Archive for category news
As I mentioned this morning, there’s been a lot of stuff going on that I haven’t been able to get to, but that I would like to. I’ve only done this a couple of times before, but instead of a full-fledged Crommunist Manifesto treatment, I’m going to have to provide mini-commentary on these. Please do not interpret this as an indication of anything other than the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week. This post is for the ladies.
Women in Saudi Arabia are to be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, King Abdullah has announced. He said they would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. The move was welcomed by activists who have called for greater rights for women in the kingdom, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law. The changes will occur after municipal polls on Thursday, the king said.
This move is so obvious and risibly behind the times that it’s almost hard to praise it. However, this small concession could potentially have profound meaning for the women of Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem, I suppose, with trying to impress liberals like me: you do something we ask you to do, and then we ask you why you didn’t get it done faster. There seems to be a lot of popular support for this move, and the least cynical side of me is inclined to say that this is indicative of a desire for true reform from the Saudi royal family. Within the structure of Shariah law there will never be legal equality for women in Saudi Arabia; however, it’s still a positive step that women will be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. Now maybe the car keys too?
The Nigerian police have arrested two people in connection with the gang-rape of a woman posted on the internet. Bala Hassan, the commissioner for police in Abia State, said the two men were detained after cyber activists posted pictures and names online. The video has shocked Nigeria both for the brutal nature of the rape and the initial failure to investigate.
Once again, I have no words to describe the contempt I have for the vile slime that would participate in a gang-rape, let alone videotape it. They are perhaps one level below the police who, given evidence that can clearly identify the victim and perpetrators, decide to drop the case. While we (rightly or wrongly) often deride internet activism under the increasingly-inaccurate label of ‘slacktivism’, it’s great to see it being used as a tool for greater justice. While it is a double-edged sword that can be used to shame victims, this is a case where the reverse is true and those who failed to uphold their duty to justice were shamed into doing their jobs.
Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has died in Nairobi while undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government – the first African woman to get the award. She was elected as an MP in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time. Ms Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 20-30 million trees in Africa.
It’s a shame, and a testament to my shitty scholarship, that I only learned about Wangari Maathai – a black African woman with a Nobel prize. Talk about your stereotype smashers. Reading her obituary, Ms. Maathai was a consummate warrior against the sexist status quo, and refused to let the patriarchy back her down. Kenya is one of the more stable and progressive countries in Africa (man… that makes me sad – Kenya is no Norway), and it owes quite a bit of that to the work of Ms. Maathai and those she inspired.
Angela Marie MacDougall was exploited as a young girl, trafficked to grown men for sex. From ages 15-21, she continued working in the sex trade, mostly in Vancouver. It’s the usual story of how girls are inducted into sex work, she told a public hearing Thursday at Vancouver city hall on a city staff report about how to deal with sexual exploitation and Vancouver’s sex trade. “We hear in the report that we’re talking about women,” MacDougall said. “But guess what? Many of us aged into adulthood in terms of [selling sex]. We did not start as adults. We can’t pretend we’re not talking about girls here. By ignoring that in the report, we are failing.” MacDougall, who now works for Battered Women’s Support Services, told council the report needs to focus more on how and why young girls are being pulled into the sex trade in the first place, to get to the root of the problem.
I had a blog reader e-mail me (I love it when y’all do that, by the way) to encourage me to speak more about issues of the sex trade. For the record, I am pro-sex, provided that both parties consent and there is no coercion or exploitation involved. If that means money changes hands, then by all means throw those bucks down. Criminalizing prostitution only makes it more dangerous for all parties involved, particularly those who work as prostitutes. Vancouver has a thriving sex trade, but the structure of Canada’s laws and our puritanical views of sex make it a dangerous occupation. While some of the opinions expressed in the article are mind-numbingly stupid, it is a good sign that this kind of conversation is happening in the open.
My apologies for not giving these stories the individual attention they deserve. I invite your chastisement and further exploration of the issues behind the stories in the comments section.
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In light of this morning’s post, I’d like to say a few words (not too many, I promise) about the execution of Troy Davis. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. The case against Mr. Davis was built on the eyewitness testimony of people who claimed to be there to see the shooting. In the intervening 12 years, 9 of those witnesses have recanted their statements, with some alleging coercion by police. New forensic evidence has been brought forward suggesting that Mr. Davis is not, in fact the shooter. None of that has swayed the appellate courts, who allowed Mr. Davis’ execution to go forward yesterday.
This is a dramatically different situation than the one highlighted this morning, since there are evidently legitimate questions regarding Mr. Davis’ innocence:
A U.S. parole board has denied clemency to Troy Davis, clearing the way for his execution Wednesday in a case that has become an international cause celebre for death penalty opponents. Davis was convicted of shooting dead an off-duty police officer who intervened in a brawl in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, but there was no physical evidence and several witnesses later recanted their testimony.
The thread connecting these two cases, however, is race. Mr. Davis, like Mr. Buck, is a black man. Now, in this case race was not so overtly a factor in the decision to convict or recommend the death penalty. That being said, my point in this morning’s piece is that it doesn’t have to be overt to exert influence. Mr. Davis’ race was a factor in his arrest, in his treatment following his arrest, his prosecution, and his sentencing. While I do not have the resources to demonstrate it, there is often a position of presupposed guilt when a defendant is black, while white defendants enjoy more of the benefit of the doubt.
