Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Canada Death Watch: Global Warming

A correspondent to a newsletter also worries about Canada's future: “If the North Pole did in fact melt and the northwest passage remained ice-free year after year, none of this would be worth discussing anymore. Canadians would have to head to the hills as much of our nation would be under water. The rising water levels alone would cause massive slumping of the land, mud/rock slides and unimaginable flooding. Better start building an Ark.”

Wait a minute. Let's think this through.

If the temperature rose, the polar ice caps would melt.

But the rate of evaporation would also rise. Ergo, that water would not all go to rising sea levels, but be balanced by more water rising into the atmosphere.

Higher rates of evaporation would produce heavier cloud cover.

Heavier cloud cover would block sunlight.

Blocking sunlight would reduce the surface temperature.

Damn.

How is this global warming thing supposed to work again?

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Augustine on the Bible

More thoughts from/on St. Augustine's Confessions, these mostly on the Bible:


On Biblical literalism: “I began to believe that the Catholic faith might fairly be maintained, especially since I had heard one passage after another in the New Testament figuratively explained. These passages had been death to me when I took them literally…”

“Anselm lifted the veil of mystery and disclosed the spiritual meaning of texts which, taken literally, appeared to contain the most unlikely doctrines.”

Augustine himself cites in this regard the following passage: “the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” Surely, he suggests, this principle is to be followed in Biblical interpretation.



Augustine does not even bother arguing whether God exists; he takes that as a given. The issue for him is how to know his nature: why believe that the Bible has the truth about him, and not the Manichees or Neoplatonists?

Still a live issue today: how do we know Christianity is the truer path, and not Islam or Buddhism?

Augustine argues that

1. The truth about God is not easily accessible to unaided reason. This makes some form of revelation logically necessary. For, even if some men might arrive at the truth by reason alone, most men cannot, all men cannot. Since our reasoning ability is not entirely our own doing, this would not be fair, and so would not be expected of a just God.

Ergo,

2. There must be some definitive sacred book somewhere. Given that there must be some such thing, logically, a just God would make it the most obvious and most widely accessible of supposed sacred books.

For Augustine’s time, that meant the Bible and the Catholic faith.

For our time, that means the Bible and the Catholic faith.

I think it equally logically follows that other sacred texts are probably also substantially true. But given you have the choice, go with the Bible.

Augustine further argues:

3. The nature of the Bible also commends it as the likeliest candidate. “While all can read it with ease, it also has a deeper meaning in which … great secrets are locked away. “its plain language and simple style make it accessible to everyone, and yet it absorbs the attention of the learned.” This is just what you would expect from a book meant by God as guide: accessible to all, and profitable to all.

Monday, December 27, 2004

True Confessions

I’m enjoying reading through St. Augustine's Confessions. It is thrilling to read something over 1,600 years old and think as the author thought, and feel as the author felt, so long ago and far away. And especially enlightening to see that he still has much to say about current events, 1,600 years later.

For example:


Of the spiritual quest: “All who look for him shall find him.”

“You come close only to men who are humble at heart.”


Of school and education: “a period of suffering and humiliation.”

“We learn better in a free spirit of curiousity than under fear and compulsion.”


Of the traditional lot of males: “No one pities either the boys or the men, though surely we deserved pity.”


Of flaming: “If he were worsted by a colleague in some petty argument, he would be convulsed with anger and envy.”


Of worldly success: “Man’s insatiable desire is for the poverty he calls wealth and the infamy he knows as fame.”

“To love this world is to break faith with God.”

“Come down from the heights. For then you may climb, and, this time, climb to God. To climb against him was your fall.”


“I lived in misery, like every man whose soul is tethered by the love of things that cannot last and then is agonized to lose them.”

“If the senses could comprehend the whole, we would wish that whatever exists in the present should pass on, so that we might gain greater pleasure from the whole.”

“A man who has faith in you owns all the wealth of the world, for if he clings to you, whom all things serve, though he has nothing yet he owns them all.”


Of pacifism: “Sloth poses as the love of peace.”


Of romantic love: “a snare of my own choosing.”


Of evil: “Evil is nothing but the removal of good until finally no good remains.”

It is to “set one’s heart on some one part of creation instead of on the whole.”


Of moral relativism: “Each age and place forms rules of conduct best suited to itself, although the [underlying] Law itself is always and everywhere the same and does not differ from place to place.”


Of homosexuality: “Sins against nature, like the sin of Sodom, are abominable and deserve punishment wherever and whenever they are committed.”

Augustine considers such actions even worse than sins against other men, things like theft or murder, because these are sins directly against God: “the relationship which we ought to have with God is violated when our nature, of which he is the author, is desecrated by perverted lust.”

An important distinction is perhaps missed here: while it makes sense that the state not rule against homosexuality, because it does not harm other members of the state, this in no way ought to imply that homosexuality is moral. Morality is not determined by the state, and is not punished by the state. The state’s job is to protect citizens’ rights and to preserve good order.


Of marriage: “contracted for the purpose of having children.”


Of truth: “the soul is weak and helpless unless it clings to the firm rock of truth.”


