Friday, September 29, 2006

Three years!

Jesus fucking christ, just when I think my outrage-o-meter has buried the needle so hard the thing's goddam imploded, then I go to the Toronto Star homepage and see this:

U.S. arms Great Lakes boats
Treaty of 1814 no longer applies, American coast guard chief says

HALIFAX -- The U.S. Coast Guard’s plans to arm boats on the Great Lakes with machine-guns — a measure that has drawn fire from Canadian residents — were sanctioned by Ottawa three years ago, officials from both countries confirmed today.

No explanation of why the treaty no longer applies, just "the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard said it’s become necessary to protect the border that runs through the lakes, and he said the treaty no longer applies." In other words, we're going to do whatever we like, and our response to the rest of the world is, "And? So? What are you going to do about it?" (Apparently, in the Canadian government's case, what we're going to do about it is roll over and take it, the shitstains.)

Boy, that didn't take long. In one day, the US government has managed to shred the US Constitution, centuries of Common Law, the Geneva Conventions, and the Treaty of 1814. And what's worse, my government didn't even fucking try to stop them on the latter point.

(In the bigger picture, we'll never know who the next Maher Arar will be, because he'll never get out of prison in some godforsaken hellhole somewhere, and we'll never find out about him. Welcome to the world of Augusto Pinochet Bush.)

So much for the world's longest undefended border. Will the nutters in the Congress please go ahead and start building that wall? We want it not to keep us out, but you in.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Final Passage

I feel a chill in the air. It's the chill of a global chilling effect. As Glenn Greenwald (whom I'm apparently obsessively livemetablogging today) puts it, "Final passage of the torture/detention bill was 65-34."

According to the Financial Times (by way of MSNBC),

The legislation includes a provision that no court or judge would have jurisdiction to hear or consider "an application for a writ of habeas corpus filed by or on behalf of an alien detained by the United States who has been determined by the United States to have been properly detained as an enemy combatant."

So long, Habeus, they hardly knew ye...

Of course, as someone who can't vote in US elections, I'm worried about the international repercussions of this bill. I'm afraid it could be a "shot heard round the world" in terms of national behaviour. Also, I'm interested in a sort of "car crash rubbernecking" kind of way to see what the fallout will be. Are any nations serious enough about standing up to US hegemony (and that is what it is, especially now) as to start withdrawing economic support (someone has to buy all those dollars!), imposing trade restrictions, and generally cooling down the level of diplomatic contact.

Given the current government here, those things happening here are about as likely as getting taken out by a piece of falling space junk while simultaneously the 747 you're riding in makes an unscheduled uncontrolled departure from its flight plan into the ground. In other words, dream on, Interrobang.

It's going to take a while for the dust to settle from this one. We shall see what happens. Whatever happens, it isn't going to be pretty.

They Passed It...

In a purely self-centred rush of emotion, I thought, Thank goodness I didn't go to the US for grad school...

So it seems as though the US has tossed out habeas corpus, most of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, all in one fell swoop. The New York Times, not exactly a bastion of radical leftist thought, has some very pungent opinion in an op-ed today. Glenn Greenwald, the blogosphere's best legal writer, gives an exegesis, which reads in part:

even if there were a habeas corpus right inserted back into the legislation (which is unlikely at this point anyway), it wouldn't matter much, if at all, because the law would authorize your detention simply based on the DoD's decree that you are an enemy combatant, regardless of whether it was accurate. This is basically the legalization of the Jose Padilla treatment -- empowering the President to throw people into black holes with little or no recourse, based solely on his say-so. ... And as a result, we are now about to vest in the President the power to order anyone -- U.S. citizen, resident alien or foreign national -- detained indefinitely in a military prison regardless of where they are -- U.S. soil or outside of the country.

Given the cavalier treatment of the Arar case by the US government (when approached by the Canadian government in response to Monia Mazigh's complaints, their reaction was basically, "So? And?", not to mention their exonerating their drugged-up pilot for dropping ordnance on our soldiers in Afghanistan!), we can expect more of the same in the future. Isn't it about damn time we kicked Bush's Canadian clone out of 24 Sussex Drive and put someone in there who isn't inclined to open their mouth and smile when the US shits all over us?

