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Archive for the ‘Americas’ Category

In my previous post I linked to a Marxist-sounding op-ed by the dean of the University of Toronto’s business school. Hard to imagine any of his American b-school counterparts writing such words. In thinking about Canada, I am reminded of a piece from Bloomberg.com last July on how Canada’s “hardheaded socialism” has made it richer than the US, that the net worth of Canadian households was now greater than those south of the border. The author, Stephen Marche, described the approach of conservative Canadian governments, including the present one. Money quote [emphasis added in bold]

Both liberals and conservatives in the U.S. have tried to use the Canadian example to promote their arguments: The left says Canada shows the rewards of financial regulation and socialism, while the right likes to vaunt the brutal cuts made to Canadian social programs in the 1990s, which set the stage for economic recovery.

The truth is that both sides are right. Since the 1990s, Canada has pursued a hardheaded (even ruthless), fiscally conservative form of socialism. Its originator was Paul Martin, who was finance minister for most of the ’90s, and served a stint as prime minister from 2003 to 2006. Alone among finance ministers in the Group of Eight nations, he “resisted the siren call of deregulation,” in his words, and insisted that the banks tighten their loan-loss and reserve requirements. He also made a courageous decision not to allow Canadian banks to merge, even though their chief executives claimed they would never be globally competitive unless they did. The stability of Canadian banks and the concomitant stability in the housing market provide the clearest explanation for why Canadians are richer than Americans today.

Martin also slashed funding to social programs. He foresaw that crippling deficits imperiled Canada’s education and health-care systems, which even his Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, described as a “sacred trust.” He cut corporate taxes, too. Growth is required to pay for social programs, and social programs that increase opportunity and social integration are the best way to ensure growth over the long term. Social programs and robust capitalism are not, as so many would have you believe, inherently opposed propositions. Both are required for meaningful national prosperity.

Social programs were cut not to gut them—and certainly not for ideological reasons à la the American right—but to perennialize them. And no one on the Canadian right is talking about replacing the country’s single-payer health care system with something akin to what presently exists in the US.

On Canadian banks and regulation—of Canada not going off the deregulatory cliff—, business reporter Theresa Tedesco and Paul Krugman had analyses in ’09 and ’10, respectively (here and here). Should the US Congress be so inspired.

On current right-wing praise for “socialist” Canada, conservative onetime press baron Conrad Black had an op-ed last weekend in the conservative New York Sun, misleadingly entitled “How Canada Has Eclipsed America In the Obama Years” (misleading because Black dates the beginning of the eclipse well before Obama took office). Money quote  [emphasis added in bold]

the United States has fumbled away its gentle overlordship of the world these last 15 years. [i.e. through the entire Bush-Cheney period] Huge current account deficits and colossal federal budget deficits arose, and while the United Sates is generally successful [sic] in real wars, its habit of calling policy attacks on sociological problems “wars” has led to the conspicuous failures of the wars on crime, poverty and drugs.

The Canadian dollar has risen from 65¢ American to par, and Canada’s comparative standard of living has inched upwards, and its wealth is much more evenly distributed. The jagged nature of American democracy left 40 million African Americans unsegregated but still the subject of institutionalized discrimination, and 70% of people with magnificent (free) medical care and 30% with access to care but on a pretty stingy and erratic basis.

American education has become very uneven, American justice has degenerated into a turkey shoot for the benefit of a prosecutorial class that terrorizes the country and has given America 10 times the average number of incarcerated people per capita of other advanced prosperous democracies. Sixty million basic manufacturing and service jobs have been out-sourced while 20 million unskilled peasants were admitted illegally to the country, and trillions of dollars of worthless real estate-backed securities inundated the world, pumped out by Wall Street and certified as investment grade, almost asphyxiating the American financial industry while trillions of dollars and thousands of American lives were squandered in the sanguinary Quixotry of nation-building in the Middle and Near East.

Okay, an American conservative may retort to this that Black is Canadian—or he used to be, until he became a Brit—so whaddaya expect?! But still…

Black then offers this

Prudent, hesitant Canada, ran 14 federal government surpluses in a row. We are the pigs in the brick house — it isn’t a heroic position, neither daring nor stylish, but Canadians are peering through the portals of their stout solid home, transfixed and astonished.

