Saturday, June 30, 2007

NB Liberals nix democracy

A flat "No" from the New Brunswick Liberal government to proportional representation for the province. A Commission on Legislative Democracy, established by the previous Conservative government, had urged a referendum in 2008 to let the people decide if they wanted a form of the Mixed Member Proportional system. The Liberals want none of it.

Small wonder. The Liberals lost the popular vote in 2006, but formed a majority government anyway, under the risible "first-past-the-post" system. It seems they aren't about to let democracy hurt their chances next time around.

Friday, June 29, 2007


First Nations Day of Action: a sampling of comment from one "mainstream" conservative blogsite:

Mark my words - the moment is approaching when a bandana prowling these police protected barricades will end up in the crosshairs of someone's high powered rifle.

Canadians need to arm themselves. Then they need to surround the reservation and KILL anything that moves. After that Canadians need to dare the Government to do anything about it and force a confrontation.

That is exactly what the ordinary working people of Ontario are saying: just shoot them. The protesters don't have much sympathy here.

Perhaps someone could hold an impromptu bingo game or set up a beer tent, to diffuse the situation.

To hell with these red ni**ers, I am fed up with them and the moronic liberals that insist on feeding them. Native land claims should start and end with a six foot deep hole in the rock garden.

See if they can drive a beer truck through. Then wait 8 hours, and re-open the highway.

maybe we need a couple of more duddly georges

(later that same day):

Seems like Wendy Sullivan, aka RightGirl, is the darling of some of our Canadian Embassy folks in Washington. They love her support-the-troops initiative. This is what she had to say about today's Day of Action:

As opposed to the other 364 days...when the Natives do absolutely nothing except smoke, drink and fuck their daughters. This Friday will mark the Native Day of Action(tm)here in Canada. It's their chance to whine and complain that us white guys who pay 45% in income tax to support their smoking, drinking and daughter-fucking are ripping them off.

Let the Canadian Embassy
know what you think of sourcing this drooling racist.

h/t The Galloping Beaver. Follow the links: she's not getting one from me.

UPPERDATE (that evening):

A couple of good articles to bring us back to sanity, one quite humorous, the other asking the hard questions, to be found via Shmohawk's Shmorg.


The owner of the blogsite from which I drew the remarks that appear above is none too pleased with me. In a series of deflective moves, she accused me of dishonesty, implying strongly that I had made the quotations up (after she removed some of them from her combox). That didn't fly, so she advanced the notion that they were planted by left-wing agents provocateurs (see comment posted here). When the ensuing guffaws subsided, she turned her attention to the photograph, above, and accused me of being a "bigot." She claimed that the photo maligned Westerners and played into stereotypes. Why not show a picture of a Mohawk warrior or a Jamaican gangsta, she asked, although neither group could be credibly linked to the sentiments expressed in the comments.

The photo may indeed remind one of American Southerners: I don't read "Westerners" in the picture (source here), and in any case the events under discussion took place in Ontario. A stereotype? Certainly: rather self-consciously depicted in the photo, I think. My point was that the authors of the bigoted comments quoted above were playing into stereotypes themselves. Set a stereotype, in other words, to catch a stereotype. Not to mention a well-known conservative blogger.


The Washington Embassy has sent out the following form letter:

Dear ----:

Thank you for your email regarding a post made this week in the blog

"Right Wing Girl" and the our article about the Canadian Angels website
from a 2006 edition of the Connect2Canada newsletter.

Our mention of Canadian Angels was made over a year ago. We have now

removed that reference to the Canadian Angels site from the
Connect2Canada website and newsletter and will not make future references
to it.

Thank you again for your message. We very much value the feedback of

Connect2Canada members.


Bernard Etzinger

Connect2Canada team

Canadian Embassy, Washington, DC


Kate McMillan has shown me the door. That's what you get, I guess, when you show her a mirror. My response is here--well, it was there a moment ago, but has since been deleted.

expression of grievance, in any case, bears all the signs of careful manufacture. She is still fussing that I didn't source the offensive comments individually, calling this "dishonest." If she is suggesting that they did not actually appear over at her place, then that word would better apply to her. I failed to acknowledge, she says, that she had removed some (but by no means all) of them. But that wasn't even in question. Of course she did. Any sensible comments editor would have done the same.

She claims "misrepresentation," but I quoted the comments accurately. She makes the absurd claim that I "insulted rural Canadians" (yesterday it was just "Westerners") with the photo, an assertion which, when you think about it, is pretty insulting
in itself to rural Canadians. She then accuses me of "hypocrisy" for getting into some discussions at her place with some of the more rational folks who post there, on issues such as the Iroquois influence, or lack of it, on the writing of the US Constitution. Why participating in these conversations is "hypocritical" in her eyes is beyond me. It's not as though I was having such discussions with the bigots I quoted.

In any case, as noted in my response, my post was not about Kate. It was about the backlash, and I think I captured it pretty well. I'm sorry she took it personally, but she did set a certain tone with her "bandana [sic] in the crosshairs" comment. We all saw what that unleashed.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Spare the rod

"Spanking is not child abuse," a pair of spanking enthusiasts insist in an Ottawa Citizen op-ed piece today. They hail from (where else) the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada. One of the authors, Andrea Mrozek, was associate editor at the Western Standard and worked for the Fraser Institute on education and health policy. Her current Institute carries the drearily familiar so-con line on everything from domestic assault (women do it too, and gays do it more) to the ideal form of marriage (you guessed right). Needless to say, the entire National Post editorial board is pro-spanking as well, as well as the "pro-life" folks.

