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


The United Church and Same Sex Marriage

Somewhere in the furore over Bishop Henry and Cardinal Ambrozic's interventions in the same sex marriage debate, this letter from the Moderator of the United Church of Canada to federal parliamentarians got lost. This is unfortunate, because it serves as a timely and politic reminder to both sides of the issue that not all Christians are against same sex marriage, and that the Catholic hierarchy and Janet Epp Buckingman do not speak for all believers. I quote the letter in full:

January 17, 2005

Please accept greetings from The United Church of Canada, and our gratitude for your service to Canada through the work of Parliament. I am writing to you because of the recently delivered Supreme Court opinion on marriage legislation, and the prospect of an early introduction of such legislation in the House. We wish you well and pray for you as you prepare for the coming session.

I want to contribute a perspective from the United Church to your deliberations. Whether or not you agree with what I am setting before you, I think you should be equipped with the knowledge that the General Council of Canada's largest Protestant denomination welcomes equal marriage. I believe that this decision has been reached not by abandoning Christian faith, tradition, and values, but by implementing them. I write to you in the hope that you will resist the assumption that anyone who speaks from Christian faith, tradition, and values must be against equal marriage. Some are, some aren't. This is true within the United Church, just as it is true within Canadian society as a whole.

The United Church has been deeply engaged with questions of same-sex relationships for 20 years. In August 2003, its highest court asked the Government of Canada to include same-sex marriage in marriage legislation. I am attaching a copy of the letter to the Prime Minister outlining the United Church's resolution.

In some ways, The United Church of Canada is tracking a common path with the courts and the federal government. While our General Council indicated its welcome of equal marriage, our polity upholds the freedom of each of our congregations to follow its conscience. In the year and a half since the Council's decision, many of our 3,000 congregations have been engaged in the same discussion that is about to take place in the House: whether or not to proceed with equal marriage. We know this conversation is difficult for many of our congregations, just as it has been difficult in the public sphere. In our own house we experience all the elements of this issue that are familiar in Canadian society: a clear opinion from the highest court; varied beliefs and expectations on the part of participants; freedom of religion; discussion preceding emerging policy; and the price to be paid for it.

I want to put before you now a Christian perspective on faith, tradition, and values. I write of these precious things because I believe they ought to be considered in making public decisions. I am aware of your responsibilities toward a multicultural and multi-faith society, and so what follows is not intended to be normative for all. It is specifically and unapologetically of the Christian tradition, a tradition that runs deeply in Canadian life and history.

I understand faith to be a way of living. To have faith is to implement a vision in one's daily life; in this sense, all live by some faith or other. Faith is not simply about the received doctrines. Doctrine is essential to religious life but it is not the final arbiter, neither of our decisions nor of our hope. After all, doctrines have been used to support slavery, apartheid, and the exclusion of women.

Some will protest that we must have faith in the Bible, and that the Bible takes an unfavourable view of intimate same-sex relationship. But I would answer that Christian faith is not an uncritical repetition of a received text. It is a mindful commitment to the power of love, to which the text seeks to give witness. Every generation of the Christian faith must decide how they will honour that demand of love in the living of their days. Changing circumstances and changing ideas are not the enemy of faith.

In fact, change is the only medium in which faithfulness can truly become faithfulness. Uncritical repetition is more like being on autopilot.

Similarly, I understand tradition to be a living treasure. Tradition is not to be confused with habit, custom, or convention. These are simply vessels that seek to hold the living tradition of God's presence in the world. Habit, custom, and convention are not themselves the light; they come to bear witness to the light. John's gospel says that the Word of God became flesh in Jesus Christ. The Word became a living being, John writes, not words. The Supreme Court follows this traditional wisdom when it declares metaphorically that the constitution is a living tree. In Christian tradition the measure by which we choose a course of action is the measure of the love of Christ, a measure that judges even scripture. It is never legitimate to use the words of scripture to promote a loveless agenda.

Further, I understand value to be created by God, not by ancient custom nor by current fashion nor by general approval. God does not love because human creatures have value. Rather, it is in loving human creatures that God gives them value. Value is a gift -- not a rule, not a partisan lever, and certainly not a weapon. It is wrong to invoke the love of God in order that one person's "values" might diminish another's value. Those who claim that homosexual people threaten to dismantle the value of heterosexual marriage would do well to remember that if anyone destroys marriage, it is married people, not gays and lesbians.

In the end, faith, tradition, and values do not decide for us. They equip us to take up the responsible and difficult task of deciding for ourselves. This deciding is itself an act of faith. So we pray for one another, we struggle to live in the love of Christ, and we take our step in humble trust that the next generation will deal generously with us, knowing we did our best with the vision of love God gave us for our day.

For me, Christian faith, tradition, and values contribute to our hope for that day when earth once more is fair and all her children one, including gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people -- all her children. The General Council of The United Church of Canada believes that equal marriage is a step on the path to justice, peace, and the common good. If prayer is a part of your life, please pray that we may tread lightly, wisely, lovingly, bravely, and faithfully.

Thank you for your consideration of these thoughts, which are offered in a spirit of commitment to the good of Canada. Please consider attending a breakfast [for Members of Parliament that] I will be hosting on marriage on Thursday, February 24, on Parliament Hill. In the meantime, I am attaching an essay on marriage I wrote for The Globe and Mail, in the hope that you may find it useful. Again, let me extend to you my prayers and the prayers of the church, as you pursue the difficult path of putting into legislation the best hopes of Canadians. May God bless you in your efforts and may your efforts be a blessing.


The Right Reverend Dr. Peter Short
The United Church of Canada

Standing up for Polygamy

Amidst the gales of hot air and bloviation over the same sex marriage debate is notion that allowing gays and lesbians to marry will inevitably lead to polygamy as surely as shoo-fly pie leads to the consumption thereof. The Liberal plot to foist polygamy on the otherwise monogamous has been fuelled in part by reports that the federal government is studying the matter. (The reasoning of extrapolating a call for papers for what amounts to a sociological study on polygamous practice from a relatively insignificant government agency to Offical Government Policy boggles: it reminds me of the professor who lept from peak to intellectual peak, leaving his students to labour up the logically contorted slopes.)

