Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Afghanistan: The Case for Withdrawal

"It is much better for regime-change to come from below even if this means a long wait as in South Africa, Indonesia or Chile. Occupations disrupt the possibilities of organic change and create a much bigger mess than existed before. Afghanistan is but one example."

The Khyber Impasse: The Case for Withdrawal from Afghanistan

February 27, 2007

It is Year 6 of the UN-backed NATO occupation of Afghanistan, a joint US/EU mission. On 26 February there was an attempted assassination of Dick Cheney by Taliban suicide bombers while he was visiting the ‘secure’ US air base at Bagram (once an equally secure Soviet air base during an earlier conflict). Two US soldiers and a mercenary (‘contractor’) died in the attack, as did twenty other people working at the base. This episode alone should have concentrated the US Vice-President’s mind on the scale of the Afghan debacle. In 2006 the casualty rates rose substantially and NATO troops lost forty-six soldiers in clashes with the Islamic resistance or shot-down helicopters.

The insurgents now control at least twenty districts in the Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan provinces where NATO troops have replaced US soldiers. And it is hardly a secret that many officials in these zones are closet supporters of the guerrilla fighters. The situation is out of control. At the beginning of this war Mrs Bush and Mrs Blair appeared on numerous TV and radio shows claiming that the aim of the war was to liberate Afghan women. Try repeating that today and the women will spit in your face.

Who is responsible for this disaster? Why is the country still subjugated? What are Washington’s strategic goals in the region? What is the function of NATO? And how long can any country remain occupied against the will of a majority of its people?

Few tears were shed in Afghanistan and elsewhere when the Taliban fell, the hopes aroused by Western demagogy did not last too long. It soon became clear that the new transplanted elite would cream off a bulk of the foreign aid and create its own criminal networks of graft and patronage. The people suffered. A mud cottage with a thatched roof to house a family of homeless refugees costs fewer than five thousand dollars. How many have been built? Hardly any. There are reports each year of hundreds of shelter-less Afghans freezing to death each winter.

Instead a quick-fix election was organised at high cost by Western PR firms and essentially for the benefit of Western public opinion. The results failed to bolster support for NATO inside the country. Hamid Karzai the puppet President, symbolised his own isolation and instinct for self-preservation by refusing to be guarded by a security detail from his own ethnic Pashtun base. He wanted tough, Terminator look-alike US marines and was granted them.

Might Afghanistan been made more secure by a limited Marshall-Plan style intervention? It is, of course, possible that the construction of free schools and hospitals, subsidised homes for the poor and the rebuilding of the social infrastructure that was destroyed after the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989 could have stabilised the country. It would also have needed state help to agriculture and cottage industries to reduce the dependence on poppy farming. 90 percent of the world’s opium production is based in Afghanistan. UN estimates suggest that heroin accounts for 52 percent of the impoverished country’s gross domestic product and the opium sector of agriculture continues to grow apace. All this would have required a strong state and a different world order. Only a slightly crazed utopian could have expected NATO countries, busy privatising and deregulating their own countries, to embark on enlightened social experiments abroad.

And so elite corruption grew like an untreated tumour. Western funds designed to aid some reconstruction were siphoned off to build fancy homes for their native enforcers.. In Year 2 of the Occupation there was a gigantic housing scandal. Cabinet ministers awarded themselves and favoured cronies prime real estate in Kabul where land prices reached a high point after the Occupation since the occupiers and their camp followers had to live in the style to which they had become accustomed. Karzai’s colleagues built their large villas, protected by NATO troops and in full view of the poor.

Add to this that Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, has become one of the largest drug barons in the country. At a recent meeting with Pakistan’s President, when Karzai was bleating on about Pakistan’s inability to stop cross-border smuggling, General Musharraf suggested that perhaps Karzai should set an example by bringing his sibling under control.

While economic conditions failed to improve, NATO military strikes often targeted innocent civilians leading to violent anti-American protests in the Afghan capital last year. What was initially viewed by some locals as a necessary police action against al-Qaeda following the 9/11 attacks is now perceived by a growing majority in the entire region as a fully-fledged imperial occupation. The Taliban is growing and creating new alliances not because its sectarian religious practices have become popular, but because it is the only available umbrella for national liberation. As the British and Russians discovered to their cost in the preceding two centuries, Afghans never liked being occupied.

There is no way NATO can win this war now. Sending more troops will lead to more deaths. And full-scale battles will destabilise neighbouring Pakistan. Musharraf has already taken the rap for an air raid on a Muslim school in Pakistan. Dozens of children were killed and the Islamists in Pakistan organised mass street protests. Insiders suggest that the ‘pre-emptive’ raid was, in fact, carried out by US war planes who were supposedly targeting a terrorist base, but the Pakistan government thought it better they took the responsibility to avoid an explosion of anti-American anger.

NATO’s failure cannot be blamed on the Pakistani government. If anything, the war in Afghanistan has created a critical situation in two Pakistani provinces. The Pashtun majority in Afghanistan has always had close links to its fellow Pashtuns in Pakistan. The border was an imposition by the British Empire and it has always been porous. Attired in Pashtun clothes I crossed it myself in 1973 without any restrictions. It is virtually impossible to build a Texan fence or an Israeli wall across the mountainous and largely unmarked 2500 kilometre border that separates the two countries. The solution is political, not military.

