29 June 2012

No more pecker snipping in Germany

With a ruling that circumcising boys constitutes grievous bodily harm, a German court has effectively outlawed the practice in that country. The case was brought against a doctor in Cologne who circumcised a four-year-old Muslim boy on his parents' wishes. When, a few days after the operation, the boy was bleeding heavily and taken to a hospital, the doctor was charged. "The body of the child is irreparably and permanently changed by a circumcision," the court said. "This change contravenes the interests of the child to decide later on his religious beliefs."

As might be expected, Jewish and Muslim leaders immediately attacked the decision, calling it insensitive and discriminatory, and saying it was an attack on centuries of religious tradition.

It is indeed an attack on religious tradition, but calling a legal ruling against cutting off bits of little boys' penises insensitive and discriminatory is more a comment on the barbaric traditions of religion than on the court's decision. Deliberately inflicting injury on a baby in order to enforce conformity with religion is sordid. The surprise is that they continue to get away with it in modern societies.

What kind of religious observance is this anyway? Why would God put a foreskin there if He meant it to be chopped off? Is this god an idiot, or a sadist?

Not that boys have only been snipped for religious reasons. Circumcision became very popular at the turn of the last century in order to prevent masturbation, and more recently in order to prevent AIDS. The supposed benefits all vanish with further studies—the disease prevention worked about as well as the masturbation prevention.

Holm Putzke, a criminal law expert at the University of Passau, observes, "After the knee-jerk indignation has subsided, hopefully a discussion will kick off about how much religiously motivated violence against children a society is ready to tolerate." We should consider also the latter part of the German court's ruling about contravening the child's future ability to decide on his own religious beliefs.

We have, in this country, seen a particularly tragic example of indoctrinating children in religion—the case of Omar Khadr. Omar was immersed in extreme religious belief from the time he was born with catastrophic results. His parents turned him into a jihadist when he had barely reached his teens, he was nearly killed in war, brutally abused by the Americans and finally betrayed by his own country. With this tragedy staring us in the face, it would seem long overdue to give thought to just how far we are prepared to go in allowing religious zealots to theologically abuse their children.

27 June 2012

The windmill next door

As a citizen of Alberta, Canada's oil province and the birthplace of wind energy in Canada, I have perhaps less innate concern about windmills than citizens from other provinces. Indeed, the first time I walked up to a windmill, I was favourably impressed. Although I found its size somewhat intimidating, I found the rhythmic swish of its blades as soothing as ocean waves on the beach.

I often wonder about the reaction in Holland when the first windmills were built there centuries ago. Was there debate between those who appreciated the clean energy and those who saw the great ungainly things as blots on the landscape? Will the sleek modern models we see now become, like their ancient cousins, tourist attractions, the stuff of postcards home?

The Pembina Institute isn't hoping for anything that grand, but it is hoping to improve the image of the machines in Ontario. It has arranged for Heidi Eijgel, an Alberta rancher who has lived next to a wind farm for a decade, to tour Southern Ontario this week and share her experiences. It is at least a better message than tar sands.

Drunk driving a capital offense?

If you think that Alberta's new drunk driving laws are tough, consider Iran. Two Iranians, their names not released by authorities, have been sentenced to death for persistent consumption of alcohol. Not that they weren't warned. They had been convicted twice before and subjected to 160 lashes each time, but they couldn't stay on the wagon. Iranian Sharia law forbids Muslims the use, manufacturing or trading of all types of alcoholic drinks. Three strikes and you're out ... literally. Unless you're a Christian, which this unfortunate duo was not.

Nonetheless, if you concluded from this that Iranians are dissuaded from imbibing, you would be wrong. Consumption is on the rise—the country's newspapers reported recently that the amount of confiscated alcohol has increased by 69 per cent in the past year. One paper quoted official figures that suggested it takes 22 minutes to get access to drugs and only 17 minutes to find alcohol. The Deputy Health Minister, Alireza Mesdaghinia, has expressed concern about an apparent increase in "abnormal behaviors such as alcohol consumption." The head of the Health Ministry's Policy Making Council, Bagher Larijani, states that despite an ongoing police crackdown, "There is no wedding party without a special room for those who want to drink alcohol and have a good time."

It would appear that North America isn't the only place drug wars don't work. For those who think tougher laws are the answer, they might keep in mind the utter failure of even Iran's barbaric legal regime.

Jimmy Carter, drone attacks and moral authority

Jimmy Carter was, in the opinion of this non-American, one of the better presidents the United States has had in recent history. Americans didn't agree of course, and dumped him after one term, but his record speaks in his favour. And nowhere, does it speak more eloquently than on the subject of human rights.

