Assertion, unsupported by fact, is nugatory. Surmise and general abuse, in however elegant language, ought not to pass for truth. Junius


And Now for the Weather

We had winter for three days last week, vile cold windy days, that compelled me finally to haul out my bulky winter coat and coffee-stained scarf for the first time this season. Then there was glorious beautiful day Sunday that melted most of the snow, then wet and gloomy since, but mild. Pretty typical December weather, I thought to myself this morning as I cleared the last of the rotting ice from the big water barrels by the barn, at least I won't have to haul water from the house. Then I stopped myself, and asked: since when was real winter weather exceptional in the middle of December?

A disconcerting thought. I spent an eternity of a winter in England once upon a time about 20 years ago (don't ask) and the weather was similiar: a damp dark squib of a day would be followed by a damper, darker, squibier night. But if a southern Ontario winter is starting to resemble the English, in England the weather is looking decidely more southernish. All of Europe, in fact was subjected to bizarre weather last week which included a tornado (!) in London, and record warmth prompting roses to bloom in southern England, spring flowers on alpine ski runs, and short sleeves in Rome.

Another disconcerting thought. Real, Environment Canada-type meteorologists (as opposed to climatologists, another breed entirely), forecasting day to day, are usually loath to ascribe this or that weather phenomonon to global warming: it's hard to extrapolate a trend from one event. Instead they'll talk cautiously and a little ambiguously about the Icelandic low fluctuations or El Nino or the effect of chilly Siberian air masses hitting warm water. Getting a flat statement from a meteorologist connecting December rose pruning in Hampshire to climate change is like pulling teeth from a broody chicken. Thus it was a little unsettling hearing one meteorologist talk last week about the weather in Europe. When asked if the weather in Europe was attributable to global warming, the meteorologist replied without hesitation, "Oh yes, absolutely." And this isn't the first time this month I've heard meteorologists make explicit the connection.

Somehow, I liked it better freezing in a bitter December wind, trudging through snow with frozen toes and listening to meteorologists hedge their bets.


The Lovejoy Factor

In any debate, matters have come to a pretty pass when someone brings up the children a la Mrs Reverend Helen Lovejoy. As the harpy, gossiping, hypocritical wife of the nondenominational minister from The Simpsons, Helen Lovejoy intervenes in almost any debate by shrilly crying, "Will someone please think of the children?"

As a rhetorical trope, the children card is most often played near the end of a debate, to disguise and divert attention from serious issues raised by your opponent. Who can oppose the children, after all, without seeming monstrous? And so it went with the debate on the government's marriage resolution last week. Same sex marriage, we were told by parliamentarians who supported the traditional definition of marriage, wasn't a rights issue, wasn't about the government's shameful attempt to deprive an identifiable minority their Charter rights, wasn't about the freedom of churches, like the United Church or the Quakers (among others) to marry whom they please, against a monolithic version of Christianity championed by the religious right and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, wasn't about (least of all) homophobia, as exemplified by the vile and disgusting web traffic on the right side of bloggerdom. It was really about the children all along.
The Children's Advocate

A selection, by no means exhaustive, of parliamentary wisdom on children during the marriage debate:

Mr. Harold Albrecht (Kitchener—Conestoga, CPC): The debate over traditional marriage should be a debate about rights, I agree. However, in the blind dash to put a patchwork of rights together, have we ignored the rights of children? Again, let me make a direct appeal to my fellow parliamentarians. For the sake of future generations, for the sake of our country, let us remember the children. . .

. . .

We need a debate to review the impact, not just on people who wish to marry but one that also reviews the impact of that decision on the most vulnerable among us, our children.

Again, my request is simple and clear. For the sake of democracy, for the sake of our children, for the sake of future generations and for the sake of the future of our country, let us have a full, open and honest debate.

