Nine Things We Learnt This Week

1. George Bush, explained.

The devil made him

” ‘Evil exists in politics, quite often in fact,’ Father Amorth said.  ‘The devil loves to take over business leaders and those who hold political office.  Hitler and Stalin were possessed.  How do I know? Because they killed millions of people.  The Gospel says: ‘By their fruits you will know them.’  Unfortunately, an exorcism on them would not have been enough, since they were convinced of what they were doing.  We can’t say it was a possession in the strict sense of the word, but rather a total and voluntary acceptance of the suggestions of the devil.’ ”

2. Ships of the Damned.

“The analysis, due to be published this year by the human rights organisation Reprieve, also claims there have been more than 200 new cases of rendition since 2006, when President George Bush declared that the practice had stopped.

It is the use of ships to detain prisoners, however, that is raising fresh concern and demands for inquiries in Britain and the US.

According to research carried out by Reprieve, the US may have used as many as 17 ships as ‘floating prisons’ since 2001. Detainees are interrogated aboard the vessels and then rendered to other, often undisclosed, locations, it is claimed.

Ships that are understood to have held prisoners include the USS Bataan and USS Peleliu. A further 15 ships are suspected of having operated around the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which has been used as a military base by the UK and the Americans.”

3. And so it begins. (1)

“His wife going off on a rant about how evil “whitey” is, and conspiracies that he is a covert Muslim trying to infiltrate our democracy are nothing more than rumors…at least at this point. However, there are plenty of things the media don’t put enough focus on that are true about the Obamas. Instead they would rather focus on things like his playful fist-bump. They have to keep their priorities on the important issues.”

4. And so it begins. (2)

The victim of a plagiarized lie

“Despite the tenuousness of this rumor, Obama was actually asked about this non-existent video in front of the national press by a reporter the other day. Understandably, he pushed back hard on the notion that he should have to answer such a question.

Now Jim Geraghty of National Review has claimed that the rumor may be based on…fiction. A political thriller called The Power Broker, published in 2006 by Stephen Frey, features the presidential campaign of Dem candidate Jesse Wood, who’s aspiring to be the country’s first African-American president.

We went out and got the book. And sure enough, in the novel, Wood’s opponents discover video of the candidate himself — not his wife — discussing with a radical black minister how he will ‘f— whitey’ when he gets into office, despite all his public rhetoric about racial reconciliation.”

5. We’re shocked. Really.  (1)

“The space agency’s internal watchdog, the inspector general, reports that from autumn 2004 until early 2006 Nasa’s central public affairs office handled global warming in a way that ‘reduced, marginalised, or mischaracterised climate change science made available to the general public’.

The confirmation of political interference is vindication for James Hansen, Nasa’s chief climate scientist and one of the first to sound the alarm over global warming. Claims of political dallying surfaced when Hansen said he had been blocked from taking part in a National Public Radio interview in December 2005.”

6. We’re shocked. Really. (2)

” ‘In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent,’ Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman, said at a news conference. ‘As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.’

The report, the last and most contentious of a series of Senate reviews of prewar intelligence, sought to compare the administration’s public claims about Iraq with the intelligence reports available to them at the time. While many of the White House’s statements — such as Bush’s warnings about a secret Iraqi nuclear program — were amply supported by intelligence files at the time, the report said, others were not.”

7. Still dead.

Miracle of the embalmer’s art

8. Must-read essay of the week.

“I am not blind to the imperfections of this America, or the failures to always meet these ideals at home and abroad. I spent 20 years of my life in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans as a foreign correspondent reporting in countries where crimes and injustices were committed in our name, whether during the Contra war in Nicaragua or the brutalization of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces. But there was much that was good and decent and honorable in our country. And there was hope.

