8.31.2006

mark your calendar: october 5

You know it's important when I use that many words in a title, right?

A massive day of demonstration and resistance is planned for Thursday, October 5, called World Can't Wait.

Sign the call, spread the word, and plan to raise your voice on the 5th of October. (Right now the sign-up form is geared to US addresses. It does accept addresses from other countries, and hopefully organizers will change the form soon.)

I found out about World Can't Wait just this morning, through an email from a new reader in New Jersey. I'm reading more about the organization now. The steering committee and advisory board are all people whose work I admire, and who I look to for guidance and leadership. There are also some excellent FAQs about goals, protests in general and the future.

Mark your calendars. Spread the word. Plan to be there.

8.30.2006

help wanted

Wmtc needs a new look. I'm sick of looking at this style and colour scheme, and I want an original masthead. How about a renovation to celebrate my first year in Canada?

I have good design sense but no design skills, still less time to fuss with it. If you're a budding web designer who'd like to pad your resume with a little freelance work, email me. Maybe we could barter, or simply exchange your time and effort for some nice cold cash.

one year

One year ago today, we drove the World's Fullest Minivan through New York State, and over the border, into our new lives.

The year has flown by. I feel much more at home here than I expected to after one year - here, meaning Mississauga, Toronto, and Canada. We also have many more friends, and much more of a social life, than I expected to. That's been perhaps the biggest surprise. Most of that has come through this blog. (We love the internet!)

I miss friends and family more than I thought I would, even though I've been able to see many of them during this past year. Many of the people I miss I wouldn't be seeing regularly, even if I were still in New York, because they've moved, too. I remind myself of that.

And, of course, one year ago, we were still a pack of four. The memory of moving makes me miss our B. But, horribly, that loss would have happened no matter where we lived. I was grateful that we all moved here together.

(Change of subject...)

So. One year. Thanks for being there for us. Thanks for your good wishes and support and advice, thanks for being our cheering section. I can't imagine what this year would have been like without you all.

And by the way, for those who asked: wmtc lives. It was a false alarm. I'm still blogging.

8.29.2006

president who

Many of us, adamant about not using the word "president" to describe the man who lives in the White House, use a variety of purposeful expressions instead. The Resident, Current Occupant, W and * are a few of the more respectful terms. (Of course, * was Bush I.)

At home, Allan and I call him Moron. We always know who we're talking about. In our house, there is only one Moron with an upper-case M.

One expression you'll see, although not often enough, is "the Cheney White House". It's a chillingly accurate and telling expression. In this excellent essay, Robert Kuttner, co-editor of The American Prospect, explains why - and why we should care.
See Dick Run (The Country)
Cheney's the real president. It'd be nice if the press noticed.
by Robert Kuttner

George W. Bush has been faulted in some quarters for taking an extended vacation while the Middle East festers. It doesn't much matter; the man running the country is Vice President Dick Cheney.

When historians look back on the multiple assaults on our constitutional system of government in this era, Cheney's unprecedented role will come in for overdue notice. Cheney's shotgun mishap, when he accidentally sprayed his host with birdshot, has gotten more media attention than has his control of the government.

Historically, the vice president's job was to ceremonially preside over the Senate, attend second-tier foreign funerals, and be prepared for the president to die. Students are taught that John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt's first vice president, compared the job to a bucket of warm spit (and historians say spit was not the word the pungent Texan actually used).

Recent vice presidents Walter Mondale and Al Gore were given more authority than most, but there was no doubt that the president was in charge.

Cheney is in a class by himself. The administration's grand strategy and its implementation are the work of Cheney-- sometimes Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, sometimes Cheney and political director Karl Rove.

Cheney has planted aides in major Cabinet departments, often over the objection of a Cabinet secretary, to make sure his policies are carried out. He sits in on the Senate Republican caucus, to stamp out any rebellions. Cheney loyalists from the Office of the Vice President dominate interagency planning meetings.

The Iraq war is the work of Cheney and Rumsfeld. The capture of the career civil service is pure Cheney. The disciplining of Congress is the work of Cheney and Rove. The turning over of energy policy to the oil companies is Cheney. The extreme secrecy is Cheney and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

If Cheney were the president, more of this would be smoked out because the press would be paying attention. The New York Times' acerbic columnist Maureen Dowd regularly makes sport of Cheney's dominance, and there are plenty of jokes (Bush is a heartbeat away from the presidency). But you can count serious newspaper or magazine articles on Cheney's operation on the fingers of one hand. One exceptional example is Jane Mayer's piece in the July 3 New Yorker on Cheney operative David Addington.

Cheney's power is matched only by his penchant for secrecy. When my colleague at the American Prospect, Robert Dreyfuss, requested the names of people who serve on the vice president's staff, he was told this was classified information. Former staffers for other departments provided Dreyfuss with names.

So secretive is Cheney (and so incurious the media) that when his chief of staff, Irving Lewis Libby, was implicated in the leaked identity of CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson, reporters who rushed to look Libby up on Nexis and Google found that Libby had barely rated previous press attention.

Why does this matter? Because if the man actually running the government is out of the spotlight, the administration and its policies are far less accountable.

When George W. Bush narrowly defeated John Kerry in 2004, many commentators observed that Bush was the fellow with whom you would rather have a beer. It's an accurate and unflattering comment on the American electorate -- but then who wants to have a beer with Cheney? The public may not know the details of his operation, but voters intuitively recoil from him.

Bush's popularity ratings are now under 40 percent, beer or no, reflecting dwindling confidence in where he is taking the country. But Cheney's ratings are stuck around 20 percent, far below that of any president.

If Cheney were the actual president, not just the de facto one, he simply could not govern with the same set of policies and approval ratings of 20 percent. The media focuses relentless attention on the president, on the premise that he is actually the chief executive. But for all intents and purposes, Cheney is chief, and Bush is more in the ceremonial role of the queen of England.

Yet the press buys the pretense of Bush being "the decider," and relentlessly covers Bush -- meeting with world leaders, cutting brush, holding press conferences, while Cheney works in secret, largely undisturbed. So let's take half the members of the overblown White House press corps, which has almost nothing to do anyway, and send them over to Cheney Boot Camp for Reporters. They might learn how to be journalists again, and we might learn who is running the government.

omission

Travel + Leisure magazine, in their annual World's Best awards, ranked the top 10 U.S. and Canadian destinations. Guess who didn't make the list? From the Star:
Vancouver and Victoria have the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains.

Quebec City and Montreal have history and culture.

But what does Toronto have to entice tourists from around the world? Not much, according to the readers of Travel + Leisure magazine.

Four Canadian cities ranked in the top 10 U.S. and Canadian destinations in the popular travel publication's annual World's Best awards.

Vancouver ranks the highest at Number 6, followed by Quebec City, Victoria and Montreal.

But noticeably absent is Canada's biggest city.

An associate editor at the magazine says Toronto shouldn't take it personally. But the omission feels like another slight for a city desperately craving "world-class" status.

"While Toronto has everything, I don't know that it has any one thing that sort of stands up and knocks you out," said Ken Wong, marketing professor at the Queen's University School of Business.

"Toronto's kind of good on everything but great on nothing."
More here, and Travel + Leisure awards here.

8.28.2006

criminals

I said I was going to post this, but Common Dreams has done it for me. Please read Bush & Katrina: Return to the Scene of the Crime, by Frank Rich.

Today, Paul Krugman says similar good things.

stories

Instead of posting anything new today, I'm referring to yesterday's post, the reprint of Egalia's great essay on the Canadian health care system.

Several of you have related personal stories about your experiences with health care in Canada. Think of this post as a call for contributors. I'd like to collect these stories, with an eye to writing about this in the future.

I'm not sure what form that will take - possibly an Op-Ed-style essay and I'll quote anonymously from these. Whatever it turns out to be, it would be great to have lots of material to draw from. Stories of positive or negative experiences are welcome.

Stories about health care in the US are easy to find - the inequities, the injustices, the insecurity - the poverty and homelessness it has caused, the cruel choices it forces. Then there are the insurance stories, the HMO monster, practicing medicine without a license, forcing forces people to fight for coverage, denying those who can't fight or don't have anyone to fight for them. The US also has some of the best health care in the world, for those that can afford it or are properly insured.

But US readers, while I don't need US stories, if you have something you want to share, you are more than welcome.

8.27.2006

it works

Egalia, who writes Tennessee Guerilla Women, one of the best progressive feminist blogs out there, used to live in Canada.

A few years ago, she wrote an essay about Canada's health care system, and she's given me permission to post it here. This is killer stuff. It deserves to be widely circulated. (Let's do that!)
Take It From A Patient: Canada's System Works
by Sandy Smith Madsen

Although I was born and raised in Tennessee, I was served well by Canada's universal health-care system during the 13 years that I lived in Canada. As a legal resident, I was entitled to the same high level of health-care benefits enjoyed by all Canadian citizens. I was free to go to any doctor, anywhere, anytime.

Three of my children were born in Canada. The bill for the birth of my youngest Canadian-born daughter was $3.00. This bill covered excellent prenatal care, delivery, and a private hospital room. It included visits to my home by a nurse and by my doctor, visits that were made as follow-up care after a normal, healthy delivery. While home visits by doctors are not standard procedure, in a country that views health care as a public service, it can happen.

