Monday, April 05, 2010

Jimmy Carter and the Hugos

I recently posted the following Jimmy Carter speech to my Facebook page:

It's rather prescient, no?At the other end of the spectrum is this oft-linked Ronald Reagan speech warning of the "evils" of socialized medicine:

I don't doubt Reagan's sincerity. But it is instructive to note the Right's philosophical objection to socialized medicine, at least according to Reagan. It's twofold: (1) if you can't afford it, you don't deserve it; and (2) it's the beginning of telling doctors where to work, and that ain't American.

Interestingly, I think few today --other than many doctors themselves-- would object to legislating where and to whom doctors must provide service. In Canada, we are almost there, with an incredibly polarization of services leaving rural and remote regions almost completely unserviced. The market has no solution for such disparities.

But back to Carter. It's not a popular view, but I've always held that Carter was a great man who let his good soul get in the way of being a great President. He did what was right, not what his electorate wanted of him. Some would argue that doing what is right is what makes a great leader; others would argue that serving the needs of the people is what defines greatness. I do know, though, that many of Carter's beliefs and predictions are only now being appreciated. The speech above references a real crisis of energy that is only now being taken seriously. In other speeches, he chastises citizens' greed and wastefulness --a stark contrast to today's leaders who toady to the electorate and insist that we are good and right when we clearly are not.

Carter came two generations too early. His manner and approach are sorely needed today.

I'm a bit worried about ol' Jimmy. I haven't seen him in the news of late, and he is pushing 90, after all. It will be a sad day indeed when President Carter shuffles off this mortal coil. Let's hope it's later rather than sooner.

In Other News

The nominees for the 2010 Hugo Awards were announced this week. If you don't know, the Hugos are the premier science fiction awards, the Pulitzer for the nerd set, if you will. I won't mention the novels or short stories, since few of you have heard of them. Rather, let's look at the dramatic entries, bot long and short form.

Nominees for the long form (i.e., movies) include Avatar, Moon, District 9, Star Trek and Up.

I reviewed Star Trek here. It's a fine action movie. But it's neither science fiction nor clever. If it wins, I am through with the Hugos.

I reviewed Avatar here. It's genuine science fiction, though heavily derivative and hardly worthy of an award that celebrates originality. If it wins, I won't be through with the Hugos, but I will lose a hefty amount of respect for them.

Up is an excellent, moving and entertaining little film. But is it science fiction? I really don't think so.

That leaves Moon and District 9. I must admit to not having seen Moon. I hear it's quite good. But from what little I know of its plot, I question whether it's actually science fiction. An astronaut on the moon is not particularly far-fetched. That leaves the sole option for winner being District 9.

Now, on to the short form, The nominees are an episode of Dollhouse, and episode of FlashForward and three episodes of Doctor Who. All are very good choices, though we can all wonder how Lost or Fringe didn't make the list.

More baffling, however, is how this past year's true masterpiece of TV science fiction failed to make the Hugo short list. I'm talking about Torchwood: Children of Earth, which I reviewed here.

I don't use the word "masterpiece" lightly. It's a difficult accomplishment to manage in a general public prime-time TV format, especially within the confines of an existing TV show with existing characters and relationships. But Children of Earth is that good, it really is. Not only is it pure science fiction --something the actual nominees dance around-- but it's poignant, heartbreaking, terrifying and exhilirating.

A big raspberry to the Hugo people for omitting Children of Earth. As compensation, let's inaugurate the first annual TV award for the best science fiction dramatic short form. I hereby award it, without hesitation, to Russell Davies for his --wait for it-- masterpiece in Torchwood: Children of Earth.

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Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Now You Get Mad

Thanks to DeeMack for sending me this. It's reproduced, supposedly, from Rosie O'Donnell's blog. It's an open letter to the "teabaggers" demonstrating with unrestrained fury against the passing of Obama's health care bill:

Now You Get Mad

You didn't get mad when the Supreme Court stopped a legal recount and appointed a President.

You didn't get mad when Cheney allowed Energy company officials to dictate
energy policy.

You didn't get mad when a covert CIA operative got outed.

You didn't get mad when the Patriot Act got passed.

You didn't get mad when we illegally invaded a country that posed no threat to us.

You didn't get mad when we spent over 600 billion(and counting) on said illegal war.

You didn't get mad when over 10 billion dollars just disappeared in Iraq.

You didn't get mad when you found out we were torturing people.

You didn't get mad when the government was illegally wiretapping Americans.

You didn't get mad when we didn't catch Bin Laden.

You didn't get mad when you saw the horrible conditions at Walter Reed.

You didn't get mad when we let a major US city, New Orleans, drown.

You didn't get mad when we gave a 900 billion tax break to the rich.

You didn't get mad when the deficit hit the trillion dollar mark.

You finally got mad when the government decided that people in America deserved the right to see a doctor if they are sick. Yes, illegal wars, lies, corruption, torture, stealing your tax dollars to make the rich richer, are all okay with you, but helping other Americans...oh hell no.


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Coulter Affair

Three important facts to note:

  1. I'm a professor at the University of Ottawa
  2. Politically, I'm liberal on philosophical points, particularly relating to foreign policy, and conservative on fiscal matters. But I'm probably best described as Left of centre, if you really need me to pick a side.
  3. I think Ann Coulter is delusional, hypocritical, possibly narcissistic, dangerously disingenuous, and a seething cauldron of unexamined --nay, proud!-- hate.

And if you strongly disagree with point #3, you will probably cite points #1 and #2 in your inevitable actions to refute what I'm going to say for the rest of this post. I do tire of these games, and have no intention of entering into any kind of debate with anyone over anything to do with Miss Coulter.

As you probably already know, Coulter is on a pan-Canada tour. Why? Who knows. Maybe Americans --flush with purpose and a renewed skepticism of knee-jerk hate after a Democratic and supposedly liberal President gave them all health care-- are no longer in the mood for Coulter's particular brand of idiocy. Maybe she feels that Canada, North America's only nation now with a retrograde conservative leadership, presents better hunting grounds for a niche in which to sell Coulter's smear-jobs-of-the-week that she packages as books.

I don't care why she's coming. Lots of people come here. I don't have a problem with it, especially since I'm presently in Mexico and thus far away from her.

The problem, of course, is that Coulter is known for her so-called "hate speech". In the past, she has publicly called for the invasion of Muslim countries, the murdering of their heads of state and the forced conversion to Christianity of Muslim civilians. In a rehearsed public speech, she called John Edwards a "faggot". These are two examples off the top of my head. To cite more would require me to go back and read her columns again, and I really don't want to put my ageing and addled brain through such torture.

Do her words qualify as hate speech? Sure, why not? I'm on record, though, of being opposed to Canada's hate speech laws and hate crime laws. I think that a crime is not made more criminal simply by being hateful; and I think that hateful speech should not be legally punished until a link can be shown between such speech and an actual criminal act. Otherwise, people should be able to say whatever (non-libelous things) they want to say.

But that's just me.

