Saturday, May 31, 2008
Tuesday 27 May 2008
by: Scott Thill, AlterNet
The rise of environmental disasters from climate change and destruction of ecosystems will create a surge of refugees across the planet.
Chew on this word, jargon lovers. Envirogee.
It carries more 21st century buzz than its semi-official designation climate refugee, which is a displaced individual who has been forced to migrate because of environmental devastation. Maybe the buzzword will catch on faster and shed some much-needed light on what will become a serious problem, probably by the end of this or the next decade. That light is crucial, because so far envirogees haven't been fully recognized by those who certify the civil liberties of Earth's various populations, whether that is the United Nations or local and national governments whose people are increasingly on the move for a whole new set of devastating reasons.
In short, immigration is about to enter a new phase, which resembles an old one with a 21st century twist. For thousands of years, humanity has fled across Earth's surface fearing instability and in search of sustainability. But that resource war has kicked into overdrive thanks to our current climate crisis - a manufactured war with its own clock.
And the clock is ticking.
From earthquakes in China to cyclones in Myanmar to water rationing in Los Angeles, societies are shifting like their borders. And all the outcry over so-called illegal immigration neglects to answer one time-honored question: If the borders aren't standing still, why should the people who live in their outlines do so? Especially when they're under attack from catastrophic floods, fires, droughts and any number of other environmental dangers?
Right now, the 1951 Geneva Convention does not recognize the envirogee phenomenon, instead focusing on immigration as a result of political persecution. But then again, it was established over five decades ago when Earth's climate was anything but a terrorist. But the Geneva Convention, like everything that must adapt or die, needs to mutate in time with the rest of the world and its hyperconsuming inhabitants in order to remain relevant in our still-new millennium.
Here are some startling envirogee numbers to crunch: According to the Nobel-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Earth's fracturing communities will have 150 million envirogees by 2050. According to Australian climatologist Dr. Graeme Pearman, coastal flooding resulting from a mere two-degree rise in temperature would kick 100 million people out of their danger-zone homes by 2100.
Here's more scary data. Desertification is claiming land from China to Morocco to Tunisia and beyond at an increasing rate. New Orleans and parts of Alaska are slowly sliding into the sea, while the former, as Hurricane Katrina ably illustrated, is becoming a reliable target for intensifying weather events, human corruption and half-assed infrastructure. Aquifers around the world are shrinking, while acidification is claiming cropland in Egypt and beyond. Hypoxia has claimed portions of the ocean itself with alarming speed, as stretches of the Atlantic and Pacific lose oxygen and, by extension, the marine life that not only feeds millions but establishes the continuity of the food chain.
No food chain, no food. It doesn't get much simpler than that.
But numbers are fallible, which is another way of saying the above figures are most likely best-case scenarios. In other words, the future is now. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the IPCC might have taken home a Nobel for their statistics and bleeding hearts, but their math was significantly off. Worse, the rate at which these things happen is rising exponentially.
"The rate of increase in carbon dioxide concentrations accelerated over recent decades along with fossil fuel emissions," explained a report on methane and CO2 rises by the U.S. Department of Commerce's National Organization for Atmospheric Administration. "Since 2000, annual increases of two ppm or more have been common, compared with 1.5 ppm per year in the 1980s and less than one ppm per year during the 1960s." As for methane, in 2007 it exploded by 27 million tons after a decade with relatively no rise at all. Think about that next time you eat that Happy Meal.
So what's an envirogee to do, other than opt out of wasted fantasies like Happy Meals, factory farming, bottled water and Hummers? What else? Move.
Which is what envirogees worldwide are already doing right now, by choice or by gunpoint, and will do more often than not as situations on the ground and in the air deteriorate.
The conflict raging in Darfur is a sobering example of the complexity of the situation. It has so far displaced 2-3 million people, and for all the talk of political or religious persecution, the fact remains that it is at its root an environmental crisis. An arid desert whose water is drying up by the day, Darfur is one of the first flashpoints of our new phase of climate conflict, a conflict that U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon explained in the Washington Post as one "that grew at least in part from desertification, ecological degradation and a scarcity of resources, foremost among them water." But this too should have been foreseen: According to remote sensing, Darfur sits atop of an underground lake that once used to hold over 600 cubic miles of water and dried up thousands of years ago.
