Sunday, October 05, 2014

The Closer You Look ...

The closer one looks at the ISIS thing, the more it starts looking like a sectarian war in the Middle East.  Yesterday in the Globe and Mail, Robert Fowler very nicely articulated the problem with short term solutions to the mess in Iraq, and today I spotted a really interesting read describing some of the reasons behind the apparent lack of response from several Arab states, in particular Saudi Arabia.

As is typical of these situations in the region, it is starting to become apparent that for all of its bloodiness, ISIS is simply another sectarian feud spilling out into the open.  Saudi Arabia is divided at the top because some people see ISIS as a challenge to Iran's Shiite beliefs and aggression and therefore a "good thing".

Suddenly, western powers are in the awkward place of having to somehow justify going after ISIS in Syria when they have all turned their backs on the Assad regime there.  (which is nominally secular(ish))

Yes, the beheadings are grisly and vile acts.  Yes, we know that radicals are now recruiting from around the world - using tactics and techniques which are neither particularly new or innovative - they are more or less the standard tactics of recruitment used by extremist religious leaders for decades if not centuries.

Is ISIS really any different than the Taliban in Afghanistan in the late 90s?  Or al Qaeda during the early 2000s?  Not particularly.  They are enacting more or less a variation on the usual quasi-tribal violence that has wracked the region for decades and longer.

While Harper is all hot to trot to drag Canada into a moral war to stop ISIS, he and his followers are missing the fundamental point.  This is a sectarian war in a region where we have no political capital left.  The western powers, all of them, have had too much to do with supporting heinous regimes over the last hundred years; and a set of borders which have little to do with the political and social realities of the region.

In 2000 years of assorted interventions in these countries, there is but one lesson for foreign powers:  Direct intervention is doomed to fail.  The Roman occupation of the Arab lands was a gong show from the start, and every intervention since has ultimately failed at the cost of much treasure and more innocent lives.  To claim that intervening against ISIS is going to turn out any differently is to ignore not only the lessons of the past, but worse to repeat its mistakes.

It is this writer's opinion that while the western powers can intervene legitimately in the realms of politics and humanitarian aid, the powers of the region must work through whatever sectarian differences they may have and develop their borders and governments accordingly.  We may not like what we see happening, but our political capital has been spent there for a long time, at least back to the withdrawal of the colonial powers if not longer.

For those who feel there is a "moral imperative" to intervene, there are interventions which will make a difference, but none of them involve bombs, guns or tanks.

Thursday, October 02, 2014

So, We're Going To War...

It comes as no surprise that Harper is all hot and bothered about jumping into the quagmire that is the Middle East.  He wanted to commit Canada to invading Iraq back when Shrub and his gang of morons were gearing up to invade in 2003.

Canadians should be more than a little skeptical of the motives involved here.  Harper has been itching for an open war for some time, and whether it is in the Middle East or Ukraine doesn't really matter to him.  The goal is a shooting war.  Something he can use for maximum photo-op glamorization of himself.

With his party tanking in the polls at home, he's looking for an adversary that he can demonize and make as scary as possible.  Conservative governments seem to feed on fear, and Harper is no exception to this.  An adversary like ISIS is ideal from a propaganda point of view.  They are obviously well armed, very well funded and violent.  Harper can, and no doubt will, create all kinds of false bogeymen related to ISIS.  Expect to hear lots of "terrorist plot foiled" headlines in the coming months.  ISIS is the new al Qaeda.

Harper's personal popularity has been tanking as the public finally takes note of a legislative agenda that is at odds with the day to day values of Canadians, a series of corruption scandals involving star senate appointees, and continued efforts to discredit the entirety of our institutions of government so that he can justify consolidating more and more power in his own hands.

There is much speculation about when the next election will be held.  Harper's "fixed election dates law" says Oct 19, 2015; but there are many other scenarios.  Harper could call a snap election this winter, hoping that his core voters will come out and vote while others stay at home warming themselves in front of the fire.

Or he could hang on into 2016 when this parliament expires under the constitution.  At that point in time, he could try appealing to the house for an extension.  In which case, expect the propaganda around ISIS and terrorism in general to ramp up dramatically over the next months as Harper tries to whip things into a frenzy of fear.

The last probability is for Harper to step aside in the Spring of next year, and have the CPC go through a leadership race during the summer months, and ride that into a fall election, with a "renewed" CPC headed up by the likes of Jason Kenney.

