A tale of two journeys

Posted December 30, 2007 on 2:41 am | In the category Canada, Environment, Europe, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

If you live in Iceland and wish to travel to Estonia or Bulgaria, or Malta, you can now take a short plane ride and rent a car or take a train and in a couple of days you will arrive at your desired destination without having crossed a single controlled border. But if you get in your car in Vancouver and drive 45 minutes south to Point Roberts, Washington, you will reach a border control very reminiscent of the old European borders between the Soviet-bloc nations and western Europe, but with enough sophisticated and expensive electronic detection equipment to convince even the most sophisticated terrorist to try another route.
if you are lucky and hit this border at a time when there is not a hour-long lineup (or more) and then manage to pass muster at the guard station, by displaying a valid passport and a believable story about why you want to go to Point Roberts (usually to go to the post office as the US postal system is much cheaper and more reliable than the Canadian one), and then drive another 15 minutes in any direction, you will hit salt water since Point Roberts is US territory accessible by land only through Canada. Kids who live there have to be bussed out to US schools in the main part of the US by passing across this border, making the misery of school bus journeys four times as trying as it is for any other US kids, since they now must cross heavily guarded borders 4 times a day.
OK this is the most absurd of all the East German-like US border crossings, but it is not at all funny at places like the Peace Arch Crossing between Seattle and Vancouver, the highway between Winnipeg and Minneapolis, the tunnel between Detroit and Windsor or the bridge at Niagara Falls. In these places, and in many lesser ones all along what used to be an unguarded border, normal travel regularly comes to a complete standstill as cars wait for hours in lineups that, among other things, make any talk about an interest in cutting down pollution from idling cars ridiculous. Does anyone out there know of a single terrorist who has been captured at a Canada/US border crossing?

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DEATH BY FIRE: POLITICS AND TAXES

Posted December 16, 2007 on 1:35 pm | In the category Economy, Election 2008, Iraq, U.S. Domestic Policy, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

A fire in Gloucester, Massachusetts last night destroyed an apartment building and a synagogue and killed a 70-year-old disabled man. The fire broke out across the street from the city’s fire station and the initial response was only one fireman at least partially because the department has been understaffed since the city’s voters refused to vote for a tax increase in 2004. Another Gloucester resident died in a fire a year ago when it took 11 minutes to respond because the nearest fire station had been closed for budgetary reasons.

This is not an isolated incident – throughout America voters have opted to reduce the quality of basic services in order to reduce their tax bills. At the same time the federal government has provided huge tax breaks to the wealthy thereby reducing funding for local and statewide services. As governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney consistently bragged about reducing the cost of services in the state by simply reducing their quality. This allows him to take credit for holding the line on taxes but also the blame for deteriorating services throughout the state.

We are a country of bridges that collapse, schools that don’t provide arts education, libraries with reduced hours, lousy train service, spotty public transportation services, deteriorating medical services, etc. According to the United Nations World population Prospects Report the U.S. ranks 32nd in infant mortality behind virtually all Western democracies as well as Cuba, S. Korea, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Japan and Singapore. The country ranks 38th in life expectancy behind such countries as Cuba, Chile, Costa Rica, Malta, Martinique and Japan.

For years politicians have promised lower taxes without mentioning the corresponding guarantee of reduced quality of life for the vast majority of Americans. And the American people have been willingly seduced by the promise of lower taxes while ignoring the ugly reality of what shortsighted policies have produced for coming generations. We are literally scared into spending trillions on a senseless war in Iraq yet cannot find the resources to fight fires, repair bridges, provide well rounded education to our young and improve health care for all at home. Shame on us.

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What ever happened to the US election system?

Posted December 10, 2007 on 9:39 pm | In the category Canada, Election, Election 2008, U.S. Domestic Policy | by Mackenzie Brothers

It’s not so long ago that the US caucus system designed to choose nominees for the presidential candidates of the only two parties that count came up with figures like Eisenhower, Stevenson, Kennedy, Reagan, McGovern, Nixon. Now it is certainly true that not all of these chaps proved to be such worthy leaders, but all of them were at least experienced politicians or, in the case of Eisenhower, an important historical personality and father figure. You could despair of Reagan and Nixon’s California view of the world or McGovern’s innocence, but their campaigns were veritable Socratic dialogues compared to the reports reaching foreign ears of the level of discussion in the current round of presidential candidate debates.

Recently on what many thought were satirical comedies, European and Canadian television has been running selections from Youtube or CNN debates in which grown men striving to lead a very powerful nation struggled over who was the best Christian or indeed if one of them was a Christian at all. This takes place in a country that is supposed to separate church and state. The Scopes trial was revisited and nobody seemed willing to really defend the idea of evolution. Questions were thrown at the man who was once the leading candidate about whether he wore secret underwear, and the beast that raised questions about real Roman Catholic beliefs, who seemed to have left the stage forever with the Kennedy election, once again raised its weird head. Fortunately Joe Liebermann isn’t in the mix.

