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Wednesday, July 30

Is knowledge power? 

One of the reasons why the Roman Empire is still viewed as a great civilization is that it appears to have enjoyed a surprisingly high rate of literacy.  Of course, these things are impossible to measure accuracy (alas we possess no standardized reading tests from Augustus's reign), nevertheless, the pervasive use of writing to communicate formal edicts and such suggest that a significant portion of the population could indeed read.  And the apparent decline in literacy, and the associated signs of a literate population, are one of the factors that many people point to as sings of "decline" in the latter centuries of the Empire.

(A word of clarification.  This "decline" appeared in the Western portions of the Empire.  In the East, in what is now Greece and Turkey, Greek literacy appears to have continued unabated by any pesky "barbarian" hordes, plagues, or the emergence of monotheistic belief-systems -- in other words despite all the alleged causes of the "fall" of the Empire...  but that is another story.  For now, we're talking about the West.)

Literacy remains an important standard by which we continue to judge how developed a society is.  And while official literacy rates throughout the developed world are almost certainly far higher than they ever were in the Roman Empire, there are signs that standards are beginning to slip...  (And I've noted this before).  The recently released study by the US department of education reveals that:

Fourth-grade students showed improvements, a testament to ongoing education reforms that focus on early grades. But 12th-grade scores slipped: Those rated as proficient readers dropped to 36% from 40% in 1998. The problem was particularly acute for senior boys -- only 28% received a proficient rating. The test scores show the dangers of neglecting reading instruction in upper grades. While remedial reading is prevalent in elementary schools, it is virtually non-existent in middle and high schools. Most high school English teachers aren't even trained to deal with students who are poor readers.
And these results merely echo the subjective experience of others, from high-school teachers to military admirals to myself.  My years teaching undergraduates at a "competitive" university in the American Midwest were eye-opening, and honestly deeply troubling.  Students found words such as "amenity" or "assess" incomprehensible, and routinely pluralized nouns by attaching apostrophes (i.e. "table's").  I once asked one student, who was bright, industrious, but a terrible writer, what books had been assigned in High School English.  His answer?  "None."  

In four years of high school they had only read short stories or selection in a reader!  And a colleague who regularly supervised student teaching in a local high school told me equally horrifying tales -- grade 12 students assigned to "make posters" during English class to decorate the room, or perhaps read all of twenty lines of "Our Town" as a reading assignment.  Sigh.

It is a problem that can only grow worse in the US, as education budgets continue to be slashed.  And who can be surprised when the emperor himself has grown famous for his mangling of the language?  The situation is not yet so dire in Canada.  Not yet.

Addendum: Just in from the Globe and Mail's ever entertaining "Social Science" section:
Rob Kyff, a columnist for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant, has spotted a new menace: "It's the rampant proliferation of 'me' in the nominative case... Within recent months, I've heard sentences like these slithering from the mouths of public officials ('The Republican leadership and me collaborated...'), business executives ('The board said my colleagues and me were fairly compensated...'), and graduation speakers ('I remember, back in high school, my friends and me...')... So far, the use of the nominative 'me' has been restricted to double subjects, as in 'Jane and me.' But the single nominative 'me' is surely next."

Tuesday, July 22

Imperial Armies 

That American voice of reason, Paul Krugman, addressed some of the problems that the US army will be facing as a result of its presence in the quagmire of Iraq. Not only is it overextended, but we can expect to see a drop in recruitment as the dangers of doing military service become clear.  What will the Empire do?

Well, if we look to history (specifically Roman history) one solution would be to create a new kind of army.  In the earlier days of the Roman republic all Roman men were expected to serve in defence of the patria.  They would go off and fight, and return home to farm.  Of course, as the Empire grew larger and larger, this arrangement became increasingly unworkable.  The distances were too great.  The time commitment made it impossible to lead a normal life.  They really needed a more permanent standing army.  So it was that, over time, they developed one.  

But, again, as time went on it appears to have grown increasingly difficult to attract men to serve (at least in the lower ranks -- officers, or their equivalent, were exlusively drawn from the elite until the reign of Septimus Severus, at the end of the 2nd century CE).  In part this was due to the requirement that Roman soldiers actually be Roman.  Before the Emperor granted universal citizenship in 212, the provinces were full of folks who, while part of the Empire, were not Romans.  Finally some canny fellow realized that by granting non-Romans citizenship, on the basis that they serve in the Roman army, there would be a great many more recruits.  And so it was that, by the heyday of the empire, the actual soldiers of the army rarely came from Rome (although they were technically now Romans, by dint of enlisting).

