James Laxer's Blog

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James Laxer is regularly asked to comment on current national and global issues by the Canadian media and frequently writes columns in major newspapers and periodicals.

Wake up: Arbitrary rule is all around us

| November 29, 2010

We live in a dangerous, disordered time. The flashing signs are there to warn us that, both at home and abroad, those who are at the helm of the socio-political order do not preside over outcomes that make even a modicum of sense. Arbitrariness is the order of the day.

We see this alarming reality in decisions being made close to us as well as in other parts of the world. Here are six stories, some more important than others, that convey the capricious disorder of the times in which we live.

1. In Ontario, the Special Investigations Unit that reviews complaints against police has released a report that concludes that in two specific cases during the G20 summit in Toronto last June, excessive force was used. But just when it appears that the system might work and deliver some semblance of justice, that hope is instantly dashed.

SIU director Ian Scott has concluded that the offending officers cannot be identified and, therefore, cannot be charged. In the case of one man who was arrested, and sustained a fracture below his right eye, the SIU determined that the police used excessive force. But the badge number on the man's arrest sheet did not correspond to the assigned badge number of any Toronto police officer. Even Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair has acknowledged that up to 90 officers were not wearing their name-tags during the summit weekend. He says he will discipline the officers who chose to make themselves unidentifiable, but they are not being charged with an offence.

The only conclusion we can reasonably draw is that a large number of officers were out of control during the policing of the summit. Because the police won't come forward to testify against their fellow officers, the cover up works. Officers who assault people on the street, even when the assaults are videoed, get away with it because follow officers won't say a word against them. When the police act more like a gang of thugs than like professionals who uphold a set of standards, they become untrustworthy, a force that neither serves nor protects.

And what do those in charge do about this? Next to nothing.

2. A shocking video plainly shows Ottawa police officers violently subduing and strip searching a woman, in an incident that occurred two years ago.

Stacy Bonds, whose only crime was to ask police officers why they had stopped her in the first place was taken to a police station where a male officer cut off her shirt and bra. We only found out about this disgraceful incident because a judge was appalled by the behaviour of the police and ordered the public release of the video. After he watched the security camera video, Ontario Court Justice Richard Lajoie stayed charges against Bonds for assaulting police and condemned the police behavour as a "travesty" and an "indignity."

What was the crown thinking when it went ahead with the prosecution of Stacy Bonds in this incredible case, in which she was the victim and the police were the perpetrators? In how many instances, where there is no video and no judge who blows the whistle, do prosecutors go along with brutal cops in bringing charges against wholly innocent people?

Now, we are going to get an internal investigation into this incident, an investigation that could take months. What will happen to the officers -- a slap on the wrist?

3. The next issue takes us into the realm of national politics.

Why did the federal Liberal Party aid and abet the Harper government's decision to extend Canada's military mission in Afghanistan beyond July 2011?

Instead of holding the Conservative government to account for doing a U Turn that will keep close to one thousand Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan after the date when parliament had decided to withdraw them, the official opposition has joined forces with the party in power.

Canadians have long since concluded that the war in Afghanistan is not about a struggle for the rule of law, the rights of women, and democracy, but is being waged on behalf of a corrupt regime that is closely tied to warlords and the drug trade, a regime whose hold on power was sustained in a deeply flawed election. At least, with the passage of time, Canadians had a right to anticipate an end to a mission that has seen 153 of our soldiers killed and billions of tax dollars poured into a bottomless pit.

Now an understanding between the Conservatives and Liberals -- a deal in all but name -- has arbitrarily extended a mission whose architects know full well that it is military in character. Soldiers, who are posted in a theatre of war, even if they are involved in training, stand in harm's way. The price of this mission, in blood and treasure, has already been too high as far as Canadians are concerned.

Behind closed doors, Stephen Harper, Michael Ignatieff and Bob Rae have made a mockery of the Canadian parliamentary process.

4. Abroad there are stories that illustrate what happens when the people in charge are so rich that they simply have no contact with everyday human reality.

New York's billionaire mayor Michael Bloomberg has appointed a millionaire media executive, Cathleen P. Black, as chancellor of New York City's public schools, the largest public school system in the United States. Black, a corporate executive and magazine publisher, has no educational experience whatsoever. Under New York State law, a candidate such as Black, who has no qualifications for the job, requires a waiver from Education Commissioner David Steiner to obtain the position. The law states that a waiver can be issued only to those "whose exceptional training and experiences are the substantial equivalent of such [educational] requirements and qualify such persons for the duties of a superintendent of schools."

Not only does Bloomberg's appointee lack any such "exceptional" training, she did not attend public school herself and sent her own children to private boarding schools in Connecticut.

Continuing the control of public schools by elites who have established about one hundred privately run charter schools in New York in recent years, means more opportunities for profit-making educational institutions, more years of crowded classrooms in public schools, and a future in which those at the helm have no clue about the needs of students whose families are bearing the burdens of the economic crisis.

Let's see if Black gets the waiver.

5. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, a coalition government is in charge, led by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron, the descendant of a long line of financiers who intermarried with royal and aristocratic bluebloods. Cameron attended Eton and Oxford.

Surrounded by "Old Etonians" on the front bench of his government, Cameron has slashed public sector spending in the most drastic cuts in Britain in half a century. Over the next four years, the UK government will axe half a million jobs from the public payroll, while sharply reducing welfare payments and trebling the tuition fees of university students. The draconian cuts to employment in the public sector are certain to lead to a loss of private sector jobs dependent on the demand formerly generated by the spending of those whose public sector jobs are being eliminated.

In Britain, the income gap between the rich and the rest of the population is returning to levels not seen since the end of the First World War in 1918. The chief executives of companies listed on the UK's FTSE 100 are now annually paid an average of 4.9 million pounds, an increase in one year of more than fifty per cent. That equates to two hundred times the average wage in the country.

While wage and salary earners are facing very tough times, the wealthy whose economic thinking caused the crash, are doing better than ever.

But don't imagine that David Cameron isn't thinking of the mass of the population. He's declared that the day that William and Kate tie the knot at Westminster Abbey next spring will be a national holiday. The man has a heart.

6. Last week, the United States celebrated Black Friday, the day that retail companies hopefully move over to the black from the red as customers charge through the doors to get their hands on the goodies. Black Friday is now so important that the day notionally begins earlier in the week, before the turkey is served and while it is being served, and it continues all weekend long and into the following Monday.

It took decades for Americans to amass personal debts that today amount to about $12 trillion. The indebtedness of Americans as individuals and the indebtedness of the U.S. government -- now about $14 trillion -- were hugely important factors in triggering the economic crisis in which the world is mired.

But to save America and its economy, the debt-ridden American consumer needs to be prodded, cajoled, tempted, beseeched and implored to head for the malls to spend, spend, spend. A disproportionate amount of the goods they buy are made in China and their heroic spending efforts will drive up the nation's trade deficit and its indebtedness.

What we are seeing is lemmings stampeding for the cliff. Call it Lemmingnomics.

These stories of arbitrary rule and of regimes in which the wealthy casually make decisions that hurt most of the population are linked. Brutal cops, governments that violate the norms of parliamentary government and leaders who enrich their own class of people at the expense of everyone else are the consequence of the shocking inequality of our age. The idea of citizenship is in retreat, democracy is declining and money is calling the shots.

Time to do something about it?

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Comments

There are literally dozens of such stories occurring every day. It has been this way for years and years. Laxer seems to have discovered something we were already well aware of.

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