Washington’s strategic aims in Afghanistan appear to be non-existent unless they need the conflict to discipline European allies who betrayed them on Iraq. True, the al-Qaeda leaders are still at large, but their capture will be the result of effective police work, not war and occupation. What will be the result of a NATO withdrawal? Here Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states will be vital in guaranteeing a confederal constitution that respects ethnic and religious diversity. The NATO occupation has not made this task easy. Its failure has revived the Taliban and increasingly the Pashtuns are uniting behind it.

The lesson here, as in Iraq, is a basic one. It is much better for regime-change to come from below even if this means a long wait as in South Africa, Indonesia or Chile. Occupations disrupt the possibilities of organic change and create a much bigger mess than existed before. Afghanistan is but one example.

Tariq Ali’s new book, Pirates of the Caribbean, is published by Verso. He can be reached at:

This article originally appeared in Counterpunch.

Via New Socialist
More excellent analysis at James Laxer's Blog

New Studies Show How Violence Against Women Can Be Stopped

A new United Nations Population Fund report released today in New York does more than simply chronicle the extent of worldwide violence against women. It offers 10 case studies that show how carefully targeted and planned interventions can successfully reduce gender-based violence. Check out the cool online exhibition.

"We tried to form pressure groups within the community to discourage violence. Not only that, we also created opportunities for the community to plan their own programmes, and in that way the community began to own the project."
- National Programme Officer, UNFPA-Bangladesh

The UNFP Handbook Ending Violence Against Women, which is based on the report, summarizes specific "good practices" from the case studies. It includes points like:

  • Understand the local context, and recognize that culture is dynamic and people are willing to change. Identify and build upon positive cultural values.
  • Gather evidence and solicit expert opinion. Evidence is the most powerful tool to convince people that a change is needed.
  • Adopt a rights-based approach, empowering women to claim their rights. Also target men (especially men who have influence in the community), whose participation is key.
  • Allow space for community involvement, especially when tackling culturally sensitive issues. Involve people at a personal level. Tap the strength of community organizations. Engage local power structures, including faith based organizations.
  • Separate the values underlying a harmful practice from the practice itself. This is important because it means respecting the function of traditions that may be harmful and remembering traditions can evolve. Encourage change from within.
  • Work on legislative action, but follow up with advocacy to ensure enforcement. Use the health sector as one entry point. Build institutional capacity and forge alliances across sectors - for example, linking health services with legal services.
  • Expand women's options overall - for example economic self-sufficiency is important
  • Reach young people through education, in order to prevent the violence among the next generation
  • Caring for women and girls in need means considering the whole person, preserving confidentiality and establishing trust, and also protecting service providers
  • Be creative in raising awareness. They suggest using popular culture, like local celebrities as spokespeople, and trying to educate the media.

All of these points are supported with examples from the case studies. Via

What is conspicuously absent is a recommendation for forcing women (against their will) to change their style of dress. Or bombing a country to liberate its women.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Adopt an MP and help prevent Clean Air Act Disaster

From the Climate Action Network: Adopt a Bill C-30 Committee member and help prevent CLEAN AIR ACT DISASTER.

1. Choose an MP from the Adoption Board (aw, but they all look so cute)

2. Congratulations. Now, as an adoptive parent, you will email your adopted member telling him what you think about the plan to increase emissions. He (yes, they are all men) will need your parental guidance and advice. But don’t worry. You won’t be alone. The Climate Action Network will help by sending you updates and action alerts so you know when and what to do.

3. Unlike real parenting, how much time you spend on your MP is totally up to you.

Help these boys amend Canada’s "Clean Air Act" (Bill C-30). More information at

Monday, February 26, 2007

what did you do while the earth was unraveling?

hieroglyphic stairway
- Drew Dillinger

it's 3:23 in the morning
and I'm awake
because my great great grandchildren
won't let me sleep
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?

surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?

as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?

what did you do

I'm riding home on the Colma train
I've got the voice of the milky way in my dreams

I have teams of scientists
feeding me data daily
and pleading I immediately
turn it into poetry

I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech

I am the desirous earth
equidistant to the underworld
and the flesh of the stars

I am everything already lost

the moment the universe turns transparent
and all the light shoots through the cosmos

I use words to instigate silence

I'm a hieroglyphic stairway
in a buried Mayan city
suddenly exposed by a hurricane

a satellite circling earth
finding dinosaur bones
in the Gobi desert
I am telescopes that see back in time

I am the precession of the equinoxes,
the magnetism of the spiraling sea

I'm riding home on the Colma train
with the voice of the milky way in my dreams

I am myths where violets blossom from blood
like dying and rising gods

I'm the boundary of time
soul encountering soul
and tongues of fire

it's 3:23 in the morning
and I can't sleep
because my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the earth was unraveling?

I want just this consciousness reached
by people in range of secret frequencies
contained in my speech

Read it out loud. Listen to those delicious words. I also love the rhythm of the total thrust is global justice from love letter to the milky way

Poets for Global Justice is a collective of artists using poetry and spoken word to tell truths, empower youth, inspire imagination, and support movements for justice and ecology.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Canadian Mining Giant Goldcorp and Corporate Social Responsibility

Dangerous levels of lead and arsenic have been found in the blood of Honduran villagers living downstream from a controversial gold and silver mine owned by Canada's Goldcorp Inc., the world's third largest gold mining firm.


