Francis Fukuyama “Political Order and Political Decay”

Political Order and Political Decay: From Industrialization to the Globalization of Democracy

By Francis Fukuyama

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014

The prolific political philosopher Francis Fukuyama has essayed again, this time with a weighty (in all respects) tome that outlines his understanding of political development in the west in the modern era. It’s the second and final installment of his treatise that began in 2011 with The Origins of Political Order.

The two-part series undertakes nothing less than an overview of the rise and fall of institutions of democratic accountability in western Europe, Latin America, the United Kingdom, and the United States since the Industrial Revolution. In the current book, he picks up from the chronology of his inquiry in the first volume dealing with the governmental legacies of imperialist monarchies, the Enlightenment, and the important revolutions that took place before approximately 1800.

Fukuyama cut his scholarly teeth as an intellectual in sympathy with the so-called Reagan revolution that supposedly reasserted American dynamism and global significance following setbacks like the Viet Nam War. However, by the Iraq War he began to take some distance from the ideology and strategy of the George W. Bush administration — and a Republican party that he felt had lost its way. So, with the election of Barack Obama, Fukuyama had earned the uncomfortable distinction of facing criticism from America’s centrist and neo-conservative political thinkers alike. Perhaps such intellectual isolation fosters original work.

Fukuyama is famous, and in some eyes notorious, for the “end of history” theory that he first advanced in an article published by The National Interest in 1989. With Mikhail Gorbachev then championing perestroika and glasnost, and the Soviet system on the brink, Fukuyama posited that the imminent collapse of global communism, and the defeat of German fascism in the last half of the twentieth century, heralded humanity’s rejection of twentieth century grand schemes of social engineering and totalitarianism in preference for the ideals of liberal representative democracy. Fukuyama suggested that the world had taken Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Mussolini for a test drive, but opted for Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. His analysis elicited some very negative retorts; among many accusations, he was said to be blindly advocating a global system that privileged the USA and former imperial powers of ‘old Europe.’ Fukuyama insists that he was misunderstood, and accurately identified Hegel and Marx as originators of the ‘end of history’ analysis that describes inevitable (at least to the likes of Hegel and Marx) processes led by emerging bourgeois societies.

In Political Order and Political Decay, Fukuyama undertakes a further explanation — and perhaps a correction of sorts — of his post-Cold War argument. Its global scope is admirable, but the argument demonstrates its most evident strengths when Fukuyama focuses on the United States. (Born in Chicago, Fukuyama currently teaches at Stanford University.) In looking at the US, he advances some very unconventional thinking — at least for someone once considered to be an intellectual lion of the American right. Charting the historic role of a depoliticized civil service in fulfilling vital administrative tasks of government, Fukuyama makes useful comparisons between administrative institutions of government in countries influenced by either British parliamentary practice, or the American and French revolutions.

For instance, his analysis of the emergence of the US Forest Service, as an example of a body of professional bureaucrats at least temporarily decoupled from political expediency, patronage and lobbying, is fascinating and instructive. Also, his glance at attempts at railway regulation at the beginning of the twentieth century usefully foreshadows clumsy attempts in our own era to regulate telecommunication industries and the Internet. Fukuyama regards an independent bureaucracy — dedicated to serving all citizens — as a democratic bulwark. If he was once a Republican apologist, Fukuyama’s Republicanism goes back to the almost red Tory domestic policies and public duty of a Teddy Roosevelt. This ain’t no Tea Party.

Perhaps most thought provoking in his consideration of political decay in the US. He examines a system of checks and balances run amuck in which a surfeit of interest groups, lobbyists and lawyers create gridlock and stifle democracy while claiming to act in its name. His description of American “vetocracy” in which political actors, including the President, lack effectively representative (but reasonably constrained) decision-making power does not generate optimism in an age of climate change and Ebola outbreaks.

Francis Fukuyama is a contemporary political philosopher to be reckoned with. He has produced an intellectually valid yet readable work that draws on a myriad of examples — and a deep reading of his philosophical underpinnings. At times the book may suffer from being overly ambitious in its reach, but most readers, regardless of their political leanings, will find that Political Order and Political Decay challenges and provokes their thinking.

JAMES CULLINGHAM is a journalism professor at Seneca College in Toronto, and documentary film maker; his most recent film is In Search of Blind Joe Death: The Saga of John Fahey. James recently received his doctoral degree in history from York University, Toronto, with a thesis entitled “Scars of Empire: A Juxtaposition of Duncan Campbell Scott and Jacques Soustelle.”

This review first appeared in The Journal of Wild Culture.


