12.31.2007

terrorism you may not have heard about

On December 6 of this year, arsonists set fire to the offices of Dr. Curtis Boyd, an abortion provider in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In its statement after the attack, the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion providers, noted:
NAF has been tracking incidents of violence and disruption since 1977. In that time, there have been seven murders, 17 attempted murders, 41 bombings, 100 butyric acid attacks, 656 anthrax threats, and 175 arsons including this most recent incident in New Mexico.

We hope that the suspect(s) responsible for this crime will be swiftly apprehended and convicted. The visible prosecution and conviction of anti-abortion criminals who engage in violence have led to a decrease in major acts of violence against abortion providers in recent years. However, last night’s arson is a reminder that we must remain vigilant in protecting women's access to reproductive health care and the safety of the dedicated health care professionals who provide that care.

Three weeks later, on December 27, there were two violent attacks at buildings belonging to Planned Parenthood of New Mexico: arson damaged a surgery center, and windows of a nearby family-planning clinic were smashed. From the New York Times:
The small, tightknit group of abortion providers here reacted with a mix of shock and fear over the attacks. In 1999, the same Planned Parenthood surgical center was set ablaze. An ex-convict, Ricky Lee McDonald, who has a history of violence against New Mexico abortion clinics, was found guilty in that attack and sent to prison.

. . . .

Dr. Boyd, who helped found the National Abortion Federation, a professional association of abortion providers, said: "After working on the abortion reform movement for 40 years, I wake up and I still can't believe we're still where we are. When will it stop?"

He and his wife, Glenna Halvorson-Boyd, a past president of the National Abortion Federation who is a psychologist at the clinic, vowed to rebuild their operation. But they said it had been difficult to find a new location because landlords were wary of renting to an abortion provider.

"I'm going to have to accept the fact that I'm going to die before the rights of women are secured, and the violence against providers and staff comes to an end," Dr. Boyd said.

A study issued last year by the Feminist Majority Foundation, which monitors attacks on abortion clinics, concluded that the most serious anti-abortion violence had declined since 1994, when federal legislation gave greater protection to providers and patients. According to the report, 18 percent of clinics experienced severe violence in 2005, compared with 52 percent in 1994.

Still, the report said, many clinics are still targets of extreme violence.

Dr. Boyd is the subject of the movie "Life Matters", about his days of performing abortions when it was illegal to do so in his home state of Texas. By coincidence, the producer and director of that film, Dr. Boyd's son Kyle Boyd, produced two educational videos that I wrote - although I didn't know of his connection to the reproductive rights movement at the time.

Many years later, when "Life Matters" came out, I was a coordinator for the Haven Coalition, and I saw Kyle's name on the film. He and his partner (also my producer) Charlotte Angel had moved to Brooklyn, and we discovered we had this mutual interest and passion.

When I saw Dr. Boyd's name in the news, I was frightened. He is a hero of the women's movement. I hope he is able to live out his natural life in peace.

12.29.2007

two follow-ups and a suggestion

A reader asked how I resolved my plastic bag dilemma: I followed-up on that here.

The Loblaws bags are great; I use them for everything. But no one's perfect, we sometimes still find ourselves bringing home plastic bags, so we're using those for dog pick-up. We also keep biodegradable dog pick-up bags for when we run out of the regular kind.

I also asked about how to stop Canada Post from clogging our mailbox with junk.

I'm appalled that they raise revenue by soliciting companies to flood us with "Unaddressed Admail". I understand paper-mail revenue is down. Wouldn't it be better to raise the price of stamps than to contribute to so much paper waste?

I asked our lovely letter carrier how we could opt out of the mailings, and she said, "You just did." She told me that technically she's supposed to produce a signed letter - that is, Canada Post places a burden on the recipient, making it much less likely folks will bother. But she also hates the unaddressed mailings, and goes with a verbal request from anyone on her route.

If you're receiving a lot of this crap, and if it goes straight to the recycling bin as it does in my house, I encourage you to speak to your letter carrier about opting out. I'm also going to tell Canada Post how I feel about this. I would welcome an organized campaign to stop the unaddressed mail. (I won't be organizing one myself, but I wish someone else would!)

And finally, a suggestion that is both yummy and environmentally friendly.

For many years, I made coffee with a drip coffee maker, as most people do. When I learned that the bleach used in conventional coffee filters releases chlorine and dioxins into the environment (and into the coffee drinker!), I switched to unbleached filters, and I used those for years.

There is also the permanent gold filter, but I think it gives a metallic taste to the coffee, and doesn't filter as well. So I was still using paper, but at least it was unbleached paper.

Then I had a coffee epiphany.

My girlfriend made a pot of coffee, and it was so much better than what I made at home! It was richer, hotter and altogether better tasting. We both bought good quality coffee beans, so the difference wasn't attributable to that. The answer: electric perc. Even my very good Braun coffeemaker was no match for her humble Farberware electric percolator.

I became a convert. Electric-perc coffee is fast, easy, delicious and requires no filters, so there's no paper waste of any kind.

There are two disadvantages compared to a drip coffeemaker.

If you're used to a "sip-and-pour" feature - where you can pour a cup of coffee while the pot is still brewing - you can't do that with a percolator. It's the whole pot or nothing. But the coffee brews much faster, so you don't have to wait as long.

And, if you like to prepare your coffeemaker at night and set the timer for the next morning, you can't do that with a percolator either. (Although I imagine you could buy an appliance timer and rig something up.) I never used the timer function, because I don't want coffee made from water that's been sitting, unrefrigerated, all night. But if you do like that, you'd miss it with electric perc.

But the coffee is so much better.

Another filterless option that someone is sure to mention is a French press or press pot. This is great if you only want one cup, or if you're serving one cup each to several people. But if, like me, you want to make a pot of coffee and drink several cups over the course of the morning, a press pot won't work for you. By the time you're ready for your second cup, the coffee will taste old and bitter.

Coffee brewed from an electric percolator is fast, hot and delicious. Electric percolators aren't easy to find, compared to drip. Most stores seem to stock one model, at most. But they make a great cup of coffee and you'll never have to buy another coffee filter again.

Here are more things every coffee drinker can do to drink a more environmentally friendly cup. I read that almost a quarter of the trash in Nova Scotia comes from Tim Hortons cups. Buy organic and bring your own mug.

electricperc

12.28.2007

a magnet and a pda: ohio secretary of state admits 2004 election easily could have been stolen

From my heroes Bob Fitrakis and Harvey Wasserman.
Ohio's Secretary of State announced this morning that a $1.9 million official study shows that "critical security failures" are embedded throughout the voting systems in the state that decided the 2004 election. Those failures, she says, "could impact the integrity of elections in the Buckeye State." They have rendered Ohio's vote counts "vulnerable" to manipulation and theft by "fairly simple techniques."

Indeed, she says, "the tools needed to compromise an accurate vote count could be as simple as tampering with the paper audit trail connector or using a magnet and a personal digital assistant."

In other words, Ohio's top election official has finally confirmed that the 2004 election could have been easily stolen.

Brunner's stunning findings apply to electronic voting machines used in 58 of Ohio's 88 counties, in addition to scanning devices and central tabulators used on paper ballots in much of the rest of the state.

Brunner is calling for widespread changes to the way Ohio casts and counts its ballots. Her announcement follows moves by California Secretary of State Deborah Bowen to disqualify electronic voting machines in the nation's biggest state.

In tandem, these two reports add a critical state-based dimension to the growing mountain of evidence that the US electoral system is rife with insecurities. Reports from the Brennan Center, the Carter-Baker Commission, the Government Accountability Office, the Conyers Committee Task Force Report, Princeton University and others have offered differing perspectives that add up to the same conclusion.

Coming in the state that decided the 2004 election for George W. Bush, Brunner's confirmation of the electoral system's vulnerabilities adds huge new weight to the charge that the Buckeye State's vote count was stolen.

Fitrakis and Wasserman are dedicated to exposing - and fighting - election fraud in the US. If you need honest information about dishonest US elections, you can't do better than their Free Press. It's a great site for many other issues, too.

So what's on tap for 2008?

One effort to rig the election has already been foiled. Johann Hari, writing in The Independent (UK), sounded the alarm.
In the long, hot autumn of 2000, the world was shocked by the contempt for democracy shown by the Republican Party. They knew their man had lost the popular vote to Al Gore by half a million votes. They knew the majority of voters in Florida itself had pulled a lever for Gore. But they fought – amid the confetti of hanging chads – to stop the state's votes being counted, and to ensure that the Supreme Court imposed George W Bush.

Today, that contempt for democracy is on display again. In California right now, there is a naked, out-in-the-open ploy to rig the 2008 presidential election – and it may succeed.

To understand how this works, we have to roam back to the 18th century, and learn about the odd anachronistic leftover they are trying to use now to thwart democracy. Back then, America's founding fathers decided not to introduce a system where US presidents would be directly elected, with the votes totted up in Washington, DC, and the winner being the man with the most. Instead, they chose a complex system called the electoral college. This stipulates that American citizens do not vote directly for a president. Instead, they technically vote for 539 state-wide "electors", who then gather six weeks after the election to pick the President.

