Thursday, September 25, 2014

How to deal with climate change (more) effectively

The United Nations Climate Summit on September 23 was an important step in dealing with climate change. With more than 120 world leaders in attendance, it may yet prove to have been a major step or even a turning point in the long process of dealing with climate change.

The attendance at this summit alone is a significant step in the international community's recognition of the problem. Many countries have for too long denied human-driven climate change and have thus refused to acknowledge its urgency.

Even before the summit began people in cities all over the world marched and called upon the leaders of the world's governments and businesses to take immediate action. In New York City an estimated 300,000 took to the streets. This is the largest crowd ever demanding action and a marked change in the world's attitude to this enormous environmental concern.

This summit was called by the Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary-General of the UN. In his opening remarks he said, "Today we must set the world on a new course. Climate change is the defining issue of our age. It is defining our present. Our response will define our future."

According to Ban, part of that response should be a reduction in carbon emissions in order to limit global temperature rises to under two degrees Celsius as many nations have already agreed to. But that goal set in 2009 is unlikely to be met within the next thirty years.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Can films help to change the world?

A change of pace this week as I reflect on five films that I viewed recently. All are powerful expressions of a unique art form and all have a political aspect even though that may not always be their primary theme.

Can films help to change the world? This question was prompted by watching several films at the Toronto International Film Festival recently. Watching these films was a first for my wife and I at TIFF, which is now one of the premier film festivals in the world.

These films we were all in TIFF's Contemporary World Speakers series. This series included not just viewing films but also a Q & A afterward with the director or actors, as well as a speaker from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto because of the international character of the films.

We had bought tickets for the five films in the series, but at the time we did not know either which films or on which date they would be shown. All the films, as we discovered, were very powerful, even if not all of them could be classified as equally great.

Two films were set in Iran, one in Australia, one in Germany and Belgium, and one in Israel. All made an enormous impact on audiences, and will no doubt have had or will have a large impact in their home countries as well as other counties around the globe. Some films had world premieres.

TIFF does not award prizes the way that Cannes, Venice and other film festivals do, although several films, in various categories, are selected every year for TIFF's People's Choice awards,

The first film in the series, Red Rose, was made on a shoe-string budget, yet is extremely powerful. Perhaps, with a bigger budget, it might have become a greater film.

This film prompted me to ask the director afterward the Q & A what impact the film would have in Iran, where the film is set. She explained that it is still not allowed to be screened there because of its highly political nature. The two main actors, whom I also spoke to, live outside of Iran and cannot return to their native land because of their political views.

The film tells the story of a twenty-something activist who during student protests surrounding the 2009 elections in Iran has an affair with a fifty-year old man who is hiding in his apartment. He had participated in earlier protests and is therefore afraid of any further involvement. At the end of the film he is arrested.

What was surprising, at least to us and most Western audiences, was the open sexuality that was displayed in the film. This contrasts sharply with the image that most people have of the Middle East. Yet the sex is only a sub-text for the political discussions that the two engage in during the film.

This was also the film that motivated me to consider the question: Can films help to change the world? But other films in the series later prompted the same question, which is why I am writing this post.

More than 300 films were screened during TIFF. The five films we viewed were only a drop in the bucket and probably not even the most outstanding ones, at least to judge by the awards.

Charlie's Country tells the story of an aged Australian Aborigene named Charlie who journeys into the Outback to live the life of his ancestors,

Government intervention in his culture's traditional way of life has left many aboriginals, Charlie included, feeling powerless to control their destinies. When his gun and spear are confiscated, leaving him nothing to hunt with, Charlie defiantly heads into the bush to live in the old way.

Charlie's story is universal, in the sense that aboriginal people everywhere can recognize themselves and their situation in what happens to him in this film. It should be an eye-opener to non-aboriginal people. The acting is superb and helps to make this drama real and relevant in many countries, the US and Canada included.

Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem is set in Israel. It is the story of a woman who spends five years trying to get a divorce from her cruel and manipulative husband. He refuses to grant a Get, the bill of divorce that only a man can give.

Viviane is effectively put on trial by her country's marital laws. Marriage and divorce in Israel are both controlled by Orthodox rabbis, who not surprisingly want to preserve the integrity of Jewish families. The power of the Orthodox in Israel is illustrated in their monopoly on religious divorce. Those, like Viviane, who were married by rabbis had to go to the rabbinical courts. Only recently has civil divorce become possible, but it is already widely recognized.

