combat poverty abroad.

Copyright © 2015 by Scott Gilmore.

A version of the foregoing originally appeared in the March 30, 2015 issue of Maclean’s Magazine.  It is reprinted in Artsforum with the permission of its author.


Learning from experience?
The case against Canadian military engagement in Iraq and Syria

© By Daryl Copeland

The government of Canada has announced that it will table a motion in Parliament to extend and expand the bombing, training, and special operations mission in Iraq.  Syria may now also be included.  Joining this mission was unnecessary; continuing and expanding it will compound the costs.  Canada need not participate in this campaign.  Following are five reasons why the application of armed force is ill-advised:

I. It doesn’t work.
Look no further than the disastrous results of recent Western military interventions:  Afghanistan, where support for the Mujahidin gave way to the creation of al-Qaeda, is fractured and failing.  Libya, where conditions of life once topped the African continent on the UNDP’s Human Development Index, is imploding.  In Iraq, the current problem with ISIL is a direct result of the security, governance, and justice vacuum engendered by the ruinous U.S.-led invasion and occupation in 2003-11.  Blowback, big time.

II. It plays into the hands of ISIL strategists
Recourse to high-tech violence is counter-productive and bolsters impressions of Western imperial bullying.  Equally important, in a communications environment dominated by social and digital media, the recorded carnage (from barbaric executions to dead children, urban devastation, and ruined schools and hospitals) provides the raw material which facilitates domestic Jihadi recruitment and the virtual formation of extremist communities world-wide.  Anti-Western attitudes, especially in Arab and Islamic countries, are reinforced and hardened.

III. It spoils the Canadian brand.
Within international organizations and among members of the NGO set, Canada is already seen as a retrograde player.  Participating in U.S.-led wars undercuts what remains of Canada’s international reputation as a force for peace and progress, while exacerbating the threat to domestic security and the safety of Canadians abroad.  How many red maple leaves have you noticed on backpacks lately?

IV. It reinforces the gross imbalance in the distribution of international policy resources.
With the military enjoying the limelight and adulated as the instrument of choice, diplomacy and development are suffering. DFATD, the combined department now responsible for bringing coherence and direction to these portfolios, is rudderless and marginalized.  Diplomatic initiatives – once a hallmark of Canadian foreign policy – are non-existent, and our ineffective aid expenditures test OECD lows.

V. It is militarily insignificant and wasteful.
At a time of shrinking revenues and cutbacks, Canada’s expensive and purely symbolic contribution is making no measurable difference to the conflict’s outcome.  If demonstrating alliance solidarity – rather than playing warrior nation wannabe – is the underlying objective, then there are preferable options.

What might constitute a better way forward?  A national debate on all elements of international policy – defense, diplomacy, trade, aid, and immigration – is desperately needed.  One of the government’s most disturbing tendencies is its insistence upon on muzzling, message control, and the centralization of all communications.  It is time to open the floor.

Secondly, our Middle East policy needs drastic re-orientation, moving away from unconditional support for Israel – something even the U.S. is now reconsidering – to a balanced and comprehensive regional strategy.  Civil society support, reconstruction, and humanitarian assistance to Iraq, coupled with working towards a negotiated end to the civil war in Syria, would be cornerstones.

Finally, at a time when terrorism is again being trumpeted as the greatest threat to Canadian security, Canada should publicly withdraw from the ill-starred ‘Global War on Terror’ and redeploy our resources to address more profound global challenges.  Our increasingly hetero-polar world is riven by a host of wicked, complex, transnational issues, including climate change, environmental collapse, diminishing biodiversity, and resource scarcity.  Each is immune to military solution and each imperils the entire planet.  The inordinate emphasis on countering terrorism is a distraction which feeds the politics of fear.

To conclude:  Staying-on in Iraq and expanding the mandate to include Syria will deepen the damage already inflicted by Canada’s disastrous nine-year folly in Afghanistan.  Much explaining remains to be done regarding the failures of leadership, analysis, and judgement which led to so many bad decisions and such high casualties.  Rampant boosterism, martial cheer-leading, wasting of billions, ignorance of history…  Afghanistan was all of that.  But worse. Beyond garden variety naiveté and inexperience, there was serious negligence and incompetence at the most senior levels.  Criticism and dissent were stifled.  The misadventure became a cancer on governance, a ticket-punching promotional opportunity for ambitious careerists and a cash cow for frequent flyers.

From the treatment of Richard Colvin, to stonewalling the MPCC enquiry into Afghan detainees, to refusing to investigate possible violations of international humanitarian law, to proroguing Parliament… these have been dark days for democracy and justice.  Fast forward to the government’s chilling determination to grant more power to the security services under bill C-51.  All part of the same agenda, and another big hit on legal rights and civil liberties.

Iraq is the latest blunt instrument being used to inflict trauma on the quality and integrity of Canadian politics and public administration – not to mention our international security, reputation, and influence.  The institutional corrosion resulting from the policy of militarization has generated grave and enduring costs.  It remains to be seen whether or not the transformation is reversible; the forthcoming federal election may provide an opening.  Evidence of lessons learned?  Certainly.  Canada now knows to put out fires – with gasoline.

Daryl Copeland is an educator, analyst, and consultant.  He is the author of “Guerrilla Diplomacy: Rethinking International Relations” (2009).  A research fellow at the Canadian Defense and Foreign Affairs Institute, Mr. Copeland served as a diplomat from 1981 to 2011 in Thailand, Ethiopia, New Zealand, and Malaysia.

Copyright © 2015 by Daryl Copeland.

The foregoing article appeared in The Toronto Star on March 24, 2015.  It is reprinted in Artsforum with the permission of its author.  Visit him at: http://www.guerrilladiplomacy.com/

Guide to acronyms:
UNDP: United Nations Development Program
ISIL (a.k.a. ISIS): Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant
DFATD: Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development
OECD: Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development
MPCC: Canada’s Military Police Complaints Commission

Editor’s notes: (1) Richard Colvin, who is referenced above, is a Canadian diplomat who was censured (and, many would say, scandalously scapegoated and defamed) by the government of Canada in 2009 for revealing that Afghan detainees who were being turned over to Afghan custody by Canadian forces were being tortured by Afghan forces.  (2) After this article’s original publication, the Canadian government did indeed announce its intention to renew Canada’s current mission in Iraq, a mission that has Canadian military personnel training indigenous opponents of ISIS on the ground in Iraq, and Canadian fighter aircraft bombing ISIS targets in Iraq.  The government proposes extending that mission by one year and extending the geographic reach of the airborne component of the mission to parts of Syria occupied by ISIS – without the consent of the loathsome government of Syria or the authorization of the U.N..  And what the government has described simply as ‘training’ has already seen Canadian special forces at the front lines in Iraq (one was recently killed there by so-called “friendly fire”), where, among other things, they are apparently active in providing laser guidance for targets of allied airstrikes.


The Bully and the Weaklings:
How the Shirtless Czar Became a Naked Aggressor and Cowed the West

© By John Arkelian

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.  We say seizure, since seizure it was, notwithstanding the scant fig-leaf of a worthless so-called “referendum” that was conducted under illegal armed occupation and without a “no” option even appearing on its counterfeit ballot.  Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea is a gross contravention of its own explicit guarantee, enshrined with force of law in a binding treaty, to respect the existing borders of Ukraine as they existed at that country’s independence from the defunct Soviet Union in 1990.  It was on the strength of that very promise (made by both Russia and representatives of the West) that Ukraine agreed to cede its large stockpile of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.  Some Ukrainians must be regretting that decision now.  On the hard calculus of realpolitik, it is unlikely that Russia would be committing military aggression against a neighbor that had the power to defend itself with The Bomb.

Putin’s capture of Crimea is an act of international lawlessness that flagrantly violates the founding rationale and prime directive of the United Nations – which was to outlaw aggression by any state against any other and to absolutely forbid the alteration of existing international borders by force – be that force direct or indirect.   To make matters worse, Putin has appealed to the favorite excuse of modern aggressors everywhere – the irredentist’s claim to be protecting (or reuniting with) ethnic kin who are suffering under the rule of a neighboring state:  That noxious so-called rationale was used by Hitler to ‘justify’ his initial incursions into other sovereign states, and, initially, the West let him get away with it.  We must not repeat the same mistake with Putin, or with future aggressors who will inevitably appeal to the same cynical, insidious justification of extending fraternal protection to ethnic kin in another country by attacking that country.

Putin’s act of criminality makes him and his regime international outlaws.  The rest of the world must take strong and lasting measures to punish the autocrat and his regime – in an effort to hold them accountable, to dissuade them from taking similar action in other parts of Ukraine (where their machinations seem to be continuing at this very moment) or elsewhere, to exact a tangible penalty that will hurt the wrongdoers, and, it is hoped, to induce them to withdraw from the territories they have illegally seized (both in Ukraine and elsewhere).  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.  Once more, the West has failed to act decisively and in accordance with its professed first principles.  The litany of past such failures is a long one – witness the genocides in Cambodia and Rwanda, the bloody civil conflict in Syria, the crimes against humanity that went on in Bosnia for years before the West belatedly intervened, and the current internecine conflict in the Central African Republic, to name only a few examples from the past half century or so.

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.  And, sad to say, the West itself has on occasion played the villain; though, whatever our recent misdeeds in places like Iraq, at least we have not made a habit of annexing other states’ territory outright – not for a great many years, anyway.   So, do we respond to Putin’s aggression with open military force?  Not while a host of less drastic measures remain unused in our quiver.    To risk a nuclear conflagration would be unthinkable, save in the most dire of circumstances; but there are many other measures available to us, short of war.  It’s too late for a few of these measures, but most sit idly on the table, awaiting only our resolve to put them into place:

Putin’s interference in Crimea was readily apparent prior to the beginning of the Winter Paralympic Games in March 2014.  The West should have led a boycott of those games, demanding that they be moved from Sochi, Russia (a short distance down the Black Sea coast from the scene of Putin’s crime) to other available venues, like Vancouver.  The West was far too slow to expel Russia from the G-8 group of leading developed nations.  Its tardy ‘suspension’ should be re-characterized as a formal expulsion.  Instead of the laughably mild “targeted” sanctions against a small handful of individuals close to Putin, the West should impose strong economic and travel sanctions against everyone in the Putin regime (or allied to it) – including the oligarchs and Russian banks.  Among other things, they should be denied access to Western banks and capital; and selected assets of the Putin regime and its allies ought to be frozen.  The West belatedly reduced its intergovernmental contacts with Russia; but it should completely exclude Russia from observer status in Western alliances like NATO and the EU.  The West should forthwith oppose Russian chairmanship of U.N. committees and agencies. NATO should bolster its military defense posture in member states bordering on (or physically close to) Russia – nations like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, and Romania – by stationing NATO forces in those member states. The West should expel Russia from participation in the interminable multilateral negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the ongoing civil war in Syria, and conflict with Iran over its movement toward the capability of producing nuclear weapons.  Russia has been part of the problem in most of those conflicts, supporting noxious regimes while simultaneously purporting to be a peacemaker.  Europe needs to attend to the difficult and likely painful business of reducing its current reliance on oil and gas from Russia.  The West needs to develop a serious long-term plan to wean itself from dependence on an energy-exporter that chosen to be hostile and threatening.  Europe needs to signal its serious intent by implementing tangible incremental measures to reduce its energy imports from Russia, perhaps offsetting them for a time with special access to the U.S. ‘Strategic Energy Reserve.’ The United States should adopt as an urgent priority the development of a next-generation space shuttle, having perversely retired the existing shuttles before such a replacement system existed, to alleviate the current unfortunate dependence of the West on Russian rockets to get its personnel to the International Space Station.

And the West must make it clear the Putin’s seizure of Crimea will be as illegal and unacceptable tomorrow (and the day after that, and the year after that) as it is today.  We must make it clear that our absolute abhorrence and rejection of Putin’s military aggression will not fade with time or give way to complacency or acquiescence.  We should aid Ukraine with financial and material support.  But we should require certain things of the government in Ukraine, namely: that they expel extremist elements (if any) from their ranks; that they articulate and abide by strong, unambiguous guarantees to ethnic Russians and other minorities within Ukraine’s borders to protect their linguistic and cultural distinctiveness, in part by enshrining such minority protections into their constitution; that they take tangible measures to ensure minority representation in the government of Ukraine; and that they reinforce their own legitimacy by holding free and fair national elections as soon as practically possible.

It is inexcusable that the West seems to be so ‘surprised’ by Putin’s lawless ways, let alone pretend to be caught unaware by them.  We should not feign ignorance about the nature of the autocrat or his regime:  Such studied naiveté is unbecoming.  Putin presides over an undemocratic tyranny, where there is no free press.  Independent voices in the media have been crushed, and independent journalists who criticize the regime are apt to be murdered.  One of them, the highly respected war correspondent, Anna Politkovskaya, was gunned down outside her Moscow apartment building in a contract-style killing.  Rivals and dissidents are likely to be imprisoned on trumped-up charges:  That was the fate of the oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the oil tycoon who was imprisoned for a decade in a gulag for daring to oppose Putin.  Two members of the political protest group Pussy Riot – Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina – were sentenced to two years’ hard labor in March 2012 for doing a satirical song and dance in a Moscow cathedral.  It was a harmless act of political dissidence that the regime dressed up as “hooliganism” in order to impose a draconian punishment.  But, then, imposing savagely harsh punishments on anyone who dares to oppose, let alone assert their inalienable right to freedom, is the tyrant’s favorite way of crushing dissent.  Putin’s political rivals, including reformers like Alexei Navalny, Yevgeny Roizman, and journalist Aksana Panova, have all faced trumped-up charges.  In Panova’s case, it was for alleged “extortion,” which earned her a two year ban from practicing journalism.  And critics abroad aren’t safe from the regime’s vindictive reach, either:  The Putin regime dispatched assassins to lethally poison one critic, the former KGB officer, Alexander Litvinenko, who was living in London.  The Kremlin’s agents slipped the rare radioactive element plutonium-210 into their prey’s food or drink and condemned him to an agonizing death.  Putin presided over the brutal repression (which is very likely to have included crimes against humanity) against ethnic Chechens intent on secession (a foe, which, admittedly, was likewise capable of extreme savagery at times); and he unlawfully occupied sections of the independent nations of Georgia and Moldova using the same ‘irredentist’ pretext he is now employing in Ukraine, namely, that ‘we have to protect our fellow ethnic Russians living in those neighboring countries.’  And, lest we forget, Putin contrived a lawless game of musical chairs, by swapping roles between the presidency and prime ministership to wrongfully subvert the law and evade constitutional term limits that would (and should) have removed him from power years ago.

To condemn Putin’s aggression is not to justify or excuse our own misdeeds.  The West launched an unprovoked, disproportionate war against a noxious regime in Iraq.  We have made obscene use of criminal behaviors like torture, imprisonment without trial, and so-called ‘rendition.’  We have embraced the assassination of real or perceived enemies, together with untold numbers of collateral-damage victims, as a matter of routine state practice.  We have acquiesced in a military coup against a democratically elected government in Egypt, betraying, in the process, all those who sought a democratic, secular future for that poor country – a future in which it would be governed by its people, with respect for minorities, and in accord with the rule of law.  We have failed, for decades, to induce our close ally, the state of Israel, to come to terms with the Arabs within and outside its borders, and to quit the lands it has occupied by force – to its own detriment and that of the occupied peoples – for nearly 50 years.  And we have succumbed so easily to fear of the danger of terrorism that we have acquiesced to the most egregious violations of our most fundamental and vitally important human rights – through massive, all-pervasive surveillance of law-abiding citizens.  Those are our own failings – or, some of them.  But our own pressing imperfections do not excuse us – or disqualify us – from acting with strength and conviction to oppose aggression by one state against another.   Our collective security depends on us finding the will to act against any and all of those who would use force to their advantage.

John Arkelian is a lawyer, author, journalist, and specialist in international relations; he represented Canada as a diplomat in London and Prague.

Copyright © April 2014 by John Arkelian.


How to Respond to Putin

© By Sir Malcolm Rifkind, M.P.

The outcome of the European Council meeting of EU leaders on March 6, 2014 to decide upon a response to Russia’s aggression in Crimea may have exceeded Prime Minister David Cameron’s low expectations, but it was still woefully inadequate.  The European Council adopted a position similar to proposals outlined in a Foreign Office official’s dossier photographed in Downing Street last week, namely to adopt a soft approach, ‘for now.’  If Russia failed to change course, or moved into eastern Ukraine, the Council solemnly declared, it would face ‘severe and far reaching consequences.’  This pusillanimity is predicated on the misconception that if only we do not provoke Russia into behaving a little bit worse, we might all return to the day before Russian troops took control of Crimea.  But as the Council was issuing its statement, the Crimean parliament, under Russian patronage, was escalating the crisis by declaring its intention to transfer Crimea to the Russian Federation.

