Friday, November 27, 2009

One book done, another one begun. . . .

So this week I finally received the contract from the publisher for my book - Humble Men in Company: The Unlikely Friendship of Samuel Coleridge and Charles Lamb. It felt good to see the contract and know I am one step closer to seeing the book in print. Looking back on it now I can't really see how I actually finished all one hundred and twenty thousand words. I did it mostly in spare moments when Cairo was busy for a few minutes here and there or late at night or early in the morning. But somehow I managed to do it and it won't be long now that I can have a finished book n my hand. 

Recently I have been working on a new book idea that is in keeping with my desire to focus on the English Romantic authors in an accessible way that is meaningful to our present age. I have narrowed this idea down to dealing with the the three Romantic essayists- Lamb, Hazlitt, and Hunt. These were the three most influential essayists of the period and they knew each other well and worked quite closely for many years.  I find them interesting because they worked in an era that is similar to our own in as much as they spent their youth in an period of hopeful optimism only to spend their adulthood in a period of conservative reaction as the traditionally  powerful of Europe reasserted their strength. But in recent decades they are slowly fading into obscurity. However, their essays and letters are full of wit and wisdom much of it that is still interesting and useful today. Just like my last book, this one will not be overly academic and it is my hope that it can contribute to a more popular knowledge of the Romantic authors. I know I am fighting against the tide in an age when the only thing people read is text messages but someone has to do it. 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Who is Right and who is wrong. . . .

The waters of politics have become seemingly very muddy in recent years. The traditional terms that people used to rely on like ‘progressive,’ ‘radical,’ and ‘conservative,’ seem less clear than they once did. I started thinking about this because of Sarah Palin’s statement that Canada should dismantle its public health-care system. You see, people who would traditionally be considered ‘conservative’ have tried to portray themselves as somehow ‘radical’ or ‘progressive’ by claiming that they are the ones with new ideas  and they don’t want to rely on the old political notions. This is, of course, a ridiculous claim if your so-called ‘new’ ideas are just a return to the past. It is not, in other words, progressive to want to eliminate the gains that radicals brought us through generations of struggle. This would be like the Bourbons in France claiming that they were ‘radicals’ because they wanted to bring back the divine right of kings after the fall of Napoleon. Radicals, you see, seek to preserve the rights and privileges that we have gained and push forward to new and better ones. This is why the political term ‘conservative’ was never very meaningful; most conservatives want to dismantle the gains that we have made in workers’ rights, healthcare, human-rights, social welfare, etc. This is particularly true of the present government in Canada which came to power with what was essentially a ‘secret agenda’ to dismantle every element of responsible government that they possibly could. That is why that haven’t minded running up the country’s largest deficit in history; because they know that it will give them, or future governments, the excuse they need to eliminate social spending, including health-care. And to top that they even want to dismantle other areas of responsible government like freedom of information, the rule of law, ministerial accountability, etc.  And since they really want to destroy government and society as we know it, calling them conservative is certainly something of a misnomer. Those who we commonly call conservatives are really just  people who want to bring back a time when money and power were what really mattered; when those who were most vulnerable had little or no chance to live decent lives. In other words, they want to return to the law of the jungle or the idea that might makes right. We should, therefore, properly refer to ‘conservatives’ as ‘regressives’ because they want the human species to regress to a more primitive form. As ‘progressives’ we want to see a society in which everyone lives a decent life and everyone has a chance to excel. We don’t think that just because you are born with a ‘disability’ or born a woman or a person of color, or born in the wrong part of town, it should be difficult for you to do well in life. In other words, we want the human species to evolve beyond the law of the jungle to a higher state where compassion, cooperation, and care are the laws to which our society adheres. This is what our political struggle is all about and the reason why we will continue to be the true torchbearers of ‘radicalism.’ 

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Malalai Joya and democracy

Anyone who has been paying attention to the situation in Afghanistan has hopefully run across the remarkable Afghan woman named Malalai Joya. She is an amazing thirty year old Afghan MP who was suspended from parliament by the dark forces in that country for her outspoken criticism of the foreign occupation, the corruption in government, and president himself. While our government offers platitudes and has the gall to act as though President Karzai has been duly elected, this woman risks her life speaking about what a lie the Western invasion has been. Ms. Joya is an excellent and historic role model for young girls and women and will be proud to teach my own daughter about her life and work.

