Thursday, December 18, 2014

No more cheap Cuban vacations? Blame Harper

   There are substantial political and social implications in the revival of diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba.    The end of 50 years of estrangement between the two countries could signal the beginning of a new era of mutual prosperity, although significant battles are still to be fought in the U.S. Congress over the full normalization of relations with what remains a repressive communist regime.
   For Canadians - savvy internationalists that we are - the overriding consideration in the historic rapprochement is "How will this affect our inexpensive Cuban vacations?"  A massive influx of American tourists into what's been a de facto exclusive Canadian tropical island playground would mean considerable price increases and the end of the low-cost Cuban vacation party as we know it.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that it'll probably be years before restrictions on Americans travelling to Cuba are eased to any significant extent, so you can still get there while the getting is cheap. 
   Meanwhile, word that Canada's Conservative government was a key player in facilitating the behind the scenes talks that resulted in the diplomatic thaw is a tough pill to swallow for Liberal leader and noted communist sympathizer Justin Trudeau, whose late father was thick as thieves with Fidel Castro. Uncle Fidel even showed up at Pierre Trudeau's funeral, which Justin tried yesterday to spin as somehow having sown the seeds of what transpired  nearly15 years later.  Trudeau's disappointment that it was Stephen Harper and not him who sabotaged our cheap Cuban holidays was palpable.  
   If that's not delicious irony, I don't know what is.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

You can't make this stuff up...or can you?

   If there's one thing the internet has taught us, it's that you should never do or say anything that might offend someone, including - and especially - the head of a nuclear-capable military dictatorship.
   The international crisis du jour has nothing to do with plummeting currency, stock market upheavel or national armies massed along each other's border.  It's about a movie - a comedy movie.
   The Interview is a Seth Rogen spoof about two journalists caught up in a plot to assassinate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.  If you're familiar with Rogen's work, it'll be funny, but The Interview is unlikely to stand as a stellar example of serious geopolitical commentary.  Still, the premise is enough to offend North Korea to the point where Kim threatened "merciless retaliation" against any country where the movie played.  Meanwhile, a shadowy group called Guardians of the Peace, who've claimed responsibility for a massive computer hack against the movie's distributor, Sony, are also hinting at violence if The Interview hits the big screen.  Whether the Guardians of the Peace are in league with North Korea or are just a handful of mischief-making techno-geeks, cages have been sufficiently rattled that Sony has cancelled the film's general release, which was scheduled for Christmas Day.
   One of three things is happening here: Kim Jong Un doesn't take a joke as well as his late father, who was hilariously lampooned in the 2004 movie Team America: World Police, Rogen and Sony have engineered an unprecedented backroom publicity stunt to draw attention to their movie, or there is a God, and She's got a terrific sense of humour.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The cost of ignoring the obvious

   It's been a tough week for the religion of peace, and it's only Tuesday.  
   On the heels of a deadly hostage-taking by a self-styled Muslim cleric in Sydney, Australia, the Taliban attacked a school in Peshawar, Pakistan, killing more than 141 people - 132 of them children.  Narratives are already taking shape that the Australian gunman was a mentally-disturbed lone wolf and the Taliban are not truly representative of Islam, but only a fool or a liar fails to recognize that both incidents were religiously-motivated.  The fools and liars deliberately ignore the common thread that runs through the Taliban, Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Boko Haram and the so-called lone wolves who murder in the name of Allah.  To point out the obvious is to be labelled "Islamophobic". That's worse than ignorant.  It's a free pass for the radical elements of the Muslim faith to continue spreading their message of hate, and grooming impressionable youth to be the jihadists of tomorrow.
   If Islam is truly the religion of peace, there's got to be breaking point where moderate Muslims find the courage to reclaim the faith from the murderous minority.  If the slaughter of more than 100 of their own innocent children isn't enough to mobilize the silent Muslim majority, I shudder to think what it will take.   

