Saturday, October 3, 2015

A "routine" shooting in Oregon

Mass shootings have become "routine" in the United States of America. The word "routine" is not mine but that of President Obama.

In a speech delivered soon after the shooting in Oregon, Obama used these words repeatedly: "Somehow this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. We've become numb to this." 

Two paragraphs later, Obama repeated the word "routine""And what’s become routine, of course, is the response of those who oppose any kind of common-sense gun legislation." 

He explained that "routine" response: "Right now, I can imagine the press releases being cranked out: We need more guns, they’ll argue. Fewer gun safety laws."

Then, several paragraphs later he used the word "routine" again: "And, of course, what’s also routine is that somebody, somewhere will comment and say, Obama politicized this issue. Well, this is something we should politicize. It is relevant to our common life together, to the body politic."

To summarize the President:

Mass shootings have become "routine."

Media reports have become "routine."

The response of the National Rifle Association has become "routine."

And the charges of politicization have become "routine."

Now the question on everyone's lips is: When will these shootings stop being "routine"? Or even better: When will they stop entirely?

Obama put his finger on the problem, but the US is still far from a solution. These shootings will not stop until Americans change their attitude to guns.

Obama concluded his speech with these comments about his hope that change will happen:
I hope and pray that I don't have to come out again during my tenure as President to offer my condolences to families in these circumstances. But based on my experience as President, I can't guarantee that. And that's terrible to say. And it can change. 
May God bless the memories of those who were killed today. May He bring comfort to their families, and courage to the injured as they fight their way back. And may He give us the strength to come together and find the courage to change.

Obama is more hopeful, perhaps, than many people are, although his hope is tempered by realism. His Oregon speech was the eleventeenth on mass shootings during his term of office. His first was in 2009. In the latest, he said that doesn't want to give any more such speeches, but he realizes very well what he is up against. 

The NRA is one of the most powerful lobbies in the country, and it is unlikely to change. Although polling, according to the President, shows that a majority of Americans, including the majority of responsible, law-abiding gun owners, understand that gun laws should be changed. Yet this is not likely to happen.

According to Mass Shooting Tracker, "a mass shooting is when four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events, likely without a cooling off period." This includes all the people who are shot and not just those who are killed. It differs slightly from the FBI definition, which only counts three or more murders as a mass shooting. The MST listing is wider and thus better.

By their count, in 2015 there have now been 294 mass shootings in the 274 days until the Oregon shooting on October 1. That is an average of more than one a day. There have been a total of 994 mass shootings since Obama's reelection in 2012.

Only in the US have mass shootings become "routine." Other countries by crafting appropriate laws have largely eliminated mass shootings. In Australia, such shootings stopped after these laws were passed.

There are an estimated 300 million guns in the US, which is roughly one for every man, woman, and child, as Obama also mentioned in his latest speech.  The US has nearly half the world's civilian-owned guns. It is also home to 31 per cent of the world's mass shootings, despite making up only five per cent of the world's population.

I live in Canada, and I don't own a gun. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, do any of my neighbors. There have been killings here, but very few mass killings. However, the Conservative government has tried to blame all the killings on terrorists as part of a politics of fear that they hope will make their reelection possible.

In the US, most mass killings are caused by white males who have serious emotional and other problems. They are not ISIS-sympathizers or terrorists, as the government alleges in the Canadian killings. 

In the Oregon shooting, Chris Mercer, the alleged killer described himself politically as a "conservative, republican" whose hobbies were "internet, killing zombies, movies, music, reading" and who lived with his parents.

In regard to his religious views, he listed himself as "Pagan, Wiccan, Not Religious, but Spiritual." Not exactly a terrorist, although he had earlier expressed an admiration for the Irish Republican Army.

(Click to enlarge)

Apparently, Mercer told the students and the professor he shot, "I’ve been waiting to do this for years." He specifically targeted Christians. "Are you a Christian?" he would ask them, "and if you are a Christian stand up."  And if they did stand up, the shooter said, "Good, because you’re a Christian, you’re going to see God in just about one second."

According to reports, Mercer had 14 weapons, six were with him during the shooting, while the rest were found at his home. All the weapons were legal. The question that the US faces is how to prevent troubled people from committing such horrendous crimes so that these "routine" shooting might stop.

I doubt that any solution can be found, except to keep these people away from weapons that they can use in these shootings. New laws are needed in the US to reduce these shootings as well as the daily ration of homicides. They have proven to be effective in other countries and they should prove equally effective in the US.

How many more "routine" shootings will it take before such legislation is passed in the US? 

Canada has its own problems. Here nearly all shootings are being blamed on terrorists. I am hopeful that this blame game will stop after the election on October 19. A new government must change this.

However, I am not so hopeful about the US solving its problem with guns anytime soon. Like Obama, I pray for change, but until then mass shootings will continue to be "routine." God help the USA!


Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Political lies

"All politicians are liars," or so the saying goes. It is not difficult to list all the politicians you know and then to check for truth or fiction on a truth meter that measures the degree of truth; everything from mostly true to pants on fire.

The truth is many politicians do lie. Just as many of us, do, they lie in order to gain favor, to deceive, to delay discovery, to cover previous lies, and to buy time. Lying is part of human nature, it seems.

But politicians excel at it. A recent university study in Italy on the topic of politicians and lying reported: 
Politicians make good liars because they manage to convince themselves they are telling the truth. And this has also made it easier to hoodwink the public because the best liars are the ones who do not realise they are lying.  . . . it may be that those who go on to become the most successful politicians are those who have most developed the ability to deceive themselves and to believe their own lies.

This is true of politicians everywhere. As Nikita Khrushchev sagely observed: "Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river." In the same vein, in Alaska some politicians built a bridge even though there were hardly any people living there.

This is also true in Canada where the entire nation has had front row seats during the federal election campaign. Now voters don't have to go to Ottawa to visit the politicians, but the politicians actually come to them -- even to their front door, or into their living rooms through clips on the nightly news broadcasts or via the staged drama of election debates.

What voters see of politicians, they don't always like. They witness them attacking each other unmercifully. The truth of H.L. Mencken's remark is evident to everyone: "Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule -- and both commonly succeed and are right." 

No wonder that this proverb of José Maria de Eça de Queiroz has become famous: "Politicians and diapers should be changed frequently and all for the same reason." This needs no explanation, as every parent knows.

"A fish rots from the head down," is another proverb that also relates to a need for new and fresh leadership when the old leaders are failing. This ancient saying is, unfortunately, not completely true, since in reality it is the guts of the fish that begin to rot.

The more that leaders have to resort to fiction, the more the state of the nation deteriorates. They may claim that their words were taken out of context but after a while very few people believe them. They are then dismissed as chronic liars. This happens, especially, when they have been in power too long.

This year I witnessed all the election debates between the leaders of the major parties and I found them boring at times and very discouraging. Instead of dealing openly and honestly with the problems that voters face every day, politicians tediously offer their nostrums as if repetition alone would make the problems go away.

Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, these debates were accessible only to those who took the trouble to find them. Many were available only to those who had cable or used a computer. They were not made available to the major TV networks. Thus, many voters did not see these leaders perform, which is perhaps for the best. Seeing politicians up close like that can be discouraging.

Simplistic, but appealing, solutions are dangled before voters by politicians who would rather not tackle the really big issues that are crying for a remedy but will not win them the election. Populist measures such as a ban on the niqab are vote-getters, not the alleviation of poverty which is too complex and costs too much. By not telling the full truth is one way that politicians lie without realizing it.

Or -- perhaps even worse -- they try to buy support using the voter's own money, as the Conservatives are doing in this election by offering a benefit to the parents of children but which will be taxed back the next year. Are voters that naive? Apparently so.

During the election campaign, untold billions of dollars are promised as regularly as clockwork by each party, but few voters realize that all this money is coming out of their own pockets. That too is a form of lying since the full truth is not divulged. Who is going to pay for all this? That depends, of course, on whose ox is going to be gored. People don't care, as long as it belongs to the other guy.

Ultimately, lies destroy both those who do the lying and those who are being lied to. Both politicians and voters become victims of the lies that are distributed like candy. Unfortunately, the candy is toxic.

All politicians lie to us in one way or another because they know that people prefer a reassuring lie to the inconvenient truth. But they are often trapped by their own duplicity as George Bernard Shaw realized: "The liar's punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else." 

Fyodor Dostoyevsky was also well aware of this truth, as he warns everyone of the dangers involved in lying.

Another result of the duplicity of [politicians is that they must lie to themselves: "Every lie has two parts -- the lie we tell others and the one we tell ourselves to justify it."  The web of lies thus becomes more and more tangled; finally, no one can be trusted as telling the truth.

We all know that there are many types of lies, as Mark Twain famously proclaimed: "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics." Half-truths are more dangerous than a total lie. Every lie must contain at least a kernel of truth if it is to be believed.

It is the half-truths proclaimed by the leaders that I found so discouraging. I was bothered especially by the current refugee crisis where the Candian government, instead of responding magnanimously to the plight of the Syrian refugees -- epitomized in the photos of three-year-old Alan Kurdi -- callously admitted only 457 of them thus far, and not the 10,000 as previously promised.

Stephen Harper keeps repeating the word "generous" to describe his government's response. But this is a blatant lie that is mitigated only slightly by a small grain of truth. Canada's refugee policies are mean and incompetent. While other countries, like Germany, have welcomed Syrian refugees, the Conservative government has taken little action to Canada's lasting shame.

Harper's lies are apparent to everyone except his diehard supporters and, perhaps, even himself, His mantra-like answers to every question that is posed to him makes me nauseous (if I may speak personally).

The half-truths that flow from Harper's tongue would not bother me as much if I knew that very few people believed him. Unfortunately, his base remains rock-solid in support of him and responds as if he were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

Another word Harper uses ad nauseam is "security." While no one would argue against the need for security, it is one of the "dog-whistle" words that I spoke about in my previous post. Dog-whistle politics, as I explain further in that post, employs coded language in which words mean one thing to the general population but are understood in a different way by a targeted subgroup.

Dog-whistle politics is a form of lying. It is deceptive by its very nature. As I wrote there, the political message is not understood as such by those outside the target group of the electorate. But this message resonates and energizes the target group while it is misheard or misunderstood by others.

This is precisely Harper's intention. The words he utters will irritate those who do not share his convictions -- why does he keep mentioning security? they ask -- yet the same words will motivate his supporters -- it is red meat to them.

The foreign policy debate was probably the best of the whole series. All three leaders performed well, but the rhetoric became heated. Truth was the chief victim in all the debates. All three men stretched the truth at times in order to win debating points and, they hope, the election.

But Harper has made a habit of playing loose with the truth. The need to win trumps everything else, even his personal convictions as a Christian. In fact, he pointedly ignores any mention of his faith. That is something personal which does not belong in the public sphere where politics is practiced. 


Sunday, September 27, 2015

A political pope

Pope Francis has received a warm welcome in the US. He has been treated like a rock star, with crowds lining up for hours to get even a glimpse of him. President Obama greeted him on the tarmac when his plane landed, a privilege that few foreign dignitaries receive.

He is the first pope to address a joint session of Congress where he was accorded standing ovations. He also addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations, and spoke as well to the UN staff, at least those who were lucky enough to win the lottery to hear him.

However, he ignored dinner invitations from Congressional leaders in order to dine with the homeless while in Washington. He also visited the site of the World Trade Center in NYC where he prayed for those who lost their lives on 9/11.

In his speeches in he US, Francis has spoken boldly about topics as diverse as climate change, peace, the danger of fundamentalism, religious freedom, the death penalty, refugees, poverty, and migrants. He has not been afraid to deal with these controversial issues.

What he said was music, no doubt, to those who support his stance on these issues. But those who disagree with him were appalled that a church leader would address issues that they regard as political. According to them, the pope should not meddle in politics.

The pontiff indeed got political in the political capital of the world. But why not? I would respond to those who critique him for making political remarks. If the pope cannot do that, what religious leader can? The Dalai Lama? Billy Graham? Graham made political remarks in private. Francis does so publicly.

The papacy is different from other positions of religious leadership. Popes are not only spiritual leaders but also temporal rulers. At one time, the papal states were immense, but they were reduced in 1870 to what it is today.

The Vatican is still an independent country which has embassies in many countries of the world. Whether one agrees with this or not, that alone makes popes politicians in their own right and, thus, different from other religious leaders.

But there is a more fundamental reason why the pope should be allowed to speak out on political issues. People of faith can, and indeed, must speak out on such issues, especially when the fate of the world hangs in the balance, as is the case with climate change but at other times as well.

Charges that the pope should not comment on climate change because he is not a scientist, as some of his critics do, is spurious and unfair. Francis relied on the expertise of many scientists in order to write his recent encyclical Laudato Si'. His speeches in the US were based on that excellent document which is rooted in his faith and motivated by his conviction that the issue of climate change is an urgent one.

Should scientists alone have the prerogative to speak out on climate change? Certainly not! Everyone should be able to do so, as long as they respect the scientific evidence. Climate change deniers often do not; they tend to disparage science or to cherry-pick the data.

Most fundamentally, faith and politics are integrally united; they cannot be separated. Therefore, to be a person of faith does not disqualify anyone from talking about scientific issues as long as the relevant scientific evidence is properly consulted and evaluated.

There are major ethical questions that must also be dealt with. Should a person of faith be excluded from such conversations because politics is involved? Is the pope, therefore, excluded? Or any theologian for that matter? On the contrary, such questions are not abstract but involve faith and worldview and thus should be discussed by the pope and other leaders as well, whether clergy or not.

Some people also want to dismiss the papal address because, in their opinion, it is not Christian enough since the name of Christ was not mentioned in many of the pope's speeches. Yet that is not true of his address to Congress where it is apparent that Francis refers several times to God and the gospel (in particular, the Golden Rule from Matthew 7:12).

One moral theologian wrote this about the pope's speech in his blog: "No one, it would seem, cares much about the substance of the pope’s faith regarding Jesus. And why should they? The pope hasn’t mentioned Jesus, so Jesus must not be an important part of the pope’s message to America."

But Jesus is an important part of the pope's message, even if he did not mention Jesus by name. In his address to Congress, the pope repeatedly affirmed that he is a Christian. After that, does anyone still dare to cast aspersions on his faith and the nature of his message?

The professor concludes: "Now the whole country is talking about the pope and the pope’s politics, but no one is talking about Jesus or the gospel. What a sad day. What a wasted opportunity" 

But was it a wasted opportunity?

Francis, like his namesake, has ministered to many people, but always doing so in Christ's name. Ask the! Not only migrants, refugees, prisoners, and poor people but also the wealthy whose greed contributes to many of the world's problems, including climate change, were all addressed by the pope; some with words of comfort and encouragement, others are reminded of their calling and urged to remember the Golden Rule.

That is the nature of the gospel: it brings both comfort and correction. Francis is reputed to be the Vicar of Christ, even if many do not accept this designation. The pope is both the Bishop of Rome and the Sovereign of the Vatican. As such, he is a pastor and a politician. His words are pastoral and, at the same time, political in nature.

