Wednesday Night #1281

Last week’s Wednesday Night discussion was overtaken by events and thus focused mostly on local issues, with the exception of conspiracy theories. This week we are faced with such world turmoil, we are hesitant to point to specific topics as possibilities, but let us try out some of the more flagrant headlines and see how divergent opinions are.
The Pope certainly merits a nod, whether or not you have read the entire text of his speech at Regensburg University, or only an out-of-context rendering of the medieval text he quoted. As the Economist points out: “The trouble with using such a reference-albeit in heavy quotation marks-is that such rhetoric has an almost automatic polarising effect “. We have also been fascinated by some of his defenders who insist that he was only emphasizing that religious beliefs should not be spread by the sword. Not that we disagree, but there seems to be a blithe overlooking of such Christian manifestations as the Spanish Inquisition, the Reformation in Britain, or the massacre of native peoples in the Americas, all in the name of the Christian God.
In stark contrast to the high moral tone of His Holiness, we have the unwise candor of Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany who admitted (albeit via leaked tapes) to lying to his people ‘morning, noon and night’ for 4 years about the Hungarian economy in order to win the election and impose the tough economic reforms the government believes to be necessary. It is obvious that the Hungarian people have not lived long in a democracy – would Canadians, Americans or Europeans riot because they had been lied to by a politician? We rather think they would find it refreshing that someone admitted it. For an amusing take on this story, do see the BBC on Infamous gaffes
One who increasingly tells it like it is is Kofi Annan who spoke for the last time to the General Assembly as secretary-general, warning that as long as the UN was unable to end the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s 40-year occupation by bringing both sides to accept and implement its resolutions, “respect for the United Nations will continue to decline.” As he was speaking, the Thais had a bloodless coup d’état which the Sec-Gen deplored, suggesting gently that “this is not a practice to be encouraged”.
Speaking of prevarication – or at the very least, distortion – we believe that the President of the Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has distinguished himself in front of the UN Assembly, stating that Sudan will not allow the United Nations to take control of peacekeepers in Darfur under any circumstance, and claiming that human rights groups have exaggerated the crisis there in a bid for more donations
George Bush spoke too and announced that the U.S. is not at war with Islam
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad followed, having announced earlier that Iran has “very clear and transparent views about how to the manage the world.” Aren’t you glad?
Oddly the earliest reports of his speech were on Fox News, but we think we’ll wait for the BBC or the New York Times.
Now we watch the race to replace Annan – and how many knew that Vaira Vike-Freiberga, Latvia’s president, is in the running since last Friday, and has now been joined by eminent development economist and former Afghani finance minister Ashraf Ghani? See what happens while you are watching the opening of the Canadian Parliament and passage of the softwood lumber bill?
How could we not mention the Swedish election? In typical Swedish fashion, no riots or demonstrations, simply a quiet transfer of power from a Social Democrat PM who has been in power for 10 years to a much younger Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of the Moderate Party.
All of the above should supply ample material for our policy wonks and news junkies, but just in case we run out of thoughts, we invite you to contemplate the paragraph below on WATER.

WATER, WATER EVERYWHERE (EXCEPT NAFTA) – as reported in Maisonneuve Magazine‘s daily round-up
“The Citizen goes inside with a former US envoy’s suggestion that Canada should reconsider its stance on bulk water exports to the US. Paul Cellucci, the outspoken and oft-maligned former ambassador to Canada, tells the Citizen that Canada’s massive fresh water supply should be included in the same category as other exportable natural resources, maintaining that both countries will eventually be forced to address the issue. Provinces currently allow for the export of bottled water, and although bans against bulk water exports are in place, the Citizen reports that Canada could “lose control over the resource under the North American Free Trade Agreement if any province or territory opens to the door to sales of bulk water exports to regions that are starting to face record droughts in the US.” The Tories are currently drafting a new national water strategy, but a US government spokesperson nonetheless says that no negotiations on bulk exports are planned and that no proposals on the matter have been put forward.”

