Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Zimbabwe's Kurtz

At the beginning of the last century, Joseph Conrad published what is generally acknowledged as the definitive analysis of what colonization had done to both Africans and their European masters. "The conquest of the earth," he wrote in Heart of Darkness, "which mostly means taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Conrad embodied that conquest in the character of Mr. Kurtz, who was admired in Europe as a paragon of virtue. But as he travelled upriver, into the heart of the Belgian Congo, "many powers of darkness claimed him for their own," until "he had taken a high seat amongst the devils of the land."

In the nineteenth century, Cecil Rhodes embodied European colonization. He did not meet Kurtz' end. In fact, he returned to Britain -- enriched by diamonds, not ivory -- where he established the scholarship fund which has helped educate the likes of Ontario's Bob Rae and America's Bill Clinton. Along the way, he also bequeathed his name to that part of Africa which we used to call Rhodesia -- where, eventually, his descendents established a system of apartheid, which ensured that the colonizers would remain rich while the natives would be discarded -- after they could no longer do hard labour.

In time, in Rhodesia and South Africa, the natives (led by well educated and committed men) rose in rebellion. They smashed the legal system which had separated the races; and, in the case of Rhodesia, they renamed the country. In South Africa, Nelson Mandella was elected president, established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and -- his job done -- retired. In Rhodesia, Robert Mugabe was elected president; and he is still there twenty-eight years later -- even though the little information available suggests that he and his party lost the last election.

The results of the presidential vote have been suppressed for a month, while Mugabe has ordered arms from China -- and roving gangs of thugs have scoured the countryside, breaking heads and legs, attempting to persuade the population to vote the right way in what, Mugabe insists, will be a second run-off election.

To some degree, this is the result of Britain's failure to support her former colony. As Gwynne Dyer has written, "Britain did nothing when the local white minority illegally seized independence." And, even though the mother country "promised to provide large amounts of money to buy out the white farmers . . . it reneged on its promise." Mugabe has fumed at Britain ever since, telling his audiences that he is the best candidate to look after their interests. Tony Blair's former International Development Secretary, Clare Short, added fuel to the fire when -- in what Dyer calls "a famously stupid letter" -- she claimed, "we do not accept that Britain has a special responsibility to meet the costs of land purchase in Zimbabwe. We are a new government from diverse backgrounds without links to former colonial interests. My own origins are Irish, and, as you know, we were colonized, not colonizers."

To this day Mugabe argues that there is a European plot to recolonize Zimbabwe. In the meantime, unemployment is around 80%; and inflation is currently running at 160,000%. According to Dyer, "70% of working-age Zimbabweans have fled the country in search of work;" and, for those who stay, the average life expectancy is "in the mid 30's." In the midst of such chaos, Mugabe continues to hold court. Like the central character in Conrad's novel he "lack(s) restraint in the gratification of his various lusts . . .there (is) something wanting in him." Like Kurtz, one suspects that he is "hallow at the core." It is one of history's deepest ironies that the man who evicted those who had oppressed his people should, in turn, become their oppressor.

But Zimbabwe is a land locked country. The tools which Mugabe requires to maintain his regime must be delivered to him over land. If his neighbours refuse to grant him access to those tools -- with the support of the international community -- his regime (like the one he overthrew) will wither and die. It would be fitting if, as Mugabe left, he would recognize "The horror! The horror!" But such confessions belong in the realm of fiction.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Price of Hunger

Almost thirty years ago, my wife and I traveled to Haiti. While in Port-Au-Prince, we visited a community clinic -- located on a hill, an hygienic island in a sea of shacks with corrugated tin roofs, no running water and buckets for toilets. During our visit, there was one of those tropical cloud bursts which are quick, sharp -- and leave the air more oppressive than before the deluge. The nuns who ran the place distributed and administered common medications to their destitute neighbours. As we left, they cautioned us to step carefully down the path to the street, explaining that the contents of the aforementioned buckets were regularly dumped on the path; and the rain would speed the waste on its way to the gutter.

