banner photo:

"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

Banner photo
Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

... and they both want the Dixie Chicks in burqas

The stupid comment of the week award goes to Charles Ferguson of the Council on Foreign Relations. During an interview yesterday with Dan Matheson on CTV Newsnet about Iranian Predident Amadinijad's challenge to debate President Bush live on TV, Ferguson had this to say:

"Both of these men have a lot in common - they're both very religious, they don't drink alcohol, and they both feel strongly about their country's place in the world."

And they both want the Israeli tumour wiped off the face of the map. Oops - strike that last one.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

No sympathy for Toronto school boards

In today's National Post: Toronto trustees set to defy deadline to balance budgets

The Toronto public and Catholic school boards are apparently going to ignore an Aug. 31 deadline to balance their budgets. The public board has an $84 million deficit, while the Catholic board's runs to $34.5 million. Trustees have expressed frustration with the Ontario government's funding formula. Public trustee Irene Atkinson said "We were elected to represent our communities, their needs and their aspirations and we are being opposed by an antiquated funding model which inhibits our doing exactly that." Among other things, Toronto public schools may have to terminate school breakfast and lunch programs and close 77 of 80 indoor swimming pools.

Let's set aside for now the issue of school trustees choosing to ignore the law. Let's talk instead of the "needs and aspirations" of parents who send their kids to schools out here in the wilderness of Eastern Ontario, or anywhere in rural Ontario for that matter. School breakfast and lunch programs? We have schools that don't have cafeterias or gymnasiums for crying out loud! INDOOR SWIMMING POOLS? Students out here go to school in ancient crumbling buildings dating to the Korean War. Many of our schools have upwards of half their students being taught in "temporary" portable classrooms that are now so old that they have to be renovated themselves, and are leaky, mold-infested structures that the UN wouldn't tolerate in third world countries. The nearest city to where I live, population 35 000, doesn't have one public indoor swimming pool in the entire community, let alone in any of its schools.

For decades, Toronto schools mined a rich vein of local property taxes to fund extravagant schools complete with pools and concert halls while the rest of the province's schools begged for money. Now that school funding has been removed from the local property tax base, Toronto is feeling the pinch for a change. I'm not saying that every school board should now sink to the lowest common denominator, but the Toronto school board's woes are not getting much sympathy outside the 905 area code.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hezbollah defeated "gay" Israeli soldiers

From Ynet News - Abu Oudai, chief rocket coordinator for the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades in the West Bank, said recently that Hezbollah was victorious in Lebanon partly because the Israeli army is full of gay soldiers:

"I think the most important achievement this war in Lebanon demonstrated is that Israel – with all its power, its air force, its tanks, its navy and its unlimited budget – can be defeated," said Abu Oudai.
"If we do (what Hizbullah accomplished), this Israeli army full of gay soldiers and full of corruption and with old-fashioned war methods can be defeated also in Palestine."

So explain to me again why such open-minded and enlightened individuals as Gilles Duceppe, Denis Coderre and especially Andre Boisclair, the openly gay leader of the Parti Quebecois, were marching in solidarity in a parade full of Hezbollah banners and placards, denouncing the one country in the entire Middle East where homosexuals are actually considered to be human? And explain to me again why allegedly homophobic Stephen Harper should adopt a more "nuanced" approach to his support for Israel?

(h/t: Independent Gay Forum )

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dr. Beetroot

This article in the Weekly Standard caught my eye, and although it's a little late to be piling on to the discussion of the recent AIDS conference in Toronto, why was the media so preoccupied with Stephen Harper's no-show when this was going on?
It was with great consternation that South Africans, especially AIDS activists, read about the behavior last week of their health minister, Dr. Manto Tshabalala-Msimang [referred to by critics as "Dr. Beetroot"], at the 16th International AIDS Conference in Toronto. The conference welcomed 20,000 delegates from over 100 countries and featured such prominent philanthropic figures as Bill Gates and Bill Clinton. Many nations and NGOs had displays at the conference, and what made headlines here in South Africa was the country's exhibition adorned with beetroot, lemons, and garlic--a combination that Tshabalala-Msimang has long endorsed as an "alternative" AIDS cocktail to the antiretroviral drugs developed in the West. When media attention focused on the display, flaks from the South African Health Ministry hastily added a few pill bottles in an attempt to damp the tide of criticism. Yet news of this blunder did not seem to surprise many people back in Johannesburg. They have grown used to their government's crackpot AIDS theories.
Kudos though to Stephen Lewis for saying in his closing remarks that the South African government's laziness on AIDS was "wrong, immoral and indefensible" and that "its HIV-denialist theories and promotion of alternative treatments are more worthy of a lunatic fringe than a concerned and compassionate state."