Hon. John McKay (Scarborough—Guildwood, Lib.): The second, and more troubling, consequence is that we will need to redefine parenthood and limit children's rights. We already see the same sex couples, who are inherently sterile, asking courts to declare that their child, conceived by whatever means, is in fact their child, regardless of the biological rights. As Margaret Somerville has said, “society to become complicit in intentionally depriving children of their rights with respect to their biological family”

Mr. Pierre Lemieux (Glengarry—Prescott—Russell, CPC): I will now speak on the impact of marriage on the most valuable and yet the most vulnerable members of our society, our children. I believe children thrive in families and families are based on marriage. While the essence of this debate concerns adult relationships, we must recognize that the debate on marriage has a direct impact on the welfare of our children.

As it is the goal of the government to protect its citizens, particularly its most vulnerable citizens, it is, indeed, appalling that the previous government turned its back on the most important and fundamental component of our country, our children.

Mr. Rod Bruinooge (Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development and Federal Interlocutor for Métis and Non-Status Indians, CPC):My elders have clearly told me that small, isolated aboriginal communities must continue to teach their children that marriage is between a man and a woman. One elder told me, “What message would we be giving our communities if we did not teach our children the importance of traditional marriage?"

Mr. Bev Shipley (Lambton—Kent—Middlesex, CPC): This is a stern reminder that children have rights, rights that need to be taken into account. It is a reminder that our personal lifestyle preferences should never take precedence over those of our children.

Mr. Chris Warkentin (Peace River, CPC): In the same way that my heart is dedicated to ensuring that my child is protected, our collective heart should be set on ensuring that our nation's children are given a voice in this debate.

So what about the children? Do opponents of same sex marriage really have the rights of children at heart? You have to wonder. In almost an obscene irony, the day of the marriage vote an NDP member got up during Question Period and pointed out to the government that that 4,779 children were served in Toronto homeless shelters last year. Chris Warkentin, does that violation of rights --- the right to shelter and security --- trouble your conscience in the least? 1 in 6 children --- 1,196,000 of them --- live in poverty. Let us remember the children, indeed, Harold Albrecht. Any talk of children's rights from our esteemed parliamentarians is a parody, when 1 in 5 children in our country will go hungry today.

To be fair, the most vocal opponents of same sex marriage, the religious right, have not been silent in using children to tug at the heartstrings: I heard Charles McVety of Defend Marriage Canada at least twice speak out in the mainstream media about children's rights in the context of the marriage debate. Meanwhile, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the umbrella organization of conservative churches in this country, is "deeply concerned" about the rights of children but is doing . . . nothing, or almost, about the issues of child poverty, homelessness or hunger. No letter writing campaigns, no lobbying MPs, no pressure on the Conservative government they helped to elect.

That rushing sound you hear is the sense of proportionality going out the window. Balanced against the putative and wholly speculative rights of the children of gay and lesbian families, we have actual children, in their hundreds of thousands, who are living lives of dire misery with proven consequences for the well-being of our country. If we are going to speak about the rights of children, let us --- and our political and religious leaders --- get our priorities straight.


Tim Horton's on the Dustheap of History, or, The Maple Dip Is Better for You. Really.

I'm feeling ugly today. I was going to rant, really just a little, about the fetishization of December 6 as the day of mourning for women, but another national sacred cow has infinite more appeal: Tim Horton's.

Is anyone else getting just a tad irritated with Tim Horton's or am I alone in this?

We can talk about the metastasis of Tim Horton coffeshops on virtually every street corner of the land, their contribution to car culture and uglification of our neighbourhoods; we can talk about the appropriateness of a national icon being foreign owned; we can talk about the slightly sinister, Orwellian overtones of their latest advertising slogan ("Always Fresh. Always There."); we can talk about how we're beeing branded and blanded to death by the sheer ubiquitousness of Tim's; we can talk about how true community is really created in small family-owned and run restaurants and cafes, not in a prepackaged plastic-and-laminate soulless franchise operations staffed by the surly and the underpaid; we can talk of the silly public relations stunt of shipping a Tim's to Afganistan, complete, it seems, with the aforementioned surly employees.