And like Darfur, we are numbly sitting atop our climatological past while it races to catch up with us. Parched by thirst and hungry for fossil fuels which, in turn, only exacerbate that thirst and the wars it engenders, envirogees are streaming out of these hot zones into less murderous ones, whose inhabitants are circling their wagons on the outsiders. Civil wars are breaking out. Outsiders, in turn, are becoming invaders. The irony is rich.
It gets richer, or poorer, depending on where you stand on peak oil. The planet's shrinking petroleum reserves are now more valuable than ever, and the prices for its capture and capitalization show zero sign of returning to normal. That expense is also beginning to be measured in lives, as carbon concentration exponentially increases and weather events become more extreme.
And you all know what they say about extreme times calling for extreme measures.
We've been here before, which is to say on the brink of extinction. In one instance, drought shrunk our numbers to about 2,000 scattered in a diaspora across Africa, a fearsome thought for a 21st century superpower that may be entering its own permanent drought. But the wrinkle is different this time around the tightrope: We built this coming dystopia with our own hands.
And that's going to reshape not just immigration policy, but the concept of immigration altogether. And that's where the envirogee comes in. The envirogee, you see, is on the run from himself.
In other words, and no matter how much blowhards like CNN's Lou Dobbs bitch and whine, the inconvenient truth of climate change, and its rampant resource wars for what's left of the planet's stores, remains a reality. Beneath genocide in Darfur lies a desert that used to be a lake. There probably isn't a better metaphor for our current hyperhighway to hell in existence, if one could argue that it was a metaphor to begin with. But one can't, because it is reality, pure and simple. And so are envirogees, regardless of the outdated assertions of the Geneva Convention or the staid refusals of the insurance industry to wake up and smell the hurricanes.
"If we keep going down this path," French prime minister Nicholas Sarkozy argued to the superpowers gathered at the Major Economics Meeting in Paris last month, "climate change will encourage the immigration of people with nothing towards areas where the population do have something, and the Darfur crisis will be only one crisis among dozens of others," he stressed.
That is, we won't be worried about Mexicans coming to the U.S. for economic reasons, or Africans doing the same in France and England. We will be worried about hyperviolent cyclones, floods and droughts destroying what's left of our jobs and the people who want them, as we all pack our crap and move northward, where temperate weather and more bountiful supplies of water, gas and food lie. We will be the ones enduring the hard stares and perhaps bullets fired from locals who are circling their wagons against victims of their own consumption and apathy.
Whether or not we can settle, literally, with that solution, time will tell. But according to the continually underperforming science of climate crisis, we won't settle for long. Barring any meaningful sociopolitical or economic engagement, to say nothing of much-needed technological revolution, on the issue, we'll have turned from territorial citizens into climate nomads, all in a cosmological eyeblink.
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
By: David Morgan, Reuters
May 27th, 2008
Washington - Newly diagnosed cases of post-traumatic stress disorder among U.S. troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan surged 46.4 percent in 2007, bringing the five-year total to nearly 40,000, according to U.S. military data released on Tuesday.
The statistics, released by the Army, showed the number of new PTSD cases formally diagnosed at U.S. military facilities climbed to 13,981 last year from 9,549 in 2006.
The numbers rose as President George W. Bush poured extra forces into Iraq to try to quell sectarian violence and extended Army tours from 12 to 15 months. The United States has also sent more forces to Afghanistan.
The figures, encompassing all four branches of the U.S. armed services, showed that the Army alone had 10,049 new PTSD cases last year.
This brings to 39,366 the number of PTSD cases diagnosed at military facilities between January 1, 2003, and December 31, 2007, among troops deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan.
The totals include 28,365 cases for the Army, 5,641 for the Marines, 2,884 for the Navy and 2,476 for the Air Force.
Army officials said the larger number of PTSD diagnoses in recent years partly reflects greater awareness and tracking of the disorder by the U.S. military.
Longer, Multiple Combat Tours
"But we're also exposing more people to combat," Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, told reporters.
Experts also say PTSD symptoms increase as soldiers return to combat for multiple tours of duty.
PTSD is a health condition that can result from wartime trauma such as being physically wounded or seeing others hurt or killed.
