Tag Archives: Barack Obama

How to build a just society in no easy lessons

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Unless we surrender to the increasingly strong suspicion that our North American democracies are shams – that the institutions we support to protect our rights and freedoms in Canada and the United States are hopelessly compromised by money and power – we must believe, somewhere in our souls, that the right men and women can still change the states of our respective unions for the better.

For me, and millions of others, one of those men was once Barack Obama, the 44th president of the stars and stripes. In fact, flickers of his former greatness were on display during his annual address earlier this week in Washington, D.C.

“What I believe unites the people of this nation,” he said, “regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all – the notion that if you work hard and take responsibility, you can get ahead.”

Candor, thy name was Barack:

“Let’s face it: that belief has suffered some serious blows. Over more than three decades, even before the Great Recession hit, massive shifts in technology and global competition had eliminated a lot of good, middle-class jobs, and weakened the economic foundations that families depend on.”

Meanwhile, he continued, “after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better.  But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled. The cold, hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by – let alone get ahead. And too many still aren’t working at all.”

Finally, he said, “our job is to reverse these trends. . .But what I offer tonight is a set of concrete, practical proposals to speed up growth, strengthen the middle class, and build new ladders of opportunity into the middle class. Some require Congressional action, and I’m eager to work with all of you. But America does not stand still  – and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that’s what I’m going to do.”

Bully for him. Now, if we could only believe him. And not just him; if we could only believe every messenger of prosperity and ambassador of hope who comes along in a great while to lift the polity’s flagging spirit.

Still, if we really think about it we must concede that, ultimately, the

the failure is not in them, but in us. After all, if we don’t expect excellence in ourselves, how can we expect it in our elected officials or even recognize it when we see it?

What we do expect, of course, is voluminous: our appetite for material things to be sated; our thirst for comfort and ease to be slaked; our opinions to be revered; our attitudes to be certified; our privacy to be protected even as our personal lives are publicly acknowledged as utterly, absorbingly fascinating.

That’s us in the peanut galleries of the continent: John and Jane Q. Public both having and eating their cakes

We demand a clean environment, but not if it means leaving the car in the driveway once in a while.

We require good health and long life, but not if it means laying off the sugar and  taking a little exercise from time to time.

If successful politicians pander to us, it’s only because, despite growing joblessness and social inequities, we in the new west remain eminently, adorably pander-able. (So do the Europeans, though their triggers are different).

On the other, if we are are genuinely interested in improving the condition of our respective democracies then we should begin by admitting that we are addicted to the short-term habits of mind bequeathed to us by several generations of rampant consumerism and disposable values, fungible for cash in any money market.

Fair and just societies endure when their citizens take the long view and embrace  qualities and virtues common to most, if not always all: compassion, courage, honesty, intelligence, discipline, and even erudition.

In every election we designate certain people to reflect our values in the public square. But more than this, we select a specific culture of service to democracy. In this respect, the right men and women do change our systems of government, for better or worse, every day.

And they are us.

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Running our democracy on auto-pilot

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On both sides of the 49th parallel, citizens pause, if only for a frigid winter’s moment, to reflect on the political bargains they’ve made and the consequences of disenchantment.

In the American Capital last night, President Barack Obama delivered his State of the Union Address, a show the pundits unanimously panned in their previews.

This lame-duck Commander in Chief, they declared, has dropped the ball in practically every zone of the playing field. Now, even his once-ardent admirers have turned their backs on him.

What could he possibly say that would reduce the bitter partisan bickering and undo the gridlock in Congress?

In Ottawa on Monday, after one of the longest recesses in some time, Parliament reassembled just in time to receive the federal government’s 2014 budget. And oh, political observers clucked, what a deliberately dull, strategically boring, document that will be when the nation gets a look at on February 11, a month ahead of schedule.

But, then, what else would it be in the run-up to an election?

“It’s an opportunity to just get going early out of the gate and set the tone,” Michele Austin, a former Conservative operative and a top flack at Summa Strategies in Ottawa, told the Globe and Mail. “I’m not convinced that the Olympics has a lot to do with it (the budget’s early release). . .This is a bridge budget. It’s taking people to a surplus budget.”

