Sunday, September 15, 2019

My Log 760: Sept 15 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 195; Thinking about the love of National Security that has seized every government on planet Earth; with the U.S. in the lead, Canada is struggling to match the lunacy


 Writing these Chronicles has made me more aware than ever before that as between those who abhor big government, and those who look to government as the only instrument available to redistribute wealth, I stand firmly with that latter category.
On the other hand I have to admit that I do find many things about government to be absolutely wacky. For example, every government in these times seems to have become obsessed with security. I think all this stuff they are shoving down our throats about the need for heightened security, for more secrecy, for classified information, is just plain stupid.
It is all based on taking precautions against the enemy. I find that ridiculous. Who is Canada’s enemy? Who are we expecting to invade us? Or is it just that we have secret plans to attack some other country?
Another thing that is nutty is that we have a large, expensive army. This creation of an army is a built-in reflex of government. So far as I know, there is only one country with the capacity to build an army that has deliberately decided to disband its army, and to have no more army in their national life, and that is Costa  Rica. They pulled off  that piece of legerdemain in 1948, and they have stuck to it ever since., even though they live in a region that has historically been plagued with wars, revolutions, social unrest, gang violence, and the persistent interference of the Big Brother military from the United States. Not coincidentally, Costa Rica rates high among the list of the world’s happiest countries, and it is far and away the most  democratic nation in Central America.
Why the hell Canada has a military is beyond me. Who exactly are our military  designed to fight? Outlandish as it seems, it can only be an instrument to keep the population under control. It has been used for this purpose intermittently as, for example, in the battle, if you could call it that,  with the Mohawk people  over control of a small piece of forest that the town of Oka wanted to make into a golf course. One has only to describe the objective of the  military action to realize that our military force is away out of proportion to its usefulness.
Canada, too, a few decades ago decided to create an agency of security called CSIS (the Canadian Security Intelligence Service). Its foundation was accompanied by a short-lived outburst of protest from the few intelligent people in the country. I myself have always been slightly proud of the fact that the tiny group we created in Ottawa was the only one in the country that took the position, not that the legislation needed to be improved, which was taken by all the other protesting groups, but that we didn’t need the new Agency at all. The RCMP was already geared up to do the work, such as it is, of keeping tabs on the loonies who want to blow up the country, so why did we need another Agency?   Our argument was that CSIS would have, as its raison d’etre, only one objective and that was to promote its own growth.
This prophecy has been more than fulfilled. (In preparation for this Chronicle I have dipped into the matter, and even at a cursory inspection I find it a field bewildering in its vague descriptions of purpose, a bewilderment which is very much deepened when one tries to make comparisons with the United States, a nation that seems to have gone absolutely loony in its devotion to Security, extremely loosely defined. (It recently included slapping tariffs on Canadian-produced aluminium and steel in the name of the national Security of the United States. Since the United States could not possibly have a closer ally than Canada has always been --- not even those well-known citadels of civil rights, Egypt and Saudi Arabia could be called better allies than Canada --- this was close to a declaration of at least economic and social war against the best friend of the United States. Barmy.)
The subjects exercising CSIS, apparently, include terrorism, espionage and foreign interference in Canadian affairs, propagation of weapons of mass destruction, informational security threats and the security-screening programme. This last is no doubt the one at which the Agency approaches most closely to the lives of ordinary Canadians, insisting that we line up in huge queues to get on and off aeroplanes, 84-year-old widows being required to take off their shoes, old men who can scarcely walk required to take off their belts and empty their pockets of coins, before going through their machines, the efficacy and intrusiveness of which have been continuously improved as creepy techniques like face recognition have come into use. I am not aware that any security threats have been unmasked by this cumbersome method --- which, of course, has since been extended to entering office buildings, Parliament, buses and trains --- but it is certainly something that could have been entrusted to the RCMP when, or if, it is ever needed.
Most Canadians will not know that CSIS is just one of several government departments that operate their own security services, such as the Canadian Forces Intelligence Branch, and the department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade.  CSIS is spread throughout the country with six regional offices, and Liaison Officers in each of Canada’s embassies abroad, the objective being presumably to gather foreign security information. From their whole list of objectives, it strikes me that only one or two of them appear to fulfil any serious purpose.  And a further item of deserved public disaffection comes from the fact that a CSIS under-cover officer was one of the founders of a neo-Nazi movement called the Heritage Front, now, fortunately, defunct, but not an activity to be welcomed by any serious person, even though it does provide an hilarious refutation of the seriousness of the Agency.  
In fact, Canada has something I had never heard of until an hour or so ago, called the Public Safety Portfolio, which includes Correctional Services, CSIS, Canadian Border Services Agency, the Parole Board of Canada and the RCMP. Between them, these agencies have a total budget of $9 billion, and employ some 66,000 people. To be searching through the archives for information is like groping forward in a northern Alberta fog (which I had to drive through in the middle of the night once, a highly irritating and somewhat dangerous undertaking).
I had to look at one information site after another before I could find a sum representing the budget of the RCMP. Most items listed in reply to such inquiries said that, for example, $80 million had been given to the RCMP in the last budget for such and such a new service, and $60 million had been devoted to ensuring that officers should get mental health treatment.
I finally did come across a figure suggesting that we are spending $2.317 billion on the RCMP, whose personnel number something like 22,500, although I admit that much of this obscurity comes from the extremely broad range of activities undertaken by he RCMP across the country.
Comparisons with the United States, which appears to have gone completely bonkers in its love for National Security, are hard to make. That country has roughly ten times the population of Canada, and, as they told us a few months ago, it has at least 17 intelligence agencies, elevating the total amount spent on security to more than $500 billion, a vast sum. If the comparison is just between the CIA and  CSIS, we still have a long way to go to catch up with our southern neighbour’s lunacy: our Agency has  2,500 employees, and a budget  of nearly $600 million. CIA’s budget is around $58 billion, their employees numbering 21,500.
Am I completely crazy in thinking that this is completely crazy?