A few years ago, many of the same countries resisting a robust approach also objected to NATO drawing up contingency plans for the defence of the Baltic states from Russian aggression.  It was regarded as too ‘provocative’ for a defence alliance to be seen to be prepared to defend itself.  Those plans do not seem such a bad idea now.

We have already  reached a point where – regardless of escalation or de-escalation from our present circumstances – Russia’s actions will have had serious implications not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe and potentially, for the globe’s precarious stability.  From this point, all escalation or de-escalation will determine is just how serious those consequences will be.  Putin can quite easily lose control of the process he has initiated.  He may provoke a non-Russian insurrection in Crimea, poisoning relations between Russian and Ukrainian speakers in the rest of Ukraine.  What would he do if the ‘ethnic tensions’ he has so mendaciously tried to use as a pretext for invasion become a reality?

The truth is that when the West takes a firm line with Putin, he cries foul and responds in an aggressive manner.  When a more conciliatory line is decided upon, he senses weakness and responds in an aggressive manner to that too.  The only way we can effectively stand up to autocrats like Putin is to speak to him using a language he understands – the exertion of robust pressure, where it damages the Russian economy.

I share wholeheartedly the majority consensus that Russia’s actions should not illicit a military response – this would be to take the same reckless risks with Europe’s security that Putin has taken.  However, we should not underestimate the potential impact on the Kremlin of robust financial sanctions, nor overestimate the damage such a response would cause to our own economies.  Hard power does not just come at the end of the barrel of a gun, as the Iranian regime has come to understand in recent years.  To hit Putin where it really hurts, sanctions should be targeted not just at disreputable individuals, but also at Russian financial institutions, primarily Russian state-owned banks that are so reliant on access to our capital markets.

The edifice of Putin’s power is built on a series of parasitical economic relationships, in which members of an elite, with formal and informal ties to the Kremlin, loot money from the state and from each other.  That elite has enriched itself at the expense of an increasingly rickety, corruption-infested, and resource-dependent economy.  Putin is therefore extremely vulnerable both to shocks to the Russian economy and to the displeasure of the oligarchs he has co-opted into his spider’s web.

In addition, we should not concentrate our efforts solely on Russia.  Ukraine deserves generous Western support, not only because of the courage and restraint demonstrated by the people and their new leaders, but also because the destabilisation of Ukraine and an attempt to assert Russia’s entirely bogus ‘right’ to interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs is one of Putin’s primary objectives.  The European Council’s bringing forward of Ukraine’s stalled Association Agreement with the EU was a welcome step.

It would be deplorable if short-term economic interests should prevent European countries from taking the steps necessary to put real pressure on Putin to change course.  Putin has calculated that the West will prove too divided and self-interested to stand up to him.  He enjoys proclaiming to his domestic audience and people around the world that we are decadent, complacent, and weak.  The difficult question we must all ask ourselves is, is he right?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind is the Member of Parliament for Kensington.  Born in Edinburgh, he taught in Southern Rhodesia before returning to the U.K. to practice law as a barrister.  A member of the Conservative Party, he served in cabinets of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.   He currently serves as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee in the British Parliament.

Copyright © March 11, 2014 by Malcolm Rifkind.

The foregoing comment was first published by the European Leadership Network.  It is reprinted in Artsforum Magazine with the permission of its author.


Egyptian coup is nothing to celebrate

© By Bessma Momani

The grassroots Egyptian movement that marshalled millions into Tahrir Square on June 30 [2013] will call this great amassment of people power a ‘revolution.’  The formidable bottom-up collection of petition signatures on the streets of Egypt was nothing short of an incredible show of popular will.  But when the dust settles and the euphoria of another night at Tahrir dissipates, I’m afraid people will wake up to the realization that they are effectively under a military regime.  A coup d’état is not to be celebrated, regardless of the populist means Egyptians used to get to Tahrir.  Military regimes are rarely beacons of liberal values.  They come from a cultural mindset to protect against — and to destroy — enemies of the state.  Historically in Egypt, the military identified the Muslim Brotherhood, and a number of its more radical offshoots, as enemies of Egypt.  This does not bode well for any transition.

Understandably many Egyptian supporters of the Brotherhood now feel robbed of participating in a free and democratic election.  The impulse of many Islamists may be to lose complete faith in a democratic process.  This occurred in Algeria in 1992, when Islamists, who won free elections in a first round, were denied participation in government after the Algerian military, backed by the West, annulled the elections.  Algeria saw a devastating civil war that ensued for a decade with tens of thousands killed.  Throughout Latin America, we witnessed similar coups d’état with Marxist parties identified as the enemy of state du jour.  Today, Latin America is still healing the awful wounds of military dictatorship, missing persons of Marxist persuasion, and overturned democratic elections.

One doesn’t need to go into history to know how the military fared as government in Egypt.  For a little over a year, the military ruled Egypt after it overthrew Hosni Mubarak in the January 2011 revolution.  Under its watch, the military was vilified for its role in a number of crackdowns on protesters and its use of “virginity tests” on female protesters.  There remain dozens of young people imprisoned by the Egyptian military, which conducts its trials outside the civilian court system under the guise of great secrecy.  These are no liberal democrats; and I’m afraid the military’s so-called roadmap announced Wednesday will usher in a decade of instability.

The return of the military to power will not resolve the underlying economic problems facing the Egyptian people today.  The frustration of people will continue after the dust settles and the streets and Tahrir Square are cleared.  What will happen when the military cannot meet the needs of the people?  Militaries often resort to emergency laws to suppress liberties and get a state’s “house in order.”  This is the risk that Egyptians have taken with this coup d’état.  It’s not a moment to celebrate, but one to take with great caution.

Bessma Momani is an associate professor at the University of Waterloo and the Balsillie School of International Affairs; she is a senior fellow at both the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) in Waterloo, Canada, and the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.

Copyright © 2013 by Bessma Momani.

The foregoing article was originally published by The Ottawa Citizen on July 3, 2013.  It is reprinted in Artsforum with the permission of its author.


Guantanamo Bay: A Medical Ethics-Free Zone?

© By George J. Annas, J.D., M.P.H., Sondra S. Crosby, M.D., and Leonard H. Glantz, J.D.

American physicians have not widely criticized medical policies at the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp that violate medical ethics.  We believe they should. Actions violating medical ethics, taken on behalf of the government, devalue medical ethics for all physicians.  The ongoing hunger strike at Guantanamo by as many as 100 of the 166 remaining prisoners presents a stark challenge to the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) to resist the temptation to use military physicians to “break” the strike through force-feeding.

President Barack Obama has publicly commented on the hunger strike twice.  On April 26, he said, “I don’t want these individuals [on hunger strike] to die.”  In a May 23 speech on terrorism, the President said, “Look at our current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are . . . on a hunger strike. . . . Is this who we are? . . . Is that the America we want to leave our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that.”  How should physicians respond?  That force-feeding of mentally competent hunger strikers violates basic medical ethics principles is not in serious dispute.  Similarly, the Constitution Project’s bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment concluded in April that “forced feeding of detainees [at Guantanamo] is a form of abuse that must end” and urged the government to “adopt standards of care, policies, and procedures regarding detainees engaged in hunger strikes that are in keeping with established medical professional ethical and care standards.” 1 Nevertheless, the DOD has sent about 40 additional medical personnel to help force-feed the hunger strikers.

The ethics standard regarding physician involvement in hunger strikes was probably best articulated by the World Medical Association (WMA) in its Declaration of Malta on Hunger Strikers.  Created after World War II, the WMA comprises medical societies from almost 100 countries.  Despite its checkered history, its process, transparency, and composition give it credibility regarding international medical ethics, and its statement on hunger strikers is widely considered authoritative.  The WMA’s most familiar document is the Declaration of Helsinki — ethical guidelines for human-subjects research.  The Declaration of Malta states that “Forcible feeding [of mentally competent hunger strikers] is never ethically acceptable.  Even if intended to benefit, feeding accompanied by threats, coercion, force or use of physical restraints is a form of inhuman and degrading treatment.”  The Declaration of Malta aims to set the same type of ethical norm as the Helsinki document.  Physicians can no more ethically force-feed mentally competent hunger strikers than they can ethically conduct research on competent humans without informed consent. 2

It’s hardly revolutionary to state that physicians should act only in the best interests of their patients, with their patients’ consent.  At Guantanamo, this principle is seriously threatened because constant physician turnover makes continuity of care impossible; physicians’ historical involvement in “enhanced interrogation” that has irrevocably damaged detainees’ trust in military physicians; and the use of restraint chairs to break a 2006 mass hunger strike. 3 Physicians may not ethically force-feed any competent person, but they must continue to provide beneficial medical care to consenting hunger strikers.  That care could include not only treating specific medical conditions but also determining the mental competence of the strikers, determining whether there has been any coercion involved, and even determining whether the strikers want to accept voluntary feedings to continue their protest without becoming malnourished or risking death. 4

Hunger striking is a peaceful political activity to protest terms of detention or prison conditions; it is not a medical condition, and the fact that hunger strikers have medical problems that need attention and can worsen does not make hunger striking itself a medical problem.  Nonetheless, Guantanamo officials have consistently sought to medicalize hunger strikes by asserting that protestors are “suicidal” and must be force-fed to prevent self-harm and “save lives.” 2 The DOD’s 2006 medical “Instruction” on this subject states:  “In the case of a hunger strike, attempted suicide, or other attempted serious self-harm, medical treatment or intervention may be directed without the consent of the detainee to prevent death or serious harm.”  This policy mistakenly conflates hunger striking with suicide.

Hunger strikers are not attempting to commit suicide.  Rather, they are willing to risk death if their demands are not met.  Their goal is not to die but to have perceived injustices addressed.  The motivation resembles that of a person who finds kidney dialysis intolerable and discontinues it, knowing that he will die. Refusal of treatment with the awareness that death will soon follow is not suicide, according to both the U.S. Supreme Court and international medical ethics. 2 The March 2013 guard-force–centered Guantanamo policy on “Medical Management of Detainees on Hunger Strike” seems to concede this point, since it makes no references to suicide.  (Available at www.globallawyersandphysicians.org/storage/AgendaHungerStrikeMeeting.pdf is the text and a summary of a meeting on physician participation in hunger strikes.)

A more troubling argument is that military physicians adhere to different medical ethical standards than civilian physicians — that as military officers, they must obey military orders, even if those orders violate medical ethics.  Unlike individual medical and psychiatric assessments made in the context of a doctor–patient relationship, the decision to force-feed prisoners is made by the base commander.  It is a penological decision about how best to run the prison.  Physicians who participate in this non-medical process become weapons for maintaining prison order.

Physicians at Guantanamo cannot permit the military to use them and their medical skills for political purposes and still comply with their ethical obligations.  Force-feeding a competent person is not the practice of medicine; it is aggravated assault.  Using a physician to assault prisoners no more changes the nature of the act than using physicians to “monitor” torture makes torture a medical procedure.  Military physicians are no more entitled to betray medical ethics than military lawyers are to betray the Constitution or military chaplains are to betray their religion. 5

Guantanamo is not just going to fade away, and neither is the stain on medical ethics it represents.  U.S. military physicians require help from their civilian counterparts to meet their ethical obligations and maintain professional ethics.  In April the American Medical Association appropriately wrote the secretary of defense that “forced feeding of [competent] detainees violates core ethical values of the medical profession.”  But more should be done.  We believe that individual physicians and professional groups should use their political power to stop the force-feeding, primarily for the prisoners’ sake but also for that of their colleagues.  They should approach congressional leaders, petition the DOD to rescind its 2006 instruction permitting force-feeding, and state clearly that no military physician should ever be required to violate medical ethics.  We further believe that military physicians should refuse to participate in any act that unambiguously violates medical ethics.

Military physicians who refuse to follow orders that violate medical ethics should be actively and strongly supported.  Professional organizations and medical licensing boards should make it clear that the military should not take disciplinary action against physicians for refusing to perform acts that violate medical ethics.  If the military nonetheless disciplines physicians who refuse to violate ethical norms when ordered to do so, civilian physician organizations, future employers, and licensing boards should make it clear that military discipline action in this context will in no way prejudice the civilian standing of the affected physician.

Guantanamo has been described as a “legal black hole.” 3 As it increasingly also becomes a medical ethics–free zone, we believe it’s time for the medical profession to take constructive political action to try to heal the damage and ensure that civilian and military physicians follow the same medical ethics principles.


1. “Report of the Constitution Project’s task force on detainee treatment.”  Washington DC: The Constitution Project, 2013.
Annas GJ. “Worst case bioethics: death, disaster, and public health.”  New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
Annas GJ. “Hunger strikes at Guantanamo — medical ethics and human rights in a ‘legal black hole.’”  N Engl J Med 2006; 355:1377-1382
Crosby SS, Apovian CM, Grodin MA. “Hunger strikes, force-feeding, and physicians’ responsibilities.”  JAMA 2007; 298:563-566
Beam TE, Sparacino LR, eds. “Military medical ethics.”  Vol. 2. Washington, DC: Office of the Surgeon General, 2003.

Source Information

From the Department of Health Law, Bioethics, and Human Rights, Boston University School of Public Health, and the Department of Medicine, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston.

Copyright © 2013 Massachusetts Medical Society.

This article was originally published on June 12, 2013 in the online edition of The New England Journal of Medicine.  It is reprinted here with the permission of the Massachusetts Medical Society.

Visit The New England Journal of Medicine at http://www.nejm.org/


Edward Snowden:  A Whistleblower’s Profile in Courage

© By Christopher H. Pyle

Edward Snowden may go down in history as one of this nation’s most important whistleblowers.  He is certainly one of the bravest.  The 29-year-old former technical assistant to the CIA and employee of a defense intelligence contractor has admitted to disclosing top secret documents about the National Security Agency’s [NSA] massive violation of the privacy of law-abiding citizens.  Like Daniel Ellsberg, who disclosed the Pentagon Papers, Snowden is a man of principle.  “The government has granted itself power it is not entitled to,” he told interviewers.  “There is no public oversight.  The result is that [NSA employees] have the latitude to go further than they are allowed to.”  For example, he said, he could have accessed anyone’s e-mail, including the president’s.

This is not the first time that the American people have learned that their intelligence agencies are out of control.  I revealed the military’s surveillance of the civil rights and anti-war movements in 1970.  Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein of the Washington Post disclosed the Watergate burglary by White House operatives, which led Congress to created two select committees to investigate the entire intelligence community.  Among other things, the committees discovered that the National Security Agency had a huge watch-list of civil right and anti-war protesters whose phone calls it was intercepting.  The FBI had bugged the hotel rooms of Martin Luther King and tried to blackmail him into committing suicide rather than accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.  The CIA had tried to hire the Mafia to kill Fidel Castro.  President Richard M. Nixon used the Internal Revenue Service to audit the taxes of his political enemies.  His aides tried to destroy Daniel Ellsberg for leaking a history of the war in Vietnam, both by prosecuting him and by burglarizing his psychiatrist’s office for embarrassing information.  The FBI opened enormous amounts of first-class mail of law-abiding citizens in direct violation of the criminal law.

Since then the technology has changed.  The old Hoover vacuum cleaner has been redesigned for the digital age.  It is now attached to the internet, where it secretly collects the contents of everyone’s “audio, video, photographs, e-mails, documents, and connection logs” from Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple.  It also siphons billions of telephone communications and internet messages off the fiber optic cables that enter and pass through the United States.  None of us has a reasonable expectation of privacy any more.

The Fourth Amendment* used to require specific judicial authorization before the government could undertake a seizure.  No longer, according to the secret FISA [or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978] court.  Secret seizures of “metadata” now precede individualized searches. Starting this fall, this information will be stored in a huge warehouse at Camp William, Utah, where it can be searched by computers whenever the military decides to re-label one of us a “person of interest,” like a reporter, a suspected leaker, or a Congressman it doesn’t like.  Senator Lindsey Graham (Republican – South Carolina), claims not to be worried, but he should be.  Before Watergate, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had 24 file cabinet drawers full of dirt on politicians just like Graham.  Hoover let each politician know that the Bureau had found the compromising information while on some other search but promised not to reveal it.  Not surprising, Hoover’s abuses of power were not challenged until he died.  New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who used to prosecute Wall Street swindlers, was driven from office when data-miners at the U.S. Treasury Department leaked news that he had laundering money to pay call-girls.  If General David Petraeus, the CIA director, could not trust the privacy of his own e-mails, what hope is there for the rest of us?

