Archive for January, 2011
A reader has started her own blog, and one of her first posts features what I think is quite an interesting and funny video:
There are a couple of things you should know about a video like this. First, it is an abstraction of several actual experiences, somewhat punched up and stitched together to make a point. I’m somewhat in doubt that anyone has had a single job interview in which all of these things have happened. However, I can avow from personal experience that I’ve been on the receiving end of every single one of those comments.
Of course it’s not simply just mindless entertainment – imagine having to deal with questions like this every day, every time you do anything that doesn’t fit with the stereotype. When that stereotype is a negative one, it disincentivizes people from pursuing anything that puts them constantly in a position of having to defend themselves from such stupidity. There’s a lot of tearing down that happens within the community as well, and that’s certainly a problem that must be addressed. It’s fun, however, to watch the interviewer stumble all over his words, knowing he said something stupid but not knowing how to extricate himself. It is partially for this reason that I write about stuff like this – to give people some insight and vocabulary on how to navigate situations like these.
For the record, while I wouldn’t personally respond to a situation like this in the way that Marcus does, I can certainly appreciate his reasons for doing so.
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Life isn’t easy or clear-cut. Inevitably, we will find ourselves confronted with a position wherein our beliefs come into conflict with each other. Whether that is something mild, like when I had to choose whether or not to go to church with my relatives at Christmastime, or something more serious like whether or not to marry the love of your life in her/his family’s church – same conflict with far higher stakes.
Today’s story is an example of such a conflict that I’m struggling with right now:
Key websites of the Tunisian government have been taken offline by a group that recently attacked sites and services perceived to be anti-Wikileaks. Sites belonging to the Ministry of Industry and the Tunisian Stock Exchange were amongst seven targeted by the Anonymous group since Monday. Other sites have been defaced for what the group calls “an outrageous level of censorship” in the country.
An erstwhile free speech advocate like myself is driven to support the message of Anonymous, which is that speech should be free everywhere, even (perhaps especially) when it embarrasses governments. The internet is one of the crowning achievements of the human species – bringing information down from the heavens and into the hands of the commons (at least those commons who can read and have access to a computer and a signal). When a sovereign government violates the human rights of its people, there is little that can be done, at least officially. Because of the intricacies, twists and turns of international politics, it may not be possible to issue a trade embargo, withdraw diplomatic ties, or even write a strongly-worded letter of condemnation.
That’s where a group like Anonymous could conceivably come in. While there may be no official punishments possible when governments (or multi-national corporations) step out of bounds, there are a lot of “off the books” things that some group of private individuals can do. Anonymous is illicitly punishing the offending governments by crippling their internet capacity. It is poetic justice at its most awesome.
Of course, on the other hand I am also a believer in the rule of law, that people should not be taking the laws into their own hands. Anonymous is not a group of angels, intent on ensuring that the righteous prevail and the wicked are punished. It just so happens that one (or more) of their goals happens to coincide with my own. If Anonymous was a group that was committed to doing things that I disagreed with (like, oh I don’t know, distributing porn to kids or defacing memorial webpages), I’d think them a group of undisciplined thugs who are abusing the internet to accomplish mean and feeble acts of vandalism and victimization of innocent people. In that circumstance, I’d be among the first looking to find a way to curtail their ability to commit these crimes.
And so while I cannot give my blanket support to the actions of Anonymous, they have not earned my blanket condemnation either. This is problematic for me; not simply because they must be one thing or another, but because their actions both support and defy some close-held principles of mine. I like to think of myself as a ‘principled’ person, so being stuck in limbo in this way is acutely unpleasant. It is made even more unpleasant by the fact that they’re going after my least-favourite dictator:
Those attacks were reportedly in retaliation after the president’s wife Grace Mugabe sued a Zimbabwean newspaper for $15m (£9.6m) over its reporting of a cable released by Wikileaks that claimed she had made “tremendous profits” from the country’s diamond mines.
The attacks, which started in the run up to the New Year, hit the government’s online portal and the official site of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF party. ”We are targeting Mugabe and his regime in the Zanu-PF who have outlawed the free press and threaten to sue anyone publishing Wikileaks,” the group said at the time.