Nearly 60 percent of the mining and exploration companies in the world are Canadian. They generate more than 40 billion dollars annually, representing about four percent of Canada's gross domestic product (GDP).

"Canadians are appalled when they find out what some Canadian companies are up to in the South," but few Canadians know what is going on at mine projects in South America or elsewhere due to limited media coverage, says Karyn Keenan, programme officer with the Halifax Initiative, a coalition of Canadian environmental and human rights NGOs.

But little by little, media attention has grown, especially recently, when people from Latin America affected by mines appeared in 2006 at a series of public forums about the corporate social responsibility of Canada's mining, oil and gas sectors.


An official report on regulating the sector's out-of-country operations will go before the Canadian government shortly. The report is "unprecedented in Canadian history," says Keenan, because it represents a consensus between NGOs, mining industry and government officials.

"Industry doesn't want strong, binding Canadian laws on their operations overseas, but there are some who know they need to do more than publish codes of ethics on their websites," she added.

Although the content of the report remains secret, it is expected to recommend that an independent dispute mechanism and ombudsman office be established to investigate complaints and conduct audits of Canadian mining, oil and gas operations abroad.

Whether the current conservative Canadian government will act on the report's recommendations remains to be seen.

Excerpted from IPS News

Friday, February 23, 2007

On Fear

I just finished reading Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear. Why Americans are Afraid of the Wrong Things: Crime, Drugs, Minorities, Teen Moms, Killer Kids, Mutant Microbes, Plane Crashes, Road Rage, & so much more. It's a good read, although being published in 1999 it is now sort of out of date. After all, fear has seen quite an upswing since 2001.

Basically he runs through all of those fears listed above and debunks them one by one. He makes pretty good arguments overall, and I tend to agree with him. I find him a bit patronizing, though. He quickly dismisses people's fears because the causes so often do not merit the reactions. But although the reasons for fear might often be irrational, the emotion is very real. A book which I think treated people's fears with more respect is False Alarm: The Truth About the Epidemic of Fear by Marc Siegel.

Ze Frank shows how trying to curing fear with facts can backfire.

Humanitarian War in Afghanistan?

Readers of this blog know I do not buy the official justification for the invasion of Afghanistan. I don't believe for a second the Harper Government (or the Bush Administration) has altruistic motives.

However, many kind and caring Canadians, even some progressives, support the war in Afghanistan. They are motivated by the pathos of seeing burka-clad women, starving children, and terrified old men in desert-like landscapes. Their line of reasoning goes something like this: if our army can supply security and help the Afghans rebuild, why shouldn't we support it?

Leaving the ethics of invading and occupying another country (even to supposedly help that country), let's address this pragmatically. If we assume our motives are "pure" why are so many Afghan people against our continued occupation?

I think the simplest answer is that we have failed in convincing them we are on their side. (Again I'll reiterate: our government's motives are anything but pure, but many regular people support the war for altruistic reasons.)

To growing numbers of Afghans, the NATO-led forces are an enemy similar to the Russians who tore this country apart in the 1980s. People even blame suicide attacks directly or indirectly on the soldiers. (RAWA)

The Soviets used the same sort of rhetoric as does NATO, trying to gain popular support among the Afghan people. They said their invasion was defensive. They said they were providing aid and security, and a better political and economic system (Soviet Communism). We say we are responding to Al-Qaeda's 9/11 attack (i.e. our invasion was defensive). We say we are providing aid and security, and a better political and economic system (Democracy and Capitalism).

What the Afghan people saw was the Soviets' illegitimate intervention in their own internal affairs, lack of respect for their culture and customs, and "brutal and clumsy attempts to introduce radical changes in control over agricultural land holding and credit, rural social relations, marriage and family arrangements, and education" which "led to scattered protests and uprisings among all major communities in the Afghan countryside." (Wikipedia)

The parallels are actually quite striking. How can we expect war-weary Afghans to trust us, when we are committing so many of the same mistakes? This is why we cannot "win" this war by military means.

The occupation needs to end, so people have the opportunity to heal their country, but this can't even begin until there is some goal of peace on Afghan terms. We'll need to find a way to provide security and aid - under the direction of the Afghan people themselves, in a format they themselves are comfortable with. We need to really understand what the Afghan people want, and stop pretending we are doing what's best for them.

Listen to an interview with a former Soviet army soldier who fought in Afghanistan, as he compares and contrast Canada's involvement in Afghanistan with that of the Soviet Union.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

A Virtual Demo of A New Urbanist Community

Cool interactive tool from National Geographic lets you explore a community based on New Urbanist design principles. There's medium density, mixed-use zoning, light rail transport, corner stores, walkable streets, subsidized housing, public squares and lots of trees!

Related Article on Urban Sprawl

via Grist

Dense cities are environmentally friendly and they can have immense social benefits too, compared to sprawling suburbs and gated communities connected by vast highways. For example, cities help regulate fear.

This is a good opportunity to plug a great book Carfree Cities by J.H. Crawford. You don't have to buy the book, though, as most of the info is available for free on the Carfree Cities website.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Urgent call to support the Ontario Child Benefit

Write a letter to the Toronto Star supporting the Ontario Child Benefit.

