Saturday, December 30, 2006

Holed up-again

We're in Fort Collins, Colorado. The I25 south of Denver is closed so we're waithing for better conditions before heading south again. Snow, snow, snow. We've driven on a lot of packed snow and ice but the storm around Colorado Springs is going to have to finish before we go on. We're safe and happy. Don't worry.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Holed Up

Today, we're holed up at the Country Inn and Suites in Billings, Montana. Very pleasant. Hot tub, exercise room, free breakfast. Boring. We got as far as Roundup, Montana last night, drove in the rain for an hour first and this morning woke up to a world covered in a sheet of ice, dusted with a powdering of snow. Have you been to Roundup? We decided to limp the 70 km. into Billings this morning because none of the highway news was good and they were predicting up to a few feet of snow for Denver anyway, and we didn't want to spend two days in a rural motel, if you know what I mean. Billings could be Saskatoon or Brandon, except that every other business here seems to be a cracker box casino. I think we've seen about 50. Right now (evening of the 28th) the weather is clear and if the road reports are good tomorrow, we'll probably drive as far as Cheyenne, Wyoming and play Colorado by ear.
Anyway, we're safe and lazy, and we did call this a "vacation with a meaning," and we are finding out what that meaning is, I guess. I can't get on line with my clunky old laptop but this hotel has a courtesy computer for the guests.
Have a nice day everyone.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Packing up

As most of you know by now, Agnes and I are in the final stages of preparing for three months in Carlsbad, New Mexico. We intend to spend a few days at the Temple Gardens Spa in Moose Jaw with Cynthia and James before driving for three days and arriving in Carlsbad on New Year’s Eve. While we’re away, a friend of friends will be sitting our house and cat.

Primarily, we’re going to New Mexico for a long vacation, although we have enrolled in the Service Opportunities for Older People program and will be doing some volunteer work while there. What that will be will be determined when we get there.

I’m also looking forward to spending three months in “AMERICA.” We talk about the USA a lot in Canada, and we have numerous stereotypical images in our minds when American subjects come up, and I’d like to dispel some of those. My suspicion is that they’re just as faulty as American assumptions about us. We’ll be worshipping with the Carlsbad Mennonite Church while there (at least that’s our intention) and so would hope also to learn something about what it means to be an Anabaptist in a nation at war in Iraq. (Come to think of it, Canada is at war in Afghanistan; what’s it like to be a Mennonite in Canada living with that fact?)

I just read a book to which I was prompted by the death of Augusto Pinochet. You can find a review I wrote at It was worth reading, especially if you are interested in human rights issues and/or Latin American politics.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Limericks, Haiku

Last month, the Rosthern Writiers' Group of which I am a member set themselves an assignment to write linericks and Haiku. Here is my offering in that regard. (Caution: The following material contains scenes which may be suggestive. Parental guidance is recommended. These scenes appear here bacause it is virtually mandatory that the limerick, particularly, verge on the nearly naughty.) Please request permission to reprint from


a misty dream of

feathery snow drifts silently

through shivering branches

Limerick #1

So where did you get the temerity

To question my right to prosperity?

I’ve worked like a horse

Since a young man, of course

(And I’ve practiced accounting dexterity.)

Limerick #2

A competitive dancer from Fripper

Was renowned for her delicate slipper

When a rival showed up

In pursuit of the cup

She said, “No sweat, I’m sure to outstripper.”

Limerick #3

A slender young woman from Rhiens

Fed only on yogourt and greens

When a friend said, “I’d beg

For so shapely a leg!”

She replied, “Well it’s all in the jeans!”

Limerick #4

It’s said when a pretty psychologist

Was harangued by a verbious morphologist

That she sneered, “All your words

Are quite ‘for the birds.’”

And now he’s a sad ornithologist.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Same Gender Marriage