Remember, in his address to Congress he was speaking to politicians who need both encouragement in the legislative task and warning about what urgently need to be done. He admonished them, but also blessd them.

If the pope is not allowed to integrate faith and politics, then none of his listeners would be able to do so either. Invoking the separation of church and state is an egregious error and, moreover, displays an American-centric view of the world.

Pope Francis is unlike any pope that I can recall. I studied the papacy carefully for his dissertation, but I do not remember reading about anyone like him. Even though he has expressed his unwillingness to change many fundamental Roman Catholic doctrines, his lifestyle and his concern for social justice have made him a hero for many inside and outside the Catholic Church.

I would suggest that if Francis had been a pope during the time of the Reformation, that event might never have occurred in such a cataclysmic way and a major schism might have been avoided. This is pure speculation, of course, but it is indicative of what he has done to change the Catholic Church.

The end of his reforms is not yet in sight, nor will he stop speaking out on many controversial issues, in spite of scathing critique from many, whether Catholics or not. The adulation of the crowds that gathered to listen to him or even get a glimpse of him illustrates that many people support Francis.

Francis concluded his remarks at the UN with a blessing and a request: "May he [God] bless you all. I ask you, please, not to forget to pray for me." The pope needs our prayers!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Security and "dog-whistle" politics

As anyone who has been following the interminable Canadian federal election knows, security is a word that has frequently been on the lips of Conservative leader Stephen Harper. It is a coded word, but one that appeals strongly to voters. After all, who in Canada is is not concerned about security?

Politicians anywhere can dismiss security concerns only at their own peril. Killings all over the world are easily ascribed to terrorists and thus used to justify such concerns. Since 9/11, many political leaders have played the security card in order to push through measures intended to provide greater security.

Stricter security procedures at airports are a direct consequence of 9/11. Whether these procedures are worth the billions of dollars that have been spent  on them is information that is not publicly available, but they have served to convince the public that governments are doing something to protect them.

Security is an important part of the vocabulary of what is called  "dog-whistle" politics. This is often described pejoratively because of its deceptive and distasteful nature, especially when used in a racist way. Although this is not always intended, it is often used that way.

Dog-whistle politics employs coded language in which words mean one thing to the general population but are understood in a different way by a targeted subgroup. The analogy is that of a dog whistle, whose high-frequency whistle is heard by dogs but is inaudible to humans.

The political message -- which may be exclusionary, distasteful and even racist -- is not understood as such by those outside the target group of the electorate. But this message resonates and energizes the target group while it is misheard or misunderstood by others.

The term can be distinguished from "code words" that are used by specialists in some professions, Dog-whistling is specific to the political realm.

The term apparently originated in Australian politics in the mid-1990s and was frequently used to describe the political campaigning of John Howard who was accused of communicating messages appealing especially to anxious, and perhaps racist, white Australian voters

For example, the Howard government's tough stance on illegal immigration was popular with voters. However, his government was accused of using this issue to send additional but veiled messages to voters with racist leanings, while maintaining plausible deniability by avoiding overtly racist language.

Dog-whistle politics has also been used effectively in the UK and US. In the UK, Australian political strategist Lynton Crosby, who had managed Howard's four election campaigns in Australia, was enlisted by the Conservative Party as an advisor during the 2005 British general election.

In the US, dog-whistle politics has been employed extensively by many presidents and political candidates, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Even Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton have also been accused of this. 

In Canada, the same style of politics is being practiced, especially during election campaigns. While no party is entirely innocent of this practice, the Conservatives have upped the ante this time by hiring Lynton Crosby who is notorious for using this tactic. Is this, perhaps, a sign of desperation on the part of the Conservatives?

Security has been the Conservative mantra throughout this campaign. This is dog-whistle politics which plays on the fears of those who are most susceptible to this tactic. Everyone wants security, of course, but not everyone feels threatened in the way that the Conservatives use the term. 

According to experts, security always involves trade-offs. We are willing to tolerate the hassle of airport security measures even though the threat of highjackings is extremely low. This is security theater, although most people are unaware of this.

Similarly, the threat of being attacked by terrorists is almost non-existent, the Conservatives has used this theat to justify such measures as the passage of the Anti-terrorism Act 2015, formerly known as the infamous Bill C-51 which the NDP, correctly, vows to repeal. 

Two military men were killed last year by people who may have been Islamic State sympathizers, yet that does not make ISIS them terrorists. The government used these attacks to push through their new anti-terror legislation. Mental illness is, in my ipimion, a better explanation of the behavior of the killers.

I would also argue that these killings might not have happened if Canada had not become involved in the co-alition fighting ISIS, which many Muslims perceive as ant-Islamic. Domestic terrorism would not be as much of a threat if Canadians were not bombing ISIS strongholds. 

The word "security" has become red meat for those who fall for the purported terrorist threat while many Canadians dismiss it a so much Conservative noise. Yet the other political parties cannot afford to ignore this word entirely lest they could be perceived a soft on terrorism.