The founders designed it this way for a number of reasons. They wanted the smaller states to have a say, so they gave them a disproportionate number of electoral college votes. They also believed that, in a country that was largely isolated and illiterate, voters wouldn't know much about out-of-state figures, and would be better off picking intermediaries who could exercise discretion on their behalf.

It is the worst part of the Constitution, producing perverse results again and again. On four occasions there has been such a big gap between the national popular vote and the state-by-state electoral college votes that the guy with fewer real supporters in the country got to be President. It happened in 1824, 1876, 1888 and – most tragically for the world – in 2000.

Today, the Republicans are trying to exploit the discontent with the electoral college among Americans in a way that would rig the system in their favour. At the moment, every state apart from Maine and Nebraska hands out its electoral college votes according to a winner-takes-all system. This means that if 51 per cent of people in California vote Democrat, the Democrats get 100 per cent of California's electoral votes; if 51 per cent of people in Texas vote Republican, the Republicans get 100 per cent of Texas' electoral votes.

The Republicans want to change this – but in only one Democrat-leaning state. California has gone Democratic in presidential elections since 1988, and winning the sunny state is essential if the Democrats are going to retake the White House. So the Republicans have now begun a plan to break up California's electoral college votes – and award a huge chunk of them to their side.

They have launched a campaign called California Counts, and they are trying to secure a state-wide referendum in June to implement their plan. They want California's electoral votes to be divvied up not on a big state-wide basis, but according to the much smaller congressional districts. The practical result? Instead of all the state's 54 electoral college votes going to the Democratic candidate, around 20 would go to the Republicans.

If this was being done in every state, everywhere, it would be an improvement. California's forgotten Republicans would be represented in the electoral college, and so would Texas's forgotten Democrats. But by doing it in California alone, they are simply giving the Republicans a massive electoral gift. Suddenly it would be extremely hard for a Democrat ever to win the White House; they would need a landslide victory everywhere else to counter this vast structural imbalance against them on the West Coast.

You can see this partisan agenda if you look at who is behind the campaign. It was set up by Charles "Chep" Hurth III – a Republican donor to Rudy Giuliani. It was drafted by Tom Hiltachk – a Republican attorney. Its signature drive was co-ordinated by Kevin Eckery – a Republican consultant. Its funds were provided by Paul Singer – a Republican billionaire and one of Rudy Giuliani's biggest donors. Its chief fundraiser is Anne Dunsmore – who went there straight from her post as national deputy campaign manager for Giuliani. Seeing a pattern yet?

"California Counts" was supposed to be dead already, killed by the people's fight against it. But the fascist thiefs weren't finished.

More about their (failed) (so far) plot to steal 2008 at Crooks and Liars.

great reading, brought to you by jon swift

Jon Swift asked his readers for their best post of the past year. The results are some amazing reading.

Perhaps you take the blogosphere for granted, but to me, it's absolutely astounding how many people are engaged in the form of journalism we call blogging - how many people are reading, thinking and writing, who likely would not be, were it not for the internet. Every once in a while I read something in the mainstream media slamming bloggers, and I think, there goes the dying gasp of a dinosaur.

For my entry, I chose Better Living Through Canada, partly because many readers voted for it, but also because it seems illustrative of the themes of this blog.

Wmtc is getting a lot of traffic from Jon Swift's post, so maybe a few more people will learn something about the Canadian health care system.

Jon Swift's Best Blog Posts of 2007 is here.

12.27.2007

the omnivore's amnesia

I mentioned that I've started reading Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma. When I picked it up, I said to Allan, "I'm dreading reading this book." He said, "Why? Because you want to continue to eat?"

Exactly.

I've already read large portions Omnivore's Dilemma in the form of magazine features, so I knew full well what I was getting into: an exercise in self-torture.

* * * *

Yesterday I blogged about "The Story Of Stuff," the little documentary about unchecked consumerism in a finite world. Thinking about the film on a personal level, I could place myself somewhere on the consumer continuum. On one end we have the most conspicuous consumer of crap - the person who shops for recreation, constantly buys things he doesn't need and mindlessly chucks away most of it - and on the other, the person who leads the most careful, ascetic, consciously low-consumption lifestyle possible. I'm closer to the left end of the scale than the right, but I'd like to be further down the consumption chain than I already am.

In a similar way, I read Michael Pollan's book, and I think about my own habits. But this is vastly more disturbing to me, because it cuts straight to the heart of a central problem in my life.

Call it cognitive dissonance, ethical quandary or simply call it conscience. I am deeply disturbed by how animals are treated in the industrial production of meat. I can't stand knowing that I contribute to that system. Yet I continue to contribute to it, by buying and eating that meat.

I'm one of those people who sees the disconnect between loving my dogs and eating a cow. I was a vegetarian for a few years (two and a half, to be precise), but it never worked for me. Vegetarians have a hard time with this, but not eating animal protein wasn't good for me in terms of health, nutrition, or lifestyle. I respect anyone who has made the choice to not eat animal products. But being a vegetarian is never going to be a sustainable option for my life.

In reading and thinking about animals as food, I discovered my own position on the continuum between blindly eating anything and a total commitment to conscious eating. (I already pay a lot of attention to what I eat in terms of my own health.) I don't have a problem with people eating animals. What I object to is how those animals are treated in their short times on earth.

If the cow that was ultimately going to become my steak lived a good cow life, with fresh air and sunshine, land to roam on and grass to eat, then was killed as quickly and painlessly as possible, I'd eat steak with a clear conscience. Same goes for the chicken, pig, lamb, fish, and so on.

But of course that is not where my steak comes from. My steak comes from a factory farm. And factory farms are horrible places where animals suffer.

I won't try to reproduce or explain what I've learned about factory farming. If these concepts are new to you, and if you're interested in learning more, I would recommend Michael Pollan's articles as a good place to start. Pollan is an omnivore; he doesn't object to meat-eating per se. So if you are also an omnivore, it might be a more comfortable place to get educated, compared with more militantly anti-meat sites. This page has his "greatest hits"; I especially recommend starting here.

There are so many reasons to shun the feedlot, the factories where animals bred for food live out their short, unhappy lives.The feedlot causes:
  • cruelty and suffering to animals,
  • ground water pollution,
  • soil erosion,
  • antibiotic resistance in humans (leading to fatal "superbugs"),
  • the poisoning of the food system with dangerous new forms of e Coli bacteria,
    and, at bottom,
  • an increased dependency on fossil fuels.

    That means that factory farming is connected to the war in Iraq.

    I tell myself that last bit to help me change my habits. I'm trying to make myself as uncomfortable as possible.

    Of course, that works while I'm drinking my coffee on this gray December morning. Will it work on that beautiful June evening when we're grilling dinner in the backyard?

    I have given up certain foods that are, in my view, produced with too much cruelty to overlook. I haven't eaten veal in decades, and a few years ago Allan and I both stopped eating lobster, thanks to David Foster Wallace. Lobster used to be my favourite food, but I've eaten enough of it in my life.

    But is any food-processing practice more cruel than what is done to the pig? I've yet to give up bacon. And since we don't eat it at home, I can be virtually guaranteed that any bacon I eat has come from a factory-tortured pig.

    So will I eventually add corn-fed beef and factory-farmed pork to the short list of foods I don't eat?

    I don't know.

    I already buy antibiotic-free chicken and beef whenever possible. We buy steaks from an organic Ontario farm. But I know these labels are squirrely and I haven't investigated what this designation really means.

    One day, will our society look back on factory farms the way we look at the Victorians' workhouses and debtors prisons? Certainly the fight to dismantle the factory farm has already begun. But it has yet to enter mainstream discourse, and the extremely powerful interests at the heart of the system are thoroughly insulated.

    * * * *

    The central point of "The Story of Stuff" - something I say all the time, and I think needs to be a mantra for all of us - is that no one wants to pay the true price of what we buy.

    Factory-farmed meat is the same way. For most of history, eating beef was a luxury. Now beef is so inexpensive that it's become a staple. But what are the true costs of this inexpensive meat?

    None of us - the omnivores anyway - want to know the costs. For me sometimes the costs feel unbearable. And yet.

    Pollan says: "Eating industrial meat takes an almost heroic act of not knowing, or now, forgetting."

    How much forgetting can I do?
  • 12.26.2007

    the story of stuff

    James sent me this remarkable little documentary about the massive consumption of our modern world. It's called "The Story Of Stuff", and it's excellent.

    The piece is about 20 minutes long. I highly recommend bookmarking it and saving it for a time when you can watch the whole thing.

    As I watched The Story of Stuff, I was reminded of something I wrote while we were in Peru. (Scroll down, it's towards the end.)

    I've never been an enormous consumer compared to the average North American, but being leftist and an activist, I've always known people who consume far less than I do. I have a kind of reverse-materialism envy. So many people envy other people's stuff. I envy the people I know who live with less.