In this film, Viviane finally wins a divorce, but not before her husband exacts a promise from her that she will never get married again. He remains manipulative to the end.

The action of the film is limited to a small courtroom, which serves as a metaphor for Viviane's trapped situation. The acting again makes this film riveting and spell-binding. It is also infuriating because of her situation.

The fourth film was a German production called Tour de Force about several friends who make an annual bike trip throughout Europe. This year the choice of where to go falls on Hannes who has chosen Belgium.

Only later during the trip does he reveal why he chose Belgium. They are going to Oostende, where Hannes intends to end his life. He has ALS and his health has suddenly declined. As required by Belgian law, he has already visited a doctor there who will will administer the fatal injection.

Unlike the other films in this series, this one is not political, but it concerns itself with the end-of-life question that is currently being debated in many countries. The Canadian province of Quebec has already passed such legislation, but it will probably be questioned by the Supreme Court of Canada. Only a handful of jurisdictions have legalized doctor-assisted suicide.

This film is incredibly funny. The humor makes the topic of the film more palatable. It shows the final moments of Hannes. It ends with his friends celebrating his life on the first anniversary of his death.

It is a moving film even if you cannot endorse his' decision to end his life. The director of the film in the Q & A suggested that Americans should look at the drug that is commonly used in Belgium so that the recent spate of botched executions in the US could be be avoided.

Finally, we watched yet another Iranian film, Tales, in which the director weaves together a series of vignettes about seven characters who are linked by their shared social, political and economic struggles.

The director draws together many of the concerns she addressed in her earlier films, In this film she shifts effortlessly between nightmarish suspense, forceful drama, bureaucratic satire, and even some unexpected comedy. This film is an inspiring paean to the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, which is perhaps is the primary key to its impact.

Truly one of the most powerful films in this series, it is both a microcosm of contemporary Iranian working-class society as well as a luminous portrait of human fallibility and virtue. This serves to make these vignettes universal.

All five films are extremely powerful. Yet they represent only a very small selection of the many films that were screened at TIFF this year. Obviously I could not view all of them. Five films in only four days was as much as my wife and I could manage. We had overdosed on serious films.

Can films help to change the world? My response after seeing these five films is affirmative. Film is a compelling medium that rivals and may even exceed the written word in the influence it can have. It involves both eyes and ears in a way that written cannot, since even though the latter make a strong appeal to the imagination they appeal only to the visual sense.

While too often films deal with the banal and are intended purely as entertainment, in the hands of experts they can stir up deeply buried emotions, challenge preconceived notions, and ultimately lead to changes, whether great or small, in the wider world.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Who won the war in Gaza?

An earlier version of this post somehow disappeared a few days ago as the result of a hectic weekend. I rewrote it, but it has now taken on an entirely different appearance, even if my conclusion is the same.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate ceasefire, August 26, 2014

When a permanent ceasefire was announced on August 26, 2014, between Israel and the Palestinian resistance, Hamas immediately announced victory. Israel agreed to reopen Gaza's borders after 51 days and nights of relentless bombardment by Israel, which was in retaliation for the many missiles lobbed at it by the Palestinians.

While much of the world is happy that a lasting ceasefire has been agreed to and the war is over for the time being, there is nevertheless great concern about the casualties, especially on the Palestinian side. Yet can one properly speak about victory in this case?

This claim of Palestinian victory was echoed by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, which admitted, "What Netanyahu and his colleagues have brought down on Israel, in a conflict between the region’s strongest army and an organization numbering 10,000, is not just a defeat. It’s a downfall."

The same newspaper reported, "The Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted on Tuesday did not deliver a single achievement [for Israel]."

In a poll in Israel after the Gaza war ended, 79 percent of respondents said they believed that Hamas won the war, three percent backed Israel and 17 percent said both sides were losers.

Palestinian losses during only the first seven days of the war

But can anyone speak of victory for the Palestinians when more than 2,100 people were killed, 11,000 were injured, 17,000 homes were destroyed, leaving more than 100,00 homeless, and countless lives were disrupted? It has been estimated that it will take about two or three decades to rebuild the infrastructure in Gaza, and this assumes that the new agreement to reopen the borders will remain in effect.