There are now 43.6 million Americans without health insurance and another 40 million who are under-insured. U.S. employers are cutting back on health benefits, claiming they can¹t compete as long as the U.S. is the only major industrialized nation that expects employers to provide health insurance.

And the cost of insurance premiums continues to rise. Just imagine the consequences if a disease such as SARS should strike at some of our uninsured neighbors who are in the habit of taking two aspirins and waiting it out rather than seeking expensive medical care.

Little wonder that Americans are increasingly looking to Canada's single-payer system, and looking with envy. Yet opponents of the single-payer system recite a litany of horror stories. They charge that Canadians are "suffering and dying" while waiting for medical care. They claim that the Canadian system is a "disaster," and that it is "socialized medicine." Oddly enough, I knew nothing about these dire circumstances until after I returned to the U.S.

Canada does not have "socialized medicine." The Canadian government does not decide who gets care or when they get it; doctors and patients decide. Doctors are accountable to patients, not to the government. Most doctors are self-employed; they submit claims for payment to their provincial insurance plan. They are highly paid professionals who have considerable influence in determining their fees.

Want to see a doctor in Canada? Simply show up with your health-care card. Many Americans already know this, as they have been caught helping themselves to Canadian health care by means of counterfeit health-care cards.

Canadians are never denied care, or forced to wait for care, for lack of funds or because of a pre-existing condition. Patients requiring urgent care or primary care are never put on waiting lists. While it is sometimes necessary to wait for elective surgeries, or specialist care, if the delay is such that the patient¹s health will be harmed, all expenses are paid for the patient to access care in another location.

The United States spends almost twice the amount per person as Canada spends on health care, yet Canadians enjoy a lower infant mortality rate and a higher life expectancy. Studies in both the U.S. and Canada have found that survival rates are higher in Canada for most types of cancer.

Since Canadian health care follows you from the cradle to the nursing home, the loss of a job is not the disaster it is in the U.S. Unemployed you may be, but if you are unemployed in Canada, you still have your health care. While Canadians receive quality health care in return for their tax dollars, in the U.S we pay only slightly lower taxes and soaring health insurance premiums. With the loss of a job, all our paid premiums go up in smoke. In Canada, a major health problem does not lead to financial ruin.

Doctors seldom know if they are serving the rich or the poor. Perhaps that's why I found so many doctors who were genuinely responsive to my needs, rather than to my wallet.

The way my Canadian friends tell it, there are more Canadians who believe that Elvis lives than there are Canadians who want the U.S. health-care system.
Note: many working-class and middle-class Americans pay higher taxes than Canadians. We did.

anniversaries

As you know, this is the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the human-made disaster that followed, the 5th year anniversary of 9/11 is approaching, and our own anniversary of our move to Canada is next week.

While the world watched in horror, as yet more proof of the US's disintegration into a third-world country leaked out, Allan and I were completely absorbed in our own stressful, exciting, insane week, which left no time or space for anything else. I caught the Katrina news in bits and pieces, struggling to make sense of it with what little focus I had. Weeks passed before I caught the full impact.

Right now many words are being written about both anniversaries, Katrina and 9/11. Many people continue to exploit both events for empire, nationalism and profit. Others are trying to shed light and seek truth. Some are still mourning.

I recently read two very good pieces that deal with 9/11 on a very basic, human scale.

Ellis Henican, writing for Newsday, highlights a book that challenges the ridiculous myth that Rudolph Giuliani was a hero that day.
For nearly five years now, we've all lived in the glow of "America's mayor," that soot-covered father figure who rose to meet the greatest challenge of all. Rudy standing firm in the terror aftermath. Rudy guiding a rattled city back to its feet.

There was no denying this much in those early days of confusion: New York's grim-faced mayor looked a whole lot more in charge than America's deer-in-the-headlights president.

But what if Rudy's take-charge image was mostly a load of bravado and PR? What if the actual decisions he made -- before, during and after the terror attacks -- were directly responsible for the city's inability to deal effectively with crucial aspects of the crisis?

Well, it's about time someone opened that impolite inquiry.

Hold on tight, now! One of the most carefully guarded myths of 9/11 is about to be shattered for good.

"Grand Illusion," the book is called. "The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani and 9/11." It is written by Wayne Barrett of the Village Voice and Dan Collins of CBS.com, two of New York's shrewdest investigative reporters. Published this week by HarperCollins, "Grand Illusion" will forever alter how the world sees Rudy Giuliani's place in America's deadliest terror attacks. You can bet national political reporters will be combing though these chapters as the 2008 presidential campaign season revs up.
(Today Henican asks if you're sick of anniversaries, noting that every day is the anniversary of something.)

Garrison Keillor asks us to hear the victims' voices, and calls on New York City to let them speak. Recently, families of September 11th victims were able to hear the anguished 911 calls they made that day - but the victims voices were beeped over. A judge declared that hearing the victims' voices would be too painful for the families! This harkens back to the days when doctors withheld information from patients and trauma survivors were told "just don't think about it". The arrogant paternalism of this judge boggles my mind.

Keillor says, "The city argued that to hear people in anguish in their last minutes constitutes invasion of privacy. The truth is that the callers had no interest in privacy - they were desperate to be heard, and censoring them now is a last insult by a bureaucracy that failed to protect them in the first place." I so agree.

Keillor again:
Then, inevitably, politicians began to seize the day and turn it into a patriotic tableau starring Themselves. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, who does not appear in a leadership capacity in the reliable accounts of that morning - who was captured on videotape fleeing uptown - soon stepped into the TV lights and put on his public face, and a few days later the Current Occupant mounted the wreckage with bullhorn in hand and vowed vengeance. The media were glad to focus on the martial moment, the flag waving over the wreckage, the theme of America United, and the anguished voices from the towers were unheard; the people who fell from high floors and smashed into the pavement were not seen on American TV. The media averted their eyes from the reality of Sept. 11 and started looking for the Message.

. . .

Mr. Giuliani is still flying around giving speeches on leadership, knocking down a hundred grand per shot, getting standing ovations everywhere as a stand-in for the police and firemen who died in the towers. He has never faced up to his failure to prepare for the attack, even after the 1993 bomb explosion at the center, when it was shown clearly that police and fire couldn't communicate with each other by radio.
Frank Rich pulls together the Katrina and 9/11 stories as few writers can manage.
President Bush travels to the Gulf Coast this week, ostensibly to mark the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone knows his real mission: to try to make us forget the first anniversary of the downfall of his presidency.

As they used to say in the French Quarter, bonne chance! The ineptitude bared by the storm — no planning for a widely predicted catastrophe, no attempt to secure a city besieged by looting, no strategy for anything except spin — is indelible. New Orleans was Iraq redux with an all-American cast. The discrepancy between Mr. Bush's "heckuva job" shtick and the reality on the ground induced a Cronkite-in-Vietnam epiphany for news anchors. At long last they and the country demanded answers to the questions about the administration's competence that had been soft-pedaled two years earlier when the war first went south.

What's amazing on Katrina's first anniversary is how little Mr. Bush seems aware of this change in the political weather. He's still in a bubble. At last week's White House press conference, he sounded as petulant as Tom Cruise on the "Today" show when Matt Lauer challenged him about his boorish criticism of Brooke Shields. Asked what Iraq had to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush testily responded, "Nothing," adding that "nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks." Like the emasculated movie star, the president is still so infatuated with his own myth that he believes the public will buy such nonsense.
I'll post the whole piece later today.

New York Magazine, a gossip and style weekly that occasionally runs some substance (full disclosure: this magazine screwed me royally), has an interesting take: What If 9/11 Never Happened? I haven't read this piece, but I did note that New York political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said, "Mark Green would have been the mayor. Rudy Giuliani would have been run out of town on a rail." Many good writers weigh in, including some whose opinions I loathe, whose work I won't plug here.

The best thing in this magazine is The Survivors' Circle", a round-table discussion with eight people who were in the World Trade Center when the planes struck, and got out alive. The remarkable similarities of their thoughts and feelings may surprise you. Anyone interested in post-traumatic stress syndrome, and how people are changed by trauma, should not miss this.

You've heard me mention my own marginally 9/11-related essay, comparing New York City's recovery from the attacks to my own recovery from trauma. I tried to sell it last year, then again this year, without success. It's very hard to place personal essays; there are very few markets, and about a zillion people writing them, many with brand-name bylines. Now I'm deciding whether or not to put it on wmtc.

8.26.2006

# 19

Eighty-six years ago today, American women won the right to vote, when the 19th Amendment was passed on August 26, 1920.

The day is remembered as Equality Day. I wish I could find a picture of the August 26, 1970 protest when a group women climbed the Statue Of Liberty and unfurled a 42-foot banner reading "Women Of The World Unite!".

Canadian women gained suffrage in a piecemeal fashion, some before their southern neighbours, others well after. A timeline of women's equality in Canada is here.

If you are ever driving through western New York State, treat yourself to a day at the National Women's History Museum in Seneca Falls, in the Finger Lakes region. Don't miss the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, now part of the National Women's Rights Historic Park. We spent a great day there many years ago.