I watched cpac for four hours last night to see what was being said about Stephen Harper's motion asking for MPs to decide whether or not to bring back the same-sex marriage question. What I found hard to understand was how few of the principals of any party were present for the debate. Jack Layton appeared for a few minutes while his wife was speaking against the motion, and the BLOQ had no need to be there, since they had already decided to vote against the motion, en masse. (Also true of the NDP; I'm not sure why they were there except possibly to try convincing a few more conservatives to vote against it.)
Notable was the lack of information on the part of the Conservative speakers. Backbenchers all, they gave roughly the same speech: 1. the traditional concept of marriage has served us well for millenia and should not be changed, 2. children do best in a family where they know both parents and where those parents are a man and a woman; children's rights have not been considered, 3. expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples will weaken the institution of marriage and affect family life negatively over time.
On the other side, several more prominent Liberals including Hedy Fry argued most emphatically that 1. children were central to the same-sex marriage legislation in that children of same-sex couples could now hold their heads up and be proud of their parentage, 2. a reinstatement of the old marriage definition would be illegal since it would mean that those same-sex couples already married would enjoy a right future gay and lesbian couples would not have, and 3. the broadening of the marriage definition does no harm, and is therefore the right thing to do in the interest of equality.
There were other points made. Conservative members either did not understand the points being made by Liberals and New Democrats, or they had been instructed not to acknowledge the questions put to them if they fell outside pre-approved categories. For instance, various Liberals and New Democrats pressed the Conservative speakers to assert firmly that they would table new legislation if the motion being discussed were to pass. Ken Epp (Edmonton-Sherwood Park) did finally answer this in the affirmative, but it appeared the other Tories were afraid to enter into any discussion on process through which the constitution would have to be changed or on the need to invoke the notwithstanding clause.
I'm pretty sure Harper never intended this motion to pass. Having presented it, however, he can say to his electors that he kept his promise to reintroduce it. He's an intelligent person and even if his backbenchers are clueless on the constitutional implications of reversing the definition of marriage, Harper isn't. He hoped to catch Stephane Dion off guard after only a few days in office as Liberal leader, I'm sure.
I expect we will have seen the last of this issue. Harper can truthfully say that he gave the House of Commons and opportunity to make an earlier mistake right, and they turned it down. What a lot of hokey! Does he think the citizenry just fell off the turnip truck? He may be right, if he's judging by the parade of backbenchers prominent in yesterday's debate!


Monday, November 27, 2006

Bush in Babylon

Bush in Babylon – a book review

By George Epp

Packer, George, The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005

ISBN-13: 978-0-374-29963-7

452 pages

How much do you and I know about Iraq, it’s history and culture? How much did George Bush, his Vice-president Dick Cheney, his Secretary of State Colin Powell and his Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld know about Iraq’s history and culture before they launched their war to unseat Saddam Hussein? Did they have sufficient grasp of the fact that Iraq was like a container of tightly coiled springs that were liable to unwind explosively if any of the balance-of-the-whole were disturbed? Did they anticipate that insurrection and terrorism would be as significant a factor in post-Saddam Iraq as it has turned out to be? Did they appreciate how extensive a post-Saddam nation building project would be required, and did they have plans in readiness to ensure security until a new and acceptable regime could be established, exercising the functions that democracies require?

According to George Packer, the planning for the invasion of Iraq went as far as the “shock and awe” of Saddam’s demise, and no further. Central to his observations are the bungled opportunities to win over a populace that could go either way after the overthrow of the Baath Party. In fact, Packer’s central thesis could be summed up in the words of Brad Swanson, whom Packer quotes:

First there was the arrogance phase, and then there was the hubris phase. The arrogance phase was going in undermanned, underplanned, underresourced, skim off the top layer of leadership, take control of a functioning state, and be out by six weeks and get the oil funds to pay for it. We all know for a variety of reasons that didn’t work. So then you switch over to the hubris phase. We’ve been slapped in the face, this is really much more serious than we thought, much more long-term, much more dangerous, much more costly. Therefore we’ll attack it with everything we have, we’ll throw the many billion dollars at it, and to make Iraq safe for the future we have to do a root-and-branch transformation of the country in our own image.” (186)

Will this be history’s assessment of the war in Iraq? No doubt, there are less ascerbic analyses, but the news these days supports Packer’s view that the war began as the culmination of a vision held for some time in a small, neocon group in the USA, and that George W. Bush was sold on this vision by people like Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and others, and that the perpetrators have been in complete denial for the past three years as the project unraveled and their goals didn’t materialize.

George Packer has spent much time with the principals in the war, both American and Iraqi. He records the views, dreams and disappointments of the Kurds, the Shiia, the Sunni minority, and it soon becomes clear to the reader that there was much more to consider in democratizing Iraq than the simple overthrow of the Baath Party regime. Released suddenly from the tyrannical rule to which they had become accustomed, Iraqis seemed unable to take initiative without being told exactly what to do, and American troops had no idea what they should be telling them. L. Paul Bremer was put in charge of the Coalition Provisional Authority and appears to have done his level best to kick-start the planning of reconstruction, but by then it was a matter of too little, too late. Too much time had passed without noticeable progress in reconstruction, and disillusioned Iraqis of all stripes lost confidence in renewal and the cycle of insurgency began.

