Archive for September, 2010|Monthly archive page

The Spectacle That Is Politics

Politics of all sorts have been rather interesting lately.  First, there’s been the failure of Manitoba MP Candice Hoeppner’s Private Member’s Bill C-391, which was designed to finally scrap the Long Gun Registry.  It made it through two readings before a number of New Democratic Party MPs were persuaded to switch sides and defeat it by the narrowest of margins.  One of them, Peter Stoffer, is an MP from Nova Scotia, and the number of angry letters in today’s Halifax Chronicle-Herald is interesting.  His riding will be one targetted in the next federal election campaign I’m sure by the Conservative Party.

I’m annoyed C-391 failed, mainly because there are simply no good arguments for the registry that justify spending any further money on it when there are other programs that could be persued in its stead that might actually improve public safety, but I think I’m more annoyed that it’s revealed the true dark underbelly of Canada’s political system currently, and shown that while Stephen Harper is the best guy to be running the show right now, he’s really not great, and should count himself very lucky that there is no credible alternative to him for the time being.

For all his efforts this summer, much to the chagrin of the aforementioned Mr. Harper, Michael Ignatieff is just not resonating with a lot of Canadians (except maybe those damned “Toronto elites” that MP John Baird hates so much), and that suits me fine, as it means that the status quo of a relatively powerless Conservative minority will last.  I’m okay with that.

The next big PMB that seems like it’ll come up for debate is Gerard Kennedy’s C-440, which basically neds the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow American deserters to qualify for refugee status in Canada.  This is probably the most alarming development to me lately.  Since the Iraq War in the US started, there’s been quite a few American military personnel who have deserted and made their way to Canada, where they have tried to claim refugee status.  So far, none of them have been accepted, and they have no reasonable prospect of doing so unless the definition of “refugee” is significantly altered.  Some have been deported already, and prosecuted in the normal maner in the United States, others have not.

So, let’s be clear.  A deserter from a volunteer military in a liberal democractic country like the USA – someone who was not conscripted or otherwise impressed into service – should absolutely not be considered a refugee, period.  The definition of refugee in Canada is taken from the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees.  A refugee is a person who, “”owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”.

A deserter is not someone facing persecution.  They face prosecution for the crime, but that is not justification for another country to offer them refuge, particularly when desertion is an offence in Canada as well, under Section 98 of the National Defence Act.

These so-called “war resisters”, all of whom joined the military knowing (or at least, they ought to have known) the risk that military service entails, the possibility of being deployed to a serve in a war zone, whether they agree with the politics of the war or not, have no business in Canada.   They are owed nothing by us, and to bend our rules to process these people is an affront to the process of aiding legitimate refugees.

So, C-440 must fail, and any politician who supports it in any way better not be asking for my vote as they will not get it.  It’s an insult to anyone who has accepted unlimited liability in military service, who has made any sort of sacrifice as such, that some selfish fool who doesn’t want to live up to their end of the bargain should be allowed a pass.

As if Canadian politics isn’t interesting enough of late, there’s the brewing shitshow in America.  I am rather interested to see what will happen in the mid-term elections in November.  My father was musing last night that he wants to make sure he’s at his place in Arizona on November 2 to see the results and listen in on the conversation.  I have to think it’ll be interesting.

I don’t get what the hell this “Tea Party” movement is going to accomplish.  It seems that “their” candidates are nothing but utter wingnuts, people whose only credibility seems to be some hatred of the status quote and little or no knowledge of anything to do with the challenge of running a country.  Most astounding is their disdain for, or avoidance of the democratic process – such as interaction with the media.  In a democratic society, the media has a role to play in getting candidates’ messages out and in holding them to account for what they say.  The recent antics of two of the chief wingnuts, Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell and Nevada’s Sharron Angle are prime examples.  Both seem to avoid any sort of media contact out of a fear of “gotcha questions” – like, as one pundit put it, “What is your plan when you get into office?”.  O’Donnell comes off as a puritan religious nutter, and Angle, well… she’s certifiable I think, the shit this woman has said in the past makes me astounded that anyone would take her remotely seriously.

