Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Ann Coulter's Ass

Americans tend to view their political leaders as either knights in shining armour, or devils incarnate. In Canada we think of our leaders as ordinary folks for the most part, and for the most part, ordinary folks a little dumber than we are. A healthy, more mature approach.

We are fierce in our commitment to free speech as well, of course, just a little more considerate of other people's feelings than the USA. We relish inveterate, even devastating iconoclastic banter, but we tend to reserve truly brutal wit for trusted friends and syblings.

That is, until a stranger behaves like a pompous ass.

Last week, American commentator Ann Coulter came to Canada.

Nice ass ... but the University of Ottawa cancelled her performance because she said Muslims should be prevented from using commercial airlines and relegated to flying carpets or camels.

Ms Coulter easily succeeded in fanning her notoriety in protocol prissy Ottawa. That would never have happened in Petty Harbour, or St. John's, however. Rather than wringing their honest hands in anxious sweats over political correctness, Newfoundlanders, would have simply changed Coulter's star billing from political commentator, to comédienne. End of story. A bit more Lenny Bruce than Bill Cosby, but a comédienne nonetheless.

Coulter wanted to challenge the idea that profiling always violates civil rights. (Don't you hate having to explain your jokes?) What irony. It was Americans who gave profiling a bad name in the first place a few years ago when Boston's finest targeted some innocent young men for no other reason than that they were black.

But profiling isn't the problem. The problem lies in how we store data.

Currently, your electronic health record probably has your name, address and date of birth stored in the same database, in the same data tables, as your eye-glasses prescription and your risk of sexually transmitted disease. Known in the identity business as 'tombstone information', these personal identifiers could even be mistakenly linked to a faulty credit rating, or an obsolete criminal record.

That is the problem.

Imagine for a moment a new scenario. One where legislation forbids governments and businesses from placing any unique personal identifiers in the same tables as service related data. In the professional data management business, this is known as 'anonymization'.

At first glance, an eye-glasses prescription, a driving record, ethnicity labels, eye colour, body type and religious affiliation might seem meaningless without personal identifiers.

Not quite. Not to legitimate profilers!

Free societies have powerful rules about personal searches. In general, legislators require public security agents, as members of the executive branch of government, to obtain a judicial warrant before they are allowed to search your home for example.

If our databases were 'anonymized', we could allow counter terrorism and epidemiology officials to profile to their hearts content using that anonymous data, until they detect a statistically substantiated pattern of risk. They could then show probable cause, obtain a judicial warrant, and finally re-combine that risky record with its personal identifiers.

With such safeguards in place, we could allow airline passenger manifests to store every reservation's ethnicity, city of origin, destination, dates of travel, and any number of other indicators deemed useful to epidemiologists and security professionals, as long as they kept that data strictly separate from actual passenger identifiers. Only if a pandemic or security alarm were triggered would permission be granted to identify the individual and contain the potential threat until it could be investigated.

Ann Coulter spoke to Canadian Muslims as irreverantly and deprecatingly as we all do when teasing or arguing with a trusted friend or beloved brother or sister. Her sin was to do it in the manner of a stereotypically rude and abrasive American tourist, rather than billing herself properly as the iconoclastic and polemical ironist (comédienne) she is paid to be.

She will milk this 'all the way to the neo-con bank' of course, accusing Canadians along the way of naïvely confusing constraints on free-speech with courtesy. And she'll be wrong. There is nothing naïve or inadvertant in it. It is called freedom of choice. A Canadian choice. A deliberate choice. A little less partisan. A little more considerate.

In that regard, Ottawa U. let us down rather badly. They should have re-booked the event as a debate and sicked John 'Sheila-Baby' Crosby onto her.


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Reflections on Cuba

Fulcrum of the Americas. Conscience of the Caribbean. Oracle to the mighty. Salve for the downtrodden. Foil for fools. Mote in Helms-Burton’s eye.

Fidel's Cuba.

At the very peak of the Yankee debate over health insurance, I got sick ... in Cuba. Not just any Cuba, mind you, but rural Cuba. Poor Cuba. Reportedly downtrodden, oppressed, repressed, obsessed and Marxist-Leninized Cuba. Cracks in the walls, peeling paint, light bulbs in only every fourth fixture, typical, tropical, third-world hospital Cuba. Right?


What an unmitigated pack of lies we are being fed about that island.

The North American public square, our commons, our most basic democratic vocabulary has been so hijacked by the purveyors of vested interest and pre-suppositional lies, we no longer accurately perceive ‘other’. Choking on venemous Helms-Burton narratives about Fidel for fifty years, we can no longer taste Cuba herself. Now eighty-four years old, Castro has spent the same fifty years studying us as we have studying him, yet we dare not admit the bugger might have some useful insights to offer.

Was it Marshall McLuhan who defined unilingual English-speaking North America’s approach to ‘other’ as: Quick! Let me help you before you drown,” said the monkey to the fish, putting him safely up a tree.