Greg Laden over at The X Blog illustrates this aptly:
It is especially poignant to see that two young white middle class Americans will be release from an Iranian jail about the same time Troy will take the needle. Not that Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should not be release or that they have anything to do with it. It is poignant for another reason. If you were an Iranian government official looking at the Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal case, the assumption that these to guys are spies would be natural. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in or near bellicose regions, and actually met spies along the way (I even spent a bit of time in prison with a spy in the Eastern Congo) I was never closed to the idea, while in the mean time virtually every American hearing of their fate simply knew that the were innocent of these charges. Young American men hiking on the border of a hostile state could not possibly be spies! Meanwhile, in downtown Savannah Georgia, if the police pick up a young black male for some crime or another, there are a lot of people who will assume he is guilty. Or, worse, not care if he is guilty. It’s the inner city. Young black males are the criminals. A crime was committed. Close enough.
But even with the race question left on its own, there seems to be more than enough reasonable doubt in this case to justify staying execution indefinitely. Troy Davis was convicted without any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and police bullied and intimidated their way into securing a quick conviction. When police wring their hands about how people who live in high-crime areas don’t co-operate with law enforcement, they need to understand that this is why. Police are not there unless they are looking to arrest someone, and are happy (dare I say eager) to run roughshod over the civil and human rights of the people in those communities to make as many charges stick as they can. Never mind justice, never mind professional diligence, and never mind protect and serve.
More bizarrely, the justice system, which is ostensibly supposed to correct for the grotesqueries of police overreaching, seems to be playing right along:
A Georgia appeals panel refused to let Troy Davis take a lie detector test to prove his innocence Wednesday, as the American convicted of killing a policeman nears exhaustion of his legal options hours before his execution. ”He requested an opportunity to take a polygraph test yesterday from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had previously denied clemency,” Davis’s attorney Brian Kammer told AFP. ”Mr Davis’s attorneys had a polygrapher at the prison this morning in the event the request was granted. However, earlier this morning, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles flatly denied the request,” Kammer said.
The courts seem to be saying “you’re guilty, Mr. Davis, and we will not let any facts get in the way of that story.” Such is the reality for many people convicted by our courts.
This is why my eyes glaze over and my fists clench whenever people talk about the liberal ‘hug a thug’ mentality (a phrase so mind-numbingly stupid, and a position that obviously had so little thought go into it, that it makes me wonder whether the speaker has difficulty not choking on her own tongue). Justice should be difficult. Justice should be fought for and won only after a campaign of diligence and careful weighing of evidence. The decision to imprison someone, much less execute her, is one that deserves more care and deliberation, not snaps to judgment made for the sake of convenience.
Stories like this make me tired. I’m going to need an otter:
Not enough. Gonna need a double shot:
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Yesterday I mentioned that I don’t have a specific goal for these writings. Mostly they are a signpost for me to be able to look back and see how my thought process is evolving over time, much like writing one’s self a letter to be read in the future. That being said, people are reading this stuff (and thank you for that, by the way). This means that my ideas must stand up to third-party scrutiny in a way they wouldn’t have to if they were just my random, private thoughts. One of the more contentious ideas I have is my operational definition of racism. I fully recognize that the way I use the word – to describe the attribution of ethnic group characteristics to individuals – is subtly different from what most people think when they use the word. My position remains that my definition is superior because it adequately encompasses the ‘classic’ definition, whilst also describing the reality of contemporary ‘polite’ racism.
However, there are occasions where I can go beyond simple rhetorical demonstration and actually bring evidence to bear on why we must shift our understanding of what racism is:
A Texas inmate sentenced to death—in a racially charged case that now-Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said was inappropriately decided—has petitioned Gov. Rick Perry and his state parole board for clemency, giving the GOP presidential candidate two days to decide whether to commute the sentence or grant a temporary stay of execution. Last week, one of the Harris County prosecutors who helped secure Buck’s conviction wrote a letter to Perry urging him to grant a retrial.
Some quick housecleaning here:
- I am not calling Rick Perry racist. I don’t know anything about the man’s personal beliefs when it comes to issues of race, or his track record of treatment of visible minorities. Even if Perry were an open and notorious member of the KKK, it would be completely irrelevant to my argument.
- I am also not interested in debating capital punishment at this time. I am personally against it, and have found all arguments in favour of executing convicts to be lacking in validity. That being said, my personal stance on the ethics or pragmatics of capital punishment are entirely tangential to the issue at hand.
- I am also not trying to make the argument that Duane Buck, the inmate in question, is innocent and should be freed. By all accounts, he’s guilty and his conviction is a good one. Again, this has nothing to do with the point I wish to make here.
The point I wish to make lives in these lines:
The issue at hand isn’t Buck’s innocence, but the means by which his death sentence was obtained. Prosecutors firmly established Buck’s guilt, but to secure a capital punishment conviction in Texas they needed to prove “future dangerousness”—that is, provide compelling evidence that Buck posed a serious threat to society if he were ever to walk free. They did so in part with the testimony of a psychologist, Dr. Walter Quijano, who testified that Buck’s race (he’s African American) made him more likely to commit crimes in the future.