The CPA was, of course, disbanded after elections in Iraq and currently there are 1040 reconstruction projects underway and 590 planned but not started ( Reports to congress by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction (SIGIR) paint a picture of organized, steady progress toward the rebuilding of Iraq, but the bloodshed goes on. Does the Coalition in Iraq have the time or the fortitude to complete the job that has now, finally, been accepted as being necessary? Drawing on the testimony of Drew Erdmann – formerly working in the CPA and chief advisor to the Iraqi ministry – Packer remains mildly optimistic on this point:

I came to believe that those in positions of highest responsibility for Iraq showed a carelessness about human life that amounted to criminal negligence. Swaddled in abstract ideas, convinced of their own righteousness, incapable of self-criticism, indifferent to accountability, they turned a difficult undertaking into a needlessly deadly one. When things went wrong, they found other people to blame. The Iraq War was always winnable; it still is. Fort this very reason, the recklessness of its authors is all the harder to forgive (448).

The Assassins’ Gate takes its place among a raft of books on the subject of America’s adventure in Middle East democratization. A War Against Truth by Paul William Roberts was published in 2004 but tells a similar story. Both books are written by respected journalists who spent a great deal of time in Iraq. Both are well-written, highly readable accounts of their authors’ experiences.

Of course, we now have another year or two behind us since either of the above books were released, and we’ve witnessed an election in which the Democratic Party replaced the Republican in control of the House of Representatives as well as the Senate. Americans are increasingly realizing that the war in Iraq has long since turned into a fiasco that could have been averted. I was halfway through The Assassins’ Gate when I watched the president announce the resignation of Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld seemed almost jubilant as he feigned a golf swing, and I wondered if he wasn’t enormously relieved that his complicity in creating the Iraq debacle might well be forgotten before it got any worse and others became the foci of attention.

The most wrenching chapter in The Assassins’ Gate is called “Memorial Day.” It’s the story of an American father mourning the loss of his son to a chance piece of flying shrapnel shortly after arriving for duty in Iraq. The father’s agony underlines the possibility that many deaths of brave and/or innocent people served no discernable purpose. This may end up being the most devastating aspect of this war to Americans generally, namely that a misguided leadership led them into a war that achieved nothing worthwhile. Only time will tell whether or not America will have to face up to the same realization of futility that accompanied their military’s ignominious departure from Vietnam.

A note: If you are unprepared to read Packer’s 400+ page book, I suggest you tap into Here you’ll be able to print off and read a 29-page essay called “War After the War.”


© George Epp, 2006

Monday, November 06, 2006

Mainstreet Rosthern

Saddam's Punishment

We got the news yesterday. A tribunal in Baghdad has sentenced Saddam Hussein to death by hanging. If his appeal fails, as it's likely to, he will mount a gibbet sometime in the spring of 2007, a rope will be knotted around his neck with the other end tied to a beam above his head, someone will trigger the trap door on which he's standing and the fall will tear apart the vertebrae in his neck (if he's lucky) and all sense and sensation will cease. If improperly knotted, the rope and the fall will result in his strangulation and as many watch, he will choke until his oxygen-starved brain goes to sleep and his vital organs cease to function.
I oppose the death penalty, even for a barbarian like Saddam who is said to have asked one of his colleagues to leave a cabinet meeting with him for a private chat, and then to have shot him in the head. Given reports of incidents like that, many will dismiss Human Rights Watch's ( claim that Saddam did not have a fair trial and will say that he didn't deserve one, given the arbitrary way in which he "tried" and executed his adversaries. To me, these are irrevalancies. Hanging is easily as barbaric as a pistol execution, maybe more so, and in applying this penalty, we seem to be saying, "Since Saddam killed people in a barbaric fashion, it's right that we should kill him in the same way." Ideally, a civilized society would never carry out executions because it would be impossible to find anyone willing to trip the trapdoor. In our world though, I suspect, there'd be a line-up for the opportunity.
I think much more would be gained by the Iraqi government if Saddam were to be kept in confinement for the rest of his life. It would demonstrate an unwillingness to descend morally into the pit where Saddam lived when he was president. It would create pressure to normalize: Saddam could not be held up as a martyr, while the new government would still be shown to have had the fortitude to try him and to hold him. Being alive, he would also serve as a reminder to Iraqi's of their recent history and the terror they endured.
Most of all, I believe that the gospel of Christ includes in its message a call to deal with human evil in new ways. Although the gospels are relatively silent on the subject of crime and punishment in the secular sphere, a follower of Jesus could hardly be the instrument for ending a life given the example of his master, for whom reconciliation, forgiveness and healing were central. Christ prayed for his executioners, we recall.
I would urge people who share the view that capital punishment is barbaric to add their voice to those of the members of organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. It will be hard to raise a protest in the case of Saddam Hussein, I'm afraid, given the heinous crimes he is alleged to have committed, but in the interest of consistency, this case is as worthy of our interventions as any.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Rosthern Countryside, Summer 2006

Here's the thing . . .

