Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

Stephen Harper: a billion bucks quickly wasted.

June 28, 2010

Go, Canada!  Splashing out an inexplicable billion dollars on a massive security fence and 20,000 heavily armed cops to cower behind it while a scruffy handful of anarchists wreck downtown Toronto!  Me, I’m thinking it would have been cheaper to build a twenty dollar fence and just have local cops who would have been on duty anyway cower behind it in their regular attire.

On the other hand, there is an up side of the ridiculous level of “preparedness” a billion dollars supposedly bought:  there’s no way for a thinking voter to avoid the suspicion that the riot was purposefully ignored (or intentionally provoked) in order to justify the breathtaking price tag of fulfilling Harper’s authoritarian aspirations for a weekend.  Given the New Government of Canada’s unprecedented fondness for carefully staged PR opportunities, that’s the theory I’m going with until further notice.

Because sensationalist photos of burning cop cars and smashed windows are likely to dominate most mainstream coverage (as intended, one can’t help but suppose), I want to make a point of remembering the type of direct action the vast majority of dissidents were there to engage in, photo courtesy of the Star.

US Chamber of Commerce takes astroturfing to a whole new level

June 22, 2010

Starting last Thursday, the Chamber emailed its grassroots network like-minded mailing list subscribers asking members Republican freepers, Ayn Rand enthusiasts, free market think tanks and Wall Street PR firms to create their own personalized, avatars, or virtual versions of themselves anonymous CGI “protesters”. Once created, the avatar can participate in a “virtual march” on the Capitol.

(There, WSJ.  Fixed it for ya.)

Look out Obama!  The freeple are digitally self-replicating and pretending to be in Washington together!  Time to rethink those financial regulations.

infinite dorks march on Washington

Citigroup tells it like it is.

June 14, 2010

We watched Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story the other night.  As I often do with the contentious Mr. Moore’s films, I found sources to validate a few scenes that caught my eye.

First stop, Citibank’s “plutonomy report”.  In Moore’s film a few appalling sentence fragments from this document are thrown in with some flashy, rapid cutting and a lot of voice-over.  That would be a great way to hoodwink the audience if you felt like misrepresenting the document.  There does seem to be a bit of contextual fantasy (I don’t believe this memo was “confidential”.   It appears to be promotional material for a basket of investments in businesses that cater to the rich.)  However,  the content of the document is pretty much as Moore makes it sound: delight at the fact the rich are getting richer and everybody else is getting poorer.  Not only that, but wealth disparity has become so massive that nobody really matters any more except the rich, economically speaking.

The point here, again, is that the rich are feeling a great deal happier about their prospects, than the “average” American. And as the rich are accounting for an ever larger share of wealth and spending, it is their actions that are dictating economic demand, not the actions of the “average” American.

It’s no surprise to discover rich people are really excited about getting even richer, but it is a major deviation from industry approved propaganda to openly acknowledge that this is happening at the expense of the middle and lower classes.  It’s also rare to hear a Wall Street lobbyist cheer the fact that trade globalization almost entirely benefits wealthy capitalists while suppressing wages for everybody else.

This irritates me to no end, frankly.  If I were to walk up to your average Canadian conservative and say “economic globalization suppresses the standard of living for everyone, everywhere primarily to benefit of the richest people on earth” they’d call me a leftist lunatic and trot out the Fraser Institute approved theorem that if little third world kids weren’t chained to their sewing machines for 26 hours a day they’d be much worse off, really.  And yet here is Citibank happily publishing documents asserting exactly that.

…we believe that the rich are going to keep getting richer in coming years, as capitalists (the rich) get an even bigger share of GDP as a result, principally, of globalization.  We expect the global pool of labor in developing economies to keep wage inflation in check, and profit margins rising – good for the wealth of capitalists, relatively bad for developed market unskilled/outsource-able labor.

The risks?

At some point it is likely that labor will fight back against the rising profit share of the rich and there will be a political backlash against the rising wealth of the rich. This could be felt through higher taxation (on the rich or indirectly though higher corporate taxes/regulation) or through trying to protect indigenous laborers, in a push-back on globalization – either anti-immigration, or protectionism

OK!  Great!  Let’s get on with it!  I have a few suggestions:

Re-localize your economy: Support local businesses and craftsmen.  Implement a local exchange trading system (LETS).   Grow your own food and encourage others to do the same.