At the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention, on July 19 and 20, 1848, when Stanton addressed the delegates, she closed with these words:
We do not expect our path will be strewn with the flowers of popular applause, but over the thorns of bigotry and prejudice will be our way, and on our banners will beat the dark storm clouds of opposition from those who have entrenched themselves behind the stormy bulwarks of custom and authority, and who have fortified their position by every means, holy and unholy. But we will steadfastly abide the result. Unmoved we will bear it aloft. Undauntedly we will unfurl it to the gale, for we know that the storm cannot rend from it a shred, that the electric flash will but more clearly show to us the glorious words inscribed upon it: "Equality of Rights".
You can read The Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Convention here.

Happy Equality Day. One day we'll get there.

8.25.2006

assumptions

I have to write about something that greatly disturbed me.

I read this on the blog of someone who posts here. The writer is a new wmtc commenter, and I enjoy her posts, and in no way am I trying to single her out for disapproval or contempt. To that end, I'm not linking back to her post or mentioning her by name. If she wants to do that, she can; I'll just keep it anonymous.

Many months ago, I blogged about something similar, after overhearing something at the gym.

In this case, the writer was talking about things she now does that she used to be afraid of. One of these is bicycling home from work late at night.
If anyone would have told me a few years ago that I would be riding my bicycle home from work at one o'clock in the morning, I would've said, "No way. I'll be raped." But in reality, crime usually happens to criminals. Drug dealers and gang members shooting each other. The cab driver tried to frighten me the other night by telling me that there were recently some stabbings down by the river. Turns out it was homeless people stabbing each other. And I am blessed with a gut instinct, like we all are, and I think it will stand me in good stead.
This is a common misconception: crime usually happens to criminals. Good instincts can keep you safe. For the millions of people who have survived violent crime (as I have), or worse still, those who loved people not lucky enough to survive, this can be very painful - or enraging - to hear.

Sexual assault can happen to anyone: male, female; old, young; good, bad; drunk, sober; upstanding citizen, underworld criminal. While it's true that many victims of sexual assault know their assailants, it's equally true that what is called "acquaintance rape" is still a crime. And a good 50% (give or take) of rape victims do not know their assailants - i.e., "stranger rape". (I hesitate to use these expressions because they imply there are different kinds of rape. All the expressions mean is whether or not the victim knew the assailant.) Children who are sexually abused are also crime victims - and obviously, they are not criminals.

Again, I'm not singling out the person who I'm quoting. Most people want to believe that victims cause their own victimization. "She did such-and-such, that's why she was raped. I won't do that, so it won't happen to me." If only it were that simple. All we'd have to do was avoid "bad" neighbourhoods, not wear certain clothing, not go out alone at night, not whatever. But rape victims don't cause rape: rapists do.

What we call "gut instinct" is just a feeling. Someone feels safe, so she believes she is. Someone feels nervous and jumpy, and she believes she is unsafe. Gut instinct is not a rapist detector. Those don't exist. All the rape survivors in the world, male and female, didn't lack gut instinct. They were just unlucky.

If crime usually happens to criminals, then all we have to do is not commit crimes, and crimes probably won't be committed against us. As for people who have committed crimes, if they become victims, well, who cares. The drug dealer who was killed, the prostitute who was raped - they were asking for it anyway, right?

I applaud anyone who finds new courage, who puts aside fear and moves into the unknown. I don't want anyone to live in fear. I sure don't, and I'm a rape survivor myself. But when we take pride in our own growth, let's not make assumptions about other people's experiences.

different, alike

A friend of ours here in Mississauga is having some scary problems with his heart. The doctors are saying it's not life-threatening - a relief, of course - but on the other hand, they're not releasing him with a clean bill of health, either.

He and his family are understandably stressed and upset. How could they not be? But one thing they don't have to stress about is medical care. He was treated immediately and thoroughly by the proper specialists, and he's getting all the proper follow-up care.

Because of his profession, our friend would have decent insurance coverage if he lived in the United States, too. But in Canada, the speed and quality of his care doesn't depend on his economic level or professional standing. He has good treatment because he needs it.

Americans, please note: he was treated immediately. The "slow-motion health care system" that the New York Times and CNN love to ridicule is nowhere to be seen when there is a problem that needs immediate attention. Long waits for medical procedures are for procedures that can wait.

I'm not saying it's fun to be limping and in pain for 18 months while waiting for a hip or knee replacement. But no one's dying of heart disease while they wait to see a cardiologist. Can we say that about the US?

* * * *

Here's an area where Canada is, sadly and shamefully, too much like the US. I've read about this before, and it's very disappointing. From today's Toronto Star:
In rich Canada, welfare worsens
Recipients get less than 20 years ago
Public is turning a blind eye to issue

By Thomas Walkom

Here in Canada, in one of the richest countries of the world, the very poorest are getting poorer. This is not the result of some external or unforeseen crisis. It is happening in the midst of a long-running economic boom and reflects the deliberate decisions of elected governments - presumably supported by the Canadian public at large - to purge the roughly 1.7 million people consigned to welfare from our collective consciousness.

It is shameful. It is pretty much criminal. And, as the National Council on Welfare, an advisory body to the federal government, warned in a report released yesterday, it is remarkably short-sighted. In particular, it is short-sighted for those of us in the broader middle classes who assume - wrongly - that we could never end up on the dole.

It's a cruel world out there now. Successive governments have gutted or eliminated much of Canada's vaunted social safety net. For most workers, employment insurance doesn't exist. Increasingly, employers prefer part-time or contract workers who can be fired at will and who are owed neither benefits nor pensions.

If the economy falters and unemployment spikes - as it is almost sure to do again - there is not much between a comfortable middle-class life and welfare.

So just hope it doesn't happen to you. As the council points out, for the vast majority of those on welfare, things are bad and getting worse.

The figures are depressing and distressing. In Ontario, for example, the incomes of most welfare recipients, after adjustment for inflation, are lower now than they were 20 years ago.

And that's not just because of Mike Harris. True, the former Conservative premier gleefully slashed welfare rates. But his successor, Liberal Dalton McGuinty, has been equally, if more quietly, stingy.

In 1997, well after Harris made his cuts, a single mother with one child in Ontario received $16,205. Last year, a single mother's benefit, after adjustment for inflation, was just $14,451 - or about 11 per cent less.

It's probably worth noting that Newfoundland has a more generous welfare system than Ontario. A single mother with one child in that province gets $16,181.

But Ontario is not the only piker. In Conservative Alberta, rates for a single person on welfare have dropped by $4,800 - or roughly 50 per cent in inflation-adjusted terms - over the past 20 years. In British Columbia, now run by a nominally Liberal government, welfare recipients with disabilities get less in real terms than they did in 1989.

Even Saskatchewan's New Democrats have been cheese parers when it comes to welfare. In that province, the inflation-adjusted welfare income for a couple with two kids is $4,125 less than it was in 1986.

On top of this, the federal government's much-heralded child benefit supplement, introduced by Jean Chretien's Liberals in 1998, has done almost zilch for people on welfare.

That's partly because five provinces, including Ontario, claw all or part of the benefit back from families receiving social assistance.

And it's partly because the country's complicated welfare system is almost impossible to figure out for would-be beneficiaries - or anyone else. It has become, as the council says flatly, "incomprehensible to most people."

As for Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives, the council says their reforms don't help the poor much at all.

No surprise here. Still it's worth noting, as the council does, that Harper's income-tax cuts benefit high-income earners most. His GST cut doesn't help the poor, who already had a sales-tax break. His new $100 a month child-care benefit, the council says, may help more well-to-do parents who already have access to daycare but does little for people on welfare who can neither find nor afford care.

The net result is bleak: In spite of the myriad of government programs, the income of welfare recipients remains far below Statistics Canada's so-called low-income cutoff, a measure usually referred to as the poverty line.

In Ontario, a disabled person on welfare gets $12,057 - or about 58 per cent of what StatsCan figures the average single person needs to live. Other kinds of welfare recipients get even less.

It is a grim business.

Still, it's not fair to blame just elected leaders like Harper, Harris or McGuinty. True, politicians didn't keep their bold promises to eliminate child poverty.

True too, many politicians either ignore welfare recipients or subtly (not so subtly in the case of Harris) demonize them as undeserving.

But in the end, politicians can't help but respond to the issues voters care about. And that stark political fact says something very unpleasant about us.

"Most Canadians would find it impossible to cope with the substantial income losses that welfare households have experienced," the council writes. "Coping is even harder for those who are already at the bottom of the income scale, given their already meagre incomes. Yet there appears to be little concern ...

"Have both governments and the Canadian public turned their backs on the poorest of the poor?"

8.24.2006

our town

Earlier this week I thought that movie season - the opposite of baseball season - had come early this year. With the Red Sox's playoff hopes dwindling, I'd just as soon watch more movies and fewer ball games.

Now I'm reluctantly being pulled back on board, by the sheer force of my desire to see my team win. Their chances are anorexic, but not dead. If a game is on, I'm watching. As someone at Joy Of Sox recently said, "Sometimes being a fan is a privilege. Other times it's a duty."