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Suspicious minds

Two Arab-American men from Dearborn, Michigan who were arrested in Ohio on suspicion of connections to terrorist activities have been released by police. Prosecutors have dropped terror-related charges against Osama Sabhi Abulhassan and Ali Houssaiky for lack of evidence. Both men are now alleging that they were victims of racial profiling and say that "they’ve lost a sense of belonging to the country they’ve long called home." When interviewed on CNN, they complained that "carrying cash is not illegal. Buying cell phones is not illegal."

True. But the two men had in their car when they were arrested: $11 000 in cash, 600 pre-paid cell phones, airplane passenger lists and information on airport security. They also lied about their identities to police when arrested, and it probably didn't help when police found out that one of their real names was Osama. Police had been warned earlier by an FBI bulletin to be on the alert for bulk purchases of cell phones, which can be used to finance terrorism. Seems reasonable to be suspicious, no?

OK - it's wrong to make assumptions about someone solely based on race or appearance. Most Arab Americans are not connected to terrorism. However, being Arab or Muslim should not exempt anyone from police scrutiny solely on that basis, either. Suspicious behaviour is suspicious behaviour, regardless of race or religion. Suppose state troopers stopped a truck on the highway driven by a young male skinhead named Joe "McVeigh" Smith, loaded with sacks of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and a road map of Washington DC in the glove compartment. Buying fertilizer is not illegal and the guy may be a legitimate farmer, but I would hope that police would arrest him too, appearance notwithstanding.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Rock star foreign policy

In the 2004 US election, we were treated to the spectacle of every liberal musician from Barbra Streisand to Bruce Springsteen campaigning musically to defeat Bush (plus a few on the right that were pro-Bush). They lent their star-wattage to the campaign without shedding much light on any of the issues other than repeating the same old talking points. In Canada, we had the vapid Avril Lavigne weighing in, and my favourite - Paul Martin with his rictus grin, on stage with Bono who was lecturing us about our own country. (Can't you just see Paul Martin at a U2 concert, loosening up his tie and waving his lighter in the air? No? Neither can I.) I can't stand it when celebrities, whose only qualification is their own fame, lecture us about politics. Keifer Sutherland - are you listening?

Which brings me to the point of this post. I hopped in the truck the other day and drove to "the city" and stopped at Starbucks for a latte. There was some cool funk music playing on the sound system; I asked the "barrista" what it was : Ben Harper's Both Sides of the Gun. So I bought a copy. You know, it's a pretty good album, but I can't listen to it anymore because listening to the lyrics is like being trapped in an elevator with Jack Layton and Cindy Sheehan. Here's what I mean - the words to Black Rain:

You left them swimming for their lives
Down in New Orleans
Can't afford a gallon of gasoline
With your useless degrees
And your contrary statistics
This government business
Is straight up sadistic

You don't fight for us
But expect us to die for you
You have no sympathy for us
Still I cry for you
You may kill the revolutionary
But the revolution you can never bury

Don't you dare speak to us
Like we work for you
Selling false hope like some new dope
We're addicted to

I'm not a desperate man
But these are desperate times at hand
This generation is beyond your command

It won't be long 'till the people flood the streets
And take you down one and all
A black rain is gonna fall.
Here's a verse from Gather 'Round the Stone:

You whip the back of freedom
'Till it bleeds an oil stream
Then you sail down upon it
In your killing machine

Get it? No blood for oil? I hate to break it to Ben Harper, but if his albums are being featured in Starbucks, he's not exactly at the cutting edge of counter-culture, and his fans aren't going to pull their lips off their bongs long enough to flood the streets and take us down one and all.

By the way, if you like these lyrics, you might enjoy my previous post Teen Angst Poetry

Monday, August 21, 2006

Say again?