The country I live in today uses the same words to describe itself, the same patriotic symbols and iconography, the same national myths, but only the shell remains. America, the country of my birth, the country that formed and shaped me, the country of my father, my father’s father and his father’s father, stretching back to the generations of my family that were here for the country’s founding, is so diminished as to be nearly unrecognizable. I do not know if this America will return, even as I pray and work and strive for its return. The “consent of the governed” has become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science are obsolete. Our state, our nation, has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations and a narrow, selfish political elite, a small and privileged group which governs on behalf of moneyed interests. We are undergoing, as John Ralston Saul wrote, ‘a coup d’etat in slow motion.’ We are being impoverished — legally, economically, spiritually and politically. And unless we soon reverse this tide, unless we wrest the state away from corporate hands, we will be sucked into the dark and turbulent world of globalization where there are only masters and serfs, where the American dream will be no more than that — a dream, where those who work hard for a living can no longer earn a decent wage to sustain themselves or their families, whether in sweatshops in China or the decaying rust belt of Ohio, where democratic dissent is condemned as treason and ruthlessly silenced.”

9. Because they can.

House of Commons Votes to Protect War Resisters

Unfortunately, it’s non-binding. The Tories voted against the motion.

From the Canadian Friends Service Committee, the peace and social justice agency of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers):

Today, just after 3 pm, the House of Commons voted 137 – 110 in favour of the 3rd report of the Standing Committee on Immigration and Citizenship, which included this motion:

that the government immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members (partners and dependents), who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations and do not have a criminal record, to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada; and that the government should immediately cease any removal or deportation actions that may have already commenced against such individuals.

The motion is not legally binding on the Government to implement (the governing party is the Conservative Party of Canada of which every member voted against the motion). Most would say it is morally binding as it reflects the will of Parliament, which is to reflect the will of the people.

So, there will still be work to be done to pressure for its implementation (the focus now is really on the Government itself, as all members present from the Bloc, Liberal and NDP voted in favour – and all of these Party Leaders and high-profile MPs from these parties were present for the vote, which is significant).

Thanks to all of you for your terrific action, prayers, and persistence in helping this to happen. The War Resisters Support Campaign, in particular, is to be congratulated for their key role along the way.

Small victories are big steps, and we are closer to our desire to see all conscientious objectors receive the protection they deserve, particularly at this time the ones from the USA who refused to fight in Iraq.

Please monitor the “News and Events” section of http://www.cfsc.quaker.ca and the Campaign’s site – http://www.resisters.ca – for up-to-date information on next steps as the E-newsletter is not scheduled until end of June.

In Friendship,

Orion

Jane Orion Smith
General Secretary
Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

War Resister Ordered Deported

A statement issued today by the Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers), The United Church of Canada, the  Mennonite Central Committee – Canada and the American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

Canada No Longer a Safe Haven for U.S .War Resisters:
A Response to Ottawa’s Decision to Deport Corey Glass
 
Toronto: As signatories to the War Resisters Declaration, our concern for conscientious objectors around the world leads us to speak out against the decision today to order the first deportation of a U.S. war resister who had come to Canada seeking refuge.

Corey Glass is a Sergeant in the United States National Guard. In July 2006, after his first tour of service in Iraq, Corey Glass fled to Canada, and applied for refugee status, which was refused.

Today, Glass was informed by the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration that he is at no risk of persecution in being sent back to the United States and, moreover, that he will not be allowed to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Although many may say, “Well, he volunteered, he should be willing to suffer the consequences of his actions”, we believe this is a misguided  understanding about consequence and conscience. Punishment should not be the product of conscientious action. Rather it is the result of conscience being met by callousness and a closed heart. In the best of worlds, conscientious objections open our eyes and hearts to see another view of the world as it is, and call upon us, at minimum, to not be complacent and, at best, to work for change and redress.

Corey Glass came to Canada after his military duty in Iraq led him to realize that he had a conscientious objection to the war – its objectives and the way that it was being fought, with clear violations of international law.

Some may also question whether members of an “all-volunteer army” have any rights of asylum. The UNHCR Handbook on Refugees, the standard-bearer for such questions, says they do. To qualify for asylum, a soldier must “show that the performance of military service would have required his participation in military action contrary to his genuine political, religious or moral convictions, or to valid reasons of conscience.” Being in disagreement with one’s government is not enough, unless “the type of military action…is condemned by the international community as contrary to basic rules of human conduct, punishment for desertion or draft-evasion could, in the light of all other requirements of the definition, in itself be regarded as persecution.”