Commander in chief Obama

This week’s stunning new from Los Angeles Times (www. about American military personnel apparently posing for ‘zombie’ photos with the body parts of dead Afghan insurgents is part of a sad pattern. That being the consistent abuse of power by various branches of the American military and intelligence community under Obama’s watch.

In the summer of 2010, Rolling Stone exposed the weirdly derisive and even disloyal behaviour of then American commander in Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal. That cost McChrystal his job and ended his military career after a brief, unpleasant tete a tete with the President.

In the last number of months, there have been further stories of American military and intelligence malfeasance: urinating on bodies and burning Korans in Afghanistan…Secret Service types allegedly caught with prostitutes in Colombia.

Barack Obama has striven mightily to counter the false perception that his Democrats are soft on foreign policy and America’s military stance. A 30,000 person surge in Afghanistan, a massive expansion of drone attacks on ‘terrorist hideouts’ as well as the killing of Osama bin Laden in allied Pakistan all attest to that. However, what is striking, and perhaps harmful to Obama’s on-going re-election campaign, is this disturbing pattern of misbehavior.  One wonders if it is causing some long nights and misgivings among Obama’s campaign team.


Top Docs

In recent days, I had occasion to see both “Surviving Progress” and “Force of Nature: The David Suzuki Movie.” Both films rail against unbridled development and warn of the possibility of ecological catastrophe.

“Progress…” is based on ideas in a book and series of lectures by Ronald Wright. It’s a BIG IDEAS film which is threaded neatly with stunning visuals and provocative commentary from Wright and the likes of Margaret Atwood and the aforementioned Suzuki, among other deep thinkers.

Suzuki will be well known to Canadian readers – he’s been the leading figure in Canadian environmental and scientific broadcast journalism for decades. The film sprouts evocatively from clips from a ‘legacy’ lecture Suzuki delivered as he reached his 70s and began to scale back his public life. Like “Progress…”, this film, superbly directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, also touches on  ideas about the folly of limitless growth and the arrogance of contemporary economics.

The Suzuki film is remarkable for its intelligence, intimacy and sensitivity in revealing private aspects of a very public man. The film follows the arc of Suzuki’s life from forced removals of Japanese Canadian citizens during World War II, to the legacy of the nuclear bomb at Hiroshima, the American civil rights movement and aboriginal protests in Canada.


Young Guns Over Libya

So NATO is “saving” Libya.  Doesn’t that seem kinda 19th or even 16th century to anyone?  An enlightened West which knows best will now impose order in a North African country.  Buena suerte.

It’s clear that French President Nicolas Sarkozy sees domestic advantage in projecting French power abroad.  He’s running for re-election next year. Sarkozy’s big threat is to his right. Re-inventing France’s mission civilisatrice could well sell to the voters Nic needs to save his rear-end.

What’s less predictable, and even more discouraging, is the bellicose enthusiasm of British PM David Cameron and America’s inexperienced President Barack Obama.  Obama declared war on a trip to Brazil. At least it appeared he understood some of the domestic political risks, and the fretting abroad that might arise from an overt appearance of American dominance in the mission.  Cameron’s performance in the early days was sadly risible (unless you were under a British bomb). He strutted out under full TV lighting to a designated spot in front of 10 Downing Street to announce in a lame Churchill-like manner that British forces were in combat in the skies over Libya.  Puh-leez!

Of course, Cameron faces serious street protests over his attrition budget.  Perhaps like Sarkozy, he hopes that appearing to save the world will gain him favour at home. Obama just seems confused. As Niall Ferguson has argued, Obama seems to be making foreign policy up as he goes along – in Libya, as in Egypt, and, as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  His only foreign policy certitude, it appears, was to ramp up the war in Afghanistan.  How’s that working out?

As for Canada?  We joined NATO’s bombing party without discussion or debate. Apparently  matters such as going to war are not even worth discussing in Parliament. I hope the doughnuts arrive safely. Given that we are now in an election campaign, that’s the last Canadians will hear of the matter until at least May 2. Why discuss something substantive in election campaign? That would be downright non-Canadian.

So…favoured nations, you’ve made your priorities clear.  At a time when Japan is suffering unspeakably, you’d rather use your war toys in North Africa.  What’s next? Syria anyone? How about Gaza?  Yemen?

After Tucson

American President Barack Obama delivered a beautiful speech earlier this week at the memorial for the victims of the recent Tucson blood bath and the attempt on the life of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Obama has been lauded, even in unexpected places such as Peggy Noonan’s resolutely neo-liberal column in the Wall Street Journal.