So where are we? Ann Coulter, known for her hateful speech, is coming to Canada. Of more immediate concern to this blog post, though, is that Ann Coulter was coming to the University of Ottawa.... my generous and gracious employer whom I'd never dream of disparaging :)

Now, I don't know why the following happened. I have some theories. Here's one. The university knows its students, knows that they are mostly a Left-leaning activist lot who would get quite riled up by Coulter's (deliberately) provocative statements. Statements that may dance on the border of hate crime, or maybe even cross over into that realm, would be carefully parsed and legal action would be demanded of the university by these passionate students. So perhaps to save itself such trouble, perhaps to avoid more administrative burden in an institution already known for its overwhelming mass of bureaucracy, the university issued the following letter to Ann Coulter:

"Dear Ms. Coulter,

I understand that you have been invited by University of Ottawa Campus Conservatives to speak at the University of Ottawa this coming Tuesday. We are, of course, always delighted to welcome speakers on our campus and hope that they will contribute positively to the meaningful exchange of ideas that is the hallmark of a great university campus. We have a great respect for freedom of expression in Canada, as well as on our campus, and view it as a fundamental freedom, as recognized by our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

I would, however, like to inform you, or perhaps remind you, that our domestic laws, both provincial and federal, delineate freedom of expression (or "free speech") in a manner that is somewhat different than the approach taken in the United States. I therefore encourage you to educate yourself, if need be, as to what is acceptable in Canada and to do so before your planned visit here.

You will realize that Canadian law puts reasonable limits on the freedom of expression. For example, promoting hatred against any identifiable group would not only be considered inappropriate, but could in fact lead to criminal charges. Outside of the criminal realm, Canadian defamation laws also limit freedom of expression and may differ somewhat from those to which you are accustomed. I therefore ask you, while you are a guest on our campus, to weigh your words with respect and civility in mind.

There is a strong tradition in Canada, including at this university, of restraint, respect and consideration in expressing even provocative and controversial opinions and urge you to respect that Canadian tradition while on our campus. Hopefully, you will understand and agree that what may, at first glance, seem like unnecessary restrictions to freedom of expression do, in fact, lead not only to a more civilized discussion, but to a more meaningful, reasoned and intelligent one as well.

I hope you will enjoy your stay in our beautiful country, city and campus.

Francois Houle,
Vice-President Academic and Provost, University of Ottawa"

I don't know if the letter was meant to be public. But it has been reproduced in many Right-leaning forums, the National Post among them. Poor Dr Houle was now on the radar of the vicious, bitter and petty extreme Right-wing blogosphere, for what really is a polite letter.

Now, many Coulter supporters read this letter as a veiled threat of criminal action. There's nothing veiled about it. I think it's quite a reasonable letter, but it is clear in its intent and implications. If some of Coulter's speeches in the USA were spoken in Canada, they might very well constitute hate crime under our current laws. The letter did not discourage her from coming or threaten to ban her if she didn't promise to "play nice". It just suggested that the university would feel compelled to add to its ridiculous administrative burden if Coulter did indeed give her standard US campus presentation on Canadian soil.

So far, so good.... Except that Coulter, seeing a chance to gain some press over what would have otherwise been yet another barely noticed campus tour, saw her opening. She re-printed the letter on her column, with the provocative --and incorrect-- title, "Canadian University Provost Wants To Send Me To Jail... For a Speech I Haven't Given Yet". At that point, what transpired next was fairly predictable for anyone who's observed the shenanigans of the bored and angry far-Right as much as I have.

Now, being in Mexico, I haven't been privy to all the details of what's happening on campus. But essentially, citing fears for Coulter's personal safety, "organizers" cancelled her appearance. The "organizers", as I understand it, were a campus-based student group. This is important: the university never cancelled Coulter's appearance; her own representatives appear to have done so, or at least a campus group in coordination with Coulter's representatives did so. Keep in mind that I have no facts beyond that which are published in the papers, and I'm observing all of this from Mexico. So, really, what do I know?

Okay, now on to the really predictable part. With the appearance cancelled, Coulter retained none other than Ezra Levant to --here it comes-- represent her in a human rights complaint against the University of Ottawa.

Now, I have talked about Ezra Levant many times in the past in this space. There was Ezra's seeming tolerance of hate speech on his own website. There was more of the same. There was Ezra's attacks on former Liberal leader Stephane Dion. There was Ezra's seeming blind love for all things George Bush. Oh, I've talked about him many many times before. One of his supporters even suggested that Ezra would one day track me down and beat me up. (Yeah, I laughed, too. I'm not that hard to find.)

Now the important thing about Levant, at least with respect to the current topic, is that he styles himself as an uncompromising defender of free speech. This, in and of itself, is a great thing. Who doesn't love a defender or liberties? The problem is that his support only seems to extend to people who want to say things that he agrees with.

For example, when George Galloway was banned from speaking in Canada --a true and obvious denial of free speech!-- Levant said of the issue:

"I don't see this as a free speech issue; I see it as a sovereignty issue -- keeping out an undesirable foreigner who has no right to be here, and who boasts about violating our criminal code."

"Undesirable foreigner who has no right to be here"? Sounds like a certain skinny blonde firebrand with a hate-on for Muslims. Someone "who boasts about violating our criminal code"? Again, if Coulter brags in her column that the things she says would get her arrested in Canada, I think that that constitutes "boasting about our criminal code." How about it, Ezra?

(By the way, read my whole take on the Galloway affair here.)

Levant is claiming that his reasons for taking on the Coulter case is to show how duplicitous the human rights tribunal process is, and that it is biased against conservatives. I don't know if that's true. But I think Levant lost pretty much all his credibility with not only his failure to defend Galloway's right of free speech in Canada, but his active support for the denial of those rights. Levant would be more convincing if he were more consistent with his views and appplications of his principles.

What about Coulter? Since I started writing this post about 10 minutes ago, I received an email from her automatic listserv (someone thought it was funny to sign me up; I actually kind of enjoy deleting her emails). You can read her current column here (which is exactly what she wants you to do; so I guess I'm helping her out, as well.) It's interesting how the mighty have fallen. Once a syndicated columnist at leading papers, a promising lawyer, someone who, I think, even worked at the White House briefly, Coulter is now calling out members of the SFUO --the University of Ottawa's student federation! Picking fights with undergrads? Really? Oh Ann.

So Coulter is denouncing someone's decision to "deny" her he opportunity to spread her extreme views on a college campus. Hmmm, this sounds vaguely familiar. Let me see... Columbia University once compared Coulter to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Why it this relevant? Because Ahmadinejad once spoke at the Columbia campus, despite conservatives trying really hard to prevent him from doing so.

In fact, prior to the Iranian leader's appearance, conservative forces rallied under the leadership of such Coulter compatriots as Michelle Malkin, who issued this call for supporters to send a message to the university administration that Ahmadinejad was not welcome on campus.

When Coulter herself was asked about Ahmadinejad's Columbia appearance, she said this:

"You know, I give a lot of college speeches, I know how colleges behave, and there is the least free speech on a college campus as any place in America. It is like Iran—so for them to be saying they are allowing this guy to speak because of free speech, you know, your head explodes."

Er... what? Further in the same interview, Coulter suggested that by allowing Ahmadinejad to speak, Columbia was "aiding the other side." At least that's the way I read it. Coulter is a master of dancing around topics so deftly that it's hard to pin her down to any particular viewpoints, except that liberals are sissies and Muslims are evil.

The president of the University of Ottawa, Mr Allan Rock, a seasoned diplomat, issued the following statement to all members of the university community today:

"On Tuesday, March 23, an appearance by Ann Coulter was scheduled on our campus, organized by the International Free Press Society Canada and the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute.

The University of Ottawa has always promoted and defended freedom of expression. For that reason, we did not at any time oppose Ann Coulter's appearance. Whether it is Ann Coulter or any other speaker, diverse views have always been and continue to be welcome on our campus.

Last night, the organizers themselves decided at 7:50 p.m. to cancel the event and so informed the University's Protection Services staff on site. At that time, a crowd of about one thousand people had peacefully gathered at Marion Hall.

"Freedom of expression is a core value that the University of Ottawa has always promoted," said Allan Rock, President of the University. "We have a long history of hosting contentious and controversial speakers on our campus. Last night was no exception, as people gathered here to listen to and debate Ann Coulter's opinions.

I encourage our students, faculty and other members of our community to maintain our University as an open forum for diverse opinions. Ours is a safe and democratic environment for the expression of views, and we will keep it that way."

It doesn't sound to me like anyone's free speech was being curtailed. In fact, all official missives suggest that Coulter was openly welcomed to the university campus. I think what actually happened was that when Professor Roule sent that ill-advised letter, the Coulter-ites and their hypocritical self-styled supporter of "free speech for people I agree with", Ezra Levant, saw this as an opportunity to manufacture an event and make both Levant and Coulter briefly relevant again.

That is all. Nothing more to see here. Ignore the pests and they'll just go back to screaming about Communists and evolutionists in their basement meetings.

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Thursday, March 11, 2010


DeeMack sends us news of the death of Robert McCall, the so-called "Picasso of the Space Age". My fellow space nerds may recognize some of his work:

Last night, I was a proud participant in one of the "Climate Justice Teach-Ins" that are peppering campuses across North America. Thanks to all who came out, and to my fellow professors who represented climate change perspectives in social science and chemical engineering.

I've written about Climate Change issues in this space many times before: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

I laid bare my anti-green lifestyle in my article about mass drivers and power satellites. It's not that I don't believe that ecological responsibility is better and more moral, it's just that I am weak and selfish.

More to the point, there's a common environmentalist attitude that I'd like to take issue with. Very often, the onus is placed on the common citizen to transcend his so-called greed and his innate tendency to make decisions that are immediately and personally beneficial in favour of options that are, presumably, better for society on the whole.

For instance, the choices not to drive, or to turn off more lights, or to eat locally grown foods, are considered ecologically superior choices because they impel lighter carbon footprints. The problem, of course, is that it's hard to walk rather than to drive. It's inconvenient to turn out more lights and to huddle under blankets rather than to turn up the heat. And it's more expensive to buy many local products, rather than to rely on cheaper, foreign-made products. I mean, there's a reason we Ontarians import our salads from California: somehow, they manage to get it to us more cheaply than do the farmers down the road.

The reason they are able to do so cheaper is that many such products and practices are subsidized, eithr directly by government programs, or indirectly through the weirdness of our economic system. For instance, the deleterious ecological impact of the CO2 emissions of the trucks used to transport my salad from California does not show on the price of the actual salad; the so-called "commons" of group environmental ownership absorbs these immense costs which, on most accounting sheets, only shows up as something economists call "externalities".

So environmentalists' call for individuals to make these extraordinary choices is in fact an appeal to the human animal to regularly choose options that are, in the immediate and tangible sense, disadvantageous to said individual. We are not very good at making such decisions. For proof of this, all we have to do is look at the global obesity epidemic. We would rather choose the fatty foods for short term pleasure, than the healthy foods for long term health, even though we all know what we should choose.

I've been trying to think of an historical example of an instance in which a society deliberately chose an option that was immediately economically deleterious because it was more moral to do so. The only one I can think of is Britain's decision to abandon slavery in the 1830s. This was a remarkable moment in world history: the call to dissolve the British slave trade was, to the best of my knowledge, the result of the British people's moral choice to distance themselves from a practice that, while immensely profitable, was nonetheless distasteful. For some decades afterwards, they paid an economic price, as goods such as sugar became harder to produce without paying labourers to replace free slave toil.

So what am I trying to say? I'm saying that environmentalist appeals for voluntary changes in individual behaviour are bound to fail on a large scale, because it is not reasonable to expect the common man to make decisions on a regular basis that are economically disadvatageous to himself and his family.

The solution has to be a governmental one and a macro-economic one. Specifically, governments must decide that products and behaviours must bear the real financial price that they truly represent. My California salad cannot be cheaper than my Ontario salad, because the price of the former must reflect the price of the gas to transport it, and the price of the ecologic damage caused by said gas. In this way, when individuals are compelled to make choices that are not only moral but economically wise, a behavioural change of sufficient magnitude may be effected to result in genuine gains in the battle against Climate Change.

End of sermon.

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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Bread And Circuses

Apparently there was a hockey game tonight, something to do with the Olympics. Judging from the noise on the street outside, I gather the favoured team won.

I don't really care. Seriously, I don't care.

I don't begrudge any of you your joy; that is your right. This post is not about me being a curmudgeon and wanting the noisy people outside to quiet down so I that can finish writing the grant that's due tomorrow. People need to celebrate occasionally; I get that. Rather, this is about something a bit more disturbing.

Last week, back when the Canadian men's hockey team lost to the Americans (or so I'm told; I didn't watch it), the great national soul-searching that resulted was rather sickening. One particular Toronto newspaper had on its cover, in 4 centimetre high red letters, "OUR NATIONAL PRIDE IS AT RISK," or something like that. What followed were 6-10 pages of sports coverage and endless analysis about whether Canada would be able to rise above the shame of having a group of its favoured millionaire adolescents lose at a game.

All right. Fair enough. Whatever. I watch cartoons, German porn and reality TV. I'm in no position to pretend to be more sophisticated or enlightened.

But we are a lucky society indeed if our "national shame" is defined by a game. You know what else happened over the same time period that this "national shame" was getting 'round-the-clock coverage? The public supplement to the Iacobucci Report was released.

The Iaocobucci Inquiry's report is an official study of the complicity of the Canadian government in the illegal detainment and torture of Canadian citizens Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad Abou-Elmaati and Muayyed Nureddin. You can read it at

Not surprising to any of us familiar with the present government's xenophobic tendencies, the Iacobucci Inquiry found that "Canadian officials likely contributed" to the "mistreatment and torture" of the named individuals. I won't go into the details of how they contributed; you can read that bit yourself.

But here's the thing: In the thorough, brow-wiping analysis of our gripping "national shame" (i.e., hockey game) that the aforementioned newspaper examined with such gravitas, was there a single mention of the Iacobucci report or its findings? None that I could see. In fact, I barely heard tell of it any of the mainstream media outlets that I follow, whereas discussion of the hockey game has been fairly overwhelming.

In this same period, a UN report on the status of women found that Canada had dropped from 10th place to 73rd place worldwide, among nations striving for the equality of women.

In this same period, Canada still has a prorogued Parliament, quite contrary to the overwhelming desire of the populace. Yet, our "hard working" Prime Minister can be seen nightly in the stands of the Olympics in his ridiculous red-and-white sweater, mouthing the national anthem. Get back to work, ya bum!

So you'll forgive me if I'm not filled with "national pride" right now. You'll forgive me if I'm not inspired to wave the Canadian flag and hoot and holler down the street with the rest of the revellers. I have a hard time swallowing the pablum of manufactured patriotism while no one seems to care that the same society that produces millionaire medal-winning hockey players also formally engages in the criminal torture of its own citizens, the degradation of the status of its women, the cynical stymying of its Parliament, and yet suffers no repercussions for this transgression.

Bread and circuses indeed.

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Friday, February 05, 2010

In Memory of Bo

No, not this Boe:

But rather, this Boa:

Boa was the last living speaker of the language Bo, named for the tribe of Bo, of the Great Andaman peoples who once populated the Andaman and Nicobar islands off of India.

If this link works, you'll be able to see a video of Boa singing in her now extinct native language.