Something happens to people who work for a long time in large bureaucracies like government departments or large corporations; the part of the brain responsible for clear, concise speech atrophies due to overexposure to jargon. Case in point: Lieutenant-Colonel Omer Lavoie, commander of Canada's battle group in southern Afghanistan, speaking to reporters about the NATO victory over Taliban forces on Saturday in the battle of Panjwaii:

The posturing of our forces was very deliberate. The way we postured the forces was based on a high expectation of how we thought the enemy would react to the posture itself.... They acted the way that we expected they would act and became decisively engaged and had insurmountable difficulties breaking contact with us.... A 10% [Taliban] casualty figure is an extremely big blow to your combat effectiveness.

Translation into English: "We were attacked, we fought back the way we were trained, and we kicked some Taliban ass."

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Cause and effect

Item 1: CTV News, Aug. 19
American visitors to Vancouver have been targeted with leaflets left on the windshields of cars with US licence plates, reading in part: "Go home - you are the most hated and feared people on Earth. You are not wanted here." Vancouver officials are worried that this type of activity "may give the impression that American tourists are not welcome here".

Item 2: National Post, Aug. 18

U.S. day visits sink to 1972 levels
The number of day trips Americans are making to Canada has hit a low not seen since 1972 .... From January to June this year, Americans made only 6.6 million same-day car trips to Canada, Statistics Canada reported. That's the lowest first-half figure since the agency began keeping records 34 years ago.... One economist said yesterday this is the beginning of a period in which Canada's $63 billion tourism industry will have to lessen its dependence on U.S. travellers and step up targeting tourists from within Canada and overseas.

Admittedly, a lot of factors are at work here, from high gas prices to a mistaken belief among many Americans that new rules require a passport to cross the Canadian border. But before we go targeting overseas tourists, here's an idea: let's stop treating American visitors like crap.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Celebrity endorsements from hell

Executives at KFC must have spit out their lattes this morning when it was revealed on CNN that John Mark Karr, the creepy guy who confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey, asked for Kentucky Fried Chicken while in prison in Thailand awaiting extradition to the US. Maybe they can get some advice from the ad execs who had to deal with Karla Homolka's revelation in a CBC interview that the first thing she wanted when released from prison was "un iced cappuccino de Tim Horton's". Speaking of which, have you ever noticed that the crack-addled wife-beaters on TV's Cops frequently wear Tommy Hilfiger t-shirts? I'm just saying.

By the way, here's some unsolicited advice to President Bush: tomorrow would be a good time to bomb Iran's nuke facility, while the attention of the world's press is focused relentlessly on Karr's arrival and arrest in the US. Who's going to care about the Middle East when CNN is in full Hurricane Katrina mode: All JonBenet, All The Time ?

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Mohammed cartoon that didn't result in any burning embassies

I know it's a little late to be weighing in on the Danish cartoon controversy, but I was leafing through a book of Gary Larson Far Side cartoons today and came across this one published in 1994! The Far Side was syndicated in hundreds of newspapers around the world, including Canada's Globe & Mail. I admit I may not have been paying much attention in 1994, but I don't recall any boycotts or embassies being burned.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Best movie review ever

Jonathan Goldstein, writing in today's National Post, on the movie Miami Vice:

Watching Colin Farrell's moustachioed face for two hours is like being buried alive in a coffin made of rat traps and cologne samples. But there is popcorn. I cram it into my mouth like the Cookie Monster. I eat with great gusto, as though to say to those around me, "No matter how we suffer, life is still worth living".

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Modest suggestions for the gay left

