Friday, June 21, 2013

Canada's Big Foreign-Policy Shift Under Harper? No More Mister Nice Guy.

Can you picture Stephen Harper in the wee hours of the night in a tent in the Libyan desert putting on a veil-swishing dance performance for Moammar Gadhafi, as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once did? Of course not. And it’s not just because Harper doesn’t quite have the figure for it, either.
That's my contribution to the Ottawa Citizen's overview of where Prime Minister Harper is at, exactly, half-way through his majority-government term, the party convention just round the corner.
Andrew Coyne weighs in: The Conservative government's default demeanor is sullen, wary, bullying and moronic. "Toryism, in its current incarnation," Coyne writes, "resembles less an ideology than a pathology. If the party is to pull out of its current spiral it must be prepared to take a hard look at itself — starting with this convention. What is needed is less a change of course than a voyage within."
My deputy boss Kate Heartfield: "There are many paths to power, not all as prone to ethical pitfalls and ideological compromise. Perhaps, if Harper had come at a different time in history, leading a more confident Conservative party at the beginning, he would have been a different prime minister. But he chose the path he chose. His party, and much of Canada, was right there behind him the whole way."
Licia Corbella anticipates that the upcoming convention will have MPs commiserating with constituents from across the country, "trying to figure out if the Tory brand has been irreparably damaged." The question: Will The Big Shift in Canadian politics be shifted from its course because of Duffsterbuckskerfufflegate and other such "easy-to-understand, low-level scandals that seem to have plagued the once squeaky clean image of the federal Tories"?
Good question.

This week, I managed to get away.

Camping in Pacheedaht country in the healing rain, the whole world lush and green, quarreling ravens, a herd of elk on a saltmarsh, the roaring sea and a crackling campfire and then my daughter Zoe reading me to sleep from The Dalkey Archive, all about as close to paradise as it is possible to get in this quarter of the planet and with someone as close to the seraphim as I have ever known, plus these trees.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Syria Consensus: As Fake As Those Shop Fronts In Enniskillen

"We have a genuine G8 statement,” the prime minister declared. And this is true, as far as it goes. There was indeed a statement to which the leaders of all eight countries — the United States, Russia, Britain, Italy, France, Germany, Japan and Canada — agreed to affix their signatures. “I think we’re all on the same page now,” Harper said. This is also technically true. It’s just that the air of unreality around the content of the seven-point G8 consensus is so stifling it is a wonder that none of the summiteers died of asphyxiation just being in the same room with it.

That's from my latest column in the Ottawa Citizen.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Sorry, No. You Are Not Living In Oceania Airstrip One.

From my Ottawa Citizen perch:

If we are to turn to the great George Orwell in this hour of our NSA Deep-State Surveillance Machine disorientation – is it even possible that the Washington Post and the Guardian could have mucked things up this badly? - the overwhelming evidence is against the claim that it should be Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. I set out my case in the Ottawa Citizen today: Big Brother Isn't Watching You.

If it's Orwell's guidance we need at the moment - and when would Orwell's counsel not come in handy? -a far more pertinent text might be Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, the essay that synthesizes Orwell’s lifelong concerns about the mortal perils of euphemism and the virtues of precision and plain speaking.

It was Orwell’s habit to rail, as he does in that essay, against the sort of rhetoric that can “make lies sound truthful.” To allow that journalism is quite capable of performing that ugly trick, too, is to be led directly to the sort of journalism underlying the NSA-PRISM rumpus at hand, which now consists mainly of a great unraveling of a whole lot of mischief made by the reliably sinister Glenn Greenwald, the creepy Laura Poitras and the sad little paranoid Edward Snowdon.

I’m banging on a bit about Orwell in the Citizen today not only because everybody keeps bringing him up but also because I'm a bit of an Orwell anorak. I taught a course on Orwell’s life and legacy in my stint as the University of Victoria’s Harvey Southam-Stevenson Lecturer in Journalism a couple of years ago. Don't get me started because I won't shut up.

