Sunday, July 27, 2008

Remember: It's still not apartheid.

Which is what everyone from Barack Obama to AIPAC will tell you, despite the obvious resemblance.

From the Hebrew daily Ha'aretz:

. . . Israel's Water Authority said on its Website average daily per capita water consumption, including household and industrial use, was about 770 liters (203 gallons) in 2005 - over 10 times the 60 liters (16 gallons) Attili said Palestinians consumed last year.

Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said a drought - which has this year deprived parts of the West Bank of almost half its normal rainfall - and "unfair" distribution of water resources would cause severe shortages in Palestinian areas this year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross last month started trucking in water for about 1,000 people and 50,000 animals in the worst affected areas of the southern West Bank.

"We have water under our feet," Attili said. "But people are thirsty and we aren't allowed to use it while settlers and Israelis in general are enjoying swimming pools and irrigation."

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Friday, July 25, 2008

The Two Highways

I do call to witness this City;-
And thou art a freeman of this City;-
And (the mystic ties of) parent and child;-
Verily We have created man into toil and struggle.
Thinketh he, that none hath power over him?
He may say (boastfully); Wealth have I squandered in abundance!
Thinketh he that none beholdeth him?
Have We not made for him a pair of eyes?-
And a tongue, and a pair of lips?-
And shown him the two highways?
But he hath made no haste on the path that is steep.
And what will explain to thee the path that is steep?-
(It is:) freeing the bondman;
Or the giving of food in a day of privation
To the orphan with claims of relationship,
Or to the indigent (down) in the dust.
Then will he be of those who believe, and enjoin patience, (constancy, and self-restraint), and enjoin deeds of kindness and compassion. . .
Such are the Companions of the Right Hand.
But those who reject Our Signs, they are the (unhappy) Companions of the Left Hand.
On them will be Fire vaulted over (all round).

-Qur'an, English interpretation, A Yusuf Ali, Chapter 90 (The City)

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Monday, July 21, 2008

A good month for International Law?

Has July been a good month for international law?

Today the Serbian government, to its credit, arrested Karadzic. Reconciliation in the Balkans will be important for the peace of the entire world, being seen as it is, as the fault line between the Muslim and Christian worlds. For Karadzic, however, there needs to be a harsh penalty - the man attempted to drive a literally defenseless nation of people into extinction, and nearly got away with it.

Last week, the prosecutor of the ICC (unfortunately not the same body that will try Karadzic, but then again the Rome Statute wasn't built in a day) indicted Omar El-Bashir, the serial killer in charge in Khartoum. He is the second sitting African head of state with an international warrant against him, the first having been Liberia's Charles Taylor.

Which civil war did they indict me for?

Shamefully, the Arab League, itself a cesspool of repressive tyrants and foreign puppets, is trying to stall. The African Union, hopefully for less self-interested reasons, is doing the same.

I applaud both the indictment and the capture, but I have mixed feelings about the entire project of public international law. How can you have criminal law without a monopoly on force? The rule of law means nothing if the brute force to circumvent it is readily available. Moreover, whom could we entrust with such a monopoly on force?

The entire project will prove its validity when we see an indictment passed not against defeated Balkan fascists or thuggish African dictators, but against sitting heads of powerful states. Currently, the evidence exists to charge the presidents of both Russia and the United States with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Is there any principled reason not to?

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The Weaselly Wall Street Journal

According to the Wall Street Journal, the bottom tax brackets in America should stop complaining: The top 5% are paying their fair share.

Aha, we are told: The rich paid more taxes because they made a greater share of the money. That is true. The top 1% earned 22% of all reported income. But they also paid a share of taxes not far from double their share of income. In other words, the tax code is already steeply progressive.
So what should America do to cut its deficits? Why, cut those taxes!
The idea that this has been a giveaway to the rich is a figment of the left's imagination. Taxes paid by millionaire households more than doubled to $274 billion in 2006 from $136 billion in 2003. No President has ever plied more money from the rich than George W. Bush did with his 2003 tax cuts.
Hmm . . . counterintuitive . . . I like it! The rest of you peons might think that cutting taxes to the rich makes the public poorer, but not so! When you lower their taxes, the rich pay more!

I wonder why that is. . . hmmm. Perhaps the WSJ will explain it somewhere in the article. . .
This is precisely what supply-siders predicted would happen with lower tax rates on capital gains, dividends and income. The economy and earnings would grow faster, which they did; investors would declare more capital gains and companies would pay out more dividends, which they did; the rich would invest less in tax shelters at lower tax rates, so their tax payments would rise, which did happen.

