Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Monday, May 02, 2016

Are Our Politicians Now Merely Celebrities?

Henry Srebrnik [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
A recent exchange between Democratic Party rivals Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton about which of them had the “qualifications” to be president of the United States came after Sanders, when being interviewed by the New York Daily News editorial board, struggled to outline his policies on Wall Street and foreign affairs.
But this was silly, really, because obviously no politician has the depth of knowledge about specific events or countries that tens of thousands of historians and political scientists with PhDs have. So what. That’s not why we elect them.

Look at Justin Trudeau -- this is a man who spent most of his life as a dilettante; his only “jobs” were as a substitute drama high school teacher and snowboarding instructor. 

Yet he won a resounding victory in last year’s federal election, bringing the Liberal Party back from the dead (or – the same thing for our natural governing party -- third place in the House of Commons). 
He not only bested our dour Conservative prime minister but also, in the NDP’s Tom Mulcair, an excellent debater and very competent politician, whose own party has now cast him aside.
Trudeau’s two Liberal Party predecessors, he might remind people, were both accomplished academics and intellectuals. But Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff, the latter probably the best-known Canadian public intellectual in the world right now, almost brought the party to ruin.

Perhaps politicians have become merely celebrities. This hit home to me while watching television news clips of the recent visit to India by the royals Will and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. 

They were shown playing with children, opening venues, visiting temples and iconic landmarks, and so on. But how different, really, is this from Justin Trudeau taking pictures with people and practicing yoga with his wife Sophie? (In December, they also recorded themselves singing “Jingle Bells” in a clip posted on YouTube.)
Trudeau has been called, among other things, “vapid,” “emotionally manipulative,” “a rich-kid pretty-boy,”  “an airhead,”  “a flake,” “PM Selfie,” and a “faux feminist.” Given his “sunny ways,” though, this doesn’t faze him; he just keeps on smiling. 
And why not? As an April 16 article by Niraj Chokshi in the Washington Post, “Watch Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Charming Quantum Computing Lesson,” observed, The Internet’s love of Justin Trudeau knows no bounds. And it grows greater still.” 
His “all-around handsomeness” has made him the focus of “countless viral memes.”
In fact, “Trudeau’s one true asset as a politician is his talent for performance,” noted Jen Gerson in her April 19 National Post commentary, “The Talented Mr. Trudeau.”
In “A Liberal Government Styled by Dorian Gray,” National Post, April 20, Andrew Coyne concurs. He describes Trudeau as being “dimpled of smile and tousled of hair,” the embodiment of “eternal youth.”
He is “on every magazine cover, in every news cycle, opening this and announcing that. Occasionally he even shows up in Parliament.” Has any teenager ever had this much fun?
And now this: The men’s magazine GQ board has named Trudeau “the most stylish politician alive right now,” and he has made Time magazine’s  list of the 100 most influential people in the world. 
Time also noted that Trudeau visited Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn April 21 and sparred with young boxers, before signing a climate change accord at the United Nations. The magazine added that the outing “wasn’t that unusual for Trudeau, who boxes regularly.” 
Talk of virility! The Liberals have certainly been, in the words of Joni Mitchell, “stoking the star maker machinery.”
While Trudeau traipses around the world, the darling of the media in Britain, the United States, and elsewhere, others are doing the actual work of governing. Because it’s 2016!

Trump's Foreign Policy Heresy

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian 
As Donald Trump vies for the Republican Party’s nomination for president, the foreign policy establishment, and especially its neoconservative hawks, grow ever more frenzied in their denunciations of him.
What are Trump’s foreign policy sins?  “Instead of denouncing President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Trump proposes to treat him as a reasonable negotiating partner,” observes Stephen Kinzer of Brown University, in “Trump’s Refreshing Foreign Policy Heresy,” in the April 14 Boston Globe
Trump has dared to suggest that the United States should be neutral between Israel and the Palestinians. Asked about Washington’s commitment to defend Japan and South Korea against all threats forever, he replied that it “could not go on forever.”
Trump has also remarked that “We spend billions of dollars on Saudi Arabia, and they have nothing but money. And I say, why?”
As for NATO, “It was really designed for the Soviet Union, which doesn’t exist anymore,” Trump remarked. “It wasn’t designed for terrorism.”
Of course this “apostasy” cannot go unchallenged! 
So Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, in “Trump’s Putin Fantasy,” NYR Daily of April 21, paints a picture of a Trump being taken in by a devious Putin.