We did as instructed; and, as we reached the street, a woman and a small child were sponge bathing in a large puddle -- like a fetid prairie slough -- where the path met the road. I thought of those people last week as I read of the food riots in Port-Au-Prince where, according to the New York Times, "children ate two spoonfuls of rice apiece and went without any food the following day." On the days when there is no food to be found, they eat patties "made of mud, oil and sugar."

According to David Olive, in The Toronto Star, "Already this year the price of rice, one of the world's critically important food staples, has increased a staggering 141 percent. And one particular variety of wheat jumped 25 percent in a single day during that period." The problem has touched us in North America, too. The cost of eggs has increased 24 percent in the past year; and the cost of dairy products has increased 13 percent. But the average annual income in Haiti is about $500 (U.S.). Haitians are part of the one and a half billion people on this planet who survive on less than two dollars a day -- and as food prices have spiked, they have quite literally been left to eat mud.

Those who analyze world agricultural production tell us that the number of acres in cultivation has actually gone up. But all the planetary problems we face have come to bear on the question of whether or not people have enough to eat. More acres are planted; but Australia, for instance -- which used to be the world's second largest wheat exporter -- has endured several years of drought, probably (say a number of scientists) one of the consequences of climate change.

In an effort to halt those consequences, American farmers have increased their corn harvest. But that grain is now used to produce ethanol; and, ultimately, it finds its way to gas tanks in wealthier countries, not to the stomachs of the poor. And, if some of that corn does find a human destination, it is used to feed cattle, which provide meat to the growing middle classes of China and India.

Because of the misguided public policy of recent years, we are now reaping our own harvest of desperate and violent protest. According to Jeffrey Sachs, who serves as a special adviser to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, "It's the worst crisis of its kind in thirty years . . . and it's obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there's more political fallout to come." As Lynda Hurst reported two weeks ago in The Star, "According to the World Bank, 33 countries are now vulnerable to social unrest and political instability because of food insecurity -- and that has implications for all the rest."

At the recent "Three Amigos" summit in New Orleans, Mr. Bush, Mr. Calderon and Mr. Harper once again sang the praises of free trade. It's passing strange that they never -- to my knowledge -- make any public statements about fair trade. However, all three gentlemen appear to be well fed. Perhaps that fact accounts for the omission.

Whatever the reason, as someone told me just before our visit to Haiti, "Hungry people are dangerous people." One cannot appeal to their better angels if they face a fundamental choice between a slow, painful death from starvation or a short, violent death from a bullet.

The picture which accompanies this post was taken at a garbage dump in Port-Au-Prince, where many of those hungry people were scavenging for food.Those who are selling the same old snake oil will have lots to answer for. As Bob Dylan warned us forty years ago, "It's a hard, hard rain's a gonna fall."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Dodging Icebergs

Over the years, David Brooks has expended a great deal of editorial ink gently -- and at times not so gently -- satirizing the baby boom generation, of which he is a card carrying member. Last week, in The New York Times, he pointed out how we, who used to insist that the world was our oyster, are becoming "hippocampically challenged." Citing a common experience of those of us on the other side of sixty -- not being able to remember the name of an old acquaintance -- he detailed the "evasive vagueness" we employ to save face.

He then suggested that what happens to individuals also happens to countries. He wrote that "great powers can be defined by their national forgetting styles. Americans forget their sins. Russians forget their weaknesses. The French forget they've forgotten God. And, in the Middle East, they forget everything but their resentments."

All true in a tongue-in-cheek way. But in an article for the May 1st edition of The New York Review of Books, British historian Tony Judt claims that we in North America have not learned the lessons of the century we have just left behind. "In the West," he writes, "we have made haste to dispense whenever possible with the economic, intellectual and institutional baggage of the twentieth century and encouraged others to do likewise."