    Our travels in Peru, and reading people like Jared Diamond and others, has helped me strive to consume less and recycle and re-use more. But like so many people, I also feel helpless, and worried, and I want to do more.

    Watch The Story of Stuff.

    a meta note

    I expect traffic will be slow for a few days, as most people are out of their routines, even those who agree with me about all this silliness.

    I'll be putting up a few posts that are hanging around my brain, but I want to draw your attention to my recent reader poll. Thank you to everyone who already weighed in, and to every one of you for reading and being part of this blog all year.

    I also wanted to mention that Blogger now has Open ID commenting, so people who prefer to use a WordPress, LiveJournal, TypePad, AOL or whatever ID are able to.

    I've never understood why people are reluctant to have more than one login. I have logins for all the different platforms, so I can comment on anyone's blog. But occasionally I receive emails from folks who say they can't comment because they don't have a Google/Blogger login. Well, if that's you, now you can. Enjoy.

    If you read this blog the old-fashioned way, by going to the site and scrolling down, please check below for new posts.

    lots of laughs

    Three funny movies in a row! That's not a common occurence around here. "Shaun of the Dead", "The Simpsons Movie", and last night, "Hot Fuzz". Thanks to everyone who recommended Hot Fuzz. Terrific movie.

    many forms of resistance, including death

    When the War Resisters Support Campaign was in Ottawa for the Citizenship Committee hearing, we were joined by two organizers from Courage to Resist. They came to Ottawa from California to support the resisters, then stayed in Toronto for a while, meeting kindred spirits and making connections for their excellent work.

    It was exciting for me to meet these folks, as Courage To Resist was how I first heard about Iraq War resisters. I admire them so much, and feel honoured to be working alongside them.

    Two of the Courage To Resist organizers attended a Support Campaign meeting after the Ottawa trip. They led a small ceremony, awarding "peace medals" to all the resisters in the room.

    One of them - I'm not sure of his name, and I don't want to get it wrong - was a resister himself. He told us he had refused to fight in the first Gulf War, and served nine months in prison. When he said that, a small gasp shot through the room. I am awed by someone who has the strength to make that choice.

    This person talked about the many forms resistance can take. Some active service people are forming IVAW chapters on their bases, and are being punished internally for that. Others are refusing to participate in actions against civilians, an astonishingly brave form of resistance, as they are subjected to physical, psychological and financial punishment. Others, like Ivan Brobeck (among others), have gone to prison. And of course, many have chosen to come to Canada.

    Here's a story about resistance. It's being reported as a "mutiny". But what is a mutiny if not the refusal to fight? I'll use the excerpt and commentary as reported in Editor & Publisher, a steadfast truth-teller and voice for democracy and peace. My sincerest thanks to editor Greg Mitchell, who writes the blog Pressing Issues, for that.
    While violence is down in Iraq, Americans continue to die and fall badly wounded, and suffer severe stress and trauma caused by 15-month tours of duty. A remarkable article on Friday in the Army Times is titled: "Not us. We're not going: Soldiers in 2nd Platoon, Charlie 1-26 stage a 'mutiny' that pulls the unit apart."

    Here are two excerpts. The first describes only one of several incidents that drove many soldiers to "stand down." The second looks at how some responded. The entire lengthy piece by staff writer Kelly Kennedy can be found [here].

    *

    Lt. Col. John Reynolds replaced Lt. Col. Eric Schacht as battalion commander July 8. Schacht left after his son died of a heart condition in Germany, the same day Charlie Company lost five men in the Bradley. Even with the high operations tempo and the loss of so many men, Reynolds called the changeover "easy."

    "It was the best transition you could get," he said.

    But within days, he would lose five men, including a respected senior non-commissioned officer. Master Sgt. Jeffrey McKinney, Alpha Company’s first sergeant, was known as a family man and as a good leader because he was intelligent and could explain things well. But Staff Sgt. Jeremy Rausch of Charlie Company's 1st Platoon, a good friend of McKinney's, said McKinney told him he felt he was letting his men down in Adhamiya.

    "First Sergeant McKinney was kind of a perfectionist and this was bothering him very much," Rausch said. On July 11, McKinney was ordered to lead his men on a foot patrol to clear the roads of IEDs. Everyone at Apache heard the call come in from Adhamiya, where Alpha Company had picked up the same streets Charlie had left. Charlie's 1st Platoon had also remained behind, and Rausch said he would never forget the fear he heard in McKinney’s driver's voice:

    "This is Apache seven delta," McKinney’s driver said in a panicked voice over the radio. "Apache seven just shot himself. He just shot himself. Apache seven shot himself."

    Rausch said there was no misunderstanding what had happened.

    According to Charlie Company soldiers, McKinney said, "I can't take it anymore," and fired a round. Then he pointed his M4 under his chin and killed himself in front of three of his men.

    At Old Mod, Charlie Company was called back in for weapons training, [Spc. Gerry] DeNardi said. They were told it was an accident. Then they were told it was under investigation. And then they were told it was a suicide. Reynolds confirmed that McKinney took his own life.

    *

    .... 2nd Platoon had gathered for a meeting and determined they could no longer function professionally in Adhamiya — that several platoon members were afraid their anger could set loose a massacre.

    "We said, 'No.' If you make us go there, we're going to light up everything," DeNardi said. "There's a thousand platoons. Not us. We're not going."

    They decided as a platoon that they were done, DeNardi and Cardenas said, as did several other members of 2nd Platoon. At mental health, guys had told the therapist, "I'm going to murder someone." And the therapist said, "There comes a time when you have to stand up," 2nd Platoon members remembered. For the sake of not going to jail, the platoon decided they had to be "unplugged."

    [Sgt. Tim] Ybay had gone to battalion to speak up for his guys and ask for more time. But when he came back, it was with orders to report to Old Mod. Ybay said he tried to persuade his men to go out, but he could see they were not ready.

    "It was like a scab that wouldn't heal up," Ybay said. "I couldn't force them to go out. Listening to them in the mental health session, I could hear they're not ready."

    At 2 a.m, Ybay said, he'd found his men sitting outside smoking cigarettes. They could not sleep. Some of them were taking as many as 10 sleeping pills and still could not rest. The images of their dead friends haunted them. The need for revenge ravaged them.

    But Ybay was still disappointed in his men. "I had a mission," he said. "The company had a mission. We still had to execute. But I understood their side, too."

    This is a very grim fact to face. In the midst of such madness, suicide becomes a desperate form of resistance.

    Jason Scheuerman, 20 years old, was clearly at high risk for suicide. The US Army sent him to Iraq anyway. Now he's dead - technically by suicide, but the US Army handed him the gun, literally and figuratively.
    Private First Class Jason Scheuerman nailed a suicide note to his barracks closet in Iraq, stepped inside and shot himself.

    "Maybe finaly I can get some peace," said the 20-year-old, misspelling "finally" but writing in a neat hand.

    His parents didn't find out about the note for well over a year, and only then when it showed up in a government envelope in his father's rural North Carolina mailbox.

    The one-page missive was among hundreds of pages of documents the soldier's family obtained and shared with The Associated Press after battling a military bureaucracy they feel didn't want to answer their questions, especially this: Why did Jason Scheuerman have to die?

    What the soldier's father, Chris, would learn about his son's final days would lead the retired Special Forces commando, who teaches at Fort Bragg, to take on the very institution he's spent his life serving -- and ultimately prompt an investigation by the Army Inspector General's office.

    The documents, obtained by Freedom of Information Act requests filed by Chris Scheuerman, reveal a troubled soldier kept in Iraq despite repeated signs he was going to kill himself, including placing the muzzle of his weapon in his mouth multiple times.

    Jason Scheuerman's story -- pieced together with interviews and information in the documents -- demonstrates how he was failed by the very support system that was supposed to protect him. In his case, a psychologist told his commanders to send him back to his unit because he was capable of feigning mental illness to get out of the Army.

    He is not alone. At least 152 U.S. troops have taken their own lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since the two wars started, contributing to the Army's highest suicide rate in 26 years of keeping track. [Emphasis added.] For the grieving parents, the answers don't come easily or quickly.

    For Jason Scheuerman, death came on July 30, 2005, around 5:30 p.m., about 45 minutes after his first sergeant told the teary-eyed private that if he was intentionally misbehaving so he could leave the Army, he would go to jail where he would be abused.

    When the call came out over the unit's radios that there had been a death, one soldier would later tell investigators he suspected it was Scheuerman.

    More on Iraq War suicides here. The Army says there's no connection between post-traumatic stress disorder and the highest troop suicide rate since the Pentagon started keeping track.

    12.25.2007

    simpsons movie

    We watched The Simpsons Movie last night, and we both loved it. It's really funny.

    I purposely hadn't read about it, so I didn't know what to expect. I was surprised that parts of it were very heavy, even profound. The overall theme is human survival and the survival of Earth. Very impressive.

