Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Fashionable political absurdities...

David Frum recently published an article in Atlantic Monthly, with the following interesting statement:
The Obama people, not being idiots, understand very well that international terrorism possesses an overwhelmingly Muslim character. In Europe, where attention is so focused now, the great majority of the most lethal terrorist incidents of the past 15 years have been carried out by people professing to act from Islamist motives. 
Peter McKay, Canada's Justice Minister, recently illustrated the problem with this thinking, although he did so unintentionally. In his recent statement on the conspiracy to commit random mayhem in Halifax, Mr. McKay denied the conspiracy had any links to "terrorism". Since then, evidence has surfaced of a motive: the social media presence of at least some of the accused conspirators reveals a far-right wing orientation. Denying that a plot to commit random violence with no possible motive except for politics only makes sense in the context of a trope that effectively defines political violence as terrorism only if committed by Muslims.

Consider another example, the largest mass casualty act of political violence in the last twelve calendar months to take place in the geographic confines of Europe: the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over the Eastern Ukraine. To the extent this attack involved any Muslims at all, it involved them as victims. It caused 298 deaths, by a long way the greatest number of deaths from an act of political violence last year, and for some time before. So why does neither David Frum nor the sources he quotes at least acknowledge this as a terrorist act? Because, by the definition in effective use by his contemporaries, it doesn't qualify. Muslims didn't do it.

Given the winds of political fashion, shorthand expressions that conceal absurd assumptions come and go all the time. These tropes only really matter when someone attempts to use them to establish a point of fact, and ends up seduced into stating something seriously out of line with the facts.

Saturday, February 07, 2015

Halfway around the world...

I recently stumbled on an example of the way an untruth can make it halfway around the world while the truth is getting its boots on.

On a comment section in Atlantic recently, I ran into the following claim about the creeping Islamic influence in "Western" societies:
...Islamists have brought about women-only classes and swimming times at taxpayer-funded universities and public pools; that Christians, Jews, and Hindus have been banned from serving on juries where Muslim defendants are being judged, Piggy banks and Porky Pig tissue dispensers have been banned from workplaces because they offend Islamist sensibilities. Ice cream has been discontinued at certain Burger King locations because the picture on the wrapper looks similar to the Arabic script for Allah, public schools are pulling pork from their menus, on and on...
When I asked for sources for these claims, another person posting on the same thread pointed out that virtually exact copies of this same statement have appeared as cut and paste jobs in many site comments. After a Google search I tracked down the source of this boilerplate: a thriller by Brad Thor called The Last Patriot. Amazon describes it as the story of a US Navy Seal turned Homeland Security operative, searching for a secret way to halt militant Islam. That may or may not provide a diverting read. But when a sentence or two, lifted from a work of fiction, appears in dozens of comments as fact, it has the potential to distort discussions of public policy that matter.

This encounter with Internet fiction repackaged as fact has reminded me not to assume the assumptions that produce legislation such as the Conservatives' recent security bill have any basis in fact. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

On solidarity

Forget Charlie Hebdo for a moment. Start somewhere else. Consider a little community in Colombia, Las Pavas. The people of Las Pavas have a small cooperative agrarian community. Their lifestyle apparently suits them. Unfortunately, their land has attracted the attention of an international company that wants to extract palm oil. The people of Las Pavas are trying to say no to the exploitation of their land, and to the corrupt and violent processes by which an international company has attempted to take it from them.

If bullets can answer words, the people of Las Pavas, and with them a hundred other communities: indigenous people, the poor, or even simply people who choose peace, have no chance whatever.  The greed of the neoliberal order and the obsessions of the consumer culture will answer words with bullets without a single thought if they can get away with it.In fact, none of us have any realistic possibility of resisting the violence of our culture with violence. We organize, we protest, we speak, we persuade, and we cannot do any of these things effectively if a bullets can answer words.

That explains why je suis Charlie, and why je suis Charlie matters so much.

