Sunday, November 28, 2010
Link of the Day: The lunacy of human beings: Robert Fisk spells out the costs of war in the Middle East in facts and figures that everyone can understand. Read his article Oceans of blood and profits for the mongers of war from The Independent, London.
(“In all, the Arabs sustained a loss of $620bn because of the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait – almost all of which was paid over to the United States and its allies. Washington was complaining in August 1991 that Saudi Arabia and Kuwait still owed $7.5bn. Western wars in the Middle East, it seemed, could be fought for profit as well as victory.”)
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
My Log 237: My son, Robert, wins a remarkable acquittal for a street person who never before had a defence mounted for him
I have known this lawyer since 1963, when we brought him home at the age of 11 weeks from a London County Council nursery, and began the process of adopting him. In all these years since, he has never ceased to surprise me. He began life as a slightly troubled kid, who, like many kids, had no interest in school. He wasn’t much helped by his parents’ somewhat disrespectful attitude towards the schools, and the constant changes he had to undergo as we moved from England to Montreal, to New Zealand, then back to Ottawa.
It was no great surprise that he dropped out of Grade 10, left school, seemed ready to drift, but somehow always rescued himself from that abyss, got himself together by going off to Winnipeg to live by himself, then, having sorted himself out, he qualified at Algonquin Community College as a social worker.
He was successful in that work, gaining plaudits from mothers for his sensitive handling of their retarded children. There were some remarkable signposts along the way: for instance, at 15, he crossed the entire country, without asking anyone for help, working his way across, an act of remarkable resource and courage. After some years of social work in northern Ontario, Halifax and Toronto he decided while walking along the street one day that he had always wanted to be a carpenter, so from that day on, he would be a carpenter. For the next 15 years or so he made his living as a renovation carpenter.
For some reason when well into his 40s he abandoned that craft to study law at Osgoode Hall, of York University, one of the best law schools in the country. He had no trouble passing: I read many of his student papers. Together they constituted a reasoned critique of Canadian society, seen from the point of view of its legal structure.
So here he was last week, barely started on his new profession, but already entrusted with the defence of a man who, it seems, had been in trouble with the law for many years, but had never before had a defence, simply because, when arrested for even minor offences, he always immediately pleaded guilty, just to get it over with.
His client in truth was a street person, a panhandler, one of those unfortunate people with mental problems who have been reduced in our cruel society to making their life as best they can in the streets.
He was accused of sexual assault and of uttering threats, and the Crown, having tired of his string of petty offences, was prepared to put him away for many years. Rob regarded that as an unjust attempt by the Crown, and was determined not to allow it to happen if he could help it.
The doubtful bona fides of the Crown were exposed immediately, when they delivered the accused man, who had been in jail without trial since his arrest eight months before, in an orange prison jump suit. When Rob objected the prosecutor told the court he should have seen to it in advance that the man had street clothes available to him. “I did,” said Rob, “I delivered them to the jail last Thursday. Where are they now? And why have they not been given to him?”
The jury was not yet empanelled by the beginning of the second day when the accused was again delivered in prison clothes. This time, the judge, Mme. Justice Nancy Backhouse, intervened, saying that if this happened on the third day, she would take action and make an order that the clothes be produced.
Meantime, an argument had been going on about the admissibility as evidence of a video taken by police when the accused made his first statement about the alleged offences. Evidence was heard from several police officers about this interview with the accused, and about the moment of his arrest in an apartment house corridor. They said he was told anything he said might be used in evidence against him, and that he had a right to a lawyer, but he said he didn’t want a lawyer, he just wanted to go home. My son argued that the videotape of the interview, in which his client was agitated, and in which he made a number of outbursts, was of little if any probative value in the way of evidence. The defence admitted certain facts, such as the accused had loose pants, but they opposed an effort by the Crown to introduce evidence of identity by police officers. His identity was admitted, in other words, and the defence argued that, if shown to the jury the video record was such as could prejudice his right to a fair trial. Rob never mentioned that his client was suffering from schizophrenia, but said one of the rules was that the accused must have “an operating mind”, which it was not clear his client had. He said, first, his client was not able to appreciate the caution given him, second, that the video would prejudice his client’s right to a fair trial, and third, if it was decided to show any of it, it could be edited, and an edited transcript be given to the jury.
