Friday, December 31, 2010

What's in a Name - Really?

The then-known World
What’s in a name? We went to see The King’s Speech at a theatre in Edmonton a week ago and it brought up a discussion of names. King George VI had four names: Albert Frederick Arthur George. When he contemplated his coronation upon the abdication of his brother Edward, he might logically have become “King Albert,” but that seemed unsatisfactory and so he chose to be “George” despite the fact that he had pretty serious issues with his father, “George V,” who is portrayed in the movie as an unforgiving tyrant regarding young George’s struggle with a stammer. George VI grew up being called “Bertie” by his family. Take time to see the movie; it’s a story of substance for a change.

I also am “George.” The name doesn’t automatically confer king-like-ness. My mother told me the name was chosen because I was born on George VI’s birthday—December 14th. My father’s name was “Gerhard” and I recall that some of my aunts called him “George.” So I repeat, “What’s in a name—actually?” Would my life have been different if they’d chosen “Albert” or “Frederick” or “Arthur?”

Writer Rudy Wiebe taught me long ago that in writing fiction, naming characters is important. Names carry connotations: I met a young girl who will go through her whole life with the name “Precious Gem;” The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a 1760s serialized novel by Laurence Sterne proposes that anyone with the name “Tristram” is branded for life as . . . well . . . not-totally-robust.

There is a trend going on in naming, and that must mean something too. Statistics in the USA reported at show that the most popular baby name in 2005 was “Jacob,” followed by “Michael,” “Joshua” and “Matthew.” What’s the trend? Fluffy to solid? Back to the Bible? Both? Or are we simply followers of fashions that tilt—as it were—with the fanning of butterfly wings?

Back in R.D. Parker Collegiate, some staff members invented a student and got him inserted into the school records, even had the principal attempting to reach his parents to discover the reasons for his absences. They called him “Klavier Onk.” I’ve always liked that name, as evidenced by the fact that I haven’t forgotten it over these 30+ years.

Wouldn’t “King Onk III” be a hoot?

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Happy New Year


2011 is upon us. We all know, of course, that if we were observing the earth from space we wouldn’t see our planet passing a signpost, we wouldn’t see a light come on although we might hear strains of Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . wafting up through the ether. 365-day years, 24-hour days, 60- minute hours and 60-second minutes mean nothing anywhere except on earth. But—you may well protest—we don’t ever live anywhere except on the earth, so what’s your point?

David Suzuki has said that the most useful view of our home as humans is from space (we’ve all seen the photos) and understanding that that blue planet is the one and only human abode, shared by all of us. A hymn we used to sing goes: “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through.” The preacher in Ecclesiastes 1:14 says: “I have seen all the works that are done under the sun; and, behold, all is vanity and vexation of spirit.” What they have in common is the notion that our time living in this home we call earth is not long; what they don’t share is a grand philosophy of this short sojourn.

The best you and I can do is choose an “as if” that seems to fit and live according to its precepts. Evangelical Christianity, Islam and Jewry (to a less-specific degree) incorporate an afterlife of the soul, and so the guide to life may be that one lives “as if” another, better life follows death. Ecclesiastes obviously poses the possibility that death makes the striving of the living purposeless, and to follow the “all is vanity” line of thought would mean that one lives “as if” working, planning and setting goals were no more than futile gestures.

Let me propose a grand philosophy for 2011. Let’s live “as if” we had been assigned a ration of imagination, energy and hope so that we might beautify the home we share and the lives of the people in it. Let’s throw energy and imagination into preserving what is good: the natural world and its life-giving and sustaining abundance. Let’s contribute an addition-of-value to this home by cultivating the arts, by creating refreshing newness. Let’s imagine peace, and insist that war and strife soil our common home. Let’s abhor hoarding and sing the praises of sharing. Let’s visit each other, talk to each other, sing and dance together, uphold each other in pain and rejoice with each other in victory.

Let’s have the courage to shout down the detractors who live “as if” nothing matters except their personal hoard of wealth, fame or comfort. Let’s have the temerity to suggest that selling the stones out of our common foundation is stupid.

Above all, whether or not we look forward to a blissful eternity or not, let’s not forget that in the grand philosophy the “as if” we choose for 2011 is significant beyond imagining.

I wish you all a happy and prosperous New Year.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A World Without Islam - Graham E. Fuller - a review.

teacher's desk
Fuller, Graham E. A World Without Islam. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010

The central thesis of Fuller’s book is that even if Mohammed had never been born, or if the Islamic religion had never taken hold, the tensions in the Middle East would be very similar to what we see today. He refers a number of times to the Islamisization of the conflicts in the Middle East. More and more, the rhetoric of democracy against Islam is used to provide context for the wars, and more and more, the public is being encouraged to see Western intervention in the Middle East as a defense of Western democracy against a brutal, dangerous Islam.

Fuller begins by tracing the history that led to the current tensions in the Middle East. Many readers will find chapters like “The Third Rome and Russia: Russia inherits the Orthodox Legacy” or “Colonialism, Nationalism, Islam, and the Independence struggle” challenging; there are whole blocks of world history that we in the West typically didn’t even touch on in school. He makes a reasonable case for asserting that what we have often seen as religious wars were really geopolitical conflicts, sometimes taking on the shape of religious disputes because the combatants were of different religious persuasions. Fuller maintains that religion doesn’t start wars, but can exacerbate tensions and contribute to the context of disputes, can be harnessed as a means of diverting attention from the real motives of the combatants.

Religion will always be invoked wherever it can to galvanize the public and to justify major campaigns, battles, and wars, especially in monotheistic cultures. But the causes, campaigns, battles and wars are not about religion. Take away the religion, and there are still causes, campaigns, battles and wars (p.286).

Fuller opens the question of how terrorism is defined, viewed and responded to in the west. His argument that Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were acts of terrorism in exactly the same way as 9/11 was, is persuasive. The extreme escalation of terrorism via suicide bomber attacks on the symbols of power is, however, a recent development and in the West, the opinion that it is enabled by Islamic religious beliefs is widespread. Terrorism is the way in which a weaker combatant wages war against a stronger. Having no military force to match the one considered an oppressor, the weaker one resorts to terror, the infliction of fear through the mechanism of surreptitious sabotage. Not unlike Robin Hood. Fuller doesn’t excuse terrorism by any means, but his contention that we need to define terrorism in a global manner and apply it evenly to all occasions of dispute is timely.

Insurgency may be “illegal,” but it is the essence of human response to unjust conditions (p. 292).”

Fuller agrees with an opinion I’ve expressed on numerous occasions: 9/11 should have been treated as a criminal act rather than an act of war, as George W. Bush declared it to be shortly after the event.

Efforts to identify and stymie terrorist acts must be carried out through intelligence and police work; capture of terrorists should be the prerogative of international organizations or local countries, and not by the United States operating on an illegal extraterritorial extension of its sovereign rights to capture and assassinate individuals at will (p. 301).