Or we can talk about the "Always Fresh" food.

The fact is, Tim Horton's isn't really that healthy, being loaded with salt and simple sugars and fat. The twisted cruel irony is that Tim's core product --- doughnuts --- the food associated with overweight cops and Homer Simpson, is actually healthier for you than, say, a bagel or a muffin.

Consider this:

A maple dip doughnut contains 210 calories, 8g of fat and 190 mg of sodium.

A flaxseed bagel (marketed for the anti-carcinogenic properties of flaxseed) has 310 calories, 5 g of fat and 580 mg of sodium. Add the cream cheese --- and you would have to have a heart of stone not too --- and you're adding 144 calories, 18 g of fat and 190 mg of sodium. Total: 454 calories, 23 g of fat and 770 mg of sodium. Don't even think about getting that bagel buttered too.

12 grain bagel --- well, that should be healthier. It's got grains! 12 of them! Sadly, no. 310 calories, 6 g of fat, and 600 mg of salt. With cream cheese: 454 calories, 24 g of fat and 790 mg of sodium.

Then we come to the wasteland of muffins. Take the wheat carrot muffin, for example, which somehow conjures up visions of happy glossy eyed vegans: you get grain and vegetables all together! Except that is has 400 calories, an astonishing 19 g of fat, and 660 mg of sodium, albeit in a tasty little package. All you need is a side order of blood thinners, 'cause that fat is going straight to your arteries.

So much for the food. In Tim's defence, I have to say the crap you get at McDonald's or Burger King is probably worse by an order of magnitude, but that, unfortunately, isn't saying much.

The funny thing is, I like Tim's coffee. I drink it by the gallon. I'd take it intravenously if were possible. So when a faceless corporation starts to irritate the likes of me, it's probably time for them to watch out. We're a fickle lot, us consumers. Any hint of criticism, a whiff of ennui, the slightest nuance of negativity and we're gone. Just ask Mother's Restaurants. Or Eaton's. Or K-Mart.

Blogging note: Posts have been a little scarce the last week or so, owing to work and personal committments on both our parts. And the season of joy and frantic consumerism is upon us. Well, we'll do what we can.


The Uses of History

Truth is the first casualty of war, and sometimes the last. Or so it would seem. Veterans in Calgary are incensed about a display at the Canadian War Museum which they describe as "offensive" and "hurtful." The curious thing about the display --- part of a series of panels describing Canada's effort during the Second World War --- is that it's essentially true.

The offending panel reads:

The value and morality of the strategic bombing offensive against Germany remains contested. Bombers command aim was to crush civilian morale and force Germany to surrender by destroying its cities and industrial installations. Although bomber command and the American attacks left 600,000 Germans dead and more than 5 million homeless, the raids resulted in only a small reduction in German war production until late in the war.

Untrue, says Art Smith, veteran and former Tory MP. "Our targets were not cities," he says. "They were military objectives . . . such as busting dams or (hitting) munitions factories. The only exception in my 34 tours was Berlin which we were sent out to do as best we could to destroy it because we were getting the same in Britain."

Well perhaps, but the boatloads of archival footage of German cities devastated by Allied bombing show a slightly different picture. Or consider the words of Air Marshal Arthur "Bomber" Harris: "In Bomber Command we have always worked on the principle that bombing anything in Germany is better than bombing nothing."

The objection from veterans seems to be that the display imples Allied bombing of Germany was futile and that veterans were complicit indiscriminate bombing of German civilians. The efficacy of the Allied bombing of Germany has always been a source of heated debate (hence the word "contested".) German war production was scarcely affected by the bombing, and even rose in some instances, but it has been argued that the cumulative affect of the bombing was sufficient in its drain on resources and on civilian morale to hasten Germany's defeat. The morality of killing civilians is, of course, another question. One premise is that in total war, everyone is a combatant. The difference between the civilian who makes the bullet from the soldier who fires it is more apparent than real. It's a premise, I might add, I find repulsive as a general rule of warefare, a justification for mass slaughter.

