— Fragments


It occurred to me the other day that in no city I’ve ever lived in has been free of obviously, openly, hungry people.

No matter how wealthy the city – Toronto, Boston, New York, São Paulo; we are confronted every day with the reality of the desperate. Miserable people, begging for coins that most of us are only ever going to toss in jars, sleeping in disgusting accommodation, unable to provide for their basic needs. When such a person asks for money and justifies their request with an appeal to their own hunger, we the fortunate do not in general reject the possibility that this person may in fact be semi-starving. We either give or don’t give, but we don’t necessarily assume that we are dealing with liars.

People who live on the street are just a small fraction of our hungry. How many other people do we pass on a daily basis that are used to facing the risk of not having enough to eat? We don’t see them, but it’s not because they don’t exist.

In Toronto, the Daily Bread Food Bank reported 1.1 million client visits in 2012-13. Can it be true that every day 3000 Torontonians would fail to eat if not for this charity? How many others are one bad spin of the wheel away from this ultimate human disaster? Is there another social problem that drags more people to the brink?

From an economic, rationalist perspective, this is a particularly troubling problem. Our capitalist society, the most efficient industrial arrangement that the world has ever seen, is clearly failing to eradicate hunger. If São Paulo were five times richer, would the hungry be fed? The reality of life in New York and Toronto makes the answer clear. Neither our business leaders, geniuses of delivering 7% return on capital, or our politicians, artists of 2% economic growth, are willing or able to articulate a plan to do away with hunger in our cities.

From a personal perspective, we all know how the feeling of being hungry makes us worse people, both morally and physically.

From a historical perspective, we know that the last hundred years were one long nightmare of the lack of food very quickly turning homo sapiens into just another group of screeching primates.

From an ethical perspective, it seems strange that some should starve in societies of ever increasing material abundance.

And even from the perspective of a greedy rich man, it would seem that if hungry people are more likely to be criminal, and hungry people are more likely to be bearers of disease, then solving this problem may even put more money in the gentleman’s pocket, or at the very least improve his quality of life at very little expense.

In the rich countries, our national constitutions tend to guarantee us fantastic and wonderful rights. Freedom of expression. Marvelous! The right to a speedy trial. Splendid! The ability to from time to time replace the executive power. Remarkable! We as citizens have decided that we want these liberties and have caused them to be exist.

In the 21st century, in an age of space travel, instantaneous global communication, and nanotechnology, perhaps we must recognize that the problem of hunger is not about to solve itself.

Everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, deserves the right to a square meal when they are hungry. There is no moral argument against it, and no practical reason that makes it impossible. What is required is for citizens to hold their elected and unelected leaders accountable. How can any politician sleep at night knowing there is hunger within their territory?

We ordinary citizens can only wonder. Is it malice that guides our elite? Incompetence? Or indifference?

One thing is for certain. I know that I will not be voting for any candidate, in any election, who does not have a plan to eliminate food insecurity from my world. The right to a square meal. Who is for it?

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While I won’t be going to the SXSW festival in Austin this year, for the past two years I always enjoyed heading over to the Maple Leaf lounge and checking out what my fellow Canadians were up to. Canadian beer, Canadian projects, guaranteed good times.

A few months ago I started getting emails from Northof41.org, the group that puts the Canadian events on. The very worthy goal of Northof41 is to “promote Canada as a dynamic place for business opportunity by highlighting digital media technology companies.” Right on!

But something wasn’t quite right. I mean, when I was growing up in Toronto, I was always taught that the border between the two great nations was the 49th parallel. Yes, there was some confusion at the fact that Toronto sits north of the 43rd parallel, but also pride, pride in the fact that my compatriots had stood up to the slogan of the perfidious President Polk: Fifty-four forty or fight! Canada without those five degrees of latitude would be pretty grim.

Returning to the 41st parallel. The 41st parallel is the Colorado-Wyoming border. It does not touch Canada at all. So why has Northof41 chosen it? My initial reaction was that they are a bunch of bunglers, and that no one who has ever associated with the group has pointed out that the usual shorthand for the Canada-US border is the 49th parallel, and not the 41st.

But let’s be charitable. We could point out that the southernmost point in Canada is Middle Island in Lake Erie, which sits between the 41st and 42nd parallel.