. . .
[In] the Carter Years . . . the rich paid only 19% of all income taxes, half of the 40% share they pay today. Why? Because they either worked less, earned less, or they found ways to shelter income from taxes so it was never reported to the IRS as income.
And herein lies the key to understanding the WSJ's claims about income distribution - to return to the original quote:
Aha, we are told: The rich paid more taxes because they made a greater share of the money. That is true. The top 1% earned 22% of all reported income. But they also paid a share of taxes not far from double their share of income. In other words, the tax code is already steeply progressive.
REPORTED income. In reality, the WSJ knows why this is important - indeed, they explained it themselves a few paragraphs later. The rich pay more taxes after a tax cut not because a tax cut on the rich somehow magically compels them to do so, but because it becomes less profitable to shift that income into places where the IRS doesn't see it.

"Aha!" you might say, "What about the fact that lower taxes provide an incentive to work harder?" The size of that effect is hard to quantify, but were the rich working so much harder that they were doubling their revenue? That is what you would have to contend, according to the same article, as:
Taxes paid by millionaire households more than doubled to $274 billion in 2006 from $136 billion in 2003.
Methinks not. "Stimulating the economy" doesn't explain the growth either - the economy did not double in size from 2003-2006, so if there was growth, it must have disproportionately favoured the rich.

This leaves us with 3 possibilities:

1) Millionaires are exploiting the complexities of the tax code to hide vast portions of their income, which is why the tax cut increased tax revenue . . . In which case they likely haven't been paying their fair share at all.
2) Millionaires are moving shifting their income into categories that are taxed at a lower rate, but they don't do this when the income tax rates are lowered to be comparable. . . in which case the tax cut didn't change government revenues at all, but just shifted them into income tax revenue.
3) The facts in the article are wrong.

Whichever is the case, there is something rotten at the Wall Street Journal.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008

"Africa" is apparently "giving nothing to anyone."

I like independent thinking, and hate conventional wisdom. I'll talk for an hour with a crackpot I meet on the street, but, never have time for the Economist. Both sources may be equally wrong about their latest prognostication, but the crackpots are interesting-wrong, as opposed to conventional-wrong.

Of course, when the crackpots start penning opinion columns in major newspapers, the results are mixed. Sometimes, it becomes an even more regular source of entertainment. Other times, the results are neither entertaining-wrong, nor conventional-wrong, but a third category, disgusting-wrong.

Take this column in the (Irish) Independent (courtesy of a colleague).

The short version:

"25 years ago, we helped the Ethiopians to appease our consciences, but then they survived and since African men are gun-toting sex machines, they had more babies, who grew up to be gun-toting sex machines. Malaria is great because it controls the population a bit."

Of course, the author pre-emptively dismisses comparisons with his native Ireland -

"But, please, please, you self-righteously wrathful, spare me mention of our own Famine, with this or that lazy analogy. There is no comparison. Within 20 years of the Famine, the Irish population was down by 30pc. Over the equivalent period, thanks to western food, the Mercedes 10-wheel truck and the Lockheed Hercules, Ethiopia's has more than doubled."
So that this post doesn't grow to gargantuan proportions and devour the internet, I'm going to pretend a number of things.

I'm going to pretend, for starters, that the title of the column wasn't "Africa isn't giving anything to anyone, besides HIV." This will require me to pretend that African economies aren't export driven, providing the world with cocoa, oil, coffee, aluminum, or God knows what else we need to get our SUVs to Starbucks for a Moccachino, or to sustain a consumer economy with a $738.6-Billion trade deficit.

I'm going to pretend that Ethiopia's agriculture sector hadn't been at all affected from 1996 onward by its government's acceptance of an IMF strategy called "Agricultural-Development-Led Industrialization (ADLI)." which planned to support itself "by tapping the demand for its products in overseas markets."

I'm going to pretend that all the developed countries send Africa is humanitarian aid, and that all weapons sales and transfers to African countries, along with the American-backed "regime change" in Somalia were all done with noble intentions and to good effect.

Let's pretend that the Ethiopians are to blame for the situation they find themselves in.

Now, let's discuss this Ireland parallel.

If the Irish had been given aid, (or, alternatively, been allowed to keep the food the British took away), and had been spared the famine, are we to believe that they would have "smartened up"?

Are we to believe that they would have thereafter controlled their base urges, and started behaving civilized, so that the next time they found themselves short of food, they'd be prepared?