Orwell’s legacy of integrity and honesty is not a torch that has been picked up by the Washington Post and the Guardian in recent days. Snowden can’t even claim to be a “whistleblower” in any conventional meaning of that venerable term. He has exposed no wrongdoing, shed light on no lie, and exposed no criminal act. There has been edifying contemplation and reflection, mind you. For instance Christian Caryl's thoughtful and illuminating essay in Foreign Policy, composed around the question: What's Worse? The NSA or the East German Stasi? Avert your gaze to avoid this spoiler: "Definitely the Stasi."

I do have great sympathy for those of my American friends who I'm sure will find me a bit cavalier about the Wapo-Guardian "revelations,"owing to their deep commitment to the great Yankee values of personal liberty, the sanctity of privacy, the democratic subservience of a transparent state to the people's oversight and so on. I wouldn't want to encourage and slackening of their vigilance in these matters at all; I just don't have the stomach for all the idiotic hysterics and misinformation and black propaganda surrounding all this.

And the journalism. Hoo, boy. What a load of slovenly, irresponsible blubbing it's been. I mean, really. It obliges us to believe that Al Franken is a big fat liar. We have been shown absolutely no reason to believe it, and no reason to believe that Franken is colluding in some bloody great lie with House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, Senate Intelligence Committee chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, President Obama, Facebook, Skype, Google, and on and on. No evidence for a big lie, no reason to believe they're all telling some big lie, no. Sorry. No sale. 

 In sum, Nineteen Eighty-Four, no, Politics and the English Language, better, and even, maybe best: A Nice Cup of Tea. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Things We Cannot Admit About Syria.

From my Ottawa Citizen op-ed spot:

Two years into the catastrophe of the Obama doctrine in Syria and already, circumstances are far, far worse than they were two years into the Bush doctrine in Iraq. This is the penny that simply hasn't dropped. It is what "the culture" cannot bring itself to admit. As humanitarian crises go, the Syrian catastrophe is worse than Kosovo '98 and Haiti 2010 combined, and if the people of the NATO countries are unaware of this it is at least partly, it would be fair to say, because the political elites of the NATO countries cannot bring themselves to admit to any of it.
In 2005 in Baghdad, the Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein was in U.S. custody at Camp Cropper, awaiting trial before the Iraqi Special Tribunal on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Today in Damascus, the Baathist dictator Bashar al Assad is still in power, still fit and flush with cash and arms from Moscow and Tehran, still subjecting innocent civilians to massacre, and still dropping bombs on his people - 500 bombs just last month.
Two years after Shock and Awe the Iraq Body Count project put the 2003-2005 death toll at 67,365 civilians. Two years into Compromise and Capitulate, the Syrian civilian death toll, by the reckoning of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, is roughly 94,000, and possibly as high as 120,000.
That's what my column in the Ottawa Citizen is about this morning. I did not delve into the pathology abroad in "western" culture that has rendered the Ottawa-based Humanitarian Coalition unable to raise more than $306,000, three weeks into a major fundraising drive for Syrian refugees, which is the same pathology that has left Oxfam America stuck at $140,000 of its Syrian relief goal of $53 million.
It is quite true that it is always easier to raise relief money for natural disasters, like floods and earthquakes. It is also true that, unfortunately for the Syrian people, they are Ay-rabs, which is to say there are certain bigotries and prejudices that are unlikely to be wholly irrelevant as contributing factors in the go-begging predicament the Humanitarian Coalition and Oxfam America are struggling with.
What is also true is that to face the Syrian catastrophe foursquare would require a confrontation with the truth of an Obama White House that has exhibited an inelegant balance of mendacity and incompetence from Kandahar to Aleppo and from Benghazi to Beijing. It would mean taking into account that the White House was still insisting that Assad was a "reformer" even as he was slaughtering teenagers in the streets of Homs. 
It would mean admitting that it's not just Hezbollah's depravities or the head-chopping intrusions of the Bin Ladenist Jabat al-Nusra brigades or Moscow's arms shipments or the Khomeinist supply convoys that make Syria "complicated." It is also Washington's decision to block the Free Syrian Army's access to proper arms, Washington's refusal to support Britain and France in the push for a no-fly zone and a humanitarian corridor.
It would mean admitting that John Kerry's Geneva II "peace conference" proposition has done nothing more than provide Vladimir Putin with a time-buying opportunity to sell Assad more missiles. It would mean admitting that the failure to act is also to act, and that all the fancy talk all these years about the "responsibility to protect" doctrine and the "human security" agenda amounts to nothing, when it actually might matter. It would mean admitting that it is not just Assad's hands, but the lovely big hands of the handsome and swaggering American president who dances with Ellen Degeneres that are also red with Syrian blood.
That is what it would take, is my guess, and until that happens Syrians will continue to die by the hundreds every week and limp into refugee camps in the Jordanian desert by the thousands every day.
Congratulations, hippies.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Jafar Behkish is a 53-year-old Iranian-Canadian activist who works as an engineer with SNC Lavalin in Toronto. Behkish emigrated from Iran 10 years ago. Beekhish figures into my Ottawa Citizen column today about the Massacre88 Campaign and the House f Commons' unanimous adoption of a resolution declaring the Khomeinist massacres of political prisoners to be a crime against humanity. 