Of course, if you think the Republicans have a rational plan for anything, take a look at their “Pledge To America”  and see what you think.  I had a hard time taking it seriously, except for the ideas of not intermixing different policies into single pieces of legislation or tagging controversial matters to “must pass” bills in order to shoehorn them.  This is a feature of the American legislative process I’ve always been appalled by.

The Pledge offers no credible solutions, and sticks to the same nonsense that the GOP has parroted for ages – tax cuts create jobs, a healthcare reform act that won’t work, and so on.  It is the most empty set of policy ideas ever, designed to trade on the fear and lies they’ve promoted since they lost the last election.

For his part, President Obama has failed – not in policy accomplishments – he has gotten a lot done – but he has utterly failed to show the value of his presidency to Americans – he’s not made any real political capital on them.  He’s tried to be nice when the GOP haven’t, and now he really needs to go on the attack, he’s started a little bit, attacking John Boehner (what’s with that guy’s obsession with tanning, by the way) directly, and so on.  He needs to show average Americans that GOP policies are bad for them, and he needs to get on that quick.

On The Gun Registry

The debate over Candace Hoeppner’s Private Member’s Bill C-391, abolishing the long gun registry in Canada is coming to a head as the bill goes to its third reading in the House of Commons. As if there was nothing better to be dealing with in this country, an inordinate amount of time and energy has gone into the debate from all sides and a lot of it has been silly. Time for me to weigh in one last time.

I remain in favour of getting rid of the registry because even at its relatively low cost (in comparison to the ridiculous set up costs) it still basically serves no particularly good purpose despite the hyperbole. That said there is little prospect of reasonable discussion because of the ridiculous amount of misinformation circulating. So I’m trying to clear as much as I can.

There’s been a lot of insinuation that getting rid of the registry somehow gets rid of firearms licensing and controls entirely. That’s rubbish. In no way is that the case. In fact, if we want to talk about “compromises”, many gun owners would probably be happy to see stricter licensing processes. I certainly would be fine with that.

Some of the letters to the editors of various papers contained other nonsense, including claims that the registry somehow prevents accidental shootings. There were two such claims in just one newspaper. I cannot fathom how anyone could believe this to be possible. Does a car being registered make it any less likely to be involved in an accident?

That ties to another point – the comparison to vehicle licensing. Vehicles are licensed for tax reasons, not for safety reasons, obviously a registration sticker purchased annually does not make a vehicle safe, though licensing drivers does help. That analogy is more reasonable.

I don’t buy into the idea that the long gun registry prevents domestic violence particularly well. From discussing with cops, when there is a domestic violence situation, the registry isn’t the key – a search warrant is. That won’t change. If I was a cop I wouldn’t be satisfied without a proper search.

Front-line cops almost universally find no value in the registry either. One survey, albeit unofficial, found 92% of cops find no value of the registry, and frankly they matter more than chiefs’ political organizations. Any cop who’d trust their safety to the long gun registry is, according to my veteran cop friend, a complete idiot.

Then there’s the event that spurred C-68 in the first place. The École Polytechnique mass shootings. The registry has proven itself ineffective in preventing such incidents. The Dawson College shooting showed that. The shooter, Kimveer Gill, was a licensed firearms owner with legal, registered firearms. If anything he supports the argument for more licensing scrutiny, and shows exactly how utterly useless the registry is.

Note that I’ve avoided the worst canard in the debate, the tremendous waste of some $2 billion on setting up the registry. I’ll note that some have disputed this and claimed that it was “only” $1 billion, as though that’s any better. However, that money is gone, it’s a sunk cost, nothing will ever get that money back. We don’t need to debate that. It’s pointless.

I remain unconvinced of any value the registry offers. There is room to improve Canada’s firearms laws, in ways that will draw consensus. The registry is not part of that consensus and need not be.