Maybe it's hard for a non-academic pointy-head to appreciate the singular tragedy of Boa's passing, but give it a shot. Beyond the sad tale of military decimation by the British, then the effects of paternalistic colonial-style policies by both the British then the Indian governments, leading to the literal extinction of complete races of these aboriginal peoples, there remains the tragedy of our lost links to human pre-history. Yes, as with all things, the passing of Boa is being characterized first and foremost as a loss to the selfish modern world, and not so much as the legacy of a brutal crime committed by the modern world.

Very few anthropological links remain to human prehistory. It's remarkable how little we actually know about how the human animal lived, felt and thought prior to the innovation of writing and thus the recording of history. To examine such times would help answer some of the most fundamental questions of human existence having to do with what is natural and what is constructed. The perhaps thousands of years of human language prior to the advent of civilization a mere 6-10 thousand years ago reflect a sentient mind emerging from the grace of naturalism and into the realm of instrumentalism and exceptionalism.

With the passing of Boa goes one of our last connections to a language that reflected that ethic. In fact, it's believed that the language of Bo predates the Neolithic period, thus pre-dating what we define as civilization.

The continued paternalistic treatment of the surviving Andamanese concerns me greatly, as does modern civilization's treatment of extant tribal Aboriginals globally. In my review of the movie Avatar, some commenter made the annoying and all too common criticism, "I’m wondering why we don’t call Europeans in Europe with family ties dating back centuries aboriginals as well".

Well, fool, we don't call them that because the word "Aboriginal" refers both to a lengthy historical attachment to a place (typically lasting thousands, maybe tens of thousands of years) combined with a modern political, geographical and cultural marginalization of that extant and threatened race. I'll never understand why so many people feel threatened when the plights of such vulnerable peoples so rarely manages to make it onto the public agenda.

Species, peoples, cultures, languages, religions and ideas all go extinct. That's the way of things. But, you know what? It's not necessarily the fact of it that should worry us. It's the how of it. The Andamanese tribals are the victims of centuries of genocidal policies. As far as I can tell, one tribe remains.

You know what the first image I found when I Googled "Andaman"? This one:

Yeah, it's a British tourist ad. Boa is dead. Her race is extinct. And her ancestral land is now the domain of drunken, shagging chavs from England.

In Other News

My latest article is up at India Currents.

And I've begun to archive my haikus!

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Friday, December 25, 2009

A Christmas Video

Earlier this month, I commented negatively about the growing intimacy between the UFC and the US military.

I'm pleased now to forward a tweet redirected by UFC commentator and stand-up comedian Joe Rogan. Here's the video, which I believe is quite relevant for today:

Merry Xmas.

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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Leaving The Right

A "right wing" friend recently asked if I was still "left wing". I was a bit taken aback by this, since I don't consider myself one political stripe or another. I believe in smaller government, socialized medicine, low taxes, corporate regulation, environmental responsibility, the right to (ethically) become wealthy, strict market oversight, no foreign military adventures except for humanitarian purposes, gun control but the right to arm oneself, secularism, extreme personal freedoms, etc. What does this make me? I have no idea.

But in the quest to figure this out, I found Andrew Sullivan's now famous blog post about why he will no longer call himself a right wing American conservative. Here are his reasons:

"I cannot support a movement that claims to believe in limited government but backed an unlimited domestic and foreign policy presidency that assumed illegal, extra-constitutional dictatorial powers until forced by the system to return to the rule of law.

I cannot support a movement that exploded spending and borrowing and blames its successor for the debt.

I cannot support a movement that so abandoned government's minimal and vital role to police markets and address natural disasters that it gave us Katrina and the financial meltdown of 2008.

I cannot support a movement that holds torture as a core value.

I cannot support a movement that holds that purely religious doctrine should govern civil political decisions and that uses the sacredness of religious faith for the pursuit of worldly power.

I cannot support a movement that is deeply homophobic, cynically deploys fear of homosexuals to win votes, and gives off such a racist vibe that its share of the minority vote remains pitiful.

I cannot support a movement which has no real respect for the institutions of government and is prepared to use any tactic and any means to fight political warfare rather than conduct a political conversation.

I cannot support a movement that sees permanent war as compatible with liberal democratic norms and limited government.

I cannot support a movement that criminalizes private behavior in the war on drugs.

I cannot support a movement that would back a vice-presidential candidate manifestly unqualified and duplicitous because of identity politics and electoral cynicism.

I cannot support a movement that regards gay people as threats to their own families.

I cannot support a movement that does not accept evolution as a fact.

I cannot support a movement that sees climate change as a hoax and offers domestic oil exploration as the core plank of an energy policy.

I cannot support a movement that refuses ever to raise taxes, while proposing no meaningful reductions in government spending.

I cannot support a movement that refuses to distance itself from a demagogue like Rush Limbaugh or a nutjob like Glenn Beck.

I cannot support a movement that believes that the United States should be the sole global power, should sustain a permanent war machine to police the entire planet, and sees violence as the core tool for international relations."


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The UFC and the US Armed Forces: Strange Bedfellows Indeed

Dana White, President of UFC

I was living in Washington, DC, in the eras of 9/11, the start of both recent US wars on/of terror, the Beltway sniper and the now fabled anthrax attacks. One day my friend Andrew J. and I went to see a movie. At the start of the movie was the now common US Marines recruiting ad. I looked over to Andrew and saw that he was visibly saddened.

"What's up?" I asked him.

"They've won," he said. I asked him to explain and he said, "There was a time when the military recruiting ads would come on and everyone would boo because we all saw through it. Now we all sit in silence." And indeed, some seemed to sit in not only silence, but in reverence. "They've won."

Fast forward to present day. In the past couple of weeks, I've watched a lot of UFC. I love the sport of MMA and I love the way that UFC has helped the sport to grow. I've blogged about it here, here, here and even here. In this post, I wrote:

"I've argued many times that MMA is a civilized sport, that it exalts in the purity of the human spirit and strives to make a man confront his true self. The battle is, in many ways, irrelevant to the character-building journey that minimal-rule fighting represents."

A weird thing has begun to happen in the last few months, particularly in the last few weeks --or maybe I've been to blind to notice it before: the ever-growing intimate relationship between MMA --the UFC, in particular-- and the US military. This relationship, sadly, may somewhat invalidate my quote above.

At least one entire UFC pay-per-view (PPV) event was completely sponsored by the US military and was put on specifically for US military personnel. At last month's finale of The Ultimate Fighter, UFC's reality show, it was announced that one of the competitors was leaving for Afghanistan in a few days. The fight commentator, Mike Goldberg, was almost in tears, emoting on how this young man was fighting in the octagon, but would soon be abroad "to fight for our freedoms".

At UFC 107, which I finished watching last night, it was announced in the ring that one of the fights (that between Kenny Florian and Clay Guida) was being "brought to us" by the US Marine Corps. Both fighters then gave the corps a standing ovation, and the camera panned to shaven-head men in uniform in the audience, whooping it up.

In the past, UFC has sent its fighters to tour US soldiers in the field, such as Rampage Jackson's trip to Camp Pendleton. The relationship between UFC and the US military is an increasingly intimate one.

Well, what's the big deal? Ordinarily there wouldn't be one. In my world, any legal entity is allowed to sponsor any legal event and reap the rewards of sponsorship. And it's certainly any citizen's right to express his patriotism in any legal way he sees as appropriate. I may not like the recruitment methods of the US military, and I certainly don't like the way in which armed men have begun to be revered in some parts of society; but I do not deny the military's right to sponsor events and the UFC's right to accept such sponsorship. And, as I'm sure has occurred to many, there is a certain congruence in two brands of violence finding love in one another's tattooed arms.