Astonished at America. My, even libertarian Cato Institute types (e.g. here; h/t for the above image) are praising the Canadian way of running the economy. Now they do deplore the government-run health care system and government spending that amounts to 42% of national output, but the fact remains that Canada is prospering—and in the estimation of the libertarians—despite the government-run health care system and high levels of government spending. Which, ergo, means that economies and countries can indeed prosper with government-run health care and high levels of government spending. Or under what American conservatives call “socialism”…

One is reminded of American right-wing dissing of Canada in the last decade, most famously expressed by Patrick Buchanan, who referred to the country as “Soviet Canuckistan” back in ’02. This was at least humorous. Less humorous was a cover story on Canada in the National Review, also in ’02, entitled “Bomb Canada: The case for war.” In the screed, author Jonah Goldberg opined that what Canada needed was “a little invasion” by the US

It’s quite possible that the greatest favor the United States could do for Canada is to declare war on it. No, this isn’t a tribute to South Park, the TV cartoon that popularized a song — Blame Canada — calling for an outright invasion of America’s northern neighbor. A full-scale conquest is unnecessary; all Canada needs is to be slapped around a little bit, to be treated like a whining kid who’s got to start acting like a man. Why would such a war be necessary? The short answer is: to keep the Canadians from being conquered by the United States. In effect, it would be a war to keep Canada free.

Other tidbits from the screed

Canada is barely a functioning democracy at all: Its governmental structure, if described objectively, is far more similar to what we would expect in a corrupt African state with decades of one-party rule.

And this

Despite Canada’s self-delusions, it is, quite simply, not a serious country anymore. It is a northern Puerto Rico with an EU sensibility.

And this

If the U.S. were to launch a quick raid into Canada, blow up some symbolic but unoccupied structure — Toronto’s CN Tower, or perhaps an empty hockey stadium — Canada would rearm overnight. Indeed, Canada might even be forced to rethink many of its absurd socialist policies in order to pay for the costs involved in protecting itself from the Yankee peril. Canada’s neurotic anti-Americanism would be transformed into manly resolve. The U.S. could quickly pretend to be frightened that it had messed with the wrong country, and negotiate a fragile peace with the newly ornery Canadians. In a sense, the U.S. owes it to Canada to slap it out of its shame-spiral. That’s what big brothers do.

Goldberg naturally did not spare “Canada’s disastrous health-care system.” Other US right-wingers also jumped on the Canada-bashing bandwagon, such as Ann Coulter, who informed Canadians that they were “lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent,” and Tucker Carlson, who snickered that “without the U.S., Canada is essentially Honduras” (see here).

Voilà a slice of the American right’s Weltanschauung. To Goldberg, Coulter et al, the only thing I have to say to them is this.

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The other 9/11

the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, of course, an event that marked all those on the left of my generation and older. A colleague of mine, El Yamine Soum, marked the anniversary on Facebook not with the normally obligatory mention of the American role in the coup but a comment on the action of French military officers in its wake

Un tortionnaire de l’Algérie Aussaresses, ainsi que des militaires français vont transposer les méthodes de torture et de guerre dans cette région du monde pour soutenir la mise en place des régimes militaires, c’est que l’on appellera “l’école française”

The torturer, Paul Aussaresses—who attained the rank of General in the French army—, was a veteran of the Battle of Algiers, where he learned the tricks of the trade, as it were. During the 1960s he led teams of Algeria war veterans to the US, to train Vietnam-destined American military personnel in interrogation techniques. In the 1970s the training courses were extended to dictatorships in Latin America, Chile among them. The investigative journalist Marie-Monique Robin has written a book on this and produced a documentary. To watch it, go here.

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I was all ready to post a very good academic article on the Roberts Court v. America but guess that wouldn’t be appropriate today. I sure am happy about the SCOTUS ruling, though wouldn’t have been devastated if the ACA had been struck down, as that would have made single payer/Medicare-for-all the only alternative. As the ACA is an unsatisfying compromise with the insurance companies and logic of the market in what should be a public service, Republicans should be happy the supremos upheld it, ’cause otherwise they’d be faced with real “socialism” down the road. In the meantime, I will fête the SCOTUS ruling by posting these tweets by distraught conservatives, who say that because of Obamacare they’re going to move to Canada. They’ll sure like the health care system up there, no doubt about it!

(h/t Arthur Goldhammer & Laurie Lewis)

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Taking a break from French politics, which I’ve been writing about pretty much nonstop for the past few weeks, I want to mention a few movies I’ve seen of late. One is this slick Congolese crime thriller, the first feature-length film shot in that country since the 1980s. The story is about a small time, high-living hustler named Riva, who steals a truckload of gasoline from the Angolan criminal gang he works for to sell on the Kinshasa black market for his own profit, of his run-ins with corrupt soldiers, policemen, priests—everyone is corrupt or corruptible—plus local criminal kingpins, all while trying to evade his Angolan gangster boss and his henchmen, who are hot on his trail. It’s a good, entertaining action film, with the usual dose of violence plus steamy sex scenes. For those who may be not be into this genre—and I’m usually not—, it’s worth seeing for no other reason than it was entirely shot on location in and around Kinshasa, which is a city that has to be seen to be believed. The European producer wanted the director, Djo Tunda wa Munga, to shoot the film elsewhere for security reasons, but he insisted on doing so in Kinshasa, as no other city could possibly substitute (it would be akin to shooting a film in Albuquerque and calling it L.A.).