Not that we haven't built memorials to twentieth century history. But, says Judt, "the twentieth century we have chosen to commemorate is curiously out of focus. The overwhelming majority of places of official twentieth-century memory are either avowedly nastalgo-triumphalist -- praising famous men and celebrating famous victories -- or else, and increasingly -- they are opportunities for the recollection of collective suffering."

This is particularly true in the United States, he writes, where "we have forgotten the meaning of war. There is a reason for this. In much of continental Europe, Asia and Africa, the twentieth century was experienced as a cycle of wars. War in the last century signified invasion, occupation, displacement, deprivation, destruction and mass murder." In contrast, "the United States avoided almost all of that. . . . The U.S. was not invaded. It did not lose vast numbers of citizens, or huge swaths of territory as a result of occupation or dismemberment."

But, he says, those who have experienced war know that it touches everyone and everything. Even among the victorious "the very structures of civilized life -- regulations, laws, teachers, policemen, judges -- disappear(s) or [takes] on sinister significance: far from guaranteeing security, the state itself become(s) the leading source of insecurity. . . . Behaviour that would be aberrant in conventional circumstances -- theft, dishonesty, dissemblance, indifference to the misfortune of others, and the opportunistic exploitation of others' suffering -- become not just normal but sometimes the only way to save your family and yourself." War leaves the battlefield a no man's land. But it also eats away at the social fabric of the home front. And, in the end, it dissolves the bonds which hold a nation together.

We have forgotten what the twentieth century should have taught us about war; but we have also forgotten what it taught us about the economy. For the last twenty-five years, the best and the brightest have told us we live in a "new economy," where the old rules don't apply. But, as the tech and housing bubbles burst, wealth was increasingly concentrated at the top of society; and now the world financial system hangs in the balance. At the same time, we have -- in Pat Moynihan's words, "defined deviancy down;" and the institutions we relied on -- schools, the health care system and the family -- have buckled under the strain.

We have chosen to live in a state of willful ignorance. How else to explain -- in Richard Reeves apt phrase -- the "high I.Q. fools" who predicted a brave new world of peace and prosperity? One thinks particularly of Paul Wolfowitz (former Deputy Secretary of Defense and former President of the World Bank) who confidently predicted that, after an American victory in Iraq, oil would sell for $20 a barrel. This week oil hit $115 a barrel. Wolfowitz was trained as a mathematician. Clearly, he missed something.

This was also the week when we memorialized one of the first significant events of the last century -- the sinking of the Titanic. Equipped with the latest technology and piloted by a superbly experienced crew, it was said to be invulnerable to the elements.

History is a social science, not an exact one. So its predictive powers are not always reliable. At the very least, though, history helps us dodge big obstacles, like icebergs. Try as we might to forget them, they are still out there -- floating in the North Atlantic.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Assuming Responsibility

In his book, 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal, Christopher Moore reminded his readers that Canadian parliamentary democracy was based on a fundamental principle which, in the 21st century, strikes many as romantic and quaint: "In the middle of the nineteenth century, responsible government meant that the survival of the prime minister and his cabinet depended, day by day, on the verdict of a vigilant Parliament. Members of Parliament were chosen by, close to, and dependent on (for those times) a broadly based and well informed electorate. Contemplating the results of the election of 1997," Moore wrote, "I found myself wishing we lived under conditions more like these."

He is not alone. Last month, Mr. Justice John Gomery -- the man who was the bane of the Chretien and Martin governments -- turned his guns on the man and the party who roared against Liberal self dealing and obfuscation. Pointing out that, for years, power has been transferred from elected members of Parliament to the unelected advisers in the Prime Minister's Office, Gomery asserted that, instead of reversing this process, the Harperites have accelerated it. "I suggest this trend is a danger to Canadian democracy," he told the government operations committee; and it "leaves the door wide open to the kind of political interference in the day to day administration of government programs that led to what is commonly called the sponsorship scandal. We have a government where one man seems to have an ever increasing influence upon what government policy is going to be. If you look back historically at prime ministers in the past, I don't think they had the same hold over their party and Parliament that the present prime minister has."

