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A veteran journalist's take on such diverse subjects as religion and religious violence, democracy, freedom of expression, sociology, journalism, criticism, travel, philosophy, Southeast Asia, politics,economics, and even parenthood, the supernatural, film criticism, and cooking. Please don't hesitate to participate by starting a comment thread if you have an interest in any of these subjects...or anything else, for that matter... p.write@gmail.com

The Brexit Lesson

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Pagun

(VANCOUVER ISLAND) In North America we woke up this morning to the shocking news that Great Britain had voted to withdraw from the European Union. “Brexit”, the movement supporting Britain’s exit brexitfrom the Union, has been pushing its far right agenda for some time; its proponents have no real argument other than their appeal to nationalism, xenophobia, bigotry, and false statistics. The rhetoric from Brexit was replete with inflated numbers – from the cost to taxpayers of membership in the Union, to the number and cost of refugees – and anti immigrant fear mongering; the impassioned claims made by Brexit proponents were repeatedly fact checked and debunked, but the claims were simply repeated and became part of the shared wisdom of the right wing. Donald Trump, of course, is solidly in favour of Brexit and was delighted at the results of the referendum.

True to form, Trump held a press conference in Scotland at which he congratulated the people in scots v Trumpattendance on voting for Brexit. However, the Scots had overwhelmingly voted against Brexit. Scotland, to its credit, had rejected the certain economic downturn that would result from a successful Brexit campaign; the Scots also rejected the politics of fear and hatred, and knew that despite the EU’s many flaws, unity and cooperation are more to be desired than the isolationist garrison mentality inherent in Brexit. Being, as usual, totally tone deaf, Trump spoke from inside his isolated bubble of high security that insured that his audience was comprised only of him, his security forces, his children, and loyal supporters; he never realised (and probably wouldn’t have cared if he did) that his speech was utterly offensive to the majority of Scots. But no matter, Trump only touched on the issue for a moment. The bulk of his remarks was a sales pitch for the floundering golf resort he was desperately trying to promote.

What I find most fascinating about the Brexit referendum’s results is the great number of Britons who have gone on record as being gobsmacked by the results; they never really thought that a Brexit win was possible. Problem, though, was that they had voted for Brexit just because they were pissed off about a host of issues; they didn’t really want Britain out of the EU. Now they are terrified of what they have facepalmunleashed.

What is becoming clear to Britain is that this may have been a terrible mistake. They recognise that as a mercantile nation, they are now going to have to negotiate trade deals with the EU, their biggest market. They are going to have to follow the same regulations and restrictions on trade items that they found cumbersome as members of the EU, because the EU simply won’t trade unless the playing field is level. They have lost all the advantages of being part of an enormous economic block and gained nothing. Already, while the ink is still wet on the reports of the result of the referendum, the Pound Sterling has lost value and is still in freefall; the London Stock Exchange’s FTSE index has plummeted, the price of gold has skyrocketed, and people are beginning to sell off British savings bonds.

So what went wrong? And what lessons can we draw from it?

Well, for one thing, it’s obvious, and for some Britons painfully obvious, that it’s not smart to vote against what you know to be the right choice simply out of pique, or resentment, or as a protest. They have learned that their single vote does matter, and it matters a lot. A corollary to that is that it’s not smart to think that one of the choices on the ballot is so self-evidently a horrible choice that people will do the right thing at the end of the day, so it’s okay to stay home, not vote, and let common sense prevail.

The real question now is whether those lessons will make any impression on American voters this November. I have long held that when the moment of truth arrives, the American people will, despite all evidence to the contrary, demonstrate that they actually do have some common sense and that they are not really a country of xenophobic bigots.clinton-trump 1 In other words, my respect for the American people has always instilled in me the confidence that the majority will see that a vote for Donald Trump would run counter to everything they claim the country stands for: justice, fairness, rule of law, equality, compassion, and reason. What’s frightening is that I always had even more confidence in the people of the UK, and look what they just went and did.

The take away for all Americans from this debacle has to be that they have to start to take their political situation and even their vote very, very seriously. No one can afford to assume that the rest of the country will do what’s right. No one can afford to vote for an utterly unfit and quite likely insane demagogue in protest. No one can afford to abstain from voting because of an antipathy to the only alternative to a disastrous and dangerous choice. If a referendum like yesterday’s can end the way this one did, there is absolutely no reason to assume that a parallel and vastly more calamitous result can’t occur in November on this side of the pond. More than ever before, those Americans of integrity and decency need to mobilise and get out and vote. Even if they hate Hillary, it’s important to pinch their noses and boston-globe-cover-pull the lever to vote against the America Donald Trump will bring. Even if Hillary doesn’t seem like their ideal choice for their next president, a vote for her is a vote against a horrifying vision of the world four years from now.

The US has a two party system. This kind of dilemma is what, from time to time, comes as part of the package. But even if one considers Hillary to be a bad choice for president, any rational and reasonably non-racist person has to accept that she would never be as catastrophically horrendous as Donald Trump. And in one thing he may just be right: A Hillary presidency might be a lot like an Obama third term. And, given Trump as the alternative, that would be wonderful.

Hillary Clinton has demonstrated her skills, her dedication, her political savvy, and her toughness over a lifetime of committed public service; you can say none of that for Trump. On the contrary; he has demonstrated time and again that he is an inveterate liar, that he is a bigot, that he is staggeringly ignorant of foreign and domestic policy, that he doesn’t understand the structure and powers of the branches of government, that he has no interest in human rights, in civil rights, or in the problems of the people whose votes he needs; he has shown that he can’t be bothered to learn even the very basics of what would be needed to govern a playground, much less the world’s only superpower. He is a very dangerous man and we must never relax and assume that he couldn’t possibly win. Don’t look at it as an endorsement of Hillary; if she were running against a Republican whose views contrasted with hers but had a reasonable vision and a clear set of skills to deploy as Commander in Chief, youBender choice would have a reasonable case for considering her opponent. It might or might not be a very hard choice.

But that isn’t the case here. In 2016 there is an easy choice. It’s easy not because one of the candidates would make such a great president; it’s easy because the other one would almost certainly tear the nation apart, probably tank the economy so severely that it would not recover in anyone’s lifetime, and would certainly turn it into a country that none of us could respect. So it comes down to this: you don’t have to vote for someone, but it is absolutely crucial that the country votes against the Republican’s presumed nominee. An abstention is tantamount to a vote for the dark side; a vote against him is what’s needed. A landslide would be even better.

ENDITEM…

Surgery with a blast

Drone strikes

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA –The recently uncovered internal memos discussing the US administration’s policy governing the use of “drones” are deeply unsettling.

The memos and the white paper they discuss are part of an ongoing internal discussion of the use of unmanned drones which can be targeted to strike specific people from a great distance. The US has been using them for over a decade now to seek out and kill strategic targets in both the war in Afghanistan and in the apparently interminable and far more loosely defined “war on terror”. Under Obama’s watch, drones have become the weapon of choice for prosecuting wars and for enforcing US doctrine wherever they are deployed. So fond of drones is the current administration that ten years ago the US military deployed 50 drones. In 2012, it launched 7,500.

