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? :)