Meanwhile, Kul Bhatia, an economist at Western, told the CBC, “The indications are that the fiscal situation is better than they’ve let it be known. This is based on some information that they have that is not in the public domain – that’s my hunch.”

Increasingly, we are told, the people we elect ostensibly to safeguard our system of government think of us as customers. That would make them used car salesmen and women, kicking the tires of democracy and pronouncing them sound.

The customer, of course, is never wrong, but sometimes he doesn’t read the fine print – the exceptions to the warranty, the nullifications to the contract we figuratively sign when we dare to vote.

Just like the pre-owned auto we drive off the lot, the government we get is often only just good enough. What qualities it lacks won’t bring it to a grinding halt. But neither will the absence of certain cherished virtues stave off a creeping sense of buyers’ remorse in the living rooms of the nation.

On this score, recent public opinion polls tell a convincing tale.

“Just 21 per cent of likely U.S. voters believe the federal government today has the consent of the governed.” That’s according to a Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey. “Sixty-three percent  do not believe the federal government has the consent of the governed today; 16 per cent per cent are not sure.”

Here in Canada, we’re not much happier with our elected lot. In a piece published online earlier this month entitled, “Democracy and the death of trust,” EKOS Research Associates founder Frank Graves declared, “The rise of mass education, along with more critical media and a more cynical pop culture, has produced a more aware and less trusting public – a shift which poses huge challenges to governments and democratic institutions.”

That may, indeed, be true. But it is also true that we, the unelected drivers of our democracy, must shoulder most of the blame, for it is we who routinely install public servants demonstrating only the profoundest gaps in imagination, only the most thorough absence of courage.

Do we limit ourselves and the well-being of our society by deliberately curbing our expectations of the political class?

What do we actually want? Is it a tax free bank account with the twice the allowable contribution level? Is it a topped-up child tax credit? Is it a national budget surplus of $4 billion?

Or is it better, more open-handed cooperation among political parties – and levels of government – on matters that actually resonate with all Canadians: education, health care, infrastructure?

In the end, all the truly hard decisions fall to us. That is our part of the bargain we keep for posterity.

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Reflections on a great man’s passing

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The English language cannot proffer one more, fresh superlative to encapsulate the extraordinary character and near-mythic stature of the now-departed Nelson Mandela.

That’s why the words, ‘courage’, ‘human’, ‘giant’, ‘wisdom’, ‘achievement’, ‘justice’, ‘dignity’ and ‘freedom’ have framed an oddly collegial plagiarism-free zone fixed to the front pages of every major newspaper in the world since the great man’s death, at the age of 95, last week.

“What made Nelson Mandela great was precisely what made him human,” Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, said of his predecessor. “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves. Fellow South Africans, Nelson Mandela brought us together and it is together that we will bid him farewell.”

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called him “a giant for justice and a down-to-earth human inspiration. Many around the world were greatly influenced by his selfless struggle for human dignity, equality and freedom. He touched our lives in deeply personal ways.”

Said UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “A great light has gone out in the world.” Meanwhile, U.S. President Barack Obama – never at a loss for words in such a circumstance (indeed, any circumstances) – bloviated, “He no longer belongs to us; he belongs to the ages. He took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice.”

It fell to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to remind the world that it has “lost one of its great moral leaders and statesmen” and that this nation, which conferred honorary citizenship on Mr. Mandela in 2001, grieves with global community today.

The tributes, both heartfelt and fulsome, are, course, justified. By example and political fiat, South Africa’s first black president led his country out of the darkness that was apartheid.

But it says something about the malleability of the human mind that such  sentiments were not universally shared. Shall we forget the ritual abuse much of the western world once heaped on this now venerated freedom-fighter whose reputation rivals Gandhi’s and Mother Theresa’s?

Reporting for The Independent, back in 1996, Anthony Bevins and Michael Streeter culled the official House of Commons record (Hansard) in the UK and revealed a patchwork of decidedly imprudent remarks about the then-imprisoned political activist.

So said MP John Carlisle, prior to a screening of the Free Nelson Mandela concert in 1990: “This hero worship is very much misplaced.”

