What’s really at stake in Ukraine?

It’s difficult to know which is the more disturbing aspect of the crisis in Ukraine. Is it the deliberate obfuscation of the truth by Western leaders like Stephen Harper (and their complicit media)? Or is it the truth itself — the casual acceptance by the West of an illegal, coup-installed regime in Kyiv populated by neo-Nazis and anti-Semites?

You don’t have to choose between them. You should be very concerned about both. Democracy is impossible without an informed citizenry and given the effective collusion between the Harper government, the Canadian media and the geo-political interests of NATO, we seem doomed to remain uninformed.

The truth about Ukraine is hard to come by, as it is a complicated country that has had deep divisions for much of its recent history. But the West, which eagerly intervened financially and politically in the protests early on, encouraging ever more radical and confrontational actions, knew these complexities — or should have. On the face of it, if the U.S. and its EU allies knew what they should have known, it seems hard to conclude anything but that Western actions were a deliberate provocation of Russia.

And it’s not difficult to provoke ex-KGB autocrat and Russian hyper-nationalist Vladimir Putin, something else the West knows. It is simply not possible that the U.S., U.K., France and Germany could not have anticipated at least the possibility of Putin’s strong reaction to the events in Kyiv. For Russia and Putin, Ukraine is an existential issue with a relationship going back centuries, yet it seems no one in the West operates from this understanding.

The portrayal of the new government as a reclaiming of democracy lost is laughable. The U.S. and its allies always put great stock in democratic institutions until it doesn’t suit them. As corrupt, inept and autocratic as Viktor Yanukovych was, he was elected in an election that was judged by outside monitors as fair and free. Yanukovych was forced out of office by increasing threats of violence. His “impeachment” was no more legal constitutionally than the Crimean parliament declaring independence from Ukraine. One illegal act spawned another.

But it is the makeup of the new government that should have signaled unmistakably to the West that Russia would never acquiesce to the creation of a regime chock-a-block with neo-Nazi ministers utterly hostile to Russia — and to Russians in eastern Ukraine. One of the first acts of the government was to repeal legislation that allowed for Russian to be a second official language in the east. The new regime is also talking about banning the communist party and that of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, even though it has now disowned him.

Five members of the new cabinet are members of the Svoboda party as are three senior officials. Established in 1991, its members idolize Stepan Bandera, whose followers in the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) fought against the Red Army alongside the Nazis. The OUN played the role of policing Ukraine once the Nazis had conquered it and participated directly in the Holocaust. According to journalist Justin Raimondo, the Banderists declared “The Jews of the Soviet Union are the most loyal supporters of the Bolshevik Regime and the vanguard of Muscovite imperialism in the Ukraine.” When the Germans took Lviv in the summer of 1941, the Banderists sent a message to Lviv’s Jews in the form of a pamphlet that said: “We will lay your heads at Hitler’s feet!” The OUN and the SS arrested and executed 4,000 of the city’s Jews.

In a story dripping with tragic irony, John Baird’s (and Hillary Clinton’s) comparison of Russia’s bloodless occupation of Crimea to the Nazi invasion of the Sudetenland is ridiculous. Baird doesn’t need analogies — there are real Nazis here, just not on the side Baird suggests.

And these are the people that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, John Baird and the hapless Liberal Chrystia Freeland shake hands with when they travel to Kyiv to meet with the new government. Did Baird, champion of Israel and implacable enemy of the “new” anti-Semitism, talk to his Ukrainian counterpart about the truly deadly “old” anti-Semitism that infects the new government?

Among the members of Svoboda in the cabinet are, according to Raimondo:

Andriy Parubiy, National Security Council chief and co-founder of the party when it was called (not so subtly) the “Social-National Party.”
Oleh Makhnitsky, Svoboda member of parliament and prosecutor general.
Andriy Moknyk, the new minister of ecology, who has been Svoboda’s envoy to other European fascist parties. Last year, he met with representatives of Italy’s violent neo-fascist gang, Forza Nuova.
Ihor Tenyukh, interim defence minister and a member of Svoboda’s political council. Formerly commander of Ukraine’s navy, in 2008 during Russia’s war with Georgia, he ordered Ukrainian warships to block the entrance of the Russian Navy to the bay of Sevastopol.

Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, now a senior official in the new government, announced in the Ukrainian parliament in the past that the country was secretly controlled by a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” (Jews makes up 0.15 per cent of the Ukrainian population).
The other right-wing group represented in the new cabinet is even more violent and more recently formed — the so-called Right Sector, a militant neo-Nazi paramilitary group that took charge of security in the Maidan. Dmytro Yarosh, the founder and leader of the group, is now deputy head of the National Security Council — the national police. Yorash has indicated that he will reconstitute the police with Right Sector members, whom he boasted had already amassed the necessary weapons. As deputy head of the police it isn’t hard to imagine on whom he might focus his attention and his hatred. According to TV network Russia Today:

“Yarosh has called on Russia’s most wanted terrorist Doku Umarov [The U.S. has a $5 million price on his head for terrorism] to act against Russia in an address posted on Right Sector’s page in VKontakte social network…. The radical leader has been consistently anti-Russian in his statements, calling for the destruction and division of the ‘Moscow Empire’ and openly supporting Chechen militants and Georgian aggression. Yarosh believes Russia is Ukraine’s ‘eternal foe’ and has said that war between the two countries is ‘inevitable.'”

Right Sector also wants nothing to do with Europe or the EU deal, according to Andriy Tarasenko, a party co-ordinator: “For us, Europe is not an issue, in fact joining with Europe would be the death of Ukraine.”

Yarosh announced last week that he will run for president in May.

The notion that the West — whose fingerprints are all over every aspect of this completely unnecessary crisis — could help Russia “mediate” a diplomatic solution with a coup-installed government that includes virulently anti-Russian neo-Nazis, is Western delusion in its purest form. But when the West believes its own lies and rhetoric, its demands become ludicrous. Someone should teach Americans about irony after John Kerry, who voted for the invasion of Iraq in 2002, attacked Russia for “invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.”