The Report

The Scribe’s Preamble
Even in the black and white cinema of the 1920’s the viewer would have been unable to tell the good guys from the bad were it not for the colour of the hats they wore. The fact of the matter is that each nation and each group, religious or secular as well as each member of that group acts in a manner that he or she believes to be in their best interest. To speak nothing of the historical past, Western culture cannot legitimately claim superiority after having killed millions of human beings of reasonably similar ethnicity during World War II. Nor should we derive pride from our historical colonial past, our support of slavery or more recently, discrimination on the basis of skin tone.
The recent events at Dawson College which have brought back the nightmares of Concordia and Polytechnique killings, give us cause to reflect on the motivation of human beings who see themselves as either superior or inferior to their fellow humans, of suicide bombers who, certainly in the case of the Twin Tower or London tube bombing, were well-educated and affluent.

Gun ownership

While the Prime Minister ponders the future of the gun registry, Wednesday Nighters question the necessity for availability of semi-automatic weapons and handguns to anybody but the army and police – or for that mater, the need for gun clubs (although there is more justification for gun clubs that offer shooting ranges while teaching adults and young people proper handling and respect for guns) and violence- oriented electronic games.
The answer constantly seems to return to human motivation to act in a manner that the individual or state believes to be in his or her or its best interest. When it comes to religion, including the various secular, political or business religions, one should not examine that religion or political party or enterprise, but people who speak on their behalf. Because their agenda is inevitably one of self-interest, symbolically “shooting the messenger” rather than the secular or ordained religion seems a more logical approach.
In addition to the distressing events of the past days, three events have made headlines around the world that cause one to reflect on motivation, keeping in mind that behind every headline there are at least two conflicting stories.

Pope Benedict XVI
In September of this year, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a lecture on faith and reason at the University of Regensburg, quoting a fourteenth century text criticizing Mohammed for encouraging his followers to spread the Muslim faith through violence, while fully conscious of similar past actions in the history of the Catholic Church. In view of the Pope’s personal background, his intelligence and his election to that post, as well awareness of previous Muslim reactions to perceived slights, it is impossible that he would not have foreseen the response to his discourse.
One explanation of his apparent gaffe is that he sees the waning fortunes of the U.S. in Iraq, the repeated bombings around the world, the strength of Hezbollah during the recent conflict in Lebanon and increasing migration of Muslims into western Europe as a threat to the Roman Catholic Church (especially the Church in Europe), and wished to be seen to be offering his support to the U.S. at what is perceived as a difficult time. Benedict XVI has not hesitated to be political in the past, chiding Canada, for example, on its stand on gay marriage.
Another explanation sees him in the role of Teacher as well as Theologian, inviting dialogue and discussion among his fellow Teachers and Theologians.

[Editor’s note: Professor James Heffernan, an old friend from Diana’s Georgetown days, has written a particularly cogent analysis of the context of the Pope’s pronouncements]

Whatever the reason for his references, it was subsequently announced that the Pope is to meet Muslim nations’ envoys in an attempt to defuse the row between the Catholic Church and Islam.
Some suggest that the introduction of the culture of capitalism and education will overcome hesitation to dialogue and propensity for violence, but this approach appears to be flawed. The world Muslim Community can, in many ways, be seen as a parallel to many world cultures. While maintaining their faith, many are integrated into the larger community. In many ways, those Muslims wearing traditional dress are seen as being closed to dialogue, rather than as mirrors of other peaceful religious sects and communities, members of which refuse to accept local dress or customs and will not compromise their religious beliefs (the Amish come to mind). The issue should not be dress codes, faith or religious custom. The issue is violence, who profits from it and to what end. Alas, someone has inevitably dialogued with suicide bombers before we have and someone has benefited from their sacrifice, certainly not the bombers themselves.