Of self-actualization: “What greater madness could there be than to assert, as I did in my strange madness, that by nature I was what you [God] are?”

Developing.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Canada Death Watch

The following news story strikes me as a very disturbing sign for the future of Canadian democracy:

“Manitoba must pay for private abortions, judge rules

Fri, 24 Dec 2004 13:59:24 EST - CBC

WINNIPEG - Manitoba violated the rights of two women who paid for private abortions, a court in the province has ruled, opening up the possibility that others who paid for private medical procedures could sue for compensation.

A Court of Queen's Bench judge ruled on Thursday that the province's funding system violated Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms because the women felt they had to pay for a medically necessary procedure.
Justice Jeffrey Oliphant ruled that the province must pay for all therapeutic abortions.

The women had each tried to get an abortion in a publicly funded facility, but faced significant delays that they felt would pose medical and psychological risks. Instead, they paid fees to have the procedures at a private clinic.

…’If it takes a shorter period of time to have a medical procedure at a private clinic than it would in a hospital, that may infringe on a person's charter rights,’ Wullum said.”


This seems to imply not only that a woman has a constitutional right to an abortion on demand, but even a constitutional right to have it paid for by others. This implies, for example, that a country like the US in which abortions are not publicly funded is violating human rights. I suppose American women can now apply for refugee status in Canada, should they be so moved.

It also amounts to taxation without representation for the Canadian public: they are legally obliged to pay for something, and have no say in the matter through their elected representatives.

It also not only defines abortion as medically necessary, but implies that it is medically necessary that it be performed without delay, and that the patient is the one to decide what sort of delay is tolerable. If this is applied to any other medical procedures, Medicare as a whole will surely become financially insupportable. Imagine if this principle is applied across the board—to such relative trivia as cancer treatment or organ transplants.

Do they really plan to keep this as a special privilege for women? But if they do not, Canadian democracy itself becomes unaffordable. What happens then?

The easiest constitutional route, ironically, is probably separation, province by province. Easier still (and financially viable) if this is followed quickly be assimilation to the US. And such a ruling as this gives the perfect justification in terms of liberal democratic principles and in terms of American traditions: taxation without representation.

Another example of the Canadian death wish?

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Christmas and Consumerism

I’m of two minds on the whole consumerism of Christmas thing. On the one hand, it all sometimes makes me feel quite ill, the acquisitiveness and the materialism of it. And then again I feel the nobility of it, of thinking of others’ happiness and trying to find or do things that will please them. I think at least it is better to give than to receive, and accordingly Christmas is a much more blessed time as an adult than as a child.

Oppressive Flattery

Germaine Greer reportedly argues, in her book Slipshod Sibyls, that female poets have been historically disadvantaged by our evil patriarchal society not just by being told to shut up, but by being over-praised for too little, preventing them from properly developing their craft.

But this strikes me as a perfect Catch-22, or perhaps also, Procrustean bed. Opposite evidence is taken to mean the same thing.

It even seems to me intuitively there is something to what Germaine Greer is saying. Too much praise at the beginning can lead to less effort, hence poorer results in the long run. That's what spoiling children is supposed to be about.

But to see this as a form of oppression of women strips all meaning from the term. It is, by normal definition, the reverse. You might as well see pogroms as bias in favour of the Jews, cruelly spoiling the Germans and Russians and encouraging Jews to work and achieve. You would have to see England as putting centuries of self-sacrifice into the literature of Ireland at their great expense, and credit enlightened Jim Crow with increasing the vitality of the blues.

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

CBC Report Criticized by Press Bias Opponents

From the CBC's “Overnight Digest”:


ONTARIO REPORT CRITICIZED BY SHARIAH OPPONENTS

Some Muslims fear a report released Monday will encourage Ontario to introduce Shariah law to settle family matters.

FULL STORY:http://www.cbc.ca/story/canada/national/2004/12/20/sharia-boyd041220.html

Why isn’t the head “Ontario Report Approves Shariah Law”?

Isn’t it odd to make the story those who object to the report, not the report itself? And isn't it likely there are more Muslims who approve of the report than criticize it?

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Shocked and Appalled

Dear Editor:

Last posting’s “Dear Abbot” column was out of line. What Abbot has is a theory about God and worse, he is trying to prove it with a statement that it is true because he believes in it.

Skeptical

Dear Skeptical:

If he is, I sure missed it. Any more than I am saying that I have a theory that my nose exists, and it is true because I believe it. I don’t need a theory that my nose exists, and all such theories are beside the point when I am about to sneeze.

As I do not need a theory of walking. Or to sit and ponder the question of whether I can walk or not.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

A Guide for the Perplexed

Dear Abbot:

I choose to believe in god because I want to believe? Never have been able to work my way around this concept.

What I have trouble grasping is the notion of "choosing to believe.” In any other context, I believe things to be true on the basis of the persuasiveness of available information - and this would include the
reliability of the source. "Wanting to believe", or "choosing to believe", for me, just isn't a concept that computes.

- Everywoman in Canada


Dear Eve:

As a religious person, I could not agree with you more. There is no way you can simply choose to believe something. To even try to do this strikes me as immoral. It is a form of lying; lying to oneself. And if it were possible to do this, how could there be any reason to choose belief in God over belief in anything else that struck one's fancy or seemed in one's self-interest? It is, as you say, nonsensical.