The Harper government is notorious for keeping its elected members on a short leash. All government communication is controlled by the PMO; and policy announcements belong to the Prime Minister, not his cabinet. Moreover, whether the policy is Afghanistan or consumer protection, the same PMO routinely sits on information. Increasingly, the only way to pry that information from the government's hands is to apply for it through the Access to Information Act. Former Ontario cabinet minister Sean Conway -- who now teaches at Queens University -- has said, "It is one of the assumptions of a democratic society that its citizens are going to be provided with timely, relevant and understandable information." Mr. Harper and his minions, says Conway, "are doing something quite destructive to one of the key pillars of democratic society."

And the government is not the only body who is acting irresponsibly. Mr. Dion and the Liberal opposition have failed to hold the government's feet to the fire. As Jim Travers wrote in the Toronto Star, "An opposition leader who even temporarily abandons the core responsibility of holding the government to account needs to explain the reasons for directly or indirectly endorsing ruling party policies on war, the economy and climate change." Dion has refused to do this; but his reason is obvious: according to the polls, Canadians don't want an election now.
The result is that government policy becomes law by default.

So, ultimately, the responsibility for our situation rests with us, the electorate. We give the government -- which needs to answer for the vanishing federal surplus, for the hot air behind its environmental policy, and for the "financial considerations" it offered Chuck Cadman if he voted to bring down the previous government -- a pass.

John Kenneth Galbraith -- a man for all seasons -- wrote, "There are times in politics when you must be on the right side and lose." If we understand the concept of responsible government (and insist that it be practiced in all seasons) we will always be on the right side.

Friday, April 04, 2008

By the Awful Grace of God

Forty years ago today, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It had been five years since the historic March on Washington, and four years since he had accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo. He was in Memphis to lead a strike of sanitation workers.

Some interpreted his presence there as a sign of his diminished status. He was, after all, far from the haunts of the powerful. But anyone who had followed his career knew otherwise. For, while he marched against racism, he also marched against poverty. "The curse of poverty has no justification in our age," he wrote in 1967. "It is socially as cruel and blind as the practice of cannibalism at the dawn of civilization, when men ate each other because they had not learned to take food from the soil or to consume the abundant animal life around them. The time for us has come to civilize ourselves by the total, direct and immediate abolition of poverty."

In the years since his death, some -- citing King's personal failings -- have dismissed him as a hypocrite. But they fail to note that King was at home in the temples of the wealthy and the hovels of the poor. And, despite the rising tide of violence -- which threatened to engulf the Civil Rights Movement -- King remained true to his faith in non-violence. "Non-violence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time," he said when he accepted the Nobel Prize. For, more than anything else, the challenge of the time was " the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence." Non violence was the way to achieve and maintain justice: "the foundation of such a method," he said," is love."

Robert Kennedy, who was running for president when King was killed, spoke to a largely African American crowd on April 4, 1968. Kennedy's biographers claim that, after the death of his elder brother, he read the plays of Aeschylus, with whom he had little acquaintance -- until November 22, 1963. And it was to Aeschylus that Kennedy turned, knowing what would follow King's death :
He who learns must suffer.
And even in our sleep,
Pain that cannot forget,
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
And in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

Kennedy's words have a particular poignancy, because he, too, had a date with an assassin's bullet some two months later. For those of us who came of age in that time, King's death marked a turning point. As Jesse Jackson has said, that day has divided life into two segments: before King and after King. His death marked the death of our innocence and the birth of a new cynicism.

But that dichotomy is too simple. We have, in Dickens' phrase, lived through the best and worst of times. Perhaps every generation does. But the challenge every generation faces is to arrive at some kind of wisdom, "by the awful grace of God." The jury is still out on the question of whether or not we have learned anything.