Will the US Empire try something similar?  They've already announced plans to create militias of Iraqis, to free up the American troops.  But what are they offering them?  Certainly not US citizenship!  And I have to wonder how excited many Iraqis would be to expose themselves to danger on behalf of, what they view as, an occupying army.  The label "collaborator" is not a flattering one.

On the other hand, the US could just hire mercinaries.  It is a terrible idea for a host of reasons, but given the US Empire's adoration of anything involving the term "free market" (a term that was wholly alien to the ancient Roman worldview), I wouldn't be surprised if they picked it.

Monday, July 21

The dangers of seeing clearly 

It is comforting to know that although Americans appear to hold very strange views about the presence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq, a recent poll conducted by the Globe and Mail indicates that:

More than 70 per cent of Canadians believe the U.S. military has become mired in a Vietnam-like situation in Iraq that will lead to increasing casualties, an Ipsos-Reid/CTV/Globe and Mail poll released Friday indicates. And 44 per cent of Canadians believe the United States knowingly used incorrect or fabricated intelligence to make the case for going to war...  Only one-third of Canadians polled believe that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction...

The results indicate a great deal of strain on the credibility and trust of the U.S. administration, Mr. Wright said. "I think this makes it harder for the administration to get Canadian support for any platform."
Of course, whether the US administration cares about Canadian support is another question entirely. The treatment of the Canadians held by the US suggests that the Empire has already decided that Canada is not playing ball. Canada.com reports that:
The United States agreed Friday to suspend legal proceedings against British and Australian terror suspects facing military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay until the three countries discuss the cases. However, there was no word on the fate of two Canadians being held at the facility in Cuba.
Let me remind the reader that both Australia and England have supported the US in its war in Iraq.  What an amazing coincidence that they should win some rights for their citizens!  Rights which, Amnesty International has been quick to point out, everybody ought to possess.  So while I applaud the perspicacity of Canadians, I worry what the cost of their clear vision will be...

Living in the Empire 

There were lots of reasons to celebrate the Roman Empire in its heyday, and the emperors worked hard (with building programmes, gifts of food and money, and lavish shows) to remind people of it. Yet, as with many (if not all) authoritarian regimes, one of the costs for Romans was an erosion of their liberties and a radical reduction in their political self-determination. As many an undergraduate student has noted, the "good" emperors did lots of things that improved peoples' lives -- the problem was that many weren't "good" and that there was precious little anyone could do to stop them.

It should come as no surprise, therefore, that we are witnessing a similar phenomonon in the Empire to the South (despite the oft-proclaimed, and ardently celebrated, value that Americans place upon their freedoms).

One man was thrown off his flight to London (in fact, the whole airplane was turned around just as it was entering its taxi to takeoff, delaying about 300 passengers) for wearing a button that read "Suspected Terrorist." Many people have pointed out that the airline was within its rights, which is true, but rather misses the point.   The message of the button was political, eminism created it to remind people that, as things currently stand, everyone in the US is a suspected terrorist.  And that is a bad thing because this suspicion (the same panicky worries that led the airline to eject a paying harmless passenger) ends up harming the very society that it aims to protect.

A soon-to-be graduate student was interrogated by FBI agents for reading an article critiquing Fox Media. Is this a threat to Americans?? 

We can see the dangers clearly in the way in which the enforcement of the Patriot Act, allegedly created to protect Americans from Terrorists, has already led to numerous civil rights violations
"This report shows that we have only begun to scratch the surface with respect to the Justice Department's disregard of constitutional rights and civil liberties," Mr. Conyers said in a statement. "I commend the inspector general for having the courage and independence to highlight the degree to which the administration's war on terror has misfired and harmed innocent victims with no ties to terror whatsoever."
But what is really upsetting is that, even when the Patriot Act is properly enforced, it allows for the authorities to terrorize innocent people.  Consider the experience of this New York resisident who made the mistake of dining out.  He and his friend were just tucking into their dinners when...
All of a sudden, there was a terrible commotion and five NYPD in bulletproof vests stormed down the stairs. They had their guns drawn and were pointing them indiscriminately at the restaurant staff and at us.

"Go to the back, go to the back of the restaurant," they yelled.

I hesitated, lost in my own panic.

"Did you not hear me, go to the back and sit down," they demanded.

I complied and looked around at the other patrons. There were eight men including the waiter, all of South Asian descent and ranging in age from late-teens to senior citizen. One of the policemen pointed his gun point-blank in the face of the waiter and shouted: "Is there anyone else in the restaurant?" The waiter, terrified, gestured to the kitchen.