Instead of combating “Communism,” the government now claims to be protecting us from “terrorism.”  Maybe. But what it is also protecting is its ability to invade anyone’s privacy and to use that power, if it wishes, for good or ill and without supervision.  From his position at NSA, Snowden says, he and his colleagues could wiretap just about anyone.  Now that the story is out, President Barack Obama “welcomes” a “conversation” about the issues.  Baloney!  The function of secrecy is to prevent conversation, not welcome it. The Obama administration is a great supporter of privacy, but only for itself.  That’s why it prosecuted former NSA executive Thomas Drake for trying, first through channels, and later through the Baltimore Sun, to stop an earlier data-mining project.  ‘Operation Trailblazer’ was not just a gross invasion of privacy; it squandered a billion dollars, mainly on private contractors, and never worked.  But rather than give Drake a medal, the government shut the program down, classified reports confirming his claims, and prosecuted him under the Espionage Act.  The trumped up charges failed; he had been careful not to disclose classified information.  But the prosecution saddled him with $100,000 in legal unpaid bills.  Snowden can expect similar treatment but, like Bradley Manning, he might actually get more popular support.

The president insists that no one is listening to our phone calls, but Snowden said he could.  Of course, we now know that President George W. Bush lied us into the war in Iraq, and that he falsely denied authorizing a massive program of warrantless wiretapping, which was then a felony under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.  The NSA and FBI both denied their illegal wiretapping and mail opening programs in the 1950s and 1960s.  In 2004, the Justice Department assured the Supreme Court that our government did not torture people, just a few hours before the torture photos from Abu Ghraib were broadcast on national television.  Why should we believe such people now?

Secret government was curbed in the 1970s.  President Nixon was driven from office.  The NSA’s watch-list was shut down; the FBI was returned to law enforcement.  Wiretapping was brought under the supervision of a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.  Assassinations were forbidden by executive order, and the campaign to punish leakers ended when White House aides were caught trying to suborn Ellsberg’s judge.  Both Houses of Congress created intelligence committees to oversee our secret agencies.  Unfortunately, these efforts at oversight have largely failed.  Judge Vinson’s order to Verizon proves beyond cavil that the secret FISA court is a rubber stamp for the indiscriminate seizure of all sorts of personal records.  President Obama would have us believe that all members of Congress have been properly briefed, but even Dianne Feinstein (Democrat – California), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, admits that she does not know how the data being siphoned off fiber optic cables and out the side doors of internet servers is actually being used.  Classified briefings, of course, are the perfect way to silence critics.  Once briefed, however vaguely, committee members are bound to secrecy.  They can’t talk about what they learned, even with members of their own staff.

Seventy percent of the federal government’s intelligence budget now goes to private contractors.  Far from overseeing the agencies, members of Congress court them, hoping to obtain business for companies that contribute generously to their campaigns.  House Intelligence Committee member Randy “Duke” Cunningham and CIA Executive Director Kyle Foggo both went to prison for illegally steering government contracts to the same defense contractor.  Senator Feinstein was embarrassed in 2009 when one of her fundraisers invited fellow lobbyists to lunch with her and boasted — in writing, on the invitation — that the intelligence committee’s work would be “served up as the first course.”

Americans can no longer trust the president, Congress, or the courts to protect them, or to protect the reporters, whistleblowers, and politicians upon whom our democracy relies.  Our government has been massively compromised by campaign contributions and executive secrecy. At this stage, the only remedy is for more employees of the NSA, CIA, and FBI to undertake Thomas Drake’s kind of whistleblowing.  This is what Edward Snowden has done: “I carefully evaluated every single document I disclosed to ensure that each was legitimately in the public interest.  There are all sorts of documents that would have made a big impact that I didn’t turn over, because harming people isn’t my goal.  Transparency is.”

No doubt the Obama administration will come after Snowden, as it did Drake.  If it is going to defend our corrupt system of secrecy, it has to.  But if it does, it will further discredit itself, again proving Justice Louis Brandeis’s dictum that, in politics, “sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Christopher H. Pyle teaches constitutional law and civil liberties at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.  He is the author of “Military Surveillance of Civilian Politics” and “Getting Away with Torture.”  In 1970, he disclosed the U.S. military’s surveillance of civilian politics and worked as a consultant to three Congressional committees, including the Church Committee.

Copyright © June 2013 by Christopher H. Pyle.

The foregoing article was originally published on Monday, June 10, 2013 in “Common Dreams,” a non-profit independent news center established in 1997.  It is reprinted in Artsforum with the permission of its author.  Visit Common Dreams at:  http://www.commondreams.org/

*Editor’s Note: The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States provides that:  “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”


Tar-sands, Pipelines, and Other Preoccupations of a Petro-State

© By Thomas Homer-Dixon

If President Obama blocks the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all, he’ll do Canada a favor.  Canada’s tar sands formations, landlocked in northern Alberta, are a giant reserve of carbon-saturated energy — a mixture of sand, clay, and a viscous low-grade petroleum called bitumen.  Pipelines are the best way to get this resource to market, but existing pipelines to the United States are almost full.  So tar sands companies, and the Alberta and Canadian governments, are desperately searching for export routes via new pipelines.

Canadians don’t universally support construction of the pipeline.  A poll by Nanos Research in February 2012 found that nearly 42 percent of Canadians were opposed.  Many of us, in fact, want to see the tar sands industry wound down and eventually stopped, even though it pumps tens of billions of dollars annually into our economy.  The most obvious reason is that tar sands production is one of the world’s most environmentally damaging activities.  It wrecks vast areas of boreal forest through surface mining and subsurface production.  It sucks up huge quantities of water from local rivers, turns it into toxic waste and dumps the contaminated water into tailing ponds that now cover nearly 70 square miles.  Also, bitumen is junk energy.  A “joule,” or unit of energy, invested in extracting and processing bitumen returns only four to six joules in the form of crude oil.  In contrast, conventional oil production in North America returns about 15 joules.  Because almost all of the input energy in tar sands production comes from fossil fuels, the process generates significantly more carbon dioxide than conventional oil production.

There is a less obvious but no less important reason many Canadians want the industry stopped: it is relentlessly twisting our society into something we don’t like.  Canada is beginning to exhibit the economic and political characteristics of a petro-state.  Countries with huge reserves of valuable natural resources often suffer from economic imbalances and boom-bust cycles.  They also tend to have low-innovation economies, because lucrative resource extraction makes them fat and happy, at least when resource prices are high.  Canada is true to type.  When demand for tar sands energy was strong in recent years, investment in Alberta surged.  But that demand also lifted the Canadian dollar, which hurt export-oriented manufacturing in Ontario, Canada’s industrial heartland.  Then, as the export price of Canadian heavy crude softened in late 2012 and early 2013, the country’s economy stalled.  Canada’s record on technical innovation, except in resource extraction, is notoriously poor.  Capital and talent flow to the tar sands, while investments in manufacturing productivity and high technology elsewhere languish.

But more alarming is the way the tar sands industry is undermining Canadian democracy.  By suggesting that anyone who questions the industry is unpatriotic, tar sands interest groups have made the industry the third rail of Canadian politics.  The current Conservative government holds a large majority of seats in Parliament but was elected in 2011 with only 40 percent of the vote, because three other parties split the center and left vote.  The Conservative base is Alberta, the province from which Prime Minister Stephen Harper and many of his allies hail.  As a result, Alberta has extraordinary clout in federal politics, and tar sands influence reaches deep into the federal cabinet.  Both the cabinet and the Conservative parliamentary caucus are heavily populated by politicians who deny mainstream climate science.  The Conservatives have slashed financing for climate science, closed facilities that do research on climate change, told federal government climate scientists not to speak publicly about their work without approval, and tried, unsuccessfully, to portray the tar sands industry as environmentally benign.

The federal minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, has attacked “environmental and other radical groups” working to stop tar sands exports.  He has focused particular ire on groups getting money from outside Canada, implying that they’re acting as a fifth column for left-wing foreign interests.  At a time of widespread federal budget cuts, the Conservatives have given Canada’s tax agency extra resources to audit registered charities.  It’s widely assumed that environmental groups opposing the tar sands are a main target.  This coercive climate prevents Canadians from having an open conversation about the tar sands.  Instead, our nation behaves like a gambler deep in the hole, repeatedly doubling down on our commitment to the industry.

President Obama rejected the pipeline last year but now must decide whether to approve a new proposal from TransCanada, the pipeline company.  Saying no won’t stop tar sands development by itself, because producers are busy looking for other export routes — west across the Rockies to the Pacific Coast, east to Quebec, or south by rail to the United States.  Each alternative faces political, technical, or economic challenges as opponents fight to make the industry unviable.  Mr. Obama must do what’s best for America.  But stopping Keystone XL would be a major step toward stopping large-scale environmental destruction, the distortion of Canada’s economy, and the erosion of its democracy.

Thomas Homer-Dixon teaches global governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs in Guelph, Ontario.  He is the author of “The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity, and the Renewal of Civilization” (Knopf Canada, 2007).

The foregoing article first appeared in The New York Times on April 1, 2013.  It is reprinted in Artsforum with the permission of its author.

Copyright © 2013 by Thomas Homer-Dixon.


In Torture We Trust?

© By Stephen Bede Scharper

In 1944, with the Second World War raging across Europe and the Pacific, Twentieth Century Fox released “The Purple Heart.”  Starring Dana Andrews and a young Farley Granger, the film dramatizes the fate of eight captured airmen from Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle’s April 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo.  The soldiers are treated not as prisoners of war, but as murderers; they are tortured (off camera), and sentenced to death.  Despite appeals to international law and the Geneva Convention, the Japanese military and judiciary, depicted in vintage World War II racialized and sadistic tones, show neither mercy nor concern for legal niceties.   They torture the U.S. airmen to find out how their homeland was attacked.

One of the real-life survivors of this ordeal, Lt. Chase J. Nielsen, testified during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials held after the war that he was subjected to several types of torture, including waterboarding, or what was then termed “the water cure.”  When asked what he felt when the Japanese soldiers pinned him down and poured water into his nose and mouth, he replied, “I felt more or less like I was drowning, just gasping between life and death.” As Judge Evan Wallach of the U.S. Court of International Trade noted in a 2007 Washington Post article, many of the war crimes convictions of Japan’s military and government elite were based chiefly on waterboarding.

Such water torture is graphically featured in the recently released Sony Pictures film, “Zero Dark Thirty,” but this time, it is the Americans, the erstwhile “good guys,” doing the torturing.  And it does not happen off camera.  Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, of “The Hurt Locker” fame, and starring Jessica Chastain as Maya, a coming-of-age CIA agent obsessed with killing Bin Laden, the film depicts CIA operatives torturing Al Qaeda suspects in their pursuit of the Al Qaeda kingpin.  The film has met with wide commercial and critical success, grossing over $55 million (U.S.), and garnering five Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Picture.  Jessica Chastain has already received a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress for her performance.

But the film has also sparked widespread condemnation as well as a U.S. Congressional investigation.  Senators Dianne Feinstein (California) and Carl Levin (Michigan) of the Senate Intelligence Committee have written to Sony Pictures objecting to the film’s suggestion that torture-induced intelligence led to the finding of Bin Laden.  And last week a U.S. Senate panel began investigating what information might have been shared between CIA officials and the filmmakers.  Republican Senator John McCain, himself a torture victim during the Vietnam War, said the film made him “sick.”

“Zero Dark Thirty” depicts torture as a crucial tool in fighting the “war on terror.”  Embracing the “dark side,” as advocated by former U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney, the characters in the film have no apparent moral qualms about beating, torturing, and sexually humiliating Muslim prisoners.  As Jane Mayer observes in her recent New Yorker review, “Zero Conscience in ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” the film is virtually silent on the divisive internal debates within the military, political, and security establishments about the use of torture in the war on terror.

What is wrong with this picture?  Why can torture not be viewed as an “extra tool” in the war against the “bad guys”?  First, torture is not only ineffectual for intelligence gathering, it also is anathema to democratic rule of law.  It violates every legal protection of the human person.  This is why it has long been condemned by democratic governments, and banned under international protocols such as the 1984 UN Convention on Torture.  It is widely known within the intelligence community that people will say anything under torture.  Tellingly, “Zero Dark Thirty” fails to include all the wasted CIA time and money chasing down torture-engendered lies.

Second, torture, like rape, slavery, and human sex trafficking, is a human rights violation.  There is no way around this.  A democratic society cannot simply re-classify a fundamental human rights violation as an interrogation technique without completely violating human rights codes.  “Zero Dark Thirty” tries to obscure the fact that torture has always been, and remains, not an intelligence-gathering tool, but a crime against humanity.   That’s not entertainment.

Stephen Bede Scharper, a Senior Fellow of Massey College, helps coordinate the Toronto Chapter of Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT).  He is also associate professor of environment, religion, and anthropology at the University of Toronto, and author of “For Earth’s Sake: Toward a Compassionate Ecology.”

This article was originally published in The Toronto Star on January 28, 2013, and it is reprinted here with the permission of its author.

Copyright © 2013 by Stephen Bede Scharper.

For more information on Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT), visit them online at:  http://www.acatcanada.org


The Tiger-Slayer Confronts Three Kittens

© By Anja Es


We blondes are usually said to posses a certain degree of naïvité, and I have to admit that in my case this prejudice has now and again proved true.

For example, my belief in the good nature of mankind is unshakable and my good faith regenerates from even the most severe trepidation just in time to be ready for new disappointments.  I still believe that men of the church represent Christian values and therefore are good, noble, and pious: They preach the word of Jesus, are unselfish, and forgive sinners.  And, surely, politicians are wise and considerate and have a steady character and serve the people:  They are persons of integrity, who know how to act according to proportion, who are always in self-control and clear-sighted.  Both men of the church and politicians are, therefore, well-loved and esteemed by the people.

The president of Russia, who is so much beloved by the Russian people that he already for the second time has been granted reign over the country, is a wonderful example.  If you surf the internet you will find many a picture of him showing how strong and powerful this man is — sporting not only a business but also a camouflage suit.  This man is ready to defend his country — and even himself — at any time.  He presents his body, trained for hunting and for the fight, either high up on a noble horse or while white-water fishing; and not only women are helpless in admiring this accumulation of strength:  For here is a genuine MAN at the top of his big country.  (We Germans are, in this respect, not really spoilt by, for example, Helmuth Kohl, who impressed mostly by means of mass rather than of strength, or by Angela Merkel who isn’t a man at all…)

I personally like the picture of Putin and the dead tiger best.  It makes me all dizzy!  And even though Putin is such a tough guy, he also has a soft Russian heart.  He strokes children, comforts old babushkas, and is absolutely religious.  He often goes to church and prays for a better world.

That is, by the way, just what the three girls who play in an orchestra and like to sing did.  They prayed to the Virgin Mary and begged for more democracy, freedom, and justice.  I don’t really know why the men of the church didn’t like that.  Many young people turn their back on the church.  But just when some are actually coming to church — singing and praying in the house of God — the men of the church are offended.  I believe that in Russia you may have to cover your head when entering a church.  Maybe the girls forgot; or, maybe they didn’t hit the right tune.  But, I consider it unfair to punish the poor girls so hard.  They are meant to be sent to a work-camp and the poor children of the girls will lose their mothers.  And all this in the name of Jesus!

And Putin has sent his policemen (who all look at least as brutal as Putin himself) and they have taken the girls into custody and put them in a cage.  In this cage they’ve been sitting for months now and can’t get out.

Fortunately, there are many other people (and not just blondes!) who also think this unfair.  They protested; and finally Putin said okay, that it would be alright not to punish the girls that hard — maybe only three years in work camp or something like that.  But the men of the church stood firm, and therefore Putin doesn’t quite dare to contradict them.  He probably is afraid of hell.

And me?  I am disappointed again.  Such a strong man, beloved and respected by millions of Russians, with powerful friends all over the world, his own machine-gun, and a dead tiger to his credit, is afraid of PUSSY Riot?  The rebellion of the kittens?  That makes you lose faith.  Also in politics.

Anja Es is a creative mischief-maker on the Baltic Sea.  She is also a recurring contributor to Artsforum’s Voices of Europe.  (Translated by P.B.)

© 2012 by Anja Es.


The Allure of Space

© By Neil deGrasse Tyson

For millennia, people have looked up at the night sky and wondered about our place in the universe.  But not until the seventeenth century was any serious thought given to the prospect of exploring it.  In a charming book published in 1640, A Discourse Concerning a New World & Another Planet, the English clergyman and science buff John Wilkins speculates on what it might take to travel in space:

“[Y]et I do seriously, and upon good grounds, affirm it possible, to make a flying chariot, in which a man may sit and give such a motion unto it as shall convey him through the air; and this, perhaps, might be made large enough to carry divers men at the same time. . . . We see a great ship swim as well as a small cork; and an eagle flies in the air as well as a little gnat. . . .  So that notwithstanding all [the] seeming impossibilities, tis likely enough there may be a means invented of journeying to the Moon; and how happy they shall be that are first successful in this attempt.”