Many countries, including Canada, refused to participate in the Iraq war because it was not sanctioned by the Security Council. Many churches and citizens in Canada and around the world opposed the war . And, in 2004, the UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, declared that “[The Iraq War] was not in conformity with the UN charter from our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.”

The Iraq War’s human rights abuses, particularly related to torture and unjust detention, have been condemned in the press and by international human rights organizations. What further evidence is needed to demonstrate that a refusal to serve in this war meets the burden of proof for international condemnation? Volunteering for the army does not mean that a soldier signs away their conscience – or their rights.

Sadly, today, Canada failed Corey Glass. But more than that, it has failed Canadians who themselves believe in protecting not only those who  are at risk of torture or persecution, but also those who have “done the right thing”. Their punishment will be tantamount to persecution.

And Canada, which so warmly welcomed tens of thousands of men and women – draft dodgers, deserters, conscientious objectors – from Viet Nam and other wars, has regrettably taken a step backwards in demonstrating moral stewardship.

For the war resisters, their good faith was abused by an administration that misled them about the basis of the war (“weapons of mass destruction”; links to 9/11). It took courage for them to say “no” and even more courage to leave all that is familiar behind and come to Canada. And now they  are being  betrayed by the country that for so many others has been a safe haven.

Punishment was not a requisite outcome for these conscientious objectors but it will  be their destiny unless Canadians themselves speak up and tell the Government of Canada to not deport these young people and to let them stay.
 
Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)
The United Church of Canada
Mennonite Central Committee – Canada
American Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

The Hype. The Reality.

From electoral-vote.com:

McCain versus Obama
Electoral Votes: Obama 237     McCain 290     Ties 11

McCain versus Clinton:
Electoral Votes: Clinton 279     McCain 242     Ties 17

There’s a blog called The Truth About John Sydney McCain which has as its tagline:

This blog provides the ugly but well-researched and documented truth about John McCain’s voting record, his fatal inconsistencies, his marital unfaithfulness and divorce record, his absurd and dangerous statements about Iraq and Iran, and all of the reasons why Senator John McCain from arid Arizona ought never, ever become president of the United States of America.

I would probably and unfortunately add, “But will.” Looking at the above maps, I get a sinking feeling, an unpleasant sensation of deja vu.  Since when has recklessness, unfaithfulness and absurdity prevented a  Republican candidate from being elected? John Kerry was supposed to stomp all over George Bush, then eat him for breakfast.  Ditto for Dukakis and the senior Bush.  R. Reagan, the most idiotic and ridiculous of all, won handily, twice.  The plain truth is that Americans and the American media love deeply flawed politicians — if they are Republican.  (There’s even an acronym for the phenomenom: IOKIYAR –It’s OK If You’re A Republican.)

In the weird metaphysics of American political life, obvious character defects becomes assets, because, I think, there is a nice resonance with overtly Christian notions of redemption, and larger American themes of mastering personal obstacles. Reagan’s clear indifference to important details metamorphed into an ability to see the large picture.  Similarly, George Bush the younger’s odd incuriosity is lionized in some places as “studied detachment.”  The transformation of John McCain has yet to begin in earnest, but one suspects his well-documented temper (for example) will become, in time, “assertiveness” or “willing to defend America” or some such tripe.  No such slack is cut for Democrats, who tend to be skewered for the slightest lapses. Contrast Obama’s difficulties with his pastor against McCain’s largely painless collection of John Haggee’s endorsement.

It is admittedly a long way till the November elections, but it seems the Democrats are on the cusp of choosing the unelectable candidate.  Despite the hype confusing desire with reality — and remember the primaries are not the general election — Barack Obama has problems. The mathematics are daunting. Hillary Clinton’s argument, that Democrats ought to choose the candidate who can carry the big states, is essentially correct. Obama’s behind in Florida and Ohio, two states he must carry to win the presidency.  He probably won’t flip any red states.

