Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Critical Thinking - Yes. Fear Mongering - No.

Last week I wrote a post critical of Rex Murphy's CBC opinion about how the Syrian refugee situation should be handled by Justin Trudeau. At first blush, his view that more time should be taken in admitting 25,000 to Canada seemed reasonable. However, digging beneath the surface of those comments, one could see that Rex was really trying to inject fear and suspicion of them into the equation. I ended the post by saying that the timelines for bringing the refugees to Canada are a fit topic for debate, but Rex's subtly subversive cant is not.

Always an advocate of critical thinking, I offer as a contrast some comments by the Star's Martin Regg Cohn, who, while questioning those very same timelines that Rex seemed to, does so in a forthright and responsible way, without resorting to the demagoguery that Murphy did. Whereas Murphy plays the fear card in urging a slowdown, Cohn argues that the evacuation of 25,000 refugees is quite doable, but having them all come here by the end of this year will put huge strains on the infrastructure needed to accomodate them:
Thanks to the prime minister’s gambit, the Ontario government is scrambling to find every square metre of provincially owned property that it can place at the disposal of refugees arriving in the December cold. That means a couple of recently decommissioned hospitals in the GTA, schools with space to spare and other safe havens that Infrastructure Ontario can ferret out from its portfolio of barren buildings across Ontario, according to a senior provincial source.
Cohn attributes political motivations to the rush:
Meeting the December deadline is about electoral credibility, not practicality.

Bluntly speaking, it’s an easy deliverable for a newly elected government trying to show its mastery of events during its first 100 days in power. The question isn’t whether it’s workable, but wise.
The above perspective certain offers a positive contribution to the debate, but Cohn also sharply distinguishes himself from xenophobes and fear mongers like Murphy with the following:
Much has been said about the need to delay resettlement in light of heightened security fears after the Paris terrorist attacks. The impulse is understandable but unfounded. To be clear, Canada is drawing upon a pool of the Middle East’s most vulnerable refugees — mostly women and children — who have been languishing in UN-vetted camps for years, not secretly infiltrating Europe’s porous borders.

The bigger uncertainty isn’t security but capacity — the exigencies of timing, the shortages of accommodation and the harshness of the Canadian climate in late December.
Responsible journalism versus cleverly-disguised prejudice. Sometimes they are not the easiest to distinguish.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Star Readers Respond To Toronto Police Thuggery

Whether justice will ever be achieved in the terrible death of Rodrigo Gonsalez or the vicious beating of Santokh Bola remains an open question. However, given some compelling video evidence, there seems little doubt in the minds of Toronto Star readers that something is seriously amiss within the Toronto Police Force. Here are some of their views:
Man sues Toronto police for $5M over violent arrest, Nov. 19

I recently had the opportunity to watch a number of officers violently and repeatedly assault Santokh Bola, an unarmed man who was posing no risk to the public, or the officers in question.

Toronto Police Service spokesman Mark Pugash later admitted that the individual in question was wrongfully arrested, and that he was discharged from custody without charges. It later became apparent that the young man, who was begging for his parents throughout the assault, was intellectually disabled.

The officers made no attempt to question the individual, ascertain his identity, level of awareness of the situation or threat to the officers and community. The TPS’s recent behaviour in relation to the disabled, mentally ill and other vulnerable individuals is shocking and disgusting.

These officers are disgusting, and a culture that legitimizes police brutality while further marginalizing the minority community and mentally ill is disgusting. Police officers do not have a right to assault citizens. Their job is to protect these vulnerable people from attack, not be their aggressors.

As a physician and care-giver for vulnerable people, especially intellectually disabled individuals, I find the conduct of the officers in question to be shameful. Police officers are not above the law. Please stop behaving as if you are.

Dr. Colin Blair Meyer-Macaulay, Pediatrics, B.C. Children’s Hospital, University of British Columbia

Mark Pugash says that “the context of the arrest is important.” Indeed it is. I was assuming that Mr. Pugash was referring to the fact that Santokh Bola, the man who was assaulted by the police, is (surprise surprise) a person of colour.

But no, as usual Mr. Pugash was busy making excuses for police violence, this time with the oh-so-familiar “his description matched that of a suspect.” From this, we are left to infer that police violence is A-OK if the victim is a suspect.

You know, Mr. Pugash, we have a name for a state where the police are empowered to make summary judgment and mete out punishment on the fly: a police state. I’m pretty sure that Canada isn’t one.

Scott Welch, Richmond Hill

To serve and protect? Why do we need so many mouthpieces cleaning up afterwards?

Recently a Brantford boy, come big-city-lawyer, filed a $5 million brutality suit against Toronto police. For innocent Santokh Bola, citizen video played like a Brown-shirt massacre. Wordsmiths usually clear officers criminally so why waste our taxes on SIU investigations? Money settles civil suits silently.

But silence deafens Brantford. Anyone recall the name of the cop who patrolled our kids and killed multiple times since 2006? Finally reopened last January, SIU investigations linger silently. How much must they feign blindness, those we trust to watch our watchers?

Richard Chmura, Brantford

What the heck is going on with our police? The video does not lie. Three cops beat the crap out of someone — pounded in the poor guy’s head, kicked him, then punched him some more. And, from what I can see, he was not even resisting arrest.

This is what one expects from “mall cops,” not from those who are specially trained, and paid very well, to enforce our laws. “To serve and protect” we’re told.

The police say that one has to consider the “context” of the situation before jumping to conclusions. Seriously? In what context is it OK for the police to beat someone up? I thought they were trained to subdue someone, not beat them up. This was not the G20 after all.

The fact that they arrested, and beat up the wrong guy, is to them, a minor detail. And they just got their budget increase, for what, higher insurance premiums?