Symptoms range from irritability and outbursts of anger to sleep difficulties, trouble concentrating, extreme vigilance and an exaggerated startle response. People with the condition can persistently relive the traumatic events that initially induced horror or helplessness.
The Pentagon has come under mounting political pressure in recent years to enhance treatment for PTSD amid criticism that initial programs were inadequate.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a change in the U.S. government clearance process that allows PTSD sufferers to seek help for combat-related mental health problems without risking their military careers.
Army officials on Tuesday emphasized that the data do not reflect the actual number of troops and war veterans who suffer from PTSD, many of whom do not seek treatment or have been diagnosed at civilian facilities where records are confidential.
A recent study by the RAND Corp. estimated about 300,000 troops, or 18.5 percent, of the more than 1.5 million troops sent to Iraq and Afghanistan exhibit symptoms of either PTSD or depression.
The fresh statistics add detail about the scale of human suffering from two wars that have killed 4,579 U.S. troops and inflicted physical wounds on 32,076 more.
There currently are 155,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and 33,000 in Afghanistan.
Sunday, May 25, 2008
By Bill McKibben
Sunday 11 May 2008
Even for Americans, constitutionally convinced that there will always be a second act, and a third, and a do-over after that, and, if necessary, a little public repentance and forgiveness and a Brand New Start - even for us, the world looks a little Terminal right now.
It's not just the economy. We've gone through swoons before. It's that gas at $4 a gallon means we're running out, at least of the cheap stuff that built our sprawling society. It's that when we try to turn corn into gas, it sends the price of a loaf of bread shooting upwards and starts food riots on three continents. It's that everything is so inextricably tied together. It's that, all of a sudden, those grim Club of Rome types who, way back in the 1970s, went on and on about the "limits to growth" suddenly seem? how best to put it, right.
All of a sudden it isn't morning in America, it's dusk on planet Earth.
There's a number - a new number - that makes this point most powerfully. It may now be the most important number on Earth: 350. As in parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
A few weeks ago, our foremost climatologist, NASA's Jim Hansen, submitted a paper to Science magazine with several co-authors. The abstract attached to it argued - and I have never read stronger language in a scientific paper - "if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm." Hansen cites six irreversible tipping points - massive sea level rise and huge changes in rainfall patterns, among them - that we'll pass if we don't get back down to 350 soon; and the first of them, judging by last summer's insane melt of Arctic ice, may already be behind us.
So it's a tough diagnosis. It's like the doctor telling you that your cholesterol is way too high and, if you don't bring it down right away, you're going to have a stroke. So you take the pill, you swear off the cheese, and, if you're lucky, you get back into the safety zone before the coronary. It's like watching the tachometer edge into the red zone and knowing that you need to take your foot off the gas before you hear that clunk up front.
In this case, though, it's worse than that because we're not taking the pill and we are stomping on the gas - hard. Instead of slowing down, we're pouring on the coal, quite literally. Two weeks ago came the news that atmospheric carbon dioxide had jumped 2.4 parts per million last year - two decades ago, it was going up barely half that fast.
And suddenly, the news arrives that the amount of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, accumulating in the atmosphere, has unexpectedly begun to soar as well. Apparently, we've managed to warm the far north enough to start melting huge patches of permafrost and massive quantities of methane trapped beneath it have begun to bubble forth.
And don't forget: China is building more power plants; India is pioneering the $2,500 car, and Americans are converting to TVs the size of windshields which suck juice ever faster.
Here's the thing. Hansen didn't just say that, if we didn't act, there was trouble coming; or, if we didn't yet know what was best for us, we'd certainly be better off below 350 ppm of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. His phrase was: "... if we wish to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed." A planet with billions of people living near those oh-so-floodable coastlines. A planet with ever more vulnerable forests. (A beetle, encouraged by warmer temperatures, has already managed to kill 10 times more trees than in any previous infestation across the northern reaches of Canada this year. This means far more carbon heading for the atmosphere and apparently dooms Canada's efforts to comply with the Kyoto Protocol, already in doubt because of its decision to start producing oil for the U.S. from Alberta's tar sands.)