But nevermind all that. I'm here to tell you that polygamy already exists in Canada in Bountiful, British Columbia, where an obscure and fanatical Mormon sect practices the Matrimony That Dares Not Speak Its Name. All sorts of nasty things go on in Bountiful in connection with polygamy, all well-documented: child abuse, trafficking in young women as "breeding stock", domestic violence.

Here's the rub: attempts to prosecute these polygamists have been squelched in the past because of fears of violating Charter rights, particularly their right of freedom of religion. RCMP investigations, however, are ongoing.

Clearly, if you are at all concerned about religious freedom ---we've all heard enough about it in the past few weeks in the context of the same sex marriage debate --- you need to fight to defend the rights of the polygamists against untoward statist interference.

In fact, I'm thinking of starting a Society for the Protection of Polygamists Everywhere. How about it, Bishop Henry? A buck to defend religious freedom? Maybe I can even get the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada to make it a special project for Easter.

Because once you start attacking the religious rights of polygamist Mormons, only God knows where it will stop.


"Not Incidental, Episodic, or a Violation of the Rules"

From Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust.

Suffering and torture in the German camp world was, therefore, not incidental, episodic, or a violation of the rules, but central, ceaaseless and normative. Gazing upon a suffering or recently slaughtered Jew or, for that matter, a suffering Russian or Pole, did not elicit and, according to the moral life of the camp, should not have elicited sympathy, but was indeed greeted . . . by German hardness and satisfaction. . .

The idea guiding the German's treatment of the most hated of the camp's prisoners, the Jews, was that it ought to be a world of unremitting suffering which would end in their deaths. A Jew's life ought to be a worldly hell, always in torment, always in physical pain, with no comfort available. . .


Let the Games Begin

New game for leftie bloggers: watching right wing bloggers foam at the mouth over this story.


1 point for identifying a right wing blog writing about it.

5 points if the blogger uses the phrase "attack on religion" (or similiar) in the post.

10 points if the blogger uses the phrase "slippery slope" (or similiar).

25 points if the blogger uses the word "ploy".

50 points if the blogger uses the word "polygamy".

100 points if the blogger uses all of the above, plus mentions Paul Martin.

Using multiple blogs allowed. No links, cross-posting or quotations of other postings allowed in scoring. No fabulous prizes, but The Upper Canadian will stand the winner a drink or two if s/he is in reasonable driving distance of Peterborough.


The Choices of Mr Harper

"I'd rather be right than be President." --- Henry Clay, 1839

And so it goes for Stephen Harper, who would rather be right --- at least in terms of his principles --- than be Prime Minister. (Only the churlish claim he'll never be either.) I'm going to make a prediction: same sex marriage will be the wheel upon which Mr Harper will finally be broken. He's a goner. Either his own party will unsheath the knife, or the Liberals are going to work him over first before feeding him to the party faithful. My money is on the Liberals right now. Either way, the gilt buffet table at 24 Sussex is just about out of reach; no more dreams of Tory patronage or dismantling the Beast, id est, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. or reforming health care or devolving even more power to the provinces. All gone, as fleeting as a Northern summer.

Signs of the decline: Mr Harper imagining a Liberal plot, a slippery slope, to invest the nation with polygamy, eerily reminiscent of similiar statements during the election: "I don't believe there's any support in the country for the recognition of polygamy in law", he said. A small dust up between Mr Harper and the Prime Minister followed this obvious, if enigmatic statement. The Prime Minister threatened to go to the people:
Ce n'est pas mon intention de déclencher une élection. On est là pour gouverner et on veut continuer de gouverner. Mais si la question que vous me posez est: "Est-ce que je suis prêt à déclencher une élection pour appuyer la Charte des droits contre ceux qui veulent l'attaquer ?". La réponse est absolument oui [It's not my intention to call an election. We are here to govern and we want to continue governing. But if the question you put to me is, "Am I ready to call an election to support the Charter of Rights against those who would attack it?" My reply is yes, absolutely. (My translation.)]

and Mr Harper replied, "Bring it on":
I believe that we're on the right side of public opinion. If he has no legislative agenda he wants to pursue and wants to have an election, so be it.

Really? Mr Martin, whose political instincts are surprisingly poor for such an experienced politician, surely has an exceedingly good grasp on the fact Canadians are attached to the Charter of Rights like no other document. Mr Harper, whose political instincts are, if anything, worse, has consistently underestimated that same attachment. The contrast is all difference in the world.

The Liberals are correct in that the logic of Conservative Party's stated position on same sex marriage leads inevitably to one conclusion: invocation of the notwithstanding clause, Mr Harper's denials to the contrary. As I have noted here before, his proposal to enact "similiar-but-different" civil union status for gays and lesbians is an idea two or three years behind the times: that train has long left the station, and in any case would not probably be constitutionally sustainable. It's an all or nothing game now. Similiarly, constitutional difficulties await an up-and-down traditional definition. The only way for Mr Harper to square the box is to use the notwithstanding clause.

And it's here that Mr Martin has him. All the Prime Minister needs to do in any putative election campaign is to mouth the word "Charter" and make the link to the notwithstanding clause. Unfortunately for Mr Harper, it's not a difficult picture to draw, given the Charter being the ultimate third rail of Canadian politics. Add into the mix the indebtedness of the Conservative Party, its veneer of unity and the inevitable bigot explosion that always seems to afflict the party during election campaigns --- suggestions from Tory backbenchers that blacks and homosexuals should be kept in the back room or some like comment. A nasty combination: it would be game up for Mr Harper.

Still Stephen Harper keeps up a kind of doomed bravado. Perhaps his advisors are labouring under the delusion that Liberal division over same sex marriage means a fractured party, where in fact it's a bit of indigestable gristle for a ravening wolf. Wild eyed claims about polygamy and the tone of the new advertising campaign suggest he's conceded the battle to move the party to the centre to the social conservative wing. A dangerous, indeed futile, tactic, if he hopes to pick up centrist voters in central Canada: it confirms the worst stereotypes about the Conservative Party as the party of backwoods yahoos.