The op-ed, citing various studies that claim that spanking is good for you, is in response to the it's-about-time Senate initiative to repeal section 43 of the Criminal Code. There's a good synopsis of the issue here. The Supreme Court of Canada already prescribed strict limits to the practice in 2004: no belts or paddles and no shots to the head, and the child to be hit must be no younger than two and no older than 12. Focus on the Family, an intervenor in that case, liked the law just the way it was, and provides a helpful on-line "how-to" guide to hitting a child, including the use of "neutral objects" and the following advice:

In those situations when the child, aged 2 to 10, fully understands what he is being asked to do but refuses to yield to adult leadership, an appropriate spanking is the shortest and most effective route to an attitude adjustment. When he lowers his head, clenches his fists, and makes it clear he is going for broke, justice must speak swiftly and eloquently. Not only does this response not create aggression in children, it helps them control their impulses and live in harmony with various forms of benevolent authority throughout life.

Res ipsa loquitur. There's more, here and elsewhere, if you have the stomach for it.

Now, hitting a child is not everyone's idea of how to generate family harmony. If there is a line between spanking and child abuse, I would like any of the pro-hitting folks to tell me where it's to be legally drawn. Here? Here? Here?

Let me declare interest at this point. I was raised by very loving parents at a time when spanking and other forms of corporal punishment were the norm, approved of in child psychology books and practised at home and at school. I received my share--blows to the buttocks, head and wrists, not to mention the strap. I don't judge my parents badly for this (I have a different view, however, of school principals who took rather too much relish in it), because in those days everybody did it. But when I was blessed with (step)children of my own, I hadn't the slightest impulse to follow suit. The notion frankly repelled me.

If the various conservative sources I have cited think that hitting children is good for them, setting them on the Correct Path, why stop there? What about troublesome teenagers? Adults? Seniors? They flog people of all ages in Singapore, don't they? But perhaps I shouldn't encourage them further. A number, in fact, are well along that road already:

Myron Thompson (Conservative MP, Wild Rose) “said he favored corporal punishment for young offenders. He says that during his years as a school principal in Alberta, he saw remarkable change in behaviour among those who had ‘tasted a piece of wood.’” (Edmonton Sun, March 13, 1995)

Art Hanger (Conservative MP, Calgary Northeast): “I suspect flogging straightens up behavior by jolting a criminal into reality … Compare it to our system, which provides no deterrence and is little more than a revolving door … Is corporal punishment extreme? … I don’t think so.” (Alberta Report, April 1, 1996)

And that's why, in a nutshell, I could never be a conservative
. Politically and personally, I just don't swing that way. It's a sign of the times we are now enduring that organized right-wing lobby groups have sprung into being to advocate, among other things, assaults on children for their own good. If anyone had any doubts about the sado-political mentality of the Right, its take on this issue is frankly conclusive.

UPDATE (June 26): There's a rebuttal post here. The author, however, doesn't permit comments. So let me make a few points in response to some blatant misreadings over there:

1) My post was about the pro-spanking lobby in general, not the Citizen piece, which served simply to set the stage. It was entirely appropriate to cite other lobby groups, given my theme.

2) I did indeed seek to make the case that the pro-spankers hail from the conservative side of the spectrum. It's not a hard one to make. I'll gladly stand corrected if anyone here can point me to a left-wing lobby to retain Section 43 of the Criminal Code.


3) He takes issue with my claim that the authors cite studies to indicate that "spanking is good for you," but he doesn't provide the original context, only a statement that the authors state that spanking is "neutral."

But here's what he left out:

It is not accurate to say that spanking necessarily has negative repercussions. In fact there is some evidence from reputable studies that it is, as always, done appropriately -- gasp -- good.

The grammar of the last sentence is non-existent, but the sense is clear enough. The authors then go on to cite a study that concludes that "physical discipline reduc[es] drug use" and another, from New Zealand, that finds that spankees in later life "appeared to be particularly [emphasis mine] high-functioning and achieving members of society."

4) I didn't deal with the claim by some lawyers from the Justice Department (not the op-ed authors, who argue instead that a spanking ban is unenforceable) that repeal will lead to a number of frivolous charges against parents, because I think, bluntly, that it's nonsense. Prove it with facts from jurisdictions that have outlawed spanking--say, Sweden, Switzerland, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Norway, Austria, Germany, Italy, Cyprus, Croatia, Israel or Latvia. Otherwise, stop this silly alarmism. Our police are so stretched that they don't even investigate routine burglaries any more. The idea that they'd proceed against a parent firmly placing a toddler into a child's car seat strains credulity, to put it mildly.

5) The examples of punishable child abuse I gave were carefully chosen: they increase in severity from using a belt to mistreatment of children leading in one instance to death. The Supreme Court of Canada, as noted in my post, took a softer view than Focus on the Family and that frightful pastor in the US who believes in whipping babies. But the SCC decision does not necessarily define where the pro-spanking lobby would draw the line if they had their druthers, given the references I quoted and linked to. I'd like to know where they would in fact draw that line.

6) My critic imagines that I was confining my argument narrowly to Sn. 43 of the Criminal Code. Perhaps he should read my post again. I am far more interested in the pro-physical punishment folks and their politics in general, which have burst forth during the current Senate hearings. My reference to Singapore was followed by quotations from two Conservative MPs, who assuredly do support flogging.

7) The rebuttal ends with two questions allegedly put by the original op-ed authors, indicating his overly light reading of the op-ed itself:

How [will] the outlawing of spanking improve the protection of those children who currently suffer very serious abuse (that is, by people who disregard the law even as it stands now)?

The problem with this sort of question lies in its unspoken assumptions. Suffice it to say that, even if repealing Sn. 43 doesn't prevent serious child abuse, it will prevent or at least discourage milder forms of it (hitting a child). So, even if the answer to the question is "maybe not much," so what? In the longer term, of course, a society that does not tolerate the use of physical force against children will become more intolerant of child abuse of any kind.

How it will protect all children from possibly falling victim, in their adolescence, to the sorts of epidemics of violent behaviour Mrozek and Quist outline in their, as yet unchallenged, Ottawa Citizen op-ed piece?

The authors "outline" no such thing. Rather, they make two oddly contradictory statements: first, that spanking, although illegal, is on the rise in Sweden, and that the state cannot control it; and secondly, that youth violence has risen after the spanking ban, the suggestion being made that the latter caused the former--even though the authors have just finished claiming that spanking, too, is on the rise!

UPPERDATE (June 30):

A good response op-ed in today's Ottawa Citizen.


Mr. George is having another go at me. Here is the text of an email I sent in response:

1) There is a continuum within the pro-spanking lobby, not a slippery slope. All want to hit children, but some more severely than others. Perhaps the Citizen correspondents were at the moderate end of this extreme: I don’t know. But what is interesting, to me, at least, is that the issue is so politicized. The pro-physical punishment folks are conservative. Deal with this, don’t simply obfuscate.

2) I don’t think I hid my position that hitting children is abusive. I also expressed my awareness that there is indeed a range of child abuse, ranging from the relatively (and I stress the word “relatively”) mild to violence causing death. You pretend to misunderstand my point, and fuss that my examples come from the US and so on, but that point was actually not that difficult to grasp: where would the current pro-spanking lobbyists draw the line? Where the SCC does? Or further along the spectrum of violence?

All of the examples provided were those of parents disciplining their children, in their various ways. So much for leaving this sort of thing up to the parents. My question was reasonable: how much physical punishment is too much? If there is no clear line to be drawn, or, alternatively (as I suspect) if various groups motivated to a lesser or greater extent by religious and political zeal draw a number of different lines, then the precautionary principle dictates that we not put ourselves in the position of drawing such a line in the first place. That’s what repealing Sn. 43 is all about.

3) I don’t think that Canada will become “pro-flogging” if we fail to repeal Sn. 43. The status quo will simply be retained. Again, I am pointing out the politicized nature of the issue and the conservative politics of the (admittedly various) lobbyists against repeal. The fact that in those same quarters one finds flogging advocates and even child abuse advocates (like Pastor Tripp) might cause some to reflect. Obviously not you: you would rather argue against positions that I never took. I think that’s called the “straw man” fallacy, summed up neatly in your bizarre italic recounting of my own alleged thought processes.

4) The unspoken assumptions behind the question How [will] the outlawing of spanking improve the protection of those children who currently suffer very serious abuse (that is, by people who disregard the law even as it stands now)? include the notion that outlawing spanking would only be worthwhile if it protected the victims of serious abuse, and, secondly, that a law should not be passed if some people are simply going to break it. Those are both highly questionable assumptions, but they are each clearly implied.

5) I am not arguing anywhere in my article to a conclusion that hitting a child is abusive. I start from that notion. So I am not “begging the question.” Nor do I think that the majesty of the law will descend in the future upon those who yell at their kids. Peer pressure is far more likely to do that. As already noted, the police are already over-stretched. I cannot accept that parents will suffer the guilt or self-stigmatization of the uncaught criminal, either—that’s absurdly over-stated. Rather, I think that the culture will simply shift more in the direction it is already travelling, away from the physical imposition of authority over the young.

6) Your common law argument escapes me. There cannot be a contradiction with the Criminal Code if the latter is silent. I suggest you check out the jurisprudence, however, pertaining to “reasonable force.” At least as I understand it, this generally applies to physical force used to prevent a crime or otherwise prevent harm to a person or persons. It was given a specific definition by the SCC relating to Sn.43, but obviously that would disappear along with the provision. It would in any case be difficult to invoke the common law notion as a defence for hitting a child given the clear will expressed by Parliament in repealing Sn.43.

In conclusion, your summing-up is a straight appeal to authority. If the objective of outlawing spanking is to achieve a net reduction in harm, then there is much to suggest that this strategy, at best, will achieve nothing--at worst, it could create a whole new set of problems. This is an entirely reasonable conclusion, Dawg, and one that is supported by legitimate studies. I don’t think the authors made their case, and I did explain why. And your final claim that I argued that “all” conservatives are sadists is ridiculous, with all due respect. I made a point that you have been unable to refute, though, in more than 3,000 words: the vast majority of those who support physical punishment of other human beings happens to be politically conservative. Why, do you suppose that is? Don’t duck—give us an answer.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Christie Blatchford on Pride Week

Little could top Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford's infamous "names like Mohamed" piece on the Toronto Seventeen, otherwise known as the Little Gang that Couldn't, but she came pretty close today.

The racist underpinnings of the first column were long ago dissected by others. But
Blatchford, it seems, is a veritable Pandora's box of intolerances. Check out the homophobia and ethnocentrism that imbue this morning's article, one ostensibly about the recent "Support our Troops" brouhaha in Toronto that ended peacefully with Mayor David Miller's unconditional surrender.

Blatchford begins with a lengthy enumeration of organizations and groups whose special days and months are celebrated in Toronto under the motto (which she calls "self-conscious and smug") "Diversity our Strength." It's a staggering array, to be sure, of groups and causes. But special note is taken of Pride Week:

...and of course, Semaine de la fierté gaie, or as we anglophone bastards know it, Gay Pride Week...Just this week Mayor David Miller was raising the rainbow flag down at City Hall and talking about fabulousness.

You can just see her lip curl, can't you? (Not to mention the odd backhanded swipe at francophones: where on earth did that come from?) Every rag-tag and bobtail group gets recognition, she says--but not Canadian soldiers.

One can trace the ensuing binary. Our troops were dissed by a decision, hastily rescinded after three more deaths in Afghanistan, to remove "Support Our Troops" decals on city fire trucks and ambulances. Some controversy about the mission appeared to be behind it all. And the Left "wants it all ways on Afghanistan." We are guilty of "duplicity," she avers, because we oppose the mission but support our fellow Canadians sent over there by pressing to bring them home, preferably alive. Her notion of support is to ignore the mission entirely ("Canadian soldiers merely go where their government sends them") and offer unwavering, blind loyalty. Kind of reminds me of Country Joe:

And it's one, two, three,
What are we fighting for ?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam;
And it's five, six, seven,
Open up the pearly gates,
Well there ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

Blatchford segues into a tale of personal risk-taking: she placed a "Support Our Troops" bumper-sticker on her car, triumphing at last over her anxiety that, living in a "solid NDP neighborhood" as she does, her vehicle might be vandalized. But this is how she concludes:

It's the first, and only, bumper sticker I have ever had on a car, and it, or another just like it, will stay there until the last Canadian soldier is home from Afghanistan.

But hey, happy Pride Week.

Blatchford's conservatism has evidently hardened considerably since the palmy days of 1997, when she could actually express public outrage at homophobia ("I am offended by those who are offended by gay men, naked or otherwise.") Now we have an article that works inexorably towards its concluding, bluntly-posed contrast: big, brave troops versus mincing pansies. Of course, she would never use language like that, so she hints and alludes instead; because, in Toronto, with all that self-conscious, smug support of diversity, anything more direct might be a bad career move. Never mind: her admirers have long since mastered the code.

And in other news, Afghan civilian casualties are soaring.

Six characters in search of an author

Shades of Borat. The quaint village pictured here is Lussaud, in Auvergne, France, and it's not as tranquil as it looks. Author Pierre Jourde found this out the hard way by writing a novel about the bucolic little hamlet that enraged its residents.

Jourde's novel described Lussaud as

a place where the gods were called "Alcohol, Winter, Shit and Solitude"; where having one tooth was a status symbol akin to wearing a monocle and where an old lady let dead dogs decay in her bed, tucking herself up beside them every night.

For some reason the villagers took umbrage at this sort of publicity:

In July 2005, when Jourde arrived with his family for a summer break, six villagers appeared outside his house shouting insults. Things turned violent, blows were exchanged and stones were thrown. Jourde's 15-month-old baby was slightly hurt and his mixed-race daughters were called "dirty Arabs". Jourde and his family locked themselves in their car and fled. They have never returned.

Five of the accused attackers have just appeared in court; the sixth, a minor, will be tried separately.

Pirandello, of course, was on a different track with his well-known play. His "sei personnaggi" were ideas struggling to be born into a dramatic narrative. In the instant case we are dealing with people turned into characters (and I intend the ambiguity), a transformation maintained in the ensuing media coverage.

The lines between "fiction" and "non-fiction" get blurred a lot in postmodern thinking--it's all écriture, right?--but I think it's possible to distinguish them. The latter voluntarily submits itself to empirical testing akin to that of science; the former (I'm referring here to novels) strives for an illusion of realism, but submits itself to those tests only to create the illusion. You don't want a realist tale of life in London where the Thames inexplicably flows uphill, or Buck House is located in Putney. Jourde's novel uses enough local accounts to enrage the inhabitants of Lussaud. We must assume, then, that his illusion was firmly and successfully

What do we see in our minds when we read these stories of what Karl Marx memorably called "the idiocy of rural life?" Village scenes out of Breughel, occasional mobs bearing pitchforks and torches, incest, adultery, grinding poverty and filth, but nice B-and-Bs for the tourists. Ah, that bracing country air, fresh fruit, scenery and a leisurely latte on a stone terrace....Lovely. We're going back.

Language is the prison-house from which there is no escape. Our being-with-others--our intersubjectivity--is linguistically mediated. We are all characters in other people's accounts, and even in our own. In this sense the fictive and non-fictive realms really do come together: no one's description of another person can be "true," and certainly never complete. The same applies to self-description: an autobiography is not the autobiographer, but a series of statements, a judicious selection, a narrative, above all a story.

L'affaire Lussaud is a cautionary tale. Our stories can cause injury because they do not jibe with our characters' accounts of themselves, or, on the other hand, because they do so too closely. But, more than that, we continue to resist the notion that we are characters. Jourde did not simply reveal what the villagers wanted to keep concealed, or caricature their way of life in an insulting fashion. He
imprisoned them in his text, transforming them into mere characters in their own eyes. I suspect it was that subversion of the very notion of the self, and not the unflattering secrets that he told, that led to his near-lynching.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Of marijuana and free speech

A bright young man's future is on the line because of a vindictive high school principal in Saskatchewan and a mouthy school superintendent.

15-year-old Kieran King made the mistake of thinking that students have a right to discuss issues of the day. Not in Wawota, Sask., pop. 600, they don't. Having heard one of those school presentations on the dangers of drugs, he opined to a group of classmates that marijuana was safer than tobacco or alcohol. A fellow student complained to the principal, and the bud was in the fire.

The principal, Ms. Susan Wilson, is not one of those people who just sits back and wrings her hands. She immediately telephoned the boy's mother, accusing him of promoting drug use and threatening to call the police if he ever raised the issue at school again.

The kid wasn't having that, and organized a protest outside the school. But the principal by this time had the bit in her teeth. She locked down the school, called the RCMP, conducted a threat assessment of King, and, for good measure, suspended him for three days so that he couldn't sit his final exams. A Grade Ten student whose marks were in the high eighties, King will now get a barely passing mark on his transcript, which could affect his chances of getting a university scholarship later on.

As might be expected, the principal's absurd overreaction was defended by Don Rempel, director of education in the South East Cornerstone School Division,
and by Audrey Trombley, the elected chair of the school board,
both of whom said that she had acted appropriately. A letter-writer in today's Globe and Mail wags his finger, stating that King had crossed the line by "proselytizing" for the evil weed, and repeating that hoary canard that "responsibilities attach to rights."

It gets worse. Superintendent
of education Velda Weatherald is now on the public record (YouTube) smearing the young man by claiming he had been accused of drug dealing. It looks like the whole matter will end up in the courts.

As for King, he's presently in Shanghai learning Mandarin and teaching English as a second language. He says he's never even seen marijuana--he just believes in researching issues and speaking out. He thought he had the right to do so. Good grief, what has he been smoking?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The beast that will not die

What on earth is flowing in the mainstream waters of Quebec these days? Anti-Semitism (and I don't mean criticism of Israel) appears to be flourishing
once again, despite the Quiet Revolution, despite Quebec's progressive politique sociale, despite the enlightened social attitudes that most Quebeckers express on such issues as same-sex marriage and a woman's right to choose, despite the waning influence of the Church.

There has been an ugly strain of this in Quebec culture and politics since the bad old days of Abbé Lionel Groulx and Le Devoir in the 'thirties and 'forties, even if it has been exaggerated for political effect by commentators like Mordecai Richler. (He distorted the record, in my view, by ignoring English anti-Semitism in Quebec--e.g., the McGill student quota--as he laboured to grind his anti-sovereignist axe.
The reception of the scholar Esther Delisle's controversial work on Quebec's anti-Semitic past was not helped by having him as a booster.) Anti-Semitism was rife in both English and French populations of Quebec in those days, and all across the country--one thinks of Charlotte Whitton, later the Mayor of Ottawa, crusading to stop Jewish refugee children from entering Canada at the height of the Holocaust. But it is still a dirty little secret that most francophone, souverainiste Quebeckers would prefer to see kept.

A commenter over at Small Dead Animals first brought this to my attention. But so ingrained is the "Left anti-Semitism" meme in those quarters that he wrote: "
Official Leftist racism rears its ugly head in Quebec MSM." Here is what he linked to.

"Leftist," my eye. La Presse endorsed Stephen Harper. As Mark Collins points out at Daimnation, the worst of the cartoons appeared in La Tribune--owned by Power Corporation. And Le Devoir, it appears, is simply reverting to its old traditions. This is classical right-wing anti-Semitism,
in fact, in the form of cartoons that revel in ugly caricatures and stereotypes of "the Jew"--and it's getting a pass (so far) in the English-language media.

Why? For once I'm at a loss.

Monday, June 18, 2007

A capital idea?

Between 1977 and 1997, nearly one person a day was executed in the US--6,143 people, gassed, hanged, electrocuted, lethally injected or shot.

The deterrent effect of capital punishment has been debunked to a fare-thee- well--or so I had thought, until the appearance of a new study that has the right side of the blogosphere all a-twitter with anticipation. The authors claim that each execution in the US deters 5-6 homicides, while three pardons generate 1-1.5 new murders. (Other researchers claim that as many as 18 murders are deterred per execution).

Plowing through the study, I came away convinced that the authors were mistaking correlation for causation. Other odd correlations were discovered along the way, such as an inverse relation between unemployment and the homicide rate--perhaps looking for work takes up time otherwise occupied by plotting and committing murder.

Turning to Figure 1 in the article, it is remarkable that the over-all US homicide rate almost exactly parallels the homicide rate in states with the death penalty. To my untutored eye, this would appear to indicate the absence of a deterrent factor. But the curve for the execution rate does appear to be almost a mirror-image of the homicide rate. Hence we are asked to conclude that, overall, the latter is influenced by the former.

Someone more versed in statistics than I might throw some light on this. There are some learned refutations of such studies here


The studies avoid any direct tests of deterrence. They fail to show that murderers are aware of executions in their own state, much less in far-away states, and that they rationally decide to forego homicide and use less lethal forms of violence. A few studies measure newspaper accounts of executions,but no one knows the reading habits of murderers. Many have cognitive impairments, making it even more unlikely that they are aware of executions.

The studies fail to take into account the deterrent effects of Life Without Parole sentences (LWOP). LWOP has the same incapacitative effect as does execution...The omission of this alternate and competing explanation for the decline in murder rates in California and other states is irresponsible and borders on incompetence.

and here. But, in the meantime, some disturbing questions.

1) The authors note that :

[although] the Supreme Court of the United States remains unconvinced that there exists racial discrimination in the imposition of the death penalty, recent research points to the possibility of such discrimination (Baldus et al. 1998, Pokorak 1998, Kleck 1981). Along the same lines, there is evidence indicating that there is discrimination regarding who gets executed and who gets pardoned once the death penalty is received (Argys and Mocan 2001). Given these concerns, a stand for or against capital punishment should be taken with caution.

Here the authors segue from a cold statistical analysis into the moral realm, where, if I may say so, the debate properly belongs. If we accept the contested proposition that executions have a deterrent effect, are we comfortable with the fact that Blacks and members of other minorities are in effect playing an above-and-beyond role in making America safe?

2) Let's take this a little further. In 2000, the Republican Governor of Illinois, George Ryan, blocked any more executions in his state until the incompetence and error that led to many convictions of the innocent in the first place had been thoroughly reviewed. In 2003, he took the unprecedented step of commuting the death sentences of 167 individuals convicted of murder.