Because Trump has praised Putin’s “strong” leadership and has called NATO “obsolete and expensive,” writes Snyder, the Russian president sees Trump as a potential “Kremlin client.
For good measure, he also labels Trump an “oligarch who enjoys the backing of American neo-Nazis.”
Robert Zubin, in “Trump: The Kremlin’s Candidate,” published April 4 in the influential National Review, notes that Trump has “the enthusiastic endorsement of the Putin chorus because he promises to gut NATO, thereby enabling Russian domination of Europe.” 
In a follow-up piece on April 14, Zubin developed an even more apocalyptic scenario. Putin wants to restore the Soviet bloc, according to Zubin. This means that “Polish independence must be crushed.” 

He also asserts that Russia’s Middle East strategy “is centered on building up an Iranian empire” as a “powerful junior partner to Moscow.” 
So a pro-Putin Trump administration “offers Israel the terrifying prospect of a nuclear-armed Iranian regional hegemon.” It “could lead to the end of Poland’s independence and Israel’s existence.”
But consider this: I’m sure Trump would not have bombed Belgrade on behalf of the Kosovar Liberation Army in 1999 to set up another Albanian state in the Balkans. 
He would not have invaded Iraq in 2003 and destroyed thousands of lives and wasted hundreds of billions of dollars on what has become an Iranian vassal state. 
He wouldn’t have first warned Syria’s Bashar al-Assad about “red lines” and then turned tail when the dictator used chemical weapons, as Barack Obama did in 2013. 
He wouldn’t have signed the nuclear deal with Iran last year. And he wouldn’t be antagonizing Russia in the Baltic Sea on behalf of corrupt oligarchs in places like Georgia and Ukraine.
On the other hand, according to Mark Lander, White House correspondent for The New York Times, Hillary Clinton is “the last true hawk left in the race.”
In “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk,” in the April 24, 2016 New York Times Magazine, he contends that she has displayed instincts on foreign policy that are more aggressive than those of most Democrats. It’s why so many neoconservatives support her. 
The ultra right-wing Republican super-donor Charles Koch, one of the two billionaire Koch brothers regularly painted by Democrats as ogres, in an interview which aired on ABC Television’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos” on April 24, said he could imagine Clinton as preferable to Trump or Ted Cruz.
“Let me put it that way,” he remarked. “It’s possible.”
So who’s the scary one?

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Way We Live Now

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
Maybe this is just youthful nostalgia on my part, but I think the best period in recent times was the mid to late 1970s. 

The wild political activities of the 1960s, including political assassinations and campus unrest, which were partly a reaction to the Vietnam War, were over. 

The Cold War was in remission: there was détente with the Soviet Union, and China was recovering from the lunacies of the Cultural Revolution.

Keynesian economics, the welfare state, and strong unions were the norm. Whatever their faults, they did provide a sense of security. Perhaps the “soft folk rock” sound of the Eagles summed up the era musically.

An unprepossessing and decent president, Jimmy Carter, occupied the White House. And, whatever you may think of his politics, a serious person, Pierre Trudeau, governed Canada. 

But a number of concerns have led to our current zeitgeist. 

First, we now have to confront the absurd oversensitivity and competitive “victimology” on the part of every conceivable group in society. What we call “political correctness” has almost made free speech a thing of the past.

Ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation have become the preoccupations of today’s left. People can now lose their livelihoods with one unguarded comment on Twitter or Facebook, never mind a lecture or article. Maybe we should call them “anti-social media.”

Second, we have witnessed the rise of Islamist terrorism, which would only really come to the fore with the coming to power of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran and the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Who back then could have, even in their worst nightmares, imagined 9/11?

And, finally, in the United States, there has emerged a witch’s brew of hyper-capitalism and ultra-nationalism run amok, it began in 1980 with the election of Ronald Reagan, and continued with the two Bushes and Bill Clinton. 

The new neoliberalist ideology advocated massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services, and the virtual end of antitrust enforcement.

It has led to the terribly deformed plutocratic political system of today, with an increasingly unequal distribution of wealth and income, especially since the financial crash of 2008.

Millions live in what is now called the “precarious economy” while the super-rich have appropriated the lion’s share of the country’s wealth. 

I might also throw in as a negative factor 24/7 cable television, which magnifies and hypes every little political issue. Rational political discourse gives way to polarization and vilification, and everything becomes spectacle.

Cable serves as an irritating background noise, like the sound of a buzz saw or the screaming of spectators at a wrestling match.

What do we face in this new century?  Cultural fragmentation, terrorism, environmental anxiety, and economic inequality.

The latter half of the 1970s, by comparison with what came both before and after, was a rather soothing time. I now remember it wistfully, but we won’t see it again.