Admittedly, it makes me uncomfortable that an erstwhile global brand like the UFC is visibly tying its philosophies, fortunes and values to the political dynamic of a single nation, the USA. I wonder what that says of the company's attitude toward fighters from nations not sharing American geopolitical ideologies. The company's newsworthy inability (or unwillingness) to sign Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko, considered by many to be the pound-for-pound greatest living fighter in the world, might be indicative of an inability to fit competitors from non-NATO nations into their conceptual dynamic. Even so, if UFC wishes to tie its fortunes thusly, as did many professional wrestling companies, I suppose it is their right to do so, however unattractive to me their brand becomes.

But let me be absolutely clear and say that this post is not about bashing the military. Not at all. In other posts, I will gleefully offer my criticisms of US (and increasingly Canadian) military fetishism, and of the thinning line between soldierdom and policymaking, and of immoral and politically inappropriate use by government of the instruments of war and security. But no one should take any of this as criticism of the individuals who serve in the military. All of my interactions with members of the latter have always been pleasant and cordial.

Rather, the big deal, for me, arose when I received a Twitter tweet from UFC President Dana White, acting, not as a private citizen, but as the President of the UFC. The tweet was this:

danawhite Read the story then you decide. They have my support. I hope they have you too.
Click on the link he forwarded. It's a Facebook page asking for political, emotional and financial support for "two elite Navy Seals" who are facing courtmartial for allegedly abusing an Iraqi detainee in their custody. According to the page, the charges are of "impeding the investigation and dereliction of duty in failing to safeguard a detainee."

I don't know the facts surrounding the incident beyond those reported in the Facebook page. The page itself exists to garner public, and therefore political, support for a sociopolitical perspective, specifically that the rights of the detainee are less important than the need to honour the Navy Seals in question. To quote the page:

"The proceedings against these heroes are an outrage to all the brave Americans serving in uniform to defend this country, especially those deployed in harm's way."

Their rationale is that prosecution of alleged abusers plays into the master plan of "terrorists" to diminish soliders' morale. This is followed by:

"The supposed victim, Ahmed Hashim Abed, was the mastermind behind killing, burning and mutilating four American contractors in Fallujah, Iraq, in March 2004. His followers hung the desiccated corpses high on a box-girder bridge over the Euphrates River. Mr. Abed was run down by the SEALs on a covert mission in September 2009."

I hope it's clear to anyone reading this that the charges against a detainee (who has yet to face trial, by the way) has no bearing on whether or not his custodians are allowed to strike him. This is the nature of accepting the responsibility of custody. This is how it works in every legal system in the Western world. And as an aside, my congratulations to the US military for convening such a courtmartial; it goes a long way to reclaiming their image as a law-abiding agency worthy of international respect.

So what makes me uncomfortable about this whole thing? It's the fact that UFC President Dana White, in his capacity as President of a corporation, is sharing this website address to UFC fans and adding the qualifier, "They have my support. I hope they have you too. [sic]"

It's one thing to accept sponsorship from an arm of the government, on behalf of your company, and to further state your support for the policies and practices of that governmental arm. (After all, that's what allowing the military to embed itself so closely within your commercial activities means: that you associate yourself with that agency's policies, practices and philosophies.) It's quite another thing to brazenly advocate for the preferential slackening of criminal law on select transgressors where such slackening coincides with the larger agenda of your sponsor.

In other words, Dana White, private citizen, can do whatever the heck he wants. Dana White, corporate head of UFC, has no business encouraging UFC fans/customers to advocate for the vitiating of selected criminal proceedings.... That is, unless that it is indeed the will of UFC, Inc.

I wonder what the UFC Board of Directors has to say about this? And if indeed it is official corporate policy to take a side in this particular matter, then UFC needs to spell this out clearly. And, of course, they will have lost me as a fan, and perhaps many more like me.

I'm surprised that no one else has been commenting on the growing intimacy between the UFC (the fastest growing brand in sports) and the US military. A Google search brought me just two hits: this peace activist has a more angry stance than me; and this exchange on a fight forum has already been deleted, only accessible, it seems, through Google cache.

Many people reading this will respond with several predictable tropes. As in the cached exchange, some will reply with, "From the entire U.S. army, Go **** yourself." Others will say, "Well what did you expect, that's their demographic."

The former is par for the course. The latter is simply saddening. What I "expect" is irrelevant. What is important here is what we choose to tolerate. How comfortable are we as a society with our corporate leaders using their corporate heft to influence consumers to not only accede to certain political philosophies (nothing new there) but now to overtly advocate for the vitiation of criminal proceedings in favour of the abuse of an individual?

Strange --and critical-- times indeed.

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Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Bits of Tid

Mysterious lights appear over Norway. Clearly, an alien space ship opened a hyperspace jump gate in the upper Earth atmosphere. Judge for yourself:

In unrelated news:

In even more unrelated news, a student who shall remain unnamed has honured me (I hope it was an honour) by naming her pet mouse somewhat after me. Introducing.... "Rayrat":

Apparently, Rayrat lives in a cage with three lovely lady mice. It's important to me that my namesake is, as the kids say, gettin' some.

Lastly, D-Mack sends us the Top 10 Science Fiction Disappointments of the decade. The article is retarded. Yeah, I said it.

Today's Real Topic

Now, in today's serious bit of news, I just came from the press conference for the unveiling of my artist friend Jenn Farr's newest project, a very important depiction of the cell in which Canada's recent "extraordinary extradition" victims were kept and tortured while being held in Syria. The endeavour is spearheaded by Kerry Pither, author of Dark Days.

It's one thing to read about modern torture and to have polite, fashionable discussions of it at cocktail parties and on the Internet. It's another to physically experience the actual conditions. If you can get a chance, visit the installation. Here are a couple of quick pics snapped on my Treo:

The installation is called "El Abbar", which means "the grave", and is a precise recreation of the cell in which several Muslim Canadians were held and tortured by Syria, with collaboration (as concluded by the Iacobucci Inquiry) by Canadian agencies. Those held include Ahmad El Maati, Abdullah Almalki and, of course, Maher Arar.

The cell is tiny and dank. The walls are thin enough to overhear the torture of those held in adjacent cells. Sometimes so many would be stuffed into a single cell that they would take turns sleeping. I'm told that cats would pee on the prisoners from the grate above, and of course the odours of filth and decay were ubiquitous. One of the artist's intents was to re-create the smell of the place, as well, but that was eventually not pursued.

It's ironic that the press conference for the unveiling of this object was coincident with one by Minister of Foreign Affairs Peter McKay, someone I would charge as complicit in the abuse of the men held in these cells.

I think it's important for all Canadians to recognize firstly the horror of these conditions, and the fact that innocent men were held there against their will and tortured repeatedly; and secondly the extent to which Canadian authorities were --and continue to be-- complicit in these ongoing abuses.

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Friday, December 04, 2009


A few days ago I hunkered into a lecture hall at the University of Ottawa to watch the most recent Munk Debate, this time between the teams of Nigel Lawson & Bjorn Lomborg vs Elizabeth May & George Monbiot, streamed live from Toronto. Had I known the debates could be accessed from the web, I would have stayed home to watch it with several strong glasses of port. But no....

The topic: Be it resolved, Climate Change is Mankind's defining crisis, and demands a commensurate response.