It’s hardly necessary to add that Fuller sees the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan and the closure of foreign military bases to be the first necessary steps in arriving at eventual peace in the Middle East. He considers the Israeli expansion and its displacement of Palestinians to be the most irritating barb in East/West relations, and advocates for the reversal of this expansion. Until this happens, the Arab/Muslim world will always be in a posture of defense against outside aggression, and it won’t be a consequence of religion, but of geography, politics and the right to defend oneself and one’s community against foreign aggression.

I remember a conversation with a man in Belfast during a tense period of “the troubles.” He said—in effect—that the Western media completely misunderstood the conflict in Ireland as being a Protestant-Catholic feud. He went on to say that it hinged completely on nationalist/loyalist grounds and had no reference to religious differences. In Northern Ireland, as in the Middle East, religion was used to further ends of both British loyalist and Irish nationalist’s goals.

That the Canadian and American governments should be putting a beneficial spin on the news of their activities in Afghanistan is understandable; much money and many lives have been invested in what is most certainly going to prove itself to have been a fool’s errand. There is no military solution to terrorism; it’s foundations must be found and addressed. The average Canadian, I observe, has a very poor grasp of the foundations of the Middle East conflicts and deals in platitudes, half-truths and herd wisdom. It’s time we all read and studied Fuller’s book.

Thursday, December 09, 2010


Silver Leaf

A sometime reader of this blog recently said he was waiting for my comments on Wikileak. Frankly, I’m getting a big kick out of seeing all those important people covering up their private parts with their hands as the world discovers that “the emperors have no clothes.” And then there’s commentator Tom Flanagan losing control of his vitriol levels for a minute and suggesting that Assange would justifiably be assassinated. It’s altogether the funniest political event since John McCain selected Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the 2008 presidential election. The outcries about the potential damage public leaking can do are heating up.

Hello! What are being leaked and posted are quotes, not inventions. The only way Wikileaks will post something stupid about you is if you say or write something stupid.

I know that during negotiations compromises are reached in stages and that publicizing an interim position can jeopardize the process. It’s  “diplomacy at work.” On the other hand, where persons or institutions with power are able to act and make decisions without fear of “leaks,” the creep toward corruption is certainly facilitated. Public knowledge can, for instance, prevent “interrogation techniques” from gradually escalating in severity until we discover suddenly that our governments are allowing the torture of prisoners.

Most of us have known all along that our emperors are running around naked, as are we all. Wikileaks doesn’t teach us this; it simply underlines what we already knew. But the terror in the eyes of our leadership is hard to miss, and they’re fighting back vehemently. Where I live, the site has been yanked: “Sorry. This site is not currently available.”

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, a neighbour says to Jem and Scout that their dad is the same man on the street that he is at home. People in public life need to be aware that honesty, integrity, courtesy and respect are no less required of them than they are of the rest of us. Negotiate privately if you must, but don’t assume that the people for whom you are working have no right to expect certain minimum standards to apply when the public can’t hear you.

Of course, one person who probably has no worries about leaks is CBC hockey commentator Don Cherry. When he has a quarrel with the media, he simply hauls out in public and urinates all over the “left-wing pinko kooks.” Nothing hidden there. Nothing to expose. Would that it were.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Good-bye, F-150
Sunday morning. Just finished printing up a sermon I’m scheduled to deliver this morning. It’s called, Repent and Reconnect. The title was given to me by a sequence we’re following in the Advent season services. I’d rather be talking about the three kings of the Orient; I was just involved in three evenings of dinner theatre under the banner, “The Gift of the Magi,” featuring choral music and the short stories of O’Henry, namely The Last Leaf and The Gift of the Magi. Readers’ Theatre. It was well received. The dinners were phenomenal.

Repentance takes such odd shapes, doesn’t it. Tom Flanagan regrets his glib remarks on a CBC TV program in which he advocated the assassination of the founder of Wikeleaks; I’m pretty sure his regret is genuine, but he did feel compelled to say that the leaks on the website ought to be stopped nevertheless. Sort of an “my stupid comments were provoked by a man who is way badder than I am” kind of apology.

Then there’s the “I was seduced” repentance, in one case constituting the defense of a man who was charged with sexual misconduct with a minor!

Probably as inane as any is the “I’m sorry, but I was drunk at the time” repentance.

I don’t find the admission and regret part of repentance as hard as I used to. I can remember making all kinds of excuses for stupid things I’d done as a pre-adult. When your public image is as important as it is in your teen years (or as a public figure), face must be saved, and the straws grasped at to accomplish that can be bizarre. Repentance without penitence, and without the prerequisite intention of changing course.

Even more astounding is the public tolerance that allows people in power to make massive blunders with little demand from us for repentance. I’m puzzled, for instance, by the fact that although Bush and Cheney and the rest of the American administration of the time led the US into Iraq on the basis of a lie—or ignorance, depending whom you ask—and thousands died as a result, there doesn’t seem to have been a concerted demand for genuine repentance, i.e. admission, remorse, change. Why is that, do you suppose?

But, I don’t want to stray too far from home on this subject. Here and now, I repent the fact that I’ve allowed myself to be recast as a consumer—as opposed to a person—and in so doing, have been joint contributor to an economy that can’t work in the long run and an environment that can’t sustain the continual attacks upon it. So I’ve admitted it, but I ought to feel more remorse, and I’ve still got a lot of changes to be made, although I sold the pickup truck I loved and have reduced to one, small vehicle. Whoopee ding. I also recycle. Hey, and I don’t buy bottled water.

But I’m not sure I’m ready for the real repentance, when I and my fellow “consumers” genuinely say “enough is enough.”

I guess there’s always that other face-saving excuse. “The devil made me do it!”

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Slippery slope time - again

Feelings of frustration happen when circumstances block people’s ways to whatever goals they’d imagined. That many people should be living with mounting frustration at this time is not surprising, given the economic uncertainties. Prolonged frustration is like a cancer that eats away at the human spirit and when fed with a diet of bad news and very little prospect of change over time, it’s not surprising that frustration turns into rage. If frustration is the kitten, then rage is the tiger.

Frustration and rage can only live in a free-floating state for so long before they need to find some island on which to settle. In economically depressed, post WWI Germany, one island on which rage settled was Jewry, and we all know the end of that story. Once the cause of the frustration has been named and endorsed by a critical mass of others similarly frustrated, the running shoes are on and the stampede begins.

There’s plenty of frustration in the news these days. In North America (and to varying degrees, the rest of the world), a scary economic collapse in 2008 was bad enough, but followed by a period when little was heard except the good news of the recovery, the stagnation that turned out to be the fact pushed many people from frustration to rage. Demonstrations against government cuts to curb deficits got downright ugly in France and Greece particularly, and made us wonder if they were precursors to something really dangerous over here. 

Most of the media commentary on the economic situation here in Canada has been pretty cool and sane to this point. But there are signs that ideologues are working hard to point the rage of the masses toward certain targets. John Gormley is known for his right-wing views and in a recent column commenting on airport security, he couldn’t resist: Many of the people griping loudest about the imaging scanners and searches come from the new class of the special — those pampered, cherished, “ all about me” narcissists who continually star in their own movie and cling to the illusion that life really is all about them. (Saskatoon StarPhoenix, November 19, 2010, p.3) The labelling is clearly evident here; it points people toward a target against whom their rage would appropriately be directed.