I was in Toronto yesterday amid the inescapable hoopla surrounding the International AIDS Conference. What was the one thing getting everyone agitated? Stephen Harper's no-show. Aside from the appearance of "silver-haired Richard Gere, looking relaxed in a blue shirt and tan suit jacket" (Globe & Mail), all anyone could talk about was Harper's insensitivity. Downtown TO was plastered with posters and notices from various gay activist organizations urging the righteous to gather on Wednesday in front of the Convention Centre to "send a message to Harper". Here are just a couple of modest suggestions for more serious issues that gay activists should be using their considerable organizational and media skills on instead while the world's attention is focused on Canada:
  • 22-year-old Emmanuel Ndyanabo was chased out of his native Uganda this month for trying to attend the Toronto conference. Ndyanabo is gay, and being gay in Uganda is a crime punishable by life in prison. He has already been arrested for running a counselling service in his native country for HIV-positive homosexuals. He has applied for refugee status in Canada. (source: The Globe and Mail, Aug. 15)
  • In Iran, homosexual acts between men are illegal and punishable by death. Iranian activist Arsham Parsi, who worked secretly in Iran for four years helping homosexuals who had been beaten and tortured, was tipped off that the secret police were about to arrest him. He escaped to Turkey and now lives in Toronto. "I cannot return to Iran", he said, "even though my family is still there. Homosexuality is forbidden and if I went back I would be arrested at the airport or border and in a couple days they would kill me." (source: Xtra - Aug. 3)
  • July 19 marked the one-year anniversary of the execution of two teenaged Iranian boys - Ayaz Marhoni, 18, and Mahmoud Asgari, 17, for allegedly sexually assaulting another male teenager. The trial was held in secret and the Iranian government will not release documents relating to the case. Iran is a signatory of the UN children's rights declaration which prohibits the use of the death penalty for persons under the age of 18. (source: Xtra, Aug. 3)

By the way, in case anyone is interested in organizing a little media event to draw attention to these two countries and their appalling human rights records regarding homosexuals instead of worrying about whether or not Harper is schmoozing with Bill Clinton, here are the addresses:

Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran - 245 Metcalfe St., Ottawa

Ugandan High Commission - 231 Cobourg St,. Ottawa

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Saturday, August 12, 2006

"If there is hope, it lies in the proles"

This is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon, but every few months when the Lotto 6-49 jackpot reaches some magic threshold, millions of otherwise normal Canadian citizens take leave of their senses and line up to voluntarily hand over hard-earned cash to various governments. Meanwhile the TV news broadcasters dutifully send off their stringers to local convenience stores to do man-in-the-queue interviews about what they would do with the $42 million, and the water coolers in the offices of the land are surrounded by crowds of suddenly non-productive employees collectively dreaming of Ferraris and underwear models. It's a form of mass hysteria where the average IQ in Canada suddenly drops dramatically, and it's a national embarassment.

George Orwell wrote about this in 1984:

'Can't you bleeding well listen to what I say? I tell you no number ending in seven ain't won for over fourteen months!'

'Yes it 'as, then!'

'No , it 'as not! Back 'ome I got the 'ole lot of 'em for over two years wrote down on a piece of paper. I takes 'em down reg'lar as the clock. An' I tell you , no number ending in seven - '

'Yes, a seven 'as won! I could pretty near tell you the bleeding number. Four oh seven, it ended in. It were in February - second week in February.'

They were talking about the Lottery. Winston looked back when he had gone thirty metres. They were still arguing, with vivid passionate faces. The Lottery, with its weekly payout of enormous prizes, was the one public event to which the proles paid serious attention. It was probable that there were some millions of proles for whom the Lottery was the principal if not the only reason for remaining alive. It was their delight, their folly, their anodyne, their intellectual stimulant. Where the Lottery was concerned, even people who could barely read and write seemed capable of intricate calculations and staggering feats of memory. There was a whole tribe of men who made a living simply by selling systems, forecasts and lucky amulets. Winston had nothing to do with the running of the Lottery, which was managed by the Ministry of Plenty, but he was aware (indeed everyone in the Party was aware) that the prizes were largely imaginary. Only small sums were actually paid out, the winners of the big prizes being non-existent persons. In the absence of any real inter-communication between one part of Oceania and another, this was not difficult to arrange.

But if there was hope, it lay in the proles. You had to cling on to that. When you put it in words it sounded reasonable: it was when you looked at the human beings passing you on the pavement that it became an act of faith.

Connecting the dots - or not

From the National Post - August 11 (re: London arrests of terror suspects)

In London, the word that dared not speak its name throughout the day of drama was "Muslim". Mayor Ken Livingstone set the tone when he warned against any attempt to blame the Muslim community. "No community in London can or should be targeted or blamed because of the actions of people who are pure criminals."

Senior police officers quickly took up the refrain: It was, said one, outrageous to suggest that the fault lay with Islam, a peace-loving religion that utterly rejected wanton killing. The plot, he declared, was a crime, pure and simple, and the plotters were desperate criminals, pure and simple.

UPDATE: Rebuttal by Paul Wells - Please, at last, spare us this crap

Friday, August 11, 2006

Reason for optimism about Iran ...