That’s right, our old fart-sniffing Gigli afficionado Robert Mugabe himself! This is a man who has made it a federal crime to insult him (hence the childish barbs in the previous sentence – on behalf of every Zimbabwean who can’t say it her/himself), and has attacked the very heart of free speech in a country that desperately needs better and less evil leadership. How could you not cheer on a group of people who goes after such sleaze with such gusto? By remembering that many members of that group are sleaze themselves?
Sadly, life is not as clear-cut as Hollywood would have us believe. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy is my enemy too. Sometimes our principles do clash, and there is no way to resolve the conflict happily. That’s why there’s alcohol.
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I have a good friend who is moving out to Victoria in a couple of months. She decided she would explore this great country of ours by driving across it. For those of you readers who are not from Canada, you honestly haven’t any idea of how huge an undertaking that is. If you’ve ever driven from New York to Seattle, you’ll have some idea of the horizontal distance this involves, but not quite the vertical. Perhaps the best approximation is to imagine driving from Orlando, to New York, and then to Seattle. That’s what happens if you drive about 3/5 of the way across the country (there’s still all of French Canada and the maritimes to the east of where Niki’s driving from).
In a recent conversation, she confessed to me that she’s a bit worried about driving through the rockies, since there’s nothing quite like the perilous mountain driving anywhere in Ontario. I told her that she should be more wary of the prairie provinces, because while the Rockies are a challenge of skill, the prairies are a trial of endurance. Nothing can prepare you for the unbelievable flatness of the prairies. As you drive west, the road curves slightly to the right every 20 or so minutes – this is to adjust for the curvature of the Earth. It’s flat. And while there is a certain majesty and grandeur to how flat and open it is, after a few hours of driving and having nothing to break the eyeline, the novelty of the flatness wears away quickly.
Suffice it to say, Saskatchewan, in the very middle of the prairies, is not a terribly exciting place. So when there’s news out of Saskatchewan, I jump on it:
Saskatchewan’s highest court will rule Monday morning on whether provincial civil marriage commissioners can refuse to perform same-sex ceremonies on religious grounds. The province asked the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal for advice on whether proposed legislation allowing commissioners to recuse themselves from performing same-sex marriages for religious reasons would be constitutional.
Of course, the court already has ruled (these stories I post under the ‘news’ category are very rarely ‘news’ by the time they go up here). As someone who understands the Charter and the mood of jurisprudence in Canada would have predicted, the appeals court found that someone who is employed by the government does not have the right to refuse service to someone on religious grounds. It makes sense – the government does not grant marriage licenses on religious grounds, it does so as a civil matter. Since the law does not allow for religious discrimination, it follows that civil employees are not allowed to discriminate against people who are pursuing a legal entitlement on the grounds of religion.
Imagine, for a second, that there was an imam from Calgary who held the belief that a woman, once divorced, is unclean and cannot be married within his particular mosque. While this position may or may not be supported by the Qur’an (scripture can really be used to justify any position), let’s pretend, for the sake of argument, that such a case existed. This imam, being otherwise quite moderate and progressive, offers his services to the government as a wedding officiant. At this point, he has left the auspices of his mosque and is operating as a provincial contractor. At this point he is obligated to give (at least) the same quality of service that would be given by any other provincial contractor, regardless of his individual aversion to marrying divorcées. There would be, and rightly so, outrage over any provincial employee who refused to give services to an ‘unclean divorcée’. For the same reason, it is similarly wrong to refuse to grant marriages to gay couples on religious Christian grounds.
I can understand the argument on the other side of this issue, however. Why should a priest be forced to violate his own religious beliefs? What business does the government have telling someone that they must perform a ceremony that conflicts with their
stupid bigotry closely-held spiritual beliefs? The response from Reynold Robertson, government lawyer, is about as concise a refutation of this position as I’ve seen:
“The decision confirms that people have their religious beliefs, and they may entertain that — there’s complete freedom of religious beliefs,” said Robertson. “It’s only when your conduct on doing something might have an effect on somebody else which has a discriminatory effect.” Robertson also noted that the decision applies only to marriage commissioners — public servants performing civil ceremonies — and not religious clergy.