What is this primordial soup in which we are so obliviously immersed?

Lies, upon lies ... upon more lies

Twenty-two minutes of every North American broadcast hour is devoted to advertising. Eighty-six percent of that comes from only two corporate alliances: the chemo-pharma-petro-food block (GM-Splenda-Cialis) and the banking-insurance-investment cartel. The remaining thirty-eight minutes of every hour reinforce that brainwashing with an endless recitation of partisan ‘talking points’ scripted with floods of cash from those same two lobbies.

Are you listening English-speaking America? We are being lied to about Cuba!

The embargo has little to do with the USA preventing goods from crossing the Florida straights. That's the Helms-Burton embargo. The Cuban embargo is run by Cubans, designed to shelter their airwaves from most of our seditious vitriol.

How bad is it? When Fareed Zakaria recently asked Paul Volker what worried him most about this era after his long and distinguished life, Volker replied, “Governance.”

Even the usually attentive Zakaria misunderstood at first. “Government?”, he asked. “No,” Volker replied, “Governance.” Our democracy is broken. We are a failing state.

Volker is not alone. Other prominent public figures see it too, but they use polite words like "gridlock” to describe it. None dares speak the truth, bluntly. The lies are corrupting the very essence of democratic choice.

Eisenhower saw it coming in 1950. He called it the military-industrial complex. Today its a Pharma-Financial complex. Our electoral system has been hijacked. Our elections are fixed because we vote based on those lies.

What's the difference between Zimbabwe and us? In Zimbabwe a corrupt tyrant falsifies the results after the vote. In twenty-first century North America disembodied concentrations of obscene wealth manipulate our thinking beforehand.

Obama knew it. And he blew it. He wasted a year droning drearily on about something called "health care reform". What a crock. The ‘public option’ was about health insurance folks. Nothing to do with the health care. It was supposed to be just one more insurance plan option among many. Choose the one you want. Pick freely. The best and the cheapest should have emerged as honest, realistic, with sustainable premiums established in an open market place.

Instead, the USA have been hoodwinked by colluding insurance moghuls in cahoots with the banks and investment lobbies. The same ones that are gouging patients with illegible disclaimers, limits on coverage, and astronomical premiums long divorced from actuarial tables and legitimate risk assessment. They are all liars. We are the pushovers. And the reason we lap it all up is our elected representatives and mass media rebroadcast the lies ad nauseam.

Our partisan politics are the laughing stock of the rest of the world right now. We have settled for half the service at twice the price (and rising), while voting to continue obscene rewards for those who most successfully divert our savings and taxes into immense capital repositories under narrowly held corporate control.

What's the alternative?

I got sick in Cuba. Really sick, off the beaten track in a tiny rural village. Nothing to do with Cuba. A chronic, pre-existing, aging male's plumbing condition flared up. I got myself to the tiny local clinic. One doctor, two nurses. The doctor called the specialist at the nearest regional hospital. Too busy this afternoon. How about 10:00 AM tomorrow. Saturday. My local doctor’s day off.

Someone picked me up anyway, passed by the doctor’s house to pick her up (her day off remember). In to the hospital. Ultrasound, X-ray, urine lab, rectal prostate exam, and a comprehensive discussion in plain language using the ultrasound and x-rays as props. I was given a legible copy of the specialist's case notes and handed a targeted prescription. Out the door.

Time spent? One hour and fifty seven minutes.

Cost for the ultrasound, X-ray, urine lab, rectal exam, specialist consultation and prescription? $250. The local doctor’s fee? $15 and only because I was a foreigner.

Equivalent cost for a Cuban citizen? They've already paid through income tax deducted at source. Fully covered by the national health care plan. No incidental charges. Typical wait time for a Cuban citizen at this hospital? About an hour more than mine because, as a guest, they insisted I skip to the head of the four or five people in line at each station.

The people in line had one compensatory demand, however. They wanted to see pictures of my wife. Pictures of my kids. Pictures of the low lying mid-winter arctic sun. They wanted to gasp at the incomprehensible –37C temperature the morning I left home. And, forget privacy, they felt reassured in our common humanity by eavesdropping on the details of my ailments and cure as I chatted with the specialist winthin ear-shot. They wrapped it up with a few questions about my impressions of "la doctora Beatrice" and "mi primo Pascal". My doctor and the specialist respectively.

Seems they are all cousins, or nieces, or aunts, and well, welcome to Cuba. Or is it Nunavut. Places where life and community are still on a human scale.

I had the decency to wait until I got back to the relative seclusion of my lodgings before getting misty-eyed in amazement, gratitude, relief and, admit it, outright affection for these people.

Were my experience and speedy service unusual? Perhaps, but only compared to other tourists. Not to Cubans. Since I speak Spanish well enough to dispense with an interpreter, I was treated like just one more relative. I suspect that with a language barrier, or had I been stuck in metropolitain Havana, that might have added a few hours to the process.