But if that’s the case, Americans watch out! Thirteen U.S. states are entirely to the north of that point, and one thing that’s clear is that the world’s longest undefended border will soon be under attack by Canadian technology entrepreneurs. “Cross-border discussion” indeed!

Northof49 might be a better name.

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The implosion of Yugoslavia was a geopolitical tragedy. Yugoslavia was a vibrant multicultural and multiethnic republic with a proud history. It had thrown off the yoke of Hitler and of Stalin. It was a rare socialist state that allowed worker-run enterprises, a mixed economy, and free emigration. It helped to found the Non-Aligned Movement which played an instrumental role in ending colonialism around the world.

As we know, in the 1990s Yugoslavia disintegrated in an orgy of vandalism. The rape of Bosnia, the massacre of Srebrenica, the cruelty of Operation Storm. The senselessness of the Yugoslav wars claimed more than 100,000 lives and ruined millions more. To what end? What was one country is now seven weak republics crippled by their hate for one another.

Yugoslavia wasn’t a paradise. The atrocities committed in two world wars meant that ethnic tensions among the south Slavic peoples certainly simmered throughout the post-war period. But the breakup of Yugoslavia was no mere tribal squabble.

The economy of Yugoslavia was severely punished by the oil shock of the 1970s. It never really recovered. By 1988, a debt and inflation crisis had brought the economy to a standstill and in order to obtain a $1.4 billion bailout from the IMF, the government imposed a policy of austerity. Suffice to say, the medicine did not cure the patient.

It was in this context that vain and cruel men like Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic were able to rise to power in their regions. Instead of working together to solve the nation’s problems, they shored up their narrow support by scapegoating their adversaries and appealing to the worst impulses of their followers. When Yugoslavia most needed statesmanship and courageous leadership, its political class destroyed the country for its own benefit.

Is this too simplistic an analysis? Perhaps. But let’s bear in mind that in 1984, as the world celebrated the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, no one would have guessed that just a decade later that the Jerusalem of Europe would be suffering a plague of mortar and sniper fire in a bloody siege. Yet it happened.

So what has this got to do with Spain? Nothing at all, is my sincerest hope.

Spain is a country haunted by an ugly history. The scars of the civil war of 1936-39 have not healed. In Navarre, the province where my father was born, fully 2% of the adult male population was murdered by reactionary repression during the war. After 75 years, my grandmother was still emotional as she described to me this summer how a boy from her village had been dragged from his home and executed without trial. This was terror.

If they want, right-wingers can complain too. One month ago, Santiago Carrillo, the historic leader of the Communist Party of Spain died without ever having been made to answer for his role in the slaughter of thousands of rebel officers at Paracuellos.

After the Franco dictatorship, during the twenty-five fat years between 1982 and 2007, Spain attained a spectacular prosperity. After centuries of exporting people, people actually went to Spain in search of a better life. Unimaginable!

Today, despite all the sporting success, the party is over. Unemployment is over 25%. More than half of young people are out of work, the state is bankrupt, and hunger once again stalks Spanish streets. The economy is getting worse. In the midst of this misery, Spain has become the most economically unequal country in the eurozone.

One might suppose that in this environment, the leaders of Spain would be desperately finding ways to revive the economy and rescue the country. Instead, headlines are dominated by the invective of Mariano Rajoy, the prime minister, and Artur Mas, the president of Catalonia.

While bad relations between Madrid and Barcelona are nothing new, the intensity of the negative feelings is quite surprising, mostly because the disagreements between the two leaders on the fundamental question of economic recovery are minimal. Both are committed to policies of austerity and have slashed public spending, which increases the pain that their people feel every day. Both are unable to admit that Spain’s banking sector is totally insolvent. And of course, neither of them will to stand up to continuing German demands for further turns of the screw.

In the absence of a plan to fix what is together with Greece the worst-performing economy in the world, we are left with debates and analysis that lose contact with reality. “The problem is that the Catalans don’t speak Spanish!” says Ignacio Wert, national minister of education. “The problem is that we give too much money to Andalusia,” says President Mas, whose region grew wealthy from the labor of immigrant Andalusians.

Spain has many problems and it’s right for politicians to disagree on solutions. But it remains unclear how encouraging chauvinism and ridiculing solidarity addresses any of them. What can we say about Rajoy and Mas? That they are irresponsible and short sighted? Let’s remember, in 1990, that’s the worst we could have said about Milosevic and Tudjman.

