Professor Henry Srebrnik

Professor Henry Srebrnik

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Back to the future in a consociational Palestine?

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

Imagine a country with two communities so deeply divided along ethnic or religious lines that it can only maintain democratic institutions within the framework of a unified state if the leaders of each ethnic group cooperate in power-sharing provisions to govern the country.

These arrangements, which political scientists refer to as consociationalism, often mandate a precise numerical ratio of parliamentary seats, governmental positions, and other offices, between the two groups. The groups often vote in separate, ethnically-based constituencies, rather than on a common electoral roll.

The very intricate constitution may also reserve certain important executive positions – say, the offices of president, vice-president, or prime minister – for one or the other community. It usually also specifies that the armed forces and police be composed of members of both groups. Finally, there are mutual vetoes in matters regarding the preservation of the culture and security of each community.

In such states, the groups in question are subject to both their internal ethnic leadership and that of the very weak state, and such dual authority politics, with overlapping fields of authority, creates a conflict between ethnic loyalty and state loyalty. The former almost invariably predominates. After all, the groups have little in common other than economic and political relationships, which tend to be antagonistic in nature.

Not surprisingly, such states are usually mere facades, the sovereign equivalents of Potemkin villages, often only held together due to pressure from outside forces who for one reason or another are unwilling to let such Humpty-Dumpty entities break into smaller pieces.

Belgium, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Lebanon, and perhaps Northern Ireland, are among many that spring immediately to mind. States such as Fiji, Nigeria and Sudan might join the list. And since there is no common sense of nationality, but rather competing nationalisms and jockeying for power, these artificial constructs often do finally splinter into partitioned entities: Cyprus after 1974 is a typical example, as were India and Palestine in 1947-48.

Today, though, we hear voices calling for the dissolution of Israel as a Jewish state, to be replaced by a “secular” entity – Palestine? – of Arabs and Jews.

No doubt, given the decades of mistrust and strife, this state too would soon enough manifest a politics revolving around the competing demands of the two constituent communities.

Communal violence would be an almost certain outcome, with a de facto geographical separation of the two groups within the state, as has been the case with the examples cited above.

Sooner or later, assuming one group did not eliminate the other through expulsion or massacre, there would be calls to partition the country – and we’d have come full circle, right back to UN General Assembly Resolution 181 of November 1947, the original plan to partition Palestine.

So why rewind and replay the tape? Political realism requires the acknowledgment of a fact that might be inconvenient to maximalists on either side: the final recognition of Israeli and Palestinian states within mutually recognized boundaries between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Monday, December 17, 2007

The American Presidential Race – So Far

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The next presidential election in the United States is still more than 10 months away. Indeed, not a single primary or caucus has been held.

The Democrats and Republicans still have, between them, 17 hopefuls in the race.

But it really will boil down to these seven candidates: among the Republicans, Rudolph Giuliani, Mike Huckabee, John McCain, and Mitt Romney; on the Democratic side, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards.

There are some truly history-making possibilities: should Clinton win, she would be the first female president; Obama would be the first African-American; Romney would become the first challenger to overcome the stigma that still attaches to Mormonism; and, though this has gone largely unnoticed in the media, Giuliani would become only the second Catholic, and the first person not of Anglo-Celtic stock, to become head of state. (Dwight Eisenhower’s mother was of British descent.)

The Republicans would be foolish to nominate anyone but Giuliani. Why?

McCain is a tired face and carries the weight of the Iraq war on his shoulders. Romney’s Mormonism would indeed turn off many evangelical Protestants, still a powerful voting block for the GOP; and Huckabee, while appealing to that very base, would drive away many neo-conservative voters who yearn for less religious fervor with their politics.

On the other hand, the former New York mayor, hawkish on foreign policy but very liberal on social issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion rights, would attract many independents and even some Democrats.

Now for the Democrats: As erudite, and well-versed in the art of politics as Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Bill Richardson are, they stand no chance to win the nomination. That leaves the two front-runners: Clinton and Obama.

Going into this campaign, Clinton, with the Democratic Party establishment behind her, seemed unbeatable. And, should she gain the nomination, she would be a formidable opponent for any Republican next November.

But she has many “negatives”: their names are Bill Clinton and his “friends” Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, and Linda Tripp (among many others). Hillary Clinton claims to have the experience Obama lacks, but what is she referring to exactly? Being “first lady” while her husband dallied with other women? Deciding not to divorce him because she felt she needed him for her own run for the top job?

