Archive for the ‘Current Affairs’ Category

Astonishing, Monumental, Earth-shattering – it takes the biggest words of our respective vocabularies to describe the events of the past few weeks as millions of people took to the streets across North Africa and the Middle-East in a collective demand for democracy of a proportion not seen since 1989. It’s been difficult to keep up with the constantly changing situation as each day seems to have brought about a new, unexpected development in a revolution that has caught most of us in the West completely by surprise: Tunisia’s president Zine El Abidene Ben Ali has resigned; Yemeni president Ali Abdulluh Saleh has promised not to run for re-election; Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika has ended a long-running state of emergency; King Abdullah of Jordan has sacked his cabinet and promised reforms.

And then, of course, there’s Egypt. For the past two weeks the entire world has been transfixed by events in the land of the Pyramids as its people took to the streets in immense numbers to protest the autocratic rule of its long-time president, Hosni Mubarak. We have seen young people, who have known no leader but Mubarak, come out and demand their democratic rights. This has caused a dilemma for the Obama administration: Mubarak has been supported over the past thirty years by various American governments, in spite of strong evidence of a host of human rights abuses, in order to maintain “stability” in the region. However, as the administration had openly supported the Tunisian revolution, it would have been incredibly hypocritical to turn around and deny the same rights to the people of Egypt. So initially, there was a period of fence-sitting, with Hilary Clinton re-affirming Egypt’s status as an ally, while avoiding criticism of the demonstrators and calling for engagement with their wishes. But as time has passed and the crackdown has become more aggressive, the US government has, in fairness, become more vocal in their calls for the protection of protesters and in demanding democratic reforms in public and possibly more in private. They seem ready to cut Hosni Mubarak loose and take a chance on the ability and desire of the Egyptian people to create a reasonable, democratic nation.

But of course the real heroes of this story are the brave Tahrir Square Revolutionaries and their comrades in Alexandria, Suez and all over Egypt. They have risked life and limb (and tragically many have paid the ultimate price) simply to claim the basic rights we in the West take for granted and sometimes even treat with contempt. There is, of course, a certain apprehension on this side of the world about what the future holds. Much of it is based on overblown prejudices about the Muslim world but some of it is understandable – it would be naive to deny the existence of elements within Egypt who virulently oppose the idea of a secular, democratic state and one of the major challenges for reformists will be to successfully make their case to those beyond the streets of Cairo. That said, it would be the ultimate cruelty to deny the young people of Egypt the right to determine their future after what they’ve been through to bring themselves to the brink of democracy and would probably set  back relations in the Middle-East by at least a generation. So Western nations should take the leap of faith and give full, unconditional backing to the democratic aspirations of the people of Egypt. They deserve it for a host of reasons but mostly because, in the face of stubborn and often violent opposition, they came out to demand their rights. They witnessed the tumultuous upheaval in Tunisia and they came out in their thousands; the internet was shut down and Mubarak offered meaningless “concessions” and they came out in their tens of thousands; they were attacked by stone-throwing, horse-riding, whip-wielding thugs and the press was attacked and they came out in their hundreds of thousands. This is their time to attain that most precious commodity…freedom.

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OK, in the aftermath of the G20, er, “troubles” here in Toronto and amidst a lot of handwringing and fingerpointing it’s not all doom and gloom on the banks of Lake Ontario…Happy Canada Day, everybody!!!


Well it’s been a while, but something occurred this weekend where I live that compelled me back to my blog. If I tell you that I moved from London to Toronto a while back, I’m sure you’ll guess what I’m referring to (if the headline hasn’t given it away already). Firstly I want to talk about my own personal experience. I went to participate in the major rally and march from Queen’s Park (the provincial legislature) on Saturday. I’m not currently officially part of any political grouping or organisation, although I do lean left, as I’m sure you’ve gathered from previous posts. I arrived a little apprehensively on a wet day and fell in with the Amnesty International group – it seemed a safe place to be and I have been an Amnesty member previously.

After a number of speeches we headed off south along University Avenue, a vast mass of many thousands seeking to have our voices heard. The first moment of tension occurred as we passed the US consulate, which was barricaded off with crush barriers and surrounded by police in full riot gear, but I guess that was to be expected. Upon seeing a camera on the roof, one protestor jokingly said “smile for the CIA database”. At Queen Street, we started heading west, and were suddenly accompanied by a lone bagpiper. We passed police cordons blocking all southbound streets but moved on without incident. At one point two women sitting at their apartment windows starting banging frying pans in support, to great cheers.