    The only thing I had heard about the movie was "Bart's doodle": full frontal nudity! I saw one review that said, to paraphrase, "You only see it for a second, what's the big deal?" The big deal is that the "doodle" sequence is hilarious. We were both wholeheartedly laughing out loud.

    Two thumbs-up on this one. Worth owning, I think.

    12.24.2007

    oscar peterson

    I've just learned that Oscar Peterson has died. He was a true giant of jazz, and surely Canada's greatest jazz musician. He was also our neighbour, in a manner of speaking, as he lived in Mississauga for many years.

    Yesterday Jazz FM was playing only Peterson's music, and giving short biographical sketches of his life. It was wonderful.

    He lived a long and extremely fruitful life. Peterson will really be missed, but it's clear that he'll also live forever.

    OscarPeterson

    Oscar Peterson, 1925-2007

    the rewrite man

    This is a really interesting obituary.

    Sylvan Fox wasn't a famous writer, but he was a consummate craftsperson. Those of you who have written on deadline or to a tight word length will appreciate this anecdote.
    Mr. Fox was a reporter at The New York World-Telegram & The Sun when, on March 1, 1962, he was part of a team assigned to cover an airplane crash on Long Island that killed all 95 passengers. While his fellow reporters at the paper rushed to the crash site and phoned him with their unprocessed notes, Mr. Fox calmly worked the facts into order and delivered an article within a half-hour of the accident.

    He then rewrote the article for seven editions of the paper, adding new details as they came in. Within 90 minutes of the crash, he had produced a 3,000-word article. The Pulitzer was awarded to Mr. Fox and two colleagues in the now-obsolete category of "local story, edition time."

    A 3,000 word story in 90 minutes, pieced together from other people's reportage. Try it some time - without using a computer to move paragraphs around.

    Fox was the first "rewrite man" to win a Pulitzer Prize. I always recognized his byline in the New York Times because of his interesting name: the forest fox.

    He was 79 years old and lived in Manhattan.

    more on jamie leigh jones's struggle for justice

    If you haven't been following the story of Jamie Leigh Jones, the young woman who was gang-raped by KBR employees in Iraq, here's an update.

    Last week, the US Department of Justice couldn't be bothered to attend a hearing on Jones's case.
    The Department of Justice refused to send a representative to answer questions from Congress today on the investigations into allegations of rape and sexual assault on female American contractors.

    "I'm embarrassed that the Department of Justice can't even come forward," said the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee John Conyers, D-Mich.

    "This is an absolute disgrace," said Conyers. "The least we could do is have people from the Department of Justice and the Defense over here talking about how we're going to straighten out the system right away."

    Among the witnesses who testified today was Jamie Leigh Jones, who appeared on "20/20" last week.

    Jones, now 23, says that after she'd been raped by multiple assailants in her room at a KBR camp in the Green Zone, she was warned by company officials that if she left Iraq for medical treatment, she'd be out of a job.

    To date there has been no prosecution of the men who Jones says gang-raped her.

    Jones' congressman, Ted Poe, R-Texas, also testified at the hearing and told the committee how he has not been given any answers as to the status of the investigation by DOJ or the State Department.

    "The Department of Justice has not informed Jamie or me of the status of a criminal investigation against her rapist if any investigation exists," Poe said today. "It is interesting to note that the Department of Justice has thousands of lawyers but not one from the barrage of lawyers is here to tell us what if anything they are doing. Their absence and silence speaks volumes about the hidden crimes in Iraq. Their attitude seems to be one of blissful indifference to American workers in Iraq," said Poe.

    Jones told Congress that it wasn't until after she was interviewed by "20/20," that an assistant U.S. attorney in Florida questioned her about her case.

    While the DOJ is ignoring the case, many women have been paying close attention. Jones's courage has inspired other women to come forward about the sexual assault and harassment they endured while working for KBR in Iraq.
    A woman who claims she was raped by a fellow employee while working for a U.S. contractor in Iraq told House lawmakers Wednesday that her case is far from unique.

    A Texas congressman agreed, saying several other women have come forward with reports of sexual harassment and assault while employed in Iraq for Halliburton's former subsidiary, KBR.

    The women have given lawyers and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, accounts similar to the allegations of Jamie Leigh Jones of Conroe, Texas, who says she was raped in July 2005 by a co-worker who drugged her. She said she awoke groggy and confused the next morning, bleeding and bruised. She said a KBR representative kept her in a shipping container for a day so she wouldn't report the assault.

    "This problem goes way beyond just me," Jones told the House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, terrorism and homeland security.

    Poe said three women — including Tracy Barker, who submitted written testimony of her account and was at the hearing — had contacted him.

    The Associated Press does not usually identify people who say they were sexually assaulted, but Jones and others named here have made their identities public.

    Ten others reported their stories through a foundation Jones began to help women with similar experiences.

    These stories should come as no surprise, as all reports from Iraq paint a picture of a violent, lawless world, where only force matters and brutality is the order of the day. In an atmosphere of rogue warfare, women will always suffer.

    But why has Jones been unable to get justice at home? Stockwell Day recently told us that the US is a democratic country that supports the rule of law. (That's also the Harper government's principal excuse for not granting asylum to AWOL US soldiers.) So even if she endured a violent assault "over there", she should be able to access that lawful, democratic system back "here". Right?

    Well, no. Stephanie Mencimer, writing in Mother Jones, explains.
    Cheney Justice?

    Why can't Jamie Leigh Jones, who says she was raped in Iraq by her coworkers at Haliburton's KBR, sue her former employer for damages? Ask Dick Cheney.

    On Wednesday, Jamie Leigh Jones told a House Judiciary Committee her now-famous story about having been allegedly drugged and gang-raped two years ago by several coworkers shortly after arriving in Iraq as a contractor for KBR, an engineering and construction firm contracted with the military to provide logistical support to the troops. Jones' story has prompted widespread outrage, partly because the Justice Department and the military failed to prosecute her attackers, but also because it appears that Jones can't sue KBR for placing her in harm's way.

    When Jones went to work for KBR in Texas, and later for its subsidiary, Overseas Administrative Services, she signed contracts containing mandatory binding arbitration clauses, which required her to give up her right to sue the companies and any right to a jury trial. Instead, the contracts forced Jones to press her case through private arbitration, which she did in 2006. In that forum, the company that allegedly wronged her pays the arbitrator who is hearing the case. For that she can thank Dick Cheney.

    At the time of the alleged attack on Jones, KBR was a subsidiary of Halliburton, the behemoth military-contracting and oil-technology firm. (KBR was sold off earlier this year.) So Jones is covered by the Halliburton dispute-resolution program, which was implemented when Cheney was Halliburton's CEO. The system bears the markings of Cheney's obsession with secrecy and executive power. On his watch, Halliburton, in late 1997, made it more difficult for its employees to sue the company for discrimination, sexual harassment, and other workplace-related issues.

    One day, Halliburton sent all its employees a brochure explaining that the company was implementing a new dispute resolution system. The company sold the new program as an employee perk that would create an "open door" policy for bringing grievances to management and as a forum for resolving disputes without expensive and lengthy litigation. In practice, it meant that anyone who had a legitimate civil-rights or personal-injury claim signed away his or her constitutional right to a jury trial. Anyone who showed up for work after getting the brochure was considered to have agreed to give up his or her rights, regardless of whether the employees had actually read it. In 2001, the conservative and pro-business Texas Supreme Court overturned two lower courts to declare that this move was legal.

    Dallas lawyer John Wall has something of a franchise suing Halliburton on behalf of employees in civil-rights and other workplace cases. He says there hasn't been a year since 1986 that he hasn't had at least one case against Halliburton. He's represented dozens of the company's employees and won numerous settlements and jury trials in civil lawsuits against the company. The reason, he says, is that Halliburton targets "the old, the injured, and the ill" when it makes layoff decisions, and it has a history of firing people for making workers compensation claims. Under the arbitration process, he says, Halliburton has fared much better, winning many more cases. When it loses, he says, the company pays significantly lower damages, which he says rarely exceed $50,000.

    . . .

    This week, I asked the American Arbitration Association (AAA), which handles many of Halliburton's arbitrations, if I could review all the complaints filed against the company by its employees in arbitration over the past three years—complaints that would be public if they had been filed in a courthouse. I received the following response:

    "The AAA adheres to strict Standards of Ethics and Business Conduct, guided by our core values of Integrity, Conflict Management, and Service. As part of these ethical standards, we avoid any conflicts of interest that may jeopardize our impartiality. The AAA's rules protect the confidentiality of the arbitration process by restricting the disclosure of information related to cases filed with the AAA by AAA employees and arbitrators."

    When I protested, noting that simply releasing the complaints would not affect anyone's impartiality, an AAA spokesperson sent me to Richard Naimark, a senior vice president at the company. He explained that while arbitrations aren't necessarily confidential—though many are—they are technically owned by the two parties, who can release the information if they want to, but AAA cannot. Naimark insisted that employees like the confidential nature of arbitration. "Americans value their privacy," he said.