Other woman chafe at the “glass ceiling,” but Hillary piggy-backed on Bill’s shoulders for decades. She then ran for, and won, a U.S. Senate seat from New York state – no working your way up from town councillor or school board trustee for her!

This calculated behavior makes her appear simply too power-hungry and amoral for the average American. Should she win the nomination, we might have to sit through endless Republican attack ads featuring the former president, husband Bill, along with the aforementioned women, and reruns of him lying on television about his behaviour.

Finally, Hillary Clinton would also succumb to the discomfort that many American have begun to share: that American politics are becoming too dynastic. Since 1988, either a Bush or a Clinton has occupied the White House. Do they need another eight years of that?

As well, they are uncomfortable with the idea of having a former president living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue alongside the newly-chosen one. How would that affect the governing of the country? How much influence would the unelected ex-president have on policy?

It’s not so much that Hillary Clinton is a woman that bothers them, it’s that she’s the spouse of a previous incumbent. Were the roles reversed – a man running for president who had been preceded by his wife – I think there would be the same level of unease.

Finally, we have Barack Obama. A young African-American who seems to have transcended issues of race and gender thus far, he is, at age 46, certainly the most appealing and cosmopolitan candidate in the Democratic field, and the only one among them who can inspire a newer generation of voters.

So here’s the bottom line: Rudy Giuliani would beat Hillary Clinton, but Barack Obama would defeat him. No other Republican would be able to win next year, no matter whom the Democrats nominate.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

The Loonie versus the U.S. dollar

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

Though Canadian retail prices are starting to reflect the impact of our stronger dollar, many economists think they will always remain higher than their American counterparts.

Why? It's due to the higher cost of doing business in this country. Our different tax structures, tariffs, higher wages, more regulations, plus some minor costs, such as bilingual packaging requirements, all make goods here more expensive.

Also, Canadian retailers pay more because the market is one-tenth the size of the United States, according to Diane Brisebois, president of the Retail Council of Canada.

"We don't suspect that the price differentiation will disappear ever, and that is simply based on economies of scale," she said recently. "If you buy a dozen doughnuts you get a better price than if you're buying a single."

Therefore, identical items are often priced at least 20 per cent higher in Canada than in the U.S. - and in many cases, a lot more than that.

So, ironically, our high-flying loonie, now trading at over US$1.03, can buy more in the U.S. than here, and Canadians have to cross the border to get a better price on the same products that are available at home.

That's because a Canadian dollar cannot buy as much in real goods and services in Canada as a U.S. dollar can in the United States. As opposed to the exchange rate, where the two currencies are now about equal, in terms of what is known as purchasing power parity (PPP), the loonie probably will buy only the equivalent of about 85 American cents.

In other words, we need to spend one Canadian dollar here to buy the same bundle of goods that cost Americans 85 cents in their country.

(By the way, when our dollar was in the low 70 cents US range, it was undervalued, because then, too, the two currencies were much closer in terms of PPP than was true of the exchange rate at that time.)

Also, not only are prices lower in the United States, but the typical Canadian does not earn as much income as the typical American, and gives more of it away in taxes. Canadian governments collect C$17,300 per capita from us, while American ones collect US$13,500 from theirs.

So why is the loonie 'punching above its weight'? The dramatic rise of the currency is due mainly to world commodity prices, in particular oil; our resource sector accounts for more than one-third of Canada's exports.

But the standard of living of average Canadians remains lower than that of our neighbours. Perhaps a new definition of a Canadian is someone who spends $10,000 more on a car than does an American, so they can wait two years for a hip replacement.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A strong dollar, but where are the savings?

Henry Srebrnik, [Summerside, PEI] Journal-Pioneer

Now that the loonie has reached virtual parity with the American dollar, isn't it time for prices in Canada to reflect that fact? After all, it's been gaining ground for a few years now.

A recent study conducted by Douglas Porter, deputy chief economist at BMO Capital Markets, indicated that Canadian-dollar prices are on average 24 per cent higher than U.S.-dollar prices on the same items.

The biggest gaps are in electronics, books, and cars.

Said Porter to the Globe and Mail, "It may be only a matter of time before the cross-border shopping dam bursts again. It may already be happening on-line."