Three years prior to that, then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher opined authoritatively, “The African National Congress (Mr. Mandela’s party) is a typical terrorist organisation. . .Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”

Meanwhile, in the mid 1990s, MP Terry Dicks wondered, “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist?” His colleague, MP Teddy Taylor asserted, “Nelson Mandela should be shot.”

Even today, as Prime Minister Harper insists that the African statesman’s   “enduring legacy for his country, and the world, is the example he set through his own ‘long walk to freedom’ and that “with grace and humility, he modeled how peoples can transform their own times and in doing so, their own lives,” at least one member of his own party begs to differ.

According to a CBC report last week, “Conservative MP Rob Anders is clinging to his criticism of Nelson Mandela, remaining opposed to the man credited with bringing down South Africa’s apartheid system. . .Anders was the only MP to oppose giving the former South African president honorary Canadian citizenship in 2001. He denied the House unanimous consent for a motion on the matter, but MPs later voted and passed it anyway.”

Mr. Anders referred reporters to a Freedom Centre blog post by David Horowitz, who wrote last week, “if a leader should be judged by his works, the country Mandela left behind is an indictment of his political career, not an achievement worthy of praise – let alone the unhinged adoration he is currently receiving across the political spectrum.”

Of course, a good deal of the Nelson Mandela legend was his ability and determination to transform himself – regardless of both the accolades and criticisms that dogged his every move – into a crucial agent of change for millions of his countrymen and women.

That, perhaps, is the most important superlative to remember.

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Choosing our words wisely

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It is one of those words that, through its overuse by bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, loses its meaning in the company of rational men and women. That’s precisely why it is so easily misunderstood.

Still, we are informed, there can be no higher road on which to travel, no finer boulevard on which to set forth than the path of innovation. Wisdom’s lengthy annals are replete with expert advice on the subject.

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd,” said Winston Churchill. “Without innovation, it is a corpse.”

Naturally, Bill Gates would concur. “I believe in innovation,” he once opined. “The way you get innovation is you fund research and you learn the basic facts.”

On the other hand, Steve Jobs argued that “innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led, and how much you get it.”

At the same time, he added, “innovation comes from people meeting up in the hallways or calling each other at 10:30 at night with a new idea, or because they realized something that shoots holes in how we’ve been thinking about a problem.”

Meanwhile, America’s very own Commander and Chief Innovator, Barack Obama, put it this way: “Cutting the deficit by gutting our investments in innovation and education is like lightening an overloaded airplane by removing its engine. It may make you feel like you’re flying high at first, but it won’t take long before you feel the impact.”

Clever, to be sure. But I wonder whether we are any closer for having perused the witticisms to understanding what innovation really means.

Certainly, the dictionary is of no help. One of them defines the word as simply “the act of introducing something new; something newly introduced.”

Other terms, similar in meaning, include: invention, excogitation, conception, design, creative thinking, creativeness, creativity, concoction, and contrivance.

Then again, innovation can also mean change, revolution, departure, transformation, and upheaval.

In fact, it may just be that real innovation has as much to do with the tearing down of things than with their building up; that true innovation is not so much an act of generosity than it is one of brutal, protean self-expression.

Innovation is dangerous, and that scares bureaucrats, politicians and other members of the snake-charming family, who dress it up in its Sunday finest and park it in the parlor when gentlemen entrepreneurs come calling for government “investments”.

But, on the subject of innovation, at least one famous private enterpriser knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what Amazon founder Jeff Bezos told a gathering of his assorted acolytes in October:

“Without a willingness to fail, you cannot innovate because most innovations won’t work. . .I cannot overstate how important (the) incremental innovation is. But for the big innovation, you have to be willing to fail. Every startup company faces that. Even big companies, like Boeing building the 787, face this. . .Use the critics as a mirror and ask if they are right. If they are right, then you change. If you think you don’t agree, then you should be stubborn on your vision. Part of being an inventor is that you have to have stubborn enough visions that many will think are wrong.”

We have, in New Brunswick (and, lately, in Canada as a whole), a tendency to think that failure of any sort is not worth the risk of taking a chance; even when, by not taking a chance, we risk almost certain disaster anyway.

What are our elected leaders actually doing that is at all innovative about the fiscal morass in which we find ourselves? What actual steps are they taking to generate real diversity into the local and so-called knowledge-based sectors of the economy?