In the USA, right-wing radio and television, the Tea Party phenomenon and all that goes with that have been much more clear about which targets people ought to blame for their frustrations. It’s the philosophical liberals in the country, represented by a) the Democrats, b) people who tolerate abortion, homosexuality and same-sex marriage and c) Muslims and anyone whose name sounds kind of Islamic. The fact that this is still a pretty big pond only means that the rhetoric is still waiting to find a clear focus. In a diatribe circulated on email networks called “I’m 63 and I’m Tired,” former contender for the Republican presidential nomination and a former district attorney on CSI Miami, Robert A. Hall names some of the islands on which the vultures of rage are invited to land. Here’s a sampling:

I'm tired of being told I must lower my living standard to fight global warming, which no one is allowed to debate. My wife and I live in a two-bedroom apartment and carpool together five miles to our jobs. We also own a three-bedroom condo where our daughter and granddaughter live. Our carbon footprint is about 5% of Al Gore's, and if you're greener than Gore, you're green enough.

I'm tired of being told that drug addicts have a disease, and I must help support and treat them, and pay for the damage they do. Did a giant germ rush out of a dark alley, grab them, and stuff white powder up their noses while they tried to fight it off? I damn sure think druggies chose to take drugs. And I'm tired of harassment from cool people treating me like a freak when I tell them I never tried marijuana.

I'm tired of illegal aliens being called "undocumented workers," especially the ones who aren't working, but are living on welfare or crime. What's next? Calling drug dealers, "Undocumented Pharmacists"? And, no, I’m not against Hispanics. Most of them are Catholic, and it's been a few hundred years since Catholics wanted to kill me for my religion. I'm willing to fast track for citizenship any Hispanic person, who can speak English, doesn't have a criminal record and who is self-supporting without family on welfare, or who serves honorably for three years in our military.... Those are the citizens we need.

Again, the pond is still pretty big, and as much as Hall may protest that, for instance, he is “not against Hispanics,” just being mentioned in this vitriolic dissertation is signal enough for some people.

I guess there is such a thing as being angry at oneself, but we don’t readily raise our hands and admit that, “I’m sorry; I did it.” Seems to me the economic morass is a direct consequence of far too many people - right, left, gay, straight, liberal, conservative - giving basic greed free rein for too long.

Be wary of people who name an enemy that doesn’t include themselves; we’re on a slippery slope here, folks.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Lest we forget . . .

Another Remembrance Day has come and gone, and we’ve dutifully watched the news clips of important people laying commercially-churned-out wreaths at the bases of cenotaphs around the country. For something like 95% plus of the population, that’s been our nod to the need to remember the death of young men and women who apparently swallowed “that old lie,” Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. (Poem by Wilfred Owen. Translation: It is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country.)

As it has done for centuries, “that old lie” pervades our culture like swamp algae, and those who recognize its perfidy are cowed into silence by the enormity of the alternative. Imagine elbowing through a phalanx of ramrod-stiff soldiers at the Ottawa Remembrance Day service, pushing your way to the base of the cenotaph and announcing through a bull horn that what is being done here is paying homage to a lie. It would be similar to “sharing” at a fundamentalist church funeral that heaven and hell are parts of an insidious myth.

Since Wilfred Owen wrote his poem as a reflection of an experience in WWI, there’s been a gradual shift away from the patriotic to a more esoteric object of affection worthy of death. It’s hard to convince the Canadian population that their sons and daughters are being put in harm’s way to defend their country, per se. Neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda was threatening Canada when our government decided to engage in the Afghanistan conflict. So our current crop of soldiers are said to be dying for things like “freedom,” or “democracy,” principles that reach beyond our borders to include all like-minded allies. This trend is probably traceable to the Korean War, where the lie was altered to make us believe that our soldiers were dying to defend democracy against the canker of communism.

If the lie were the truth, our soldiers should be coming back with stories of glory exuberantly told, stories about their accomplishments in support of the ideals under which they enlisted. Why do so many come back disillusioned and sick? I’m told that for every death in Afghanistan, there are numerous cases of post-traumatic stress disorder in its various manifestations, not to mention amputations and other permanent physical harms. By and large, the media steer clear of the mothers who wail, “for what??” as they visit their children’s graves on Remembrance Day, but once in a while you hear from those with the courage to voice their deepest agonies, and they are of the “why?” and “for what?” variety, reflections of Owen’s torment over the sheer horror of the military solution viewed with eyes wide open.

Owen’s soldiers leave for the battle field “ardent for some desperate glory.” What vision of “desperate glory” entices our soldiers into uniform? One young soldier interviewed in a magazine some time ago said he was itching to “get over there to blow stuff up.” Others craved the camaraderie, the union with others in common purpose, the adventure, the newness offered in the military, and, oh yes, the defense of . . . what was it again? . . . democracy.

What I wished for this Remembrance Day was for more people with the courage to say what they know to be true: it is a lie and a folly. “To remember is to work for peace” read the button on the jacket of a friend in the Station before Remembrance Day. It was red, like the poppy, but in its small way it announced to the world that Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori is a tired, old lie.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Truth about Stories

Maligne Canyon
A friend recently recommended Thomas King’s, The Truth About Stories: a native narrative, to me and she was right; it’s a thought-provoking read. Too simplistically put, it’s an exploration of the influence of traditional narratives on the progress of our lives communally and individually. More specifically, it’s Thomas King’s personal experience of the clash of the white and aboriginal narratives. We all know the denouement, of course; we see its consequences every day.
But first, a word about “narrative.” Everyone inherits and learns a “story,” (although a better word would be “myth” used in its positive sense.)  The story is about life on earth, how it came to be, what it means to be a human being on the planet and where it is all headed. In some cultures, the foundational inheritance has been largely oral; in others, the story has been set to print and declared sacred as in the Koran and the Bible. To varying degrees, our lives are influenced—often unconsciously—by the story we inherit.
King points out, for instance, the harshness of the creation story in Christian/Jewish/Muslim theology as compared to aboriginal stories on life’s origins. How would Christians’ lives be different if in the story they inherited, God had sat down with Adam and Eve and negotiated a positive outcome instead of kicking them out of Eden and branding their offspring with the “born in sin” stigma? King muses.
Our inherited stories aren’t only religious, of course. Multi-millionaire Kevin O’Leary of Dragon’s Den said on a recent show, “We get up in the morning to make money,” and that too is the acting out of a story. A quote from David Suzuki reveals a very different story: “The human brain now holds the key to our future. We have to recall the image of the planet from outer space: a single entity in which air, water, and continents are interconnected. That is our home.” ( For most of us, the story underlying our choices is complex, a combination of religious traditions, experiences of survival in the modern world, reading and media influences, etc.  In the case of Canada’s aboriginal people, boarding school and other government policies sought to beat the story out of them. Finding a new story that will bring back dignity, purpose and self-esteem has been a near-impossible task for those of their leadership who see how necessary that is.
We underestimate the power of the story by which we live. Thomas King writes: “. . . James puts the barrel of a gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. And in the novel (referring to Louis Owens’ Porcupines and China Dolls) as in life, whether he lives or dies depends on which story he believes (118).” There are better and worse stories, there are people who have adopted stories that are false or that contain elements that are false. It’s crucial both on the personal and communal level that our stories be authentic and that they be faithfully transmitted. In 9/11, for instance, we see the collision of two cultures, both acting out a false story, as we also see in the economic collapse through which we’re presently trying to find our way. Good stories lead to contentment, companionship, well-being and plenty. Bad stories lead to conflict, exploitation and disappointment.
And then there’s that whole other issue of failing to act on a good story we’ve been given. A quote near the end of The Truth about Stories says it well:
And for the world I’ve helped to create. A world in which I allow my intelligence and goodwill to be constantly subverted by my pursuit of comfort and pleasure. And because knowing all of this, it is doubtful that given a second chance to make amends for my despicable behaviour, I would do anything different, for I find it easier to tell myself the story of my failure as a friend, as a human being, than to have to live the story of making a sustained effort to help (166).
So what’s a good story to live? The gospels? The Koran? The political and economic stories: capitalism, communism, anarchy? The hedonistic ‘eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ story? The way to judge the quality of the story in which we’re living may have been best summarized by Jesus when he said:  Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  (Matthew 7:16 - King James Version)” A good story produces good fruit; a bad story is a bush of thorns, a clump of thistles.