    Rather than privacy, employment lawyers routinely say that most employees they represent crave a jury trial. Texas lawyer Barbara Gardner challenged the way Halliburton forced arbitration on its employees, but, after losing the case in 2001 before the Texas Supreme Court, she has taken a dim view of mandatory arbitration in employment contracts. "Employees don't fare very well in arbitration," she says "It's not a level playing field. It's all set up to make sure the employer wins." Her firm will no longer handle employment cases forced into private arbitration because they are considered so hopeless.

    You can read the rest of this excellent story here.

    So on one hand we have a lawless frontier where anything goes (as long as its perpetrated by Americans), and on the other, a bought-and-sold "justice" system covering it up. I keep thinking of movies about South American countries after a military coup.

    * * * *

    One last note on Jamie Leigh Jones.

    I'm painfully aware - and I don't choose the word "painful" as a figure of speech - that for Iraqi victims of the US occupation, there exists not even the attempt at justice for which Jones fights. No Congresspeople campaign on behalf of Iraqi rape victims. No American lawyers are defending the Iraqi men and boys who are swept up in the daily raids - and then disappear.

    In no way do I imply that Jamie Leigh Jones is somehow the worst casualty or the "biggest victim" of this awful war.

    But she doesn't have to be. It's not a contest.

    Jamie Leigh Jones's pain is real. She was drugged, gang-raped and held prisoner, and the government of her own country protects her assailants. The suffering of Iraqi women under the same occupation doesn't make that any less traumatic. Our sympathy for Jones shouldn't blind us to Iraqis' pain, but surely that equation shouldn't work in reverse.

    12.23.2007

    wmtc reader poll

    The excellent satirist-blogger Jon Swift is doing a Best of 2007 round-up. He's asking bloggers to submit their best post of the past year.

    For purely personal posts, this was a big hit. And nothing was quite as wonderful as THIS.

    But I've got to go for something a little more topical, not quite so specifically personal. The personal-is-political realm, which is my strength, such as it is.

    Allan combed through the muck and found ten or so good entries. From those, I narrowed it down to six.

    Could you help me choose? The nominees, in order of appearance, are:

    (a) May 11: better living through canada

    (b) June 2: on luck

    (c) June 15: apathy, laziness, fear? or something else?

    (d) July 1: reality check: violence against women

    (e) July 30: the tyranny of the subconscious

    (f) August 26: invasion of the brain snatchers

    (g) None of the above. They all suck.

    Allan noticed I do my best blogging in summer. I believe that was a function of unemployment. Lots of time to think.

    Please vote in comments, and thank you in advance.

    Also, if you want to submit something to Mr Swift's Best Of efforts, he'll be happy to hear from you at modestjonswift at g mail.

    "black" sites? maybe red, white and blue sites?

    This week, Amy Goodman shined a light in a very, very dark place.

    Goodman interviewed Mohamed Farag Ahmad Bashmilah, who survived the CIA's torture-rendition program. You know the one? The program that key Democrats knew about as early as 2002.

    Along with four other victim-survivors, Bashmilah is being represented by the American Civil Liberties Union and by the New York University School of Law International Human Rights Clinic. Anyone who needs further proof of the corporatization of our brave new world need look no further than the defendants in this lawsuit. It's not the US government, not even the CIA. It's a private company called Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing. It couldn't have happened without them.

    Here is Goodman's story about the interview and what she learned; the interview itself is here at Democracy Now!.

    Go read about what the government of the United States, nation of my birth, did to this man. The greatestnationonthefaceoftheearth, they hate us for our freedoms, truth justice and the American way. He was never even charged with terrorism.

    Ask me why I couldn't live in that country anymore. Ask me why I won't vote for the Democrats anymore.

    Times like this, I count the days til I can give up US citizenship. I haven't made that decision yet, but if I had to decide today, I'm lighting the match to burn the passport.

    * * * *

    I seldom make this explicit connection, but today I am moved to ask: Why should we believe anything those people tell us about the events of September 11, 2001?

    They lie about everything else, they stop at nothing to achieve their goals, they care nothing for the rule of law or for human life. Why are we willing to believe that they will lie about this, this, this and this - but not this?

    I know there are a lot of kooks out there, with a lot of kooky claims and theories. Many of those theories aren't worthy of serious study, but none is stranger than the many tales the US government tells about 9/11. And there is no one less trustworthy, more ruthless and more secretive than the people controlling the US today.

    If the co-chairs of the 9/11 Commission don't believe their own story, why should you?

    If you're new to these questions, this and this are good primers. Also, a wmtc guest post from Allan on a 9/11 anniversary might be enlightening.

    I'll tell you up front, I don't know a lot of the facts and details. But after much resistance to the idea - while my city still reeked and the breeze was still flecked with ash, while there were still flowers and candles outside every firehouse - I learned one thing: accept nothing they say as fact. If you're interested in some of the evolution of my thought, you might click on the 9/11 category of this blog.

    Many thanks to my best friend for the links. Instead of my usual link to Joy Of Sox, I'll link to one of his contributions to the citizen investigation.

    Necessity is the plea for every infringement of human freedom. It is the argument of tyrants; it is the creed of slaves. -- William Pitt the Younger, 1783

    12.22.2007

    the joads revisited

    From Reuters:
    Between railroad tracks and beneath the roar of departing planes sits "tent city," a terminus for homeless people. It is not, as might be expected, in a blighted city center, but in the once-booming suburbia of Southern California.

    The noisy, dusty camp sprang up in July with 20 residents and now numbers 200 people, including several children, growing as this region east of Los Angeles has been hit by the U.S. housing crisis.

    The unraveling of the region known as the Inland Empire reads like a 21st century version of "The Grapes of Wrath", John Steinbeck's novel about families driven from their lands by the Great Depression.

    As more families throw in the towel and head to foreclosure here and across the nation, the social costs of collapse are adding up in the form of higher rates of homelessness, crime and even disease.

    Further up the coast, a homeless encampment in Portland, Oregon has been designated a campground, a victory for the 60 residents and their advocates, who waged a long legal battle to win the official label. Dignity Village, made up of tents and scavenged shelters, which violate city housing codes, is now legal.

    If you've read The Grapes of Wrath - which I hope you have - this will sound familiar.
    "Usually, when I became homeless, I went into the woods," said the village's treasurer, Tim McCarthy. "I was all alone -- this was the first chance I had to be around other people in the same situation."

    Critics of the tent city argued that the focus should instead be on creating affordable housing, but supporters say that solution would take years to implement.

    Dignity Village was founded by eight homeless men and women who decided to pitch five tents on public land, saying they had nowhere else to go. Waiting lists for shelter beds, a recently released study said, is as long as 12 weeks.

    The encampment has grown to include its own village council, elected officers, a Web site and nonprofit status.

    Other cities try to discourage large-scale encampments of homeless people. In October, Seattle cracked down on a homeless camp in the woods. In Anchorage, Alaska, authorities cleared out about 50 sites in May because of the danger posed by campfires.

    Income inequality in the US has been widening for decades, and in recent years has become significantly worse.
    Income inequality grew significantly in 2005, with the top 1 percent of Americans - those with incomes that year of more than $348,000 - receiving their largest share of national income since 1928, analysis of newly released tax data shows.

    The top 10 percent, roughly those earning more than $100,000, also reached a level of income share not seen since before the Depression.

    While total reported income in the United States increased almost 9 percent in 2005, the most recent year for which such data is available, average incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent dipped slightly compared with the year before, dropping $172, or 0.6 percent.

    The gains went largely to the top 1 percent, whose incomes rose to an average of more than $1.1 million each, an increase of more than $139,000, or about 14 percent.

    The new data also shows that the top 300,000 Americans collectively enjoyed almost as much income as the bottom 150 million Americans. Per person, the top group received 440 times as much as the average person in the bottom half earned, nearly doubling the gap from 1980.

    . . .

    The disparities may be even greater for another reason. The Internal Revenue Service estimates that it is able to accurately tax 99 percent of wage income but that it captures only about 70 percent of business and investment income, most of which flows to upper-income individuals, because not everybody accurately reports such figures.

    . . .

    Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, an advocacy group for the poor, said the data understated the widening disparity between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country.

    He said that in addition to rising incomes and reduced taxes, the equation should take into account cuts in fringe benefits to workers and in government services that middle-class and poor Americans rely on more than the affluent. These include health care, child care and education spending. The analysis by the two professors showed that the top 10 percent of Americans collected 48.5 percent of all reported income in 2005.

    The disparity is growing in Canada, too, fueled mostly by housing costs. From 1999 to 2005, Canadians in the top 20% income bracket increased their wealth by 19%. Those in the bottom 20% gained no ground at all.

    I haven't read about homeless encampments in Canada but there are homeless people in Toronto, and some homelessness in all Canadian cities. Obviously it's much worse in the US, where half of all bankruptcies are a function of medical bills, and what's left of the social safety net is extremely porous.

    We must remember that this gross inequity is not a law of nature. It doesn't have to be this way.

    what i'm reading

    I tore through Roddy Doyle's Paula Spencer. It's wonderful.