Either way, I suspect strongly that Harper's desire to jump into war in the Middle East has more to do with the upcoming election.  If he has to put Canada's military men and women in harm's way, that doesn't bother him one little bit.  It's just one more photo-op.

Friday, September 26, 2014

No, It's Not "Short Sighted"

I've seen stories popping up recently where Justin Trudeau is being criticized for refusing to engage with Sun Media.  

The issue is that Sun Media has allowed people like Levant to run amok.  Of course, they're going to play the taunting card.  What Levant's tirade demonstrated was that Sun Media is acting as a mouth organ for the PMO.  

From the Liberal party's perspective, why would they engage with a group who is so obviously biased, and will no doubt take anything that Trudeau says before their cameras and splice it into something entirely different?  

If Sun Media wants Canadians to believe that they are a legitimate media source, they need to take a step back, and rein in the extremists that they are putting in front of the camera.  At this point in time, that may well include insisting that Ezra Levant issue a full, public apology ... on air.   Otherwise, Canadians, and Trudeau's family in particular, are quite justified in assuming that Sun Media is nothing more than a propaganda organ for Stephen Harper and Conservative Party.

Canadians deserve better from our news media than Ezra Levant's childish tirades.

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

ISIS, IS or ISIL ... Whatever It's Called This Week

It comes as no surprise that Harper is in a great hurry to commit Canada to a shooting war in Iraq/Afghanistan/Syria.

Make no mistake, "military advisors" is a euphemism.  Harper is committing troops to a shooting war that frankly we have no business involving ourselves in.

I remember saying back in 2002 that invading Afghanistan or Iraq was a fatal mistake.  It was a mistake on two basic levels.

First, direct military intervention in the Middle East has never been an effective strategy.  While military intervention has made Israel happy, and has no doubt done wonders for lining the pockets of the corporate types who profit one way or another off oil extraction in the region, it has done little but prop up regimes which exist as a result of the artificial borders cooked up as the colonial powers pulled back at the end of WWI.

The second aspect was the ridiculous claim that a new government could be installed at gunpoint and have any expectation of credibility on its home front.   You can call it "democracy" all you like, but that doesn't mean that the understanding of democracy is the same in the new country as it is here, or that it is even respected.

The rise of ISIS as a threat should come as no surprise to anybody, nor do I want to diminish the awfulness of ISIS.  Often after the dominant powers in a conflict pull back, those who went underground during the occupation will resurface and organize themselves into something.  In Afghanistan after the Soviets pulled out, the Mujahadeen more or less collapsed into the Taliban; ISIS is no doubt a similar phenomenon.

With over a thousand years of failed interventions in the Middle East to reflect upon, we would be well advised to consider stepping back, and let the peoples of that region organize themselves.  I am profoundly concerned by the apparent lack of engagement in the ISIS matter on the part of the regional powers.  Except for those directly affected, the silence (at least in our media) of countries like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Libya or Iran is deafening.  I have less than no interest in seeing Canada, or any other western power trying to "lead" an intervention.  When the other powers in the region step forward to put troops on the ground and go after ISIS, then perhaps there are degrees of support we can provide.

Western powers trying to lead such an intervention is merely a repetition of mistakes we have already made.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Institutional Racism In Conservative Ideology

This post has been evolving for quite a long time.  However, in the last few days, a series of pieces have been published which bring together several threads of thought that I have been exploring for the last several years.  

There has long been a degree of bigotry and racism underlying modern day conservative ideologies.  At a glance, it appears to have its roots in the politics of religious literalism and the desire for simple, black-and-white explanations of the world in which we live.  My thinking on this matter has clarified enormously in the last few days.

The first part of this was a very thoughtful analysis published in the Toronto Star:  "The Ideological Roots of Stephen Harper's Vendetta Against Sociology".
Harper’s two disparaging comments about sociology, however, also need to be understood alongside his gutting of the long-form census in 2010. It is widely accepted that this action fundamentally undermined Canada’s ability to understand its own demographics, long-term social trends, and inequalities — in short, its sociology.

So what does Harper have against sociology? First, Harper is clearly trumpeting a standard component of neo-liberal ideology: that there are no social phenomena, only individual incidents. (This ideology traces back to Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society.”) Neo-liberalism paints all social problems as individual problems. The benefit of this for those who share Harper’s agenda, of course, is that if there are no social problems or solutions, then there is little need for government. Individuals are solely responsible for the problems they face.
If this isn't chilling to you, it certainly should be, because it is a concise explanation of the apparent blindness of the Harper government to the consequences of decisions such as cancelling the long form census and other tools which can be used to inform government policy.