As governor of Georgia, he was the first statewide office holder in the Deep South to state publicly that racial discrimination had no place in the future of the state and went on to appoint many African Americans to state boards and offices. Although once a supporter of the death penalty, he became a staunch opponent and is now known for his outspoken opposition. Recently, he has expressed the view that the Democratic Party should be more pro-life, even though as president he found it difficult to uphold Roe v. Wade because of his strong Christian beliefs. He is a man who wrestles with moral issues and has the courage to change his mind as a result.

After leaving the presidency, he founded the Carter Center to advance human rights and alleviate unnecessary human suffering, and in 2002 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work "to find peaceful solutions to international conflicts, to advance democracy and human rights, and to promote economic and social development," the only president to receive the prize for work done after leaving office.

This is a man whose voice carries moral authority and he recently used that authority to denounce the Obama administration for sanctioning the “widespread abuse of human rights” by authorizing drone strikes to kill suspected terrorists. He accused the administration of violating 10 of the 30 articles of  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and declared that the “United States is abandoning its role as the global champion of human rights.” Not stopping there, he criticized the government for failing to close Guantanamo and for “unprecedented violations of our rights to privacy through warrantless wiretapping and government mining of our electronic communications.”

Condemnation of a sitting Democratic president by a former Democratic president is very serious criticism indeed, and one hopes that Barack Obama will listen and rethink his kill lists and his assassinations. If he does, he may return some moral authority to the Democratic Party ... and to his country.

25 June 2012

Scientists warn, politicians ignore

The Global Network of Science Academies, representing 105 science academies around the world, issued a press release last week highlighting what they referred to as "two of the most profound challenges to humanity—population and consumption," and went on to call for "urgent and coordinated international action to address them." They emphasized that, "current patterns of consumption, especially in high-income countries, are eroding the planet’s natural capital at rates that are severely damaging the interests of future generations, and should consequently and urgently be reduced." They offered a range of actions that need to be taken to deal with the challenges.

They went on to mention the "extraordinary opportunity" that policymakers had at the Rio+20 international summit "to take the sound, evidence-based advice of their own academies of science as they make decisions that will affect the future of the planet.”

So, did the policymakers of the 192 countries represented at Rio take the advice of their science academies? One might hope so considering carbon emissions have increased 40% and biodiversity loss has risen 30% in the 20 years since the first Rio conference. But such was not the case. On Friday, the delegates did little more than  rubber-stamp a draft agreement that essentially provides no new commitments to fight climate change.

Most of the G20 leaders didn't even bother to show up at the conference. France's new president, Francois Hollande, was there, but Barack Obama, David Cameron, Angela Merkel and, needless to say, Stephen Harper were no-shows. Their excuse is the deepening financial crisis, but that's a bit weak. They could have, if they were interested, taken a flight from Los Cabos to Rio after the G20 conference ended on Tuesday. 

Canada's delegation was there making its usual mischief, working to weaken commitments on biodiversity of oceans and fossil fuels and blocking financial commitments to developing countries. When Peter Kent, Canada's Environmental Minister, says he was "very happy, very satisfied" with the outcome you know it was a failure.

Ironically, by ignoring the environmental crisis, world leaders are threatening the long term health of the global economy, precisely the thing they claim to be concerned about.

"We are living beyond the planet's means. That's scientifically proven," says Gisbet Glaser of the International Council for Science, "We're now at a point in human history where we risk degrading the life support system for human development." Do our leaders not recognize the futility of dealing with current economic issues while allowing life support systems for human development to degrade? Are they blind to the big picture? I'm becoming afraid to ask the question.

22 June 2012

Bully for the nuns

I'm no fan of the Roman Catholic Church, or organized religion generally, but when the folks in black do a good deed, I'm prepared to recognize it. And the good sisters of Network, a Washington-based Catholic social justice group, are doing a good deed indeed. They have initiated a nine-state bus tour protesting proposed federal budget cuts, saying they felt called to show how Republican policies are affecting low-income families.

The nuns' trip was inspired by Rep. Paul Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, the architect of the House-passed budget, who said that Catholic social teachings inspired the cutbacks he proposed. The cutbacks would decimate many programs run by sisters.

The Vatican has asked U.S. bishops to look at Network’s ties to another sisterhood, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, the organization that represents most American nuns. It has accused Women Religious of focusing too much on economic injustice while failing to promote the church’s teachings on abortion and same-sex marriage, and has ordered American bishops to carry out a full-scale overhaul of the organization.