I believe the speech, being a fundamental slice of the conversation Americans are having after the tragedy, is equally notable for its omission.  Obama did not seize the opportunity to talk about laws which could strengthen gun control in the United States. The young man who is suspected of committing the crimes was legally able to obtain a killing gun with a clip designed to fire off up to 30 rounds in rapid sequence. This despite a life history that smacked of mental instability.

President Obama’s speech is part of the discourse of silence in the United States about gun control. Gun control is not a meaningfully permissible part of the conversation, even after such a dire episode. In Washington, a majority of congress members apparently agree there is no need to create stronger gun control legislation. In fact, such legislation as exists was weakened federally in 2004; and as recently as last year, the Supreme Court defeated an effort by the city of Chicago to limit use of guns there. Some reports this week claimed that sales of the clip used in the attack were brisk. In Arizona this weekend, a major gun show, “Crossroads of the West”, went on in Tucson as scheduled.

One might suggest that the aftermath of such a “heinous’ (the adjective used by the suspect’s family) act was no time for Obama to raise the contentious topic of gun control; that the moment called for healing and compassion, for a large gesture aimed at bringing the American ‘family’ together.  In all regards, one might also ask, how could there be a better opportunity to renew the discussion about one of America’s singular failures: the nurturing and maintenance of a murderous gun culture.

Women Marching to the Right

5 million viewers tuned in for the debut this autumn of Sarah Palin’s Alaska,the former state governor’s manipulative excess in ‘reality’ television. Millions also follow her Tweets and Facebook posts; and her two books are selling like hot-cakes.

Once a joke of the self-admiring North American liberal class, the undeclared Sarah Palin is easily among the favourites for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. Her uncanny ability to reach mass audiences, even her use of language…”lamestream media”…”refudiate”… may make liberal elites titter, but has her growing crowd saying, ‘You tell ‘em, Sarah!’

But let’s leave world headquarters in Washington behind us for a moment. Go north young woman…not all the way to Alaska, but to Alberta.  In that province, Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance was holding a comfortable lead over the government of Ed Stelmach in polls taken earlier this year. Ms. Smith, a former journalist and climate change skeptic, champions more rapid development of Alberta’s oil sands. Significantly to the right of Alberta Conservatives, Ms. Smith could well be the next provincial premier.

November’s Republican sweep of America’s lower house illustrated many things. Obviously ‘folks’ were angry with President Obama. His inability to reduce unemployment; his unpopular, hugely bureaucratic approach to “universal” health care; and  his fawning approach to Wall Street interests and automobile manufacturers are among the factors that both infuriated his opponents and alienated his base.

What’s less well documented are the crucial roles that politicized women of the right have played in the opposition to Obama.  Sarah Palin is simply  the prototype for a newer brand of female politician that is surging throughout the United States and influencing Canadian politics.

 Nikki Haley, governor-elect of South Carolina and Jan Brewer, who signed a shameful immigration bill as Governor of Arizona, are but two of the right-wing politicians who embrace the Tea Party’s program of radical change to American politics.

Of course, the role model for all these women is Palin.

What do these female politicians share?  They manage to extract the individualism and empowerment of earlier feminist movements while eschewing the social democratic components.  They often represent faith…usually evangelical Christianity. They revel  in poking a finger in the eye of older, more liberal, male dominated elites. They are often physically vigorous, active, attractive women with children.

Palin’s TV show works like a series of parables in which the heroine displays her pluck and shares lessons about life and America.   See Sarah shoot a gun…see Sarah overcome her fears to rock climb up the side of a mountain…see Sarah at the gym for a workoout at dawn…see Sarah and her beautiful family fly down a wild river in a raft. It’s raw, iconic, America as frontier, stuff. She wears her patriotism on her sleeve.

Sarah Palin, Danielle Smith and their ilk are no joke. Their mastery of twenty-first century media and the simple populism that they proclaim has a receptive audience.  It is likely they will have transformational appeal in the years ahead.

Gaza/Israel, news and the digital conceit

A few observations about the deadly,  tragic fiasco off the coast of Gaza:

Collectively, we are dupes to assume that we are always empowered and privileged by access to information in the digital age. For more than 24 hours after the events of May 31, the state of Israel was largely able to commandeer the news agenda. Its Prime Minister stated that his commandos were attacked and justly defended themselves. There is still precious little information from the mouths of the activists who are being released from Israeli detention. Whatever happened…whoever was responsible for the deaths, the world remains largely unaware of what actually occurred. Israel is resisting calls for an independent international inquiry; it says it will look into the matter itself. It’s Wednesday, June 2.