But the U.S. and EU narrative on the crisis is falling apart, if not in the U.S. and Canada then in Europe. That narrative rests almost entirely on the slaughter of some 50 demonstrators, allegedly by Ukrainian police and at the behest of Yanukovych himself. But this story is turning out to be the equivalent of the weapons-of-mass-destruction narrative that the U.S. and U.K. used to justify the invasion of Iraq. Evidence is mounting that the snipers were actually from the opposition side of the struggle — most likely from the notorious Right Sector.

This account of the killings (which included 27 police, a fact hardly ever mentioned in the Western media) was first revealed in a secretly recorded phone conversation between Catherine Ashton, head of EU foreign affairs and Urmas Paet, the Estonian foreign minister. According to the Guardian newspaper, “In the call, Paet said he had been told snipers responsible for killing police and civilians in Kyiv last month were protest movement provocateurs rather than supporters of then-president Viktor Yanukovych.” Paet told Ashton, quoting a Russian doctor, “What was quite disturbing, this same Olga [Bogomolets] told that, well, all the evidence shows that people who were killed by snipers from both sides, among policemen and people from the streets, that they were the same snipers killing people from both sides.”

This would explain what appeared to be Yanukovych’s sudden and inexplicable resort to deadly force against demonstrators after weeks of using tear gas and water cannon. Until that orgy of killing the government had been remarkably moderate in its response. For days the police endured scores of fire bombs being rained down on them, and attacks by people protected by helmets and body armour and armed with iron pipes, bats and later firearms — with many policemen badly burnt and around a dozen killed. Still the response was tear gas and water cannon. Police were unarmed. Imagine for a moment how American officials or those in Canada would have responded to similar violent attacks on police protecting government buildings.

The narrative also relies on the characterization of the government as “tyrannical.” Yet the original demonstrations were focused almost exclusively on a decision that was, like it or not, completely legitimate for a democratic government. Yanukovych was openly corrupt and clearly no angel, but to declare him a tyrant because of a policy switch is absurd.

While Yanukovych is portrayed as having “betrayed” Ukrainians by suddenly deciding not to sign an economic pact with the EU, what is not well known is that the pact would have obliged Ukraine to virtually close its doors to expanded economic co-operation with Russia. The EU rejected a Russian proposal for a tripartite agreement that would have allowed Ukraine to balance its economic future. The EU deal also contained a military integration clause which offered a backdoor into NATO — a stunning provocation to Moscow. This was reckless and irresponsible overreach by EU bureaucrats with no appreciation of the history of Russia and Ukraine. It was such an alarming agreement that Putin upped the ante with an offer of $15 billion euros in aid (and likely an end to cheap gas if they refused the aid package).

Let’s be clear — there are no good guys in this drama. Putin is an unrepentant KGB autocrat and his occupation of Crimea is, provocation or not, unjustified and illegal. Yanukovych was corrupt, inept and unpopular across Ukraine. The new government in Kyiv is there illegally and its acceptance of openly fascist individuals into its cabinet gives increased legitimacy to their political parties and to the violence they initiated. While there are violent and organized anti-Semites in western Ukraine, the eastern part of the country and Russia have more than their share, too — and skinheads have been seen attacking the Muslim minority Tatars in Crimea.

The larger geo-political question relates to whether or not the West and its aggressive military alliance NATO really want to have Russia as a partner, or if they are determined to make it an adversary. While it is hard to imagine what advantage the latter policy would be to any player, all of the West’s actions seem to lead to that conclusion. The other possibility — that NATO countries have simply made egregious error after error in assessing Russia’s interests and its role in Europe — may actually be preferable as it at least holds the hope of a correction.

Both Russia and the West are set to lose from this confrontation. But the U.S. is set to lose more from its aggressive stance, which is puzzling given that Obama came to power promising to reset the relationship with Russia. Russia has been a key ally of the U.S. — allowing its air space to be used in the invasion of Afghanistan, contributing major resources to the fight against terrorism and playing critical roles in the current negotiations going on with Syria and Iran. And America’s European allies are dependent on Russia for natural gas well into the future.

Given all of that, we might want to ask Stephen Harper and John Baird just what they hoped to accomplish by comparing Putin to Hitler, recalling our ambassador and generally reviving reckless and ignorant Cold War rhetoric.

But posing such a question is probably pointless.

It seems that every foreign policy opportunity that presents itself to this rogue regime in Ottawa is used to micro-manage some part of the electorate. For Harper it has nothing to do with responsible foreign policy. It’s all about playing the Canadian Ukrainian community. It’s a variation on that old theme, follow the money. With Harper, it’s follow the votes, the state of the world and our reputation be damned.

NDP Needs Big Ideas to Win

Budget days should be days when Canadians are encouraged to imagine the possibilities for one of the richest countries in the world. Not the possibilities of the shopping mall or the offerings of Netflix, but the possibilities of building – or rebuilding – community. At its best that is what government is supposed to be about.

But for the last eight budgets it has been about smothering the national dream of prosperity and equality by systematically starving the federal government. The outrageous tax cuts of the Harper government (and the Liberal’s before that) have had one purpose only: to dramatically reduce the role of government and to redefine Canadian citizens increasingly as consumers.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We know from years of polling and focus groups that Canadians have a strong and resilient attachment to the idea of activist government – of doing things together. They even by significant majorities of two thirds or more say they would pay more taxes to get the things they want and need. But only if they can get the elephant out of the room – the elephant being the profound level of distrust of government. Ironically, a good deal of that distrust comes from the erosion of public services that is rooted in cutbacks caused by tax cuts.

It seems abundantly clear that no political party at the federal level has any stomach for taking on the elephant by engaging Canadians in a conversation about Big Ideas and the need to fund them. As it stands now whichever party wins the next election will adopt the current impoverished state of our federal government as the new normal.

On February 22nd, in the aftermath of a “boring” budget Thomas Mulcair’s NDP undertook a National Day of Action – a welcome idea that’s been long in coming and has the potential over time to be a political game changer. If developed more and replicated it could be the beginning of moving the NDP away from being simply a campaign machine to actually being, like its CCF predecessor, a movement party engaged in communities year round.

