Saturday, August 30, 2008

Ground Rules

Now that there's a woman in the campaign, I would like to request that the media, bloggers, politicos and others observe a little decorum in the upcoming presidential race.

1. Do not focus unduly on her husband. Even though he's a man, he does not tell her what to do in her job. Treat him the same as you do Michelle or Cindy.

2. Do not focus on her looks. I'm sure that many men will have strong opinions about her sex appeal, but it's inappropriate to talk about it in a political forum. Do not go on and on about how she's a "beauty queen". She was in one small-town beauty pageant a great many years ago. It's irrelevant.

3. Lay off the misogynist pejoratives. Whenever a woman emerges in politics, she gets labeled a bitch, a whore, frigid, a ball-breaker, a castrater, a man-eater, submissive, dominating... Don't act out your rape fantasies in demanding that she grovel, give lap-dances, whatever. And please lay off the references to women becoming unstable during their periods or menopause: they don't; and it's offensive.

My last point is just a request. When people do all of the above, as they will, please speak out against it. It is only going to make women support her if they perceive another misogynist gang-up on a female candidate.


Cuz She's a Woman

To all those people out there - in columns, blogs, on TV - saying that it's ridiculous and awful for women to consider voting for a woman just because she's a woman, I have one question: Did you go to the 95% of African-Americans who support Barack Obama and tell them that it's ridiculous and awful for them to support a black man just because he's black? Please supply URLs.


Democrat Reaction to Palin Needs Some Tweaking

When John McCain nominated Sarah Palin as his VP pick, the Obama camp came out with the statement that it was irresponsible of McCain to put someone with two year's experience as governor within a heartbeat of the presidency. What a gaffe on Obama's part. It just makes everyone think about his two year's experience as a senator... just two nights ago, Al Gore's convention speech included a bit about Abraham Lincoln also having only two year's experience as a senator. I'm shocked that the Obama camp is comparing Obama with his opponent's VP candidate. It's apples and oranges, and it rebounds very badly on Obama - especially when Hillary supporters, largely female, are saying that their two major concerns are Obama's light qualifications and issues of sexism.

More importantly, it's distracting from the very real negatives about Sarah Palin. She is against abortion even in cases of rape and incest. She was an ardent supporter of Pat Buchanan for president. Run with that, for heaven's sake! (She is also a creationist, but her stance on that has been pretty responsible - she has not advocated for teaching creationism in schools and hasn't appointed creationists - so it's not clear how far we'd get with that one.)

I'm not sure there's a case to be made that she's anti-environmentalist, but it needs to be explored. I have read that she denies that global warming is man-made, but on the other hand she is one of the few US governors to do something about greenhouse gas emissions (she signed the Pacific Coast Collaborative initiative this summer). Her opposition to putting polar bears on the endangered species list is not anti-environmentalist: southerners who want the designation don't understand the north. Her support of Alaskan drilling is another issue I'm iffy on - I don't support it, but there's a difference between spoiling a park and increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

She has a lot of pluses: despite claims to the contrary, she has a record that can be examined, and it includes cleaning up corruption, selling the Alaska governor's private jet, and taking on US senator Ted Stevens. She has a baby with Down's Syndrome, and her public statements about him were a step forward for human rights. Her husband is a blue collar worker. She's a marathon runner. She has a son in the army who will be deployed to Iraq before the election. And she's currently nursing her baby.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Harper Promotes UnCanada

Of course this could just have been the fellas down at the Globe having some fun with Harper. (This picture appears today on the Globe & Mail home page exactly as I produce it here.) Even Globe columnist Margaret Wente, normally a cheerleader for the right, is fed up with Harper. Yesterday she described him as "a mean-eyed guy with the charm of a ball-peen hammer". I don't agree with everything else she said, but I like the sentiment:
Once upon a time, I thought that Mr. Harper might actually be principled. Now I know he's just another panderer. His idea of an economic policy is to cut a point or two off the GST and deal out tax breaks to parents who buy hockey sticks. His idea of a justice policy is to get tough on crime, even though crime has gone way down. His idea of a science policy is to slap a ban on plastic baby bottles, because maybe it will help him get the Mom vote. His idea of a culture policy is to cancel grants to suspicious left-wing intellectuals and rock bands named Holy Fuck. So what if the Winnipeg Ballet gets screwed too? The more the culturati scream, the better. They were never going to vote for him anyway.

Mr. Harper claims an election is necessary because Parliament is at an impasse - even though he has managed to get everything he wanted passed. We thought we had a fixed election date. Now we know it's fixed by him, on whatever date he wants.


Mamma Mia! (review)

On a rainy Thursday night at the 6:30 show, six weeks after the local release of Mamma Mia, the theater was packed. There may have been a dozen men. I sat next to a little girl who was about 7, but the majority of the audience was middle-aged women.

And you can see why. At first blush, Mamma Mia is anti-Hollywood. It celebrates middle-aged women - Meryl Streep, the star, is 58. The three central women are single, empowered, and having as much giddy fun as when they were 20. In an archetypal middle-age woman's fantasy, the most gorgeous guy on the beach, the young bartender, is so gaga for 56 year old Christine Baranski that he's a pest.

Once I started to give it a bit more thought though, this was Hollywood through and through. None of us middle-aged women in the audience approached the incandescence of Meryl Streep, whose character epitomizes the free spirit who becomes more beautiful with age. None of us small-town Canadians have any connection to the fairy tale life of owning a beautiful old hotel on an idyllic Greek island. And the ending - pure Hollywood! But if it was Hollywood, it was Hollywood at its best.

Before I saw the film I read the extremely negative New Yorker review of Mamma Mia, and despite my thorough enjoyment of the film, I also love the review. The only time I can remember the New Yorker writing a snarkier review was for Miss Saigon. (That review had only four words: "The horror! The horror!") It's a real pity that the online version of the Mamma Mia! review is abridged because it drops some of the best lines. I think Anthony Lane said something like, "I shouldn't really be reviewing this movie because I only saw the first half. After that I buried my head in my hands."