Indeed, there has been an 11.08 per cent growth in items bought in U.S. dollars by Canadian on-line shoppers over the past year.

Ian Donker, general manager of Book City, in Toronto, told the Globe and Mail that most prices of books in his store are set in the United States. "But someone who last year was paying $19 for a book, this year doesn't want to pay $19 for a book," when the U.S. price listed alongside the Canadian one is much less. "And it is difficult for the book seller and the Canadian publisher to do much about it." And smaller items, such as books, are easiest to purchase via internet shopping.

Why, asked one Toronto businessman who bought a Subaru Tribeca for US $32,122.50 in Buffalo, NY, should the same car cost Cdn $41,995 in this country? Such price differentials are ridiculous.

"Some people are making a fortune out of this and they're reluctant to give up this very lucrative windfall," declared Bruce Cran, president of the Consumers' Association of Canada, in the Calgary Herald.

So Canadian retailers will face increased pressure to lower their prices accordingly. Already shopping malls in American border towns are packed with Canadians buying products that sell for no more than two thirds of what they cost in Canada.

Yet Diane J. Brisebois, the president of the Retail Council of Canada, has suggested that Canadian shoppers should be patient. Economies of scale, different tax and cost structures, and exchange rates with third countries all play a role.

"For Canadians to believe that our prices will be at par with American prices under any circumstances is not realistic," she remarked in a New York Times article. "Americans have 10 times the purchasing power. That's the reality."

But that's also the problem. It is clear that we all pay too much for goods, and all the various excuses made by retailers won't cut it anymore -- after all, we don't make 24 per cent more in wages and salaries than Americans do.

Despite the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Canada sometimes seems little more than a protection racket for those who control our economy. Unless prices come down more quickly, the U.S. will become the equivalent of a "black market," especially for high-ticket items.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Endless American Vote

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian:

Here we are, a full fourteen months before Americans cast their ballots for their next president, and already the race is in full swing. Why?

It’s the result of the law of unintended consequences.

In the “bad old days,” candidates were selected by party delegates at their respective national conventions, held during the summer preceding the November election.

Rarely did one aspirant have the necessary 50 per cent needed to win coming into the convention, and so there was drama and uncertainty, politicking and horsetrading.

But the American primary system has changed all that.

A primary election allows each party’s supporters in a state to select delegates committed to one or another candidate running for the nomination of their party. These delegates must vote, on the first ballot, for that candidate at the party’s convention.

Primary elections were introduced by political reformers as a way to lessen the influence of political “bosses” making deals in “smoke-filled back rooms.” In 1910, Oregon became the first state to establish a presidential primary in which delegates were required to support the winner of the primary at their convention. By 1920 there were 20 states with primaries.

Today, all 50 states hold primaries (or, in a few cases such as Iowa, caucuses, which are similar). If no candidate wins a majority of delegates during the primary season, the nominee is chosen by the convention. But this has not occurred since the Republican convention of 1976, when incumbent president Gerald Ford narrowly defeated Ronald Reagan.

States now vie for earlier primaries in order to claim greater influence in the nomination process, since candidates can ignore primaries which fall after the nomination has already been effectively won. So most primaries now take place in a compressed time frame.

As states continue to compete with each other to see who can hold their presidential primary first, by next February 5 – called “Tsunami Tuesday” because 19 states will be holding primaries that day – probably more than half the delegates to both major parties’ conventions will have been chosen. (In fact, six states will have held primaries or caucuses even before that date.)

This compressed calendar obviously favours front-runners with financial backing. It limits the ability of lesser-known candidates to raise money for advertising to increase their visibility among voters.

It also means that no last-minute entrants can join the race – unless they decide to run as third-party candidates, an onerous and fruitless task. No third party candidate has won a presidential election since 1912.

The Democrats and Republicans having to all intents and purposes picked their candidates by early February, the actual conventions will be little more than exercises in public relations and advertising on behalf of each party’s selection.

So the Democratic and Republican parties will in effect be running nine-month presidential campaigns. How absurd is that?

Instead of “front-loading” the primaries, states should consider moving them back to, say, May and June. Isn’t a five or six month campaign long enough?

Saturday, August 25, 2007

August 25, 2007

Israel only state to be singled out

Henry Srebrnik, The Calgary Herald

Back in the 1970s, China, then a Maoist state, trumpeted a revolutionary slogan, "Unite the Many, Defeat the Few."