The Crown argued the video contained immense probative evidence of importance to their case but the defence argued that the Crown had no interest in the admissions made by the defence or the stipulations made by the judge, since the prosecutor fought their admission, except by means of the video. But the next morning the judge found for the defence: the video was excluded as evidence admissible to the jury.
This was a major setback for the Crown case. The complainant, a young Jamaican woman with six children, the next day gave her evidence. She said she knew the accused from his hanging around the streets panhandling, she didn’t like him, was scared of him, and on the day in question in the coffee shop at 8 o’clock on a busy morning, he was dirty and in a dishevelled condition. Her evidence was that he asked her to buy him a coffee and she agreed. Then, as they were standing in line, she felt something rubbing across her shoulders, and when she turned around she saw his penis, which almost hit her in the forehead. She said the accused started to yell at her, swearing and threatening her with death.
Rob called only one witness, the manager of the coffee shop, who testified that she heard and saw nothing.
At this point, probably more influenced than I should be by TV courtroom drama, I felt Rob had missed his opportunity to destroy the complainant’s case: he could have ridiculed her ridiculous claim to have been touched across the shoulders by the man’s penis, but he did not make the point, thus, in my view, missing his best chance to win the case.
My view turned out to be incorrect. Without ever appearing to bully the young woman, he did, in his closing remarks to the jury, manage to pour some scorn on her testimony, and scored points by asking why the Crown had not produced any corroborating witnesses. No one, apparently, had seen or heard anything, although the complainant had claimed he was yelling and screaming at her and threatening her direly. He admitted the young woman had seen something, but the question was, what, exactly, had she seen? e admitted the yiung womazn had seen something, but the question was, what had she actually seen?He
I was not there for the closing arguments on Monday, but the jury, seized of the case, after both sides expounded on the evidence and the judge had instructed them on the law, apparently had a bite of lunch, and then within two hours returned with a verdict of not guilty on either count.
This was not only a remarkable victory for my son in his first case before a jury, but was even more remarkable in that it provided a stern and winning defence for a man who had never had a defence mounted on his behalf before. He was a poor, addled man, with mental problems, a panhandler and street person, and a black man to boot. And against all the odds, this rookie lawyer had snatched an acquittal from the very hands of the Crown. A remarkable success, which made me very proud.
The inhumane aspects of our legal system were indicated by the fact that the client, having served eight months in jail awaiting trial, was set free in the lobby of the court, with nothing but the clothes on his back. His wife, separated from him for many years, came and gave him bus fare and a coffee, but, Rob noted, the man’s stint in jail ”has for all intents and purposes left him homeless, with a loss of whatever supports he had before his arrest and no realistic chance of redress of any kind.”Canadian justice in all it's damnable glory…..
Thursday, November 18, 2010
“Far from being in an era of brutal partisan warfare, as conventional wisdom holds and as watching the nightly television news might suggest, the United States is now in the grip of a political duopoly in which both parties are thoroughly complicit. They play a game: they agree to fight viciously over certain things to retain the allegiance of their respective bases, while agreeing not to fight about anything that seriously endangers the privileges of America's new financial elites."
Saturday, November 13, 2010
My Log 236:Intrinsic and extrinsic values: what modern politics comes down to, with the extrinsic guys in the box seat
A recent article in The Guardian Weekly by George Monbiot has created a deal of interest among the paper’s readers. Monbiot is actually quoting a psychological analysis of political attitudes outlined in an article for Common Cause written, he says, by Tom Crompton of the environmental group WWF (World Wildlife Fund, unless I am mistaken).
Crompton in his article calls into question the traditional idea of politics that all you need do to persuade people is to produce data, which people will then examine and decide their option according to what best suits their interests.
This idea does not explain how in recent times, blue-collar workers in the United States have started to demand that they be left without health care, and that millionaires should not be forced to pay more tax. Also, the United Kingdom appears to be ready to abandon without arousing significant protest, decades of social progress for which people have in the past risked their lives to achieve.