I can see how someone who didn't get into the spirit of the thing would find the film pretty bad. They miked most of the singing in situ, rather than in a studio, and they didn't touch up the blemishes. Some of the actors, like Pierce Brosnan, are not the best singers. But I can't see how anyone would not get into the spirt of it. It's just so joyful and fun. I can't remember such an effective feel-good movie since I was a kid and saw Yellow Submarine.

Me, I always hated Abba, but I've been singing Dancing Queen all day and I still feel like spinning and skipping.


Thursday, August 28, 2008

Obama's Acceptance Speech

I was really hoping that he'd do something for party unity and say something to the many women who are hurting from sexism in the primaries... at least acknowledge it, perhaps even promise to work to increase representation of women in government.

We're an issue that is not on the radar.


Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Campaign Round-Up

As Obama prepares to accept the nomination tomorrow night, I'd like to recap my coverage of the primary season:

* Campaign to boycott the election
* The disenfranchisement of Democratic women
* Time to harness the power of 51%
* Eleanor and John in 1959
* Not just another sex scandal
* The Real Obama?
* The perils of taking things at face value
* If they don't do it, they don't win
* Kicking us when we're down
* Gore-ed: Or How "Conventional Wisdom" Makes Sh*t Up
* You don't have to support Hillary to deplore the sexism that brought her down
* Obama supporters attacked Hillary, but Obama attacked Bill
* Another way to spin: or, the rosy view of things
* The question of racism
* The McCain threat
* The marathon
* Has Hillary's defeat set back feminism?
* The mob
* Dissing the dismal science
* Democrats will lose by playing dirty
* The double standard around the call to quit
* "Entitlement" another sexist code word
* Obama and the Democratic Party
* The Obama Strategy
* Small town America is seeing clearly
* Unreaveling the mess in Michigan and Florida
* Equality roundup
* The case for a Clinton/Obama ticket
* Caucuses vs primaries and the state of Texas
* Change you can't believe in
* Who will stand up to the Cuban-American lobby?
* Schlesinger roundup
* The war against women
* Gobsmacking nastiness
* Can any Democrat beat McCain in November?
* Questions for the candidates
* The Republican Nomination is all down to the veep
* Calling for a closer examination of Obama
* Ongoing bickering may doom Democrats
* Bill Clinton's presidency: mananger or visionary
* I am weary
* Some thoughts on women in politics
* Pushing back against the Hillary haters
* Obama
* The politics of black and white
* Trey Ellis on Bill-bashing
* Correcting the record: too little, too late
* Obliterating the front runner, cont.
* The twisting of truth: analysis of an event
* The Huffington Post and irresponsible alternative media
* What the next US president faces
* Don't get fooled again
* Analysing anti-woman media bias
* Endorsements for Hillary for president as of January 15, 2008
* The glass jaw
* When the media aims its guns
* Why Hillary won
* Democrats have something to learn from the Liberals
* John Edwards' version of change: dirty politicis
* Ain't no fun when the rabbit's got the gun... for lots of reasons
* Obama lost his way
* US health care
* Some thoughts on the Democratic race
* Would a woman president be taken seriously by an Arab state?
* Why the cleavage issue matters
* Why I endorse Hillary as Democratic candidate for president
* The lady vanishes... into a smokescreen of lies
* Another Bush coming in the back door
* Fatal flaw with Hillary and Barack?
* Mother Jones takes on Hillary
* Clinton, Obama, and Gore


Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Campaign to Boycott the Election

I have been sitting here tonight watching the convention on CNN. It is soooo long and soooo boring. CNN isn't even covering the speeches... just endless yuckety-yuck punditry as the speeches drone on in the background. I don't think I'll be able to take another night of this.

But while I've been enduring this protracted nonsense I've been busily googling and reading, finding places to plant my campaign to boycott the election. I have left various versions of my message, but this is the current form:
At the 2008 Democratic National Convention Hillary Clinton challenged her supporters to support Obama by saying, “I want you to ask yourselves: Were you in this campaign just for me?” As a Hillary Clinton supporter, my answer is “No.” My interest was in finding a qualified person to be president. That is still my major concern.

But along the way, something else happened. The candidate I supported, who happened to be a woman, was ridiculed and demonized for being female. Over the last year I watched major media personalities say that Hillary is like a nagging ex-wife or that they were afraid that she would castrate them. Her biggest failing, we were told, was that she had a sense of entitlement – and people accepted that as fair criticism. The media was more interested in the husband than the candidate. She was criticized for her laugh, ankles, age, clothing. She was called shrill, a hypocrite, too mannish, too womanish. The final kick in the teeth was that the winner, his party and most of the media deny that there was even a problem and seem completely unwilling to address the issue.

I was profoundly disappointed that Obama did not choose a woman to be his VP, or even seriously consider the woman who got nearly half the vote. I continue to be appalled at the unequal treatment of Hillary as the losing candidate: no man has ever been expected to grovel to the winner so thoroughly. I don't understand why Obama has not made efforts to reach out to Hillary supporters and unify the party.

I don’t dislike Obama or Biden; I just refuse to sit by and accept that the first serious female candidate could be demonized and ridiculed for being female. There were multiple factors in her defeat, but the biggest and ugliest was pervasive, blatant sexism. We got the message loud and clear that a woman would not be taken seriously for president.

Consequently, if Obama and the party continue to ignore my concerns, then as a Democrat and a Hillary supporter I am planning to boycott this election. My goal is to send a message to the Democratic party that I will not stand for the treatment of women that occurred in the Democratic primaries; and that my future support depends on equal representation for women.

Under-representation and sexism have been around forever, and all we get is empty promises without sufficient progress. They'll remember us if we throw the election. It's short term pain for long term gain.