We continued north on Spadina to College and then returned to Queen’s Park, at which point I left, happy that the march had passed off incident-free and that, at the very least, so many people had turned out in inclement weather in Canada, where people don’t protest like those in countries like France, to raise their voice against the impending economic attacks on those who didn’t cause the financial crisis, as deficit reduction becomes the name of the game. And then I got home and saw what had happened after I had left…I’m sure by now you have all viewed the images of burning cars, broken windows, riot police, black-clad rioters and mass arrests as Toronto lost an element of its innocence. The finger-pointing will probably start immediately but to my mind there’s plenty of blame to go around…

Firstly to the “Anarchists” who just smash stuff up: STOP IT, JUST STOP IT!!! You are not expressing political outrage, you are just indulging vainglorious revolutionary fantasies and are not helping in the slightest. This was a chance for the good people of Canada to lay out their desires for a better world and maybe start to build something significant, even if we couldn’t get to the fence, and you ruined it as you always do. And by the way, you’re not anarchists – anarchism is a group of complicated theories of how to organise society’s resources. For you, it merely means smashing windows.

Next, to the rest of the protest movement – it’s time to cut these groups off completely – they harm your causes constantly. No longer should they be tacitly welcomed at protest marches – only those totally committed to peaceful means should be allowed.

It’s probably too early to comment on much of the incidents involving police actions but there are a couple of things I would like to say to Bill Blair and the boys in blue: firstly when you say that you want to facilitate the right of people to protest peacefully, you are being incredibly disingenuous. When you put up a huge security fence around an event and then keep protestors miles from it you render that protest utterly impotent. When you line the route with police in full riot gear, you intimidate away many.  And when you put a line of police at the point when the march turned onto Queen Street, you prevented the troublemakers from breaking away from the main march, a tactic that could have led to disaster. And at times, the assembled force has looked like it was getting ready for an invading army, not a rag-tag group of punks who, at worst, were going to smash a few windows…but hey, I guess you have to justify that Billion-dollar security budget.

To the media, I know you totally get off on the scenes of violence, but could you not have shown even a few decent shots of the vastness of the main march, rather than that burning police car from the umpteenth angle? FFS, we walked right outside CP24’s studios on Queen Street West – you didn’t even have to go anywhere-just stick a camera on the balcony. Although by the end of the weekend, poor Lisa LaFlamme looked so drained and frustrated (especially when her cameraman was arrested) that I thought she was ready to go all John Pilger (look him up) on us.

And finally to the World Leaders, for whose benefit this all unfolded, it would have been nice if you at least acknowledged our existence – maybe even explained why you are not going to implement the policies we called for…


A year after Barack Obama’s historic election, one of his most contentious programs has been the $700 billion stimulus package. Here’s a clip of Lewis Black explaining John Maynard Keynes’ theory of how public works projects can stimulate the economy in his own inimitable (and be warned, very foul-mouthed way):

Now, just in case you’re thinking “that’s just crazy comedian talk and has no basis in proper economics” here’s the view of Keynes himself from “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money”:

“If the Treasury were to fill old bottles with banknotes, bury them at suitable depths in disused coal mines which are then filled up to the surface with town rubbish, and leave it to private enterprise on well-tried principles of laissez-faire to dig the notes up again (the right to do so being obtained, of course, by tendering for leases of the note-bearing territory), there need be no more unemployment and, with the help of the repercussions, the real income of the community, and its capital wealth also, would probably become a good deal greater than it actually is. It would, indeed, be more sensible to build houses and the like; but if there are political and practical difficulties in the way of this, the above would be better than nothing.” (p. 129)

So while Barack Obama may not have been thrilled about having to spend such a huge amount of money getting the American economy going and saddling the American taxpayer with such a large debt (yes, I said it), is was absolutely the correct thing to do. In this instance, to compromise the spending aspects of the package to appease Republicans (the people who, to a large extent, created this mess) in the name of bipartisanship could have led to the Great Recession becoming the second Great Depression and may have left future generations with an even more unmanageable National Debt. The world is now in the thankful state of seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, just over a year after we faced economic catastrophe, as the recession ends (at least technically) in many countries and hopefully we can get back to job creation in the new year…

 

`My two dogs tied to a tree by a ten foot leash kept howling and whining for an hour till I let them off. Now they are lying quietly on the grass a few feet further from the tree and haven’t moved since I let them off. Freedom may be only an idea but it’s a matter of principle even to a dog.’ – Louis Dudek.

A momentous event has taken place in Iran over the weekend, which may lead to greater change than anyone had predicted (myself included). The unexpected “landslide victory” of incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over reformist opponent Mir-Hossein Mousavi has led to an outpouring of dissent of a magnitude I have not seen since 1989 in Eastern Europe and China and may have ramifications beyond the choice of Iranian president, possibly signalling the beginning of the end (or maybe even the end itself) of the Islamic Revolution. The people of Iran (particularly the young) are demanding true freedom and from now on may no longer be appeased by being allowed to merely let their hair stick  out from under hijabs or get limited access to the internet. They want true control over their own destinies.

The problems for the regime started when Ahmadinejad was declared victor with a massive 62.63% of the vote, when what limited indicators were available pointed to a close contest and possibly a clear victory for Mousavi. In response hundreds of thousands of Mousavi supporters in Tehran and other cities around Iran came out on the streets and have stayed there. Initially it may have been possible to dismiss the opposition as Tehrani elites, who were acting like New York liberals who didn’t know anyone who voted for George W Bush. However, information has dripped out that backed up their claims: there was a record turnout, which normally is an indicator of strong support for reformist candidates; Ahmadinejad won handily in Mousavi’s home town; the result was announced before polls had closed; and possibly most damningly, there have been claims leaking from the Interior Ministry that the polls were, indeed fixed.

And so people went out and protested. The situation is constantly changing and the Government seems to have been caught off guard and doesn’t seem to know how to respond. It has promised a partial recount, called for unity, attacked the protesters as traitors but doesn’t seem capable of stopping them. It shut down internet access, imposed stringent rules on foreign reporters but (quite hilariously) could not stop Twitter-apparently they called Twitter to ask them to block Iranian access, but apparently those thirty geeks in California were busy playing Halo. And now, amazingly, Twitter has become the voice of the Revolution. It’s vaguely reminiscent of the moment in 1989 when the East German government got its messages mixed up about how much freedom of movement to allow its citizens, leading to a Berlin Wall border guard simply opening up his checkpoint.

Tragically, several people have been killed (and I hope, beyond hope that the bloodshed stops soon)  but this has failed to deter masses of people from gathering for what I consider to be one of the most moving of reasons – to demand their freedom. Often protests such as these fail to have a direct impact on the political process and this can lead to cynicism but sometimes a critical mass of support is reached which is irresistible and the spread of democracy makes another big leap forward and I believe that the protests of recent days are at or close to this point. So come on and join us, Iran, we’re waiting for you with open arms…

Democracy is sometimes described as an inherently European and American ideal, that can’t work in places like the Middle East. This view is peddled mainly two groups – firstly by those who believe in inherent Western superiority over a supposedly inherently backwards East; secondly by those in the Mid-East who gain from maintaining the status quo of Religious Theocracy or Absolute Monarchy. However a brief look at history shows that the idea that Democracy is inherent to and only applicable to Europe and North America is a myth and this provides hope for the spread of Democracy to places where it doesn’t exist.

Firstly, Democracy in the Western World is still a relatively recent development. A little over twenty years ago, all of Eastern Europe was under the yoke of Totalitarian Communism, whereas since the fall of the Berlin Wall, eight of these countries have progressed enough to join the European Union, while another handful have functioning democracies, waiting to accede. In the early ’70s, Spain and Portugal were Fascist Dictatorships and of course the Fascism of Hitler and Mussolini removed democracy all over Europe in the 30s and 40s.

Even in countries who would be seen as having a long unbroken history of democracy, the Universal Suffrage we take for granted nowadays only came in gradually: Universal Male Suffrage only occurred widely in the late nineteenth century; Female Suffrage followed in first half of the twentieth; and of course African-American Suffrage was shamefully delayed until 1964.

And as regards the belief that Democracy is solely a European or American construct, this can be dismissed simply by answering the question: which country is the largest democracy in the world? The answer is, of course, India. And there are numerous other non-Western countries with solid democracies – Japan and South Korea to name two. South America has made a reasonably successful transition from the Military Juntas of the seventies to multi-party elections. Africa’s experience has been more difficult, yet even here there is hope, notably in Liberia where the inspirational Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has overseen her country’s transition from war-torn nation to burgeoning democracy.

I believe that Democracy is a universal ideal, which should be spread across the globe. It gives people the right to choose their own destiny and the opportunity to dismiss leaders who let them down. I feel that we, who live in democratic countries, should support its spread. However, I would warn that the military imposition of “democracy” such as what happened in Iraq, where it is carried out for selfish geo-strategic reasons rather than genuine support for the spread of democratic values, can in the long-term lead to devastating consequences (even here I was moved and encouraged by the Iraqi people’s enthusiasm for voting). The movement towards democracy must originate within a country, if it is to take hold.