Netanyahu’s Toronto speech on Sunday in which he proclaimed yet again that Israel is the ‘only democracy in the Middle East’ was also widely reported in backgrounds following the events at sea. The only democracy, you say? Well, Bibi, perhaps then the people of, at least, the West Bank, and not just the Israeli settlers who reside there, should be allowed to vote in Israeli elections. The lives of Palestinians in the West Bank have been controlled by the state of Israel and its military since 1967….43 years and counting. To the best of my understanding, Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel itself can vote and have significant legal rights, but most do not enjoy the same package of rights, services and responsibilities that Jewish citizens enjoy. Democracy? Just asking. I write from a country with an appointed chamber of Parliament and a non-elected representative of the British monarch with very real constitutional powers, so I know full well that democracy is a slippery notion, but I am troubled by Netanyahu’s assertion and the North American media’s generally easy acquiescence in it.

The raid on the high seas off Gaza underscores another geopolitical factor: The state of Israel has scant respect for the American administration of Barack Obama. Hillary Clinton may say that the siege of Gaza is “unsustainable and unacceptable”, but the Americans seem largely impotent or simply unwilling when it comes to doing something about it.

Turkey is a member of The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Turkey is a candidate to join the European Union. It would appear that the state of Israel under its current government has decided that it can pursue what it considers its “legitimate security concerns” with barely a nod to the international norms of the democratic club to which it claims membership.

The War On Drugs - a very bad idea

As the body count rises in Jamaica (73 civilians according to BBC at the time I update this post); as Barack Obama sends troops to the Mexican border; as NATO troops ‘eradicate’ poppy production in Afghanistan, the undeniable truth slaps one in the face: The War On Drugs Has Failed.

Most experts agree that up to 24,000 Mexicans have been killed since President Felipe Calderon decided to get tough on the drug lords of Chihuahua, Guerrero, Sinaloa and Sonora. Be-headings, attacks on school children, murderous reprisals against honest cops and journalists have become common in places like Acapulco and Ciudad Juarez.

Poppy eradication, supposedly in the hands of the taliban is a cornerstone of NATO’s war in Afghanistan. Yet, it is hard to argue for the success of NATO’s neo-colonial Afghanistan policy, although the mainstream press will do all in its power to find it. As I have argued on other occasions, Barack Obama has been largely given a free ride for a policy that is to the right of his predecessor.

In Jamaica, some ordinary citizens have rallied to the cause of a drug dealer and accused murderer that the United States wants to put on trial. The dealer’s paramilitary is engaged in a firefight with police and army that has raged for days. But it’s not the streets of Manhattan that have been turned into a war zone, it’s the slums of Kingston.

As in Mexico, where ordinary people pay the price of the drug war with their lives, Jamaicans are suffering because of the drug habits of comparatively wealthy Americans and Canadians.

One would think that alcohol prohibition would have taught us something. Drug use cannot be stopped. It can be managed. It’s a pity that the likes of Calderon, Obama and the thoroughly comprised government of Jamaica, will spend countless billions of dollars and watch as the body counts rise, pretending otherwise.


Cuba, April 2010

Just back from Cuba where the sun was shining and temperatures ranged from 25-30 degrees. Very nice, thanks.

More than two years following the retirement of Fidel Castro, some change is apparent in Cuba.

To begin with, Fidel’s successor, his brother Raoul Castro, has overseen a mild lessening of consumer constraints in the Cuban socialist system. Cellphones are ubiquitous. Markets for crafts and garden produce are increasingly evident in the cities.

Darker aspects of Cuban life also appear more transparent than in earlier visits I’ve made.  Prostitution is much more visible.  Based on my non-scientific observation, it would seem that a certain class of European, often German, tourist now freely considers Communist Cuba a sex destination. This must gall Fidel Castro’s revolutionary generation which took aim at the infamous flesh trade of the 1950s as a primary  target for social reform.

Black marketeers trade in rum, cigars and coffee wherever tourists congregate offering prices that undercut the government run shoppes. In my experience, this has always been the case, but not to the the  extent I witnessed in April.

On the political front, there were signs of how Cuba maintains its uneasy consensus over the government’s revolutionary, read authoritarian, goals. Although you may never read about them in North America’s mainstream English language media, elections of a kind do take place in Cuba. Last month elections for regional municipal representatives were held. In a one party state, these elections only offered choices between Cuban Communist Party candidates. I was allowed access to one polling station in the Caribbean city of Trinidad de Cuba where it appeared voters marked and deposited their ballots secretly. Such political practices are but an antidote of a limited kind in a country where freedom of expression is severely curtailed, and in which prisoners of conscience molder behind bars for ‘crimes’ of political thought.