Anti-Semitism in the British Labour Party

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
The left-wing ideologue Jeremy Corbyn won the leadership of the British Labour Party last year, and it’s been downhill ever since for the vast majority of the country’s Jews, who are increasingly denounced as “Zionists” because they don’t want to see Israel destroyed.

Whether Corbyn intends it or not, he has created a climate whereby people feel free to voice absolutely egregious opinions, in language that increasingly crosses the line into old-style anti-Semitism.

This is more than a bit ironic, given that the previous party leader Ed Miliband, who lost the 2015 election to the Conservatives, was Jewish. And Labour, for that matter, was the political home for a majority of British Jews for many decades.

As late as 1997, 70 per cent of the British Jewish community voted for the Labour Party. Today it is less than 25 per cent.

Jonathan Arkush, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, remarked that under Corbyn “most people in the Jewish community can’t trust Labour. In the last few weeks we have witnessed a stream of clear-cut cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which can’t just be fobbed off as differences over Israel.”

Michael Foster, who ran as a Labour candidate in the 2015 general election, recently denounced Corbyn, maintaining that “the Jewish community cannot support a political party that, at its top levels, appears by its inaction to tolerate anti-Semitic speech and behaviour.”

Such people, added Foster, “blend Israel and Zionism into the supposed demagoguery of the classic Jew, an all-controlling malevolent demon, and a rich one, intent on committing incremental genocide against the Palestinian people.”

Yet Corbyn “makes no attempt at all to put at ease a Jewish community in Britain that for more than 100 years has supported Labour spiritually, politically and financially.” This has given a green light to his supporters to denounce Israel and those who defend it.

A Labour councillor in Luton, Aysegul Gurbuz, has been suspended after a series of anti-Semitic tweets were found on her Twitter account in early April. She described Hitler as the “greatest man in history” and hoped Iran would use a nuclear weapon to “wipe Israel off the map.” Other tweets expressed “disgust” that “Jews are so powerful.”

Mohammed Dawood, another Labour councillor, in the east Midlands city of Leicester, recently described Israelis as “colonisers” and stated that Israeli troops are “Zionist terrorists.”

However, two other party activists were recently readmitted following their suspension for anti-Semitism.

Gerry Downing had posted a tweet in 2014 that claimed prominent historian Ian Kershaw had a “Zionist minder.” Downing had been excluded from the party but has now been reinstated as a full member.

The Labour Party had also suspended Vicki Kirby for comments on social media in 2014. One message claimed that “We invented Israel when saving them from Hitler, who now seems to be their teacher.” 

But she was subsequently not only readmitted but selected as the vice-chair of the Woking Labour Party’s executive committee this past March. 

On the other hand, Louise Ellman, a Jewish Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, has been targeted by activists at meetings of her constituency party.

A small group have attended the sessions specifically to attack her, asking questions only about her position on Israel. One non-Jewish man said that when he defended her, he was threatened and told he was a “Zionist fascist.”

Ellman called on Corbyn to take action. That prompted his brother, Piers Corbyn, to post a tweet claiming that “Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine.”

The Labour Party candidate in London’s mayoral race recently said he is “embarrassed” and “sorrowful” about his party’s failure to take on anti-Semitism.

Sadiq Khan told a London Jewish community centre that Corbyn needs to be “trained about what anti-Semitism is.” He noted that this is “not just a problem for the Jewish community, it is a problem for society.”

Friday, April 22, 2016

Hattin Still Resonates After Eight Centuries

Henry Srebrnik, [Calgary] Jewish Free Press
Why does the memory of a battle fought more than eight centuries ago near Tiberias  in present-day Israel still resonate among Middle East Muslims?

The Battle of Hattin, on July 4, 1187, was a victory by the Muslim general Saladin over the Christian armies that had conquered much of Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, including Jerusalem, in the first two Crusades. 

Precise casualties for the battle are not known, but it resulted in the destruction of the majority of the Crusader army. Quickly advancing in the wake of his victory, Saladin captured Acre, Nablus, Jaffa, Toron (now Tebnine), Sidon, Beirut, and Ashkelon in rapid succession. Jerusalem was finally surrendered on Oct. 2.

Pope Urban II was said to have died of shock upon hearing the news.

Though it did not end warfare between Christians and Muslims – there were many more Crusades to come, including the third, led by England’s King Richard the Lionheart – Jerusalem was never again in Christian hands. Hattin was to be forever connected with the loss of the Holy City. 

Yet in medieval Christian literature, Saladin’s victory and supposed leniency towards the defeated Crusaders became romanticized, demonstrating his supposedly shared code of chivalry.