... or at least slightly less pessimism.

Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institute has an article in this month's Atlantic magazine, Containing Iran , that suggests that a nuclear confrontation with the demented regime in Iran is not as imminent as some pundits suggest. Why? The United States.
If Iran emerges as a nuclear state, one country in the world will be providentially equipped with decades of applicable experience and a proven strategic template. The country is the United States, the experience is the Cold War, and the template is containment.

Read the whole thing if you want some hopeful news out of the Middle East for a change.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

The power of prayer?

Numerous "scientific" studies have purported to show a causal link between prayer and physical health - for example, a widely reported study done by Columbia University researchers which appeared in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 2001 claimed that women undergoing in-vitro fertilization and receiving prayers for their fertility achieved a pregnancy rate twice that of the group who did not receive prayer. However, this month's issue of Skeptic magazine (vol.12 no.3) points out the scientific flaws in those studies and reports on an exhaustive $2.4 million controlled study done by Harvard University cardiologist Dr. Robert Benson and published in The American Heart Journal.

Dr. Benson's study examined the effects of prayer on 1802 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery in six different hospitals. The patients were divided into three groups: two groups were prayed for by members of three church congregations in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Missouri. One of the two groups was told that they were being prayed for, and the other was not told whether or not they were being prayed for. The third group acted as a control and received no prayers. The study was carefully designed to control for other variables (eg. age, sex, etc).

The results? There was no statistically significant difference between the three groups; in fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher (but not statistically significant) rate of complications (59%) than the patients who were not sure whether they were being prayed for or not (51%). The group in the uninformed prayer group suffered an 18% rate of major complications, compared to 13% in the control group.

The conclusion? Intercessory prayer had no statistical effect on the health or recovery of the patients in the study group, and so-called scientific studies in the past used seriously flawed methodology.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

One reason why we need to be in Afghanistan

The Conservative Party of Canada has been excoriated repeatedly for its position on gay marriage. Liberals & NDPers fulminate constantly that the CPC is the last refuge of bigoted homophobic troglodytes, and that Stephen Harper's hidden agenda involves gay concentration camps and pink triangle badges. So, where in the world is this kind of persecution ACTUALLY taking place? Iraq, Afghanistan & other enlightened parts of the Muslim world. Gay marriage kind of fades in importance when opposition parties are demanding that Harper pull our troops out of situations like this (from The Guardian, UK):

Hardline Islamic insurgent groups in Iraq are targeting a new type of victim with the full protection of Iraqi law, The Observer can reveal. The country is seeing a sudden escalation of brutal attacks on what are being called the ‘immorals’ - homosexual men and children as young as 11 who have been forced into same-sex prostitution. There is growing evidence that Shia militias have been killing men suspected of being gay and children who have been sold to criminal gangs to be sexually abused.
Eleven-year-old Ameer Hasoon al-Hasani was kidnapped by policemen from the front of his house last month. He was known in his district to have been forced into prostitution. His father Hassan told me he searched for his son for three days after his abduction, then found him, shot in the head. A copy of the death certificate confirms the cause of death…Graphic photos obtained from Baghdad sources too frightened to identify themselves as having known a gay man, and seen by the Observer, show other gay Iraqis who have been executed. One shows two men, suspected of having a relationship, blindfolded with their hands tied behind their backs - guns at the ready behind their heads - awaiting execution. Another picture captured on a mobile phone shows a gay man being beaten to death. Yet another shows a corpse being dragged through the streets after his execution.
Homosexuality is seen as so immoral that it qualifies as an ‘honour killing’ to murder someone who is gay - and the perpetrator can escape punishment. Section 111 of Iraq’s penal code lays out protections for murder when people are acting against Islam.

(h/t: GayPatriot

The Invasion of The County

If you read the National Post, you may have noticed an article in Saturday's Toronto section about Prince Edward County. "The County", as the locals call it, is a large peninsula which juts out into Lake Ontario south of Belleville. For decades it was too remote from the economic activity of the rest of Southern Ontario to experience any of the rapid development that other communities like Kingston experienced; consequently, it largely retained its small-town rural charm. It also has spectacular beaches and beautiful bays and inlets.

