Episode 9: The CBC’s Importance & Killer Asteroids

Peasants & Emperors is a podcast presenting topics related to democracy, science, culture, women’s issues, current events and critical thinking. A new podcast is produced and available for listening/download approximately every two weeks.

In episode nine, the Hooligans discuss the importance of having publicly funded news agencies like the CBC. There are countless examples of privately owned (“for profit”) news channels and agencies who pass-off “infotainment” as news and do not fulfill their role of keeping power accountable and safe-guarding democracy.

Additionally, in the “hypothetical situation” segment the cast discusses what they’d do if the world ended due to an asteroid impact.

Episode 9: The CBC’s Importance and Killer Asteroids

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Notes & Clarifications
1). During the podcast Rick observed that while watching the CBC he was exposed to the thinking of two Canadian scientists. He could not initially remember the name of the archaeologist working on Baffin Island. Her name is Dr. Pat Sutherland and her story can be accessed on this archived feed from the Fifth Estate (a CBC documentary). Rick also mentioned a second scientist who developed a model predicting the complete collapse of ocean life by 2050. He thought it was a female but it turned out to be a male named Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University. Click here to listen to the interview between David Suzuki and Dr. Worm on CBC’s One Ocean.

2). During the “Hypothetical Situation” game Rick cited a number of statistics related to the Apophis asteroid. These stats were based on older scholarship. For the sake of clarity the following stats and information are based on more current scholarship.

  • Apophis caused concern initially in 2004 (not 2003, 2005)
  • This asteroid will be passing the “key-hole” in 2029 (not 2026)
  • The odds of Apophis actually hitting the earth have been reduced significantly due to subsequent observations (on April 28, 2068 the odds are 1: 149,000)
  • An asteroid the size of Apophis is expected to hit the earth on average once every 80,000 years.
  • If an object the size of Apophis (approximately 350 meters across) struck the earth it would release about 750 megatons of energy (compared to 100,000,000 megatons released during the Chicxulub event 65,000,000 years ago).
  • The most current scholarship suggests Columbia and Venezuela are the most likely locations of an impact (not Western Canada).
  • Apophis’ impact would lead to significant fatalities but does not constitute a risk to ending all life as defined.

3). Extinction events: Rick observed about every 25,000,000 years there’s an extinction event on earth. Some context is in order. Over the past 500,000,000 years, there have been a total of five mass extinction events, e.g. Ordovician-Silurian Extinction Events (450-440 million years ago), Late Devonian Extinction (375-360 MYA), Permian-Triassic Extinction Event (252 MYA), Triassic-Jurassic Extinction Event (201 MYA), Cretaceous-Paleogene Extinction Event (formerly known as the K-T extinction) (66 MYA).

Five extinctions over 500,000,000 years does not average out to one extinction event about every 25,000,000 years. Thus, some clarification is in order: what Rick meant to say was that in addition to these five major extinctions there were approximately 15 smaller events, e.g. The most recent was a comet exploding over North America leading to a mass dying off of large fauna and plant life around 12,900 years ago.

 

History Isn’t Over, It’s On Steroids

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”—Marcus Garvey

My kids frequently say they’re hungry; yet, when it comes right down to it they have zero experience with actual hunger. Children aren’t the only ones who like to make use of over-statement: following the most recent Canadian election a number of people I know expressed a concern that the Liberal Party’s majority, with its promise of massive deficit spending, would destroy Canada. Despite the histrionics my sons will survive until their next meal and I suspect even Canada will survive Justin Trudeau. There are times, however, when overstatement reflects the situation as it really exists. For example, when the Soviet Union collapsed unexpectedly in 1991 it was no exaggeration to say the United States was caught off-guard by becoming the world’s sole superpower; this situation presented the United States with an unprecedented opportunity to build democracy worldwide without any interference from those pesky Russians.

A couple years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, I took a political studies class called “Soviet Studies” from Professor Bohdan Kordan. Kordan was an expert on the Soviets. He was invited by the Kremlin sometime in the mid-1990s to help the country establish its fledgling democratic institutions. Initially, the most interesting thing about the disappearance of the USSR was how fast it happened; it seems the Soviet economy, thought by most experts as relatively robust, collapsed due to unsustainable military spending during the arms race with the United States; and with that a global order five decades in the making with its nuclear arms race, various crises, hysteria, propaganda, alliances, and proxy wars, evaporated and a new balance of power evolved virtually overnight; and in this context the new Russia quickly reverted to the trusted and tried tendencies of the old Russia: since the Russians had no meaningful previous experience building consensus-based institutions, they gave into the temptation to follow a strongman leader like Vladimir Putin (1952 to present).[1] Kordan’s passion for ideas was formative for me both as a student and an educator: he always gave me the impression he was witnessing history unfold firsthand as he lectured while looking out of one of the classroom’s windows.

