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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Harper's Gambit

With his numbers sinking in the most recent polls, Harper appears to be moving to bring out his rear guard actions to sustain his grip on power.

There are several pieces to this discussion:

(1)  Foreign Affairs

Between fomenting a shooting war with Russia in the Ukraine,  a stance on Israel that's about as nuanced as an angry rhinoceros, and taking explicit sides in the ongoing collapse of Iraq and Syria, anyone would think that Harper was trying to drag Canada into a war.

Make no mistake about it, that is one of the cards that Harper wants in his hands.  There are two primary reasons for this:

a.  He thinks he can use it as a weapon against Justin Trudeau.  Play the "tough war president" routine, and try to portray his opponents as "weak" and "ineffectual" on such matters.

b.  If Canada is engaged in a shooting war, he can try to invoke the little clause in the constitution that allows for the extension of Parliament beyond 5 years.  (This would be unprecedented, but I don't put it past PMSH to try if he thinks his grip on power is in danger)

(2)  Escalating Attacks On Trudeau

Harper's war on Trudeau is once again escalating, with Harper attempting to use the government's health agency as part of his propaganda campaign, and of course ratcheting up the rhetoric against Trudeau in their flyers (which taxpayers pay for).

This is hardly surprising, given that October 2015 is when Harper's "Fixed Election Dates" law says there should be an election held, and nothing that the PMO has thrown at Trudeau has stuck.  The boys in the short pants are no doubt starting to panic about the ongoing slump of CPC support in the polls.

Frankly, this one is almost secondary.  For all intents and purposes, Harper can keep going until sometime in 2016 under Canada's existing constitution.  Expect to see Elections Canada spend millions of dollars setting up polling stations for an election that hasn't been called in fall 2015.

(3)  Expanding Propaganda Campaign

The Harper Government has been nothing if not relentless in its use of government resources to spew propaganda.  From the billions spent on "Economic Action Plan" ads, to the more recent (and blatant) attempt to try and turn Health Canada communications into anti-pot propaganda,  and the hyping of military nationalism in the promotion of "celebrations" for 1812, Harper has used just about every trick in the book to try and twist and buffalo Canadians into looking at the world through the narrow little lens that he wants us to.

(4)  The "Fair Elections Act"

We still don't know just how far this one is going to go in changing the balance in the electoral system.  There are enormous parts of that bill which got railroaded through which seriously compromise the ability of Canadians to exercise their right to vote, and to enable further shenanigans next election that will make the Robocalls conviction of Michael Sona look like small potatoes.

I have no doubt that Harper will do everything he can to hang on to power.  If he thinks he can steal the next election, he will do that in preference to the other alternatives, but there is nothing stopping him from delaying the next election well into 2016, if not beyond that.  

Monday, August 04, 2014

An Open Letter To Margaret Wente

Dear Ms. Wente,

I thought that as a journalist you were supposed to do some research before you go writing stories.  In the case of your August 2, 2014 column in The Globe and Mail, it is painfully obvious that you haven't even bothered to try.
As a child, Lindsay Leigh Bentley desperately wanted to be a boy. She refused to wear dresses and adored going hunting with her dad. She loved sticks, guns, motorcycles and monsters. She chopped the hair off her Barbies. Her parents had to cut her own hair short because she refused to let them brush it. Her best friends were boys. In childhood pictures, she looks fierce, and tough as nails. 
These days, her worried parents would probably hustle her off to the nearest gender-identity clinic.
Had you done even the slightest bit of actual research, you would have discovered that there is very little that is so simple about the treatment of Transgender youth.  The World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care (WPATH SOC) would have been a good place to start.  (Take note of this reference, we will be coming back to it)
...But it is also the story of advocacy run amok, in which a small but militant group of activists has managed to strong-arm well-meaning people into believing that gender is not innate but “assigned,” that those who are “trapped in the wrong body” would be happier with radical hormone treatments and mutilating surgery, and that children as young as one or two should be pushed along a path whose implications they are far too young to understand.
Wow ... how many twists and lies can you put into a single paragraph, Margaret?  Let's start enumerating them:

Sunday, August 03, 2014

A Call For Change In Business

It wasn't so long ago that businesses recognized people at their local levels as having something to contribute.  That individual employees have a meaning greater than the "bottom line".

