politics

Maps Are Lying to You

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How Much Is Your Coastline Worth?

I recently saw this demonstration of how mangroves protect shorelines from erosion.

It’s incredible how Mother Nature has developed simple tools to support biodiversity, even against the powerful forces of ocean waves. Unfortunately, we haven’t been the best stewards of these natural gifts.

WWF reports that more than 35% of the world’s mangroves are already gone. The figure is as high as 50% in countries such as India, the Philippines, and Vietnam, while in the Americas they are being cleared at a rate faster than tropical rainforests.

I am reminded of the case of Louisiana’s coastal ecosystem, presented in the Al-Jazeera investigation The Disappearing Delta. Louisiana’s bayou, dubbed one of the fastest-disappearing land masses on the planet, has experienced nearly 2,000 square miles of land erased from the state’s map in the last century. Mike Tidwell summarizes the destruction:

“An area of land the size of Manhattan is subtracted from south Louisiana every 10 months – it turns to water. A football field every 30 minutes. An area the size of Delaware since the 1930’s. It’s just astonishing how much land has disappeared.”

This destruction is caused by the fossil fuel industry and their continuous exploration for more product. The clearing of vegetation along coastal habitats leads to rapid erosion, scarring the landscape forever.

Ninety-nine percent of the Isle de Jean Charles, an island once 11 miles long and five miles wide, is now underwater. “[Jean Charles was] destroyed purely by oil and natural gas,” local resident Preston Mayeaux says. “The big deep canals brought in the saltwater intrusion, then they abandoned the canals. And when they abandoned the canals system… the saltwater goes in and out in and out, killing everything, all the vegetation.”

Beyond the environmental destruction, the government now has to pay the price of awarding this precious land to oil and gas exploration. The state’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Agency (CPRA) is now trying to rebuild land with sediment from the Mississippi River in a $50 billion plan to restore the coast. The only problem? Louisiana doesn’t have that kind of money. “We can’t protect everyone from everything, and there’s an inherent vulnerability living with the coast,” says Jerome Zeringue, head of the CPRA. “Louisiana is doing what it can to participate and protect this valuable resource, but it’s a national issue and a national concern. And we need national interests to support us as well.”

But who’s responsible for the damage? The investigation goes to the disappearing wetlands at Venice gas fields, where Chevron and other major firms have operated for decades. “The oil companies should be involved in [restoration efforts]. They benefited from Louisiana, and the people of Louisiana benefited from the oil companies,” said coastal restoration expert Ryan Lambert. “It’s all a circle. You can’t just blame the oil companies. They need to come to the table and help.”

Baton Rouge attorney Don Carmouche is pursuing a several lawsuits against oil, gas and pipeline companies in two Louisiana parishes. In Plaquemines Parish, an area heavily reliant on the industry for jobs, Councilman Byron Marinovich supported the legal challenge as a way to fund sorely needed restoration efforts. “What we need to do is start building these coasts back so we don’t have these super hurricanes coming through here like Katrina,” he says. In December 2014, he lost his re-election bid to an industry-supported candidate. Not surprisingly, the elections race in Plaquemines Parish was influenced by an organization known as LOGA, or Louisiana Oil and Gas Association.

Meanwhile, as Louisiana’s oil industry battles lawsuits onshore, the industry is shifting focus to offshore deep water drilling. Reporters went to the Gulf of Mexico to explore a new frontier for exploration, known as offshore fracking. “The industry has kept pretty silent about the amount of fracking that’s going on, and the federal agencies charged with issuing permits and enforcing environment laws have not revealed very much information,” says  Jonathan Henderson of the Gulf Restoration Network.

“We’re talking about fracking that is basically along the entire Louisiana coast,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s in shallow water, near communities…Some of the fracking was actually permitted in the Mississippi Canyon, where the Deepwater Horizon accident was.”

It’s a real shame that the American authorities did not learn from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which released 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico as a result of the gross negligence and reckless conduct of British Petroleum. Instead, the US government continues to give leases to a fossil fuel industry making record profiles while performing extremely risky drilling and exploration. Risky for the coastal environment and everyone who depends on it.

In addition to the vulnerabilities that climate change brings to coastal communities around the world, the destruction of mangrove forests and other coastal habitats by industry, especially fossil fuel companies, leaves people at extreme risk. The costs are far too high. As seen in Louisiana, companies will destroy habitat and then leave the cleanup to the rest of us, while they’ve made incredible profits. People employed by these companies will be left jobless once they leave. Governments will cut social services to pay for the cleanup of corporate greed. We all lose.

