Sunday, December 30, 2007

Tribalism Run Amok

The assassination last week of Benazir Bhutto is a reminder that, as much as many of us would prefer democracy to any other kind of rule, there are certain prerequisites on which any democratic state must be founded. In many parts of the world, those prerequisites do not exist; or they are actively being undermined. And the first -- and most important -- prerequisite is the rule of law. All democracies are governments of laws, not men.

Whatever her faults, Bhutto was a democrat. David Ignatius, writing this past Friday in The Washington Post, remembered encountering her when they were both undergraduates at Harvard: "We had no idea she was Pakistani political royalty. She was too busy jumping into her future to make a show of her past." He recalled crossing her path a few years later at Oxford, where she was president of the Oxford Union debating society: "She was wearing a Rolling Stones T-Shirt, the one with the sassy tongue sticking out, and I recall thinking that Pakistani politics would never be the same once she returned home." On that score, Ignatius was right. Elected to -- and deposed from -- the Prime Ministership of her country twice, her life and times were tumultuous.

The tumult continues; and it is impossible to predict how the saga will play out. Haroon Siddiqui has written in The Toronto Star that "the crisis has two faces -- one as seen by most Pakistanis and the other as seen by the United States and, by extension the rest of the West, including Canada. Most Pakistanis view the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as an unholy alliance, with [Pervez ] Musharraff doing America's bidding, which is partly why he is unpopular. And Pakistan's democrats deeply resent Washington's choice of a military man as its instrument."

In North America, says Siddiqui, "Bhutto was portrayed as 'Pakistan's last great hope' in the headline of one magazine. But most Pakistanis did not share that perception." Her party is a family business -- her son has been appointed her successor -- and, as Ignatius admits, " the corruption charges that enveloped her second term as prime minister were all too real."

Still, whatever her failings, she stood for the rule of law -- which meant that, ultimately, she agreed to play by the rules. No democracy can exist unless its citizens abide by that agreement. It is only that agreement which keeps the tribes from each other's throats. In the name of safety, several governments -- including our own -- have sought to overlook or short circuit the rules. No one can predict what will come next in Pakistan. But unless and until the rule of law can be re-established, the safety of every Pakistani is at stake. That is a lesson which also applies to those of us who are thousands of miles away in North America.

Monday, December 24, 2007

A New Year's Reflection (2008)

During the middle two weeks of December, I attended three funerals. The first was for my wife's cousin, who died much too early. He was 30. The last funeral was for a former officer in the Canadian Armed Forces. He was 89. Clearly, death has respect neither for youth nor age. That fact might cause one to reflect on the unfairness of things.

But what struck me at all three funerals was how one life touches so many other lives -- and, often, that one life reaches across barriers of age, gender, language, culture, race and ability. This was particularly true in the case of Simon Lortie, my wife's cousin. Simon was perfectly able bodied until the age of 19 when, swimming in the Atlantic -- not far from Boston -- he dove into a wave and broke his neck. The accident left him a quadriplegic.

He returned with his family to Montreal, where he underwent months of rehab and he began looking at the world from the perspective of a wheelchair. But the accident did not turn Simon into a narcissist. Self pity was not in his vocabulary. With a partner he started his own business. He had always loved music and the nightlife of Montreal; and he continued to make the rounds of the clubs and to enjoy the various musicians who, with other artists, give Montreal its unique elan. With help from a visiting attendant, he lived in his own apartment. Perhaps most importantly, he joined the Association des paraplegiques du Quebec (The Quebec Paraplegic Association) where he counselled others who found themselves in circumstances similar to his. And he became a community activist, lobbying for wheelchair access to public buildings and public transportation.

Simon's name became a watchword -- particularly in Montreal's French language press -- but he was thoroughly at home in both French and English. He even spoke a little Italian, his grandparents' native tongue. From his parents he learned tolerance for the many cultures and languages which gathered with human faces around the family table.

The church was packed -- there was standing room only. There were many people in wheelchairs, some on crutches -- white faces, black faces -- and personal recollections in two languages. The service was a reminder, for those of us who grew up in what used to be called Quebec's Two Solitudes, that so much of what separates us is mere claptrap; and, if we can take the time to build walls, we can also take the time to tear them down.

In the last two decades the tribes have been resurgent. Much time and blood have been been spent in ethnic cleansing. Simon's short life was a rebuke to the lie that there is salvation in the tribe. And, as the new year begins, his life reminds us all that the length of time we have is unimportant. It's what we do with the time we have that makes all the difference.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bali: Success or Failure?

Much has been written over the last week about the UN Climate Congress, which went into overtime last week in Indonesia. The inability of 192 nations to agree to hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions has caused some commentators to despair. And one could, understandably, read the outcome as collective denial.

Certainly, the Harper government, for all its happy talk about its good intentions, continues to ape the position of the Bush Administration because, I suspect, the Prime Minister -- trained in Friedmanesque economics -- believes that any measures which apply brakes to an unfettered economy are clear and present dangers.