This is about as stark an example of racism as one could ask for. If Duane Buck had been white, he would have received a sentence of life in prison rather than execution. The psychologist testifying against him made it a matter of science (or at least clinical opinion) that black people are inherently more dangerous, and more likely to reoffend. This declaration pushed the jury to decide against him when deciding sentencing. One can certainly fault Dr. Quijano for abdicating his ethical responsibilities both as a medical practitioner and as a human being by offering racist claptrap as sworn testimony – there’s your classical racism. However, and this is significant – the jury believed him.
Imagine sitting in a juror’s box and having to decide on a land dispute between two neighbours. A shaman is called to testify, and offers his expert testimony that when he consulted the entrails of sacred chickens, they clearly indicated that the border between the two properties should be redrawn so that Mr. Ortiz can expand his garage as planned. When considering the evidence, would you include the shaman’s remarks, or rightly dismiss them as complete nonsense? Because you’re a reasonable person who knows that one cannot derive municipal zoning law from the gastrointestinal tract of domesticated animals, you’d probably ignore the insane ‘evidence’ offered in the courtroom.
That’s not the case in Texas. In Texas, the idea that black people are simply more dangerous – that black skin and heritage is meaningful when trying to predict someone’s behaviour – is something that carries enough traction to carry the force of law. The fact that the jurors weren’t able to immediately dismiss Dr. Quijano’s arguments as meritless means that somewhere in their minds, the predictive power of race on behaviour is a real possibility. This doesn’t mean that they were necessary maliciously racist people, or that they were even consciously aware of the effect that their own nascent racism had on their decision-making processes. What it does mean, however, is that without a fuller understanding of what racism is and how it operates, legal decisions such as the one Mr. Buck is facing are a reality, and will continue to be in the future.
Luckily, for Mr. Buck anyway, the controversy surrounding the sentencing has led to a temporary stay of execution:
The U.S. Supreme Court halted the execution Thursday of a black man convicted of a double murder in Texas 16 years ago after his lawyers contended his sentence was unfair because of a question asked about race during his trial. Duane Buck, 48, was spared from lethal injection when the justices, without extensive comment, said they would review an appeal in his case. Two appeals, both related to a psychologist’s testimony that black people were more likely to commit violence, were before the court. One was granted; the other was denied.
But this brings to light a whole new series of questions. Suppose that, under Texas law, Duane Buck should be executed. Suppose that, without Dr. Quijano’s testimony, the decision would have gone the same way. It is entirely possible that a guilty person is being excused because of complication surrounding the way the justice system handled his race. It’s happened before. Justice has not been served, and it is because of our preoccupation with race, coupled with our seeming inability to chart the way forward when it comes to resolving what is evidently still an open and relevant question.
Racism is not a problem that our parents or grandparents had to contend with, and that we can consign to the annals of history. Racism is very much alive, and failing to understand it will continue to be a millstone around our collective necks for as long as it takes us to get serious in our discussion of it.
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I don’t have a ‘goal’ for this blog per se. Based on feedback I occasionally get from readers I am introducing anti-racist concepts and vernacular to an audience that hadn’t encountered them much before – that’s a bonus for me. I am reasonably sure I haven’t deconverted anyone to atheism… yet. While I am unashamedly putting my ideas out there for public consumption, I don’t hold any pretense of trying to change the world or start a revolution. I’m just a guy with ideas, and some people seem to find them interesting, which makes me happy.
That being said, I am not above occasionally goosing my fellow Canadians and reminding them that while things are undoubtedly bad in other countries, we have our fair share of problems here too.
Some members of Nova Scotia’s black community say they are outraged that a white person has been hired as executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust and are calling for her resignation. “I find it insulting to all black people,” said Burnley (Rocky) Jones, a local lawyer and well-known human rights activist. “Surely we, within our community, have many people fully qualified to do such a job.” (snip) The trust’s board of directors, which includes six representatives of the Africville community, recently hired Carole Nixon, a white Anglican minister, for the position.
I’ll admit that even someone as outspoken and uncompromising as me had a really tough time coming down on one side of this issue. For those of you who weren’t here in February and aren’t familiar with Africville, I wrote about it during my Black History Month review of Canadian Black History. In brief, Africville was an area of Halifax that was systematically underserved and discriminated against by the citizenry of the city at large because it was inhabited primarily by black people. It was eventually bulldozed, leaving its residents largely homeless.
To head up the museum dedicated to the preservation and exploration of the history of this monument to Canadian exploitation and hatred of the white populace against black citizens, the selection committee chose a white woman. Obviously they made their selection based on her qualifications – Ms. Nixon has a certificate in black history from UofT (although I have no idea what that means). At the same time, she is not a member of the community and has no ties to its history. Beyond the simple poor optics of the choice, Ms. Nixon represents, to many of the community members, the same forces that were responsible for the debacle of Africville.
A frosh event at a Montreal university has come under scrutiny after students painted themselves in blackface. Students at the University of Montreal’s business school dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, with black paint covering their skin, for the event Wednesday.
Meh, so what? So a couple of frosh dressed up as Jamaican sprinters, and in order to lend their costumes a bit more realism, they ‘blacked up’ (despite the fact that there are lots of white Jamaicans). Where’s the harm, right?