Another formative lecturer for me was the renowned historian of ideas, Dr. Robert Grogin. During one lecture, Grogin observed the Soviet Union’s collapse was attended by a sense of optimism in the West. The end of the Cold War[2] should have meant not only an end to the arms race between America and Russia; it should have put an end to the proxy wars[3]—fought between the Soviet Union and America’s allies—fought over the tired ideologies of the 20th century.

Professor Grogin predicted that if nationalism was the most influential ideology of the 20th century, then fascism would be the 21st century’s most defining intellectual force. To Grogin’s credit he made this prediction with respect to fascism’s influence in the mid-90s well before:

  • The rapid growth of radical jihadism or the appearance of ISIS.
  • The increased power and influence of corporations over democratically elected governments through globalization.[4]
  • The contraction of liberal socialism along with the declining influence of labor unions in Western countries like Britain, Canada and the United States.
  • The consolidation of the media in fewer and fewer corporate hands (and the tendency of media to act as hand-maiden, rather than critic, of power).
  • The rise of the modern surveillance state (although vestiges of this already existed as early as the 1970s).
  • The unqualified promotion of neo-liberalism[5] as embodied by the Chicago School of Economics and the contraction of the welfare state (particularly in the United States).
  • And the rise of right-wing populism as personified by personalities like Donald Trump (United States) or politicians like Marine le Pens (France).

I recall Dr. Grogin as a lecturer for another reason: during one class he quoted the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama (1952 to present) on the significance of the Cold War’s end. In particular, Fukuyama said the collapse of the Soviet Union meant “the end of history”:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.[6]

Fukuyama seemed to be saying Western values—democracy, pluralism, tolerance, capitalism—no longer had any competitors or opponents; therefore, the future belonged to Western liberal tradition. This was an extraordinary claim to make.[7] My biggest criticism of Fukuyama’s claim, aside from it being clearly false in its own right, is he did not apparently anticipate that the “good guys,” if left unchecked by either law or by principle, were just as capable of being “bad” as any “red,” “jihadi,” or “terrorist”.


Looking Through Windows

Following the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, America was justifiably concerned about its opponent’s nuclear weapons falling in to the wrong hands: the former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan and Ukraine both became nuclear superpowers overnight.[8] For the next 18 years fissile material was variously left unguarded. For example, in 2009 two Ukrainian businessmen acquired and then tried selling 3.5 kg of enriched plutonium. Scarier still is the sheer number of smuggling incidents (mainly involving former Soviet republics) where, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), governments uncovered and prevented 827 attempts involving the illegal sale of plutonium.[9] Were all attempts at smuggling prevented? It seems unlikely.

Given the current geo-political[10] situation in the Middle East, Western governments (and I’ll lump Russia in to that camp) certainly have the most to be concerned about when it comes to growing demand for plutonium in the Middle East: Western aggression in Afghanistan and Iraq (and even Pakistan) has not only de-stabilized and contributed specifically to the radicalization of people in these regions but has also reminded the Arab World generally of the long history of Western imperialism. This reminder, if you will, is one of the most significant factors contributing to the radicalization of Muslims who either go on to join ISIS or are inspired to act as so-called “lone wolves” taking matters in to their own hands.[11]
Opening the Window
History will only end once humankind disappears. The end of the Cold War certainly didn’t result in either the end of history or the establishment of world peace. On the contrary, terrorism replaced the Soviet threat in the eyes of many Westerners; yet, terrorism is nothing new; the current rash of attacks is simply the most recent wave. If you read European or North American-based newspapers from the late 1800s and early 1900s you’ll encounter week after week stories describing bomb blasts, attacks and assassinations of public figures, diplomats, kings, presidents, and arch dukes, by anarchists and other ideologues. Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s watching the news I learned at an early age the consequences of airplanes being blown up by Sikh radicals and jihadists alike. Yet, some theorists argue there is something different about the current wave of terrorists belonging to movements like al Qaeda, Boko Haram and ISIS. This new generation of radicals appears to be more dangerous, committed, more organized, and fanatical compared to their predecessors. I used to doubt this claim attributing it more to over-statement than a measured appraisal of the situation; however, in lieu of the Paris attacks[12] there might be something to this claim when one considers the scale and organization of ISIS and, in particular, its decision to target so-called “soft targets” like malls, schools, and restaurants.