Drones, once they have been programmed, can be flown from afar, either by following its internal programming or robotically by a distant ground-based operator (whose training, apparently, consists of hours of video game practice). Drones have been used extensively to take out individuals without the necessity of sending in an assault force or even a SEAL team. Although they are described as surgical in their operation, they are surgical in the way that a leg can be amputated by strapping a stick of dynamite to the affected limb and detonating it.

(It is the indiscriminate destruction and potential collateral damage that made a human strike necessary to take out Osama Bin Laden. In the political climate that exists in the US during Obama’s presidency, a drone strike followed by an announcement that Bin Laden was dead would have been greeted with howls of derision and a flood of accusations of lying by the administration. Let’s not forget that Obama’s opponents invented “birthism”; they are now claiming that photograph of the President shooting skeet at Camp David is doctored; they have even accused the administration of having “faked” the Sandy Hook massacre. Obama needed a corpse. Blood spattered rubble simply wouldn’t do.

That assassination actually was surgical.)

Drones, in contrast to a genuinely surgical strike, take out a great number of civilians – women, children, non-combatants – as collateral damage; they also destroy property

Collateral damage: “OOPS!”

including businesses and vital services. But drones only kill others and only destroy property outside of the continental US. Sending in a drone strike is much simpler and much less expensive than mounting a human military operation. It is so much less costly and less dangerous (to the aggressor, anyway) that drones are now the go-to weapon among US military leaders. They don’t replace a single weapon; they replace an entire task force.

Compare the human and financial cost of mounting the raid on the Bin Laden compound in Pakistan. Once the target was acquired, the raid entailed: the logistics to transport the Seal Team and its backup to the launch point, the risky flight of the team in its helicopters across a sovereign nation, the equipment, the extraction, the ship on the Red Sea and all its personnel. At the kill zone there was the risk to the SEALS themselves and their transport team. Under other circumstances a single drone strike could have accomplished the mission’s objective, with no risk to American lives and at a fraction of the cost.

From a cost management perspective, drones make sense; both in financial terms and in terms of human lives. Human American lives, anyway. A little tough on those on the business end of a drone strike, but no US Marines are getting slaughtered in a full frontal assault, and even Navy Seal’s lives are not being risked. Only foreign strategic targets (and some unfortunate collateral damage) get hurt.

Except that the memos indicate that it is the considered opinion of the administration that the US has the right to deploy those drones against American citizens. Apparently, using Bush era rationalisation for executive authority, this government believes that it is within its rights, “upon reasonable suspicion” of a person posing an “immanent threat” to US interests, to summarily execute him (and anybody standing nearby) by use of a drone. The memos also disclose that “immanent threat” need not refer to an identified specific action against a specific US interest or target, or at a specific time. What “immanent” means, therefore, is hard to say. Indications are that, like when Humpty Dumpty employs a word, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”.

It is disconcerting that in the name of efficiency and cost cutting, it is apparently part of the doctrine that a US citizen can be accused, tried, convicted, sentenced, and executed as part of a military decision. This has been done, for example, when the military targeted two US citizens, a father and his 16 year old son as terrorists. There is little question that the two had joined Al Qaida and were indeed critical components of a developing terrorist plot. The drone took them out and ended that particular immanent threat.

The concern is the denial of due process. Who among us is comfortable with an opaque system

Unnamed military officers replacing due process?

in which unnamed military officers employing a confidential set of criteria can decide to kill a US citizen? Those of us from other countries have even greater cause for concern because the doctrine also allows these strikes to be made in other, non-belligerent, even allied countries, if someone in the Pentagon determines that the target warrants it.

The White House is still scrambling to answer the inevitable questions and has not yet come up with a coherent explication of the doctrine, its legal justification, or any assurances to those of us who are very concerned that this, in contrast to the near continual Republican accusations, is a genuine case of presidential overreach.

Along with gun control, the deficit, the debt, immigration reform, and electoral reform; the ball is in your court, president Obama.

…enditem…

 

 

The times just might be a changin’ back

The pendulum at the top of its arc?

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – Since about the time that Ronald Reagan was swept into office in November 1980, the conservative movement has thrived. The liberal or progressive movement which had reached its peak in the waning years of the 1960s had gradually fizzled through the decadent 1970s and lapsed into a coma as the right wing came roaring back on the coattails of a senile ex-movie actor turned populist president. 

The Reagan Presidency was characterised by a neo-hawkish foreign policy that saw Reagan describe the Soviet Union as “an evil empire” and put an end to détente. The world had changed. Domestically, the youth movement had been routed; perhaps the best metaphor for the scattering of the tribes is the fact that Abby Hoffman, perhaps the highest profile “youth leader” of the 60s was underground working as an environmental activist, while Jerry Rubin, perhaps the second highest profile “youth leader”, was working on Wall Street as an investment adviser.

But as the pendulum continued to swing toward the right, it was in economic policy that conservatism really began to come into its own. Reagan appealed to latent racism with dog-whistle expressions like “welfare queens”, to push his party’s agenda of dismantling the social safety net. Self-interest became a virtue. “Trickle-down” economics was passed off as a progressive move.

For those unfamiliar with trickle-down or “supply-side” economics, it is the ludicrous proposition that if we give enormous tax benefits to the wealthiest citizens, they will spend more and that additional spending would have positive effects on the economy…effects that would trickle down to the middle class, the working poor, and the destitute. Although self-evidently absurd and laughably self-serving, it was part of the new conservatism and the Reagan doctrine.

AND THEN WE TOLD THEM IT WOULD TRICKLE DOWN!!!!

Since that time, conservatism has been the order of the day. “Liberal” became a bad word and a term of derision, where it had once been a proud label. Any political philosophy that supported egalitarianism or the maintenance of a social safety net was treated with scorn; the poor were demonised, the unemployed disdained. Ayn Rand looked down upon the world and smiled with satisfaction; the politics of self-interest and greed were the new religion. Greed was good and the new conservatism’s fictional hero Gordon Gekko was a folk hero who perverted Robin Hood’s mission and advocated stealing from the poor (much easier) and simply keeping it.

Liberals were forced underground; they had to hold secret meetings and develop secret handshakes because they couldn’t survive out in the open. Only a few of us wore our principles on our sleeves and continued to fight for fair play and human decency while the new right kept moving further away from anything resembling compassion or consideration of other human beings. But as the new century dawned, the taste of cruelty and indifference to suffering began to cloy. Greed became a tiresome mantra and the right began to be seen as a polarising force. The United States elected Barack Obama, a centrist black Democrat as President.