Well, The County has been discovered. "Toronto people" are buying up lakefront properties, building monster homes, establishing wineries, opening gourmet restaurants, antique shops, spas and B&Bs everywhere. Prince Edward County is the new Niagara-on-the-lake. Celebrities like the late Robert Urich, Sonja Smits and chef Jamie Kennedy all have homes there.

I'm not anti-development - in fact, I moved to Eastern Ontario from Toronto myself 20 years ago for the very same reasons, and I think everyone who has the resources should be able to do the same. However, this type of gentrification has a down-side: it's not necessarily good for the local long-time inhabitants.

As Deirdre McMurdy of The Post wrote, quoting a store-owner in Picton; "We should be doing better with all the money coming in the area these days. But the fact is, the city people don't shop here in a big way and the local people can't afford to live here anymore. Our trade has become very seasonal and by Thanksgiving it's mighty quiet".

People who live and work in the area year-round can't afford the million-dollar lakefront lots, and need steady employment. That means that places like Prince Edward County need affordable subdivisions of new homes to live in and industrial development to provide jobs. The problem is that this kind of growth is anathema to the wealthy people who come to the County for its unspoiled bucolic charm. Every subdivision, every big-box store, every land-fill site, and especially every new industry is fought tooth and nail by well-heeled nouveau-residents with lots of legal resources. There's even opposition to a wind turbine electrical generator array along the lake which might spoil the view, although you'd think that the celebrities who summer there would close their eyes and think of Kyoto.

People who drive through beautiful rural areas like Prince Edward County, the Niagara Peninsula, or the Kawartha Lakes and shudder with disgust every time they see a factory being built or a group of bungalows going up in a farmer's field need to get a grip on reality. This is especially true of people who move there and then cry "no more!" when others try to do the same, and fight to prevent the very development that allowed them to live in the area in the first place. These regions cannot exist in some kind of fossilized stasis for the amusement of tourists - otherwise the whole place would have to be turned over to Parks Canada and run as a living history museum, with the locals in their amusing costumes performing their quaint folkways for paying guests.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Please shut up

At the Rome stop in Madonna's Confessions tour, she appeared on stage wearing a crown of thorns, crucified on a cross of mirrors. Her spokeswoman, Liz Rosenberg, said in an e-mail, "the context of Madonna's performance on the crucifix is not negative nor disrespectful toward the church".

Kind of puts the Danish Mohammed cartoons in perspective, doesn't it? Where's the rioting in Vatican City?

Sunday, August 06, 2006

American-style welfare reform

Remember the Common Sense Revolution in Ontario and the Harris Tories' welfare reforms? Remember the hysterical tirades in and out of the Legislature, the CUPE, OPSEU and teachers' union protests, the storming of Queen's Park by the Coalition Against Poverty, the "Days of Action" and the "civil disobedience"? Similar scenarios were played out in BC when Gordon Campbell's government attempted similar reforms. A major result of all this is that serious discussion of welfare reform is effectively off-limits in Canadian "civil society".

The July 29 issue of The Economist has a great article ("From welfare to workfare") which analyzes the legacy of American welfare reforms enacted 10 years ago during the Clinton administration and initiated by the Republican-controlled Congress. The reforms imposed five-year time limits on receipt of welfare benefits , gave states incentives to reduce their welfare rolls, and gave them money and flexibility to experiment with programs to get people off welfare and into the workforce. You should read this article if you want to be prepared for a debate on welfare in Canada. Here are the salient points:

  • After peaking in 1994 (two years before the reforms, when many states were experimenting with their own reforms), welfare case loads have fallen by 60%, from 5 million to 2 million families.
  • The biggest increase in employment rates was for single mothers, from 44% employment in 1993 to 66% in 2000.
  • The poverty rate in the U.S. dropped from 15.1% in 1993 to 11.3% in 2000, despite predictions that welfare recipients being cut off from benefits would drastically increase poverty.
  • Part of the increase in employment can be attributed to the booming economy, but according to a University of Chicago/RAND Corp. study, this could only plausibly account for one-third of the drop in welfare case loads.
  • The earnings of women who left welfare for employment rose by more than their cash assistance fell; on balance their net incomes rose by 25% in real terms. Many women who started out in entry-level minimum-wage service jobs got enough training and education, with government help, to enter careers like teaching, nursing or social work. Not only was their pay boosted sharply, but they also now receive health insurance and other benefits.

