Tuesday, March 10, 2009

There is a Genocide In My Basement

There is a Genocide In My Basement

In a grimy frat-house it should come as no surprise that some of our most pernicious candidates for initiation take the form of mice scurrying around the basement, perhaps drawn by the sweet scent of stale pizza crust, or the gentle drip of the leaky faucet. Regardless, the prospective initiates became so numerous that an exterminator was required to cleanse the basement of the unwanted pledges, leading one brother to proclaim: “a genocide in the basement.” This rather inappropriate comment, along with the beer, led me to think on the growing misuse of the term “genocide”. This term, developed by the late Raphael Lemkin, means, “the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group” has labeled, as best it can, the most unspeakable crimes in our collective history, so much as any word can attempt to encapsulate those terrible offenses.

This word, in recent years, has lost its power and authority to command attention, and demand action. Walking down Yonge St. two weeks ago, seeing the signs of Tamil demonstrators declaring a genocide being committed against their people Sri Lanka; only two weeks earlier, at an anti-Israel protest, similar signs were seen declaring acts against the Palestinian people as a genocide as well. These are only recent examples of movements attempting to garner attention to crimes being committed against their community through the misuse of the term genocide. Perhaps they should evaluate the effectiveness of labeling a real genocide as such and how much applying that label helped to end those conflicts, like the genocide in Rwanda, and the ongoing tragedy in Darfur – which even today threatens to escalate despite having been labeled a genocide years ago.

While we cannot doubt the immense suffering of Tamil and Palestinian civilians, or many others nations who are, or were, made to suffer through terrible violence and war, the term genocide must not be used to leverage attention in the hope of garnering political action. International crises, should and must be addressed on their own merits, and leave it to political scientists, diplomats and historians to define them. Genocide however, must not be cheapened, and the immense and uncomparable acts for which it is meant to label must not be diminished by its misuse. Activists have a responsibility to call attention to violence being committed against their people, however they must respect the important definition of genocide and not dishonor those Survivors who faced real extermination, by manipulating it as a tool for their agenda.

Scotialist is a graduate student at the School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Toronto.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Theft of the Left, Part II: Issue Attention Deficit Disorder

The Theft of the Left
Part II:
Issue Attention Deficit Disorder

The left-wing in Ontario is suffering from IADD (Issue Attention Deficit Disorder). The most common symptoms of this disorder are:

1) A failure to focus on issues related to your mandate;
2) A failure to represent the real concerns of your constituents;
3) A failure to stay committed to pertinent issues in favour of getting headlines on shit you know nothing about;
4) Being constantly distracted by shiny objects in the dirt.

The recent war in Gaza was an international headline sensation, with nearly front-page coverage every day from beginning to end. This proved too great a temptation for the “experts” on foreign policy and the Middle East at CUPE. In a month where there were more than 70,000 jobs lost in Ontario, with high-level budget discussions happening between Canada’s major parties, and a declaration of major deficits to come, Sid Ryan, Director of the Ontario’s CUPE division, valiantly stood up and spoke on behalf of Ontario’s workers . . . about the need for an academic boycott of Israeli professors from Canadian schools. Barring the intrinsic ridiculousness of this declaration, what, exactly, does the Middle East have to do with the welfare of Ontario workers? With thousands of unionized jobs being lost every week in Ontario, and with more to come, are hard-earned union dollars really being well spent by an organization that would rather create headlines than jobs? In January alone, 1.2% of all public sector jobs were lost. What is CUPE doing?

During the same month, student representatives at York University convened to address an important issue themselves. For nearly two months, almost 50,000 York University students had not seen the inside of a classroom at Canada’s third largest university. Students had grown fed-up from a TA strike with no end in sight and with a stubborn administration that refused to budge. With the opportunity to represent the frustration of thousands of students and put pressure on both sides to let students return to their desks, the Canadian Federation of Student’s union representatives emerged from their meeting with the following statement, “the York Federation of Students shows support and solidarity with the people of Gaza by calling upon the Canadian government to pressure the government of Israel.” What about solidarity with Canadian students whose entire school year was in jeopardy? There is no question, the York Federation of students abysmally failed to represent students when they most needed it, preferring to lend their “authoritative” voice on matters of Middle Eastern diplomacy. With federal budget negotiations happening at that very moment, they choose the war in Gaza to comment on? Is it any wonder that the budget released has nothing in it for students? Perhaps it’s because Toronto-area students have no voice advocating for them at the table, and governments have no interest in taking the unions here seriously. Even the CUPE strikers were more interested in what was happening in the Middle East than with their own members, Christina Rousseau, chair of CUPE Local 3903, actually stated during the strike that Israel’s action are “as important” an agenda item as the welfare of the workers she represents.