And so to today: the next significant battle for democracy is being waged in the Iranian presidential election taking place on June 12th, where the government has removed Facebook from the internet there, after reformist candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi set up his own page there. So it’s now up to the people of Iran to send a message to their theocratic leaders that this is not acceptable. I hope that you, he good people of Iran (if any of you happen upon this blog, assuming WordPress hasn’t also been removed) to reciprocate America’s choice of a leader willing to talk by electing a president wishing to do likewise, so that the world can move well away from the brink of self-destruction.

P.S.: For anybody who thinks an Irishman living in the UK has no right to tell Iranians how to vote please read my earlier post: Why Election ’08 Matters to Non-Americans as my reasons are similar

OK, everybody else has being doing their reviews of the first 100 days of Obama’s presidency, so why can’t I? No responses to that question please, it’s rhetorical and I’m going to do this anyway. So here goes…

Overall I think Obama has done well, with important steps being taken on a number of fronts. However, there have also been a number of dumb (albeit ultimately inconsequential) missteps:

Important Step#1: The economy – as the banking crisis developed in late last year, Obama must have thought to himself “Damn, why didn’t I wait until 2012/2016 to run?”. But he’s handled the crisis admirably with the passage of his stimulus package. I know Paul Krugman believes that it should have been larger and I understand where he’s coming from but I also acknowledge that quick passage of the bill was an important factor and to get bogged down by trenchant Republican opposition could have been more disastrous for the economy than the package’s imperfections and omissions. So he compromised just enough to appease just enough Republican senators to pass it. As regards Republicans who say there was no compromise, well there’s a significant proportion of tax cuts, which is enough compromise to those who lost and lost badly. The likely Republican solution, 100% tax cuts focused on the rich (If Plan A fails, fall back on Plan A), would have condemned us to years of Depression.

Dumb Misstep #1: Whoever chooses gifts for foreign dignitaries really needs to do better. Seriously, Gordon Brown gives Obama a pen-holder carved from the wood of a nineteenth-century anti-slavery ship and Obama responds by giving him a selection of DVDs! Come on, a little thought please – Gordon Brown could have ordered them to 10 Downing Street from Amazon.com! There is no ban on American movies in the UK! And then Hillary Clinton gives her Russian counterpart a cheap button with the Russian word for “Reset” on it. Could it BE any more embarrassing…Oh yeah, it didn’t actually have the word for “Reset” on it, it had the Russian word for “Overcharge”!

Important Step #2: Repairing America’s relationship with the rest of the world: Obama has worked overtime to signal a change from the arrogance of the Bush Era. He played his part, but wasn’t overbearing at the G20 conference, he explicitly said that America was not at war with the Muslim World in Turkey, he signalled a willingness to use negotiation to deal with Iran, the Taliban, Cuba, Venezuela (not getting fazed by Chavez’ grandstanding) and, possibly most significantly, went over the heads of Iran’s leaders to appeal directly to it’s people. (note-Iranian election coming up on June 12th – come on bloggers – it’s a chance to get rid of Ahmadinejad)

Dumb Misstep #2: Bowing to the Saudi King – The Leader of The Free World should not be seen to be grovelling to an oppressive, unelected absolute monarch. If he wants to show respect for other people’s customs, that’s normally a good thing – for example, a quick bow to the Japanese PM, who in turn bows as a show of mutual respect, is fine. However, this deep bow while King Abdullah looks all smug  was a craven and unnecessary act of deference.

Important Step #3: Signalling the beginning of the end of the worst abuses of the Bush Administration: explicitly saying that America will no longer torture, arranging the closure of Guantanamo Bay, and setting a timetable for withdrawal of American troops from Iraq – I’m a little disappointed that it’s slower than he had pledged, but if he sticks to it I won’t be too unhappy.

Dumb Misstep #3: The low-flying “Photo Op” over New York – that was incredibly stupid and insensitive and whoever came up with it should immediately own up and resign.

There are many other aspects of Obama’s first 100 that I could go into because a)the results won’t be known for a while (eg response to Swine Flu outbreak and b) to do so would upset the symmetry of this blog and make it interminable. But overall based on what we’ve seen, I still think there’s plenty of reason to believe that Barack Obama will be a very good, possibly even a great, president. And I’m sure as hell glad we’re not facing this time of crises with John McCain and Sarah Palin leading us.