Nigel Lawson came across as a fussy old fuddy-duddy, underinformed and full of ideological bluster.

Elizabeth May I've never really taken a liking to, given her screechy delivery and overly confrontational demeanour. However, she at least said the one thing that needed saying: that these four are the not the experts; the scientists are the experts. This lack of true expertise hindered further substantial debate, I think. She is a lawyer/politician. Lawson is a journalist/politician. Monbiot is a journalist. And Lomborg is a statisition cum self-promoter.

George Monbiot has been a favourite figure of mine for some time. What an eloquent, passionate and well informed speaker. His website's earlier incarnations were actually the model for the direction my own website eventually took, so I admit to having a slight bias for all things Monbiot. Having said that, even the great George came across as slightly unscientific, given his background as a journalist. His famous self-imposed travel ban, meant as a gesture to encourage minimal carbon footprints worldwide, was suspended for this special occasion, allowing him to physically be in Toronto. I always felt this self-restriction to be a bit precious, if you know what I mean.

Bjorn Lomborg, meanwhile, is no stranger to this blog. I have discussed him in the March 5, 2004 post, the Jan 14, 2005 post, the Aug 31, 2007 post, and the Oct 17, 2007 post. In short, I detest everything Bjorn Lomborg stands for. I will not mince words here. The man is insidious and, in my opinion, simply for sale. His landmark book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, was the Climate Change denier's bible for years, effectively used as ammunition to slow down change on the policy front.

In recent months/years, Lomborg has begun to rehab his reputation. He no longer denies that Climate Change exists, is a big deal or is human-caused. This is rather convenient, now that the book has made him insanely wealthy and positioned him as a preferred champion for the anti-Climate Change business sector. There is speculation, implied by May during the debates, that his position earns Lomborg a pretty penny. Instead, Lomborg's new mantra is that:

(a) there are more important things we can be focusing on; and
(b) since we don't seem to be making headway on Climate Change, why not apply these energies and monies to --I dunno-- eliminating poverty or disease?

On the face of it, this is not a bad position to have. Indeed, his position seems to have won over many in the audience. The debate statistics show that public response was thus:

In essence, more people changed their minds in favour of the Lomborg/Lawson position than in favour of the May/Monbiot position.

Apparently, Time Magazine once listed Lomborg as one of the most important 100 intellectuals in the world, according to his intro during the Munk Debate. This surprises me, given his brazen anti-intellectual behaviour during the debate itself. Lomborg's position, as I summarized above, is fundamentally untenable, and I'm afraid May and Monbiot did a poor job of explaining this to the audience. It comes down to this:

It doesn't matter that poverty and disease remain as plagues upon the world. Climate Change exacerbates those things, making them increasingly worse. And it doesn't matter that pro-environmental legislation slows down economic development. What is the point of creating wealthy nations if there's no food or water left to buy with your newly created wealth?

These were the basic aspects of environmental and health science poorly conveyed during the debate. I proudly commented afterward that I'm certain my undergrad students could have debated Lomborg into a corner, given how much I've tried to encourage them to think in terms of interrelated networks and systems.

Let's look at Lomborg's claim that we are better off tackling global health than Climate Change. The world needs to understand that many of the problems in global health are either as a direct result of Climate Change, or will be exacerabted beyond repair as a result of Climate Change. As Stephen Lewis once commented during a live address in Ottawa, "I fear we are looking at an Apocalyptic event."

When Monbiot (or was it May?) commented that Climate Change makes HIV/AIDS worse, Lomborg gave us his theatrical hands-in-the-air disbelief pose. "How is that even possible?" he demanded to know. Sadly, only Monbiot bothered to explain a mechanism, but only told part of the story. The incident, though, causes me to ask whether Lomborg is really so uninformed (causing me to wonder how Time would dare list him among the world's top intellectuals) or is he instead disingenuous. If the latter, then he is insidious and dangerous indeed.

Monbiot's mechanism was basic: Climate Change is causing droughts, which forces men off the land and into the company of prostitutes, hence spreading sexual disease, including HIV. In truth, it's more than this. Drought leads to poor nutrition, which prevents proper uptake of the anti-viral drugs that treat HIV (which need good nutrition to work properly). Environmental collapse causes economic collapse and produces more disease issues, further overwhelming healt care systems and prventing a society from addressing its HIV epidemic.

The ecology of much of the developing world, including sub-Saharan Africa, which has the greatest HIV burden in the world, is already operating at the margins. The crops there already subsist at the very edge of tolerance for temperature and humidity perturbations. With Climate Change comes more dramatic perturbations and thus a certainty of widespread famine in those regions.

No amount of structural adjustments, as Lomborg champions, will give such nations the economic might to overcome such famine, not when most of the region is similarly affected.

In short, unlike crises in the past, Climate Change represents humanitarian challenges that one cannot buy one' s way out of. Again, you can't buy water that does not exist. In response to Lomborg's assertion that human societies will develop adaptations, Monbiot powerfully retorted (and I paraphrase): in these parts of the world, the only adaptation is the AK-47.

There are many other mechanisms by which Climate Change exacerbates health, and thus wealth. Among them:

The changing of vector behaviour. Mosquitos and their like determine their ranges by temperature and humidity. As these factors change, the nature of related diseases will also change.

Water quality. Because rivers are changing paths and rainfalls are misscheduling, the predictability of the safety of drinking water is uncertain. Already, 2 million deaths a year, mostly among young children, are due to diarrhea, directly caused by unsafe water. WHO estimates that today 2.4% of diarrheal deaths are due to climate change. (WHO uses very conservative methods to reach these estimates.)

Changing agriculture. Agriculture is affected by temperature, precipitation and soil quality. According to a 2008 article in Science: southern Africa could lose more than 30% of its main crop, maize, by 2030. In South Asia losses of many regional staples, such as rice, millet and maize could top 10%.

Migration. There is a long established intersection between migration and health. The sudden stress of large numbers of people is ecologically bad. Environmental refugees must be fed, sheltered and cared for, and the world has a poor track record of caring for mass migrants. According to a 2007 article by Christian Aid: "The growing number of disasters and conflicts linked to future climate change will push the numbers far higher unless urgent action is taken. We estimate that between now and 2050 a total of 1 billion people will be displaced from their homes."

Insecurity. Ecological collapse can cause war. According to a 2007 report by The Pentagon:
Global warming constitutes a security threat to the USA, as there will be wars based on diminishing fresh water supplies, refugees, and higher rates of famine and disease.

Economic effects. Less money means less spent on health and poverty reduction. As an example, according to a 2008 article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, Coral bleaching can lead to collapse of the world’s fisheries in a matter of decades.

Air pollution. One US model predicts that by 2050, due to global warming, ozone-related
deaths will increased by 4.5% and there will be 60% more alert days.

Heat waves. According to WHO, heat deaths in California alone will double by 2010.

Natural disasters (floods and storms). According to WHO, flooding will affect 200 million people by 2080.

Here is an interesting little graphic showing deaths due to Climate Change in the year 2000, almost a decade ago. The truth today is much more daunting:

There are a lot more data and many more details. There is no dearth of studying on the topic. I don't know how anyone who's familiar with even a fraction of the data can conclude anything other than Climate Change is indeed the single most important crisis facing humanity now and in the next two centuries. More than the threat of nuclear war, and possibly on par with the threat of direct cometary impact, runaway greenhouse affect might very well drive civilization itself into the dust within our lifetimes.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Current Events Quiz

This past week I gave my 4th year global health class a brief quiz on current events related to issues in global health and development. They were instructed to monitor major news sources daily since the start of term, with specific attention to stories that might have a direct or cursory connection to global health and development. This might include stories relating to war, politics and economics.