In context, a couple of points are to be made. As the last veterans of the Second World War die out, there seems to be an effort in popular culture to ensure their legacy. A flurry of documentaries has come out: programming at TVO and the CBC seems to be littered with them. But they all tell a common story: the Second World War was the "last good war," a "necessary war," fought by the "greatest generation" for liberty and democracy. A whole mythology --- coloured by high emotion, sentimentality and notions of duty and sacrifice --- has been created and facts and history be damned. Especially if they are uncomfortable and detract from the myth. In truth, any realistic or accurate appraisal of the Second World War, will have to wait until the last veteran dies.

It probably isn't a coincidence that the legacy-building provides a gloss to the present war on terror, complete with nostalgic pointers to patriotism and solidarity minus the blood, the filth, and the civilian casualties. In an era where we're told that we must fight the good fight on the war on terror, what could be more apt than references to that other good war?

Whitewash included.


Message to the House of Commons: Please Vote and Put Us Out of Our Misery

Justice Minister Vic Toews announced yesterday that just in time for Christmas, the same sex marriage resolution would finally go to a vote in the Commons, where it's expected it will be soundly defeated.

Thank you, Stephen Harper, thank you. Merci beaucoup. I'm breathing a sigh of relief because, frankly, I'm sick of writing about same sex marriage. It's wearing me down, I can't sleep at night and the Norwood liquor store has had to order in extra cases of Graham's Late Bottled Vintage. I can't take it anymore.

I'm sure we're all suffering. The issue is a rash that won't go away. We've marshalled facts, spent countless hours pouring over vile and bigoted websites, watched the machinations of various right-wing fundamentalists, parsed motives of various politicians and even had a few chuckles at our brothers and sisters on the right side of bloggerdom tying themselves in knots over the issue. The only satisfaction, apart from having same sex marriage (please God) settled once and for all, is seeing a sop tossed by the Prime Minister to his social conservative base going down like a tequila shooter at Friday night cocktail hour. But enough is enough already!

There. That's off my chest. Now for the obligatory analysis, one painful word at a time. The government's motives for holding the vote at this particular point in time and space are bit puzzingly, to be sure. Clearly his allies on the religious right want the vote delayed, preferably until the Conservatives get a majority, so they can get another shot at overturning the legislation. (They're the separatists of the Conservative coalition: they're waiting for "winning conditions.") They won't be happy the government is pushing forward. Same sex marriage advocates, on the other hand, with timing and momentum on their side, wanted the vote yesterday. The delicious irony of this situation is that Stephen Harper may well become the happy-faced poster boy for same sex marriage, even as he votes against it.

Maybe, just maybe, the government, eyeing a spring election, has just woken up to a few home truths. Foreign policy is in disarray, and environmental policy is a fiasco. They're trailing in the public opinion against the leaderless, hapless Liberals, and that party is about to anoint a new Chief Scourge. The polling numbers in Ontario and Quebec suck. Maybe the Prime Minster has decided ditching social conservatives and their unappealing policies --- symbolized by the debate over same sex marriage and the ugly rhetoric emanating therefrom --- in order to charm the fat moderate centre without whom he can't get a majority. As for losing the base, well, who else are they going to vote for? It's the classic tactic of successful right-wing politicians: marginalize your captive core supporters to appear more moderate than you really are.

Well enough of that. As I said, writing about same sex marriage now is like pulling teeth, though admittedly the inevitable bigot eruptions from the likes of Bishop Henry and Charles McVedy will make tempting targets. But the agony is about to end. Again, thank you, Steve. You've made life tolerable once more for this blogger, at least. I promise never, ever to mention same sex marriage again after the vote if you do likewise. Is it a deal?