But not at 1:00 a.m. While my baseball obsession knows few boundaries, Allan's knows none. The Sox are on the west coast now, and he stays up nightly to watch every game. I can't watch more than three innings of a west-coast game, but it does give us more time to watch movies. We saw an interesting and touching film this week, called "OT: Our Town". It's been compared to "Spellbound" (the spelling-bee movie, not the Hitchcock film) and "Mad Hot Ballroom", because it's about young people, and the drive to succeed against difficult obstacles.

"OT: Our Town" is much more simple and low-budget than either of those films. It's the story of a group of students in Compton, California who are putting on the play "Our Town," the American classic by Thornton Wilder.

The students are low-income kids from a rough neighbourhood. Kids from their school are stereotyped as gangstas - expected to do nothing and go nowhere. The only activity their school district supports is sports. The school has a beautiful gym and basketball court, professional-looking uniforms and money for travel and awards banquets, but no stage and no auditorium. The student production of "Our Town" will be the first play produced at their school in 21 years.

With no budget and no experience, but with the guidance, support and badgering of two caring teachers, they figure out how to make it work. If "Our Town" - life and death in Grovers Corner, New Hampshire at the turn of the last century - seems an odd choice for inner-city kids from Southern California, the students couldn't agree more. But they find relevance in the play, and they make it their own.

I felt like I knew these kids - because I used to know them.

Watching this movie reminded me, again, of how much I liked working with teenagers, specifically with the marginalized kids euphemistically called "inner-city youth". Attending the AIDS Conference Global Village brought back those memories, too. Events are conspiring.

* * * *

I volunteered for many years at an amazing youth centre called The Door. That volunteer position unexpectedly led to teaching jobs, both at The Door and at a New York City alternative school, where kids who had dropped out of school were studying for their equivalency diplomas.

The students were young people perservering in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Each had endured loss and hardship that would have been crushing in any adult life. They had lost loved ones, witnessed horrific violence, been abandoned, been abused. Some were refugees from war and genocide in Africa, others from the wars in the projects. Many were "misfits" in some way, like GLBT kids who were flamboyantly out. All the girls had babies.

The Door was a true community. Young people could receive a hot meal, medical care, counseling of every sort, and education, and get involved in political action, spiritual enlightenment, or whatever else they needed. For some, it was a safe and quiet place to do homework after school. For others, it was the only place they found love and acceptance. For all, it was an oasis.

It was a community for me, too, and nurtured my own spirit in many ways. I was supposedly a tutor, but I was also a willing ear, a supportive shoulder, a friend, a reality check, a caring adult, an example. More than one member told me I was the first white person they ever really knew who wasn't a cop.

Working at The Door and at YALA was sometimes emotionally wrenching. Relationships were intense, but short-lived. Young people came into your life, you connected, you did what you could, and they disappeared.

After volunteering weekly for many years, I was offered a temporary teaching job, filling in for a maternity leave, and from there, I found the position at the alternative school. But from teaching full-time, I discovered that I was better off volunteering.

My writing career was starting to blossom, and always felt torn in two. I felt I could be neither the writer nor the teacher I wanted to be. I had already decided to go back to a less creative, less demanding day-job, when YALA was disbanded from state budget cuts. (Thanks, George Pataki.)

I went back to word-processing, but my volunteering and activism went in a different direction, towards sexual assault and domestic violence work.

More than a decade has passed since I last worked with kids. Something tells me they still need the same things.

wmtc meets lwb

Half of LWB, that is. Last night we finally met Nick! We had dinner at Allen's, on the Danforth, not far from Nick and Mason's new home. (!!)

As I've often mentioned, Nick was the first person to contact me about possibly emigrating to Canada after the 2004 "election". (Last night Nick reminded us that that actually happened through Allan; they were both on DU.) Nick's arrival in T.O. means the next wave of fed-up Americans will now be crossing the border. It's exciting.

He told us some funny (well, pathetic) stories about what some people in Colorado asked about Canada. We can maybe forgive them for not knowing that people in Toronto speak English, but sled dogs??? Say it ain't so!

Nick's been in Toronto this week, looking for a place for he and Mason to live and taking care of other business. Regarding something we've been chatting about in comments, many rentals said "no dogs" or "no pets". That's disappointing. As in so many things, a law is not a law unless it's enforced.

The good news is that he found a house to rent, and it sounds fantastic. He also set up a bank account, put the utilities under his name, ordered cable, internet and phone service, all that kind of business. And guess what? It all went smoothly and everyone was extremely friendly. Exactly the same experience we had. Trontonians: don't complain. You have it good.

I had such a good time last night. Meeting Nick was truly like meeting an old friend. Plus he's got the cutest dimples.

8.23.2006

sweet

Here's a different perspective from an American who moved to Canada: "American by birth, Canadian by love".

Before Katrinka moved to Canada to marry a Canadian man, she didn't know much about the country, despite having grown up practically on the border. As she acknowledges:
From our vantage point in the GTA we can watch news broadcast from both countries; we can see that US news is remarkable more for what it does not report than what it does and certainly news from the northern neighbor does not make the cut. Why would school curriculum be any different?
I don't know that Canadians are all as sweet as the man Katrinka calls "Sweetness" - after all, if he's allowing people to step ahead of him in line, those folks are probably Canadian, too. But when Katrinka sees her Sweetness in his native habitat, she feels she knows from whence his light springs.

Katrinka is also a neighbour of mine, somewhere in the wilds of Mississauga.

* * * *

Meanwhile, the discussion is continuing. MSS, a professor of government and political science who writes the blog Fruits and Votes, treated us to a free class, and Lone Primate continues to help us all think more clearly. Thanks to everyone who's participating in this conversation, it's brilliant.

success

My recent story on Dave Kiley is getting more feedback than anything I've written in a long time. Dave emailed yesterday to tell me that the story led to a $5,000 donation to his nonprofit organization, Turning Point. That, to me, is a successful story.

He also sent some photos of his wheelchair basketball team - the kids team that he coaches - hanging out with the actor Will Farrell. Farrell's new movie, "Talladega Nights," has a scene where he's playing wheelchair basketball. Kiley and some other players from his area were asked to be in it, and Dave - always thinking of his kids - invited Farrell to a juniors tournament. Farrell attended, and played a little ball with the team. I can imagine the kids were thrilled.

Dave sent me a link to the movie's trailer, and sure enough, in a very brief shot of a wheelchair basketball game, I see Kiley gliding by. I would normally never see "Talladega Nights" - not exactly my cup of tea - but now I'll have to rent it.

Here are two pics Dave sent of his team with Will Farrell. You'll notice the kids' chairs look huge; the wheels are cambered (angled outwards) and there's a bumper rim along the front. These are basketball chairs, designed and used specifically for this sport. The kids' everyday chairs don't look like that.


krugman two

And two:
Wages, Wealth and Politics
By Paul Krugman


Recently, Henry Paulson, the Treasury secretary, acknowledged that economic inequality is rising in America. In a break with previous administration pronouncements, he also conceded that this might be cause for concern.

But he quickly reverted to form, falsely implying that rising inequality is mainly a story about rising wages for the highly educated. And he argued that nothing can be done about this trend, that "it is simply an economic reality, and it is neither fair nor useful to blame any political party."

History suggests otherwise.

I've been studying the long-term history of inequality in the United States. And it's hard to avoid the sense that it matters a lot which political party, or more accurately, which political ideology rules Washington.

Since the 1920's there have been four eras of American inequality:

• The Great Compression, 1929-1947: The birth of middle-class America. The real wages of production workers in manufacturing rose 67 percent, while the real income of the richest 1 percent of Americans actually fell 17 percent.

• The Postwar Boom, 1947-1973: An era of widely shared growth. Real wages rose 81 percent, and the income of the richest 1 percent rose 38 percent.

• Stagflation, 1973-1980: Everyone lost ground. Real wages fell 3 percent, and the income of the richest 1 percent fell 4 percent.

• The New Gilded Age, 1980-?: Big gains at the very top, stagnation below. Between 1980 and 2004, real wages in manufacturing fell 1 percent, while the real income of the richest 1 percent — people with incomes of more than $277,000 in 2004 — rose 135 percent.

What's noticeable is that except during stagflation, when virtually all Americans were hurt by a tenfold increase in oil prices, what happened in each era was what the dominant political tendency of that era wanted to happen.

Franklin Roosevelt favored the interests of workers while declaring of plutocrats who considered him a class traitor, "I welcome their hatred." Sure enough, under the New Deal wages surged while the rich lost ground.

What followed was an era of bipartisanship and political moderation; Dwight Eisenhower said of those who wanted to roll back the New Deal, "Their number is negligible, and they are stupid." Sure enough, it was also an era of equable growth.

Finally, since 1980 the U.S. political scene has been dominated by a conservative movement firmly committed to the view that what’s good for the rich is good for America. Sure enough, the rich have seen their incomes soar, while working Americans have seen few if any gains.

By the way: Yes, Bill Clinton was president for eight years. But for six of those years Congress was controlled by hard-line right-wingers. Moreover, in practice Mr. Clinton governed well to the right of both Eisenhower and Nixon.