The West has been fighting a so-called war on terrorism since 9/11. The problem, one of many to be sure, with fighting such a war is it’s never entirely clear who the enemy is or how it can be won: for this reason such wars can potentially turn in to a sort of Orwellian perpetual conflict justifying the feeding of dollar after dollar after dollar to the military industrial complex. The end of the Cold War could have meant an end to such military spending (America currently spends half of its GDP on its military); however, the disappearance of the Soviet Union did not lead to an end to government moneys or contracts given to the military industrial complex (also known as the military industrial-congressional complex). A significant proportion of America’s economy is dedicated to the manufacture, sale and most importantly use of war materiel in a sort of macabre business cycle. To be honest this “new” terrorism could not have come at a more opportune time; governments are presently justified in the eyes of the public to spend billions of dollars on defense and domestic surveillance thereby enriching the corporations who control the country’s political decision-making process.[13]
Closing the Window
One way to prevent terrorism is to stop doing what creates terrorists in the first place. In the case of the Paris attacks of 2015, the violence is actually a reflection of several decades of marginalization experienced by Muslims in France.[14] I’m not trying to justify the attacks; I’m trying to build a context so I can understand them. Canadians, in particular, should take note: with the influx of refugees from Syria in 2015-2016 Canadians can take a lesson from French history and see what happens when a minority becomes desperate and radicalized due to marginalization. Marginalization doesn’t inevitably lead to terrorism; nonetheless, it certainly feeds in to the cycle of desperation making radical Islam so attractive to vulnerable segments of society.[15]

You cannot fight a war on terror like you would a conventional war, e.g. dropping bombs on the “bad guys,” etc. like President Trump asserts. You need to change attitudes (both at home and in the “target” country). You need to change the perception your country is an enemy. In particular, Western nations need to quit interfering in the internal affairs of Arab countries. For example, through the 1960s and 70s America propped up an unpopular Shah Pahlavi in Iran; the Shah was overthrown during a popular uprising of students in 1978. The Americans punished Iran through a proxy war; they equipped and encouraged neighboring Iraq (and its dictator Saddam Hussein) to attack Iran.[16] The American tendency to support dictators like the Pahlavi or Hussein forms part of what I like to call the O.S.O.B. Doctrine.[17] America has made use of and supported S.O.B.s for decades by propping up dictators in Central America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East for self-interested reasons. Rightly or wrongly, this has made America a target and the poster-child for oppressor among the various peoples living on these continents.[18]

Again, to win a war against terror you need to remove the excuse for being a terrorist in the first place: victory will come when Western countries like Canada, Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, etc. treat developing countries and those in the Arab World more equitably. I don’t see this happening but something like it needs to happen if tensions are going to lessen. Terrorists are created by and through terror—when their cities are bombed, when their religious and secular leaders are assassinated by our spy agencies or through covert ops violating international law. Terrorists are also created when states are not allowed the right to self-determination. People emerge out of the affected countries angry and willing to do whatever they need to do to end unwanted outside interference.


Breaking the Window

The world had problems before the break-up of the Soviet Union—two world wars and a host of other conflicts in the 20th and 21st centuries is obvious evidence of that. However, it appears 1991 brought with it a series of unique changes and challenges. Some of the changes were predictable. For instance, people in Arab countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, etc. have become more vocal in their desire to break the influence of Western governments on their countries (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt formed for this very purpose in the late 19th century). Some of the changes could not be predicted, e.g. in 1991 the Internet existed but no one saw the advent of social media or how truly revolutionary both Facebook and Twitter would become.

Social media directly contributed to regime change in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt (during the Arab Spring).[19] Egyptian protesters used Facebook/Twitter to organize mass demonstrations against Egypt’s dictator Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian government reacted by restricting access to the Internet. Protesters overcame the attempted suppression by literally daisy chaining smart phones from one to the next in a series of links connecting protesters to cell towers outside of the country. After approximately a month of protest the Mubarak regime was brought down with relatively few casualties.

There were protest movements prior to the existence of the Internet. In 1960s America, the Civil Rights Movement utilized peaceful protests and demonstrations to usher in change. Yet, protest movements in the 21st century have an enhanced capacity to communicate their message to the public through the World Wide Web. Knowledge is power and the Internet has changed everything.[20] Individuals have the power to communicate information to an unprecedented number of people in record time (they can write blogs for instance); literally anyone with access to the Web can post a story, picture or video online for others to view. Everyone has the capacity to influence everyone else. Wikileaks, for example, succeeded in embarrassing the governments of the United States and Canada by revealing illegal spying activities: Canada’s spy agency used its capabilities to spy on Brazilian mining companies for the benefit of Canadian corporations while the United States got Canada to help spy on Angela Merkel (Germany’s chancellor and an ally of both countries). Again, the average person—regardless of what country they live in—potentially has the power to influence the thinking of others and shape events.