One day, Behkish said, there must be a reckoning. “It will be possible to have the same kind of atrocity as 1988, if we don’t look at a way to prepare and deal with these things,” he told me. The story of his own family, a prominent Tehran family of intellectuals, activists, socialists and academics, is sufficient to make the point.

Jafar’s brother, Mohammad-Reza, was killed by Khomeinist forces in Tehran on March 14, 1982. He was 26. Several of Jafar’s siblings were arrested on August 25, 1983, and among them was Jafar’s sister Zahra, 37, who was executed the same day. It took the authorities two years to turn their attention to Jafar’s brother, 21-year-old Mohsen, who was sentenced to death and executed on May 14, 1985. Jafar’s brothers Mahmoud, 32, and Mohammad-Ali, 19, weren’t brought before a sentencing panel until later in 1985, when they were sentenced to prison terms of 10 and eight years respectively. They were reportedly brought before a Khomeinist “death committee” and sentenced to be hanged during the 1988 massacre.

While Mohsen was buried in Tehran’s Behesht-e Zahara cemetery, it is not known where Zahra was buried, exactly, nor Jafar’s other brothers. Two of Jafar’s brothers-in-law were also murdered by the regime.
The whereabouts of their remains is unknown but they are believed to have been buried in the mass grave at Kharavan. Jafar himself was imprisoned and tortured three times during the 1980s, serving a total of 18 months without having been formally charged with any crime. Back in Tehran, Jafar’s sister Mansoureh is expecting the knock on the door any day now.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Congregation Emanu-El: Making Us Proud for 150 Years.

A small tribute to my Hebrew homies in today's National Post.
. . . Back in 1863, heralding the start of construction on the Emanu-El synagogue, the Victoria Colonist reported: “The Israelites in Victoria are a large and highly respectable body. Many of them have resided in the city from the date of its earliest existence, and their conduct and bearing has invariably been such as to earn for them the good wishes and esteem of their fellow citizens of other persuasions.”
And so it was that on June 2, 1863, the grand parade to the corner of Blanshard and Pandora brought out the St. Andrew’s Society, the Germania Sing Verein choir, the French Benevolent Society and other such “ethnic” constituencies. The highlight of the day was the cornerstone-laying ritual performed by Victoria’s Freemasons, many of whom were themselves Jews.
Designed by the premier architects John Wright and George Sanders, the brick-and-stone synagogue was far and away more imposing and grand than any of the city’s several churches, almost all of which were built of fir and cedar. As soon as the temple was consecrated, the “firsts” would start their parade through the congregation’s story. . .
Out of the oldest synagogue in Canada, the oldest continuously occupied house of worship on North America's west coast: First Jewish Member of Parliament in Canada, first Jewish mayor in North America, first Jewish judge in Canada, and going back to 1895, maybe the first time a woman officiated from the pulpit of a synagogue during the High Holy Days. . .
Happy birthday, Congregation Emanu-El. Here's to another 150 years.