Jeff Green, Toronto

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Chrystia Freeland Challenges Bill Maher's Islamophobia

While Bill Maher likes to present his views as reasonable and moderate, he clearly fails to recognize the inflammatory nature of his remarks. Chrystia Freeland tries to point out they are are counter-productive, serving only to demonize Muslims, alienating them even further from the West.

For an in-depth look at how turning against the Muslim world is to play into the hands of ISIS, take a look at Michael Ignatieff's essay on the issue of Syria and the refugees.

Media Manipulation: Astroturfers And Propagandists

I have frequently written on this blog about the importance of critical thinking; it is truly the only way that we can navigate through the thickets of information with which we are constantly bombarded today. I have also admitted that it is an ideal toward which I strive, frequently falling short of the mark due to the cultural, political and social contexts within which I and everyone else interpret things.

One of the strengths of the Internet is that it gives all of us access to almost limitless information from a multitude of sources, one of the key methods by which we can evaluate what we hear and read about. Nonetheless, placing too much faith in only a few "trusted" sources, such as Wikipedia, can short circuit our quest for solid and deep thinking. As you will see in the following Ted Talk, investigative journalist Sharyl Attkisson makes some very surprising observations about how both the old and the new media can manipulate us in ways we may not realize.

Wondering about the term astroturfer used in my title? Watch the video to find out its rather insidious implications:

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Time To Reject Magical Thinking

Canadians, along with the West in general, have been fed a neoliberal diet of propaganda and policy for so long that far too many have succumbed to magical thinking, the belief that we can have it all with only minimal pain, the later in the form of low taxation rates. A steady barrage of government waste stories, coupled with the extolment of the individualist giants who walk among us, all, as the mythology goes, self-made men and women, has created the unfortunate but quite intentional effect of equating taxation with government theft of its citizenry.

All of which, of course, is arrant nonsense.

As my friend Dom says about capitalist titans who 'made it on their own,' "Oh, and did they build their owns roads? Were they educated by universities they built? Did they personally educate their skilled employees?

And as one of our finest Canadian thinkers, Alex Himelfarb, has repeatedly asserted, the concept of taxation is not a profanity but an absolutely integral part of a fair, just and balanced democracy. If you haven't read or heard him, be sure to check out my blog links to some of his work.

There is no substitute for critical thinking about such matters, but the cost of riding the low-tax bandwagon can be very high, as this Star letter writer reminds us:
What do Montreal sewage, the Gardiner expressway, the Lac-Mégantic derailment and Walkerton water have in common?

They are the legacy of cynical politicians elected by gullible voters. For decades, the likes of Mike Harris, Rob Ford and Stephen Harper have peddled the Thatcher-Reagan lie that government budgets can be pared without limit until we all live tax-free in Eden North and the wealth trickles down for the good of all.

The troublesome truth is, no matter what book-keeping tricks we use, public debts inevitably come due in the form of failed infrastructure, lowered quality of life, disease and death.

Perhaps the most heartening implication of the Harper Party’s ouster is that most voters now accept that there is a price for being Canadian – one that is well worth paying for the privilege of living in what is still one of the best countries on earth.

Paul Collier, Toronto

Friday, November 20, 2015

Rex Murphy On Canada's Refugee Plans

While I am hardly dismissive of those who are expressing concerns about the speed with which the Liberal government is planning to bring in Syrian refugees, those concerns, I believe, are being exploited by some for less than noble purposes. Take, for example, Rec Murphy's point of view, expressed on last night's National news broadcast, my critique of which follows the video:

At first blush, as is often the case with Murphy's pontifications, his position sounds quite reasonable. However, if you listen to it carefully, moving past his gratuitous endorsements of Brad Wall and the former Harper regime, the subtext of his message is that there is much to fear from the Syrian influx that might be bearing within its midst ISIS agents coolly biding their time while they plot our destruction.

Such a jaundiced view is at variance with the facts of Canada's refugee plans. Murphy chooses to conflate the Paris attacks and Syrian refugee situation in Europe, which has seen massive numbers enter with little or no documentation, with Canada's plan:
They will most likely come from Jordan, Turkey or Lebanon, where almost all have been registered by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Jihadis interested in violence are not going to sit in a refugee camp for months — sometimes years — waiting for an interview with a visa officer, say experts.

“The idea that ISIS would use the refugee system to infiltrate Canada is vastly overblown. There is no history of this,” said Wesley Wark, a security expert and professor at the University of Ottawa. “You could never be certain your jihadi would even arrive.”
Some of the refugees in the camps have been there since 2011, when the civil war in Syria began.
Normally, government-sponsored refugees go through three levels of intense screening for criminality, war crimes and medical needs. UNHCR officials conduct detailed interviews and identity checks in the country of first asylum. Even if Syrians don’t have passports, most carry national identity cards with bar codes.

“We question them about past or current military activities or affiliations, including their future plans. We have a number of biometric security and anti-fraud measures including iris scanning,” said a UNHCR spokesperson. The registration data is entered into an interconnected global system.

The UNHCR then triages the refugees, and selects a very small number (about 1 per cent) who would make good candidates for resettlement by countries such as Canada. Women with children, unaccompanied minors, the elderly, sick and vulnerable are given priority.
More details about the process can be accessed here.

The wisdom of bringing in 25,000 refugees on a very compressed schedule is certainly a fit topic for debate. Rex Murphy's pandering to fears and prejudices is not.

UPDATE: A Police Or An Occupation Force?

Last night, the CBC reported on the case of Rodrigo Gonzalez, the subject of yesterday's post and the latest to die at the hands of Toronto Police. while the report perhaps sheds no further light on what occurred, it at least graphically brings to the public's attention something everyone should be very, very disturbed by: