Thursday, June 26, 2008

In war the result is never final

The two most recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq speak volumes in support of Clausewitz who wrote in his seminal book, On War, that the ultimate outcome of war is never to be regarded as final. According to Clausewitz, the outcome of war is merely a transitory evil, for which the remedy is political.

When the Americans finished bombing Afghanistan, ousting the ruling Taliban government and driving Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to its hideout deep in the rugged mountains that border Pakistan, America`s war against radical Islamic terrorists was just about to start. Using the pretext of Iraq stock-piling weapons of mass destruction, once again America`s military might leading a multinational force invaded Iraq and destroyed Saddam Hussein`s dictatorial regime. Hussein was captured and brought to trial before a kangaroo court that sentenced him to die in the gallows.

Both the outcomes of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq showed the superiority of American air power and its advanced arsenal of weapons but there was no military victory on the ground. What ensued after all the sirens and roar of American fighter jets in the skies subsided was the beginning of a protracted counterinsurgency, the end of which is perhaps more elusive or even deadlier. Worse, America`s sworn enemy, radical Islamic extremism, has become even stronger with the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the rise of Iran-backed Shia militants in Iraq.

Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States in the upcoming elections in November, told a few hundred protesters at the time George Bush had declared war on Iraq in 2002, that the invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale would only fan the flames of the Middle East conflict and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda. ``I don`t oppose all wars. I`m opposed to dumb wars,`` Obama stressed. Six years later, Bush`s approval rating plunged to a record low and Obama`s opposition to the war in Iraq helped him clinch his party`s nomination.

The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq did not help George Bush solidify the legacy of his presidency, which may yet be the ultimate cause of the loss of the Republican Party in the November elections. Meanwhile, the rise of counterinsurgency against the American occupation in Iraq has been hampering the transition to democracy and peace as originally flaunted by George Bush as his principal objective after the invasion. The new shift to a surge in the U.S. military strategy and campaign on the ground has only intensified everything, and may prove a significant obstacle to the achievement of a viable and lasting political solution to the Iraqi crisis.

With no end in sight, one wonders, why war? This is the same question Albert Einstein asked Sigmund Freud. Exasperated with the inability of science to explain why human beings resorted to killing their kind, Einstein wrote to Freud asking him what he thought about war. He was hoping that the discovery of the theory of psychoanalysis might offer a different diagnosis, and perhaps, a cure.

In his response, which was neither a real diagnosis nor a real cure, Freud explained that violence and inequality are natural to mankind. Weak people, by historical evolution, banded together to oppose strong individuals with the hope that their collective strength would eventually constitute a new legal order, the one that could bring about everlasting peace. But this was a utopian state of peace, according to Freud. It was only theoretically conceivable because in practice, inequality, aggression and strife are endemic to human existence.

Although much preoccupied with the strategy and tactics of war, Clausewitz nevertheless considers war as a mere continuation of policy by other means. The political object is the goal; war is the means of reaching it. War should never be considered in isolation from its political purpose.

On the other hand, Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese theoretician of war, argued that it is better to achieve one’s aims by negotiation rather than by force. However, in this day and age where military power is might, it seems much easier and more tempting for generals of armies to behave like cavemen, to be motivated by greed and fear, and not to resist fights.

There could be a finality to war, after all, and that is when a great empire eventually collapses. When Croesus inquired from the Delphic oracle if he should wage war on Persia, the oracle replied, “If you do, you will destroy a great empire.” Buoyed up by the oracle, Croesus went to war, and indeed destroyed a great empire: his own. The might of the U.S. military may eventually self-destruct in the end, and America could be the last of the superpowers to fall.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The life of a dog

Hanna, our neighbour’s dog, passed away two months ago.

I used to babysit Hanna whenever our neighbours went out of town. Having retired early from law practice, I have so much time to spare in-between my reading and writing on the computer. All I had to do was go to our neighbour’s house every two hours to check on Hanna and walk her in the garden where she could relieve.