The Fight to Control Women

“Recent years have seen a panic over “online red-light districts,” which supposedly seduce vulnerable young women into a life of degradation, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s live tweeting of a Cambodian brothel raid. But rarely do these fearful, salacious dispatches come from sex workers themselves, and rarely do they deviate from the position that sex workers must be rescued from their condition, and the industry simply abolished — a position common among feminists and conservatives alike.

“In Playing the Whore, journalist Melissa Gira Grant turns these pieties on their head, arguing for an overhaul in the way we think about sex work. Based on ten years of writing and reporting on the sex trade, and grounded in her experience as an organizer, advocate, and former sex worker, Playing the Whore dismantles pervasive myths about sex work, criticizes both conditions within the sex industry and its criminalization, and argues that separating sex work from the ‘legitimate’ economy only harms those who perform sexual labor. In Playing the Whore, sex workers’ demands, too long relegated to the margins, take center stage: sex work is work, and sex workers’ rights are human rights.”

– Summary of Playing the Whore from goodreads.com

Debates about prostitution tend to cover many topics, ranging from informal economics to public health, but ultimately comes down to one central element: control. Control of women. Control over women.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work by Melissa Gira Grant Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work
by Melissa Gira Grant
Jacobin/Verso, 136 pp.

Those involved in sex work, whether they use the label of prostitute, sex worker or something else, belong to a part of society largely overlooked by society. Like the homeless or the unemployed, society, generally, looks down upon them while rarely offering respect for their human dignity or considering their current state as a temporary one. Leaders in both public and private sectors rarely given them a chance for inclusion into the rest of society.

Grant’s Playing the Whore is a simple yet exhaustive study of all the areas which affect sex workers, including the police, the media and the groups who see themselves as the ‘savior’. Largely excluded from the discussion on criminality, depiction or alternatives are sex workers themselves.

Just as women of colour and lesbians of generations past had to face off against straight white feminists of movements past, sex workers who seek autonomy and respect have to face off against anti-prostitution feminists today who offer neither. Grant documents how feminists in the anti-prostitution movement organize events and talks about sex work while, without seeing the problem, never including sex workers.

Female sex workers, like the many others who preceded them in the women’s liberation movement, continue to counter the conservative values, often shaped by Christian morality, that come to control their daily life. Although those people who buy sex sometimes face arrest, the burden falls predominantly on the woman. Sex workers face widespread violence and harassment by police officers. Sadly, the rest of society does not value sex workers much better.

In the same way that substance abuse is now seen as a health concern and something that shouldn’t be treated with criminalization and imprisonment, prostitution should be seen as an issue of employment needs. Unfortunately, politicians, supposed “advocates” and others refuse to see their place as seeking harm reduction, as is being done for addicts. Similarly, the role for police in both instances is to protect citizens – all citizens – especially those most vulnerable to receiving harm.

The central element of the book, which is signaled by its subtitle, “The Work of Sex Work”, is that of employment. Bringing her own stories as well as other sex workers, Grant describes the informal nature of today’s sex work. The women’s liberation movement has long been about women’s economic liberation. From unpaid care work to the gender pay gap, women have long suffered from an economy tailored not to them but towards men. Sex work is no different. Grant connects the work of sex work to other forms of self-employment within the informal sector, such as hair stylists, and service industries, like retail. Until all women are given the economic opportunities to live a dignified and comfortable life, these forms of informal or part-time employment will have to be used.

The debate on economics applies to countries around the world. As Grant points out, the movement to “rescue” sex workers in Asia and elsewhere does not address the economic, political and social disadvantages sex workers face inside and outside the profession. Even if victimized women are rescued, they receive little more than job training to low-paid labour. A sign in a Cambodia textile shop employing former sex workers point to this realization. It reads:

DON’T TALK TO ME ABOUT SEWING MACHINES. TALK TO ME ABOUT WORKERS’ RIGHTS.

Until we begin to see women – all women – as equal members of society, short-term fixes will not have the power to liberate sex workers when they continue to live in poverty. For those women who are left without alternative employment, decriminalization and support should be a first priority, not fear of the police and exclusion from ‘mainstream’ workers.

The debate between a woman’s right to self-determination and conservative traditional values in society is linked to another contentious issue: abortion.

The first feminist wave gave women the right to vote. The second wave gave women the Pill, and control of their reproductive rights.