Of Poodles, Creationists, and Anthropological Tourism

Just when you think the wackos can't get any wackier, something comes along to smack you upside the head. Case in point, creationist complaints about about the American National Science Foundation engaging in, um, a little science:
Our tax dollars are “at work”!

Earlier this year, the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a $2.5 million grant to the New York Hall of Science to develop a “Life changes” program in order to “prepare young children (ages 5–12) to understand the scientific basis of evolution.”

The grant application made it clear that this four-year research project will study those evolutionary concepts most likely to resonate with young children. (By the way, NSF’s annual budget is over $5.5 billion—virtually all of it comes from your tax dollars.)

Drawing upon educational development psychologists, biologists, and museum personnel, this research project will result in a 1,000-square-foot traveling exhibit. And it will have tie-ins to the University of California–Berkeley’s “Understanding Evolution” website (another NSF grant recipient—more of your tax dollars being spent).

This traveling “science” exhibit is designed to indoctrinate young children across America in a morally bankrupt faith-based belief system: the evolution of man from non-living matter! But that is just the tip of the iceberg.

Faithful, closed-minded scientists / earnest educators worldwide are preparing myriad such evolutionary indoctrination exhibits and programs to coincide with the 2009 celebration of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday (and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his infamous book, On the Origin of Species). And these exhibits seem to be particularly targeted at young children—they will ardently market the idea of evolution as if it were fact!
Remember folks, there's an evolutionary biologist lurking under every bed and behind every bush, waiting to prey on the innocent minds of our young people. Won't someone, oh someone please think of the children?

Meanwhile the fundamentalist organization issuing these jeremiads on evidence-based science has much bigger agenda: a "creationist" museum (surprisingly called The Creation Museum), purpose-built to expose the manifest errors of Darwin. The 50, 000 sq foot building, located in prime Bible-belt country in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio, "will counter evolutionary natural history museums that turn countless minds against Christ and Scripture." The museum will show us, interspersed with such displays as "Noah's Workshop" and demonstrations of Cain knocking Abel on the head, exactly how dinosaurs and humans co-existed. "Other surprises are just around the corner," reads the promotional website. "Adam and apes share the same birthday. The first man walked with dinosaurs and named them all! God’s Word is true, or evolution is true. No millions of years. There’s no room for compromise."

All this and dinosaurs too!

According to a Guardian article, it's the "weirdest museum on earth." And also some pretty weird attitudes, as if the creationist clap-trap wasn't enough. On the mention of the difficulties posed to creationism by those paleolithic remains of protohumans, this strangely unchristian answer is given: "There are no such things. Humans are basically as you see them today. Those skeletons they've found, what's the word? ... they could have been deformed, diseased or something. I've seen people like that running round the streets of New York." (One wonders what New Yorkers think about that. Not to mention the coded racism.) Or take the museum director's odd obsession with poodles: his office is stocked with the stuffed variety. "Poodles are degenerate mutants of dogs," he explains. "I say that in my lectures and people present them to me as gifts."

The Creation Museum is at great pains to point out it's within easy driving distance of us Canadians living in southern Ontario and Quebec: we're victims all, apparently, of Darwinist propaganda. But don't visit it for the worthless science. The Creation Museum suggests new possibilities for the jaded tourist, tired of the mere splendours of Versailles or Angor Wat. Rounded with visits, say, to Graceland, Disney World, Civil War battle sites and Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcating Network, with frequent stops at Waffle Houses along the interstate, such a road trip would provide priceless insights into American social anthropology. What more could you want?

The Upper Canadian and the BBC: Close Working Partners, Specifics of Contract Soon to be Announced

Last Friday the BBC published "African bloggers verdict on al-Jazeera" on bloggerdom's response to al-Jazeera International in which our piece "English al Jazeera Disappoints" was extensively quoted.

Needless to say, we, at the Upper Canadian, are pleased as punch that our comments found their way onto the front page of BBC Africa and into the international news.

Now only if the New York Times and the Guardian would take our calls. . .