Then the backlash hit, exposing the right for what it had become. The Tea Party, a grass roots movement of fanatically devoted ultra conservatives mobilised and pushed their agenda. Their elected representatives were strong-armed into signing a pledge never to vote for anything that could have the effect of raising taxes for any reason under any circumstances ever. And betraying their oath of office, the new congress all signed up. They were anti-immigration, they supported legislation that would bring an end to women’s right to choose, they even sought to deny contraception to working women, they paid thugs to help to suppress the voting rights of minorities, they were virulently anti-gay, pro-gun, anti-government except for where the government would enforce anti-choice laws and clamp down on the teaching of evolution as a science. Their explicitly stated mission was to obstruct any initiatives introduced by the hated black man in the White House and they vowed on his inauguration day to deny him a second term.

This mindless group of uneducated and terminally ignorant proto-fascists overstepped themselves. Behaving with the licence they believed had been given them as the result of decades of conservatism being considered mainstream, they finally nauseated rational conservatives. The left had been nauseated for a long time, and the excesses of the new brown shirts rekindled the fire in their bellies. The liberals came out of the woodwork and brought Obama back for a second term, increased the Democratic majority in the Senate, but thanks to Republican gerrymandering, failed to retake the House.

But the writing is on the wall.

The Tea Party faction of the Republican Party have torn the GOP apart and rendered it a shambolic, in-fighting mob. Many of the freshman

THE RIGHT

Representatives are utterly incompetent as political leaders, have no idea how to operate within a deliberative body, see compromise as a betrayal of principles, and are simply too stupid to understand anything beyond their immediate demands. Those inept ideologues lost the election this year for the GOP. There is no way Obama could have won the election except for the Tea Party. A president in a sluggish economy, with unemployment above seven percent, with massive debt and an enormous deficit, a wildly polarised country, and who inspires deep, bitter hatred in much of the population should simply not have won a second term. But the GOP is so hopelessly FUBAR that Obama decisively trounced them and easily walked into his second term.

The Tea Party, because of the power they wield within the GOP forced its candidates to fight for the furthest right position they could grasp in order to win the primary. By the time the convention was near, the rhetoric from the candidates for the nomination was frightening in its assault on women, minorities, LGBT citizens, youth, and pretty much anybody who isn’t a bigoted white middle-aged or older male. Romney took the nomination simply because he went so far right he couldn’t see center any more. And of course, according to plan, in the actual presidential campaign he tried the Etch-a-sketch maneuver; he turned his campaign upside down, erased everything he had avowed during the primaries and started over as a moderate. Of course, even the American public isn’t quite that stupid, and his duplicity became a punchline.

But the right has shown its hand and the rest are not impressed. They have demonstrated that they are heartless, self-serving, not very bright, and completely willing to lie, steal, and cheat to achieve their hate-driven agenda.

The pendulum is swinging back. We can only hope that this last outrageous example of the cupidity, if not the stupidity, of the extreme right has sickened enough people that conservatism will once again become a dirty word. We can all get behind that pendulum and give it shove.

THE LEFT

The general public is now in favour of marriage equality while the Republican position against it has become more entrenched. The public, by and large, doesn’t agree with the conservative viewpoint that science in schools is bad, prayer good. The nations of North America are evolving and looking for political answers that don’t amount to “Fuck you, Jack; I’m all right!” We are becoming somewhat kinder and gentler. We need to encourage this sea change. Let’s listen to John Lennon sing Imagine again, and let’s all sing along with Bob to The Times They are a’Changin’

We might see, if not a new dawning of the Age of Aquarius, at least some human decency return as a standard to which both sides of the political spectrum aspire.

 

…enditem…

 

 

 

Come over from the dark side…

Sanity begins to dawn

Pagun

VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – It’s truly exhilarating to see the groundswell movement among the vast silent majority of Americans, finally demanding that something be done about the proliferation of guns in the United States. Confronted with this grassroots demand in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, President Obama is, as I write this, announcing the specifics of his intention finally to take “meaningful action” to prevent future slaughters. He has just promised to use all the power of the office of the president to bring common sense to the nearly completely unfettered gun ownership that prevails in the country.

Today there will be another 34 people killed by firearms in the United States; that is, unless another maniac brings a perfectly legally acquired arsenal of semi-automatic weapons to a school or mall or movie theatre and skews that statistic upwards. Another 30 or more will die tomorrow, and again the day after that. Meanwhile The NRA remains eerily silent and declines to comment until “all the facts are in”. But the chat rooms and news comment forums resound with the anguish of everyday people who are bewildered and frightened by what’s happening on the streets and in their children’s schools. The feeling is one of helplessness in the face of a society for whom firearm ownership is a more fundamental right than their children’s right to live.

From my cold, dead hands! Batshit crazy.

And make no mistake about it; that sentiment, that gun ownership is sacred, is expressed in those words dozens of times each minute by others in the same online forums. There is a vocal and passionate segment of American society that sees any rule, any regulation, any control or limitation on the country’s vast civilian-held arsenal to be a dangerous infringement on their liberty. These are the members of a dangerous fringe that represent themselves as the majority. They speak as though they believe that, with exception of a few panty-waist commie fags, everyone in the country recognises that the population of the United States is under the heel of a dictatorial, authoritarian, and illegitimate government bent on stripping each American of every last freedom. In their shared delusion, these deeply disturbed gun rights advocates are freedom-fighters and defenders of liberty; they are unable to see that they really are nothing more than barely literate, ignorant, heavily armed paranoiacs.

In the last few days I have seen people seriously advocating requiring grade school teachers to carry concealed firearms. I have, in the immediate aftermath of the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six of their teachers, heard people seriously suggesting that what is needed is easier accessibility to handguns – so people can defend themselves should they find themselves in a similar situation. Today an eleven year-old was sent home for carrying a loaded Glock 9.mm semi-automatic in his waistband; his father had insisted he bring it to school, “just in case”. Listen to the rhetoric:  If you disarm the criminals, only criminals will have guns. Hitler passed anti-gun laws to take over the country…Obama has an identical agenda. If the Sandy Hook principal had her own M16, she could have stopped the slaughter. You’ll get my gun when you take it from my cold, dead hand. The batshit crazies have had sane people treating them as though they were rational for far too long. The voices of sanity are starting to make themselves heard.

On the rational side of the ledger some proposed controls are being offered. What is striking about them is that they aren’t in place now; one can’t help but be astonished that they haven’t been stringently applied for years. It is hard to imagine, for example, that although everyone who drives needs a licence that ensures that the holder has a basic level of proficiency, none is needed to own and use a weapon of war. It seems unthinkable that every car must be licensed, insured, and registered, and must be reported if stolen, but a weapon that has only one purpose – to kill – carries no such requirements. Safety regulations are everywhere…construction sites, swimming pools, shopping malls, public buildings, vehicles, playgrounds… everywhere. But there are no laws that require firearms to be secured. While professionally trained firearms users – police officers, military personnel, etc. – make a habit of storing ammunition and weapons separately, even keeping the firing pins in a third secure storage area, and are advocates of trigger locks when transporting weapons, the great majority of amateurs keep their weapons in the house loaded and ready to kill.