But if the statistical argument for deterrence is sound, does it matter whether or not the condemned are innocent or guilty? If every execution prevents up to 18 homicides, who cares about DNA and other means of exoneration? If state killing indeed works so wonderfully well for the public good, why not take the old che sera sera approach? If you're innocent, well, you're just taking one for the team.

3) And why stop there? We don't just want a society where murder no longer happens. We're not all that keen on rape, burglary, GBH and jaywalking, either. Why not be literally Draconian, and make every crime a capital crime? [That has a nice right-wing sloganic ring to it, doesn't it?]

Hey, don't laugh. Even relatively minor punishments like flogging and amputation, not to mention stoning and beheading, apparently work like a hot-damn in Saudi Arabia.* Do we want a crime-free society or not? If so, time to man up and do what has to be done.

4) With me so far? Then let's pursue this to the final conclusion:

The Measures Taken

The lazy are slaughtered
the world grows industrious

The ugly are slaughtered
the world grows beautiful

The foolish are slaughtered
the world grows wise

The sick are slaughtered
the world grows healthy

The sad are slaughtered
the world grows merry

The old are slaughtered
the world grows young

The enemies are slaughtered
the world grows friendly

The wicked are slaughtered
the world grows good

Erich Fried (1921-1988), trans. Michael Hamburger

*"The severity of penalties and the rigid system of enforcement were credited by both officials and ordinary citizens with contributing to the high standards of public safety. Supporters of severe punishment believed that, although carried out infrequently, a beheading or stoning reminded the people that such penalties remained in force."

Friday, June 15, 2007

Richard Rorty, October 4, 1931 – June 8, 2007

Richard Rorty opened my eyes. As a captive of Western analytical thought, what Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari call tree thinking or "arborescence" ("reality" must be rooted or grounded, with its parts connected in fairly linear fashion, while object and subject remain separate), I came upon Rorty's work quite by accident, when a classmate handed me his "Contingency, Irony and Solidarity." People nearby could probably hear the crash of enormous dogmatic structures in my brain as I read the first few pages.

I shall not attempt here to sum up his thinking, because, quite frankly, I would have to read much more of him to do so. He was a moderate postmodernist, who believed in empirical adequacy; but he was adamant that "truth" is a consensus, continually being re-forged, and that the notion of "objective reality" is unhelpful. (One can, I think, trace this idea back as far as Immanuel Kant, and his distinction between noumena and phenomena.)

Rorty was above all a pragmatist. We use language to communicate our perceptions and observations, and indeed our knowledge of "the world" is bound up in language. When the vocabulary we use ceases to work, we invent new vocabulary that works better.

Those who seek "objective" truth, or, worse, those who believe they have found it, will find little comfort in Rorty's work. I don't think I can put things any better than a Usenetter named Chris, who intervened many moons ago in a discussion I was having with someone:

[Such people believe that] language is a neutral, transparent nomenclature superimposed on a naturally occurring reality, that interpretation is a non-constructive process of simple "decoding," that knowing is culture-free, unrelated to specific forms of social, economic and institutional organization, and that facts can be dug from the earth like fossils. By this account history, if done "properly," is always the same sort of thing. Of course this runs into some problems once we start historicizing history itself as a form of knowledge production, or if we examine the theory of language supporting such views of history.

I think what frightens many people about accounts that are constructivist or which don't adhere to a reductive, foundational realism, is the idea that if a fact is constructed it is therefore entirely fictional, subjective and unreal, and that there are no criteria for judging one claim or type of knowledge better than another. This is obviously silly, although there are strains of nutty pomo thought that tend toward this. One could argue that categories like queer or African American are social constructs. This doesn't make such things unreal or subjective.

Rorty helped to open the way to a new thinking that does not require "objective" absolutes, those little pebbles and huge, terrible boulders like God that make up conservative (but not only conservative) thought. With the rather more colourful notion of "rhizomatic thinking" in Deleuze and Guattari, Rorty changed (or, rather, pointed the way to change in) my own intellectual life. And at this point I need to pay homage to my late partner, Marianne MacKinnon, who thought that way naturally. I've been very lucky.

No, then, to objective foundations and linguistic isomorphism; and a big Yes to Deleuzian rhizomes and lines of flight. For your part in this revolution in Western thinking (a revolution barely begun), I for one thank you, Richard Rorty.

For crying out loud...

...the anti-regulatory right wing is already strong enough. Do we have to give them ammunition?

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Best Lefty Blogs (Canadian)

My good friend Dirk over at Engaged Spectator is running a "Top Left Blogs" contest.

I must admit I hadn't given this much thought until he brought it up. Competition is so...unLeft, somehow. But hell, we're all in the belly of the beast.

Head over there and vote for me. :)

Of right mind, part deux

I'm indebted to fellow blogger Nunc Scio for bringing the case of Norman Finkelstein to my attention, the latest campus casualty of the pro-Israel thought police. He has been denied tenure at DePaul University, and advised to start looking for work elsewhere. One can only read the sanctimonious phrasing of the University president and weep.

I thought I'd give my old buddy David Horowitz an e-shout. He's the editor of FrontPage Magazine, and very concerned about academic freedom on US campuses. He's not sitting back: he's running a National Campaign for Academic Freedom, and he's always asking for contributions.
Indeed, I ended up somehow on his mailing list, and I get regular bulletins about assaults on the free exchange of ideas, even unpopular ones, taking place today in America. Shocking, I tell you. Watch out, Daniel Pipes!