    If you've read Doyle's The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, I highly recommend this follow-up. If you haven't but are interested, I'd start with the first book and wait a bit before reading the second.

    Woman Who Walked is narrated by 40-year-old Paula Spencer, who is taking stock of her life, and thinking especially about her marriage to a violent man. Paula's husband was an abuser, and there's no doubt about his monstrous behaviour, but Paula has made some terrible choices and is sorting out her own responsibility for her situation. In Paula Spencer, the husband is out of the picture, and Paula must stand or fall on her own.

    If Woman Who Walked is about domestic violence, Paula Spencer is about addiction. Paula is an alcoholic, and there are other addicts in her family. The story deals with the ongoing struggle to stay clean, about what we can do to help someone we love with an addiction, and the frustrating limits of those efforts. It's about love, and guilt, and learning to live with the past.

    Paula Spencer is a marvel of concision. It's written almost entirely in dialogue or internal monologue, very sparse. Doyle's novels that are set in contemporary Dublin are all like that. (His historical fiction is more dense and descriptive.) But the simplicity is deceptive; Doyle says so much with so little.

    Many of the characters in Paula Spencer illustrate issues involving addiction and relationships, yet they are all real people, no one is a wooden billboard for an idea. Let me tell you, that is not easy to achieve. I envy this man's talent!

    * * * *

    On deck are three nonfiction books: Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma, Gina Kolata's Rethinking Thin and War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges.

    I'm starting with Michael Pollan. I've read extended excerpts and adaptations from Omnivore's Dilemma, and some magazine articles that later became part of this book. Pollan's groundbreaking expose of the corn industry - which also turned out to be an expose of factory farming - is one of the most memorable features I've ever read, so I am greatly looking forward to this book.

    12.21.2007

    iraq moratorium # 4

    Today is the fourth Iraq Moratorium. Make your feelings known, in any way you can.
    I am only one,

    But still I am one.

    I cannot do everything,

    But still I can do something;

    And because I cannot do everything

    I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.

    -- Ten Times One is Ten (1870), Edward Everett Hale

    Thanks to xofferson of the Iraq Moratorium blog.

    a tale of three cities, but why?

    A story on the front page of yesterday's Globe and Mail looked at a disturbing trend in Toronto.
    The economic polarization of Toronto into distinct regions of great wealth and great poverty is even sharper than anecdotal reports suggest, according to University of Toronto researchers.

    Using detailed census data to chart 30 years of change at the neighbourhood level, they have created a striking and disturbing new image of the city, one in which traditional mixed-income neighbourhoods are reduced to a mere buffer between an increasingly wealthy core and increasingly impoverished suburbs.

    The observation is not new, but it has never been presented with such authority or drama as it is in the new analysis, titled The Three Cities within Toronto: Income Polarization among Toronto neighbourhoods, 1970-2000.

    "All this frankly surprised us," said lead author David Hulchanski, director of the university's Centre for Urban and Community Studies. "We knew there was a shift. That's not new. We didn't know how dramatic it was."

    The newly mapped data "explains an awful lot about us and what's happening to us," according to Prof. Hulchanski, "and it is sad."

    The most striking trend is the looming disappearance of the average, mixed-income neighbourhood that once defined Toronto.

    In 1970, two-thirds of all census tracts reported individual incomes in the middle range for the city as a whole, according to the study.

    By 2001, that share had dropped by a full third: Only 32 per cent of census tracts in the 21st-century city could be described as average.

    Some neighbourhoods moved up, led by the once-poor but now chic "inner city" south of Bloor Street. But far more went the other way, led by former suburbs built for the vanishing average family.

    In 1970, only 18 per cent of Toronto census tracts reported individual incomes between 20 and 40 per cent below the city average. By 2001, that share had more than doubled to 41 per cent.

    By 2020, according to the study, there will likely be more neighbourhoods with "very high" incomes (17 per cent) than those in the middle (only 10 per cent).

    Just as two-thirds of Toronto neighbourhoods were middle income in 1970, two-thirds will have low or "very low" incomes in 2020.

    . . .

    Contrary to expectations, the data show the same trends occurring in the outer suburbs, albeit at a slower pace. The inevitable conclusion, according to Prof. Hulchanski, is that middle-income Torontonians are not merely moving to the 905. They're disappearing.

    "There always were rich and poor parts of the city, but we're seeing many, many more poor parts of the city - and in a totally different location," he said.

    This data echoes what's been going on in New York City for 60+ years. The trend towards a polarized city of only rich and poor has been somewhat ameliorated in recent years by the rebirth of the outer boroughs, thanks to a new working-class immigrant population. Despite that, it's a familiar story, and a sad one when it comes to the quality of urban life.

    But the Globe and Mail story, amazingly, doesn't address any causes of this trends. I thought I must have missed a jump. But no, it's not there. Just: this is happening. Not one quote or a single conjecture as to why.

    I've been told (in another context) that rents in Toronto were de-regulated, and if that's true, that would be a main culprit. If Toronto has lost most of its manufacturing base, that would be a factor. If the quality of life in the city has dropped because of social-service cuts (I still hear Mike Harris's name mentioned frequently), causing middle-class flight to the suburbs, that would be a factor. Deteriorating urban schools are often a major cause of suburban flight, although I've never heard about that in relation to Toronto.

    Any of these factors, and others I haven't thought of, could come into play. But reading this front-page story in "Canada's National Newspaper," you would never know.

    Your thoughts are welcome.

    shaun of the dead

    Zip finally sent us "Hot Fuzz"... and it was damaged and wouldn't play. I won't say that's typical, but I will say it didn't surprise me. We wait again.

    Last night we watched "Shaun of the Dead," which Simon Pegg wrote several years before Hot Fuzz. I've wanted to see it since it came out, and I'm glad we finally did. It's very funny.

    Good comedies are hard to come by for me. Most of what's out there and supposed to be comedy just doesn't make me laugh. Or, it doesn't make me laugh enough. A few chuckles is not enough payoff to sit through a whole movie. Shaun of the Dead was funny throughout. It's occasionally disgusting, but none of the violence is believable, and most of it is hilarious.

    We cheered when Dylan Moran, an Irish comedian, appeared in a supporting role. We loved Moran's series, Black Books, which he wrote and stars in. One season was on Comedy Central in the US, late at night, never promoted. We couldn't believe how funny it was - and then it was gone.

    That happens to us all the time. The comedies we love disappear, and the ones we hate - or at best, are indifferent to - run for years on every channel. Will someone please run Black Books or TV Funhouse? Why is my TV clogged with 12 episodes a day of Everybody Loves Raymond but no one can bring me a single episode of Dr. Katz? There are at least three nostalgia-themed stations, yet not one shows re-runs of Get Smart.

    The Wikipedia entry for "Black Books" tells me it's related to Simon Pegg's series "Spaced", and that several actors have appeared in both shows. Now we'll have to try to see "Spaced", too. The family trees of British comedies are often worth pursuing.

    We'll eventually have to buy Black Books, or we'll never see it again. Meanwhile, I recommend Shaun of the Dead.

    12.20.2007

    but holiday greetings anyway

    I just realized that everyone can see this year's card. (Click to enlarge.) Photo credit: James.

    Ghost of Holidays Past here.

    i hate christmas

    Only five more days.

    Only five more days of "Have you finished all your shopping?" and "What are you doing for Christmas?" and listening to the long litany of what my co-workers got for people I don't know and will never meet. Only five more days of this most irritating and pervasive assumption that I celebrate this holiday, because doesn't everybody? Only five more days, and sometimes I think I will explode before I get there.

    As with so many things, it's less in Canada than in the US. It's lower-key here, and it starts later. And thank goodness for that, because my tolerance for this Christmas bullshit is decreasing every year. When I was younger I used to like to see the windows on Fifth Avenue (a popular New York tourist attraction) and St. Patrick's Cathedral in its Christmas finery. But after you've done that a half-dozen times or so, the attraction wanes, then disappears.

    I'm grateful I've always lived in a place where I can say, "I don't celebrate Christmas," without seeming like a freak. In New York City, now in the GTA, lots of people don't celebrate Christmas. Even so, people may be somewhat startled when you say it. Sometimes they'll stammer, "I just meant the holidays in general". I'll play along to be polite, but you know what? There are no "holidays in general". Christmas is a religious holiday and if you aren't Christian, it has absolutely no meaning. I understand that some non-Christians have adopted Christmas as some type of secular ritual, but I can't understand why. No one has adopted Yom Kippur or Eid or Ramadan - or Easter - that way.

    Despite these feelings, I do participate in some ways. If I have your email address, you've probably received a card from us. Some years we've spent quite a lot of time and effort making our own card, and we enjoyed that. We make some donations, we give some end-of-year tips for services, and we buy a few presents, some obligatory, others out of appreciation. I do use this time of year as a time for those kinds of acknowledgements. It's easier than being truly eccentric and doing that in, say, February.

    But it's a bare minimum. Mostly I just wish it would all go away, and the sooner, the better.