This is a problem that many libertarians and conservative moderates have with the idea of human rights – that your having human rights means that you have to respect the rights of others. If this were a perfect world (for a libertarian), there would never be a conflict and you could simply live your own life without interference from anyone else. As a result, there would be no need to prioritize rights, and would never be a circumstance that would infringe upon your ability to do and say whatever you want. Of course that describes no world that ever has or ever will exist. We live in a world with other people, and as a result we can’t allow personal prejudices to become the practice of laws. If someone is working under civil authority, they must enforce the rule of law, wherein religion has no jurisdiction.
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Last week I dashed off a quick response to the tragedy in Arizona, in which I said this:
Perhaps most damning (or at least getting the lion’s share of the attention) is the “targets” used in a Sarah Palin ad to describe how Tea Party voters should target vulnerable districts in the midterm election. My nemesis has (predictably) chosen to lobby on behalf of the forces of stupid. Depressingly, so has CLS.
I usually give myself a great deal of time to mull over the news stories that I comment on here. I think we are all best served when we get a chance to consider all facets of an argument before we state on opinion. This is particularly true for me, as I tend to find my own ideas so fascinating that they simply must be true. There are some times, however, when my passion gets ahead of my reason, and I opine before I give a topic due consideration. In those cases, in addition to being perhaps not at my rhetorical best, I tend to get things wrong.
And so, I must post this retraction (a real one this time) with apologies to the above authors who I have unfairly slandered. Scary, who I still do not fully agree with, said this:
But what’s all this about it being Sarah Palin’s fault? That was predictable. Following that reasoning, then Robert De Niro, Martin Scorcese, and Paul Schrader are all culpable of the Ronald Reagan assassination attempt. What’s more, the rest of Hollywood can be branded as incendiary hate-mongerers.
Insofar as anyone assigns sole or even primary responsibility to Sarah Palin, that is indeed a mistake. Sarah Palin did not, on her own, direct the hatred and violence that was involved in this attempted assassination. She is not the author, nor is she the leader, of the firestorm of hatred and demonization of the political left. Of course the reason I disagree with Scary here is, as in most things, because he is grossly oversimplifying the argument. Nobody has made the claim that Sarah Palin is entirely responsible for the assassination attempt, and anyone who tries to make that claim probably shouldn’t be allowed too far from the house. However, since he has built the straw man himself and then knocked it down so succinctly, he is technically correct.
I owe an apology free of snark to CLS though, who said this:
I also think it is pure rubbish to say that political language caused this event. No, insanity did. That the rather inane Sarah Palin wanted to “target” the district for a Republican win had nothing to do with the attack. I’ve seen similar language from people on the Left. It is a common phrase in the English language and only the truly insane take it seriously. If someone says, “I’ll kill if X happens,” it takes a deranged mind to assume the words are literally intended. And, I would hate to live in a society where acceptable language is determined by the most insane amongst us.
Once again, while I was disappointed by the statement that Sarah Palin’s ad had “nothing to do” with the attack – I think it’s an oversimplification to suggest that anyone is drawing a line between the shooting and the ad in question and saying “this thing is solely responsible”, and nobody is criticizing the idea of using the word “target”. The objection is to her repeated use of violent gun-based rhetoric in her political discourse, and her position as the center head of Conserberus, the three-headed dog that guards the gates of stupidity. However, I too find the repeated invocation of that particular ad to be a pretty severe strain on a credible argument, and in the context of the rest of the article I am happy to let this particular paragraph slide.
There is a constant refrain that is coming only from the right, which promotes the idea of violent overthrow of the government. When you tell people that a) the government is coming to steal your liberties, b) there is a shadowy cabal of leftist financiers who are plotting against you, and that c) you must arm yourself against the inevitable coming of the government thugs who are going to take over your life, it is entirely predictable that you’re going to see an increase in paranoid and violent intent toward government officials. While the words and symbols used in political discussion occur on both sides of the aisle (although more on the right than the left, as grassrute’s completely meaningless handful of semi-related links demonstrates – really, man? A plane crash is a call to violence against someone?), there is a consistent narrative of “you must protect yourself against the government, and the second amendment will help” that comes from the political right. It’s what’s winning them elections right now. But as Malcolm X so infamously said, you can’t cry when the chickens come home to roost.