For my part, I do not believe in the existence of God, any more than I believe in the existence of my nose. The question just does not come up; God's existence is, for me, unquestionable, and to think he does not exist immediately meaningless. It is like saying existence does not exist. There is reason to believe, and there is evidence, as in the article posted. But more important than this, there is an overwhelming awareness of God's presence.

I think there is a general misunderstanding out there about what "faith" means. When a religious person says "I believe in God," he or she does not mean "I believe [in an intellectual sense] that God exists." He or she means it in the same sense I might say, "Eve, I believe in you." This does not imply that others doubt your existence, or that I might.

That is, faith means faith in the goodness of God. It means trust.

I think the misunderstanding has screwed up a lot of sincere people, like you, in seeking answers from religion. Never accept anything less than the truth as you experience it. Accept no copouts, substitutes, or merely convenient beliefs.

No genuinely religious person would do any less. And if doing this does not lead you to God, nothing can or should. IMHO.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Men's Conditioning

To look at men and say, “they are subject to bad conditioning; we must change them,” you must somehow assume that you, by contrast, are not subject to your conditioning in making this judgement. For if you are, you cannot know whether your conditioning is ultimately better in any way than theirs. It may be only your conditioning that makes you think so.

Danish Muslims

Someone has pointed out with alarm that the majority of gang rapes in Denmark are by Muslim immigrants.

But this is not that surprising to me: a sad clash of cultures and cultural signals. It is not surprising if someone raised in a traditional Muslim culture supposes that a woman who is walking by showing, say, the clear outlines of her breasts and buttocks, and exposing her legs and stomach, is advertising that, for her, anything goes. It would imply not just consent, but eager desire. Why hang a flashing neon shop sign if you’ve nothing to sell?

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Evolution, Creationism, and Intelligent Design

I think the creationist theory that takes the world as created in six 24-hour days as we understand them, and believes it all happened 6,000 or so years ago, is basically nuts. It is nuts not least because it goes against the Bible. But it surely is not science.

But I also believe the theory of random natural selection is nuts. It really would have us believe, not only that an infinite number of monkeys sitting at typewriters for an infinite time could sooner or later produce the complete works of Shakespeare—which is believable—but that a limited number of monkeys over a limited time actually have. In the end, that makes my sense of probabilities go tilt.

The pure natural selection argument also does not, as Stephen Jay Gould has elegantly pointed out, fit the fossil record. Something like Gould’s “punctuated equilibrium,” it seems to me, must have occurred, and this looks a lot to me like an unseen hand intervening in the process.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Thoughts on Having a Three-Year-Old

All civilizations are convinced that in the long ago, giants walked the earth. And so it seems to me as well. Those people who went to the Klondike, who settled the Prairies, who fought the Great War, and then Hitler, and the Cold War, those were giants, and we seem much smaller than they.

As a child, we see as a child. Adults seem enormous from below; much bigger than they do seen face-to-face.

They also seem to have been here forever—a hundred years, easily; perhaps nine hundred years. When I was young, Walter Cronkite had always read the news, and either Pearson or Diefenbaker had always been Prime Minister.

And their views and acts and principles seemed grander and more meaningful as well: because each one was done or thought or met in existence for the first time.

It is in this light that I tend to read Genesis. The crime in Eden we all go through, we are all touched by original sin in that sense. It is inherent in the awakening of consciousness, or at least so far it has always happened: at some point as we feel our ego stir, we accept the notion that we ourselves might become God. We see the universe as centering upon us, not on any other.

Before this point, as children, we see all animals as our friends, and friends to one another. The stuffed lion lies next to the stuffed lamb. Our earth is a garden of wild flowers.

Then we think of ourselves as secretly great, and the shadows fall. And in them hide the monsters. Leviathan is under the bed; a flaming sword or something waits in the closet. And we, now being supremely ourselves and not a part of all, are suddenly all alone.

Those other things out there seek to devour us, and we can never trust them. We know this certainly, because we know we seek to devour them.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

And More on Votes for Women

Women did not have the vote until the turn of last century. But then, men did not have the vote centuries ago either. In fact, for what it’s worth, female suffrage in most places really followed universal male suffrage in only a few decades. In the US, for example, you did not really have universal male suffrage until after the Civil War: officially, 1870. (And there were property and education requirements long after that in places). And you got universal female suffrage in 1919. Moreover, the vote was not officially _taken away_ from women until 1868: until then it was apparently only tradition or common law that women did not vote. And some did.

Given that the barrier to their participation was so low, the question is, why did women not agitate for the vote sooner? I think this is actually evidence that they felt themselves that they already held real power, or did not seek it. That it was by their own passive consent.

The Gender War Continues

The dabate on whether women have it worse than men continues on the LCP list.

Here's my latest friendly salvo.

T:
An upper class woman of olden times? I believe it's only been the last hundred years or so that women have even been allowed to get a thorough education, enter into professions like doctors, lawyers, etc. In Old England a woman of wealth didn't have to get an education, wasn’t encouraged to do so and was in fact told that her intelligence might frighten off a marriage prospect.