I noticed that Hanna was limping as I walked her down the stairs towards the garden at the back of our neighbour’s house. She was obviously in great pain. I wondered if it was due to old age, she was close to 12 years old (about 84 years old in dog years), and dogs of her size would be very lucky to live beyond 10 years. But our neighbours were the type who would pamper their dog with love. Maybe it was because they were childless and Hanna served as a surrogate for the child they wished they had.

When our neighbours came back from their camping trip in the woodlands of Northern Ontario, I told them about Hanna’s limp. Hanna had arthritis and it had been deteriorating, our neighbours said. In fact, Hanna had an appointment with the vet the day after they returned. She was getting chemotherapy treatment. This fact didn’t shock me because I knew our neighbours would go beyond the extra mile to keep their Hanna alive and comfortable.

Yesterday, when I looked down at our neighbour’s backyard from our deck, a brown and cheerful canine spurted out to a clatter of barking, WOOF WOOF WOOF, then wagged its tail endlessly. Could be the new dog, Hanna’s replacement, I guessed. I have learned from babysitting Hanna that a dog’s tail is the best indicator of its emotions. The more a dog wags its tail, the happier it is.

Dogs, like humans, can also stir up a big controversy, a domain usually reserved for politicians and movie stars. Iggy, the dog TV talkshow host Ellen de Generes adopted. is a perfect illustration. When Ellen decided to give Iggy to her hairdresser, Mutts and Moms, the dog’s adoption agency, took him back. The papers Ellen signed with the adoption agency stipulated that if the dog was given away, it would have to go back to the rescue organization. Ellen de Generes was so shattered by this turn of events that she sobbed in front of her TV audience and millions of people who regularly watched her show. The dog agency even received several death threats. Could this be an example of the decline of American culture? People who had nothing better to do would pick up the telephone and threaten other folks just because of a dog.

Our neighbours wouldn’t ever dare to give Hanna away or to even let her die in pain. They would give her the best available health care possible. It was only when Hanna’s life was severely compromised by her illness that our neighbours decided, which I knew was a painstaking process for them, to bring Hanna to the vet to end her life swiftly and without complication. I am confident, too, that our youngest daughter will do the same thing with her dog Larkin who is also very close to the twilight of his life.

If only we could be as humane and as kind to others as we are to our pets, view the life of a dog as precious as the life of another human being: whether a homeless person in Toronto or of those famished and starving-to-death little children in Darfur.

But the life of dogs compared to humans is not without its interesting twists. In a French shorts, La Vie D’un Chien (The Life of a Dog), a French scientist invents a serum which temporarily changes him into a dog. It is only later, after the serum wears off and he becomes human again, that his troubles begin. Perhaps, there is a valuable story to be learned, particularly during those times when our lives seem to have gone to the dogs.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Walking the poverty line

Being poor can be characterized in many ways. One can be poor in the economic sense, or one can be poor in moral or spiritual terms. Undeniably, a horrific image of poverty could be a picture of a homeless person sleeping on a city street crowded with glass and steel-clad skyscrapers, or of unclothed and unfed children, or thousands of displaced men and women in countries ravaged by war, their emaciated arms stretched upward begging for food or water. For these people, to be poor is to be absolutely poor.

Some years ago, the World Bank came up with a measure of poverty in relation to purchasing power parity (PPP). Economists at the Bank drew the poverty line at “a dollar a day,” or more precisely, $1.08 at 1993 PPP. This meant that a person is poor if he or she consumes less than an American spending $1.08 per day in 1993. In light of the declining power of the U.S. dollar, this bank standard of poverty line obviously needs to be adjusted. Of course, government policy makers have developed their own poverty lines, which really matter more than a global destitution standard adopted by the World Bank apparently as a campaign tool rather than to guide policy.

Measuring the poverty line is both difficult and problematic. Not all countries define it in the same way. In 1963, the United States adopted “Mollie’s Measure,” named after Mollie Orshansky of the U.S. Social Security Administration who designed a simple formula to measure material deprivation using data from the late 1950s. The formula calculated the minimum cost to feed a family then multiplied it by three. Orshansky used the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet as the basis for a cost-of-living estimate, adjusted according to family size and composition. On average, she estimated that families spent about a third of their income on food.