Words are talismans. They possess the power to transform – to destroy and to remake the world – if we are innovative enough to let them.

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Counting down the days to the Great Transformation

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The world as we know it has been coming to end for years now. We haven’t had to look far to perceive the portents of impending doom: in the entrails of Wall Street corpses; in the tea leaves of governments that no longer work; in the uromancy that predicts widening income gaps between the rich and the rest.

We just haven’t been able to reliably nail down a year for the Great Transformation. Until now.

A researcher at the University of Hawaii, who used to work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., thinks he knows. The point of no return will arrive. . .wait for it. . .in 2047. . .give or take.

Camillo Mora, who studies numbers for a living, tells the Globe and Mail’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk that, overall, this is the year in which climate change will become a permanent feature of life on Earth. . .more or less.

According to the article, “The turning point arrives. . .as a worldwide average, if fossil fuel consumption continues unabated; as late as 2069 if carbon emissions are curbed. City by city, the numbers are a bit more revealing. In Montreal, for example, the new normal will arrive in 2046, and for Vancouver not until 2056. But the real spotlight of Dr. Mora’s study is the tropics, where profound changes could be entrenched in little more than a decade.”

As the good doctor says, “Today, when people talk about climate change, the images that come to mind are melting ice and polar bears. People might infer from this that the tropics will be less affected.”

People would be wrong.

But, then, there’s nothing new about that.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that economic globalization would insert several chickens in pots from Beijing to Kalamazoo – that gross domestic products around the world would rise like juggernauts, heedless of any and all counterforces they may encounter.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that democratically elected governments served the best, common interests of the majority of voters – that reason and circumspection would effectively quell fanatical and reactionary figures intent on reshaping the public sphere in their own ideologically pinched and impoverished image.

Now comes word from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, generally speaking, the world’s got itself in an economic ringer – one from which it is not likely to emerge any time soon. Welcome to the age of slow growth.

“Emerging economies have cooled off,” an item in The New York Times reveals. “Europe remains in the doldrums. The United States is facing fiscal uncertainty, and its powerful central bank is contemplating easing up on its extraordinary stimulus efforts, with potentially global ramifications.”

As things stand, the IMF “foresees the world economy increasing by about 2.9 per cent in 2013 and 3.6 per cent in 2014. That is down from 5.4 per cent in 2007, before the global recession hit.”

If its predictions pan out, a few will be spared, thanks to their impenetrable cocoons of wealth and privilege. But most can expect lower standards of living, fewer good jobs, higher costs and increasing poverty and homelessness.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, D.C., legislators are twiddling their thumbs.

“The federal government shutdown and looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling have merged into one major problem on Capitol Hill, though neither issue has a resolution in sight as the government shutdown heads into its second week,” CBS News reports. “Democrats and Republicans (have) dug further into their respective positions: Republicans are calling on Democrats to negotiate over a short-term spending bill and a debt-ceiling increase, and President Obama says he is ready to negotiate over any topic – once the Republicans pass legislation to re-open the government and raise the U.S. borrowing limit without any conditions.”

All of which prompted Laurence Booth of the University of Toronto’s esteemed Rotman School of Management to tell the Toronto Star, “Any sane person obviously believes the U.S. isn’t going to default. That would cause an earthquake in financial markets around the globe.”

Of course, once upon a time, any sane person obviously believed that climate change could very well spell the end of the world – at least, as we know it.

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Counting down the days to the Great Transformation

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The world as we know it has been coming to end for years now. We haven’t had to look far to perceive the portents of impending doom: in the entrails of Wall Street corpses; in the tea leaves of governments that no longer work; in the uromancy that predicts widening income gaps between the rich and the rest.

We just haven’t been able to reliably nail down a year for the Great Transformation. Until now.

A researcher at the University of Hawaii, who used to work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S., thinks he knows. The point of no return will arrive. . .wait for it. . .in 2047. . .give or take.

Camillo Mora, who studies numbers for a living, tells the Globe and Mail’s science reporter Ivan Semeniuk that, overall, this is the year in which climate change will become a permanent feature of life on Earth. . .more or less.

According to the article, “The turning point arrives. . .as a worldwide average, if fossil fuel consumption continues unabated; as late as 2069 if carbon emissions are curbed. City by city, the numbers are a bit more revealing. In Montreal, for example, the new normal will arrive in 2046, and for Vancouver not until 2056. But the real spotlight of Dr. Mora’s study is the tropics, where profound changes could be entrenched in little more than a decade.”

As the good doctor says, “Today, when people talk about climate change, the images that come to mind are melting ice and polar bears. People might infer from this that the tropics will be less affected.”

People would be wrong.

But, then, there’s nothing new about that.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that economic globalization would insert several chickens in pots from Beijing to Kalamazoo – that gross domestic products around the world would rise like juggernauts, heedless of any and all counterforces they may encounter.

Once, not very long ago, people assumed that democratically elected governments served the best, common interests of the majority of voters – that reason and circumspection would effectively quell fanatical and reactionary figures intent on reshaping the public sphere in their own ideologically pinched and impoverished image.

Now comes word from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that, generally speaking, the world’s got itself in an economic ringer – one from which it is not likely to emerge any time soon. Welcome to the age of slow growth.

“Emerging economies have cooled off,” an item in The New York Times reveals. “Europe remains in the doldrums. The United States is facing fiscal uncertainty, and its powerful central bank is contemplating easing up on its extraordinary stimulus efforts, with potentially global ramifications.”

As things stand, the IMF “foresees the world economy increasing by about 2.9 per cent in 2013 and 3.6 per cent in 2014. That is down from 5.4 per cent in 2007, before the global recession hit.”

If its predictions pan out, a few will be spared, thanks to their impenetrable cocoons of wealth and privilege. But most can expect lower standards of living, fewer good jobs, higher costs and increasing poverty and homelessness.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, D.C., legislators are twiddling their thumbs.

“The federal government shutdown and looming deadline to raise the debt ceiling have merged into one major problem on Capitol Hill, though neither issue has a resolution in sight as the government shutdown heads into its second week,” CBS News reports. “Democrats and Republicans (have) dug further into their respective positions: Republicans are calling on Democrats to negotiate over a short-term spending bill and a debt-ceiling increase, and President Obama says he is ready to negotiate over any topic – once the Republicans pass legislation to re-open the government and raise the U.S. borrowing limit without any conditions.”

All of which prompted Laurence Booth of the University of Toronto’s esteemed Rotman School of Management to tell the Toronto Star, “Any sane person obviously believes the U.S. isn’t going to default. That would cause an earthquake in financial markets around the globe.”

Of course, once upon a time, any sane person obviously believed that climate change could very well spell the end of the world – at least, as we know it.

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From less government to no government

Fences make good neighbours and poor legislators

Fences make good neighbours and poor legislators

The Commander-in-Chief was in no mood to dance when he declared, on Monday, “One faction of one party, in one house of Congress, in one branch of government doesn’t get to shut down the entire government just to refight the results of an election.”

Indeed, he roared, “You don’t get to extract a ransom for doing your job.”

The observation was, at once, brilliantly conceived and utterly incorrect.

At the stroke of midnight, despite Barack Obama’s imprecations, the U.S. government did shut down (everything but essential services, such as the army, energy grid and air traffic control) because a mewling bunch of far-right-wing crybabies in the Republican Party can’t take no for an answer.

Even so, the journey to ignominy is not yet over.

On October 17, Congress faces another battle, the consequences of which could be far worse than this present contretemps over the government’s spending authority: whether or not to raise the nation’s debt ceiling. Not doing so would inevitably lead to the United States defaulting, for the first time in its history, on its financial obligations.

Canadians might be amused to imagine that this begins and ends with health care reform, also known as “Obamacare”. Simply put, Republican tea party Representatives despise it and will do everything in their power to “defund” it.

They don’t have a chance, as the most important bits of the new law have already passed in Congress and been endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court. But that’s not stopping this bunch – the most bloody-minded cohort of rank politicians in modern times. As Michael Gerson, an opinion writer for The Washington Post, observes, “Few believe any longer that Republicans will be able to defund Obamacare in this session of Congress; it is the fight that counts. This is a word that crops up frequently in tea-party discourse. Not winning. Not strategy. Not consequences. The fight.”

In fact, this is where the rubber truly hits the road, and where Canadians will want to stifle their giggles. The conflict is only titularly about Obamacare. At its roots is a fundamentally radical conception of government, itself – one that’s counterpoised to mainstream Democratic and Republican political values; one that actually finds little purchase on most main streets of America.

Teaparty.org articulates its “15 non-negotiable core beliefs” thusly:

“Illegal aliens are here illegally; pro-domestic employment is indispensable; a strong military is essential; special interests must be eliminated; gun ownership is sacred; government must be downsized; the national budget must be balanced; deficit spending must end; bailout and stimulus plans are illegal; reducing personal income taxes is a must; reducing business income taxes is mandatory; political offices must be available to average citizens; intrusive government must be stopped; english as our core language is required; and traditional family values are encouraged.”

There’s nothing especially alarming to a “liberal” mind about most of this creed. But, it is in the practice of it – the widely varied interpretation of it – when trouble brews.

As often as not, tea partiers view capitalism not as an economic system, but as an ethical imperative and to justify their position they love quoting Ayn Rand, who wrote, in 1962, “The world crisis of today is a moral crisis – and nothing less than a moral revolution can resolve it: a moral revolution to sanction and complete the political achievement of the American revolution. We must fight for capitalism, not as a practical issue, not as an economic issue, but, with the most righteous pride, as a moral issue. That is what capitalism deserves, and nothing less will save it.”

In this conception of the cosmos, government – which, by its function, takes and distributes wealth to provide for the common interest – is a dangerously corruptible institution and must be stripped of most of its power to do harm (i.e. spending).

Such hardline thinking precludes any possibility of negotiating with mainstream or traditional politicians. It also suggests that a dysfunctional Congress will only hinder the administration of foreign diplomacy and economic policy.

Ultimately, when the U.S. pays a ransom to the tea party, at least some of the cost will be born by its trading partners, including Canada.

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The myth of the middle class

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In Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – the 1939 classic film about graft, greed and coercion in American politics – Jimmy Stewart – playing the protagonist, possessed of both naivete and moxie, in equal measures – lambastes his senatorial colleagues for their cynicism and corruption.

“Just get up off the ground, that’s all I ask,” he chimes. “Get up there with that lady that’s up on top of this Capitol dome, that lady that stands for liberty. Take a look at this country through her eyes if you really want to see something. And you won’t just see scenery; you’ll see the whole parade of what Man’s carved out for himself, after centuries of fighting. Fighting for something better than just jungle law, fighting so’s he can stand on his own two feet, free and decent, like he was created, no matter what his race, color, or creed. That’s what you’d see.”

Then, just before he collapses in exhaustion, he declares, “You all think I’m licked. Well I’m not licked. And I’m gonna stay right here and fight for this lost cause. . .Somebody will listen to me.”

There was something decidedly familiar about America’s real “Mr. Smith” who went down from Washington to deliver a speech at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, the other day. Familiar, and cinematic.

“With an endless parade of distractions, political posturing and phony scandals, Washington has taken its eye off the ball,” U.S. President Barack Obama cried. “And I am here to say this needs to stop. Short-term thinking and stale debates are not what this moment requires. Our focus must be on the basic economic issues that the matter most to you – the people we represent.”

He pounded his pulpit like a preacher. “I will not allow gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference to get in our way,” he said. “Whatever executive authority I have to help the middle class, I’ll use it. Where I can’t act on my own, I’ll pick up the phone and call CEOs, and philanthropists, and college presidents – anybody who can help – and enlist them in our efforts. Because the choices that we, the people, make now will determine whether or not every American will have a fighting chance in the 21st century.”

Fade to black. Roll credits.

Mr. Obama is on his last legs, and he knows it. Almost nothing he has tried during his nearly six years in office has worked. His country is even more divided than it was when he first marched into the White House in January 2009 (Oprah’s happy tears, notwithstanding). So, when all else fails, cue up the teleprompter. It’s time for rhetoric.

Speechifying is what Mr. Obama does best. And his dwindling cohort of ardent admirers still appreciate his soaring orations. But when he talks about reviving the middle class in America, one wonders whether he has missed the lessons of history, whether he understands the principle of cause and effect.