Now, this chronology doesn't prove that politics drives changes in inequality. There were certainly other factors at work, including technological change, globalization and immigration, an issue that cuts across party lines.

But it seems likely that government policies have played a big role in America's growing economic polarization — not just easily measured policies like tax rates for the rich and the level of the minimum wage, but things like the shift in Labor Department policy from protection of worker rights to tacit support for union-busting.

And if that's true, it matters a lot which party is in power — and more important, which ideology. For the last few decades, even Democrats have been afraid to make an issue out of inequality, fearing that they would be accused of practicing class warfare and lose the support of wealthy campaign contributors.

That may be changing. Inequality seems to be an issue whose time has finally come, and if the growing movement to pressure Wal-Mart to treat its workers better is any indication, economic populism is making a comeback. It's still unclear when the Democrats might regain power, or what economic policies they'll pursue when they do. But if and when we get a government that tries to do something about rising inequality, rather than responding with a mixture of denial and fatalism, we may find that Mr. Paulson's "economic reality" is a lot easier to change than he supposes.
Here's my favourite line from this column: "Moreover, in practice Mr. Clinton governed well to the right of both Eisenhower and Nixon."

krugman one

Two great pieces by one of my favourite columnists. One:
Tax Farmers, Mercenaries and Viceroys
By Paul Krugman


Yesterday The New York Times reported that the Internal Revenue Service would outsource collection of unpaid back taxes to private debt collectors, who would receive a share of the proceeds.

It's an awful idea. Privatizing tax collection will cost far more than hiring additional I.R.S. agents, raise less revenue and pose obvious risks of abuse. But what's really amazing is the extent to which this plan is a retreat from modern principles of government. I used to say that conservatives want to take us back to the 1920's, but the Bush administration seemingly wants to go back to the 16th century.

And privatized tax collection is only part of the great march backward.

In the bad old days, government was a haphazard affair. There was no bureaucracy to collect taxes, so the king subcontracted the job to private "tax farmers," who often engaged in extortion. There was no regular army, so the king hired mercenaries, who tended to wander off and pillage the nearest village. There was no regular system of administration, so the king assigned the task to favored courtiers, who tended to be corrupt, incompetent or both.

Modern governments solved these problems by creating a professional revenue department to collect taxes, a professional officer corps to enforce military discipline, and a professional civil service. But President Bush apparently doesn't like these innovations, preferring to govern as if he were King Louis XII.

So the tax farmers are coming back, and the mercenaries already have. There are about 20,000 armed "security contractors" in Iraq, and they have been assigned critical tasks, from guarding top officials to training the Iraqi Army.

Like the mercenaries of old, today’s corporate mercenaries have discipline problems. "They shoot people, and someone else has to deal with the aftermath," declared a U.S. officer last year.

And armed men operating outside the military chain of command have caused at least one catastrophe. Remember the four Americans hung from a bridge? They were security contractors from Blackwater USA who blundered into Falluja — bypassing a Marine checkpoint — while the Marines were trying to pursue a methodical strategy of pacifying the city. The killing of the four, and the knee-jerk reaction of the White House — which ordered an all-out assault, then called it off as casualties mounted — may have ended the last chance of containing the insurgency.

Yet Blackwater, whose chief executive is a major contributor to the Republican Party, continues to thrive. The Department of Homeland Security sent heavily armed Blackwater employees into New Orleans immediately after Katrina.

To whom are such contractors accountable? Last week a judge threw out a jury's $10 million verdict against Custer Battles, a private contractor that was hired, among other things, to provide security at Baghdad’s airport. Custer Battles has become a symbol of the mix of cronyism, corruption and sheer amateurishness that doomed the Iraq adventure — and the judge didn’t challenge the jury's finding that the company engaged in blatant fraud.

But he ruled that the civil fraud suit against the company lacked a legal basis, because as far as he could tell, the Coalition Provisional Authority, which ran Iraq's government from April 2003 to June 2004, wasn't "an instrumentality of the U.S. government." It wasn't created by an act of Congress; it wasn't a branch of the State Department or any other established agency.

So what was it? Any premodern monarch would have recognized the arrangement: in effect, the authority was a personal fief run by a viceroy answering only to the ruler. And since the fief operated outside all the usual rules of government, the viceroy was free to hire a staff of political loyalists lacking any relevant qualifications for their jobs, and to hand out duffel bags filled with $100 bills to contractors with the right connections.

Tax farmers, mercenaries and viceroys: why does the Bush administration want to run a modern superpower as if it were a 16th-century monarchy? Maybe people who've spent their political careers denouncing government as the root of all evil can't grasp the idea of governing well. Or maybe it's cynical politics: privatization provides both an opportunity to evade accountability and a vast source of patronage.

But the price is enormous. This administration has thrown away centuries of lessons about how to make government work. No wonder it has failed at everything except fearmongering.
Yet more evidence of the US turning into a third-world country.

8.22.2006

discuss

Since there's so much activity in my post of two days ago, and since I'm very busy with my own work today, I think I'll just let today's post refer to those comments. The subject has changed several times over, and it's open to one and all for further changes. I'll stop in occasionally, too.

Thought for the day: If you want to win your division and go to the playoffs, don't get swept in a five-game series against your division rivals. Boy am I glad I'm not living in New York today.

I hate baseball.

8.21.2006

stunned

All I wanted was for the Red Sox to win the division. Just win the division, for fuck sake, the wild card comes from the Central and the Yankees stay home. That's all I wanted last year, and that's all I wanted this year. The Sox were in first place for most of the season, it shouldn't have been too much to ask. Win. The. Division.

But no.

Apparently Theo Epstein and Terry Francona wanted to make sure that didn't happen, because they did everything they could to prevent it. Apparently Theo and Tito want Red Sox fans to hate them. That job they're doing well.

What is she going on about, you ask? Don't ask. We're four games into a five-game series between the Yankees and the Red Sox, a weekend of monumental proportions, a make-or-break, do-or-die, cliche-laden, angst-ridden, stomach-churning series.

After the Yankees pounded the Sox on both ends of Friday's double-header, I thought it couldn't get much worse. Shows you what I know. That was only the beginning. Saturday's loss won the official Worst Game Of The Year award, but the distinction was short-lived. Last night's loss - with the Red Sox ahead early, then blowing a lead late, a loss so predictable a few million fans could have scripted it in advance, and no doubt did - quickly overtook it. I don't even want to watch today's game.

There was a now-infamous Yankees-Red Sox series in September 1978 known as The Boston Massacre. Since that name is already taken, what will they call this one?

I think it would be more fun to be a Royals fan. Just relax, watch games, and enjoy the season - winning never a concern because you know it's out of the question.

sigh

8.20.2006

differences

When someone asks me why I prefer Canada to the US - if they really want to know - I usually list the Big Things: national health insurance, secure abortion rights, same-sex marriage, no death penalty, a more cooperative outlook to the world, greater tolerance of and respect for difference, all relative to the United States.

These Big Things, in my opinion, speak of a different concept of society, one based more on community and less on unfettered greed and selfishness - a society that is more humane, less violent, and more oriented towards caring for its members and trying to solve people's problems. And these Big Things express themselves in daily life in myriad small ways. In my Globe & Mail essay, I mentioned two examples from everyday life: the GO train, paid on the honour system, and excellent recycling facilities.

A few days ago, Allan and I had dinner with A&S*, another ex-pat couple, here for the same reasons as us. Between the four of us, we have lived in four major US cities - New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington, DC - as well as several smaller US cities, and spent time in many more. We all live in the GTA; we have all been here almost one year. We all feel that life is better here, and we were able to enumerate several "little things" - examples from everyday life - that reflect that.

First, the usual important disclaimers. These are generalizations. I'm sure we can all think of exceptions to these observations, on both sides of the border. None of us imagine Canada to be a perfect paradise, and all of us know good people doing the right thing in the US. Nevertheless, after a year living in and around Canada's largest metropolitan area, we have noticed several things.

** Toronto is much cleaner and well-maintained than any US city. Please: no need to point out that Montreal is even cleaner, or that Toronto has gotten dirtier since the Harris government. Despite that, Toronto is much cleaner and well-maintained than any US city.

** Parents do not abuse children in public. In the US, it is not at all uncommon to see parents slap, yank, shake, smack, shriek at or berate their children on public transportation, in malls, in parks, and elsewhere. None of us have ever seen that here. (Again, disclaimer: we're not saying there is no child abuse here, that would be absurd.)

** There are no stray dogs in the parks.

** Dogs here are calmer and seem happier. GTA dogs don't bark, snarl and freak out in public. They are clearly more relaxed, well exercised, and less stressed.

** Ontario law forbids landlords to refuse tenants based on pet ownership. Although there are some pet-friendly US cities, no state, to my knowledge, has such a law. Thousands of people in the US are forced to give up beloved animals because they cannot find a place to live that accepts pets.

** When you're in your car, stopped at a red light, the car behind you does not honk as soon as the light turns green. In the US, it's: red-greenhonk, or even redhonk-green. The driver's hand must be on the horn, waiting to honk the instant s/he sees a red light, like sime kind of noisy reflex test. One of us recalled a sign at a busy New York City intersection: $350 fine for unnecessary honking. In the GTA, people use their car horns for warnings of potential danger.

