— Fragments


It says something about my commitment to writing that I’ve never shared one of my favorite anecdotes. Better late than never, I suppose.

The high jump is not the most exciting track and field event, but it is the most elegant. The athlete carefully times her approach to the bar, and then at just the right moment, powerfully leaps over it. If she is any good, she will jump higher than she is tall. Astonishing.

It is an event where technique is all important. And since the competition began, athletes have used various methods to clear that high bar. There is the basic scissor kick that I learned in primary school, as well fancifully named styles like the straddle, or the eastern cut-off, or the western roll. But for the last 40 years, the Fosbury flop has dominated all.

Named for its inventor, 1968 Olympic gold medalist Dick Fosbury, with this technique the jumper goes over the bar “backwards,” and lands on her back, shoulders. So why did it take a century of high jumping for athletes to figure out that this was the best route over the bar? It wasn’t because they were stupid, but rather because in the early years of the competition, when they cleared the bar, they landed in sandpits, or on hard mats. Repeatedly landing shoulders-first on such a surface is foolishness.

It was when the mats became plush, comfy, and safe that Fosbury was able to develop his innovation. And all humans were able to jump higher.

The evolution of high jumping illustrates an idea that is very much part of my social philosophy. Paradoxically, where there is greater safety, there can be greater risk, and therefore greater achievement. Not for nothing have degenerate aristocrats been historically very overrepresented in daredevilism and absurd feats of exploration. They’re the ones with the time and resources to pursue their crazy dreams.

Millions witnessed a slightly different example of this phenomenon with the amazing space jump of Felix Baumgartner in 2012. While his 39km dive was more than remarkable enough itself, as I was watching, I was particularly taken by his “egress procedure,” the 39-item safety checklist that he and his mission controller ran through before the flight back to earth. Baumgartner’s feat was risky, but without this detailed safety procedure, it would have been suicidal.

For all that human history is full of stories like maniac Polynesians canoeing into the blue or psychotic physicians testing their medicines on their own bodies, it’s my belief that greater progress will emerge where there is greater physical safety. After all, people with a death wish will always find a way to take themselves out, but the vast majority of our fellow humans love life a little more than that.

Soft mats, egress procedures, safety nets. Without them we are trying to solve our problems with the eastern cut-off, when only the Fosbury flop will do…

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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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I wrote a piece analyzing the results of CBC’s questions about First Nations people in Canada for the Urtak blog. Enjoy it here.

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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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Ethnic groups in Bosnia Herzegovina in 1991.

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I’m not a big consumer of fashion magazines. But there was a copy of Vogue on my coffee table, and in that issue was an extremely flattering profile of Asma al-Assad, wife of Bashar. It was early 2011, and between the commission of the article by Joan Juliet Buck and its printing, the Arab world erupted and Syria entered its current phase of violence.

Vogue has since removed the article from its site, but you can read it here. You can also listen to Buck’s subsequent repudiation of her article on NPR.

It’s an interesting example of how quickly opinion, and especially elite opinion, can change. Less than two years ago, the Assad regime was respectable enough for Asma and Bashar to sit down with Carla and Nico in the fifth summit between the Syrian and the French president. It was a good time, apparently.

In the Vogue article, the then French ambassador to Syria described Asma’s work thus, “She managed to get people to consider the possibilities of a country that’s modernizing itself, that stands for a tolerant secularism in a powder-keg region, with extremists and radicals pushing in from all sides—and the driving force for that rests largely on the shoulders of one couple. I hope they’ll make the right choices for their country and the region.”

Today the position of the Syrian government that it is defending the state against terrorists is widely ridiculed in the Western press, but it’s worth pointing out that it’s not a new argument, and one that the West was happy to swallow in much less turbulent times.

I wonder who will be the next recipient of a Vogue puff piece to be revealed as actually being cruel and murderous. I’ll think about it as I read their profile of David and Samantha Cameron.

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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 Guardian’s polling expert Harry J Enten has written an interesting article, “Occupy Wall Street’s people power loses popularity.” Enten’s declaration that the Occupy movement is losing force is worthy of further investigation. For a statistical expert, he argues on the strength of very few facts.

