Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Lord's Prayer

I remembered, a few moments ago, that this was actually something I meant to mention in the oaths and anthems post a few days ago, but I overlooked it when I was writing the part about the Lord's Prayer and how there've been the two different versions in my life; my personal preference being for the fuller, Protestant version.

I was thinking, the other day, of the Lord's Prayer... specifically, the wording of it, and its ecumenical applications. A strange thing for a supposed atheist to dwell on, I guess, but there it is. I was trying to work out if there's anything, aside from its general association with Christianity, that disqualifies it from use in other Abrahamic faiths. I mean, is there anything in the wording of the prayer itself that would make it obnoxious to the tenets of either Judaism, or Islam?

Obviously, I'm no expert. But it seems to me to be a strong candidate. It makes no mention of Jesus or the Holy Ghost, and implies nothing about the Trinity. It speaks of God only as "our Father". That might be strictly a New Testament usage. I don't know if it's a relationship that finds expression in Judaism or Islam. I'm inclined to think it's probably not a problem in Judaism, but I know Muslims have a very strong concept of God as very different from his creation, and the idea of him having a "son" is repugnant to them. So I'm less sure that referring to God as "our Father" would sit well with them. Nevertheless, I don't know.

But generally, it seems to me the prayer ought to have a fairly universal applicability in monotheist faiths.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Too rich for my blood

I hope I won’t be misunderstood and accused of being flippant when I say the cost of the “freedoms” of the Second Amendment is too rich for my blood. Because I mean blood literally. But I don’t mean just mine.

A friend of mine works in the news industry and he texted me Friday morning with the news about Newtown, Connecticut as soon as it hit the wire. Nothing so awful has ever happened before. And I remember thinking to myself, this is it. This is the make-or-break moment. Either they come to their senses and take the Second Amendment out of the US Constitution, or they finally sell their soul. I mean, if two dozen murdered 6 and 7-year-olds wouldn’t prompt change, what on Earth possibly could?

Now, I'm not blaming the whole United States for what happened Friday. But it's only the whole United States that can do something about it now that it has. And yet, this morning I’m reading articles about bereaved parents not expressing hostility to the gunman. The evaporation of the support for a ban on handguns that existed in the 1970s. The NRA having the ability to determine the make-up of Congress since 1994. The unlikelihood of even measures against assault rifles and high capacity magazines that expired in 2004 coming back. And I’m sitting here thinking, how can this possibly, possibly be, just three days later?

I mean, in reality, it’s bigger than just gun control. Because what in the status quo is ever going to change if something like this can’t budge a nation out of complacency, indifference, and unqualified self-interest? If this can’t generate traction on an issue and prompt real change, whatever could? What can save the United States on things like universal health care, the debt, and the future of medicare if even something like this can’t get people mad on their feet in the streets?

On "nationality"

Related to what I was saying last week...

Discussions I’ve had with a friend lately have helped to crystallize some of the perceptions I have on nationality—specifically, my own—which I have come to realize have changed over the years.

I don’t know if it’s a function of getting older or something but my perception of the group with which I self-identify has narrowed over the years. That’s not to say I’ve gotten xenophobic. Just that the groups with which I’m comfortable insisting I’m a part of has become more focused... unlike most questions in life, where the views have grown more diffuse.

I’m Canadian. That goes without saying. But is that my nationality? In a strict legal sense, yes; it’s conterminal with my citizenship in the modern era. But there’s de jure nationality and there’s de facto nationality, and I’ve finally had to admit they’re not the same thing.

Six years ago, the House of Commons officially passed a motion "that this House recognize that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada." I’ve had a long time to mull that over and I’ve come to the conclusion that it doesn’t really amount to much... it simply states the obvious, admitting the existence of the elephant we’ve tried to deny really is in the room for desperate decades haunted by the spectre of separatism. The plain fact is that for the most part, Quebec is a distinct society. But the corollary is that you can’t have half a distinction. For something to be distinct, there has to be something else from it’s distinct from... something that, logically, is equally distinct from it, for all the same reasons. This is to say, if Quebec forms a distinct society within Canada, surely what it’s distinct from must also constitute a distinct society within Canada... to which the rest of us belong. To which I belong.

When I was a kid in the 70s, we very commonly divided Canada up into “English Canada” and “French Canada”. Nowadays it’s far less common to speak of “French Canada” because, by the nature of Quebec’s changes in terms of its self-definition, it’s essentially written off francophones outside its borders (a famous phrase by Quebec author Yves Beauchemin characterized them as “des cadavres encore chauds”—"warm bodies"), abandoning them to anglicization. Rather than seeing them as co-linguists and co-culturalists living in majority-anglophone provinces, Quebec chose to see them as the equivalent of a failing diaspora with a choice to make: flop to the water and survive or dry up on the shore. This created a Canada where the strongest champions of the survival of the French language outside Quebec were the governments largely run by anglophones. Anyway, you don’t hear “French Canada” used that much anymore. For a while during the ceaseless constitutional imbroglios of the 90s, ROC (“the rest of Canada”) had some cache, but I haven’t heard that in a while. We seem to have resumed referring to ourselves as “English Canada” on the rare occasions a distinction has to be explicitly made. One crucial difference is that "ROC" tended to abandon English Canadians in Quebec in a way that, unlike the Quebecois, English Canada isn't prepared to do.