Friday, October 22, 2010

Russell Williams, the Media and Us

Alpine simplicity
I’m having a hard time these days coming to terms with both the story and the storytellers concerning the crimes and the trial of ex-colonel Russell Williams. Maybe it’s a mistake to try, like an attempt to rationalize the existence of the devil in terms of our daily lives. Right now, I’ve got my computer playing CBC’s Q with host Jian Ghomeshi; he’s assembled a panel that’s trying to analyze the news regarding the depravity of this powerful Canadian military man. A representative of the Toronto Star is just saying that there was no consensus on how to report the facts on the Williams’ case. Another panellist is responding with something like, “. . . the public has a right to know the facts, but they don’t have to be assaulted by the [the images of Williams in women’s lingerie.”] Apparently the Star had juxtaposed a photo of Williams in uniform and one of him in lingerie on the front page. Another panellist thinks the photo was powerful and true, compared to the story in the Globe and Mail, which was “dull.” A representative of the Globe and Mail is protesting that the G & B took the restrained route, and that images are different from words and that with text, one can stop reading when one wants. This is not possible with images, and so reportage has to exercise different choices with photos as opposed to text.

Not a bad argument, but I’m amazed at how much of what we’re hearing today is the media talking about itself, about whether or not they’re getting it right. Firstly, I don’t know if it’s any more legitimate for the press to charge, try and judge itself than it is for the RCMP. Normally, one would put more trust in the judgment of persons who receive the news, not the people who make it.

Consumers of cookies are the best judges of their quality.

Secondly, it seems to me that the media are constantly being tugged toward more explicitness, more raciness, more lurid content by the simple fact that the public can’t look away when traditional taboos are flaunted and exhibited. It’s the “I just can’t seem to look away . . . “ syndrome, or the impulse to run toward a fire or accident rather than away. Like I said, I’m having a hard time coming to terms with the interaction between me—a news consumer, the reporters—the news presenters, and the uneasy feelings that accompany any new revelation of the depravity of which men are capable, especially when the men in question are apparently “normal” . . . like me or you?

I’ve been surprised at how much I’ve seen of the Williams case on the TV news. It occurs to me that the more we tell the story of Williams’ crimes, and the more luridly we portray the man, the less likely we are to feel any responsibility for what happened to that man and what happened to others as a result. It’s the externalizing of the horror; the blacker we paint the villains, the whiter we seem by comparison, the less we’re likely to be implicated in their horrible deeds.

The world I dream about doesn’t breed people like Williams, Bernardo, Homulka and Pickton. It’s possible that the detailed reportage on their crimes will make the world better. Or worse.

And some fell in the gravel

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Trail Riders in Jasper

I just finished reading Negotiating the Numbered Treaties: an intellectual & political biography of Alexander Morris by Saskatchewan historian Robert J. Talbot, published by Purich Publishing in 2009. The book looks at treaty negotiations from the viewpoint of a primary negotiator and is refreshing for that reason. It also presents the reader with an interesting set of insights on the meaning of the treaties, not the least of which is the assertion that the impetus for negotiating treaties actually came from the First Nations and were not—as is often supposed—foisted on them.

What struck me most, however, was the moral basis that came to undergird Morris’s approach to treaty negotiation. Morris grew up among the privileged classes in Upper Canada and as a young man would have been inclined to use the word “savages” in reference to First Nations, but when he came in contact with the elders and chiefs in a treaty-negotiating setting, his views changed radically. He was impressed by First Nations’ leadership, began to see them as peace-loving, intelligent and honest brokers of their people’s future, and Morris appears to have sought to respond in kind, almost as if he were “going to school” under the tutelage of First Nations giants like Ahtakekoop and Mistawasis.

Two principles emerge as the guiding ethic of treaty negotiation, namely kinship and reciprocity. It would have been possible to enlist the crudest principle of manifest destiny, driving the First Nations bands off the land, or to adopt completely assimilationist government policy, and this might have happened if it hadn’t been for the clear sight and hard work of Alexander Morris. Although not easy by any means, the negotiations of the numbered treaties arrived at conclusions that at the time, satisfied both sides, although there were many on the Canadian side who considered them far too generous, and many on the First Nations side who felt they were far too miserly. The signings usually ended with a celebration.

I’ve been pondering the kinship and reciprocity paradigms ever since finishing the book, particularly after being involved in a discussion on Psalm 19 in an adult Sunday School class: “The Law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul . . . etc.” Morris came to the conclusion that treaty negotiation had to take place under other principles than land ownership laws. For one thing, they meant little to the First Nations for whom land “ownership” meant something quite different than what Ottawa was visualizing.

So Morris based his negotiations on, first of all, kinship. His preambles almost always portrayed the white man and the red man (sic) as equal children of the Queen, who in turn was the Creator’s appointed representative on earth. There followed reciprocity, the principle that white man and red man would live side by side and would cooperate, settlers helping Indians, Indians helping settlers.

It’s not news to anyone that those who followed Morris in the implementation of the treaties reverted to the legalism that they found much more comfortable, hence the paternalism in the Indian Act and in the functioning of the Department of Indian Affairs, an injustice we’ve never addressed properly. This legalistic view is evident in much of the public attitude toward the treaties; very few enunciate a kinship and reciprocity ethic in their interpretation of them. Many see them as agreements that were fulfilled by the granting of reserves, when reserves were in fact addenda to the treaties as opposed to core issues.