But one issue that the events surrounding Ms. Joya raises in my mind is the question of the legitimacy of democracy in our age. A great deal of what have come to expect from democracy has vanish slowly before our eyes and has gone unnoticed by many in our society.  Extreme events such as those in Afghanistan often give us a glimpse into the real workings behind a process like democracy. And watching such ‘elections’ as those they recently had there illustrate the real failings of the democratic process in the modern world. Ideally a democratic system should be nurtured by a healthy public sphere (now sometime mistermed ‘civil society,’ a term with a long and complex history) in which ideas about the ‘good life’ and our collective future are openly debated in honest meaningful way. However, in recent years such an ideal has receded so far beyond reach that we cannot even talk about a fair process let alone reach that process.  Money and power have corrupted the system so severely that the vast majority of people don’t even understand the possibilities of political debate anymore. The influence of money in the process gradually narrows the terms of debate and the essence of our collective possibilities to the point that democracy grows gradually meaningless. It is similar to being stranded on a desert island with, say, twenty people, and three of them have most of the supplies and guns. Even if one attempted to institute a democratic decision making process in such circumstances they would mean little because the three people with the inherent power would easily control the terms of the debate. And these three individuals were also mean-spirited and nasty (as our present leaders here in Canada are) democracy would become completely meaningless.

Ms. Joya reminds us of the courage of some individuals in the face of the threat of death to work for justice. Unfortunately she also reminds us of the corruption of democracy and the degree to which the ideals of democracy are quickly receding. 

Monday, November 23, 2009

Does Torture Matter?

A number of things are disturbing about the recent outbreak of the story concerning Canada’s role in the torture of so-called Afghan detainees. The first thing that comes to mind regarding the distastefulness of this story (other than the very fact of torture itself) is the fact that this story has been around for years but the media has largely ignored it. Anyone who was paying even the slightest bit of attention to the events in Afghanistan knew full-well that torture has been a matter of course in the prisons of Afghanistan ever since we began to prop-up what is a corrupt, undemocratic, essentially fascist state there. Until Mr. Colvin testified in front of a House committee, the media simply stayed silent on this issue and bought the line of the Harper Government that we have no hard proof and therefore torture must not be happening. Shame on the media one more time for largely ignoring a story until it becomes fashionable. By the way, all reliable sources tell us that torture is also routine in Pakistan, another Canadian ally, and no one talks about that story either. The media has also failed utterly to make it clear that for Government officials to be indictable for war crimes they didn’t actually have to have proof of torture. All that really matters is that detainees were handed over in the presence of a reasonable suspicion of torture. This is the part of the story that the government is most afraid of. Other distasteful elements in this whole story include the Government’s horrendous attempts at assassinating the character of Mr. Colvin as though suddenly this high-placed diplomat is a fool or a patsy because he has been willing to take seriously what everyone already knew.  Amnesty International has been an outspoken critic of the Afghan government’s use of torture so why don’t we see Peter Mackay stand up daily in the House of Commons and tell us that Amnesty International has no credibility and is being manipulated by the Taliban.

But by far the most disturbing thing about this whole story is the number of people, who have essentially don't really seem upset by the prospect of a few Taliban prisoners having been tortured because they are only Taliban, and the only thing that really matters is the idea of a cover-up. This is part of a disturbing trend since the events of 911 whereby groups of people are marginalized to the point that they don’t qualify for the very human rights for which we have supposedly been fighting. The fact is that this attitude is the very reason that this has been allowed to happen in the first place. People have systematically ignored the fact that torture has been happening because for far too many in the West the people of Afghanistan don’t really matter. Thousands of civilians have been killed, we have propped-up with military what Malalai Joya calls a photo-copy of the Taliban Government, we have stood by and tacitly endorsed torture, all in the interests of a geo-political struggle to assert Western power in a strategically important region at a strategically important moment in history. Until people realize that this war has never been about helping a few young girls attend school in Afghanistan, the torture that the media has ignored and that Mr. Harper secretly endorses won’t matter. 

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mr. Colvin and political principles. . . ..

I am somewhat surprised to see very little in the so-called ‘blogosphere’ being said about the testimony of senior diplomat Richard Colvin in front of a House Committee yesterday. This morning the NDP rightfully called for a full public inquiry concerning the events which Mr. Colvin talked about. For years now people in the intelligence community as well as many in NGOs have been talking about the torture of detainees that have found their way into the hands of the dubious forces of the Afghan government through Canadian hands. Yet any time anyone has asked important questions Harper’s government representatives have marginalized these concerned citizens by openly suggesting that they are naïve lackeys or even unconscious allies of the Taliban. This is, of course, the Harper way; instead of addressing actual concerns about corruption or incompetence they simply attempt to deflect criticism or potential scandal by accusing their accusers. Up to now this technique has been fairly successful, and it may yet work for a while. Eventually, like all such dishonest and centralizing strategies, it will come undone and the government will fall because of some scandal. Of course, the biggest strategy is the precedent that the Harper government will have set for future governments which will feel justified in ignoring scandals and accusing anyone who criticizes the government of being some kind of terrorist or evil-doer.