SR (that's me):
Thanks for wanting to continue the discussion.

I’m not an authority on all this, as Diane is, but this is not my understanding of our common past either.
It is difficult to generalize about all times and all places before 1904, but I do know a little about Asian as well as European cultures of earlier times.

You note that only since about 1904 have women been allowed to enter the professions. But remember, the true upper class would have considered such a profession beneath them; these were tradespeople. In many times and places, getting a formal education was considered beneath a gentleman as much as a gentlewomen. One hired people for that: clerks and scribes. Prince Charles is the first direct heir to the English throne ever to have actually gone to college; and if he makes it to the throne will be England’s first university-educated monarch.

On the other hand, this did not equate to getting no education of any sort. Rather, gentlewomen seem often to have been educated at home, by tutors. It was commonly considered important for a woman to be “accomplished,” in both Asia and Europe. The difference was that women usually studied the arts, while men were more often obliged to study more practical matters.

Such worthies as Hume and Descartes wrote self-consciously for the female upper class, as they were about the only ones to have the leisure for philosophy.

Were I a man of the time, I would have envied them.

Moving down the class scale, those who could not afford tutors would, I suppose, bundle off the sons to a public (that is, private) school. And generally not the daughters—they would continue to be tutored. But I do not see how this is self-evidently an advantage granted the boys. First off, the experience of the women is closer to that of the class above, which suggests special privilege. Second, life in a residential school away from one’s home and parents is not all fun and games. Indeed, the same treatment given aboriginal children is considered abusive.

Moving further down the scale, to perhaps the merchant or artisan class—the bourgeois—I expect most boys were at most times and places just thrown into apprenticeship or into the shop, to learn what they needed on the job; but women, by contrast, might at least still hope to get an education beyond the kitchen, if their family had social pretensions.

Lower down, nobody got learning.

As to men preferring women without brains or education, I know this is a common belief among women. “Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses,” as Dorothy Parker claimed. But I always wondered about that, because it was never true for me, or for any men I knew. Unless perhaps the rare cad who was looking only for someone to take advantage of.

It seems never to have been true for the educated classes in Europe or Asia either. As I said, being “accomplished” seemed instead to have been always an important consideration for marriageability.

TS:
We were itemized right up there with the furniture in a marriage. We could indeed be an asset but only if our father's/dead husbands gave us an inheritance.

SR:
I think this was on the whole truer of men than of women. In most places and times, I get the sense it has been easier for a woman to “marry up” than for a man. A woman could make it on looks, or charm; a man had to be able to provide “security.”

TS:
…My, you paint such a venomous picture of women. I think if we were even a quarter of the percent devious and crafty as you paint us…

SR:
I don’t understand this reaction. Perhaps I have been unclear. I am not saying women are more ambitious for wealth, power, or social position than men. I am saying only that, as far as we can reasonably tell, there is no great difference between the sexes in this regard. Women and men just traditionally go about it in different ways.

If that makes women come out to you looking venomous, or devious, or crafty, then you must, I think, have believed this previously of men.

TS:
… then we certainly wouldn't be complaining about how unfair we're treated in the work place in the past or present. I should think we'd have gotten the vote centuries earlier too, don't you?

SR:
Your logic that there must have been injustice, or women would not be complaining, works both ways: then the fact that I am now complaining proves there is injustice against men.

But historically, a group complaining of injustice does not always have just cause, and is not always as powerless and as blameless as it sees itself. Hitler justified his acts by complaining of injustice to the German people, notably by the Jews, and Mussolini of injustice to Italy. The US South had a deep sense of grievance at the hands of the “carpetbaggers” and their black allies. The Boers of South Africa felt themselves treated unjustly by the British and threatened by their black allies as well.

As to why women, if they had any power, did not get the vote centuries ago, that is tautological. If they already had the power, why would they need the vote?

Friday, December 10, 2004

Why Muslim Women Have it Better

Continuing with this week's apparent feminist theme, a bit on women's life in the Arab world.

There seems a common consensus in the West that women in Muslim countries are oppressed. And the symbol, at least, of that oppression is the burqa, the covering worn over the hair.

Those who object to women wearing this do not seem to care that it is voluntary. Or that it is growing in popularity. Or that men, too, have their traditional dress.

There is no question that Arab culture believes is a strict separation of men and women. But this does not imply a secondary status for women. Quite the contrary: in many ways they have it better than men.

For example, at the college where I work, the female employees are assigned the parking lot next to the entrance. Men must park across the street.

In the buses, similarly, men must sit in the back. Women sit in the front. If there are too few seats, a man must get up and give his seat to a woman.

If this is discrimination against women, blacks were the ruling elite in Mississippi in 1959.

Most of the city parks here are for women and children only; as a man, I cannot enter. When I go to the hospital, I need a permission slip from my employer--as I do for most things. My wife needs only to show up.

Women also dominate the student body at the universities.

In light of all this, why the notion that women are oppressed?

The official purpose of the burqa is modesty: it is supposed to cover the hair because the hair is a sexual attractant.