We're the ones who kicked the warming off; now, the planet is starting to take over the job. Melt all that Arctic ice, for instance, and suddenly the nice white shield that reflected 80% of incoming solar radiation back into space has turned to blue water that absorbs 80% of the sun's heat. Such feedbacks are beyond history, though not in the sense that Francis Fukuyama had in mind.
And we have, at best, a few years to short-circuit them - to reverse course. Here's the Indian scientist and economist Rajendra Pachauri, who accepted the Nobel Prize on behalf of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year (and, by the way, got his job when the Bush administration, at the behest of Exxon Mobil, forced out his predecessor): "If there's no action before 2012, that's too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment."
In the next two or three years, the nations of the world are supposed to be negotiating a successor treaty to the Kyoto Accord. When December 2009 rolls around, heads of state are supposed to converge on Copenhagen to sign a treaty - a treaty that would go into effect at the last plausible moment to heed the most basic and crucial of limits on atmospheric CO2.
If we did everything right, says Hansen, we could see carbon emissions start to fall fairly rapidly and the oceans begin to pull some of that CO2 out of the atmosphere. Before the century was out we might even be on track back to 350. We might stop just short of some of those tipping points, like the Road Runner screeching to a halt at the very edge of the cliff.
More likely, though, we're the Coyote - because "doing everything right" means that political systems around the world would have to take enormous and painful steps right away. It means no more new coal-fired power plants anywhere, and plans to quickly close the ones already in operation. (Coal-fired power plants operating the way they're supposed to are, in global warming terms, as dangerous as nuclear plants melting down.) It means making car factories turn out efficient hybrids next year, just the way we made them turn out tanks in six months at the start of World War II. It means making trains an absolute priority and planes a taboo.
It means making every decision wisely because we have so little time and so little money, at least relative to the task at hand. And hardest of all, it means the rich countries of the world sharing resources and technology freely with the poorest ones, so that they can develop dignified lives without burning their cheap coal.
That's possible - we launched a Marshall Plan once, and we could do it again, this time in relation to carbon. But in a month when the President has, once more, urged us to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, that seems unlikely. In a month when the alluring phrase "gas tax holiday" has danced into our vocabulary, it's hard to see (though it was encouraging to see that Clinton's gambit didn't sway many voters). And if it's hard to imagine sacrifice here, imagine China, where people produce a quarter as much carbon apiece as we do.
Still, as long as it's not impossible, we've got a duty to try. In fact, it's about the most obvious duty humans have ever faced.
A few of us have just launched a new campaign, 350.org. Its only goal is to spread this number around the world in the next 18 months, via art and music and ruckuses of all kinds, in the hope that it will push those post-Kyoto negotiations in the direction of reality.
After all, those talks are our last chance; you just can't do this one light bulb at a time. And if this 350.org campaign is a Hail Mary pass, well, sometimes those passes get caught.
We do have one thing going for us: This new tool, the Web which, at least, allows you to imagine something like a grassroots global effort. If the Internet was built for anything, it was built for sharing this number, for making people understand that "350" stands for a kind of safety, a kind of possibility, a kind of future.
Hansen's words were well-chosen: "a planet similar to that on which civilization developed." People will doubtless survive on a non-350 planet, but those who do will be so preoccupied, coping with the endless unintended consequences of an overheated planet that civilization may not.
Civilization is what grows up in the margins of leisure and security provided by a workable relationship with the natural world. That margin won't exist, at least not for long, this side of 350. That's the limit we face.
Bill McKibben is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College and co-founder of 350.org. His most recent book is The Bill McKibben Reader.
Wednesday, May 21, 2008
Prescott Bush Presiding over President Eisenhower & Ensuring Rockefellers Military Industrial Complex
By Robert Parry
Sunday 18 May 2008
The irony of George W. Bush going before the Knesset and mocking the late Sen. William Borah for expressing surprise at Adolf Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland is that Bush's own family played a much bigger role assisting the Nazis.
If Borah, an isolationist Republican from Idaho, sounded naive saying "Lord, if only I could have talked to Hitler, all of this might have been avoided," then what should be said about Bush's grandfather and other members of his family providing banking and industrial assistance to the Nazis as they built their war machine in the 1930s?
The archival evidence is now clear that Prescott Bush, the president's grandfather, was a director and shareholder of companies that profited from and collaborated with key financial backers of Nazi Germany.