    12.19.2007

    advertising is in our brains. literally.

    You know how I feel about advertising, about the encroachment of advertising into our landscape and our lives.

    I feel the suffocating presence of too much advertising all around, crowding me until my skin crawls. I hear its noise in my brain, drowning out my own thoughts.

    And now that overused metaphor becomes made literal.
    New Yorker Alison Wilson was walking down Prince Street in SoHo last week when she heard a woman's voice right in her ear asking, "Who's there? Who's there?" She looked around to find no one in her immediate surroundings. Then the voice said, "It's not your imagination."

    Indeed it isn't. It's an ad for "Paranormal State," a ghost-themed series premiering on A&E this week. The billboard uses technology manufactured by Holosonic that transmits an "audio spotlight" from a rooftop speaker so that the sound is contained within your cranium. The technology, ideal for museums and libraries or environments that require a quiet atmosphere for isolated audio slideshows, has rarely been used on such a scale before. For random passersby and residents who have to walk unwittingly through the area where the voice will penetrate their inner peace, it's another story.

    Ms. Wilson, a New York-based stylist, said she expected the voice inside her head to be some type of creative project but could see how others might perceive it differently, particularly on a late-night stroll home. "I might be a little freaked out, and I wouldn't necessarily think it's coming from that billboard," she said.

    . . .

    Mr. Pompei said the company also has tested retail deployments in grocery stores with Procter & Gamble and Kraft for customized audio messaging. So a customer, for example, looking to buy laundry detergent could suddenly hear the sound of gurgling water and thus feel compelled to buy Tide as a result of the sonic experience.

    Mr. Pompei contends that the technology will take time for consumers to get used to, much like the lights on digital signage and illuminated billboards did when they were first used. The website Gawker posted an item about the billboard last week with the headline "Schizophrenia is the new ad gimmick," and asked "How soon will it be until in addition to the do-not-call list, we'll have a 'do not beam commercial messages into my head' list?"

    "There's going to be a certain population sensitive to it. But once people see what it does and hear for themselves, they'll see it's effective for getting attention," Mr. Pompei said.

    Yes, Mr. Pompei, there is a "certain population" who believe that their brains should not be used as a friggin billboard to sell some company's commercial crap! A "certain population" who draws a line around themselves and says to the marketers and positioners and branders of the world: keep the hell out! As a member of this certain population, I can tell you, Mr. Pompei, that I expend a lot of time and energy avoiding the work of people like you, and this technology is an intrusive end-run around all my efforts.

    It's bad enough we can scarcely find a space in our modern world that doesn't contain advertising, that we can barely enjoy a moment of art or culture free of commercial clutter. This company is injecting advertising directly into our brain, and we'll get used to it, because we always do.

    Is there anything we can do about this? Commercial Alert has some ideas.

    Thanks to my researcher-in-chief.

    muslim women: pitting one stereotype against another

    When I studied literature in university (which we called college), a familiar perspective on female characters was known as "the virgin/whore dichotomy". Women were either chaste caretakers and helpmeets in need of protection from the evils of the world, or wicked, monstrous sluts who connived and seduced helpless men in order to achieve their dastardly goals.

    In Victorian literature, this was a familiar lens through which to see women. And despite passage of some 150 years, today's media sometimes hasn't progressed much further.

    Of course, it's not only women who are portrayed in this black or white, on or off, good or bad, perspective. This is the laziest and easiest way to view any person or event, and it's the way most of us are taught history: good and evil.

    But it seems to me women are subjected to this duality more than men, perhaps because so often we are not fully recognized as people. Full people, full humans, with the sweeping range of possibilities, nuance and complexity that applies. For so many people - sadly, people of both genders - women are objects on which to project their narrow views of what women can be.

    In this essay in The Guardian, Soumaya Ghannoushi argues that Muslim women are particularly subject to this polarized view. Her conclusion makes sense to me, given how the Western world has demonized Islamic culture. (Cross-reference my recent post about a child-abuse death in my town.)

    Ghannoushi's language and her references might be a bit difficult - at least for non-academics like myself - but her conclusion is interesting and important.
    It seems that Muslim women - particularly those living in western capitals - are destined to remain besieged by two debilitating discourses, which though different in appearance, are one in essence.

    The first of these is conservative and exclusionist, sentencing Muslim women to a life of childbearing and rearing, lived out in the narrow confines of their homes at the mercy of fathers, brothers, and husbands. Revolving around notions of sexual purity and family honour, it appeals to religion for justification and legitimisation.

    The other is a "liberation" discourse that vows to break Muslim woman's bondage and free her of the oppressive yoke of an aggressive, patriarchical, and backward society. She is a mass of powerlessness and enslavement; the embodiment of seclusion, silence, and invisibility. Her only hope of deliverance from the cave of veiling and isolation lies in the benevolent intervention of this force of emancipation. It will save her from her hellishly miserable and bleak existence, to the promised heaven of enlightenment and progress.

    It is a game of binaries that pits one stereotype against another: the wretched caged female Muslim victim and her ruthless jailer society against an idealised "west" that is the epitome of enlightenment, rationalism, and freedom. Those escapees who leave the herd are held up as living testimonies to the arduousness of transition from the twilights of tribe, religion and tradition, to the dawn of reason, individualism, and liberation.

    There is no denying the manifold injustices that cripple the lives of many Muslim women and stunt their potential. But these appear in this condescending liberation narrative as representative of the condition of the millions of Muslim women around the world and exclusive to them. There are no colours, tones, or shades here. There are no living real women, urban or rural, educated or illiterate, affluent or poor, Turkish, Malaysian, or Egyptian - differences so crucial in defining women's life chances and shaping their situations.

    All we know about this ghostly creature is her Muslim identity, as though she was entirely shaped and affected by religion and theology irrespective of social background, economic circumstances, political reality, or regional and local cultural traditions. Important as it is, legal and theological reform will on its own do little to improve the lot of impoverished, uneducated, or insecure women in Somalia, Iraq, or rural Bangladesh.

    . . . .

    No wonder then that the "Muslim woman" liberation warriors, the likes of Nick Cohen, Christopher Hitchens, and Pascal Bruckner, were the same people who cheered American / British troops as they blasted their way through Kabul and Baghdad, and who will no doubt cheer and dance once more should Iran or Syria be bombed next. Soldiers shoot with their guns; they with their pens. They are hegemony's apologists. Without them the emperor stands naked. [Complete essay here.]

    12.18.2007

    reminders

  • Readers in the Toronto area, you are invited to join the War Resisters Support Campaign (Toronto chapter) tomorrow night for an evening of letter writing and holiday partying. Details here, or email me.

  • This Friday, December 21, is Iraq Moratorium #4. Please consider doing something public and visible to show your opposition to the US occupation of Iraq. It can be as simple as wearing a button, or talking to your co-worker.

    Take action for peace.
  • ssod

    Search string of the day:
    maxing the credit card and then moving to canada

    You'll still have to pay them off, you know.

    12.17.2007

    thoughts on the bouchard-taylor xenophobia commission

    I have six posts sitting in drafts about the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. Every time I started to write, the entry devolved into some version of "what is wrong with these people??", and I gave up.

    But no one reads wmtc for breaking news. Maybe in February, I'll blog about Canada's embarrassing obstructionism in Bali.

    So from the Better Late Than Never Department, this time the post is going up.

    * * * *

    If I were a Quebecker, I'd be painfully embarrassed by the public spectacle of the Bouchard-Taylor Commission. The Commission, supposedly studying reasonable accommodation of religious minorities "in response to public discontent" of those accommodations, is a carnival of racism, nativism and xenophobia. It would a laughingstock - if it weren't so dangerous.

    As the Commission's road show continues, I've noticed a certain amount of delicacy in some of the media when dealing it. Are we Anglophones not supposed to criticize anything that comes from French Canada?

    Racism is racism is racism, and it isn't any more palatable if it comes from a community that was once the target of racism themselves. Indeed, a case could be made that it's even worse, which is why I hate to see racism among Jewish people. I think we should know better.

    The Commission was supposedly necessary because Quebec needs "a dialogue" about multiculturalism. The rights of women are supposedly being trampled in the Muslim community. And how shall we save Muslim women from themselves? By stoking fear and hatred of Muslims.

    For a while there, each pronouncement emanating from the Commission was more outlandish than the next, a can-you-top-of-this of barely-disguised invective.

    There was the veiled voting flap (I mentioned it briefly), which was never actually a problem at polling stations.

    Quebec lawyer Guy Bertrand accused Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu of "contempt for our language," because he is not fluent in French. The man was born in Finland, and speaks English and Finnish. From what I gather, he's a top player, a team leader, a cancer survivor and has lost some vision in one eye from an accident on the ice. Bertrand's statement was roundly (and rightly) rejected as nonsense, but it stands as a milestone in the What Will These People Say Next department.

    Even the old kosher-tax myth reared its ugly head, because what's a racism and xenophobia without a little anti-Semitism thrown in?