Not everyone agrees: some of the most quoted pushback has come from Jacob Canfield of the Hooded Utilitarian. Mr. Canfield makes the point that free speech does not free Charlie Hebdo from criticism. His criticism focuses on the way he considers the editors Charlie Hebdo failed to navigate the distinctions between the places in the world, such as Europe, where some Muslims suffer oppression, and the places some Muslims oppress others. Whatever the merits of that argument, it does not change the reality that two men with Kalashnikovs attacked a satirical magazine and killed eight journalists and cartoonists, as well as police officers protecting the offices. In a wholesale and brutal fashion, the gunmen answered words with bullets. A brief look at the firepower available to those governments committed to the neo-liberal politics and economics makes it extremely clear that the poor and powerless in the world will suffer most if the murders at Charlie Hebdo go unanswered.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

I remember...

as a child watching the first runs of Mel Brooks's Get Smart with my parents. In one of the episodes a character mentioned torture, and my mother said the American forces would never use torture.

My mother did not indulge in illusions about Americans. She never saw the United States with awe or reverence or as the exceptional and unique nation many Americans profess to see. She saw a nation among all others, home of Janas Salk and Bull Connor, Martin Luther King and George Wallace, John F. Kennedy and H. L. Hunt. She saw a country with manifold, even brutal flaws, a country capable of great good and great evil, a country where, in that moment, the good outweighed the evil. Above all, she saw a country which stood for something, something that included a code of conduct. And that code of conduct simply excluded torture.

I refuse to believe that country no longer exists. I believe many, many Americans still hold to and live the basic American propositions about the fundamental dignity of human beings, and would never engage in. or condone, torture. The American Empire may have grown over the American Republic, but it has not devoured the American Republic. Yet when I read long discussions in comments on the recently released US Senate report of CIA torture, discussions focussed entirely on the question of utility, of whether torture works, I cannot shake the conclusion that my mother would find many contemporary Americans deeply dsappointing.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Black lives matter

For Canadians tempted to get smug about the American legacy of slavery, let me add: First Nations lives matter as well.

The incidents in the United States between African Americans and the police have piled up lately in a particularly sobering way. A police officer in Ferguson MO. shoots an unarmed student. A police officer in Staten Island chokes a man selling for loose cigarettes. Officers shoot and kill a shopper in the middle of buying an air pistol and a child playing with a toy. A police officer stops a motorist, orders him to fetch his license, and shoots him when he goes to get it.

Rudolph Giuliani weighed in on the shooting in Ferguson, terming "Black on Black" crime a worse scourge on the African American community than  any heavy-handed police presence. Plenty of people have responded to the moral insensitivity of his comments, but the factual problems with his claims bear some consideration.

When Giuliani speaks of the need for a police presence in majority African American neighbourhoods plagued by violence, he implies that the police present will protect the community. In fact, as Radley Balko documented in a Washington Post article, in the environs of St. Louis law enforcement activities often serve the purpose of raising funds for otherwise economically unsustainable communities and their work forces. Since the work forces include the police, the officers on duty have to fund their own positions through fines. For years, the residents of Ferguson lived with the absurd fiction that police can dispense even handed justice when their real mandate is to find ways to extract money in the form of fines from the community. It did not dispose them to accept the explanations offered by the police for the shooting of an unarmed student.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Beware


the Jabberwock, my son. Oh, and the two-tonne steel bomb with the driver who thinks everyone on the street should wear high-viz or stay at home.

Operating a powered vehicle on public streets for your own convenience, pleasure or profit is a privilege. That privilege comes with responsibility. That responsibility is simple: do no harm. If you can't drive safely for any reason, don't drive. Driving safely means, at a minimum, not hitting pedestrians with the right of way. Period. It does not matter what the pedestrian has chosen to wear. If you think you can make a legal right turn on red but you can't tell for sure if you see a pedestrian waiting to cross, don't make the turn until you have made sure. If you get an impression that you see motion at night, you probably do: in darkness, the human eye does a better job detecting motion than shape. That fleeting impression of something moving could mean a human being, and until you've identified it, stay stopped. You and your car can mange to wait to make the turn, but the pedestrian can't make do without their life. Adjust your speed to the visibility. If you can't see a pedestrian in a black coat in a crosswalk in time to stop, slow down until you can. You will get where you want to go a whole lot earlier if you don't have to stop to explain how you injured or killed someone along the way.

Motorists keep putting more and more onerous conditions on vulnerable road users. It has to stop now. The appetites of car users for speed and convenience already dominate most of the usable public right of way. Motorists have an unconditional responsibility not to injure pedestrians using the limited public space left them. Don't hit pedestrians in crosswalks, at four way stops, in crossovers, or on the sidewalk. Just don't do it: full stop, no excuses.

Thursday, September 11, 2014