Throughout the Spanish economic collapse, consumption of luxury goods has continued to rise. More Lladró figurines are being sold than ever. But the biggest luxury Spain allows itself is a political class that cares more for its own privileges than for the nation’s problems.

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Today I have been confronted with something extremely unpleasant – a bitter fight between two writers and thinkers I very much admire. George Monbiot, in his most recent article for The Guardian, argues that for leftists to reject the characterization of the Srebrenica Massacre as a genocide is an insult to the victims, an indictment of the the world left, and a case of genocide denialism.

The least pleasant part of Monbiot’s argument is his publication of private email correspondence with Noam Chomsky. In it, Monbiot presses Chomsky to disavow the opinions of Edward Herman (his collaborator on the classic Manufacturing Consent) and David Peterson on the Rwandan genocide and the Srebrenica massacre, as expressed in their book, The Politics of Genocide (which I have not read). Chomsky, contributor of a foreword to their work, adamantly refuses to comply.

For Monbiot, the massacre of 8000 Bosniaks in 1995 constitutes an act “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” and therefore, a genocide. Of course Chomsky does not deny that the killings occurred, or that they constitute a major crime. In fact, the eminent linguist calls them “outright murders without provocation.”

The Srebrenica massacre was surely the ugliest week that Europe has known (on its own soil) since 1945. There is no question that the Bosnian Serb soldiers of Ratko Mladić killed those 8,000 people. What is unknown is the precise proportion of those who were killed by military assault, and those who were summarily executed after they had been captured. Does stating this fact make me a genocide denier? I entreat George Monbiot to supply me with the correct figures.

The thesis (as I understand it) of The Politics of Genocide is that the genocides that have been committed since 1945 have tended to be overlooked when they are perpetrated by Western powers, and harshly condemned when conducted by enemies. It is for this reason that Herman and Peterson have have suggested that the number of those actually executed (as opposed to killed in extremely unequal combat) might be 800 of the 8000 dead, and therefore perhaps not a crime on the scale of some of those that have committed in the name of freedom. Is this the same as denying the Ukrainian famine?

Chomsky, in his email exchange with Monbiot, takes the line that “The mass slaughter in Srebrenica, for example, is certainly a horror story and major crime, but to call it “genocide” so cheapens the word as to constitute virtual Holocaust denial, in my opinion.” Chomsky’s view is that Srebrenica cannot be compared with Treblinka or Sobibor. Is this so objectionable?

What we are left with is a difference of opinion. Monbiot prefers a strict definition of the term genocide, and Chomsky prefers to avoid its use almost entirely. But ultimately, in a free society, we must be allowed to ask the question, and answer it for ourselves: was the Srebrenica massacre a genocide?

Monbiot expresses great concern for the memory of the victims of Srebrenica. Rightly so. But what do those who were cruelly murdered care if they perished in a genocide or a mere massacre? The way to honor them is to see that the people who perpetrated the crime are brought to justice, and to work tirelessly to stop violations of human rights, wherever they occur.

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The growing prospect of war in Syria is deeply disturbing. Something that further bothered me today was an ugly expression I came across for the first time – lethal aid. Apparently, John Kerry says we shouldn’t consider it yet, at least not until the unity of the Syrian opposition has been consolidated.

Lethal aid is clearly a derivative of “non-lethal aid,” an expression which itself seems to have been invented in March of this year. It describes the material support that the U.S. and its allies are giving Syrian rebels, support which does not extend to arms and ammunition at this time.

What are U.S. policymakers trying to do when they dress up their plans for Syria in language no one has ever heard? Are they trying to make it easier for the American people to understand what is going on, or are they obfuscating?

It seems clear that powerful sections of the U.S. foreign policy establishment desire war with Syria. John Kerry himself points out that removing Bashar al-Assad from power is the stated goal. The goal is explicitly not to protect the lives of Syrians. Which makes sense, because the two different objectives are at odds with each other.

Over the last year, Syria has known terrible violence. Yet it has been spared the destruction that comes with a true civil war. In fact, fewer people have lost their lives in the Syrian conflict than have perished in the war in Libya. But this does not really matter to men like John Kerry. The goal is to remove the leader of the Syrian state, irrespective of the cost.

Lethal aid will not improve the lives of the Syrian people. Lethal aid will do one thing – it will kill Syrians.

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