In any case, since I have a first name that is one of the most common ones for Muslim women (spelling and all), even though I'm not Muslim and my last name is depressingly white, and I always get called out for extra searches when going through airports (despite being a totally conscientious veteran flyer), I don't think I'll be visiting any time soon.

Update: Greetings to everyone visiting from Unclaimed Territory! Please take Glenn's word over mine; he's a lawyer and a better political writer than I am. If, on the other hand, you're inclined to stay and look around at all, I recommend What Happened in 1996? and the Streetcar Series (links in sidebar). Thank you for visiting. Come again sometime, if you like.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Benny the Rat's Greatest Hits

I've been having a bit of an argument over at No Capital with a poster called "Bitter Scribe" about whether the Pope really meant to say those fairly nasty anti-Islamic things that he said. Bitter Scribe has been taking the position that Benny the Rat is a cloistered (ha ha) academic and not used to the hurly-burly that surrounds controversial pronouncements from the Vatican.

I say Hah! The current Pope was long one of John Paul II's closest advisors and a top-level official (the modern-day Grand Inquisitor) in the Catholic hierarchy. He was nicknamed "God's Rottweiler," apparently for his ability to sink his metaphoric teeth into some doctrinal conflict and shake it until the bone was exposed. In other words, this is a nasty guy to cross.

Beyond that, Madeline Bunting at The Guardian has come up with a list of similar rhetorical excesses to have come out of Benedict's mouth over the years, here. Apparently this is not the first time he's come out with stuff like this.

On Buddhism
"Auto-erotic spirituality."

On the excommunication of seven women who called themselves priests
"... the penalty imposed is not only just, but also necessary, in order to protect true doctrine, to safeguard the communion and unity of the church, and to guide consciences of the faithful."

On same-sex marriage
"Call[s] into question the family, in its natural two-parent structure of mother and father, and make[s] homosexuality and heterosexuality virtually equivalent, in a new model of polymorphous sexuality."

On rock music
"[A] vehicle of anti-religion"; "the complete antithesis of the Christian faith in the redemption."

On cloning
"[A] more dangerous threat than weapons of mass destruction."

Not only that, but he won't take responsibility for the Catholic Church's deplorable history during the Holocaust, instead preferring to claim he wasn't guilty at all, and that the Nazi atrocity was not its attempted genocide, but an attempt to create a world without God. In the Guardian article, Bunting quotes someone as saying, "[Benedict] managed to claim that Jews were the 'themselves bit players - bystanders at their own extermination. The true victim was a metaphysical one.'"

No wonder Bush is on the same page as Benny the Rat; they're both convinced that the entire world is about them.

Endnote: Now before someone gets all mad at me and says, "But the whacko Islamic extremists/Ahmadinajad/whomever do it too!", I'd like to point out that these are the goddam Pope and the President of the United States we're talking about here, probably two of the most powerful and influential figures in the entire Western world. I live in a country with a significant Catholic bloc. A lot of people listen to the Pope, to one degree or another. For all we know, a lot of these more rhetorically extravagant imams making these "Death to the infidels!" proclamations (if indeed they are; I'm still waiting for good translations sometimes), are the Muslim equivalent of snake-handling Christian preachers, or the Branch Davidians. Ahmadinajad is a figurehead, and that "wipe Israel off the map" thing was mistranslated anyhow, thanks (see Juan Cole, who actually speaks the language in question).

Really, when it comes to eliminationist rhetoric, nobody's got anything on the gibbering classes of the Western Christian right wing, anyhow. What's that about motes and beams and eyes? And maybe projecting faster than a Cineplex on a Saturday night?

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Things in Common: An Examination of the Long Staple of US History

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study In Scarlet, Sherlock Holmes remarks that there is "a scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life." There are any number of textile-related metaphors along the same lines, and likewise, some specifically textile-related metaphors having to do with narrative ("spin a yarn," the "thread of the plot," to "string someone along," and so on). Those of us who study metaphors find that there is great utility to isolating and following these classes or groups of metaphors1 (many of which are so rote and overused they've become "dead metaphors"), because they tell us things about how English-speakers think about various abstract concepts. (For further discussion on the cognitive aspects of metaphorics, you can read The Literary Mind by Mark Turner, referenced below at 1.)