Politically, the Republicans are going to thump three memes: he’s too young, too inexperienced, and too liberal. The last of these, the tag of liberalism, still strikes fear into the hearts of many American voters, and will be a hard one to avoid, given Obama’s voting record. The ramblings of Obama’s turbulent priest haven’t helped.  The loony right is already circulating stories of Obama being a secret Muslim in thrall to sharia law, and a version of this story has even appeared in the editorial pages of the New York Times.  Like any good propagandists, they know if they say it enough times, it becomes true.  McCain may denounce such idiocies, but note they are consonant with his latest attacks on Obama’s foreign policy objectives. And the media has, thus far, given McCain a free ride, assigning him such vote-getting American virtues as a “war hero”, “straight talking” and “maverick” (though his maverickness has somewhat declined as late: he voted the party line 80% of the time in 2007, as opposed to 65% in 2006.) And he looks like everyone’s kindly grandfather, wisps of thinning white hair blowing in the breeze, though he apparently refers to his wife by a word not repeated in polite company. I will even go on a very windy limb and suggest (with increasing sorrow), that with all of this and IOKIYAR at work, barring some catastrophe John McCain will win in November.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like Obama. If I were an American citizen, I would surely work for him. John McCain I despise, for reasons quite unrelated to his politics. What does it say about his character, to utter a boorish two-liner about an 18-year old girl, even if she is the daughter of a political enemy? (No doubt, somewhere, this is being spun as “straight talk.” And don’t forget IOKIYAR.)

I hope I am wrong, but one must be prepared for the future.  My only advice then, in the face of despair, is to invest in the company manufacturing “Hillary 2012” buttons and related campaign paraphernalia, because surely that’s where she and the Democratic Party are heading.

Free Speech Hysteria: Does Anyone Smell a Rat?

Studied outrage over the tribulations of Mark Steyn and Maclean’s before various human rights commissions continued this last week, with editorials appearing in both the National Post and Maclean’s.  Granted, the complaints were an abuse of process, and means need to be found to prevent the frivolous and vexatious from reaching the tribunals.  Freedom of speech ought to be absolute, no matter how odious the subject.  But at the same time, I find myself unmoved by the suppression of free speech the complaints supposedly produced.  In point of fact no one’s speech was actually curtailed.  As much as some might have wished,  the authorities have not sequestered and burnt the original Maclean’s article in any figurative or literal public square.  Mark Steyn continues to issue his screeds from his New Hampshire redoubt, unmolested.  No agents in the name of state security have hauled him to a nameless gulag.  A cursory glance at the magazine rack indicates Maclean’s still publishes openly, its reduction to the status of samizdat postponed to the indefinite future.  At the end of the fuss, it’s rather unclear as to whether Maclean’s et al. are outraged over attempts to limit their speech by a few law students, or whether someone had the audacity to challenge the received wisdom on Islam and the West.

To be sure, the importance of freedom of speech cannot be underestimated, and the complaints, where they have been adjudicated, have been rightly tossed out.  My sourness at this triumph of freedom of expression resides in the generally parlous state of civil liberties in general: the subtle contempt for notions of human rights and due process by the present government, the replacement of open and fair trials by arbitrary justice, accusation treated as evidence for determining guilt or innocence, the implicit endorsement of torture as state policy, even if we do not condone it on our own soil, the endless intrusions on individual privacy by a government already bloated with information, “no-fly” lists, and the gaping void of secrecy which obscures all of these activities  — all in the name of national security against a nebulous enemy whose strength the public cannot begin to gauge, because that too is secret.  While Maclean’s, The National Post and other organs of the free press fret away countless pails of ink on the real and imagined dangers to free speech, the erosion continues, unchecked and unremarked upon by the right-wing press (and the media in general), in this country and abroad. 

Examples of undereporting are numerous. If you believe this is because civil liberties in Canada are intact, think again.  For example, in April 2007 The International Commission of Jurists held public hearings in Toronto and Ottawa to investigate the impact of counter terrorism legislation on civil liberties. I quote part of its report at length:

The definition of terrorism and related offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA)

  • Concerns were expressed about the speed with which ATA was enacted and in particular about the broad definition of “terrorist activity” contained in the Act and the risk that the clause requiring that the act be committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” leads to discrimination against the Muslim and Arab communities. Many witnesses, including representatives of Arab and Muslim communities drew attention to a widespread belief within these communities that the implementation of the Act is directed against Muslims and Arabs resulting in their stigmatization and a sense of insecurity. In this context, some participants welcomed the October 2006 ruling of the Superior Court of Ontario in the Khawaja case striking down the motivation requirement provision for being a violation of the rights to freedom of religion, expression and association while others expressed concern that the decision in fact broadens the definition. The Government representatives informed the Panel that they were aware of the concerns of the Muslim community and that positive action is taken to create a climate in which these concerns can be addressed and resolved. 
  • Concerns were raised about the breadth and imprecision of terminology used in the ATA, in particular the offence of “facilitating terrorist activities” and its potential implications for charities and persons.