Yesterday’s lead Toronto Star editorial (see below) strongly endorses a new Ontario Child Benefit as a necessary poverty reduction tool in Ontario. The Daily Bread Food Bank is recommending as many people as possible write a letter to the Star today to demonstrate support for the OCB. Resources and letter-writing tips here.

Toronto Star Editorial - February 19, 2007

All children in low-income families deserve a fair and decent start in life, whether their parents struggle in low-wage jobs or are forced by circumstances to rely on welfare to make ends meet.

But in Ontario, unlike many other provinces, children in welfare families are unfairly punished by a provincial policy that denies their families a small amount of money – just $122 a month for each child – that would go a long way to help buy food, clothing and pay the rent.

Now, Finance Minister Greg Sorbara has a golden opportunity to right this wrong in his coming provincial budget, expected in April or early May, by taking the bold step of introducing an Ontario Child Benefit as part of a comprehensive and realistic poverty reduction strategy.

Sorbara said earlier this month he is looking at a "basket of tools" to address widespread poverty in this province.

In the Star's view, that basket should include raising the minimum wage to $10 an hour from $8 and bringing in a new Ontario Child Benefit to help both those on welfare and the working poor, a move that could then lead to the elimination of Ontario's current clawback of the National Child Benefit Supplement, which the Liberals pledged to do in the 2003 provincial election campaign.

Ontario's clawback of the national supplement was one of the most odious moves by the former Conservative government of premier Mike Harris. The supplement was designed to help parents who earn less than $36,000.

However, in Ontario, the provincial government claws back, or reduces, monthly benefits to people on welfare by an amount equal to 75 per cent of the federal benefit. That amounts to $122 a month per child.

Growing numbers of progressive policy planners are convinced that a more equitable way of helping both working poor families and those on welfare is to dramatically restructure the social assistance programs and de-link income support directed at children from the system entirely.

That is what is starting to happen in British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland where all low-income families receive a separate, income-tested child benefit, regardless of whether their parents are working or are relying on welfare.

If adopted in Ontario, a provincial child benefit could be fully indexed, income-tested and provide needed funds to all low-income families with children up to the age of 18.

By extending the benefit to low-income working families, it would ensure that parents who try to move from welfare to the workforce are not penalized. Right now, the so-called "welfare wall" means many parents on social assistance cannot afford to take a job because it means giving up needed medical and dental coverage for their children that is currently paid by the government as long as the parents are on welfare.

When combined with Ottawa's child benefit supplement, the Ontario Child Benefit would insulate all children from their parents' financial ups and downs and ultimately lessen the reliance of many poor families on food banks to feed their children.

But the new Ontario benefit must not simply combine old programs into a new program with a different name. It must result in more money in the pockets of poor families. And it ultimately must provide enough money to raise the living standards of all low-income families.

If fully implemented in one step, such a program could cost up to $1 billion a year. If a provincial program was combined with the national plan, a single parent with one child, for example, would get $1,254 a month in assistance. Under the existing structure, the assistance is $1,132 monthly.

To ease the financial impact on the coming budget, the Ontario Child Benefit could be phased in, possibly over a three- to four-year period, with much of the benefit coming the first year. For instance, $60 a month might be instituted immediately, followed by an extra $31 a month in the each of the next two years, bringing the total to $122 month per child. Such a phased-in approach could mean Queen's Park would have to budget $300 million to $500 million in the first year, rather than $1 billion.

While some taxpayers may balk at the government spending such sums of money, all Ontarians have a vested interest in addressing poverty because a healthy, well-educated and more prosperous workforce will help drive the provincial economy into the future.

In the end, helping children grow up in the best possible environment is not only a sensible goal, but also the right thing for Sorbara to do.

p.s. Don't forget to participate in the Federal Government's online pre-budget consultation before Feb 28, 2007. The site asks you to rank your priorities, and then lets you comment on each one. It's pretty limited but you can select “Spending” and “Other” as your top priorities, and then on the next page write comments detailing your thoughts. It only takes a minute. (more info)

Ten out of Ten Bears Prefer Beef Fat to Menstrual Blood

They also prefer to dine on corn and garbage. So women, feel free to go hiking at any time of the month.

The death of two menstruating women attacked by grizzlies in Glacier National Park in 1967 apparently prompted the government to print brochures warning women to avoid bear country during periods of active menstruation.

Although some sites, like this one caution "women may want to avoid the backcountry during their menstrual period", there is little or no reason to be concerned about hiking during menstruation.

The examination of factors surrounding hundreds of grizzly and black bear attacks produced neither evidence that supported a causal relation between human menstruation and attacks nor revealed any published records concerning black bear responses to menstrual blood. The U.S. Forest Service conducted a series of experiments (Rogers et al., 1991) which tested the responses of both male and female black bears to human menstrual odors. The first experiment involved the spin-cast introduction of 15 used tampons (in clusters of 5) to adult male black bears foraging in a garbage dump. Each presentation, therefore, gave the bears a choice between the garbage and tampons. If the bears ate (like they did the garbage), closely sniffed, or rolled on the tampons, then they were considered to have paid attention to the tampons. Of 22 presentations, the bears ignored the used tampons 20 times (twice casual sniffs were observed), effectively preferring the garbage in every instance. In a second experiment, seven bears feeding on piles of corn were offered groups of six used tampons. Six of the bears sniffed the tampons and then returned to their piles of corn. A yearling male tasted one of the tampons, quickly dropped it and returned to the corn.