Washington’s “gridlock, inaction, or willful indifference” of which he speaks is not chiefly responsible for the wreckage skilled wage-earners and professionals now face; it is the result of years, even decades, of systematically dismantling the institutions, regulations and protections the middle class needs in order to survive, let alone thrive. The crew that now “represents” the people – the neo-cons, lunatic libertarians, science deniers, sneering accommodators – can’t help themselves. That’s how they were raised in the me-first, avaricious era of the late 20th century.

For this sea-change in attitude, government, itself, has been largely liable. Through Reagan, Clinton and Bush administrations, lawmakers did everything they could to break unions, discourage small businesses, encourage corporate consolidation, and succor the most predatory instincts of free-market capitalism.

Some got rich. More got poor. Today, almost no one believes in the durability of so-called middle-class values. Why would they when the once-sturdy bargain between an employer and his employee can, and does, perish in an offshore agreement with a cheap, foreign supplier of human capital?

At the end of Capra’s ode to the working man, Mr. Smith triumphs, having taught his confreres a little something about decency and dignity. He even gets the girl.

But, of course, that was only a movie.

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Spying minds really want to know

Is what lies beneath enough?

Who’s got the dirt on you?

Good morning, pipsqueak. This is your big brother calling. How are you doing? Feeling good and rested, ready to take on the world? Sure you are. You’re going to seize the day, follow your bliss, as they say – just as soon as you gulp down that happy pill your doctor prescribed for you last month.

You know what I’m talking about, don’t you junior? Remember that afternoon three weeks ago, when the paramedics had to scrape you off the pavement outside the grocery store, following your 19th nervous breakdown?

Didn’t think I’d find out about that, did you? Never mind. I know a lot of things about you and just about everybody else in this ridiculous country of fools and sleepwalkers who believe that just because I scrapped the long-form census, I give a fig about your personal privacy. What a joke, which is, at it happens, entirely on you.

How’s that new car working out for you? You know. . .the one you bought with four credit cards because your wife wouldn’t let you raid the kids’ college fund. I bet she was mighty cheesed off when you rolled up in that baby. In fact, I know she was because that’s what she told some guy named Hank, with whom she’s having an online relationship. Oops, have I said too much? Listen, pal, a word to the wise. . .what’s good for the gander is good for the goose. Just saying, is all.

Speaking of birds of a feather, you know that chum three cubicles over from you at work? He’s the one with whom you’ve been collaborating for months on that big presentation to your company’s brass. Don’t trust him. He’s planning to stab you in the back, take credit for your ideas and sell you down the river as a lazy no-nothing. Fact is, all he does all day is play computer solitaire when he’s not following Lindsay Lohan on Twitter. Hope that’s useful to you. Your welcome.

Truth is, I care about you bro’. I care about the fact that you lied on your resume where you claimed to have a degree from the University of Toronto whereas you actually have a diploma from the Community College of Tofino. I care about the fact that you list your hobbies as golf, marathon running and skydiving instead of tap dancing, gardening and ventriloquism. You really should be more circumspect.

Not that I plan to do anything with such information. In the scheme of things, you’re just not that interesting, let alone important. I’ve got enough work scrutinizing the “metadata” stemming from the Internet comings and goings and phone calls of millions of other citizens through the Communications Security Establishment Canada. Technically, I’m not “allowed” to listen in on actual conversations or surveil specific emails and text messages. But, well. . .you know. There are a lot of ways to skin a cat.

As my buddy Ronald Deibert might say: “Don’t kid yourself.” In fact, the U of T political science professor and expert on global security did sort of say that in a commentary he penned for the Globe and Mail on Tuesday, to wit: “What is metadata? Take my mobile phone. Even when I’m not using it, when it’s just sitting in my pocket or on my desk, it emits an electronic pulse every few seconds to the nearest wifi router or cellphone tower that includes a kind of digital biometric tag.”

So what, you might say. So, don’t be so stupid. Or, as Mr. Deibert notes, “Think metadata is trivial compared to content? Think again. MIT researchers who studied 15 months of anonymized cellphone metadata of 1.5 million people found four ‘data points’ were all they needed to figure out a person’s identity 95 per cent of the time. In 2010, German Green Party politician Malte Spitz and Germany’s Die Zeit newspaper requested all of the metadata from Mr. Spitz’s phone carrier, Deutsch Telekom. The company sent back a CD containing 35,830 lines of code.”

