31 December 2015

2015—a very good year

2015 is nearly done, a year of significant change for me: a new home after 25 years of living by Calgary's Elbow River, by far the longest I've ever lived in one place, and even a new car, also after driving my little Honda Civic for 25 years.

But blogging-wise, the most dramatic changes were political. First was the election of the NDP in Alberta, my home province, something I never thought I'd live to see. And then—my cup runneth over—the dark clouds lifted federally and the Harper government was replaced by the Liberals.

About these latter changes, Jackie Flanagan, founding publisher of Alberta Views magazine, had this to say in the New Year's edition:
The people of Alberta and Canada chose our new leaders for the hope and the change they promised. Both Notley and Trudeau brought a new, inclusive attitude to governing, a more collaborative approach to solving our problems. Both individuals are noted for their warmth. They don't demonize opponents or regard those who disagree with them as enemies.
My sentiments exactly, Ms. Flanagan. Politically, Canada is a much sunnier place entering 2016 than it was a year ago. I look forward to the new year and wish my readers the best.

30 December 2015

Why a referendum on electoral reform would be a very bad idea

The need for electoral reform in Canada has never been more stark. We have just endured nine years of government by a political party that over sixty per cent of us opposed. That is simply not democratic. We have an electoral system, but we don't have a democratic system. Only a proportional system, and there's a healthy variety to choose from, will allow the will of the people to prevail.

The Liberals "are committed to ensuring that 2015 will be the last federal election conducted under the first-past-the-post voting system." They have promised to "convene an all-party Parliamentary committee to review a wide variety of reforms, such as ranked ballots, proportional representation, mandatory voting, and online voting." Furthermore, "This committee will deliver its recommendations to Parliament. Within 18 months of forming government, we will introduce legislation to enact electoral reform." If the Liberals propose a PR system, Parliament will have a strong majority mandate as both the NDP and the Greens support proportional representation.

We should expect them to get on with the job as promised. Some voices have suggested that any change should be subject to a referendum. I strongly disagree.

Referendums are poor democratic instruments. They may have some validity on a simple yes-no issue but are seriously flawed for more complex issues, and voting systems are a complex issue. Some citizens will do their research, think the issue through calmly and thoroughly, and discuss and debate it with others. Many won’t. The ignorance factor in referendums can be very high.

Healthy democracy doesn’t just require participation, it requires informed participation. And how many informed voters can we expect in a referendum? A third of the Canadian electorate can’t even be bothered to show up at the voting booth once every four years. How many, therefore, can we reasonably expect to do their homework on voting systems?

One of the powerful advantages of representative democracy is having decisions made by people whose job is to study issues thoroughly before deciding. Referendums short-circuit this advantage. If we insist that legislatures read bills three times (in the case of Parliament, three times in both the House and the Senate), are we being sensible when we decide an issue in one go in a referendum? A decision made by elected representatives after thorough consideration might well be closer to what the people would decide if they deliberated rather than if they voted in a referendum.

Conservatives will holler for a referendum as if they had suddenly cast Harperism aside and become the voice of the people. Quite aside from their reluctance to change, first-past-the-post offers them their only chance to form a majority government. They will exploit the ignorance factor to the hilt.

Let's not be distracted. Let's keep our eyes on the prize. It's the vote that's important. The voting system is only important in how it serves the vote, specifically in how well it ensures that every citizen's vote goes toward electing a legislator that represents that voter's views. In the 2015 election, over half the votes cast failed to do that.

Anyone who believes as I do that the right to vote is precious ought to be demanding that every vote count and count equally, not quibbling about a referendum.

29 December 2015

Is Christ Christian? Reflections on the niqab debate

Pondering the late unlamented election debate about the niqab, I took to wondering just what a religion is. Not the dictionary definition or what theologians say it is, but how it is practiced by its followers.

Take Christianity, for example, the religion that has surrounded me all my life. As someone who has no religion, a mere observer of things religious, I might think Christianity should simply be following the teachings of Jesus Christ. But it ain't that easy. In quite significant ways, Christians reject the teachings of Christ, even making that rejection part of their dogma.

Consider Christ's teaching about how one treats one's enemies. In Luke 6:27-8, He says, "But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you, Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you." In Mathew 5:38-9, He says, "Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also." He is quite clear on this point and obviously considers it of great importance—he offers the message twice.

But how many Christians do you know who will turn the other cheek? Any? Americans are perhaps the most religious people in the West, yet they are almost constantly at war, punishing their enemies. No cheek-turning there. The Catholic Church even has a doctrine, the Just War Doctrine, which spells out the conditions that allow Christians to kill their enemies.

Or consider the wealth issue. In Mathew 19:24, Jesus says, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” That's pretty clear, too. But how many Christians do you know who don't want to be rich? The Catholic Church has struggled with this at times, nonetheless, rarely turns down a fat donation from a rich man and has acquired quite a hoard itself. Some denominations view getting rich as not only acceptable but as a religious calling, extolling wealth as an outcome of faith. Prosperity theology claims that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians.

These conflicts between religious practice and the teachings of the prophets occur in all religions—Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, whatever.