That was before the Internet and globalization.

In 1990, as a new graduate from University, I started working for what was then a small, but growing company of people that was doing some pretty amazing things.  Over the course of the next couple of decades, I saw the company grow, go through numerous acquisitions, eventually ending up as part of an enormous conglomerate with thousands of employees, billions of dollars a year in sales ... and absolutely no soul.

Large companies become so focused on the "bottom line" (aka "profit") that they lose sight of the fact that they wouldn't make a wooden nickel of profit if it wasn't for the effort of the people who make up their companies.

Over the evolution of the company I witnessed firsthand, I saw it go from being a small operation where everybody knew each other, and people came together to make things happen - both at work and in their personal lives.

Things like local celebrations were more or less entire days where very little "business" got done, but all of our clients made a point of trying to be in town to take part in the fun.  The staff at all levels participated, and generally speaking all of it was an excellent opportunity for everybody to engage.

As the company grew, things changed.  Subtly.  Each change was a small one.  A degree of balkanization emerged as the company grew.  Certain leaders carved out their own fiefdoms; then celebrations were cut back, with "costs" and "liability" cited as the primary reasons.

A few acquisitions later, and everybody in the management tier was suddenly being measured not on whether their people were happy, but on their ability to bring things in "under budget".  Soft measures like the ability to motivate their teams, or to deal with difficult personnel issues effectively got replaced by numbers.  Experience and skill became secondary to costs - senior staff would be marginalized and let go to save money.

We have seen this across the board in business.  The largest businesses have come to view their staff not as skilled contributors to the company and its objectives, but as expenses.  Expenses, as any accountant will tell you, are a cost of doing business that should be minimized in order to maximize the profits being accrued by the business.  In retailers like Wal-Mart, there is a conscious effort to keep wages of sales floor staff as low as possible.  Why?  For no better reason than to "maximize shareholder value" (a line of reasoning in the world of the executive boardrooms amounts to "make more money").

Businesses no longer recognize the contributions of their staff below the management tier, and even there middle management (supervisors, department managers in particular) are often squeezed out of this, their responsibilities increased and the latitude to make decisions ever dwindling as those above them try to make everything "quantifiable", and "help make better business decisions".

The results of this?  In North America, we have seen businesses gut their local manufacturing base in order to make a "more efficient" business.  In the world of IT and technology, everybody thinks that "outsourcing" (code phrase for sending the work to cheap labour in India) is the way to get things done because it's "cheaper".  The skills of craftsmen (and I include knowledge workers like programmers, writers and graphic artists) are seen as increasingly irrelevant locally.  ("Oh, we'll just hire someone off Guru.com to do that")

The result of all this?  Nobody trusts anybody.  Companies don't trust their employees with their real strategy and goals (employees quit and go work for the competition, you see);  employees don't trust companies with their careers (layoffs are everywhere, all the time); employees don't trust each other (because there is always someone scheming to get ahead of the rest by stabbing their colleagues in the back), and so on.  There is nothing that motivates staff to give their best efforts to the company, and the company undermines the very people that should be the base of its success.  The net result?  Large organizations are doomed to hollow themselves out and fail catastrophically.  If the 2008 meltdown of GM (and the subsequent 2012-13 recall crisis) told us one thing it is this:  GM has gutted itself to the point that the people with the most to contribute have either been pushed out or are straightjacketed by management processes focused entirely on profits.

Big business has shown us one thing:  That money is sociopathic.  It has no ethics, no morals and no empathy.  When you run your business solely by the numbers, you guarantee that it will fail eventually.  In the meantime, workplaces will become hostile environments where people will be afraid of each other and scheming for their own respective survival rather than the good of the company.

It is time for a major change in our business world.  We must move away from the multi-billion dollar trans-national model.  Yes, a company has to make money.  But it cannot do so at the expense of the well being of its workers.  Smaller companies need to learn to collaborate, but the day of "mergers and acquisitions" as a means of growth must end.  Businesses need to recognize that at the end of the day, they are made up of people and that their responsibilities are to their customers and staff first, shareholders second.  The only way this can happen is when local management are free and able to look after their staff as people rather than solely as expenses.