Unions have always played a strong role in social reformation, from the acceptance of women and homosexuals in the workplace, to helping break the colour barrier on shop floors all over the country - unions have been and will continue to be one of the most fundamentally important institutions in Canada. During an economic crisis, they should be working to keep good jobs and fair employment on the public agenda, not calling for foolish boycotts on an issue for which they have no expertise and even less influence.
When I graduated university, as class valedictorian, I was handed a bill inside my tube instead of a diploma. At least I knew I had a student union I could count on, that would represent me at the government’s table and fight for lower tuition.

For the good of cash-strapped students, and workers that have fallen on hard times, it’s time for Ontario’s left-wing to pick up the ball and get back in the game. Canada’s splintered left has got to narrow its focus and remember who they represent and who ultimately pays their salaries: students and workers. Our money should not be taken for granted and neither should their jobs.

It’s time the labour and student movements in Ontario took at a shot in the arm, kicked the IADD, and got back to work.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Theft of the Left, Part I: What's left of progressive Zionists in Canada?

In recent years, particularly in Canada, support for Israel in the West has been strongly linked to right-wing political parties and movements. For various reasons, from a need to win strategic ridings, the desire to appease large numbers of Evangelical Christians and perhaps the more admirable reason of simply supporting another democracy, right-wing politicians have sought to associate themselves with stances unequivocally in support of Israel.

Meanwhile, major left of centre parties in Canada support Israel’s right to exist and it’s right to self determination, but are nonetheless critical of some Israeli policies on a case by case basis, rather than representing a whole-heartedly “one-sided” approach to what is a complicated and ever-changing situation.

The “hard-left” however, particularly represented by organizations in the labour movement, several student governments mostly connected with the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) and a variety of campus coalitions, have subscribed to a radically more virulent form of criticism against Israel. Their attacks on Israel, as many students can attest, have gone well beyond restrained criticisms against particular Israeli policies; they have called for Israeli academics to be purged from Canadian campuses, for the isolation of Israel internationally and increasingly, for the outright destruction of the Jewish State. In some more outrageous cases, we have even seen calls for the murder of Israelis/Jews with signs calling for intifada.

Extremists on the left have drowned out or forced into silence their Zionist colleagues, effectively forcing thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish supporters of Israel to distance themselves, or leave entirely, progressive political, labour and social movements in which they once found a home. This is particularly devastating for the many grassroots Jews who have long supported progressive movements throughout Canada’s history while being Zionists. At one time, these associations were not only reconcilable, but in fact were decidedly complimentary.

While progressive values are present throughout Jewish religious history, emancipation movements in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment brought together thinkers and activists in a fight for equality, liberty and freedom, regardless of religion and it was in this movement that many European Jews found a political and ideological home. During European industrialization, the Jewish working class became active in the organization of labour in Eastern and Western Europe. It is from this lineage that progressive, social values came with many Jews along with their heritage and longing for a Jewish State to North America.

In helping to build Canada, many Jewish immigrants were integral in the building of Canada’s social democratic left, from the early organizers of Toronto’s and Winnipeg’s trade union movement, to the rise of David and Stephen Lewis in the 1960’s and 1970’s to the leadership the New Democratic Party at both the federal and provincial level.

This history makes all the more painful the shunting out of Zionists from Canada’s left-wing movements. For many Zionists, the violent and hateful extremism exhibited by their colleagues towards the Jewish State, and increasingly against Judaism, has made association with Canada’s left virtually intolerable.

But should this be the case? Is support for Israel and progressive values in Canada mutually exclusive? Over the years, being a progressive Canadian and an active supporter of Israel has not been easy, but it has also not been hard to reconcile. Here are my top ten reasons for supporting the only social democratic government in the Middle East:

- The early Zionist movement largely involved socialists from Eastern Europe, and the Yishuv (early settlement in Palestine) was led largely by socialists.

- Socialist values became as much a part of the fabric of early Israeli ideals as did Zionism. The Kibbutz movement, which was integral to Jewish settlement in Palestine, was an early attempt at practical socialism which continues today.

- The Histradut, “General Federation of Labourers in the Land of Israel”, was the largest single institution responsible for the early growth of the State of Israel, and was at one time the country’s single largest employer.

- Israel has two powerful social democratic parties, Labour and Meretz, which are both members of the International Socialist movement.

- Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, along with many of Israel’s most celebrated Prime Ministers including Shimon Peres, Golda Meir and Yitzhak Rabin, have all been leaders of social democratic parties.

- 57% of all Israeli academic degrees are awarded to women.

- Israel has uniform and compulsory healthcare. All Israelis are entitled to the same uniform benefits package, regardless of their financial means.

- Over 90% of Israeli homes use solar energy for hot water, the highest per capita in the world.

- Until 2007, Israel was the only country in Asia where homosexuals were protected by anti-discrimination laws. Israel remains the only country in the Middle East to provide legal protection to homosexuals.

- In 2007, Israel saw a nationwide student strike after the government imposed a single tuition fee increase. Marking just the most recent demonstration in one of world’s most active students’ rights movements.