The reason for scheduling the test is that I was concerned that we are doing a disservice to our students by not making their education more relevant to the current state of the world, and by not engendering in them an appreciation for the daily happenings of society. This is particularly important in global health, a subject that changes hourly and that is dependent on an interdisciplinary familiarity with the changing nature of law, politics, science and general knowledge.

The intent is not to punish lack of knowledge, but rather to encourage the valuing of knowledge. Part of the lesson is to be able to asses one's own level of general knowledge relative to the overall level of knowledge in our society.

Therefore, to provide some hand-waving data for discussing the quality of these questions, I'm doing something I ordinarily would not do. I'm publishing the quiz on this website. You will find the questions below, with the answer key immediately after.

You are, of course, welcome to take the test yourself. I would further encourage you to input your score to an online service by clicking this link:

Please note: this is not a formal academic study, and therefore has not undergone any ethics clearance. These data will not be published, though they will be discussed in my class. If you enter your results, those results will be visible by everyone. Feel free to enter a fake name, if you'd prefer. But I would like you to enter your true profession, if you feel comfortable doing so. It goes without saying that this is a strictly voluntary exercise.

Also, please don't cheat. This is not a contest.


1. In 2009, the Nobel Peace Prize was controversially awarded to what person?

A. Nelson Mandela
B. George W. Bush
C. Barack Obama
D. Al Gore
E. The Dalai Lama

2. In early November, 2009, the people of Germany noted the 20th anniversary of what?

A. The death of Adolf Hitler
B. The fall of the Berlin Wall
C. The founding of NATO
D. Germany’s entrance into the European Union
E. The assassination of Chancellor Angela Merkel

3. Who is Dr. Abdullah Abdullah?

A. One of the candidates in a recent Presidential election in Afghanistan
B. Head of one of the larger semi-legal organ trafficking rings in India
C. The scientist who led the development of an experimental HIV vaccine in Africa, currently undergoing limited clinical trials
D. Recently appointed Deputy Director General of the World Health Organization
E. Author of a controversial study recently published in The Lancet, about excess deaths in the wake of the US invasion of Iran

4. On November 11, 2009, a joint report by the American Cancer Society and Global Smokefree Partnership was published. The report predicts that cancer deaths due to smoking will double in 12 years in what region or population?

A. The Caribbean
B. China
C. India
D. Africa
E. Aboriginal communities in the Western hemisphere

5. Who is the current Director General of the World Health Organization?

A. Margaret Chan
B. Ban-ki Moon
C. James Orbinski
D. John Baird
E. Aung San Suu Kyi

6. In October, 2009, Desire Munyaneza, the first person to be convicted under Canada’s War Crimes Act, was sentenced to life imprisonment after a court found him guilty of seven charges relating to what?

A. The Rwandan genocide
B. The Sudanese (Darfur) genocide
C. War crimes committed during the Congolese civil war
D. The selling of counterfeit HIV drugs in sub-Saharan Africa
E. War crimes committed during the NATO peacekeeping activities in Somalia

7. In December, 2009, representatives of 192 countries will meet in Copenhagen to discuss what?

A. The on-going humanitarian crisis in Darfur
B. The global threat of terrorism
C. Pandemic influenza
D. Global food production
E. Climate change

8. In November, 2009, this man’s war crimes trial at the World Court in The Hague was postponed till March, 2010, to give his new lawyer time to prepare.

A. George W. Bush
B. Radovan Karadzic
C. Wanderlei Silva
D. Slobodan Milošević
E. Ramush Haradinaj

9. In what year is Canada is scheduled to withdraw the bulk of its troops from Afghanistan?

A. 2010
B. 2011
C. 2012
D. 2013
E. 2014

10. After the May, 2009, conclusion of civil war lasting over two decades, the government of this country has just agreed to release the remaining 136,000 refugees forced to live in government refugee camps.

A. Democratic Republic of Congo
B. Nicaragua
C. Sri Lanka
D. The former Yugoslavia
E. Sudan


Answer key: 1c 2b 3a 4d 5a 6a 7e 8b 9b 10c

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Saturday, November 21, 2009

Those Dyin' British Actors

I just learned from Rondi that Edward Woodward is dead. Most of you will remember him from that great American TV drama, The Equalizer. That show represented something sorely missing from current entertainment media: recognition of the skills of the middle aged. Rather than a team of models-cum-martial artists, all with genius IQs and deep histories going back decades beyond their actual ages, The Equalizer was about a retired British secret service agent who righted wrongs on the tough streets of the USA.

I loved Woodward in one of the creepiest of understated British horror films, The Wicker Man (the original, not the ridiculous Nicholas Cage remake). His son, Peter Woodward, is also a successful, though lesser known, actor, most noted in my world for his excellent and creepy portrayal of Galen, the "technomage" in the Babylon 5 spin-off, Crusade.

You also may not know that Edward Woodward had a key role in the recent (2007) Simon Pegg comedy, Hot Fuzz. Edgar Wright, the director of that film, has a tribute to Woodward on his website. Wright links to this Youtube clip of the opening of one of Woodward's early UK dramas, Callan. As Wright put it, "Edward Woodward was badass".

I find it pretty cool when serious British actors pop up in bit roles in their twilight years. Another example of that was the late great Patrick McGoohan's role as British King "Longshanks" (Edward I) in the Mel Gibson epic, Braveheart.

I will always lump the two with Richard Harris, who in his twilight years played Dumbledore, far more convincingly, in my opinion, than his replacement, Michael Gambon. I always thought Heath Ledger was on track to become the next Richard Harris.

Many people don't remember that Richard Harris was the voice behind the 1970s epic song, McArthur Park. For some reason, I can never disassociate this fact from the 1981 parody of his performance on SCTV. Here's Dave Thomas playing Richard Harris doing McArthur Park:

In terms of classical British actors in their twilight years, who does that leave? Peter O'Toole, of course, most recently seen in a gloriously creepy role as amoral Pope Paul III in The Tudors.

In Other News

Canadian diplomat Richard Colvin claims that Canadian forces engaged to some degree in the illegal detainment and torture of Afghans. Conservative Ministers McKay and Baird deny such allegations and turn to questioning Colvin's very character. Thus, despite opposition demands, the government has refused to initiate any inquiry into possible abuses.

Hmm, you know what would really help to clear up any of these misunderstandings and allegations? I dunno, evidence of some sort, a smoking gun.... maybe some photos. Because, as we all know, when photos of crimes are taken, any truly responsible and democratic government would enter such photographic evidence into the public record, so that wrongdoers can't hide behind slandering their accusers or by erecting the wall of denial.

And we all know that no responsible, ethical and democratic government would ever seek to, I dunno, conceal such photos because that would be illegal, unethical, tantamount to criminal conspiracy, and plain old wrong.

Just sayin.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Obama's Suppression of Those Photos

Jan 21, 2009

The way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable. And the way to make government accountable is make it transparent so that the American people can know exactly what decisions are being made, how they’re being made, and whether their interests are being well served.

The directives I am giving my administration today on how to interpret the Freedom of Information Act will do just that. For a long time now, there’s been too much secrecy in this city. The old rules said that if there was a defensible argument for not disclosing something to the American people, then it should not be disclosed. That era is now over. Starting today, every agency and department should know that this administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but those who seek to make it known.

Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.

