Thursday, July 31, 2014

Oppression is Never a Successful Strategy

I'm getting sick of waking up every morning to the latest news of the atrocities going on in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The list of grievances held by each side is miles and generations long, and quite frankly I don't think either has any claim to the moral high ground.  Over the years that I have observed this mess, it has been a matter of the Palestinian groups engaging in guerrilla warfare, and the Israeli government responding with an ever heavier hand.

Today, the Israeli government has bottled up the Palestinian people behind walls and barricades.  What passes for an economy in the Palestinian territories is strangled by Israel's blockades of trade, limitations imposed on electricity (in a shared electrical grid) and so on.

The Gaza Strip is all of 139 square miles, for 1.6 million people (for comparison, the City of Calgary is 318 square miles for 1.2 million), surrounded by a fence with guard towers along its land boundaries, and a naval blockade at the sea ... all enforced by the Israeli army.  Essentially this is an open air prison, mostly holding people who have never been convicted of a crime.

For all of this, have the attacks on Israel ended?  No.  Of course not.  Like a medieval siege, bottling a people up for protracted periods of time basically has one effect:  it galvanizes the besieged against the besiegers.  Old grievances are nursed and nurtured, feelings harden and any act which allows the besieged to thumb their noses at the enemy is seen as a victory.  If that's one more rocket getting over the wall, so be it.  If that rocket happens to land somewhere that does real damage to property or people on the enemy side, it will be seen as an even greater victory.

Meanwhile, the besiegers congratulate themselves on their overwhelming firepower and the "victories" of hitting whatever targets they are told to hit.  The fact that civilians, including children, are in the line of fire is an unfortunate accident hidden under the rubric of "collateral damage".

Whether or not HAMAS is a "terrorist organization" is political semantics.  At one time the PLO was held in similar regard for the same reasons.  There is little to be gained from such labelling.  Palestinian complaints of disenfranchisement at the hands of Israel cannot be ignored any more than Israel's fears of being overrun by its Arab enemies.  

This will not end well.  Sieges end with brutal occupations which seldom create long term allies; in the middle ages "undesirable" populations were herded into segregated ghettos in urban areas, breeding resentment and worse and facilitating hostile pogroms by the governing powers.  In neither case can one say that the results are anything that we can be proud of in our collective history as a species.

Let me be abundantly clear:  What has happened in the region since 1967 has not worked.  Period.  There was a brief time after the PLO and Israel came to terms which seemed to defuse things a bit, but on the whole, the constant escalating violence of one group trying to assert territorial claims, and another group trying to respond to what amounts to an insurgency simply has not worked.

The political discourse in Israel has been dominated by a particularly bellicose leadership that seems to think that the only response to violence is more violence.  The tighter the iron grip, the more readily that things being squeezed slip between the cracks created.  Just as nations have found time and again in the past, never underestimate the ingenuity of people under great pressure.

Politically, the state of Israel is rapidly becoming a failed experiment, for many of the same reasons that its predecessor Palestine failed.  The very construct of a nation state which denies the validity of all of the peoples who live within its borders is doomed to fail.  Where Mandatory Palestine failed to acknowledge the Jewish peoples in its borders, Israel's approach to the Palestinians has also failed.

The political discourse has to be remade, and moved from the language of adversaries to that of coexistence.  When I think about it further, the entire situation may well require the collapse of the political structures of the current Middle East region in order to resolve.  Much of the region's borders are the result of the European colonial powers redrawing borders in the wake of the demise of the Ottoman Empire.  The net result has made little or no sense in the broader context of the region and its peoples.

I don't know what the long term geopolitical picture looks like in the region.  I do believe that the current arrangements are doomed to fail.  It will take the emergence of statesmen on all sides who can look beyond the grievances of today to build states where coexistence is the rule of the day, rather than the often violent suppression of "rival" sects and populations.

There may be no "right" answers to the question mark that is Middle East politics, but one thing is clear:  the current situation is not working, and the mess in Israel is but a symptom of that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Radical Feminism Versus Reality

The New Yorker decided to publish an exposé about the ongoing war of words between Transsexual Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and transsexuals.

Sadly, the author spent most of their time talking about what TERFs have written about transsexuals and failed entirely to present the transsexual side of the discussion in any depth.  In fact, the entire article came across as if the transsexual community's reactions to various TERF proclamations about transsexuals were simply an overreaction.