The police placed their fingers on the triggers of their guns and kicked open the kitchen doors. Shouts emanated from the kitchen and a few seconds later five Hispanic men were made to crawl out on their hands and knees, guns pointed at them.

In the end the entire incident appears to have been based on a mistake (but go read the whole account for yourself).  There were no terrorists in the restaurant.  Yet it was all legal.  It was all acceptable.  And these examples are merely a few of the many that could be cited.  Scary days in the Empire -- even for its citizens.

Wednesday, July 16

The Committee for the Republic 

A "Committee for the Republic" is e-mailing a manifesto all over the US capital.  It is an attempt to warn of the dangers of Empire, perhaps a familiar theme to you, my dear readers. The Wall Street Journal reports that:
We are all, it seems, imperialists now.

Bush Administration officials avoid the "e" word, not so much because they disagree with those who use it, but because they recognize it as bad public relations. What they say, however, is less important than what they do.

The U.S. is operating open-ended protectorates in Afghanistan and Iraq, at a combined cost of $5 billion a month, or $60 billion a year. That's roughly triple the entire foreign-aid budget, and almost double the federal government's budget for elementary and secondary education. Meanwhile, intervention in Liberia appears just around the corner. U.S. soldiers reside in nearly 100 different countries. During the president's trip last week to Africa, there was talk of opening bases elsewhere on that continent.

You can argue that none of this is "empire" of the British or Roman variety, since it doesn't involve, for the most part, elaborate systems of civil as well as military governance. But it's close enough.
And it is worth noting that while the British Empire did indeed set up elaborate administrations in their colonies, the Romans did not.  Ahem.  For the record let me repeat -- Roman provinces were self-governing.  The Roman governor was sent to keep an eye on what they did, and to represent Roman citizens within that province.

The American Empire is pretty damn similar.

Addendum: It looks like Warblogging has taken up their message, pointing out that:
The costs of empire are severe. American soldiers are overburdened and demoralized. They are facing financial difficulties and their families are doing poorly without them. Many of them paying the ultimate price for Bush's lies — their lives. Many more are losing limbs and eyes and becoming permanently disabled because of Bush's lies.

There's much more, well worth reading.

Sunday, July 13

Signs of decline? 

I was biking home from the beaches the other day, along the lakeshore.  Only a few years ago the spot would have been under the Gardner expressway, but now the Eastern extention has been dismantled, and this trail created (allowing bikers and rollerbladers to zoom past the endlesly-mired traffic, very gratifying).  You can tell that the highway used to be here, however, because the city has left standing many of the gigantic cement supports that once held the road up.  They stand, like modern megaliths, and the trail goes around them.  Lights have been installed in the ground to highlight them at night (although I have never actually seen them in use, since I don't bike at night).

It doesn't look bad, but it it does seem a bit odd.  After all, these aren't particularly beautiful examples of archetecture -- they are cement supports, nothing more, nothing less.  Why celebrate them like this?

The whole thing reminds me of (yes, you guessed it) the Roman Empire.  Not in the glory days, but later, in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Western historians often refer to this period as the declining years of Rome.  They might even talk about its fall (Rome was sacked in 411, which creates a nice date to drill into students heads), although the term is pretty misleading.  Rome did not really fall, so much as change a great deal.  Power moved to the East, where the emperors continued to refer to themselves as Roman well into the fifteenth century (when Constantinople was finally captured by the Turks).  Yet in the West things certainly did change.  Aquaducts stlowly fell into disrepair, rivers silted up, practical government grew increasingly local, population (probably) fell...

Art historians look at the sculpture and coinage in the west and note that is is more primitive, cruder.  Fewer new buildings were built, and those that were increasingly used older structures, not merely for artistic inspiration, but for actual building materials.  Pillars were reused, not always even as pillars, sometimes merely as cut stone.  I have often wondered what the people living then thought about what they were doing.  Did they wonder how it was that they had lost the skills, lost the trade routes and supplies, lost the organized manpower, to construct works on the scale of their predicessors.

Ok, despite the usual problems in maintaining Toronto's infrastructure, I am not suggesting that the city is in decline.  In fact, unlike 4th century Rome, the population here is booming, and the city is growing at a fantastic rate.  What struck me as comparable, however, is a pattern I see in the way we (not just in Toronto) seem to increasingly cannibalize the past for art, for beauty, instead of creating enduring works of our own.  Celebrating cement highway supports is but one example.