Anyway, goofball, try to take better care of yourself this summer. I notice you’ve been hitting Amazon.com of late for some reading material. Might I suggest you start with Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” and end with George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. Either or both are excellent field guides for the shape of things to come.

That’s it for now.

We’ll talk again soon.

That’s a promise, pipsqueak.

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Sending out an S.O.S. to the universe

Beware the birdbrains in your backyard

Beware the birdbrains in your backyard

Now that Sarnia-born astronaut Chris Hadfield is, again, just another terrestrial, he might wonder whether he left his orbiting observation deck just a tad prematurely.

Canadians are looking up – way up – these days for proof of intelligent life in the universe, having not found even a shred of it on Earth.

According Chris Rutkowski and Geoff Dittman of Winnipeg’s Ufology Research, almost twice as many people claimed to have seen something they could not explain in the night sky in 2012 than in 2008 (the previous record year).

As for UFO sightings, Mr. Rutkowski told CTV last week, “We thought that they had plateaued or peaked a few years ago, when there were about 1,000 cases reported in Canada. But last year they jumped 100 per cent: 2,000 reports in Canada alone. . .Now whether we’re looking at a physical phenomenon or perhaps a sociological or a psychological phenomenon, the fact is that people are seeing things. . .“The truth is out there, but unfortunately we’re stuck down here.”

We sure are, and “stuck” is the word.

Let us scan the leads of the world’s news, lo these past few days.

“The revelation that Stephen Harper’s top aide gave Senator Mike Duffy more than $90,000 to cover repayment of improper expense claims has dragged the Prime Minister and his office into the controversy over Senate accountability,” the Globe and Mail helpfully informed on Friday. “The Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, said Wednesday that her office will review PMO chief of staff Nigel Wright’s decision to bail out Mr. Duffy.”

Meanwhile, ABC News reported last Thursday, “The U.S. justice department has admitted to secretly seizing phone records from the Associated Press in its attempt to track down the source of a leak. It is suspected the raid relates to the AP’s reporting on a foiled Al Qaeda plan to detonate a bomb on a plane heading to the United States last year. The AP says the justice department seized the records of more than 20 home, mobile and office phone lines this year without notice.”

Then, there’s the IRS, whose honcho, the Guardian noted, U.S. President Barack Obama “fired. . .on Wednesday in an effort to bring a speedy end to a scandal over the targeting of Tea Party organisations and other conservative groups for special scrutiny.

Obama, speaking at the White House, described the conduct of the employees at the Internal Revenue Service office in Cincinnati, Ohio, as ‘inexcusable’.

“The president said the Treasury secretary, Jack Lew, had demanded the resignation of the acting commissioner of the IRS, Steven Miller, in the light of criticism in an inspector general’s report (which) found that ineffective management at the IRS had allowed agents. . .to target conservative groups inappropriately for more than 18 months. Officials had picked out groups with the words Tea Party or Patriots in their titles and subjected their requests for tax-exempt status to extra scrutiny.”

Now, as CBS reported on Thursday, “The White House release of some 100 pages of emails and notes about the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, last year has failed to satisfy congressional Republicans, who are demanding more information. . .Republicans have accused the Obama administration of misleading the American people about the circumstances of the attack, playing down a terrorist strike that would reflect poorly on President Obama in the heat of a presidential race. Mr. Obama has dismissed charges of a cover-up and suggested on Monday that the criticism was politically motivated.”

Finally, the U.S. Treasury is broke, as is most of continental Europe and a fair number of Canadian provinces. Household debt is at an all-time high as the gap between the rich and the poor inexorably widens.

And this lately in from the lunatic fringe: “Throughout the years it has become a duty of each Flat Earth Society member, to meet the common round earther in the open, avowed, and unyielding rebellion; to declare that his reign of error and confusion is over; and that henceforth, like a falling dynasty, he must shrink and disappear, leaving the throne and the kingdom of science and philosophy to those awakening intellects whose numbers are constantly increasing, and whose march is rapid and irresistible.”

Under the circumstances who in his or her right mind wouldn’t want to make the stars his or her destination?

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