** On the highway, people do not drive behind you flashing their high beams to get you to change lanes. They will tailgate, but they don't flash lights in your mirror.

** Everyone we do business with is friendly: the cable guy, the car dealership, the bank, the lawn-care guy, the heating oil rep, the grocery check-outs. None of them are so friendly that it uses half your day to complete a small transaction, but all of them are more than just civil - they are friendly and kind. It does no good to say they're friendly because they're taking our money. The same people in New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Washington are not friendly. I quickly learned to be more friendly to the people I do business with. It's very pleasant.

** "A" had to see a doctor before her Ontario Health Insurance was established. Knowing she was paying entirely out-of-pocket, the doctor's office devised ways to keep her fees as low as possible. This is unheard of. When "A" told the story, at first I wasn't even sure I was understanding her correctly. The office visit fee was $32. Comparable visit in Washington, DC: $120.

** Allan and I both have supplemental insurance through our jobs. Cost to us: zero. In New York, we had huge, ever-increasing payroll deductions, large co-pays, and ever-decreasing coverage. I know that there is a trend among Canadian employers to cut benefits or to hire workers as independent contractors without any benefits. I'm aware that this is a problem, and I hope it is not allowed to spread. But Allan and I are fortunate to work in an industry that's not following that trend. The legal industry is also considered an excellent employer in New York - so we're comparing like and like, NYC corporate law firms and Toronto corporate law firms.

** The staff where I work makes full use of their vacation, sick and personal days, without negative repercussions. In a similar job in New York, you are officially given sick and personal days, but strongly discouraged from using them. If you do use them, despite the pressure not to, it may count against you when you are up for a promotion or raise. Here, I see no such pressure. And as "S" said, somehow the society continues to function!




* If you know who this is, please respect their wishes and refrain from using their names.

8.18.2006

global

I visited the Global Village yesterday, the public portion of the 2006 International AIDS Conference. There was a performance stage, a public seminar space, and booths from an enormous array of activist organizations. While I was there, an African vocal group was performing, filling the huge hall with ringing harmonies. I wandered through the booths, where every region on earth and every community affected by AIDS was represented. It was overwhelming, inspiring, and heartbreaking, all at the same time.

When I first got there, I saw people selling t-shirts and handicrafts, and it made me uncomfortable. I thought, this isn't a crafts fair, we shouldn't be treating this like another commercial enterprise. I kept my distance from those booths. Later I felt easier about it, realizing that all the organizations are fundraising, and sales is one tool with which to do that.

I'm glad I got past that discomfort, or else I would have missed something truly remarkable: BeadforLife. Bead For Life works with impoverished women in Uganda, who make beaded jewelry. The necklaces, bracelets and other beadwork are vibrant, brilliant pieces. They are all made from recycled magazines, and their profits are reinvested in their community. The organization raises money mainly through house parties held at homes in North America.

From their website:
BeadforLife is a poverty eradication project connecting people in Uganda and North America to work together for the mutual benefit of all. BeadforLife believes true and sustained change can happen when we are willing to work together with our African neighbors to find solutions to extreme poverty. As a grassroots organization, we believe citizens in developed countries care about the problem of extreme poverty and welcome an opportunity to alleviate it. In our experience, all benefit from this exchange.

On our website you will find stories about fascinating and beautiful people both in Uganda and in the United States. Check out Meet the Beaders. Our beaders and tailors are primarily impoverished women who are hard working, intelligent, and strong in their desire to improve their lives. They make gorgeous handcrafted paper beads and turn them into necklaces, bracelets, and earrings. Our tailors make elegant jewelry bags from hand printed cotton fabrics. BeadforLife also sponsors community development projects in the areas of health, education, vocational training, affordable housing, and savings programs.

BeadforLife is guided by the following principles:

1. Creating jobs through local partnerships is a more sustainable approach to poverty eradication than providing aid. Rather than become dependent on handouts from abroad, the beaders build their skills and long-term capacities through meaningful creative work.

2. Concerned citizens in resource abundant countries care about the issues of extreme poverty and are willing to get involved.

3. Paying our beaders fair trade prices allows them to meet their daily economic needs. Investing 100% of our net profits in community development projects for impoverished Ugandans allows for a long-term sustainable future.

4. Forming partnerships between North Americans and Ugandans beaders enriches all of us.
I bought a necklace and a bracelet - I love beadwork, and these are simply beautiful - and I'm thinking about hosting a party. I've never done anything like that, but I find the idea really intriguing.

As I said, I found the Global Village somewhat overwhelming, and although I was glad I went, I was also glad to leave. I went over to the Church & Wellesley area to meet our friend "A" for coffee at the Bulldog Cafe, recommended by friend of wtmc Alex E. (I haven't gotten A's permission to post about her yet, so we'll leave it at that.) Later, Allan and A's partner "S" met us, and we had dinner at the strangely-named Salad King, which serves not salads, but excellent Thai food.

A & S, another opposite-sex couple who left the US for Canada, found us through my essay in the Globe & Mail. (OK Lone Primate, there's another one!) It turns out they landed in Canada exactly three days before us, so we were celebrating our upcoming one-year anniversaries.

We mostly talked about how much we love it here, and how much more sane Canada is than the US. There are so many little things, things you can't really appreciate unless you've lived in that insanity. More on that later.

8.17.2006

community

"American By Birth, Canadian By Choice". Hey, someone else shares my tagline!

Daniel WBC suggests marching under that banner at next year's Pride Parade.

Tom of Canadian Hope has joined our bloggy circle. Tom and his partner Emilio are included in a documentary about the immigration struggles of same-sex couples in the US.

what i'm reading

I've just started The Places In Between, an incredible book by Scottish writer Rory Stewart. It's been out in the UK for a few years, but only recently released in paperback in North America.

The Places In Between is Stewart's account of his walk across Afghanistan. Walk. As in, on foot. Across Afghanistan. In winter. And that Afghan crossing was only the final leg in his journey, on foot, across Iran, India, Pakistan and Nepal.

I was moved to pick up this book from this run-don't-walk review in the New York Times (still my preferred place for book reviews, conservative columnists notwithstanding).
Rory Stewart's first book, "The Places in Between," recounts his journey across Afghanistan in January 2002. Even in mild weather in an Abrams tank, such a trip would be mane-whitening. But Stewart goes in the middle of winter, crossing through some territory still shakily held by the Taliban — and entirely on foot. There are some Medusa-slayingly gutsy travel writers out there — Redmond O'Hanlon, Jeffrey Tayler, Robert Young Pelton — but Stewart makes them look like Hilton sisters.

Paul Theroux once described a certain kind of travel book as having mainly "human sacrifice" allure, and how close Stewart comes to being killed on his journey won't be disclosed here. He is, however, sternly warned before he begins his walk. "You are the first tourist in Afghanistan," observes an Afghan from the country's recently resurrected Security Service. "It is mid-winter," he adds. "There are three meters of snow on the high passes, there are wolves, and this is a war. You will die, I can guarantee." For perhaps the first time in the history of travel writing, a secret-police goon emerges as the voice of sobriety and reason.

Recalling an American journalist who wondered if Stewart thought what he was doing was dangerous, he writes, "I had never found a way to answer that question without sounding awkward, insincere or ridiculous." He's then asked if he has read "Into the Wild," Jon Krakauer's account of a well-meaning young man's doomed trek into the Alaskan wilderness. It is, Stewart is told, more than a little pointedly, "a great piece of journalism."

So is "The Places in Between" — a pipsqueak title for what is otherwise a striding, glorious book. But it's more than great journalism. It's a great travel narrative. Learned but gentle, tough but humane, Stewart — a Scottish journalist who has served in both the British Army and the Foreign Office — seems hewn from 19th-century DNA, yet he's also blessed with a 21st-century motherboard. He writes with a mystic's appreciation of the natural world, a novelist's sense of character and a comedian's sense of timing.
I can confirm the reviewer's judgement. Stewart's writing is brilliant - witty, moving, poetic without ostentation, minutely observed, but concise and streamlined. Each short chapter is like a little journey in itself, drawing you to the next step, and the next. It's positively addictive.

By coincidence, while I was reading Collapse, a book I had requested came in at our local library: The Kite Runner, a popular novel about Afghanistan. I read it, impatiently (partly because I wanted to get back to Jared Diamond) and with little enthusiasm. Although The Kite Runner is a good book, especially for a first novel, I couldn't escape the feeling that I was reading a coming-of-age story grafted onto the history of modern Afghanistan.

For many people, a fictional narrative is the best way to learn about another culture. And it's not that I won't read books like that - I've enjoyed many of them. But in this case, the joining of history and fiction seemed too obvious; the seams were showing. I didn't find the fictional tale very compelling, and found myself wishing I was reading nonfiction about Afghanistan instead.

Enter The Places In Between, available here from Chapters.

