Sunday, September 26, 2010

1,085,000 reasons to support war resister Bill C-440

War resister Bill C-440, which comes up for Parliamentary debate and vote in  few days time, would let US Iraq War resisters apply for permanent residence, renewing Canada's legacy of welcoming war resisters, and reaffirming the will of Parliament which has twice voted to let them stay. For more information check out this great video. And for countless great articles on this crucial campaign, visit this blog.

If you're still not convinced, here are 1,085,000 reasons--in human terms--to support it:

     This is the upper estimate for the death toll in Iraq. There have been numerous estimates of different numbers—from 100,000 estimated by Iraq Body Count project, to 655,000 estimated by the Lancet in 2006, to over a million estimated by the Opinion Research Business survey in 2007. Part of the reason we don’t know for sure is that the occupying powers don’t really care. In 2005 George Bush casually estimated that “um, I would say 30,000 more or less” were killed by his illegal act of aggression. While the war criminals don’t care about numbers, they are terrified of images.

     In the lead up to the war, Colin Powell (who lied about WMDs) and John Negroponte (who subsequently organized death squads in Iraq) famously covered up a copy of Picasso’s Guernica (depicting war crimes during the Spanish Civil War) so it wouldn’t appear behind them as they spoke at the UN. The infamous photos of Abu Ghraib provided brutal vindication of why so many millions had marched against the war. And recently wikileaks released footage of a massacre in Baghdad, which once again humanized the dry statistics of casualties, and so infuriated the Pentagon that they’ve locked up whistleblower Bradley Manning.
     While the Harper minority is trying to criminalize war resisters, the real crime is the Iraq War and the massive death toll it has inflicted on the people of Iraq. Passing Bill C-440 reaffirms that Canadians said no to war and remain opposed to this bloodbath.

     The number of US troops killed or wounded in Iraq. This greatly underestimates the impact on soldiers as it does not include psychological trauma (more on this in a future post). In 2004, the New England Journal of Medicine found that one in six soldiers returned with mental health problems, while a 2008 study by the Rand corporation put the number at one in five. A shocking new study by the Veterans Administration found that 18 veterans (of all wars) commit suicide each day, and another 12 attempt. Bill C-440 offers a ray of hope for these troops, that rather than killing, getting killed, or killing themselves over participation in an illegal war featuring torture and war crimes, they can seek sanctuary in Canada.

     The number of “draft dodgers” (including both volunteers and conscripts) who came to Canada rather than kill Vietnamese. The majority who stayed had such a positive impact that Immigration Canada website once called them the “largest, best-educated group the country had ever received”…that is, before this page mysteriously disappeared (likely under the influence of Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, hate on for war resisters know no bounds). To renew Canada’s legacy—both the welcome of resisters and the benefit we receive from it—Parliament must pass Bill C-440

Visit to see how you can help.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Thought for Food: two great books on the politics of food

Below are reviews of two great books I've read on the politics of food, an issue around which an increasing number of people are radicalizing.