Three hundred and thirty-one years later, humans would indeed land on the Moon, aboard a chariot called Apollo 11, as part of an unprecedented investment in science and technology conducted by a relatively young country called the United States of America. That enterprise drove a half century of unprecedented wealth and prosperity that today we take for granted.  Now, as our interest in science wanes, America is poised to fall behind the rest of the industrialized world in every measure of technological proficiency.

In recent decades, the majority of students in America’s science and engineering graduate schools have been foreign-born.  Up through the 1990s, most would come to the United States, earn their degrees, and gladly stay here, employed in our high-tech workforce.  Now, with emerging economic opportunities back in India, China, and Eastern Europe—the regions most highly represented in advanced academic science and engineering programs—many graduates choose to return home.

It’s not a brain drain—because American never laid claim to these students in the first place—but a kind of brain regression.  The slow descent from America’s penthouse view, enabled by our twentieth-century investments in science and technology, has been masked all these years by self-imported talent.  In the next phase of this regression we will begin to lose the talent that trains the talent.  That’s a disaster waiting to happen; science and technology are the greatest engines of economic growth the world has seen.  Without regenerating homegrown interest in these fields, the comfortable lifestyle to which Americans have become accustomed will draw to a rapid close.

Before visiting China in 2002, I had pictured a Beijing of wide boulevards, dense with bicycles as the primary means of transportation.  What I saw was very different.  Of course the boulevards were still there, but they were filled with top-end luxury cars; construction cranes were knitting a new skyline of high-rise buildings as far as the eye could see.  China has completed the controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, the largest engineering project in the world—generating more than twenty times the energy of the Hoover Dam.  It has also built the world’s largest airport and, as of 2010, had leapfrogged Japan to become the world’s second-largest economy.  It now leads the world in exports and CO2 emissions.

In October 2003, having launched its first taikonaut into orbit, China became the world’s third spacefaring nation (after the United States and Russia).  Next step: the Moon.  These ambitions require not only money but also people smart enough to figure out how to turn them into reality, and visionary leaders to enable them.  In China, with a population approaching 1.5 billion, if you are smart enough to be one in a million, then there are 1,500 other people just like you.

Meanwhile, Europe and India are redoubling their efforts to conduct robotic science on space-borne platforms, and there’s a growing interest in space exploration from more than a dozen other countries around the world, including Israel, Iran, Brazil, and Nigeria.  China is building a new space launch site whose location, just nineteen degrees north of the equator, makes it geographically better for space launches than Cape Canaveral is for the United States.  This growing community of space-minded nations is hungry for its slice of the aerospace universe.  In America, contrary to our self-image, we are no longer leaders, but simply players.  We’ve moved backward just by standing still.

But there’s still hope for us.  You can learn something deep about a nation when you look at what it accomplishes as a culture.  Do you know the most popular museum in the world over the past decade?  It’s not the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.  It’s not the Uffizi in Florence.  It’s not the Louvre in Paris.  At a running average of some nine million visitors per year, it’s the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) in Washington, DC, which contains everything from the Wright Brothers’ original 1903 aeroplane to the Apollo 11 Moon capsule, and much, much more.  International visitors are anxious to see the air and space artifacts housed in this museum, because they’re an American legacy to the world.  More important, NASM represents the urge to dream and the will to enable it.  These traits are fundamental to being human, and have fortuitously coincided with what it has meant to be American.

When you visit countries that don’t nurture these kinds of ambitions, you can feel the absence of hope.  Owing to all manner of politics, economics, and geography, people are reduced to worrying only about that day’s shelter or the next day’s meal.  It’s a shame, even a tragedy, how many people do not get to think about the future.  Technology coupled with wise leadership not only solves these problems but enables dreams of tomorrow.  For generations, Americans have expected something new and better in their lives with every passing day—something that will make life a little more fun to live and a little more enlightening to behold.  Exploration accomplishes this naturally.  All we need to do is wake up to this fact.

The greatest explorer of recent decades is not even human.  It’s the Hubble Space Telescope, which has offered everybody on Earth a mind-expanding window to the cosmos.  But that hasn’t always been the case.  When it was launched in 1990, a blunder in the design of the optics generated hopelessly blurred images, much to everyone’s dismay.  Three years would pass before corrective optics were installed, enabling the sharp images that we now take for granted.  What to do during the three years of fuzzy images?  It’s a big, expensive telescope.  Not wise to let it orbit idly.  So we kept taking data, hoping some useful science would nonetheless come of it.  Eager astrophysicists at Baltimore’s Space Telescope Science Institute, the research headquarters for the Hubble, didn’t just sit around; they wrote suites of advanced image-processing software to help identify and isolate stars in the otherwise crowded, unfocused fields the telescope presented to them.  These novel techniques allowed some science to get done while the repair mission was being planned.

Meanwhile, in collaboration with Hubble scientists, medical researchers at the Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center at Georgetown University Medical Center in Washington, DC, recognized that the challenge faced by astrophysicists was similar to that faced by doctors in their visual search for tumors in mammograms.  With the help of funding from the National Science Foundation, the medical community adopted these new techniques to assist in the early detection of breast cancer.  That means countless women are alive today because of ideas stimulated by a design flaw in the Hubble Space Telescope.

You cannot script these kinds of outcomes, yet they occur daily.  The cross-pollination of disciplines almost always creates landscapes of innovation and discovery.  And nothing accomplishes this like space exploration, which draws from the ranks of astrophysicists, biologists, chemists, engineers, and planetary geologists, whose collective efforts have the capacity to improve and enhance all that we have come to value as a modern society.

How many times have we heard the mantra “Why are we spending billions of dollars up there in space when we have pressing problems down here on Earth?”  Apparently, the rest of world has no trouble coming up with good answers to this question—even if we can’t.  Let’s re-ask the question in an illuminating way: “As a fraction of your tax dollar today, what is the total cost of all space-borne telescopes, planetary probes, the rovers on Mars, the International Space Station, the space shuttle, telescopes yet to orbit, and missions yet to fly?”  Answer: one-half of one percent of each tax dollar.  Half a penny.  I’d prefer it were more: perhaps two cents on the dollar.  Even during the storied Apollo era, peak NASA spending amounted to little more than four cents on the tax dollar.  At that level, the Vision for Space Exploration would be sprinting ahead, funded at a level that could reclaim our preeminence on a frontier we pioneered.  Instead, the vision is just ambling along, with barely enough support to stay in the game and insufficient support ever to lead it.

So with more than ninety-nine out of a hundred cents going to fund all the rest of our nation’s priorities, the space program does not prevent (nor has it ever prevented) other things from happening.  Instead, America’s former investments in aerospace have shaped our discovery-infused culture in ways that are obvious to the rest of the world, whether or not we ourselves recognize them.  But we are a sufficiently wealthy nation to embrace this investment in our own tomorrow—to drive our economy, our ambitions, and, above all, our dreams.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and prominent interpreter of science to the lay public.  He is the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium, a division of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Copyright © 2012 by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Reprinted from Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson, with the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Chapter One of Dr. Tyson’s book (reprinted above) was adapted from his essay “Why America Needs to Explore Space,” Parade, August 5, 2007.


Every step you take, every move you make:
The British government’s new plans for mass surveillance

© By Eric King

For the past 18 months, I’ve been investigating the export of surveillance technologies from Western countries to despotic regimes, but I never thought I’d see a democratic government proposing to install the kind of mass surveillance system favoured by Al-Assad, Mubarak and Gaddafi.  Yet the Home Office’s latest plans would allow the authorities unprecedented levels of access to the entire population’s phone records, emails, browsing history and activity on social networking sites, entirely unfettered by the courts.  It would allow the police to see which websites you were browsing, your activity on social networks, and who you were communicating with via email,  telephone, or Skype, and when. This is a system that has no place in a country that calls itself free and democratic.

The idea of a “modernized” (read, ‘more invasive’) surveillance law was first proposed by the Labour government in 2009.  They argued that changes were required in order to restore the status quo of the early 1990s, when we all used landlines, and British Telecom (BT) ran all the networks.  Call and location records were generated and stored by BT for commercial purposes, and the police thus had ready access to pretty much every communication in Britain.  But in the era of Google, Facebook and Twitter, the authorities have been cut off from significant chunks of people’s communications and a lot of data resides on foreign servers.  The government designed the “Interception Modernisation Programme” (IMP) to give themselves access to all this juicy new information; but, after controversy about the cost, ethics and feasibility of the project, it was ditched in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

The Coalition Agreement that formed the current government clearly stated that IMP-style mass surveillance of the British public was unacceptable; but now the old policy seems to have risen from the grave as the innocuously-named “Communications Capabilities Development Programme” (CCDP).  The Home Office will try to pretend that the CCDP is a brand new idea — in that it forces companies to store data locally and make it accessible to police whenever they request, rather than automatically transferring data from ISPs and mobile network providers to the U.K. Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) for centralised storage.  But the idea of a central database was abandoned before IMP was formally proposed, so, in fact, the two projects are basically identical.  More importantly, the principle is the same: the government will have the right to intercept everyone’s communications, all of the time, without the inconvenient requirement of judicial warrants.

The Leveson Inquiry (i.e. the ongoing public inquiry in the U.K. into the practices and ethics of the British press arising from the phone-hacking scandal) has shown us just how dangerous unfettered police powers can be.  We know now that information, once collected, can never be 100% secure and is always vulnerable to exposure by human error or corruption.  Yet in the midst of a recession, the government wants to spend billions of pounds peering into our private lives with an intensity that would make even the most ruthless tabloid journalist blush.

Eric King is Head of Research for Privacy International.

Founded in 1990, Privacy International seeks to defend the right to privacy across the world, and to fight surveillance and other intrusions into private life by governments and corporations. Visit Privacy International at:   https://www.privacyinternational.org/

© April 2012 by Eric King and Privacy International.


Freedom from Fear:
Building a Culture of Peace through Collective Security and Human Rights

© By John Arkelian

© Illustrated by Linda Arkelian

“Fearlessness may be a gift but perhaps more precious is the courage acquired through endeavor, courage that comes from the habit of refusing to let fear dictate one’s actions.”(1)

In very truth gold is god today and rules with pitiless sway in the affairs of men… I can see the dawn of the better day for humanity.  The people are awakening.  In due time, they will and must come to their own.” (2)

Confident predictions of Man’s inexorable progress toward a better day, of his awakening from latent barbarism, are by no means borne out by the

“Let the tournament begin!” © Linda Arkelian.

facts.  On the contrary, violence, injustice, and oppression are as prevalent today as ever.  Our long-expected better day may yet turn out to be a bitter one instead.  At best, complacency will garner us more of the same — bloody conflict, squalor, and misery for the many, empty materialism for the few.  Democratic government and entrenched human rights may continue their incremental erosion until they collapse, like a shelter whose foundation has deteriorated from neglect and misuse.  Or, we may finally ignite the nuclear conflagration or global environmental catastrophe we daily court with our greed and indifference.  We have much to fear — war, famine, disease, creeping tyranny, reckless poisoning of our environment.  Terrorism is the fashionable bogey lately, the bête noire du jour, but danger it poses is, in the long run, the least of our worries.  The question is:  will we continue to allow selfish indifference to blind us as we shuffle aimlessly along the edge of the precipice; or, will we cast aside apathy and face our fears, fashioning the means to free ourselves from their yoke forever?  Will we turn with relentless will and purpose to the task that needs doing — remaking the world into a place of truth, justice, liberty, and compassion?  If so, we need to establish security, equity, fundamental freedoms, and tolerance — or, in a word, dignity — for all.

Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day.  Fear of imprisonment, fear of torture, fear of death, fear of losing friends, family, property or means of livelihood, fear of poverty, fear of isolation, fear of failure.  A most insidious form of fear is that which masquerades as common sense or even wisdom, condemning as foolish, reckless, insignificant or futile the small, daily acts of courage which help to preserve man’s self-respect and inherent human dignity.” (3)

I.  Fundamental Freedoms

If we are to be truly free we have to advance and protect rights of Man.  In the Western democracies, the main threat to those rights is our own indifference and (lately) our susceptibility to accepting their curtailment in the spurious name of security.  It is far better to face the dangers posed by terrorism (and other, more mundane forms of crime) than to submissively cast aside the very things — our fundamental freedoms — that define who we are and set us above those who wield fear and violence.  But it is not enough just to cherish those rights ourselves.  We must be every bit as tireless in ensuring that the rigorous observance of fundamental rights is the governing principle of all mankind.  If our rights are to mean anything, they cannot be for us alone.

The nature of fundamental rights is no mystery.  They are enshrined in the constitutions of the West and in binding international conventions.  They include the freedoms of conscience, religion, speech, and assembly; the rule of law; a free press; the citizen’s right to elect a responsible government in free and fair elections; and checks and balances on the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of government.  Fundamental rights bar arbitrary arrest, and they require that arrested persons be promptly brought before a court and charged with a specific offense.  (The principle of habeas corpus precludes secret detention or protracted imprisonment without trial.)  Those charged with a crime are entitled to legal representation by counsel of their choice, access to visitors, and a fair and open trial.  Every accused person has the right to hear the evidence against him and to face his accusers.  He has the right not to incriminate himself.  And, there is an absolute right not to be tortured, or to be otherwise subjected to cruel or inhuman punishment.  Even that most basic and inalienable of human rights has been under attack since 9/11 — alarmingly, from high officials in the leading nation of the free world.

Fundamental rights were fought for and won at great cost, but we have become neglectful of them, forgetting their inestimable value and failing to safeguard them with the zealousness that is not only their due but also our duty as a free people.

II. Security

Cultural conflicts are increasing and are… more dangerous today than at any other time in history.  The end of the era of nationalism has been catastrophic.  Armed with the same supermodern weapons, often from the same suppliers, and followed by television cameras, the members of various tribal cults are at war with one another.” (4)

Strength [has] value only when it [serves] a just cause.” (5)

Fear, like so many things, is a habit.  If you live with fear for a long time, you become fearful.” (6)

To be free from fear, we must feel that we are secure.  Yet we seem gripped

“The final contest: Virtue against power” © Linda Arkelian.

in a culture of fear, and it is fear rather than wisdom that guides too many of our choices.  Too often rich and powerful nations seek security through their wealth and power alone, neglecting more important cornerstones of lasting security — things like justice and compassion.  To be truly secure, we must put the lie to the notion that ‘Justice is for the weak, and the strong can do whatever they want.’  Lasting strength is rooted in justice.  And, real security must mean security for all — for rich and poor, for weak and strong.  No country, or group of countries, can create a lasting bastion of safety and tranquility for themselves to the exclusion of the less fortunate.  To make exclusive claims on security for the few, with indifference to the suffering many, is to invite perpetual danger for ourselves and misery for everyone else.  Instead, we must rededicate ourselves to collective security, to enlisting all of the nations of the world in safeguarding each other’s security.  We can do that by putting aside unilateralism and returning to the long and difficult work of building a system of international institutions and laws that offer meaningful protection to all.  The dangers posed by aggressive states, by terrorists, by nuclear proliferation (and the still not achieved comprehensive ban on the testing of nuclear weapons), by creeping environmental catastrophe, by existing pestilences like AIDS and looming pandemics like influenza, by the militarization of space, by human rights abuses and tyranny, by ideological extremism, and by economic exploitation of the poor by the rich — all of these dangers, and more, can best be addressed multilaterally.  Where institutions are weak, or recalcitrance is strong, then the work will be difficult, but we must not shirk it.  We can start with confidence-building measures, by, for example, foreswearing the unilateral use of force, consistently and vigorously demanding respect for human rights, and by unequivocally committing ourselves to human life and human dignity — through substantially increased foreign aid, a permanent cessation of arms sales, and a unilateral end to nuclear testing.  We should dedicate ourselves to the proposition that physical security and economic justice are the due of all mankind and then work hard to make that goal a reality.

III. Equity

Kindness… is in a sense the courage to feel concern for the people.  It is undeniably easier to ignore the hardships of those who are too weak to demand their rights than to respond sensitively to their needs.  To care is to accept responsibility, to dare… [to be] the strength of the helpless.” (7)

A secure world, a world without fear, is one with equality of opportunity.  In the West, most of us take a comfortable life for granted; most of the world’s inhabitants are not so lucky.  A comfortable life requires a good standard of living, with access to food, water, housing, health care, education, and

© Linda Arkelian

employment.  It includes opportunities for both advancement and for recreation, and it needs unfettered access to ideas — in addition to the basic human rights and personal security discussed above.  Of course, there’s more to life than just being “comfortable,” or we in the West would represent the pinnacle of human fulfillment instead of finding ourselves so often bereft of meaning and purpose.  Comfort is not the destination, but it is a prerequisite for making the journey.  Without an equitable distribution of the world’s resources and wealth, we cannot achieve a world without fear.  The gross disparities — in wealth, education, and freedom — that beset this world fuel endless resentment, aggression, and conflict.  A world where poverty, starvation, and squalid misery are the lot of many, while a fortunate few regard wealth as their birth-right, is an unjust world.  If our goal truly is a better day, then we must adopt, as an urgent priority, the righting of that wrong, sacrificing, if need be, our own excess to eradicate the scarcity of others.