Since at that time they were also vehement supporters of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was committed to the destruction of Israel, I joked that what they were really saying was, "Unite the Many, Defeat the Jews."

China's attitude towards Israel today is much more nuanced. However, there is now an increasing tendency, in some western academic and intellectual circles, to question Israel's very right to exist.

For these critics, the right of national self-determination for Jews in a state of their own is morally reprehensible, its very foundation a crime, an "original sin."

In 2003, New York University history professor Tony Judt wrote an article for the influential New York Review of Books entitled "Israel: The Alternative," in which he suggested that Israel was an anachronism that had historically "arrived too late."

Judt defined Israel as "a state in which Jews and the Jewish religion have exclusive privileges from which non-Jewish citizens are forever excluded."

Wrote Judt: "To convert Israel from a Jewish state to a binational one would not be easy, though not quite as impossible as it sounds: the process has already begun de facto. But it would cause far less disruption to most Jews and Arabs than its religious and nationalist foes will claim."

The British academic Jacqueline Rose, a professor of English at Queen Mary College, University of London, considers the Zionist movement of national liberation a betrayal of Jewish history and the Jewish heritage.

"I have never understood why the historic, biblical claim of the Jewish people, even when seared by the horror of the Holocaust, should usurp the rights of the Arabs who had lived there for hundreds of years," she wrote in an article in The Observer in 2002.

In her book, The Question of Zion, published in 2005, she declared that the formation of Israel in 1948 had not only brought "injustice" to the Palestinians, but put at risk the Jewish nation's own "safety and sanity." Israel, she decided, was "bad for the Jewish people" as well as its neighbours.

Rose concluded that only a renunciation of Zionism could alleviate the "terrible consequences" that had flowed from the creation of a state for the Jews.

Michael Neumann, a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Peterborough, is the author of The Case Against Israel, released in 2006. Zionism was the attempt to establish exclusive Jewish sovereignty over Palestine and therefore "Israel is the illegitimate child of ethnic nationalism," he asserted.

For him, not even the sufferings of Jews in the Nazi era could serve to justify it.

An even harsher tone was provided by Joel Kovel, a professor of social studies at Bard College, Annandale, N.Y. His book, Overcoming Zionism: Creating a Single Democratic State in Israel/Palestine, published this year, sees nationalism as evil, and Zionism as a particularly bad kind of nationalism. Israel is, for him, a "monstrous venture" of "state-structured racism."

Kovel argues that the inner contradictions of Zionism have led Israel down a path fully as wicked as that of apartheid South Africa and deserving of the same resolution.

Only a single-state secular democracy can provide the justice essential to healing the wounds of the Middle East.

These are four examples of academics, in the United States, Britain and Canada, who question the right of Israel to exist and prefer a "one-state solution"-- in other words, a Palestine that is "a state of all its citizens," Arabs, Jews and others. There are many others, and the list is growing.

Rarely, however, do Israel's detractors also demand that the many states that are officially, not merely demographically, Buddhist, Christian and Islamic also become "states of all their citizens."

After all, if Jews have no right to a state, then why do some 100 other ethnic groups have proprietary rights to theirs? Their countries too are the products of conquest at some stage in their formation, and they also include minority groups.

And there are many others, including Chechens, Kosovar Albanians, Tibetans and Palestinians themselves, demanding their own national independence.

Are they also not "privileged" within their own countries? Are not their symbols and laws reflective of their religious and cultural systems, past and present?

Do their flags not display crosses and crescents? Even if the critics of Israel have a point, to fixate on just one country is clearly a case of a double standard.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

August 16, 2007

Does Israel Have a Right to Exist?

Henry Srebrnik, [Toronto] Jewish Tribune

The future of the state of Israel is politically and ideologically now more uncertain than at any time since its inception in 1948.

I speak not of the threat of attack from Iran, or the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians, but rather of the increasing tendency, in some western academic and intellectual circles, to question Israel’s very right to exist.

For these critics, the right of national self-determination for Jews in a state of their own is morally reprehensible, its very foundation a crime, an “original sin.”

They demand that this illegitimate state be dismantled, or at the very least “de-Judaized,” in terms of its laws and symbols, in order for it to become “a state of all its citizens” -- by which they refer to the 1.5 million people, about 20 per cent of Israel’s population, who are Arabs and Druze.