Rice Lake Merlot 2037 VQA

An interesting, older piece from RealClimate on the relationship between climate change and viticulture: it seems England is getting a leg up on winemaking, and incidentally makes the point that past instances of global warming have absolutely nothing to do to with the present technical debate on climate change:

For the sake of argument, let's accept that medieval times were as warm in England as they are today, and even that global temperatures were similar (that's a much bigger leap, but no mind). What would that imply for our attribution of current climate changes to human causes? ....... Nothing. Nowt. Zero. Zip.

Why? Well, warm periods have occured in the past, and if not the medieval period, then probably the last interglacial (120,000 years ago), certainly the Pliocene (3 million years ago), without question the (Eocene 50 million years), and in particular the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (55 million years ago), and so on. Current theories of climate change do not rely on whether today's temperatures are 'unprecedented'. Instead they examine the physical causes of climate change and match up what we know about their physical effects and time history and see which of the multiple drivers or combination can best explain the observations. For the last few decades, that is quite clearly the rise in greenhouse gases, punctuated by the occasional volcano and mitigated slightly by the concomittant rise in particulate pollution.

Meanwhile, in the backwoods of Upper Canada, viticulture is getting a toehold in some unconventional places, driven by the relentless mechanics of climate change. Even here in the Kawarthas, which lays entirely on the wrong side of the Oak Ridge Moraine, and thus is deprived of the balming influence of Lake Ontario, a few hardy horticulturalists are experimenting with vinifera grapes with some success. With a little effort, one can envisage in 20 or 30 years tidy rows of Reisling grapes crawling up and the down the drumlins, boutique ice wine shops on Queen Street, Lakefield, and perhaps in a few sheltered locations, Pinot Noir crowding out the ticky-tack cottages on Chemong Lake or Stoney. Land speculation for prime terroir in Peterborough County is only a matter of time. Oil company executives will be unloading soon-to-be worthless stock; next we'll see Hollywood-types will be cruising the back concessions in Hummers, scouting out winery sites. It's a boom waiting to happen, the next big thing. Really.

I have a few acres of gravelly south-facing slopes, perfect for low-yield, high quality produce. Call me. I mean it.


The Niqab and I

"Many women find it difficult to breathe or see in niqab when they first start wearing it." --- How to Hijab: Your Comprehensive Guide to the Islamic Dress Code for Women and Men

Like most people I feel fairly conflicted about the niqab, the full face covering worn by some Muslim women, and about the practice of hijab, the veiling or covering of Muslim women in general. On one hand, my civil libertarian instincts tell me people can wear whatever they like, as long as they don't frighten the horses. On the other, the hijab is a powerful symbol for Westerners of the religious and cultural subjugation of women, even if some Muslim women wearing hijab deny any oppression at all. We all have seen the pictures of the Taliban beating women wearing burqas; we were all horrified by reports of Saudi religious police forcing panicked schoolgirls back into a burning dormitory because they weren't appropriately covered.

The reality of hijab?

The hijab also raises some troubling issues, especially for those of us on the progressive side of things who support multiculturalism, questions that the Left is sometimes reluctant to address. Hijab poses the dilemma of wanting to be culturally sensitive and inclusive while at the same time supporting the rights of women. The central question: is it possible to support the practice of hijab and critique it at the same time? I would argue that yes, we can argue for cultural inclusivity and tolerance (as opposed to to the utterances of Jack Straw and the Archbishop of York). At the same time we should challenge the religious basis of hijab --- religion being a fancy justification for oppression. We should insist that hijab be seen it its proper cultural and social context, not as divine revelation, even if we risk accusations of religious intolerance and offending cultural sensitivities.