And yet the potential in this first experiment of engaging Canadians between elections seems to have been squandered by the focus of the day of action. How is it possible that the NDP would finally understand the importance of this kind of engagement and at the same time completely abandon any substantive ideas with which to start a conversation? The whole day of action is one huge political contradiction – engaging citizens but only after you have redefined them as consumers.

The theme of the day of action consists of a handful of consumer issues, some of them almost pathetic in their level of triviality. The Big Five issues that the NDP presents are ATM fees, interest rates on credit cards, the usury of the ‘payday lending’ industry, the collusion of the oil companies on gasoline prices and finally – and this is really scraping the bottom of the barrel – the fact that companies add a couple of dollars to the invoices they mail out to customers each month.

The campaign is billed as helping “make life more affordable” for Canadians but these measures do almost nothing to accomplish that goal. The banks’ ATM charges amount to an average of $21 a year per adult Canadian. The extra $2 charge on hydro and cable bills amounts to just over $100 a year. Credit card interest rates are outrageous – but surely a progressive party should at least raise the question of the wisdom of racking up tens of thousands of dollars on credit cards while living beyond your means. If you are going to have a day of action and national conversation why not talk about the real causes of poverty and inequality in this country? As for gasoline prices they should actually be higher (a carbon tax is long overdue) and used for mass transit so that people can get out of their cars. That could be a conversation about climate change and what to do about it.

Every study ever done shows that the best bang for your buck is the taxes you pay. Put your money together with everyone else and you get stuff you could never possibly afford by yourself – Medicare being only the most powerful example among dozens: education, police and fire protection, parks, clean water, mass transit.

Imagine if the NDP had instead of talking about relatively minor consumer issues they had instead decided to have a National Day of Action engaging Canadians on the budget and taxes. While the way budgets are presented and discussed makes them dry and frustratingly incomprehensible, wherever participatory budgeting has been tried there has been a tremendous public response. Give people a real opportunity with accessible information and they always respond.

The NDP could come up with its own information but they hardly have to given that every year the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) produces an amazingly thorough and perfectly doable Alternative Federal Budget.This year’s was no exception and the section on taxes is especially instructive. Over the past 15 years Liberal and Conservative governments have systematically disposed of well over $50 billion a year in revenue through tax cuts focused disproportionately on corporations and the wealthy. While this irresponsible giveaway is framed as spurring economic growth it has failed miserably to do so. Small wonder. Wealthy people are spending as much as they can and corporations are already sitting on over $600 billion in cash they refuse to spend.

The CCPA’s alternative budget replaces most of the revenue lost through tax cuts by measures that are actually quite modest, including: Reversing just half the recent corporate tax cuts to raise $11.6 billion; a new high income tax bracket of 35% for earnings over $250,000 to raise $2.5 billion (it was 80% in the 1960s); close tax loopholes and dozens of tax credits to raise $9.6 billion; a 1% withholding tax on all assets held in tax havens to raise $2 billion (catching the tax dodgers could raise even more); a .5% financial transactions tax – the so-called Robin Hood tax – to raise $4 billion; an inheritance tax on estates over $5 million to raise $2 billion and finally a carbon tax of $30 a tonne to raise a net amount of $7.5 billion (after provision of a green tax refund).

That’s about $40 billion in new – or rather recovered – revenue from modest tax increases that could be sold to Canadians if the NDP actually had faith in the intelligence of the people they hope will vote for them. That $40 billion could have been the basis for a National Participatory Budget Day in which people were engaged on how they would like to spend the money. If you want to reduce the mistrust that people have come to have in governments – and even more so in political parties – what better way than to have them engage meaningfully in defining how government should work.

We live in a fabulously wealthy country – twice as wealthy in real dollars per capita as we were when Medicare was first introduced. Everything we dream of is possible. But it requires a political party with the courage to put forward Big Ideas. Regrettably, Thomas Mulcair and the NDP have opted for small ideas. Canadians won’t be fooled. A recent Ipsos Reid poll asked – in addition to who people would vote for – who they thought would win the 2015 election. Forty-five per cent thought Trudeau’s Liberals will win, 43 per cent believed the Conservatives will emerge victorious and just 13 per cent thought the NDP would win.

Capping ATM fees apparently won’t get you into 24 Sussex Drive. Nor should it.

Has Big Oil Hijacked democracy?

Fascism should more appropriately be called Corporatism because it is a merger of state and corporate power.

Benito Mussolini

With the announcement by the B.C. Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) of formal complaints against the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) for illegally spying on environmental groups opposed to the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, should we ask the question: are we there yet?

Well, no.

But it is instructive to reflect once in a while on Mussolini’s musings about the true character of fascism. The word itself has become almost unusable given that for years it has been applied to the guy who cut you off in traffic or your neighbour who refuses to silence his dog. And, absent of goose-stepping soldiers and brown-shirts breaking down your door in the middle of the night, people simply don’t think much about fascism. The last infamous Western fascist was the murderous Augusto Pinochet (best buddy of Margaret Thatcher’s).

But while a fascist system may be a long way off, fascist attitudes and behaviour are clearly not. And if we shy away from using the term to describe genuinely alarming and unprecedented trends in that direction then we effectively declare that any new anti-democratic measure, any incremental assault on our rights, is still somehow within the bounds of normality.

Until it isn’t, and then it’s too late.

While media owners, editorialists, journalists and academics periodically rise to the occasion and decry Stephen Harper’s brazen attacks on our institutions, it seems to me that they doth protest too little. The day after the BCCLA announced its formal complaint the media response was generally a big ho-hum. Harper business as usual. Old news.

Harper’s general list of assaults, as bad as they are (and columnist Lawrence Martin has compiled a pretty thorough one here), is different from our prime minister’s genuinely frightening decision to enlist the country’s security apparatus in the direct and immediate service of the oil industry. Nothing like this has ever happened before in Canada.