So what than is a religion? Apparently it is what the members of a religion, or a denomination, say it is, no more, no less. If what they say agrees with the teaching of their prophet, so much the better, if not, so much for the prophet. There is no ultimate arbiter. Believers think there is, but He seems to have little to say about such conflicts, commonly leaving the disparate parties to literally fight it out.

This brings me back to the niqab. Many critics of niqab-wearing claim that most imams and Muslim scholars teach that wearing the face covering is not required by Islam. Actually, that isn't true. Muslim scholars, depending on the denomination, differ on the issue. Some say it is obligatory, some say it isn't, while others say it is not obligatory but desirable.

But what the scholars say is irrelevant. If a recognized body of Muslims believe, regardless of what most Islamic scholars profess, that wearing the niqab is essential to their faith then it is essential for them. It is a legitimate religious observance. Therefore wearing the niqab at a citizenship ceremony is deserving of protection under the constitution, as long as the wearers are prepared to uncover and take the oath in private (as indeed they are). This the new government quite properly recognizes.

As for Christ, if he were to return to Earth today, would he be comfortable as a member of a Christian Church? Even if He could choose one, I suspect not, considering the cavalier way his teachings are treated. He might feel it was necessary to start all over again with a new church. We might call it Jesusism. And, of course, eventually it would be whatever Jesusists said it was.

19 December 2015

Dandelions may save your life

I love dandelions. In early spring, when the landscape is still grey-brown, and the streets are filthy from the accumulated sand and salt laid down over the winter, that sunny yellow face emerging hopefully from a crack in the sidewalk warms my bones.

Unfortunately not everyone agrees about dandelions. The City of Calgary is inclined to think of them as a noxious weed that should be eradicated, not appreciated. I have never understood why a sea of bright yellow flowers in a city park aggravates The City so. The plant is actually a beneficial garden companion: its taproot brings up nutrients for shallower-rooted plants and adds minerals and nitrogen to the soil. Yes, I agree, when the flowers burst into parachute balls for seed dispersal, they are less attractive, but a good sweep with the lawnmower takes care of that and green lawns are restored. Does it really matter if the green is grass or dandelions?

In addition to their charm, dandelions are a very useful plant, edible in their entirety. Their leaves are delicious in salads (and highly nutritious), their flowers can be used to make wine, and their roots make a caffeine-free tea.

And that tea is very special. Science has discovered it can save lives. Dandelions have been used medicinally for centuries, now University of Windsor researchers have found that dandelion root shows promise in fighting cancer. According to the university's Dr. Siryaram Pandey, professor of biochemistry, "We scientifically validated that dandelion root extract has very potent anti-cancer activity." A Calgary company, AOR Inc., is conducting a clinical trial of a specially-formulated tea on patients in Ontario. The trial involves 30 patients with blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma who have had no success with conventional therapies.

So hail the humble dandelion, not so much a weed as a crop. May the little darlings prosper everywhere.

18 December 2015

Americans—a dangerously fearful people

For nine years we were led by a fearful prime minister, and during the last election he gave us broad hints about who we should fear the most. Not that I am suggesting Mr. Harper was simply being a demagogue and trying to scare us into voting for him. Quite the contrary; I believe he is a genuinely fearful man. In any case, it did him little political good.

It may, however, be far more effective for candidates in the upcoming U.S. presidential election. The Republicans, and not just the buffoonish Donald Trump, are playing the fear card with great zeal, and they too leave little doubt about who Americans should most be afraid of.

Unfortunately, this is falling on fertile ground. According to a Pew Research survey, Americans rank terrorism as the major problem facing their country, substantially more important than unemployment, the economy or gun control. Over 80 per cent rate ISIS as the greatest threat to their well-being, almost twice as many as who rate climate change the most serious threat. A Foreign Policy article claims that half of Americans fear they or a loved one will become a victim of terrorism. This is, of course, ridiculous. As the author of the article points out, "in a typical year, more Americans are killed by cows than by Islamic terror attacks." (She didn't say if the cows were Christian or Muslim.)

Irrational fear is dangerous. It's dangerous for Americans and it's dangerous for the rest of us. It's dangerous for them because, quite aside from what it might mean for their Muslim citizens, it leads them to undermine their own freedoms. A solid majority of Americans now say the government’s anti-terrorism policies do not go far enough to protect the country rather than that they have gone too far in restricting civil liberties.

And it's dangerous for the rest of us because a frightened America is a more belligerent America, and that means more military aggression, more death and destruction, and more hostility toward the West. A solid majority of Americans believe that President Obama isn't tough enough on foreign policy and national security while almost half say the use of overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world. A frightened America could demand greater militarism from their next president or even elect one of the Republican warmongers.

These disturbing sentiments may not differ all that much from those of Canadians. Fortunately, however, Harper's damage to Canadians' privacy and civil rights should now at the very least be mitigated. As for our international posture, unlike the U.S. Canada can make only limited mischief and, in any case, we now have a government less fearful of the world around us.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt once told his fellow Americans that they had nothing to fear but fear itself. They, and we, are now very much in need of a new FDR to remind them.