All that is just to set you up for the metaphor I'd like to use in this discussion. Be aware that it is a metaphor, but this particular metaphor, I think, sheds some light on an otherwise opaque phenomenon, especially since the phenomenon deals with how Americans talk about certain abstract or concrete concepts within the larger scope of US political discourse.

What do the British Empire, Communism, Iraq, integration, Iran, homosexuality, the Soviet Union, the Bush Administration, socialism, civil rights, Mexico, terrorism, and climate change all have in common?

Every one of those was, at one time or another (past, present, possibly future) deemed to be an existential threat to the US by someone or other. I'm not pointing fingers here; although the US right seems to be better at playing the "existential threat" card than the US left ever has been, the left does do it. The existential threat to the US is a constant narrative thread in US history since the early Revolutionary days. (In fact, I might posit the hypothesis that the existential threat frame persists in the US consciousness because of the American Revolution -- had the revolution not succeeded, the country would not exist in its present form, although experience and observation suggests that the US would not still be a British colony at this point; it likely would have gained legislative independence in the late 19th or early 20th Century.2)

The colour of the thread changes, but its position in the greater tapestry of American discourse does not. The great existential threat always persists; even during the ostensibly halcyon days of the great postwar US expansion, the everpresent threat of the Soviet Union's (reputedly) immense arsenal of nuclear bombs was hanging over the US's collective head. I first noticed this pattern in the concept of the "Cold War," which seems to me to have been a species of collective insanity unmatched in modern history, a sort of military moral panic, if you will.

Here is the dye to put to the thread: From one of the definitions given in the above link, moral panics are "periodic episodes of concern about the threat of a particular group to the nation-state. Moral panics are normally fuelled by sensationalist media reporting, and are generally diffused by the state through policies which aim to counteract this imagined threat." The US has a thick strand of moral panic spun into its national fibre; from the current political discourse right now, I'd suggest that this historical period especially has exceptionally many simultaneous moral panics, all of which are discussed in terms of existential threats. Many political groups want a strand of the existential threat yarn (in both senses of the term), and are willing to make a lot of noise to get it.

To an outsider from a country not particularly given to either moral panics or existential threats, this terrified handwaving that shows up like a repeated woven motif in the political fabric, seems more than a little absurd to me. Were I talking to the US as I might talk to one of my exiteable friends, I'd say, "Dude! Calm down already! You haven't disappeared yet!" This narrative thread of impending national destruction (by whatever agency, foreign, domestic, or otherwise) in 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, NOW!, ok, NOW! No, wait...NOW! is wearying, frustrating, and ultimately tiresome for those outside the US mainstream discourse. (It also constitutes a significant difference between many people on the left and their counterparts on the political right, who don't understand why their opposite numbers don't think that the latest talking-point boogeyman is the End of American Civilisation As We Know It.)

Right now, of course, a lot of the right-wing punditoids, as well as some people in the Bush Administration, are trying to yank the existential threat thread off in the direction of Iran (after having successfully pulled it away from generalised "terrorism" to Iraq). This is a calculated, cynical ploy, and they are exploting a persistent narrative motif in American political discourse to do it. Based on the evidence (badly-translated pronouncements from Ahmadinajad courtesy of agendists like MEMRI don't count as "evidence," either), a rhetorical strategy based on an old meme is all it is, kind of like the hype three years ago around dangerous, fearsome, smoking-gun-in-the-form-of-a-mushroom-cloud Iraq.

As an outsider, and a historian, I see the recurring motif all too well. The existential threat, and its companion, American Exceptionalism, are tangled together, running like a wide multicoloured stripe through the multicornered garment of the US political discourse. The combination is seductive and persuasive; it allows Americans to feel superior, while simultaneously Othering the entire rest of the world. We have seen the effects of this combination, domestically in the US and abroad -- a "victim victorious" paradigm that simultaneously has the US acting like world rulers and a desperately embattled minority. It might be possible to pick apart and pull this mismatched stripe from the American political consciousness, and stitch the US more tightly into that grand patchwork quilt that is international relations. Reducing or eliminating American Exceptionalism would go a long way toward diminishing the constant perception of the existential threat. (In a snide fit, may I say that healthy countries simply do not behave that way?)