One witness, who is of Jamaican descent, said he felt uncomfortable and was shocked to hear some students chanting, “Smoke more weed.” “They had reduced all of who I am and the history of Jamaica and culture of Jamaica to these negative connotations of weed smoking, black skin, rastas,” said McGill law student Anthony Morgan, who happened to be on the campus at the time and filmed the group.
This is something that needs to be repeated regularly, it seems – it is never okay to dress in blackface. Not ever. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re being complimentary or paying homage. It doesn’t matter if you’re spoofing a movie or a television show, or a fictional character. It doesn’t matter if you get assigned “dress like an African” as some kind of bizarre theme exercise. It doesn’t matter how funny or clever you think it is, nor does it matter if you don’t mean it “that way”. The history of blackface, coupled with the way black people are portrayed in contemporary media, means that blackface is just one of those things it’s not okay to do.
It’s certainly not okay when your goal is to mock a culture that you clearly know nothing about as part of a frosh week prank, at a school where black students are underrepresented, in a province that has a major race problem. You would think that this kind of thing wouldn’t need to be explained, but of course that’s the great part about white privilege – you don’t ever have to think before you do stuff like this. All you have to do is claim afterward that you didn’t mean anything by it, and maybe everyone should just lighten up.
Imagine you were inspired and impressed by Canada’s aboriginal history and culture. Imagine you had a world stage with which to express your admiration, and try in your own small way to heal wounds left by generations of exploitation and oppression. Would you do perhaps just a little bit of research to make sure you’re accurately portraying the people whose culture you are paying homage to? Maybe spend some time understanding the history behind the culture, and how it affects aboriginal people today? Would you maybe try to participate in or discuss the cultural practices of the particular band/bands you were emulating?
Or would you just reach for the first handful of cheap stereotypes from a spaghetti western movie that popped into your head?
This may not come as a huge shock to you, but if you chose the first option(s) then you can congratulate yourself on being smarter and more insightful than Miss Universe Canada. Well, at least this year’s entrant. Seriously, considering the fact that the way we treat our First Nations people is the great shame of our nation, why on Earth would you think it a good idea to showcase our collective national insensitivity is beyond my limited capacity to understand.
Canada likes to pride itself on being a tolerant country that is open to people of many different ethnicities and walks of life. For the most part, I think we do a good job of that. However, we should never allow ourselves to grow complacent in our quest to model such tolerance. It is far too easy to slip into the easy errors of racism than it is to maintain a constant vigilance; failing to maintain that vigilance will ultimately be our downfall.
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We, as a civilization, had a long and dismal period that we call the ‘Dark Ages’. Generally speaking, this refers to a time when, for a variety of reasons, we had little by way of practical knowledge of the world and took a giant step backwards in terms of not only technology but of philosophy and thought as well. It took us hundreds of years to regain the ideas and developments that our historical predecessors had developed. In that intervening period, there was massive and widespread suffering among all classes of people, particularly the poor. What knowledge we had about medicine, climate, mechanics, and the the basic tools required to gain and test such knowledge was not available to the ‘common’ people, who through a combination of practical necessity and active oppression at the hands of those that didn’t think such people were ‘ready’ for scientific truths, were kept in the dark.
Through heroic courage and dedicated study, European civilization was able to pull itself out of its tailspin and re-establish itself. This was not necessarily to everyone’s benefit, but many of the principles espoused by post-Renaissance Europe are sound and admirable, and I am satisfied that Enlightenment principles, whatever their source, are the way forward. However, it seems as though in the ghosts of the dark ages are re-emerging:
Black scientists in the US are much less likely to be awarded funding than their white counterparts, says a US government research-funding agency. The National Institutes of Health said that out of every 100 funding applications it considered, 30 were granted to white applicants. This compared with 20 to black applicants.
The study, published in the journal Science, found the gap could not be explained by education or experience. It suggested small differences in access to resources and mentoring early in a scientist’s career could accumulate, leaving black researchers at a disadvantage.
Now, to be sure, this is not the same situation as medieval Europe. Black people today, even as statistically disadvantaged as they (we) are, are far better off than the vast majority of medieval Euroopeans. I am not trying to forge some kind of equivalence between the entire collapse of a society and failure to receive grant funding. However, what this does put me in mind of is the seemingly-intentional exclusion of a group of people from those pursuits that can have the biggest impact on improving their lives. I suppose now that I should state unequivocally that I don’t think the National Institute of Sciences is being intentionally racist or actively discriminating against black scientists – what I am saying is that the proof is in the outcome. There appears to be a systematic bias at the NIH against black scientists:
We investigated the association between a U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) R01 applicant’s self-identified race or ethnicity and the probability of receiving an award by using data from the NIH IMPAC II grant database, the Thomson Reuters Web of Science, and other sources. Although proposals with strong priority scores were equally likely to be funded regardless of race, we find that Asians are 4 percentage points and black or African-American applicants are 13 percentage points less likely to receive NIH investigator-initiated research funding compared with whites. After controlling for the applicant’s educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding. Our results suggest some leverage points for policy intervention
Those who deny the existence of systematic racism often make the argument that the differences observed between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is due to real and meaningful differences in things like education. It is entirely right that scientists who are less qualified to conduct research (lacking in practical research experience, lacking in credentials that demonstrate scientific competence, lacking the infrastructural capacity to guarantee quality data collection) should not receive the same number of grants. However, this study controlled for education and other related qualifications, so we can’t use that as an explanation of the disparity. It also controlled for the quality of application itself, as evinced by the quality score that each application received, so that’s off the table as well.