Yes, those are the two things the Irish are renowned for - contraception and level-headed long-term planning.

The Irish, however, didn't get help. Instead, a British civil servant by the name of Charles Edward Trevelyan declared his view of famine relief by saying:
‘The judgement of God sent the calamity to teach the Irish a lesson, that calamity must not be too much mitigated. …The real evil with which we have to contend is not the physical evil of the Famine, but the moral evil of the selfish, perverse and turbulent character of the people’.
Which sounds a lot like:
"Alas, that wretched country is not alone in its madness. Somewhere, over the rainbow, lies Somalia, another fine land of violent, Kalashnikov-toting, khat-chewing, girl-circumcising, permanently tumescent layabouts."
As I said just a few days ago, the "poor" countries are all partly responsible for the situation they find themselves in, thanks in part to their own failure to resist. Ethiopians might do well to manage their agriculture better, and control their fertility with a bit more circumspection.

For the rest of us, the choice lies in whether we want to be their brothers, "wanting for them all that we want for ourselves," or whether we want to be Charles Trevelyan.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The allegations are NOT serious

There is considerable disagreement in this country between the Harper Konservatives and well, all the decent people, about what to do about Omar Khadr. The decent people find it beyond comprehension that the government would not be lobbying for the release of an abducted Canadian citizen. The Harper Konservatives think that the "established process" (as I heard one spokesman put it on the radio yesterday) should run its course, even if that involved having a fifteen year-old be sleep deprived prior to interrogations, and held at facilities notorious for abuse and murder on the part of the abductors. Incidentally, 2 U.S. Supreme Court rulings an 1 Supreme Court of Canada ruling have all declared the "established process" to be illegal.

Curiously, though, everyone seems to agree that the allegations against Khadr are "serious" - when this is raised, no one seems to quibble with it. "Of course the allegations are serious, but we have to do protect our citizen," say even those who are sympathetic to Khadr.

Are they though? What's he accused of? Throwing a grenade at US forces in Afghanistan, that killed one soldier. Never mind that the claim is itself dubious (which is to say, baseless), we are using standard American combat procedures here:

1) We go to 3rd-World country.
2) We drop bombs all over the place.
3) When we run out of things to bomb, we go in and shoot people.
4) Anybody who shoots back is a terrorist.

But who in Canada can be trust to explain the realities of combat to the bleeding-heart Canadians, clamoring for Khadr's release?

CanWest Global's flagship rag, the National Post, rises to the challenge.

And who do we find "reporting" for that rag? None other than Stewart Bell, author of such scholarly works as Cold Terror: How Canada Nutures and Exports Terrorism Around the World and Martyr's Oath: Apprenticeship of a Homegrown Terrorist. Forget "The Mozlems are Coming!" Apparently, Canada's REAL problem is "The Mozlems are Going!"

I have met Mr. Bell. To be charitable, he has spent too much time investigating one issue, and his approach has become rather blinkered. I won't say what I think of him when I'm not being charitable, but for him the word "terrorism" includes only violence committed by dark-skinned evil-doers, acting without the blessing of the US government.

From Bell's interviews with Sgt. Moris, who was blinded by that grenade:

"I haven't had a chance to look at it," Sgt. Morris, who lives in Utah, said of the video, "but I guess my thoughts are that if I'm ever in trouble, that's a bunch of defence attorneys that I'd like.

"They don't seem to be doing a whole lot of lawyering work. It's mostly PR work. And so it's kind of troublesome that the other side of the story has to be continually told in the media just to counter what the lawyers are trying to do in public."

Fortunately, courageous reporters like Stewart Bell are telling that story, giving hope and comfort to all those with paranoid delusions.

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Sunday, July 13, 2008

Kashmir in under an hour

I stumbled across a YouTube version of this interesting documentary on the Kashmir conflict, narrated by Pakistani intellectual Pervez Hoodbhoy. Slightly different versions of the story exist, and seem reasonably, and I'm not sure I agree with all of the documentary's conclusions. Nevertheless, if you don't know anything about the Kashmir conflict, this documentary does an excellent job of being balanced without being a-moral. If you're interested in getting a basic understanding of the forces at play, it's well worth the time.

I don't know if the documentary has been broadcast in India or Pakistan, but it should be.

Crossing the Lines: The battle for Kashmir's Freedom

Part I

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Monday, July 7, 2008

The failure to resist

I remember telling a colleague not long ago that I don't like to talk endlessly about how evil imperialism is. I think the more constructive thing is to discuss the failure to resist imperialism, with a view to figuring out a remedy for those failures.