But David came back pretty abruptly, saying that he didn't see the Finkelstein case as an academic freedom issue at all. Would I explain it to him? I tried:

Finkelstein's colleagues voted overwhelmingly for tenure. The College Personnel Committee voted unanimously for tenure. But a political decision was made to refuse it.

What were the excuses?

“[S]ome might interpret parts of his scholarship as “deliberately hurtful” as well as provocative more for inflammatory effect than to carefully critique or challenge accepted assumptions. Criticism has been expressed for his inflammatory style and personal attacks in his writings and intellectual debates.”

For a moment I thought the Committee was talking about Daniel Pipes. Finkelstein was allegedly rejected for tenure because of his style.

The university president goes on to complain about Finkelstein's "ad hominem attacks" (referring to the minority opinion of his colleagues) and he concludes with the announcement that Finkelstein's employment will shortly be terminated.

So much for academic freedom.

David came right back again: "Read the AAUP [American Association of University Professors] statements on academic freedom and academic tenure, and the deportment that is expected of scholars, and you will understand the DePaul president's statement."

Fair enough, although I was puzzled a bit by the reticence of this staunch defender of academic freedom. I had a look around, and responded:

I've read the AAUP statement on "collegiality" as an excuse for not granting tenure. Have you?
I'll believe in your defence of academic freedom when I see it. So far, not too many signs of it are apparent in this case.

David got a tad irritated with me at this point, and wrote back:

The current AAUP is an extreme leftwing organization which has no interest in academic freedom, unless it is to invoke those principles to defend terrorists, anti-Semites and their fellow travellers. Read the 1940 statement which is part of the academic freedom provision of virtually every university in America, or don't read it, since like most leftists you've given up on thinking (or are incapable of it) in favor of posturing.

Yikes! Here I'd gone to the AAUP as he'd suggested, and found that the cunning fellow had sent me off to some far-Left organization. Why would he do that?

The 1940 statement (two-thirds of a century old!) has undergone a few revisions since, as it turns out. But David had asked me to look at "statements" in the plural. And that was the thanks I got. I'm afraid my usual urbanity deserted me at this point, and I snarled back at him, "Whether I'm posturing or not, at least I'm not a pathetic, wriggling fraud pretending to defend academic freedom-- except for people you dislike." That was no doubt completely uncalled for, but David likes that kind of talk, as a quick perusal of FrontPage Mag indicates. Nevertheless, he has not responded to date.

The fault, as it turns out, was all mine. Had I been a more assiduous reader of the magazine, I would have found this. All became clear in a twinkling: some people just aren't worthy of academic freedom. They misuse it, criticizing Israel and generally misbehaving. Freedom, it seems, is far too precious a gift to be squandered on just anyone.

So Dr. Finkelstein will simply have to do without the support of the National Campaign for Academic Freedom. But, readers, dry your eyes: that struggle continues nonetheless. Sorry you won't be drinking champagne with us, David, but do keep that freedom bell ringing.

UPDATE: (June 14) And this is what happens at DePaul to faculty who dare speak out for Dr. Finkelstein.

(Academic critics of Israel have been finding it tough going for some time in the land of the free. More here on the subject from Horowitz's magazine.)

UPPERDATE: (June 15) It appears that Dr. Finkelstein's Dean, who opposed tenure, was taking instruction from Alan Dershowitz.

Monday, June 11, 2007


Item: "Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory vowed two years ago to rebuild his deeply divided party by positioning himself as a moderate in the mould of former premier Bill Davis and by reaching out to the party's right wing."

Sunday, June 10, 2007

In praise of a flying rodent

It's high time to introduce to progressive Canadian bloggers a mad Scotsman with a gift of gab that would put the average Burns-daft, soccer-mad drunken son of Caledonia to shame. (No multiple tautologies: just say "the average Scot"--Ed.) This fellow has been on my blogroll since I discovered him. Time for you folks to discover him too. Say hello to the Flying Rodent.

On Brits and air travel:

Behind the polite veneer of civility projected by most Brits lurks a roiling vortex of pure, white-hot rage and hatred. A quick click about the internet is enough to confirm that - just give the average Briton a forum in which to express his opinions with impunity and within five seconds they're demanding heads on sticks.

In the pressurized confines of a commercial airline, a shortage of Chardonnay could lead to the airport cops opening the doors to find the biggest and strongest of the passengers gnawing on a femur.

The same piece has some charming representations of the people I used to go drinking with, back in the day:

Check this out - when the pilot lands the plane, the Glaswegian passengers are so impressed by this miraculous feat of technological wizardry that they applaud.

Not to rant about nothing, but would they applaud a bus driver for successfully pulling up at a bus stop? "Guid work big man, yir brakin' skills were pure magic!"

On atheism and atheists:

Even though I may be imagining my debating companion as a cat-worshipping ancient Egyptian peasant, grovelling for a fruitful harvest before a malformed clay figurine of a woman with a lion's head, I always remember to be patient, polite and pleasant.

So I appeal to your better natures - please remember that tedious God-botherers are human beings, and deserving of our respect and civility.

His hed for a post about the right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips: "The Islamofascists Want To Destroy Everything I Hate About this Country."

On Bush's recent criticism of Vladimir Putin et al.:

President George W. Bush has criticised Russia, China and various other states for democratic failings, human rights abuses and military aggression at a press conference today, causing the deaths of at least 37 journalists.

Shouting to be heard over the cacophanous din of screams and popping heads, President Bush...lambasted China for overspending on military procurement and chided Russia for using its resources and economic power to intimidate its rivals.

"Justin was just making these strangled 'Buh-buh-buh' noises," said one journalist of his colleague Justin Webb. "I think he was trying to make a point about the $700 billion dollar defence budget Bush will soon approve, and then he turned bright crimson and his skull exploded like a stamped apple."