Thailand’s coup
Another interesting exercise in trying to determine motivation behind political action is Thailand‘s military overthrow of popularly elected Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra on Tuesday amid mounting criticism that he had undermined democracy. Although as one observer points out, there are two political parties in Thailand, the military and the police, this coup appears to stem from general unhappiness with the lack of transparency in the PM’s sale of his family’s share of one of Thailand’s large telecom firms. Although Mr Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party won 57% of the vote in the April election, millions of Thais cast protest votes and the opposition refused to take part. As there is one constant in Thai politics,- the loyalty of all to the very popular King -, it is unlikely that there will be any long-term difficulties.

Hungary’s crisis

Budapest, was hit by successive nights of riots and car-burnings as protesters took to the streets after a leaked tape revealed that the prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, had misled them about the state of the economy. Mr Gyurcsany was quoted as saying, before his Socialist Party won re-election in April that “we lied morning, noon and night.” In fact, according to the Economist he actually stated (freely translated), “We screwed up. Not just a bit. Big time…It was perfectly clear that what we were saying wasn’t true…You cannot mention a single major government measure we can be proud of…I almost died when I had to pretend that we were actually governing. We lied morning, noon and night.”
An objective analysis of the situation reveals that the scandal is not new, [nor is the failure to address economic problems openly limited to Hungary but has been continuous since Hungary was under Soviet control. It has come to light because of Hungary’s accession to membership in the European Union in 2004.
About fifty years ago, the Soviets ensured that everyone received a raise in salary every year after suppressing revolts and secretly borrowing money to continuously shore up communism. Communism failed, but the annual raises continued and the money acquired through the privatization of industry was used to pay current expenses. Hungary, with an annual deficit of over ten percent of G.D.P. is committed to make changes in order to join the European monetary union. The government did very little before the elections. After his re-election, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, seriously determined to undertake reforms, at his first caucus meeting, read the riot act and advocated a tough policy of reform programs. The opposition pretends that this is unnecessary and is demanding a change of government. The urgency is related to the November 1 municipal elections where the party names are the same as in national elections. The opposition appears to be turning the municipal elections into a virtual referendum on the national government. The Neo-Nazis who have no hope of forming the next government are taking the opportunity to derive some benefit from the proceedings.
Gyurcsany is hanging tough and refusing to resign, but it is possible that members of his caucus may cave in. With these political problems in Hungary and the old European right coming to the fore in Eastern Europe, some serious problems may arise as Romania and Bulgaria join the E.U. in January 2007. There is currently no easy way of expelling members once accepted.

Montreal’s evaluations
Montreal’s recently released tax role has indicated island-wide, but unequal, increases in evaluation. While this, at least hypothetically, will not result in an excessive increase in taxes, the distribution has resulted in a greater tax burden for the lower income areas of Montreal than in the affluent ones. Real estate value being a totally illogical basis for municipal taxation, the idea of a fixed evaluation, which appears less unjust, is again being floated. For a period of forty years, the city of Toronto lived with a frozen tax role.

Real estate
An interesting sidelight to the increasing prices of new housing and the sudden trend towards lower prices and fewer housing starts in the U.S. is the relationship between rental rates and construction cost. As construction costs increase with market demand, the relatively modest annual rent increases permitted in Québec by the Rental Board act as a disincentive to purchase..

3 Comments on "Wednesday Night #1281"

  1. Diana Thébaud Nicholson July 21, 2007 at 10:19 am ·

    It is a secular society that works best. Problems start when a religious group tries to impose its religious views on governments.

  2. Diana Thébaud Nicholson July 21, 2007 at 10:20 am ·

    A miscalculation is not an option for him (Pope Benedict). He can only say, ‘I’m sorry you are upset’.

    He was trying to say that violence plays no part in any serious religion. Jihad is a struggle of self against temptation.

  3. Diana Thébaud Nicholson July 21, 2007 at 10:22 am ·

    I believe in dialogue. You have to continue or buy bigger guns.

    You can’t dialogue with a religion stuck in the Middle Ages.

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