IN DEFENSE OF FOOD, by Michael Pollan

     Common explanations of the unhealthy “Western diet” blame fast food companies and gluttonous consumers. But for Michael Pollan, the problem is the commodification of food under capitalism, which harms the earth and humans: the increasing geographical separation of food production and consumption robs the soil of nutrients, and the profit-driven processing of food then purges those nutrients. This has produced “a radical and abrupt set of changes over the course of the last 150 years, not just to our foodstuffs but also to our food relationships, all the way from the soil to the meal”.
     In Defense of Food focuses on the “nutritional industrial complex” that has emerged in recent years: governments deregulate food production, marketers sell artificial food as healthy, and scientists provide the ideological justifications.
Pollan explains how food is “a virtual wilderness of chemical compounds, many of which exist in intricate and dynamic relation to one another, and all of which together are in the process of changing from one state to another”. He contrasts this with the “official ideology of the Western diet”, nutritionism, which reduces food to a static and simple collection of individual nutrients. As a consequence fertilizers ignore and sabotage the earth’s own ability to feed plants, sapping their quality; attempts to simplistically create food produces toxic alternatives; and reducing food to a delivery mechanism for nutrients undermines its cultural diversity and pleasure. Pollan concludes with a series of steps to regain a healthy diet, summed up with his maxim: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”
    While In Defense of Food provides a brilliant analysis of food under capitalism, it doesn’t provide a very effective solution: “Not everyone can afford to eat high-quality food in America, and that is shameful; however, those of us who can, should. Doing so benefits not only your health, but also the health of the people who grow the food as well as the people who live downstream and downwind of the farms where it is grown.”
    The problem is that Pollan sees humans and the planet relating to each other primarily through the act of consumption, rather than production—relegating those who actually produce the food to a passive role. But if those workers and others had democratic control over the production, they could consciously grow food in ways that are healthy for humans and the earth.
While In Defense of Food does not provide this ultimate solution, it takes the first step by showing us how food is “no mere thing but a web of relationships among a great many living beings, some of them human, some not, but each of them dependent on the other, and all of them ultimately rooted in soil and nourished by sunlight”.

SOIL NOT OIL, by Vandana Shiva

     In her latest book, renowned scientist and environmental activist Vandana Shiva shows capitalism is the root of the climate crisis, and its profit-driven solutions will only makes things worse.
In this short and accessible book, Shiva blends science and politics to analyze three crises—climate chaos, peak oil, and the food crisis—showing how they are interconnected and based on two centuries of an unsustainable quest for profits that drives people off the land and privatizes nature.
     She looks back on the results of the “Green Revolution”, which claimed to promote food security but instead concentrated a monoculture of climate-sensitive crops in the hands of oil-dependent corporations, whose production and use poisons the earth and promotes climate change, and whose expensive patented seeds and fertilizers creates huge debt that has produced an epidemic of farmer suicides.
     Now we are presented with a new series of pseudo-solutions—nuclear power, carbon trading, and biofuels—that will only exacerbate the climate crisis. As Shiva points out, “nuclear winter is not an alternative to global warming.”
     Shiva shows how these pseudo-solutions are rooted in capitalism’s incessant commodification: “some things should not be tradable—water and biodiversity are too valuable to be reduced to marketable commodities. Other things, like toxic waste and greenhouse gases, should not be generated. To turn them into tradable commodities ensures that they will continue to be produced. Instead of putting a value on clean air, emissions trading schemes value pollution”.
Meanwhile, the production of biofuels drives communities and trees off the land, and uses oil and large amounts of water to divert food production into crops to run cars, while wild speculation on these profits drives up food prices and creates artificial famines.
     For Shiva, the solution will come from the periphery of the system and a focus on small farms: “the solution to the climate crisis begins with the cultures and communities who have not contributed to it”. While she condemns capitalism for two centuries of driving people off the land into polluting cities, she does not articulate a role for the urban working class in fighting back. She claims that “as the fossil fuel economy has grown, it has substituted energy for humans”, rendering “humans redundant to the economic process”, and “replacing people with fossil-fuel driven machines”. Seeing no contradiction in capitalism, she calls for a “cultural transition” with an appeal to a mystical energy force.
     But machines do not run themselves, they run on human labour, and the working class has the collective power to bring the system that produces climate chaos to a halt. The 100 million workers in India who struck at the start of the month—shutting down coal, power, port, and road transportation—show how the working class can be a key ally of peasant communities fighting climate choas.
     Despite this shortcoming, Soil not Oil is valuable reading for anyone seeking to understand the climate crisis and the dangers of profit-driven solutions

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

End the Ban: 5 reasons to oppose the Canadian Blood Services' ban on blood donations from men who have sex with men

An Ontario Superior judge recently dismissed a constitutional challenge of the Canadian Blood Services (CBS) ban on donations from men who had sex with men. Kyle Freeman had challenged the ban by openly lying about his sexual history, and when he was sued he counter-sued arguing his Charter rights had been violated. The court sided with CBS and ordered Freeman to pay $10,000 for filling false papers. The media have largely defended the court and the ban on the grounds that safety trumps equality, and that gay men are a risk for HIV.