Most Canadian commentators found Environment Minister John Baird's performance at the conference embarrassing. And, given Canada's past environmental commitments -- which admittedly were not kept -- the Harperites refusal to accept hard targets for greenhouse gas reductions left several foreign observers flummoxed. Writing in the Toronto Star, Chantal Hebert referred to Mr. Baird's appearance as a Bali Flop: "For all intents and purposes, the Bali meeting was a multi- day communications disaster for the Harper regime. It set back a year of conservative efforts to re-brand the party on climate change and confirmed the issue as the government's Achilles heal."

But for Canadian commentators whose perspective was broader than Canada's role at the conference, there were signs of hope. Also writing in The Star, Richard Gwyn focused on the last minute concession by the United States to join the discussion -- after George W. Bush has gone back to Texas: "Almost any U.S. President, let alone Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, is bound to be more open and conciliatory," wrote Gwyn. More importantly, "at Bali, China and India hid behind the U.S. While it was being bashed, they could remain silent. The late U.S. concession, though, put the spotlight on these 'late polluters' and other comparable if smaller ones such as Indonesia and Brazil."

What or who was responsible for the change in American direction? Clearly, for the first time, the Bush administration faced a full court press from the international community. From the mighty to the humble, the message was the same. As a delegate from Papua, New Guinea told the American delegation: "If you're not willing to lead, please get out of the way." But, according to Gwynne Dyer, it was Al Gore who prevented the conference from running aground. Gore told the conference: "Over the next two years the United States is going to be somewhere it is not now. . . there will be a new (presidential) inauguration in the United States." So the conference removed the call for hard emissions targets and bought Gore's argument that there was hope -- if nations kept talking and reached an agreement by 2009.

"So don't believe the cynics," wrote Dyer,"who say that public opinion does not matter. A large majority of Americans are far ahead of their government in their desire to see effective action on climate change, and the Bush Administration is fighting a delaying action." One wonders if the Harper government has got the message. Bali ended with an agreement to keep talking -- and the knowledge that the biggest polluters are now inside the tent. No one ever claimed that it was going to be easy to get 192 nations to agree to save the planet. But an agreement is within our grasp.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Mr. Gore's Speech

Scholars who focus on American Literature, when they set the boundaries of the American literary canon, always save space for speeches -- usually delivered at critical moments in the nation's history. There is, of course, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered in August of 1963, not long before the passage of the Civil Rights Act. And William Faulkner's speech, delivered in Oslo as he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950, is a favourite of those of us who made a living teaching the language and its literature.

My guess is that, likewise, the speech Al Gore delivered in Oslo last week -- in a decade or two -- will find its place in the literary canon. Employing wit, passion and a sense of history, it was a call to action. And, while it lacked the rhetorical flourish of Winston Churchill (who Gore cited) its simple but powerful rhetoric stands as a beacon in the swill of modern Orwellian spin.

Gore began with a reference to Alfred Nobel who, like Gore, got the chance to read his own political obituary, "a judgment, which seemed to me harsh and mistaken -- if not premature." But like Nobel, Gore said, "that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose."

It is, indeed, one of the ironies of history that Gore, the wordsmith and teacher, has been far more effective outside government than he ever was within. When it came to warning of the danger we face, Gore -- like Churchill -- did not mince words: "We the human species are confronting a planetary emergency -- a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here." Every day, Gore said, we dump "another 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet." And, every day, scientists tell us that "something basic is wrong." Pulling no punches, Gore declared, "We are what is wrong and we must make it right."

But, as dark as the skies and the future might look, he was no pessimist. His parents' generation met the same life or death challenge in World War II. And, Gore believes, this generation has the power to rise to the occasion. Reminding his audience that Mahatma Gandhi "awakened the largest democracy on earth and forged a shared resolve with what he called 'Satyagraha -- or 'truth force'"-- Gore proclaimed that, "in every land, the truth -- once known -- has the power to set us free;" and the truth is that we need "a moratorium on the construction of any new generating facility that burns coal without the capacity to safely trap and store carbon dioxide. And most important of all, we need to put a price on carbon with a CO2 tax that is then rebated back to the people, progressively, according to the laws of each nation, in ways that shift the burden of taxation from employment to pollution."

Gore ended his speech with a call for both China and "my own country . . . to make the boldest moves or stand accountable before history for their failure to act. We have everything we need to get started," Gore said," save perhaps political will, but political will is a renewable resource. . . . So let us renew it, and say together,'We have a purpose. We are many. For this purpose we will rise and we will act.'"