In the United States, like most countries around the world, abortion was important for family planning but seen as a criminal action. This period, half a century ago, was also marked by near total male representation in politics. In 1973, the US Supreme Court determined that abortion was a constitutionally protected act with Roe v. Wade. Since then, conservative groups have fought to make abortion illegal or impossible to get.

cartoonThe documentary TRAPPED showcases doctors who perform abortions in some states in the United States who have fought against so-called TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws. Since 2011, states in the South and Midwest have passed more than 300 abortion restrictions — TRAP laws, admitting privilege requirements, rules for how medication abortions may be performed, bans on abortion after 20 weeks (and sometimes earlier), longer waiting periods, and greater impediments to teenagers seeking abortions without parental approval.

Earlier this year, in the case of Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the US Supreme Court found that TRAP laws in Texas placed an “undue burden” on women seeking abortion and thus violate the Constitution. This is a major victory for women’s rights and may signal the beginning of TRAP laws being overruled across the nation.

TRAPPED follows in the footsteps of other documentary films shining a light on the battle over a woman’s right to choose. Six years ago, 12th & Delaware revealed the fight on the titular street corner in Fort Pierce, Florida, between a for-profit abortion clinic and a Roman Catholic Church-supported pregnancy clinic whose mission is to prevent women from obtaining abortions. While the abortion clinic takes precautions against threats of violence and fends off protesters, the pregnancy clinic actively spreads misinformation to women about the dangers of abortion.

A decade ago, Lake of Fire depicted the heated abortion debate that was already waging for decades in America. Leaving no stone unturned, it featured graphic footage of actual medical procedures and presented people on both pro-choice and pro-life sides of the issue.

These films add to the lengthy abortion debate in the United States and reveal the tactics of those groups opposed to a women’s right to choose how her pregnancy is managed. Ultra-conservative and Christian groups lie to pregnant women, spreading misinformation and fear. They set up anti-abortion pregnancy centres, which act as red herrings to women who are seeking abortions, while never disclosing their real ideology. These tactics show no respect towards pregnant women who, for whatever reason, have decided that a medically-assisted abortion is the right decision. Instead, they fool pregnant women, delaying their decision beyond what the law allows and, in effect, force vulnerable to follow through with their pregnancy against their will. A shameful game of politics over people.

The abortion debate in the United States has not been peaceful either. Groups like Operation Rescue and others promote violence to achieve their ends. It’s not just psychological violence. Although conservative and Christian groups regularly protest outside clinics and yell at women who enter, they also conduct terrorism. Male opponents to abortion (it’s almost always men who become violent) have repeatedly assassinated doctors and fire-bombed clinics, spreading fear and pressuring providers to close their doors. The entire anti-abortion movement ultimately furthers these horrendous acts of violence through their misinformation and shaming protests. Sadly, this violence in the name of opposing reproductive rights is not limited to only the US.

screen-shot-2014-05-04-at-1-59-26-pmThe concept of rescue is found in the ideologies of both anti-prostitution and anti-abortion. Rescue from what? Rescuing women from themselves, it seems. From decisions about their health, their well-being, their finances, and their work. The debate doesn’t typically expand past what to do once women are “rescued”. They are thrown back into society to fend for themselves without the political, economic or social support they may have wanted in the first place.

It’s difficult to ignore the irony at the center of debates on women’s rights: the loudest voices aren’t women. Men make up the majority of anti-abortion advocates. One of the biggest anti-abortion voices is the Catholic Church, which is built around female subservience to male clergy. Male legislatures pass laws without talking to female voters.

Although women are often found protesting prostitution and abortion, the organisations they represent are, more often than not, led by men. Men who will never be pregnant. Men who have more employment opportunities than women and who can purchase sex from prostitutes without fear of much prosecution or persecution.

Men need to stand aside and listen, rather than stand at the front and dominate the discussion. We need to stop making decisions about those we know little about.

Ultimately, the fight is not over whose morals should dominate because this is not a debate over ideas; it’s a debate over people. People who have the right to determine their own lives. All human beings deserve dignity.

All struggles are connected since, as the organisation Black Women for Wages for Housework said, “When prostitutes win, all women win.” Hookers and housewives unite!

Religion as Political Scapegoat

This is not about terrorism. Terrorism is the excuse. This is about economic and social control. And the only thing you’re really protecting is the supremacy of your government.

This reflection from the 2016 docu-drama Snowden illustrates the current world we live in. A world, we’re told, filled with terrorist threats. But, are we in danger?

The Muslims Are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani Verso, 336 pp.

The Muslims are coming! : Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror
by Arun Kundnani
Verso, 336 pp.

In his book The Muslims are coming!: Islamophobia, extremism, and the domestic war on terror, Arun Kundnani thoroughly counters the narrative of Muslim extremism found in the United States and United Kingdom.