Women represent 51% of the population and yet have minuscule representation in the power elite. I want the backroom boys to get very worried about running a campaign without a woman on the ticket. I want them to start to get serious about moving to equal representation in congress, the cabinet, the judiciary, senior government posts, corporate directorships and senior management. I want them to see women as a demographic they have to take seriously.

My boycott is not in support of Hillary. If Hillary’s supporters turn their backs on Obama it could rebound very negatively on her: no matter what she does, she will be blamed for it. But this is not about her. This is about drawing a line in the sand and saying I will not take this anymore.

This text was updated on August 28.


The Disenfranchisement of Democratic Women

We live in a world where women are vastly under-represented in the top ranks. We have only token representation in congress and the cabinet; in the ranks of CEOs, directors and senior management; in the most influential media posts; in every influential area of government and business. This is equally true in Canada.

It can no longer be argued that women are under-represented because we are unready to lead. More women graduate university than men. Changes in childcare practices, such as widespread availability of day care and better sharing of the workload between spouses, mean that women don’t have to drop out of the workforce for a decade.

We could write volumes on why women are still excluded from the top ranks. Many people (both men and women) are locked into a paternalistic framework where women aren't acceptable as leaders. Our vision of a leader is a man in business suit. A woman seems wrong. Lots of things reinforce this. There aren’t enough female university professors so people don’t see women as authority figures and women lack role models. Our society increasingly presents women as sex objects for men. The “old boy’s network”, still going strong, excludes women.

But this year we had a glaring, monstrous, public demonstration of how women are shut out. A woman – for the first time – was a serious contender for the nominee for president, and she was brought down – for various reasons – but publicly because she was a woman. She was ridiculed and demonized for being female. Some of the most widely watched and influential media personalities said they were afraid she’d castrate them. Her biggest failing, we were told, was that she had a sense of entitlement – and people accepted that as a fair criticism. She was criticized for her laugh, ankles, age. She was called shrill, a hypocrite, too mannish, too womanish. The media was more interested in the husband than the candidate. It was blatantly obvious that no woman would be taken seriously.

And after it was all over, the sexism was almost completely denied by the media, her party, and the man who won.

What people don’t seem to get about Hillary supporters who don’t support Obama is that our problem is not that Hillary lost; it’s how she lost. I fully understand that there were numerous factors in that defeat - that her campaign staff made mistakes, that she made mistakes - but the key issue is that the sexism was so egregious and blatant that the campaign represents an attack on all women.

I couldn’t bear to watch Michelle Obama’s speech at the convention last night because it was good. She is intelligent, poised, a good speaker with a great heart, and yet she cannot speak at the Democratic convention except as a spouse supporting her husband. As a woman, it is heartbreaking and maddening to see such ongoing blatant dismissal of our sex. It would almost be easier if women were dismissed as inferior, but we’re not. We have made huge strides in attaining equity in education and pay, but we’re still not equal citizens. We’re allowed into every segment of society except - other than a few tokens - the ruling class.

It is widely reported that over 30% of Hillary supporters have not yet decided to support Obama, and yet nobody, it seems, is taking our concerns seriously. The Democratic party seems to believe that it's up to Hillary to heal the rift. As I've said before, she is not the person to do that. It is the responsibility of the candidate and the party to address this issue. And as they seem to have absolutely no inclination to do that, or even to admit there's a problem, well... the only leverage we have is our numbers and our vote.

This is the time for women to take a stand. We have been promised better female representation for decades and virtually nothing has been done. We have been slapped down too publicly to just be able to say OK, fair enough, we’ll try again in four years. I can barely stand to watch the parade of men at the convention podium. I’m sick of it.

We have watched in horror as a high profile woman has been felled, and it resonates too painfully with all the little ways that each of us has been felled. Equality now.


Sunday, August 24, 2008

Harper and Health Care

I'm finding it difficult to support Barack Obama in part because I like John McCain. McCain is pretending to be more right-wing than he is to win over the Republican party, but his stance on issues is really quite moderate, as he has demonstrated for years.

The opposite is the case with Canadian politics. Stephen Harper is a wolf in sheep's clothing, or sometimes just a wolf. He is a right-wing fundamentalist Christian like nothing we have ever seen. He supports capital punishment, opposes abortion, and wants to gut the social safety net. He has been held back by his minority status, but even so he has done enormous damage to our country with his policies to send more people to prison, his gutting of funding to women's organizations and arts groups, his pro-war foreign affairs strategy, and his politics of polarization.

There is no question in my mind that we have to do whatever we can to turf out this negative, scandal-ridden group of ideologues and elect Stephane Dion.

To me, the battleground we should fight the upcoming election on is the preservation of our system of universal health care. The Harper government came out last week with their latest plan to introduce two-tier health care. They must be stopped.

We already, of course, have two-tier health care. Any Canadian can easily go the US and buy health care. What the Conservatives want to impose is subsidized private health care. Queue-jumpers want a bargain.

We have a health care system that is the envy of the world. It works. It's affordable. Harper - on ideological grounds - wants to dismantle it completely. He's trying to wiggle his foot into a crack, pull off a piece of it, and start the decay that will make the whole system unfeasible. We can't let him get a toe-hold.

Being a dual citizen, I may have two federal elections to vote in this fall. I'm ambivalent about one, but I have no doubts about the other. Harper is a bad leader and it's time to throw him out.


Time to Harness the Power of 51%

Watching the US political TV shows this morning, Hillary's name came up even more often than Joe Biden's. The question is why Obama didn't ask her to be VP - why he didn't even vet her - after she won half of the vote. The concern is that over 30% of Hillary supporters do not support Obama. The facile solution is that Hillary's convention speech will make the difference in bringing her supporters over to Obama.