In short: Are there existential threats? Certainly, but they're few and far between, and definitely not as omnipresent and omnipotent as the average American has come to believe. If you're my age, or even a generation older, you have lived your entire life watching the US' discourse bounce from one existential threat to another. This rhetoric is counterproductive, it's generally a ploy, and oftentimes, if the threats themselves aren't cut from the whole cloth, they're at least gathered from the scraps of some old moral panics that were lying around.

It's time to pick stitches, adjust your tension, and try again.


1 Turner, Mark. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

2 For comparison, see the history of legislative independence movements and achievement in Australia, Canada, India, and Israel. See also the history of legislative self-determination movements in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales.

Monday, September 11, 2006

It Happened to Someone Else...

11 September, 2001: I am sleeping, in that drugged way that one sleeps when deep in the depths of illness. I will not find out that I am in the acute phase of mononucleosis and that my liver enzymes are "off the chart," until the next day. I am temporarily living at home, having run out of employment, money, and health, in that order.

My mother bangs open the door of the room in which I am sleeping, and asks me if I've heard. I say something like "Uh?" and she babbles something incoherent about a terrorist attack. I look at her, blink, and say, "Terrorists. Yeah, right." I try to go back to sleep until my foggy brain informs me that my mother is not the type exactly to babble on about things.

I get up, stumble into the next room where a television is on, tuned to CNN. I watch in silence, feeling bleary and detached, as an airplane crashes into the second tower. I stay in front of the tv for some indeterminate length of time, right up until an interview with Orrin Hatch comes on. Hatch starts blathering on about "an act of war." I'm feeling surly. I growl at the tv, "That wasn't an act of war, you moron, it was an international crime!" Feeling vaguely pissed off, I stumble back into the room in which I am staying, lay back down on the futon (never unfolded into a bed, still in couch form) on which I have been sleeping for the past several weeks, fumble around on the floor until I can locate my stereo and my headphones, tune to CBC Radio, and listen for a while more.

At around 11:30 in the morning or so, the host has a phone interview with the head architect of the firm which built the World Trade Center, and the architect explains exactly how the collapse occurred, talking about modern construction techniques, concrete, and metal. I make a mental note.

Sometime later, exhibiting the cutting sense of irony for which Canadians are justly famous, some wit at the CBC plays Brian Eno's "Music For Airports."

By this time, my father, a commercial pilot, is having some airport trouble of his own. We wouldn't hear anything from him for hours, but my mother reappears and informs me that he is supposed to be done his shift right about then, so I am not to make any unnecessary phone calls or use the internet at all, in order to keep the phone lines clear. At some point, I realise that I am supposed to have been in Toronto interviewing with a temp agency for a job that afternoon; I call the temp agency and tell them that I can't come. The woman on the other end of the phone tells me that the building is being evacuated anyway. I feel relieved.

My mother comes into the room in which I am staying and turns on the computer so she can play what will be the first of probably a hundred games of solitaire she'll play that day. We talk a bit, I try to reassure her that Dad is ok, because surely terrorists have better things to do than hijack small commuter aircraft, and then I doze for a while. I'm having a hard time staying awake even with all this excitement, and I haven't really felt more than a detached sort of curiosity mixed with a vague tinge of sadness all day.

I put my headphones back on to listen to the radio some more. Around ten to four or so, my father calls home and tells my mother that he had gotten delayed and diverted, and wasn't able to get to a phone for hours after he got on the ground, but he was at Pearson Airport in Toronto and the company was sending him and some other pilots home by limo (a chartered car, not a stretch limousine). My mother and I then get in the car and drive into the city, and I go to a doctor's appointment.

My doctor is one of the clinic's residents, a young, brusque Asian man who listens to my complaints about fatigue and stress, gives me a perfunctory examination, then sends me down the hall to the in-clinic lab to have a blood sample taken. He does not tell me why. The laboratory technicians can't find a vein on me. They ask me when I've last drunk or eaten anything. I can't remember for a moment, and then I tell them dinner the night before. By now it's about 4:30 in the afternoon. They criticise me for not eating or drinking, and I say, "I'm sick, the world is blowing up, and my father was missing for four hours. I couldn't eat." They have no idea what I'm talking about. They've all been in the lab since 8:30 that morning and haven't seen or heard the news all day. I try to explain, and they don't believe me. I don't have the energy to protest. They feed me orange juice, water, and dried fruit, and eventually my blood pressure comes up enough that they can get the blood sample. Despite the fact that I hate having blood drawn, I barely notice.