For the most part, the threat of terrorism by ‘jihadists’ is similar or less than the threat of white supremacists, which have a far longer track record of murder and mayhem in the two centers of Anglophone power (pp.22):

In Europe, the violence carried out by far Right groups, which have racism as a central part of their ideology, is of a similar magnitude to that of jihadist violence: at least 249 people died in incidents of far Right violence between 1990 and 2012; 263 were killed by jihadists over the same period.

In the US, between 1990 and 2013, there were 145 acts of political violence committed by the American far Right, resulting in 348 deaths. In comparison, 20 people were killed over the same period in acts of political violence carried out by Muslim-American citizens or long-term residents of the US.

The 20 deaths in the US, caused by Nidal Malik Hasan, Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, Naveed Afzal Haq, Graham Mohamed Hadayet, Ali Hassan Abu Kamal, and the Jamaat ul-Fuqra group in Tucson 1990, are seen as proof of Muslim extremism, while non-Muslim terrorism is seen as unique and not part of a pattern. The United States has a long history of white supremacist terrorism, from the Ku Klux Klan to modern assaults on immigrants, as well as Christian radicals who attack anyone with an opposing ideology, like abortion providers.

The thread that links terrorism by Christian white supremacists and by Muslim radical isn’t their religion, as the US and UK would have us believe. It’s about their politics. The terrorists themselves say this. Many Muslim terrorists, such as those who bombed the London Underground, were motivated by nothing more than the Iraq War.

Unfortunately, this narrative doesn’t fit the agenda of Western imperialism.

The threat posed by white supremacists does little to push America and Britain to war.

Muslim terrorism, misunderstood, allows American and British military to cast perpetual war, from Pakistan to Yemen, Somalia to Afghanistan. Wars and extra-judicial drone bombings are the spark that ignites hatred against the West. It does nothing to provide safety and security.

The Cold War gave the West 50 years of fictional enemies: Russians and communists. Since the Berlin Wall fell, Muslims extremists were cast as the new villains to continue this fiction of global fear. In both cases, the enemy was ideal, as Samuel P. Huntington describes, for casting fear among Americans:

The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security.

The ‘otherness’ of Muslims feeds into the racism that the United States and other Western nations wee built upon. By never understanding the ‘other’, Americans and Britons can create a stereotype of jihadists lusting for war, even though it isn’t true.

The Muslims are coming! looks at these issue from several areas. Following the 9/11 terrorist acts, perpetrated by 19 men of mostly Saudi nationality, liberal and conservative politicians united in the drive for war, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. By misunderstanding the reasons for the first attack, these politicians began the course for 15 years of terror towards Muslim communities abroad and at home. These wars, combined with stories of unrestrained torture at Bagram Airfield, Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay, caused a handful of young men to fight against the imperialism of American and British forces in foreign Muslim lands. Imperialist politics caused both sides of this problem.

In addition to misunderstanding their supposed enemies, American and British intelligence agencies have done an incredible job of fostering terror plots. Kundnani documents in detail how the FBI uses informants and financial incentives, as well as threats of violence, against low level criminals, who happen to be Muslim, to manufacture terror plots. These plots are thought up by FBI undercover agents and informants, who also get cash incentives, and sold to naive people who would have no ability whatsoever to do harm without the FBI’s help. The media sells these stories to the public at large, furthering the myth of widespread Muslim extremism and Islamophobia more generally. The national surveillance programs found in many Western nations was brought into existence by many of these lies and continues to target Muslims disproportionately.

These idea of political anger not religious terrorism can be broadened outside of the United States.

defamationDefamation, a film by Israeli director Yoav Shamir, travels the world asking what constitutes anti-Semitism in modern times. Anti-Semitism today is real and continues the 3,000 years of unspeakable hatred towards the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the label today is used to address both real hate crimes and used to protect all actions by the state of Israel.

Political scholars like John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt, and Norman Finkelstein, who are profiled in the film, are some of the few people who can evade the label of anti-Semitic thanks to their Jewish heritage. For many others, especially Muslim activists, there is no such protection.

Criticism of Israel’s wars and persecution against Palestinians are seen as anti-Semitism by many Israelis and their defenders. Some accusations are warranted. But most are political and have nothing to do with religious hatred. This difference is fundamental to understanding both sides.

The Israel-Palestine conflict is not alone. Religious and ethnic differences, around the world, have been attributed to conflicts that are fundamentally political. From the 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka to decades of fighting in the Sudans, different people have fought for political recognition. News agencies and governments have twisted these stories to fit their own agendas, while ignoring the root causes. Ultimately, the lack of understanding for different sides prevents protracted conflicts from reaching a swift end and the start of peaceful change.