I think the fact that it has become such a red flag says something about the origin and essence of the "women's movement." In the end, it is not about equality for women and men, and it is not about improving life for women or men. It is about enabling casual sex. That, after all, was very much what "liberated woman" meant at the beginning of the "Women's Liberation" movement.

The burqa, and the Muslim-Arab practice of separating the sexes, are designed to make casual sex more difficult.

And that is the whole point.




Wednesday, December 08, 2004

More on December 6th

More--much more--on December sixth and Marc Lepine showed up on the League of Canadian Poets' email list after I put up my last post here. In response, I made some of the same points I made here. And the discussion has continued from there.

So I post my further thoughts verbatum from that list:

A portmanteau response on the Dec. 6 memorials:

Robert Priest (and Anne Simpson says something similar) says that the Ecole Polytechnique is more worthy of remembrance than the Halifax explosion because
1. the Halifax explosion was an accident;
2. at the EP, it was women who were killed, because they were women; and
3. Ecole Polytechnique was more recent.


In response:


1. The Halifax explosion was an accident.

The Halifax explosion was an accident in one sense, but not in another. It was an act of war as well: these were munitions ships waiting for convoy, and the purpose of those munitions was to kill people. Men, specifically. They merely killed the wrong people. Indeed, we would no doubt remember it even less if it had killed its intended targets, all men, instead of taking a civilian toll of women and children.

Conversely, you can argue that the Ecole Polytechnique was, in a sense, an accident: one lone madman, who might as easily have gotten any other random notion into his head. He might as easily have gone after people with long brown hair, as Son of Sam apparently did.

Certainly, there is something very wrong—and sexist--with blaming all men for what Marc Lepine did, or suggesting Marc Lepine’s act says something about all men. Would you feel comfortable blaming all Arabs or all Muslims for 9/11? All Jews for Son of Sam? All women for Marguerite Petrie (for many years Canada’s most prolific mass murderer; She killed 23 people in 1949. More than Marc Lepine.)


2. Because it was women who were killed, because they were women.

As above, isn’t singling out women for special memorial, because they are women, as sexist in principle as singling out women, because they are women, to be killed? In effect, by doing so, you are commemorating not the women, but their murder. And, in effect, you are honouring Marc Lepine and his beliefs. Not the women, who were just there for another day of class, and worrying about the upcoming final.

And note that this argument in itself suggests that the Ecole Polytechnique was an anomaly, saying nothing about men or society as a whole. In Canada alone, 500-600 are murdered every year; in the US the figure is more like 15,000. (About seventy-five percent are men.) Remarkable that, in fifteen years, Marc Lepine’s deed still stands out. I submit that it is precisely because it is so unusual, and so offends our sensibilities. We are accustomed to and inured to the murder of men. We cannot stomach the murder of women. It is “man bites dog.” Or rather, “man harms woman,” instead of the expected, traditional, “man supports, defends, protects, rescues woman.”

This being so, it demonstrates precisely how supporting our society is of women. The very reverse of what it is commonly claimed to represent: widespread “gendercide” against women.


3. Because Ecole Polytechnique was more recent.

The Halifax explosion stood out because it was on the same day, in the same country, more died, and it was by comparison not commemorated. But it was never commemorated, even when recent, as the Ecole Polytechnique is. And there have been as bad and worse mass murders and massacres since Ecole Polytechnique, on other days or in other countries, that are not commemorated.

Air India flight 182: 331 people killed.

Can you name the day? Can you name the victims?


Trish Shields asks if I am referring to the death of men in war.

No, I am not just referring to the killing of men in wars. You may also have heard the phrase “women and children first.”

Note too that the great majority of officially-registered homicide victims are men, the vast majority of known suicides are men, and the vast majority of those the state executes are men. It is the general principle everywhere in our society. Men are expendable. Women are not.


She then says:
1. the killing of men in wars does not count because this is something men are doing to themselves: men are the ones who run the governments.
2. we should in any event stop seeing it as “us” and “them.” And
3. nobody remembers the names of those killed at the Ecole Polytechnique.


1. The killing of men in wars does not count because men run the governments.

Women cannot avoid responsibility for wars at least in democratic countries in which they have the vote. The officials who actually issue the orders are merely their servants, expressing the popular will.

Now compare the death toll from war among democracies in the 20th century, when women had the vote, to that in the 19th, when only men held it. Do you see a reduction in violence?

No, you see the reverse. If women were less warlike, their sudden fifty percent voice should have had a significant effect in this regard, should it not?

Accordingly, it is probably unfair to blame the men for wars even in non-democratic nations.

As I mentioned once before on this list, in most wars everywhere, the men who go off to fight are themselves convinced—and quite explicitly-- that they are doing it not because they want to go out and get killed, but for the sake of their women: their wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers. They are protecting the home fires, defending their sisters from rape, their babies from bayoneting, avenging nurses who were reportedly murdered, or something similar. They are showing their readiness to protect and provide.

They may have been misguided; in that case, they deserve our sympathies and our memories that much more.

Or they may have been right. You may recall that in the streets of London during World War I, women carried white feathers which they pinned on any young man they saw. It was supposed to symbolize cowardice, as they were evidently not at the front. In the Second World War, Lady Astor called any man who was not involved in D-Day a coward. (This especially upset the troops who were busily fighting their way up Italy.)