Paranoid governments in the past have used the RCMP and CSIS to spy on political enemies, infiltrate activist organizations and have even sent in agent provocateurs to tarnish the image of political protest. But to arrange to have intelligence and police agencies, government representatives, a government agency supposedly responsible to Parliament and the Canadian people (the NEB) and corporate executives all sit around a table to explicitly violate not only our democratic rights but the law of the land is a grotesque step beyond.

The open use of government security forces on behalf of private corporations was first revealed in the Vancouver Observer on Nov. 19 last year. Reporter Matthew Millar wrote:

“On May 23, 2013, Natural Resources Canada hosted a ‘Classified Briefing for Energy & Utilities Sector Stakeholders’ in collaboration with CSIS and the RCMP at CSIS’s headquarters in Ottawa.”

Millar’s FOIs revealed just how casual corporatism has become under the Harper regime. The meeting was announced by way of a one page announcement entitled “Classified briefing for Energy & Utilities Sector Stakeholders — hosted by Natural resources Canada, in collaboration with CSIS and RCMP” and was replete with the logos of some of the corporations being briefed, including Bruce Power and Brookfield Renewable Energy Partners who were co-hosts of a reception at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa. The breakfast meeting the next morning was sponsored and paid for by Gateway’s Enbridge. The collusion of all these players had been going on for so long (since 2005 according to Millar) that the meeting was billed as any other Natural Resources Canada meeting might be — just business as usual.

The rational for the collection of covert intelligence on environmental groups opposed to the gateway project was protection of the NEB hearings and the panel members conducting them. But clearly no one believed there was a threat. RCMP’s Tim O’Neil, senior criminal intelligence research specialist, reported there was “no intelligence indicating a criminal threat to the NEB or its members… I could not detect a direct or specific criminal threat.” Nonetheless, he delivered the desired, contradictory (and outrageous) prediction: “It is highly likely that the NEB may expect to receive threats to its hearings and its board members.”

Let’s be clear about where the source of these alleged threats: some of the most public, transparent and principled organizations in the country, including Idle No More , ForestEthics, Sierra Club, EcoSociety, LeadNow , Dogwood Initiative, the Council of Canadians and the People’s Summit. None of these organizations have ever been cited for any activity except effective democratic engagement.

As Will Horter of Dogwood Initiative told me, “What we are all doing is exactly what a democratic society asks of its citizens — to get informed, to be engaged, to come together in communities to discuss what’s best for the country. But instead of being congratulated for getting a record number of citizens out to the NEB hearings we are demonized, vilified and spied upon.”

One of the meetings deemed worthy of covert infiltration was a church basement gathering in Kelowna which helped retired seniors make hand-painted protest signs and trained them in story-telling as a communications technique. Virtually any activity of any of the organizations targeted by this chilling cabal would have been equally innocent.

An obvious question poses itself: How far will the Harper government go to neutralize those who oppose the massive expansion of the tar sands? What’s next? Covert conservative operatives trashing the offices of enviro groups? Hacking into computers and destroying an organization’s data? Sabotaging activists’ vehicles? If this sounds far fetched ask yourself how, 10 years ago, you would have assessed the likelihood of the breathtaking violations of democracy that have already taken place in this country.

There is a hint of the kind of escalation the government is already implementing. Seven major environmental groups are now being audited by Revenue Canada to see if they are sticking to the rules limiting political activity or advocacy to a maximum of 10 per cent of their resources. In 2012 Finance Minister James Flaherty allocated $8 million to increase the auditing of environmental groups. He is hinting at more draconian action to further restrict charitable organizations’ activities.

And to further demonize the groups – the David Suzuki Foundation,Tides Canada, West Coast Environmental Law, the Pembina Foundation and several others – Flaherty last week implied they could be connected to international terrorist groups. Challenged on the obvious targeting of political enemies Flaherty shot back:
“There are some terrorist organizations, there are some organized crime organizations, that launder money through charities and that make donations to charities and that’s not the purpose of charitable donations in Canada.” This statement would be laughable were it not so grossly irresponsible. It was clearly designed to create hatred of these groups so that if and when they are stripped of their charitable status there will be enough Canadians suspicious of them to support the government.

Given the pace at which the Harperium is neutralizing democratic rights in this country, wary citizens must now be on guard that the next election is not stolen, one way or the other, by a prime minister apparently committed to dismantling democracy and permanently changing the country.

Standing in Harper’s way are the organizations he is targeting with audits, illegal spying, public demonizing and open threats. Anyone who cares a whit for this country has to commit themselves to preventing this from happening. Should these vital organizations be stripped of their charitable statuses, we, as citizens with a huge stake in the outcome of these battles, must commit to making up any loss of contributions they suffer as a result. And if you are not already giving to them, start now. Our response to Harper’s intimidation tactics being challenged by the BCCLA should be to immediately contribute to the organizations in question.

The fight against Big Oil corporatism may be the most important one you ever support.

Stephen Harper’s Disservice to Israel

The dictionary definition of perverse says (of a person or their actions) “…showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences.” Well, that just about sums up Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s disturbing trip to Israel. If anyone knows why this trip took place – and with the largest “delegation” likely to have ever accompanied a prime minister (almost all of them biased towards Israel) – I wish they would reveal it.

Because otherwise it appears that Mr Harper was intent on setting back the peace process, insulting the entire Arab world, making Canada persona non grata throughout the Middle East and angering the United States government which is trying desperately to convince Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to moderate his positions so as to kick start negotiations.

What did this visit add to Canada’s foreign policy that wasn’t already well established? Israel already knows as do all of Canada’s allies that Mr Harper is Israel’s most loyal and uncritical supporter. In fact Harper didn’t add anything positive to Canada’s position and how this advances Canada’s broader interests is even more of a mystery. The trip actually seemed designed to harden our position against the Palestinians. As many have pointed out it was as if Harper was speaking in opposition to his own government’s stated position – updated on its web site just before the trip.

This was most notable in Harper’s refusal to criticize or even refer to the Likud government’s aggressive settlement policy – the most egregious of Israel’s violation of international law and by far the biggest obstacle not only to a peace agreement but to the establishment of a viable Palestinian state. Harper refused to comment on the settlement issue saying he refused to “single out” Israel. Given that no other state in the region is illegally occupying someone else’s territory and building settlements on it, “singling out” Israel seems like a strange notion.