But there are several flaws in Orshansky’s formula. For one, food is now only about one-seventh of household expenses, not a third. The formula also did not allow for a host of other variables such as cost differences among regions, the fact that more people commute longer distances, or that more people live with nonrelatives, sharing expenses and income, or taxes or all sorts of cash and noncash government assistance.

Today, many U.S. economists are suggesting that the poverty line should be revised to provide a better picture of who is actually poor. Due to politics (what else to blame), the U.S. remains trapped in the quagmire of the current yardstick that does not reflect modern conditions. There are those who advocate adjustments that raise the poverty line, while others prefer ways that lower it. Many experts have given up, others even concluding that the official measure is set in stone.

Since 1992, in Canada, a new alternative to measure the poverty line in terms of meeting a family’s basic needs was proposed as an alternative to the prevailing relative poverty lines, like Statistics Canada’s Low Income Cut-off (LICO), that compare how some well off Canadians are relative to others. Basic needs poverty lines are intended to measure the number and proportion of Canadians who cannot afford the basic necessities of life, such as food, clothing, shelter and other household essentials. The new approach accepts that basic needs poverty is a problem, i.e., people cannot afford the basic necessities of life without resorting to borrowing or getting assistance from family and friends or do without.

In the Philippines, a new income threshold has been adopted after discarding the Orshansky approach of the U.S. The new index covers only basic needs like food, clothing, shelter and transportation. It does not include spending for recreation. The National Statistics Coordination Board recently announced that a family of five with a total monthly income of less than P10, 000 (U.S. $244) is considered poor. In 2006, the same family is considered poor if its household income is no more than P8,569 per month. Close to 40 per cent of the population, or 2 out of 5 Filipinos, live below the poverty line.

But the measurement of poverty on the basis of adequate coverage of basic needs is also an imperfect device. Under such definition, it is also possible that more than 50 per cent of the country’s population may be classified as poor even though its economy is relatively better than the poorest countries in the world. This is so because the use of such indicators to measure poverty may obscure the true size and the real dynamics of poverty.

The harsh reality is that the number of families or people in the world today who are poor is alarmingly increasing. Wars, natural disasters, unequal distribution of wealth, high rates of unemployment and uneven regional economic development are pushing down more and more people to an abysmal pit of poverty and hopelessness. This is not only true in the poorest areas of the world as poverty also manifests itself among marginal communities in prosperous urban North America, particularly among the increasing number of children, youth and single mothers struggling to survive on measly government dole-outs.

Despite all the statistical parameters and terminologies designed to accurately measure material destitution, the bottom line in any process of defining poverty still hurts. There will always be real people who are absolutely poor, and they surely stick out from the computation.

Real poverty cannot be ignored. What matters is the effort to eliminate poverty, and its constitutive element, inequality. And if such effort were left alone to distant and disaffected policymakers who have no real understanding of what being poor is, without involving the poor in their own development, chances are that the same failures of the past will persist or very minimal success will only be gained.

Better yet, let this remind us of the cynic in the late U.S. president Ronald Reagan, who once said, “We declared war on poverty, and poverty won.”

Monday, June 16, 2008

A tale of two women

Two women, forced by the woeful economic conditions in the Philippines to work in Canada as lowly caregivers, are now on the verge of being expelled from the country they have both served with all their heart: doing household chores and taking care of little kids so their employers could keep their lucrative jobs and comfortable lifestyles.

Tale #1

Juana Tejada found out she has Stage 4 metastatic colon cancer, right after she became eligible for permanent resident status. All she needed was to complete two years of her work contract and she could be free to choose whatever job she wanted

Once she has become a permanent resident, Juana could look forward to sponsoring her family to join her in the land of milk and honey, thus liberating them from the claws of poverty and hopelessness. Canada Immigration denied her application for permanent residence. It ruled that Juana's health condition would be an excessive burden on the country's health and social services. Juana's previous health coverage was cancelled. Now she relies on the kindness of her doctors and friends to continue fighting a disease that in a matter of months her doctors say will eventually consume her.