The attribution of Englishness in Canada isn’t quite the same as you would expect to find elsewhere. It’s not primarily an ethnic marker... an English Canadian is not necessarily (or increasingly these days, even usually) someone whose genetic ancestors came from England, or even the British Isles. It doesn’t principally connote anything about race or ethnicity. It is essentially a cultural eponym, given rise to by one’s mother tongue, or else the language one has adopted for public life; and, more relevantly for contrast within a Canadian context, the worldview and assumed general values that come with it, with which Quebecois are prone to defensively take issue. David Suzuki, Rae Dawn Chong, Lincoln Alexander, and “Honest Ed” Mirvish are English Canadians and part of English Canada regardless of where their ancestors, or even they themselves, came from.

I saw my nationality on display before the world in the person of Carol Huynh standing on the podium in Beijing in 2008, as I watched the familiar words forming on her lips.


Philosophically I fought against it for a long time; partly out of fear of what admitting it might imply for the future of the country. But I’ve come to accept that while, yes, I’m a Canadian citizen, and that’s a fine thing, that my identity, my nationality, who am I am both in Canada and in the world, is more precisely English Canadian. And that’s okay. It’s not denigrating to French Canada or Quebec. It’s not seeking to marginalize, demonize, or ostracize them. It’s simply accepting a finer level of self-definition, and maybe even self-determination, than just stopping at “Canadian”. It’s okay to admit, even accept, that are two major cultures—nations— in Canada (and any number of smaller subcultures), and have been for hundreds of years; and that one of them is English Canada. And though we have great and important commonalities with others—French Canadians with whom we share a state and a national history, and anglophones elsewhere with whom we share a culture, a worldview, and certain values, and our place within Anglo America and the Anglosphere—we’re unique in our particulars and our circumstance. It’s who we are.

P-Doug has related to me in the past that one of the things Canada had a penchant for in the early days of the Second World War was to take the planes the US landed at the border during the Lend Lease days, drag them across so the US wouldn’t be in technical violation of its neutrality, and then immediately replace the American engines with British ones, which leaked oil like sieves but ran better. Not to trivialize matters, but I’ve long seen that as an apt metaphor for English Canada: a yankee plane with a limey engine. It makes me smile, anyway.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Of oaths and anthems

Long story here. Just a little rambling, kind of stream of consciousness. If it’s not your cuppa, I’ll understand. :)

The Globe and Mail ran an article the other day on how irreligiosityis growing fast in the world, and may account for a third of humanity at this point. I sent this to a friend who is emerging from Catholicism to agnostic atheism. Part of the story mentioned that Canada had been criticized for publicly funding religious education in some provinces, including ours, Ontario, and my friend took issue with this.

Ontario has a publicly-funded Catholic school system, alongside the general public school system. So, I’m informed, do Alberta and Saskatchewan.  From what I understand, this comes down to the arrangements a province has when it enters Confederation. For example, the province I was born in and lived in for the first half of my education, Nova Scotia, decided it couldn’t afford more than one public school system when it established one, and so didn’t establish denominational schools. And since that was the arrangement it had when it joined Canada in 1867, that’s the system in place when I started school. My parents are Catholic (lapsed), but as there was no separate school system in Nova Scotia, I never attended Catholic school. By the time we moved to Ontario, I was half way through my education, and there was no point hopping onto the other system.

Ontario, being right next to Quebec, and having a large Catholic population, established a general Protestant school system, and a Catholic school system (so did Quebec; it was kind of a constitutional quid pro quo deal). The Protestant school system eventually just evolved into the non-denominational public school system. The Catholic system remains. My friend, who came up in that system, doesn’t understand the fuss. He considers it a dog-in-the-manger position to try to disestablish the Catholic school system, rather than that other people might justly wonder why their taxes don’t buy them a parallel educational system... why, constitutionally, some animals are more equal than others. The Supreme Court has made similar noises, but since these systems are constitutionally entrenched, and Constitution can’t contradict, or overrule, the Constitution, the courts can’t overturn them.

I’m in favour of abolishing the separate school system. Some people have suggested, instead, that we really should let people funnel their taxes into their own religious schools. To me, this is the beginning of the death of a common identity. We live in a multicultural nation now. It’s not 1867 anymore, it’s 2012. Setting up separate schools by religion wherever numbers warrant it is a recipe for ethnic and religious auto-apartheid and balkanization. Jews will congregate in one set of towns. Muslims in another. Baptists here, Methodists there. Soon, there’ll be towns you can’t move to because there won’t be schools for your kids. Eventually, that will come to mean towns where “your kind” simply aren’t really welcome to settle. Kids will grow up never having to deal with anyone who doesn’t look, act, sound, and think just like them, and the bigger world of Canadian life will come as a shock them when they encounter it. No, that’s not the future I want for this province or this country. Most Ontarians don’t: when John Tory floated the idea during the 2007 provincial election, it was so badly received he had to back off of it, and his otherwise promising start never recovered.

I think most Ontarians are ready to scrap the Catholic school system. By means of one-off constitutional amendments, Newfoundland did in 1997, and Quebec did in 1999.