Monday, December 15, 2014

Vape 'em if you've got 'em

   Electronic cigarettes went from being a lark to being lethal over the weekend, when a one year old baby died from drinking liquid nicotine used for vaping - the pop culture term for e-cigarette consumption.  The child's tragic death underscores a safety issue but represents an isolated incident not relevant to a broader, emerging debate over the smokeless cigarette itself.  
   Government agencies have been slow to place controls on vaping, which technically remains legal in most public places.  Health and safety considerations aside, it puzzles me that the e-cigarette industry has gained any kind of traction in the first place.  I haven't met more than half a dozen people who use the things, although admittedly, I'm not an active boulevardier, and for all I know there could be trendy cafes on the Plateau packed to the rafters with hipsters sampling the latest flavors in liquid nicotine, from Dill Pickle to Gorilla Booze (I'm not making those up).  If that's the case, it marks an abrupt change in social attitudes.  Cigarette smokers are the social pariahs of the 21st century, and even though e-cigarettes are smokeless and odorless, the concept is close enough to the real deal that people are going to be offended by them.
   Lastly, there's this: as a stop smoking aid, vaping is - in the opinion of this ex-longtime smoker - a slippery slope.  The combination of the nicotine and the ceremony of "lighting up" at specific times or under specific circumstances only feeds the habit, and at some point, you're going to say "what the hell, if I'm doing this, I might as well smoke a cigarette."  Like the alcoholic trying to wean his way off booze by drinking non-alcoholic beer, it's a dead end - "dead" being the operative word.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Sadness and joy

   The period of remembrance that concludes today with a national funeral for Jean Beliveau struck a perfect balance between mourning his death and celebrating his life. 
   Mr. Beliveau's passing is an enormous loss.  He was the greatest living embodiment of the class and dignity that defines the Montreal Canadiens.  The empty Bell Center seat draped with his jersey and the raw emotions of strong and seasoned men fortunate enough to count themselves among his friends are powerful testaments to the sadness of the occasion.  But so much of what we've witnessed over the past several days has been spiritual balm - the endless stories of Mr. Beliveau's personal touch with the common man, and his family's spirit of generosity in publicly sharing their private grief with great humility and grace.  The crowd's emotional embrace of Mrs. Beliveau at the Bell Center last night and her reaction to it resonates alongside the spontaneous tribute to the Rocket on closing night at the Forum and Saku Koivu's comeback from cancer as examples of how the Canadiens transcend hockey, and are an essential and enduring part of Montreal's soul.  
   The sense of occasion demonstrated by the franchise, the Beliveau family and the fans this week is in keeping with a tradition that exists in no small part because of the dignified example set by Jean Beliveau himself over more than six decades.  We have honored the man by emulating him. 
   He would be proud of us all.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Having a wonderful time, wish you were dead

   As I watched the recently posted video of Ottawa-area ISIS convert John Maguire, I couldn't help but wonder about the "root causes" that inspired a seemingly normal Canadian kid to take up arms with the dark side of humanity.  To say the least, it's a dramatic leap from white Anglo-Saxon Ontario university student to fundamentalist foot soldier and vocal advocate for genocide against the culture he left behind.  
   Maguire didn't grow up in an ethnic community, so he had no apparent axe to grind against perceived racism.  According to his former friends, he was funny and popular, so that rules out the shunned loner angle.  He also did well in school and had no diagnosed mental illness, so we can't chalk up his conversion to crazy.   All things considered, about the only root causes I can come up with for a hockey-loving, guitar playing academic overachiever to join ISIS is that he wasn't happy with his ice time or he resented that his bandmates wouldn't let him sing lead vocals, and decided that killing infidels and apostates in the name of Allah would be an appropriate response to his grievances. 
   Of course, that's a ludicrous premise, but so is the entire notion of root causes.  Nothing or no one forced John Maguire and other western terror tourists to join in a campaign of slaughter, rape and slavery.  They are willing and enthusiastic volunteers whose choices have more to do with their own twisted psyches than they do with underlying socio-political considerations.  
   They need to be held to account, not mollycoddled with apologist psychobabble. 

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story

   An important test case emerged last week in the rapidly evolving debate over male privilege and sexual aggression.  Rolling Stone magazine recanted and publicly apologized for a story detailing the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student identified only as "Jackie", saying her story had discrepancies and that the publication's trust in her was misplaced.  It was the first high profile case of debunked rape allegations since Jian Ghomeshi and Bill Cosby's reputations and careers were destroyed on hearsay alone - powerful hearsay, to be sure, but hearsay nonetheless.
   The overwhelming response to the UVA story is that it's another tragedy for victims of sexual assault, because it supposedly represents another reason not to come forward.  One would-be journalist writing for the university's student newspaper said "to let fact checking define the narrative would be a huge mistake."  I understand what she's trying to say about taking on the broader issue of sexual aggression, but suppressing or ignoring the facts to define a narrative isn't journalism.  It's propaganda.  Meanwhile, the woman whose story fell apart is getting more public sympathy than the UVA fraternity whose members have been tarred by gang rape allegations that didn't stand up to scrutiny.  How's that for a "narrative"?  
   The story of Jackie is a timely reminder that examining each case on its own merits is a judicial cornerstone and a necessary starting point in any healing process.  There is no healing in hysterical generalizations about societal privilege and clamoring for summary justice, and those who pursue that agenda only exacerbate what already divides us.