Thursday, 19 October 2006

Good news chronicles, Oct. 19

Spending too much time thinking about politicians, world leaders, and various international problems can get depressing.

So here is my good news antidote.

A Jewish youth organization in Israel, the Kavod Foundation, feeds needy Muslims at Eid, Christians at Christmas and Jews at Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot. They work all year round to provide food at religious holidays. Hat tip to City of Brass.

Kazakhstan discovers a sense of humour and invites Borat to come see the real Kazakhstan.
Rakhat Aliyev said in an interview with Kazakhstan Today that while he understands the anger he thinks the country "must have a sense of humor and respect other people's freedom of creativity."

"I'd like to invite Cohen here," he said. "He can discover a lot of things. Women drive cars, wine is made of grapes and Jews are free to go to synagogues."

Got good news you want to tell the world about? Email it to me at thewalrussaid(at)gmail(dot)com.

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Gleanings from the blogosphere, Oct. 19

Rafique Tucker at Liberal War Journal is bemoaning the use of "Rovian" tactics by lefty blogger Mike Rogers, who is busy "outing" Republican congressmen. OK, one Republican congressman. Rafique says the tactic smacks of McCarthyism.

Reader_iam at Done with Mirrors tells a kafkaesque tale of the limits of free speech on campuses, which is unfortunately becoming all too common. It appears classrooms are free speech zones, but office doors aren't. Dave Barry is verboten, a truly offensive subversive.

Will Garth Turner go Green? Devon Rowcliffe has an interesting and well-researched post on the topic.

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Access to Information Act needs mending

The Toronto Star ran an excellent editorial on problems with the Access to Information Act.
This is one file the Prime Minister should promptly take under his wing. He campaigned on open and accountable government.

The Access to Information Act should be amended to include tight and protective restrictions on sharing the names of people who make requests for information under the law. And there must be stiff penalties for anyone who breaches it.

The public's right to know must not be subverted by protective bureaucrats, politicians and spin doctors who would prefer controversial issues to remain out of sight. Canadians own the information government vaults contain. Openness must be the order of the day.

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American power: the view from Germany

With all the flap over Iraq, North Korea and Iran, Russia's latest shenanigans have been largely flying under the North American radar. Not so in Europe. Putin has been pressing for a free trade pact with the European Union, making politely threatening comments about how it supplies most of Europe's petroleum. Theodore Roosevelt would recognize the tactic.

Stefan KorneliusIn an editorial entitled "The Decline of America" (in German) Stefan Kornelius at the Süddeutsche Zeitung bemoans the loss of American power as an effective counterweight and contends that the loss of American prestige and influence has made the world a much more dangerous place. "Be careful what you wish for, you may get it," he comments. Now they've got a less powerful America, they don't much like it. But don't think that makes Kornelius a Bush fan - far from it!

Here is a summary.

Why Washington's influence is diminishing, and why this is becoming a problem for the entire world

On September 20, 2002, the White House unveiled its National Security Strategy. This testimony to American hubris came when America was at the height of its greatness. Six months later, the Iraq war began, which would lead to the end of American omnipotence. Now, four years later, the American Secretary of State travels the world, running into the limits of American power and influence everywhere she goes. America's weakness is a problem for the entire world, actually making it more difficult to build multipolar alliances. An autocratic Russia is flexing its muscles as a petroleum imperialist and China is recognized as a superpower, even as it pulls its head into its shell before its northern nuclear neighbour.

Lack of leadership Two of the three "axis of evil" members are showing how confrontation with the US can spread terror, and up their market value at the same time. This new multipolar world came into being faster than the most vehement Bush critics could ever have hoped - and centrifugal forces are tearing apart the world's stability as a result of America's inability to form effective coalitions. The epicentre of this wave of destruction lies in Iraq, with repercussions in the entire region. A Camp David initiative for Lebanon or Palestine is now unthinkable. And now North Korea has found a new raison d'être in its nuclear provocation of the US. Only the possible sale of nuclear technology to terrorists prevents us from dismissing Kim Jong Il out of hand. Nobody seems able to stop the man, giving hope to a half dozen other nuclear wannabes.

Bush's administration did not create these problems, but has greatly furthered them through its policies. Bush's imperial hubris will not be forgiven him in his two remaining years in office; quite the contrary, opposition will grow ever shriller, even at home. But when the Schadenfreude has dissipated, there will be wide recognition that this lack of power has not been good for the world. The European Union must be conscious of its own weakness; its influence is too weak to trade a couple of democratic values for Russia's gas.