Privacy

Concerns were raised about warrantless electronic surveillance of international communications introduced under ATA and the lack of adequate safeguards over collection, storage and sharing of the data. Participants expressed the view that an erosion of privacy within a free and democratic society could, in the long run, make the Canadian population less secure.

Secrecy

Growing secrecy surrounding national security measures was raised as a major issue of concern, in particular, the increasing reliance on untested intelligence information that becomes a substitute for evidence. In addition, concerns were expressed about cross-border sharing of intelligence information and about action taken on the basis of that intelligence that may have been obtained through torture and has often proven to be inaccurate. These actions are a matter of great concern when liberty is at stake as documented by the Maher Arar Commission of Inquiry. In light of these concerns, the introduction of a provision in Canada’s domestic legislation to clearly prohibit the use in all legal and administrative proceedings of evidence obtained by torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment was proposed by some participants.

  • Concerns were raised also about the use of security certificates under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) as a form of administrative detention against non-citizens suspected of being a security threat and that, in practice, has led to the detention for years without charge or trial of those subject to the certificates with very limited judicial review.
  • Concerns were expressed about the secrecy of the proceedings (ex parte and in camera) in security certificate cases where evidence is presented only to the judge in the absence of the suspect and his or her counsel who only receive an unclassified summary of those proceedings. 
  • Although almost all individuals subject to security certificates have been released as a result of the Charkaoui decision, strict conditions and limitations have been imposed on them affecting their freedom of movement and their right to privacy. These measures constitute a severe form of punishment for persons who have not been accused or convicted of any crime. Several participants have expressed scepticism about the possible resort to special advocates as used in the United Kingdom as this system also falls short of guaranteeing due process rights.

 Deportation on the basis of diplomatic assurances against torture

  • Serious concerns were raised about increasing reliance upon diplomatic assurances against torture to deport non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. It was stressed that such deportation constitutes a major departure from the absolute prohibition in international law to send persons to countries where they face a risk of torture or ill-treatment.

This collection of particulars, from government invasion of privacy, to effectively imposing punishment on suspected terrorists without trial, to the use of immigration law as a tool to detain suspected security risks — an abuse of process if there ever was one — garnered exactly two references in the Canadian media, a Canadian Press story subsequently picked up by a Montreal radio station. In contrast, a quick Google News search on the Steyn complaint yields 398 returns. Bloggers in this case did a bit better: three posts referred to it.  The outrage was palpable, except it wasn’t.

Or we can talk about the larger international scandal of detainees in United States custody.  Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera journalist was released from prison four days ago. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised: the likes of Maclean’s and Mark Steyn –or CBC, CTV, or CanWest Global– aren’t particularly interested in his plight.  He was one of the 275 faceless prisoners still remaining in American custody at Guantanamo Bay.  He was arrested in Pakistan after the Afghan invasion, despite being accredited with Al Jazeera, apparently for the crime of being Muslim, Sudanese, and a journalist all at once. He had obtained an interview with Osama bin Laden and between 1996 and 2000 he transferred money at the behest of his then employer to Islamic charities linked to terrorist activity.  He spent 78 months at Guantanamo as an “enemy combatant.”  No charges were ever laid. He was never tried.  His lawyer was prevented by law from seeing the evidence against him.  He went on a hunger strike, and for the last sixteen months he was force-fed by means of a naso-gastric tube twice daily, a procedure when administered against an unwilling person, is the very definition of torture. When finally released, one imagines a few hushed words of regret, a token offer of compensation, a handshake and the equivalent of a second-hand suit and a bus ticket.  There was none of that. Instead, he was blindfolded, handcuffed and chained to his seat on his flight home.  “In Guantanamo,” he says, “rats are treated with more humanity.” One can believe it.