While I have no doubt that there are those whose fury over the acts of various TERFs towards the transsexual community is such that they have made threats or been otherwise unpleasant about things.  The transsexual community is hardly uniform in its sensibility or willingness to discuss topics when they feel they have been slighted.
Such views are shared by few feminists now, but they still have a foothold among some self-described radical feminists, who have found themselves in an acrimonious battle with trans people and their allies. Trans women say that they are women because they feel female—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is “ritualized submission.”
One might wonder just what room for dialogue there might be when the TERF argument starts with absolute erasure of the lived experience of transsexuals.   Perhaps even more troubling is that the TERF position clearly ignores a large and growing body of evidence that does show that masculinized and feminized brains are objectively different (and that transsexuals reflect brain structures that tend towards female typical).

In many respects, it isn't the TERF's denial of the reality of transsexuals that gets people wound up.  I think if it were merely a disagreement over philosophical points of worldviews, it would be far less contentious than it is.

Unfortunately, TERF writers going back to Janice Raymond, author of a treatise entitled "The Transsexual Empire" have done their level best to erase the narrative of transsexuals.  Quite frankly, Jeffrey's latest work is really just another volley in an ongoing war where transsexuals are concerned. There is very little in it which is new, revolutionary or even evolutionary.

Whether or not "Radical Feminist" theory has any legitimate criticism of the social roles assigned to our male and female citizens is unfortunately lost in the core assumption that denies transsexuals the right to their own stories.  Jeffreys, along with the other TERF writers are blinding themselves to the growing evidence of biology and how it influences the expression of gender.  The rigidity of the TERF position is also its brittleness.  Feminism needs a new direction to evolve.  The work started so many years in the past has not been finished yet, and yet it cannot move forward without including the diversity of gender identities and roles that have emerged in the last 25 years.  I firmly believe that the TERFs like others with rigid, inflexible belief systems will become the intellectual dinosaurs in the coming years.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Confusing Freedom With Imposition

Canada's "Association For Reformed Political Action" came to my attention this past week.  Just from the name, you can tell that this is one of the groups that is seeking to turn Canada into a theocracy much like the far right is currently doing in the United States.

I decided to spend a little time sniffing through their website, and found a fair bit of interest.

First is an explicit and clear sense of just how deeply these groups are connected with the Harper Government.
... a speech to the ARPA groups from cabinet minister Jason Kenney
Do you think you would find Jason Kenney speaking to a feminist group, or an LGBT group?  Come to think of it, how many conferences have you heard about being held on Parliament Hill in recent years ... besides those which are connected to the religious lobby?  Kenney is well known as a speaker on the "pro-life" circuit, but he is very careful to make sure that no public records of his speaking engagements are readily available.
Parliament Hill was abuzz with close to 70 representatives of ARPA chapters from across the nation who gathered last week and sat down with approximately 50 Members of Parliament and Senators to discuss issues close to our hearts.
In itself, there isn't anything particularly wrong with this group lobbying the government.  In fact, all groups should be able to lobby the government.  The real question is what does an organization lobbying the government actually represent?

Well, in this case, one doesn't have to go too far to start building a picture, and it is one which all Canadians who respect what is good and decent in this land should be concerned by.

Let's start with the following "public policy submittal" from ARPA's website:
Canada is a nation in search of an identity. We don’t publicly recognize any god as supreme, let alone the Christian God. We follow leaders and ideas for a time, only to move on to the next person or thing that stirs us. But hockey, donuts, and beer aren’t exactly symbols on which to build a nation.

Over the decades Canada has divorced the Christian God from our public institutions and replaced Him with self- worship, state-worship, and earth-worship, among other things. Yet we continue to lay claim to, and benefit from, many of the political and legal by-products of the Christian faith, including fundamental human rights, much of the Criminal Code, and the concept of rule of law.
Ah ... this would be the plea for their particular faith to be granted supremacy over all others in the nation.  After all, we were all "Christian" at one time, weren't we?  Ah, here we are:

In a nutshell, civil governments are called by God to be his servant for good, to bear the sword to punish criminal wrongdoing and to promote justice and righteousness (see Romans 13:3-4). The goal for civil government is to allow for citizens to enjoy a peaceful and quiet life (1 Timothy 2:1-2), not to convert souls or eradicate false religions.  
One reason for this limited role of the civil government is because there are other governments instituted by God and described in the Bible. Each of these governments has their own roles and responsibilities. For example, the family is a governing institution that is accountable directly to God, not to the State. It is entrusted with the duty of raising and educating children, among other things. The State has no business telling parents what their children must be taught. The family unit is not subservient to the State. Both are accountable directly to God. 
Ah yes.  The classic arguments that "God" has all the authority, and therefore the state has no reason to intervene in such trivial matters as education.  (after all, there's nothing like teaching your children fables like creationism instead of actual, objective science)