In fact, this Arab population has full citizenship, with legal protections and political rights: currently, 12 of the 120 members of the Israeli Knesset (parliament) are Israeli Arabs, most representing Arab political parties. One of Israel’s Supreme Court judges is an Israeli Arab.

But this is not good enough for Israel’s opponents. They want to eliminate the “Zionist” (read: Jewish) nature of the state altogether.

One bone of contention is Israel’s “Law of Return,” which allows speedy immigration to the country by Jews, but not by others. (Israel was founded, after all, in order to be a Jewish state.) But rarely do these detractors of the state acknowledge that many other countries have similar policies.

Germany, for instance, allows ethnic Germans from elsewhere, even if they have no family connection with the country, to “return” to Germany.

But others do not have a similar right. Turks from Turkey cannot simply come to Germany under such arrangements, even if they have relatives among the large population of ethnic Turks in the country.

An Israel that became a “state of all its citizens” in terms of its public face would simply revert to being pre-1948 Palestine. The national flag and anthem, both Jewish, would need replacement. Extra-national bodies such as the Jewish Agency would disappear. The country would no longer be Jewish, so why would Jews have bothered creating it at all?

As well, in a non-Jewish Israel (or, to give it its proper name, Palestine), Jews would quickly become a minority, since we can assume that former Arab Palestinian refugees and their descendants would be allowed back under their own “law of return.” They would quickly assume the reins of power, and Jews would live under their governance.

In that case, Jews might just as well live in California or South Africa; Los Angeles or Capetown are just as pleasant as Tel Aviv. And they are in better neighborhoods!

Do Israel’s detractors also demand that the many states that are officially, not merely demographically, Islamic – Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and many more – also become “states of all their citizens?” Not that I’ve noticed.

Of course most of those countries have very few or no non-Muslim citizens, not even second class ones, since, unlike in Israel, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Jewish minorities are, to put it mildly, made to feel less than welcome.

If there are Jews who can only conceive of Israel as a state in which they are inherently superior, legally and socially, they have only themselves to blame if people regard that kind of Israel as a state that has no right to exist in its current form, warns one writer.

Really? No right to exist? But why then do the Albanians, the Bulgarians, the Croats, the Czechs, the Finns, the Greeks, the Latvians, the Japanese, the Swedes, the Ukrainians, the Vietnamese, and some 100 other ethnic groups have proprietary rights to their own states? And there are many others, including Chechens, Kosovar Albanians, Tibetans, and Palestinians themselves, demanding their own national independence.

Are they also not “privileged” within their own countries? Are not their symbols and laws reflective of their religious and cultural systems, past and present? Do their flags not display crosses and crescents?

Finally, what about all the artificial countries, the relics of colonialism – the Congos and Nigerias and Sudans? I see few people calling for the elimination of these polities.

Given the amount of ink spilled in attacks on Israel, a recently landed Martian might assume this nation to be the hub of a huge empire, comparable to some of the giants of the past, states that ruled over hundreds of millions of subjects.

The visitor might think Israel comparable to ancient Rome; 16th century Spain; the Ottoman and Mughal empires; Napoleonic France; the Victorian British Empire, with its worldwide reach; the Chinese empires, imperial and Communist; and for that matter the old Soviet Union, that “prison house of nationalities,” together with its east European satellites states.

But Israel is in fact tiny: fewer than seven million people in an area (pre-1967) of 22,072 square kilometres, or 8,522 square miles. This is not even twice the size, and with about half the population, of Greater Los Angeles!

The occupied West Bank (and Gaza) add another 6,335 square kilometres (2,446 square miles), with a population of 3.8 million.

And Israel is surrounded by states, far larger than itself, which have been less than pleased to see it come into existence. Some empire.

So how to account for the fixation on, and obsession with, this little Jewish country? I leave it to the readers’ imaginations – or better yet, their reading of history. I think we know the answer.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

August 4, 2007

A strong dollar, and short memory

Henry Srebrnik, The Calgary Herald

Canada has to be the country with the shortest collective memory in the world. As we know, the loonie is now worth about 95 cents US – fuelled, to a large extent, by the economic boom in Alberta. Some economists think it may even reach parity with the American dollar soon. Five years ago, it hovered at around 65 cents US.

Statistics Canada now says the surging currency is giving consumers purchasing power far greater than simple economic growth figures suggest.