Do not support exploitative producers:  Support fair trade products and businesses and wean yourself off  plastic pumpkins and cheap t-shirts.  Read the labels and boycott products from countries with inadequate labor standards.  Be skeptical of deals that seem “too good to be true”, regardless of the purported country of origin.  Having worked in the garment industry, I can assure you that labels and customs documents very often lie to get around trade barriers and influence public perception.

Get out of debt (read: indentured servitude).  When in doubt, go without.  In the current pro-capitalist / anti-labor economic climate in Canada, jobs are scarce, poorly compensated and insecure and the Conservative government’s solution (as always) is “deregulation and tax cuts for the rich”.  Do what you can to get some breathing room if your income is suddenly suspended, your debt repayments spike due to some inconspicuous contractual fine print or your wages continue to fail to keep pace with the rising cost of living.

Stop watching the news. With very few exceptions, the mainstream media can not be trusted to present a true picture of what is going on in the world.  The richest people on earth own most of the major outlets and dictate editorial policy.  On top of that, their peers in many industries spend tens of billions of dollars a year to saturate major news outlets with misinformation and propaganda. Sit back and contemplate what you really care about, then find non-profit, non-governmental organizations working on those particular issues (Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, B’Tselem, Greenpeace, etc.) and read their reports and news releases.

Most importantly, stop voting for centre-right “liberal” parties. There is very little difference between the economic policies of the Liberal and Conservative parties.  Since the Reagan-Thatcher revolution, both mainstream parties in Canada, the UK and the US have been pro-capitalist and pro-globalization, favoring tax breaks for the rich at the expense of public infrastructure and services for the poor.   Don’t be afraid to vote for a candidate that actually has your interests at heart, whether that candidate is an independent, NDP, Green Party or some other manifestation of genuinely liberal sentiment.

Push back.  Tax and regulate the rich.  Demand a greater share of the wealth.   According to Citigroup, we are the only foreseeable threat to the rising income inequality in Canada, Australia, the US and the UK.

Granted, their wisdom is highly suspect.  This document was published in 2006 – shortly before Citigroup went crying to the Federal Government for a third of a trillion dollars worth of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare to save them from insolvency. Moore could have mentioned that, or mentioned that the US government now owns a 36 % stake in the company, or that Citigroup has been removed from the Dow Jones Industrial Average due to “significant government ownership”.  But then it wouldn’t be a Michael Moore film, would it?

Sneering at dissidents: spiritual tonic for the modern bourgeoisie

June 11, 2010

As much as I love David McRaney for the challenge his blog poses to many of my misconceptions, one of his archived posts touches on a subject that winds me up.  It seems to be a cherished myth for those who would prefer not to reflect on the social and ecological cost of their lifestyle choices that there is no escape from the relentless onward march of global capitalism.  There is no rebellion one could engage in that impacts the big picture, no message one can communicate that isn’t fraught with hypocrisy and naivete, no behavior one can exhibit unmotivated by raw self-interest.

In McRaney’s (truncated, emphasis-added) words:

Wait long enough, and what was once mainstream will fall into obscurity. When that happens, it will become valuable again to those looking for authenticity…

You would compete like this no matter how society was constructed. Competition for status is built into the human experience at the biological level

You sold out long ago in one way or another. The specifics of who you sell to and how much you make – those are only details.

The subtext here is that the only way people can ever hope to express “authenticity” is by buying a shitload of pointless kitsch purposely designed for the “authentic” demographic.  Therefore, the story goes, we are all trapped.  There is no escape.

But what about simply being authentic?  It’s way cheaper and more effective than buying a T-shirt that says “I’m authentic!”  It requires only that we make a serious effort to determine what has real, immutable value to us and attempt to conform our behavior to whatever revelations unfold.

Adam Smith’s argument that pure self interest is the ultimate human motivator has captured the imagination of the bourgeoisie to such a breathtaking extent that competing philosophies are no longer seriously considered by most Western pundits, politicos and ideologues.  I suspect the idea is beguiling because, in a world where a minute fraction of the population sits on the lion’s share of the wealth, the notion that we can effortlessly advance the greater good simply by looking out for ourselves absolves us of shame.  If we can also embrace the delusion that it is impossible to free ourselves from selfish concerns, we can ignore claims that when “the self” is taken out of the picture, compassion flows as indiscriminately as rain and ethical behavior naturally arises.  We are not moved to contemplate how different our culture might be if it were structured around compassion rather than selfishness as long as we insist “compassion” is merely a deluded form of selfishness, from which there is no escape.