At this point, for numerous reasons constitutional and political, same sex marriage is a freight train. Politicians need either to climb on board or else get run over. What choices does Stephen Harper have? It is interesting to muse "what-if": what if Mr Harper faced down the social conservatives and swallowed whatever personal (and political) reservations he has on the issue and forced a three-line whip in favour of the bill? Could it be that we would see the birth of a modern Conservative Party, once and for all rid of the chains and claims of backwardness and bigotry, a responsible opposition and a viable and electable government in waiting? True, I almost certainly overestimate the power Mr Harper holds on the party, or the ability of the Conservative Party to visualize grand strategy in terms of tactical steps, or even its ability to clamp down on its own bullfruit supporters. Speculation is always fascinating, but in this case Mr Harper would rather be right. Too bad for him the Liberals hold no such scruples.

Baby It's Cold Outside

Spent the afternoon in Toronto, which even Torontonians will admit, is a damnably ugly city, and on a foul winter's day reveals its cold bleak heart by blowing a skingy wind off the lake that cuts to the very soul. But Toronto has its moments: today was bitterly cold, record-breaking cold (almost) yet the sky was the colour of sapphires, and even dingy old Yonge Street danced and sparkled in the winter sunlight. For a moment, winter became a pleasure; the crowds downtown, bundled in scarves and hats, were cheerful, as if to say, yes we are Canadian, and we are coping.


Bad Cop, Good Cop

From the Cathedral Church of St Mary, Calgary, to St Michael's, Toronto: first Bishop Henry's pastoral letter, now Aloysius Cardinal Ambrozic open letter to the Prime Minister published in the Globe and Mail. Bad cop, good cop. The phone lines between Calgary and Toronto must have been humming as the two prelates plotted their script: Bishop Henry as the junior "heavy", the Logan to Cardinal Ambrozic's Briscoe. Maybe they hired a media consultant.

Indeed, the Cardinal is all sweet reason and light. He publically worries about the effect same-sex marriage will have on Canadian society. (When you see a public figure publically worrying, you know it's time to get out the shovels.) He suggests that "unaccountable courts" are forcing the issue down the throats of Canadians. He presses the Prime Minister to invoke the notwithstanding clause --- effectively ending debate on the topic for five years --- and enact a traditional definition of marriage. This will give
this national discussion sufficient time to occur and to ripen into a sober and careful decision. It will give time for Canada to observe the social experiments now under way in Belgium and the Netherlands, and in other places where legislation implementing same-sex marriage might occur.

Leaving aside the handwringing and the debate on the proper place of the courts, the notion of invoking the notwithstanding clause is problematic, and I suspect the Cardinal is being disingenuous in making the argument. Cardinal Ambrozic does not address, of course, the small, practical problem of the thousands of gay and lesbian couples who have already married in good faith in jurisdictions permitting it. If the cardinal went out the back door of his Cathedral in Toronto and looked up Church Street, he'd probable see plenty of examples just a few blocks north. Do you suddenly and arbitrarily dissolve their marriages? Marriage is not just a religious sacrament; it has social, economic and legal implications as well. Cancelling thousands of marriages would be a lawyer's nightmare. Think of trying to sort out common property issues alone.

Then we go to the comical. The Cardinal writes:
The notwithstanding clause was inserted into the Charter to recognize parliamentary supremacy and the need for democratic oversight for courts. . . Fundamental social change should only occur with the consent of the people through their democratic institutions. This understanding of the role of Parliament led to the inclusion of the notwithstanding clause in the Charter. Its use in the context of same-sex marriage would be most appropriate.

For years, all we have heard from opponents of same sex marriage is that the matter must be decided by Parliament; Parliament should be the supreme arbitor of such momentous issues; and that the governing party was hiding under the skirts of the Supreme Court. Now that the Supreme Court has finally and decidedly tossed the ball back to Parliament, we should --- defer the issue for another five years, prevent Parliament from voting on the issue, to allow for a more perfect ripening of the issue? It's rather a puzzle to argue for parliamentary supremacy in one breath, then argue Parliament should evade its responsibility --- again --- in the next.

Cardinal Ambrozic hopes a period of "ripening" of public opinion will mean that public opinion will mobilize against gay marriage. Maybe he's hoping that in five years there will be a groundswell for a constitutional amendment such as the one proposed in the United States, though it's hard to see exactly how, since it would require unanimous consent of Parliament and the provinces. Or maybe he hopes Parliament will invoke the notwithstanding clause forever. He does know though, that five years in politics approximately equals eternity.

A Very Small Thought

Funny how when the Roman Catholic Church denounces poverty and social injustice it is immediately castigated by the right as interfering in politics and society and told to shut up, but when it denounces same sex marriage, it is welcomed as being a representative voice. Call it free speech of convenience.

As for me, I actually believe in free speech whatever the circumstances. Even --- especially --- when I disagree with my opponent.


The Language of Love

When does opposition to same sex marriage descend into hate speech? And why do religious organizations get a free pass to spew whatever nonsense they like under the cover of having "deeply-held beliefs"? I was considering these questions for a new post when Bishop Henry of Calgary issued a pastoral letter to be read by parish churches during weekly Sunday Mass. In part he said:

Since homosexuality, adultery, prostitution and pornography undermine the foundations of the family, the basis of society, then the State must use its coercive power to proscribe or curtail them in the interests of the common good.

It is sometimes argued that what we do in the privacy of our home is nobody’ s business. While the privacy of the home is undoubtedly sacred, it is not absolute. Furthermore, an evil act remains an evil act whether it is performed in public or in private.

Now it appears (and I use the verb advisedly) the Bishop of Calgary is backtracking, a little, on the extreme nature of his remarks. According to the Globe this morning, he's expressed regret about using the phrase "coercive power". "In an interview late yesterday afternoon [writes Michael Valpy of the Globe] he said if he was rewriting the letter, he would not talk about unleashing the 'coercive power' of the state." The good Bishop should be thankful that lies of commission are venal sins. As a (poor) retraction, it stretches credulity. You would have to believe that every word of this pastoral was not careful considered. Given the Bishop of Calgary's liking of the public spotlight, he must have known every sentence in the pastoral letter would be parsed by the media. He chose "coercive power" and words like "evil" precisely for the effect. He chose to be inflammatory.