A third experiment placed four used tampons, an unused tampon, a tampon soaked in non-menstrual human blood, and a tampon containing rendered beef fat in the middle of a heavily traveled bear path with the used tampons interspersed among the others. Ten out of ten bears ate only the tampons soaked in beef fat. In a fourth experiment, women on different days of their period accompanied and contacted bears who were accustomed to human interaction and were known to investigate attractive odors. Eleven encounters involved women wearing tampons and one crazy woman wearing clothing through which her menstrual blood was soaking. Of the twelve encounters with the women, the ten bears did not pay any attention to the lower torsos of the women. Another woman wearing external pads during two of her menstrual cycles hand-fed four female bears and walked within two meters of adult male bears during bear mating season and did not receive any attention. Rogers et al. (1991) concluded that the lack of interest of the bears to menstrual odors does not prove that such odors are never attractive to bears (similar experiments resulted in tampon feasts by polar bears lacking attractive buffets); however, menstrual odors essentially were ignored.

More references here, here, and here. Original inspiration from a friend who heard about this on a radio programme on CKLN.

More than you'll ever want to know about menstruation from the Museum of Menstruation.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Myth of the "Clash of Civilizations"

No matter how hard many world leaders are trying, the people aren't buying - the myth of the "Clash of Civilizations" that is.

A BBC World Service poll of over 28,000 respondents across 27 countries found that a majority of people worldwide believe the tensions between Islam and the West are due to conflicts over political power and interests - not from differences of religion and culture.

“Most people around the world clearly reject the idea that Islam and the West are caught in an inevitable clash of civilizations,” said Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.

A majority also agree that violent conflict between Islam and the West is not inevitable. Only 28% think that violent conflict is inevitable, while twice as many (56%) believe that "common ground can be found."
- Source
You can also read the BBC Story

What do Canadians think?

More than seven in ten Canadians believe common ground can be found between Muslim and Western cultures. Seventy-three percent say that common ground can be found, while just 16 percent believe that violent conflict is inevitable. A significant majority (56%) of Canadians sees “conflicts about political power and interests” as the source of tensions between Islam and the West, while fewer than three in ten (29%) believe they arise from religious and cultural differences. Three in four Canadians (74%) also see intolerant minorities as a primary reason for tensions between Islam and the West compared to just 19 percent who blame cultural differences. Fifty-five percent of Canadians fault intolerant minorities on both sides, far more than those who specifically cite a Muslim (12%) or Western (7%) minority. (SOURCE

At least two illustrious leaders, however, like to make the case that there is a deeper cultural or religious conflict. George Bush, right after 9/11:
Americans are asking, why do they [terrorists] hate us? They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.

Which is of course, ridiculous. They don't hate the West's "freedoms". If anything, they hate our Imperialism.

Stephen Harper, in a speech speech to B'nai Brith
But the fact is this: those who attacked Israel – and those who sponsor such attacks – don’t seek merely to gain some leverage, to alter some boundary, or to right some wrong.

They seek what they and those like them have always sought – the destruction of Israel and the destruction of the Jewish people.

Why? A thousand complicated rationalizations but only one simple reason – because the Jews are different. Because the Jews are not like them.

Again, ridiculous. As if it were possible to find "one simple reason" for Israel-Palestine, but if you had to, probably it would be the extreme imbalance of power and resources - oppression due to occupation - not because they are "different". Does he also think Iraq's insurgents do it because Americans are "different"?

The right-wing media is even more blunt. Bill O'Reilly says "if Islam didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be a war on terror." Heidi Harris continually refers to "Islamic fascists" on Hardball (a term Amy Goodman thankfully calls her on, labeling it "racist" and "disgusting").

Much of the MSM's discussion of war and terrorism is done within this "cowboys and Indians" frame, in which we are the good guys and they are the evildoers. At best, it's lazy and at worst it's sickening bigotry.

For an example, see my analysis of the portrayal of the recent conflict in Somalia.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Free Education Isn't Always Enough

But it's a start.

When I was in Mexico last month, I saw lots of kids that were not in school on weekdays. I asked a local why these kids aren't in school and was told that although Mexico has good universal public education, these kids can't afford to lose the few pesos they can make selling oranges and handkerchiefs to tourists.

Even when education is free, many kids simply can't afford to go to school. Their income may be essential to the family, frequently they have to care for younger siblings, sometimes they are just trying to stay alive, not to mention there are often additional expenses (such as books, transportation, and uniforms) incurred even at public school.
Nearly 300 000 children in South Africa can't go to school because they don't have wheelchairs, hearing aids, crutches or even spectacles to make their lives easier. (more)

It is clear that the logical solution to this problem is to help these children with their particular needs. A Right-wing think tank's solution, however, would be to replace public education with private education, and hope that private charity can help send the poor kids to school.

The Fraser Institute believes because universal free public education is not providing the kind of results we'd like to see, it is a failure of the concept of public education.