A perverse logic operates among those for whom security is a major issue not only in this election but also in general. Terrorism is equated by them with Muslims. The Syrian refugees are mostly Muslim. Therefore, these refugees are potential terrorists and must be subjected to a rigorous security check before they can be accepted for admission by Canada.

In response to the photos of Alan Kurdi and the urgent need to help Syrian refugees, the government has relented and promised to admit a few more of them, even foregoing the requirement for recognition as UNHCR-approved refugees. Yet this is too little too late.

Yet the government refuses to budge on the security issue: "Security screening will remain the top priority," according to Chris Alexander, the minister of citizenship and immigration. Stephen Harper keeps on emphazing the necessity of security during his campaign stops.

Security is the key dog-whistle political term of the Conservatives. They want to campaign on the issue of their management of the economy, even though heir track record on the economy is dubious. Yet they continue to insist that Canadians should stick with them rather than entrusting the economy into the hands of the Liberals or the NDP whom they characterize as spendthrifts. Security, however, is what keeps their base in line.

A poorly-concealed racism is part of the attraction of this term with its perverse anti-Muslim logic for those who are so inclined. The same logic applies to the unfortunate phrase that Harper used during the recent leaders' debate in Calgary, where he referred to "old stock" Canadians while defending the government’s cuts to refugee health care.

The leaders of the other parties, naturally, jumped on this comment, alleging that Harper is dividing Canadians by suggesting that citizens can be sorted into separate categories depending on how long they or their ancestors have lived in Canada. 

"Old-stock" is similar to two phrases used in Quebec:  "pure laine," literally meaning pure wool, referring to those whose ancestry is exclusively French-Canadian; and similar term, "de souche," meaning "of the base of the tree, or root" and thus "old-stock." Both terms are racist, except in Quebec, where this type of racism is tolerated. These terms are another example of dog-whistle politics.

Here is one way to understood "old-stock"

Most Canadians, I believe, will not accept this racism. Therefore, they do not pay attention to dog-whistle politics and are not affected by it. Recognition of a problem is already half the battle. 

To those Canadians who are affected by it, I suggest that you become aware of what such dog-whistle terms are doing to you. Look into your heart and discover the racism that lurks there. Get rid of it!

No one can claim to be totally without any racist attitudes. All of us have inherited at least a smidgen of racist thinking as a result of the societies in which we grew up and whee we now live. Let us, if possible, rid ourselves of this residual racism. And let us demonstrate that by opening our hearts, our wallets, and our country to the hords of refugees who want to settle in our midst. 

Don't allow dog-whistle terms such as security or old-stock blind you to the needs of these men, women, and children who are desperate to leave their homelands and come to Canada aor other countries. Don't let security fears drive you; instead, let love motivate you.

They are the neighbors that God commands us to love. Many Canadians are already responding with open arms. Please join them by welcoming these refugees as well. If you don't live in Canada, you can do the same wherever you are. Let all of us welcome these refugees!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

How should Canada (and other nations) respond to the Syrian refugee crisis?

The world is now witnessing various responses to the stream of refugees flooding Europe. Photos of these refugees, especially of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed up on a Turkish beach, have affected people all over the world, They have galvanized many into action, but they have also polarized the world.

A wide variety of responses was to be expected, of course: varying from the generous, loving response that this crisis demands to the hard-hearted response of those individuals and nations that would prefer to have nothing to do with these unfortunates.

I would suggest that the responses can be divided into two groups: good and bad. There may be nations (and individuals) that would like to place themselves in the middle, and thus avoid the label of either good or bad. But is such a middle position possible? I think not. Half-hearted love is not the love that is needed in this situation. Either one rolls out the welcome mat or one does not.

Germany is an example of a good response while Hungary typifies the bad. Germany has already expressed a willingness to accept 800,000 Syrian refugees as well as another 500,000 in succeeding years. Hungary, in striking contrast, has built a wall to keep refugees out of the country in order to preserve its "Christian values," as Prime Minister Viktor Orban has stated so bluntly.

Germany's response is a truly Christian one that is characterized by love and a willingness to welcome the stranger, which is a thoroughly biblical concept (see Matthew 25: 32-46). There may be other motives in that country as well, such the need for more workers, but that does not negate Germany's altruism. Iceland, where 12,000 people have already expressed their willingness to open their homes for Syrians is another example of the response that is needed.

On the other hand, Hungary's response is un-Christian, in spite of any talk about "Christian values." Other European nations have opened their borders to refugees, but many, including Britain, are reluctant to accept the quotas that the EU is imposing. Greece and Italy have already admitted more than their fair share because of the all the boats that have headed to their shores,

The Gulf nations are unwilling to accept any Syrians at all, although they are prepared to provide money to aid their co-religionists. These countries realize that Syrians, as well as many other Middle Eastern nationalities, speak Arabic and thus cannot be evicted very easily. Moreover, they represent a political threat to these regimes.

Canada and the US would like to be on the side of the good guys, but neither nation has thus far responded in a truly welcoming fashion. The US has done very little in the past to help relocate Syrian refugees.