Indeed, it shouldn't go unnoticed that that the Bishop is unrepentant of linking of homosexuality and "evil". And again, why can faith-based groups use all sorts of violent and bigoted language? I am not, I should point out, denying their absolute right to free speech. It merely strikes me as curious that discourse on the issue of same-sex marriage gives licence for the use of vile and defamatory language against our gay and lesbian citizens (for we are talking about people here, not an abstraction) in a way that goes virtually unchallenged by the mainstream media, and even by defenders of same- sex marriage. Can you imagine such language being used against, say, someone of a different religious denomination or ethnicity or race?

I was brought to mind of the point this morning, considering the religious history of Peterborough County. The county used to be covered with the meeting halls of the Loyal Orange Lodge, where Orangemen would fulmigate against their (literal) Catholic neighbours and French Canadians in general with language that shocks even today. And it is within my memory hearing the Catholic church described with a moral certainty by some not-so-extreme Protestant sects as the Whore of Babylon and corrupter of the world. At some point, Canadians decided that intemperate language was unjust and counter-productive to a civil society, and public utterances have ceased. For which we all should be grateful.

"But this issue is different," you say. Different is what way? In that gays and lesbians are less human? Are less deserving of fundamental respect? Certainly most churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, hold the position of "love the sinner but hate the sin", but in reality, this statement is long on feel-good rhetoric and short on substance. (Indeed, the pastoral letter quoted dispenses with even this customary nod to church teaching, except for a vague call for the church to act with "charity" --- which could mean anything, or nothing at all.) "Love the sinner, hate the sin" is merely code. It is insincere at best; at worst, it's a cover for bigotry and intolerence. It means, in truth, "I am about to say some really nasty things about gays and lesbians." It's like saying you love your mother, than proceeding to call her an awful, lazy whore. Sorry, it doesn't wash.

And where does it stop? There are fringe denominations in this country which have a frankly racist theology. Are their pronouncements above criticism because they have "deeply-held religious beliefs"? In the end analysis, what's the real difference between these and Bishop Henry? That he clothes viciousness in the language of love?

Bishop Henry is trying to pre-emptively shut down debate on whether his remarks are bigoted or not: He said to the Globe:

There aren't many people who stand up and say, "I'm tired of political correctness." And because I'm tired of it, don't try to silence me every time I open my mouth by telling me I'm a hatemonger. Because I'm not. I'm just trying to speak the truth as I see it, and I should be accorded the freedom to express my opinions and try to influence people to see things as I see them.

(I note, as an aside, that widespread coverage on the national media, not to mention on the Internet, hardly constitutes silencing. Though claiming to be a victim of oppression in the full glare of the media is a pretty neat trick, admittedly.) Bishop Henry notwithstanding, it is time to declare attacks on gays and lesbians beyond the pale of acceptable civil discourse. It needs to be put on that huge pile of Bad Ideas, like religious intolerance and racism, and forgotten about. The point, Bishop Henry, is not whether you have the freedom to express whatever opinion you have on same-sex marriage. You do, and I would be the first to defend your right to say it. Whether you have the right to defame unchallenged fellow citizens is another question altogether.

Update: Both Timmy at Voice in the Wilderness and Treehugger at The Heart of the Matter have written excellent posts on this topic well worth the time reading.


Something Wicked This Way Comes

Your humble ob't servant has been stricken by some sort of bug that causes him to alternately sleep the sleep of the dead or else puke: hence the lack of posting. Believe me, what I have, it ain't pretty. Death would be a significant improvement. Regularly scheduled blogging --- have articles on hate speech and Garcia Lorca in the works, among others --- will return soon. I hope.

Meanwhile, a milestone of sorts: The Upper Canadian passed 1000 unique visits today, just a little more than a month after first starting this blog. Frankly I'm amazed, pleased and flattered. There many people I would like to thank for giving me a lot of encouragement and advice. But the queasies are coming on again, so I will have to defer it till another day.


Some Turns of Phrase We Could Do Without

Rereading George Orwell's great essay "Politics and the English Language" is like being doused with cold water: it reminds your of your own sloppiness, and makes you keen against the tired, hackneyed language of others. I've provided three examples of what Orwell meant, all coming into prominence during times of war, though in the case of one, the Second World War, and all of which have slipped into common usage. It is noteable that Orwell was writing in times of great strife, both political, diplomatic and military; in our time, similiar tension results in similiar tendency towards vagueness and obfuscation; where a "coalition of the willing" means two powers doing 95 per cent of the work, where "regime change" hides 100 000 civilian deaths and "national security" is shorthand for loss of freedom and constitutional rights. The examples I have chosen -- there are dozens ---maybe hundreds of others ---- illustrate something else about the reality of present political discourse. They all play a part of the continuing reconstruction of America's post-war history, which glorifies war and redeems acts of naked power as the defence of liberty. They impose a sort of moral clarity on issues fraught with ambivilence: hence their appeal. But they contain a lie at heart. Writers using them ought to be flogged with the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, or some volume of equal heft.

"Blood and Treasure"

Originally surfaced, in my memory, in the couple of years after the terrorist attacks in a patriotic context of American "blood and treasure used to defend liberty around the world." Some representative examples:
Moreover, the Constitution as written and ratified and amended serves only the People of these United States. It is a covenant for that purpose. The blood and treasure of our people are invested in the Nation and respective States, that is to say, in ourselves. (Source)

The costs are becoming clearer by the day in Afghanistan and Iraq where, having toppled the Taliban and the Ba'athists, Americans are spending more blood and treasure in pursuit of an ever-elusive democratic peace. (Source)

The United States is no longer the predictable enforcer of the status quo ("just export oil and drive out communists"). Rather, we are pledging blood and treasure for popular reform in a death struggle with Islamic fascism to offer a humane alternative to corrupt sheiks, generals and kings. (Source)

"Blood and treasure" obfuscates that actual soldiers are dying and immense deficits are being piled up by rephrasing the reality into exalted language. Says Orwell: "[W]riting that aims at glorifying war usually takes on an archaic colour". The earliest reference I could find is in a poem of Shelley's, "The Mask of Irony" (1819):

Thou art Peace - never by thee
Would blood and treasure wasted be
As tyrants wasted them, when all
Leagued to quench thy flame in Gaul

Mask of irony indeed: Shelly was writing of the events of the Peterloo massacre.