Through my window in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, Canada today: Brilliant sunshine, some snow on the ground but beginning to melt.
I'm reading Assassins' Gate, by Packer. He's explaining the process by which the USA ended up adopting the "regime change in Iraq" policy and the aftermath of the decision to do it militarily after 9/11. I'll review it after I'm done.
All this news and information about the Middle East has driven me to think again about what it is that I believe, given the fact that having grown up a Christian, I am a member of a Jewish sect, as are the believing Muslims of the world. Theoloigically, we are all descendants of Abraham.
Unfortunately, this has not served to make us family, has it? But it surely is a reason to tread softly on the world stage, and to learn enough about one another so that unnecessary misunderstandings and hostilities can be avoided.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Islam as the enemy - according to Mark Steyn

Through my window today . . .
The front cover of Macleans, October 23, 2006. A sea of black burkas and a defiant little girl's face, eyes glaring into the camera. WHY THE FUTURE BELONGS TO ISLAM: The Muslim world has youth, numbers and global ambition. The WEST is old, barren and exhausted. Mark Steyn maps the new world order, p.30.
Steyn writes about the world as if it were a conflict between Islam and everyone else, a standard worldview for the neo-cons and frightened conservatives generally. The Bush administration has used this brand of fear mongering to lead us to believe that there are only two groups in the world, ie. the freedom-hating rogue states predominantly in the Middle East and Asia (North Korea) and the freedom-loving West. (I'm not sure when or how he intends to link the communist/Islamic enemy, but the attempt wouldn't surprise me.)
Are we really engaged in an ideological struggle that Islamists are bound to win because of their rapid population growth? Is Middle East tension really about Islamic fundamentalists' ambitions to rid the world of infidels and establish theocracies around the world, ridding us finally of the plague of liberal democracy? Or is this a preferred picture neo-conservatives want us to believe in while they fight their colonialist war for economic domination? (Think oil, for instance.)
The world is not two neat camps. This I know. The "West" is not an ideological monolith, and neither is Islam. Seems to me when we do our regular daily tasks cooperatively with each other on a fair and equitable basis, we Christians (for instance) and Muslims can get along very well, without any need to expunge the other.
The American administration has got us all seeing their "war on terrorism" as a kind of Christian jihad with "freedom" and "democracy" at stake. Steyn's article tends to push us further in that direction. When will we deal with economic justice, which is far more likely to form the heart of the matter than is religious fundamentalism of any stripe? Read the Old Testament prophets again. Major and minor, they all emphasize that economic and legal justice are vital concerns to the God whom we Jews, and we Christians, and we Muslims all adore and seek to serve.
Mark Steyn, write about that and you may discover something of value in analyzing world events.

George's Window

George's Window
Through my window today . . .
Maclean's October 23, 2006 edition. The front page photo features a great deal of black body covering with backs to the camera and a little girl facing the camera with face uncovered. she looks defiant, unchildlike in all but stature.
The photo points us to the lead story by Mark Steyn: Why the future belongs to Islam. "The Muslim world has youth, numbers and global ambition. The West is old, barren and exhausted." Read the article. It's long, but the summary above probably says it all anyway. As is the tendency with Western conservatism, Steyn takes the demographics of birth rate and paints a picture of the Muslims generally outnumbering "us" rapidly world-wide and thereby devouring "us." It's the rhetoric of fear again, the tool on which the Bush administration has chosen to stand or fall. Conservatives tend to talk about the world in them/us terms, to see issues as simple, two-sided propositions. After reading Steyne uncritically, one could easily come away with the same feeling that one gets reading about the impending, global viral or bacterial pandemic that is bound to hit us sooner or later. Some media live and die on that kind of material; responsible media see the difference between conservative fear-mongering and news. Macleans seems to be losing its ability to make this distinction.
Read the article for yourself, but don't forget that:
1) The "WEST" is not one homogeneous place; the Muslim world isn't either,
2) The world does not pivot around ideologies as Steyn suggests, it's driving mechanism is economics, and Muslims and others work well together when engaged cooperatively in the tasks of daily survival,
3) Economic justice or the lack of it is at the heart of Middle Eastern conflict; the US erroneously and feloniously protrays "freedom" as the democratic centrepiece,
4) Birth rates are tied to affluence; the fact that Arab countries have exploding populations as compared to Europe should be considered in that light.
Macleans has adopted a "new look" over the past year or two. I don't mind an altered appearance. It's the journalistic sloppiness that's exhibited in articles like Steyn's that got my goat when I looked out my window last night.