Musings About Agriculture

Between reading Collapse and the fascinating program I heard on CBC Radio One’s documentary program Ideas, I’ve been really fascinated with agriculture lately. Well, it’s not totally a new thing, it’s something I have always had some interest in.

Like so many, I grew up in suburban sprawl, with not a tremendous amount of contact with food supplies. I did have some idea about how we got our food insofar as we grew a fair variety of vegetables in our garden, and frequently during the summer we would travel down to the Niagara Peninsula to buy fresh fruit from the farms there.

My parents were no fans of convenience foods or fast foods so we did a lot of cooking from scratch which gave me some interest in culinary arts in general as well.

Most of what I knew about industrial agriculture came from a study in university on the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy and anecdotes about my uncle, who was a dairy farmer in England, who eventually gave up farming altogether.

Without trying to rehash a nine year old essay, what you might call industrial intensive agricultural has been encouraged in the West as a means, theoretically, of providing cheap, plentiful food. It requires significant energy inputs, both to operate farms and to produce the fertilizers required to keep land productive.

The impact has been rather damaging – both the externalized costs of pollution and run-offs, but also in unusual consequences. The CAP encourages production of as much as possible because of guaranteed price system, which has led farmers to plough up hedgerows and culverts, destroying habitat for migratory birds, etc.

It is interesting to note that in many places where societies/civilizations have collapsed misuse of land has been a significant contributor. Livestock is often a contributor to the problem, which is where I think the argument for vegetarianism got a lot stronger, the idea being that the inputs for raising, for example, beef, would actually feed many more people than the beef itself would. It makes a lot of sense.

Then I heard about more sustainable agriculture models, which resemble the original more traditional family farm model, where pastured livestock is raised on grass forage rather than heavily subsidized grain, and a variety of symbiotic relationships can be harnessed. This is what Polyface Farm in Virginia does, and to have heard Joel Salatin, whose family runs the farm I heard about, talk about his model is pretty incredible. You can check it out at http://polyfacefarms.com/ and see a lot about how it works.

The contrast he talked about in the doc I heard was the concept of the feedlot, where livestock are packed in tight, fed subsidized grain, along with loads of antibiotics necessitated by the potential for the spread of disease in such unnatural circumstances.

The trick it sounds like is that because the agriculture industry is dominated by large players with the ear of government policy continues to seem to favour them, and the Ideas piece highlighted the fact that small packing plants which could process small herds for local sale have largely disappeared, because of onerous regulation.

Without trying to sound conspiratorial it is rather hard to try to explain such legislation and ignore the concept of lobbying impact. The big players in agribusiness surely have a role to play.

The thing is that I am starting to learn how mismanaging land as a resource – soil fertility, fresh water access, etc – is a key factor in failures of civilizations. One need not look far to see what happens with bad stewardship, even beyond the stark examples Jared Diamond writes about.

Consider, for example, Zimbabwe. Once the breadbasket of Africa, Southern Rhodesia was a political pariah after the unilateral declaration of independence under Ian Smith. Thriving commercial farms not only produced ample food, but tobacco and other products. The impact of sanctions made Rhodesia create its own economy and it muddled through. My father corresponded with ham radio operators there and learned much about the place during that era.

Then came 1980 – Rhodesia became Zimbabwe and Robert Mugabe became president. And things began to unwind dramatically. First in the early 1980s Mugabe launched violence against rivals in Matabeleland, but the real damage came starting in the late 1990s – “land reforms” a forced redistribution of land from mostly white commercial farmers to blacks, mostly ZANU-PF cronies dubiously called “war veterans”.

Not shockingly, with no aptitude for farming, these folks have in a few years destroyed the land, with fertile soil eroding away and Zimbabwe now relying on importing food. This sort of thing happens globally but this is the shocking extreme.

A recent op ed in the Globe & Mail looked at the other side though, how smallholders are not any better. It seems like ingenuity in farming will be essential to increasing food production in a sustainable way, but the reality seems that nature may have a means of dealing with the problem – starvation as population control.