Writer Roger Epp has made the case that all Canadians are treaty people. Morris would have said, “of course,” to this. Most Canadians, I fear, have no such view of the treaties.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Oldest Profession


After writing about punishment as a means of discipline in my last post, an issue practically designed for illustration purposes has dramatically popped up in the news: prostitution—the ubiquitous deviance of the ages. In short, “Ontario's Superior Court of Justice ruled Tuesday the Criminal Code provisions relating to prostitution contribute to the danger faced by sex-trade workers.” What it means is that the laws against running a brothel, against offering or requesting sexual favours for pay have been found to be unconstitutional by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice.

“Well, I never! What message are we sending to the pimps, johns and hookers of this world?” That’s been the most immediate reaction around the country, alongside the jubilation of what are called “sex-trade workers.” If the ruling passes appeals and becomes law in Ontario, it will wipe out a whole class of what are now criminal offenses and provide some relief for both the police and the courts. Other effects are not known for certain, but one can imagine something similar to the red light district of Amsterdam where prostitutes sit in shop windows in varying degrees of dishabille, selling their services to passersby just like retailers display and sell motorcycles or toasters. No doubt, others are picturing soliciting hookers on every corner and traffic jams of men trying to get at them.

I don’t need to repeat the litany of harms that currently surround the sex trade on the streets and backrooms of our cities. You know them all, from Robert Pickton, to Hell’s Angels, to human smuggling, drug addiction and disease. The right question is probably, “What can be done to end these cycles of greed, exploitation and misery?” The right answer, unfortunately, is not as obvious, although we have plenty of people around who would grasp quickly for a “throw the book at ‘em . . . lock ‘em up and throw away the key” solution. In the age-old fight against prostitution, even a cursory review of our cultural history tells us that punishment regimens have failed.

There are plenty of harmful practices among us, heaven knows, besides prostitution. Smoking, drinking, gambling and overeating come to mind for starters. Thing is, we haven’t criminalized these but have used other means to make them reasonably tolerable. Alcohol production and sale, for instance, was criminalized in Canada and the USA from 1920-1933. “After several years, prohibition became a failure in North America and elsewhere, as bootlegging (rum-running) became widespread and organized crime took control of the distribution of alcohol.” Smoking has been fought as a health issue as opposed to a criminal issue, and clearly, progress has been made to curb this unhealthy habit. As regards overeating and poor eating—often resulting in huge costs to healthcare systems—we have gone only as far as the provision of public information and labeling mandates, and have left the choices up to the individual.

There are more options than criminalization that could be considered in the case of prostitution. It’s clear that whatever we do must make the sale and purchase of sex unattractive to organized crime. Hell’s Angels are not interested in selling underwear, but if we made the wearing of thongs a criminal offense, you can rest assured that organized crime would be selling them, most likely for five hundred dollars a pop, and they’d be shooting each other over thong-peddling turf.

How the application of more original curbs on deviance would work out in the case of prostitution in Canada is unclear. But it’s surely worthy of exploration.

Think about this. Let’s imagine, for a moment, a big-box store of “sin” in the middle of Saskatoon. Here practitioners are trained and registered to provide sexual services in all their manifestations. Here, nurses give heroin injections and retailers sell marijuana at prices set by the marketplace. In the country, farmers grow poppies and marijuana alongside wheat and oats until surpluses drive the prices down, when they probably go back to peas and barley.

The individual chooses whether or not to shop in this “sin” store, just as he does when looking for entertainment: ball game, movie or night club? All participants in the trade are qualified and evaluated, just like architects, teachers and plumbers are.

There’d still be laws to be obeyed, of course. Operating as a sex practitioner without a license would be a punishable crime, just like a charlatan practicing medicine is subject to penalties. Trading in sex or drugs without licensing and inspection would similarly remain a crime. The main advantageous effect of decriminalization would be that the prices would fall since supply could easily be made to exceed demand and the incentives to organized crime would vanish. An added advantage would be that sex workers would have to be fit, disease-free, subject to inspection.

One of the saddest aspects of the current sex industry is the exploitation of women, girls, men, boys, even children by greedy, ruthless “entrepreneurs.” We have a chance at reversing these abominations only if our models of correction change. Crassly put, if a person becomes addicted to heroin and its price is high, selling his or her body to feed the addiction is inevitable. If he/she can get a fix for $12.00 in a clinic, let’s say, a job at the local MacDonald’s might be just the ticket, and professionals would have access to the addict along with a possibility of influencing him or her with a health-based, psychological or spiritual rehabilitation.

But the Harper government will appeal the court ruling. They’re not likely to seize this moment as an opportunity for creativity and broad discussion. Conservatives have trouble thinking outside the box on this issue, especially when garnering votes in the next election is the uppermost consideration.

Too bad.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

On Law and Order

Athabasca Falls celebrates its ten millionth birthday, possibly.

Our federal government is taking “law and order” steps in the interest of public safety that will probably require the construction of new--and the expansion of older--prisons and penitentiaries. No doubt, they’re responding to that impulse with which most of us grow up, namely that the way to deal with deviance is to make the consequences severe enough to deter potential offenders.

There’s some logic to that; if the penalty for speeding were to be changed from a fine to a prison term, I would probably keep a closer eye on my speedometer. On the other hand, states that maintain the death penalty are still obliged to execute people regularly and California with its “three strikes, you’re out” policy has jails bursting at the seams and little else to show for it’s get-tough stance. At least that’s what one study shows. Another shows that it has made a remarkable difference in safety, largely because fewer repeat offenders are on the streets.

In the Ancient Middle East, harsh penalties were the rule. A creditor, for instance, could enslave the child of a debtor, but if he abused that child to the point of death, his own son would be executed. Adultery was punishable by stoning the adulterers to death. In parts of the world today, amputations and executions are still the prescribed penalty for transgressions like homosexuality, theft or apostasy.

What teacher or parent hasn’t wrestled with the question of discipline through punishment? A large segment of the population lamented the discontinuance of “the strap” in schools, maintaining that it had a place in the correction of deviant behaviour. To a teacher or parent at wit’s end over the unruly behaviour of students or offspring, the application of corporal punishment will undoubtedly always spring to mind. Lashing out is a visceral consequence of rage and frustration.

There is, of course, a vast range of possibilities in the application of punishment as a corrective measure with the deliberate inflicting of pain and suffering at the one end and the curtailment of privileges at the other. There’s an enormous difference between enduring a public lashing and being obliged to observe a curfew for a certain period of time. Even if we believe that sparing the rod spoils the child, our thinking about the subject shouldn’t end there.

We “candy-assed liberals,” of course, preach prevention and rehabilitation as the primary defences against deviance. If we’re correct in saying that offences against society are bred in the unjust realities of discrimination, prejudice and poverty, then we should be taking a much greater exception to the government’s determination to change the world through harsher punishment. The voices of retribution are screaming out their message; the voices of reconciliation are silent, or at best, whimpering.