Between 2002 and 2005, Canada’s economic output expanded by 8.3 per cent in real terms. But the purchasing power of the country's earnings increased by 13.4 per cent. Why? Because while the volume of exports rose, the price paid for those exports rose even more.

John Baldwin, director of microeconomic analysis at Statscan, explained that the large increase in the value of the Canadian dollar “is benefitting everyone across Canada.” And it has also led, he added, to an employment boom that has pushed Canada's jobless rate down to lows not seen since the 1960s.

Now, here’s my point: for years, under the Jean Chretien/Paul Martin regime, we were constantly being told that our low dollar was good for Canada. It allowed us to export cheaply, despite the fact that, as a corollary, our imported goods were expensive and Canadians had little purchasing power when abroad.

I remember being in Montana in July 2001 and seeing almost no Canadian license plates as soon as we crossed into the state from Alberta. We were the “east Germans” of North America, economically locked in behind our borders.

Now we can actually travel to the U.S. or Europe without going bankrupt. And retirees can again afford to buy sunbelt condos in places like Arizona and Florida.

Cross-border shopping is again, as it was in the early 1990s, all the rage. People are even buying cars in the U.S. and shipping them home. After all, such items typically cost a good 30 percent more in Canada – but if our loonie is worth close to a greenback, clearly they are cheaper in border towns anywhere between Bellingham and Buffalo.

Of course, since prices, like water, seek their own level, this will have the effect of eventually lowering the cost of goods in Canada – and so giving all of us more purchasing power.

But it turns out that the Chretien trade-off – a cheap currency that benefitted our exporters at the expense of higher priced goods at home – wasn’t even necessary. According to economist Stephen Poloz of Export Development Canada, the belief that a strong dollar hurts exporters is a myth. He asserted last year that Canadian exports actually declined during that period.

So why don’t we “call” the Liberals on this? Clearly they all flunked Economics 101 when at university. Does being our “natural governing party” mean never having to say you’re sorry – or wrong?

Here’s a suggestion: the next time our two former prime ministers visit the U.S., they should ask the bank to give them 65 cents US for every one of their loonies.

Friday, August 03, 2007

August 3, 2007

Barack Obama: Trailblazer for Black Americans

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

There are many reasons why it would be nice to see the junior senator from Illinois in the United States Senate, Barack Hussein Obama, become the Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. presidency in 2008 and go on to win the general election.

But here’s a particularly good one for those of us here in Canada tired of the constant America-bashing we have to put up with from the liberal and left wing of our political spectrum:

Not only is Obama black, he is the son of an African Muslim from Kenya who came to the United States as a student, and he has a decidedly non-Anglo-Saxon name. (His mother is a white American from Kansas.)

Yet he is being taken more seriously than any previous black candidates, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton.

Our Canadian leftists harp incessantly about American racism and xenophobia. But with all of our vaunted multicultural policies, I haven’t noticed anyone like Obama leading any of our political parties.

Born in Honolulu, with its culturally heterogeneous mix of indigenous Hawaiians, other Pacific Islanders, Asians, and whites, for much of his youth Obama lived outside the U.S.

His parents divorced when he was a child and his father, a member of Kenya’s second-largest ethnic group, the Luo, returned to Kenya and remarried. Obama has a number of half-siblings there.

Obama’s mother later married an Indonesian student and the family moved to the world’s largest Muslim country, where Obama attended school in Jakarta for four years. Obama is today a member of the United Church of Christ.

Barack Obama represents the new diversity among black Americans, who now number about 37 million people.

Traditionally, African-American identity was built on an ancestral connection to slavery. American blacks were, by definition, people whose ancestors had arrived in America prior to the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century.

They had lost their African cultures and languages – most native-born blacks don’t know their specific ethnic heritage. They were, in that sense, despite the legacy of slavery, racism and segregation, quintessential Americans.

After all, given racist American immigration laws, their numbers were not augmented by new waves of immigration from Africa. Until the twentieth century, most lived in rural areas of the old slave states of the U.S. South. They were a very homogeneous group.

In 1965, however, the U.S. liberalized its immigration laws, and removed quotas based on national origin. The Immigration and Naturalization Act now allowed more non-Europeans to enter the country and this has led to profound demographic changes in America.

In the past 30 years, one million people have come from Africa to the United States, from countries as different as Ghana and Nigeria, Senegal and Somalia.