-President Barack Obama, Jan 21, 2009

Yesterday's post, about Obama's moral failures during his first year in office, focused on the administration's decision to block the release to the ACLU of photos depicting prisoner abuse by US military officials. My argument is that Obama's 180 degree change in position on this matter constitutes a serious breach of his convenant with the voters and with his allies -- that of accountability, transparency and duty to the Constitution, characteristics which, at the time of the election, held him in wide dissimilarity with George Bush, and thus close to the bosom of all humanity.

To my horror, at least one reader recounted the tired neocon trope, first voiced during the Bush administration's frantic scramble to suppress evidence of abuse at Abu Ghraib, that banning of the photos is necessary to avoid anti-Western reactions abroad.

I think it's important to discuss exactly why that argument is a senseless one, and why Obama's actions are profoundly serious and damaging in the long term.

Let's recap the series of events first. During the Bush administration's term, abuse of prisoners of war, including torture and sexual assault, was performed by many US military personnel in detainment centres around the world. The most famous instances of this were revealed in the Abu Ghraib photos now widely recognized. The extent of these abuses strongly suggests a systematic, top-down program of crimes perhaps reflective of official government policy. In other words, the photos were evidence that the US government was engaged in eggregious criminal activities.

About 2000 additional images, including a few that many believe to be the most horrendous examples of flagrant criminal actions by US officials, were not published.

The ACLU requested access to the photos under the US Freedom of Information Act, in an attempt to gather evidence in their investigation of a wrongful death activity. A US lower court ruled that the ACLU should indeed be given access to the photos.

During his candidacy, Barack Obama preached that transparency and accountability were to be the hallmarks of the new America (see his speech above), a way to regain the world's trust after 8 disastrous Bush years. Upon his election, he declared that he would support the lower court's ruling and release the materials to the ACLU.

However, after campaigning by Bush supporter Joe Lieberman and Bush-Obama Secretary of Defence Robert Gates, Obama reversed his position, repeating the baseless neocon trope of the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion" and "put our troops in greater danger."

Indeed, to sidestep the ACLU's clear and legal right to the photos, Obama signed into action a new law specifically for this purpose, apparently quietly slipped into a Homeland Security spending bill, to avoid vigorous debate on the House floor.

The ethical problems with this development are manifold. Let's list some of the observations:

1. First, it's certainly possible that publication of these photos might elicit anti-Western sentiments abroad. But you know what also elicitis anti-Western sentiments? Invading other countries, bombing civilians, running illegal detention centres, torturning people, raping detainees.... and covering it up.

In other words, those who care already know that the photos exist and that they show some awful stuff. Releasing the actual photos does three things:

  • it might incite them by confirming what they already know;
  • it provides limits to prevent the creation of tales that might go beyond what the photos show;
  • it provides hard proof that the new America is responsible and law abiding, thus providing assurance that no further illegal activities will occur.

Failure to release the photos does the exact opposite: it confirms that America is not law-abiding and is therefore unwilling to acknowledge and thus prosecute its criminals who abuse innocents, particularly those detained during the War on Terror. I can't imagine a scenario more likely to incite anti-Americanism.

In the words of Thomas Eddlem:

"Obama's suppression of the photos has arguably made it more dangerous for soldiers serving in Iraq. Instead of releasing the photos into a one-day firestorm, Obama seems to want to fuel conspiracy theories about treatment in Abu Ghraib in the Muslim world. And if we're still covering up what happened at Abu Ghraib, covering up worse things than those crimes we've already acknowledged, Muslims around the world might reasonably ask: 'What else is the U.S. covering up in other prisons?'"

2. So, some argue, we acknowledge that abuse happened. Is this not transparent enough? Why the need to actually see the photos?

Clearly, people have short memories. When reports of the first Abu Ghraib abuses first surfaced, the pro-war apologists immediately started downplaying their significance. Fox News blowhards even claimed it was "not as bad as fraternity hazing". It wasn't until actual photos were revealed that the world was forced to take notice.

Simply knowing about the abuses would have resulted in no prosecutions taking place and none of the centres being audited and closed. The images were everything. Without the images being published, torture would still be going on as an industrial interest in many of those places, and not just in the shadows where they still unquestionably linger.

Even so, deniers insist that the abusers did nothing seriously wrong. Well, the unpublished photographs are said to provide visual evidence of rape, beatings, murders and other such heinous acts committed by US soldiers on defenceless detainees. Until the photos are released to an impartial third party, like the ACLU, no one will take seriously these crimes, and no one will know if the true perpetrators have been brought to justice for the true extent of their crimes.

Need some more convincing? Some foreign media, such as The Guardian have already published written descriptions of what the photos might depict. Obama's defenders say that this is quite enough transparency, thank you.

But wait... White House Press Secretary then said of the published descriptions, "the article is wrong and mischaracterizes the photos that are in question…. None of the photographs in question depict the images described in the article. Again, I think if you do an even moderate Google search, you're not going to find many of these newspapers and truth within, say, 25 words of each other."

By preventing impartial examination of the actual photos, the government empowers itself to be thus duplicitous, to admit to abuse but also to deny the seriousness of that abuse. In short, a body that commits a crime cannot be trusted to impartially steward the evidence of that crime.

3. The principle of conspiracy is well enshrined in American law. It is possible to be party to a conspiracy after the crime has been committed, if one acts to inhibit the investigation of that crime.

BushCo is likely guilty of instigating a system of widespread torture, rape and possibly murder; we don't know the truth or extent of this because Obama won't let us know. By concealing the evidence, ObamaCo becomes, in the eyes of some interpreters of the law, complicit in the conspiracy surrounding BushCo's crimes.

In this highly defensible view, President Barack Obama and his advisors might be considered guilty of conspiracy to commit rape, torture and murder, inasmuch as President George Bush and his advisors might be, as well.

Do not doubt for a second that these moves to conceal Bush era government crimes will come to light in the next election season.

4. From the pages of Mother Jones:

"The new FOIA exemption that the Obama White House sought and obtained has one obvious result: shielding evidence of government lawbreaking, abuse, and torture under the Bush administration from public scrutiny. So much for Obama's claim that 'transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.' There's a name for what the Obama administration did... It's called a coverup."

5. As Mother Jones further reports, the special law passed by Obama doesn't just prevent specific photos from being released to the ACLU, it offers blanket immunity to the photos for all Freedom of Information Requests. Thus it seems unlikely, perhaps impossible, for the photos to ever be used in evidence against the perpetrators they depict. Thanks, Barack.

6. As Salon's Glenn Greenwald put it:

"What kind of a country passes a law that has no purpose other than to empower its leader to suppress evidence of the torture it inflicted on people?"

No good will come of this. In the short term, the suppression wins Obama some time to not have to deal with the public outcry that will result when the true horror of US prisoner abuses surfaces. He also wins favour with the neocons and hawks. But the price is a serious blow to his credibility and, more damaging, the credibility of the USA as a rebuilding force for good in the world.

What many need to realize is that this is a critical moment in the history of the USA. Presidential "business as usual" --American exceptionalism, more to the point-- is no longer tenable in a world where US might is no longer supreme. The need to build good will, not just with temporal enemies, but with traditional allies short on trust, has never been more important. Obama might be their last opportunity to make a good impression, lest the world conclude that Bushism is the new American norm.

Instead of worrying about what a handful of insurgents might do if incited by some photos, Obama should worry about the unmistakable message he has sent to his allies: that his grand promises of philosophical change and adherence to the rule of law only apply so long as he finds them convenient.