That business relationship continued after Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 and even after Germany declared war on the United States following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It stopped only when the U.S. government seized assets of Bush-connected companies in late 1942 under the "Trading with the Enemy Act."
So, perhaps instead of holding up Sen. Borah to ridicule, Bush might have acknowledged in his May 15 speech that his forebears also were blind to the dangers of Hitler.
Bush might have noted that his family's wealth, which fueled his own political rise, was partly derived from Nazi collaboration and possibly from slave labor provided by Auschwitz and other concentration camps.
A more honest speech before the Knesset - on the 60th anniversary of Israel's founding - might have contained an apology to the Jewish people from a leading son of the Bush family for letting its greed contribute to Nazi power and to the horrors of the Holocaust. Instead, there was just the jab at Sen. Borah, who died in 1940.
President Bush apparently saw no reason to remind the world of a dark chapter from the family history. After all, those ugly facts mostly disappeared from public consciousness soon after World War II.
Protected by layers of well-connected friends, Prescott Bush brushed aside the Nazi scandal and won a U.S. Senate seat from Connecticut, which enabled him to start laying the foundation for the family's political dynasty.
In recent years, however, the archival records from the pre-war era have been assembled, drawing from the Harriman family papers at the Library of Congress, documents at the National Archives, and records from war-crimes trials after Germany's surrender.
Managers for the Powerful
One can trace the origins of this story back more than a century to the emergence of Samuel Bush, George W. Bush's great-grandfather, as a key manager for a set of powerful American business families, including the Rockefellers and the Harrimans. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Bush Family Chronicles: The Patriarchs."]
That chapter took an important turn in 1919 when investment banker George Herbert Walker teamed up with Averell Harriman, scion to a railroad fortune, to found a new investment banking firm, W.A. Harriman Company.
The Harriman firm was backed by the Rockefellers' National City Bank and the Morgan family's Guaranty Trust. The English-educated Walker assisted in assembling the Harriman family's overseas business investments.
In 1921, Walker's favorite daughter, Dorothy, married Samuel Bush's son Prescott, a Yale graduate and a member of the school's exclusive Skull and Bones society. Handsome and athletic, admired for his golf and tennis skills, Prescott Bush was a young man with the easy grace of someone born into the comfortable yet competitive world of upper-crust contacts.
Three years later, Dorothy gave birth to George Herbert Walker Bush in Milton, Massachusetts.
Lifted by the financial boom of the 1920s, Prescott and Dorothy Bush were on the rise. By 1926, George Herbert Walker had brought his son-in-law in on a piece of the Harriman action, hiring him as a vice president in the Harriman banking firm.
By the mid-Thirties, Prescott Bush had become a managing partner at the merged firm of Brown Brothers Harriman. The archival records also show that Brown Brothers Harriman served as the U.S. financial service arm for German industrialist Fritz Thyssen, an early funder of the Nazi Party.
Thyssen, an admirer of Adolf Hitler since the 1920s, joined the Nazi Party in 1931 when it was still a fringe organization. He helped bail the struggling party out with financial help, even providing its headquarters building in Munich.
Meanwhile, Averell Harriman had launched the Hamburg-Amerika line of steamships to facilitate the bank's dealings with Germany, and made Prescott Bush a director. The ships delivered fuel, steel, coal, gold and money to Germany as Hitler was consolidating his power and building his war machine.
Other evidence shows that Prescott Bush served as the director of the Union Banking Corp. of New York, which represented Thyssen's interests in the United States and was owned by a Thyssen-controlled bank in the Netherlands.
As a steel magnate, Thyssen was amassing a fortune as Hitler rearmed Germany. Documents also linked Bush to Thyssen's Consolidated Silesian Steel Company, which was based in mineral-rich Silesia on the German-Polish border and exploited slave labor from Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. But records at the National Archives do not spell out exactly when Bush's connection ended or what he knew about the business details.
In 1941, Thyssen had a falling out with Hitler and fled to France where he was captured. Much of Thyssen's empire went under the direct control of the Nazis, but even that did not shatter the business ties that existed with Prescott Bush and Harriman's bank.
It wasn't until August 1942 that newspaper stories disclosed the secretive ties between Union Banking Corp. and Nazi Germany.