Where is the Plan B?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Fighter shopping news

Boeing 737 - 900 - $53,000,000

F-35 fighter jet - $246,153,846.15
Any chance weapons manufacturers are ripping us off?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Annie register your gun

In my book, What I meant to say was . . ., I wrote an essay titled “Annie, register your gun.” In it, I wrote one line in bold type: personal liberty trumps social responsibility. Well, we’re back into the debate, and next week the retention or abolition of the long gun registry will be decided. My MP is insisting that he represents the constituents while the retentionist Bloc, Liberal and New Democrats don’t. I personally have doubts about whether or not he (or the other parties, for that matter) actually knows what the majority of his constituents think on this issue; we’ve never been asked.

 Obviously, the passionate ones urging abolition are the ones most directly affected. They’re the long gun owners.The majority of Canadians live in urban settings and own no long guns. They’ve been understandably silent. It doesn’t matter to them enough to raise a hue and cry about the issue like the gun lovers have. I doubt that most Canadians even understand the process of long gun registration.

I personally own no gun, but if long gun registration means that someone out there is safer from danger by gun fire, I’d vote for keeping it. I’ve been thinking about registration and licensing generally and have come up with the following list off the top of my head:
  • Automobiles are registered and their drivers must prove themselves competent through training and testing because, we’re told, a car can be a dangerous weapon. There’s no protest about this, no assertion that it’s making criminals out of law-abiding citizens.
  • Professionals must be registered in order to practice. Most would do their jobs conscientiously and within the law if they weren’t, but we accept this as necessary to protect us from incompetence.
  • To participate in benefits like OAS, CPP, etc., we must be registered and must possess a Social Insurance Number.
  • Our municipal government attempted to have us register our cat, which we didn’t do. This bylaw made criminals out of law-abiding cats and their owners.
  • Airplanes can’t be flown unless they’re registered.
  • Births, marriages and deaths are all registered by law.
That’s just a short list. In the world of registration, long gun registry doesn’t stick out as particularly onerous. What’s the fuss about? Are we going to end up being badgered by a gun lobby like the National Rifle Association in the USA? I sincerely hope not.

If you’d like to know what’s involved in registering a firearm, go to This form describes the different kinds of guns so you can fill in the line on the application that describes your weapon. The form has two parts: one part identifies you and the other identifies the weapon. The form might take as much as five minutes to fill out. You then need to get a “verifier” to sign the paper to ensure that you’ve identified the gun correctly. That’s it. You send it in and pay the fee and it’s done.

Annie, for Pete's sake, register your guns and quite whining.

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Fox News Sabbath

Walking the dogs on a Sunday afternoon

Here’s a question I find interesting, although you may not:

When Moses brought down the Ten Commandments from Sinai, including the admonition to “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” did the Children of Israel know exactly what day that was? In other words, if they were to labour for six days and rest on the seventh, was it clear to all and sundry which day of the week was the seventh one and when it would next appear?

I followed a surfing-chain yesterday starting with a forwarded email from a friend suggesting I sign a petition to block Fox News from coming to Canada. That led me to the website of Glenn Beck, Fox’s resident reactionary, on which there was a link to the Restored Church of God, which led in turn to a few talks by a David C Pack on why the Restored Church of God is the only true church in the world, which led further to the debate in the Church of God about whether or not the true Sabbath is actually Friday sunset to Saturday sunset, thence to the article declaring Sunday observation a heresy by said Mr. Pack.

If the Children of Israel had begun to observe six days on, one day off immediately, would the current Saturday still be in synch with them? I don’t think so. Every leap year pushes the calendar one day back (or forward, take your pick) and a strict sequence of six-on, six-off would mean that the Sabbath would rotate through the days of the week over time. Correct me if I’m wrong.

This may illustrate little more than that the exploration of the web is best characterized as a descent into ignorance, silliness and the endless flogging of pet horses. Or it may raise a far more disturbing question: if the reading of the Holy Bible produces such enmity, confusion and strife as we see in the splintering of the Church of God (into The Living Church of God, the Worldwide Church of God, the Global Church of God and now, The Restored Church of God) and the endless bicker about doctrines, should we be recommending other reading instead, or at least, as well?

Maybe we should rise up and block Fox News. The movement across North America toward fundamentalism and “conservatism” is insidious and concerted, and very, very discouraging. It’s a movement that throttles the great potential with which creation has endowed us. It’s a movement that eulogizes the merits of old doctrines and habits and would rather concern itself with mystical meaning in ancient writings than with the expanding possibilities of human intelligence, logic and creativity. It would rather predict the future than live responsibly in the present, and assigns catastrophes to the workings of powers beyond our control. It’s anti-civilization, and to see the church leading the charge back into ignorance would be the most disappointing development of all.

An aside: David Pack makes much of the verses where Jesus is purported to speak of “building my church.” This is not a firm foundation for many of his arguments, since etymologically speaking, the word church was not used in the sense in which we use it until the fourth century AD (see Some will say that Jesus never set out to “build a church,” others will say that it’s not possible that Jesus ever said those words, particularly in the sense that we understand them. There’s a difference between “reading” and “reading with understanding.”

So back to the Sabbath. Taking a day off regularly is a good idea, no matter what day it is. Giving that day to contemplation of a greater reality than our daily tasks allow is probably a bonus. Fighting over whether that should be done on Saturday or Sunday was probably not what was intended, to say the least.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

God feeds Ravens: think about it.

They neither labour, nor do they spin

Consider how the lilies grow. I’ve been wrestling with the meaning of this advice from Luke, where Jesus addresses his “little flock” with several examples to encourage them not to worry so much about the future. “Consider the ravens; they do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barns; yet God feeds them.” (Former residents of Thompson may share a more basic impression of how ravens--aka Thompson Turkeys--are fed.) It’s all in Luke 12: 22 - 31, which is the text for the sermon I’m scheduled to deliver in a couple of hours. As usual, it’s a part of my immediate future that worries me. Ravens and lilies don’t have to get up in front of people to speak.

Here, in summary, is what I intend to present. If you are a member of Eigenheim Mennonite, you can read the below and snooze through the sermon.

1) Jesus asked his disciples to consider how the lilies grow so they would stop letting their worries govern their choices. Lilies don’t work, they don’t weave clothing, they don’t wear cosmetics and still -- with only the attributes God has given them -- their beauty makes Solomon look like a mud fence in comparison!

2) We can learn much by attuning ourselves to the signs of God’s creation around us and focusing less on the wonders of our own technology.

3) The short life of a lily bloom echoes our own lamentations about the brevity of our lives. Although brief, no lily’s life is pointless. Even passing beauty is marvellous.

4) Baird’s Sparrows, Sprague’s Pipits, Meadowlarks, and the Red Western Lily are very fragile remnants of Creation. If they are not worth protecting, then is any of God’s creation worth our concern? We need to address our habits of carelessness with the natural world.

5) The lily can teach us humility. We can accept ourselves as we are made, be thankful for it and stop wasting our time trying to be something we’re not. We need to free ourselves to bloom as we are.

6) The lily is amazingly beautiful. We know this because our mothers and fathers taught us to recognize real beauty. It’s a part of our task as adults to pass the affection for the amazing things God has made on to our children.

