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Tuesday, 9 May 2017


In the morning, I walk without thought absorbed by the beauty of the waterfall or the curious  behaviour of sheep that kneel to eat the nubbins of grass left in the field where they graze or the friendly "bon camino" from a good-looking young dude scooping shit out of a hole he stands chest deep in as I admire the neighbouring yard with immaculately  sculpted bushes that could have been the work of Edward Scissorhands.

As the day proceeds toward the mid to late afternoon, the walking starts to hurt and becomes the object of contemplation; “Just two hours left, then one, then 30 minutes, then 25, 20, 15, 14, 12, 9.” And then it could be all wrong. There could be another hour of walking when I think there's only 10.

And I listen to a podcast or audiobook and concentrate on that or have a chat with passing pilgrims. (Always passing, never being passed.) I listen to how one guy’s feet hurt all the time so, I ask the obvious. “Could it be your shoes?” and he says, “No way.” Then he tells me that when he did the French Camino, he’d walked 40 miles a day. No wonder your feet hurt, I thought. You're frickin’ nuts.  How could anyone enjoy walking 40 miles a day? But secretly I'm grateful for the conversation cause I'm not thinking about my sore shoulder or my aching legs just like he may be grateful to me for allowing him the opportunity to boast about his physical feats.

And my wife is talking about our kids to some dude behind me and I put on my headphones and try to concentrate on the podcast or audiobook and this focuses my attention away from walking so that it becomes automatic and not a chore and I wonder why I do it. Why walk such a ridiculous distance on a pilgrimage that has practically no meaning for me. Then, I realize it's not the objective. It's in the very act of walking and the contemplation that comes with the walking.

For much of our journey, we passed and then would be passed by a young German woman who'd always give a friendly hello but seemed to have no interest in conversation. In a cafĂ©, she was asked by a local patron why she was doing the Camino again after having done it once. She said, "I needed to think.”

The world moves so fast that sometimes it's just nice to slow down, separate ourselves from machines and become human. I find it interesting that the creature that’s widely considered the best friend to the human also loves nothing more than being taken for a walk. Toward the end of our journey, we walked through a pretty little town called Caldas de Reis. In the cathedral, the town’s patron saint, San Roch, is depicted in a sculpture in pilgrim’s garb with his companion, the dog. How appropriate, don't you think?

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

The political dog-whistle, a call to the faithful

Dog-whistles emit a sound above the range of the human ear but not to that of your dog or domestic cat. It can be very useful if you’re hunting birds and you want to grab the attention of your dog without disturbing the birds. A politician would use a dog whistle to alert his or her the public to a position he or she holds that may be repugnant to the general population. It’s not a literal dog-whistle. The guy doesn’t get on stage and blow a whistle. No, he uses certain words or phrases that make her more radical supporters go, “Hey, is he saying what I think he’s saying?” And the next thing you know you’ve got white supremacists pushing around a black woman at one of your rallies after you tell them to “get her out” and you’re being sued for “inciting violence.”  CNN Footage

You may ask, what brought the white-supremacist to Trump events? Well, it all started with his initial announcement that he was going to be running for president when he said of Mexicans, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.” Then he proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the United States. If you happen to be white and you believe your race endangered by some existential threat like African Americans, Mexicans, Muslims or Jews, then a message of hate regarding at least two of those groups is going to be appealing.

In July of 2015, he sent out a patriotic tweet featuring his image superimposed over the stars of the American flag. Hundred dollar bills with Benjamin Franklin’s image can be seen through one red stripe, the white house through another and through the third can be seen three Nazi S.S. soldiers. The “mistake” was blamed on an intern and quickly corrected however, many within the white supremacist movement interpreted it as a dog-whistle.

That same month, he retweets a graphic traced back to a white supremacist displaying a graphic greatly exaggerating the level of black crime in the U.S. When the media proved the obvious falsehood of these numbers, Trump defended himself by stating “I retweeted somebody who was supposedly an expert. Am I going to check every statistic?” Nevertheless, he’s blown the whistle and the white supremacists were taking notice.