Now, in large part, this looks like the usual religious freedom claims.  More or less, the state has no right to dictate what religious doctrines are taught to children, and that people should be free to do as they please in such matters.
This suggestion that the God of the Bible is the authority from which all human authority is derived sounds radical. But the status-quo is not all that different. Much of what is guiding public policy in the provinces and our nation today is also religious – it’s just hidden under a superficial veneer of neutrality.
Religion is “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”2 Every official is guided by his or her own beliefs or worldview – it is why you entered public office. As historian Link Byfield noted “All laws – not just laws concerning sexual behaviour – are based upon some moral principle. The entire Criminal Code, for starters, is an anthology of morality. Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not murder, all these rules are moral principles.”3 In many regards Feminist MP Niki Ashton is no less religious than self- described evangelical Christian Stephen Harper. As a result, the policies coming out of our Parliament and Legislatures are also religiously based, though some are more explicit than others (see the example on the right). For example, the belief that health care should be distributed “freely and fairly” is a religious conviction based on a view of human worth and the role of the state.
Frankly, this is a sloppy attempt to say that "everything is religion" - a rather ludicrous reductio ad absurdum claim.  To make such a claim, one has to presuppose that morality is only informed by religion.  A more clear-headed view of the world would realize that someone can arrive at various "moral" positions through paths other than religious teaching.  For example, an atheist whose worldview is informed by empirical evidence and observation may arrive at the proscription against theft on the basis that stealing something harms the other person by depriving them of the fruits of their labour.  This is not a religious position, but rather one which can reasonably be arrived at without even so much as opening a religious text of any sort.  Is this a "religious" position?  Not in the least.

The claim is made (frequently) that our entire system of laws is rooted in religious codes that have been around for centuries.  This is partially true, but to claim that Christian religion uniquely informs our legal traditions is to ignore the fact that human society has had a social contract for millennia, and through many different religious traditions.  In many respects, one might view religion as having evolved from the abstract social contract as a means of ensuring a degree of consistency over time.  In terms of law, we traditionally credit the Babylonian king Hammurabi with creating the first known written legal code.  One might imagine that prior to this, there were laws that encompassed the likely violations of the social contract in various societies, but they were maintained orally.  Further, we know that the Greco-Roman concept of religion was highly legalistic, with various rituals forming a "contractual bond" between humans and the various Gods.  The Romans would claim that their authority was derived from the contractual endorsement between the Gods and man, just as Christianity claims authority from "the eternal God".  It is in fact this reality that causes me to assert that religion is a reflection of the society from which it emerged.

Now, things get interesting.  To this point, what we have is a group running about lobbying politicians to enable their religious freedoms.  Not entirely invalid, and per se, I have no real objection to this.  They should be perfectly free to believe as they wish and practice their faith in peace.

Then we come to some of the other campaigns that ARPA is connected to:

We Need A Law :  A "Fetal Rights" anti-abortion lobby effort.  Headed up by Mike Schouten.

The Truth Is:  An anti-abortion campaign of ARPA, with an associated "Pregnancy Help Line" (a la the misleading "Pregnancy Crisis Center" model the far right in the US has adopted to undermine Planned Parenthood.

Human Rights Commissions:  Part of a far right campaign to dismantle human rights codes and commissions that are enacted both federally and provincially in Canada.  The claim is largely that these bodies unreasonably constrain religious freedoms (which mostly turns out to be it constrains a religious "freedom" to discriminate against people who the religion doesn't like very much - like the LGBT communities).

Here is where the problem arises.  It is not that ARPA wants religious freedom at all.  It is the desire to impose their worldview on others by restricting what others who may not share their worldview are able to do.

For example, the arguments against abortion are largely based on a religious claim that life "begins at conception".  Of course, the definition of "life" is left open, allowing for much shifting of goalposts in debate.  However, making such restrictions effectively deny women's agency in setting up their lives and managing them.  While someone who happens to have the same religious philosophy as ARPA professes to may well not pursue an abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy, someone whose worldview is informed through a different set of drivers may well wish to do so for their own reasons.  In this situation, we have a problem.  The ARPA group is demanding that the agency of others in their own lives somehow unreasonably impinges upon their religious sensibilities and therefore must be limited.

Likewise, the complaints about the human rights laws (which are subservient to the Constitution and Charter - and to my knowledge have never been overturned by challenge before the courts), basically boil down to a complaint that their ability to bully and abuse others who they disapprove of is being restrained by these laws.

So, on one hand they are demanding that nobody, especially the state, impose itself upon their religious freedoms and on the other hand they are demanding that our legislators write laws which reflect their worldview and as such impose that same worldview upon all Canadians regardless of their own individual world views.