Crompton, in explanation for these puzzling facts, suggests that psychological experiments have shown that people tend to accept measures that they believe will confirm their identity and values, and reject information that conflicts with them.
Social identity, writes Crompton, is formed by what psychologists call intrinsic and extrinsic values. Extrinsic values concern status and self-advancement, and people with a strong set of extrinsic values cherish financial success, image and fame. People with intrinsic values have beliefs that transcend their own self-interest.
Furthermore, he writes, tests in nearly 70 countries show that those who value financial success “have less empathy, stronger manipulative tendencies, stronger attraction to hierarchy and inequality, stronger prejudices towards strangers, and are less concerned about human rights and the environment.”
People with intrinsic values “have more empathy and greater concern for human rights, social justice and the environment.”
Since values are not fixed on our arrival, in other words, they are learned, it goes without saying that right-wing governments, like those of Reagan,Thatcher, Bush, Blair and Brown, tend to solidify extrinsic values, and this is further reinforced by the advertising industry and the media. Advertising, indeed, could be viewed as a ready-made machine for the reinforcement of the sorts of attitudes that result in election of right-wing governments. And a survey of British Social Attitudes over recent decades confirms that there has been a sharp fall in recent decades in public support for policies that redistribute wealth and opportunity.
“Conservatives in the US generally avoid debating facts and figures,” writes Monbiot. “Instead they frame issues in ways that reinforce extrinsic values. Every year, through mechanisms that are rarely visible and seldom discussed, the space in which progressive ideas can flourish shrinks a little more. The progressive response has been disastrous.”
I suppose one could say that the current situation of the media in the US ideally fulfils this analysis: most progressive journalism now is taking place on the Internet, far from the eyes and brains of the mass reader, leaving the mainstream press with its access to the mass of people, free to espouse their right-wing preconceptions in perfect freedom.
Monbiot writes that a response by progressives with their intrinsic values should be to stop trying to bury and hide their values, but to boldly espouse them. “Progressive camapaigners,” writes Monbiot, "should help to foster an understanding of the psychology that informs political change and show how it has been manipulated. They should come together to challenge the forces --- particularly the advertising industry --- that makes us insecure and selfish.”
It has always been the bugbear of social democratic movements that they have had to compromise their beliefs just to get elected, and experience has shown that by the time they get elected, the values they have been elected on have been little if any better than those they have opposed. Thus, democratic socialism has been caught in a self-destructive clamp of its own making.
I have always believed, personally, that politics should be about values, and those who object to the corporate world-view should always make that the centre of their policies. Unfortunately, the people who have been manipulating politics through their mastery of extrinsic values, today hold all the trump cards, as it were, and those of us on the left are left with little space to occupy.
In the United States, recent events suggest the nation is teetering on the edge of what might loosely be called fascism, and I am among those watching from afar, like a rabbit caught in the headlights of a car.
Friday, November 12, 2010
My Log 235: Canada’s Remembrance Day always celebrates war: one American programme dealt with its real consequences
I am always put off by the celebrations each year on Nov 11 that, in Canada at least, glorify war and those who make it. Some perspective is needed: for example, I am not lost in unquestioning admiration, as I feel everyone is expected to be, for soldiers who have volunteered to become an occupying army in a foreign country, Afghanistan.
This year, this splurge of pro-war sentiment was mitigated for me by an American production by HBO called Wartorn 1861-2010 which documented the sad case of the millions of soldiers who have suffered what used to be called combat fatigue, and currently is known under the more scientifically accurate title of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In other words, it is about soldiers who have been psychologically damaged by what they have seen and undergone on the field of battle. This is the true face of war, and the way such victims have been treated historically is also the true face of war: for many years --- the most recent examples given in this film concern the recent wars ---- people who have reported to their superiors that they were suffering psychological impairment have been told to take a pill, and get back out there like a man.
This movie, produced by James Gandolfini, the actor, gave us soldiers, old and young, who recalled how their lives had been dominated ever since by what they had undergone of the field of battle. Men who, on returning home, simply could not sit down at the table and eat, and then get up and resume the normal lives they had led before. “It gets inside you,” said one old man, “and you can never get rid of it.” These men had lost their jobs, then their wives and families. One reported never having spoken to his sons for 25 years, so disgusted were they to have a father whose sickness could be classified as cowardice.