The good sisters of Network seem unfazed by the Vatican's bullying and persist in their advocacy for the less fortunate. Unlike some of their Catholic brothers, such as Rep. Paul Ryan, they seemed to have an ear for Jesus's message.

City charters—progress for Calgary and Edmonton?

The municipal level of government is the orphan of our political system. Cities are, under the Constitution, creatures of the provinces. In 1867, making municipalities wards of the provinces may have made sense; most people lived on farms or in small towns serving the farms. Eighty per cent of Canadians were rural. Today, eighty per cent are urban. Canada is part of the greatest human migration in history, a worldwide march from the country to the town. Over half the population of Alberta now lives in two cities: Calgary and Edmonton.

In an attempt to modernize their relationship, the two cities signed an agreement this week with the provincial government that will lead to city charters. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel says talks will first define "who does what"—and then figure out where the money will come from to pay for it. Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths said he hopes a draft form for the new arrangements will be ready by spring 2013.

Charters are not new for Canadian cities. Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, among others, have them. Although charters offer a certain independence, they don't change the fact that cities are still constitutionally subservient to provinces. Provincial governments have the right to bestow authority on cities, and the right to take it away. A charter granted to Halifax in 1841 was extinguished on April 1st, 1999—April Fool's Day—by the provincial government of the day.

So charters may enhance Calgary and Edmonton's abilities to govern themselves, but they will remain the province's subordinates nonetheless, Minister Griffiths' sanguine comment that, “There is no city versus province .... We all serve the same taxpayers," notwithstanding.

The ideal would be to have the municipal level of government, which is now in many ways more important than the provincial level, brought into the Constitution as, in fact, Lord Durham recommended in his famous report of 1838. But considering that would take the approval of seven provinces, the chances are slim indeed. The patriation of the Constitution in 1982 offered an opportunity, but neither Ottawa nor the provinces were interested.

Baby steps, such as charters, are probably the only way to enhance the position of Alberta's cities. The charters should at least include a consent clause that would mandate that any alteration to a charter, including its repeal, require the explicit approval of the city’s council.

Many years ago, the American philosopher Lewis Mumford said that the city “is the seat of the temple, the market, the hall of justice, the academy of learning. ... Here is where the issues of civilization are focused." This remains true today. Cities are now our major wealth creators and deserve recognition and power accordingly. Unfortunately, although we are now a metropolitan nation, we remain lumbered with a distribution of powers from an agrarian age.

18 June 2012

The War of 1812—a non-Canadian event

That Mr. Harper and his colleagues are all gung-ho about the War of 1812, and spending millions on commemorating it, is hardly surprising. Reactionaries seem to have a thing about war. Perhaps it appeals to their need for simplicity, for seeing issues in black and white, us and them, and war is the ultimate us and them. And of course the War of 1812 was a British war, and Mr. Harper et al. have a thing about our British heritage as well.

But the War of 1812 was not a Canadian war. Indeed, it occurred generations before Canada even existed. Did winning it, or perhaps I should say not losing it, contribute to Canada as we know it today? Of course it did. But then so did many other things going back into the ancient past, nonetheless they weren't Canadian if they occurred before Confederation. And if the British had decisively lost the war, we might now happily be Americans looking forward to joyously celebrating the 4th of July and regarding the War of 1812 with quite different sentiments. I'm rather glad it worked out the way it did, but if it hadn't I can't possibly say my life would have been any worse or any better—just different.

Is it of interest to know about those events that resulted in modern Canada? Of course it is, at least if you are interested in history, but that doesn't somehow make them Canadian. It is much more sensible to commemorate events that are. If we need anything more than Confederation, I might suggest the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. I certainly wouldn't choose a war.

Others would, of course, have quite different preferences. But let us at least confine the choices to post July 1, 1867, i.e. to Canada.

15 June 2012

If it ain't one damn thing ...

That China's waterways are badly polluted, is common knowledge. Less well recognized is the increasing pollution of its land. Zhou Jianmin, director of the China Soil Association, reports that, "More areas are being affected, the degree of contamination is intensifying and the range of toxins is increasing."

The main culprit is arsenic from China's 280,000 mines. Lead and heavy metals from factories and overuse of pesticides and fertilizers by farmers also contribute.