This week, the United Nations 2005 World Summit in New York will address the lack of access to education for the lowest-income families around the globe. Its admirable goal is to achieve “universal primary education by 2015,” through increased international funding and government administration. The educational plight of the world’s poor seems inevitably to result in calls for such responses.

Though the big stick* of government intervention seems like a powerful tool for good, in the field of education its results have been disappointing and suggest that government interference in education is part of the problem, not the solution.

Evidence suggests that free, state-run education has not resulted in anywhere near the universal educational outcomes its advocates have promised. In many parts of the Western world, that failure is still evident after more than a century of concentrated effort, in Africa after many billions of dollars in international aid grants. These are humanitarian tragedies indeed and we must consider seriously the reasons for the failure.

Does the educational failure of the world’s poor reflect the impossibility of achieving lofty educational goals, or does it reflect misguided reliance on public financing and provision? Increasingly, the evidence suggests not that poor families are impossible to educate, but that free, state-run schools may not be the best way to deliver education to them.

Groundbreaking research by the University of Newcastle’s Dr. James Tooley in the slums of Africa, India and China reveals that a perhaps majority of students not enrolled in public schools in these countries are being educated in unregistered private schools, paid for by their parents.

Tooley’s research indicates significantly higher achievement among private-school students even after controlling for factors such as parental education and income. His fieldwork findings also show that when visited unannounced, fewer public-school teachers were engaged in teaching activities than their private-school counterparts were.

A recent BBC documentary provided vivid anecdotal evidence of this when it showed footage of teachers sleeping in African public-school classrooms and chatting on their cell phones, while students were left to their own devices.

Though governments in the developing world do not recognize the existence or contribution of private schools, their value is fully acknowledged by parents, who make great personal sacrifices to pay the tuition. One parent explains, “If you were offered free fruit in the market, you would know it was rotten. If you want good fruit, you have to pay for it. The same is true of education.”

Here in Canada, private schools are equally unsung heroes of education for our poorest citizens. An OECD report released this week reveals that even after accounting for parental education and income, private-school students in Canada do much better on mathematics tests than their public school counterparts. Statistics Canada tells us that 29 percent, nearly a third of children who attend private schools in Canada, are from families with incomes of less than $50,000. This suggests that many poor parents in Canada also value private education, despite the financial sacrifices it requires of them.

In fact, there is reason to believe that private schools may offer lower-income families better value for money than public schools offer taxpayers. Evidence of this comes from Children First: School Choice Trust, a greatly over-subscribed program in Ontario that offers grants to lower-income families. The program pays up to 50 percent of tuition at independent elementary school for 800 children whose household income is less than twice the poverty line. The average household income of Children First families is less than $28,000 while the average tuition of their schools is $4,400, about 56 percent of what is spent per student in the public system.

Why are these poor families choosing private schools that will cost them dearly, when public schools are available free of charge? Some want relief from bullying, others religious education, others cite smaller schools with greater academic emphasis and respect for teachers, while yet others help for a special education need. Each family seems to agree with the African parent’s analogy of the free fruit and that educational value offered by private schools is more than worth their financial sacrifices.

Chinese officials told Tooley’s research team private schools for the poor were “logically impossible.” Like those officials, government bureaucrats* will continue to deny the existence and potential of educational entrepreneurs, despite the cost of their denial to those poor families they purport to serve. And while they do, the admirable UN targets for universal education will prove continually elusive.
My Emphasis
* Note the bogeymen: "big stick of government intervention", "government bureaucrats". Can't you just HEAR the venom dripping from their mouths?

What planet are they on? The FI's solution would make sense only in a world in which poverty means not being able to afford both education and an iPod. Yes I'm still annoyed about this.


Thursday, February 15, 2007

Israel and the Canadian Media

For background, read this article by Dan Freeman-Maloy, an excellent analysis of the Canadian media's biased reporting of last summer's Israel/Lebabon and Israel/Gaza conflicts. He accurately sums up the double standard in Canadian media: "No attacks on Israel can have been provoked. All of Israel’s attacks must be provoked and defensive."

He makes special mention of Toronto Star columnist Mitch Potter, who he says,
reduced Palestinian resistance to stubborn stupidity and described the fallen fighters as animals: "Another batch of Palestinian militants drawn out lemming-like and falling by the dozen to higher-calibre Israeli fire, just like their predecessors".

This was quoted in Justin Podur's blog Killing Train. Potter responded to Podur, defending himself:
I have been called many things in my time in the Middle East -- in fact, the dominant thrust of my critics after nearly five years of reporting from the region is that I am overempathetic to the plight of Palestinians.

The only thing this proves is how biased mainstream opinion really is. Compared with mainstream media, Potter is indeed fairly moderate, so it isn't surprising they'd consider him "overempathetic to the plight of Palestinians".

Podur responded to Potter's response yesterday. What was interesting was his scorn for the ideal of parity in coverage. The ideal of parity explains why even those who are trying to defend Palestinian rights are often careful to apportion blame equally to both Israel and the Palestinians, or they risk being totally reviled. But one of the underlying facts about this conflict is that it isn't a struggle between two equal forces. The consequences are also not equal. Take casualties for example:
Human rights organizations document the disparity. According to B'Tselem, from the beginning of the second intifada in September 2000 to the end of January 2007, Palestinians had killed 1020 Israelis, 704 of whom were civilians, 119 of whom were children. According to the PCHR, up until September 2006, when you sent me your email, Israel had killed 3859 Palestinians, 3069 of whom were unarmed, 724 of whom were children. It had completely demolished 2831 Palestinian homes and partially destroyed 2427. It had leveled 37 square kilometers (an area 10% the size of Gaza) and destroyed 677 industrial facilities.