The next obvious culprit is that because these NIH grants are really difficult to get, what we might be seeing is simply black applicants giving up more easily. After all, many of these kinds of things are only awarded on repeat resubmission. Maybe black scientists, thanks to the culture of poverty put forward by the welfare state and affirmative action, are simply expecting things to be handed to them. When they don’t get it, they give up. Perhaps white scientists, used to having to work for their success rather than getting a hand up from ol’ Uncle Sam, show the kind of perseverance, dedication, and willingness to adapt that is required to be a success:
Next, we examined the average number of grants per person, the proportion of investigators submitting single and multiple grants, and the likelihood of application resubmission. On average, investigators had three to four Type 1 R01 grant applications each. We found that blacks and Asians resubmitted more times before being awarded an R01 (2.01, P < .06 and 1.85, P < 0.001, respectively) compared with whites (1.58), and at the same time blacks (45%) and Hispanics (56%) were significantly less likely to resubmit an unfunded application compared with white investigators (64%, P < 0.001) (table S6)
The one factor that seems causally linked with success that the authors could find in their exploration of the data had to do with differences in having received training programs on writing NIH grants, but even when that effect is ‘controlled for’ statistically, black scientists still trailed by 10 percent. The damage, of course, goes much further than simply the individual scientists. Science and critical thinking is the path to greater success and innovation in the black community, and if black scientists are, as the data seems to suggest, discriminated against based on their race, then this disparity will only become more deeply entrenched.
So what are they doing about it?
NIH director Francis Collins said it would take action to address the potential for “insidious bias” in the grant process. Mr Collins said it was possible that reviewers could guess the race or ethnicity of an applicant by looking at names or where they trained. He said they would look at reviewing grants on the basis of scientific merits alone, without requiring information about an applicant’s qualifications or background.
This is the kind of response I like to see. Not a bunch of denials, not a bunch of arch-liberal hand-wringing over “how could this happen in this day and age?”, just a clear plan of action. Say what you like about Francis Collins’ wacky justification for his theism, but never deny that he’s doing the right thing here. I will be interested to see the follow-up study to see whether this improves the situation, or if there is yet another explanatory factor.
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One of the recurrent topics of discussion within the freethinking community has to do with how one should treat religious groups with similar humanistic goals. Should we, for example, work with the Campus Crusade for Poseidon and the Hatmehyt Society to preserve ocean fisheries, even though their beliefs are opposed to our own (and each other’s, but we’ll get there later)? Is there ground to be gained by putting aside our fundamental differences to accomplish a mutually-beneficial outcome? Most people at this point of the conversation say ‘well of course’, but there is a second part to this question. Should we stop talking about our differences in order to foster ‘respect’?
This is an important questions, because it underlies the entire enterprise of working together. If our would-be allies are so turned off by criticism of their position, we’d surely lose their support. It would be therefore advantageous to treat them with kid gloves, right? It’s better than trying to ‘go it alone’ and have cumulative parts that are weaker than the whole trying to tackle a major problem, isn’t it?
This is the part where I (and those like me) part ways with this line of argument. It does me no good to have an ally with whom I cannot be honest, particularly if the areas in which we disagree are relevant to our work. Does the CCP want to preserve ocean fisheries so that they can ultimately defeat the Crab People of the Marianas Trench? Is the Hatmehyt Society trying to re-establish the lost kingdom of Atlantis? Yes, our stated goal of conservation might be similar, but our ultimate goals are diametrically opposed. Must I sell out the long-term problem of the fact that my allies are insane in order to solve the short-term problem of overfishing? Do I only begin to attack them when we’ve accomplished the short-term goal? What happens when my participation is no longer useful to them?
There is a real danger to allying yourself with people who disagree with you, unless you are able to make your differences clear and resolve them somehow. There is an even greater danger in following the old adage of keeping your enemies closer, and allying with people who outright hate your guts:
Liveprayer.com, an interactive Christian website with over 2.4 million subscribers, is calling for a boycott of Christian TV network TBN, according to a press release. Bill Keller, the leader of the site, issued the call after prominent Christian leaders such as Pastor John Hagee and David Barton expressed their support for Glenn Beck’s “restoring courage” campaign on the network.
“It is absolutely ridiculous for a supposed Christian TV Network, that purports to be propagating the gospel, like TBN, with major Christian figures like John Hagee and David Barton, to be supporting and advocating for a member of a satanic cult,” said Keller to The Christian Post. Glenn Beck, a professed Mormon, frequently identifies himself with other religious people such as Christians, feeling they all have similar values and can work together on “common interests.” However, to believers like Keller, this is deceitful behavior since he believes Mormonism is a satanic cult or a counterfeit form of Christianity, and that true believers should not align themselves with these types of faiths.
My first reaction when reading this story was to chuckle and enjoy a deserved glass of delicious schadenfreude as the extreme wing of the religious right begins to tear itself apart. After all, I pointed out the potential for this kind of fracturing within the supposedly-monolithic edifice of America’s nascent theocratic movement many moons ago:
The only people who would benefit from an erosion of state sovereignty by the religious establishment is those who agree completely with the leading class’ views. History shows us again and again that fractions will appear within religious communities as they grow larger and more powerful. There is no long-term benefit to the rule of religion – there will always be a group that is seen as heretical until there is only one absolute ruler. Religion knows no satiety in its appetite for power.