    The town of Hérouxville became famous when it passed a "manifesto" banning stoning and burning women. Guess what? That's illegal everywhere in Canada. No special laws are needed to prevent the Muslim hordes from burning women. One might almost think someone in Hérouxville wanted to stone a woman to death.

    The declaration reads: "We wish to inform these new arrivals that the way of life which they abandoned when they left their countries of origin cannot be recreated here." So all the professional, middle-class Muslim families who are emigrating to Canada have abandoned "a way of life" where they murdered women in the town square? We might as well say Allan and I abandoned cross-burning and lynching. I've yet to figure out if anyone in Hérouxville has actually seen an immigrant.

    In a CBC story, I read that "'Canadian style' multiculturalism a menace to Quebec, commission hears." Another Quebecker said, "I am ashamed to be a Quebecer sometimes, like when I hear idiocies like those coming from Hérouxville. ... Ignorance and fear produce xenophobia and racism, and the ideas of the extreme right."

    I do wonder how much popular support this movement really has in Quebec. After all, it's easy to think everyone in the US is a bible-thumping, war-mongering, Wal-Mart shopping Bushbot. (No, they're not!) This op-ed by Lysiane Gagnon says that even René Lévesque, founder of the Parti Québécois, would have been disgusted.

    For me, the worst part of this spew is when it's cloaked in women's rights. Christiane Pelchat, the president of the Quebec Council on the Status of Women, said, "Freedom of religion must be limited, intrinsically, by the right to equality between women and men". According to the Council, Islamic symbols such as the headscarf send "a message of the submission of a woman, which should not be conveyed to young children as part of a secular education, which is required to promote equality between men and women."

    Freedom of religion should only be limited by what's illegal under the law. Telling a woman she cannot wear a niqab or hijab, which she feels is an expression of her faith, is not a step towards women's rights. It's just one group imposing their standards on another.

    I found lots of good writing and organizing against the Commission, which was uplifting. The wonderfully-named blog Fagstein had some very good pieces.
    The Quebec council on the status of women seeks to impose a dress code on all public employees, preventing them from wearing "visible religious symbols" like a scarf over their head or a little hat. Of course, it goes without saying that Catholics wearing crosses around their necks are specifically exempt. They get special treatment because they believe in the correct God.

    Mostly Water reprinted this statement by the Montreal chapter of No One Is Illegal.
    The "reasonable accommodation" debate in Quebec, and the related "Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences" (the so-called "Bouchard-Taylor Commission"), are fundamentally rooted in xenophobia, racism and sexism.

    From the outset, the "debate" fails to recognize that Quebec and Canada are built on stolen Indigenous land, and constituted through the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous peoples who have been forced into "accommodating" colonization. Moreover, it completely ignores the fact that racism and white supremacy were intrinsically tied to the creation of both Canada and Quebec, and throughout their histories, have been instrumental in defining who "belongs" and who does not.

    The Bouchard-Taylor Commission was created in the context of xenophobia during an election campaign and has provided an uncontested platform for racism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism.

    Opportunistic politicians and corporate media have appealed to public fears and prejudices, and manipulated false controversies over religious practices and cultural differences to create a generalized hysteria, with little to no basis in fact. In its very framework it creates a binary of 'us' vs. 'them'; the 'us' being made up of white people of European descent, and the 'them' being whichever non-white immigrant group is currently under the spotlight.

    The supposed "debate" has made open bigotry publicly acceptable, using simplistic caricatures that render our communities homogenous, uncontested and monolithic. While we reject this offensive portrayal of our communities, we assert the diversity of our cultures and traditions as well as our multiple identities. [More here.]

    There's a good photo on the blog Tadamon! of a No One Is Illegal Protest. Tadamon! is an excellent blog, written in three languages, and worth a visit if only for the brilliant masthead featuring a portion of "Guernica".

    Here's an excellent story about community groups organizing to reject the racism and xenophobia of the Commission - worth looking at with the photos.

    * * * *

    You know, the xenophobes who support the Bouchard-Taylor Commission owe a huge debt to multiculturalism.

    Multiculturalism gives them a smokescreen to hide behind. They can claim "widespread public discontent" - and then create some.

    Without an official Canadian policy of multiculturalism, they'd be forced to baldly state their true purpose: "We believe our culture is superior to everyone else's! We hate and fear people not like ourselves!"

    12.16.2007

    i heart snow

    I am really digging all this snow.

    I don't ski or skate, and I can't remember the last time I built a snowman or had a snowball fight. But for some reason the snow is making me so happy.

    Snow was just a big pain in the ass in New York City. Here, I'm loving it. Why is that?

    It can't be because getting around is easier here. In New York, the trains are always running. You can always trudge to the subway and get somewhere. In Mississauga, one snowflake and the GO is late.

    Getting to work this morning was no picnic. First Allan had to shovel the driveway to take me to the bus. The bus was 40 minutes late. Then it got stuck on a hill for an hour! And poor Allan, when he finally left for work, it took him an hour just to get out of our little development! Mississauga has yet to plow our street.

    So it sure as hell isn't transportation.

    Maybe it's because the snow stays white and beautiful here. In New York City, it's pretty the first day, and that's if you live on a small sidestreet like we did. If you live on a main drag, it's pretty for 2 hours. Then it turns black. Even Mississauga - not the most beautiful of places! - is a winter wonderland right now.

    Maybe it's because for our last five winters in New York, snow made life with our special boy even more challenging than usual.

    Imagine walking a dog who can't be around other dogs, so you have to cross to the other side of the street every time you see someone with a dog approaching. But only a tiny lane in the sidewalk has been shoveled. And you can't cross to the other side, because there are two snowplow mountains in the way. But you have to cross, because your dog will become uncontrollable if the other dog gets too close.

    Now imagine your emotionally unstable dog is also super-sensitive to rock salt on his paw pads, so he has to wear booties. And all the supers in the neighbourhood pour rock salt all over the sidewalks instead of shoveling properly.

    And when your dog goes crazy, his booties may fly off. And then he's in pain, which makes him even crazier.

    Far it be for me to admit that anything is better without my B around.

    So maybe it's because we have a big backyard, and I can open our sliding door, and our pups can frolic whenever they want, and I don't even have to put my boots on, never mind take them to a dog park.

    Could it be I love the snow because it makes me know I live in Canada?

    abuse = abuse, murder = murder

    The terrible, early death of Aqsa Parvez makes me so sad. But it makes me so angry that her death is being credited to Muslim fundamentalism, or to immigrants, or to multiculturalism. None of those killed Aqsa Parvez.

    Aqsa, 16 years old, was killed by her father.

    Aqsa was an abused child.

    She was a victim of domestic violence, a tidy little euphemism we use for assault that is perpetrated in our own homes, by the people who are supposed to love us.

    Child abuse, always terrible, sometimes fatal, occurs in homes of all faiths and of no faith. It occurs in families of all colours and all backgrounds. It occurs in families of all income levels. It occurs in single-parent families and in extended families.

    One of my favourite bloggers, Impudent Strumpet, had this to say.
    Think about your own adolescence. Did you ever want to hang out with friends instead of being home when your parents wanted you to? Did you ever want to listen to music they didn't want you to? Did you ever want to dress in a way they didn't want you to? Did you ever want to throw off the trappings of their values and be your own person?

    This same drama is playing out in millions of households all around the world. There are, of course, variations. Perhaps instead of a hijab, the clothing in contention is hemlines or cleavage or heels. Perhaps instead of Muslim beliefs, it's Catholicism or Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism. But it is happening. And in some of these families, they do beat up their kids for not conforming. Hopefully in most they don't, but in some they do. I don't have statistics on hand to back this up, but I'd bet real money that within the next year, some other kid somewhere in the world will be killed by their parents in a similar dispute, and they won't be Muslim or a new immigrant.

    My own partner was raised in a fundamentalist Christian home, and he rebelled, and he was punished. He wasn't abused physically, but he certainly was abused emotionally and psychologically, forced to choose between having a parent and a home, and being himself. Was this because of Christianity?

    Reliable child abuse statistics are hard to come by. In the past, statistics skewed heavily to low-income families, because they were the ones that ended up involved with public agencies. Private doctors, teachers and coaches from upper-income schools, would look the other way. Police were seldom called. Now, thanks to the work of activists, laws have changed. Those people are now mandated reporters: if they suspect child abuse, and they must report it. If they don't, they are partially culpable.

    So now statistics are slightly more reliable. But still, abuse occurs in homes that never become statistics. My own, for example. No agencies were ever involved, no reports ever filed. We just lived with a certain amount of fear and pain. Although not as much as Asqa Parvez.

    But Asqa Parvez didn't live with fear and pain because she was Muslim, or an immigrant. Her death doesn't point to the limits of multiculturalism or some problem inherent in Canadian society.

    Her death speaks to the powerlessness of abused children, trapped in the homes of their abusers, dependent on their abusers for sustenance, betrayed by the people who should be their protectors.

    Some statistics on child abuse globally, and in Canada.

    More on the current "blame multiculturalism" mindset coming soon.