IV. Tolerance

“The quintessential revolution is that of the spirit…” (8)

“The truly reliable path to… peaceful coexistence… must be rooted in self-transcendence:  transcendence as a hand reaching out to those close to us, to foreigners, to the human community, to all living creatures, to nature, to the universe; transcendence is a… need to be in harmony even with what we ourselves are not, with what we do not understand, with what seems distant from us…” (9)

For as long as Man has existed, his fiercest nemesis has been his own capacity and compulsion for devising categories which exclude others.  It hardly matters whether the dividing line between “us” and “them” is nationality, religion, language, ethnicity, gender, class, or color.  All of those differences obscure the fundamentals we share in common.  Leftovers from tribalism, they denote the savage that lurks within us — the darkness that permits us to neglect, oppress, or destroy any who are deemed to be “other.”  Unless we conquer that instinct within ourselves, it will be our undoing.  Before we can create a culture of peace, we have to create a culture of tolerance and understanding.  We can start with simple things, like ensuring that all school-children everywhere learn more than one language, by implementing widescale exchange programs between children (and young adults) of different linguistic, cultural, national, or religious backgrounds, and by ensuring that our school curricula immerse students in the culture and history of lands besides their own.  Internationally, we must practice what we preach about abhorring ethnic conflicts.  When one group rises in arms to enslave or slaughter another, we must intervene – promptly and vigorously.  There must be no more Rwandas, if we truly want a better day.  First and foremost, we must create a structure for tolerance — at home and abroad — teaching tolerance and enforcing it, where goodwill alone does not suffice.  We need to prove by our consistent example that we will take responsibility for the world and oppose all its injustices — even these propelled by our own self-interest.

V.  The Sleeper Must Awaken

“It has been given to me to understand how small this world is and how it torments itself with countless things it need not torment itself with, if only people could find within themselves a little more courage, a little more hope, a little more responsibility, a little more mutual understanding and love.” (10)

“For it is the dawn that has come, as it has come for a thousand centuries, never failing.  But when that dawn will come, of our emancipation, from the fear of bondage and the bondage of fear, why, that is a secret.” (11)

Mankind has been sleepwalking through all of our existence.  Will we awaken at last from our long, enervating slumber?  Will we behold the havoc and

“Leaving our shadow-selves behind: The sleeper must awaken!” © Linda Arkelian.

suffering we have wrought across history?  Will we confront the savage lurking within each one of us and say, finally, “Enough!”  Will we take real responsibility at long last by declaring that what has always been — cruelty, injustice, and war — is acceptable no more?  If we truly want a better day, to replace so many bitter ones, the answer must be yes.  The sleeper must awaken.

John Arkelian is an author, journalist, and lawyer.

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

Text © 2004 by John Arkelian.
Illustrations © 2004 by Linda Arkelian.


1. Aung San Suu Kyi, Freedom from Fear and Other Writings (New York: Viking, 1991) 184.   2. Eugene V. Debs (Sept. 14, 1918), cited in William Safire, Lend Me Your Ears: Great Speeches in History (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004).   3. Aung San Suu Kyi, 184.   4. Vaclav Havel, The Art of the Impossible: Politics as Morality in Practice (Toronto: Knopf Canada, 1997) 168.   5. Aung San Suu Kyi, 190.   6. Ibid., 234.   7. Ibid., 172.   8. Ibid., 183.   9. Havel, 173.   10. Ibid., 229.  11. Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country (1948).

Editor’s Note: The foregoing essay, “Freedom from Fear,” first appeared in our hard-copy magazine (Artsforum, Issue #11, Winter 2004/05) over seven years ago.   Sadly, its plea for collective security and human rights is as desperately urgent — and as utterly unsatisfied — today as the day it was written.  It is reprinted here as part of an occasional visit to our archives.
(March 2012)


The Future of American Democracy

© By Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Russell Simmons

Congressman Dennis Kucinich

This is not a progressive issue or a conservative issue.  This is not a Tea Party issue or a liberal issue.  This is an American issue.  Money is destroying our politics and our political system. The signs are everywhere.  A “SuperPAC”** supporting Mitt Romney spent $3.5 million to knock Newt Gingrich out of the lead in Iowa.  A SuperPAC supporting Newt Gingrich spent a greater amount of money to return the favor to Mitt Romney in South Carolina.  Our electoral system has become such a joke that two late-night comedians are now actually participating in it and are generating great laughter just by demonstrating how it operates.

In the past, Congress has made two bipartisan efforts to control the impact of money on our elections, first in the early 1970’s and more recently with the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002, known as “McCain-Feingold.”  Both of these laws tried to restrict the influence of money on our elections.  But after each of these efforts, the Supreme Court kicked down the door and allowed campaign money to flow more freely.

First, in Buckley v. Valeo, the Court held that money is the equivalent of “free speech” under the First Amendment, and that no act of Congress could restrict the amount of money that an individual could contribute to his or her own campaign or expend in support of another person’s campaign as long as that expenditure was “independent” of the campaign.  This decision gave the “one percent” a voice in our elections that greatly exceeds the concept of “one citizen, one vote.”

Then, in January 2010, in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court went off the deep end and ruled that corporations are “persons” under the First Amendment and that no act of Congress could restrict the amount of money a corporation could spend in an election.  This decision gives all U.S. corporations (and all U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations) all the same rights to participate in our elections that individual U.S. citizens have, excepting only the right to actually vote.

The concept of giving corporations the same rights as individuals would have staggered our “founding fathers.”  Corporations in their present form did not even exist in 1789, when the Bill of Rights was ratified.  The Bill of Rights was written to protect individuals from the power of the federal government.  It was later extended by the Fourteenth Amendment to protect individuals from similar abuses by state governments.  Where in this “original intent” was there any expression that corporations should have the same rights as individuals to participate in our electoral process?

We must get money out of our politics and out of our electoral system. We must eliminate the influence of multi-national corporations and foreign corporations on the government of our country.  Since the Supreme Court majority is obviously opposed to such reforms, the only way to correct our system is through a constitutional amendment that will take money out of our electoral system.

This week, a constitutional amendment was introduced in Congress that will require all federal campaigns — that is, campaigns for President, Vice-President, Senator and Representative — to be financed exclusively with public funds; it will prohibit any expenditures from any other source, including the candidate. This amendment will also preclude any expenditures in support of, or in opposition to, any federal candidate, so that special interest groups will not be able to influence elections either.  This amendment does, however, maintain our historical “freedom of the press” and preserve the traditional role that the media have played in our electoral process.

It is clear:  Money has become a corrupting influence in our political system.  This is one of the most important issues of our time.  We must rescue American democracy.  Together, we are committed to protecting the future of our democracy, and that is why we have come together to promote this constitutional amendment. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, or independent, we urge you to join us.

Dennis Kucinich is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, where he has represented Ohio’s 10th Congressional District since 1997.  A former mayor of Cleveland, Mr. Kucinich has twice been a Democratic candidate for the office of President of the United States.

Copyright © January 2012 by Congressman Dennis Kucinich and Russell Simmons.

Editor’s Note: In American electoral parlance, a “PAC” (or “political action committee”) is a private group set up to support particular candidates for political office and/or to promote one side of a particular public policy issue.  Interest groups, unions, and corporations make their contributions to political parties and candidates through the mechanism of a PAC.  Controversial decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Federal Court of Appeals opened the door to the rise of so-called “super-PACs” — starting in the 2010 federal elections.  “Super-PACs” can raise unlimited funds from corporations, unions, interest groups, and individuals.  Technically, those entities are supposed to be “independent” from the candidate or party they are supporting; but said independence is more theoretical than real, and many “super-PACs” openly support particular candidates.  Unlike traditional “PACs,” there is no limit on how much money “super-PACs” can donate.  Both types of “PACs” are obligated to disclose their donors; however, “super-PACs” use a loophole to postpone said disclosure until after the applicable election is over, thereby evading meaningful scrutiny.  JA


Is Greece finished?

© By Yanis Varoufakis

In one sense, Greece was finished the moment the Great Recession cut its growth rate (in the second quarter of 2009) from among the highest in Europe to almost zero.  Given its high, and increasing, debt-to-GDP ratio, not to mention the recent run on Dubai’s private-cum-sovereign debt, Greece’s stalled economy precipitated a run on Greek bonds.  The writing was on the wall:  The huge bailout could only ever delay the inevitable default, especially so in view of the swinging government expenditure cuts that were the condition for the bailout; cuts that have led to a precipitous collapse of demand, a subsequent run on Greek banks (and a flight of deposits to Switzerland and Germany), a wholesale investment strike, and the overarching recession which has already pushed Greek GDP down by 15% since 2008/9.  Add to the mix the July 21, 2011 EU Agreement (and in particular the sad reality that that Agreement was not worth the paper it was scribbled on), and what you get is the logical conclusion that Greece is about to default.  And since default within a highly financially integrated eurozone is unthinkable, the same train of thought takes its ‘passengers’ straight to the junction where Greece decouples and parts ways with the eurozone.

In another sense, however, and even though most of the above analysis is correct, the conclusion reached in the previous paragraph misses the most crucial of points: Greece cannot exit the eurozone without setting in motion a brief sequence of catastrophic moves which will cause Germany to bail itself out of the eurozone before it itself loses its triple-A rating. (Why and how is something that I have explained on a previous occasion when Greece’s exit from the eurozone was touted.)

Of course, none of this means that the present path is sustainable.  Greece’s debt will be downsized, if not liquidated, one way or another.  A hard Greek default can only be prevented by means of steps that the current European leadership seems determined to avoid, even if the price of such avoidance is the euro’s collapse.  So, the big question is whether the eurozone can survive with a member-state in a state of chronic default.  In theory, it could be possible to have a member-state of a currency union that cannot meet its obligations to creditors and thus remains in some form of receivership until it can climb out of its hole.  In practice, however, such a scenario is pure fiction when such a destabilizing event occurs within a currency union lacking all institutional mechanisms for recycling surpluses in a manner that might restore stability.

We hear that German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble is preparing his country’s banks for the shock of Greek default.  Do not believe a word of it.  He cannot pull this off, and he knows it.  At some point, he thought that time would allow Germany’s banks to work out ways of insulating themselves from a Hellenic shock.  Instead, they seem more vulnerable today than ever.  So, what on earth is going on?  What is Mr Schauble really doing?  What plans is he trying to hatch?

As I have consistently argued, Greece will not be allowed to default before Germany first puts in place a decent plan for splitting Greece’s monetary system from that of the surplus countries.  But if I am right that such a plan cannot involve the mere expulsion of Greece from the euro, as it will kick off a chain reaction that will eventually knock France out for a sixer, before returning to Frankfurt and Berlin to haunt the ‘planners,’ the only logical conclusion that I can come to is that, behind all the talk of a German plan to contain a Greek default or to push Greece out of the euro, lies the groundwork for a pragmatic plan that sees Germany bailing itself out.  Such a plan would entail Germany rounding up countries it truly deems worthy of sharing its new currency with (the other three surplus countries of the existing eurozone, plus perhaps Poland, the Czech Republic, and even Estonia) and exiting in the most orderly manner possible; offering, for example, to the eurozone countries that will be left behind (fretting France in particular): a few gifts (e.g. Germany may choose to foot the bill for existing bailouts), an illusion of unity (e.g. suggesting that the new Germanic currency is also minted and administered by the European Central Bank – which will now be responsible for more than one currency at once), and some vague promises (of possible fusion of these currencies, once the ‘right’ discipline has been knocked into the hearts and minds of the undisciplined).

To sum up, when I hear that Germany is planning for a Greek exit for the eurozone, even for a Greek default, I immediately suspect that Germany is planning a controlled disintegration of the eurozone, and, at once, I fear that it will only manage to achieve an uncontrolled disintegration, whose end result will be massive recession in the European north and gargantuan stagflation in the European periphery.  Or, as the Bard might have said, ‘For in that sleep of debt what dreams may come, When we have shuffled off this Greek coil, Must give us pause…’

Yanis Varoufakis teaches political economics at the University of Athens.  Visit his blog at http://yanisvaroufakis.eu/

© 2011 by Yanis Varoufakis.


Tear Down the Firewalls

© By Birgitta Jonsdottir

I am born on a small island at the edge of the world with only 315,000 people sharing it with me.  My island has natural borders, with the roaring Atlantic Ocean creating a shield against the rest of the world.  That shield can cause an intense sense of cultural and personal claustrophobia.  Nepotism thrives and everything becomes predictable.  You are either related to everyone you meet or you and another know someone mutual intimately.  This can be a curse or a blessing, depending how you look at it.  I never really fit in the box people tried to put me in, and I felt increasing discomfort with the labels attached to me by my relatives and by perfect strangers who had heard something about me through the grapevine.  The only way out of this box — which had shaped itself around me much like the binding of feet to make them small or the placing of rings around a neck to make it long — was to hitch a ride on an iron bird.  And so I did.   I found the layers of expectations dissolve, and I discovered that I was not the person my environment had tried to make me believe I was.  After many years of experimenting with new countries, new people, and the unknown, I was ready to settle on my island, because I had discovered that I don’t belong to any one nation.  I am free to say, instead, that I belong to all of this planet — and that its borders are just an optical illusion.

One of the prime influences in shaping this view was my participation in co-creating the landscape of the new world online.  In 1995, I started working with the shapers and pioneers in the internet landscape in Iceland and beyond.  One of my passions was to merge creative spaces: music, poetry, and art all bleed well together in the multi-creative space of the internet.  But that was not enough.  After all, this was a new world, without borders and without limitations, other than the limitations of our imagination.  We could shape it with impossible ideas that became reality because likeminded people found each other, no matter where they happened to be located in the real world.  We could work together — trans-border, trans-culture, transgender, trans-party, trans-race.  It was a world of transparency, almost beyond duality.  It was as close to paradise as I could get in this human vessel.  It was almost spiritual; it was as if the collective consciousness had taken on tangible shape in a virtual world that was influencing the real world at an increased speed every day.  My dream was that this world we created with the free flow of ideas, information, and understanding could manifest itself outside the virtual.

The internet has given us the tools to empower ourselves in the real world, with knowledge beyond the cultural conditioning we acquire within our own culture.  The internet has given us the tools to work together beyond traditional borders, and it has allowed us to create real windows into the real world that reach far beyond our cultural beliefs about other countries.  However, this world beyond borders is now under serious threat, a threat that is growing at an alarming rate.  I have seen the development of the internet since its early visual stage.  I have seen how it can improve and enrich the quality of life with the free flow of information and expression.  I have also seen how those who hold the reigns of power in our world have discovered that the internet needs to be tamed, like the rest of the world, and brought under their control — to be industrialized in the same manner that other media have been brought under control by industry and the state.  My last hope of gathering momentum in stopping this development is through the free spirit within the wilderness of the internet — where the conditioning and the reigns of control have not been able to tame the free spirits who roam with the hackers’ manifesto singing in their hearts.

I have seen new stories and new myths emerge out of the language of the internet, where people speak together through Google and translate new languages; and I have seen the library of Alexandria materialize with free knowledge and torrents of information wash upon shores otherwise impossible to reach.  I have seen the alchemy of stories take on real shape in a collective online effort; and the truth seeped into the real world.  As the untouchables try to hide their secrets for the chosen few, those secrets keep spilling out in a whirlwind of letters in every digital corner of the world.  They sweep through the streets of Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Greece, Iceland, Hungary, Libya, and the United States — confirming that the rumors are true: “corpocracy” is the new global empire, and it thrives in local corruption.

The internet has given people access to information that should remain in the public domain; yet it is a trending policy to make everything secret by default, without a consensus about the process of deciding what needs to be kept secret.  Transparency and open access to information are the only real pressures on governments to remain true democracies.  If you don’t have freedom of information and expression, you are not living in a democracy; rather it’s the rule of dictatorship with many heads.  Many people don’t realize that if we won’t have freedom of information online, we won’t have it offline.

The culture of free flow of information is still strong online, and every attempt to block, hinder, or erase information is met with increased creativity.  Yet those of us who care for freedom of information have to step-up our quest to remove the gags, tear down the firewalls, and dissolve the invisible filter borders.  The telecom companies have gained incredible power and tend to cave-in under government pressure, as we saw happen in Egypt in early 2011.  We also saw Amazon cave-in under political pressure and kick WikiLeaks off its cloud.  We have information refugees moving from one IP host to another and from one country to another, never knowing when the current IP host may be forced to kick them out.  Information refugees usually publish material that is critical of governments or corporations.  Corporation and specialized law-firms are trying to find the best country to serve as a medium to attack and gag journalists, writers, publishers, and the rest of the media. They have become so good at it that unwanted stories have vanished from the public domain.  Modern book-burnings occur every day in every library in the world by a click of a button.  Libel tourism, prior restraints, gag orders, out-of-court settlements, and tampering with our online historical records are altering our current history in real time and robbing us of the possibility to be informed about the activities of the most influential corporations and politicians in our world.  We have to do everything in our power to stop this development — through lawmaking and creative resistance.  The “Icelandic Modern Media Initiative” (IMMI) is an attempt to raise the standard and upgrade the current legal framework to strengthen freedom of information, speech, and expression in our world.