But it underlines what many in Israel have observed about Harper’s speech and his fawning support of the Israeli prime minister: that Harper may well have proven to be a good friend of Mr Netanyahu but not necessarily of Israel. Barak Ravid, in an editorial in the Israeli paper Haaretz, stated: “If the Prime Minister of Canada thinks his words in the Knesset will advance peace, it seems that the opposite is true. His speech only served Netanyahu’s repression (sic) instinct and strengthened his feelings of victimization and isolationism that already exists in him. Harper put Netanyahu back months from the standpoint of his attitude concerning the peace process.”

Mr Harper’s speech to the Knesset was the first ever by a Canadian prime minister and that is extremely regrettable. It will be recorded in history as one that did a disservice to Israel, to peace in the region and to Canada’s reputation as a nation with a thoughtful and constructive approach to foreign policy.

One of the most ironic aspects of the speech was Harper’s attack on Israel’s critics and specifically his focus on those who compare Israel to apartheid South Africa:

“Most disgracefully of all, some openly call Israel an apartheid state. Now think about that statement. Think about the twisted logic and outright malice behind that. A state based on freedom, democracy and the rule of law that was founded so Jews can flourish as Jews …is condemned in the masked language of anti-racism. Friends, that is nothing short of sickening….”

Either Mr Harper is abysmally ignorant of what is actually said by Israeli leaders in this regard, and is thus incompetent, or he does know is being deliberately mendacious. The comparison is so obviously apt that it is regularly made by senior members of the country’s political elite, most forcefully, perhaps, by Michael Ben-Yair, Israel’s attorney general from 1993 to 1996, who described Israel’s approach to the Palestinian territories captured in 1967 thusly:

“We enthusiastically chose to become a colonial society, ignoring international treaties, expropriating lands, transferring settlers from Israel to the occupied territories, engaging in theft and finding justification for all these activities… We developed two judicial systems: one — progressive, liberal in Israel. The other — cruel, injurious in the occupied territories. In effect, we established an apartheid regime in the occupied territories immediately following their capture.”
The list of senior Israeli officials describing their approach as apartheid includes Shulamit Aloni, who once served as Minister of Education under Yitzhak Rabin, and former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Another former prime minister, Ehud Olmert said: “If the day comes when the two state solution collapses, and we face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights, then as soon as that happens, the State of Israel is finished.”

But that is precisely what is becoming increasingly likely under Mr Netanyahu’s extreme right-wing regime – and precisely what Mr. Harper’s reckless intervention on his behalf in the Knesset helps ensure. The more settlements are built, the more difficult it will be to implement the two-state solution that every authority (and the majority of Israelis) recognize as the best possible outcome.

As it is Israel has already made the establishment of a contiguous land base for such a Palestinian state almost impossible with its twenty foot wall, scores of settlements and special roads built for the exclusive use of settlers. East Jerusalem is now encircled by settlements, a deliberate Israeli policy aimed at making it impractical if not impossible for it to become the capital of a Palestinian state – another deal breaker for any Palestinian leader who has any hope of being elected.

As the Haaretz editorial stated: “[Harper’s] words blinded the eyes of Netanyahu and the ministers in his cabinet. He gave them the false feeling that everything is okay, that they are right, that if we only stand firm a bit longer, a lot more Harpers will sprout at the heads of the Western powers.”

But they won’t. No other Western nation takes a position remotely like Harper’s (who in his speech actually suggested Israel should have a veto over the establishment of a Palestinian state). In particular, the US is desperate to move the peace process forward and is putting enormous pressure on Netanyahu. What Harper must know, but chooses to ignore, is the US has been redefining its national interests in the Middle East – away from its traditional blanket support for Israel. Israel’s best hope of retaining US support (presumably something Harper wants) is a moderation of its policies. Yet Harper has managed to undermine Israel’s real interests and no doubt anger the US at the same time. This is not how a true friend of Israel behaves.

It’s as if Harper simply discarded his official role as a prime minister of Canada and became a hard line activist for whatever Israel does. Did he even once think of the consequences of his intervention? While he stated it is legitimate to criticize Israel, in fact he adopts the position of Israeli exceptionalism: that Jews went through a unique horror — a horror so unimaginable that no other injustice can compare, nor be used to criticize the survivors, no matter what they do to survive.

Stephen Harper’s concern about anti-Semitism is not matched by a thoughtful or principled approach to it. By encouraging the most right-wing, intransigent government in Israel’s history, Harper helps ensure a powerful global movement opposed to Israel – and that opposition inadvertently provides comfort to anti-Semites. If Mr Harper really wanted to confront the continuing scourge of real anti-Semitism he would recognize that eliminating it and finding a peaceful solution for Israelis and Palestinians has to come from the same place: a passion for justice.

The problem with running government like a business.

The Senate scandal that will continue to plague Stephen Harper when the House resumes sitting is far more than just a run of the mill scandal, of which Canada has had many over the years. This one seems to present the result of an accumulation of rot, amorality, casual thuggery and complete lack of shame, as one politico put it. It feels like we are approaching the end point of the collapse of public morality.

I think it started as soon as the political, business and media elites decided that the new mantra for the state was that government needed to be run like a business. At first blush this may seem like an innocent precept because, as it advocates were careful to frame it, it could mean little more than just running things more efficiently.

But running government like a business begs the question of just what business you are talking about. The mom and pop grocery or Goldman Sachs? The local shoe store or Lehman Brothers? The local eatery or Enron? It does make a difference.

Nigel Wright, Harper’s former Chief of Staff, was the quintessential representative of the corporatization of governance. He was at the top of the PMO, a political, bureaucratic machine for whom the end justified the means — something he had to learn when he was becoming a multi-millionaire businessman on Bay Street. Bullying, lying, manipulating and treating employees and customer alike as so much disposable trash is at the core of the culture of the world’s largest corporations. Import that culture into government and the result should come as no surprise. That Harper would choose a millionaire businessman to run his office should also come as no surprise: Harper’s contempt for government is confirmed almost weekly.