Hillary can't do it. As one of the three in ten, I can tell you this: I don't support Obama now for the same reason that I didn't support him during the primary. I have been a fan of the man for years, but I don't think he's qualified - at this point in his career - to be president. Only Obama can convince us that he would make a better president than John McCain. Hillary can't do bupkis.

Proof of this is that she's been making strenuous efforts to support Obama and they're not registering. She made the most unifying concession speech in history. She has been actively stumping for Obama, appealing over and over to her supporters to support him. Not only are her supporters refusing to budge, but the media is asserting that she's not even trying. Witness an article in the Globe & Mail recently questioning her support for Obama (in complete opposition to the evidence); and a Diane Francis article that described Hilllary's concession speech as ungracious - which anyone who heard it would know is a bare-faced lie.

We might support our party just on partisan grounds, despite our qualms. But there is a huge rift in the party. Women were humiliated by the treatment of Hillary Clinton in the primaries. We haven't forgotten, when she was attacked in a debate for being unlikeable, Obama's condescending, snarky "You're likeable enough, Hillary." We haven't forgotten his half-hearted response to his pastor's vicious attack on her. Most of all, we are wounded by the vicious sexist attacks during the campaign. If Obama wants to bring us around, he needs to address our concerns.

Just as he made a moving speech about race, Obama needs to address gender issues in America. Women are incensed that the media and the Democratic party have all denied that there was sexism in the primaries. All of it has been denied: the comments about castration and ankles and cackle; the over-emphasis on the candidate's male spouse; the heckles and the insults. There was not only widespread refusal to take seriously a woman candidate, but the female candidate was ridiculed and demonized for being female. We're mad not on Hillary's behalf but on our own behalf.

So that's Obama's challenge. Convince us that you're better qualified than John McCain to meet the difficult, pragmatic challenges ahead; and address our concerns about the role of women in politics. So far Obama has been unsuccessful in the former and has shown no interest in the latter. If he doesn't change his approach - radically - then many women, myself included, may think about staying home on election day. And maybe that's not such a bad thing. It's time to send a message that we're a demographic that deserves some attention. In the short term we'd get stuck with another Republican president for four more years (it's unlikely McCain could seek a second term), but in the long run we might make great strides for women's equality. If Obama doesn't step up, I propose that women boycott the election. It's time to say enough is enough.


Eleanor and John in 1959

Eleanor Roosevelt, political powerhouse, spent her life championing the plight of the disadvantaged. Hoover had her followed everywhere and had an enormous FBI file on her activities. The media and public believed her to be (at different stages in her life) a dilettante, communist, hypocrite; naive, manipulative; a shrill, pushy woman. Through it all she got a great deal done. As wife of the president she pushed her agenda relentlessly. As his widow she served on the board of the NAACP, spoke out against McCarthy, and chaired the UN committee that wrote the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (among many things). By the time she was elderly the criticism had turned to praise and she was widely admired. Throughout it all she adhered to the principle that she had to succeed or her failure would be a failure for all women.

John Kennedy, young senator, was a populist candidate for president with very little experience.

Hmmm... anyone else see any similarities in modern day players?

Of course, in 1959 a woman couldn't have made a serious campaign for president; it was groundbreaking that Eleanor was appointed as representative to the UN. In 2008 a woman could be a contender - but perhaps only if she had the public profile and political machine that comes from being related to a powerful man (just as FDR was Eleanor's ticket to power). And historians may judge that even in 2008 a woman couldn't make a serious run for president - that inherent sexism made it impossible, ultimately, for her to be taken seriously. "Divisive" has become code for "not the male, paternalistic model we're used to."

Something that Eleanor Roosevelt said during the 1950s really resonates with me today. Speaking about the cold war, she said that racism in the US was so bad that there were two categories of citizen with two sets of rights, and that when the rest of the world saw that situation they couldn't take the US alternative seriously and would be more inclined to look to communism.

The treatment of African-Americans in 1959 was far worse than the treatment of women in 2008, and in making the comparison I don't want to suggest otherwise. But one of the connections is this: in an international community where women are strong, with female heads of state even in Islamic countries, the US drive for democracy and human rights seems empty and hypocritical.


Thursday, August 14, 2008

Some Thoughts While Watching the Olympics in German

The littlest Chinese gymnast doesn't look 16... or 14... she looks like she's 7 years old. Hasn't she just lost one of her baby teeth?

When you see the headline "Tyson Gay!" and you can't understand what's being said, it's a natural reaction to think the boxer was outed, right? (I actually googled that one before I found out who Tyson Gay is.)

You'd think that the other sports would get the idea from swimming and start piling up nearly-duplicate competitions so their athletes could win multiple medals and vie for the "greatest athlete of all time" tag.

How widespread is this male armpit-shaving thing?

If someone's wearing a crucifix, why do we assume they're Christian? What if they're just afraid of vampires? (Okay, that doesn't have anything to do with sports, but all that swimming is boooooorrrring.)

Like sprinting: they could have the regular 100-meter, and then they could run it backwards, and then they could do four or five funny gaits.

As she left the mat after one of her routines, the littlest Chinese gymnast nearly got bowled over by some big guy rushing past her, and he didn't even stop to make sure she was okay. If you weigh 200 pounds and you bang into someone who weighs 50 pounds, shouldn't you stop for a second - even if she has a passport that says she's 16?

US Expansion Not Russian Aggression

From Seumas Milne in the Guardian:

This is a tale of US expansion not Russian aggression

The outcome of six grim days of bloodshed in the Caucasus has triggered an outpouring of the most nauseating hypocrisy from western politicians and their captive media. As talking heads thundered against Russian imperialism and brutal disproportionality, US vice-president Dick Cheney, faithfully echoed by Gordon Brown and David Miliband, declared that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered". George Bush denounced Russia for having "invaded a sovereign neighbouring state" and threatening "a democratic government". Such an action, he insisted, "is unacceptable in the 21st century".