General George Patton was quoted as having slapped a mentally exhausted soldier and told his officers to get that lily-livered coward back into battle.
The story was told of one young man who, on returned from overseas duty, four months later was arrested for holding up and trying to rob a cab driver, an offence for which he was jailed for six years. Having given his all, everything he had, including his sanity, his mind, he was then jailed, his prospects of living a half-decent life ruined forever. And, said his family, the man who conducted this attack was not heir son, not the son they knew before he went to serve his country, a gentle boy who would never have done anything like that.
Part of the problem, as described by many participants, was that soldiers are taught to kill, and it is something they cannot forget when they return to what was once their normal life.
I remember reading once that though 50,000 Americans had been killed in the Vietnam war, more committed suicide after the war, traumatized beyond endurance by what they had seen, and been subjected to.
Headlines shown in the film indicated that from the first Great War, some 70,000 American soldiers were suffering from what was called then either shell-shock or combat fatigue.
Many soldiers testified to having had continuing nightmares throughout their lives, to being unable to sleep, to flirting with suicide as the only possible escape from the nightmares they had to live with.
I recall from when I was a young boy that I read a book written after the First War World by a New Zealander who was a conscientious objector to war. So brutalized was he by the military posture of forcing everybody to be a man, that when he continued with his determination not to enter the killing machine, he was finally literally tied by a rope and dragged up to the frontline by his heels, by his tormenting soldier guards.
That war, all war, is horrible and indefensible should be clear enough to everyone, including our leaders, and greater efforts should be made to avoid it.
To take only two of the current wars under way: the path to peace between the Palestinians and Israelis has been laid down and should be followed, except for the built-in suspicions of the leaders, mostly of the leaders of the side that finds itself in a position of physical and military superiority; and in Afghanistan, where an indigenous insurgency has arisen to resist the foreign invaders, among whom are numbered Canadians.
We should get out of there, and leave hem to sort out their own problems.
Furthermore, I have to add that the only thing Canada needs armed forces for is to act as peacekeepers whenever the world decides to intervene in one of the many local wars from which we are never free. Otherwise, that aside, I really believe that expenditure of billions of dollars on armies, navies and air forces is a colossal waste of money.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
My Log 234:Two books describe how the boundless admiration for money has brought the Western world to near-catastrophe
I have just finished reading a book called The accidental Billionaires: the Founding of Facebook, a tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal, by Ben Mezrich, Published by Anchor Books, a division of Random House, 260 pps, $18.95.
One of my sons remarked, very truly, that it could have been called The Decline of the Western World, so off-putting is its basic assumption that life is all about making money, and virtually nothing else.
While I am at it I should say that I started reading another book called The Quants: How a New Breed of Math Whizzes Conquered Wall Street and Nearly Destroyed it, by Scott Patterson (a staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal), published by Crown Business, a division of Random House, 337 pps, $33.99.
Of this one --- or at least of the 50 or so pages I managed to plough through --- all I can say is that it takes the basic assumption of the Mezrich book several stages further, glorifying the genius and the stunted, distorted world-view of a number of brilliant American scholars who devoted themselves to, first, beating the gambling systems of American casinos, and second, applying what they learned there to trying to beat Wall street.
These apparently are the people who founded the mysterious hedge funds by which they were able, in the Reagan/Bush/Clinton deregulated financial world in which they were permitted to operate, to make previously undreamed of billions of dollars which contributed nothing to anybody but themselves. Again, this book could be sub-titled, The Decline of the Western World.
These people are given names in each of these books, and they are the captains of the new useless capitalism that has been astride the world, ruining one economy after the other as they have somehow or other seized control of billions of dollars of money that used, in the old days, to be spent on useful investments necessary to put people to work, and keep them working.
Not today: these geniuses, as they are repeatedly described, so far as I could discover, have produced nothing of any value to anybody.
As a guy who doesn’t even believe that money should be allowed to make money ---my naive belief is that only work can create wealth --- these books have made me sick to my stomach, especially for the glowing, admiring tone in which these amoral capitalists are described, with all their obscene flaunting of their personal wealth --- as great in some cases as some nations.