Kinshasa—where I spent four days four years ago—is a teeming Fourth World urban dystopia of ten million people—many refugees from the war ravaged interior of the country—and the capital of a failed state—of a once kleptocratic state that has collapsed into near non-existence after two decades of war, five decades of catastrophic misrule, and, prior to that, one of the worst colonial systems ever. Before arriving in Kinshasa from sleepy Brazzaville across the river, I was told to get ready for Mad Max à l’africaine. Kinshasa is the one African capital I’ve visited where I was issued with a cell phone to call US embassy security if I was out and about and thought I was going to be robbed—not by criminals but by uniformed soldiers who hadn’t been paid in months, who cruise the streets looking for foreigners to shake down. And if one is not accompanied by a local fixer at the airport, the probability that one will be robbed or extorted in the gauntlet of men in uniform is close to 100% (N’Djili has to be the worst airport in the world, hands down and by far). But despite all this, there is a vibrancy to Kinshasa. It has a great music scene—as one may glean, e.g., in the fine 2007 documentary ‘On the Rumba River‘—and the academics, journalists, and students I met there were great. The Belgians built Kinshasa to be a majestic, European-style city. If the Congo had had a functioning, even halfway rational state these past decades, Kinshasa could have been just that.

But the place is chaotic and sans foi ni loi, which the film captures perfectly. At the end I thought of the final scene of the Coen brothers’ ‘Fargo’: all those people killed and for what? Here, a few lousy barrels of gasoline. Life sucks in a failed state. À propos, the film is recommended for those of a social scientific bent and/or interested in comparative politics or development issues. The acting is also very good, notably the lesbian army captain who masquerades as a nun (actress Marlene Longange) and the femme fatale played by the bellissime Franco-Ivorienne Manie Malone—she learned Lingala for the role—, who, as Variety’s critic correctly observed, is “stunning…a knockout from head to toe” (see here, here, and here). The pic received top reviews in the US (here, here, and here)—where it opened last year—, as well as in France (here).

Another film I’ve seen lately on the same general theme is ‘Miss Bala’, a Mexican crime thriller about a college student and beauty queen contestant in Tijuana—played by the rather beautiful model-turned-actress Stephanie Sigman—, who is press-ganged into serving a local drug gang (it’s based on an actual story from a few years ago). The pic is a hyper-realistic portrayal of the unbelievable level of violence in Mexico, of its descente aux enfers into a narco state. Objectively it’s a good film—reviews in both the US and France are tops—but it’s not “fun” like ‘Viva Riva!’ nor an edge-of-the-seat thriller, insofar as the set pieces, while well done, are choreographed and you know the poor young woman, though caught in a hellish engrenage, is not going to get killed. If Mexico has really become like this—and I’m quite sure the film’s depiction is accurate—, well, this is really a disaster. And right on the US border, and with the US in no small part responsible. On y reviendra à l’occasion.

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ARTE broadcast an excellent 85-minute documentary last week on torture in the USA, by the journalist and filmmaker Marie-Monique Robin. It is no longer available for viewing on the ARTE web site but may be seen on YouTube (in 9 parts) [UPDATE: and here].

It continues to leave me speechless that torture is not only practiced in the US but is justified—by politicians, academicians, intellectuals, and media pundits—and largely accepted by the public, or so it seems. The libertarian policy intellectual Ted Galen Carpenter is also appalled—yes, there are still honorable people on the American right—, as he writes in this essay from last week on The National Interest web site. As Galen concludes

An America in which torture becomes an acceptable, even normal, practice is not the America I know. It is not an America that I would want to know.

Back to Marie-Monique Robin, she authored an exceptional book in 2004, Escadrons de la mort, l’école française—Death Squads, the French School—, on how French military officers—all veterans of the Algerian war—trained Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s and ’80s—notably Argentina and Chile—in torture techniques. The book has not been translated into English but does exist in Spanish. It was also made into a documentary, which may be seen on YouTube (in 7 parts) [UPDATE: and here and here (with Spanish subtitles)].

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