All this got me thinking of religiosity in the schools in my lifetime. As a kid in Nova Scotia, my schools weren’t officially religious. Nevertheless, opening exercises included the Lord’s Prayer, and we had Christmas pageants every year. I lived in the Halifax area, which by the 1970s had a population around a quarter of a million, and so by the time I started school, we had already entered a period in our history in which a fair number of the kids I was spending my days with weren’t European and weren’t Christian. In particular, Indians (from India, not Natives) had begun to join us, and Vietnamese “boat people” were being settled across the country by the federal government. Even then, every class had two or three kids whose culture was different from what was being trotted out on those stages. No one forced them to participate, but it seems to me they all did. I suppose their parents took it with a grain of salt... it was a way for their kids to fit in, and to see their kids up on stage, tripping over things and singing badly like the rest of us. Still, now, it makes me uncomfortable to think of the presumptions we were making.

I’m not a parent, so I don’t know, but I’m persuaded we don’t have Christmas pageants anymore. The constitutionality of enforced prayer in Canadian public schools was tested after I graduated high school (it isn’t), but it was de rigeur for me for 14 years. This caused me a unique problem later in life, as it turns out. The public school system in Ontario evolved from the Protestant school system, and so the version of the Lord’s Prayer I learned and recited several thousand times was the Protestant version. The Catholic version is identical in every respect except that it ends, “...but deliver us from evil. Amen”. Nothing about kingdoms, power, or glory. So when I started attending Mass in my 30s, I had to make a conscious effort every time we recited the prayer to remember to stop. And frankly, I never liked it, because sometimes I’d forget and be saying “for thine is the kingdom” when everyone else was saying “Amen”, and because to me, the prayer ain’t over yet! We still have the thineing and the powering and the glorying and the forever and evering to do!

So to continue my ramble... I also thought about the other aspects of opening exercises when I was a kid. O Canada became the official national anthem in 1980, I believe. When it did, the words of the English version were slightly and subtly changed (the French words, which came first, are completely different and have nothing to do with the English ones; no one messed with them). The version I sang for the first seven years of school had a lot more standing on guard. Good Lord, did we do a lot of “standing on guard for thee” in the old version. It must have made up about half the song. Some changes that made subtle implications about the country were added. “And stand on guard, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee” became “From far and wide, O Canada, we stand on guard for thee”. Now, that might mean from across this very large country, but “from far and wide” to me much more strongly evokes the influx of immigration over the past few hundred years, and especially lately (which takes some of the sting out of “our home and native land” earlier in the anthem for newcomers). “O Canada, glorious and free” became “God keep our land glorious and free”. Obviously I’m a little less unreservedly thumbs-up about that one, but I guess it’s innocuous enough, and it takes one of the “O Canadas” (of which there are still too many, as well) out of the anthem. Actually, no, it just transfers it to kick another one of those “standing on guards” out of the song a bit later. I did notice that when Burton Cummings sang the national anthem in the opening ceremonies of the Grey Cup last month, he slipped up and sang the old lyrics at one point (if I remember correctly, he sang “O Canada” instead of “God keep our land”).

The other one I thought of was a citizenship oath we recited at a school I went to for two years. It’s never been official, and I’ve heard slightly different versions of it over the years. Nevertheless, after 30 years, I can still recite it instantly from memory:

I promise that I will be loyal to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, and to Canada; that I will honour the flag, observe the laws of my country, and fulfill my duties as a Canadian citizen; God being my helper.

I wonder if they’re still saying that in my old school. Heartwarming as I tend to find such sentiments, I also wonder about the constitutionality of an enforced oath, particularly on kids who might not happen to be Canadian citizens.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A step forward for Palestine

I have to declare myself somewhat surprised and rather buoyed by the news that United Nations voted this week, and by a considerable margin, to promote Palestine to the status of a non-member observer state. It seems the long-awaited emergence of the other country created by the UN in 1948 onto the world stage at last, if only as an understudy.

It comes, at last, as the world saying to Israel that it is sick of the ceaseless encroachment on borders that were already beyond the pale when they were "settled" in 1967. That it's tired of seeing Israel content to treat the Palestinians as we are constantly reminded the Germans were content to treat the inhabitants of the Krakow and Warsaw ghettos prior to 1943. That's it's had enough of the hypocrisy of the slogan "never again" when it should apply to everyone but in practice is clearly meant to apply only to one nation, one tradition, and one people; the rest be damned.

I hold no truck with the idea that the objections or even the militancy of Palestinians gives Israelis any such right to treat them this way. Let us remember most of the Jews living in what was till 1948 the mandate of Palestine have chosen to move there, and that in doing so, they were displacing people who had lived there, as a people, back into antiquity as ancient as their own. Can anyone with even in inkling of conscience deny that Palestinians are as prone as anyone else to object to that kind of treatment, particularly when it's done on the basis of "scriptures" that are not their own, but someone else's?

I'm truly glad that the world has finally said the time to back off and let the two parties work it out is past, and that principle demands some justice for the Palestinians that will not be forthcoming without the kind of demands it once brought to bear on South Africa, Indonesia, and, yes, perhaps even Serbia. And I'm truly disappointed that the Tory government of my country, elected by 2/5 of its people, has rendered Canada one of the bare handful of countries to vote against the measure, and mark us down forever in history on the wrong side of the issue as the champion the strong against the weak, and the remorseless over those they have disposed. It is a truly black mark on the reputation of this government and the country it has the privilege to speak for in the world.

"Why Atheists Love Breasts"

Brought to my attention recently is a new book by a young woman writing under the nom de plume Rinth de Shadley. Going under the faintly provocative and intriguing title WhyAtheists Love Breasts, the book is a collection of internet musings apparently previously published by the author on her blog. It's a new world we're living in.

