Thursday, 29 November 2007

Parisian protests finally cool down

Violence has died down after several days of violent protest in France. How did it all begin?

...two teenagers, riding a mini-motorbike without crash helmets, were killed in a collision with a police car on November 25th. How it happened is unclear; a judicial inquiry has begun. But by nightfall, rioters were on the rampage. Over two nights of violence, they torched scores of cars and rubbish bins, a police station, a nursery school, a library, shops, a car dealer and a McDonald's. Other banlieues north of Paris and in Toulouse saw car-burnings. Some 130 policemen were wounded, several seriously.

These latest French riots, reminiscent of the ones two years ago, bring up an important sociological question: Why do riots like this happen more in France than other places? France certainly is not the only developed nation with discontented poor and minority groups. France is a nation of protests and strikes. Recent example: the transport strike.

Why don't these stands against authority (more the recent riots than the strike) happen to this extent in America or Britain, cultural differences aside? A partial answer — and only a partial answer — is that while the US and UK embrace a multicultural society, the French prefer a more homogenized culture. That does not answer the full question, but rather the underlying issues that provoked the flair-up between people and police. I guess more subtle differences explain why the French protest so much.

The lack of organized protest to the Iraq war (as compared to, say, the anti-Vietnam war protests in America) is interesting. Civil protests are a good thing for democracies. They can relieve pent-up tensions, they let opinions be aired, showcase public opinion, and generally help get out the word of the people. But too much protesting can get out of hand, as can violent demonstrations like the ones so often seen in poor French suburbs.

President Sarkozy took a different, if less tactful, route to describing the clashes than most. He
risked inflaming tensions in Parisian suburbs by declaring violence this week was the result of a "thugocracy" of criminals, not social deprivation.

Two years ago, then-Interior Minister Sarkozy was borderline-racist in his handling of the riots and subsequent comments. I don't know if he is handling these too much better as president, but at least the security response was adequate.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

What can the Annapolis peace talks accomplish?

There are hopes that Annapolis will pave the way for a 2008 peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians.

The US, Israeli and Palestinian leaders have voiced hope that a conference in Maryland could produce a starting point for serious peace negotiations.

Bush said that peace was 'worth it to try' and that he 'work[s] the phones' in the peace process.

This peace conference is the first of its kind since 2000. The US is actively taking a role in the talks, after sitting on the sidelines on many previous occasions.

Israel has argued that initiatives that have isolated the Palestinian territories are needed for its security. The general pattern of Israel-Palestinian skirmishes is militant fires rocket into Israel or attacks army, Israel responds with raids which result with civilian deaths, more rocket fire and retaliations by Palestinians, and collective punishment upon already-angry Palestinians by Israel. This is how it has been for years.

There are several firsts for this conference. Syria will be in attendance — a first for the dictatorial, terror-supporting-yet-marginalized (and under-utilized) nation. The country will, of course, be on the side of the Palestinians and is still pushing for the return of its Golan Heights from Israel. As a reminder, Syria is on President Bush's "axis of evil". This will also be the first big job for British PM turned peace negotiator Tony Blair. Lastly, Saudis and Israelis will be sitting at the same table — but Israeli diplomats beware: the Saudi representative has stated he will not shake hands with you.

A total of 40 countries are attending the summit in Annapolis, Maryland. Hamas, which rules Gaza, will not be coming. In fact, it wouldn't see the point in such a meeting as it neither recognizes Israel nor diplomacy as a good way to achieve results.

This is an odd, if possibly inappropriate, time for peace talks. Tensions are high over Iraq; the Bush administration faces hurdle after hurdle with shear incompetence and poor diplomacy. Perhaps Bush is making a last-ditch effort at setting the stage for the creation of a free and independent Palestinian state, an aspiration of his. Secretary of State Condi Rice may be vying for a good diplomatic spot in history, odd since she helped block former Sec. of State Colin Powell's attempts at a similar Mideast peace conference.

CFR's Richard Haass argues that one will have to wait for the time to be right before a real drive for peace can be effectively made. But talking in the meantime can't hurt. It isn't good to be impervious to reality just for the sake of optimism.

There is an overall mood of skepticism as talks get underway. The best and most realistic hope is that some progress can be made in bringing Israel and Palestine out of decades of conflict using diplomacy. Hopefully both sides will make valuable concessions, but considering Palestinian Authority President Abbas only has control of the West Bank, his options are even more limited. Seven years ago US President Clinton made a large effort at Mideast peace — it failed miserably. Even though I don't care at all for this White House or its historical legacy, I hope this summit's results aren't the same.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

Rudd beats Howard

After over a decade of rule, John Howard is no longer the prime minister of Australia. Howard, noted for being a major Bush administration supporter on issues such as climate change, terrorism, and the Iraq war, conceded defeat to his opponent, Kevin Rudd, last night. Rudd's Labor Party looks like it will take a majority in parliament over Howard's Liberal-National Party. Rudd, who will probably be sworn in next week as PM, told of his center-left agenda following his win at the polls.

Rudd looks like someone who will take action on the environment and Iraq, so this is good news, along with the fact John Howard wasn't a great person anyway (it's good to have as few tools of the White House as possible in major political positions).

Friday, 23 November 2007

Multiculturalism, 'affirmative action', and those darn hyphens

Roger Kimball offers some thoughts on American multiculturalism and the semantics and policies surrounding 'affirmative action'.

What is your favorite bit of Orwellian Newspeak? Near the top of my list is “affirmative action.” It’s such an emollient phrase, so redolent of cheeriness (savor the word “affirmative”) and practicality (“action”). What it really means is “discrimination on the basis of sex, skin color, or some other item in the contemporary lexicon of victimology.” But you can—almost—forget that while the pleasing phrase “affirmative action” echoes in your recollection.
But what began as a Presidential Executive Order in 1961 directing government contractors to take “affirmative action” to assure that people be hired “without regard” for sex, race, creed, color, etc., has resulted in the creation of vast bureaucracies dedicated to discovering, hiring, and advancing people chiefly on the basis of those qualities. White is black, freedom is slavery, “without regard” comes to mean “with regard for nothing else.”

You may not wholly agree with Kimball — I don't — but his argument is interesting. I oppose division by skin color or ethnicity and think that a level playing-field is not one of reverse, or 'positive', racism. Then again I see nothing wrong with recognizing one's heritage and I am for a liberal immigration policy. Sometimes it's important to read writing that contrasts with your own views, to help you better understand and develop them.

To Kimball, the hyphen (e.g. African - American) represents the evil of multiculturalism's anti-patriotic sentiment.
Multiculturalism and “affirmative action” are allies in the assault on the institution of American identity.

His liberal-bashing gets a bit old towards the end of the essay as he laments the "rainbow" developed under American multiculturalism, and warns of non-homogeneous bureaucracy like the European Union. The xenophobia card is played when Kimball expresses his distaste for non-English languages in a largely English-speaking country.
Every time you call directory assistance or some large corporation and are told “Press One for English” and “Para español oprime el numero dos” it is another small setback for American identity.

How is the sensible offering of another lingual option on a call menu a foe of "American identity"? Other countries print signs in a variety of languages to make, say, driving easier (not that the translations are always fantastic, as I found out in China). When you're in a country whose inhabitants speak the same language — for the most part — it makes sense to learn enough of that language to get by. However it is also only logical for that country to accommodate to people more familiar with another language, especially when they are present in large numbers. There is room for more than one language in the United States, and those afraid of Spanish becoming the de facto language should know their fears are unfounded anyway.

Whether you're a 'terrorist by birth' or a 'liberal baby' bawling about how bad it is to lose your heritage,* there are always people hoping to generate skepticism of multicultural coexistence to enforce their point: that America is losing its identity.

So again we wonder what it truly means to be American in a country known for its status as a melting pot. If the US removes multiculturalism from its societal fabric, racial/ethnic tensions could skyrocket as the people of an entire nation find their culture and individual identities forcibly homogenized; those who carry on their own way will be outcasts. I would like to see Kimball's idea for a monocultural society — no doubt it would be 'vanilla'.

* — Note: Those phrases are used to illustrate the language of the right-wing viewpoint I oppose. Of course someone cannot be born a terrorist, which is why we should not stereotype and ignore the origins of terrorism. Extreme fear has fueled racism; racism has fueled anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment. The 'liberal baby' part is there because of the aforementioned liberal-bashing by multiculturalism opponents like Kimball.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Pakistan's state of mayhem

So President Pervez Musharraf declared a state of emergency on 3 November, justifying the need to secure the state for his blatant repression of anything free in Pakistan (security over freedom). One might even call this a second coup. Needless to say, any deal with Benazir Bhutto is off the table. Her period of house arrest has ended, but other political opponents to Musharraf and human rights proponents have been jailed.

Meanwhile the United States government has been protecting Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. Bad idea for a country on the brink of total instability, teeming with radical Islamic fundamentalists to have an unsecured collection of nuclear weapons, so I see the need for the US to do so. The US has urged Pakistan's leader to end his rule of martial law.

A less helpful foreign policy move has been America's friendly position with Gen. Musharraf in the first place.

Today Pakistan was again rightfully suspended from the Commonwealth.

I hope everyone who celebrates Thanksgiving had a nice one!

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

The battle over gun control goes to the Supreme Court

It's been 68 years since the High Court ruled on gun rights in America. The case over Washington, DC's handgun ban will break the court's silence on the Second Amendment...

The Supreme Court announced today that it will decide whether the District of Columbia's ban on handguns violates the Constitution, a choice that will put the justices at the center of the controversy over the meaning of the Second Amendment for the first time in nearly 70 years.

The court's decision could have broad implications for gun-control measures locally and across the country and will raise a hotly contested political issue just in time for the 2008 elections.

The court will likely hear the case in March, with a decision coming before justices adjourn at the end of June.

For years, legal scholars, historians and grammarians have debated the meaning of the amendment because of its enigmatic wording and odd punctuation:

"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Gun rights proponents say the words guarantee the right of an individual to possess firearms. Gun-control supporters say it conveys only a civic or "collective" right to own guns as part of service in an organized military organization.

Considering the Supreme Court is majority-conservative, it will probably decide in favor of the gun advocates on this politically charged issue. According to a variety of polls, a majority of Americans — albeit a slim majority — are in favor of stricter regulation of firearms, with roughly one-third favoring the status quo. The implications of a ruling are vast: between 30% and 40% of Americans own guns (see aforelinked polls), and handgun deaths are higher in the United States than many other nations. Personally, I am for gun control, for reasons outlined in this post.

Read more about the case at ScotusWiki.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Is education a measure for world power?

Considering post-industrial economic might is so influential in our globalized world, education is more important now than ever before (see this post). China, already a rising industrial power, is looking to become the next world leader in services that require an educated workforce — as are many other emerging and developed nations.

What defines a global "superpower"? In the past, it was the size of national armies or possession of nuclear weapons.

But now there is a more important (and peaceful) benchmark: the size and prestige of university systems.

And, while the US is still the global higher education "superpower", China will soon be knocking it off top spot if current trends continue.
China is now the largest higher education system in the world: it awards more university degrees than the US and India combined.

Hopefully as China's population becomes educated they will make a further push towards democracy. Under free conditions, education will surely flourish even more as more people are given the opportunity to study and the system becomes less corrupt and restricted, hopefully with available aid from the government.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

New global climate warnings


United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has challenged governments to act on the findings of a major new report on climate change.

That aforementioned report is the fourth major report the IPCC has released on global warming.

The panel suggests societies need to adapt to future impacts, as well as curbing emissions.

Without extra measures, carbon dioxide emissions will continue to rise; they are already growing faster than a decade ago, partly because of increasing use of coal.

The IPCC's economic analyses say that trend can be reversed at reasonable cost. Indeed, it says, there is "much evidence that mitigation actions can result in near-term co-benefits (e.g. improved health due to reduced air pollution)" that may offset costs.

The panel's scientists say the reversal needs to come within a decade or so if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided.

Recently there have been some new initiatives like CO2 trading and emissions caps, but the majority have either been weakened by politicians and industry, or not widely followed.

In early December, new climate change talks will begin in Bali. Hopefully America will take a more progressive and cooperative stance than it has in the past. Now that many developed governments seem to have a mandate by their general populations and the scientific community to get to work, there is no excuse in backtracking on such an important environmental, humanitarian, and, ultimately, economic issue as global warming.

Update: See here for more on cap-and-trade.

Friday, 16 November 2007

I'm back!

Visiting China was a very eye-opening experience, but it's good to be back home. I'll post more about what I found China's culture and politics to be like soon; 16 hour plane rides don't exactly aid the blog post brainstorming and writing process. As much as I loved China, I am glad to now be back in a country where I can speak my mind — for the most part — and access whatever news websites I want to (i.e. the US).

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Greetings from China!

So it turns out I am able to access the web... (see post)

I arrived in China late last night. I am currently in Qinghuandao and the time here is 3:37 PM. While the culture differences are for the most part dramatic, many things are the same; I think a lot of people have misconseptions about this vast nation. Wherever one goes in the cities, one observes growth and development.

Hopefully I will be able to post more politically-relevant content later, although I don't know when I will be able to use the computer next. Search engines and news websites are hard to fully access due to government censorship; it's a wonder Blogger works!

Anyway, that's enough for now.

Oh, and Musharraf has worsened his dictatorial hold on Pakistan.

Friday, 2 November 2007

Two week hiatus!

My trip to China
Today, Friday, I leave for my two week long trip to the People's Republic of China. I cannot assure any posts until the 16th of November. I don't know whether I will have the time or the internet access to blog while I am in China. (Check back a couple times during the later part of the trip and I may have some posts up courtesy of Beijing's internet cafes.)

My visit comes as the country is experiencing extreme economic growth, but also continuing practices that lead to environmental degradation and the violation of human rights and political freedoms. In addition China will be hosting the Olympics next summer.

At first I will be in the coastal city of Qinhuangdao; then ancient capital Xi'an to see the Terracotta Army and climb a mountain; then current capital Beijing to do and see a number of things. I'll post some of my experiences — including photos and analysis of the country's change and what I observed — after the trip.

Zai jian (再见) for now!