* * * *

I have some interesting plans this afternoon and evening. Now to get some work done so I can enjoy them. If all goes well, I'll bore you with the details tomorrow.

disdain

Ah, that good old liberal media, influencing Americans' opinions here in Bizarro World where everything is upside down and backwards. Especially the radically left New York Times. You know, the same newspaper that brought you the White House's case for invading Iraq without so much as running it through a spell-checker?

Next time you hear that hogwash about the liberal media, here's a talking point for ya. Esteemed New York Times columnist David Brooks is on record as opposing democracy. David Sirota, writing in Working For Change, pointed this out:
Take, for instance, New York Times columnist David Brooks's piece yesterday - it is arguably the most brazen admission of elite disdain for democracy that has ever been printed in a major American newspaper. Before you dismiss that as hyperbole, read the third line of Brooks' piece:

"Polarized primary voters shouldn't be allowed to define the choices in American politics."

Yes, you read that correctly: According to one of the most prominent columnists in America, "voters shouldn't be allowed to define the choices in American politics." Sure, he tries to couch his statement by targeting "polarized primary voters" (because, of course, in the world of David Brooks - a chickenhawk who avoided military service himself but aggressively pushed the Iraq War - the 60 percent of Americans who are now "polarized" in opposition to the war should have their voting rights immediately revoked). But his underlying message is, again, right there in black and white: "Voters shouldn't be allowed to define the choices in American politics."

Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the first major American newspaper columnist (at least in my generation) to officially go on record publicly demanding that American democracy be substituted with dictatorship.

. . . .

Brooks goes on to offer up the transparently dishonest claim that "Lamont's voters are rich." As evidenced by its repitition, this lie is clearly a talking point crafted right in the Republican National Committee headquarters, Joe Lieberman's campaign offices - or most likely, both. For instance, right-wing pundit Michael Barone wrote in the Wall Street Journal today that Lamont did not win "the lunch-bucket working class" in Connecticut, but instead was propelled to victory by "the secular transnational professional class" - an attempt, like Brooks, to portray Lamont's victory as just a product of a few wealthy limousine liberal voters. Barone then tops off his tirade with an attack on Lamont, for being "one of several members of a Democratic caucus who have made, inherited or married big money." Barone anger at Lamont for this doesn't seem to be tempered by the fact that Barone himself became famous for marrying into the billionaire Shorenstein family.

How do we know this is a lie? Just take a look at the results. Lamont not only won 7 out of 8 of Connecticut's counties, but he specifically won the poorest, most working-class areas of the state. For instance, Lamont won New Haven. That's not only Lieberman's hometown, but also "the seventh poorest community in the United States," according to the Department of Education, where "one out of every four citizens lives in poverty," according to the Yale Daily News. Lamont also won Hartford, the second-poorest city in America - one the American City Business Journals recently noted "is burdened with more socioeconomic stress than any other major city in the United States."
Sirota's post, with full links and comments, is found here. I haven't read Sirota's book yet, but I hear it's excellent.

Many thanks to our Redsock for the tip.

8.16.2006

lmf

I recently blogged about L.M.F., a novel by friend of wtmc Matt Bin.

L.M.F. stands for "Lacking Moral Fibre" - a former British military designation for what is now recognized as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Today I see this story:
The British government is expected to announce Wednesday that it will seek a group pardon for over 300 First World War soldiers executed for offences such as cowardice and desertion, a list that includes 23 Canadian soldiers.

Defence secretary Des Browne is expected to announce the posthumous pardon of 306 soldiers on moral grounds, the Guardian reported.

The soldiers were shot for cowardice or desertion, many after court martial hearings that lasted just minutes.

Descendants of the soldiers and advocates for the pardon have long argued that many were clearly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

The families of the executed soldiers received no military pensions, in addition to the stigma they suffered.
Can you imagine? After people had a normal and completely human reaction to the abnormal stress of war, they were killed. This, from the highly civilized British Empire. It reminds me of cultures where women are executed for having been raped. It boggles the mind.

I hope the posthumous pardon can bring the families of these soldiers some measure of peace.

"the soldiers can choose to stop fighting"

What if there was a war, and nobody came?

I frequently post about Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq. You might be tired of hearing about Watada, or maybe you just skip those posts. Today, I'm urging you to read his words. You can also see video of the speech here, at truthout.

Watada recently addressed the Veterans for Peace National Convention. Dahr Jamail, writing for truthout, describes how, "just as Watada took the stage and began to speak, over 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War filed in behind him. Watada, surprised by this and obviously taken aback by the symbolic act, turned back to the audience, took some deep breaths, then gave this speech".
Thank you everyone. Thank you all for your tremendous support. How honored and delighted I am to be in the same room with you tonight. I am deeply humbled by being in the company of such wonderful speakers.

You are all true American patriots. Although long since out of uniform, you continue to fight for the very same principles you once swore to uphold and defend. No one knows the devastation and suffering of war more than veterans - which is why we should always be the first to prevent it.

I wasn't entirely sure what to say tonight. I thought as a leader in general I should speak to motivate. Now I know that this isn't the military and surely there are many out there who outranked me at one point or another - and yes, I'm just a Lieutenant. And yet, I feel as though we are all citizens of this great country and what I have to say is not a matter of authority - but from one citizen to another. We have all seen this war tear apart our country over the past three years. It seems as though nothing we've done, from vigils to protests to letters to Congress, have had any effect in persuading the powers that be. Tonight I will speak to you on my ideas for a change of strategy. I am here tonight because I took a leap of faith. My action is not the first and it certainly will not be the last. Yet, on behalf of those who follow, I require your help - your sacrifice - and that of countless other Americans. I may fail. We may fail. But nothing we have tried has worked so far. It is time for change and the change starts with all of us.

I stand before you today, not as an expert - not as one who pretends to have all the answers. I am simply an American and a servant of the American people. My humble opinions today are just that. I realize that you may not agree with everything I have to say. However, I did not choose to be a leader for popularity. I did it to serve and make better the soldiers of this country. And I swore to carry out this charge honorably under the rule of law.

Today, I speak with you about a radical idea. It is one born from the very concept of the American soldier (or service member). It became instrumental in ending the Vietnam War - but it has been long since forgotten. The idea is this: that to stop an illegal and unjust war, the soldiers can choose to stop fighting it.

Now it is not an easy task for the soldier. For he or she must be aware that they are being used for ill-gain. They must hold themselves responsible for individual action. They must remember duty to the Constitution and the people supersedes the ideologies of their leadership. The soldier must be willing to face ostracism by their peers, worry over the survival of their families, and of course the loss of personal freedom. They must know that resisting an authoritarian government at home is equally important to fighting a foreign aggressor on the battlefield. Finally, those wearing the uniform must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that by refusing immoral and illegal orders they will be supported by the people not with mere words but by action.

The American soldier must rise above the socialization that tells them authority should always be obeyed without question. Rank should be respected but never blindly followed. Awareness of the history of atrocities and destruction committed in the name of America - either through direct military intervention or by proxy war - is crucial. They must realize that this is a war not out of self-defense but by choice, for profit and imperialistic domination. WMD, ties to Al Qaeda, and ties to 9/11 never existed and never will. The soldier must know that our narrowly and questionably elected officials intentionally manipulated the evidence presented to Congress, the public, and the world to make the case for war. They must know that neither Congress nor this administration has the authority to violate the prohibition against pre-emptive war - an American law that still stands today. This same administration uses us for rampant violations of time-tested laws banning torture and degradation of prisoners of war. Though the American soldier wants to do right, the illegitimacy of the occupation itself, the policies of this administration, and rules of engagement of desperate field commanders will ultimately force them to be party to war crimes. They must know some of these facts, if not all, in order to act.

Mark Twain once remarked, "Each man must for himself alone decide what is right and what is wrong, which course is patriotic and which isn't. You cannot shirk this and be a man. To decide against your conviction is to be an unqualified and inexcusable traitor, both to yourself and to your country …" By this, each and every American soldier, marine, airman, and sailor is responsible for their choices and their actions. The freedom to choose is only one that we can deny ourselves.

The oath we take swears allegiance not to one man but to a document of principles and laws designed to protect the people. Enlisting in the military does not relinquish one's right to seek the truth - neither does it excuse one from rational thought nor the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. "I was only following orders" is never an excuse.

The Nuremburg Trials showed America and the world that citizenry as well as soldiers have the unrelinquishable obligation to refuse complicity in war crimes perpetrated by their government. Widespread torture and inhumane treatment of detainees is a war crime. A war of aggression born through an unofficial policy of prevention is a crime against the peace. An occupation violating the very essence of international humanitarian law and sovereignty is a crime against humanity. These crimes are funded by our tax dollars. Should citizens choose to remain silent through self-imposed ignorance or choice, it makes them as culpable as the soldier in these crimes.

The Constitution is no mere document - neither is it old, out-dated, or irrelevant. It is the embodiment of all that Americans hold dear: truth, justice, and equality for all. It is the formula for a government of the people and by the people. It is a government that is transparent and accountable to whom they serve. It dictates a system of checks and balances and separation of powers to prevent the evil that is tyranny.