Here are 5 reasons to oppose the ban:

1) The ban perpetuates a long history of homophobia
The National Post claims that “the CBS’s ban on donations from gay males is not in any way an issue of homophobia, it’s one of differing medical opinions”, implying that medical opinions are immune from homophobia. There’s a long history to the contrary. Homosexuality went from being a crime to a pathology, initially psychiatric and then a terminal illness. The gay liberation movement forced the removal of homosexuality from the list of psychiatric disorder, only to find themselves re-pathologized. When the first few people infected happened to be gay men, the medical establishment immediately labeled the new disease Gay Related Immune Deficiency (GRID). When it quickly became obvious that other people could become infected, the name was changed to Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS), but it was  blamed on “high-risk groups” known as the “four-Hs” (homosexuals, heroin users, hemophiliacs, and Haitians) who were considered inherently dangerous, and blood donations from all these groups were banned. This homophobia has not ended. The National Post defended the CBS by claiming: “In choosing to continue to refuse donations from gay men, CBS is erring on the side of caution to protect our blood supply, a vital national medical resource. Any attempts to rush CBS into changing their medically defensible polices in the name of political correctness must be resisted.”[2] Run and hide, the gays are coming for our blood supply! Substitute “muslim” for “gay” for and “security” for “blood supply”, and you get the typical islamophobic argument for racial profiling.

2) The ban inappropriately focuses on demographics instead of behaviours
The homophobic sleight-of-hand that substitutes demographics for behaviours has been so ingrained that Jeffrey Simpson can pronounce in the Globe&Mail that “gay men cannot overcome the medical facts of being more susceptible to HIV”. Well, Dr. Simpson, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Mark Wainberg, leading Canadians AIDS researcher, past president of the Canadian AIDS society and co-chair of the 2006 International AIDS Conference. Wainberg has been challenging the archaic notion of “risk groups” that have allowed homophobia to linger so long in the medical community. He recently pointed out the logical conclusion of the CBS ban: “It’s okay for a 19-year-old University of Toronto student to go out and have sex 50 times over the course of a year with a whole bunch of women that he doesn’t know, including prostitutes, that’s fine. But a gay man who has been totally monogamous for 15 years? No, that’s not okay.”

3) The ban ignores a generation of advances in AIDS research
Not only does the ban misdirect attention to sexual orientation and not sexual behaviour, but it’s become moot with the development of highly accurate HIV testing. As Wainberg pointed out, “the precautionary principle is implemented in situations in which public health is in danger, and no conclusive scientific information is available.” But that is not the case: after a generation of AIDS research we know the virus that causes it and can accurately test for it in our blood supply. According to another leading Canadian AIDS researcher, Dr. Gilmore: “Today’s technologies make it almost impossible for HIV to slip through”.

4) The ban threatens the abundance of our blood supply
So what’s the result of such an unscientific policy? It not only to discriminates against gay men and perpetuates the notion that they are inherently diseased, but also exacerbates the blood supply. As Wainberg wrote, “We clearly have a situation in which there are chronic blood shortages and we also have a situation in which gay men are totally discriminated against”. Banning donations from healthy donors whose blood will be screened does not strengthen our blood supply, it undermines it.

5) Other useless bans have been dropped
When presented with Wainberg’s writing, CBS spokesperson stated that “we don’t think Canadians want to be guinea pigs”, as if getting an accurately screened transfusion from a healthy and generous blood donor who also happened at one time since 1977 to have had one sexual encounter with another male is akin to human experimentation. As well as being inflammatory, this statement is highly misleading about the dynamics of bans. The book When Germs Travel includes a chapter on the Haitian community’s inspiring campaign to remove the ban from their blood, which was successful. As Gilmore pointed out, “Other jurisdictions, like Australia, have already replaced the lifetime ban with more balanced and realistic policies. And I think it’s time that Canada and the U.S. did the same.”