Could these by any chance be the leaders of the same governments that in 2003 invaded and occupied - along with Georgia, as luck would have it - the sovereign state of Iraq on a false pretext at the cost of hundreds of thousands of lives? Or even the two governments that blocked a ceasefire in the summer of 2006 as Israel pulverised Lebanon's infrastructure and killed more than a thousand civilians in retaliation for the capture or killing of five soldiers?

You'd be hard put to recall after all the fury over Russian aggression that it was actually Georgia that began the war last Thursday with an all-out attack on South Ossetia to "restore constitutional order" - in other words, rule over an area it has never controlled since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Nor, amid the outrage at Russian bombardments, have there been much more than the briefest references to the atrocities committed by Georgian forces against citizens it claims as its own in South Ossetia's capital Tskhinvali. Several hundred civilians were killed there by Georgian troops last week, along with Russian soldiers operating under a 1990s peace agreement: "I saw a Georgian soldier throw a grenade into a basement full of women and children," one Tskhinvali resident, Saramat Tskhovredov, told reporters on Tuesday.

Might it be because Georgia is what Jim Murphy, Britain's minister for Europe, called a "small beautiful democracy". Well it's certainly small and beautiful, but both the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili, and his predecessor came to power in western-backed coups, the most recent prettified as a "Rose revolution". Saakashvili was then initially rubber-stamped into office with 96% of the vote before establishing what the International Crisis Group recently described as an "increasingly authoritarian" government, violently cracking down on opposition dissent and independent media last November. "Democratic" simply seems to mean "pro-western" in these cases.

The long-running dispute over South Ossetia - as well as Abkhazia, the other contested region of Georgia - is the inevitable consequence of the breakup of the Soviet Union. As in the case of Yugoslavia, minorities who were happy enough to live on either side of an internal boundary that made little difference to their lives feel quite differently when they find themselves on the wrong side of an international state border.

Such problems would be hard enough to settle through negotiation in any circumstances. But add in the tireless US promotion of Georgia as a pro-western, anti-Russian forward base in the region, its efforts to bring Georgia into Nato, the routing of a key Caspian oil pipeline through its territory aimed at weakening Russia's control of energy supplies, and the US-sponsored recognition of the independence of Kosovo - whose status Russia had explicitly linked to that of South Ossetia and Abkhazia - and conflict was only a matter of time.

The CIA has in fact been closely involved in Georgia since the Soviet collapse. But under the Bush administration, Georgia has become a fully fledged US satellite. Georgia's forces are armed and trained by the US and Israel. It has the third-largest military contingent in Iraq - hence the US need to airlift 800 of them back to fight the Russians at the weekend. Saakashvili's links with the neoconservatives in Washington are particularly close: the lobbying firm headed by US Republican candidate John McCain's top foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann, has been paid nearly $900,000 by the Georgian government since 2004.

But underlying the conflict of the past week has also been the Bush administration's wider, explicit determination to enforce US global hegemony and prevent any regional challenge, particularly from a resurgent Russia. That aim was first spelled out when Cheney was defence secretary under Bush's father, but its full impact has only been felt as Russia has begun to recover from the disintegration of the 1990s.

Over the past decade, Nato's relentless eastward expansion has brought the western military alliance hard up against Russia's borders and deep into former Soviet territory. American military bases have spread across eastern Europe and central Asia, as the US has helped install one anti-Russian client government after another through a series of colour-coded revolutions. Now the Bush administration is preparing to site a missile defence system in eastern Europe transparently targeted at Russia.

By any sensible reckoning, this is not a story of Russian aggression, but of US imperial expansion and ever tighter encirclement of Russia by a potentially hostile power. That a stronger Russia has now used the South Ossetian imbroglio to put a check on that expansion should hardly come as a surprise. What is harder to work out is why Saakashvili launched last week's attack and whether he was given any encouragement by his friends in Washington.

If so, it has spectacularly backfired, at savage human cost. And despite Bush's attempts to talk tough yesterday, the war has also exposed the limits of US power in the region. As long as Georgia proper's independence is respected - best protected by opting for neutrality - that should be no bad thing. Unipolar domination of the world has squeezed the space for genuine self-determination and the return of some counterweight has to be welcome. But the process of adjustment also brings huge dangers. If Georgia had been a member of Nato, this week's conflict would have risked a far sharper escalation. That would be even more obvious in the case of Ukraine - which yesterday gave a warning of the potential for future confrontation when its pro-western president threatened to restrict the movement of Russian ships in and out of their Crimean base in Sevastopol. As great power conflict returns, South Ossetia is likely to be only a taste of things to come.


Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Miss Pronownciation

I just heard an anchor on CNN International pronounce Azberbaijan in a way so bizarre, so incorrect, that she must have read the word off her teleprompter wihtout ever having heard it before. Eyes squinting a bit, in a questioning tone, she laboriously said something like, Eh-zber-gee-an?

Now in Canada we obsess over pronunciation. A couple of decades ago there was virtually a national debate over Lithuania: Lith-YOO-ania or Lith-OO-ania. I believe it was Joe Clark who fell afoul of public opinion with a dodgy YOO version. I remember championing the OO side with some gusto, although I may have simply been unable to accept the articulation of a Conservative. After a great deal of taxpayer-subsidized research, the CBC made a ruling and, well, I seem to have forgotten what it was.

CBC announcers are given pronunciation guidelines. CNN announcers - not so much. They seem to wing it. For example, Qatar, usually pronounced something like kuh-TAR, is regulary called cutter on CNN. For that matter, American government officials often say cutter as well. Given the dominance of US TV, after a while the poor Qataris (kuh-TAR-ees) will probably give up and become KUT-ter-ees. That's certainly what happened to poor old al Qaeda - no AYE-EE left in that name.