Times were, a collection of essays like this would represent the efforts of a writer spanning a generation, vetted by editors who had readerships to please and bills to pay. Taken as a whole, its pieces would typically represent a bridge across a period in social and political history, and plot a trajectory in the growth and maturation of the author's personal philosophy. Generally speaking, because of the requirements of publishing prior to the turn of the century, a collection like Why Atheists Love Breasts would not have been possible.

Why Atheists Love Breasts is a new paradigm in that, as a collection, it represents a moment in time in every respect. It is a snapshot of one person's concerns, considerations, and philosophical trappings over an extremely narrow span of, presumably, a handful of years; all undertaken at the first bloom of adulthood. With very few exceptions, it's hard to imagine a time when a publisher would have taken a chance on a volume like this, even now. Self-publishing, both as a function of the blogosphere and on-demanding printing and shipping, make collections like this a possibility. So in most regards, this is something new, from a new kind of author, and I think it's best considered in that vein.

Before discussing the subject matter itself, I'd like to wonder out loud if it might not have been an interesting exercise for the author to have taken her blog entries and concatenated them into longer, formal essays on a handful of matters critical to her at this point in her life. That said, I understand there's also something to be said for presenting one's thoughts as they occurred to one and were captured in prose, and in that, this format does a fine job of framing each instance of Athena as it springs from the head of Zeus. In any case, I mention it not in an effort to detract from the value of the book, but to offer the author a potential challenge in some future effort.

The subject matter is divided by theme into about a half-dozen bailiwicks that run from light, devil-may-care observations on the eternal interactions between the two sexes, to discourses on scientific themes, to more trenchant moments in which the author mulls over issues of political, religious, and philosophical significance. My attitudes tended to vary with the nature of the topic. Where she wrote of personal and social experiences, I found myself admiring her self-possession and courage; she's living life but keeping an eye on the larger picture, and I wish I could have learned from her example myself 20 years ago. On matters of science, she's informative and has a gentle touch with conveying ideas without becoming dull and didactic, and I think that's a skill she'll do well to mine as time goes by.

When it came to philosophical matters, I found it hard as a reader twice the age of the author not to be condescending when reading such essays in this collection. But the fact is, by and large, the thinking reminded me of how deciding how the world works (or ought to) was for me at that age, and probably for most other people: an issue comes to one's attention, one asks oneself how one feels about it, realizes how one feels (and feels strongly), then casts about for justifications for the feeling, and typically discounts opposing views with ridicule rather than considering their merits, if any. Not often as I read such essays did I get the sense the process was: an issues comes to one's attention, one asks oneself how one ought to feel about it, and comes to a conclusion by weighing the evidence and ramifications as well as by finding out what others think and why. Quite often I felt that 'the next obvious question' that might have led to realizations that would have caused the author to modify or even reconsider her conclusions, was not asked or even identified as such. (A case in point: the author holds the answer to her book's eponymous question to be that atheists love breasts because they are materialists. Now I understand this to be a joke, but it's one aimed at making a deeper point. Set the joke aside for a moment. It seems a strange jumping-off point to use for criticizing aspects of atheism because theists also seem to love breasts; by and large every bit as much as atheists. But the author neglects to examine this parallel phenomenon and ask why that should be, since they aren't strict materialists; in so doing, she fails to promote her conclusion to the status of a considered viewpoint backed by reflection, and leaves it standing simply as an accusation. I saw this limitation frequently in the political section of the book.) So I think for older readers, a good deal of book may seem naive.

That said, I'm of the opinion that older readers, while not barred from the party at the door, are not the intended primary audience of this book (or the blog from which it derives). I think Ms de Shadley is speaking to others of her own generation first and foremost, in nearly all instances. Since it's largely about working out who one is in the world, that's entirely justified, and a collection like this stands to inform readers setting out on the seas of life, love, and careers, both in its advice, and in providing a template for collecting their own impressions on what they think and feel. That's important and empowering.

Speaking as an older reader, I'll be interested to see follow-up volumes from ten, fifteen, and twenty years in the future.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Move over, Jeff Bridges

Who's gonna tell Jeff Bridges he's been dethroned as "the Dude", as the mantle's been bestowed on me and P-Doug by a local watering hole? :)

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Brother, can you spare a mayor

On Monday morning a provincial judge ruled that Toronto's mayor, Rob Ford, had violated conflict of interest statues and removed him from office.

I had been hearing for some time that this was a technical possibility but I honestly didn't really believe that would happen. I was astonished when it did, but now that I've had a chance to mull over the details, I think it was the right call.

It's one of those starts-small-then-snowballs things, kind of like Watergate, only smaller and Canadian. It runs like this. Some time ago, Mayor Ford used city workers and city letterheads to send out messages asking for donations to his personal charity, a youth football team he coaches in Rexdale, the part of Toronto from which he hails in the city's extreme northwest. He raised approximately $3,150 this way, which he used to buy sports equipment. Small potatoes, I agree, and very much above-board; hardly stuffing it away in a Cayman Islands bank account. Still, the use of city staff and identification for such a drive is a violation of the ethics code, and earlier this year, Ford was directed to refund that money to the donors. Seven times. He ignored the directives.