And while I do so enjoy being correct when it comes to matters like this, I will tamp down my instinct for self-congratulation and allow this news item to serve a different purpose. I will invite you, however, to take a moment and ponder that this is one of those few examples of a religious disagreement that is based solely on denominational/doctrinal grounds. Oftentimes, apologists for religion will say that ‘religious conflicts’ are ethnographic conflicts with the veneer of religion brushed over them. For the most part I will accept this explanation as valid (with the caveat that religion makes this kind of conflict much easier and more deeply entrenched). This is not the case, however, in the split between TBN and Liveprayer.
It’s also useful to consider how diametrically opposed this kind of backbiting is diametrically opposed to the more ecumenical version of religion that many apologists like to put forward as its ‘true face’. These are two groups that, in all likelihood, agree on 95% of their politics and theology. I don’t know who is more admirable here: Glenn Beck for attempting to build bridges between dissenting factions, or Bill Keller for at least having the integrity to be honest and forthright about his beliefs.
That dealt with, I do want to point out the minefield that these political marriages of convenience can pose. Aligning yourself with someone who disagrees with everything you stand for because your interests happen to overlap on some arbitrary topic is a tricky tightrope to walk. It’s made even trickier when that person is leaping up and down on that tightrope, threatening to throw you off every time you make a misstep. It is inevitable that we will disagree with each other from time to time, and we do have to find ways to compromise to get things done. However, when our disagreements go all the way down to the core issues, it may be in our self-interest to let that particular team pitch pass us by.
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I haven’t commented much on Syria, despite the fact that its revolt is just as bloody and horrific as the one in Libya. President Assad, the ruler of Syria has been waging a constant campaign of terror and violence against his citizens for opposing his regime. One of the more heinous acts I’ve seen come out of this conflict is the savage beating of a political cartoonist:
One of the best-known cartoonists in the Arab world has been beaten up by Syrian security forces, activists say. Ali Ferzat, whose work is critical of the government, was forced from his car in Damascus and badly beaten. The attack comes after 11 civilians and eight soldiers were reportedly killed in different incidents across Syria. The UN says more than 2,200 people have been killed as security forces crack down on anti-government protests that began in mid-March.
The offending cartoon is as follows:
It depicts Moammar Gathafi (which is apparently how it’s spelled in English, according to his son’s passport) fleeing in a getaway car, with president Assad and some tiny guy with an ass for a face trying to hitch a ride. It was cartoons like this that apparently justified his being dragged out of his car and beaten nearly to death. Wikipedia tells me that Assad was educated in opthamology in Damascus and London. I guess he didn’t bother to study classical literature or political science or history or pretty much anything in the humanities. If he had, it would be clear to him that ideas cannot be beaten to death. They can only be countered by other ideas. Beating a person for having and/or expressing an idea does nothing to tamp those ideas down – in the best case scenario it simply prevents that one individual from expressing it.
Maybe Ali Ferzat’s cartoon, drawn as a response to his attackers, will express this idea in a way that even Assad can understand it:
Ali Ferzat – bad mother fucker.
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Religion, as a manifestation of the human impulse to attribute unexplained or unlikely occurrences to some kind of sentient external being, is arguably one of the most destructive forces plaguing our planet and our society. Personal or political differences between individuals or groups take on a whole new dimension of fucked-uppedness when religion gets thrown in the mix. It’s not always destructive though – I am willing to admit. Sometimes people do good things for explicitly religious reasons, although it’s far easier to find non-religious reasons to do good (pro-social) things than it is for evil things. Be that as it is, sometimes adding religion to things makes them better. Other times… it just makes them weird.
Fiji’s military government has ordered the cancellation of the Methodist Church’s annual conference, accusing the leadership of being too political. Senior members of the church were summoned by the military to hear the order, reports say. Soldiers attempted to detain 80-year-old former head of the church, Reverend Josateki Koroi, but he refused to go. ”I told them, the only way to take me to camp now is bundle up my legs, tied up, and my hands, I will not go with you. That is the only way, you carry me to the camp or you bring your gun and shoot me and you carry my dead body to the camp to show to the commander,” he told New Zealand media.
In this case, it seems like the Methodists are on the side of the good guys, as the political leadership in Fiji has suspended democratic freedoms and clamped down on dissent. Not cool. There’s also legitimate religious persecution happening here, where religious practice is being curtailed due to political differences. This is quite distinct from, say, telling a church it may not publicly endorse a candidate during an election cycle or prohibiting open religious exercise by government-funded institutions. This is telling a group that it may not assemble because it is critical of the government – an obvious violation of the principle of free speech and freedom of conscience.
I suppose the weirdest part of this story is that I’m defending a religious institution. I’ve maintained all along that I don’t have a problem with religious people, but with the wacky ideas they believe. If the Fijian Methodist Church’s opposition to Commodore Bainimarama’s regime is based on the fact that Jesus totally hates his guts, then that’s a lousy criticism. The fact that valid ideas are sometimes present in churches doesn’t vindicate the weirdo things they believe in. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, and so I am giving their stance my support (you’re totally welcome, guys).