The creator feeding the elk.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Get your rapture insurance now.

Angel Glacier, Mt. Edith Cavell.  Indian Paint Brush on Mt. Edith Cavell

Do you have a love/hate relationship with insurance policies and schemes? Do you sleep better knowing that if your house burns down, you won’t be left destitute like those poor folks in the TV news who--when they sob into the camera that they’ve lost everything--actually mean it? Are you bothered by the amount of money this assurance (insurance really is the wrong word) is costing you?

Some insurance is mandatory, some is optional. You can’t get a mortgage or drive your car without insurance, for instance, but additional health insurance, life insurance, travel insurance, etc. are optional. What optional insurance have you chosen to help you sleep soundly? I’ll bet there’s one out there that you haven’t even considered, and I almost hesitate to name it lest it give you new, unnecessary worries.

I think the entrepreneur who dreamed up this scheme called it Rapture Insurance. Here’s the pitch: If you believe that a time is coming when all born-again Christians will be caught up in the air at once to meet Jesus and all the rest will be “left behind,” you may not have considered what will happen to your faithful Corgi after the joyous event. Are you willing to risk his being locked in a house with no remaining human presence to turn the doorknob to let him out, feed him or take him for walks in the park? If this worries you, Rapture Insurance will guarantee for one decade from the date of sign-on that they will look after the needs of your pet should you be caught up in the rapture and your tank of fishes, your budgie or your cat be left behind. All it will cost you is eleven bucks a year.

In case you saw a flaw in this plan, namely that the insurer might also be “caught up” with you, the company guarantees that all their personnel are atheists and the chance that they would be included in the rapture are nil. Some people believe that their pets are definitely coming with them, and therefore have no need of this insurance. Then there are those who are Christians, but have an alternative view of how the end times will unfold, and their version sees no need for this insurance. But there are some takers for whom this additional piece of peace of mind fits right in.

I gathered all this information via an interview on CBC as I was driving to visit my sister in the nursing home yesterday.

To some of you out there, this story might suggest other entrepreneurial schemes by which you, too, could get rich preying on the fears of a segment of the public. How about my scheme: Slip of the Tongue insurance. Who knows when you might inadvertently say something stupid or hurtful, thereby damaging your reputation, a friendship or costing you your job. Should the occasion arise, my company guarantees to put a very persuasive announcement in the paper assuring all and sundry that you didn’t mean it. Premiums are affordable at fifty dollars a year; there will be a small deductible, of course. No preacher, teacher, doctor, husband, wife or salesman should be without Slip of the Tongue insurance.

It’s not a high price to pay for peace of mind; a slip of the tongue could ruin you.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Render thoughtfully

Where we stayed while in Jasper, and where we didn't stay.

In an interview aired on CBC1 as we were driving home from Jasper the other day, celebrated author Ann Rice told about her recent conversion to, and subsequent abandonment of, organized religion when she realized how her church was behaving in relationship to the secular world. She gave as an example the pope’s condemnation of gay marriage in a manner designed to influence voting. She claims that she is now one of the millions who, like her, have lost confidence in the integrity of the institutional church and are exercising their faith privately.

It’s not easy, understanding what separation of church and state involves, or what is meant by “render . . . unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s (Matthew 22:21).” I’m not sure I understand it fully myself, but if I had to explain it to an inquiring mind, I’d say something like this:

There are two ideals at play for us in the separation of church and state in our country at this time: one is the Christian ideal based on the laws of the Old Testament and the gospel of Jesus Christ as interpreted by his early followers in the New Testament. The other is the ideal of political democracy, an ideal that says that every person--be he or she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Atheist, etc.--has equal representation in formulating the laws of the land. Under the democratic ideal, every citizen, whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Atheist etc., should work to realize the democratic ideal and seek to legislate to the common good, not to his/her particular good, thus rendering to “Caesar” (today, our democratic ideals) the things that belong to democracy.

For some of us most of the time, and for most of us some of the time, getting our heads around this principle is a daunting task. If, for instance, we find abortion generally abhorrent based on our religious scruples, the liberalization of abortion laws is hard for us to take. Thinking through the window of our democratic ideals, however, we could possibly be convinced that charging women who choose abortion with accessory-to-murder (and the abortion doctor with first degree murder, possibly) may not best serve the common good, especially when we realize that induced miscarriage has been a fact of life through all history and will continue to be a best-solution to a certain problem for certain women--no matter what legislators decide.

That in no way prevents a Christian or a Christian church from practicing its religious ideals, teaching its children a doctrine of the sanctity of life and arming them with proper information and convictions to manage pregnancy as well as they can. It doesn’t prevent the Christian church from setting up clinics to help women who are up against hard choices, to facilitate adoptions, to provide sex education, to influence their neighbours and politicians to make life-giving choices and so on, thus rendering to God what is God’s.

The advantages we have gained by the proper separation of church and state and by the democratization of our politics are almost immeasurable. So peaceful have our lives become, generally, that we could be lulled into a state of ignorance on this subject and neglect to understand and practice the “render[ing] . . . unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God, the things that are God’s.”

We may not regard Ann Rice very highly as a theologian, but I have to think that she has grasped something that might be self-evident to recent converts and obscure to those born into faith. Her testimony is a warning to all established religions: render more thoughtfully.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

On Reading "The Patience Stone"

The Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan appears to be strengthening. The Dutch are leaving after sacrificing some 24 young soldiers to the futile effort to impose democracy on a country extremely short on democratic sensibility. Canada will give up its combat role in half a year and the rest of the NATO group fighting that peculiar “war” is fast wearying of the routine of runway ceremonies. The illusion of a successful, externally imposed order is fading.

To say that Westerners have failed to understand the mentality prevailing in the Middle East may be the understatement of the “War on Terror” campaign into which we’ve bought so carelessly. In a paternalistic society like Afghanistan, honour and machismo rank highly as evidence of the quality of a man; the Western world has dealt humiliation to the men of the Middle East for decades. The War on Terror is an extension of the policy of paternalism and imperial privilege that set the stage for the current dilemma in Afghanistan. Western men’s machismo now seeks an honourable way out of yet another dishonourable war.

There are things we would understand if we had a memory and the wisdom to connect some historical dots. It’s only 100 years since North American men were scoffing at the idea of women voting; even now, the glass ceiling persists.

There are books to be read that could help us understand where many Middle East men are now. (Yann Martel has so far been unsuccessful in engaging Prime Minister Harper in a dialogue about books; Harper’s favourite reading is Guinness World Records.) The Patience Stone by expatriate Afghani writer Atiq Rahimi could be helpful to our politicians if they would take the hour of thoughtful reading that it requires.

A sang e saboor is a patience stone, a stone to which you bare your soul while it listens uncritically. In this case, the patience stone is the husband of an Afghani woman, deep in a coma from a gunshot wound to his neck, a wound acquired in the conflict that is every-day Afghanistan.