Indeed, the running government like a business crowd never had any doubts which businesses they had in mind as they promoted an agenda which included “free trade” (read corporate rights), privatization, weakening labour rights, deregulation, slashing government services and taxes on large corporations and the advent of the surveillance state. Not only would they run government like a business, they would run government for business.

When I say that the world’s largest corporations adopt an end justifies the means approach I am not simply making a subjective judgment. I am reflecting on the work of Frank Easterbrook and Daniel Fischel, two Chicago law School profs who formalized this principle in the Michigan Law Review in the 1980s and afterward. They argued that “it was the duty of managers to violate the law if it was profitable to do so.” This principle was not restricted to minor violations but to all laws governing corporate practice. For these two law profs fraud, corruption, pollution, price-fixing, occupational disease, and bribery were just “‘externalities’ and related fines and penalties should simply be viewed as the ‘costs of doing business.’”

It took a while, but the notion of law breaking as the fiduciary duty of corporate managers gradually became the new normal as corporations grew into transnational behemoths. And in order to facilitate this new and profoundly immoral approach to corporate governance, boards of directors began choosing CEOs and other senior executives who could apply the principle with a minimum of anguish. Robert Hare, UBC’s internationally renowned expert on psychopathology refers to them as “sub-criminal psychopaths.”

Reading through the hundreds of pages of emails between the various co-conspirators in the senate scandal offers resonance to this corporate-think at every turn. Wright, in fact, saw himself as a manager. His lawyer told the RCMP that Wright’s role was to “manage Conservative caucus members.”

Wright played the role of political CEO as the scandal worsened and threatened to spin out of control. Senate Majority Leader Marjory LeBreton had written a letter saying Senators should have to repay expenses. Wright assured Duffy that he was not pleased and that he had said “all unilateral action from that office should cease before being cleared with me.” He then insisted “To repeat Patrick, no further action from that [Senate leader’s] office at all without pre-clearance” from the PMO.

This casual interference in the workings of the Senate — and the equally casual expectation that it would be immediately complied with — demonstrates how far running government like a business has gone. And, of course, Wright was justified in this thinking. Almost. It turns out there was just one public fly in the private ointment: the young Chris Montgomery, director of parliamentary affairs for Senator LeBreton. He refused several requests to intervene because it would compromise the senators and would involve him interfering in an “independent process.”

Patrick Rogers, another senior PMO staffer, emailed Wright “This is unbelievable…Montgomery is the Problem.” Wright asked if he should come over to the Senate to weigh in — and do what, it could be asked, given that he had no authority. Wright was getting exasperated: “Based on Montgomery’s response it is clear to me that we should brief Senator Lebreton directly. Chris simply does not believe in our goal of circling the wagons.”

At some point it appears that Montgomery succumbed to the PMO’s bullying. But there were others in the mix who didn’t need any persuading — no matter what was asked of them. Carolyn Stewart Olsen promised Wright in an email: “I am always ready to do what is asked…” But she was frustrated, too, in trying to circle the wagons: “The non-partisan nature of the committee is a problem as is the Clerk who seems to have his own agenda. He wants to clean up the place.” God forbid.

In all of this, it is sometimes easy to forget that the issue was three greedy Senators – easy because there are now so many seemingly ethics-challenged players in the game it makes your head spin. Harper’s legal counsel, Benjamin Perrin, clearly informed of all the questionable activity and yet — as the RCMP documents show — not advising against it. The senior partner at Deloitte who did not hesitate to intervene in his firm’s supposedly independent audit at the Conservatives’ bidding. The Conservative bag man, Senator Irving Gerstein, who did his best to subvert the audit process.

The behaviour of this nest of unclean birds fits perfectly with the Chicago law profs’ legal opinion that CEOs have a fiduciary duty to break the law if it is profitable to do so. Getting caught, having to throw your friend under a bus, being repeatedly and publicly exposed as liars and cheats — well, that’s just the cost of doing business. But it shouldn’t be the cost of doing government.

Government is supposed to be different precisely because it operates in the public interest, not the private interest. As others have pointed out recently this distinction seems have been lost elsewhere in the Harper government. It’s not just the three suspended and disgraced Senators who have not resigned — neither have the rest of those who knew of and helped facilitate the PMO scheming. Ministers of the crown now simply refuse to take responsibility for their actions. Again paralleling the senior ranks of the likes of Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, J.P. Morgan executives, ministers like Peter MacKay (who used a military helicopter for a private fishing trip) simply tough it out as if hubris was the modern replacement for honour. Finance Minister Jim Flaherty refused to resign after it was revealed that he intervened with the CRTC to help a constituent with a license application.

Ministers used to take their responsibilities seriously. Liberal Sheila Copps resigned because she broke an election promise and Brian Mulroney’s fisheries minster John Fraser stepped down over the tainted tuna scandal. But in the corporate world of the quick or the dead, ethics is for losers. And when government is run like a business it’s just a matter of time before the infection spreads.

2014, the Year of Living Consciously

Two of the big storms hitting Canada in the last year were not just terrifying and incredibly damaging, they were a little spooky. It was as if nature was making its already unmistakable message of impending catastrophe even more specific.

The almost biblical flooding in Calgary — the home base for the oil companies aiming to quadruple the output from the tar sands — and the ice storm in Toronto both had these almost-sentient aspects to them. Lots of people (though apparently no one in government in Alberta) saw the irony of the Calgary flood and its connection to climate change and the oil patch.

And Toronto? It’s hard to imagine a more dramatic way to slow down Christmas shopping madness than to encase the country’s biggest shopping city in an inch of ice and turn comfortable urban dwellings into dark, freezing caves. Surely the message is clear enough: our blasé expectations that we can just keep shopping no matter the unintended consequences was challenged in dramatic fashion.

But how many people got the message? Or if they did, how many just paused momentarily before they opened their gifts by candlelight, wrapped in sleeping bags, and then mused about the Boxing Day sales?