Islamic police in the Indonesian province of Aceh have forced two women to have their marriage annulled and sign an agreement to separate. The women had been legally married for a few months after one of them passed as a man in front of an Islamic cleric who presided over their wedding. But suspicious neighbours confronted the couple and reported them to police. The two women are now back with their families, forcibly separated and under surveillance by the Islamic police.
This is like a sideways version of the movie Mulan, or more historically (and fitting with the title of this post) As You Like It. In this case, however, instead of masquerading as a man to fool a would-be-suitor, the disguise was to fool everyone else into recognizing the validity of a relationship. And, instead of the star-cross’d lovers being united in the end, the religious authority is forcing them to annul their marriage and move apart from each other. Why? Because apparently everything is so peachy keen in Indonesia right now that the people don’t have anything better to spend their time worrying about. Like, for example, the brutalization of minorities. Or the lack of adequate health care. Or suppression of right to free speech.
No, apparently Allah can’t punish those lesbos all on his own (nothing escaped this disastrous economy – not even omnipotence), and needs the help of his busybody footsoldiers to make sure that one couple who wasn’t hurting anyone can’t continue their devious campaign of living together happily. I’m not a supporter of defrauding the legal authority, which is unquestionably what happened here, but the punishment is not proportionate to the ‘crime’. It could be far worse – in parts of Nigeria or South Africa these women would have probably been gang raped. Going to the trouble of separating them and annulling their marriage is just, well, weird.
A druid who went to the High Court to try to stop researchers examining ancient human remains found at Stonehenge has failed in his legal bid. King Arthur Pendragon wanted the remains found in 2008 to be reburied immediately. He was fighting a Ministry of Justice decision allowing scientists at Sheffield University to analyse the samples for five more years. His bid was rejected at a High Court hearing in London.
Mr Justice Wyn Williams refused to give Mr Pendragon permission to launch a judicial review action, ruling that there was insufficient evidence to show that the Ministry of Justice might have acted unreasonably. Former soldier Mr Pendragon, 57, who changed his name by deed poll, was dressed in white druid robes and represented himself at the hearing.
Okay… I don’t have to explain why this one is weird, right?
Druids are weird. Being all precious and uptight about dead bodies is weird. Representing yourself at a High Court hearing is… well, it’s just a bad idea. I suppose Druidism is no more or less weird than First Nations animism here in North America, and certainly its more environmental and pacifistic tenets are worthy of some consideration. That doesn’t make it less weird.
Of course the take home message is that when religious beliefs collide with a secular justice system, there are some really strange outcomes. A system that is founded on principles of rationality and logic intersecting with a belief system that is based on the fundamental abdication of either of those is virtually guaranteed to produce some truly, spectacularly bizarre outcomes.
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A few weeks ago I opined on the riots in London, and contrasted the police reaction there to the one here in Vancouver following our own riots. That story is continuing:
Prime Minister David Cameron has defended courts for handing out “tough” sentences for those involved in the riots across England. The barrister told the BBC “ringleaders should receive very long sentences” but warned “there was an issue of proportionality” over the way people already before the courts had been treated. The PM said it was good that the courts were sending a “tough message”. Speaking in Warrington, he said: “It’s up to the courts to make decisions about sentencing, but they’ve decided to send a tough message and it’s very good that the courts feel able to do that.”
Vancouver police Chief Jim Chu is defending the pace of criminal investigations into Vancouver rioters, saying investigators are moving slowly because authorities want to make sure they can secure convictions. ”Even though we acknowledge the frustration of those who wish these suspects were already in jail, and we hear and share your frustration, there are many reasons why we must proceed at this pace,” Chu told reporters Wednesday at a news conference. His comments came as critics point to swift sentencing seen in Britain in the wake of a sweeping series of riots in recent weeks.
First of all, it’s important to state unequivocally that the Vancouver riots are not comparable to the London riots. The issues that underlie the widespread reckless smash and grab in the UK are not represented in the 5-hour orgy of violence that happened here following the Stanley Cup final. Looking for a common thread between what sparked the two separate occasions is probably a waste of time. My intention here is to contrast the response by law enforcement in the two situations that, from a surface perspective, appear similar (people rioting).
I was critical of David Cameron’s response to the riots – right-wing chest thumping might be psychologically satisfying, but it is not the kind of evidence-based response we need to see that justice is done and further riots do not happen. While I am still critical of his approach, he is not really the focus of this story. It is now the judicial system that is engaging in a dick-measuring contest to show how “tough” they can be. As I’ve opined before, being “tough” on crime doesn’t do anything but appease the masses thirsty for blood. It’s a short-sighted response that finds its origin in our lizard brains – they hurt us so let’s hurt them back. While understandable, it leads us to react disproportionately and emotionally, when reason and logic are at their most crucial:
BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman said the sentences being handed out across the country for offences of dishonesty such as theft, burglary and receiving stolen goods, suggested there were disparities between courts. What the public was seeing may just be a “distorted version of the normal system”, our correspondent said. In another case, David Beswick, 31 from Salford was sentenced to 18 months in prison for handling stolen goods. Max Hill QC, vice-chairman of the Criminal Bar Association said it was not the job of judges “to deliver a political message on behalf of the government” when passing sentence but part of their role was to identify “serious aggravating features that elevate the crime beyond the ordinary”.