What is going on? It is impossible to imagine any of these debaters would be taken seriously as a contender for any important position in any other leading western country with arguments like these. Certainly it is true that at least a couple of these people might have something to offer on some important topics, like health care for the US society or the Middle East for the global one. But they don’t seem to be able to find a forum or get much of a chance to discuss anything of consequence when the only topic that wins you votes is whether your Christianity is better than the next guy’s. Isn’t anybody down there working on a way of changing the electoral system?

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Iran: Opportunity Knocks

Posted December 7, 2007 on 1:28 pm | In the category Iran, U.S. Foreign Policy | by Jeff

The Bush administration has had almost a week to respond since the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) publicly announced the unanimous agreement among 16 intelligence agencies that Iran had shelved its nuclear weapons program in 2003. Obviously, officials in the administration had seen this coming for some time – minimally since August. To date, the administration’s response has been a desperate attempt to pretend that nothing has changed, that Iran remains as dangerous as ever, and that U.S. policy must remain the same.

It is curious that the administration has found a way to negotiate with North Korea with considerable success to date but cannot bring itself to address across-the–board issues with Iran, a country with considerably more freedom than N. Korea and among many of its young, a genuine interest in – if not sympathy with – the United States.

The NIE provides an opportunity for the Bush administration to move toward a robust diplomatic effort with Iran without losing face – except with the hardest of the neocons. Russia’s and China’s opposition to increased sanctions make it difficult to envision total success via sanctions and threats and while diplomacy can be difficult and has no guarantee of success, an opportunity missed would be an opportunity lost.

President Bush has just over a year of his presidency left to leave a legacy beyond the disasters in Iraq and the U.S. economy.  Diplomatic advances in North Korea AND Iran give him what may be his last opportunity to salvage his record. But so far his response to the NIE provides little optimism.

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Belgium – Canada’s Nightmare

Posted December 3, 2007 on 1:09 am | In the category Canada, Europe, Uncategorized | by Mackenzie Brothers

Belgium is a country that seems to be incapable of functioning. It has had no government for 6 months and on Dec.1 the leader of the largest party after the last election, Yves Leterme, gave up in his attempt to form a minority centre-right coalition government. This attempt did not break down on political or idealistic grounds, but on linguistic ones, as the Dutch-speaking (Flemish) Christian Democrats could not convince their French-speaking (Walloon) party colleagues to work with them. Recent polls show that there is a great deal of support among the Flemish-speakers of the north for the proposal that they should join their linguistic brethren in The Netherlands where they would surely immediately become a significant force in a larger Greater Netherlands. The Walloons, on the other hand, have no great desire to destroy Belgium, which has existed for 177 years, suspecting that they would become nothing more than a provincial backwater in a slightly larger France. And neither side probably wants to split up into tiny two independent countries, both of which would disappear onto the fringes of an increasingly fragmented Europe. Anyone who doubts that with regard to the supposedly ever-more united Europe of the European Union merely has to look at the unmanageable list of countries who send out national squads for European and World Cup soccer tournaments. In a further ironic twist, Brussels, the Belgian capital and its only truly bilingual place, is also the headquarters of the European Union and Nato, and its dismissal as the capital of an independent country would certainly make a mess of that status.

But there is an increasing suspicion that such subtleties may not actually matter any more and that the decades-long feuding between two linguistic groups that simply cannot get along in a national sense has already become more than a national government can tolerate. In fact there are very few western nations that successfully maintain bilingual societies and two national languages. In Europe, it’s hard to think of any other than quirky Switzerland, which does not govern itself like any other country, and Finland, with an ever-decreasing but still well-served Swedish population, and possibly Italy with its surprisingly successful solution to the once serious problem of the German minority in South Tyrol. Certainly France doesn’t rate, as it has suppressed the rights of any native language other than French. Ask the Scots, Welsh and Irish about the UK, the Catalans and the Basques about Spain, the Spanish-speakers about the US. And then there’s Canada, the world’s second largest country but with only slightly more than three times the population of Belgium. Like Belgium, Canada also has a bilingual national capital, Ottawa, and large sections of the country that are mainly French-speaking. In many ways its national linguistic demographic is much like Belgium’s, but with English taking the place of Dutch. So far, Canada has managed to survive the surge of pressure for the independence of a French-speaking Quebec, and for the moment it seems like the independistes of Quebec are in retreat, or perhaps hiding. But nobody should count them out and the fate of Belgium could have a serious impact in a country whose global and economic importance dwarfs that of the little country that apparently couldn’t.

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