The truth is that we are all woefully ill-equipped to deal with the multiple crises that are bearing down on us. (A friend of mine is so alarmed that during an evening of political small talk he periodically declared that we were facing “A tsunami!!” and then just went silent, no more able to cope with the reality than the rest of us.)

The terrible irony of our situation is that just as we all need to be what I call “intentional citizens,” we are, unconsciously and even unwillingly, becoming less and less engaged, more and more individualistic. Just what are we to do, as individuals, when faced with crises so overwhelming that our minds reel at the thought of the varied, frightening consequences: “Oops, better not go there. Way too scary. I know! Let’s go shopping!”

Our collective institutions are similarly at their weakest points just as we need them to be at their strongest and most imaginative. Our democracy — including political parties — is increasingly unable to deliver what it once promised, let alone what we want. Universities are increasingly corporatized, jettisoning traditional ethics for corporate loot to pay their bills. Regulations developed over decades to protect us are either being eliminated or simply unenforced by governments whose job it once was to ensure our safety. Major media, which once, nominally at least, entertained the notion of political debate about society’s direction, have been hijacked by corporatist ideology and are thus rendered incapable of seeking the truth, let alone telling it.

So, as always, it is up to us to reverse this juggernaut, to get in its way, to make clear statements through our actions as individual citizens until a time when we constitute a critical mass of citizenry that becomes a movement for social change. And it will take time. My generation will only see the start of it.

How realistic is such a notion? No one can say for certain how the next five to 10 years will unfold regarding democracy, inequality, climate change and peak oil. But the notion that we can behave as if it is business as usual will not wash. We can hardly expect our institutions — which like it or not are reflections of us — to address the moral imperative of facing the crises, if we don’t do so personally.

There are organizations out there which are actually addressing the crises and we as citizens must support them to a much greater extent than we do now. We need to consume less and give more. (Obviously I am not talking about those who have no discretionary income.) But to consume less we need to recognize what we are up against.

The drive to consume is at the heart of a perverse capitalist system that is incapable of ever moderating its behaviour. We might want to think of the so-called corporate citizen as a psychopath, characterized, according to Wikipedia, by “…enduring dissocial or antisocial behavior, a diminished capacity for empathy or remorse, and poor behavioral controls or fearless dominance.”

To make matters worse, this personality disorder is effectively codified in the law so that corporations, obligated solely to meet their fiduciary duty to shareholders, are actually encouraged to behave in this manner.

We are not just up against the most powerful institution in human history, we are also up against its particularly sophisticated — one could say maniacally designed and executed — marketing and advertising arm. We are all affected. When students in media studies classes are asked if they think advertising affects people’s behaviour the vast majority say yes. When asked if their behaviour is affected, the vast majority say no.

Given that firms make millions by determining for their clients what twelve year olds buy or might buy by wiring young brains to see what lights them up, what chance does any of us have in escaping the subconscious pull of marketing? You just know in your gut that we are completely out-gunned, out-smarted and easily manipulated. When it comes to advertising we are all twelve year olds.

Unless. Unless we actually become conscious, anti-consumer warriors, trained in the fine art of resisting every ad we ever see and vigilant in our efforts to live simply so that others may simply live.

It is not enough to “ignore” advertising. In fact, it can’t be done. They’ve already incorporated this naive and amateurish tactic into their strategy. The anti-consumer warrior treats advertising as a sinister psyop campaign launched by a mortal enemy. And if you feel squeamish about the term enemy, then take a moment to imagine how many people will die from climate change and the rampant inequality being unleashed by consumer capitalism as you read this. Buying more and more stuff is already killing us, but it will kill a lot more of our children and their children and their children, and in ever-increasing numbers.

When we buy stuff we don’t need we should see it as a declaration of active support for the forces aligned against the planet and against social justice. To actually stop buying more useless stuff requires a serious shift in consciousness: examining everything we purchase beyond food and shelter and other real necessities. Every dollar we spend on things we don’t need is a dollar that could go to supporting the change we know we need. Obviously things are more complicated than this and it is simply unrealistic to never buy anything we don’t need (rather than want). But the exercise itself will be instructive and it will change the way we see the world that has been constructed for us (and not by us).

Now comes the easier part — what to do with the money you didn’t spend on more stuff. There have been studies in the past few years showing clearly that spending on someone else actually generates more happiness than spending on yourself because it creates social connections that would otherwise not exist in a culture that rewards possessive individualism. That would be a gratifying contribution to rebuilding community, but it also happens that spending on things that matter also brings more happiness than selfish spending.

One way of buying less stuff is to choose a percentage of your pre-tax income that you are going to deduct from your useless-stuff-budget. The Christian right effectively does this through a tithe that is set at 10 per cent with the money going to their causes (including dismantling democracy). But let’s assume most of us reading this are still pikers when it comes to tithing so maybe we should aim for five per cent. That’s right. If you gross $70,000 a year then explain to yourself why you can’t find $3,500 a year to contribute to organizations that are actually making a difference in facing the global crises that threaten us. Feeling frisky? Make it 10 per cent and $7,000.

Maybe you don’t like quotas or perhaps a tithe sounds too religious. Fine. But 2014 needs to be the year of living — and giving — consciously. Up to now, we haven’t been serious.

Left Needs Soul Searching

[Note: This week the Tyee is republishing some columns from the past 10 years. Yesterday they published one of mine from 2009. And I agree, the message is just as critical today as it was then.]

“We hunger for communities of meaning that can transcend the individualism and selfishness that we see around us and that will provide an ethical and spiritual framework that gives our lives some higher purpose.” — Michael Lerner, The Politics of Meaning

If progressives, whether in unions, activist groups or political parties, don’t soon begin doing politics differently — radically differently — they will fail to show that “a better world is possible.”

And the price of failure will be catastrophic.

We have known for years that our consumer culture is out of control and our obsession with having more and more stuff has reached the status of a virus. Our consumer-driven global economy is a lethal threat to the planet and every one of its ecosystems.

The lock that consumerism has on Western so-called civilization is formidable — a virtual death-grip on our culture and our future as a species.