Eventually this became a matter for city council itself, and this is where the smoking gun is found. Mayor Ford participated in the debates on the matter, and voted on the matter (carrying the day, oddly enough). It is against the law in Ontario for any holder of public office to engage either in debate or to vote on a matter in which he or she has a direct or indirect financial interest. A private citizen filed suit, and Monday, the court fired Mayor Ford. Ford's pleas during the trial that he didn't know what he was doing was against the rules didn't impress the judge; in fact, the judge commented that Ford had remained willfully ignorant of the obligations of his office.

It was within the power of the judge to ban Rob Ford from city council entirely for seven years. The judge declined to do so, and Ford is eligible to run again, which should partially mollify those who demand it was for the people to decide, not a judge (Really? Since when does public opinion at large decide if a law has been broken, or what to do if it has?).

It's unusual in Canada for any politician to be forced from office. A lot of people, in fact, even among the Mayor's detractors, are saying the punishment is too severe. Most of his supporters misrepresent the issue as Ford having been turfed for raising money for disadvantaged kids, rather than the reason for which he actually was: breaking conflict of interest legislation passed by Queen's Park. There's some suggestion the provincial law needs to be overhauled to provide for a range of penalties appropriate to the magnitude of the offence. I would tend to agree. But consider...

If the offence we were talking about were indeed simply confined to the size of the donations and/or the uses to which the money was put, Ford's offence would be minor. A few thousand dollars, made honest and public use of, but solicited by proscribed means. Picayune and nearly dismissible (and if Ford had just had enough good sense to scrape together three grand and mail it back when told to, that would have been it, over and done with). We can contrast that to, say, something like skimming millions from construction projects for greasing the wheels and sending it down the rabbit hole to foreign bank accounts. (The kind of thing that, as it turns out of late, happens far more routinely in Quebec—Canada's very own Latinoamérica del norte, in more ways than one—and a good illustration of why we ought to draw the line here, and now.)

But Ford's actual offence is a clearly defined one that has nothing to do with the amount of money involved, or even if there's money involved. Ford's offence was violating the law of this province by involving himself officially in matters concerning his own conduct. It doesn't matter how minor the initial violation was; it was his subsequent actions concerning them that got him removed from office. Richard Nixon didn't face impeachment because his underlings staged a break-in. He faced impeachment for covering it up when he heard about it, and everything else he did afterward to obstruct justice.

This kind of thing is so unusual here that what happens next is a rather ad hoc affair, and up to city council. It may simply appoint Deputy Mayor Doug Holyday to the remainder of Ford's term. It may decide to hold a by-election to fill Ford's vacated office. I'm hoping for the latter but expecting the former, if only for financial reasons; elections aren't cheap. But whenever the next mayoral election is held, now or two years from now, Rob Ford is eligible to run. But I wonder if the city ought to re-endorse a man whose principal defence was that he spent two years as mayor avoiding learning the rules that govern the conduct of his office; not to mention the years before that he spent as a councilor. Do the citizens of Toronto really want to return anyone of that proven mindset to public office?

Since 1834, Toronto has had 64 mayors. Four have resigned. Two have died in office. Only one has ever been judicially impeached, and Rob Ford holds that singular distinction. That should be enough.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What does it mean to be human?

I've been having an interesting tag-email debate with someone for a couple of weeks now. This is a fellow I've "known" for years on the net. We used to both go to the same political forum before it degenerated into an off-topic arena for guys to simply beat on one another with ad hominem attacks. Before we both baled, we traded email addresses.

This fellow... let me call him Dev so I don't have to keep calling him "this fellow"... Dev is a socially conservative, fiscally moderate Roman Catholic in late middle age somewhere in the US northeast. We've had some spirited public debates over the years, especially about the wisdom of US and Allied efforts overseas. I have noticed a trend in his interests towards withdrawal from the broader political scope, to a tighter focus on morality as the big issue.

Recently, after a gap of a couple of months, I emailed him to inquire into his impressions of his country's election(s). Given the dichotomy of his concerns, I wasn't sure if he'd see the results as positive or negative. There was a lot to talk about, I knew. Obama's record, the health care system, various referendums around the country, this "fiscal cliff" thing, the possibility of Puerto Rico moving on statehood, and so on.

When he replied, it was abundantly clear that for him, the election was about one issue: pro-life vs. pro-choice. Everything hinged on that result. He told me that Romney lost because he didn't take the pro-life constituency seriously and they stayed home. Likewise, that McCain lost the 2008 election for dissing Sarah Palin, whom the voters were really interested in—again, because of her pro-life credentials. I was told that God gave the 2012 election to Obama to punish the people for their loss of faith; hardening their hearts, I suppose, much as he did to Pharaoh.

I've been spending the last couple of weeks debating the nature of humanity with a man who assures me he has personally seen angels and devils, and, if I remember correctly, been addressed by God. Whether this is actually the case or not is sort of beside the point. There's no way he can prove it to me, and I'm certainly in no position to insist it never happened. It may have; I can't honestly say I know it didn't (though I'm disinclined to believe it, not surprisingly). The point is that he believes it. This forms a part of his reality, and he feels compelled, and justified, to act on it.

I think I can sum up Dev's position succinctly and without fundamentally misrepresenting it in its broad strokes. Dev believes in souls, that ensoulment occurs at conception, and that the zygote is a fully human being from the moment of conception, imbued with all human rights and subject to the protection of the law. For him, with only a few humane exceptions, abortion is murder, and the women who avail themselves of it and medical practitioners who assist them, murderers.