Sami al Hajj’s treatment at the hands of U.S. authoities is not unusual.  The 275-odd prisoners still confined at Guantanamo are just the beginning.  Reprieve, one of the few organizations which will advocate for “enemy combatants” estimates that 14,000 men are imprisoned in secret American jails, caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic doublespeak, without legal recourse or even simple hope, and in far worse conditions than Guantanamo. 

Which brings me back to Maclean’s, The National Post and other media organizations which tilt rightward.  How many column inches did the magazine, or any other media outlet in Canada devote to the story of Sami al-Hajj, or to any of the thousands languishing in secret prisons, or even on the concerted attack on civil rights in this country in the past year?  Instead we receive lengthly sermons on the supposed threat to individual liberty posed by those firebrand, authoritarian-minded human rights commissioners  — a danger that in any reasonable analysis is negligable and in any case easily fixed, at least compared to the hysterical morass of anti-terrorist measures. Free speech is integral to civil liberties.  But does anyone seriously think Mark Steyn’s right to free speech and Maclean’s right to publish this speech was ever in jeopardy?  There is a certain gap in credibility, where the rightwing press can mouth pieties about free speech while wilfully ignoring more egregious violations of human rights.  Apparently the rights of well-connected pundits and the corporate media are sacrosanct.  Everyone else can go rot.

One suspects under different circumstances the hue and cry might be different and–let’s say it softly–another agenda might be at work. Fulminations against the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 and the civil rights iniquities of Pierre Trudeau are still regular fodder for pundits even now, twenty-four years after Trudeau left office.  Under the present government, not to mention the Bush Administration, similar abuses of power, and worse, are given a pass.  It should not be forgotten either that human rights commissions have been intensely disliked by conservatives since their inception.  They interfered with property rights, said conservatives, or religious or personal belief , and  they even proposed the hackneyed arguments that more appropriate remedies were to be found in the market place or the civil courts. (Let pass that not so long ago racial and religious discrimination was justifed by Holy Writ, and that the poor and marginalized haven’t the money to buy their way out of discrimination or launch a lawsuit.)  However unjustified the proceedings against Steyn and Maclean’s, their cause has become a vehicle to attack the HRCs in general as inquisitional bodies hellbent on destroying individual liberty, whether the facts bear this interpretation or not. Lastly, can it be that the conservative media has bought the government’s position that the threat of Islamic terrorism is so overwhelming that the safety of all is worth the sacrifice of a few civil liberties and the notion of due process?  Subtext: the story is already done (though the abuses continue,) the debate is over, and who really cares if a few grubby Muslims are caught up in the net.

Complicity with the authoritarian’s eternal cry of safety trumping freedom or even silence becuase one has common cause with the ruling party’s ideology, is a dangerous game for the conservative press.  At best it exposes the rhetoric around freedom of speech for what it is — rubbishy cant.  In the long view, secrecy, arbitrary proceedings, extraordinary renditions and the rest of it are the antithesis of democratic society, for ultimately all of these are the root of corruption of power and the seeds of tyranny, where no accountibility is possible: a no man’s land where predators roam freely.  The contrast with the much-maligned human rights commissions, with their insistance on due process and open proceedings, accompanied by a vigourous debate on their purpose and relevance, could not be greater.  It is a contrast worth pondering.

Obama, Hawking and the Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe

So I spent the week pissing around with a post.  I used up hours marshalling facts, arguments and raw data, pondering over whether this phrase or that represented le mot juste, and generally parsing nothing at all.  My opus major was to be on the topic of Islam and Europe, and the hysteria contained therein, and about how various right-wing writers aren’t so much concerned about Islam in Europe as finding another stick to beat the Left with (and being misongynist and xenophobic along the way.)  It’s a topic I find deeply interesting, and yet. . . the mojo wasn’t working on this one.  Maybe next week.

In the meantime the latest meme (or idiocy, take your pick) surfacing in the U.S. presidential campaign is that Barack Obama is the anti-christ.  Yeah, the real deal, with the name of the beast tattoed on his scalp and a strange, almost devilish, ability to lure superdelegates away from Hillary Clinton.   The proof is clear. It’s in the Bible, for all to see who can  — and people gone wacko over Revelations always somehow skip over all those inconvenient bits about loving your neighbour, giving your money to the poor, visiting the imprisoned, etc.  (Google Obama anti-christ and you will see myriad semi-literate examples. It’s pathological.)

In a related story, Stephen Hawking says, “Primitive life [in the Universe] is very common and intelligent life is fairly rare. Some would say it has yet to occur on Earth.”  Ha ha.  

Prof. Hawking was actually speaking on the need for humanity to get off the planet at a conderence in Washington.  It’s a fairly common theme, incidentally, of hard science fiction writers, like Stephen Baxter.  The argument being, it’s probably stupid of us to put all our eggs in one basket, i.e. the Earth, and the solar system could provide virtually unlimited resources for humanity.  Says Hawking:

People might well have argued it was a waste of money to send Columbus on a wild goose chase. Yet the discovery of the new world made profound difference to the old. Spreading out into space will have an even greater effect. It will completely change the future of the human race and maybe determine whether we have any future at all.

 

The Slow Science of Phenology

More incontrovertible signs of spring arrived this week: spring peepers and chorus frogs began their eons-old ritual of calling, mating and reproducing, road construction crews are similarly multiplying, and Peterborough County is choking under its first smog alert of the year.

I’m most interested in the frogs.  For a number of years, I’ve been informally recording in my journal the date of their annual appearance.  Last year, they first gave song the evening of 28 March; the year before it was 3 April.  This year, mostly owing to the depth of the snow cover, it was 14 April. This relates to a fascinating subset of climate change science, a small revival of phenology, an old methodology describing the rhythms and changes of the seasons and their recurring effects on the natural environment, including plant and animal life. It’s an approach which draws on natural history methods of drawing inferences from simple observation over a number of years, and involves looking at selected indicators.  So, for example, an observer might record the dates of ice breakup on her local stream, or the first flowering of the red maple on her front lawn.  Observations over time provide evidence of the effect of climate change on the environment as a whole.

Canadian records, alas, are scarce, though there is an effort to begin such recordkeeping on a mass scale through the Plantwatch program. A similar project is ongoing in the United States. In Britain, where observations have been kept for much longer — indeed, the science of phenology was a sort of national pastime in the 19th Century — some disturbing changes in the seasonal cycle have been noted.  In southern England budding oak leaves are bursting some 26 days earlier than in 1950, and several butterflies which normally make an appearance in April are being spotted as early as January.  The impact of this change on the ecosystem, combined with a dramatic loss of natural habitat in Great Britain since the Second World War, is anybody’s guess.  The data is highly suggestive: climate change, it would seem,  has being going on for far longer than what is conventually imagined, marked by the minute, subtle changes in plant growth and animal behaviour.

Harbinger of the future

The cool thing about phenology is that it’s climate change science anyone can do, armed only with pen and and a stout notebook (or for moderately computer literate, a simple spreadsheet).   You can think of it as a scientific version of the Slow Food movement.  Patience and consistency are necessary.  But even the simplest observations, over a number of years, are invaluable. You can collect data for Plantwatch, or you can create your own list of indicators. 

My own list looks like this below.  You will notice it’s short and simple, and is based on what I can easily observe given my own time constraints.  (Serious phenologists have lists numbering in the hundreds.) It’s probably appropriate for rural areas of eastern Canada and northeastern U.S.  In urban areas, the list would contain, I think, more ornamental plants. I will set up a page on this weblog containing my own observations.

Ice off pond (Normal early April)
Spring peeper song (Normal mid-April)
Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum) bloom (Normal late April)
Sugar maple (Acer saccharum) bloom (Normal early May)
Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum) bloom (Normal mid-May)
Last Spring Frost (Normal 3rd week May)
Lilac (Syringa vulgaris) bloom (Normal late May)
Crabapple (Malus sp.) bloom (Normal late May)
First sighting of Monarch Butterfly (Normal mid-June)
New England Aster (Aster nova-angliae) bloom (Normal late August)
First killing frost (Normal mid/late September)