Just guessing here, but the widespread disregard that American media has for the correct pronunciation of foreign words, isn't that based on a sense that Americans don't follow no furrin ways? This attitude has had some admirable effects - I am a great fan of American spelling and think it superior in all respects to British forms. But language is more than 99% about following and less than 1% about leading, and American visual media could show a little more respect for accepted pronunciation.

Ahmadinejad, anyone?


The Effects of Bullying

In 2005, Bush went to Georgia and said, "We encourage your closer cooperation with NATO. Georgia's leaders know that the peaceful resolution of conflict is essential to your integration into the transatlantic community. At the same time, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Georgia must be respected."

As wikipedia defines it, NATO "constitutes a system of collective defence whereby its member states agree to mutual defence in response to an attack by any external party."

Georgia is on Russia's border, and the US is actively trying to get it to join a US-led defence organization that sees Russia as the enemy. That's like Russia trying to get Canada or Mexico to join a Russian defence organization. But it's worse... it's like the third of Mexico that the US co-opted a hundred-odd years ago breaking off, forming its own republic, and then being encouraged by Russia to join a Russian defence organization... and doing so as part of a movement in which all nearby countries join with Russia.

This has been an ongoing problem. During the reunification of Germany, US president George HW Bush apparently promised Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not expand into eastern Europe. In May of this year, Gorbachev said, "the Americans promised that NATO wouldn't move beyond the boundaries of Germany after the Cold War but now half of central and eastern Europe are members, so what happened to their promises? It shows they cannot be trusted." Gorbachev added that US officials have even talked about needing more defence spending in case they need to go to war with Russia.

It seems like the current Bush government can't stomach the idea of having peaceful relations with Russia: they need to beat Russia down, provoke it, threaten it, surround it with US military allies.

Bush is the bully who doesn't realize that some people fight back.

Georgia is the kid stuck between the bully's fist and the target.

Meanwhile, Dick Cheney recently said that "Russian aggression must not go unanswered" and American news agencies like CNN seem to be whipping up support for US action against Russia. The international edition of CNN has been looping a segment about the military might of Russia versus the military weakness of Georgia, using emotional images of troops and equipment. Most US news outlets have been focusing on the carnage in South Ossetia and neglecting to explain why it's happening.

George Kaplan recently wrote in Slate, "Bush pressed the other NATO powers to place Georgia's application for membership on the fast track. The Europeans rejected the idea, understanding the geo-strategic implications of pushing NATO's boundaries right up to Russia's border. If the Europeans had let Bush have his way, we would now be obligated by treaty to send troops in Georgia's defense. That is to say, we would now be in a shooting war with the Russians."

The insane thing about Cheney's statement is that there is no conceivable exit strategy for US involvement that has a positive outcome for anyone. The Bush government wrongly assumes that it can use its military might to soundly trounce other countries and that will be that. Even Ronald Reagan knew that that sort of success is only possible in tiny places like Grenada.


Sunday, August 10, 2008

Girl Athletes

At the Beijing Olympics' diving venue there are cameras aimed at the pool-side showers. Divers shower in their bathing suits every time they get out of the pool, presumably to wash off the chlorine. I'm in Bulgaria this month and my hotel TV only gets the Olympics on the German EuroSport channel, so I don't know if this applies elsewhere, but EuroSport shows the female divers showering after every dive. In terms of time, we see more of these teenagers in the shower than anywhere else. (And lest you think that this is time-filler in a live broadcast, EuroSport is showing clips on a time delay.)

I know - big deal - it's pretty mild stuff. But think of it this way: There is no justification for showing anyone in the shower. The Olympic committee makes its money from TV ratings, and it appears to be using the bodies of female athletes, mostly underage teenagers, to boost ratings. (It will be interesting to see whether male divers get the same treatment - we may reach "equality" by exploiting teens of both sexes.)

The central Olympic committee is not the only group to blame. The national organizations that choose the outfits their athletes have to wear are also pretty crass. The French female gymnasts are wearing outfits that are cut so high in the leg that they're bare almost up to their belly buttons. The male beach volley ball teams were given nice, comfortable outfits: baggy tank tops and baggy shorts, while the female teams were given little two-piece bathing suits.

The commercialization of young women in sport is not the exclusive domain of the Olympics committees, of course. Young women sometimes sell themselves, which is why the top earners in women's tennis are frequently not the top seeds. One of the gymnasts I saw today was wearing light blue glitter eyeshadow that was about as tacky as anything I've seen. But it's fair game for a woman to want to capitalize on her looks, get herself noticed, vie for endorsements. It's a whole nother thing when women who just want to compete are forced to become sex objects. It's quite possible that most of them want to look sexy, but what of the female athletes who don't?

Update August 11: Yup, the boys are also being filmed in the shower. I guess I'm starting to change my mind about the shower thing. In the town where I grew up, women taking showers was a strip club favorite that was regularly advertised on the front page of the KW Record's entertainment section (with tag lines like "Our girls get wet for you"). (Kitchener-Waterloo has since got rid of most of the strip clubs, and the Record has instituted some standards in advertising.) So to me, filming women showering is pretty gross. Now that I see the boys, even though they're also wearing itty-bitty bathing suits, it takes on a different tone. The Olympics are a celebration of the body, after all, and the triumph of the mind over it; the celebration is about the body at its finest, which in most sports means the teenage body. Our society has got so creepy with the commoditization of people that I think I misinterpreted this.


Teeny Weeny Countries and the Lingering Cold War

The current war between Russia and Georgia is not some distant, removed conflict, of course: it's largely about Russia being threatened by NATO. Georgia wants to join NATO, and that threatens Russia. The US is encouraging Georgia and the Ukraine to join NATO, and so in a sense we are back in the cold war, with the US and Russia being the chess players and the rest of the world their pieces.