Consider too the US Civil War. Abraham Lincoln himself, without malice, assigned responsibility for it to Harriet Beecher Stowe: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war?” It was believed at the time to be primarily women who were calling, rightly or wrongly, for a war to end slavery. And the Franco-Prussian War was commonly known in France at the time as “Empress Eugenie’s War.”

That accounts, I think, for the two biggest conflicts in the democracies in the 19th century.

Remember again Aristotle’s observation in Ancient Greece that warlike cities were dominated by women. The general tendency to leave government officially at least in male hands may indeed have developed, this suggests, as a way to prevent war.

After all, men have more at stake: they’re the ones who get killed. It stands to reason that they would be more cautious in resorting to it. Indeed, military service has often been the explicit justification for giving them political power.

So there is little sign women are not having their will fulfilled in these matters.

We know for certain that the primary victims of war are men. We can only speculate whether the prime instigators are primarily men. It is society: the discrimination against men is systemic.

And note: this is in important ctntrast with what happened at Ecole Polytechnique. That was a lone gunman, one crazed individual. There is no reason to suppose it has any wider significance. Very unlike the matter of war worldwide.


2. We should in any event stop seeing it as “us” and “them.”

My point exactly. And my problem with the Ecole Polytechnique remembrances, which single out the event, as Robert has said, because it happened to women. And was done by a man. Anyone’s death diminishes me; because I am involved in mankind (er, “humankind”?). A woman’s death should not count more than a man’s death, just as a German’s death should not count more than a Jew’s death, nor an American’s death more than an Iraqi’s death.

And nobody’s crime should count more because they are a man or a woman. Just as it should not count more because they are black, or native, or gypsy.


3. Nobody remembers the names of the women killed.

How many of the names of those killed in the Halifax Explosion can you give? Can you even cite the exact number? How about Air India? How about those killed in Korea?

QED


I heartily endorse what Harold has said. It is time to get beyond this mad war and mad hate between men and women, which harms us all and helps no one.

As Leonard Cohen put it, “the homicidal bitching that goes down in every kitchen/ Over who will serve and who is going to eat.”

Or as John Lennon put it, “War is over. If you want it.”

Steve Roney

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Please to Remember the Sixth of December

Today, December 6, is the date of an important event in Canadian history.

I speak, of course, of the Halifax Explosion.

It was, in 1917, the biggest man-made explosion the world had ever seen. Almost two thousand thousand men, women, and children died.

But it is not remembered. Instead, this year as other years, December 6 is set apart for remembrance of the “Montreal Massacre,” in which a young Arab-Canadian man, Marc Lepine, walked into the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal and shot fourteen female students, then himself. Canada’s Minister of Justice, Irwin Cutler, has held a news conference to remind us of the occasion. A newsletter discussing its significance has appeared in my mailbox. In Toronto, they are selling white ribbons in the subway. In Vancouver, they have gathered at the Women’s Monument in Thornton Park for the ritual of remembrance. On both the League of Canadian Poets’ and the Canadian Poetry Association’s email lists, commemorative poems appeared, featuring stanzas like:

with sword in hand/gun in fist/he would put us in our place/back at the turn of the century/barefoot and pregnant

Why is the death of these fourteen remembered, and not the deaths of almost two thousand?

One reason, no doubt, is that the Ecole Polytechnique shootings are more recent. But no—the Halifax Explosion never earned the same kind of recognition, even when the memory was fresh. Or compare Air India, of almost the same vintage. Can you name the day?

No, the difference is that these victims were women, and almost exclusively women (Lepine did shoot some men, but they did not die). It has become a symbol in Canada of man's supposed murderous intentions towards woman.

At his press conference, Cutler seized the moment to denounce the "disturbing reality of violence against women." The newsletter warns “there are a lot of Marc Lepines around still.”

This, in fact, is precisely the reverse of the truth. We patently remember the “Montreal Massacre” largely because the deaths of fourteen women count more to us than the random deaths of a thousand. Similarly, the Vietnam Memorial in Washington includes one monument listing the names of all 50,000-odd Americans who died in Vietnam—and a second monument commemorating exclusively the eight female nurses who died. One woman counts as 7,000 men.

Second, Marc Lepine’s crime is remembered because it is news. And news generally means “man bites dog.” It is memorable precisely because it is so unusual. We are accustomed to men being separated out of larger groups to be shot. That is war everywhere. Can you think of another instance in which women were singled out to be shot? This is the shocking exception.

One woman counts as perhaps a million men.

That is the real lesson of the Montreal Massacre.

It is not that women are endangered by violence, or that women are commonly thought of as less than men.

Rather, the Montreal Massacre is the exception that proves the rule. Our extravagant reaction to it shows this.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

Safe Sex Muslim Style

I was reading the local paper the other day, and saw a map of AIDS distribution. It was pretty striking. Sub-Saharan Africa: huge number of AIDS cases. 25,400,000. India and Southeast Asia: huge number of AIDS cases, growing rapidly. 7,100,000. And sitting there in the middle, the Muslim Middle East: 540,000 AIDS cases, growing slowly. And a large whack of those are supposedly from the sub-Saharan, non-Muslim portion of the Sudan.