With the dogma of inescapable selfishness firmly entrenched, activists, dissidents and revolutionaries can be dismissed as childish, petulant attention seekers.  Even if some dissidents might have been partly motivated by lofty concerns to begin with, their message is entirely meaningless if it becomes popular or profitable.

Suffice it to say, I do not share this perspective.  I believe it is irresponsible, inaccurate, immature and empirically unsupportable.  While it’s true that the concept of individual self-interest underpins our current understanding of biological evolution, research makes it clear that selfishness is not our only motivator.  As it turns out, we are hard-wired to experience the joy and suffering of others as if it were our own.

As a dissident motivated by the desire to reduce the suffering of others, it seems obvious to me that the primary psychological force behind most forms of dissident behavior is empathy.  Whether for children laboring in unsafe factories, civilian victims of state violence, displaced or destroyed wildlife in a devastated biosphere or any other organism we believe has the capacity to feel pain or distress, we object because we feel it too.  It seems equally clear that the primary psychological force behind capitalism is indeed selfishness, exactly as its proponents would have us believe.  I have no idea how anyone is able to subvert their inherent capacity to feel the suffering of others when it interferes with their own personal gain, but I take great comfort in the knowledge that the pure selfishness embraced by the most passionate proponents of capitalism is not a universal and inescapable law.

To return to McRaney’s quote, if Ghandi could overthrow the British empire wearing nothing but a home-spun loincloth, surely there is more that is “built into the human experience” than “competition for status” and we have a great deal of choice in how we behave, regardless of how society is structured.  If the human psyche has a greater range of motives than pure self-interest, surely it makes a difference upon which specific values our society is constructed.  We have learned from our own experience that a society constructed on the principle of selfishness behaves selfishly.  It is not a great leap of imagination to propose that a society constructed on the principle of compassion behaves compassionately.

The pressing need for adult supervision

June 4, 2010

Lord of the Flies is disturbing because it reveals a few dark insights about human nature.  Left to their own devices, the juvenile characters in the book become tribal, authoritarian, superstitious, punitive and reactionary.  Their perspective becomes increasingly divorced from reality and their new, irrational perceptions are reinforced by group thinking and the collective persecution of the weak.

The book springs to mind because it’s recently occurred to me how strongly the behavior of BP resembles the type of behavior I expect from a little girl I look after, and that of very young children in general.

Rose, let’s call her,  being three, is completely unruffled by precautionary concerns.  If she wants to run through the house in her sock feet, she simply can not see the sharp edges and slippery floors surrounding her or contemplate the danger they present.  She can’t grasp that her motor skills are less than precise even without perils lurking at every corner.  If I tell her it’s dangerous to run in the house, she does not believe me.  From her perspective, it’s ludicrous to suggest that it is an undesirable activity.  How could it be when she so desperately wants to do it?

Rose has injured herself on numerous occasions as a direct result of being inadequately cautious. She’s tripped and fallen on her face, bruised her shins, cut herself, bonked her head repeatedly and nearly put out an eye.  Every time, she considers herself the tragic victim of the brutal hand of fate.  For her, the dangers and potential consequences were unforeseeable.  She demands comfort and sympathy rather than simply making a mental note of each injury in order to adapt her behavior next time she gets an urge to go nuts inside the house.  Every time she hurts herself, it’s terribly unfair from her point of view.

This is all perfectly reasonable – after all, she’s only three.

BP on the other hand (not to mention the rubber-stamping governments who permit them to operate with no oversight whatsoever) is purportedly comprised of grown-ups.

But how do they behave?  Rather than heed warnings of terrible danger and conduct themselves accordingly, they deny the danger exists and carry on doing exactly as they please.  It is inconceivable to them that deep water drilling might be an undesirable activity when the risks are weighed against the gains.  When the dangers become impossible to deny on account of a major catastrophe occurring as a direct consequence of their irresponsible behavior, it was “unforeseeable“, or “an act of God“.  They are the victims and as such they yearn for comfort and consolation from the rest of us.  They resolutely reject the notion that the catastrophe was a consequence of their behavior.  They offer no proposals for how their future behavior might be modified by anything they have learned, and if their behavior since the Exxon Valdez spill is any indication, it will not be modified at all.  meanwhile, the catastrophic consequences of their behavior continue unabated.