This summer a nifty new neighborhood was "opened up" (quite near the aforesaid bike trail actually).   Gooderham and Worts, an old distillery which was built in 1837, has been turned into a "destination," with extensive cleaning, the installation of art galleries, a microbrewery, a restaurant, and a really excellent cafe.  It's quite nice.  Why?  Because the buildings are gorgeous -- mostly redbrick with supurb 19th century details.  But what does that say about modern culture that we look back at old factory buildings and think, golly we can't build anything like that anymore!  We'd better make the most of it!

And you have only to glance around you to see many, many, more examples.  It is becoming almost a commonplace for older cities to try to make old industrial areas (be they shipyards if the city's on a coast, or factories and warehouses further inland) into charming destinations.  And the fact is that most of these, if they are developed intelligently, do turn out to be much prettier, and more interesting, than modern spaces.  

Another recent project in Toronto was the renovation in the posh Summerhill neighborhood of the old Toronto North rail station, which is now the largest (and certainly the nicest) liquor store in the city.  The resulting space (while still not quite complete) has character and charm.  Compare it to the new creation of Dundas Square in Toronto.  This was the site of many of the massive anti-war demonstrations, but observers have noted that, on an ordinary day
It doesn’t have any drawing power. It’s like a nice parking lot..."

"I wish there were trees... It’s too modern... It doesn’t have character."
I would have to concur.  It is an ugly and uninviting space.  So I end up applauding civic efforts to make the most of our historic heritage, and begin to think that this preservation, this renovation is progress.  But is it progress?  Are we merely clinging to a past that we no longer hope to match?  Have we already, despite all our technological developments, sunk into a cultural decline?  It makes me wonder.


Wednesday, July 9

Provincial Navel-Gazing 

Well the media is all abuzz about Canada slipping to eighth place in the UN rankings. This is, of course, a tempest in a teapot -- a chance for politicians (like Stephen Harper) to get up on soapboxes and bemoan the country's fall from greatness. Like all rankings, be they of schools or cities, there is a great deal of subjectivity involved. What characteristics should one stress? How should one measure them? According to the Globe and Mail
Canada's biggest handicaps were the low Canadian dollar at the time the ranking was compiled and the rising proportion of new Canadians who have not completed university programs, an official with the United Nations development program said in an interview yesterday from New York.

Spokesmen from the development program would not comment on the report before its official release on Tuesday. However, the official, who asked to remain anonymous, said Canada is penalized under the approach adopted by the UN agency for being a more open and heterogenous country... The official also cautioned against reading too much into Canada's sinking status in the world. "The difference between eighth place and first place is really quite small," he said. "It could be attributed to statistical fluctuations. They are so close together . . . it does not really mean anything.

What is a more interesting question is how the US managed to surpass Canada in the rankings. How could that be? If we compare the statistics the UN used for Canada, and those for the US, an interesting pattern emerges.

First, let's consider some of the areas in which Canada outscored the US.
So why does Canada rank after the US?  In short, "It's the economy, stupid."  Not only is the US richer, it also has signifigantly less long term unemployment (less than half Canada's).  And its wealth can attract talent.  

Canadians may be healthier, but there are far fewer doctors per capita -- presumably a consequence of the brain drain.  Likewise, Canadians may be better educated, but they have far fewer scientists and engineers doing R&D, and far fewer patents.  All of these are categories the UN uses in compiling their lists.

And so does the empire extend its long arm, attracting Canadian talent (not to mention that of many other nations!), and rising in the rankings. But would you really want to live there?

Thursday, July 3

Wave that flag 

I'm not one to get gushy over national holidays, generally they seem to bring out the worst in people. I've already had to deal with plenty of obnoxious Canada Day behaviour (almost getting run down by inebriated holidaymakers twice in one day makes me grumpy), and was all set to feel glad that I will miss out on the July 4th festivities down south.

In the States it's a much bigger holiday, and people are a lot more belligerent about any perceived slight to the nation. When I was living in the midwest colleagues told me, with concern, that they did not think it would be a good idea to fly a Canadian flag on July 4th. (I wasn't really planning to, but they were worried). Here in Toronto they were selling US flags alongside the Canadian ones.

I'm still a bit puzzled about that actually. Why would anyone want to buy a US flag on Canada day?

Well, I was all set to feel smug about avoiding the Independence Day broughaha when I was put to shame for my nasty thoughts. This week's New Yorker has a charming piece on Canada, well worth a read. Such love, and straight out of the Empire State, no less! So happy July 4th, America. There's some good in the Empire after all.

Pax Americana? 

I just read this article in the New York Times (yes, you need to register to read it, sorry) and was struck by the old familiar feeling of prophecies coming true despite my wishes...  Three different attacks on the US occupation army in one day, the third a rocket propelled grenade fired in broad daylight on a busy street in Baghdad.
Witnesses also said that in response, soldiers in one of the other vehicles opened fire indiscriminately, seriously wounding, and possibly killing, at least one Iraqi driver nearby. Blood pooled next to the driver's blue car soon after the attack.