Cooperation with China Europe is also too weak to pressure China or to stabilize Afghanistan or the Middle East. Condoleezza Rice should use the North Korean situation as an opportunity to reassert American influence, showing a new openness and willingness to bargain. Working with China, it should be possible to lure North Korea out of its isolation and come to some kind of new non-proliferation agreement. Because only when America makes new deposits into the security account, can it expect to be able to make withdrawals.

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Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Oct. 18

Alan at Maverick Views presents a very good argument why the Democrats' rising star Barack Obama should NOT aim for the presidency in 2008.

Greg at Sippican Cottage is holding forth on the follies committed in the name of business. He has administrators nailed cold.
These gentlemen thought that the building of large and complicated things out in the landscape from Canada to Florida and Martha's Vineyard to Sausalito existed simply to give them figures to Rubik around on their desktop. They did not realize that they existed to support the actual operation. They thought they were the actual operation. Everyone in the government makes this same mistake, 25 hours a day, 11 days a week, by the way. A quarter of a billion dollars was going through that business a year. Very few of my colleagues had ever seen one bit of it generated.

John Burgess at Crossroads Arabia has an interesting round-up of opinions and reactions to the veil debate currently going on in the UK, as a result of Jack Straw's remarks.

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A glimmer of hope in Palestine

Mahmoud AbbasMahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian National Authority, has come up with an idea that might actually have some potential for positive change in Palestine: a transitional Cabinet of technocrats.
The idea was endorsed earlier Tuesday by a group of academics, politicians and professionals representing all walks of life in Palestinian society, who called for the establishment of a transitional government consisting of independent figures to resolve the crisis between Fatah and Hamas.

The call, which was made at a press conference that was held in Ramallah under the title "Appeal for the Sake of Palestine," comes amid growing fears that the Fatah-Hamas dispute could spill over into civil war.

Hamas, not surprisingly, is cool to the idea.

As regular readers of this blog know, I have said more than once that the only hope of the Palestinians is to turn away from both Hamas and Fatah, and look to a third option. Although there are real obstacles to this particular proposal's success, it nonetheless shows that rationality not only exists in Palestine, but is starting to find a voice. We'll take our comfort where we can find it.

Palestinians would also have to reject their deeply ingrained culture of hatred. This is not easily done, but is not without historic precedent. Entire populations have been known to experience a mass movement of revulsion against their former excesses. Think of post-Nazi Germany, revolutionary France, and 18th century Salem. I'm not sure Palestinians are quite ripe for a thorough-going renunciation of their ideologies. Hopefully a full-fledged civil war will not be necessary to bring them to that point. But it might be.

Hat tip to the Captain's Quarters.

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Evaluating Harper: taxes

Part two in my evaluation of the Harper government, looking at campaign priority number two: providing real tax relief to working families by cutting the GST.

Now seeing as they promised to cut the GST by 1% immediately and by a further 1% within five years, we can fairly say they've come through on this one. Whether it provides "real" tax relief is quite another question and one that is, quite frankly, over my head AND excruciatingly boring to me. Please feel free to rant on this point all on your own.

I always saw this promise as a purely political move and a particularly brilliant piece of politics it was too. I will confess to chuckling in malicious glee the first time I heard it. Unlike most tax policies, it was blissfully simple, the effects - although very small - immediately apparent, and the Liberals could not possibly argue against it without reminding every voter with a memory that they had loudly promised to completely abolish this self-same tax and never lifted a finger to do so. It also made the Conservatives look prudent and non-radical because it was a gradual, measured approach that would not disrupt government coffers too severely. My admiration of this tactic had little to do with policy, being very similar to the awe a die-hard sports fan feels when they have seen a particularly lovely play. You have to admire it, no matter who you're cheering for.

Honestly, I think abolishing the GST altogether in an incremental fashion is probably a good idea. It's far from a comprehensive tax policy, but on its own, I think it's a good thing. Of course, I do hail from the school of thinking that believes that anything beyond very moderate taxes kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. I also tend to believe that most changes are better brought about incrementally, because abrupt change - however needed - tends to create enough disruption to cancel out any positive impact. I know, it's boring, but it works.

So on the very small point of the GST, I will give the Conservatives full marks. On the question of real tax relief, I reserve judgement. As far as I can see, they haven't done anything dramatic, just something visible.