Then, in January of 2016 he posted a tweet copied from tweet posted by a white supremacist with the hashtag @WhiteGenocideTM. The original post came from an individual using the name “Donald Trumpvitz” that had links to a pro-Hitler documentary, “Get the F--- Out of My Country” in red lettering, a location for “Jewmerica” and a photo George Lincoln Rockwell, founder of the American Nazi party. Now, the white-supremacists were really beginning to take notice.

In July, Trump, now the presumptive Republican presidential candidate, begins his attacks on Hillary Clinton with a tweet that featured her over a pile of money and a Star of David with the words “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever” emblazoned in the centre. Donald quickly corrected the “mistake” however, not before the whistle reached the white-supremacists and Neo-Nazis. In October, he accused Hillary of colluding “with international banks to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global financial powers.” In the place of banks, many white supremacists would read Jews.

With these dog whistles came endorsements from many white-supremacists. The first was Andrew Anglin who founded the Neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer in late June of 2015 and culminated with David Duke when, in February of 2016, he stated that voters “have an absolute obligation to vote for Donald Trump, and to vote against Cruz and Rubio. If you vote for Ted Cruz, you are acting in a traitorous way to our people. You are betraying our people. Period.”

In some situations, a candidate blows the whistle and dogs show up in the most embarrassing of circumstances. Take Kellie Leitch, running for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada. Her website reads, “Kellie has proposed screening immigrants, refugees, and visitors, for anti-Canadian values.” She elaborated on her meaning of “Canadian values” in a CBC interview where she stated that “people who believe women are property—that they can be beaten, bought or sold, or that gays or lesbians can be stoned because of who they love—don’t share Canadian values.” Hmm. Could she be referring to a particular group?

On Sunday, March 26, Ms. Leitch attended a meeting in Brampton organized by the “Keep Religion Out of Public Schools.” Its purpose was to voice concerns about the Peel District School Board's policy of allowing Muslim prayer in public schools. Also in attendance were members of Rise Canada, an organization that calls Islam “a barbaric ideology of hate that must be banned.” It suggests “a permanent ban on all Muslim immigrants PLUS mass deportation of existing Muslims” and recently led a protest outside a mosque in Toronto.

A spokesman for Ms. Leitch claims she had no idea the group was there even though she can be seen shaking hands with a senior advisor for Rise Canada in a video of the event. The video also shows the group taking donations to fight construction of a mosque in Mississauga. Embarrassing or what? Rise Canada encouraged its members to buy a Conservative membership before the deadline so they could support Kellie in her bid for the Conservative leadership. Will the dog-whistle work for Kellie the same way it did for Trump? 

Jason Kenney’s another person who’s had the dog-whistle backfire on him. Like Donald and Kellie, Jason needs to appeal to a broad spectrum of the electorate and like Donald and Kellie, he holds views that are not shared by the majority of the population. He’s an ardent Catholic who studied philosophy at the Jesuit University of San Francisco. As a 44-year-old, he was still living with his mom. He may still be living with her.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the Jesuits, they’re a Catholic order created by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1540. Loyola was a soldier who discovered religion after his leg was mangled by a cannon ball. In the spirit of the military, he called his new order the “Company of Jesus.” Jesuits possess a staunch allegiance to the papacy and spread his message through education. In New France, they were known as the Black Robes who spread the Pope’s message and disease to the Huron people. Today, the Jesuits are the world’s largest male religious order. 

According to the “Campaign Life Coalition,” Jason has a perfect voting record on life and family issues. Their “campaign” is to make both abortion and euthanasia illegal and to advocate for traditional family values and oppose same-sex marriage. In 2005, Jason voted against the legalization of gay marriage. In 2012, he voted against the wishes of his buddy, Stephen Harper, in favour of a backbencher’s motion for an all-party commission to study when life begins. Of course, the unstated purpose of the motion was to reopen the question of legalized abortion. That bill was defeated by a margin of 203 to 91. (Interesting to note that Rona Ambrose was one of the few cabinet ministers who also voted in favour of the motion.)

The party that he now leads introduced Bill 10 in 2015 that requires the formation of gay-straight alliances upon the students’ request in all Alberta schools; public, private and charter. It passed unanimously.  Seven of ten Canadians approve of gay marriage yet Jason questions the right of students to form gay-straight alliance groups in schools without parental approval. In an interview with the Calgary-Herald editorial board about the gay-straight alliances, Jason that he believes that “parents have a right to know what’s going on with their kids in the schools unless the parents are abusive. I don’t think it’s right to keep secrets from parents about challenges their kids are going through.”  In other words, Jason would require a student to out himself or herself to his or her parents before joining one of these groups. Obviously, he prefers to ignore the fact that according to the Canadian Mental Health Association “LGBTQ youth face approximately 14 times the risk of suicide and substance abuse than heterosexual peers.”

Jason might have thought the statement an innocuous motherhood statement, a simple dog-whistle to his hard-core Christian base however members of the media and general population were not so easily duped and reacted with outrage and satire. Does he care? The general population may forget but his ultra-right Christian base won’t which is the idea of the dog whistle. It alerts the dog while other animals either don’t notice or don’t hear it.

The political dog-whistle seems like a consequence of divided politics and the message barrage created by social media. Our brain can only attend to so much stimuli so it necessarily filters the messages reaching our consciousness. Many of us are not cognizant of all the messages that Donald, Kellie and Jason send out into the cybersphere through their twitter accounts or Facebook so we necessarily won’t hear it. But, there are those who do and, in the case of these three individuals, those messages are received by individuals who don’t respect the many of the human rights entrenched in the constitutions of our two countries. Fortunately, the media monitors many of these violations however it is incumbent that we all remain vigilant. 

Friday, 24 March 2017

Pride and Pragmatism - A New Look at Cuba

The dictionary defines pride as “a feeling or deep pleasure or satisfaction derived from one's own achievements.” Pride can also be associated with “the achievements of those with whom one is closely associated.” In this way, we can feel pride for being associated with a business or a professional organization or a volunteer group or religion or race. Pride can also be associated with being of a certain nationality. For example, my wife and I were up at 4:00 a.m. to watch the hockey final in the last Olympics. We found bar on Stony Plain Road that was just packed. I wandered through the bar looking for a seat and found nothing. We were just about to leave when a group of people at a table by the door made room for us on the bench where they were sitting. Would I be racist to say that none were of European decent? I’ve rarely had so much fun watching a hockey game. Canada took control from the start and the crowd struck up their own renditions of “Oh Canada” throughout the game.

In this age of globalization, people have begun to associate themselves with an ideology to almost as
great an extent as their nationality.  In the U.S., you have the Red and Blue States. The Red State people believe that people should be self-reliant. They should be able to keep the gains of their hard work. They believe in as little interference as possible by the government in people’s lives. The Blue State people believe that certain essential services must be provided for or guaranteed by government; services like healthcare and education and a minimum standard of living. In Canada, the difference between conservative and liberal beliefs have also become more pronounced and more entrenched in the minds of their followers. In Alberta, the ideological difference between Peter Lougheed’s Progressive Conservatives and the Liberals and NDPs would have more a matter of degree than kind. Today, the Wildrose advocate an almost libertarian point of view where the government has little or no involvement in the economy and I would suspect a united party would reflect that view.

People like to take pride in their association with either group ideological group. Ironically, many of the people in states that voted for Donald Trump are most likely to suffer under his leadership. Nevertheless, they take pride in the qualities of the self-made man (or woman) he espouses. They also share in his hatred of immigrants who come into their country and do not obviously share their values because they practice different religions of wear “weird” clothing. Likewise, the liberals take pride in having elected the first black president and the kind of values he espouses like universal healthcare.

Why have we become so entrenched in our beliefs? Why can’t we look at the goals we want to achieve as a society and decide the best method of achieving those. There is no ideal. At one time, government intervention may be necessary. At others, capitalism and free enterprise will be the answer for promoting growth and stability. Sometimes, government regulation is necessary. At others, it’s not. Why do we have to affiliate our identity with an ideological belief? We need to be more pragmatic.

Francis Fukuyama, the author of “The End of History and the Last Man” has amended his position that the liberal democracy the final form of government, or the words of Winston Churchill, the “worst form of government, except for all the others.” In his book, “Political Order and Political Decay,” Mr. Fukuyama talks about the necessity of a professional bureaucracy to make a democracy work. Positions in government must be filled based on ability, not a relationship to who a person knows. When democracy began in the United States, favours would be handed out to those who could deliver a vote. For example, say Tim Robinson had influence over a bunch of people and he could assure their vote for John Henry for state governor in return for jobs, then you have the opposite of a professional bureaucracy. When I taught up north, relatives of the chief worked for the town. They delivered the water, cleared the snow in the winter, plowed the streets, shot stray dogs on specified day and time and every other municipal job you could think of. Democracies in developing countries have a tendency to work this way. Certain religious groups of tribes gain control of government and bestow favours to others based on group affiliation. Positions in government are based on a who you know rather than what you know.

In essence, this is what Francis Fukuyama is saying went wrong with the Arab Spring. A bunch of democracies sprang up without the necessary infrastructure to support them. As a result, the crumbles almost as fast as they arose. For this reason, he says the strongest democracies are those that were established most recently in Western Europe. These countries had years under aristocratic and military rule. Because they were in constant conflict or the threat thereof, a strong and competent professional bureaucracy necessarily evolved to effectively manage these nations in an age of ever-growing complexity.
According to Samuel Huntington in his book, “Political Order in Changing Societies” societies are better off when they made a transition from an authoritarian state to a fully modernized political and economic one. China and Vietnam would be examples. Communism isolated these countries and forced the development of a competent bureaucracy. With a professional bureaucracy, they are now better positioned to take advantage of the benefits of capitalism without becoming victims to its faults.

As Canadians, we have played second fiddle to our southern neighbours but we have a common heritage. We share a common language and share a similar religious, social and cultural heritage. Most importantly, we share a common political and economic background. Both political systems are both dependent on a separation of powers with executive, legislative and judicial branches and elected leaders in the executive and legislative branches. (The proviso for the United States would be that only the president is elected and he selects his cabinet from members of the public.)  Our economic systems are largely capitalist with some government intervention in what the citizens of each country consider essential services.

Not so for our Latin American cousins south of the U.S. border. Many, like Mexico, inherited political systems based on rule by a privileged elite. This elite owned the mines and haciendas upon which most of the economy was based. With huge disparities of income, power was necessarily controlled by a strong central government. When that disappeared, so does the control. According to Mr. Fukuyama, Mexico’s Institutional Revolutionary Party maintained a strong political order from the 1940s to the year 2000 but at the expense of democracy and economic vitality. Since that time, it’s spiraled into a country of relative chaos.

Pre-Castro Cuba was haven for gambling, prostitution and drugs. “Havana was what Las Vegas has become” says one Cuban historian. In fact, it became so central to the Mafia that Lucky Luciano held a meeting in Havana in 1946 between the U.S. Mafia and the Cosa Nostra; since known as the Havana Conference. The rich and famous flocked to Havana including the likes of Ava Gardner, Frank Sinatra and Ernest Hemingway. The El Florida bar in Havana claims to have been a favourite hangout for Ernest and has named a daiquiri in his honour. Another writer, Arthur Miller, who later dined with Castro, described pre-revolutionary Cuba and society under President Batista’s regime as “hopelessly corrupt, a Mafia playground, a bordello for Americans and other foreigners.”

Even though a middle class had sprung up during this time, much of the population did not share in its prosperity. More than 40% of the Cuban workforce was unemployed or underemployed in 1958. Many of these people were seriously malnourished and without hospitals in the rural areas where they lived. Grave yards dotted the main highways in the Sierra Maestra where the sick had died waiting for a ride to the nearest city. Education was unavailable in the rural areas so only half of the rural population could read and write.  Just 10% of rural homes had electricity and 15% running water. Racism proliferated with Afro-Cubans holding the worst jobs and living in the worst conditions. Beaches were segregated and even President Batista was excluded from membership to one of the most exclusive clubs.

During its early years as a country, Canada combined capital initiative with government intervention to provide essential services to a population sparsely spread over a gigantic land mass. Alberta Government Telephones (AGT) was created in 1906 to provide telephone services to customers outside the Edmonton area until it was privatized in 1991. For other utilities, the government was forced to respond to complaints regarding access and prices by creating quasi-judicial bodies to regulate in 1915.  In 1936, the CBC provided radio and later television services to communities outside the major centres.
Unfortunately for Cuba, provision of utilities was not entirely within its control since 80% of them were owned by U.S. corporations. As well, U.S. companies owned “90% of the Cuban mines, 50 percent of its railways, 40 percent of its sugar production and 25 percent of its bank deposits—some $1 billion in total.” 1.  So, what to do? How to take control of a country when so much of it is owned by outsiders? The Cuban solution was the same as the actions taken by Vietnam and China. Become communist.

After the revolution in 1959, Fidel nationalized everything. As a consequence, his country paid dearly. IN 1962, President Kennedy placed an embargo on trade with Cuba which President Obama partially lifted last year. The Soviet Union initiated trade with Castro’s Cuba and provided a yearly stipend of $6 billion dollars. That disappeared with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Since that time, life has become considerably harsher for the Cuban people. The average wage is $25 a month and the country has inadequate access to medical supplies.

Like Vietnam and China, Cuba has turned to the private sector to stimulate economic growth. Cuba
Plea for Trump to lift embargo
has sent envoys to the two countries to better understand how these economies have transitioned from government to capitalist enterprise. In 2011, the government fired 500,000 police and issued one million private licenses to businesses to sell products and services. It also allowed reversed property laws to allow it citizens to buy and sell houses. As one lady stated in an Al Jazeera documentary, it “forces owners to sell products of a better quality and of a wider range . . . It gives back our culture of commerce.”

Ironically, Cuba is in a better position to embrace a capitalist system than many of its neighbours. Consider the opinion of a writer for Bloomberg financial magazine. He states that you’re better off being born in Cuba than Puerto Rico, a territory of the U.S. since 1898.  To support his argument, he uses information provided by CIA  World Factbook. He states, “Lower infant mortality? Check! Same with lower unemployment, higher literacy, and a lower overall death rate.”

According to Index Mundi, Cuba is one of only two countries in Latin America with a literacy rate of 100%. The intentional homicide rate is ranked just one above Canada’s at 563 per hundred thousand. That compares with the U.S. at 12,996, ranked 13th or Mexico at 25,757 or third worst in the world.2.  When visiting Cuba, the Government of Canada advises travelers to exercise a normal security precautions.  That would be the same as Britain or Germany or Belgium. For Mexico, where considerably more Canadians visit, the government advises visitors to exercise a high degree of caution and, in the Northern and Western States, that non-essential travel be avoided. A New York travel agent sold out his tour of Cuba in a matter of hours. A Cuban American investor has $300 million ready to invest in Cuba as soon the possibility opens up.

Allegiance to one ideology is a mistake. Pragmatism allows a greater variety of actions to be considered as a solution. Like communism, capitalism is not necessarily right in every situation. The goal of a corporation is to control the market and, by so doing, limit competition. In the case of essential services such a health, or electricity or gas, the danger of collusion is particularly great and so, government regulation may be necessary. Foreign influence may become so strong that a country may no longer control its own destiny. Cuba provided an example for independence in other countries.

 During the 1970s, Angola achieved independence from Portugal with a pro-communist party. In reaction, forces within the Angola, with help from South Africa and the United States, attempted to overthrow that government. In response and completely independent of the Soviet Union, Cuba sent its own troops to support the government. The defeat of South African forces in Cuito Cuanavele in 1987 by the Cuban backed forces in Angola, provided inspiration for Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid movement. After his release from prison, Mr. Mandela stated that the Cuban victory “destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the white oppressor . . . [and] inspired the fighting masses of South Africa . . . Cuito Cuanavale was the turning point for the liberation of our continent – and of my people – from the scourge of apartheid.”