Another 1.5 million blacks claim Caribbean ancestry; they have arrived from Haiti, Jamaica, and many other islands in the West Indies.

Nearly 25 percent of the growth in the black population between 1990 and 2000 was due to immigration and this pattern is accelerating. There is now a large African and Afro-Caribbean diaspora population in the United States.

All these new black immigrants have brought their own cultures with them, and they have remained distinct from the native African-American population. Many are Muslims, whereas most of the historic black community in the U.S. has been devoutly Protestant.

Like other recent newcomers, they settle in the large cities, mainly in the north and west. Many have become successful entrepreneurs and their children have attained high educational levels.

A disproportionate percentage of black students at elite universities are African or the children of African immigrants. (Obama’s father obtained a PhD from Harvard University and Obama attended Harvard Law School.)

Some African-Americans complain that Obama is “not black enough” because of his heritage. But many others realize that the old criteria by which they identify themselves don’t fit this new reality, which Barack Obama personifies.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

April 28, 2007

Gov. Gen. Has Power to Thwart an Election

Henry Srebrnik, The Calgary Herald

Most Canadians are less than enthusiastic about the prospect of a third federal election in under four years.

But what if the following were to happen in the near future: the opposition parties gang up on the ruling Conservatives and defeat them, resulting in the fall of Stephen Harper's government?

However, rather than dissolve Parliament and force Canadians into another trip to the ballot box, Governor-General Michaelle Jean asks someone else – presumably Stephane Dion – to try to form another minority government, with support from other opposition parties.

After all, this kind of thing happens often in multi-party states such as Israel or Italy. One coalition government succeeds another, and parliamentary life goes on.

Though it is within her constitutional prerogative, could our governor-general get away with this in Canada? How much political, as opposed to symbolic, credibility does Jean really have? She was just a TV personality before being selected in 2005, almost on a whim, by then prime minister Paul Martin, to replace Adrienne Clarkson.

There was no oversight, consultation, confirmation by a legislature, or election by an electoral college or by the public at large, as is the case in most countries which have a ceremonial head of state above partisan politics.

Unlike many a monarch or president, Jean had no constitutional or political experience when selected. If she were to designate Dion as prime minister, it would amount to Martin strangling Harper from the political grave.

This whole scenario highlights the ridiculous constitutional limbo Canada finds itself in. Our recent governors-general have basically been patronage appointments made by the prime minister of the day.

Where else does a political leader get to choose his constitutional boss? Certainly not in Britain, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Norway, Sweden or numerous other nations with political systems similar to ours.

As a consequence, our governors-general no longer have the kind of political legitimacy afforded the monarchs and presidents of the aforementioned countries.

We should either go the whole way and become a republic with a formal head of state who is not picked out of a back pocket by a head of government or, at the least, institute a proper procedure, including input from a wide variety of sources, for selecting our “stand-in” for our British-domiciled head of state, Queen Elizabeth II.

Yet when I called attention to this issue at a panel discussing Canadian politics at the annual convention of the Western Social Science Association, which met in Calgary last week, none of the political scientists seemed particularly perturbed. They feared the consequences of “opening up the constitution,” which would be the only way to solve the problem.

Has Canada become such a frail creature that no one wants to disturb it unduly, lest it expire altogether?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

April 6, 2007

Greens must keep focused on cause

Henry Srebrnik, The Calgary Herald

The Green party clearly is riding the crest of the environmentalist wave in Canada. The debate about global warming, the arguments over the controversial Kyoto accord and the various proposals to reduce the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – these have been front row center in Canadian politics for the past year.

Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, derided by many as “climate change deniers,” have been playing catch-up on these issues.

But for obvious reasons, no party is better positioned to take advantage of the anxiety Canadians feel about our climate than Elizabeth May’s Green party – the Liberals and the New Democratic Party notwithstanding.

Some recent opinion polls show the Greens at close to 10 per cent of the national vote.

Still, the party must be careful to differentiate its policies from the Liberals and NDP, lest voters choose one of the latter two when going to the polls. After all, why bother with a “minor, one-issue” group, when Stephane Dion or Jack Layton can also deliver on climate change – along with many other matters of concern to the electorate?

So the Greens may be making a tactical error by focusing their fire mainly on Harper, even though he is ideologically the one furthest from their views.