Those simple declarative sentences have stark beauty and power -- the same beauty and power of The Gettysburg Address. One day they will take their place in the canon beside Lincoln's address. My hope is that, just as Lincoln reminded us that we need to be guided by "our better angels," Gore's words will do the same.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Greasing the Political Wheels

There is little to recommend Karlheinz Schreiber. It is not difficult to understand why, when John Crosbie and Peter Lougheed were asked to meet with him, they turned down the invitation. Self promotion is nothing new; but Mr. Schreiber appears to have been on the make for a long time -- and he is unapologetic about it. Moreover, the only truly credible piece of information he has offered the House Ethics Committee is his own assertion that he "was born ugly, not stupid."

Still, before we send him back to Germany -- where the mess he is in seems, ironically, as putrid as the mess he finds himself in here -- we should hear his tale, as convoluted and as incredible as it may be. And, as the House Committee and the public inquiry heed Mark Felt's advice to "follow the money," Canadians need to ask themselves if, indeed, they have been stupid.

Lawrence Martin, in The Globe and Mail, points out that the real "outrage" in the midst of all the noise surrounding Mr. Schreiber and Mr. Mulroney, is how Schrieber and his associates helped engineer the campaign to dump Conservative Party leader Joe Clark -- which paved the way for Mr. Mulroney's ascension to power. "Back in 1983," Martin writes, "when backers of Brian Mulroney were leading a campaign to unseat Joe Clark as party leader, Tory strategist Dalton Camp noted how something strange and alarming was going on." Camp claimed that "'foreign money' was fueling the anti-Clark drive. It was a grave allegation -- foreign interests hijacking the Canadian political process. But he offered no proof."

Mr. Schreiber does not inspire confidence. But, if he is credible on this point, we now have the proof. According to Martin, "Walter Wolf, an Austrian, and Mr. Schreiber, a German, secretly funded the dump Clark campaign to the tune of estimates that run to the hundreds of thousands. Then Bavarian premier Franz Joseph Strauss was orchestrating the drive, and also may have helped bankroll it. Mr. Wolf and Mr. Strauss detested Mr. Clark's moderate brand of conservatism. They wanted him out, and with their plotting, they succeeded. Few words in protest were heard then -- or since."

No one should be shocked to discover that money greases the wheels of politics. Sir Hugh Allan donated large sums to John A. Macdonald's Conservatives, hoping that he could buy a controlling interest in the new Pacific Railway. And, as the Gomery Commission discovered, Jean Chretien's Liberals rewarded Quebec advertising agencies with large contracts, on the understanding that a significant portion of that money would find its way back to party coffers. Mr. Mulroney stands in a long line of Canadian Prime Ministers who have known how to use money to accomplish their political goals. If Schreiber's claims -- and what Martin reports -- are true, Mr. Mulroney's sound and fury about John Turner agreeing to the appointments PierreTrudeau made before he left office qualify as comic relief.

Some will say that all of this is simply more of the same. But, in the Mulroney-Schreiber affair, there are differences. Those differences are the source and the amount of the money. It is not news that politicians can be bought and sold. But who is doing the buying and selling has always been important. Mr. Schreiber seems to offer Canadians a take on one of their Prime Ministers which -- like several others -- is far from flattering. However, it is not enough to take comfort from the fact that the people eventually sent him and his party -- at least temporarily -- into oblivion. The question is, were they had? And, if so, how do they ensure that it will not happen again?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Echoes of Isaiah

We are just about three weeks away from Christmas. As a child, I was taught that Advent was the Season of Expectations. For a kid who was focused on what would find its way under the tree, it was easy to relate to the Season of Expectations -- as crass as mine most assuredly were.

But as we began Advent this week, I found it hard to imagine any truly realistic expectations. The world, as Wordsworth wrote, is "too much with us." From Karlheinz Schreiber putting on a peekaboo performance in front of the House of Commons Ethics Committee, to the announcement that the United States has signed an agreement with the Maliki government to establish permanent military bases in Iraq, to the report which declared that Toronto is the poverty capital of Canada -- and that the number of poor children in this country is 20% higher than it was in 1989 -- there was more cause for disappointment than there was for expectation last week.

But I was taken aback yesterday when I came across a passage from Isaiah -- which everyone has heard; but the source of which few, I would guess, know. Like most of my generation, my acquaintance with the Book of Isaiah comes from secondary sources. My introduction to Isaiah came from attention to the rhetoric of Martin Luther King, Jr. He returned to Isaiah again and again: "I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together." That was Isaiah. He could be the bearer of bad news; but he was also the prophet of possibility. And then there was his faith that natural enemies could build a peaceable kingdom -- the lines behind John A. MacDonald's vision of Canada: "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb and the leopard shall lie down with the kid. . ."

It was Isaiah who made me think of King and MacDonald yesterday, when I came across the lines, "they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore."

One could argue that we have always been a long way from the future Isaiah imagined. But it was he who inspired King and MacDonald. And it was that inspiration which led both men -- living a hundred years apart -- to accomplish what many thought was impossible. Such is the power of expectations. Down through the centuries, like Isaiah, Christmas has raised our expectations. What matters, in the end, is what we do with those expectations.