That all this is based on a chimera is indicated by the fact that Facebook, that mysterious entity that has attracted hundreds of millions of users on the Internet, at a time when its revenue was some $150 million, was valued at something like $22 billion on the stock market, or whatever system is used to evaluate these engines of capitalism.
The little kid who had the idea for this “revolution” ---- it is pathetic how often Facebook is described by Mezrich as “a revolution” ---- Holy God, have words no meaning any more? ---- was an apparently dysfunctional geek (I was about to call him a nerd, but remembered the approved word used for him is geek) with a talent for computers, who began by almost being kicked out of Harvard because he copied photos in the year-books (or was that web-sites?) of various groups, an activity that brought the Harvard computers to a standstill. His research, so called, into making his own site was funded by a college friend with money, but once the thing grew and grew, the kid had no compunction about easing the funding friend right out of it (which justifies the title word of “betrayal.”) The initial impetus for all of this was the desire of various socially-challenged Harvard students to get laid.
Does any of this make any sense to anyone? Is it even an approximate description of what actually happened? Frankly, this kind of world, these kind of people, their kind of attitudes and crazy thinking are so foreign to me that I could possibly have not described what they have done with any great accuracy.
For the first time in more than a half century of writing, I really feel that I don’t care whether I am describing them accurately or not. It is against this sort of world that the crusade to elect Barack Obama based its profound hope for change. But Obama, instead of attacking the fundamental distortions of this kind of thinking, which brought the world almost to its knees before he was elected, instead appointed the very people who had presided over the economic catastrophe, and they have simply used public money to reinstitute the whole system…
That Obama, though anxious to bring about change, has been unable to move anything substantial in this distorted financial setup, indicates the power that the accumulation of money in so few hands has attained, and this gives us minimal hope for better days ahead.
Monday, November 8, 2010
Sunday, November 7, 2010
Link of the Day: American sociologist James Petras writes that the Left and Centre-Left political regimes in the Western world are “paying a high electoral price for sacrificing the working class in order to save the bankers,” as they have been doing in face of the economic meltdown. Read his article The Democratic Party Debacle and the Demise of the Left-Center Left: A Worldwide Trend.
“The November 2, 2010 electoral debacle of the Democratic Party in the US cannot be solely ascribed to the failed policies of President Obama, the Congressional leadership or their senior economic advisers…. The Left-Center Left regimes are paying a high electoral price for sacrificing the working class in order to save the bankers: Obama’s recent electoral defeat is only a forerunner of future losses for the Spanish, Greek, Portuguese Socialists and other L-CL regimes. Their austerity policies have led them to ‘fall between two chairs’: They alienate workers and strengthen the capitalist class, which already has its own ‘natural’ conservative capitalist parties. The ‘hard right’ everywhere is advancing, sensing the debacle of the center-left as an opportunity to deepen and widen the frontal assault on labor rights, social welfare and any semblance of legal protection.”
Friday, November 5, 2010
I have just spent two weeks visiting a friend who has lived in Croatia for nearly 40 years. It was my first time in the country --- having been denied a visa to visit Yugoslavia in 1954 when my passport carried the deadly word “journalist” ---- and I confess the impact of being in this country that has been torn apart by unreasoning, pointless nationalisms was rather unsettling.
What caused the Yugoslavian war? Is a rather difficult question to answer. But In Croatia they seem to have no doubt it was caused by an outburst of Serbian nationalism, whose intention was to create a Greater Serbia over the entire territory of Yugoslasvia.
What resulted from it is a mishmash of national borders so that one can scarcely move 10 kilometres from Dubrovnik, where my friend lives, without confronting the need to cross a border into neighbouring Bosnia. People I met referred constantly to “the war”, meaning their civil war, in much the same way as we still refer to the Second World War. But although their conflict was smaller, it was still a real war, and Dubrovnik, a gloriously beautiful little medieval town on the Adriatic coast, was bombed almost to smithereens by attacking forces.