Tale #2

Mylah Caban, a bubbly and self-assured young woman from Baguio City, in northern Philippines, once dreamt of becoming an architect. So full of optimism after completing two years of contract work as a caregiver here in Toronto, Mylah had been nursing her dream of becoming a permanent resident, and eventually a Canadian citizen, in a few years. She has never abandoned her plans to resume her studies to realize her dream of designing houses and buildings someday

Instead of simply requesting for a renewal of her expiring work permit, Mylah put in an application for open work permit. She did not know that she still had to wait for advice from Canada Immigration about her eligibility for permanent resident status under the live-in caregiver class. To make matters worse, she committed another blunder by submitting an application for permanent residence at the same time. The immigration officer who reviewed both applications did not even bother to correct the mistakes nor advise her, as he was instructed by the policy manual, of the factors why her applications were refused so she could rectify those mistakes. It seemed as if the immigration officer was trained merely to robotically apply the rules and disregard the applicant's circumstances even if it was procedurally unfair.

Mistakes were compounded one after the other. Another immigration officer presided over Mylah's hearing to determine whether she should be deported for violating the law -- for not having a work permit as a caregiver -- and issued an exclusion order against Mylah, glossing over the allegations against her.

Denying both women their application for permanent residence nullifies the years of service they have completed pursuant to the government's live-in caregiver program. After they had sweated and toiled doing the back-breaking tasks of taking care of their employer's little children and their households, they have now become as expendable as used goods. Well, Canada does not have to worry or be alarmed because more replacement is coming from the Philippines, so both Juana and Mylah can be discarded.

The deportation of these two women engages serious personal, financial and emotional consequences. More deplorable and cynical is the government's treatment of Juana Tejada. Its current behaviour is out of character, Canada being known worldwide as a humane and compassionate society,

Juana came to Canada with a clean bill of health. After expending all her energies caring for Canadian children and families, she was stricken ill with cancer. This development did not forebode well for a government that seems to have been seized by sudden amnesia; it has forgotten Juana's labour of love for the families and children she cared for and has turned its back and denied Juana the protection and healthcare she requires when she needs it most. This is not the compassionate Canada that we all know about.

Every once in a while, and this is the greatest tragedy of all, someone not half as qualified nor has put in hard years of work like Juana and Mylah have, gets in the cracks of Canada's immigration system. Someone fleeing prosecution from crimes committed in another country, or perhaps someone making a false refugee claim.

As a country, our image to the rest of the world is slipping fast. We have become a convenient haven for the unworthy dregs of the earth while we dispose of our hardworking Juanas and Mylahs as if they were used and damaged goods.

For related article, see "Imagine a world without Filipinos"
by Abdullah Al-Maghlooth:

Friday, June 13, 2008

Deconstructing a sense of community

Geographical unity was perhaps the most valuable heritage the Spaniards left to Filipinos after almost 400 years of colonial rule. Before becoming a Spanish colony, the Philippines as a geographical unit never existed. It was just a collection of thousands of islands ruled by their respective chieftains without an overall chieftain responsible for all the islands.

Under Spanish colonial rule, a central government was organized for the whole country. This central government was responsible for lawmaking and its enforcement throughout the country; all the various provinces and towns obeyed the same laws, except for the Moslem areas which remained opposed to Spanish colonial rule.

It is no wonder that overseas Filipinos who settled in America, either in the United States or Canada, and even elsewhere outside the Philippines, have somehow lost this concept of unity and have resorted to the island mentality of several organizations existing autonomously and independently of each other.

Because of the absence of a central authority, say an effective national umbrella organization, every overseas Filipino organization in the diaspora exists and operates on its own like the little islands in the homeland. There is no interdependence among organizations, and solidarity is only incidental, depending on the cause of the moment. This organizational independence is further exacerbated by members' allegiance to the school where they graduated, or the town or province where they come from. Thus, those who studied in the University of the Philippines would band together, as others coming from other universities would similarly organize themselves into their schools’ alumni organizations. Those who come from the province of Batangas, for example, would have their provincial organization, just as those coming from other provinces would rally behind their respective province-based organizations. It's back to the past, to the pre-colonial island mindset as a basis for organizational unity.