American and British domestic policies continue to see religion were only politics exist.

War will never bring peace. Western imperialism will never solve religious extremism. The first step must be to understand those you don’t know.

The Muslims are coming! is a great start for anyone looking to find the truth behind the shadow of fear.

Down With The Royals, Up With Democracy

Pandas and royal persons alike are expensive to conserve and ill-adapted to any modern environment.

This comparison of British royals to zoological specimens by novelist Hilary Mantel is but one of many ideas presented in Joan Smith’s book, Down With The Royals.

Down With The Royals by Joan Smith Biteback Publishing, 120 pp.

Down With The Royals
by Joan Smith
Biteback Publishing, 120 pp.

In three parts, Smith dissects the arguments for maintaining the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the arguments in favor of moving towards a republic.

A public debate on the issue is nearly impossible as the media exaggerates the royal family’s popularity. There are royal correspondents who spend their entire day finding the smallest detail to report on TV and in the press; this is also at the expense of important global affairs. On the other hand, contrasting views are belittled. When the organisation Republic holds a rally, attendance is restricting and under-reported in the news.

Fundamentally, a hereditary monarchy, Smith points out, is undemocratic, expensive and unaccountable.

Long ago, King George III made a deal with the government after racking up huge debt. The royal family would receive a fixed annual salary and have their debts removed, in exchange for handing over the rents from their crown land to government. Today, this results in the royal family receiving an salary of £40 million each year. The revenue from crown land is around £200 million. So, it seems like the Parliament is making a profit.

However, the true costs are hidden. “One significant element that doesn’t appear in the official estimates is the cost of providing security for numerous members of the British royal family, along with the bill for royal visits.” The cost of royal security is estimated at £100 million. Adding other costs, the actual cost of maintaining the royals is closer to £300 million. Equally important is the fact that the royal family doesn’t publish full accounts and leaves out the most expensive elements, like security. This royals are costing taxpayers tens of millions of pounds each year, far more than any of the other remaining royal families left in the world, such as Sweden or Denmark.

The royal family isn’t a good caretaker either, allowing important heritage properties fall into disrepair. Almost 40 percent of the royal estate’s building were not in an ‘acceptable’ condition in 2012, according to the House of Commons public accounts committee.

But what about tourism, defenders of the monarchy may shout. This is another myth that royalists spread.

Smith shows that rates of tourism have no connection to Royal events like weddings or births. In fact, the evidence points to a decline in tourism during years of major events. This makes sense when you think about it. How many Europeans and international tourists plan their vacations to coincide with the one or two days a year when the royal family is out in public celebrating a wedding or birth. Tourism, like in France and the US, does not rely on having a king or queen living in a royal palace when you arrive.

The final claim by royalists that Smith dissolves is that the Queen and her family remain neutral when it comes to ruling the country and influences government. This is another myth to be undone.

From supporting Fascist Germany to Apartheid South Africa in the past to repressive regimes in Saudi Arabia and Qatar today, the royal family has a long history of supporting regimes for their own self interest. Their partisan views have been spun by the media out of public debate, but friends of the royals have confirmed that they are ‘natural-born Tories’.

The Queen as head of state holds and uses the power of veto over government legislation. Whitehall papers show that overall at least 39 bills have been subject to this process, known as “Queen’s consent” or “Prince’s consent”. We don’t know how many bills have been amended or vetoed altogether before reaching Parliament. Prince Charles, heir to the throne, is known for his meetings with high-ranking government officials and memos; all of which are kept secret and away from public scrutiny.

Queen Elizabeth II is also the Head of the Commonwealth, an organisation with a combined population of 2.1 billion people, yet her role is neither elected nor subject to a fixed term. 16 nations, including my own (Canada), count Queen Elizabeth as their head of state. This relic of the British empire and its colonies and territories is entirely at odds with current notions of democracy and human rights. The export of parliamentary democracy and common law to these nations and others continues to face outdated problems, such as ‘first past the post’ voting and anti-homosexuality legislation. How can one family and one person have so much power, in perpetuity?

In every area of modern society, the royal family is long overdue for a replacement. They are a drain on taxpayers money. They have ruled for over 1,000 years without any say from the people. They ally themselves with repressive regimes and influence British legislation. And they use the media as a shield against public debate and any means of accountability. On every issue, the royalists are living a fairy tale.

God save the Queen? Hardly, as Smith concludes:

In the twenty-first century, we shouldn’t still be imploring an imaginary deity to save an inherited head of state. If we can only find the courage, we are perfectly capable of saving ourselves.