The article does find that between 10 and 15 percent of former welfare recipients are currently neither working nor on welfare, and much of this group is made up of people with mental or physical disabilities or substance-abuse problems. Clearly there is a hard-core group of people that have not been helped by welfare reforms, but the states are in a much better position to target programs at this group than they were before the reforms.

Lots of work still has to be done in the U.S. to reduce poverty, but the lesson here is that the heartless Republican reforms of 10 years ago that prompted doomsday scenario predictions from the left actualy helped poor people. Canadians (especially left-wing Liberals and NDPers) would be wise to heed this lesson.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Street theatre

There's no live theatre where I live, but on hot summer nights the next best thing is to sit in the house and listen to the dramas being played out on my street through the open windows. Last night, four teenagers in various stages of inebriation were arguing - here's my favourite part:

Male teen 1: "That's it - we're done. You're not my f---in' friends anymore.

Male teen 2: "What the f---'s wrong with you anyway, Kyle?

Male teen 1: "Wrong with ME? You threw my brother out of a moving car, that's what's wrong !

Couples frequently fight loudly and publicly on my street. A few summers ago, I overheard this line shouted during a domestic dispute, just before the police arrived:

Male voice: "How come every time we fight, I'M the one who ends up in jail?"

Never a dull moment.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Myths of Idyllic Rural Life

The tragedy of the abduction of the two boys in Saskatchewan this week pointed out some of the mistaken beliefs about life in rural areas that a lot of Canadians have. As we watched the coverage of the distraught residents of Whitewood as they searched for their missing 10 year old, we heard comments like "We didn't think something like this could happen in a town like this". People have mistaken ideas that life in rural communities is some kind of Walden Pond back-to-the-land utopian existence. The truth is often ugly and unpleasant.

Isolated rural communities have a crime problem. There is a serious lack of police presence in most rural areas. I live in a town in Eastern Ontario, pop. 1500, which effectively has no police most of the time. The Ontario Provincial Police operate out of a detachment in a nearby town that is about 15 minutes away - they are responsible for a huge thinly-populated area which by definition makes response times ridiculously long when a crime is committed. At night, when the serious crimes are happening, this detachment is closed and calls to the OPP are referred to a dispatcher in a city even further away. When my house was burglarized a few years ago, it took the OPP 40 minutes to arrive. Criminals certainly know this - a local sporting goods store closed because it couldn't absorb the losses from night-time robberies any longer. In one incident, a van backed up to the storefront, smashed the display window, looted the store and drove off with time to spare before the police arrived. The local branch of the TD bank has been robbed in broad daylight several times since I've lived here.

Life for a lot of kids, especially teenagers, isn't a bed of roses out here either. Most teenagers in rural areas are bused to district high schools that can be very far from home and can involve hours on the road every day. Extra-curricular activities that urban kids take for granted are often out of reach for rural teens who don't have their own transportation. Even normal teenager partying can be hazardous - it usually involves field parties at some remote farm, and by definition involves alcohol and cars. The conventional wisdom here is that any car on a rural road after 1:00 am has a driver that has consumed alcohol.

Get sick or injured in a rural area? Good luck. I lived here for six years before I had a family doctor, and the nearest hospital is 40 minutes away. Doctors take new patients out here by lottery - you put your name in a hat and the lucky winners get a doctor! My dog gets better treatment - there are six veterinarians within a 30 km radius that I could see at a moment's notice, but no doctors taking new patients. If you live out here and need to see a specialist, or god-forbid a psychiatrist, my advice is to drive to Buffalo NY and take your VISA card.

Rural life has many rewards - I wouln't be living here otherwise. However, a lot of resources are poured into urban areas after crimes like Toronto's Boxing Day shooting, but nobody seems to have any serious ideas about dealing with the serious situation outside the GTA. Crime Stoppers, Neighbourhood Watch and Block Parents aren't good enough.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

British theme park calls off "Muslim Fun Day"

No editorial comment here - the story speaks for itself:

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's biggest theme park has called off the country's first "National Muslim Fun Day" because of lack of interest, the park said Wednesday.

Alton Towers in central England was to open on September 17 for Muslims -- with halal food, a strict dress code and prayer areas.

Music, gambling and alcohol were to be banned for the day and theme park rides such as "Ripsaw," "Corkscrew" and "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" all segregated by sex.