The implication is clear: you would think that the public’s increased ability to expose government corruption or ineptitude should result in real change. Not so, at least not yet. Be patient. Information leads to awareness which means change isn’t far behind. I’m curious though: Dr. Grogin, back in the 1990s, banged on his rostrum and observed fascism would be the most powerful ideology shaping the 21st century. With the expansion of the surveillance state, corporations skirting laws or out-right buying the political decision making process, and the gradual rise in the popularity of right wing movements in countries like Germany, France, Belgium and even the United States, etc. I’m starting to think Dr. Grogin was correct. What do these developments mean for the future of democracy? Historical precedents suggest a collapse in the global economy, which is not altogether impossible given China’s growing debt crisis and the interdependence of the world’s economies, would not lead to a strengthening of democracy or the expansion of liberty; it is likely a contraction on liberty would follow fast on the heels of austerity and economic collapse.

Governments certainly continue oppressing people through the use of militias, secret police, conventional police and armies; yet, governments—led by S.O.B.s or otherwise—can no longer count on acting in secrecy to effectively terrorize citizens in to submission. In the 1970s, Argentina’s dictator Jorge Rafael Videla’s regime made upwards of 30,000 critics “disappear” (disappear being a euphemism for flying people miles out over the Atlantic Ocean and then pushing them out the door in to the waters below). Given the common cameras are now and the extent to which social media is used now it is all but unthinkable any regime—no matter how fascist—would be able to make its citizens disappear for an extended period.[21]

If anything history hasn’t ended so much as sped up due to a confluence of factors ranging from:

  • A climate crisis increasingly affecting/de-stabilizing First and Third World countries alike through the creation of tens of millions of refugees.
  • Renewed Western imperialism in the Middle East and Asia through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan which radicalized citizens of those countries and others.
  • The advent of the Internet and the potential for using social media to return power back to the people and the increased capacity of governments to spy on its own citizens.
  • The manipulation of elections and parliaments by self-interested corporations and an economic, neo-liberal elite.
  • Terrorism and the subsequent expansion of the surveillance state and the justification of military spending akin to what was practiced during the Cold War (while simultaneously social programs are being cut for the sake of austerity and balancing budgets).
  • The withering away of the sovereignty of the nation state due to the expansion of globalization.

History hasn’t ended or even weakened…if anything, it’s on steroids.

 

[1] Russian history is sprinkled with an assortment of strongmen leaders who imposed order onto disorder and chaos. This absolutist tradition was reinforced by a combination of factors: firstly, Russia’s unquestioning adherence to the Orthodox Church; secondly, Russia lacked natural boundaries to prevent invasion first from the Tartars and then the Mongols; these eastern invasion introduced the idea of despotism to Russia; and thirdly, the nobility was purposely kept small and weak by the emperor, i.e. if you wanted to rise up in the ranks you had to obey. In this context, Vladimir Putin is the most recent incarnation of a strongman leader. Alec Nove, Stalinism and After, p.11-13.

[2] The Cold War was fought between the Soviet Union and the United States from 1947 until 1991. The war was “cold” because it was fought through the use of everything other than convention warfare. For example, instead of American and Soviet armies shooting at one another, the two sides used an arms race, propaganda, espionage, threats, and proxy wars. There was a real fear that if a convention war broke out between the two powers it would end in a nuclear holocaust and the destruction of the planet.

[3] Proxy wars are conflicts started by a country that that country does not directly participate in. For example, during the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989) the Americans supplied the Mujahedeen (literally “freedom fighters” in Arab) with weapons so they could fight the Russians.

[4] Globalization is the process in which people, ideas and goods spread throughout the world, spurring more interaction and integration between the world’s cultures, governments and economies.

[5] In the 19th century, Western societies by and large practiced what was then called laissez-faire (or “hands off”) economics. In this context, governments stepped completely back and allowed corporations to run the economy. The problem with this type of economic model (also called a “liberal” model) is it tends to make the wealthy wealthier while keeping the poor in check. The liberal model was abandoned gradually over time through the introduction of legal reforms allowing unions to organize and bargain collectively and with the passage of laws to protect workers from exploitation at the hands of corporations. Eventually, with the Stock Market Crash in 1929 and the onset of the Great Depression, liberalism was abandoned in favor of a “mixed economic model” where both the private sector and governments participated equally in the economy. Neo-liberalism (literally meaning “return to liberalism”) is an economic model seeing the private sector return to its former 19th century position of dominance by pushing governments out of the economy through deregulation and globalization. An example of a neo-liberal idea is something uttered Michele Bachmann (a former member of Congress representing Minnesota), e.g. she argues that if minimum wage laws were repealed then corporations could afford to hire more employees. What she fails to take into account is the corresponding drop in the purchasing power of consumers (who are also workers) that would follow.