This is the lowest incidence of AIDS in any comparably-sized part of the world. And with very little in the way of natural barriers to the disease's spread.

So what can make the difference?

One obvious possibility is that anti-AIDS education in the Muslim world doesn't even mention contraception--it's entirely abstinence-based. "In contrast to the case in Western countries, where youngesters are taught about safe sex, Dr. Khazaal [Dr. Zainab Khazaal, in charge of AIDS education for the UAE] said that in the UAE teenagers were discouraged from having premarital relationships in the first place."

The solution is so obvious, isn't it?

And these figures suggest that current sex education in North America must be actually helping AIDS spread, by falsely assuring students that they can safety have sex. "Safe sex," that's the slogan.

Of course, the abstinence programmes are stronger if they are backed up by the rest of society. Dr. Khazaal credits "strong moral and religious education programmes," and explains that "the religious teachings and the conservatism of the culture has prevented a fast spread of the disease." "We highlight abiding by our religious ...norms." (data and quotations from Gulf News, December 1, 2004. Their own source for AIDS figures is given as UNAIDS/WHO.)

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Code Breaking

Like its predecessor, Angels and Demons, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is full of errors.

Lots of other articles and web sites have pointed many of these errors out. But what the heck, since I’ve just gone through what I spotted in Angels and Demons, why not do the Da Vinci Code at the same time?



Start with the blurbs: “Several doctorates’ worth of fascinating history and learned speculation.” –Chicago Tribune.

Heaven help us. But it’s probably true.

“All descriptions of artwork, architecture, documents and secret rituals in this novel are accurate.”


p. 61: “Early religion was based on the divine order of Nature.”

Early religion may or may not have had a concept comparable to our “nature.” My bet is that it did not. “Nature” as we understand it is, I think, peculiar to our culture, and invented by the Romantic movement in the late eighteenth century. The closest the ancients probably came to it was something more like “desolation” or “howling wilderness.”


p. 61: The pentacle is a goddess symbol.

The pentacle is called, in the Jewish tradition, the star of Solomon, as opposed to the six-pointed star of David. Here it is a symbol of Solomon and of Judaism, obviously not of the goddess Venus. It is also common in many flags: in the flag of the US and EU, for example. It is improbable that, in these cases, it is meant to be either a symbol of the Goddess or a Satanic symbol. It is also, as Solomon’s star, a symbol of Islam, and is common in Muslim flags, most notably the flag of Morocco.

While it could also represent Venus, Brown is way off to say it must represent Venus, and miss all these (mostly more common) associations.

Brown ignores or fails to understand something absolutely basic to symbols and “symbology.” Symbols are multivalent: they never have just one meaning. If they do, they are signs, not symbols.

Neither is the planet Venus as the morning star necessarily a symbol of the pagan goddess Venus. In Christian tradition, the morning star can be either a symbol of Mary or of Lucifer. And of course, other cultures have any number of other associations.

The association with Lucifer may be why the pentacle is often a satanic symbol in Europe.

Therefore, Brown is also wrong when he says:


p. 62: “the pentacle’s demonic interpretation is historically inaccurate.”

Again, Brown misunderstands a symbol as a sign.


p. 172: Brown refers to paganism as “matriarchal.”

This is fiction. Ancient Greece was no more “matriarchal” than Christian Greece.


p. 173: “During three hundred years of witch hunts, the Church burned at the stake an astounding five million women.”

Astounding indeed. The witch hunts were more active in Protestant lands; and the total toll throughout Europe was probably about 50,000 over the three centuries. Few witch burnings even in Catholic countries involved the Catholic Church. A quarter of those convicted were men. And few were pagans, as Brown claims.


p. 174: “The once hallowed act if Hieros Gamos—the natural sexual union between man and woman through which each became spiritually whole—had been recast as a shameful act. Holy men who had once required sexual union with their female counterparts to commune with God now feared their natural sexual urges…”

“Hieros Gamos,” the sacred marriage, was generally not a literal sex act, but an allegory.

Nor does goddess worship necessarily go with more sexual activity. While there was such a thing as temple prostitution, in pagan Greece and Rome, priests of the goddesses also commonly castrated themselves. So the genuinely religious were still those who abjured sex. For Buddhism, all sex is wrong. Christianity stood apart from Gnosticism, its chief historical rival, precisely in not seeing sex as intrinsically shameful.

p. 174: “Mother Earth had become a man’s world, and the gods of destruction and war were taking their toll.” In “…testosterone-fuelled wars.”

The association of the male with war would have been a surprise to the pagans. There was a goddess as well as a god of war. The Amazons, supposedly all female, were noted for their bellicosity. And Aristotle observes that warlike polises are usually dominated by women.

It would also have been a surprise to the ancients that the rise of Christianity meant the rise of the “gods [note plural] of destruction and war.” Indeed, Christianity seemed to lead to a notable reduction in the prestige of war and of the soldier. Christianity was unpopular in the legions. Soldiers were generally strong adherents of Mithraism.


p. 191: of Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks: “Oddly, though, rather than the usual Jesus-blessing-John scenario, it was baby John who was blessing Jesus … and Jesus was submitting to his authority.”