Who pays?

I didn’t bother claiming the travel insurance. Didn’t bill the Nunavut Health Care Plan either. $250 bucks for all that? Prescription included!

How do they do it?

The Helms-Burton version of Cuban economics spews hate and systematic violence at Cuba for having nationalised the plutocratic power base and thereafter resorted to a two-tiered currency.

Foreigners pay for local services directly to Revenue Cuba in new pesos, which are roughly on a par with the dollar.

Cuban employees receive their salaries in old pesos, worth a lot less. The difference goes directly to the national treasury and pays for superb health care and unlimited education. The rest of the planet calls these “source deductions”. They include deductions for federal income tax, provincial or state income tax, unemployment insurance, health care, pension plan, old age security, union dues, all deducted from our pay cheque ‘at source’, i.e. by our employer, and forwarded to our elected representatives. In Canada this also covers municipalities plowing snow off the highways and runways so the fire trucks, ambulance, and garbage trucks can get through.

Helms-Burton calls this socialism, tyranny, communism, confiscation, castroism, big government and lack of market freedom.

In Cuba, Castro calls it ‘revolution’, an enforced period of transition from Batista-Helms enabled plutocratic exploitation and selfishiency to one of fierce national pride in superb shared services, near complete freedom from debilitating disease, near zero polution and crime, and near 100% literacy. All this is capped by a phenomenal generosity overseas towards millions of less fortunate communities despite the crippling economic impact of Helmsian hate mongering and bullying.

Intimidation, Bullying and Executions

The subtext to all this, we are told, is that Fidel Castro is a ruthless, cruel, violent, egomaniacal communist who has slaughtered tens of thousands of innocent entrepreneurs and free thinkers for little more than their aspiring to personal wealth or voicing a dissident opinion.

No matter how laudable the outcomes of universal health care and education, the uncompromising means Castro has used to achieve them are never to be forgiven, forgotten, or tolerated. To hear Helms-Burton octogenerians and legions of other Batista legates sitting in Miami tell the story, the Cuban people live in a perpetual state of gnawing anxiety, fear of reprisal, and muzzled resentment. Miami-based expatriate oligarchs drool with unconcealed anticipation, craving a triumphant welcome from their repressed entrepreneurial and consumerist cousins the moment Castro has the decency to rot into his ovedue grave.

Again, what bullshit!

These morons are clinically delusional. Their cliché-infested minds are so clogged with their own incessant incantations, they actually believe modern Cuba is still as mired in 1959 as their automobiles. The Miami diaspora are oblivious to the transformation, pride, and fiercely independent streak that is sweeping Latin America, growing ever more respectful of Cuba's phenomenal accomplishments. The Bolivarian dream of shrugging off nordic and euro-centric views of the globe in favour of a shared pan-american, self-determining alternative is summed up in the new Latin-American mantra heard from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego: "Our North is South!"

Cubans are not just aware of this movement, they well might emerge as one of its foremost exponents once the blockade is lifted. Convenient consumer goods, appliances and communications technology from northern markets will be welcomed, of course, but I think the Helms-Burton crowd are in for a shock when they discover that Fidel is no longer the lone driver, a rogue demagogue keeping Cuba under his thumb. Entire generations have come and gone under the revolution and the Castro legacy includes a far more resilient, capable, thoughtful, competent, independent, and politically sophisticated transition team than the insatiable nordic giant realizes.


I predict that the Castro era will wind down just as the United States of America's governmental gridlock hits a wall of paralysis. The most explosive irritant will be a sudden and catastrophic shortage of electricity and clean drinking water.

Meanwhile, far from rushing towards indiscriminate consumerism with a reckless assault on their own limited resources, Cubans, while benefiting from broader international trade, will largely hold firm to their present course of husbanded resources, organic farming, and more sustainable social consensus that is a bit less selfish, a bit more respectful of small and distributed communities, and, above all, still committed to shared sponsorship of services that look after the weak as well as the strong.

Any observer of 21st century affairs who cannot suspend his or her conditioned aversion to the earlier elements of the Castrist legacy long enough to examine the analysis the contemporary 'Comandante' continues to offer from the perspective of his octogenerian perch, is a damned fool.

I dare anyone to read the available on-line Spanish or English translations of the near weekly "Reflexiones de Fidel". You cannot do that for six months and not be impressed at the pertinence of the man's observations and dialectic.

The Helms-Burton cabal are incapable of such nuance. So is CNN. With the possible exception of Fareed Zakaria and his remarkable access to genuine thinkers in the northern hemisphere, the rest of our mainstream media are systematically poisoning the information infrastructure on which democratic decisions and survival depend.

We haven't much time to turn this around. If we succeed it will be deemed, in retrospect, to have been ... dare I say it ... a revolution!