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Tuesday, 17 October 2006

NK's Kim living on borrowed time

It looks like my recommendation to Kim Jong Il to be a little paranoid about the Chinese was right on the money. Ed Morrissey tells us they are now openly debating the merits of regime change in Pyongyang as their protégé has become more of a liability than an asset. It looks like Kim has overplayed his hand and will be forced to leave the game with no more chips to his name.

I am trying very hard to feel a twinge of sympathy for the guy, but it's just not working. When a man starves his own people, indulges in brutal political and religious persecution, it's hard to feel too compassionate when he's down on his luck. And the hairdo definitely doesn't help.

Perhaps I am counting my chicks before they're hatched, but I believe we are about to see the end of a dynasty in the near future.

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Evaluating Harper: accountability and transparency

Part one in my evaluation of the Harper government, looking at campaign priority number one: cleaning up government by passing the Federal Accountability Act. And I'm going to throw in the whole concept of transparency in government as well, because you can't have proper accountability if you don't have transparency.

The Conservatives came to power largely on a wave of revulsion. Enough Liberal supporters were fed up enough to take their vote elsewhere and the scary boogie man campaign strategy just wasn't flying anymore. Even the press was mainly Conservative-friendly, something we have been seeing more of in recent years. (I'm old enough that it still surprises me when I come across a pro-Conservative bias in the media.) I remember thinking after the election that if the Conservatives actually succeeded in passing some ground-breaking legislation in this area, that alone would justify their term in office and make it all worthwhile.

Well, they're passing an Accountability Act, alright, but it sure doesn't look like the one we were promised. Here is the Conservative Party's detailed look at the issue. The Senate has been studying it ad nauseum, the Auditor General is defending it, others have said that the whistleblower provisions are useless at best. John Geddes of Maclean's perhaps does the best job of summing it up:
But the charged atmosphere around accountability is now giving way to a jaded suspicion that some things might never change -- sparking a minor revolt within Tory backbench ranks. Not that there hasn't been some serious action. Harper made good on his vow to reform the way Ottawa operates -- up to a point -- only three months after winning power. The federal accountability act was, as promised, his very first piece of legislation. The omnibus bill, which is now in the hands of a Senate committee, is sprawling, encompassing dozens of measures that will require changes to about 100 existing laws. Some of its steps will reverberate heavily in party and bureaucratic circles: the maximum allowed individual political donation will be cut to $1,000 from $5,000, and union and company donations will be banned outright; meetings between lobbyists and top government officials will be disclosed on a public registry; and former ministers, ministerial aides, and senior mandarins will face a five-year cooling-off period before they can lobby government.

Yet Harper is at risk of forfeiting much of the credit for this and more by not moving to make government less secretive. His apparent fixation on controlling his message -- he demands strict discipline over what his cabinet ministers say, and shows obvious suspicion of the news media -- suggests a Prime Minister ill at ease with a free flow of information. There is more at stake, though, than the matter of his personal style. When the accountability act was tabled last spring, it failed to include most of the Tory campaign promises designed to beef up the access to information rules. Instead, a House committee was assigned to study possible changes to the law in the indefinite future. Critics accuse the Conservatives of trying to postpone and, ultimately, smother their own promised reforms under endless evaluation of the options. "It's absolutely a death-by-committee tactic," said NDP MP Pat Martin. "They chickened out. Their officials and senior bureaucrats got to them."
Of eight promises in the Tory election platform, only their pledge to broaden the access law to cover more Crown corporations and other arms of government was included in the accountability act. Among the commitments left to an uncertain fate: giving the federal information commissioner the power to order documents to be released, obliging public officials to keep records of their actions and decisions, and making the public interest paramount over any possible justification for keeping information secret.

There's a lot of good stuff in that article, but I will resist the temptation to reproduce the whole thing here. Suffice it to say that I too am bitterly disappointed.

I fully expected to be let down by the Conservatives on a lot of points. I have a healthy cynical side. But the idealistic part of me couldn't help hoping they would come through on at least this.

Instead, we've seen John Baird happily adopting the Liberal's strategy to bypass the Access to Information Act, Gordon O'Connor allowing DND bureaucrats and top brass to classify even anodine information that has been published and in the public domain for years, and Foreign Affairs is rivalling them in dangerous foolishness.

I feel sick. My only hope is that a significant number of Tory backbenchers are equally unhappy. It's not a great hope, but it's there. Or perhaps that the Senate would actually fulfill its function by not just delaying this bill, but by sending it back to the House of Commons with a stern message to fix it. Or Michaëlle Jean could do the same. But I rather doubt they've got the gumption. Where's Ed Schreyer when you need him?