And as far as dear Sarah is concerned, to go on an 8-minute whine about how you’re being targeted by the “lame stream media” again (which, by the way, you are a part of as a Fox News anchor you stupid stupid woman), and laying a giant egg of stupid by calling it “blood libel“, to say nothing of the fact that she states quite unabashedly that the responsibility of crime starts and ends with criminals (as though environmental factors play no role whatsoever – what a coincidence that the majority of criminals are poor people…) is right in line with her usual behaviour. I heard an interesting discussion on a talk show about the no-lose situation she’s built for herself, wherein if people cheer for her it means she’s right, and if they mock, boo, or in any way show their dissent from her opinion it means she’s right because her enemies disagree. While it’s a fun psychological trick, it does make her (and those like her) particularly insulated from any kind of self-critical appraisal.
I won’t be talking about this murder anymore, and I have already spent way more time discussing American politics than I really should. This is a Canadian blog about race, free speech and religion; not politics (except when they overlap with the aforementioned). For more commentary, I suggest you read the following articles that I found particularly interesting:
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At the time of writing, the CBC Marketplace piece on homeopathy (in which yours truly makes an appearance) has not yet aired. However, there are already in excess of 100 comments on the 30-second trailer. Part of this is an intentional campaign by homeopaths to troll the comments section and make it look as though CBC’s reporting is reviled by a representative cross-section of Canadians – I’d be inclined to think that most Canadians haven’t even heard of homeopathy let alone tried it. There are, most probably, at least some people who are commenting because they honestly believe in homeopathy, but I’d suspect they’re in the minority.
Of course homeopaths are indeed going bat-shit insane and decrying the Marketplace piece as “one sided and unfair” (again, remember that it hasn’t aired yet) and accusing the lot of us of being sponsored by the pharmaceutical companies (which is such a tiresome lie that I almost don’t want to bother pointing out how untrue it is). For the record – I have received zero pharmaceutical money. My salary is paid by a number of grants, some of which are pharmaceutical. However, my personal income does not change, and would not change from any kind of skeptical involvement. The people who pay my salary (the provincial regulatory body for health services) have no idea what I do outside of work, and my salary is based on a fixed schedule that is common for everyone who has my job title and experience within the organization. I have worked on exactly one pharmaceutically-related project to date, and have had zero direct contact with the funders, who (incidentally) don’t know what my findings are yet; findings that have been presented at public conferences over which the companies exerted zero control.
Rather than going to the trouble of responding to the flood of comments, I will avoid fighting the tide of stupid and respond to the claims generally:
While Wednesday’s article wasn’t really about free speech, it did touch on an important aspect of it – the idea that censorship can protect us against ideas we don’t like to hear. After all, the reason for censoring Huckleberry Finn is, at least in part, to shield people from having to hear words that make them uncomfortable. I’ve laid out my stance on censorship quite vociferously before, but suffice it to say I am firmly against it, even when it is done to accomplish goals that I would otherwise applaud.
But since it’s movie Friday, I thought I’d let you enjoy a much more light-hearted response to the idea of censorship:
There is a whole series of these, each of which is quite hilarious. I also like the way the author responds to comments on the videos in character. While there are some great ones to choose from, this one tickled me in a way that I usually have to pay extra for:
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There is a great scene in one of my favourite movies where a black TV executive assembles a writing team for his new black-themed TV show, and expresses his baffled dismay at the fact that they are all white. To try and explain the phenomenon away, the writers sitting around the table offer a variety of suggestions: maybe they couldn’t find anyone qualified; maybe black writers didn’t want to work on the show; the executive sardonically suggests that maybe they couldn’t put their crack pipes down long enough to fill out the application.
Of course there is a real answer to why there weren’t any black writers around the table: the people that make the decisions on who gets hired picked a group of white people. It’s not a mystery, it happens all the time. For reasons that are (likely) completely unconscious to the powers that be, the black writers who applied just didn’t “seem right” for the position, so they didn’t get hired. Aren’t we lucky that this kind of thing only happens in movies, right?
While it is my usual practice to post an excerpt from the articles I link to these stories I am sadly unable to do justice to what’s contained in the link. I will, however, provide you this screengrab:
Now I feel the need to back up here and clarify a lot of things.