The war was brought to an end some 15 years ago by the so-called Dayton Agreement, establishing separate republics of Bosnia, Croatia and Yugoslavia (Serbia, in fact). Bosnia is divided into a Bosnian-Croat federation and the so-called Serbska Republic, which controls 49 per cent of the state, but which does not, apparently, have control over the state’s borders.The entire war was complicated by differences between various religions, Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim.
More than a million people were displaced in the war, partly by violence and partly by ethnic cleansing, as aggressors captured and burned towns and villages, and forced certain populations to relocate.
Well, this isn’t the place to rewrite all this detail about the settlement, but rather to report on my friend’s reaction to the new arrangements, after living with them for so many years. In her view, “I am so glad to have been here before, when life was so relaxed, when people had a real sense of solidarity and of the collective will, when people would burst into song on the buses, and join to walk the streets singing and dancing. It was beautiful.” In those days, when there was no real competition, everyone had a chance to follow his or her talents, the educational levels (which her children enjoyed) were much higher even than in class-bound nations like England, even actors and artists were provided with a reasonable living and were not under the stresses since introduced by capitalism.
As soon as the agreements were signed, the IMF was introduced, and the new government was ordered to privatize everything, with the result, according to one informant, that “Croatia today owns nothing, everything is owned by foreigners.” My friend said, if you ask people the question, is it better today than before, most people will mutter, “better before.”
Dubrovnik, largely destroyed by the war, has been rebuilt, and is today a city given over entirely to tourism. It is remarkably beautiful, a city of red roofs over white stone houses and buildings, whose narrow, stone-pavemented streets are kept incredibly clean, and in large parts of which no traffic penetrates. You cannot go far in Dubrovnik without climbing hundreds of steps, but my friend deplored the fact that the wide variety of services once available --- barbers, tailors, merchants, shoemakers, fishermen, fruiterers and the like --- have been replaced by a plethora of shops selling only T-shirts to tourists, T-shirts manufactured, for the most part, in China.
On the other hand, as a resident of the central city, and a pensioner, she has free entry to concerts, cinemas, ferries and a wide variety of services for which in our cities we have to pay through the nose (to such an extent that many of these services are in essence denied our impoverished aged).
In one burst of eloquence my friend described a holiday she had taken in the days before the war, to Bulgaria, and how wonderful it had been, how carefree and relaxed had been the Bulgarians, how spiritual and culture-loving they seemed as one moved among them --- it was an altogether different version of life under Communism from anything I have ever read in our public prints, and it came from someone who knew the Western world well and had a basis for comparison.
Today my friend keeps closely in touch with the world mainly through the BBC news every morning, and such programs as Hard Talk, in which various international personalities are grilled mercilessly by an interlocutor. She is also extraordinarily well-read, keeps up to date with the latest books --- had no trouble identifying Life with Pi, for example, and had already read the three volumes of the Swedish sensation, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo--- and she reads every week’s edition of The Guardian Weekly assiduously from cover to cover.
She has three grown children, two of whom having been educated in Yugoslavia, are still living there, surrounded by their own children, all of whom, although still thinking of themselves as in some sense English (although their grandparents were once regarded as Canadians), nevertheless identify with the Croatia that has given them their primary language.
A fascinating experience indeed, to pass some time in this small country, still trying to qualify for membership of the European Community, and to get a sense of the respect given by its people to their national poets, as well as to their contemporary writers, artists and historians.
The generally right-wing tendency of Croatian leaders traditionally was indicated by the fact that memorials to the heroes of the Yugoslavian resistance who drove the Germans from the country in 1945 --- Tito’s Partisans, who contested the country with Michailovich’s right-wing Chetniks ----- have been removed from the streets, to be replaced with statues of heroes from ancient times.
The single institution that made the most impact on me was a museum of war kept by a young New Zealander. He was featuring a superb exhibition of pictures taken by a brilliant Spanish photographer of the Yugoslavian wars, and the permanent exhibits, of earlier wars, were of such quality that, as I remarked to the curator on leaving, one could hardly see the exhibits without remarking, “Never again.” This museum did not glorify war in any of its aspects: its focus was to establish that war is, in the last resort, the final refuge of scoundrels who should never have been admitted to government.