In the case of this impending scandal, the most distasteful thing I see is that a significant number of Canadians really don’t care if our armed forces or even our government has been directly complicit in torture. There has been a disturbing growth in the number of people who don’t believe that the principles on which our democracies are supposed to be established are to be applied to our supposed foes. However, principles are by their nature always applicable – that is the meaning of the word ‘principle.’ If we do not apply the principles of human rights to everyone, then we simply don’t believe in human rights. If we abandon the principles of rights and the rule of law in the face of some perceived foreign or internal threat, then we have already lost the very fight in which we are claiming to be engaged. 

Monday, November 16, 2009

The economic model and its victims. . . .

This morning on the CBC they were talking about a steel-workers’ strike. Not surprisingly the strike centered on the restructuring of pensions, an issue that has been inciting labour unrest all over the world in recent years. What struck me in particular was an interview with people around the community of the strike many of whom took the position, summed up by one interviewee, that “there is a new business model and people need to adjust to it, and if that means reductions in, or even elimination of, their pensions, that is just how it goes.” This position, though apparently widely held, strikes me as not only naïve but profoundly dangerous. It is naïve because it fails to recognize that business has always tried to undermine the power, the conditions, and the prosperity of workers. It was not that long ago in Western history that children worked in factories and mines and some workers were literally chained to their machines. And any effort to improve the wages or conditions of these workers, or to legislate the use of child labour, was met with terrifying predictions by business of economic disaster. These terrible conditions still prevail in many countries in the world and anyone who does not understand that business everywhere would be glad to bring back the bad old days is deeply naïve. Even where some people in business would find such regressive moves distasteful, they are structurally compelled to move whenever possible in this direction. What many people fail to understand is that what workers are actively pursuing are not just better conditions for themselves. Workers struggles are for all of us. Today we have rights to decent wages and working conditions because generations of union activists have struggled for these things. And every generation has been derided and cursed by many in the community while their victories have been enjoyed by all people in the labour force.

The prevailing opinion is dangerous because it fails to understand that it is not the people are not there to serve the economy, rather the economy is there to serve people. If we have an economic model that cannot provide adequate wages and decent pensions then it is the model that is wrong not the people. The simple fact is that the vast majority of wealth in every country and all over the world is in the hands of a very small group of people and there is plenty of wealth in the world for everyone to live a decent life and if someone claims that the model is changing in such a way that will not always, say, good wages, pensions, and a safe work environment, then the model must be changed. It is as simple as that. In the days when children worked in factories wealthy business people assured us that if we tried to change the business model it would just end in disaster. But here is the simple fact; the regions of the world which have seen the greatest number of regulations of such things as workers’ safety, environmental standards, and workers’ rights, as well as the strongest efforts at redistribution have seen the highest standards of living. The economics of this, and an idea that many would not like us to understand is that workers rights, high wages, and pensions, instead of being a drag on an economy are overall a impetuous to innovation. This has always been central to the development of capitalism. In fact capitalism grew in part out of the ravages of the black-death which made labour scarcer and more expensive, forcing innovations throughout the productive economy. When labour is expensive capitalists have been forced to innovate which has beneficial side effects for all of us. One of Marx’s most important insights was that the capitalist economy tends toward reification; that is the illusion that the economy is a set of relations between things and not between people. Capitalists will, of course, tell us that any efforts at changing the economic model will be disastrous. But the fact is that the economic model that exists today did not happen spontaneously, it was a creation of individuals acting quite consciously in particular ways. This is evident in the fact that we do not have a ‘free-market’ economy but a highly regulated economy the processes of which have been consciously designed to function in certain ways. The problem today is made more complex by the process of globalization. But it is still essentially the same problem and until people understand that we can make the economy serve the interests of everyone if we choose and as long as we let people promote the myth that the economic model is a force of its own then we will continue to be victims of the brutal self-interest of a small minority of wealthy and powerful people. It is a story as old as civilization which is rehashed for each generation but the struggle will and must continue. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Liberal sinking fortunes and the status quo. . . .

I keep wondering why the Liberals are sinking in fortunes while the Cons are rising. It obviously is not the fact that the Harper government is competent. I know that the majority of Canadians are not paying attention to the quiet ways that the Government is slowly taking apart this country and dismantling democracy. I also know, and even the polls and last election confirm this, that a vast majority of Canadians are closer politically to the Liberals than to the Conservatives. But when it comes down to it the Liberals simply are failing to do anything political. In order to come back from the political wilderness I believe that all the Liberals have to do is produce a significant policy shift which aims at reinventing the party and reinventing politics in general in this country. Included in this new policy approach would be a real decentralization of the power of the PMO, new measures to ensure access to information, a compulsory weekly free press conference with the Prime Minister with no pre-determined questions, a significant shift away from fossil fuel dependence and investment into new technologies (with private/public partnerships if necessary), a genuine commitment to electoral reform (something the Cons in particular are scared of). Overall, the Liberal party needs to commit to real changes in policy and approach. This would bring the Liberal Party back into the forefront of Canadian politics. Now I am no Liberal but I think any simple analysis of the political situation in this country makes this pretty obvious. Only the Liberals wont follow the obvious path because the powerful in the party have become beholden in recent years to many of the same forces that the Cons are beholden to. They are, in other words too much part of the political establishment to actually want to change things and that will be there very undoing.  

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Media and democracy. . .

I find recent event rather creepy an ominous concerning the political climate in Canada. This is not only because I find the governing party deeply corrupt and anti-democratic. What I find particularly disturbing is the fact that the media has gone silent on almost everything of significance. Now there is no doubt that the media can get very tedious with its constant sensationalizing of political stories. But in the past couple of years they have simply stopped talking about any story that makes the Tories look bad. In recent months there have been terrible scandals which normally we could depend on the media to talk about but nowadays these stories barely get any play at all. And it is much more than the giant check scandal. The Tories have done things which, in the past would have not only have forced governments to resign but the ruling party to plummet in the polls. They have now been found to be vetting potential civil servants for their support for the government. This is the kind of thing that brought down an Attorney General in the Bush administration. Here it barely makes it into the media at all. Conservative MPs heckle opposition members when they ask legitimate questions about things like swine flu while people are dying. Government ministers withhold important documents to manipulate votes in the House. The Government is steeped in financial abuses that the media barely covers. 

There was a time when these stories would be constant headlines that even a Prime Minister who doesn't watch Canadian news would be unable to ignore. 

The funny thing is that I am no Liberal but at least when they were faced with a serious scandal in the sponsorship event, they actually had a public inquiry. This government simply ignores serious scandals, blames someone else, or sacks a civil servant. And the media goes merrily on ignoring all of it. Just the isotope incident would normally be enough to bring down a government. I mean, the government actually sacked a public safety officer who was doing her job, following pre-established protocol while trying to avoid a nuclear accident! And then a year later she was proved right and Chalk River was shut down! But the media has nothing to say. 

All of this reminds me of the US media in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. 

The funniest part of all of it is that the Conservatives are setting so many bad precedents that they will lament later on when some other party is in power. All of us will eventually lament the Americanization of our political system, the concentration of power, the lack of accountability etc. etc. And when some new group of Tories are crying foul when the pendulum has swung the other way, I will laugh - then I will cry. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Obama and change. . .

It is funny that the degree to which people in the media are debating the status of Barak Obama now that he is nearly a year into his term. There is all this surprise that he seems to have done little of any significance and can hardly be said to be a very ‘different’ president from others in recent history. Citics on the left have pointed out that Obama has supported many of the same policies as Bush did including keeping the war machine going (despite a Nobel Prize), spending millions for Wall Street, and even supporting the same kind of domestic spying programs. I have only one question: who was naïve enough to expect anything different? Oh yes, we all had a moment there when we believed in the audacity of hope. But then we regained consciousness. The fact is that the American political system, though democratic in principle, suffers from certain fundamental  problems. Without any real party system, the US representatives are reduced to a bunch of individual politicians trying to maintain their little fiefdom; there is no national policy, nothing that the US public can get behind and fight for. Thus even though a strong majority supports a national healthcare program, for example, it can’t get done. Barak Obama isn’t getting anything done because his is one guy trying to get the consensus of hundreds of Representatives and one hundred senators, all who are acting on their own for their own political future. Barak Obama could be the greatest guy in the world and really want to make significant changes and it wouldn’t matter, he could only make these changes if, like FDR, he were willing to go way out on a limb to push a radical agenda, but he is just not that kind of politician. I grew up in the States and I went to high school and grad school there. I met many great people, may radicals who wanted to make changes that to me didn’t even seem very radical. But I realized fairly soon that the US is not unlike the Roman Empire, once power structures have been established and stabilized, and many people have huge amounts of money and prestige to protect, change doesn’t come easy, particularly in a political system which was created to maintain the power of an upper-class (think of the so-called founding ‘fathers’) change will not come easy.