I understand this position because it is one that I once held. When I was a teenager, I reached the conclusion that human life was sacred, and no one had any right to end it, at least against the will of its possessor. I'm not sure what, if any, opinion I held back then about assisted euthanasia, but I do know I was adamantly opposed to both capital punishment and abortion. My views were based pretty much entirely on the sanctity of human life in the abstract, and had little to do with the realities of life.

While Roe v. Wade happened early in the 1970s in the United States, a qualified federal law technically permitting but actually strongly limiting access to abortion here in Canada persisted well into the 1980s. One reason is that Canada has had, until recently, a far more anemic tradition of judicial review than the United States. I'm no expert but I think you could count on both hands the number of laws courts struck down in Canada over the years. Even after Prime Minister Diefenbaker opened the door for greater judicial oversight on legislation with the Bill of Rights, the courts were reluctant to step up to the plate. It was really only after Prime Minister Trudeau patriated the Constitution from Britain in 1982 with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms added to it that Canadian courts finally suited up. Long story short, after the repeated actions against abortion crusader Dr. Henry Morgentaler, he sued the Crown and in 1988 the Supreme Court held that the law limiting abortion violated section 7 of the Charter. Other court decisions denied the fetus the status of human being, depending on the Common Law "born alive" rule instead. This is where the matter has rested ever since.

The ruling upset me at the time. But somewhere along the line, those "shades of grey" The Monkees sang about crept into my thinking on the matter. I began to see the issue on the basis of practicalities, real demonstrable measures of harm and suffering, and I came to see that if I really thought about these matters instead of simply nailing my flag to a principle come hell or high water, my position wasn't sustainable. I don't know when I came to see abortion as a sad, but necessary fact of life, but I did. My thinking on the matter now runs like this...

I don't know whether or not souls exist. I doubt they do for a variety of reasons, but I don't claim to know. But, since it's not within the power of anyone that I'm aware of to persuasively demonstrate they do, then the claim has no basis in law and can, or at least should be, discounted. And if they do exist, and they are sent into the world by a God reputed to be all-knowing, then he delivers them to ensoulment in circumstances he already knew would result in abortion before the birth of the mother or even the creation of the world, and still chose to do so rather than deliver that soul into other circumstances where it could come to term, be loved, and be provided for. I consider it cruel, even twisted, to say this, then, is the fault of the mother, a biological creature with urges and needs and limited resources and perception of the future, but not the fault of a being that knows everything and can do anything, yet still blithely suffers millions of pregnancies to begin where, for any number of reasons, they really shouldn't.

What does it mean to be human? Is it just having a set of chromosomes unique from everyone else? In that case, it's murder every time you scratch or cut yourself, since every cell, nowadays, is potentially human (or will be, soon enough). While I certainly concede that human life begins at conception, the status of human being is not the same thing as simply being genetically distinct. It has to be more than just that.

Having a legally thorny issue, the courts here have fallen back on being born alive. No one can dispute human status at that point. I think many people, though, suspect that the definition could be pushed back. At what point should the fetus have rights? To me, it makes no sense to speak of rights for anyone or anything that has not yet acquired the ability to suffer: in some sense, to object to its treatment at the hands of another agency. Consciousness, the ability to experience pain and the attendant distress, are the requisite formalities of having rights. Prior to that point, it is a practical absurdity and they can only be asserted on the basis of metaphysical abstractions that, as stated previously, are undemonstrable.

Even having suggested that, at some point, a fetus ought to be seen has having some rights, what are the implications? Does its right to life supersede the rights of the mother to security of the person? Every pregnancy entails an existential risk to the mother. She may willingly assume these risks... obviously, millions of women do, every year. Can can she be obliged? Ultimately, this is to ask the question: does the right of person A to live grant person A rights over the body of person B? I want to explore that. If the fetus has the right to use the mother's body, regardless of her wishes, on the basis that it is human and has the right to life even at her expense, at what point does that right end? Why shouldn't the child have the legal right to some organ in the mother's—or the father's—body, provided its removal is not necessarily fatal (though its removal, like the process of childbirth, may cause the death of the parent)? After all, if the child cannot live without the use of some part of the parent's body, what difference does it make which side of birth that need occurs? And if this is a human right, aren't we all then subject to an organ draft? If it is a right, then it seems to me entirely consistent with that right that a kind of selective service for organ donation is justifiable in law, and that if you match the tissue type of some person in need, you can be called up. So I don't believe the fetus has rights that supersede those of the mother to her own body, or oblige her. Just as any of us might with a kidney or bone marrow, this act must be a gift and a donation, not a legal duty.

The practicalities of it are, it seems to me, that a woman is indisputably a fully human being, possessed of all rights, and fully subject to fear, pain, mental anguish, and doubt. Child-rearing at an inopportune time may not match the realities of her circumstances in terms of her finances, marital status, or education. It may prejudice her ability to look after that child, or those who might have done better being born later when she was better prepared for parenthood. To scold that she should have thought of that before she got pregnant does nothing to address, solve, or even acknowledge these very real issues; to oblige her only brings those problems to bear. If she reaches these conclusions, then she is within her rights to end a pregnancy, particularly if she does so prior to any kind of organized brain activity in the womb. Women have, and always will, be faced with these choices in this very real, very imperfect world, and we do nothing to make the world a measurably better place if we send women and doctors to prison or return them to a world of shady back alley procedures, supposedly for the benefit of beings who cannot suffer. Insisting we do so in the name of purportedly obeying the will of a God who should have known better is, despite all protestations to the contrary, a heartless and merciless recipe for human misery, and the subjugation of others against their own will and better judgement of their own aspirations and circumstances.