But the park said the event's organizers, Islamic Leisure, who rented the park for the day and were marketing the event, had called it off due to "insufficient ticket sales."

h/t: Queer Conservative

Separated at birth?

Mel Gibson

Saddam Hussein

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Canada's love affair with Cuba

Fidel Castro's recent illness has prompted rejoicing in Cuban expatriate communities in Miami and Puerto Rico, but in Canada we are reminded by talking heads on CTV and CBC that it's not nice to gloat over someone else's misfortunes. What is it with Canadians and Cuba? Thousands of Canadians vacation there every year at gated all-inclusive resorts and then return with glowing tales of how idyllic life is for the friendly natives they met in the great Socialist Utopia.

I had occasion to take a trip to Cuba in 2001 with a group of Canadian high-school musicians who were there on a school trip. I was shocked by what I saw, but the other members of the group, bar none, had nothing but glowing praise for the experience. How could we have gone to the same place and had such different interpretations of what we saw?

Flying into Jose Marti Airport in Havana is like being in a documentary about the fall of Saigon. The airport is dilapidated, the runways are lined with Soviet planes in various stages of dismemberment, and when you enter the terminal you are mobbed by Cubans begging to carry your bags or call you a cab. The ride from the airport to Old Havana was unbelievable - through neighbourhoods of neglected and crumbling apartment blocks where Cubans live in grinding poverty - mile upon mile of slums. The highways were crowded with every conceivable kind of vehicle - the bus wove in and out between ancient pre-1959 American cars, Russian Ladas, bicycles, donkey carts and rickshaws, all overlooked by propaganda billboards featuring Che Guevara exhorting the populace to continue the Socialist Revolution and fight the American imperialists.

Old Havana is so decayed that a single force 5 hurricane will collapse whole neighbourhoods if it scores a direct hit. The government has restored the most significant buildings - the cathedral, the Morro Castle, the colonial Spanish fortifications,and they are truly impressive, but the rest of the city is a catastrophe. Tourists walking around on foot are aggressively panhandled every few seconds by Cubans of all types - pregnant women, old men, young children - all desperate for American dollars. The restaurants in Old Havana are disgusting - we waited an hour and a half in one filthy place that had been pre-arranged for us by the tour company, finally receiving a chicken leg, a pile of rice and beans and a can of soda while a Cuban band played Guantanamera over and over again, and then went from table to table panhandling.

The contrast to the gated resort we stayed at in Varadero was dramatic. Varadero is a peninsula that has had its Cuban inhabitants relocated, and entrance to the resorts is limited to tourists and Cubans who are fortunate enough to work there. The bus trip to Varadero from Havana passes through miles of decaying towns and blasted, strip-mined and polluted landscapes that are truly depressing. The resort is like any North American vacation resort - buffet meals, swimming pools, pristine beaches - but Canadians who encounter Cuba only through this portal have no idea how the typical Cuban lives. The Cubans who worked at the hotel were reluctant to talk about it, but they would volunteer that life was hard for them and their families, and Cubans who had access to dollars (resort employees, people with relatives in Florida) could eke out a meagre existence but anyone who didn't had a hard life.

So, what do you hear your fellow Canadians say about all this? Things like (these are actual quotations):
"Sure, they have an oppressive government and live in poverty, but they have a great health-care system."
"You know, considering the poverty the typical Cuban lives in, they sure are a)clean b)friendly c)well-dressed d)healthy e)happy"
"Canada has been a great friend to Cuba over the years - you know Fidel Castro was a pall-bearer at Pierre Trudeau's funeral."
"This _____________________ sure is quaint/has a lot of character" (said in reference to the filthy restaurants, the run-down cities, the schools (we toured one), the food, the panhandlers, or anything Cuban that we would not tolerate in our own country.)
"Boy, the food is great" (referring to the lavish buffets in the gated hotel in Varadero where we eat food not available to Cubans)
"The cigars/rum are great here" (like you can't get Cuban cigars or rum at home)
"The beaches are great" (like they aren't anywhere else in the free world, like Florida or Puerto Rico.)

I could go on, and may do so in another post, but suffice it to say that I find the attitude of Canadians to Cuba to be at best embarassing and at worst shameful, especially from Canadians who have actually been there. Here's to your health, Fidel.