You also must know that the disparity has grown in recent years. For the period during which I looked at your work (July 2006 – December 2006), Israeli forces killed 479 Palestinians, wounded 1650, and arrested 1570. By contrast, Palestinians killed 4 Israeli security personnel and 2 Israeli civilians.

The analysis of Potter's writing shows how language is used differently when describing the Palestinians compared to Israelis. Podur calls Potter racist. My sense is that this is simply a perfect example of how it is nearly impossible to think outside the dominant "Cowboys & Indians" Western world-view which designates who is good and who is evil. The same acts are viewed completely differently based on who is the perpetrator. And language transmits these biases, even when they are not necessarily intended.

Read the opening of this November article by Potter
Bedevilled by the continuing scourge of homemade Qassam rocket attacks, Israeli officials are believed to be exploring a new diplomatic overture that calls for the surrender of large swathes of the West Bank to a new Palestinian leadership in exchange for a decade-long ceasefire.

The plan, still in the formative stages, was outlined yesterday in the Hebrew daily Ma'ariv as a "bold and original" initiative that would enable the creation of a provisional Palestinian state as a first step toward normalization with Palestinians and the wider Arab world.

Reading this with no background information who would you think are evil and who heroes?

Via Zmag.

The Rules of Cuteness

Apologizing in advance for all the wasted time this link may cause, I feel I am obligated to inform the readers of this blog about, where you can discover the official Rules of Cuteness. Warning: potential for sweetness overload, take in small doses.

For Evidence, I Present Samples:

I must be getting soft in my old age - two lazy posts in a row. I promise an ascerbic entry soon, full of righteous indignation or, if you're lucky, a nice long rant.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

V-Day Link Roundup

On a normal day, my blogging is enhanced with coffee, that low-grade cocaine substitute that makes me irritable and therefore prolific. (I think it could be scientifically proven that the number of words written is in direct proportion to the degree of ill temper.) Today, however, my chocolate-induced dopamine overload is leaving me rather uninspired.

So, here's a roundup of Valentine links you'll love.

And finally, watch ZeFrank's hilarious Valentine's Message

Ok, one more: Monogamy, Polyamory, and Beyond by Jorge N. Ferrer on sympathetic joy, love, jealousy, and infidelity. This essay speculates for example that we may be socially monogamous, but that is really a mask for biological tendency to polyamory. Interesting read.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Executions Create Generations of Victims

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 12 (IPS) - "They're going to kill him because he killed somebody, so when they kill him, who do we get to kill?" asked the 10-year-old daughter of Christina Lawson at the time of her father's execution by the U.S. state of Texas in 2005.

Yet another reason the Death Penalty is wrong.

The families of the executed suffered from "shame, increased isolation and feelings of personal failure". They might also feel responsible for the crimes of their relatives or blame themselves for their inability to save them from execution.

Janis Gay, whose grandfather Alex Kels was hanged at California's Folsom Prison in 1924, confirmed just this in an interview with IPS.

"People assume violence ends with the execution," she said. "It doesn't. Just like with any murder, the family is shattered, with the added impact of being crushed by shame."

From IPS News

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Fraser Institute and Drowning Public Education in a Bathtub

So the other morning, on my TTC ride to work, I noticed something about the ads for Children First: School Choice Trust.

Maybe you've seen them, the ads with this cute little cartoon dude with his hand up. The ads encourage people to apply for partial scholarships for their kids to private schools (K-8) based on family financial need.

Children First: School Choice Trust is Canada's first privately funded program to help families improve their educational choices. Children First offers tuition assistance grants, so that parents who could not otherwise afford it can choose an independent elementary school for their children.

Despite seeing these every day, I had never before noticed this project is funded by the infamous Fraser Institute (cue Darth Vader music). Of course, they have an Agenda. The Fraser Institute wants to discredit the institute of public education. They seek to blame problems with our underfunded public system on the "public" part, rather than the "underfunded" part.

In an article on their website, The Fraser Institute asks the multiple choice question:
Does the educational failure of the world’s poor reflect the impossibility of achieving lofty educational goals, or does it reflect misguided reliance on public financing and provision? Increasingly, the evidence suggests not that poor families are impossible to educate, but that free, state-run schools may not be the best way to deliver education to them.
What's that you say? Poor families are not impossible to educate? How very charitable of them to say such a thing. Well, since it isn't impossible to educate the poor, our only other explanation is that public education results in educational failure.

This is not an unusual right-wing tactic. It is one of their main techniques for privatizing public services. If you starve a public service long enough, it will no longer be able to perform. Then, once it is small and weak enough, you can "drown it in a bathtub".