Nevertheless the NRA and hard-line gun rights activists decry as an infringement on their second amendment rights any suggestion that these appalling circumstances ought to be examined. Of course, the argument that the right to bear arms is the only civil right in the USA that should have no control, no limitation, no parameters whatsoever, is nonsense; it is an obdurate negotiating position and it is reasonable to disregard that view and to consider exactly what safeguards are appropriate.

If one looks at the current situation in the United States dispassionately, there are a few steps that could be taken immediately and it would be only common sense to take them. Many of these proposals don’t, in fact, impinge on anyone’s second amendment rights, so no constitutional amendment would be required; some of these proposals could probably even be implemented administratively, not even requiring political bipartisan approval.

Among the first steps would be the creation of a national gun registry. It would be a big task, to be sure, given the number of firearms in the country, but not impossible, and one that would employ thousands of people. It would simply be a matter of a wide public campaign, giving every owner of a firearm in the country one year to bring any weapons to a local firearm registry office and have its serial number entered into a national database and test fired to take a ballistic fingerprint. This, combined with a requirement that all lost or stolen firearms be reported to the police, and zero tolerance for possession of an unregistered firearm, would result in an immediate increase in the apprehension of those who commit gun related crimes. It would give law enforcement agencies a place to start their investigation in virtually every instance of gun crime. It would also act as a deterrent, in many instances, to those who think about using a firearm that would otherwise be untraceable.

A universal background check on all those who want to buy firearms seems like an obvious safeguard. Surely the most adamant gun rights activist wouldn’t want people with dangerous mental illnesses, convicted armed robbers, or those on the terrorist watch list to be permitted to purchase firearms legally. As it is, any of those categories of people can go to a gun show and buy any weapon they see there with no questions asked; it is easier and there are fewer limitations to firearms purchases than to boarding an airline.

The Democrats are proposing an obvious bill: one that bans magazines that hold more than ten rounds. The ban on assault rifles that expired in 2004 is being rewritten and strengthened and reintroduced. Internet weapons sales are going to be looked into. Perhaps the political will actually exists, in the wake of the most recent in a long series of mass shootings, to make some reasonable laws controlling weapon access.

A comprehensive examination of the laws across the country is another obvious step in the direction of injecting some reason into the Wild West mentality that pervades the United States when it comes to guns. Federal statutes, consistently enforced across the country would go a long way to achieving some rudimentary sanity. The examination could address some truly bizarre anomalies such as the laws in Florida and Iowa which prevent a convicted felon from voting or owning a gun; the ban on voting is for life, but a felon is eligible to purchase a firearm after five years. Each state has its own gun laws, yet crossing a state line intending to break one of their laws is a federal offense. It’s a federal offense to transport a weapon across state lines for illegal purposes, yet it’s perfectly legal to order a weapon on the Internet or ship one by post or UPS. Given the ease of travel in the United States and the proliferation of weapons, it would make sense to enact a federal firearms statute that overrides any state laws; the infrastructure for enforcement already exists in the form of federal law enforcement agencies whose jobs would be greatly simplified with consistency in laws across the country.

Now is the time to move firmly in the direction of bringing rationality to the chaotic legal and enforcement structure that permeates the insidious gun culture that defines the USA. The political will exists, the public outrage still burns hot, but it won’t for long…the people of the US have a notoriously short memory when it comes to violent death, perhaps even the violent death of first grade students. Perhaps we should keep reminding ourselves that if the Sandy Hook massacre had been the act of a Muslim terrorist, nothing whatsoever would prevent even the institution of the most draconian measures to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

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Wedding bells are breaking up that old gang of mine…

Marriage equality

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – If you’re a Canadian, as I am, it’s fascinating to watch the United States struggling with the question of marriage equality; if you’re a liberal, as I am, it’s bewildering to realise that the US, which sees itself as “the most free country on earth”, still can’t get solidly behind a basic human rights issue that the rest of the developed world sees as essentially a no-brainer. Progress is being made, but marriage equality – the right of people to marry the person they love, regardless of their genders – is still a profoundly contentious issue south of this border.

Family Values? Whose family…The Manson Family?

The US Supreme court has just agreed to hear two cases that deal with the issue, so a decision as to the constitutionality of same sex marriage will be forthcoming. Meanwhile, Canada was the fourth country in the world and the first outside of Europe to enshrine marriage equality in national laws. It was done without fanfare or even much discussion; after all, since the last century, Canadian same sex couples have been legally entitled to all the legal benefits enjoyed by traditionally married couples, so it was only a question of formally acknowledging the relationships as marriage in every other sense. But then Canada and the US have always had different outlooks on human rights.

Canada never had slavery, never had segregation, never even had to pass civil rights legislation to redress an uneven treatment of people of different skin pigmentation. It is odd, but the United States, which prides itself on its own mythology of rugged individualism, is far more inclined to impose the will of the majority on the minority; is far more inclined to ferret out “deviant” behaviour; is far more inclined to demand conformity in lifestyle, religion, and politics than are Canadians. Non-conformity and individuality are far more readily tolerated, even celebrated here in bland, homogeneous Canada than they are in the “freest country on earth”. Canada’s paradigm is that of a mosaic; the United States is a melting pot. Canada, far more than the United States of America, nurtures a live-and-let-live social contract.

This is the threat we must defend against!

It is therefore bemusing to Canadians that so many citizens of the United States become so exercised at the very thought of a gay or lesbian couple having their union described as “marriage”.  It’s even more bewildering when one considers that the desire for gay and lesbian couples to legalise their unions as marriages is not merely an attempt to find acceptance or to proclaim their love publicly – both perfectly reasonable desires – but to become eligible for the approximately one thousand legal benefits from tax breaks to veterans’ compensation available to married partners in the United States. The wish to have their marriages legally recognised is not a frivolous desire nor is it a demand for intangible advantages; moreover it does not impinge in any way on those who are already married, or intend to be married to a partner of a different sex.

Nevertheless, some people actually claim that to allow loving couples of the same sex to enjoy the legal status of “married” is to destroy the institution of marriage. This homophobic faction has attempted to pass federal legislation under the name “Defence of Marriage Act” (DOMA) that would declare same sex marriage unconstitutional and therefore illegal even in that handful of states that have embraced marriage equality. That is one of the cases the Supreme Court will hear. Rationally, one would expect the decision to be favourable to freedom and equality, but given the preponderance of conservative justices, that is by no means a foregone conclusion.

My family

If we look at the state of human rights in America 150 years ago, we are appalled. But it was less than fifty years ago – within my lifetime – that the seminal civil rights battles were fought in the southern US. Rosa Parks, the freedom riders, the march on Selma; all these resulted in the elimination of the Jim Crow laws and, in theory at any rate, cleared up any question that people of all skin intonations have the same rights under the law. Nevertheless, miscegenation (a crime of which I am proudly guilty) was illegal in many states while I was in school, and the laws against mixed race marriages were enforced until relatively recently. The idea of legal segregation or systemic racial discrimination is horrifying today (perhaps more to Canadians than to people from a country that had historically accepted it).