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

My Log 759 September 11 2019: Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 194; What of Canada’s election? A few random notes from a tribal leftist; with some reminiscences from other times and places


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I hear at least one reader, probably more, saying, “Okay, you are absorbed in the political affairs of the United States and Britain, but what about right here in Canada? After all, we are now in the middle of an election. What do you have to say about that?”
Okay, what I have to say is that if I were the type to be advising people how they should vote, my advice would come from within what I think would nowadays be called a tribal choice. That is how I have always voted, not always for one particular party, but for the tribe of  leftists, the guys who want to reform the entire capitalist orientation of our world in a socialist direction.
I remember being in Britain during their 1951 election.   Clement Attlee’s Labour Party had won a decisive majority in 1945 (393 seats to 197), for the first time in British history, and by 1950, the next election, his government had not only achieved their landmark legislation by creating the National Health Service in 1948, but had also succeeded, in the words of a friend of mine, “in tying the country up in  red tape”, instead of enthusing their young followers as they had all hoped.
In the 1950 election their majority was reduced to five (315 out of 624 seats), and when they called a snap election in 1951 in the hope of increasing their majority, the consensus was they were on their last legs. They had lost several of their strongest members, men such as Sir Stafford Cripps and Ernest Bevin, their original Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary. I never had any doubt which side I would support.  I was unemployed at the time, so I trotted around to the local Labour headquarters and offered my services.  For a minimal temporary wage I was put to stuffing envelopes, and I took advantage of Attlee’s first local speech to take a look at him.
I was so appalled at the establishmentarianism of his whole attitude that, in a gesture of disgust, I ceased the envelope stuffing, and sat out the rest of the campaign.  My local candidate was beaten, and so was my party beaten nationally by a man who had been counted out ten years before, the much-despised (by many) and equally much-admired and much-loved, Winston Churchill --- both sides of those particular judgments having good cause for the contempt and adulation they bestowed on him.
 So the Tories, as they are usually called, under Churchill embarked on a government of drift and uncertainty, the details of most of which I will spare my readers. (It was that British government, after the retirement from office of Churchill, that, along with France and Israel, attacked Egypt, an event that ended with the settlement that won Canada’s Minister for External Affairs, Lester B. Pearson, a Nobel Peace prize. The view of all this within  my leftist tribe is that the Suez attack was the last hurrah of the old European imperialism, and that Pearson was as much, perhaps even more, interested in pleasing the new imperial power, the United States, as he was determined to stop the war.)
One of Labour’s young leftist turks in the 1950s was a man called Anthony Wedgwood Benn, later Viscount Stansgate, and later still, after he successfully fought a court battle in which he asserted his right to renounce his inherited peerage, Tony Benn. Years later, after I had emigrated to Canada, and been sent back as London correspondent for The Montreal Star, when I was writing a profile of Benn for The Sunday Times, a leading London newspaper owned by the Canadian magnate Roy Thomson,  Benn told me that in his opinion, a Labour government marching into office should have been as close as possible to Castro marching into Havana.  That was an idea that stuck with this leftist tribalist, and it explains why, when I transferred to Canada as an immigrant, I was fated to support candidates, who even though their aspirations fell far short of the Benn formula, nevertheless usually had minimal chances of winning their constituency, and always had zero chances of ever forming a government.
Never mind: the tribe above all, so my advice would be to vote New Democratic Party, even though, as you can tell from my recitation of my first leftist voting experience, they have no chance of winning in my constituency and zero chance of ascending to government.
Nevertheless, I believe it is important that the leftist vote be kept as high as possible. My reading of history has persuaded me that the very existence of the NDP, even though its left-wing bias is vague and non-threatening to any capitalist interest, is a powerful factor  distinguishing Canada from the United States. At least in Canada, thanks to the NDP, the body of ideas that animate our leftist tribe are always part of the political discourse and, at certain periods, their espousal of improving ideas has flopped over into Liberal Party policy, as, for example into creating our national health scheme.
Indeed, I was very struck by the fact that a few years ago, when the CBC held a campaign for their watchers and listeners to choose the most admired man in Canadian history, the victor turned out to be Tommy Douglas, the 1950s leader of the CCF in Saskatchewan, who first introduced to North America the concept of a government-funded national health scheme, and who became the first leader of the New Democratic Party in the House of Commons.
So, that is my advice about the election we are now engaged in. I have to add, however, that for those disinclined to follow my advice, in other words for those not members of my leftist tribe, when confronted with a choice between the relatively progressive platform of Justin Trudeau’s Liberals, and the waffling, individualistic, climate-change denying Conservatives of Andrew Scheer, I would say the answer should be obvious. 
Even taking into account the recent improvement in the fortunes of the Green Party, my choice would lie elsewhere, mainly because I instinctively dislike any slogan that says "Not Left, Not Right……" as if Left and Right are indistinguishable. That slogan seems almost as if it were  written to be a refutation of my whole political argument, so I would advise against it quite  strenuously. 
Which is not, I must emphasize,  to fail to take the issue of climate warming seriously.  It is just to object to any one-note, opportunistic prescription for what ails us.