I suppose I was thinking mainly about the Muslim world at the time, although as I have said here before, I think indigenous communities in Canada are in the predicament they are in partly as a result of being too nice to Europeans - time and time again, they didn't seem to understand that to their guests, an agreement was only as good as the gun being pointed at the other party's head. Then again, the Moghuls of India had guns, armies, and imperial politics of their own, but they too got conned in the end.

The problem is that so much of the world is still falling for it. Imperialism has to be taken as a given - what is scandalous is the failure to resist.

The News International is not my favourite Pakistani newspaper, but here is some sage advice for the Muslim world from freelance writer Farooq Sulehria, in a column last month entitled "Blaming Others." Although such a catalogue of failure seems depressing, there is wisdom in the cliché that "admitting you have a problem is the first step."

From the article, the words of Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani:

Five thousand years

Growing beards

In our caves.

Our currency is unknown,

Our eyes are a haven for flies.


Smash the doors,

Wash your brains,

Wash your clothes.


Read a book,

Write a book,

Grow words, pomegranates and grapes,

Sail to the country of fog and snow.

Nobody knows you exist in caves.

People take you for a breed of mongrels.

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Friday, July 4, 2008

City of Words

Tonight I listened to the last part of Alberto Manguel's Massey Lecture on CBC, City of Words.

I am an unapologetic fan of CBC Radio. I believe that a great deal of government money could be saved if we scrapped the first two years of undergraduate courses in humanities programmes and instead made CBC listernership mandatory. While somewhat dumbed-down in maths and sciences, I'm confident that it would provide a solid, well-rounded, liberal education. If one doesn't listen to Ideas at 9PM on Radio One, one is generally a less educated person for it.

Manguel's lecture was incredible - significantly better than some previous Massey Lectures, and better by leaps and bounds than one or two lecturers I've heard . In 5 parts, Manguel described the connections between stories, literature, and identity, and how changes in our understanding of specific pieces and genres of literature reflect changes in human society.

A recurring and fascinating theme in the lectures is the relationship between the city-dweller and the wild man, the civilized and the barbarian, the community and the outsider. It really is a fascinating and timeless subject (and upon hearing Manguel, I will have to look further into the epic of Gilgamesh and Enkidu).

One comment he made, in a digression about the Crusades, stuck me as an insightful comment on the centuries-old relationship between Europeans and the Muslim world.

I can't recall verbatim, but it was something like ". . .the Muslim Arabs were horrified by this senseless barbarity, and, in feeling themselves transformed in the perception of the other, themselves became a perceiving self."

Too bad the CBC doesn't post the lectures online. The CDs are expensive . . . though perhaps worth the price.

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Thursday, July 3, 2008


It appears that there are no more snipers atop the courthouse where Momin Khawaja is being tried.

Apparently, spectacular attacks only happen during the first week of a trial.

Either that, or the Ottawa police realized that they had better things to do.


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Tuesday, July 1, 2008


Today the world is as full of malice, stupidity, arrogance, greed, and hatred as it was yesterday. Today there are enemies to fight, lies to expose, myths to ridicule. Today there is injustice, oppression, and inequity. Today, the human race has some serious problems.

Today, however, is a day for something else.

I avoid being jingoistic. I think that the value of a country, as a society or a political entity, is not inherent to it, but comes from how it treats the people who become, in one way or another, subject to its laws and actions. The value of its natural beauty is something bestowed upon it by God - something to celebrate and be thankful for, but to avoid becoming proud about, as if we humans had anything to do with creating it.

That said, I think the country I live in, Canada, is doing pretty well.

We've created a society that is peaceful, democratic, and open-minded. We're a culture that believes that a child's opportunities should not be strictly determined by the circumstances of its birth. We believe that a person has a right to the wealth he earns, but that this right is only justified so long as he fulfills his duty to the rest of the population, especially those who have not had his luck. We believe that the value of a person's life is entirely unrelated to the value of his assets.

We can be simultaneously proud of our heritage, while still having the maturity and courage to acknowledge the evils in our history. We settle our disputes by rules and laws, and we try to carry that philosophy internationally. We see diversity - political, cultural, religious, and racial - as strength to capitalize on, not as potential treason to be feared and monitored.

It isn't perfect, it might not last forever, and at present there are people bent on tearing down its good and perpetuating its bad.

So Today is a good day for Canadians to come together as one community and celebrate that. That's something even The Proud Islamist can buy into.

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