When Stephen Harper boycotted the 2006 International AIDS Conference, Wainberg said he was “on the wrong side of history”. The CBS ban, and the court that upheld it, are on that same wrong side. But the same mobilizations that ended the ban on blood donations from Haitians can reverse the longstanding homophobic, unscientific, and harmful ban on blood donations from men who have had sex with men.

To read more about AIDS politics and activism, check out Brett Stockdrill's Activism against AIDS: at the intersection of sexuality, race, gender and class, Paul Farmer's Women, poverty, and AIDS: sex, drugs, and structural violence, and Steven Epstein's Impure science: AIDS, activism, and the politics of knowledge. And go here for more information of the Canadian Federation of Student’s campaign against the ban.

capitalism + climate change + war = disaster in Pakistan

The massive floods in Pakistan that affect 20 million people are far from a random “natural disaster”. Rather, they are a predictable result of global warming, capitalist development, and US-backed war.

There have been 12 major floods in Pakistan since 1973, and three years ago the United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned of worse floods to come due to global warming. 2010 is the hottest year in recorded history, which has brought Russia’s worst heat wave, massive forest fires in BC, a huge ice island to break off Greenland’s glacier, and devastating floods in China and Pakistan. The current floods that have inundated one fifth of Pakistan have displaced one million people, killed 2,000, partially or totally destroyed 722,000 homes, and raised the threat of a cholera epidemic.

This disaster is not simply from record monsoon rainfall but the country it landed on, which has been decimated by profit-driven “development”. According to Riaz Ahmed, a socialist based in Karachi: “Cities like Mianwali and Charsadda have been allowed to drown in order to save dams and hydroelectric stations. Military installations have been saved, but entire villages have been submerged because budget cuts have meant the loss of vital riverbank defences. And forests and jungles have been plundered by millionaire-owned timber businesses. This has created soil erosion and the destruction of natural defenses that can prevent flooding. Local and national governments have awarded the contracts for this kind of work, knowing the dangers.”

Rescue-workers are unable to reach 600,000 in the Swat valley, where the flood waters have inundated a region weakened by war. Last year the Pakistani military launched a war against resistance movements in the Swat valley, trying to clear a path for the US to its bases in Afghanistan. Obama has followed up with drone attacks, which have continued despite the humanitarian catastrophe. These combined attacks have destroyed bridges and roads, and displaced vast numbers into refugee camps.

The “war on terror” helped create the current disaster, and is now undermining relief efforts. In the first few days of flooding Pakistan’s President Zardari was on a European tour pledging loyalty to the “war on terror”, and refused to cut it short—leading many to call the floods “Zardari’s Katrina”. The United Nations has appealed for $460 million for relief, but the same countries spreading climate change and war refuse to meet that goal. The US, the world’s largest polluter, provides Pakistan with $1 billion in military aid that has been used to bomb its own country, but initially only offered $10 million for flood relief. Meanwhile, the Harper government, which promotes the environmentally destructive Tar Sands and promises $18 billion for new fighter jets, initially only pledged $2 million for humanitarian relief.[5] Islamophobia surrounding the “war on terror” has weakened donations, but still an outpouring of support has pressured Western powers to increase their pledges.

The people of Pakistan need not only urgent humanitarian aid, but an end to war and climate change, and an economy that puts people and the planet above profits.


Welcome to my blog.

A few years ago I was on an inspiring march as part of the election campaign of Quebec solidaire in Montreal. Someone had a big placard reading "Votre coeur est a gauche" (your heart's on the left). I've thought of this simple and sweet expression since then, when I get annoyed with the world or question humanity's potential. It reminds me that everyone has the inherent potential to fight for change.

Now some anatomy nerds out there might point out that the heart is actually much more towards the centre, but the large left ventricle makes it feel on the left. That's fine, I can roll with that. But the left part of the heart powers circulation throughout our body, just like left politics that power change through society.

Anyway, I've chosen this as the title for my blog, which will feature musings on health and politics. This might include patient encounters I've had, debates in the media, or campaigns.
We'll see.