We can't deny, though, the religious importance of wearing hijab, based on a verse from the Quran: "Oh Prophet! Tell your wives and your daughters, and wives and daughters of the believers, to extend their outer garments around themselves, so that they would be distinguished and not molested. And God is All-Forgiving, All-Merciful." (Qur'an, 33:59) The verse refers to Mohammed's immediate family; later, traditional interpretations extended this command to all Muslim women in varying degrees from a complete veiling covering all parts of the women's body save for one eye to an injuction to dress "modestly". God provided this command for several reasons: to "protect" women from the gaze of men, to encourage women to be modest and focus their thoughts on God and their families, to demonstate Islamic "separateness" from the unfaithful and as a reminder to the faithful that women should be honored. A fairly representative passage from one of many webpages on the hijab summarizes it thus:
Other . . . reasons [for hijab] include the requirement for modesty in both men and women. Both will then be evaluated for intelligence and skills instead of looks and sexuality. An Iranian school girl is quoted as saying, "We want to stop men from treating us like sex objects, as they have always done. We want them to ignore our appearance and to be attentive to our personalities and mind. We want them to take us seriously and treat us as equals and not just chase us around for our bodies and physical looks."

A Muslim woman who covers her head is making a statement about her identity. Anyone who sees her will know that she is a Muslim and has a good moral character. Many Muslim women who cover are filled with dignity and self esteem; they are pleased to be identified as a Muslim woman. As a chaste, modest, pure woman, she does not want her sexuality to enter into interactions with men in the smallest degree. A woman who covers herself is concealing her sexuality but allowing her femininity to be brought out.
Sincere, perhaps, but one gets a whiff of Pollyanna, of a romanticized version of Islam-as-ideal against the reality of Islam-as-practiced. As Irshad Manji says, we need to "dare the romance of the moment" (The Trouble with Islam Today, p. 213) by asking hard questions, Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

A few questions of my own:

Question 1: If the Quran allows "no compulsion in religion," then why are women compelled to veil by law ---secular or shari'a --- in the majority of Muslim-majority states? One of the abiding ironies of the hijab/niqab debate that only in the West Muslim women have the relative freedom to choose their dress. Why is this so? The standard argument seems to be that the more extreme forms of hijab (and views on gender relations in general) are "cultural" phenomenon. But can you actually parse culture and religion so easily, especially when the trend, abetted by Saudi funding, is to adopt Wahhabi-style norms in far flung outposts of the Islamic world?

Question 2: To what degree is the hijab a product of social norms of 6th century Arabia and the eastern Mediterranean? Evidence suggests that veiling women was common in this era and locality, and was restricted to women of elevated station. How was Mohammed influenced by his culture?

Question 3: What's the role of class in wearing hijab? A couple of small anecdotes to illustrate. A few weeks ago CBC news broadcast a debate, of sorts, between three women on hajib. Two of the women wore a form of hajib, one of them covered completely, including the niqab. All of them were "professional women" of one kind or another. Meanwhile, when I go to Toronto, I often stop at a mom-and-pop Muslim-owned Middle Eastern deli on Lawrence Avenue, which possibly makes the best chicken schwarma in the Western hemisphere. Mom wears a headscarf only, has bare arms and chats warmly with her male customers while manning the grill. I won't belabour the point.

Question 4: What's the implicit message of the hijab --- especially the stricter versions --- for Westerners, particularly non-Muslim women? If we are to take at face value claims that hijab is for modest, pure, God-fearing women, are non-Muslim women then impure, immodest and destined for hell? And what about children? Even more disturbing are the implications of veiling young girls.

Question 5: How does wearing the hajib --- again in its rigid version --- affect relations between the sexes and in the larger community? Does it create unnecessary barriers? Is this a good thing? A writer on a Saudi Arabian dissident website makes the following observation on the new sartorial discipline:
When you see your dear aunt or sister after a long absence you expect them to run to you with overt joy and open arms to kiss you and hug you with her bare hands and uncovered head. Now, she meets you coolly with her head tightly wrapped in a scarf and hands tucked in black gloves and she barely shakes hands with you. Funny jokes and joyful laughs have completely disappeared, replaced by austere religious formulas and clichés, as if every minute of our lives should be used solely and exclusively preparing our souls for the grave and life after death.