Without doubt, the denial to gay and lesbian couples of the right to marry will be seen as a similar travesty at some future time, and everyone will be similarly congratulating themselves for having eliminated another human rights abuse. The question that remains is: why don’t the homophobes, if they can’t actually get behind this obviously reasonable and just redress of historical abuse, just stop fighting it? Just shut up and save their energy for a serious battle? Although they might score a few small victories, it’s not a war they can ultimately win; theirs is a mean-spirited, bigoted position; and the longer they drag this on, the more they hurt others and diminish the already tarnished respect in which the US is held by the civilised world.

…enditem…

Living on our children’s credit card

The enemy within

Pagun

 VANCOUVER ISLAND, CANADA – A lot of ink and bandwidth is wasted on the fringe elements who argue that global warming or human-caused climate change is a myth. The fact is that we live in a post-environment-debate world. The Earth’s climate is changing. Every genuine climatologist acknowledges that, just as every respected and legitimate scientist agrees that the root cause of the change is human impact. Those conspiracy theorists who deny this scientific reality are buffoons who fly their ignorance like a team banner and revel in the role of village idiot; they don’t really expect to be taken seriously and they enjoy pushing the buttons of the rational people who are profoundly concerned about the condition of this planet. It’s time we stopped taking their inane claims seriously just as wise parents learn to ignore children who are being deliberately annoying in a bid for attention. 

Despite those troglodytes, tremendous strides have been made in the environmental movement.

Here in the west, to a greater or lesser extent, everyone is an environmentalist. Some of the things we do as a matter of day-to-day habit were unheard of in my parents lifetimes, and, if seen through the eyes of someone 40 years ago, would have been considered crackpot environmental extremism. Composting of kitchen waste, which is a service provided for those who don’t have backyard composters in the town where I live, was something only farmers did, and then only because they already had tons of livestock manure composting for fertiliser. When I was a child we had two garbage pickups a week and each family in our suburban Montreal neighbourhood had two or three metal garbage cans at the curb each Tuesday and Friday. Today, in my suburban Vancouver Island neighbourhood, we have one fortnightly garbage pickup and we don’t always have a full can for them. We also have a fortnightly recycling pickup for which we usually have a full blue box, and a weekly compost pickup which we use if our backyard composter is full or it’s too miserable outside to use.

Pretty much everyone recycles jars, paper, aluminum cans, cardboard, plastic, and nearly everything that isn’t compostable or used to end up in landfills. Most people diligently make a weekly trip to a recycling depot to return bottles and other containers for the deposit, and it’s not entirely for the money; our depot has a box where one can contribute their deposit refund to a local food bank, and at least half the people seem to leave their refund money there. This all seems second nature to us now, but in my childhood, those kinds of behaviours were unheard of.

It’s not just in our manner of dealing with waste that our standards have evolved.

We don’t burn leaves in our backyard as we did in years past; we actively seek out ways to reduce the amount of energy we use; we don’t litter; we reuse wherever possible and reduce our use of non-recyclables like plastics; we insulate our homes more efficiently. Smoking isn’t permitted in buses, bars, restaurants, offices, or any enclosed public space – I can remember flying across the Atlantic on a plane in which virtually every adult lit up as soon as the seatbelt/no smoking lights shut off. Today, you’d be arrested and charged with air piracy for doing that. In all of these ways, the world is much better than it used to be and getting better still every day.

Nevertheless, we are losing the fight against the climate change that we have caused because we still just don’t get it. 

I go into my little boy’s playroom and I can’t help but note that half the toys he has in there need batteries; cars, trains, his Buzz Lightyear language computer, talking Barney, even the clock on the wall. Certainly each of these things is vastly more energy efficient than comparable toys were when I was his age, but in aggregate, they use much more battery power than all of my toys did. But that’s only the beginning. I bought a pack of “AA” batteries today and was once again struck by how much packaging was necessary to enclose a few items, each smaller than my little finger; paper labels and cardboard packaging that come from trees that no longer live to scrub our atmosphere, and stiff plastic packaging that will still be somewhere, entirely unchanged when my son’s great grandchildren’ grandchildren visit him on his 200th birthday.

I was in a Boeing 777 recently and I was aware as we gained altitude that the plane I was in burned more fossil fuel and belched out more ozone-destroying emissions on takeoff than do both of my cars in an entire year. That’s right…this environmentally conscious commentator owns two cars. To be sure, both are far more fuel efficient than any family car my father had when I was a child – one is a Smart Car that runs on diesel and gets about 75 miles to the gallon – but, still, that’s two cars along with all the various fluids and replacement parts needed to maintain them. My father’s father never had a car; he travelled primarily by electric streetcar in Quebec City until he died in the 1980s. Certainly I use the more efficient fluorescent coils rather than bulbs, but I probably have ten times as many light sources in my house as my grandparents did, even when electricity replaced their kerosene lamps. Fridge, stove, freezer, two microwaves, smoke detectors, dishwasher, five light sources, and a radio all draw power in only one room of the house; some of those draw power twenty four hours a day. That’s not even mentioning the heat pump, water heater, WiFi, and night lights that perpetually draw small amounts of electricity from the grid and contribute to light and heat pollution.

And I am firmly on the conservationist side of the bell curve.

Clearly, worrying about it and doing the politically correct things – separating recyclables, going on a family bike ride in place of a Sunday drive, turning the thermostat down at night, choosing low-wattage Christmas lights – isn’t enough. The problems caused by our human footprint on Planet Earth are getting worse and they’re getting worse at an increasing rate. So where do we go from here?

Obviously we have to step up our efforts to minimise our energy consumption. Nevertheless our energy requirements will continue to grow; no matter how assiduously we try to reduce the amount of energy we use daily, the demand will continue to increase with technological advances and population growth. And this is happening at the same time as we are beginning to see the end of the oil supply coming at us with increasing velocity.

So while, as Pogo so clearly saw it, the enemy is most certainly us, there are other villains at whom we need to keep a vigilant eye squinted. The enemy is us, because we just cannot seem to wean ourselves off dependence on fossil fuels. But lurking behind our addiction is the greatest enabler of them all…our suppliers. Like all suppliers of powerfully addictive substances, oil companies have a vested interest in ensuring that we remain reliant on their product as long as they have some to sell. And bewilderingly, despite the fact that these same companies are more profitable now than they have ever been, the right wing insists on providing them with billions and billions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies each year. They scoff at any attempt to address environmental issues and regard any investment in alternative energy sources to be an indulgent waste of money.

What is absolutely, unquestionably, crystal clear is that we will run out of oil. If our civilisation is to survive we must have alternative sources of clean, renewable energy; our society will collapse when the oil runs out if there is nothing to replace it, and the earth will undergo catastrophic climate disruptions if we were to continue to use a fuel as damaging to the planet as fossil fuels.