"In Harm's Way"

Another catchphrase that gained widespread currency after 11 September. Probably entered popular conciousness with --- wait for it --- the title of a John Wayne flick about Pearl Harbor, which in turn drew from a letter from U.S. naval hero John Paul Jones:

"I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm's way."

Some examples:
Soldiers headed for Iraq are still buying their own body armor — and in many cases, their families are buying it for them — despite assurances from the military that the gear will be in hand before they're in harm's way. (Source)

Of all the gifts you could give a US Soldier, Sailor, Airman, Marine & others deployed in harm's way, prayer is the very best one. Remember your family members or friends who are serving our country. (Source)

"I know Secretary Rumsfeld's heart," Mr. Bush told reporters in a year-end news conference. "I know how much he cares for the troops. I have heard the anguish in his voice, and seen his eyes when we talk about the danger in Iraq and the fact that youngsters are over there in harm's way. He's a good, decent man. He's a caring fellow." (Source)

Again the slightly archaic language -- the use of the descriptive genitive --- coupled with a reference to a hero of the American War of Independence to camoflage the reality.

"Stand Shoulder to Shoulder"

Another chestnut. Even Orwell made fun of it, though it was unfortunately revived by Tony Blair: "We, therefore, here in Britain stand shoulder to shoulder with our American friends in this hour of tragedy, and we, like them, will not rest until this evil is driven from our world." The phrase conjures up images of soldiers in serried ranks, solidarity and going over the top together into No Man's Land. Conservatives in this country have gotten some mileage out of it, because of Canada's persistant lack of shoulderliness in whole-heartedly supporting America's imperial adventures. Some examples:

The Conservative Party. . .will stand shoulder to shoulder with the US when we can so that we can sit eyeball to eyeball when we must. (Source)

I am here to assure you that Canada is committed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Haiti. (Source)

"This loss is shared by our entire task force. Our hearts ache with yours as we continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder against terrorism," said Col. Frank Wiercinski, a U.S. Army spokesman in Afghanistan. "The cost of this fight has been great, but our commitment remains greater." (Source)

The appalling truth is these may never go away, though we heartily pray they do. They are far too easy for journalists and writers to use, and for some, not really objectionable at all.


The Upper Canadian Redecorated

Now that I have guests, I decided to do a little redecorating: hang some curtains, paint the walls, and do a general cleaning. I hope regular visitors will find the result clearer and more readable; I've also decided to include (almost against my better judgement and in direct violation of Rule #4) in the left column posts of note from my colleagues: too many interesting thoughts out there. These will be updated as the spirit moves me. Hope you like it, and of course, your comments would be appreciated.

Marriage in Upper Canada

A little on the history of marriage in early Canada:
"Despite Simcoe's continuing opposition, the second session [of the first Parliament of Upper Canada, 1794] carried through a bill on the marriage question , which the Lieutenant-Governor reluctantly approved. . . it provided for the future that justices of the peace might solemnize marriage, according to the form of the Church of England, when the parties lived more than eighteen miles from an Anglican clergyman in a District containing fewer than five such clergymen. . . So limited a measure, passed only because Simcoe would have vetoed a more liberal one, inevitably excited much objection in a province with a non-Anglican majority. Petitions were received from both Presbyterians and Baptists, asking for their clergy the right to perform marriages, but Simcoe denounced these as disloyal and wicked." (From Gerald M. Craig, Upper Canada: The Formative Years 1784-1841, pp. 30-31)

The right to solemnize marriages was not granted to all denominations until 1831.


All Fall Down and Worship . . . Mark Steyn?

Mark Steyn's return from from the Planet Hiatus has been duly noted, nay, celebrated by my friends on the right as a combination of Christmas and that coronation scene in the Return of the King. The right-wing blogosphere has been particularly breathless, practically falling over each other to link up to his latest ramblings.

So what is it with Mark Steyn, anyway? Granted he's a gifted writer who can turn a phrase. He is sometimes funny. He can outrage, as in this bit of gratuitous nastiness written soon after 11 September 2001:
The post-Cold War interlude is over, an era of follies – OJ, Monica – and fatuities, a few of which Tuesday’s horror stories cruelly underlined: employees in wheelchairs, whom Bob Dole’s Americans with Disabilities Act and the various lobby groups insist can do anything able-bodied people can, found themselves trapped on the 80th floor, unable to get downstairs, unable even to do as others did and hurl themselves from the windows rather than be burned alive. (Source)

Reading that in the National Post in the weeks after the terrorist attacks was like being felt up at fancy dinner party: you were almost as embarrassed for the miscreant as you were for yourself. But despite all of Mr Steyn's qualities, when you read him, you have the sensation of facts being elided, of straw men being presented for the sole purpose of ridicule, of illusion and smoke and mirrors.

Take for example one of Mr Steyn's latest offerings, entitled "Save the whales? What about the Japanese?" in which the humble pundit offers up his views on global warming, evolution, and the pending western demographic implosion. First para:

Professor Lloyd Peck of the British Antarctic Survey is worried about -- stop me if you've heard this one before -- global warming. For this year's Christmas lecture at the Royal Institution in London, he'll be warning that the merest smidgenette of an increase in temperature in the south polar seabed will lead to the loss of a zillion species.

Note the use of "Professor", not Doctor, as in fact Lloyd Peck is: Mr Steyn repeatedly uses this title, common enough in British and Canadian usage, to conjure up for his American readers images of the dotty British scientist talking though his hat, a la Monty Python. More on this presently. As for the "smidgenette" of warming, Mr Steyn implies that a) the warming hasn't happened, and b) in any case it's trivial. There is, to be sure, controversy over the rate of warning. It is worthwhile to note that some places in Antarctica the average temperature has already gone up as much as 3 degrees Celcius, a difference that would give Toronto a climate like that of, say, New York City. We'll excuse the "zillion species" bit as mere hypebole in the cause of humour.