It seems to me that BP is behaving like a very small child and has been for a long time.  Perhaps this too is understandable.  Making boatloads of money is probably almost as much fun  for Tony Hayward and his peers as running around the house in sock feet is for Rose.

My question is, where are the grown-ups who ought to be saying “no” to the ludicrously dangerous and minimally rewarding (for the rest of us) activities BP desires to engage in?  The governments of every nation I can think of behave more like playmates to the captains of industry than proper adult supervision.  Cautious voices have been all but completely ostracized from public discourse.  The mainstream media chases after sound bites from leaders who are tribal, authoritarian, superstitious, punitive and reactionary and passes them off as news.  Mainstream commentary has become increasingly divorced from reality and our new, irrational perceptions are reinforced by our collective persecution of the weak.  The most a grown-up can hope for in this day and age is a patronizing pat on the head from the cadre of unsupervised children who are driving this planet so far beyond its capacity to sustain life that it may never recover.

I don’t know if this inverse relationship between wisdom and power will continue for the rest of my days, but since it seems to have endured for the entire history of Western civilization, I have to assume that it will.  It’s enough to make a grown-up feel very much at odds with the world.

More doing, less kvetching

June 2, 2010

This is my recent resolution, but on further consideration I decided to amend that to “more doing than kvetching”, since I can’t morally justify letting up on my criticism of certain wrong-headed evangelical policies with enormous social costs.  I can change the tone of my complaints – a little less potty mouth and a few more verifiable facts and reputable studies supporting my arguments – but failing to complain would be no different from consenting.   Nonetheless, I need to add some meaningful action to the mix and, rather than grabbing issues that are in the headlines and regurgitating them with my opinion attached, see whether or not I might be able to pick up on some things that are not in the headlines at all.

To that end, I popped into an urban women’s centre today to see if I could lend a hand.

It was pretty obvious from the get-go that I could.  The centre takes up a single cramped floor of a tiny detached house.  There were half a dozen women milling around.  One was using the internet and the rest were milling around in the kitchen.  A practicum student in rubber gloves was trying to fix a broken toilet seat, and the director of the centre looked frazzled after dealing with three or four client requests, a pair of prospective volunteers and the landlord (about the toilet) in rapid succession.  It was complete chaos.

When she had a few minutes between crises, the director showed me around.  Internet, printer, fax and phone for drop-ins, a room for special events and counseling, a clothing exchange, kits of dishes and other stuff for women making the transition out of homelessness, kits of blankets and other gear for women going the other way, an office for tenant advocacy, a cache of professional clothes for interviews and court dates.

There was a lot of stuff packed into that quick and harried tour.  To be honest I didn’t take it all in on account of noticing distracting little details that clued me in on what I am getting myself into.  A note on the bulletin board reading “BAD DATE: about 35, brown hair, new to the area”.   A faint whiff of and alcohol, cigarettes and way too much fresh air coming off a cheery, nearly toothless old woman.  A disproportionate number of aboriginal clients roughly the right age to have been subjected to Canada’s horrific residential schools.   Comments like “whatever you do, don’t tell them about the staff bathroom – I don’t want anybody shooting up in there”.

Suffice it to say, all of this was pretty much in line with my expectations but sticking myself into the middle of it was a bit of a shock all the same.  I found myself worrying that I would never be trusted by these women without knocking out a couple of my teeth and somehow getting my face to look a little more careworn.   I’ve been told I look young for 35.  Sometimes I still get asked for ID when I  buy booze.  Some of the clients had lines on their faces in places I didn’t know lines could be.  I found myself confronting the problem of boundaries.  How do you gracefully end a conversation with a gregarious homeless alcoholic?  How do you not care too deeply about the fate of somebody else’s drug addicted daughter?  I found those concerns almost put me off the whole affair.

But, at the end of the day, somebody’s got to do it, so I signed up.  With a $250,000 budget shortfall this year due to some very aggressive public funding cuts, the place can use all the help it can get.