In the next fiscal year, the US has promised to accept an additional 10,000, but this not enough for many Democrats.  However, this is too many for some Republicans who fear that  Syrian refugees will commit acts of terrorism. Republicans in the US and Conservatives in Canada are singing the same awful song that warns their citizens about the dangers of terrorism.

Canada has promised to accept an additional 20,000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees but spread over four years, and all would have to be carefully vetted in order to eliminate any potential terrorists.

"Our country has the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world. We admit, per capita, more people than any other," is the claim made repeatedly by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his ministers when asked about the Syrian refugee crisis.

Macleans magazine argues that this claim is false (see this article for the details). Due to public pressure in the middle of the current election campaign, the Conservative government has promised to do more for Syrian refugees and to facilitate their arrival, but security still seems to be the main concern of the Conservatives. In spite of the photos of the dire straits of these people. the government remain as hard-hearted as ever.

Why doesn't the Canadian government promise to arrange transportation for these refugees, preferably before they have to risk their lives fleeing to Europe? That is what previous governments did in 1956 in the case of Hungary and again in 1979 with the boat people from Vietnam and other parts of Indochina. 

At that time, Canada took in 37,000 Hungarian refugees and 60,000 Vietnamese. There are many other cases as well where Canada has accepted thousands of refugees. The Toronto Star tells some stories how these refugees were welcomed to Canada in its September 12, 2015m edition. Surely, Canada can do as much or even more this time!

The other parties have already indicated their willingness to accept more refugees, but even these promises pale when compared to the millions of Syrian refugees still stuck in Turkey or in Syria itself. 

Security should not be the main issue when faced with such needs. For many Syrians, it is a matter of life and death. The father of little Alan Kurdi has blamed the Canadian government for his death. Shame!

The Conservatives have now enlisted the services of  Lynton Crosby, a world-famous political strategist from Australia known as the "Master of the Dark Political Arts."   He is an ultra right-wing political strategist from Australia who specializes in campaigns loaded with racially charged code words that defend failed right-wing policies by vilifying vulnerable people, including refugees.

This is how long it typically takes to process refugees coming to Canada

Can Canadians really expect the Conservatives to be in favor of admitting many more refugees than they had promised earlier? Not likely! They are adjusting the numbers slightly, but they will only admit those who have been approved already by UNHCR. However, they are promising to match the amounts up to $100 million that individuals and groups are donating to help refugees, but that this aid would be directed to agencies that are working in the region, 

Yet they will continue to indicate their preference for refugees who come from minority groups (read non-Muslims). This discrimination is totally unacceptable, but it stems from the security concerns that the Conservatives have touted repeatedly. This "fear factor" is central to their election strategy. 

Macleans outlines six steps to enable Canada to meet the admit 200,000 refugees. All these steps are easy to implement, except the suggestion that the federal leaders discuss this issue and agree that the issue is too pressing to be settled after the election or to be held hostage by partisan politics.

Sad to say, even these 200,000 would hardly make a dent in the total number of displaced people in the world, which the UN estimates at more than 60 million. As the magazine admits, Canada would still not have "the most generous immigration and refugee system in the world." However, it would be a significant step forward, and one the rest of the world would notice. But it would be the right thing to do.

Canadian provinces and cities have already promised to finance more admissions of refugees, but they need the help of the federal government to admit them. 

There are millions waiting to go somewhere and flee the war in Syria. They cannot wait any longer. Winter is coming soon. Their situation is desperate. They need help now, Have a heart, Canada!

Canada must admit more refugees. Refugees are not all terrorists. How can a three-year-old child or an 82-year old grandmother be terrorists? Most of them only want a new home, at least until the civil war in Syria is over and they can return home. 

Canada must also do what it can to end that war. The main culprit in that war is not ISIS but the Assad regime. They pose a greater threat to Syrians than ISIS does,

Then, and only then, will Canada, a nation of immigrants and refugees from all over the world, regain the respect that it formerly received for its treatment of refugees. And then too Canadians can once more be proud of their country.

May this not be Canada's (and other countries') response!


Thursday, September 3, 2015

Photos that may yet change the world

As a father and grandfather I, together with much of the world, was shocked by the photos of the body of a three-year-old boy washed up on a Turkish beach. I was saddened by the inhumanity of a world that callously allows this to happen. This posting offers  a few of my thoughts on the issue of refugees. Because of the complexity of the issue, I intend to write more next time. This is my memorial to this little boy.

A picture is worth a thousand words, people say. In this case, a picture may be worth a million words. This series of pictures that have shocked the entire world may yet change the plight of the Syrian and other refugees who are flocking to Europe in order to flee war and terrible living conditions.

This photo -- which I am hesitant to feature but do so anyway because it has been published frequently --  has galvanized millions of people around the world into action. Everyone is now asking, "What more can we do?" The answer is a great deal!

This is not a nameless child as was first thought. We now know the name. Aylan Kurdi and his older brother, Galip, together with their mother, Rehanna, and about a dozen other people lost their lives when their boat capsized. The body of the three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach.