Chen Tongbin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, while recognizing that the biggest challenge is still water pollution, states, "In the future, the focus must be on soil pollution because that is much harder to deal with. Soil remediation is an immense and growing challenge." Other scientists warn of dire consequences for food production and human health if the challenge isn't met. Chen estimates that up to 20 per cent of China's soil is seriously polluted.

The Chinese government is at least aware of the problem and has been conducting a soil survey for six years. Nonetheless, little has been done and the scientists involved say they have been forbidden from releasing their preliminary findings. The latter will sound familiar to Canadians.

We humans are an ingenious species. We seem to be able to invent no end of ways to foul our nest.

Even the OECD supports Mulcair

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has issued a report saying that increasing commodity prices is creating an uneven economy in Canada. This, of course, is what Thomas Mulcair has been saying and for which he has been subjected to hysterical attacks by Stephen Harper and assorted provincial premiers.

Not that he needs support from foreign sources. A report commissioned by Industry Canada, i.e. the federal government, found that between 33 and 39 per cent of employment losses in the Canadian manufacturing sector related to exchange rate appreciation between 2002 and 2007 were due to Dutch disease. This report, suppressed by Industry Canada but about to be published in a prestigious journal, is the most rigorous and technically sophisticated of the spate of studies now emerging on the subject, and the only one that actually quantifies employment loss linked specifically to Dutch disease. A report issued by the Institute for Research on Public Policy agreed that the effect occurred but suggested the results were less severe.

Dutch disease is not just a clever phrase, it is a real and potentially serious problem that deserves serious debate. It certainly deserves better than sticking our heads in the sand out of political correctness, afraid we might offend a sister province, and pretending it doesn't exist. When the effect occurred in Holland, where it earned its name, it was occurring in a single jurisdiction and could be dealt with in an objective fashion. In Canada, we have a variety of jurisdictions, some which receive most of their revenues from manufacturing, others from commodities, consequently what is good for one may not be good for another, so tensions arise and make solutions more challenging. But the challenge is there nonetheless—better to deal with it than politely ignore it.

Some of his critics had reason to attack Mulcair other than political correctness of course. PM Harper and Premiers Wall and Clark face NDP oppositions, so any excuse to attack an NDP leader is instinctively seized upon. Premier Clark has particular cause to worry with the NDP breathing closely down her neck as an election year approaches. Premier Redford's criticism was more measured, as we might expect from a more sophisticated politician, nonetheless a staunch defence of the tar sands is obligatory for an Alberta politician.

I doubt the issue will go away quickly when even outside organizations such as the OECD are pointing to it as a problem for the future of the Canadian economy. What we can hope for is a more rational debate focused on long-term, sustainable solutions, federally and provincially.

09 June 2012

"Masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action"

Such is the considered opinion of the Vatican on this harmless and pleasant pastime. The indignant definition was part of the Vatican's critique of a book by Sister Margaret Farley, a member of the Sisters of Mercy religious order, in which she audaciously suggested that masturbation doesn't raise any moral problems and can actually help relationships rather than hinder them. She also courageously condoned same-sex relationships, another “intrinsically disordered” behaviour in the eyes of the Church. Her frank opinions apparently got the Pope's knickers in a twist.

The good sister is actually an esteemed teacher, a recently retired emeritus professor of Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School. She is also past president of the Society of Christian Ethics and the Catholic Theological Society. Her book, Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics, sounds to me rather more enlightened than disordered. She agrees that she departs from doctrine in some respects but explains, "The fact that Christians (and others) have achieved new knowledge and deeper understanding of human embodiment and sexuality seems to require that we at least examine the possibility of development in sexual ethics." She said she never intended the book to reflect official Catholic teaching, but rather to explore sexuality via various religious traditions, theological resources and human experience. Sounds like something a good scholar would do.

But the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith disagrees, condemning the book for posing grave harm to the faithful. The faithful, it seems, should not explore new and different approaches to sexuality, but content themselves, like good Catholics, to what the old boys in the Church tell them.

Sister Farley is not, however, without friends in the Catholic faith. Prize-winning reporter Jamie L. Manson, in an article in the National Catholic Reporter, writes, "Just Love was not only a lifesaver to me as a professor, but a life-giver to our students who are part of a generation born into a society where sexual norms are in flux and the old sexual taboos are rapidly fading away." She goes on to say, "It is tragic that the bishops cannot accept the spirit in which Margaret Farley wrote Just Love. The book addresses moral questions that affect not only all members of the faithful, but the ethical dilemmas that affect members of the hierarchy themselves." Amen to that latter part, Sister.