Para Two:
And all this will happen if the temperature goes up two degrees, from butt-numbingly freezing to marginally less butt-numbingly freezing. "It is going to be really unpleasant," Professor Peck tells Britain's Guardian newspaper, globally warming to his theme. "We are going to lose things -- we just don't know how much."
As noted, temperatures are going up. More to the point, the clever phrase "butt-numbingly freezing to marginally less butt-numbingly freezing" obscures the fact some significant changes to Antarctica's ecosystem have occured because of this warming: grasses, for example, have become established on the continent in significant numbers for the first time in ten thousand years. As well, let's go back to the original Guardian article that Mr Steyn seems to use as a source. What Dr Peck said in entirety was thus:
Antarctic animals - in the sea especially - are very sensitive to climate change and they are the early warning system for the loss of species on the planet. We should be watching for those because climate change is probably going to get rid of them before it gets rid of other species.

We know things are changing; it is going to be really unpleasant; we are going to lose things - we just don't know how much.
Quoting the last paragraph alone makes Dr Peck look like a loon; add the context of the preceding paragraph, the picture is somewhat different.

Para Three:
. . . But what I find curious about this sort of thing is that Professor Peck is supposed to be a scientist and the newspaper reporting his views is famously rational.
That "Professor" thing again. Dr Peck is, in fact, a scientist. Works for the British Antarctic Survey. Doctorate from Cambridge University and all that. Nothing supposed about him at all. And he actually has the kind of rags-to-renown story so beloved of the right, and one would think, Mr Steyn. No matter. He is --- and others of his ilk --- just a doofus professor.

Para Four:
Evolution posits that species will come and go: Some die out, some survive and evolve. . . Maybe if the Antarctic food chain is incapable of evolving to cope with a two-degree increase in temperature across many decades it isn't meant to survive.
Here Mr Steyn shifts gears and starts talking about evolution. Eh, what? Evolution? Oh I see: Mr Steyn conceeds the point that maybe global warming is happening, but for the penguins and the krill, that's life. In the great Darwinian casino, you lose. Except that we're causing the extinction, and evolution posits change over hundreds and thousands of years, not decades.

Para Seven (I know I'm skipping, but I'm trying to keep this post within reason):
. . . But, on the other hand, somebody (most likely an American) might have invented a thing the size of the Palm Pilot you staple to the seabed that automatically lowers the temperature by two degrees and we'll have wall-to-wall algae. Who can say?
Given the American administration's current state of global warming denial, I'd say that's about as likely as George Bush endorsing gay marriage. Mr Steyn seems to be suggesting that with all the variables postulated in the science of global warming, who knows the outcome. This argument is like quibbling about the precise moment to apply the brakes when the bus is going over the cliff. Whether we feel the full effects of global warming in two decades or a two hundred years is almost besides the point: the end result ain't gonna be pretty.

Paras Eight, Nine and Ten: Here Mr Steyn jumps again and manages to conflate concerns about global warming to the supposed lack of interest in the demographic catastrophe affecting Western Europe and Japan:
Given the choice between the krill's hypothetically impending extinction and their own impending extinction already under way, Europeans would apparently rather fret about the denizens of the deep.
Ahem. The sleight of hand, the old bait and switch element in this line of reasoning is so obvious it doesn't bear analysis. But to correct Mr Steyn, declining and aging populations is actually the subject of a long-running, fretful debate in Western Europe and elsewhere. The real question is whether that debate is truly important if Trafalgar Square becomes a tidal pool or rowing down the Champs d'Elysées becomes the new fad du jour.

You have to wonder why Mr Steyn held in such awe. For all of the flash, the cleverness, the rhetorical swags --- well, his style does beguile. But personally, I remain unimpressed by the substitution of fact and reason with rhetorical flummery. So last year, so Ann Coulterish. And at the end of it, that's what we're talking about: style, and a lamentable lack of actual argument, well-reasoned and considered.


Breaking the rules

When I started this blog I had a set of rules in mind. These rules, as composed by the small rodent running around in my brain, went as follows:
  1. Avoid commenting on other bloggers.
  2. Avoid commenting on American affairs, except as they tangentially affected Canada. (All right, big exception.)
  3. Focus on Canadian affairs.
  4. Avoid the "blogger round-up" formula, if only because others can do it much more effectively.

Number 1 went out the window almost immediately. Too much foolishness out there. The rest I've been pretty good about, and even breaches of #1 have been the exception rather than the rule. All of which is a preface to telling you I'm going to violate multiple rules today.

Breaking rule #2: Tucker Carlson, whose combination of bombast and smarminess made him one of the grotesques of the American Right was canned by CNN yesterday. Somewhat tempering my glee is the rumour he'll soon be seen on MSNBC. The punditry are of the opinion that the tone and content of American political discourse will be elevated with his departure and the imminent cancellation of the CNN show Crossfire.


Breaking rules #1 & #4: Let it Bleed has summed up nicely the continuing flame war at The Shotgun. To paraphrase My Blahg, I know you all want to run over there for purposes of mockery, but that would just be wrong.

With Paul Celluci now departing Ottawa (we'll miss you, ya big lug), that's enough schadenfreude for one day. More substantially:

Breaking rule #1: Corey Wall has posted on his blog (and cross-posted to the Blogs Canada E-Group) an article concerning the use of Marian Boyd's on the use of Shari'a law in Ontario. He writes:

There is no need for the state to sanction a separate civil law for the people of any faith. If the actions that are to be carried out under these laws are truly done without any coercion then they would not need the added sanction of the state (as things are done now, a regular judge signs off on any decision made by a religious authority). Some respect for people of faith, so strong that the settlements must be sanctioned by the state. This is simply the state getting involved in internal faith politics where it has no place.