Because the Canadian people are very committed to public education, the F.I. has to be careful. They frame the Children First grants as a "hand up" for poor families trying to improve their kids' education - this sits well with Canadians. But it does nothing to improve the real problems with our educational system. Private charity is no substitute for widespread social policy. It's like putting a band-aid on a hemorrhage. Only a very small number of lower middle class families can be helped through this type of program, and it diverts public attention away from the real issues. It's the same problem with two-tiered health care. When those with money and influence do not inhabit the same world as those without, they forget about that world. When the upper and middle class parents no longer have an interest in the public education system, they stop advocating for its improvement.

I'll confess, the concept of private schools is somewhat foreign to me. Growing up in the West, I don't remember any private schools at all, yet somehow I managed to receive a fabulous education in all of the schools I went to. The quality of education at some for-profit schools may be better than that of some public schools. Quality of education notwithstanding, it is still no surprise that those who graduate from elite schools like Upper Canada College are so successful. It's all about class - as in which one you are in. It's like being in an elite club, with lots of opportunities for networking and nepotism.

Introducing a few proles into that elite club is not social justice. A few women or black CEOs does not solve sexual and racial discrimination. All it does is allow those in the club to sublimate their guilt, and delegitimize the important struggles for justice.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Punished for Electing the Wrong Leaders

The Americans (let's suppose) democratically elected George Bush, whose administration uses violence to further its goals. Therefore the Americans must live with the consequences of their actions; they must starve. Food will not enter the country. Their taxes will not pay for their services, but stay outside the country. They will not be allowed to leave their local areas. They will be kidnapped, jailed, shot - civilians: men, women, children.

Here in Canada, Harper is our democratically elected leader. Under his watch we've stepped up our mission of destroying Afghanistan. Does that mean now that I (even though I voted Green), you, your children, the peace activists, the Liberals, those who didn't vote, and all the rest of us Canadians should lose our right to a decent life free from hunger, torture, and violent death?

Why would this be considered ludicrously unjust for Americans and Canadians, but considered fair and reasonable for Palestinians?

The Palestinians democratically elected Hamas, which we are told was bad because Hamas is a terrorist organization (presumably because they use violence to further their goals). Therefore the Palestinians must live with the consequences of their actions; they must starve. (See: "Gaza is a Jail. Nobody is allowed to leave. We are all starving now")

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

The Gapminder World Brings Vital Global Data to Life

Really Cool!

Video via TED Blog
This very entertaining and informative 20 minute talk by Hans Rosling (public health expert) brings vital global data to life. He showcases a lot of powerful data in a very easy-to-understand visual moving display. And for sports fans, it features instant replays.

The best thing is, you can play with the incredible graphing software he uses for FREE! Try the incredibly easy to use Google Tool or the full thing at

As discussed in an earlier post of mine, when you map the fertility rate with women as a percentage of the labour force (hit "play" to see it change over time) there is some correlation. The correlation with contraceptive use is even stronger, as expected. A reduction in Child mortality, improvement in income and girls' education are also strong predictors of lowered fertility rate.

My only criticism is that I think it should be possible to map Income Inequality as an indicator against all the other indicators. Also I'd like to see Median Income rather than income per capita, which flattens disparities. BTW, if anyone can help me find those indicators on this software, please let me know it in the comments. Also on my wish list, I'd love to be able to map things like "minimum wage" with "economic growth".

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Canadian Elections Coordinator on the 2006 Haitian Presidential Elections

"On a very personal level, Haiti exposed me to the realities of development as an imperialistic enterprise."
The significance of the Haitian presidential elections of February 2006, has been ignored by the corporate press. That isn't surprising given that the results exposed the most damaging distortion the international press reported about the ouster of President Jean Bertrand Aristide - that it was the result of a "popular uprising" against him.

Voters delivered a decisive rebuke to the most prominent people involved in the coup of February 29, 2004. Guy Philippe, the rebel whom the press told us was greeted by huge, cheering crowds after Aristide's ouster, received less than 2% of the vote. Charles Baker, a sweatshop owner widely and uncritically quoted by the press before and after the coup, received 6%.

Rene Preval, who was endorsed by the Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a prominent Aristide ally and former political prisoner, eventually prevailed after massive non-violent protest foiled the de facto government's last gasp attempt at fraud.

The Canadian government was responsible for organizing the presidential elections of 2006.

Read the full interview with a Canadian elections coordinator who worked in Haiti, with an insider's perspective on the elections.

For background on Haiti and the ouster of Aristide, watch Aristide and the Endless Revolution or check out Democracy Now's ongoing coverage.

More about Canada's Involvement, here mapped out to help you visualize it.

Friday, February 02, 2007

How to Win Hearts and Minds

If this were opposite day, you'd do it like this:

Via Alternet

The Decider Emboldens the Evil-Doers

As Noam Chomsky has said, Washington was expecting the Iraq war to be a quick and easy win. The superior American military power should have easily overwhelmed a sanction-weakened Iraq. Saddam Hussein was indeed not loved by most of his people, and if his overthrow had been handled more carefully, there may have been significant support for the Americans. But the incredibly clumsy, arrogant and savage behaviour of the military (which for many reasons isn't the fault of individual troops who are doing their best to do their job) created increasing hatred towards the U.S.

Steadily losing control of the Iraqi population, the only tactic left for this brutal occupation is divide and conquer. The divide part has succeeded pretty well; the conquer part, not so much.

Of course, even if it were handled well, the occupation of Iraq would not have been justified. However, fewer people would have died, and that's no small thing.