It is a kind of madness but one which we can apparently adapt to. This manufactured addiction to more and more stuff undermines community, threatens the planet and doesn’t even make us happy. Consumerism, driven by the most sophisticated and manipulative psychology the advertising industry can buy, has had the effect of atomizing us. We are defined more and more by what we have, less and less by our relationships to family, friends, colleagues and community.

One anecdote has stuck in my mind for over 20 years. A friend attending an international peace conference in Edmonton accompanied a group of Filipino women — all from rural areas of the Philippines — to the West Edmonton Mall as a “tourist” outing for the visitors. Twenty minutes into the tour the women burst into tears and pleaded with their hosts to get them out. The insanity, the grotesque over-stimulation of the place, no longer obvious to the Canadian women who had grown up with these monstrosities, was grimly apparent to the village activists.

They were right. We should all burst into tears after 20 minutes in a giant mall — it would be a test of our mental and spiritual health.

It’s not as if we don’t know what the Filipinas knew. It’s just that we have adapted to it — like we might adapt to some physical disability. Yet if we all know this, why is it that we are unable to incorporate our understanding of this all-important cultural disability into our progressive politics — into the ways in which we try to engage people in the struggle for a better, sustainable world?

American rabbi and radical Michael Lerner blames what he calls “secular fundamentalism” — the tendency amongst mainstream activists to stick rigidly to a rationalist and technocratic interpretation of both politics and culture. He calls for a politics of meaning which “posits a new bottom line. An institution or social practice is to be considered efficient or productive to the extent that it fosters ethically, spiritually, ecologically, and psychologically sensitive and caring human beings who can maintain long-term, loving personal and social relationships.

“While this new definition of productivity does not reject the importance of material well-being, it subsumes that concern within an expanded view of ‘the good life': one that insists on the primacy of spiritual harmony, loving relationships, mutual recognition, and work that contributes to the common good.”

Secular fundamentalists find talk of spiritualism intensely uncomfortable, probably because they draw immediate connections to either organized ‘God’ religion and its patriarchal authoritarianism or vaguely to some mushy “self-improvement” sub-culture. Spiritualism seems to fly in the face of the kind of rationalism that has been at the core of socialist and social democratic theory for nearly two centuries.

But organizers for social change face a critical problem. Trying to mobilize people strictly on a rational basis, and in particular with uncritical acceptance of the assumptions of a consumer driven economy, is proving increasingly difficult. On paper it should be working. Intensive values surveys of Canadians consistently reveal that they are progressive in their views about the role of government and the value of community. On the basis of such surveys, over 60 per cent of Canadians could be described politically as social democratic. And yet we see two neo-liberal federal leaders and their parties garnering two-thirds of Canadians’ voting intentions. Something is very wrong here.

It raises the question of why people get engaged. Why is that tens of millions get into an emotional frenzy over the death of a pop star or identify their lives with a professional sports team but can’t be convinced to fight for social programs that would increase the quality of life of their communities? Why do further millions identify with right-wing evangelical religion rather than the call for secular social justice?

According to Lerner, they are in a search for meaning and in the context of the destruction of community of the past 30 years, they find in sports and Michael Jackson’s fandom pseudo-communities they can identify with. In their quest for community they pass by the door that says left-wing politics. Why? You need not search much further than the typical political meeting — overly earnest, boring, economistic, gloom and doom and, except on rare occasions, distinctly unwelcoming to the newcomers who have braved their first tentative outing.

And after the meeting? Nothing. No nurturing. No ongoing connection. No community.

While the U.S. example does not apply as clearly here, Lerner’s analysis of why the Christian right in the U.S. has been so successful has lessons for Canadian activists.

“We find thousands of Americans — from every walk of life, ethnic and religious background, political persuasion and lifestyle — with lives of pain and self-blame, and turning to the political Right because the Right speaks about the collapse of families, the difficulty of teaching good values to children, the fear of crime, and the absence of spirituality in their lives. The Right seems to understand their hunger for community and connection.” Lerner clearly acknowledges the destructive and often vicious politics of the right, but argues most people vote for the Christian right because they feel understood and cared for by it, not because of its policies.

The left, on the other hand, fears that the people it is trying to persuade and mobilize aren’t capable of imagining or accepting a truly radical vision of the future. So the NDP, instead of developing and presenting such a vision (assuming it is still capable of imagining it) that addresses people’s need for a broader meaning, reduces that vision to a package of disconnected, minor reforms that doesn’t offend the media power brokers.

Of course, it doesn’t inspire anyone either, as evidenced by its inability to get beyond 20 per cent support. Social movement organizations are in some ways even more trapped in the single issue incrementalism that fails to inspire all but a relative handful of politically conscious followers.

Convinced that “ordinary” people are incapable of radical change, says Lerner, too many left activists themselves retreat into a middle-class, consumer existence that they know deep down is not only unsustainable but deeply unsatisfying. We fight the good fight — and then drive home, turn on the TV and watch the news report on a world that does not acknowledge our existence.

Lerner’s call for a politics of meaning is truly revolutionary given the extent to which consumerism is embedded in our lives and our culture, and the failure of our organizations to address the coming catastrophe. Who will be amongst the first revolutionaries to challenge the system?

We will — the activists who are now exhausted, demoralized and convinced there is nothing new they can do to make change.

Says Lerner, “Having been burnt by past failures, these former activists will not quickly jump into new political movements. Yet, as a meaning-oriented movement gains momentum many of them will feel a homecoming that reconnects to their deepest hopes. They will become the transformative agents who move these ideas into the mainstream… These people respond out of a real inner need, not from a commitment to an abstract idea, nor out of a sense that someone else ought to be treated differently…”

“These are radical needs,” writes Lerner. “Unlike needs for economic well-being or political rights, these cannot be fulfilled inside our society as it currently is constructed.”

It’s time for reconstruction. The economic and climate change crises can serve as an enforced breathing space: an obligatory opportunity to get off the consumer/wealth accumulation/hyper-individualism tread mill for long enough to realize it was taking us over a cliff.

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