When the lawyers, intimately involved in the criminal justice system, are criticizing your policy, it might be a rebuke you want to take seriously. I said as much this morning.
In matters of criminal justice, it is far too easy to get swept up in the bloodlust of the crowd. Britain is certainly modeling such a reaction for the whole world to see. Vancouver’s response has been far more measured. They are concerned with making cases based on solid evidence, rather than appealing to cries for swift punishment. Why Jim Chu is choosing this route, and whether he will survive the next election cycle for his job, are open questions. I am happy and proud to live in a society where deliberate care is taken to avoid locking up the wrong people, or letting the right people get away on technicalities due to improper evidence.
Now if only we’d apply that same work ethic to charging the financiers that did far more damage to the economy than all the looters in the world could hope to accomplish. Then we’d really be getting something done.
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I think that a lot can be said for a person by the company that she or he keeps. Part of my attempt at consistent self-criticism involves me trying to size up how I am doing generally as a person. I take great comfort in the fact that I can count people I admire, respect, and wish to emulate among my close friends. It means, at least in my eyes, that there is something about me that they also admire and respect. Maybe they’re all just really nice and take pity on me
In the same vein, when your friends and supporters are people with whom you fundamentally disagree, you’ve got to take a long hard look at yourself:
Republican presidential hopeful Ron Paul, whose long-shot campaign has been gaining media attention in recent days, apparently has the support of an unusual constituency — the white supremacist movement. Stormfront.org, a white supremacy web site, as well as others, such as WhiteWorldNews.com, have actively supported Paul’s bid for the presidency, including directing donors to his campaign. Stormfront has also endorsed Paul for president.
“Once in a great while a presidential candidate is presented to us. A candidate who not only speaks to us, but for us…I am supporting Ron Paul in his run for the presidency,” the Stormfront endorsement says. The endorsement praises Paul’s plans to reduce taxes, close the borders and eliminate trade deals, such as NAFTA. “Whatever organization you belong to, remember first and foremost that you are a white nationalist,” the endorsement continues. “Put your differences with one and other aside and work together. Work together to strive to get someone in the Oval Office who agrees with much of what we want for our future. Look at the man. Look at the issues. Look at our future. Vote for Ron Paul 2008.”
Ron Paul’s supporters have a deserved reputation for being the most vehement scourers of the internet, and for being nearly indistinguishable in their defense of their champion. I therefore want to take great pains here to say that this is not evidence that Ron Paul is a white supremacist. I am not trying to imply a sort of guilt by association – the endorsement from Stormfront seems to be largely based on Ron Paul’s isolationist beliefs rather than any racist statements he’s made in the past. Which isn’t to say that Ron Paul’s positions on race aren’t suspect:
What bothers me the most about Ron Paul’s defense of liberty regarding the Civil Rights Act is that he glazes over the significance of the social and political culture at the time. However, I don’t think he’s a stupid man by any means. He is well educated and fully aware of the history of racial discrimination and the Civil Rights Movement. He is fully aware that allowing business owners to do whatever they wanted in their businesses during this period in history meant some business owners would deny service to individuals because of the color of their skin. He is fully aware that some business owners would take significant measures to remove black people from their businesses.
When pictures pass around the press of children having acid poured in their pool water, it is not just those black children who are being harmed. All black Americans were at the helm of potentially injurious acts of discrimination. This photo illustrates that real, violent threat.
This is my problem with Ron Paul specifically and libertarianism in general – while many of the ideas proposed have some merit, the absolute application of the principles they’re based on are wildly impractical. The Civil Rights Act absolutely infringed upon the liberty of some people. Anyone who denies this fact is either woefully ignorant or bizarrely entrenched in their own ideology. However, the Civil Rights Act, for all its infringement, was a step forward in recognizing the equality of all people. The free market approach to civil rights was not working – black people were on the receiving end of massive discrimination with no recourse or relief from a state that is ostensibly invested in defending the rights of its citizens. Libertarian policies of government non-intervention were failing, and a more direct approach was needed.
Which is not to say that Ron Paul is a Libertarian:
There are a lot of libertarians who still buy into the Ron Paul myth, I’m sad to say. Ron is no libertarian. He’s a paleoconservative and his voting record backs that up. In addition he has all the crazy shit he gets from the Birch Society and continues to spew out. But what I find surprising is how gullible some libertarians are regarding Ron’s excuses for all this. Take the newsletter that Ron edited and sold, during his stint out of office, between his LP presidential bid and his next Congressional race. Ron was listed as co-editor of the newsletter. There was a staff of four people, including his wife and daughter. So it was hardly a huge enterprise. It published some pretty bigoted remarks about blacks and gays and had the usual crazy Ron Paul shit about conspiracies.
I have talked about this kind of thing before, but when your support comes from people who hold positions you abhor, then you really need to take a hard look at why. I was quite taken with Ron Paul when I first learned of him. Ramping down foreign wars, eliminating the monstrously-wasteful war on drugs, support for individual rights – lots of great ideas. However, it’s mixed in with a lot of crazy stuff, including more than a little racism. It’s not at all a surprise to me that Stormfront sees him as their best hope of political legitimacy. That fact alone should give Paul supporters pause.
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