After an investigation, the U.S. government seized the property of the Hamburg-Amerika line and moved against affiliates of the Union Banking Corp. In November 1942, the government seized the assets of the Silesian-American Corp. [For more details, see an investigative report by the U.K. Guardian, Sept. 25, 2004.]
No Kiss of Death
For most public figures, allegations of trading with the enemy would have been a political kiss of death, but the disclosures barely left a lipstick smudge on Averell Harriman, Prescott Bush and other business associates implicated in the Nazi business dealings.
"Politically, the significance of these dealings - the great surprise - is that none of it seemed to matter much over the next decade or so," wrote Kevin Phillips in American Dynasty.
"A few questions would be raised, but Democrat Averell Harriman would not be stopped from becoming federal mutual security administrator in 1951 or winning election as governor of New York in 1954. Nor would Republican Prescott Bush (who was elected senator from Connecticut in 1952) and his presidential descendants be hurt in any of their future elections."
Indeed, the quick dissipation of the Nazi financial scandal was only a portent of the Bush family's future. Unlike politicians of lower classes, the Bushes seemed to travel in a bubble impervious to accusations of impropriety, since the Eastern Establishment doesn't like to think badly of its own. [For details, see Robert Parry's Secrecy & Privilege.]
To this day - as President Bush showed by mocking the long-forgotten Sen. Borah and then wielding the Nazi "appeasement" club against Barack Obama and other Democrats - the assumption remains that the bubble will continue to protect the Bush family name.
However, the evidence from dusty archives suggests that the Bush family went way beyond appeasement of Adolf Hitler to aiding and abetting the Nazis.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, "Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush", was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, "Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq" and "Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth'" are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
By Sara Robinson
Campaign for America's Future
Tuesday 06 May 2008
I live in a nice place.
I mean that literally. It took some getting used to. After 20 years in Silicon Valley, where people put a premium on being direct and to the point, have no time to waste on small talk or personal sharing, and will call a stupid idea stupid to your face, moving to Canada required a whole lot of gearing back on that brusque American aggressive-in-your-face thing. The humbling fact was: We had to learn to mind our manners.
Much of the adjustment work that first year involved re-learning the art of Being Nice. We had to get used to meetings that started with 10 or 15 minutes of personal chit-chat. We had to train ourselves to stop interrupting people, and to be more careful to say "please" and "thank you." We had to discover (sometimes, the hard way) that losing your temper with Canadians means that you will invariably lose the conflict. The more terse and irritated you get, the more determinedly calm and polite Canadians become, until you're standing there looking like a raving idiot and they're still firmly in control (though they're very sorry you're having such a bad day).
We also learned the unofficial Canadian motto, which is "I'm sorry." Canadians will say "I'm sorry" even if you were the one who bumped into them. (Americans, on the other hand, won't say it at all: apologizing is admitting fault, which is an invitation to lawsuits.) We used to respond to this by pleading with them out of our own misguided sense of Niceness: "No. Please. Don't be sorry. It was MY fault." But after a while, we gave up, went with the flow, and started apologizing for everything, too. It was really...well, nice, once we got used to it.
The whole world makes fun of Canadians' resolute civility - but once I'd read a little Canadian history, I realized that this Being Nice thing isn't just a cute cultural quirk. In fact, up here, it's is a deadly serious matter of national survival. Canada's 13 provinces and territories are, effectively, three separate nations - each with its own culture, language, religion, and history. On top of that, the country is the world's largest importer of new immigrants, a large fraction of whom are from cultures very different from Canada's aboriginal and European bedrock. The federal constitution that binds all this together is very weak (it's not unlike the U.S.'s original Articles of Confederation), and the overwhelming bulk of government power is still tightly concentrated in the hands of the provincial premiers (that's Canadian for "state governors"). Secession is eminently possible, as the Quebecois so often like to remind us.
In the face of all that, there's the constant possibility - which does not exist in the U.S. - that one cranky politician having one bad day could stand up and say one idiot thing that would cause one faction or another to decamp en masse, thus precipitating the instant demise of Canada-as-we-know-it. The threat is real. It could happen. And the only thing that keeps it from happening is that resolute collective determination to stay calm, keep the peace, and Be Nice.