As we might expect, the Vatican's condemnation has boosted the sales of Sister Farley's book impressively. Hardly recognized before the "notification," it recently rose to number 14 on Amazon’s best seller list and sold out. As for masturbation, we can only say that calling it "an intrinsically and gravely disordered action" is, in itself, an intrinsically and gravely disordered action.

06 June 2012

Northern Gateway and ghosts of the Exxon Valdez

I have been reading Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power by Steve Coll, and was captivated by the prologue, which reviewed the Exxon Valdez tragedy. As I read the story, I began to get an uneasy feeling that we may be witnessing history about to repeat itself.

Precisely what sent the Exxon Valdez into Bligh Reef and environmental infamy is still not known with certainty. What is known is that all the relevant parties were at fault. Exxon had been laying off thousands of employees with the result that the ship was undermanned, the sailors tired and their ability to detect and deal with dangers compromised; and the American government had been instituting budget cuts such that the Coast Guard lacked the radar ability to monitor the ship past Bligh Reef.

Now we Canadians have a government that is determined to see the construction of the Northern Gateway pipeline which will result in tankers carrying a lot nastier stuff than was aboard the Exxon Valdez through a passage that is much more tortuous. And as this government enthusiastically promotes the pipeline, it just as enthusiastically budget-cuts environmental monitoring of all kinds. How can we possibly trust such a government to ensure that the tanker traffic will be conducted safely?

A government that should be establishing a foundation of trust on environmental matters in order to convince us it is committed to responsible stewardship of tanker traffic is doing just the opposite: pulling out of Kyoto, resisting appropriate environmental regulation, closing research facilities, muzzling scientists, McCarthyizing environmentalists, etc. The evidence is clear: this is not a government that can be trusted to put the environment ahead of economic activity. For this reason alone, the Northern Gateway should be denied.

05 June 2012

"Due process just means there's a process that you do"

The above quote was comedian Stephen Colbert's take on the U.S. Administration's latest definition of due process. The Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel prepared a memo justifying the murder of American citizens abroad, saying the U.S. Constitution's Fifth Amendment guarantee of due process applied, but it could be satisfied by internal deliberations in the executive branch. In other words, due process is little more than what the President says it is. In Colbert's words, "The current process is apparently, first the President meets with his advisers and decides who he can kill. Then he kills them."

This must be one of the most asinine legal opinions ever expressed. If due process requires no more than a conversation in the President's office, it has no real meaning at all. Furthermore, if the President believes he can kill a fellow citizen with impunity, he has abandoned the rule of law.

The rule of law states that we are all equal under the law, the mighty and the humble alike. Its importance lies precisely in its insistence that justice is blind to privilege—it no more allows a president to kill with impunity than it does the meanest citizen of the land.

One wonders if there is anything White House lawyers can't provide legal justification for. George W. Bush's lawyers provided legal justification for torture, now Obama's provide it for murder. The U.S. Constitution provides little pause for these guys.

02 June 2012

Why losing "my" MP leaves me indifferent

The MP for Calgary Centre, Lee Richardson, has announced he is resigning his seat to take a job as Alberta Premier Alison Redford's principal secretary. Considering that Calgary Centre is my riding, I suppose I should be concerned about losing my representative in Parliament but, as Mr. Richardson has represented me in name only, I am indifferent. On very few issues did he take my view to Ottawa.

Indeed as a non-Conservative Calgarian, I have in effect no representation. Technically I do as Calgary has eight MPs but, like Lee Richardson, they are all Conservative and I'm not. So whether it's eight or seven MPs, it makes no difference to me. If we had a proportional representation voting system in this country, I would be represented as a Calgarian, but we don't, so I'm not.

My chances of being represented are so slim I didn't even bother to vote in the 2011 election. Richardson won by 20,000 votes over his nearest rival and my vote, as usual, would have counted for nothing. After casting a worthless vote for many years running, I tired of the fraud and didn't bother.

I doubt the by-election will be much different. As the saying goes, the Conservatives could run a yellow dog in this riding and and it would win. Nonetheless, I will probably cast a vote—as a gesture, nothing else.

One thing I will say about Lee Richardson is that although he didn't often represent me, he did represent the more civilized side of the Conservative Party. As a former executive assistant to John Diefenbaker and chief of staff to Peter Lougheed, he brought a little of that old-time progressive conservatism to a government that desperately needs it. We have no guarantee of even that from his successor.

In any case, this will probably be a good move for the ex-MP. Principal secretary to a premier is undoubtedly a more meaningful and interesting job than perennial backbencher. So good luck with that, Mr. Richardson.