“You talk to it, and talk to it. And the stone listens, absorbing all your words, all your secrets, until one fine day it explodes. Shatters into tiny pieces . . . and on that day you are set free from all your pain, all your suffering (75-6).”As the woman cares for her unresponsive husband, she begins to unburden her soul of all the hurt and humiliation she has had to endure because she is a woman. His comatose bulk becomes her patience stone. And in the silent moments between confessions, she tells her beads, repeating one of the many names of Allah ninety nine times, and she fingers the Koran that is always nearby.

Insurgents burst into her house as she keeps watch and because she is pretty and can read intent in their eyes, she convinces them that she is a prostitute. There is no honour, no manliness in consorting with a willing prostitute; it’s the conquest of the undefiled that marks them as men and they leave her be. Ironically, they steal her Koran.

The Patience Stone captures with courage and simple, explosive prose, the reality of everyday life for a woman under the oppressive weight of Islamic fundamentalism,” the flyleaf intones. That may be the milieu in which this particular woman experiences oppression, but it shouldn’t be forgotten that fundamentalism of any stripe has, and continues to, degrade women in a variety of ways. Islamic fundamentalism most certainly doesn’t have a lock on paternalism and its consequences.

Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me . . . Exodus 20:5

I have to wonder if the Exodus verse is quoting God or documenting experience. If the latter, then it makes sense to note that the effects of bad behaviour have consequences that reach down through generations. In other words, the democratization of a people will never be effected in a brief war; it’s a transition that will only occur over generations, if at all.

We hate the thought that the resolution for Afghanistan may not be seen until our great, great grandchildren come to peaceful terms with the great, great grandchildren of the Taliban. But there may be no other choice. 

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Slaying the corporate dragon

Consider the lilies how they bloom. They sow not, neither do they reap. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.

“A corporation¾ for all intents and purposes¾ is a monster disguised in human form. It preys not on human fear, as did the dragons of old, but on human greed. It bends the world to its will through enticement, not coercion, and that alone has saved it from St. George’s sword. We all are implicated in its rapacious deeds and our guilt prevents us from prosecuting the monster.”

The oyster fishery in the maritime provinces of Canada is having a banner year. You heard it on the news last night. It’s thanks to British Petroleum; their oil spill has shut down the Louisiana fishery, which supplied 2/3 of the US demand for oysters.
In Saskatchewan, the government has decided to give the potash industry a $100,000 tax break for every head-office position they create in the province. They say it will benefit tax payers “in the long run.” this decision was likely struck in a board room, certainly not on the legislative floor.
At the Station Arts Centre in Rosthern, actors and theatre patrons are wrestling with the morality of the corporate development of genetically altered seed and the patenting of it, so that farmers are obliged to pay a royalty to the company for every seed they put into the ground. It’s virtually a license to print money.

Since corporations thrive on the basic commodities of consumer greed, complicity and subsequent guilt, there is really only one weapon that can bring the dragon back into line, and that is the consumer boycott. The scariest words to corporate management and stake holders are, “I will no longer purchase your product.” Since our provincial, municipal and federal governments are all unwilling and/or unable to regulate the behaviour of mega-corporations, it may be time for a bit of anarchy. I propose a consumer-watchdog check on the activities of the mega-corporations, its purpose being to starve the dragons into submission.
Here’s how it would work:

Participants are found by word of mouth, the internet, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, whatever means is cost free.
They sign on through the internet, their email addresses are stored in a central server.
They regularly receive bulletins advising them of activities by various dragons that threaten the environment, seed soverignty, human health, etc., along with names of consumer products on whose sale this particular dragon is dependent.
They voluntarily change their buying habits to ensure that they are not supporting the dragon.
When the dragon has altered his behaviour appropriately, another bulletin advises participants of this fact.

To work, such a program would have to ensure that it was behaving fairly, that its bulletins were squeaky clean and accurate. For that, experts would have to be involved, or else libel and slander litigations would undo the whole.
Without some such arrangement, you can rest assured that BP will continue to drill risky wells at sea, Monsanto will continue its efforts to ensure that the seed supply is whittled down to only its patented products, and the Saskatchewan government will continue its policy of favouring corporate stakeholders over taxpayers.
If you’re not convinced, go to the Louisiana shoreline and count the number of BP executives and shareholders washing the oil off suffering pelicans. Then count the “ordinary taxpayers” engaged in the same activity. Then draw your conclusions.
And by the way, if you’re wondering where the opening quote came from, stop wondering; I made it up this morning. And take a look at this international organization to stop the patenting of life:

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Seven deadly sins

(This barn has nothing to do with the material below; it just looks nice and speaks diligent conservation.)

Wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony: these are the sins that have been classified by the church as having the power to interrupt the state of grace and land us in perdition. These are the seven “deadly”, “cardinal”, or “mortal” sins, as opposed to the “venial” sins like (I’m guessing here) chewing your fingernails.

We’re reviewing them through a series of sermons by pastor AF, alongside their corresponding virtues (hard work is the antithesis of sloth, for instance). And, I suspect, most of us are being given another look at behaviours we’ve come over time to see as bad habits or addictions as opposed to “sins.” Whether this shift in thinking is a by-product of the advance of Psychological research and practice, an increasing scepticism about the literal existence of an evil god who tempts and entraps us, or just a natural consequence of post modernism is what I’m pondering these days when I should be mowing the lawn. (I don’t multitask very well.)

Call it what you will, there is something decidedly deadly about--for instance--wrath. We’ve seen the deadening effect of that fog of habitual rage in which many people walk their daily lives. We hear news daily about some lost soul killing, kidnapping, raping in an outburst of wrath that has probably been festering untreated for years. Deadly is definitely the right word.

One concern I have with calling wrath a sin is that it may be dismissive of the precursors and the treatment of it, whereas medical practice attempts to find root causes and prescribe treatment regimens. In the church, of course, the solution to rage is rebirth, however that is described: a miraculous reformation in other words. And yet, rage is as much a problem inside the church as outside, and to dismiss this phenomenon among Christians as “backsliding” or failing to embrace real salvation is problematic. At the same time, there are plenty of witnesses to the transforming power of a genuine, born again experience.

In any case, people come under the spell of one or more of the “seven deadly sins” developmentally. Children of abusers are statistically far more likely to be abusers themselves than are children of loving, conscientious parents, for instance. The key must lie in the nurturance or neglect of maturing human beings, and those who repeatedly tout the virtues of punishment as a means to a cure must be shouted down.

Maybe sloth is the greatest of the sins (or bad behaviours) in the end. Too lazy to do the harder work of nurturance and inspired education, we have too often seized on the strap as a quick, handy response to inappropriate actions in children. The prison system is little more than the same, old, slothful response to deviance that the very advocates of harsh punishment have been implicated in causing. An ounce of prevention is way cheaper than a ton of “cure.”

I’m appreciating the sermon series. The use of the word sin probably serves to underline the seriousness of the kind of cultural decay that allows wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony to flourish, while the tried and true virtues (humility, perseverance, moderation, forgiveness, love, generosity and tolerance) wither on the vine.