This first in a series of pieces on environmental issues will leave the topic for now with just one recommendation. Since our oil companies are as addicted to public largesse as we are to its oil, it is unlikely that the enormous grants and subsidies will end any time soon. With that in mind, what ought to happen is that those subsidies need to come with a very simple string attached: 50% of the corporate welfare must be dedicated to R & D of alternative energy sources. The oil companies could even keep all patents and profits from the results of such research and development. How could big oil object? They would create a new revenue stream to replace the old obsolescent one; they would ensure their own survival for the ages.

An alternative, and frankly one I would prefer, would be to take those same billions of dollars and fund individuals and small research groups and companies engaged in alternative energy development. With that kind of funding and the native ingenuity of the human race in the face of a crisis, I have no doubt that the race might survive. Whether that’s a good or bad thing remains to be seen.

More soon.

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American Exceptionalism

War criminals among us

Patrick Guntensperger

PARKSVILLE, CANADA – Perhaps my inclination to be hypercritical of US politics and popular culture obscures the fact that I have a great deal of respect for the people of the United States of America. I criticise the US because I respect the people and their ability to absorb criticism and in the hope that the criticism will be given due consideration by the open-minded segment of the population that reads my analysis. It is in that spirit that I offer the following commentary on a recent US president. 

If George W. Bush had been the head of state of any other country but the United States of America, I believe that there would

Logo of the International Criminal Court

have been a strong movement, possibly even spearheaded by the US, to have him indicted and tried in the World Court as a war criminal, and further, I contend that he probably would have been convicted.

Specifically, I believe that he is guilty of what is described in The Nuremberg Principles and the United Nations Charter as “Crimes against Peace”. That specific charge is defined in those documents as:

   the “planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of wars of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing”.

 There is little argument that Bush manufactured the casus belli his administration used to justify the bombing, invasion, conquering, and occupation of a sovereign country, Iraq, and the apprehension, incarceration, and execution of that country’s head of state. Moreover there is little argument that he and his administration lied deliberately and lied repeatedly to the American people and to allies of the United States in an effort to create an international coalition to aid in a war of aggression and the overthrow of a sovereign regime.

The putative justification for the war prosecuted by the US and its co-conspirator nations against Iraq was that the country had or would shortly have weapons of mass destruction, and that, combined with Iraq’s bellicosity and Saddam Hussein’s intransigence, was sufficient to justify a pre-emptive strike. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke ominously of “mushroom clouds” being the smoking gun if the attack wasn’t launched, and one official after another spoke of “incontrovertible proof” and “absolutely unambiguous intelligence” assuring President Bush that the WMD, including biological agents and nuclear weapons, were being manufactured and stockpiled.

Of course that simply wasn’t true. Nevertheless the United States, with the co-operation of British prime Minister Tony Blair, and a “coalition of the willing” comprised of 49 countries including three (the UK, Australia, and Poland) who provided

One convicted war criminal

troops, launched a first strike against Iraq and ultimately occupied the country and executed Saddam.

It’s important that, as we consider whether Bush’s actions rise to the level of war crimes, we don’t follow the red herring of Saddam’s venality. Let us stipulate at the outset that Saddam was a miserable prick and a thoroughly detestable bastard; he had no business running a country, he was a brute and a vicious despot who thoroughly deserved the enmity and hatred of civilised people everywhere. Whether he deserved the death penalty is a matter for another discussion. The question isn’t about Saddam’s behaviour; it is about Bush’s actions. And there unquestionably exists a prima facie case that George W. Bush, as commander in chief of the armed forces and head of state of the United States committed acts that are specifically proscribed as crimes against peace by the world community.

And lest we forget that crimes against peace are a serious matter, let us remind ourselves that those crimes, specifically waging an unprovoked war of aggression, were among those for which the Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after WW II. Albert Speer spent 20 years in Spandau prison when convicted of those crimes, with the court remarking that leniency was shown in his case because of the evident remorse he showed – something entirely absent in Bush’s post war behaviour. Many of Speer’s compatriots, notably those who, like Bush, persisted in maintaining that they were justified in their behaviour, were executed.

Every rational post-game analysis of the genesis of the Iraq invasion reveals that there was, in fact, no credible evidence of WMDs in Iraq prior to or after the capture and execution of the Iraqi head of state. What Bush and his surrogates described as incontrovertible evidence of WMDs wasn’t even thought to be truly suggestive…even by the CIA who gathered and analysed the intelligence and briefed the president and the Joint Chiefs. And of course, it turned out that there were no WMDs or even evidence of any attempt to manufacture or acquire them. The pathetically unsupported conviction that they nevertheless existed is one more example of the inclination of America’s right wing to self-delusion; to living in a bubble and not letting facts or even common sense intrude into their self-created world view.

Not only was there no evidence to support the empty claims used to justify the war of aggression, but Bush knew it and lied to the world about it. But Bush and Cheney wanted it to be true, Bush because he wanted to be a warrior president and Cheney because his company, Haliburton, made untold millions as war contractors, so they told themselves and us it was true perhaps even until they actually believed it. So they killed over 100,000 (according to Wikileaks) men women and children, then started looking for the weapons of mass destruction that had never existed. When it became clear that they were trying to bring home a chimera, the Bush administration never admitted their culpability and Bush never even offered a “my bad!”

The Republicans are of course somewhat diffident when it comes to acknowledging Dubya as one of their own; he was conspicuous in his absence from the recent GOP convention, and the average Republican shuffles his feet and changes the subject when his name is brought up. But let’s be clear that the reason for their tacit disavowal of their erstwhile president has nothing whatever to do with his war crimes…it’s all about how his economic policies torpedoed the US economy; that’s really embarrassing and hard to explain. War crimes apparently not so much.

Nevertheless the rest of the world, even this commentator – unlike the RNC – is not ensconced in a delusional self-congratulatory bubble. I am fully aware that there will never be any serious attempt to prosecute Bush, Cheney, their sycophants like Blair, and other equally culpable wagers of wars of aggression on charges that, if proven, would see world leaders and heads of smaller, weaker states tried, imprisoned, and possibly even executed.

Just a few of Bush’s victims

That war was hypocritically launched and prosecuted by the United States of America and, other than the loss of many young American men and women in uniform, there will never be any repercussions or accountability. Any other country would have had some ‘splainin’ to do. Bush, though, has retired to a life of ease and prosperity, insufficiently intelligent or burdened by morals to suffer any pangs of conscience for the deaths he caused in his vanity war. He is, after all, an elder statesman…an American one.

Perhaps this is the true nature of the much vaunted “American exceptionalism”.

IMPUNITY

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People before profit

Business as usual: The Republican myth

Patrick Guntensperger

Parksville, BC

 

It seems to be a given, at least among Republicans, that a track record in business is a necessary background for someone aspiring to be president. Even Democrats seem to accept, albeit somewhat grudgingly, that the person occupying the Oval Office ideally should have some real business experience. In the current presidential race, Mitt Romney’s single greatest asset is his history as a high-powered businessman, something his handlers never seem to tire of pointing out.