Among nonprofit or charitable community organizations such as those involved with the resettlement of new immigrants, the basis for unity may transcend differences in hometown origin or school. What has emerged as a common denominator for the leaders of these organizations to coalesce has now shifted to similar class status, whether in economic or socio-educational terms.

A striking example is the Filipino Centre Toronto (FCT), whose leadership is predominantly composed of those who studied at the University of the Philippines and have moved upward in the economic and social ladder in their adopted country. This brings a new element into the politics of community organizations, as these new leaders abandon their island mentality and assert their social and economic status as a leadership leverage. While they may generally exude respect from those in the lower economic stratum or those who continue to struggle between jobs, they are also viewed by some with suspicion, and sometimes, even allegations of abuse of power or authority.

The recent FCT leadership crisis is a testament to the fractious relationship between its leaders and some of its disgruntled members. Although its present crop of leaders was vindicated by their reelection to the FCT board of directors, it came at the hefty price of an expensive court intervention, a very unnatural and divisive way to resolve crises at the community or grassroots level.

This apparent lack of a sense of community among Filipinos in the diaspora explains why many transplanted Filipinos have remained in the margins of power, both in politics and business. Although the number of overseas Filipinos has increased over the years, their political or business leverage has been sporadic or marginal at best, unlike those who have come from other Asian nations such as China, India, Japan and South Korea.

Because of their pre-colonial island mindset, overseas Filipino organizations appear to be always at a state-of-war with each other, whether cornering the most media attention in local community newspapers or sourcing for funds from foundations or government agencies. They behave like those ancient tribes of the past, defending their turf against invasion or intrusion by people outside their clan.

Expatriates from Europe and South Asia can easily coalesce and be united for long periods of time. It seems easier for them to find common ground. On the other hand, Filipinos in their stalwart defence of their separate fiefdoms seem to be closer with emigres from Latin American countries who are just as divided, and with whom they share no common ideals except for having a common colonizer.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On the contrary

In many instances, a contrary opinion is always unpopular. Sometimes it is much easier to be nice and to desist from all critical dissent, or to shun debate at all.

To dissent or to differ, while unpopular, can have a valid purpose. For example, in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), where the U.S. Supreme Court allowed “separate but equal” facilities for black and white Americans, Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote a dissenting opinion in which he said that “the Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.” Justice Harlan’s dissent was not an attempt to change the court’s majority decision, but to arouse public opinion against the majority decision of the court. In 1954, Justice Harlan was vindicated by the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education which unanimously rejected the “separate but equal” doctrine and ruled that racially segregated public schools were inherently unequal.

Other famous contrarians like Galileo, Einstein, George Orwell, or the leading lights of the suffragist movement and abolitionists of slavery had dissented from prevailing social norms, and their works continue to be relevant in contemporary society. Those who opposed the Vietnam War in the sixties and seventies had enlightened many of us about an unpopular and unjust war. The same thing can be said about the Iraq war, maybe five years down the road.

To dissent or to offer a contrary opinion helps clarify issues and prevents ourselves from being too complacent with the attraction of prevailing values, norms or decisions that oftentimes becomes the most convenient or safe choice for us to take. The smugness of the idea of an absolute truth paralyzes the mind to explore options and, to a degree, stifles creativity. There is a huge market of ideas, from right to left, or all around us. Whether an idea can hold up under scrutiny depends on a lengthy and rigorous process of scepticism and criticism.

Just because it is unpopular does not mean that dissent should be avoided or abhorred. Dissent is vital to the examination of opinions; it is the other important side of dialogue. Aristotle, for example, introduced us to a dialectical discussion of opinions and had shown us how the conflict of two opinions might be resolved through this process. There are always pros and cons to an argument: both are equally important in making the ultimate decision as to what is right and what is not. One side cannot be summarily dismissed without examining its merit over the other. Only after a very thorough and critical examination can we be secure in taking sides.