- I am not not not not not accusing Stephen Harper of being a bigot. I don’t like the man, I don’t like his politics, I don’t like his policies, and I definitely don’t like who he’s in bed with (although I do find his wife delightful). However, none of that, nor anything that he has said or done, leads me to conclude that he is particularly racist (at least not above and beyond what I would expect from any other person). Anyone who thinks I am trying to smear him by tagging him as ‘a racist’ is way off base.
- This cabinet is not not not unusual or particularly white and male. In fact, the linked article points out that there are more women in this cabinet than served under the previous Martin Liberal government. While conservatives and Conservatives tend to be an old-boys club, this particular cabinet does not reflect that any more than Liberal cabinets.
- This isn’t about black people. Given that black people represent about 2.5% of the population of Canada, I’d be surprised to see a preponderance of black faces on the Federal Cabinet (especially since few of the ministers are from the Toronto or Ottawa areas).
- I have no reason to suspect that unqualified white politicians were hired over qualified People of Colour (PoCs), with the exception of Gary Goodyear who isn’t qualified to hold my cock while I take a piss, let alone be the federal minister of science. I’m sure they are all (with the aforementioned exception) competent politicians in their own right.
This is not a commentary on this cabinet. Please rest assured that while I have strong political disagreements with the Conservative party, I am not interested in smearing them with as ugly and ham-fisted an approach as “they is a bunch of racists”.
This is a commentary on all cabinets, at all times. This is a commentary on the cultural zeitgeist (I am sorry, I cannot avoid using the word) that surreptitiously pushes out PoCs. Aside from Bev Oda and Leona Aglukkaq (and possibly John Duncan, although I don’t think so), the cabinet is made up of white faces. This is not in any way unusual, although it probably should raise some eyebrows that the minister for the Asia-Pacific Gateway, the minister for Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, and the minister for Indian Affairs (I think) are all white faces. To be sure, International Co-operation and Health are not rinky-dink positions and there are two prominent female PoCs in those ministries, but the preponderance of positions are monochromatic.
As I’ve said countless times, this is how we can tell that we have not reached anything that even resembles the post-racial utopia that many of us (liberals and conservatives alike) would like to pretend Canada is currently. Instead what we have is tokenism and rampant under-representation by one group, with an accompanying over-representation by the group that just happens to be the one with the most political clout historically. This is no accident, although I am doubtful it happens on purpose. It is for this reason that I roll my eyes whenever someone talks about “personal responsibility” being the answer to racial disparity – so much of it happens below a level where we are aware of it. As a result, we get more of the same thing, by a process that looks quite accidental.
This is no accident.
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I’m somewhat surprised that nobody else brought this to my attention, since it’s right within my wheelhouse:
A new edition of Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is causing controversy because of the removal of a racially offensive word. Twain scholar Alan Gribben says the use of the word “nigger” had prompted many US schools to stop teaching the classic. In his edition, Professor Gribben replaces the word with “slave” and also changes “injun” to “Indian”.
Come on, guys! What’s the point of having a loyal fan base if I have to get my own latté? You guys don’t remember when this exact issue came up in July with To Kill a Mockingbird? How about one of the first stories I cut my teeth on, when someone was trying to censor one of the Tintin books? Am I so easily forgotten?
Well have no fear, because this story has crossed my radar. An book publisher, under the advisement Auburn English professor Alan Gribben, is producing a new ‘sanitized’ version of Mark Twain’s classic novel. This particular book has long been a lightning rod for controversy because of the explicitly racist language contained therein, leading it to be banned from many schools.
One thing needs to be made clear off the bat: this is not censorship. Many people are prematurely crying ‘foul’, accusing the political correctness police of once again sacrificing art in the name of sensitive feelings. Of course, the ironies abound when we look at the kinds of people who oppose political correctness, and what kinds of things they are happy to censor. The book is in the public domain, which means the original language is still available to everyone. This is one publisher printing one version of one book with a handful of words changed. Anyone trying to turn this into a fight over free speech or changing historical documents is suiting up for the wrong battle.