Enten begins by writing that “any New Yorker can tell you that Occupy Wall Street was a force to be reckoned with in the fall of 2011.” Was it really? In 2011, did the Occupiers mobilize tens of thousands, oust a political leader, or effect any policy change? They did not.

Enten’s sole example of Occupy’s power at that time was his anecdote of being forced to abandon a taxi blocks from his destination in the financial district, due to blocked traffic. By this logic, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and the Marathon are also “forces to be reckoned with.”

Occupy was a moral force. Its slogan “We are the 99%” and its symbolic attack on the whole world financial system had a huge impact on the imaginations of millions of people around the world and greatly unnerved the nation’s most powerful people. However, there is no question that in 2011, in New York City, it did not yet possess tangible political, economic, or physical force.

In November, Occupy was swept from Zuccotti Park. “You can’t be faulted,” Enten generously concedes, “if you believed that Occupy Wall Street forces would be back.” But you are “mostly wrong.”

Why just “mostly” wrong? Probably because two weeks ago, New York City witnessed the undeniable fact of its largest May Day protest in years, and it was Occupy Wall Street that inspired it. Enten dismisses the rally because “the police managed the protest with ease.” But why should a peaceful assembly of citizens be difficult to “manage?” He comments that May Day did not even “have the presence to cause even minor disruption.” Enten’s view of what makes a protest meaningful is perhaps unsurprising considering how much store he set by his own aborted taxi ride.

Enten wisely moves on to the safer terrain of opinion polls to make the argument that public support for Occupy has declined. Yet the first fact he points out is that “most pollsters have not even bothered to survey Americans on their view of Occupy since the end of the Zuccotti Park sit in.” But what does this matter? Just because pollsters are not interested in Occupy does not mean people do not care. Very few polls are conducted about The Avengers, baseball, or sex positions, but New Yorkers still think about all of them!

Finally we arrive at the meat and potatoes. According to the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, the percentage of Americans who say they are supporters of Occupy Wall Street has fallen since November from 29% to 16%. A Siena Research Institute survey shows that the number of New Yorkers with a favorable view of Occupy has fallen from 58% to 49% over approximately the same period.

Enten concludes by arguing that the Occupy Wall Street protests are unlikely to be important in the 2012 campaign. Why? It has to do with “the current numbers of protesters and, more importantly [emphasis mine], the percentage of the public that supports them.” Is Enten really arguing that poll results are more important than people marching in the street?

For the sake of argument, let us imagine that the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll is right, and that 16% of American adults support Occupy. This is quite enormous! 16% of the population is not black, or latino, or Jewish, or Mormon, or gay, yet these minorities still have great political importance. And favorability of Occupy is three times as high in New York City, where people are much more likely to have actually come into personal contact with the movement. These are not the figures of irrelevance.

Perceptions of Occupy Wall Street have definitely changed since the fall. For example, in October, even Mitt Romney expressed sympathy with the protesters, saying, “I look at what’s happening on Wall Street and my view is, boy, I understand how those people feel.” Would he dare to say the same again today? As the Occupy movement becomes more explicitly anti-capitalist, it really should not come as a surprise that it might lose some support.

A year ago, Occupy Wall Street did not exist. The pollsters did not predict it. Yet the movement spread to hundreds of cities around the world, and energized all those who oppose bailouts for the banks and austerity for everyone else. Can the result of two polls really tell us all we need to know about the future of Occupy?

Harry J Enten does not have a crystal ball. He cannot forecast the future. He does not know what people think. What he should be able to do however, is to have the humility to think harder about the facts in front of him and to approach them like a true scientist, with a spirit of inquiry, instead of prejudgment.

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Dan Patterson and I recorded another episode of hard news, dirty politics, and civilized propaganda last night for KoPoint. We had an outstanding group in with us: Elisa Camahort Page, cofounder of BlogHer; Ellen Ratner, White House Bureau Chief for Talk Radio News Service, Josh Wolff of ShoutEm, and Deanna Zandt, media technologist and author.

It was a lively discussion, and you can find it here. Dan Patterson made a great Urtak about gay marriage, and you can always leave your own questions and answers below as well.

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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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