Civility is, in a very real sense, the glue that holds this big, diverse nation together. Name-calling, othering, and losing one's temper is, quite simply, un-Canadian and unpatriotic. Failure to be civil in public is the fastest way (perhaps the only way) to get Canadians genuinely peeved at you. In the land where "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is supplanted by "peace, order, and good government" as the organizing values, there is simply no excuse at all for that kind of behavior, ever.
Our essential reliance on civil discourse - and the big trouble that awaits us when we try to function without it - is the same idea that Jeffrey Feldman explores, far more pointedly, in his new book, Outright Barbarous: How the Violent Language of the Right Poisons American Democracy. Feldman, whose indispensable Frameshop blog has done a lot of the heavy lifting in deconstructing the way the American right uses and abuses language, briskly and thoughtfully deconstructs seven specific ways 30 years of us-versus-them rhetoric has polarized the country, forced us into unnecessary conflicts against each other and everyone else, and virtually destroyed our ability to govern ourselves.
Dave Neiwert, who coined the term "eliminationist rhetoric" to describe the language Americans have so often used to justify violence against each other, has carefully outlined the process by which ugly talk can easily devolve into horrific action. Call it holocaust, lynching, or apartheid - whatever the atrocity, it always begins with language that privileges us, dehumanizes them, and somehow justifies their removal from our midst. Feldman's book breaks out another side to this conversation, by showing that the right wing has scored some very specific and tangible (and otherwise politically untenable) benefits by the simple act of grinding our discourse down the point where it's now mostly conduced in the coarsest of us-versus-them terms.
For each of the seven topics Feldman calls out, there's one conservative spokesperson who's led the rhetorical race to the bottom - and one specific long-term conservative political agenda item that got served as a result. In his first example, the NRA's Wayne LaPierre sells a "vision of the world where violent assaults on individuals are inevitable, all laws and institutions are powerless to stop them, and the only guarantee for survival is for citizens to be prepared to fire a gun at the oncoming danger." Feldman argues that America can only adopt this worldview at the cost of its own democratic ideals, by fostering a "command-obedience" relationship between the governors and the governed - one that places the use of force outside the rule of law and beyond the control of the people's government. In the presence of arms, people are silenced, and the creative give-and-take required for good problem-solving suffers. Those who hold the guns prevail. This way, he warns, lies tyranny.
Then there's Pat Buchanan, leading the charge against immigration, which he insists is a calculated, well-planned "Reconquista" which has enlisted millions of triumphant Mexicans to invade America and exact their terrible revenge for the defeat of Santa Anna 160 years ago. Our only defense against the barbarian horde is to kill or be killed. Feldman notes that this kind of overheated eliminationist framing has been a boon to corporate conservatives, because it's made it impossible to have a nuanced (or even coherent) conversation that acknowledges NAFTA's grotesque destruction of the economy and the environment on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border.
"Immigration has become a political issue because of trade, not because of race or 'civilization,'" notes Feldman. "At its most primary, political level, America's immigration problem is a product of what David Sirota has aptly named the 'hostile takeover' of key economic policies in our government by vast corporations in control of unimaginable wealth."
But as long as we're talking about anchor babies and bilingual culture, we won't be talking about that. And that's just fine with those who are making a killing of their own on the status quo.
Ann Coulter's success is largely built on her ability to take any issue and instantly use it to justify violence against the right wing's favorite targets. Feldman traces the way this dubious gift has defined the trajectory of her career, culminating in her insistence that liberals need to be eliminated because they're traitors who are ready to hand the country over to al-Qaida. That's always the bottom line with Ann - and that quickness to write off anyone capable of a creative or nuanced thought creates a climate that stifles our ability to solve problems together, which is the essence of democratic government. It also effectively discourages people from participating in politics at all, lest they become targets of people who've learned their moves from Ann. "Coulter's rhetoric," writes Feldman, "poisons the soil in which civic identity takes root."
Feldman goes on to unmask Bill O'Reilly's bluster as a smokescreen that makes it impossible to talk seriously about national security and the things that really threaten us; John Gibson's "War on Christmas" as an assault on our ability to teach diversity in schools; and James Dobson's weird ideas about child discipline and family authority as a noxious cognitive pattern that influences the way we approach larger issues of community, authoritarianism, citizen discipline, and even foreign policy (inasmuch as some policymakers tend to view smaller countries exercising their sovereignty as wayward children in need of correction).