The second and third pieces of this story were published in the Calgary Sun today.  The first being Lorne Gunter's column:  Aboriginal Leaders: Canada's Shame in its Relations With First Nations.
Aboriginal leaders claim the Harper government's decision highlights Canada's "shame" in its relations with First Peoples. They believe it is proof of widespread racism and sexism in the government and in the broader Canadian society as a whole. 
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says the Harper government is "out of touch" and "on the wrong side of history." 
The United Nations - that paragon of sanctimony, hypocrisy and inaction on real human rights abuses around the world - has chimed in. 
And even the country's police chiefs have insisted something must be done. 
So does all this support mean an inquiry really would be a good idea? 
No, it is simply another example of how much our nation's elites (police chiefs included) are seized by political correctness.
It's true that aboriginal women and girls are killed or disappear with greater frequency than non-aboriginal women - nearly three times as much. But the "why" is not as much of a mystery as our chattering classes would have us believe.
Most murdered or disappeared aboriginal women are not the victims of some vast conservative conspiracy or of white racism. They are the victims of the men in their lives.
Most killed or abused aboriginal women are killed or abused by aboriginal men - not callous white cops or violent white johns.
Wait a minute.  Nobody in their right mind is going to believe that a public inquiry is going to identify the guilty culprits.  That isn't the purpose of an inquiry.  The purpose of such an inquiry is to ask much bigger questions.  Questions such as whether the conditions on reservations contribute to domestic violence, and how a man like Picton managed to operate for multiple years, or why aboriginal people are grossly over-represented in Canada's prisons.

Of course, if you take a simplistic, black-and-white view of the world, any murder boils down to "catch the offender and punish them".  Simple, easy and horrendously misguided.   If you don't ask the big picture questions about these situations, you will never fully understand what is going on.  In fact, one is left very much in the dark, with the rather ridiculous assumption that bad people do bad things and that's all there is to it.

Anyone with even a little bit of grounding in reality and common sense will have long ago realized that people respond individual to their circumstances, and collectively to their environment.  Sociology is the study of societies and their behaviours.  The systems within a societal context will influence the individuals living in it.

In Canada, we have over two centuries of relations with the First Nations.  There are enormous problems with these relations, and much of it goes to the differences in what the First Nations understand the treaties to mean and how the Indian Act enacts those same treaties.  I know there are a plethora of other issues to be considered as well, but at its core, the Indian Act is a profoundly flawed piece of legislation which assumes the "superiority" of Colonial-era British society relative to the First Nations and very much embodies a series of structures that to modern eyes arguably impose a degree of structural and system racism which acts against our First Nations.

The overly simplistic rubric of the Harper Government blinds it to these issues.

The second item was a column by Michael Coren:  In The Wake of Tragedy a Sobering Reality
As a Catholic I can tell you with absolute certainty that if countless horrors had been committed by Catholics in the name of Catholicism, I and legions of my co-religionists would protest. I know the same would be true of most other religions and cultures.
Coren's claim that he would protest if countless horrors had been committed in the name of Catholicism is of course completely undermined by his own past utterances on a wide range of matters, not to mention his relative silence with regards to the sex abuse scandal that has plagued his Church for decades now.
But, we are told, these repeated beheadings and murders have nothing to do with most law-abiding, civilized Muslims. Perhaps so, but then it could be argued that neither does a book by Salman Rushdie or a drawing by a Danish cartoonist but that hasn’t stopped endless demonstrations and threats. 
Then there is the reality of the Islamic response. While I am sure that most Muslims are appalled by what happened to James Foley, even a cursory glance at social media reveals thousands of comments defending and justifying what happened, by Muslims on every continent. It might be comforting to believe that Islamist violence and bloodlust is a fringe psychosis, but every survey and all of the anecdotal evidence indicates that a sizeable minority of Muslims support it, an even greater number feel it is in some obscure way justified, and more still refuse to condemn it.
Funny how Coren can see this so clearly in the Muslim faith, and is so quick to call it out while turning a blind eye to the centuries of misdeeds done in the name of Catholicism.

While Coren may well be his own special brand of crazy, his blindness to the systemic racism and bigotry of his position is no different than that of Harper.  The simple, harsh reality is that the ideology they all subscribe to blinds them to the systemic problems they are creating and the very problems which aggravate already awful situations.

The minute you take a position that there "is no such thing as society", it becomes easy to wash one's hands of collective responsibility.  Perhaps the even greater irony of that is that same flight from collective responsibility makes it easier to label entire groups as "other" and criticize them for not meeting whatever arbitrary standard you may set.