This is not Pennsylvania Avenue

While the Democrats take occasional exception with the narrative that the Republicans keep pushing – they point to Romney’s predatory business practices, or bring up executive blunders like his admonishment to let Detroit go bankrupt – what is missed in the overall analysis is the more subtle fact that the initial presumption is fundamentally flawed. Business expertise is not only virtually irrelevant to the job of president; it may well be an impediment. Romney, the pundits and media hacks keep reminding us, ran Bain Capital, a successful asset management firm; Romney’s campaign spokespeople and political flacks never let us forget how much money he earned for himself and for his company during his business career. What the flacks and hacks keep missing, though, is that government and business have different aims and purposes; in some cases those aims and purposes are opposite and mutually exclusive. At the core of these differences is the observation that I have repeatedly made regarding the two parties; the Republicans, the party of business have, as their priority, property rights. On the other hand, the Democrats tend to focus on human rights.

The purpose of a corporation is to make and maximise profits. Full stop. The purpose of government on the other hand is to enhance the lives of the governed through cooperation. An expert at realising a profit for a corporation is not ipso facto an expert at enhancing the lives of the people; in fact all one has to do is look at the Republican platform to see that Romney sees the improvement of people’s lives as something to be cut as an impediment to profits.

Romney and his radical Republican base see the ideal president as the one who cuts the greatest number of programmes, eliminates the most taxes, and oversees the reduction of government to as close to non-existent as is compatible with them keeping their place at the public trough. This, of course, is a pure business approach. A modern big business executive would streamline a business, eliminate frills like employee’s daycare, health benefits, and pension guarantees, and give enormous bonuses to the CEO, CFO, and their upper echelon colleagues. What is being missed, of course, is that government has an entirely different purpose and therefore an entirely different function.

 Government was first established to do for groups of individuals that which the individuals could not effectively do for themselves. People got together and did, in concert, those things which were beyond the grasp of individuals; things like build infrastructure for the benefit of all, defend the group’s interests from outsiders, educate the young, etc. These things absolutely did not have a profit motive; in fact, attempting to make a profit from these group endeavours would compromise the effort. The profit associated with these endeavours is the practical benefit that accrues to the public and the body politic.

So while the Republicans insist on seeing government as the enemy and as a beast that needs to be wrestled to the ground and exterminated, the very purpose of government – cooperative achievement of the means to improve the lives of the people – is forgotten. It is indeed odd that career politicians see their lifelong employer as an enemy that needs to be destroyed. Even more ironic is that these enemies of government are fond of repeating the mantra that government doesn’t create jobs – presumably excepting theirs; and they do seem to forget The New Deal, as well as the enormous and sustained growth that resulted from Eisenhower’s infrastructure focus in the post WWII era…all direct results of government created jobs.

A prudent businessman seeks to streamline, to reduce the payroll. A prudent government seeks to maximise, not to minimise employment…diametrically opposite aims. Bringing a businessman’s cost-cutting, downsizing, and outsourcing strategies to government is a recipe for utter economic disaster; and that is the recipe proposed by Mitt Romney, the politician whose personal model was the corporate parasite Larry the Liquidator in Other People’s Money. Romney made hundreds of millions of dollars for himself by throwing people out of work; he made billions for his corporation by gobbling up and liquidating other corporations; despite the rhetoric, these are not skills useful in a chief executive of a nation.

A presidential apprenticeship

There is something disconcerting about the notion of putting someone who deeply distrusts — even loathes and despises if he is to be believed — an institution in charge of that very institution. Romney’s stated mission is to reduce government and increase the influence of private enterprise in the lives of people. The Republicans insist that the use of government resources has the effect of making people dependent upon government and is antithetical to the principles of self-reliance they claim the country was founded upon. But a closer look at that concept will show that the frequently repeated suggestion that government services diminish personal responsibility is exactly the opposite of the reality.

 When a government invests in public works, maintains a postal service, creates national parks, establishes a health-care system – all things that Republicans believe ought to be handled by private enterprise – it is an example of highly refined, even sublimely evolved self-reliance. To allow these services to be privatised would require people (and corporations, Mitt Romney notwithstanding, are not people) to rely on the humanity of corporations to maintain their quality, availability, and affordability. Much better that the people should do it for themselves, through a mechanism of cooperation, i.e. representative government. When a public service is instituted, it is an example of the people doing something for themselves in the recognition that cooperative effort results in an effective deployment of resources for the benefit of all, rather than for the profit of the few.

If you believe the Republicans, this guy wants all Americans to suck on the government teat.

 

Probably the most ruggedly individualistic, self-reliant president the United States has ever had, Theodore Roosevelt, initially a Republican, then the head of his Bull Moose independent party, realised that private enterprise was not the appropriate vehicle for some important endeavours and that only cooperative efforts coordinated through government could achieve the desired ends. He was responsible for the establishment of national parks, national monuments, and the ongoing legacy of the National Parks Service; a public enterprise that today’s Republicans see as an unnecessary frill…a service that could be better provided by private enterprise. One shudders to think of what Devil’s Tower, Wyoming or Yellowstone National Park would look like if privatised (hotdogs steamed in Old Faithful, anyone?).

It is time for those who are swayed by the rhetoric of individualism parroted by Romney, Ryan, and their Tea Party masters actually to consider what a United States without government would be like. Would the nation actually be better if all those institutions that define civilisation were dismantled in anticipation of entrepreneurs popping up to fill the gaps? Without even discussing the benefits of President Barack Obama being re-elected, one can perceive the profound dangers of a half thought-out system like that proposed by the Republicans. It doesn’t take deep analysis to see that the stated policies of the challengers simply cannot be sustained in a country that wishes to be considered civilised. For those who would vote for a party that has vowed to destroy everything the US has achieved, one can only say, “Be careful of what you wish for.”

 

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Is Indonesia waking up?

Doing a guest spot

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta Indonesia

 We have now applied for a visa for JJ to go to Canada where we intend to have his certificate of Canadian citizenship issued. To do so requires getting him a tourist visa to enter Canada as he can’t get a Canadian passport until he has that certificate; that entailed spending hours at a visa application centre, outsourced to a local entrepreneur, answering pointless questions. Without exaggeration, what follows is some verbatim conversation I had with a visa application officer:

Q: “What is your three-year-old’s current occupation?”

A: “Child.”

Q: “Previous occupation?”

A: “Foetus.”

Q: “Why is there no letter of permission from the child’s birth parents?”

A: “Because they’re dead. That’s why you have their death certificates and a Court Order of Adoption in your hand. WE are his parents.”

Q: “I still need their written and notarised permission.”

A: “Please let me speak to someone with an IQ.”

Ah well. Some things never change.

Or maybe they do.

 A good friend asked me if I’d fill in for him at Bina Nusantara University for an afternoon, and, being bored senseless, I was happy to do it. It was a four hour class of Academic English, a course and school with which I am very familiar; preparation was minimal, and my friend Charles is very good, so I knew it would be a piece of cake. I put on my professorial face and attitude, showed up early, sober, and unhungover. Now here’s the weird part: I was awestruck at the general improvement in the quality of the students at an Indonesian university.