Print journalism and information television are generally woefully weak and subservient to the government’s point of view. While satellite television brings signals in many languages from across North America, Europe and China to many parts of Cuba, there is precious little access to publications that contradict the official view. Communist party publications such as the newspaper Granma have some interesting, intellectually valid content, including often fascinating columns from Fidel Castro himself. Sadly,Granma and related regional publications, also publish vitriolic nonsense of a Stalinist tinge about the Communist Party’s opponents.

Of course, much the same, or worse, is true in many countries, including China which does not suffer the demonizing that North American and European media and political spokespersons regularly visit on Cuba. Perhaps it’s the production of cheap consumer goods for North American and European voters that is the charm.

I am not an expert on Cuba. I have a broad understanding of its history; understand and speak Spanish in a middling manner; and have visited the country about seven times over the past 15 years. For me, certain truths emerge. The social successes of the revolution cannot be dismissed out of hand. Strengths in general health, nutrition, literacy, education and the omnipresence of a diverse cultural heritage in music, dance and visual arts are undeniable.

Cuba’s Revolution has entered its 52nd year. To date, the transition of power from Fidel Castro is occurring without cataclysm for Cuban socialism or an overt opening to North American and European political mores.

Obama veers to the right

Wow! If the Obama-maniacs were expecting their leader to become a reborn social democrat in wake of his health care reform, they were in for a rude surprise. Mind you the drugs they seem to collectively imbibe apparently inure them to Barack’s foibles.

Let’s review:  First, a surprise visit to Afghanistan where the Imperial Barack pledged His and His nation’s support for the heroic efforts of American women and men in uniform there. In sum, it was extremely good optics and a clever manoeuver to keep Fox News off His case over the `socialistic’ health care reform.

Today, with Bush-like panache, Obama announced that restrictions would be lifted on off-shore drilling for hydrocarbons along significant expanses of the coastlines of the United States. This flies in the face of the received environmental wisdom that Democrats had observed for many years. America is once again open for business; and Americans will damn well drive their cars no matter what price the Arab nations try to put on oil!  Hey Obama-maniacs, how do you spell G-e-o-r-g-e- W. B-u-s–h? Drill baby, drill!!!!!

That leaves us with ObamaSecState Hillary’s odd visit to the northern frontier.  Let’s see… Americans as defenders of indigenous rights?  Sweet… ’nuff said. Freedom of choice and equal access to abortions?  Apparently the Canadian media is not aware that the same rights are clearly circumscribed in His health insurance reform (sic).

As far as Afghanistan goes, in the guise of Hillary, head office has clearly indicated its wish for Canadians to continue serving up the donuts in Kandahar. To his credit Harper immediately said ‘No thanks.’ Please forgive me, but I am cynical/wordly enough to suspect that Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals may yet find a way to the right of Harper to argue that Canadian troops should stand beside Americans in Afghanistan after 2011. But what do I know?

BRAVO Team Obama!

As faithful readers know, I did not imbibe the Barack magic potion in the winter of 2008.  At best, I’ve been sceptically hopeful regarding Obama’s presidency. His Afghanistan, Middle Eastern and immigration policies remain tragically wrong-headed to my mind.

HOWEVER, one must give credit where credit is due.  Yesterday’s vote over Health Reform is a major humanizing step forward in American democracy. Obama and Nancy Pelosi had the courage of their convictions.

The years ahead will be difficult because the very partial analysis of the Congressional Budget Office could not truly account for the costs of expanding health care. Injustice remains: millions of undocumented immigrant workers will continue to keep the economy moving without access to health insurance; women received a slap in the face over access to abortion. Such was the price this time round of hard fought political compromise over meaningful change. May Obama and his crew have the courage and wisdom to improve health care further and to extend their reborn reformist zeal to other pressing matters.


Haiti - It's All About Us

CANADA RIDES TO THE RESCUE That was the headline on yesterday’sToronto Star.  This morning’s on-line edition features more front-page news about the efforts of Canadian rescue teams. Trust The Star to look for the Metro angle anywhere, all the time.

Readers in the Greater Toronto Area are not alone. Flipping the dial through the Am-nets for the last week, I see repeated images of various Clintons, Anderson Cooper, Katie Couric and other stars of American news/entertainment/politics.  I see, or hear precious little from the mouths of ordinary Haitians, let alone the surviving political, military or intellectual leadership of the country. The wise heads of English language television in many parts of North America clearly feel their audience is incapable of hearing lengthy translations from Creole or French. It’s classic, pervasive pandering that underestimates the intelligence and humanity of those audiences.