This subject will continue to fascinate me and I think will get me to study it more. As I contemplate a new home in the spring I’ve already got quite an interest in looking into growing a lot, rather than having some lawn to look after.

On Iraq, Whitestock, And Other Things.

This weekend I’m meeting up with an old army buddy, who is a very big fan of politics, and whom, on meeting, I could not understand what possessed him to pursue a career in the military, much less in the infantry in particular, though it seems he’s spending more time in school than anything else, and I don’t know if he has a job in an infantry battalion yet or is just a full time student.  I guess I’ll find that out.  He’s hosting a fundraising beer tasting and keg party for a couple of different military charities, and being just up the road in Fredericton, NB, I saw the pitch and decided I might take a ride down.  I’m looking forward to seeing him and he’s looking forward to talking politics, because while we were at the Infantry School we did have some very interesting and very heated conversations.  Although many people might think I lean left or am a liberal, that’s of course not actually the case – but it is for him – a left leaning centrist anyhow, well, no, maybe not even a centrist.

I’m sure we’ll have plenty to talk about, from the nonsense in DC last weekend (Beckstock, Beckoning, Beckpocalypse, Whitestock, whatever you want to call it, even the rather nonsensical title “Restoring Honor”), to Obama’s speech and the pseudo-pullout of Iraq that’s just happened, with the official end, without victory, of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”.  Your definition of freedom may vary.  And more interestingly perhaps, Canadian politics – he’s no fan of the current man in charge, and well, I’m not really either, but I don’t know if we’ll share a lot of views, it will be good to see.

So shall I weigh in on some of these things?  Of course, otherwise you’ll have nothing to read, and that simply won’t do.

First, and the subject on which I have the most to say for now, let’s talk about the ridiculous and bizarre event that was “Restoring Honor” on August 28, 2010 (or 8/28 as nutty rightwingers call it, for simplicity).  This event was hyped by bizarre talk show acolyte Biff “Glenn” Beck for quite a while.  I once in a while on my ridiculous commute home tune my XM radio to the Fox audio feed just to see what ridiculous and insane shit this man is going to say next.  Now, if you’re reading this I don’t need to give you the backstory on Beck, except that he’s a documented liar, and curiously, a Mormon…  Mormons are one religious group I really don’t understand, because it is the obvious product of a scam artist, and has a rather checkered and disturbing history of racism and violence that modern Mormons seem blissfully unaware of.  It’s interesting that a Mormon is pulling together and influencing other dangerous Christian fundamentalists though, since there’s some sort of mutual heretic tendency there.

Anyhow, back to Biff’s Bash At The Lincoln Memorial.  It was set on the 47th anniversary of the “I have a dream speech”, and Biff’s made a number of references to Dr. King, all while trying to claim he’s not interested in comparisons, and the date was a coincidence, and whatever.  Not that I’ve listened to him enough to get the full story (and realistically, even if I did torture myself that way, I probably still would be pretty confused about it anyhow, since he’s not exactly coherent most of the time), I couldn’t really understand what the whole thing was about.  He pitched it as an event to “Restore America’s Honor”, and that to me is cryptic.   To restore something is to put it back in previous condition, to bring it back into existence, etc.  Honor has various definitions, and is a little hard to pin down.  They tend to include things like honesty, integrity, esteem, respect, fairness.  So, here are the problems I have.  Neither of the key people at this event, Glenn Beck nor Sarah Palin, strike me as people to whom I would assign “honour” as a trait.  They are both liars, fearmongers, manipulators, etc.  How can individuals who are so apparently divorced from the concept of honour really “restore” it?  Second, what needs restoring?  I’ll grant that America’s reputation globally has been severely impacted by a number of poor decisions and terrible leadership, especially under the last adminstration, but if that’s the concession I made, it’s going to take a lot for a couple of conservative hacks (the “side” that made the mess, as it were) to put things right.