[6] Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?”, The National Interest, Summer 1989. https://ps321.community.uaf.edu/files/2012/10/Fukuyama-End-of-history-article.pdf.

[7] Fukuyama did acknowledge that despite the fall of the Soviet Union there’d still be future crises, conflicts, and wars; however, he was asserting that the life and death struggle between the proponents of the ideologies of liberalism, fascism, communism, etc. which led to two world wars and the Cold War was over. Liberalism was victorious and there was no foreseeable “-ism” left with to compete. He seems to be implying history was not only dead, no other ideology would ever be formed. He did not take into proper consideration, however, the possibility that human beings are highly creative and their interactions invariably complex leading both to the development of new, or as is sometimes the case re-emergence of old, ideologies, e.g. Jihadism, terrorism, corporatism, nationalism, and fascism, etc. to name a few –isms currently shaping the 21st century.

[8] Russian oversight of sites where plutonium was stored in the former republics was completely inadequate (see the documentary Countdown to Zero for more: www.youtube.com/watch?v=B8g25uzB3rc).

[9] Osman Aytac and Mustafa Kibaroğlu, Defense Against Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism, p.53.

[10] Geopolitics: politics, especially international relations, as influenced by geographical factors.

[11] Canada was hit twice by lone wolf attacks in 2014.

[12] The Paris attacks took place on November 13th, 2015. The attacks were a series of coordinated terrorist attacks against the city’s northern section including a soccer stadium, cafes and restaurants. The attackers killed a total of 130 people.

[13] William Greider, Who Will Tell the People, p.24.

[14] French employers are notorious for using profiling to avoid hiring Muslims. Muslims have likewise been otherwise discouraged from participating in public life in France, e.g. they have not enjoyed the same access to education and training as others, they are restricted from working in the civil service, and laws have been passed in the country prohibiting Muslims from wearing the niqab (head covering). In the 1950s and 60s, France opened its borders to Algerians (then part of the declining French Empire). The Algerian Muslims helped fill critical roles in the country’s economy; however, these Muslims—and subsequent generations of them—did not integrate into French society and were actively marginalized. The riots engulfing Paris and several other cities in 2005, involving North Africans identifying with Islam, erupted for this very reason (and in hindsight the riots appear to be a harbinger for the terrible violence of 2015). See Vice News season 3 episode 12 “Enemy of the Gates/Global Jihad” for more.

[15] Noam Chomsky, What We Say Goes, p.157.

[16] This led to the Iraq-Iran war which lasted from 1980 to 1988.

[17] When President Harry S. Truman (1884-1972) was questioned about the wisdom or ethics of supporting China’s Chiang Kai-Shek, an ambitious and self-aggrandized power seeker, Truman responded, “He might be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch”.

[18] Rather than present an exhaustive list of dictatorships propped up by the various American administrations over time (which in some cases led to the undermining of genuinely democratic movements in affected countries), you can access the list by visiting the following link: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_authoritarian_regimes_supported_by_the_United_States.

[19] The Arab Spring refers to a series of democratic uprisings that arose independently and spread across the Arab world in 2011. The movement was inspired by a mixture of democracy and nationalism beginning in Tunisia in December 2010 and quickly spreading to Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

[20] The Internet, as with all things, can be used for good or for ill. The fact this new technology is making democratic reform possible in the Muslim world is encouraging; however, this same technology is being used by Western governments to spy on citizens in their own countries; this is to be expected since citizens can commit acts of terrorism; however, mass surveillance does have some implications for the preservation of fundamental freedoms like the right to privacy. Interestingly, Western governments are using their new surveillance powers more to spy on other countries and foreign corporations than their own citizens. See Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the U.S. Surveillance State, p.141.

[21] For this reason countries like Iran and China severely restrict what content can or cannot be viewed online in their countries. China, in particular, has taken full advantage of information technology. The Chinese Government has invented a mandatory app called “Sesame Credit” that all citizens must install on their electronic devices. The app is designed to encourage certain behaviors in the citizenry consistent with China’s socialist ideology. See http://www.popsci.com/china-wants-people-to-opt-in-to-new-mandatory-citizenship-game for more.