That is not victory; that is disaster. Palestine may have won a moral victory in the eyes of the world, but it has lost so many people and so many lives have been devastated that the victory is a phyrric one at best. I will argue that the Palestinians failed ethically, as did the Israelis.

Others have reported that Israel won the war. Hamas' missile attacks, which killed 69 Israelis -- of whom all except for four were soldiers -- have mercifully stopped, even though Gaza has not yet been demilitarized, which was Israel's ultimate goal.

For Israel, if victory is measured in the number of civilians an army kills and injures, or the number of homes, hospitals, mosques or schools it destroys, Israel is the clear champion. By that measurement, the US won the war in Vietnam.

But in terms of the political and strategic balance sheet that will determine future relations between Israel and the Palestinians, some have argued that Israel suffered a clear loss on the battlefield and internationally. Israel has not gained anything from the ceasefire.
This map dates from 2007, but many essential details are correct

The terms of the ceasefire do not mean a whole lot. This ceasefire is just a ceasefire. What matters ultimately is how the ceasefire is implemented and the results of the talks that are build on it.

There is a major, novel provision of the ceasefire deal, however, according to which the Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, is expected to take over from Hamas responsibility for administering Gaza's borders. Israel and Egypt now hope that the PA will be able to ensure that weapons, ammunition and any 'dual-use' goods are prevented from flowing into Gaza.

Therefore this ceasefire could be a huge deal for the PA, which has not had a major security presence in Gaza since Hamas kicked it out during the 2007 Palestinian civil war. Under this interpretation, the PA has won, while Hamas has lost. If there is a victor, it is the PA.

The war has weakened Hamas militarily and politically. Yet it is unclear if Israel and the PA are able or willing to take advantage of the opportunity. But if Hamas is able to rearm and rebuild its political legitimacy, then the war ill prove costly to Israelis and other Palestinians.

Wars do not always have clear victors. In fact, wars produce more losers than winners, especially if measured in human and monetary terms. The costs are so enormous that one wonders sometimes why there are so many wars.

The cover of The Economist dealing with the Gaza war

The "Just War" theory supposedly provides a justification for war. If the following conditions are met, a war is deemed to be justifiable (I am listing these principles here for the sake of convenience):
  • A just war can only be waged as a last resort. All non-violent options must be exhausted before the use of force can be justified.
  • A war is just only if it is waged by a legitimate authority. Even just causes cannot be served by actions taken by individuals or groups who do not constitute an authority sanctioned by whatever the society and outsiders to the society deem legitimate.
  • A just war can only be fought to redress a wrong suffered. For example, self-defense against an armed attack is always considered to be a just cause (although the justice of the cause is not sufficient--see point #4). Further, a just war can only be fought with "right" intentions: the only permissible objective of a just war is to redress the injury.
  • A war can only be just if it is fought with a reasonable chance of success. Deaths and injury incurred in a hopeless cause are not morally justifiable.
  • The ultimate goal of a just war is to re-establish peace. More specifically, the peace established after the war must be preferable to the peace that would have prevailed if the war had not been fought.
  • The violence used in the war must be proportional to the injury suffered. States are prohibited from using force not necessary to attain the limited objective of addressing the injury suffered.
  • The weapons used in war must discriminate between combatants and non-combatants. Civilians are never permissible targets of war, and every effort must be taken to avoid killing civilians. The deaths of civilians are justified only if they are unavoidable victims of a deliberate attack on a military target.
In the case of the war in Gaza, neither side followed these principles. If only for that reason, I would argue strongly that both sides lost the war. Even aside from the enormous human costs, both sides failed ethically. Thus this war deserves to be roundly condemned by the entire world, but that will not happen, of course.

The participants and their allies see things differently. However, from my perspective, both sides lost, even if factions within each may have made some gains.

My own position has evolved over many years from the "Just War" theory, which I would contend is no longer tenable in the 21st century, to the "Active Non-violence" position that was made famous by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. 

Rarely (I want to express myself very carefully) can a war be justified. Most wars are unjustifiable, The war in Gaza belongs in this group. Moreover, it was extremely expensive.

I am not an absolute pacifist, although I may seem to be such in the eyes of many, and even though I may have a difficult time explaining my position adequately to everyone. I invite your response.

Who won the war in Gaza? No one did.