Of course that's not all that's going on. North Ossetia is part of Russia; when Georgia broke off, it took South Ossetia with it. Russia thinks Georgia should be part of Russia, but if it's independent, there are difficult border disputes. South Ossetia's rebel government is pro-Moscow, but I have no idea if the population wants to be part of Russia or Georgia, or whether they want independence from both. (They're currently in a netherworld, independent but unrecognized.)

Not that I'm claiming to understand any of this. But another element of this situation that seems important is the shattering of the old Eastern Bloc into so many tiny countries. Georgia broke away from Russia, and then South Ossetia and Abkhazia broke off from Georgia. When Yugoslavia dissolved, Serbia got its independence, and then earlier this year Kosovo broke away from Serbia. Russia objected to Kosovo independence, and the US supported it.

It's hard to imagine that all this fracturing can lead to stability. Are the breakaway countries big enough to survive? I'm just guessing here, but you'd think that total independence would be a temporary situation, and would transition into alliances (like the EU) that would have them banding together into logical groups. The reason I mention this is that, if they are going to form stable alliances, it's not at all clear to me that NATO is the proper forum. In other words, Russia might have a point in objecting to the fracturing and the NATO envelopment.


Saturday, August 09, 2008

Not Just Another Sex Scandal

John Edwards' personal problems are bigger news than most political sex scandals for a number of reasons. He made his relationship with his wife a cornerstone of his campaign to be Democratic presidential nominee. They have young children. She is a widely respected and hugely sympathetic figure in the US. She has breast cancer, an illness that attacks a woman's sexuality - worse, she was battling cancer while he had the affair, and the cancer has now been diagnosed as incurable. Edwards may have misused political funds by paying his girlfriend to make a documentary (despite her total lack of expertise) as a ruse to travel with her. He may have fathered a child as a result of the affair. He may have paid people substantial sums of money to help cover up the affair and his paternity (and there will be questions about where that money came from). He may have lied to his wife when he fessed up to the affair and said it was over, sometime before the child was conceived. And the affair shatters a carefully-honed public persona that was a smoke-and-mirrors attempt to obscure his previous image as a sleazeball pretty-boy.

But what makes this story interesting and potentially more important to me is why Edwards entered the presidential race when it now seems clear that he couldn't keep this enormous scandal out of the press. People thought the documentary story was fishy almost from the start, and when his campaign pulled all mention of it, alarm bells went off in newsrooms. From that point on a number of journalists were pretty sure there had been an affair and were actively trying to prove it. Edwards must have known that if nominated as the Democratic candidate he could be exposed and lose the election. He put himself forward when his candidacy could have doomed his party to lose the presidency. Edwards has admitted to narcissism in having the affair, but the scary narcissism is that he ran for Democratic nominee given the powder keg he was sitting on.

I can't believe that narcissism is a complete explanation for why Edwards ran for president. Edwards did two main things in the primaries: he used his high profile as a top-three contender to (1) put forth an anti-poverty agenda and (2) attack Hillary Clinton.

The anti-poverty agenda always struck me as strategic rather than sincere. It gave him a cause that differentiated him from the top two contenders and it allowed him to play up his North Carolina roots, but it was too big a break from his previous policy stance. Just four years before, when Edwards ran for the Democratic presidential nomination and became the vice-presidential nominee, he was much more to the right.

It is unclear why Edwards used his high profile in the primaries to support Barack Obama and trash the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, but there's no question that he did it. During a debate, Edwards made it very clear that Hillary Clinton was one of the "forces of the status quo" when he said, "Everytime [Obama] speaks out for change, everytime I fight for change, the forces of status quo are going to attack. Every single time. And what we have to remember - and this is the overarching issue here, because what we really need in New Hampshire and in future state primaries, is we need an unfiltered debate between the agents of change about how we are going to bring about that change."

I was a Hillary Clinton supporter, and I have never understood how and why she was brought down from solid first place to loser. There were a lot of forces at work, including a sexist culture, but one significant factor was the attacks of John Edwards. This may have been part of a backroom deal to doom her candidacy, or it may have been Edwards playing kingmaker, or he may have just adopted a tactic of knocking off the frontrunner before turning his guns on the next challenger. He didn't seem to want to run for VP again, so his support of Obama doesn't seem to be based on an attempt at a joint ticket. We will probably never know Edwards' motives, but the result was that he was the spoiler in the Democratic primaries.


Friday, August 08, 2008

Air Quality in Beijing

In an exceedingly odd and self-contradictory article in the Globe today, we learn that the BBC has measured the pollution in Beijing today at 191 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic metre, which is almost four times higher than the World Health Organization's recommended limit of 50 micrograms. Then we learn that Beijing's pollution is 40% worse than Toronto on a bad day.

The rest of the article is full of assurances that Beijing's pea soup is mostly due to humidity, not pollution, that the Chinese have really made great improvements in the quality of their air, and that the athletes aren't worried.

When I lived in Toronto I biked to work, and one beautiful sunny morning I was enjoying my morning ride when I suddenly doubled up puking. I walked my bike home, turned on the radio and heard that there was a smog alert and people were advised not to jog or bike. It wasn't hazy or smelly and didn't seem to be polluted at all. I learned my lesson that day not to go out on my bike without checking the air quality.

The idea that athletes are going to push their bodies and their lungs to the limit in air that is 40% worse than air that made me vomit is just, well, mind boggling.

I agree with this UK columnist that this could result in short-term discomfort and long-term physical damage to competitors, and a whole mess of law suits will ensue.

Update, Sunday August 10: The BBC says that its measurement of Beijing pollution today is 278 micrograms of particulate matter per cubic meter.


Tuesday, August 05, 2008

The Real Obama?