My evaluation on this point is definitely not good. The Tories had a chance to do the entire country an invaluable service and they blew it. Admittedly, they aren't worse than the Liberals here, but hey! We expected more and we're not really getting it.

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Monday, 16 October 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Oct. 16

Dave Schuler at the Glittering Eye explains, facts and statistics in hand, why he thinks it will make little difference whether the Democrats or the Republicans take control in November's elections. He compares the historical results of Democratic or Republican dominance.
It didn’t make a bit of difference. Taxes went down during periods of complete Democratic control. Taxes went up during periods of complete Democratic control. Taxes went down during periods of complete Republican control. And up. We’ve been to war, expanded entitlements and civil rights, had booms and busts under both Democrats and Republicans.

Media distortions seem to be hitting all sides. Vues d'ici tells us (in English) how Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff has had his words twisted by removing the context.

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Evaluating Harper's government

Stephen HarperI am planning on starting a bit of a series here, evaluating the Harper government on its famous five priorities and throwing in an extra two priorities - the environment and foreign affairs - seeing as they have come to have at least as much importance as the originally stated five. So the seven points I will be looking at are (the first five are word for word from the Conservatives' website):

1. Clean up government by passing the Federal Accountability Act
2. Provide real tax relief to working families by cutting the GST
3. Make our streets and communities safer by cracking down on crime
4. Help parents with the cost of raising their children
5. Work with the provinces to establish a Patient Wait Times Guarantee
6. Effective action on the environment
7. Foreign affairs

In the interests of disclosure, I voted Conservative last election. The reasons for that were relatively simple; the Liberals had disgusted and alienated me on so many issues I couldn't even keep track any more. And that was BEFORE the sponsorship scandal. Think Talisman Energy, Shawinigate, and a slew of broken promises. There's more, but that gives you an idea. They had dug a hole so deep I couldn't - and can't - imagine it getting filled back in until they've spent a few years in the political wilderness and done a major overhaul job.

The Conservatives had a few ideas I liked, and had spent enough years mouldering in opposition to effect a real purging. The Mulroney cronies were gone and the band of neophytes and lightly seasoned MP's they were could not possible learn the levers of corruption as well as the Liberals in a mere single term, especially the short term of a minority government. So it is quite likely that I will vote Conservative again, although not necessarily with any great enthusiasm. That could yet change.

The NDP? Well, honestly, while I occasionally agree with some of their concerns, I almost invariably think that they choose the worst possible method of trying to address them. And that's when I agree...

You may have gathered that ethics in government is a major point for me. You gathered correctly.

I am not a political expert and I don't intend to spend hours and hours (a couple maybe) researching each point, so your input will be highly valued. Cheap insults won't be welcome, mind you, but thoughtful, factual input, however passionate and whether in favour or opposed, is definitely what I'm hoping to see.

If you're interested in participating, please bookmark this blog or this post (I will link the entire series back to this post) and come back to weigh in. All viewpoints are welcome, as long as they're expressed respectfully. Some of the topics plan on widening to the general principles behind them, not necessarily the very narrow focus of the stated priorities. And extra points could get added, if they seem to warrant the attention.

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Sunday, 15 October 2006

Who is really responsible for stick thin models?

In today's Ottawa Citizen, journalist Shelley Page tells the story (subscription required) of the modelling career that put her through journalism school and ruined her eating habits for years. She was pressured to take her healthy, athletic frame and reduce it to a size 6. It wasn't easy. Now, 20 years later, size 0 is the norm, and some models have literally died trying to attain and maintain it. Shelley is not buying the fashion industry's excuses.
In the two decades since I modelled, the young women have been forced from the sought-after size 6 to achieve nothingness. The size 0 standard almost negates their very existence.

Who are these women-hating designers who create clothes that only look good on women who are half-dead? Who are the idiots who sit stupidly in the audience during Fashion Week and applaud the ridiculous fashions draped over these dead-eyed girls? And who are these young women who are turning into zeroes?
And who are the every-day women who are complicit?

Let's face it, the fashion industry would not survive for two weeks if women didn't support it. Not just the "high" society sitting in the front rows around the catwalks, but the thousands upon thousands of women who buy fashion magazines and the celebrity tabloids with their breathless descriptions of the gowns at the Oscars. It is women themselves who are financing some of the most malicious exploitation of women that occurs in the Western world.

So what are you going to do about it?

Update: I've blogged about a powerful photographic exhibit dealing with eating disorders here.

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