I feel that we must let people make the choices they feel they must in the matter. And if there is a God, leave it to him to work out what comes next.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Bigger stories

There are some tales that are larger than the times or the countries in which they happen. Some that have a context that exceeds the capacities of their time and place to contain them, and they become women into the thread of mankind forever onward. Such a tale is the US Civil War in general, and in particular, the passage and wake of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln is, in some regard, simply too great a figure to think of simply as the 16th President of the United States. What he faced, and what he accomplished, in large part because of who he was, I can unabashedly and safely say is the closest I come to seeing the hand of a living God at work in the world, and most enduring instance of that feeling over time.

I didn't know that much about the movie Lincoln going into it this weekend. I'd seen the trailers and knew I had a powerful thirst to see this epic. I'd somehow missed that the focus was on the 13th Amendment... or I'd simply, lazily conflated it with the Emancipation Proclamation. But those were two very different events, and towards the end of the movie, that's stated plainly; the distinction put into Mr. Lincoln's mouth to express.

What can I tell you about his movie? If you know any history at all, you know the plot in the broad strokes. I can tell you that there are three reasons to see this movie.

 The first reason is the compelling tale of how, during an extemely crucial and rapidly closing window of opportunity in January, 1865, Abraham Lincoln marshalled the forces to present the 13th Amendment to the House of Representatives and, against long odds, get it passed. Anyone who thinks of the current state of the US Congress as hopelessly divided owes it to himself or herself to spend two hours watching this movie. A house divided over minutiae like income tax rates and medical care payment plans needs to see the rump of one fatally split by a civil war further split at the end of that war over the question of what it is even to be fully human, and the political horse-trading and appeals to emotion that Lincoln used to overcome it.

Then I can tell you is that this director and these actors have given me the singular sensation of really having seen Abe Lincoln. The sensation at times that they had somehow smuggled movie cameras back to 1865 and huddled them into the debris and neglected corners of this place or that that the man moved through was at times palpable. It pervades the picture, but there are three key scenes that pin down who Abe Lincoln the man was that leave me, at least, with the sensation of really having been in the presence of the man somehow. One is a confrontation between Lincoln and his wife, Mary, that manages to be lovingly tender and bitterly hurtful all at the same time. If Oscars aren't forthcoming for this scene alone, well, they should be. Another is Lincoln alone with two young officers in his war communications room... arguably one of the first in history receiving reports and issuing orders in real time... in which his moral firmness trumps, at the last moment, a weariness that lent itself to what might have been a fatal compromise. You feel like one of the boys in the room. You don't know exactly how what Lincoln just decided will play out... but somehow, you know it's right. And finally there is the moment, some of it shared in the movie's trailer, where Lincoln loses patience with his bickering cabinet—all of whom have remarkably good points to make, if only in the context of the day—and brings them into line not with threats or ultimatums but by explaining, finally, why the job has to be done, and done now.

Which brings me to the third, and possibly the most important reason to see the movie. To learn. Anyone who assumes, as I did going into the theatre, that the Emancipation Proclamation did all the work and the 13th Amendment tied up loose ends of a parcel that was effectively tightly bound is in for a surprise. Lincoln's explanation to his cabinet is an eye-opener, even to someone like me who's had a long, if admittedly casual, interest in the US Civil War and some of the tidbits about the US Constitution. This is the central moment of the movie in the moral sense; its core. It makes it clear what had to be accomplished and why, and disposes of any questions one might have as to the strange urgency of Lincoln's drive to see the 13th Amendment passed at that moment in time. So in this, the movie manages to raise an ironic tension in the audience despite its knowing the outcome: it puts you there with those of the day who don't know, whose country will be a very different place if it doesn't pass, or passes a few months later in history. There's no artifice about this. You're given to understand what a pivotal moment in history it really was, and why it couldn't have happened any other way, any other time.

I'm kind of sentimental and anyone who knows me won't be surprised to hear that a scene moved me to tears. I wasn't the only one; I heard a few soft sobs and nose-blowings in the theatre. Remarkable, isn't it; in this cynical age, so far removed from the events of the film? I was hoping we'd be spared the assassination, and there would just be a hint, a nod to what we all know is coming like the long shadows of JFK, RFK, and Ken O'Donnell on the wall at the end of Thirteen Days, but the movie carries forward in its last minutes to bring us that moment that effectively sealed Lincoln's fate as the realized Moses and sanctified him in his semi-divine status. Seeing Lincoln die and be consigned to belonging now "to the ages" was moving, but not so much as see him depart for Ford's Theater, rushed away from his friends, and turning to remark that it was time to go, but he wished he could stay. Watching him walk down the hall in sihlouette and realize that he is passing from being "theirs" to being "ours" was much deeper in its poignancy. Still, the movie manages to give Lincoln the last word, and again, it's a word that moved me.