In theory, if I were Candide and living in the best of all possible worlds, I would agree that the state has no business meddling in religious disputes. The problem, of course, is that horse is long out of the barn (and probably headed for warmer climes). Both Christians and Jews have been using the Arbitration Act (which is what we're talking about at any rate, not state-sanctioned religious courts nor parallel religious law) for decades. The state can't deny Muslims use of the same law on the presupposition that Muslims will abuse the process: this comes dangerously close to supposing that Muslims can't be trusted to uphold the law. The issue of coercion is a red herring, a little rhetorical fillip. Judicial oversight is necessary precisely to prevent coercion, and it applies to all arbitration proceedings, religious or otherwise.

Marian Boyd's report recommends strengthening both the accountability of the process as well as judicial oversight to address issues of coercion. To abolish use of the Arbitration Act by religious groups would essentially place all faith-based arbitrations back into the private sphere, where there would be no accountability and no oversight. Better to have them operating inside the law than outside.

Corey Wall is right about one thing: Boyd's report has as much chance of being implemented as the NHL strike being settled.

The Turkish Connection

The Upper Canadian has gone world-wide. Or at least to Turkey. Seems this page has been linked to Hakan Uygun Yazıyor, out of Istanbul. Since I can barely speak English, let alone Turkish, with its exotic dipthongs and umlauts, I have no idea why.


Random Notes on Living in the United States

I lived and worked in the U.S. for a year, and a year ago this week I returned to Canada for good. It was an amazing experience. For me, stereotypes were shattered, and coincidentally, I learnt much about my own country. Some observations on living in the United States, purely subjective and anecdotal, and in no particular order:

  1. Americans believe they make a good cup of coffee. They don't.
  2. Greasy spoon breakfasts, on the other hand, are far superior to the Canadian variety.
  3. Brown toast is wholewheat toast. As a waitress explained to me: "Honey, all toast is brown."
  4. I met several, well-educated people who managed to complete four years of high school and four years of university without ever reading Shakespeare. This was by no means an infrequent occurance. Reciting bits of The Merchant of Venice ("The quality of mercy is not strained. . . ") or Macbeth (Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow. . .) always caused amusement.
  5. Americans are incredibly generous. People I hardly knew gave me Christmas presents.
  6. I lived in a suburb, X. Everybody drove everywhere. The streets were utterly empty of human activity. Walking itself was a suspicious activity, making you liable for police questioning, because only the poorest of the poor walked anywhere.
  7. Relatedly, public transit was virtually non-existant. Only the poor used public transit and only of necessity. We made a sport of spotting buses, so rare were they.
  8. Race (and racism) is the great unspoken social divide, the two solitudes of American culture. Still.
  9. Being Canadian, and cheap, I asked where the local Wal-mart/K-mart was. ( I needed household goods.) I was told it was better to shop at J.C. Penney because only "blacks and immigrants shop at K-Mart."
  10. More to the same. Every year, the suburb in which I lived had a "Keep X Clean Day", where the citizens would participate in cleaning up the municipality. But "Keep X Clean Day" had its origins from a notoriously segregationalist mayor who sought to keep blacks out of the suburb.
  11. More to the same. This same mayor has a street named after him.
  12. More to the same. Nobody objects to #9 or #10. It's "old" history.
  13. Americans despise their health care system, yet believe it is the best of all possible worlds.
  14. The American health care system is incredibly bureaucratized, over-regulated and inefficient in ways that would make a Canadian's head spin. (Note to those who would impose an American-style system in Canada on the grounds of cost-effectivess: you guys are blowing smoke out your posterior orifices. You have no idea what you're talking about.)
  15. The local print media was, in a word, pathetic. Two newspapers, owned by the same company, in a city approximately the same size as Toronto, filled mostly with wire stories.
  16. American working-class bars are homey, cheerful and a lot of fun. And you can drink the beer for hours. There is, unfortunately, no exact equivalent in Canada.
  17. Freeways. Loved American highways. I could drive the equivalent of Morningside and 401 to Yonge and King (Toronto readers will understand the significance of this) in 15 minutes or less. During rush hour.
  18. On the other hand, every drive downtown became an object lesson on the destructive impact of freeways on urban development, as I sped by derelict neighbourhoods and abandoned houses that, in the equivalent location in Toronto, would fetch prices in the multiples of 100K.
  19. Americans are far more deferential to authority than Canadians are. This surprised the hell out of me. Respect for the President, even from self-described liberals, was nearly universal.
  20. Possibly relatedly, everybody had some connection to the armed forces, either by personal service or by knowing someone who was serving. At least a third of my work colleagues had served in some branch of the armed forces.
  21. The cost of living was far higher than I expected, and much more so than in Canada.
  22. My local supermarket, twenty lanes of merchandising hell under fluorescent lights, had fewer --- and hideously more expensive --- brands of olive oil than my grocer in Norwood, Ontario (pop. 1100).
  23. "What's a blue box?"
  24. X had several large shiny new buildings --- a public auditorium, for example --- donated to the municipality by the large multinational headquartered there. If Canadian corporations would be so geneorous! The public library, on the other hand, had chunks of missing masonry from its facade.
  25. After dealing with the American federal bureaucracy, I could understand why Americans despise government. I began to despise bureaucrats too, after awhile.
  26. The flag truly is a fetish. Memories of driving down neat suburban streets, with each tidy house bearing a flag. Without exception.
  27. Getting a bank card was like applying for a mortgage.
  28. The razors were never sharp enough. I was forced to import these from Canada.
  29. My accent identified me instantly as Canadian.
  30. Americans are not so ignorant of the rest of the world (including Canada) as incurious. Since they live in the greatest, strongest nation, they don't see the need to be otherwise.
  31. Americans truly believe they live in the best country in the world, the final destination of all aspiration. They could not understand why I wanted to return to Canada.


On the Same Page

So what are Conservative MPs saying about same sex marriage? If you're looking at their webpages, it turns out that they're saying very little. In fact, 34 Conservative MPs of 99 have no webpages at all; one (Bradley Trost MP, Saskatoon-Humboldt ), curiously has his accessible only by password. Of the rest, only 19 have made statements, usually in the form of press releases. A few examples:

Rona Ambrose MP (Edmonton-Spruce Grove)
Press Release: "'I am encouraged that we will finally have this debate in Parliament,' said Ambrose. 'The Supreme Court decision reinforces the fact that Parliament has the responsibility to deal with important social policy issues on behalf of Canadians.'"