You can find more information about that initiative and its institution at http://immi.is.  There are many other organizations that resist and inspire, among them, EFF, WikiLeaks, Index on Censorship, and Avaaz — to name a few.  You can make a difference.  Be inspired!

Birgitta Jonsdottir is a member of the Icelandic parliament and chairman of the board of directors for the International Modern Media Institute.

© 2011 by Birgitta Jonsdottir.


War on the Middle Class in America

© By Senator Bernie Sanders

Mr. President, there is a war going on in this country, and I am not referring to the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.  I am talking about a war being waged by some of the wealthiest and most powerful people in this country against the working families of the United States of America, against the disappearing and shrinking middle class of our country.

The reality is many of the nation’s billionaires are on the warpath.  They want more, more, more. Their greed has no end, and apparently there is very little concern for our country or for the people of this country if it gets in the way of the accumulation of more and more wealth and more and more power.

Mr. President, in the year 2007, the top one percent of all income earners in the United States made 23.5% of all income.  That is apparently not enough.  The percentage of income going to the top one percent has nearly tripled since the 1970s.  In the mid-1970s, the top one percent earned about 8% of all income; in the 1980s, that figure jumped to 14%; in the late 1990s, that one percent earned about 19%.  And today, as the middle class collapses, the top one percent earns 23.5% of all income — more than the entire bottom 50 percent. Today, if you can believe it, the top one-tenth of one percent earns about 12 cents of every dollar earned in America.

We talk about a lot of things on the floor of the Senate, but somehow we forget to talk about the reality of who is winning in this economy and who is losing.  It is very clear to anyone who spends two minutes studying the issue that the people on top are doing extraordinarily well at the same time as the middle class is collapsing and poverty is increasing.  Many people out there are angry, and they are wondering what is happening to their own income, to their lives, to the lives of their kids.

If you can believe this, since between 1980 and 2005, 80% of all new income created in this country went to the top one percent — 80% of all new income! That is why people are wondering: What is going on in my life?  How come I am working longer hours for lower wages?  How come I am worrying about whether my kids will have as good a standard of living as I had?  From 1980 until 2005, 80% of all new income went to the top one percent.

After we bailed them out, Wall Street executives — the crooks whose actions resulted in the severe recession we are in right now; the people whose illegal, reckless actions have resulted in millions of Americans losing their jobs, their homes, and their savings — are now earning more money than they did before the bailout.  And while the middle class of this country collapses and the rich become much richer, the United States now has by far the most unequal distribution of income and wealth of any major country on Earth.

Mr. President, when we were in school, we used to read the textbooks which talked about the banana republics in Latin America.  We used to read the books about countries in which a handful of people owned and controlled most of the wealth of those countries.  Well, guess what?  That is exactly what is happening today in the United States. And apparently the only concern of some of the wealthiest people in this country is more and more wealth and more and more power — not all of them, by the way.  Not all of them.  There are many wealthy people in this country who understand that it is important is that all of us do well. And this is an issue — greed is an issue — we have to deal with.

In the midst of all of this growing income and wealth inequality in this country, we are now faced with the issue of what we do with the Bush tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.  And if you can believe it, we have people here, many of my Republican colleagues, who tell us: ‘Oh, I am so concerned about our record-breaking deficit.  I am terribly concerned about a $13.7 trillion national debt.  I am terribly concerned about the debt we are going to be leaving to our kids and our grandchildren.  But wait a minute. It is very important that we give, over a 10-year period, $700 billion in tax breaks to the top two percent.’ Oh yeah, we are concerned about the debt, we are concerned about the deficit, but we are more concerned that millionaires — people who earn at least $1 million a year or more — get, on average, $100,000 a year in tax breaks.  So we have a $13.7 trillion national debt, and growing, we have growing income inequality — the top one percent earning more income than the bottom 50 percent — but the highest priority of many of my Republican colleagues is to make sure millionaires and billionaires get more tax breaks.  I think that is absurd.

But it is not only income tax rates that we are dealing with; it is the estate tax as well.  And let’s be clear.  While some of my friends want to eliminate completely the estate tax — which has been in existence in this country since 1916 — every nickel of those benefits will go to the top three-tenths of one percent. If we did as some of my friends would like — eliminate the estate tax completely — it would cost us $1 trillion in revenue over a 10-year period, with all of the benefits going to the top three-tenths of one percent.

So I am sure that in a little while my friends will come to the floor and say:  We are very concerned about the deficit, we are very concerned about the national debt, but do you know what we are more concerned about?  Giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country.

Mr. President, the tax issue is just one part of what some of our wealthy friends want to see happen in this country.  The reality is that many of these folks want to bring the United States back to where we were in the 1920s, and they want to do their best to eliminate all traces of social legislation which working families fought tooth and nail to develop to bring a modicum of stability and security to their lives.

There are people out there — not all, but there are some — who want to privatize or completely eliminate Social Security.  They want to privatize or cut back substantially on Medicare.  Yes, if you are 75 years of age and you have no money, good luck to you getting your health insurance at an affordable cost from a private insurance company.  I am just sure there are all kinds of private insurance companies out there just delighted to take care of low-income seniors who are struggling with cancer or another disease.

Furthermore, there are corporate leaders out there, and many Members of Congress, who not only want to continue but to expand our disastrous trade policies.  My wife and I went shopping the other day — started our Christmas shopping — and we looked and we looked and virtually every consumer product that was out there in the stores was China, China, and China.  We seem to be a country in which we have a 51st State named China which is producing virtually all of the products we as Americans consume.

Our trade policy has resulted in the loss of millions of good-paying jobs as large corporations and CEOs have said: Why do I want to reinvest in America when I can go to countries where people are paid 50 or 75 cents an hour?  That is what I am going to do:  To heck with the working people of this country.  So not only are we saddled with this disastrous trade policy, but there are people who actually want to expand it.

While we struggle with a record-breaking deficit and a large national debt — caused by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, caused by tax breaks for the wealthy, caused by an unpaid-for Medicare Part-D prescription drug program, caused by the Wall Street bailout driving up the deficit, driving up the national debt — some people will say: ‘Oh my goodness, we have all those expenses, and then we have to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires, but we want to balance the budget. Gee, how are we going to do that?’

Obviously, we know how they are going to do that.  They are going to cut back on health care, they are going to cut back on education, they are going to cut back on child care, and they are going to cut back on ‘Pell programs.’* We just don’t have enough money for working families and nannies.  We are going to cut back on food stamps.  We are surely not going to expand unemployment compensation.  We have a higher priority, Mr. President:  We have got to, got to, got to give tax breaks to millionaires.  I mean, that is what this place is all about, isn’t it?  They fund the campaigns, so they get what is due them.

Amazingly enough, we have the CEOs on Wall Street and the large financial institutions that want to rescind or slow down many of the provisions — the very modest provisions — in the financial reform bill.  I voted for the financial reform bill, but I will tell you clearly that it did not go anywhere near far enough.  But it went too far for our Wall Street friends and their lobbyists, who are all over here. And for the hundreds of millions of dollars Wall Street spends on this place, they want to rescind, or slow down, some of the reforms.

These people want to cut back on the powers of the EPA and the Department of Energy so that Exxon-Mobil can remain the most profitable corporation in world history while oil and coal companies continue to pollute our air and our water.  Last year, Exxon-Mobil made $19 billion in profit.  Guess what?  They paid zero in taxes.  They got a $156 million refund from the IRS.  I guess that is not good enough.  We have to give the oil companies even more tax breaks.

So I think that is where we are.  We have to own up to it.  There is a war going on.  The middle class is struggling for existence, and they are taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces in the world whose greed has no end. And if we don’t begin to stand together and start representing those families, there will not be a middle class in this country.

Bernie Sanders is a United States Senator (Independent) from Vermont.  Senator Sanders delivered the foregoing speech on the floor of the United States Senate on Tuesday, November 30, 2010.  The edited version appearing here is reprinted with permission.

© 2010 by Sen. Bernie Sanders.

* The U.S. Federal Pell Grant Program provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain post-baccalaureate students to promote access to post-secondary education.


At Arm’s Length

© By Justine Ponomareff

“There is a completely blurred line between spectator and participant.” (Emily Haines of Metric)

As a society, we are removed from nature.  We watch it exist behind a glass wall or a television screen.  That’s what we are, a society of observers.  We are comfortable observing.  We go to the zoo, turn on the television, and sit amongst the audience.  We are content doing these things.  But when an animal shatters the image of pleasant obedience to which our society is so accustomed, shock ensues.  We are used to animals adhering to the limitations we set for them, and when these limitations are ignored, it becomes apparent that observing is not as harmless as we’d like to believe.

Quesero the Spanish bull made three attempts before managing to heave his half tonne body over the arena’s barrier, and then over a wire barrier and into the stands.  In a state of desperation he began to rampage through the crowd.  This was only three months ago during a ‘recortes’ in Northern Spain, an event that involves men getting as close to the bull as possible without getting harmed.  The stands were filled with thousands of spectators, many of whom were taunting and heckling the bull before he escaped.  The people who paid to see this display of bravado, who sat, watched, and cheered for every sad and confused pass Quesero made, were not expecting to be forced into a state of accountability.  Their jeering was replaced with sheer panic as the bull ran rampantly through the stands, injuring forty.  These people were not injured because this bull was vicious, but because they chose to support an event that confuses and torments bulls, making spectacles of them.  The crowd didn’t expect to become a spectacle themselves – an example of what can happen when animals have reached their breaking point.  Quesero was shot for doing what his instincts told him to — charging his tormentors, which in the confines of the arena would have earned him applause.

Only a month later, across the world in Japan, a dolphin named Kuru made her own desperate bid for freedom.  But she was not seeking the same sort of freedom as Quesero.  During a marine show the dolphin leapt out of her tank, landing on the floor in front of the rows of spectators.  It is fair to assume that a collective gasp and a sudden hush followed this unexpected occurrence; seeing a dolphin out of the water is to see them in their most vulnerable state, and it’s extremely unnerving.  In the wild, dolphins swim hundreds of miles in a single day.  In captivity they swim circles around a tiny tank and turn tricks for our delight.  They smile in that oh-so-sapient way because it’s what humans want.  They are such bright creatures, but it seems to be wasted on us.  We think that by clapping we are showing appreciation for their athleticism and grace; but the only way to honour beauty is to let it be.  And humans seem to find it so hard to just let the natural world be; we need to package it and put it on a pedestal.  And, to the audience’s relief, Kuru was rescued and put back on her pedestal — probably the last thing that she wanted.  We go to the marine show to see a beautiful animal flip, jump, spin, and, of course, smile.  But we don’t expect to see them deliberately leap out of the one thing that is keeping them alive. We don’t expect a dolphin to leave the water, the one thing separating us from them.  No distance between us and the entertainment, that’s what we really find unnerving.

These are just two recent examples of animals ignoring the restraints that humans cherish.  This has been happening for thousands of years, and with the invention of television, internet, and now YouTube, observing has become that much more convenient and private.  But if it is this uncomfortable to be placed in the unfamiliar and unfavorable role of participant, why are animals still used for entertainment?  Because we all want a show.  We want a show badly enough to ignore the ‘incidents’ that test our comfort levels and blur our boundaries.  To us, none of this is madness, it’s just something that happens, and then we’re onto the next thing.  It doesn’t matter what that thing may be, as long as we’re liking it we feel good.  Instant gratification and self-preservation: it’s when the two start conflicting that we suddenly start caring.  And, even then, it’s never our fault.  Instead, these incidents are the result of a ‘rogue’ animal who had abnormal or vicious tendencies.

Most of the time, it’s safe to poke and prod from a distance;  we came, we paid, we watched. It’s rare that we are forced into that state of accountability — rare enough that we can retain our sense of moral integrity.  But sometimes the whale pins their trainer to the bottom of the tank.  Sometimes the tiger mauls their tormentor.  Sometimes an angry bull rampages through a crowd.  Sometimes a circus elephant crumbles under the weight of a lifetime of abuse.  When these things happen, we witness the impact of the limitations we place on animals.  We may not be the matador, the trainer, the provoker, or the ringmaster, but we’re the ones condoning this exploitation.  Whether or not we choose to acknowledge it, the things we observe have consequences.

Justine Ponomareff is a writer and prospective student of journalism.

© 2010 by Justine Ponomareff.


We all Live in One Big Disney World

© By Peter Berg

Why do people still drive all the way to Florida and visit Disney World when they can enjoy the same unreal theatre, called life, at home?  These are strange times and they are getting stranger by the day.

Mass media, politicians, economists, and businessmen are telling us that we are only in a temporary crisis.  Economic growth is just around the corner.  Meanwhile, governments all over the world borrow record amounts of money for which future generations will be on the hook.  Nobody states the ugly truth: this debt will never be paid back.  Instead, we start the printing press, so much so that even the famous Public Debt Clock in New York ran out of digits.  South of the border, they are now finding themselves in more than $13,500,000,000,000 of federal debt.  This is equivalent to about $40,000 for every citizen of the country but, more importantly, about $80,000 for every working citizen — never mind the personal, state, or municipal debts that need to be added to this figure.

Debts are a bet about future economic growth.  Without growth, default is looming.  Unfortunately, our species has exceeded the carrying capacity of the planet.  The Earth cannot sustain the rates of resource flows that we are demanding.  We have literally run up against the limits of our biosphere and, hence, the limits to growth. Our very monetary system predominantly based on virtual money rather than coins and notes, is at stake.  It is a very telling development that nobody, especially economists, has a clue any longer what is happening to our world.  Meanwhile, events are unfolding at an accelerating pace, often so surreal in nature that just five years ago we thought they were impossibilities.

Miscommunication and misinformation is adding to the sense of being at a loss, a feeling that many of us experience these days.  For example, a couple of months ago, it was announced that the U.S. Federal Reserve is buying government debts!  How is that even possible when the government is borrowing from the Federal Reserve (a conglomerate of twelve private banks) in the first place?  It must be imprecise bankers’ jargon, the validity of which is no longer questioned.  How can you buy something you are in turn owing to someone else?  A negative price?  Surely, they must mean that the Federal Reserve is issuing debts to the government, i.e. lending money.  Or else, as one person put it: “The only hope is that this debt chases itself in circles until it devours itself and disappears into nothingness!”  It all sounds a bit desperate to me.

It is a sad reality that there are no sufficient public funds to retire the baby boomers while we maintain the same standard of living.  And, no, substantial economic growth will not return, unless it comes in disguise, namely inflation.  Canada has avoided the most severe consequences of the global meltdown so far.  However, are we not following other nations into Lalaland when we place all our bets on an over-inflated housing market that enslaves people through 30-year mortgages?  Why should Canadian home prices not come down as the U.S. economy continues to struggle and the bailout money ends?  After all, it is just meant to be a stimulus — not more, not less.  If we do not start making stuff in this country again, how will we create true wealth?  It will certainly not be achieved by the new and so-called ‘creative class.’  Ph.D.s in psychology do not make any goods.

One might say that reality is what one observes and not what one is told.  As the first decade of the 21st century is drawing to a close, we can observe the converging trends of global resource scarcity, population increase, and rising food prices.  The pressure on our planet is growing.  Despite of these developments, we prefer to watch celebrity news than to pay attention to a flooded Pakistan.  We cheer for UFC fighters, gladiators in a socio-economic system that is approaching its end of growth, and online gambling is being launched in Ontario.  In these times of crisis, the level of entertainment is reaching new lows while the distraction of the masses is reaching new highs.  Perhaps, the reason is that we want to be entertained and lied to, just like a child who wants Disney World to be true.

Dr. Peter Berg is an associate professor of physics at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) and director of its Energy and the Environment Program. He is currently writing a book on energy, the environment, and the economy in the 21st century.

© 2010 by Peter Berg.


Full-Body Airport Scanners:  Intrusive Surveillance and a False Sense of Security

Kate Hanni (photo by M. Steinbacher)

© By Kate Hanni

On December 25, 2009, when the media reported on Umar Farouk Adbulmutallab’s attempt to detonate an explosive device aboard a Northwest airliner bound for Detroit, images of 9/11 were once again conjured up in the collective minds of Americans across the country.  More significant was the national groan from millions of air travelers who anxiously anticipated the next wave of invasive and ineffective security procedures to be implemented by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Since 9/11, the flying public has been subjected to myriad new rules as lines at security checkpoints have reached unbearable levels at many of the nation’s busiest airports. Air travelers have been subjected to supplemental gate pat-downs, the removal of shoes and belts, and restrictions on liquids and gels. Additionally, the TSA and security personnel abroad have touted the use of state-of-the-art x-ray machines and contraband detection methods.  Despite these so-called “advances” in airport security training and technology, no person or machine detected the explosives on Abdulmutallab’s person Christmas day, more than eight years after the most brazen and fatal airline hijacking in history.

Once again, federal officials are back to square one in the airport security arena, despite nearly a decade of effort and investing billions of dollars.  Now the TSA, backed by the federal government, believes that full-body scanners manufactured by Rapiscan hold the absolute answer to the world’s airport security woes.  And let’s not forget the ringing endorsement of these scanners by former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, as he put on his best Billy Maysesque performance for the weekly talk shows. It all sounds perfect. Does that mean that passengers nationwide can now breathe a collective sigh of relief?  Well, not quite.  It turns out that Chertoff failed to mention that he is a paid consultant for Rapiscan. Fortunately, he was exposed when CNN anchor Campbell Brown questioned him on the air, forcing him to disclose his financial relationship with the company.

Despite the government’s ironclad guarantee that full-body scanners are the answer, despite the fact that the TSA has already purchased 150 Rapiscan units and is poised to purchase 300 more at a cost of $76 million to the taxpayers, and despite Michael Chertoff’s assertion that these scanners are the pinnacle of airport security evolution, there is still no consensus that these machines are even capable of detecting explosives like the ones carried by Abdulmutallab.  When President Obama’s top counterterrorism aide, John Brennan, was asked on Meet the Press whether full-body scanners would have detected Abdulmutallab’s explosives, he responded, “I think it’s an unknown.” That’s hardly a ringing endorsement.  So, what this all means is that an “unknown” is providing the impetus for a $76 million shopping spree at the taxpayers’ expense?

Fortunately, there are several experts who believe there are simpler, less invasive and more cost effective solutions for early detection of airport security breaches.  Dr. Kenneth G. Furton, Professor of Chemistry at the International Forensic Research Institute at Florida International University is one such expert.  Dr. Furton has done extensive research on the reliability of canines in the detection of forensic specimens and is convinced that the use of canines as contraband detectors is a far more effective, and certainly less expensive, tactic for sniffing out (pardon the pun) explosive materials than the use of full-body scanners.  In a 2005 research article on the reliability of canine detection, published in The Canadian Journal of Police & Security Services, Dr. Furton made this assertion, “Overall, detector dogs still represent the state of the art in real-time detection of items of forensic interest. There will likely be no replacement for the use of detector dogs in the foreseeable future unless numerous compromises are made in terms of speed, accuracy, sensitivity, selectivity, reliability and mobility.”  Furthermore, Dr. Furton maintains that research has shown that canines have the ability to detect explosives in a far less intrusive manner than full-body scanners.

Despite extensive research to support his assertions, even Dr. Furton believes that there is not one end-all, be-all way to prevent terrorists from smuggling explosives on board commercial airliners. What’s best, he concludes, is a multi-layered approach to airport security that is efficient, accurate, cost effective and minimally invasive to passengers.  The Rapiscan full-body scanner displays none of those traits. In fact, though it can depict a person’s unclothed body with shocking detail (a virtual strip search), it is only capable of detecting objects within one-tenth of an inch of the skin on a human body. Translation: A terrorist who conceals explosives in a body cavity, crevice, adult diaper, feminine protection, or a myriad of other ways, will walk through a full-body scanner completely undetected.  Yet the TSA wants to order mass quantities of an invasive technology that sees the human body, but can’t see objects hidden in it.  And speaking of “invasive,” James Carafano, a homeland security expert at the Heritage Foundation assured the Washington Post that the scanners “cover up the dirty bits.”  Pardon our ignorance, Mr. Carafano, but wouldn’t a terrorist be likely to hide an explosive utilizing one of those “dirty bits” if s/he had that piece of information?

The bottom line in all of this is that despite the TSA’s rush to judgment, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving airport security and it is irresponsible of the government to freely spend tax payer money on new technology without research to support its effectiveness.  Moreover, Americans aren’t willing to be humiliated every time they fly, particularly if these scanners won’t even improve security.  If the flood of messages from FlyersRights.org’s members is any indication as to the general state of mind of the nation’s air travelers regarding the use of full-body scanners, then the airlines may need to brace themselves for a very lean 2010.

Kate Hanni is Executive Director of the “Coalition for Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights” in the United States.  Visit that organization at:  www.flyersrights.org

This article was originally published in “U.S. News and World Report” and is republished here with the permission of its author.


Twenty-one Observations on the Human Condition

© By John Arkelian

Illustrated by Linda Arkelian

(1)  Death by Taser?

In October 2007, Robert Dziekanski, a 40-year old immigrant who spoke only Polish, arrived at the Vancouver Airport after 24 hours in transit, expecting to be met by his mother.  Instead, he was met by neglect and indifference by airport staff who left the inexperienced traveler to his own devices for more than 10 hours — stranded in an area just shy of the main arrivals space.  Had the staff done their jobs, by being proactive and showing some initiative (not to mention compassion), they would have found a way to communicate with Mr. Dziekanski and to unite him with his mother, who had been waiting nearby.  Instead, he was overlooked, and he grew increasingly confused, frustrated, and emotionally agitated as the hours passed.  That’s when he was confronted by four RCMP officers who proceeded to taser him five times.  They shot him with darts carrying a painfully incapacitating electrical current, and they continued to do so again and again, even when he was writhing on the ground in agony.  And so he died.  It was an utterly unnecessary death, one that has left the credibility of the RCMP in tatters and the reputation of Canada badly tarnished.  Suggestions that one bedraggled man posed any danger at all to a quartet of armed policeman (even if he was brandishing a simple office stapler) are not borne out by the videotape evidence or by plain old common sense.  It’s clear that the police officers used excessive force.  The very least that should happen to them is an immediate end to their careers in law enforcement.  They should probably face criminal charges as well.  (Take your pick: perjury, assault causing death, obstruction of justice, and/or manslaughter.)  As for the infernal device that they so recklessly used on Mr. Dziekanski, the taser should either be withdrawn from service, or it should at least be immediately (and permanently) designated as a potentially lethal weapon, with its use narrowly restricted to those last-resort situations in which a police officer is lawfully entitled to discharge a firearm.

(2)  A Study in Grace Under Pressure

In November 2008, a CBC journalist was freed after spending a month in a dark hole in the ground as the captive of kidnappers in Afghanistan.  Her composure and modesty when she told her harrowing story in the days that followed her release made Melissa Fung a picture of serenity and grace.

(3)  A Turquoise Light in the Darkness

There’s other good news from Afghanistan, and it takes the form of a place called Turquoise Mountain.  It’s a school for adults that offers three-year courses in Afghan arts and crafts, things like woodworking, calligraphy, and ceramics.  (There were over 650 applicants for 33 places in its calligraphy program alone.)  Its raison d’etre is to create jobs, restore pride, and train self-sufficient artisans.  It seeks, in short, to make a difference on the ground — and to restore the old-quarter of Kabul into the bargain.  Canada is one of the supporters of Turquoise Mountain, donating $1 million over three years to its worthy work.  With unending reminders of violence, misogyny, and backwardness coming out of the benighted place we call Afghanistan, the positive contribution made by Turquoise Mountain shines like a beacon of hope in a morass of darkness.

(4)  A Tempest in a Constitutional Teacup

Remember the political fracas back in late November and early December 2008 that swirled around an impending vote of non-confidence and the cobbling together of a coalition of opposition parties intent on unseating the minority Conservative government in Ottawa?  It all started when Stephen Harper (and his fellow ideologue Jim Flaherty) seized an opportunity to do potentially lethal damage to their political opponents by announcing an abrupt end to the public funding on which opposition parties depend for their very existence.  It was partisan maliciousness writ large.  And it irresponsibly precipitated a domestic political crisis when the entire world was already in the grip of a financial calamity.  Two of the opposition parties, with the passive support of the third, found common cause and announced their intention to defeat the government in a confidence vote a few days later, with a view to taking its place as a coalition government that had the support of a majority of Members of Parliament.

The Conservatives responded with wild accusations that the opposition parties were engaged in some sort of coup, aiming to subvert democracy by supposedly overturning the result of the recent federal election.  Such assertions were baseless, insofar as they conveniently ignored the obvious fact that that same election had left the opposition parties, collectively, with a majority of the seats in Parliament.  But the fear-mongering didn’t end there; on the contrary, there were insidious suggestions that the proposed coalition government smacked of sedition or even treason.  Legally and constitutionally, that was sheer nonsense, of course.  But, it was dangerous nonsense that sought to deliberately mislead citizens (who ought to have known better) about the way our democratic system works.  Even the normally reliable CBC irresponsibly echoed the ‘constitutional crisis’ alarums that were so cynically sounded by the government.  One night’s special news coverage had anchorman Peter Mansbridge sitting in front of a graphic of angry storm clouds (atop Parliament Hill) that looked like a furious onslaught by forces of darkness straight out of Tolkien’s Mordor.

Prime Minister Harper took abuse of process a big step further when he went to Governor General Michaelle Jean to ask her to “prorogue” Parliament, that is, to temporarily suspend it for several weeks.  While our constitutional system permits a Prime Minister to do that, it has never before been done for the purpose of avoiding a confidence vote and thereby artificially propping-up a government that is about to lose such a vote.  So, the unelected Governor General met in secret with the head of a minority government and accepted his “advice” about proroguing Parliament, apparently without even imposing any conditions.  Talk about carte blanche!  One thing did proceed according to convention:  We never heard a peep from the Governor General herself on the matter.  It seems she’s a latter-day Oracle of Delphi, whom only the self-appointed High Priest can consult.

(5)  The Leaders We Deserve?

It’s said that people get the government (and leaders) they deserve.  If so, we must be a pretty reprehensible lot, given the manifold deficiencies in character, integrity, and vision of those we keep electing to public office.  It’s the rule of the petty philistines, people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  Consider the case of Stephen Harper.  Petulant, humorless, mean-spirited, narrowly partisan, and cold, he’s got a small condescending voice that sounds for all the world like that of an impatient misanthropist talking down to naughty children.  Should enough of us tire of him, who is likely to take his place?  Why, none other than Michael Ignatieff, who positively exudes an air of being ‘to the manor born.’  And why shouldn’t he?  He only deigned to return to Canada from his self-imposed exile of over 30 years in order to make a presumptuous bid for the highest office in the land.  And he’s well on his way, having been anointed leader of the Liberal Party without the inconvenience of even having to wage a leadership campaign.  A leading British newspaper, the Guardian, calls Ignatieff a “blowhard.”  Much more troubling is his lamentable track-record at Harvard as an apologist both for torture (he preferred the empty euphemism “coercive interrogation”) and for the Bushites’ war-under-false-pretenses in Iraq.  One would have thought that a track record like that, combined with his choice to spend most of his adult life outside of this country, should have dissuaded any sensible political party from crowning him as their leader, let alone doing so by acclamation.

It’s sad that the Liberals made such short work of their previous leader, Stephane Dion.  It’s true that he was short on charisma and came across awkwardly in English.  But he also conveyed intelligence and integrity.  And, how common are those qualities in politics?  Rightly or wrongly, Dion too often came across as ineffectual; but, more importantly, he also struck us as a decent man.  If only decency counted for more than superficial polish.  What was decidedly indecent were the vicious personal attacks to which Dion was subjected by Harper’s Conservatives from the moment he was elected leader and the anonymous disloyalty to which he was treated by members of his own party.

(6)  The Leaders They Deserve?

There was something disconcerting about the endless American Presidential campaign, something that left us asking, ‘Are these the best candidates they can come up with?’  When Barack Obama won that election on November 4, 2008, to an unseemly chorus of hosannas, he was at once hailed as a “transformational” President.  But, surely, that is hyperbolic and premature.  The fact is that he is a mostly unproven leader.  Yes, he is an eloquent, dignified, and, at times, inspirational speaker.  But, before he was elected, all of that inspiration came from style, not from substance or a record of achievement.  Could it be that Obama is a blank slate, onto which we are projecting our individual and collective hopes and yearnings?  He appealed to a widespread desire for “change,” but, really, how vague can you get?  And the near adulation that accompanied his candidacy and victory is troubling.  It’s bad enough that we bestow such adulation upon music stars, film stars, sports stars, and other so-called celebrities; it’s far worse to bestow it upon political leaders.  If they earn it, our leaders deserve our respect, but never our idolatry.

Much has been made of the fact that Americans elected their first black President.  It is cited as a great milestone, and, given the long legacy of racism, it does have a certain historical resonance.  On the other hand, while slavery and its hundred year aftermath of racial segregation and bigotry were terrible things, they ceased to be pervasive attributes of the United States years ago.  We would have come immeasurably further as a society if skin color were so irrelevant as to deserve no mention at all.  The color of someone’s skin is no reason to vote for or against them.  If we were truly color-blind, as we ought to be in such matters, we would not think skin tone was even worth mentioning.  Yet, in his victory speech, Obama declared that, “America is a place where all things are possible.”  That’s a commendable proposition as far as it goes, but not when he was seemingly citing his own election as evidence.  It smacks of hubris, when what we need most in our leaders are humility and compassion.

Credible sources have suggested that Obama very deliberately chose to run for President while he was still a relatively unknown commodity.  Had he put off his run for the highest office in the land, he’d have inevitably accumulated political baggage — simply by taking positions, one way or the other, on the controversial issues he’d encounter as a Senator.  Running for President sooner rather than later meant doing so before he’d acquired a longer track record on which he could be judged.  But, is that in the interests of the electorate?  Whether they are merely pragmatic or politically cynical, such machinations seem out of keeping with the idealism Obama seems to espouse.  GIven the choice between Obama and John McCain, it’s true that Obama was the more appealing candidate.  However, a free people should demand more from its election campaigns than bread and circuses.  We crave celebrity and spectacle, and we are mostly content to do without a thoughtful exchange of substantive ideas.  Those are not the attributes of a society that values its freedom and takes its democratic responsibilities seriously.

(7)  Bailing Out the Sinking Ship of State?

Ever since the financial crisis reared its ugly head last fall, we’ve been engaged in a staggeringly expensive bail-out.  In the case of the United States, the tally comes to many hundreds of billions of dollars.  Indeed, in the waning days of the Bush Administration, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. was prancing about with buckets of money like a latter-day Daddy Warbucks.  (He even looked the part.)  Meanwhile, politicos, journalists, and the rest of us have blindly accepted the official bipartisan line — that doomsday was upon us and that no expense, however massive, could be spared in the attempt to extinguish the inferno with oceans of money.  Not enough voices asked if the doomsday scenario was real.  Not enough of us considered other potential options.  If so many financial institutions were teetering on the edge of the precipice, maybe we should have at least entertained the idea of letting them fail.  Instead of pouring public money into a bottomless pit, we might have rid ourselves of those businesses that were brought down by their own reckless greed and mismanagement and instead helped healthy new banks, insurers, and investment companies take their place.

If, after a sober analysis of all available options, we nevertheless chose to prop-up some or all of the falling dominos, our enormous commitment of public resources ought to have come with iron-clad conditions attached:  (1) There should have been a purge of the upper echelons of all of the affected companies.  Those responsible should have been dismissed — and without severance pay.  (2) There should have been vigorous prosecution of any criminality involving the reckless or negligent mismanagement of the financial assets of the affected companies.  (3) New laws should have criminalized the kinds of financial speculation by banks and other corporations that precipitated this crisis in the first place (a crisis that has ravaged the savings of countless ordinary men and women).  (4) New laws should have permanently prohibited executive bonuses and perks and established sharp reductions in executive compensation.  (When the head of one failed financial institution appeared before a U.S. Senate committee last fall, a question arose over many hundreds of millions of dollars the man received as remuneration in one year.  Was it $800 million or a “mere” $250 million?  It was theater of the absurd!  No one ‘deserves’ to make hundreds of millions of dollars, or, indeed, anything close to it — private sector or not!)  (5) There should have been (but wasn’t) a fool-proof guarantee of absolute transparency in the use of bail-out monies.  The question is:  Why didn’t governments — here, there, or anywhere — think of, and implement, these conditions before they opened the floodgates and let the torrents of money flow?

(8)  Running on Empty?

Canada and the United States have also committed hundreds of millions of dollars to saving the ailing automotive giants General Motors and Chrysler from imminent collapse.  It’s a huge expenditure of public monies, with no guarantee that it will succeed.  Yes, it would be a blow to lose the manufacturing and ancillary jobs represented by these one-time industrial behemoths.  But, it might be cheaper just to help the affected workers.  Besides, if the automotive industry bail-out doesn’t include iron-clad guarantees for the long-term protection of jobs (and it doesn’t!), then why bother?

(9)  Spending Our Way to Oblivion?

The government of the United States was operating with a budget deficit of $455 billion in 2008.  That means its expenditures exceeded its revenues by nearly a half-trillion dollars.  That deficit may reach $1 trillion this year.  Meanwhile, as of last fall, the U.S. government had a total debt of $10 trillion.  For any country, no matter how rich and powerful, to exceed its means by those staggering amounts is a sure recipe for disaster.  The United States’ indebtedness is out of control and that’s a clear and present danger to the security of that great nation and to the rest of the free world.  The fact that much of that debt is held by China, a totalitarian tyranny with an ideology that is implacably hostile to our way of life, makes the situation intolerably more dangerous.

(10)  Torture in America

The United States should prosecute all those responsible for torturing prisoners at home or abroad.  That’s hardly likely to happen, of course.  Although President Obama did authorize the release of documents which further documented the Bush Administration’s shameful readiness to indulge in such grotesque violations of human rights, Obama’s own record elsewhere is less commendable.  For one thing, he’s okay with “rendition,” the unlawful practice of transporting captives to a third country for torture there.  And, alas, he’s back-tracking on his promise to abolish the so-called “extraordinary tribunals” (which would more accurately be called kangaroo courts) set up by his predecessor to try some of the inmates at Guantanamo Bay.  Why is he back-tracking?  Well, for the nefariously pragmatic reason that the torture and other abuses suffered by those prisoners while in American custody would result in a real court excluding any “evidence” obtained through such improper denial of rights.  In short, they don’t have enough untainted evidence on most of these “suspects” to convict them in a fair trial; but, they don’t want to just let them go, either.

(11)  The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same…

With the United States, Great Britain, and (too few) other allies, Canada has been expending a great deal of blood and money in an effort to remake Afghanistan.  At last count, 120 Canadians have sacrificed their lives in the conflict there.  And, according to Parliament’s chief budget officer, the war there is costing Canada $6.5 million a day.  By 2011, it will have cost us $18.1 billion.  (Incidentally, that’s more than twice what was predicted; and Parliament has no effective oversight over that massive expenditure.)  Imagine the embarrassment, then, when our local allies on the ground, the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai, signed-off this spring on the “Shia Personal Status Law,” a mind-boggling bit of backwardness that would allow members of that country’s Shiite minority to rape their wives with impunity and prohibit Shiite women from working, traveling, getting an education, or even receiving medical care without their husbands’ permission.  And, in the event of a marriage break-up, only fathers or grandfathers would be eligible for custody!  It was an attempt to curry favor with the country’s Shiites (or, at least, Shiite males); and, it was reluctantly withdrawn for ‘further study’ by the Karzai government only when it attracted a chorus of condemnation in the West,  We should make it clear to the Karzai government (and to everyone else in Afghanistan) that our military and developmental assistance activities there are unalterably conditional upon their vigorous support for, and protection of, human rights.  Yet, puzzlingly, no one from our government threatened to withdraw our support if Afghan authorities failed to observe those basic tenets of civilized behavior.  We did not overtly make our continued presence in that country contingent on its government permanently withdrawing the odiously misogynistic new law, even though our parliamentarians did (correctly) describe that new law as “regressive,” “horrifying,” and “unacceptable.”

(12)  Troubles in Pakistan

Since 9/11, Pakistan has received $11 billion in U.S. aid; yet it remains an unreliable ally at best.  It has never managed (or really tried?) to close its porous border with Afghanistan, over which Taliban militants daily cross with impunity on their way to and from the ambushing of allied forces.  It has not apprehended the top Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders who are thought to be sheltering within its borders.  It has not closed the so-called ‘religious schools’ that indoctrinate the young with poisonous hatred.  It celebrates as a national hero a scientist who endangered all of us by transferring nuclear secrets and material to rogue states.  It tolerates the presence of Islamists in its powerful military intelligence service.  And it periodically tries to placate extremists by giving them free-rein in parts of the country.  The latter reckless practice backfired this spring.  Taliban militants were granted control over one territory (the Swat Valley) in exchange for peace.  They wasted no time in imposing harsh ‘sharia law,’ beheading opponents, publicly flogging women, and burning girls’ schools.  But that didn’t satisfy them for long, and they soon advanced beyond their designated zone into the neighboring Bruner District, a mere 100 kilometers from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad.  Under pressure from Washington, Pakistan girded its loins and sent in its army, but not before thoughtful people the world over had to shudder at the prospect of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal falling into radical hands.

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again:  The West ought to have taken whatever action was necessary to prevent Pakistan, and its next-door nemesis, India, from acquiring nuclear weapons.  With their track record of recurring conflict (they’ve fought three full-scale wars), and South Asia’s vulnerability to terrorist infiltration, it’s not a region where nuclear weapons can safely reside.  Belatedly taking corrective measures, by obliterating Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal, will become an urgent necessity should radicals ever take control of that country.

(13)  Lawlessness on the High Seas

Piracy has become endemic off the coast of Somalia, in the busy shipping lanes of the Gulf of Aden (through which more than 20,000 ships pass each year) and across a million square miles of the Indian Ocean.  The toll Somali pirates are taking on commercial shipping far exceeds their resources; they usually operate in groups of ten, aboard small, but fast-moving, boats called skiffs.  Like terrorists, they provide an object lesson in “asymmetrical warfare,” in which a small, determined, and adaptable force can thwart a huge conventional one.  One commentator has said that we need “a more scrappy, street-fighting navy” to deal with this problem.  And, there are other options.  Why not, as another commentator has suggested, place small armed contingents of marines from allied countries aboard randomly selected merchant vessels and give them the mandate to use deadly force to repel borders?  That way, pirates would never know if their next intended prey was ready to fight back.  We can also make new international law, by arresting and prosecuting would-be pirates instead of merely seizing their weapons and releasing them.  And, in a constructive vein, we must do everything in our power to restore stability to Somalia and provide real opportunities for its long-suffering people.  That means putting an end to our plundering of its fish stocks and the despoiling of its waters with toxic wastes.  (By 2006, 700 foreign ships were vacuuming-up $100 million worth of fish from Somalia’s 3,300 km long coastline.)  But, if a judicious use of force to repel borders; substituting prosecutions for capture and release; and a genuine, concerted effort to rebuild that country do not suffice, the West needs to consider more aggressive measures, up to and including the systematic sinking by an allied fleet of every Somali ocean-going vessel in harbor or at sea.

(14)  Human Trafficking

The trafficking of human beings — usually for the purpose of enslaving young women as involuntary prostitutes — runs rampant in many places, including the supposedly civilized West.  This new slave trade was the subject of a recent documentary “Sex Slaves,” produced by investigative journalists from PBS’s “Frontline” and the CBC.  In too many places, apathy or corruption stays the hand of law enforcement agencies.  That has to change — urgently.  Human trafficking, that is, slavery, is an abomination that befouls our very notion of civilization.  Only one response to possible:  A concerted, implacable international effort to eradicate this evil and rescue its victims.

(15)  A Study in Civic Responsibility

It’s never wise to judge a book by its cover.  That goes for beauty pageant winners, too.  Nazanin Afshin-Jam, a former Miss Canada, has commendably become an activist for the rights of women and children in Iran, the country from which her father hails.  In April, Ms. Afshin-Jam boldly confronted the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outside U.N. offices in Switzerland on the subject of torture.  (In the aftermath of the highly suspect Iranian election results in June 2009, he could as justly be questioned about the legitimacy of his own return to power.)  If only more of us would take up the responsibility of holding to account the oppressive and corrupt.

(16)  Lord Black of the Hoosegow

Why, oh why, does the National Post continue to give the better part of a full page to its erstwhile owner every Saturday?  Conrad Black is a convicted felon, serving time in a federal penitentiary; yet there he is each week, expounding on world events like nothing untoward had befallen him.  There’s even a photograph of the man, looking (to the right of course) like the lord of all he surveys.  At the very least, shouldn’t the newspaper insist on him appearing in a convict’s striped garb rather than a former media tycoon’s more costly apparel?  The weekly column’s presence in a major newspaper tacitly implies that we should forget Black’s criminality and disgrace.  He certainly thinks we should.  Every now and then, he opines on his present predicament:  “Readers will be aware that I am at the moment, technically a criminal in the United States, thanks to the perversities of the country’s justice system.”  Technically?  There’s nothing very “technical” about being tried, convicted, and sentenced — despite having the best legal talent that only money can buy.  (Why is it that white collar criminals so often seem able to field the best, and most expensive, defense teams, while their victims can almost never afford such high-priced help?)  But, Black does not seem inclined to meaningful self-reflection, humility, or remorse.  He says he’s “planning the relaunch of my career when this lengthy and tiresome persecution is over,” and he even casts his criminal behavior in a heroic mold:  “But someone has to resist the putrefaction of justice…  and if someone of my means doesn’t, then who will?”  It is long past time to retire Black’s column.  It’s not as though there aren’t lots of other qualified commentators ready and able to take his place.

(17)  Freedom from Fear

‘Putrefaction of justice’ is a term that would more aptly be applied to the on-going ordeal of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.  Burma’s military dictatorship has had her under house arrest for years.  Now, they’re aiming to move her to other accommodations, namely a prison, through the expedient of trumped-up charges that she gave shelter to a foreigner who appeared at her door.  The cruel clique that tyrannizes Burma needs to be made ever more acutely aware of the utter revulsion with which they are regarded by the civilized world.  It’s enough to make one wax nostalgic for the now-discredited notion of regime change.

(18)  In Memory of the Brave Victims of Tiananmen

Ah, revulsion.  It’s a good word to describe how we feel about one of the Burmese dictatorship’s only friends — their fellow tyrants in China.  June 3rd was the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing.  Lest we forget, it consisted of the brutal slaughter of unarmed civilian protesters who wanted nothing more than freedom.  The regime launched a battlefield assault on its own citizens — with tanks, assault rifles, and fixed bayonets.  As many as 3,000 unarmed civilians were brutally killed.  All that from the ruthless tyrants with whom we in the West are more than happy to do business — and to whom we’ve recklessly allowed ourselves to become heavily indebted.

(19)  Gangsta Culture?

While gang-related gunfights aren’t exactly commonplace on the streets of Toronto, the appalling fact is that they have occurred, sending a spray of bullets in all directions and too often claiming innocent bystanders (like 15-year old Jane Creba in 2005) as their victims.  Such violent free-for-alls look like something out of an ugly Holllywood movie about thugs and killers.  But there’s nothing make-believe about this violence, and its presence on our streets is intolerable.  What to do about it?  That’s where we need to muster the resolve to venture down a politically incorrect path.  It is all but taboo to discuss the minority status of criminal offenders, lest we set in motion such ills as racial profiling.  But, the trouble is that gun violence in Toronto seems to be disproportionately associated with young men who have close ties (apparently as first or second generation immigrants) to a particular part of the world.  Is that impression accurate?  If it is, then perhaps we need to consider the uncomfortable option of ending immigration from that part of the world.  Does that mean that everyone from that part of the world commits crimes?  Of course not!  Would a ban on immigration from that part of the world penalize everyone for the criminal misconduct of a few?  Unfortunately, yes.  But, might such selectivity in immigration choices nevertheless be justifiable in the name of preserving the safety and lives of Canadians?  Possibly, yes.  We already pick and choose who enters Canada.  Adding a new criterion, based on the higher incidence of violent criminal offenders who come here from particular parts of the world — if such a higher incidence of criminality is in fact borne out by statistical evidence — is no different from applying other standards as to who we’ll take a chance on and who we won’t.

(20)  Funny Money?

A man who used to be the highest ranking official in the land.  Another man claiming to represent powerful (mostly foreign) business interests.  Private meetings in hotel rooms in New York and Montreal.  Envelopes stuffed with thousand dollar bills.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash changing hands without a paper trail.  Failure to report those monies to taxation authorities for several years.  Disputed claims as to the amounts paid and the services rendered.  Failure by one to reveal the existence of a business relationship with the other while being questioned on a matter involving other alleged dealings between the two.  What’s not “above board” about all of that?

(21)  The New Rajahs

Once upon a time, princes in India were known as rajahs, and their guiding principle was to take from the poor in order to give to themselves.  Well, today, too many politicians and senior bureaucrats in Britain and Canada have shamelessly taken up that princely mantle, determined, it seems, to spare us no outrage in improving their own lot at our expense.  Piracy, alas, isn’t confined to the coast of Somalia.  It’s alive and well and wearing a suit and tie right here in the West; while the notion of integrity seems to have been reduced to a laughing-stock by those we entrust with managing our public and private affairs.

This spring in Britain, scandal threatened to shake confidence in the very system of government itself, when it came to light that dozens of Members of Parliament were grossly abusing their privilege of claiming reimbursement of work-related expenses.  By mid-May, 80 of 646 legislators had been implicated, and the number continues to rise.  The list of private expenses which they brazenly billed to the public coffers is enough to make us shudder in outrage.  It includes:  X-rated movies, a bathtub plug, hanging plant baskets, cat food, toilet seats, horse manure, wine racks, rat poison, swimming pool maintenance, piano tuning, cleaning services (paid by the Prime Minister to his own brother!), a pizza cutter, chandeliers, dry rot repairs at a seaside holiday home, and repairs to a moat on a country estate!  One M.P. used taxpayers’ money to add an $88,750 extension to her flat so her brother could move in.  It’s a mind-boggling litany of selfishness, greed, and abuse of power.  Every M.P. implicated should be thrown out of office and prosecuted, though it’s not entirely clear whether, technically, they broke any laws!

There’s no reason to be smug on this side of the pond.  Last fall, a Toronto Star investigation documented high-priced travel by federal politicians and civil servants.  For example, former Agriculture Minister Chuck Strahl spent $84,000 on airfare and hotels for himself and eight aides to attend World Trade Organization talks in Switzerland.  Former Environment Minister John Baird gave Strahl a run for our money by blowing $61,000 on travel to Bali for a U.N. conference on climate change.  Baird’s own airfare for that trip cost us $10,920, though an Albertan cabinet minister spent only $3,200 to fly to the same conference.  Meanwhile, then Health Minister Tony Clement burned through $30,000 on a trip to Africa to deliver a $150,000 cheque to health clinics Canada is supporting there.  Although Clement flew economy, his two aides preferred executive class seats at $11,000 each.  Too bad they didn’t just mail the cheque.  There are more examples — lots more — of such reckless extravagance.  The truth is that it’s nothing new.  Politicians have long felt entitled to travel like princes, staying at posh five-star hotels and wining and dining themselves at our expense.  No one is suggesting that they should stay in dumps when they travel; but there is no need for them to stay in palaces, either.  Frankly, a Holiday Inn would do.  We should not be expected to pay for opulent travel, regal accommodations, or gourmet dining by men and women who are supposed to be working on our behalf.

Lately, this brand of grasping self-entitlement has come home to roost in Ontario, where senior staff at “eHealth Ontario,” the agency established to convert health records in this province into electronic format, have enriched themselves and a coterie of consultants.  Enormous salaries, self-approved bonuses, at least $2 million in untendered contracts given to cronies and associates, and huge bills for frivolous tasks tell us that there is indeed something rotten in the state of Ontario, too.  One consultant was paid the princely sum of $2,700 a day but still billed taxpayers $1.69 for her tea and $3.99 for her “Choco-Bite” snacks.  (And, by the way, why are we paying such outrageous sums for consultants instead of hiring staff to do the same work?)  Another consultant flew home to Edmonton 31 times in five months, at a cost (to us) of nearly $21,000.  Meanwhile, a former aide to Premier Dalton McGinty was paid $327 an hour to write to another aide.  In a triumph of understatement, McGinty conceded that he could “understand why people are upset.”  The agency’s CEO left in disgrace, but with severance pay worth $317,000, when she ought to have been fired for cause, without severance, and with a relentless impartial investigation into the unpardonably self-serving and irresponsible financial largesse bestowed by her agency upon its own senior staff and their friends.  If our elected representatives continue to acquiesce in such obvious misconduct, they are no better than the officials at ‘eHealth’ who seem to have been more concerned with enriching themselves and their friends than in serving the public interest.  Heads should be rolling (figuratively speaking) and charges should be being laid.  So why aren’t they?

John Arkelian is a former diplomat who represented Canada in London and Prague.  He is also a writer, lawyer, international affairs analyst, professor of media law, and editor-in-chief of Artsforum Magazine.

Linda Arkelian has danced with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, as well as the Anna Wyman and Judith Marcuse dance companies.  She is a choreographer, teacher, and artist.

Text © 2009 by John Arkelian.
Illustrations © 2009 by Linda Arkelian.