However, the whole thing seemed more cryptic when it then sort of morphed into a weird sort of “support the troops” event, when Beck claimed it would be promoting and soliciting donations for the Special Operations Warriors Families Fund (I think that’s what it’s called).  It always annoys me the way the right sort of hijacks soldiers as political tools, as though all soldiers were right wing extremists, which they are not.  It gets more unintelligible when you look at the “content”, which seemed to be some sort of strange, creepy religious thing… and then when you see the interviews with participants and the kind of shit they had on their shirts (since they were told to leave their signs, a constant source of embarrassment for teabaggers, at home).  I’ve only read and seen so many clips of these people, but it seems, not surprisingly, that the “audience” was mainly white aging folks, mainly religious zealots, with a level of ignorance that makes my brain hurt.  These are the birthers, the – what’s the term, is there one? – people who think Obama’s a Muslim or something else (which is irrelevant anyhow, but still…), the teabaggers who are so well described by Keith Olbermann as the “something for nothing crowd”, people who seem to think they should have the benefits of a modern, decent society, but someone else should pay for it – their kids and grandkids and so on, it would seem.

So what was the purpose of this supposedly “non-political” mess?  It has generated plenty of fodder for media, including nonsense about how many people were there – I quite liked that CBS stood up for the service that provided their estimate of 87,000 including explaining the methodology of the count, which they stand by, despite Biff’s lofty claims that 650,000 people were there.  Was any “honour” restored?  Not in my view, it just was a sort of fringe circus that probably was mostly ignored by people.  It’s very interesting too to see the fracturing in the American Taliban set because they are catching on to the Mormon thing.

The Mormon thing – I always think the second M should be silent.  Their story is so ridiculous that I don’t get why anyone falls for it – it is the handiwork of a fraudster, with a racist and violent past that would embarrass any Mormon that learns it – which is why it seems they are not too keen on people learning about it.  I’m not going to write some big post on the history, but it’s out there and easy to find.

Enough about Beckapalooza, though.  It will go down in history, I suspect, as unintelligible nonsense from a bunch of nutjobs.  At least, I hope it will!

There’s also Iraq to talk about – apparently the USA has withdrawn its “combat troops” from Iraq.  Wait, aren’t all troops combat troops?  Well, yes.  The idea is more that any operations beyond training and development of the Iraqi military and police services will cease, that America’s 50,000 (56,000 actually I think is the current count) still in country are only there to mentor, advise, and defend America’s interests there.  I think that while it’s being a little overhyped this is a crowning achievement for President Obama, and a milestone.  I didn’t see the speech last night, only transcripts, and it seems like it was well presented.  There is no victory to claim in Iraq, and people are largely finally realizing that it was not only a tremendous mistake, but it was sold to the world on lies, even though we mostly knew that I think.  I know I did, I was looking back over posts on my main personal blog from 2002 when the winds started swirling and all I could think then was how stupid it was.  And it turned out to be even worse than I expected.

The key was the words he had for America’s troops – many of whom by now I’d wager have  atour over there, acknowledging their commitment and sacrifice.  Remember, these men and women did not make the decision to go to war, they simply carried on with the job they were given, and while there were transgressions as in all scenarios, they did the job to the best of their ability, at often a grave cost.  They deserve to be honoured for their service, regardless of the opinion one has of the job they were sent to do.  Obama set up a nice transition that by closing the book on Iraq to the best of his ability he can try to focus America on the next one – the economy being key.  It’s what Obama’s presidency will live and die on, after all – dragging the US out of what seems to be like a a fundamental realignment of the economy.  I don’t know how much he can do, the world is not the same as it was before 2007, the shifts in what’s produced where etc are going to have an impact.  There’s going to be a lot of fundamental upheaval still, and I think a lot of people will lose out on the standard of living they once enjoyed.

What will make it worse is that the masses don’t seem to understand anything about economics and still subscribe to such ridiculous ideas as tax cuts creating jobs or stimulating the economy, which doesn’t seem to be born out by recent history.  What will matter is incentives to create jobs domestically, and Americans buying things they produce instead of cheap shit from China.  How to go about that, however, is fodder for another posting, I think I’ve run this one into the ground.