That being said, there is a real fight here, and it’s worth exploring. Professor Gribben is a man who is deeply concerned about the fact that children aren’t being taught this classic of American literature because of a few words. There is much much more to the story of Huckleberry Finn than the two characters of Nigger Jim and Injun Joe. The book holds a mirror up to the attitudes of the times and forces the reader to confront the ugly truth about that period in American history. To refuse to teach the book in its entirety because people are squeamish about a few words is a completely flawed and illiberal approach to education. We can’t gloss over the rough parts of our past simply because we wish it had never happened. Teaching the book to children gives them an important contextual link to a point in human history where a great injustice was being practiced, unquestioned by mainstream society.
The other side of this argument is equally valid, though. Surely, by the same tokens described above, isn’t that exactly what Professor Gribben is doing by removing certain words from the work? Mark Twain was not a sloppy writer when it came to choosing his words. He didn’t put the words ‘nigger’ and ‘injun’ in this book out of either laziness or for some sort of perverse amusement; the words are specifically chosen to evoke an emotional reaction within the reader. By hitting readers with these words repeatedly (‘nigger’ apparently appears 219 times in the book), Twain allows the lexicon of the time to wash over them, forcing them to confront the constant, interminable racist attitudes that were the norm at the time. Once removed, these words lose their entire meaning. It then becomes like a ballet without music – missing an important and crucial element of the art.
In the tradition of George Orwell, I think that words are much more than placeholders for ideas. The proper combination of words arranged in a certain way, much like a properly-measured and compiled recipe, makes the finished product so much more than simply the sum of the constituent parts. Disturbing either the order or the content will forever change the outcome. In the case of this book, changing these words robs the work of an important tool in its arsenal. So much more than simply a story about a delinquent child and his rag-tag band of misfits, Huckleberry Finn is a work of art that uses a variety of devices to persuade the reader, essentially forcing them to confront the ugly truth about the history of North American racism.
The question we must resolve for ourselves is whether or not the same lesson can be imparted through the work with these words removed. After all, Professor Gribben’s intent is to encourage more children to read the book and learn from it – can they still learn the lesson without the full context? As I’ve said before, when we remove the word nigger from its historical context we simply lose any perspective of what it means, making us far less reluctant to use it. I strongly disagree with Professor Gribben’s decision, since it will likely only accomplish the opposite of its intent. History needs to be taught unvarnished, and art should not be customized to fit the times.
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I spoke in error this morning, and so it is time for me to post one of my rare but fun retractions.
In my discussion I made the claim that blasphemy is a crime that doesn’t hurt anyone. After all, while sticks and stones do what it is they do, criticizing or insulting someone, much less an idea, has never resulted in the injury or death of anyone, right?
The governor of Pakistan’s most populous and powerful province, Punjab, was assassinated Tuesday in the country’s capital, Islamabad. Salman Taseer was shot by a member of his personal security detail while in Kohsar Market, a posh area of the capital popular among foreigners, authorities say. ”[His security guard] confessed that he killed the governor himself because he had called the blasphemy law a black law,” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik.
I guess we have to amend the saying to “sticks and stones may break my bones, but when my fuckhead Islamitard of a backstabbing coward bodyguard shoots me with a bullet, I die.”
Of course with the usual lack of awareness of irony that usually accompanies the religious, the bodyguard is probably willfully ignorant of the fact that his actions have brought greater insult and shame upon Islam than any words spoken by any blasphemer ever could. In a single act of cowardice and small-minded idiocy, clouded and draped in the faux righteousness that always accompanies violence done for religious purposes, this man has made a lie of the claims that Muslims follow a religion of peace, that Allah punishes infidels, and that Pakistan is anything other than a backwards, barbaric hellhole made so by the forces of religious piety.
“But Crommunist,” comes the predicable whine “this is not the true face of religion. Religion tells us to be good to one another and show respect for our fellow creatures. This man was clearly not acting as a true follower of YahwAlladdha!” I find this claim as tedious as I find it false. This was not a man who is conveniently using his religious beliefs as a shield for his homicidal tendencies – he believes just as fervently as missionaries feeding the hungry or charity groups teaching literacy in developing countries that what he is doing is the manifest will of a deity he has never seen and never will, because the deity doesn’t exist.