Apparently, they have not understood the distinction between individual rights and freedoms and the much broader social contract of cooperation that is needed in a diverse country in order for all members of society to be able to participate fully and freely.

More concerning is that groups like this seem to have far greater access to our current government than those who do not share these beliefs.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Think That Mass Spying Doesn't Affect You?

Go Read.

It is not just the spying, but the records and how they are shared which is the real problem.

The Harper Government wants people to be afraid.  If they screw up a few people's lives in the process, that's just so much the better for their agenda.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Is A Policy A Non-Policy?

At first glance, this almost seems like a reasonable document.  There are lots of "The schools shall do this" and "shall provide that" statements, and it almost looks as though they made reasonably well informed effort.

Almost?  Why do I say "almost"?  Like most documents, you have to read it through a couple of times before you see the gotchas in it.

Harper Tries To Foment A Crisis

Harper has taken a surprising number of losing cases to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Most, if not all, were obviously places where the government's position is one that is in direct contradiction with the Constitution of Canada.  Even a relative neophyte in Constitutional law in Canada can spot that, whether it is Harper's desire to "reform" the Senate or the government's daft position on prostitution.  

Now we have the CPC caucus starting to trot out the "undemocratic" talking points.
Dan Albas, the MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, says that while he respects the courts he also believes an increasing number of groups are using litigation to advance policies the government will not put forward. 
"Often the Plan B is to do an end-run around our democratic process and turn to the courts where it seems some judges are quite happy to engage. This can result in decisions contrary to what have been decided in our democratic process," Albas told CBC Radio's The House.
Let's see ... the government is unwilling to engage with the issues that various groups are raising (presumably on ideological grounds, given the pattern of the Harper Government), so they take it to the courts.

First of all, that means that these groups are raising issues which are not just minor problems, but in fact have a legal basis where the current policy or laws are in fact inconsistent with the fundamental principles of Canada's legal system and laws.

Second, if the government is unwilling to engage on these issues, they leave the public with little other option but to force the matter by pursuing justice in the courts.
"Basically what you're having is a judge can overturn and then cost the taxpayer a lot of money without any accountability or representation on their behalf," Albas said. 
The British Columbia MP said it's important to ask whether there is the right balance between the executive branch and the judicial branch to make sure every Canadian is well-represented. 
"If citizens through the democratic process are unable to make policy decisions because of unelected judges and well-financed interest groups, I submit we collectively lose," Albas said.
Well, we already know that Harper views the Constitution of this country as an impediment to his goals.  It stands to reason that he is also going to see the judiciary and any other branch of government that would dare challenge his wisdom as a bad thing too.

The Conservatives are basically taking the stance that as the governing party, they have a right to decide what issues they are going to address and when.  This is true ... to a point.  However, the courts can declare a given law or policy as illegal / unconstitutional on a variety of grounds when a case is put before them.

This is not "undemocratic" in the least.  In fact it is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy.  There are checks and balances in place which curb the power of the "democratic majority" (which I will point out in the last election was effectively just over 20% of the eligible voters) to run amok.

The point of an independent judiciary whose sole job it is to study and interpret the law of Canada is to ensure that the legislative and executive branches of our government cannot arbitrarily abuse the rights of citizens.  Make no mistake about it, what Harper proposed doing with the Senate abused your rights every bit as much as some of his laws.  By attempting to undermine the amending formula, he was effectively trying to set a precedent that the executive branch could propose and enact radical changes to the foundation of this country's laws without engaging with the provinces - thereby negating your democratic voice at not one level of government but two levels of government.

The judiciary in Canada isn't being "undemocratic" at all.  It is the Harper Government which is being undemocratic, and attempting to impose the tyranny of their followers on all Canadians without being held accountable.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Spendaphobe? Give Us A Break

So, according to Rob and Doug Ford, Rob isn't a homophobe, he's a spendaphobe.

Rob Ford's own actions related to pride in the not so distant past (refusing to attend, trying to stop the city from flying the pride flag for example) speak quite clearly to where he stands with respect to gay rights.

However, that isn't the point of this post.  It is the ridiculous moniker of "spendaphobe" that needs to be talked about.

Typical of what we've come to expect from conservative politicians in the last decade, this is nothing more than a piece of jingoism.  It's a meaningless term designed to deflect attention away from the issue at hand.

Rob Ford spends ... often like a drunken sailor, and most of his claims of saving the City of Toronto billions of dollars are largely lies.  Further, Ford's conduct over the last year and a bit have demonstrated repeatedly that the man is a compulsive liar.  Almost every time he has been confronted with his own misconduct, he has lied to Canadians.

So, as a voter in Toronto, would you believe his latest round of denials?