Just in passing, I'd like to comment on the subtle way the movie makes the point about the change in the nature of the US Presidency, or even the way we deal with public officials anywhere. It's remarkable, even startling, to see the casualness of being President in the 1860s... and in the midst of a civil war, at that. Lincoln, out wandering around and dropping in on people, or moving around the streets of Washington in an open carriage. Men with urgent news charging into the White House, up the stairs, and freely barging into the room where the president is working as though he were the clerk behind the counter at a drug store—the scene actually provoked chuckles in the audience. The world may have gotten much smaller in the age of modern communications, but in some ways, it's gotten a lot bigger. That town hall sense of politics is simply gone, gone, gone.

It's not my country. It's not my constitution, not my war, not my history. Abraham Lincoln was not my president. But none of that matters. Lincoln and the struggle for human rights is simply too big for all those little boxes. No matter where you are, Lincoln is a movie you've got to see. If you're human, you deserve to.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Musings on the US national election, 2012

First, my personal congratulations to the people of the United States in general, and to President Obama in particular. More than any other issue, I'm opposed to the idea of giving anyone who sincerely believes these are "the end times" the power to make his dreams come true. I'd rather "the football" stayed in the hands of someone who actually believes humanity has a future on the planet Earth, and one to be determined by human beings as much as possible.

Obama didn't set the US alight like I hoped he would four years ago. No envy-of-the-world Camelot II sprung up and took root. Maybe I was foolish to think it would, but even I was optimistic. Nevertheless, given the state of things, he did a better job than I believe any Republican of the current crop would have done.

And on that score, what is it with the Republican Party lately, anyway? It seems to me they've spent the last 30 years looking for more and more outrageous candidates, and then daring the people to elect them. Okay, I didn't think John McCain was that bad, but... Sarah Palin? 150 million women in the United States, and that was they best they could come up with? And now Romney and Ryan, who come across more like they should be leading a synod in 6th century than a modern nation state that puts people into space above an Earth that's not flat and isn't orbited by the sun. What's next; the reanimated corpse of David Koresh? 'Cause, y'know, there was a real champion of religious freedom and guy not afraid to take a stand against the evil, evil government, after all. No, seriously; where are the GOP's outer limits these days? What happened to the party of Ike Eisenhower? Hell, even Richard Nixon? And why, oh why, do they keep polling the numbers they are the loonier they get?

Anyway... something that puzzles me about the election is that people put the Democrats back in the White House to run the show, but then gave control of the House of Representatives to the Republicans. That's like handing someone a Ferrari to win the race for you, and then welding the gas tank shut. What's the point? Now, I live in one of those several-dozen countries using the Westminster parliamentary system in which no one actually votes for the office of Prime Minister. The PM is just the guy leading the gang with the most guys standing at the end of the electoral street brawl. But at least there's no way he or she won't command at least the largest block of legislators, if not the actual majority. On the other hand, US voters just assured that virtually no initiative emerging from the executive in the next two years at least will get through the lower house of the legislature for fear it'll make the Democrats look good.

The other thing I don't get is why the Electoral College still exists, or ever did. I'm glad Obama won 300-and-whatever votes in it, as opposed to Romney's 200-and-some. But I'm hearing that described as "decisive". What's actually decisive, or ought to be, is that he got roughly a million more votes nationwide than Romney did. But that's no 3-2 split. That's a difference of about 1%. So what is the Electoral College for? It was designed in the 18th century as a democratophobic measure; it has the potential to "elect" the loser, like it did only 12 years ago; it skews the results and negates the voice of any 50-minus-1 group in any state, commandeering them as zombies and making them effectively count against the person they endorsed; and it divorces the American people from the one, single office in the entire country they all hold in common: the Presidency of the United States. That should be a direct relationship. One person, one vote, north to south, sea to shining sea. States and counties should be invisible, shouldn't exist in the contest. It should be organized and run by a body of volunteers across the country, directed by an arms-length office in Washington, by a single set of rules, and a central voters list... not the rules and scruples of Podunk County picking the candidates and deciding whom it does and doesn't think ought to get a vote this time around. I was once told that this is impossible; that no federal republic anywhere on Earth directly elects its president in this fashion. But Austria, a stable, moderate, wealthy First World country—and a federal republic—does. It is possible. Navel-gazers, arise; lift your heads with awe. Other people have ideas, too. Sometimes they're even better than yours.

One other thing that's caught my interest, but seems to be utterly overlooked, is that Puerto Rico has just held yet another referendum on its constitutional relationship to the United States. And for the first time in these never-end-ums, a slim majority has voted against the status quo. Of those who did, and went on to answer the second question, something like 65% voted for statehood, with most of the rest voting for a form of sovereignty-association that would distance Puerto Rico from the US somewhat, and a very small minority in favour of outright independence. Supposedly, this result implies a run-off referendum at some point to work out just which of the alternatives people endorse, since they've finally nixed the status quo. I did the cross-calculation and of those who voted in total, about 35% went on to vote for statehood. So it comes down to what the nearly half of Puerto Ricans who were just fine with things the way they are, but presumably can't have that anymore, will prefer as an alternative: statehood, or an arrangement with more independence for Puerto Rico while maintaining some ties to the United States. To me, this is very exciting. The US might get its first new state in over 60 years; the first new arrangement of stars on its flag in the same period. The prospect of a state where English isn't the norm, and Spanish is. And yet, no one seems to have taken any interest. To me, this is perplexing.

So... my varied, scattered musings in the wake of the US national election.