For example, Vancouver environmentalist Briony Penn has taken Elizabeth May’s message that the Conservatives must be beaten to its logical conclusion. She recently left the Green party to become a Liberal.

May ran second to the Liberal candidate in a by-election in the Ontario riding of London North Centre last November, beating both the Conservatives and NDP and garnering more than a quarter of the vote.

But now she has decided to challenge Peter MacKay, the MP for the Central Nova riding and the last leader of the old Progressive Conservative party, in the next federal election. This smacks of political symbolism: Does she feel MacKay’s decision to merge the PCs with Stephen Harper's Canadian Alliance in 2003 was a form of ideological treason?

It is interesting to note that in the London by-election, May was endorsed by Mort Glanville, a former president of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, and by Halton MP Garth Turner, a former Progressive Conservative who had been expelled from Harper’s Conservative caucus a month earlier, and now sits as a Liberal.

All of this indicates to me that the Green party, perhaps not consciously, is filling the niche in Canadian politics left by the demise of the PCs, a party that was by the 1990s, following the exit of those who moved over to the Reform party in the West and the Bloc Quebecois in Quebec, a vague “feel good” place for people who found the Liberals too power-hungry and ambitious, and the NDP too left-of-centre and union-dominated. Have many of the old “Red Tories,” the followers of Joe Clark, now turned Green?

We once again have three parties that share, in a large sense, a similar vision of Canada, as a “kinder, gentler” country that cares for the environment and practices “soft power” abroad. Indeed, May hopes that the Liberals and NDP might stay out of the Central Nova race.

This informal Liberal/NDP/Green “coalition” will face the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois, two parties with very different visions of the country, in the next election.

Will this result in vote splitting among environmentalists, allowing the Conservatives to win many ridings with small pluralities? If so, will the Greens and NDP eventually merge, as the parties on the right finally did? Or might many Greens even join the Liberals? We definitely live in interesting times.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

March 29, 2007

What of Quebec’s Anglophones?

Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian

The big story in the Quebec election of 2007 was, of course, the amazing showing by Mario Dumont’s Action Démocratique du Québec and the dismal performance of the incumbent Liberals, whose leader, premier Jean Charest, barely held on to his own seat. The Parti Québécois also fared badly, suffering its worse defeat since the early 1970s.

The Liberals won 48 seats in the National Assembly, mostly in and around Montreal, while the ADQ took 41 and the PQ 36. Quebec will have its first minority government since 1878.

The ADQ’s platform in many ways mirrors that of the federal Conservative Party, and already many observers predict that Stephen Harper may strike while the iron is hot in Quebec, and call a federal election this spring.

Overlooked by most observers, though, will be the continued marginalization of Quebec’s dwindling anglophone minority, who find themselves with fewer options in every election.

Here’s an indicator of how far apart the anglophones of Montreal are from the majority of Quebec voters (and of Quebec political culture in general):

In most of Quebec’s 125 constituencies, the race was between the Liberals, the ADQ, and the PQ. But in three predominantly “English” constituencies in the west end of Montreal -- D’Arcy-McGee, Notre-Dame-de-Grâce and Westmount-Saint-Louis -- not only did the Liberal candidates win their seats by overwhelming majorities (as usual), but in each of these ridings the Green Party ran second.

Two decades ago, many of these same voters elected members of the anglo-rights Equality Party, led by Robert Libman, to the National Assembly.

It was formed after Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa in 1988 used the notwithstanding clause of the Canadian constitution to override a Supreme Court of Canada decision that upheld a challenge to Bill 101, the law that had made French the sole official language of Quebec and imposed restrictions on the use of English on public signs.

Bourassa’s Liberals quickly passed Bill 178, which continued to ban English from all outdoor signs in Quebec. In reaction, the new Equality Party won four seats in west end Montreal in the 1989 provincial election.

But that four-member caucus fell apart due to internal bickering and its inability to do much on behalf of its constituents. As well, Bourassa in 1993 introduced Bill 86, which allowed English on outdoor commercial signs, if the French lettering was at least twice as large as the English.

So all of the Equality Party’s candidates were defeated in the 1994 election, as voters returned, reluctantly, to the Liberals.

Pity the poor anglophones – in the 2007 election, those voters who found the Liberal Party unpalatable, for whatever reason, could only deliver a protest by voting for a group that barely registered on the electoral radar elsewhere in the province.