This family, of whom only the father survived, were Kurdish refugees from Kobane, Syria, who had been desperately trying to emigrate to Canada. Unfortunately, like thousands of other Syrian Kurdish refugees in Turkey, the UN would not register them as refugees, the Turkish government would not grant them exit visas, and Canada would not admit them..

Aylan has an aunt in Canada who publicized this case that may yet change the world by enabling Syrian refugees to find new homes in Europe and elsewhere. A shocked world may finally be ready to admit that "Enough is enough!"

Aylan and Galip in happier times

Why were this family fleeing to Europe? Because they were desperate -- so desperate that they trusted an unstable boat and fake life jackets rather than face the deplorable situation at home. According to the aunt in Canada, the family wanted to end up in that country. Unfortunately, they did not get further than the shores of Turkey.

The Canadian government has not exactly thrown out the welcome mat for refugees, even though, in July 2013, then-immigration minister Jason Kenney promised that Canada would welcome 1,300 Syrian refugees by the end of the following year. Canada missed that deadline.

According to the current immigration minister, Chris Alexander, Canada has accepted about 2,500 refugees from Syria, and about 20,000 from Iraq. But none of this is true. Fewer than 400 Syrians made a refugee claim in Canada in the eighteen months from January 2012 to June 2013. Only nine Syrians were resettled by the government to Canada in the first eight months of 2013. The record for 2014 and so far this year does not meet the government's goals. A mere 1,300 Syrian refugees had arrived in Canada and been granted permanent resident status by March 2015.

Contrary to some newspapers, including The Globe and Mail, Aylan's aunt was willing to sponsor the family to come to Canada, but this report is not entirely true; she could only afford to sponsor another brother. Unfortunately, she was unsuccessful in that effort, and later in asking that both of her brothers and their families would be admitted as refugees.

Prime Minister Harper claims Canada has been extremely generous in accepting refugees. The Conservative government insists that Canada accepts 10,000 refugees per year. But there are 60 million refugees globally right now, which works out to 1/60 of one per cent of the total global refugee population. A drop in the bucket!

The government also boasts that Canada settles “one out of 10 refugees” worldwide. That is an incredibly misleading figure that assumes only 100,000 of the 60 million refugees around the world are resettled each year.

Macleans magazine proves how little Canada is doing as compared to other nations:
Annually, we are letting in one quarter of one refugee for every 1,000 Canadian citizens. By contrast, Germany is expecting 800,000 new arrivals this year, or 10 per 1,000 citizens. If one compares the economic ability of a country to accept refugees, Canada is accepting one-quarter of a refugee per $1 of GDP per capita. Germany is accepting 80 times that amount, or 17.4 refugees per $1.
Sadly, these promises are almost meaningless. Canada is capable of so much more, and so much more is what is needed. Numbers rarely move us or our leaders to do great things. Sixty million is just a statistic. But we relate to people, and the image of a drowned child, lying in the surf on a Turkish beach, sent a shock of anger through the Western world. 
Macleans comes up with a proposal to the leaders of the political parties who want to become prime minister on the 19th of October:
What if Canada aspired to do one-quarter of what Germany is doing? We wouldn’t double the number of refugees we accept, or even triple. We would increase it twentyfold, from 10,000 to 200,000 per year. That would be 4.4 refugees per $1 GDP per capita, as compared to Germany’s 17.4. Not heroic, but not shameful.
This is an interesting proposal, but it only deals with Canada's possible role in this refugee crisis. What about Europe? How are they dealing with it? Will their boat capsize too as did little Aylan's boat?

Europe is in a mess of its own making: it must reconcile mobility inside the open-borders, passport-free Schengen zone with the Dublin Regulation -- the rule that an asylum-seekers must make their application in the EU country where they first arrive. Italy and Greece, for example, are economically unable to do more than they are already doing.

Only a handful of countries in the EU, led by Germany, are responding compassionately and with the humanity that his crisis deserves. Many of the other countries, such as Hungary, want to shirk their responsibility and not accept any refugees.

One can only hope that these photos will melt the hearts of politicians and ordinary people everywhere. The shock waves started by the photos are still reverberating around the world, especially in Europe which is so far bearing most of the burden posed by this massive influx.

Hungary’s nationalist prime minister, Viktor Orbán, proved how hard-hearted he was, even after seeing these photos, when he defended his country's exclusionary policy by warning about the danger of a massive influx of Muslims threatening Christianity. What nonsense! 

I pray that other leaders will not follow his xenophobic example, but instead display their love for these refugees. One little boy has seemingly captured the hearts of the world. May we never forget him!

      (Note: There are alternate spellings of these names)

Sunday, August 30, 2015

To change, or not to change -- that is the question

Like Hamlet, Canadians are faced with an enormous and potentially history-making choice in the October 19 election if the NDP were to win. People must choose whether to change or not to change. This is an existential question for Canadians as much as it was for this (fictional) Danish prince.

Succinctly, in the words of Thomas Mulcair, the leader of the NDP, "In this election, Canadians have a clear choice between four more years of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives or my plan for change."

The Liberals, NDP, and other opposition parties all agree on the need for change, as do a majority of Canadians. Both the NDP and the Liberals have election slogans that reflect this choice: for the NDP, it is "Ready for Change";  for the Liberals, it is "Real Change."  Clearly, everyone wants change!