This attitude remains the case to this day. Indeed, I can still remember an episode of the 1950s British television show The Adventures of Robin Hood – scripted by blacklisted American writers who had fallen afoul of McCarthyism -- where Richard and Saladin met and admired each other’s cultures. (Of course this never happened.)

In Muslim accounts, Hattin provided a different message: It proved that Christians could be beaten. In Muslim memory Saladin is the hero who freed Jerusalem, which had been in the hands of the Crusaders for almost 90 years.

In recent decades, Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, have integrated the victory into their own quest to drive modern western powers out of the Middle East, destroy Israel, and liberate Jerusalem, as Saladin had done.

The 1988 charter of Hamas, the militant group that governs Gaza, also looks to Hattin for inspiration. It quotes and glorifies Saladin, who is regarded as a committed believer, and therefore, a man above doubts. 

Saladin, it asserts, won the battle in the name of Islam and hence Muslims have to return to their faith in order to triumph. Islam must play a role in the struggle for liberation, it states, “just as it played a role in vanquishing the crusaders.”

Khaled Meshal, the leader of Hamas, was interviewed by a British journalist in 2006. “Remember Hattin,” Meshal told the Spectator’s Julian Manyon. “The Crusader State lasted 88 years,” Meshal observed. “Inshallah the Jewish state will not last that long.”

Fathi Hamad, since April 2009 the Hamas interior minister in the Gaza Strip, made similar statements in December 2013. “Gaza and the West Bank will fuse together, along with our brothers within the 1948 borders, in a second Battle of Hattin, in order to uproot the Jews.” 

As the American novelist William Faulkner wrote in his 1951 book Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Monday, April 18, 2016

Myanmar Moves to Consolidate Democracy

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
South Asia’s countries have had their fair share of women leaders: Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh, and both Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka. 

Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar can now be added to the list, though she is at the moment only a de facto ruler. 

She is the country’s state counselor, a position newly created for her by her political allies that effectively makes her the head of the government. The country’s current constitution bars her from the presidency because her children are British citizens. 

The new president, Htin Kyaw, is a close ally she picked for the job.

Suu Kyi, the daughter of Myanmar’s independence hero General Aung San, was for decades the symbol of her country’s desire for democracy while it chafed under military dictatorship. The recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she was under house arrest for 15 years. 

However, facing international pressure, the military began to loosen its hold on the country and finally agreed to allow free elections last year.

As a result, last November Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a majority in both houses of parliament, giving the party control over both the legislative and executive branches of government.

The NLD captured 77.1 per cent of the vote and won a combined total of 390 seats, while the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party took just 41.

While there are 664 seats in the two houses of Parliament, the military appoints 166 of them and thus retains some power. They also retain the ministries of defence, home affairs and border affairs.

Though she remains barred from the office of the presidency, “the president will be told exactly what he can do,” she told a television interviewer. “I make all the decisions because I am the leader of the winning party.”

The first freely elected parliament after half a century of military rule opened on Feb. 1, a symbolic but critical milestone in the country’s fragile transition to democracy.

At least 110 of the NLD’s 390 members in the new parliament are, like Suu Kyi, former political prisoners. She announced that she would seek to free some 500 political prisoners, including students, most of whom have not faced trial.

Suu Kyi has said that she hopes to begin the process of changing the constitution, hoping to make her eligible to become president and strip the military of its political powers. The current constitution, drafted in 2008, gives the military a veto over proposed amendments.

Myanmar is now opening up to the world, and Ottawa is establishing closer relations with the country. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion visited earlier this month and met with Suu Kyi.

Dion congratulated Myanmar on installing its first civilian government in decades and on its transition from military rule to democracy.

The Good Friday Agreement, 18 Years Later

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal Pioneer
The Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, signed on April 10, 1998 by the British and Irish governments and eight political parties or groupings from Northern Ireland, was designed to end “the Troubles” that had taken more than 3,500 lives in that province since 1969. 

Another 30,000 had been injured, and thousands more sent to prison for terrorist offences.

The Agreement contained proposals for a Northern Ireland Assembly with a power-sharing executive, and new cross-border institutions with the Republic of Ireland. 

Dublin also agreed to drop its constitutional claim to the six of Ulster’s nine counties that had formed Northern Ireland in 1922, and remained part of the United Kingdom rather than joining the new Irish Free State. 

Referendums were held on May 22, 1998 in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In the north, voters were asked to ratify the deal. In the south, they were asked to approve a change to the constitution of Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, the “yes” vote was 71.12 per cent while in the Irish Republic it reached 94.39 per cent.

The Agreement set out a complex series of provisions relating to a number of areas, including the status and system of government of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the relationship between the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.