At home, we are besieged  for requests to help by non-governmental organizations of all kinds. Believe me I hope the world combined gives the Haitians all the assistance they need, but like some of the media content, I often find the tone of some appeals unsettling. Frankly, a lot of it would make Rudyard Kipling blush. It’s ‘the white man’s burden’ all over again; classic ‘underdeveloped world’ as home to permanent victims stuff. As some academic wag noted: there is nothing “post” in “post-colonial”.

I appeal to the media to continue covering the relief effort even when the news agenda is temporarily bushwhacked by items such as the Democrats’ own Massachusetts disaster. It’s wonderful that relief teams and soldiers from Canada, the United States and elsewhere are getting through, but please – they are not the centre of the story! The BBC is one of the few news organizations that seems committed to seeing the disaster and the recovery through the eyes of those who experienced it directly – the people of Haiti.

Finally in a domestic political aside: Team Harper is drawing deserved praise for its quick response. The early pictures of Steve alongside the understandably grieving Haitian born GG Michaelle Jean humanized him.  Next Monday’s quick international conference, held appropriately enough in Montreal, home to a 100,000 strong Haitian expatriate contingent, could reflect well on the Harper government and perhaps help it recover somewhat from his self-inflicted wound of that ill-advised early prorogation of Parliament.

In the land of Paul Revere

Watch Massachusetts!  On Tuesday, a Republican may win the Senate seat up for grabs following the death of Ted Kennedy. Such an outcome will not only be a shock to Barack Obama’s Democratic Party, it might deal a fatal blow to health care ‘reform’.

Obama and the Dems are scrambling to get the troops out after a sudden post New Year’s tilt to Republican Scott Brown. It seems that many citizens even in ‘the state of consciousness’ are alarmed about the byzantine health care dance in Congress and concerned about America’s security under Obama after the near disaster over Detroit on December 25.

A Bad Week for Barry

Scary stuff that xMAS day incident over Detroit Airport.  Equally unsettling for many was the unsteady response of the Obama administration. To begin with, Homeland Security Secretary Jane Napolitano bizarrely seemed to suggest that the incident showed the system worked!  I guess citizens wrestling with would be terrorists on commercial flights in mid-air was part of the plan all along. Then three days after the event, President Obama appeared sans cravate near his Hawaiian holiday getaway very, very calmly expressing his regret. The next day, still without a tie, Obama assumed Commander in Chief mode and angrily denounced the entire bungling homeland security apparatus.  It was a strangely disconnected performance undermined further by a loss of video transmission during its initial live broadcast. Obama seemed to be assigning blame without accepting responsibility.  Uh, Dude, these people work for you, right!?

Obama’s performance raised the hackles of the usual suspects, including former VP/pit bull Dick Cheney. No surpise there.  But some of the folk who’ve been largely admiring were almost as scathing.  Check out Maureen Dowd’s column, “As The Nation’s Pulse Races, Obama Can’t Seem to Find His” in NYT 29.12.09.  Dowd is not exactly of the Fox News tribe, but she’s deeply freaked by “Barry’s” under performance.

As 2009 comes to an end, the Obama honeymoon is most decidedly over. The current flap over national security may even jeopardize passage of his most prized domestic goal – health care reform – if his stewardship of the past week begins to gnaw on the minds of wavering congress members.B

OH-TAH-WAH (Land of Giants)

I recently spent a few days in Ottawa. I was primarily ensconsed in the Library and Archives of Canada conducting research. A few obserations:

Ottawa has winter! It’s a welcome relief from Toronto where the mere thought of snow is greeted by media and many citizens with a fright that approximates the coming of the apocalypse. In Ottawa, people actually dress for winter; some of them, stunningly, appear to enjoy walking in the snow; and of course, soon, quite fabulously, the Rideau Canal will open for skating as it does each winter.

A few less savoury notes:

Traffic along Wellington in front of Parliament Hill is a deplorable  national disgrace. It’s a great pity that six lanes of tangled traffic should mar what could be one of the finest walkways in Canada. As Richard Gwyn has noted, Canada’s Parliament buildings represent a triumph of visionary art over calculated, cold ‘reason’. In the middle of the nineteenth century,  a country that did not yet exist deemed fit to nearly bankrupt itself to celebrate refreshingly non-fascistic architecture. Sadly, the pedestrian can no longer appreciate the vista. The air along Wellington is foul; and the cacophony of cars and buses inescapable. Where trees and a broad pedestrian walkway might exist, an ugly snarl of dinosaur technology prevails. Sigh. It seems fitting that Canada would dedicate what could be its primary boulevard to the automobile. After all, I was in Ottawa at the very moment the Canadian Prime Minister was a leader among those ensuring that climate change talks then ongoing in Copenhagen would lead to nothing more than its vacuous result.

Speaking of the Prime Minister…his party has left its own cultural mark on ‘our Nation’s Capital’. I take you now to the early evening hours in the bar at the Chateau Laurier. The place is littered with the new Tory elite. Twenty-somethings that would not look out of place at the Yuppie bar at a Republican convention. The ‘girls’ with garish scarves that tastelessly affect a garish misunderstanding of Parisian couture; the young men with quasi-military haircuts, ill-fitting suits and very shiny shoes; and for that unisex look, the ubiquitous Blackberry in paw. It would appear that among this crowd in Oh-Tah-Wah, no one is actually listening to the person they’re with. To be someone means that you must always be simultaneously looking at an electronic device while pretending to listen to the person in front of you. Virtual social conservatism meets sheer rudeness. How sweet! In this way, Bytown is almost as annoying as Bay Street.

Finally, back to the theme of fascist architecture.  The American Embassy on Sussex Drive is, as the saying goes, butt ugly. Fortunately its position below Parliament Hill obscures it from many sight lines. As the lads on that NFL show would bellow, ‘C’mon man!’ Couldn’t someone have designed something attractive?!

An Open Letter to Obama Supporters

Since January 2008 I have maintained that Barack Obama is nothing more and nothing less than a classic Chicago Democrat: a hard nosed, sophisticated politico with a Hallmark Card gift of the gab. Peel away the prettiness and what’s revealed is a slightly softer (and browner) face on American imperialism. With a total of 50,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, Obama is following in the footsteps of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and both Bushes in his determination that America must set the tone in world affairs…by force of arms when necessary. With historically crippling debt; high levels of unemployment; an unresolved Iraq;  Guantanamo still open; Mexican migrants outrageously victimized at the border; health care hanging precariously in congress (btw it’s hard not to see this foreign ploy as a means to rally right-centre support for health care), Barack Obama has chosen to play the classic American foreign policy card: more war.

Following his election I was stunned to find so many otherwise intelligent people who were blissfully unaware of his plans for Afghanistan. If you believe ratcheting up the war there is good policy, Obama’s your man. If you expected a legitimate alternative to Bush-ism, I hope you will reconsider your hitherto unconditional support for America’s latest risky adventure. If the British and Soviet experience is anything to go on, America has just guaranteed itself  a world of pain even with a planned pull-out of 2011.

Jerusalem takes Obama

Remember the idyllic days of June in Cairo? President Barack Obama laid out his vision for reconciliation with the Muslim world and a sustained Middle Eastern peace at a university in Cairo. Part of that vision called for a freeze to Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank. Later this month, Obama is tentatively scheduled to make another major address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at the United Nations. At this early stage of Obama’s presidency, such an address can only be a milestone of failure.

To those Obama true believers who assumed flowers would bloom along the Jordan with Obama’s election, as the redoubtable Mr. Soprano once said….fahgeddaboutit! In recent daysBenjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, confirmed his administration’s plans to build hundreds of additional homes in the occupied territories. At the same time, Israeli courts overlook venerable Ottoman, British mandate and Jordanian property law  in invalidating the title of Palestinians owning homes in East Jerusalem. The ‘facts on the ground’ a term widely used by the Israeli right and its North American supporters, are clear: the current Israeli government has no intention to share sovereignty in Jerusalem or to pull back from the West Bank. Most analysts would agree such policies are essential to a peace based on the existence of two viable states.

In the days ahead, following the next regional visit by Obama’s Middle Eastern special envoy former Senator George Mitchell, the mainstream  press may well vaunt Obama’s apparent success in temporarily slowing Israeli settlement plans. It is, after all, high time for the sophisticated Israeli government to throw a crumb Obama’s way. Such success is a chimera. Despite the new president’s soaring rhetoric, despite shuttle diplomacy, the Israeli government  continues to do as it pleases. Only now, in an even more brazen fashion than when its kissing cousin Bush Republicans were in power.

In May, “Bibi” visited Washington. It would appear that Netanyahu took the measure of Barack Obama and thought, ‘A charming young man, but a dweeb.’ Israel feels unchecked in strengthening its garrison state and putting the necessary conditions in place – a stranglehold on Jerusalem plus half a million settlers in the West Bank – to make a contiguous Palestinian entity there a pipe dream. Such efforts, despite the delusions of Obama acolytes, are still bankrolled by American investment and steeled with American military hardware. Netanyahu and his ilk are succeeding in their quest to ensure that the Palestinian Territories are never more than impotent, economically dependent cantons of the Jewish state.