This is why I am unmoved by the whinging and wheedling voices of the accommodationists and religious moderates who clamor obsequiously for “tolerance” and “understanding”, meaning that I must not criticize religious beliefs out of deference for the hurt feelings of the faithful. If “tolerating” religion means that I have to make the same piss-poor excuses for acts of horror that very clearly have their genesis in theistic belief, I refuse. While I recognize your right to believe whatever nonsense you want in the privacy of your own head, I am not going to stop pointing out how dangerous your nonsense it. I am not going to pretend that there is a “real” version – a version that nobody seems to manage to actually put into practice, and in no way follows from your scripture – that is above criticism. I am not going to be nice and pretend that you’re “one of the good ones” just because you haven’t murdered anyone. The ideas are dangerous, and they deserve nothing but scorn and ridicule.
Tragically, Mr. Taseer learned the price of such a stance when taken in a place where religion is allowed free reign over reason. I am deeply saddened by this despicable act that brings shame on all Muslims everywhere, and all religious people by extension.
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By now I’m sure you’ve heard this story, since it is now 2 weeks out of date:
A 24-hour strike organised by Sunni Muslim clerics is taking place across Pakistan to protest against possible changes to blasphemy laws [emphasis mine]. Rallies were staged in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar and Quetta after Friday prayers. The government has distanced itself from a bill to change the law, which carries a mandatory death sentence for anyone who insults Islam.
At first when I read this story, I thought I was getting it wrong. Surely, these people were demonstrating for the changes. After all, what kind of society would tolerate the legalized oppression and execution of people simply for criticizing a religion. After all, don’t people in Pakistan read this blog? I’ve already explained why a separation between church and state is to the benefit of everyone, including the religious.
But of course Pakistan is a religious country, which means that logic and good sense can take a vacation, and we can blow the dust off our trusty psychology textbook (with the dog-eared chapter on Stockholm Syndrome). The people who are held captive by the brutal ideology of religious conservatism, in this case under the banner of Islam, are the ones who flock to save the very chains that keep them locked up.
I am not a proponent of the death penalty in general, mostly because it doesn’t seem to work to reduce rates of violent crime, all the while being a huge waste of money. However, even if I could be persuaded that there are some people whose crimes are so heinous that the world would be a better place if they were murdered (and I am not so liberal as to make such persuasion a total impossibility – my objections to the death penalty are chiefly practical ones rather than ideological), I cannot imagine any circumstance under which I could be convinced that blasphemy is a crime so dire that the maximum penalty is warranted.
As I’ve said before, and (hopefully) modeled regularly here, no idea is above criticism. There is no such thing as a ‘sacred’ idea or something that is not allowed to be discussed. To be sure, I find myself occasionally defending an idea with so much vigor that I have an emotional reaction to it. It is completely understandable, albeit regrettable, that someone would be offended if an idea they hold dear is held up to criticism. Ridicule is a close companion of criticism, and as such I have no difficulty imagining that someone may take personal offense to having their beliefs ridiculed. Since, to many, being ridiculed is tantamount to being called stupid (and nobody likes that), it can sting to be on the receiving end of a particularly sharp barb that pierces one or another closely-held idea.
However, at this point I am mindful of an old adage about sticks and stones. Blasphemy does not actually cause harm to anyone – it is essentially a victimless “crime”, which I put in quotations because it is only a de jure crime. I would argue that passing laws banning blasphemy are a greater de facto crime, since free speech is both an intrinsic human right and an essential component of building a society. If your religious sensibilities are so fragile that just speaking words can throw them into disrepute, then maybe you should be taking a closer look at how seriously you take your religion.
One Sunni cleric in Islamabad warned in his Friday sermon that any change to the blasphemy law would happen “over our dead bodies”.
You take it too seriously.
The perverse(r?) thing about this whole thing is that the proposed changes to the law wouldn’t even make blasphemy legal:
The strike was held to protest against a private member’s bill submitted to parliament. It seeks to amend the law by abolishing the death sentence and by strengthening clauses which prevent any chance of a miscarriage of justice.
That’s right, they’re protesting to protect their right to murder people for saying things that they don’t like about their religion, and to fix the legal process in favour of the religious establishment. More chains, please!
Of course once they’ve rounded up and murdered all of the people who genuinely criticized the religion, they’ll shift the goalposts and start going after people who are religiously heterodox, then after those who oppose a particular religious leader, and so on until there is nothing left but one angry man standing in a pool of the blood of his former brethren. Like the ouroboros, intolerance devours itself until there is nothing left.
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