Gary Breikreuz MP (Yorkton-Melville)
Press Release: "'If the Liberal government does bring forth legislation to change the definition of marriage, the Conservative Party will, as usual, have a free vote, and I will certainly be voting against any change to the definition of marriage,' stressed Benoit."

Rick Casson MP (Lethbridge)
Press Release: "'I was clear during the past campaign that I support the traditional definition of marriage and I will maintain that position during any debate and vote that comes up in the House of Commons on this issue,' Casson concluded."

Diane Finley MP (Haldimand-Norfolk)
Text on Website: "I will protect and uphold the traditional definition of marriage."

Ed Komarnicki MP (Souris-Moose Mountain)
Text on Website: "It’s time to preserve and defend the traditional definition of marriage and maintain traditional values that make this country great."

Inky Mark MP (Dauphin-Swan River-Marquette)
Press Release: "'I will continue to support the majority of my constituents and vote to preserve the traditional definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman,' Mark concluded."

Chuck Strahl MP (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon)
Press Release: “'During the upcoming public debate on this issue, I will argue for the traditional definition of marriage,' Strahl said."

Maurice Vellacott MP (Saskatoon-Wanuskewin)
Riding newsletter: "Traditional marriage, between one man and one woman, provides a safe environment for human procreativity, and is the safest context for the nurture of children."

The opinions expressed, in fact, were pretty well consistent. Traditional marriage. Parliamentary supremacy. Free Vote. Three messages and not a lot of evidence for deep thinking on the Tory benches: Conservative MPs, it seems, have been content to mouth the party line. Makes you think the Conservative Party's much-hyped boast of allowing a free vote among their members is somewhat hollow.

There are exceptions, of course. James Moore MP (Port Moody-Westwood-Port Coquitlam) has publically declared he will vote in favour of same-sex marriage and he clearly has given much consideration to the topic. He writes on his webpage:

In short, I believe in equality under the law for all Canadians for civil marriages, which in a perfect world would be termed civil unions. And I also believe strongly in the separation of church and state in order to protect the rights of religious institutions and people of faith from having to embrace or perform same-sex marriages if they choose not to. As a result, I plan to vote in favour of equal access to civil marriage for all Canadians, while at the same time focussing my efforts on protecting the religious freedoms of all Canadians.

Carol Skelton MP (Saskatoon-Rosewater-Biggar) while not giving away on how she plans to vote, stated in a press release

“If Canadians are being discriminated against for their sexual orientation, we, as elected officials, need to step forward and help put a stop to it. Even within this debate about the definition of marriage, I will not accept or defend any statements that are hateful or discriminatory,” affirmed Skelton.

Interestingly, Ms Skelton is the only Conservative MP to attempt to pre-emptively shut down any hate speech that is sure to come out of the upcoming Parliamentary debate. Also interesting is that an online poll on her website --- for what it's worth --- shows a small majority in favour of the government's proposed legislation.

And lastly, there's my favourite Tory MP and putative Foreign Minister, Stockwell Day. His pronunciamentos on the subject have left your humble ob't servant more than baffled. Or maybe he's a little too deep for me. Of course, Mr Day is against same-sex marriage. But then he attempts an unfortunate fruit analogy and things go downhill from there:

An apple is an apple. You cannot call it an orange. You have every right to enjoy an orange, but you cannot call it an apple. Nor should you be able to enact a law that forces everyone to change the definition of an apple, just because you prefer oranges.
Got that? My mother used to say that if you need to say something bad about somebody, you have to say two nice things about them first. Okay: Stockwell Day has nice teeth. And. . . damn it, just can't do it.


In Memoriam Susan Sontag

That Susan Sontag is dead will cause, no doubt, a certain amount of satisfaction on the right, for she was their bete-noir, the living symbol of everything wrong with the American intelligensia. But what did they expect? She was a polemicist, after all, a provacateur. She wrote in the New Yorker just after the 11 September terrorist attacks:

The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a "cowardly" attack on "civilization" or "liberty" or "humanity" or "the free world" but an attack on the world's self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? How many citizens are aware of the ongoing American bombing of Iraq? And if the word "cowardly" is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday's slaughter, they were not cowards. [The entire short essay is here.]

Needless to say, these comments along with a few others describing President Bush as "robotic" and lamenting the lack of informed political discourse concerning the attacks caused an uproar. "Let's by all means grieve together, " she wrote.
But let's not be stupid together. A few shreds of historical awareness might help us understand what has just happened, and what may continue to happen.
Sense and sensibility itself, but in the heated, unthinking days after the terrorist attacks, she was excoriated. Andrew Sullivan, for example, called her "insane", and that was about the kindest. In any objective analysis, though, it's hard to see the controversy. You might quibble, I suppose, over whether courage is "morally neutral", but as an antidote for post-terrorist attack rhetoric, it was right on target. Ms Sontag's problem was she fell into that great gap of the fallacy of the excluded middle; the temper of the times is either you're for us or against us; any discussion of meaning or root causes is, for the time being, off the table. The irony is that for those who saw and continue to see the attacks as an attack on "Western values" --- whatever they are --- surely vigourous debate and free speech are part of those values. Manichaean reasoning is the argument of tyrants: Ms Sontag's dissidence, distasteful and "treasonous" as it was to some, was and is the very essence of freedom. A greater irony, indeed, is that facing the vitriol of an incensed punditry, she apologized, Galileo-like.

We can take solace that Susan Sontag did provide a means to mock the gales of rubbishy rhetoric in her essay work "Notes on 'Camp'". To wit:

In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.

A lovely and fitting legacy for Ms Sontag would be to develop an aesthetic for all triumphalist rhetoric in terms of Camp. To describe it as Camp, indeed, has a delicious subversiveness all it own.

Happy New Year

"Take therefore no thought for the morrow; for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof." (Matthew 6:34)

This pretty well sums up my feelings for the wretched year just passed; I, for one, am grateful 2004 has finally entered the rolls of History.

Let us hope (and pray, if you have a mind to it) 2005 exceeds all our expectations for good, for justice, and for peace.