You no longer see women walking down the streets, only moving bodies completely draped in black. You call your friend on the phone and if one of his women folk answer you on the other end you no longer hear the polite niceties and sweat utterances used by ladies in the past – only harsh barking and rough answers because it is no longer permissible for women to be nice and polite with men.

What is happening to us?
(I would strongly encourage readers to read the entire article.)

Question 6 (and last): What's the relation between the hijab, feminism and traditional Islam's view of sexuality? A complex and difficult question, to be sure. Assuredly traditional Islam (and I use the term carefully) has a poor dim view of modern Western feminism (not unlike, one might add, the opinions of conservative Protestants and Catholics) and a "separate but equal" notion of gender identity. Is the wearing of hijab really a rearguard action against inevitable modernism and modernization of Islamic thought? In the West, it is a patriarchal culture's attempt to maintain control over women?

As progressives we need to respect choices --- religious, sexual, political or otherwise --- but respect, I think, does not mean silence or acquiescence, especially when those choices challenge our fundamental beliefs. Fair enough that Muslims demand respect from us, but respect in my definition does not mean the end of debate, and unthinking acceptance would be disastrous. A kind of cultural and social negotiation is going on in Canada and in other places in the West. The fact is that Islam is a major religion in Canada, and Canadians need to adapt to that reality while --- let me stress --- remaining faithful to its liberal principles.

If Islamic dress codes are a kind of cloaked (!) form of repression towards women, it has no place in society, and we should be vociferous in our objections. Yet it's important to remember positions are hardening on both sides of the debate, and that the issue of the niqab and hijab is a surrogate for the right to attack multiculturalism in general. Still, we need to speak up. We are not doing ourselves --- or Muslim women --- any favours by shutting up.


In Defence of Rona Ambrose. Sort of.

Rona Ambrose is having the bad hair week from hell. (Okay, tacky reference to her coiffure. I know it's wrong. Very wrong. And sexist. Sorry.) First she's viciously ambushed at Nairobi by those snaky Liberals and ingrates from the Quebec delegation, then she's late, then she's sliced and diced by various U.N. functionaries, and if that isn't enough, gives a speech resembling the post-prandial wanderings of the Peterborough County Senior Euchre Club Awards Banquet. And that's only in three days. It's enough to make any girl cry.

Though Ambrose has been thoroughly pilloried (here and here and here, and also here, here, and here) including by your humble ob't servant, repeatedly, I have to wonder: how much of the blame does she really deserve?

Before you fall out of your seats in fits of excessive jocularity, consider this: in days of yore, traditional constititutional theory held, a la Bagehot that the Prime Minister was primus inter pares, first among equals. In practice, in the Canadian polity, this hasn't been true for some decades, as successive prime ministers have concentrated power in the Prime Minister's Office, the first and last resort of government policy. Stephen Harper's New Government is just the last extreme example of this tendency. Ministers of the Crown, holders of the great offices of state are reduced to a brigade of brainless barking seals, unable to pee without express authorization from the PMO. It isn't coincidental that when the Glorious Leader trots out some new initiative, the minister actually responsible is carefully placed in the backdrop as some vacant-eyed golem, ready to spring into life at the word of some PMO flunky.

Which brings me back the the tribulations of Rona Ambrose. The Conservative green plan and the subsequent fiasco at Nairobi was orchestrated not by the scientists and advisors within Environment Canada --- who in any case weren't included in decision-making process --- but by those whip-like minds in the PMO. Unfortunately for Rona Ambrose, she now has to weather the volleys of horse fruit from the likes of me, importuned by a policy she had virtually no voice in creating. Because she's the minister responsible.

Stephen Harper, keen politico that he is, will let Ambrose twist slowly in the wind as the symbol of government incompetence and have her take the fall for the policy he ultimately approved. Then he'll sack her. No mud will stick on him. In such ways are teflon politicians made. If we let them.