In the final chapters, his dissection of Dinesh D'Souza's rhetoric ties it all up with a bow. According to Feldman, every issue D'Souza touches down to the inevitable conclusion that liberals are to blame - a broad and breathtaking act of scapegoating that makes it impossible for us to get a collective handle on the true chain of responsibility that resulted in everything from 9/11 to the disastrous war that followed.
Taken as a whole, Feldman argues persuasively that the right wing's use of violent language and imagery over the past 30 years has gravely, deeply - perhaps even mortally - wounded the American body politic. As social theorists from John Dewey to Miss Manners  have pointed out - and as my Canadian neighbors seem to understand as the central fact of their civic existence - civility is the necessary ingredient that allows democracies to function. Without it, there is no common good, no mutual respect, no reason to have faith in our ability to govern together wisely and well. When these basic agreements fail, so does our ability to self-govern. Reading this book from my peaceable perch on a mountainside in western Canada, the destruction of America's civic order, as Feldman describes it, looks utter and complete.
Somehow, we need to find our way back to each other. And, as simple as it sounds, it may start with a determined resolution that we are going to be civil to each other. Always. Even to your obnoxious Dittohead neighbor. Even to your annoying fundamentalist sister-in-law. Even to that jerk with the faded W'04 bumper sticker who stole your parking space. Even to the whinging concern troll in the comments thread. Catharsis feels like a birthright in our I-want-it-now society; but it's a luxury that progressives can no longer afford. Every time we give into it, the culture splits a little wider, and our odds of ever healing again it grow a bit more remote. It's time for progressives to step up and show the rest of the country how grownups behave. We've got an example to set, and a hundred million people to educate.
It's a lot to ask of "please" and "thank you." But the stakes are too high to ignore.
If we want democracy, we need to be able to see our fellow citizens as human beings, possessed of their own inherent worth and dignity.
If we want justice, we need to grant them the same rights and respect we feel entitled to - even when they're strenuously disagreeing with us, or when their interests and ours line up on opposite poles.
If we want security, we must first learn to be safe with each other, and trust ourselves as guardians of our collective well-being.
If we want to rebuild the country, we need to remember that we are all heirs to the same vast trust of social, political, and physical capital built up by previous generations; that our livelihood and liberties depend entirely on how well we can manage to sustain that common legacy; and that we share a duty to ensure our children's future by passing all of that on to them, not only intact but richer yet.
The only disagreements we should have are over the best means to achieve all this. The goals themselves should be beyond question. Feldman gives us a useful primer on how the right wing has carefully and deliberately separated us from both our founding goals and the means to achieve them. It's up to us to put put it all back together, and that starts with Being Nice.
A final note. The idea that Being Nice is a sign of weakness is, as noted above, inherent in the conservative narrative Feldman describes. Anger merchants like Coulter and O'Reilly have sold an entire generation of Americans on the idea that the mere desire to gather facts, contemplate them calmly, and discuss them rationally with people who might have other points of view makes one a traitor to the nation - weak, ineffectual, and dangerously liberal.
The horrifying result of this is a political climate in which many Americans believe that those who can throw the biggest tantrum deserve to get their way. (Which is not democracy, or anything like it. It's rule by bullies.) If you want to know why American politics sounds like a sandbox fight in the kindergarten playground, there's one good answer. Look at it this way, and it becomes clear that the Obama/Hillary partisan pissing matches of the past many weeks are, once again, playing right into conservative hands. Never mind the fact that when those two fight, McCain wins. Look beyond that to the more distressing fact, which is that too many Democrats have finally become every bit as ugly as the GOP has always been. They've gotten to us. We've finally become what we most despise.
For the record: Being Nice, done well, has a ferocious strength all its own, as anyone who's watched a CBC news interviewer or dealt with a Canadian school headmaster can tell you. Over the past four years, I've seen fastidious politeness and heartbreaking compassion used in the hands of master practitioners, and marveled at the power of sheer civility to defeat hotheads, deflect crazy ideas, and send shit-stirrers right out the door. It's a skill we need to relearn, and soon. Fortunately, we have 32 million neighbors and authors like Jeffrey Feldman to show us the way.