Monday, September 9, 2019

My Log 758 Sept 9 2019; Chronicles from my Tenth Decade: 193; Leadership of English-speaking world in disarray; incompetents at the helm on both sides of Atlantic; everything up for grabs


I can’t remember a time when I was more absorbed in the politics of the English-speaking world than I am now. Inevitable, perhaps, since I am of a negative frame of mind at the best of times, and these certainly are far from the best of times.
It seems that our political leadership has been taken over by incompetents, by a cruel accident of history. The election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency appears to have been nothing more nor less than a bizarre accident.  According to some people who should know, he never expected to win the presidency. He was merely contesting it as a way to get more publicity for his Trump brand. Whatever qualities he may have exhibited as a businessman repeatedly making and then losing money given to him by inheritance from his father, or in his other role as a star of silly reality TV shows, it is perfectly clear they were not the qualities needed to be President, and so-called leader of the free world.
The rest of the English-speaking world is comprised of 53 members of the so-called Commonwealth of Nations, varying in size from the 1.4 billion people of India, to the mere 10,000 of Nauru, joined together loosely by their former status as British colonies, and by their use of English as either a de facto (in essence primary language) or de jure (that is, used in law and government, though not necessarily the primary) language, and for the purposes of this article I have adopted  the rather questionable assumption that the governance of Britain, the home nation of the Commonwealth, qualifies that country to be numbered as one of the leaders of the English-speaking world.
All the news out of the United States suggests that their president is losing his marbles, at an exponential rate: that is, day after day, he is becoming more detached from what is normally seen as reality, and making irrational judgments, many of which he cancels at his next pronouncement, and in the process he appears to be destabilizing the economy of the entire Western world. His behaviour would be funny, if it were not so serious. Indeed, he appears to have become a laughing-stock in his own country, arising from his insistence that the recent hurricane would make landfall in Alabama. When weather authorities said, no, it would not hit Alabama, he produced a weather map showing its course, but on the map he had pencilled in a loop over to Alabama.  Apparently it is illegal to interfere with a weather map, which itself would have been a serious result from that particular gaffe, but the effects have been more severe in that a horde of jokes in which respondents have pencilled in absurd consequences to a mass of photos of the president, making him appear ridiculous, would seem to have undermined fatally his authority. As he presses always for more power, for untrammelled power it seems, the scales appear to be falling from the eyes of a large number of his previous voters, indicating that he is worsening the possibility for his re-election. Of course, that election is still far away, so almost anything could happen before we get there.
Over the ocean in London, a similarly bizarre series of events have followed the accession of Boris Johnson to the Prime Ministership. An avowed opponent of the European Union connection, he managed to swing the infamous referendum vote of 2016, since when  his Tory party, first under the leadership of Theresa May and now under his improbable leadership, has been pursuing an ever more perilous and ludicrous (so it seems to me and many others) course of action.
Johnson is a scion of the upper class, educated at Eton along with so many former Prime Ministers and Conservative party leaders, but a man lacking the gravitas customarily associated with political leadership. His campaign for the referendum  was characterized by a huge lie emblazoned on the side of his bus for the occasion,

Here is the beginning of an article in The Guardian on September 17, 2017:

“There are lies, damned lies and Boris Johnson’s weasel sums.
“By no honest calculation can Britain’s net payment to the European Union be estimated as £350m a week. Nigel Farage admits it. So does the Daily Mail.
“Even Johnson admits it. In his ‘glorious Brexit’ essay in the Daily Telegraph last Friday the foreign secretary said that we would ‘take back control’ of roughly £350m a week when we leave the EU.
“A reasonable person might assume that Johnson meant that the country would have that amount of extra money to spend post-Brexit. What a ‘fine thing’, Johnson wrote, ‘if a lot of that money went to the NHS’.
“….. Johnson now says he is shocked, SHOCKED that his words should be understood in this crassly simplistic way. To suggest that he was claiming that £350m might be ‘available for extra public spending’ is a ‘wilful distortion’ etc. In other words, the foreign secretary’s defence amounts to an admission that the slogan on his famous Brexit campaign bus – ‘We send the EU £350m a week: let’s fund our NHS instead’ – was bogus all along”.
Johnson was Foreign Secretary at the time that was written. It appears from most comments on his performance that he was a complete failure in that office. He had previously worked as a reporter in Brussels for The Times (which fired him for making up stories) and  The Daily Telegraph, and for comment on his more recent performance I turn to an article this week in The Washington Post:
“Before he was a lawmaker, London mayor or foreign secretary, Johnson made his name as one of Britain's top columnists. And he has continued as a hack through much of his political career. A possible last column ran just a week ago.
“It was as a hack, writing for the middlebrow ‘Tory Telegraph,’ that Johnson learned to combine his high and his low. He is an upper-class Oxford-educated classicist who sprinkles his rapid-fire remarks with Latin aphorisms.
“But he has also cultivated a persona as a populist everyman in frayed trousers who bikes to the office. He is a version of his favourite meal: links of proper British sausage quaffed with $100-a-bottle Tignanello. It was as a hack, too, that Johnson stoked the cheeky, slanted, self-pitying euroscepticism that would set the stage for Brexit - and ultimately send him in the direction of 10 Downing Street.”
One might wonder how such a man became Prime Minister. His elevation came from a vote among 91,000 members of the Conservative party, a number equivalent to the size of a normal constituency, and as he took office, he began to act as if he had the authority usually granted to a politician who carries the weight of an election victory behind him.  While insisting he would make a deal with the European Union for a changed arrangement as to Britain’s leaving the union, he ignored the many declarations by the relevant authorities in Europe that they had heard not a single suggestion of any such possible change on the way.
Within six weeks during which his leadership had been largely derided, even by many members of his own party, Johnson staged an epic coup by announcing a five week prorogation of Parliament, taking effect from this evening.  MPs were outraged at this attempt to shut off debate during weeks that they have usually described as “among the most critical British politics have seen since 1945,”  and they have tried to shut off the dreaded so-called “no deal exit” by a hurried bill, which passed the usual hurdles in the House of Commons, and also in the House of Lords, where a feeble attempt at a filibuster collapsed quickly, so that the Bill will become an Act when hte Royal assent is bestowed some time today.
Johnson has meantime proposed a measure that is literally staggering, even to a cynical observer like me: under a requirement imposed by Parliament to write a letter to the EU proposing an extension of time for the assumption of Brexit that letter would be accompanied by an effort by the Prime Minister and his office to approach the EU with a request that his request be denied by them.  The Guardian has consulted as former  Chief Justice who says that such a course would be frankly illegal, and would place Johnson in contempt of court.
That is the position as I write at 9 am Montreal time, which is 1 pm British time. Johnson has spent the morning in Dublin trying to negotiate something dealing with the Northern Irish border that could satisfy all sides; but after talking for an hour and a half the two sides put out a statement acknowledging gaps between them that have not been overcome.  According to the political correspondent of the BBC, Johnson’s approach for an amendment to the so-called backstop to deal with the open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish republic was totally shot down by Leo Varadker, the Irish Prime Minister. So Johnson appears to have backed himself into a corner from which there seems to be  no escape.

The only routes  he could follow in face of the determination of the House of Commons to make sure Johnson does not fulfil his ambition to have Britain simply fall out of the EU without a deal, a course acknowledged by both sides (except Johnson) as presaging massive economic disruption to both sides, but more to Britain than to the EU, are as follows:

·      Ignore the Bill completely when it becomes law
·      Send a second letter asking the EU to refuse his demand for an extension of time
·      Find some way to call an election
·      Call for a non-confidence vote in his own government
·      Resign
·      Or ask another EU country to block the demanded time extension
The opposition has rejected his attempt to call an election, because they want to be absolutely sure that, even if he should win an election, he would not be free to lead his nation to flop out of the EU without a deal.
Stand off…. So stay tuned, as they say.