The attack suggested that the urban warfare that had so concerned military planners before the fall of the Hussein government was materializing in unexpected forms. The attack against the convoy on Haifa Street was at least the second rocket-propelled grenade assault in Baghdad during daylight hours this week.

In both cases, the attackers escaped. Whether out of fear or sympathy for their cause, bystanders and witnesses have done nothing to help allied forces apprehend attackers...  A crowd of people gathered around the destroyed Humvee and looted it, taking whatever they could remove. Children and adults climbed on top, stomping on it and chanting, "God bless Muhammad!" Then someone set the vehicle on fire, and the crowd backed away, watching it slowly burn. Children hurled stones at the blazing vehicle...

The crowd's ire seemed to be fueled as much by a lack of jobs and electric power in Baghdad — most parts of the city still have no more than 8 to 10 hours of electricity a day — as by anti-American sentiment.
"It's not because of Saddam that people are doing these things," one man said. "It is because there's no government, there's no electricity and just false promises." ...
The situation in Iraq is turning, or has already turned, to shit.  The proliferation of grenades as the weapons of choice was noted by Salam Pax two weeks ago.  Can anyone really believe that the US is in Iraq to bring peace?  Certainly the Iraqis do not appear to be so deluded.  According to the Times article:
"Get out from our country," someone had scrawled on a wall nearby. It was written in English, so for the soldiers passing by there would be no mistaking its meaning.
Yet it is a mistake to think of Imperial Peace as peace for everybody.  The Pax Romana lasted for about two centuries, yet for the people living in the provinces on the edges of the empire there was a great deal of fighting, a great deal of dying.  The Roman Peace is thus named, not because it was a peace brought to the world by the Romans, but because it was a peace relative to the Romans -- at least those Romans who were not in the army and hence not off on the frontier killing "barbarians" and getting killed in turn.  

The Pax Americana too involves much bloodshed.  But then, it isn't peace for the world that the Empire seeks, but peace for the heartland of the Empire.   "Let them hate me, so long as they fear me," and so long as the US empire is feared, it hopes to remain safe.  (Although any historian could point out that this particular strategy did not actually work very well for the Emperor Caligula, who allegedly coined the phrase prior to his assassination)

Remember those prisoners 

I've already gone on, at some length, about the "foreign nationals" currently being held by the US, how we know at least a few are Canadian, how the US has refused to openly disclose who they have, the apalling conditions in which they are being kept, and the fact that they will be tried by tribunals and subject to the death penalty.

It's not news anymore. But I'm reminding you because, not only should we not forget any of these things (and Thank You Warblogging for keeping the spotlight on this topic), but the CBC just reported that:
Six prisoners linked to terrorism are eligible for trial by U.S. military tribunals... It is now up to U.S. Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to decide whether the six will face the military commissions.
Yet neither the CBC not the Toronto Star mention that one or more of these six men might be Canadian citizens, nor do they highlight the controversial nature of these trials.  AP news goes into more detail, and reminds us that:
The United States may not publicly identify the suspects even if they go to trial, a senior Defense Department official told reporters. None of the officials who discussed the matter Thursday would say where the suspects are being held, though all are in U.S. custody.

The Pentagon officials also raised the possibility that the military might continue to hold the suspects even if they are acquitted by a tribunal. The prisoners' status as "unlawful combatants" in the war against terrorism is separate from their guilt or innocence on charges brought before a tribunal, a military official involved in the tribunal process said.

Unlike traditional criminal trials, the proceedings of military tribunals can be kept much more secret.  The prospect of secret trials drew criticism from the chairman of the American Bar Association's task force on the treatment of detainees in the war on terrorism.

"The State Department issues a report every year in which it criticizes those nations that conduct trials before secret military tribunals," said Neal Sonnett, also a former president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "What I'm hearing sounds alarmingly like something similar."

Where is the Canadian outrage? Trying to stop the Empire from doing what it wants may be a lost cause, but surely it is worth at least voicing some disapproval? I wonder whether the reaction to this news would be different if the US had acknowledged the nationalities of the six men -- since as it is there is only a chance that they are Canadian. It is easy to think (and statistically more likely) that these six men come from some other foreign country. It is easy to imagine that this could never happen to Canadian citizens. Gee, the US and Canada are such good friends, after all!

Will we wait until a bodybag is sent North for burial before voicing any outrage at what is going on? I hope not. But I'm not optamistic.