The mantra for business in the coming decades has to become about local talent, trust and growth.  Not growth for growth's sake, but growth where you reach your customers, and where your talent is.  Trust, between the business and its employees as well as its customers.

Make it worthwhile for people to work for you, and they'll stay.  Let it become a hostile workplace where the only thing that matters is the bottom line and your company will fail, because your best and brightest will leave - hollowing your company to a shell.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Oppression is Never a Successful Strategy

I'm getting sick of waking up every morning to the latest news of the atrocities going on in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The list of grievances held by each side is miles and generations long, and quite frankly I don't think either has any claim to the moral high ground.  Over the years that I have observed this mess, it has been a matter of the Palestinian groups engaging in guerrilla warfare, and the Israeli government responding with an ever heavier hand.

Today, the Israeli government has bottled up the Palestinian people behind walls and barricades.  What passes for an economy in the Palestinian territories is strangled by Israel's blockades of trade, limitations imposed on electricity (in a shared electrical grid) and so on.

The Gaza Strip is all of 139 square miles, for 1.6 million people (for comparison, the City of Calgary is 318 square miles for 1.2 million), surrounded by a fence with guard towers along its land boundaries, and a naval blockade at the sea ... all enforced by the Israeli army.  Essentially this is an open air prison, mostly holding people who have never been convicted of a crime.

For all of this, have the attacks on Israel ended?  No.  Of course not.  Like a medieval siege, bottling a people up for protracted periods of time basically has one effect:  it galvanizes the besieged against the besiegers.  Old grievances are nursed and nurtured, feelings harden and any act which allows the besieged to thumb their noses at the enemy is seen as a victory.  If that's one more rocket getting over the wall, so be it.  If that rocket happens to land somewhere that does real damage to property or people on the enemy side, it will be seen as an even greater victory.

Meanwhile, the besiegers congratulate themselves on their overwhelming firepower and the "victories" of hitting whatever targets they are told to hit.  The fact that civilians, including children, are in the line of fire is an unfortunate accident hidden under the rubric of "collateral damage".

Whether or not HAMAS is a "terrorist organization" is political semantics.  At one time the PLO was held in similar regard for the same reasons.  There is little to be gained from such labelling.  Palestinian complaints of disenfranchisement at the hands of Israel cannot be ignored any more than Israel's fears of being overrun by its Arab enemies.  

This will not end well.  Sieges end with brutal occupations which seldom create long term allies; in the middle ages "undesirable" populations were herded into segregated ghettos in urban areas, breeding resentment and worse and facilitating hostile pogroms by the governing powers.  In neither case can one say that the results are anything that we can be proud of in our collective history as a species.

Let me be abundantly clear:  What has happened in the region since 1967 has not worked.  Period.  There was a brief time after the PLO and Israel came to terms which seemed to defuse things a bit, but on the whole, the constant escalating violence of one group trying to assert territorial claims, and another group trying to respond to what amounts to an insurgency simply has not worked.

The political discourse in Israel has been dominated by a particularly bellicose leadership that seems to think that the only response to violence is more violence.  The tighter the iron grip, the more readily that things being squeezed slip between the cracks created.  Just as nations have found time and again in the past, never underestimate the ingenuity of people under great pressure.

Politically, the state of Israel is rapidly becoming a failed experiment, for many of the same reasons that its predecessor Palestine failed.  The very construct of a nation state which denies the validity of all of the peoples who live within its borders is doomed to fail.  Where Mandatory Palestine failed to acknowledge the Jewish peoples in its borders, Israel's approach to the Palestinians has also failed.

The political discourse has to be remade, and moved from the language of adversaries to that of coexistence.  When I think about it further, the entire situation may well require the collapse of the political structures of the current Middle East region in order to resolve.  Much of the region's borders are the result of the European colonial powers redrawing borders in the wake of the demise of the Ottoman Empire.  The net result has made little or no sense in the broader context of the region and its peoples.

I don't know what the long term geopolitical picture looks like in the region.  I do believe that the current arrangements are doomed to fail.  It will take the emergence of statesmen on all sides who can look beyond the grievances of today to build states where coexistence is the rule of the day, rather than the often violent suppression of "rival" sects and populations.

There may be no "right" answers to the question mark that is Middle East politics, but one thing is clear:  the current situation is not working, and the mess in Israel is but a symptom of that.