For the Conservatives, in contrast, the message to voters is "to stay the course." Stephen Harper has warned that a non-Tory government could "wreck" the economy, and he has defended his party’s economic plan as the best way to weather the current economic downturn.

If Harper wants to win the election, he will have to convince enough voters that he is the best person to captain the ship called Canada. Many of his Conservative base no doubt will continue to support him, but he will also have to attract some who voted for him in the past but are now ready for change.

My motivation for writing about this is the result of my reflections on the topic of change. Change should not frighten us, yet often it does. My message is especially directed to those who are afraid of change and, therefore, intend to vote Conservative.

These election slogans were not chosen randomly, but they do get at the roots of what conservatism means. They refer to more than the need to replace Harper but also to the fear that many conservatives have of sudden changes. But change is necessary and inevitable!

The opposition parties are appealing to -- no, imploring -- voters that conservatives rise above their innate and deep-felt ideology this time and vote for change, while those who are not conservatives should vote for the parties that want to bring about change. Everyone should spring on the bandwagon.

Conservatism is generally associated with a fear of change, or at least sudden change. It emphasizes tradition, stability, and continuity, or even a return to the past when things were better. It is also associated with small government, balanced budgets, family values, traditional marriage, free markets, capitalism, and so on.

Change cannot be avoided. When we live, we are constantly changing. Cells die and are replaced, or they mutate aggressively -- then we have cancer, Identity remains, but changes happen, as we realize when we compare photos of ourselves from the past with the person we see in the mirror every day.

Heraclitus, an early Greek philosopher, famously said, "One cannot step into the same river twice." The river remains the same, but the water changes. So do we, so does society, so does everything. Thus why should we fear changes so much?

Harper not only believes in small government but he is also afraid of science, in particular, science that contradicts his worldview, whether that is climate change or sociology or whatever. His message is appealing to many, especially religious conservatives.

Religious and political conservatism are often equated, but this equation does not necessarily follow. The noted evangelical John Stott once said, "Every Christian should be both conservative and radical; conservative in preserving the faith and radical in applying it."

I like that way of phrasing the issue that all Christians face at some time or other. Do religious and political views always match? If so, how? Must conservative Christians vote for the Conservatives, or liberal Christians vote for other, more progressive, parties?

People of other faith have to deal with this issue as well, especially in the Canadian context. For example, does a conservative Muslim have to vote Conservative? The same question applies to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, or any other religion.

My intention is not to pick a fight with religious or political conservatives. I merely want to make some observations about change. None of us should fear change as such; while some changes are not good, many are good or, at least, necessary. Change is inevitable and cannot be avoided. We must always choose the good, if possible, and avoid the bad, but change is an inherent part of life.

While I prefer not to use terms such as conservative, liberal, or socialist, they are commonly resorted to in describing the worldviews that we see every day. I would like to construct alternatives to these prevailing views, but that is not easy nor is readily understandable by others. Thus, I will use them for the sake of this discussion.

In the context of the Canadian election in October, the choice is stark and obvious: either choose change or stick with the status quo. Unfortunately, the latter will mean more of the same that Canadians have experienced for almost a decade. Most Canadians prefer change.

I just read an article entitled, 100+ Reasons Not to Vote for Harper. I also read one with the title, 100 reasons to vote for Harper Conservatives on Oct. 19, 2015.  Personally, I find the first article much more convincing. You may disagree; that is your privilege. But don't do it because you are afraid of change. The Conservatives have played up the fear-factor too much already; don't play into their hands any further.

In this election, I am voting for change. I do not want another term of Harper and his Conservatives. In the past decade, he has managed to transform Canada in ways that I find dangerous for the future --of this country. When another -- very different -- government is formed, it will take a long time for the changes that Harper has made to be undone. I want to save the Canada I love; not the Canada that Harper has transformed according to his own ideology.

This election promises to be fateful for the future of Canada. The Conservatives do not deserve another mandate in the opinion of many Canadians; thus there are only two viable options: the Liberals or the NDP. In my opinion, the NDP is the best choice not only for my own riding but for the entire country.

In past elections, I preferred to vote for the best candidate locally. I will do the same this time, but now I want to make sure that Canada gets a new and hopefully better government. However, there is a real chance that the anti-Harper vote will be split three ways between the Liberals, NDP and Greens, and that the Conservatives would, therefore, receive a new mandate. That would be tragic!

Many people want to vote strategically in order to avoid this. One way to do this, if you are a Canadian and can vote in this election, is to go to Vote Together where "over 55,000 people have already pledged to select and support the best local candidates to defeat the Harper Conservatives and move Canada forward."

As they point out: "In 2011, a majority of people voted for a change in government, but our broken voting system gave the Harper Conservatives 100% of the power with just 39% of the vote. This time, if we vote together, we can stop the riding-by-riding vote splitting that lets Harper win."

Canadians, the choice is yours! Are you voting for change or for the status quo? As a voter, this may be one of the most important decisions you will ever make! Therefore, you must vote!