As strong as the Constitution is, it is not foolproof. It does not fully take into account the frailty of human nature. Profit, greed, and hunger for power can corrupt individuals as much as they can corrupt institutions. The founders of the Constitution could not have imagined how money would infect our political system. Neither could they believe a standing army would be used for profit and manifest destiny. Like any common dictatorship, soldiers would be ordered to commit acts of such heinous nature as to be deemed most ungentlemanly and unbecoming that of a free country.

The American soldier is not a mercenary. He or she does not simply fight wars for payment. Indeed, the state of the American soldier is worse than that of a mercenary. For a soldier-for-hire can walk away if they are disgusted by their employer's actions. Instead, especially when it comes to war, American soldiers become indentured servants whether they volunteer out of patriotism or are drafted through economic desperation. Does it matter what the soldier believes is morally right? If this is a war of necessity, why force men and women to fight? When it comes to a war of ideology, the lines between right and wrong are blurred. How tragic it is when the term Catch-22 defines the modern American military.

Aside from the reality of indentured servitude, the American soldier in theory is much nobler. Soldier or officer, when we swear our oath it is first and foremost to the Constitution and its protectorate, the people. If soldiers realized this war is contrary to what the Constitution extols - if they stood up and threw their weapons down - no President could ever initiate a war of choice again. When we say, "… Against all enemies foreign and domestic," what if elected leaders became the enemy? Whose orders do we follow? The answer is the conscience that lies in each soldier, each American, and each human being. Our duty to the Constitution is an obligation, not a choice.

The military, and especially the Army, is an institution of fraternity and close-knit camaraderie. Peer pressure exists to ensure cohesiveness but it stamps out individualism and individual thought. The idea of brotherhood is difficult to pull away from if the alternative is loneliness and isolation. If we want soldiers to choose the right but difficult path - they must know beyond any shadow of a doubt that they will be supported by Americans. To support the troops who resist, you must make your voices heard. If they see thousands supporting me, they will know. I have heard your support, as has Suzanne Swift, and Ricky Clousing - but many others have not. Increasingly, more soldiers are questioning what they are being asked to do. Yet, the majority lack awareness to the truth that is buried beneath the headlines. Many more see no alternative but to obey. We must show open-minded soldiers a choice and we must give them courage to act.

Three weeks ago, Sgt. Hernandez from the 172nd Stryker Brigade was killed, leaving behind a wife and two children. In an interview, his wife said he sacrificed his life so that his family could survive. I'm sure Sgt. Hernandez cherished the camaraderie of his brothers, but given a choice, I doubt he would put himself in a position to leave his family husbandless and fatherless. Yet that's the point, you see. People like Sgt. Hernandez don't have a choice. The choices are to fight in Iraq or let your family starve. Many soldiers don't refuse this war en mass because, like all of us,, they value their families over their own lives and perhaps their conscience. Who would willingly spend years in prison for principle and morality while denying their family sustenance?

I tell this to you because you must know that to stop this war, for the soldiers to stop fighting it, they must have the unconditional support of the people. I have seen this support with my own eyes. For me it was a leap of faith. For other soldiers, they do not have that luxury. They must know it and you must show it to them. Convince them that no matter how long they sit in prison, no matter how long this country takes to right itself, their families will have a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, opportunities and education. This is a daunting task. It requires the sacrifice of all of us. Why must Canadians feed and house our fellow Americans who have chosen to do the right thing? We should be the ones taking care of our own. Are we that powerless - are we that unwilling to risk something for those who can truly end this war? How do you support the troops but not the war? By supporting those who can truly stop it; let them know that resistance to participate in an illegal war is not futile and not without a future.

I have broken no law but the code of silence and unquestioning loyalty. If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I learned too much and cared too deeply for the meaningless loss of my fellow soldiers and my fellow human beings. If I am to be punished it should be for following the rule of law over the immoral orders of one man. If I am to be punished it should be for not acting sooner. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period … was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people."

Now, I'm not a hero. I am a leader of men who said enough is enough. Those who called for war prior to the invasion compared diplomacy with Saddam to the compromises made with Hitler. I say, we compromise now by allowing a government that uses war as the first option instead of the last to act with impunity. Many have said this about the World Trade Towers, "Never Again." I agree. Never again will we allow those who threaten our way of life to reign free - be they terrorists or elected officials. The time to fight back is now - the time to stand up and be counted is today.

I'll end with one more Martin Luther King Jr. quote:

"One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law."

Thank you and bless you all.
I found this speech so moving, so inspiring.

On June 22, 2006, Watada said, "As the order to take part in an illegal act is ultimately unlawful as well, I must refuse that order."

Watada's actions has made me ask myself, what can I do to help end the war? How I can declare peace?

8.15.2006

saga

The day before we left New York City (August 29, 2005) was, as you might imagine, a little crazy. In addition to picking up the minivan and driving around doing last-minute errands - including some time at the Department of Motor Vehicles, of all places - we had to drive back to the apartment on a regular basis. Buster was on a high dose of Prednisone at the time and had to go out every couple of hours.

That same day, we returned our cable TV and internet equipment to Time Warner Cable. Thus begins the saga - one that ended only yesterday.

The office where we brought the equipment was a tiny, over-crowded room. You would have thought it was a little mom-and-pop operation, not an office of one of the world's largest media conglomerates. The wait seemed interminable, and it was difficult to have patience on such a busy day. We considered driving downtown to their main office, but were warned the wait there might be just as bad, and NYC traffic being what it is, we'd be that much further away from Buster. We even considered returning the equipment by mail, but that option seemed even more time-consuming, and potentially disastrous.

Finally we split up. With slightly more patience for noisy, crowded spaces, I continued to wait, while Allan got a few more things done with the van, and checked on B.

Eventually our number was called and we were able to return the equipment.

We were owed money, both for a deposit, and for the service we had paid for but would not be using. The representative said her computer would not accept a Canadian address. She wrote our new address on a post-it note and stuck it on her copy of the receipt. I thought, what are the odds of that making it through the system? None or none?

In the weeks and months that followed, every once in a while, I would notice "TW refund" in my Outlook task list, and remember that we never received a cheque. I'd summon the fortitude to call, go through the entire sales menu (the system no longer recognized me as a customer, so I had to start from scratch each time), only to be told that refund cheques take four to six months to process, and that I should keep waiting. Four to six months?? Why would it take that long for Time Warner Cable to process a refund cheque? (Answer: it wouldn't.)

Then I would forget about this for months at a time. Then I'd remember and call again. And get the same response.

In early July, on a getting-things-done jag, I determined it was time to get the damn cheque. At this point, obviously, there could be no excuse.

I called, went through the entire menu. At first the representative told me there was no record of my ever having been a customer. On my further insistence, she somehow found our old records, which of course said no money was owed to us. (Patience, Laura, patience.) Finally she said she would refer this to the finance department, who would then contact me.

Was there any way I could contact the finance eepartment myself, to follow up? No. Was there any way I could call directly next time? No. Could she at least give me a case number, so when I called to follow up, I wouldn't have to re-tell the whole story? No.

When weeks passed and, predictably, we never heard from the elusive finance department, I recruited Allan, as I thought I might seriously lose it on the phone. More menus, more hold time, more representatives telling us we were never customers. Same outcome: the finance department, who cannot be contacted, but who will contact us.

I realized I had let this go on too long, and I needed another course of action. From the Time Warner website, I got their mailing address for disputes - only paper mail, no phone number, no email address - along with the addresses of the two New York State agencies that oversee consumer issues with cable companies. Thank goddess for these agencies, the product of consumer advocacy and activist legislators.

I wrote a letter, and cc'd both agencies.

I heard nothing from Time Warner. Both agencies - the State of New York Public Service Commission and the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications - contacted me within the week.

The Public Service Commission told me it is illegal for Time Warner to require a deposit for cable equipment. They were forced to stop the practice several years ago, but long-time customers were never informed of that, nor issued a refund. Reps from both agencies assured me that, along with an explanation and a cheque, we were due interest, beginning at the date our service was discontinued.

A few days later, guess who called?

The oily, officious, ass-kissing Time Warner representative didn't help at all. He only fanned the flames with his now-just-calm-down-we-can-work-this-out attitude.

Weeks passed. Still no cheque.

The agencies emailed, telling us that Time Warner says they cannot send money out of the country. We could either have the cheque sent to our old address (why would we want that?) or give them a local address. Our friend NN was kind enough to accept a cheque on our behalf. We gave them her address on July 24.

Yesterday, August 15, 2006, I received this email from NN: "The Eagle has landed."

* * * *

If Time Warner simply "forgets" to refund former customers' deposits, and customers must be relentlessly persistent to get their deposits back, think of how much money the company can pocket.

I know several of you choose not to have cable, and that's great if it works for you, but it doesn't work for us, both for high-speed internet and for out-of-town baseball. What's more, that's not a solution to a company's responsibilities to its customers.

I know everyone around here complains about Rogers, and I'm sure they have very good reason. (Ted Rogers, for one thing.) However, my own experience with Rogers has been stellar compared to Time Warner. I know it's a tiny sample size, and maybe I've just been lucky, but whenever I need anything from Rogers - cable, internet and cell phone - they are quick, efficient and polite; I get what I called for, very quickly. On the other hand, this saga comes as no surprise to any New Yorkers reading this blog.