The conference room then filled with a noise like an enormous roll of bubble-wrap being trampled by a herd of white rhinos as an Administration official alluded to the lack of press freedom in Russia, including the murder of journalists.

"Anyone would think that they'd forgotten that the US armed forces have killed at least sixteen journos in the past five years," noted one hack while nursing a nosebleed. "One guy fell to the ground next to me screaming 'The gall, the sheer gall of these bastards!'."

"Then blue flames started belching out of his eyes and ears. It was horrible."

The Presidential entourage remained unaffected by the ferocious waves of cognitive dissonance emanating from the President, wincing at a particularly violent cranial detonation as Bush criticised Russia's "over-reaction" to his decision to deploy a missile defence system to Eastern Europe.

"Russia has nothing to fear from this purely defensive system," the President announced. "Our new offensive missiles, however, should fucking terrify them beyond continence, especially now that we've essentially surrounded Russia with US military installations."

On certain right-wing bloggers:

Taunting those who take themselves so seriously is rather like taking candy from a baby, albeit a very large, angry baby that takes a very dim view of immigration and is sexually aroused by machine guns.

The guy never misses a beat, with a gift for phrase that turns me as unnaturally green with envy as a can of Scottish minted peas. Don't just stand there--go drive up his traffic stats.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Solidarity forever!

The Supreme Court has ruled that collective bargaining is a right protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. After the infamous Alberta Reference, I'd not really looked to the SCC for major advances on the labour front.

If it weren't for the fact that my step-daughter is getting married today, I'd already be pie-eyed with celebration. I have a feeling that the starboard side of the blogosphere is about to explode.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Of right mind

I had an interesting adventure over at Daimnation, which might provide some insight into the mind of a conservative-- not to generalize of course; after all, conservatives never generalize about us. [And who is "us" exaggly? --Ed.] I hasten to add that the site itself is a fairly conservative one, but the writing over there is generally sober and intelligent, if wrong about most things, and its owner is not responsible for the commenters he and his co-authors attract.

For those who do not wish to follow the tedious exchanges comment by comment, here is a synopsis, brought to you by your obt. serv't., the Hezbollah Shill

The thread began, innocently enough, with yet another of those incessant and tedious attacks on the Great Latin American Satan, one Hugo Chávez, presently busying about trying to make his country, Venezuela, a better place to live. I ventured to make a comment in the devil's defence, and a cranky extremist from West Virginia, who, God help us, practises family law no less, responded in part as follows:

Taking a break from shilling for Hezbollah and calling Israelis baby killers, John?

This is about par for the man. Thread after thread at the site has been derailed by his obsessive on-going vendetta, in which, inter alia, he seems to imagine that using my real name is outing me somehow. He is referring here to this post, one of several I put up during the Israel-Lebanon war last summer. Somehow publicizing the wanton killing of Lebanese children didn't sit well with him. Such things are not to be mentioned, or, if they are, they must immediately be explained away or excused. And of course the binary thinking that infects the minds of such people is in glorious evidence here--if I criticize Israel, I must be a fan of the Muslim fundamentalist Hassan Nasrallah. Not to mention a Nazi.

I challenged him to show a single instance of my using the phrase "baby killers," let alone attributing that distinction to "Israelis." He referred immediately to my comments, noted above, about the IDF massacre outside Marwaheen. This is where the logic of conservatives, or some conservatives at least, duly began to manifest itself in all its wacky splendour. I of course objected that mentioning a well-documented IDF atrocity is not equivalent to calling Israelis baby killers. That's a bit like mentioning Clifford Olsen and Paul Bernardo and being accused of calling Canadians baby killers. But
my interlocutor's comical sidekick appeared as if by magic on (by this time) a moribund thread, to attempt to make precisely this case, and with increasing intensity as our exchanges wore on.

If the IDF were entirely composed of Cambodian, Bolivian, and Finnish mercenaries, instead of, you know, "Israelis," then it might have been possible for you to extricate yourself on a technicality.

Ditto, if there was any meaningful difference between "children" and "babies" in the context of condemning their deaths as murders and war crimes. There isn't.

In short, because the IDF is composed of Israelis, and children are morally equivalent to babies, the original accusation is proven. No concession that "Israelis" clearly means "all Israelis" in context, whereas this refers simply to specific IDF soldiers (and by extension their political masters*). It was pointless trying to reason with this person, whom I genuinely thought was putting me
on at first because he seems fairly intelligent, but I tried:

Of course the IDF are Israeli, but they are not "the Israelis." Perhaps a logic course might be in order:

A is a bird.
A can't fly.
Therefore all birds can't fly.

What is wrong with this conclusion?

He wasn't having that Aristotelian crap, though, and signed off with this gem:

Best of luck in your unending crusade to bring those space aliens of the IDF to The Hague for trial.

Now, what is it about the blinkered, binary-bound, fanatical Right that allows it, in the person of this individual who under other circumstances
is actually quite likeable and well-spoken, to construct with a series of airy verbal gestures an entire closed delusional system right before our eyes? There's an important object lesson here, I believe, for certain of us on the Left, who are known to become mired in our own dogma from time to time to the point that our eyesight grows muddy. This spectacular creation of an alternate reality serves as both symptom and warning: Comrades, let's not be like this.

* "What we should do in southern Lebanon is employ huge firepower before a ground force goes in. Everyone in southern Lebanon is a terrorist [emphasis mine--DD] and is connected to Hizbollah. Our great advantage vis-a-vis Hizbollah is our firepower, not in face-to-face combat."--Israel Justice Minister Haim Ramon