It is paradoxical to me that trade unions and student groups in Canada are those most virulently opposed to the State of Israel. No other country in the region comes close to espousing the progressive values exhibited by Israeli government policy and culture. While I will always support openly criticizing the policies of all governments, I cannot tolerate the virulent anti-Israel movement that has corroded the Left in Canada.

I think it is time that Canadian social democrats reach out a hand in peace to their brothers and sisters in solidarity in Israel, instead of raising their fists.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

High-time for Decriminalization

The inadequacies of Canada’s Drug Policy are once again in the media as a recent Toronto Judge has ruled that charges cannot be laid on a minor, possession of marijuana offence due to the former Liberal government’s medicinal marijuana policy. This is a serious issue for many Canadians, given that more Canadians than any other nationality in the developed world use marijuana, roughly 16% as compared to just over 3% for the rest of the world.

What’s the deal with marijuana? Although it shares the same illegal status as drugs like heroine and cocaine, can it really be compared to these other substances?

A recent British study reported in the Lancet magazine in March of 2007, has shown that marijuana is noticeably less destructive than other legal substances. In the study, there were three indicators used to determine the harm associated with any drug: the physical harm to the user, the drug's potential for addiction, and the impact on society of drug use. Maraijuana scored the 11th spot on their list, while both alcohol and cigarettes were listed in the top ten (with alcohol at #5).

If our laws are based on protecting the individual and society, shouldn’t alcohol and cigarettes be made illegal along with marijuana? If you support this study’s results, than it follows that the only reason that marijuana continues to be illegal is because it continues to be less socially acceptable than other legal substances.

This begs the question: Does our legal system exist to protect our society and individuals from harm, or does it exist to enforce social norms and conventions? If our Drug Policy is any indication, the latter is clearly a strong reference point.

So how harmful is the herb? While few people would argue that weed is a ‘healthy’ pastime, a study reported by CNN in 2005 shows that workers distracted by phone calls, e-mails and text messages actually suffer a greater loss of IQ than a person smoking marijuana. If this is the case, and marijuana used in moderation is not physically or mentally harmful, than where is the argument that it should remain illegal?

Although I am not an avid or frequent user of marijuana, I fail to see how the existing policy benefits our larger society, and doesn’t hinder the lives of roughly 16% of Canadians. Canada’s drug policy is at best arbitrary and there is little scientific evidence to continue supporting the status quo. At the very least, a review of Canada’s Drug Policy is severely needed, coupled by a serious look at the implications for the decriminalization of marijuana. Any future decision must be based on the mounting scientific and legal evidence that marijuana should be decriminalized and made a controlled substance in Canada.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Political Patent?

Ideas are the ammunition of politics. Sure it takes a savvy spin doctor and a shameless media shark to make them fashionable, marketable and appealing, but ultimately the crux of any policy, and thus any party, is the idea.

In almost all other industries ideas are closely guarded secrets that emerge only after they have secured a patent, surrounded by a copyright and heralded by a team of lawyers waiting to pounce. Inventions, screenplays, novels, marketing strategies – all are tightly guarded property. Avril Lavigne is learning this lesson the hard way.

But what about politics? This is the industry in which ideas almost constantly have an impact on our daily lives – yet there is no patent for political ideas. The Nova Scotia NDP have been derided in public by their liberal and Tory counterparts, yet in private these parties are secretly leafing through the NDP platform for succulent drops of policy creativity. You can almost hear them in their caucus offices, sitting below posters of Jack Layton comically compared to Marx and Lenin, meanwhile carefully deconstructing NDP policy points for ways to rejig and re-release in proudly packaged red or blue jackets.

“Buy local!” says Nova Scotia Premier Rodney MacDonald. What a novel idea! What page of the New Democrat platform was that on? “Cut the home heating tax!” you hear them say, another zinger from the Tories! It takes a great deal of creative skill of course to copy/paste properly!

I cannot harp on the Tories as if this is a prerogative unique to them. There is no secret that some of the great cornerstones of our country were those policies “liberally” adopted over the decades from the New Democrats. From Healthcare to affordable Housing, and even the Bill of Rights, the NDP have always traded the prospect of power for the basic implementation of their policies. But the party “of the Charter” would never courteously give kudos to the “Socialist Hoards”.

The reality is, ideas in politics are always up for grabs as soon as they fly off the shelf. Is this a bad thing? Probably not. While the newest tracks and the latest Harry Potter book will be soundly secured by copyright legislation, the creative contributions of Canada’s political parties will be torn apart and reinvented time and again by those tired policy-makers in Canada’s Big Parties. And from my perspective, Canada is all the better for it. Canadian Social Democrats are proud of the contributions we have made to the fabric of the nation, not a roster of Prime Ministers. Besides, wasn’t it a Canadian who invented the light bulb, not Edison? But doesn’t it work just the same?