No one party would be able to control the assembly. Decisions would have to be taken on the basis of parallel consent, requiring the endorsement of a majority of parties representing Catholic nationalists and a majority of those of Protestant Unionists. 

The agreement stipulated that Ireland would not become one united country without the consent of a majority in Northern Ireland, and that the people of Northern Ireland had the right to call themselves either Irish or British.

Elections to a new Northern Irish 108-member assembly at Stormont followed.

Ministerial positions in the Northern Ireland Executive are allocated to parties with significant representation in the Assembly. The First Minister and deputy First Minister are nominated by the largest and second largest parties respectively and act as chairmen of the Executive.

There has also been a devolution of justice and policing powers, to make them more neutral, for example, the Royal Ulster Constabulary, which had been almost entirely Protestant and pro-Unionist, was incorporated into the new Northern Ireland Police Service, now with Catholic officers as well, in 2001.

At first the more extreme Catholic and Protestant parties had been wary of the agreement, but by 1997 the militant Democratic Unionist Party (Protestant) had entered a historic power-sharing government with Sinn Féin, an arm of the Irish Republican Army. 

The DUP leader, Ian Paisley, became first minister, with Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness as his deputy.

The current government is headed by Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionists, which won 38 seats in the 2011 election, with Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin, which gained 29 seats, as deputy first minister. The next is May 5.

How has the Good Friday Agreement worked out from the Irish point of view? Fairly well, according to Dr. Ray Bassett, the Irish ambassador to Canada since 2010, who was closely involved with the negotiations. 

An experienced diplomat, he has worked extensively on Anglo-Irish Relations, and shared his thoughts at a lecture at UPEI on April 11.

When negotiations first began, he said, “many felt that the divisions between Catholics and Protestants were irreconcilable.” 

But after decades of conflict, the economy was wrecked. So paramilitaries on both sides were looking for a way to end the violence.

The talks continued even while extremist groups engaged in sporadic violence, so that “rejectionists” would not have a “veto.” 

Bassett admitted that Northern Ireland remains a divided society, but violence is greatly diminished. The Good Friday Agreement was designed in order “to manage differences,” and in that sense has been a success.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

North Korea's Bizarre Communist State

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

How do you solve a problem like North Korea? As numerous attempts by, among others, China, Japan, Russia, and the United States, have demonstrated, it’s not easy.

Though they are both ethnically and linguistically homogenous, since the division of the peninsula in 1945, the two Koreas have diverged economically, politically and even culturally – whereas almost one-third of South Koreans are now Christians, the north remains resolutely anti-religious. 

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the Communist north calls itself, has long used the development of nuclear capability as a form of extortion, promising to curtail its program in return for aid from other countries. But it always eventually reneges on its promises, as it has done again.

The goal of convincing the DPRK to abandon its nuclear program depends on the tortuous negotiations involving the United States, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and North Korea that began in 2003 after the DPRK had withdrawn from the Non-Proliferation Treaty on Nuclear Weapons and announced it would no longer abide by a 1992 agreement to keep the peninsula free from nuclear weapons. 

In 2007 it closed a nuclear reactor in exchange for aid agreed in the six-party talks, and Washington removed the DPRK from its terrorism blacklist after it promised to shut down the Yongbyon nuclear site. But in 2010 it emerged that it had secretly built a new facility for enriching uranium there. 

The 33-year-old leader of the DPRK, Kim Jong-un, grandson of the state’s founder, has been flexing his military muscles since taking power in 2011.

On Jan. 6, Pyongyang tested a nuclear bomb and on Feb. 7, it launched a rocket thought to be part of a ballistic missile program, despite threat of severe sanctions from United States, maintaining that the launch was part of a peaceful effort to put satellite into orbit.

In recent weeks, North Korea has fired a slew of short and medium-range ballistic missiles and artillery shells into the sea. South Korea has determined that the North is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on its medium-range Rodong ballistic missile, which could reach all of the South and most of Japan.

The North has now threatened a nuclear strike against Washington in retaliation for new United Nations sanctions passed to punish the country. It recently released a video titled “Last Chance” that depicts a nuclear strike on Washington, along with a warning to “American imperialists” not to provoke the North.

Domestically, the regime’s insistence on juche, self-reliance based on political independence, economic self-sufficiency and independence in defence, and its songun chongch’i, or army-centred politics, has condemned the population to frequent famine and terrible poverty. About one million people starved to death in the 1990s. 

But it has also enabled this perplexing country to develop nuclear weapons and to manufacture long-range missiles. South Korea has determined that North Korea is capable of mounting a nuclear warhead on its medium-range Rodong ballistic missile, which could reach all of the South and most of Japan, a senior government official said on Tuesday.