I am quite certain that if you were to confront Harper, Gunter or Coren with the implicit bigotry of their positions, they would deny it.  Their very ideological constructs are so limited in their understanding of large, complex systems like societies that they cannot comprehend the idea that their positions foster othering and judgments on incomplete information.

A stage is not only set upon which racism and ethnic bigotry can flourish.  In Harper's Canada, it is not only growing and flourishing, but the flames of ire are being fanned by it.  I can only hope that we are able to replace our current government with one whose perspective encompasses a much broader view of what Canada is, and what it can become.

Friday, August 22, 2014

The Militarization Of Canada's Police

Much has been said recently about the "militarization" of America's police forces.  For those of us who live in Canada, let us not be fooled into complacency.

The National Post has an article about the same damn, dumb thing happening in Canada.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Ferguson Is The Symptom, Not The Disease

Events in Ferguson, MO this past week have been deeply disturbing, if not downright distressing.  I don't particularly need to recount them in any detail.

Precisely what happened, and who thought what is no longer even relevant.  In the public perception, a white police officer has gunned down an unarmed black youth in cold blood.  Talk about a trifecta of cultural currents that a prominent in the social malaise that is the southern US.  Racism, gun violence, youth crime all rolled into one little ball.

To say that the police and other civic decision makers in Ferguson have handled this entire situation badly is an understatement.  From the changing stories and obvious attempts to justify the officer's actions to the attempt to impose a curfew last night, whoever is "in charge" is either naive, foolish or really, really clueless.

One dimension of this story that is being overlooked, or perhaps even deliberately ignored is the impact of the increasing militarization of police forces in North America.  The US Military is busy shedding gear that it no longer needs from its misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and police departments across the country have been picking up heavy and medium armour equipment at bargain basement prices.  Under what circumstances a police force whose job it is to serve and protect the public from criminal activity and random violence needs equipment designed to withstand driving over land mines is a little beyond me.

I found this picture on Facebook the other day, and regardless of the attribution, the statement made is quite correct, and chillingly accurate.

There has been a distinct change in the mentality of police forces in both the United States and Canada in the last fifteen years.  (Unsurprisingly, since Bush II and his gang of thugs came to power, in particular)

I seldom have to interact with the police directly - I lead a pretty quiet life, and its only rarely that something happens like I get pulled over at a traffic stop or something like that, so when it does happen, the differences between interactions are striking to me.

Several years ago, I got stopped after making an illegal turn (the signs had gone up the week before, but I hadn't noticed them).  The officer that stopped me was polite, explained what had happened and why I was being given the ticket.  Not a big deal really.  That was in the late 1990s.

It would be another decade or so before I would have another interaction with the police.  This one was a whole other kettle of fish.  It involved someone falling back from my vehicle in a playground zone.  The officer saw it as "me passing in a playground zone".  However, the officer in that situation was belligerent, officious and generally quite nasty about the whole situation.  When I tried to explain that the other vehicle had pulled back so that he could pull in behind me as there was a car parked in his lane ahead, I got a lecture about how "I was lucky that the police officer didn't have his speed gun on at the time, or I'd be getting a ticket for speeding too".

That was my first direct experience with the shifting attitudes in our police forces.  Something had shifted from enforcing the laws reasonably and being respectful of the people to automatically assuming that the job of the police was to accuse everybody of being guilty of something.

More recently, we have seen police departments switch from the blue-and-white colour scheme that had been predominant since the 1970s back to the 'black-and-white' of the 1930s.  Further, the equipment of a police car now makes them appear much more aggressive, and there is a return to black uniforms.  When, if ever, did it make sense to fill a teenager (or another accused) full of bullets when they have already surrendered, or are otherwise under your control?

Let's put all of this together.  We have police forces arming themselves with military gear.  Have you seen what a tactical team looks like nowadays?  You can't tell the difference between them and a marine unit on maneuvers.  Further, the "new look" for police vehicles is clearly designed to to intimidate the public, and we're dressing our officers in black ... and that's just the outward appearance.  I shudder to think what is being said in briefing rooms and meetings regarding the public.

While there is more to the Ferguson situation than just this one dimension, when you start giving your police heavy weaponry, and tools designed to intimidate the public there can be no doubt that at the end of the day you are creating a powder keg.  You don't make things better by tossing lit matches into powder kegs ... Our police forces in both countries need to be reminded that their role is to enforce the law to the benefit of the public, not to its detriment.