 I shit you not. It was a relatively small class, but they were almost all there – not just on time, but early. The one missing girl showed up about a minute late, apologised profusely, took a seat and was ready to learn. The class went well; we all had a lot of fun, the kids followed my reasoning during some of the more abstruse sections on informal logic and its application to essay writing, had no apparent problems taking notes and asking reasonable questions, and with one minor exception, abstaining from laptop, tablet, and cellphone use during the lecture part of the class.

After they had been told to go ahead and use their laptops

A new generation solving real problems

I took proposals for the topics of their next assignment, which was to be an essay which describes a problem, offers a solution, anticipates objections, addresses the objections, and concludes by advocating the proposed solution. That’s an assignment that is deployed in that elementary academic writing for first year students every semester, and I’ve gone through the drill more times than I care to remember.

My past experience in that same school with students of similar ages, backgrounds, and levels of intelligence had routinely included young women proposing to address such issues as dry skin or hair that was too curly, being the subject of malicious gossip, or parents who were reluctant to spring for their own car and driver. Meanwhile the young men traditionally offered to address problems including parents who were reluctant to spring for their own car and driver, the poor performance of one or another soccer football team, or the size of the portions served in the university’s cafeteria.

 I was gobsmacked when the small groups they were working within came up with the problems they wished to address. They included the deforestation of Papua, the endemic poverty in Jakarta, the routine mistreatment of Indonesian migrant workers, and the human rights abuses against local populations practiced by the Indonesian military when deployed as mercenary security forces for US mining companies. We spent the rest of the four-hour class engaged in lively discussions of these problems, brainstorming solutions, anticipating objections; when the somewhat gruelling day was over, some even lingered to continue the discussions or to ask genuine questions – not one of which was whether it would be okay to hand something in late because they had a wedding to attend.

 I’m not sure whether this admittedly anecdotal experience represents anything larger; I couldn’t say whether the apparent sea change in the maturity of a small group of young Indonesians is even significant. But it is sure as hell refreshing.

I attribute a great deal of this encouraging development of social consciousness, and general social maturity to their regular teacher, Charles Schuster, for whom I was substituting. Charlie is a good friend and drinking buddy; he is a long-time US expat and Indonesian resident and he is first and foremost an artist of considerable, perhaps great talent; certainly he has a very solid reputation. But like most artists, he actually has to work to support his art. Indonesia can be thankful that his chosen employment is that of university lecturer.

 Deep in my heart, I am sincerely optimistic that I may have seen the beginnings of the sea-change that will move Indonesia into the ranks of civilised countries; maybe it won’t be such a no-brainer for my son to choose whether to maintain his Canadian or his Indonesian citizenship when he reaches the age of eighteen. Or better yet, maybe by then Indonesia will have developed sufficient self-respect and self-confidence that she will recognise dual citizenships like the rest of the civilised world and not force her own people to cut themselves off from their homeland in their quest for a better – or different – standard of living.

But one way or another, here I sit at 6.30 am in a 24 hour cafe, drinking warm beer and eating Dim Sum for breakfast, trying to work before the morning heat becomes intolerable, with more hope for this country than I have had for years.

 

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Mohammed: get the picture? or “Show me the Prophet!”

A picture is worth…

Patrick Guntensperger

Jakarta, Indonesia

 

Islam is a religion of peace; the sword is for circumcisions only

Although the world is chock full of news of genuine significance, the front pages of Jakarta newspapers are preoccupied with a real crisis. It seems that an elementary school in Solo, Central Java has a book in its library called “Interesting Stories of the Prophet’s Childhood”. That’s not the crisis; the crisis is that if you look very hard you could find an illustration that is intended to depict Muhammed’s mother holding the Prophet as a baby. The crude drawing has the baby deliberately blurred and it is impossible to make out anything other than the rather poorly drawn general outline of a swaddled newborn in the arms of a woman who is dressed much like the Virgin Mary is usually depicted, except that her veil is brown rather than the traditional blue.

 The horror, the horror! Islamic fundamentalists are up in arms over this blasphemy and bloodshed is demanded by the truly devout. This, after all, constitutes a depiction of the Prophet, something prohibited under Islamic tradition. Heads will surely roll. Department of education functionaries, the school principal, librarian, and everyone else remotely connected to this obscenity is running for cover, passing the buck, shifting the blame, and otherwise behaving as though something is seriously wrong. Let us not forget that this is a country in which elementary schools’ entire budgets have been embezzled, resulting in roof collapses which killed dozens of students, and those responsible were merely censured. They were not even required to return the money they stole, and even kept their positions.

 A little history is perhaps in order here. The reason that depictions of the Prophet are haram in most traditions comes from the Christian schism known as iconoclasm. During the days of the Byzantine Empire, the Christian church nearly tore itself apart as one segment felt that the veneration of icons was a contravention of the 3rd Commandment delivered by Moses, the injunction to have no graven images or likenesses, while the other segment worshipped relics (bones of saints, pieces of the cross, scraps of fabric alleged to have been touched by Jesus, etc.) and icons. Icons took many forms, but whether they were paintings, sculptures, mosaics, bass reliefs, or hammered metal, the iconoclasts (lit. “image breakers”) did their level best to destroy them. The power and authority of the iconoclasts versus the image worshippers swung back and forth for centuries with the pendulum finally favouring the worshippers of graven images (fortunately, or much of our Renaissance artwork wouldn’t exist).

 While this internecine battle raged, a new warrior religion (contrary, I’m sorry to say, to the claims that Islam is a religion of peace) was growing at an astonishing pace and conquering much of the Middle East; the leaders wanted to preclude this kind of doctrinal debate and determined that, in an effort to prevent the deification of Mohammed as the result of people creating and worshipping his image, they would prohibit the depiction of the Prophet. The idea was to avoid venerating him as anything greater than the last prophet before the arrival of the Messiah. Above all, Mohammed was not to be worshipped; hence the prohibition.

 Islam today has turned this on its head. They have made a god of Mohammed; a god of such sanctity that people are killed for drawing his likeness, much in the same way that the ancient Hebrews saw it as sacrilegious to speak the name of their god. This is the exact reversal of the reason for the original prohibition. Those who are offended by the likeness in the schoolbook are, according to true Islamic doctrine, far guiltier than those whom they accuse of creating graven images. They have contravened the 2nd of Moses’ commandments. They have placed a god before the Mosaic god. But they have gone further; they are guilty of creating a god. Only a god, which Mohammed most definitely was not, need be revered to the point of such a furor over his depiction in a schoolbook. Only a god is so utterly apart from and above humanity that his image is unfit for human eyes. If Mohammed was anything, he was human.

 It is becoming apparent that the Islamic fundamentalists here in Indonesia and elsewhere in the Islamic world have become outrage junkies. It is time to add common sense, moderation, and tolerance to the anger that characterises the hard-liners’ worldview…Mohammed, the man, would approve.

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