Campaigns are supposed to introduce the candidates to the people. We're supposed to "get to know" the candidates, where "get to know" is some sort of code phrase for "adopt the brand" or "internalize the spin". In part, the spin is an attempt to correct misinformation - for example, early in the 1992 campaign Bill Clinton was widely believed to be a rich guy and son of a former governor, so the campaign played up his humble beginnings. Rumors of Obama being a Muslim and Madrassa graduate have forced the Obama campaign to play up his patriotism and Christianity.

Obama has been spun pretty thoroughly. For example, he has worked as an academic, politician, lawyer and community organizer (in descending order of time). The spin is that he is by profession a community organizer, but in reality that was a job he held for a short time early in his career. He worked as a community organizer for three years when he was just out of college, but most of his career (12 years) he was a university lecturer. His credentials as an academic are furthered by the books he has written. However, Americans have a bizarre distrust of "Eastern intellectuals" so the professorial aspect of his life is greatly played down.

The academic side of Obama is one of his great strengths. He appears to have a clarity of thought and ability to contextualize that is quite extraordinary. For this reason I have often appreciated hearing his take on subjects. For example, in the aftermath of Katrina when the media was blaming the government's lack of response almost completely on racism, Obama described the reasons for the negligent response with clarity and precision.

The weakness of Obama's analytical ability is the weakness that affects all aspects of Obama: lack of experience. Bill Clinton had a similar ability to cut through the guff and speak plainly with great wisdom about events, but Bill Clinton always seemed to completely on top of issues (with an uncanncy ability to spout complex statistics), while in many cases Obama seems to be out of his depth.

As many people have noticed, the "real Obama" that is coming through during the campaign is much less liberal than he appeared in the primaries. He seems to be something of a hawk. He turned his back on campaign finance reform. His health care, economic and energy policies are quite a bit to the right of, say, the middle-of-the-road Canadian Liberal party. I'm not sure this is avoidable, though: the US population is so far to the right that it may not be possible to be a true liberal there and stay a contender. And it's not clear whether his rightist views are campaign spin or whether they are sincere: unfortunately, he doesn't have enough of a legislative voting record to indicate where his true policy beliefs lie.

Obama is also emerging as a tough, no-holds-barred kind of politician (what they call "Chicago rules"). It's possible or even probable that every successful US politician has to be a bit of a dirty fighter, but that it's more apparent with Obama because his Kumbaya persona in the primaries suggested that he was something different.

It seems that to many people, Obama's greatest strength is his ability to inspire. This is a tough one for me because I find his style of speech-making to be really annoying. I don't like the preacher tones and fake southern accent, and I don't like the short sound bites ending in a rising note signifying an assumption of wild acceptance. I find his speeches to be trite. To me, this seems to be more a matter of personal taste; but it seems that to people who like his style, it is fundamental to his ability to promote some sort of undefined better world.

There is a bizarre assumption that Hillary Clinton supporters who do not support Obama are not supporting him because they resent the demise of Hillary. This isn't the case with me. I am iffy about Obama now for the same reasons I didn't support him in the primaries: I doubt that he has the experience to be a competent president. I think he'd be a dynamite VP and that eight years in that spot would have made him ready to be a great president. A Hillary-Obama ticket (with Hillary at the top) would have assured the US of 16 years of good governance, but now... I would prefer to not have another Republican president, but I'm not sure that Obama is up to the challenge.

McCain really hit on something in his ad about Obama being the world's biggest celebrity. Obama's impressive interaction with world leaders was mitigated somewhat by the giant European crowds that turned out for his speeches - it made him seem more like Bono than like a US president, more like a phenom.

I'd like to be convinced, but so far I'm not. The kinds of doubts I have may be why Obama, even in the current anti-Republican environment, isn't doing much better than McCain in the polls.


Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sofia Archeological Museum

There are lots of good things about new museums. Exhibits are well captioned. There is room for busloads of school kids to mill around. The temperature, humidity and light is carefully controlled to protect the artifacts. In some cases, innovative new learning techniques are employed, including multimedia displays.

But there's a unique charm to old museums. When you stand in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo looking at a 5,000 year old mummy, the gracious old 1835 building makes you feel like you're back in the 19th century discovering dynastic Egypt. If the lights are a bit dim or flicker, or if some of the displays are piled a bit haphazardly in the old wooden display cases, it only adds to the experience.

When the Louvre and British Museum were renovated a couple of decades ago they gained a lot, but they also lost a lot. My favorite part of the old Louvre was the Egyptian section in the basesment - narrow, uneven corridors crammed with stuff. As a kid, when I walked between the two big sculptures of Isis and Osiris I believed I felt a frisson of energy passing between them. In the old British Museum, just past the Elgin Marbles, there was an unmarked staircase leading into a basement that had hundreds of piles of unmarked broken statuary, including a giant toe (taller than me) that hinted at a sculpture bigger than physically possible.

Two more of my favorite museums were renovated within the last few years and I'm afraid to go back to them: the prehistory museum in Les Eyzies, France, and the National Museum in Nairobi, Kenya. Have they been improved? Undoubtedly. Are they as charming and evocative as they used to be? Probably not.

The Archeological Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria is unimproved in the best sense of the word. Built in the 19th century in a 15th century mosque, it has a collection of human-made artifacts dating back over a million years. (A million!) It has the oldest pottery and glass I've ever seen, and the oldest gold objects I've seen other than (I think) the exhibit at the National Museum of History in Bucharest. Certainly the gold artifacts are the largest I've ever seen. They have a solid gold bowl that is over a foot high, a couple of big gold masks and other large ceremonial gold objects. There's something thrilling about prehistoric gold artifacts. The color and texture has a depth unmatched by anything else, and you know that the pieces were powerful ceremonial objects when the idea of religion was still evolving. They evoked awe, and still do.

The collection is outstanding and wonderfully displayed. Looking at artifacts you might think: This is something that Homer would have been familiar with, or: Alexander the Great would have revered this as an antique. And you also feel some resonance of the Victorian amateur historians who treaded the same old floorboards.