I wait for my mother outside the variety store near the doctor's office. I can't stand and I'm sweating and shaking, so I wipe my face with my black t-shirt and sit on the sidewalk. I notice that I have sweated through the back of my shirt. I also notice that the sky is preternaturally blue, the sun is brighter than I think I've ever seen it, and the air itself is quite hot. There is barely a cloud in the sky.

My mother picks me up, asks me what the doctor said, and I can't tell her because he didn't say much of anything. I tell her that I had to have blood taken, show her the cotton ball taped to my arm, and we go home. I sack back out on the futon-couch, and go to sleep for a while. I hear my father get home. The dog greets him only slightly more enthusiastically than my mother. I don't get up. I hear them doing things in the kitchen, and they call me to have dinner, but I tell them I don't want any. Later, I try eating some soup, but I can't eat more than about six bites at a time without getting tired.

I have barely noticed the news about the other crashes; everything is all very distant, happening hundreds of kilometres away and well outside the insulated bubble of fatigue and illness in which my consciousness finds itself. By the time it all finally "sinks in," about three weeks later when I finally start to recover, it feels like even my strange day happened to someone else...

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Thank you, Pat Buchanan... lovable whackdoodle, you. Just for shits and giggles (several giggles by now), I Googled "Soviet Canuckistan." Goodness, that joke's taken off. For a bizarre gaffe in the popular press (or at least it got picked up and run with by the press here), it has legs beyond its creator's wildest dreams. There are now approximately 43 000 references to the phrase in Google's corpus. Wow.

I had at one time planned to make up some nice fancy letterhead and send Ole Pat a little letter. What I wrote about it at the time was:
The People's Republic of Soviet Canuckistan
From the Desk of the People's Minister of Media and Communications
People's Hero Comrade Interrobang

To Mr. Patrick Buchanan:

Dear Mr. Buchanan,

Many thanks for your courageous recognition of Soviet Canuckistan in the face of overwhelming suppression and censorship. With your help, and the help of other like-minded allies and friends standing in solidarity, we may yet overthrow our capitalist Canadian opressors, who deny the ascendency of the international working class and continue to repress our hopes for independent statehood. We long for the day when we can at last establish the true People's Republic of Soviet Canuckistan. Official acknowledgment from respected US officials such as yourself can only further our glorious cause.

For peace, prosperity, industry, order, and good government in solidarity with Canuckistani workers (and workers everywhere), I remain.


People's Hero Interrobang,
Minister of Media and Communications
The People's Republic of Soviet Canuckistan

Now, if that wouldn't have the guy seeing Canadian Commies in his Corn Flakes, I don't know what would.

Sometimes I think Pat Buchanan's biological clock says, "The ideological time at the tone is 1954. Beeeep!"

Knowing what I now know about modern US so-called "conservatives," all of their ideological (not biological) clocks are permanently stuck in 1954. That applies to their approaches to domestic, foreign, and personal policy.

I may yet write a version of the letter, urging him to express further support of the nascent People's Republic. Then again, considering that I'd probably have to put my name on it, maybe not. As that great shit-disturber par excellence Jello Biafra always says about pranks, one of the best reasons for not doing a prank is if you don't like the answer to "What if I get caught?"

Monday, September 04, 2006

Interesting Statistics

As you may have guessed, I'm a big fan of statistical analyses. I know the old saw about "figures lie, and liars figure," and also Mark Twain's commentary about "there are lies, damn lies, and statistics," but I prefer to present the raw information wherever possible and let res ipsa loquitur. The BBC has some interesting statistics up, showing how the US has changed since September 11, 2001. The variables they track are defence spending, air travel, Presidential approval rate, the reported anti-Muslim hate crimes rate, and media mentions of Osama Bin Laden. The latter two are annual totals.

While the entire feature is chock-full of useful contrasts and figures (check particularly the anti-Muslim hate crimes rate, and how it remained relatively constant at around 30/a until September 11, 2001 and then jumped to just under 500, falling back only partway), this one in particular jumped out at me:

This image is a close-up of the chart showing defence spending, and where it upticks. Note that it climbed first after the USS Cole bombing, but also note that it has continued a smooth upward climb ever since.

In any case, please go check it out. Draw your own conclusions, make your own comparisons, and see the data for yourself.