Obama takes Kabul Pt.II

Wow. The straight press (see Page 1 The Globe and Mail 24.08.09) reports that Messiah Obama will be urged by his military commanders to send an additional 20,000 troops to Afghanistan. Listen up kids – that’s on top of the 21,000 grunts who have been sent to Afghanistan since Barack was inaugurated!

Imagine my surprise. I’ve been in journalism for more than 25 years. Never in my career have I witnessed a collective suspension of judgment to rival the euphoric, oceanic embrace the mass media bestowed on Obama in the 2008 Democratic leadership campaign and the subsequent non-contest against John McCain and Ms. Sarah Palin. All the while, Obama declared his intention to expand the war in Afghanistan – a policy TO THE RIGHT OF BUSH!

In 2008-9, I observed grown journalistic adults write laudatory poetry about Obama; another colleague, also a journalist, told me that he habitually drove around Toronto listening to a download of Obama’s inaugural address.

Predictably enough, in practice, Obama’s foreign policies are just more simple-minded American imperialism.  Don’t even get me started about the wall between the USofA and Mexico which Obama has not lifted a finger to arrest. In Afghanistan, Obama – like the British, like the Soviets – believes his will can be imposed on the people of Afghanistan. Democrats must prove they have cojones, so they expand wars. Forget the Camelot myth and look at what JFK actually did in Viet Nam!

I predict tough, tough sledding ahead. The same knee-jerk mainstream media that created Messiah Obama soon might turn on him, declaring Afghanistan a symbol of failed promise. In fact, he’s only being true to the convictions he campaigned on that the same media failed to challenge. Of course, that was because Barack was so cool…hell, supporting him was almost as hip, trendy and cool as being embedded in a Humvee racing towards the ‘liberation’ of Baghdad in 2003!

Reynolds + Gilder on Israel G&M 31.07.09

In The Toronto Globe And Mail of Friday, July 31 2009, the iconoclastic, neo-liberal Neil Reynolds wrote about a new book on Israel by George Gilder. Gilder is a contrarious analyst of trends in capitalism. His new book The Israel Test, according to Reynold, holds up Israel as a model of what can be achieved by a state dedicated to democracy, education and economic growth.

The notion that Messrs Reynolds and Gilder proffer Israel as a paragon of democracy and development troubles me. As I write, Israel continues to expropriate homes of Arab citizens of East Jerusalem. Such actions violate international laws. Similarly, despite the protestations of the Obama administration, Israel is strengthening the illegal foothold of its half million settlers in the West Bank. Israel is only a democracy in a severely mitigated way. One could argue that its bundle of democratic rights and responsibilities only belongs fully to its Jewish citizens.

I recognize that all ‘democratic’ countries have constraints. Canada, after all, has the embarrassment of an appointed Senate and suffers still the shame of the Victorian era apartheid regime constructed under the extant The Indian Act.

Israel’s exceptions to the fundamental tenets of liberal democracy are more salient. In an ample Israeli democracy. the state might have to acknowledge to the world that it has nuclear weapons. That state might then sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Finally in the ultimate test that Mr. Gilder and Mr. Reynolds would presumably vaunt, a true Israeli democracy would extend voting rights in Israeli elections to the more than 3 million Palestinian Arab citizens of the West Bank and Gaza whose lives have been controlled by Israel since 1967.


Obama in Cairo

Quick thought: This was remarkable for many reasons. It was the first speech of Obama’s that I’ve heard that almost seemed to live up to its advance billing. He took some real risks. The Israeli government and its acolytes in the American Republican party and among the American Christian far-right will go bananas about his call to end settlements, the President’s use of the word “Palestine” and his statement that life in the occupied territories is “intolerable”. I say, ‘Well done Barack!’, but let’s see if your administration is really prepared to back up your words with action.

A few concerns:

  • Obama’s tone presumes American primacy in the world: a stature which is questionable at this point in the twenty-first century.
  • The talk of avoiding a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is largely nonsense. There already is one. Israel has nuclear weapons. It’s refreshing that Obama acknowledged the double standard at work, but he could urge Israel to admit what the world already knows: it possesses the bomb.
  • I admired Obama’s inclusion of agnostics in his inauguration address. This speech and others since seems to assume a shared religiosity among peoples of the world. It always creeps me out when politicians of supposedly secular, democratic states invoke “God” as if she/he’s on their side.C