Surprising only to someone who has never read the Bible. For this is exactly how it happens in the Bible. John baptizes Jesus. It would be odd to see it the other way around.


p. 200-201: “The head of this key was not the traditional long-stemmed Christian cross but rather was a square cross—… This kind of cross carried none of the Christian connotations of crucifixion associated with the longer-stemmed Latin cross…”

Square crosses are common in Christianity; they mean the same thing as those with one longer arm. Either version is mostly a symbol; as far as we know, the actual cross used for crucifixions was T-shaped.


p. 201: “equal-armed crosses like this one are considered peaceful crosses.”

The Maltese Knights, the most famous surviving Christian military order, use an equal-armed cross. The German Iron Cross, originally the insignia of the Teutonic Knights, is also equal-armed. So is Britain’s Victoria Cross.

If anything, Brown has it backwards. But the distinction is imaginary. An equal-armed cross is a Christian cross.


p. 225: “[D]oes it make any sense that it [the Grail] is merely a cup? If so, then certainly other relics should generate similar or greater interest—the Crown of Thorns, the True Cross of the crucifixion, the Titulus—and yet, they do not. Throughout history, the Holy Grail has been the most special.”

For one simple reason: the crown of thorns, the true cross, and the titulus have already turned up. Only the Grail is still missing. It is not necessary to seek what has already been found.

And the fact that no phony “Grail” has ever popped up makes one suspect that the other relics, in turn, are not faked, as cynics commonly assume. Otherwise why has nobody successfully faked a Grail?


p. 267: “Silas fell to his knees… and he said ‘I am a lamb of God. Shepherd me as your heart commands.’”

No real Catholic is likely to speak like this. “Lamb of God” is a title of Christ, used every mass in the formula “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world.” It would seem blasphemous to use it for oneself.

Dan Brown should really not write so much about the Catholic Church until he at least attends a mass.


p. 306: “… looked like they’d been lifted from some Byzantine temple.”

Constantine, the emperor who founded Byzantium (as Constantinople), was also the emperor who endorsed Christianity as the religion of the Empire. Accordingly, a “Byzantine temple” would be almost a contradiction in terms. There must have been precious few temples in Byzantium, ever.


p. 314: “Egyptian sun disks became the halos of Catholic saints.”

Possibly. But how did they (halos) manage to appear in Buddhist art in East Asia as well?


p. 314: “The new-born Krishna was presented with gold, frankincense, and myrrh.”

I think I have read all the Vedic accounts of the birth and childhood of Krishna while in grad school. This is sure news to me. Might it show up in some more recent version influenced by Christianity?


p. 315: “Until that moment in history [the Council of Nicaea] Jesus was viewed by His followers as a mortal prophet.”

The major controversy at Nicaea was whether Jesus was of one nature or two. Two won. But both parties held him to be divine; the question was whether he was also fully human. That he is divine is clear throughout the New Testament, which predates the Council of Nicaea.


p. 317: “The Dead Sea Scrolls … speak of Christ’s ministry in very human terms. Of course the Vatican… tried very hard to suppress the release of these scrolls.”

The Dead Sea Scrolls contain no clear references to Jesus. And they have never been in the Vatican’s possession. They were held by Israeli Jewish scholars, over whom the Vatican is unlikely to have had much influence.


p. 327: “the one seated in the place of honour, at the right hand of the Lord [in Da Vinci’s The Last Supper] … was, without a doubt … female.”

He does look effeminate. This is commonly understood to be John the Evangelist, “the one Jesus loved,” and follows the usual iconography: young, with flowing red hair.

In a common devotional practice, Catholics read and have read the Gospel of John imagining themselves in John’s place as “the one Jesus loved.” As such an everyman or everywomen figure, John can be imagined as of either sex. As the individual soul is in Catholic tradition thought of as naturally female, female features are iconographically appropriate.

Nothing that strange about it. There are similar female “everywoman” figures in Raphael’s paintings.

If the figure is Mary Magdalene, we have an obvious problem: where is the apostle John?


p. 340: “A child of Jesus would undermine the critical notion of Christ’s divinity…”

Then why wouldn’t the idea of God having a Son undermine His divinity?


p. 357: “The millennium has recently passed, and with it has ended the two-thousand-year-long astrological Age of Pisces…”

This is a New Age idea, not a Catholic one; Brown acknowledges this later. And it is untrue. The cusp of the Age of Aquarius does not correspond with the end of the Christian second millennium. As I recall, we still have about three hundred years to go.


p. 410: “Since the days of Isis, sex rites had been considered man’s only bridge from earth to heaven… a climactic instant when his mind went totally blank and he could see God.”

As noted before, as far as we know, this has never been seriously and literally believed anywhere. At least before Freud.

p. 411: “Early Jews believed that the Holy of Holies in Solomon’s Temple housed not only God, but also His powerful female equal, Shekinah.”

The Shekinah was one of God’s ten emanations, a “name” of God, not an independent, equal being.


p. 419: “The modern belief in a horned devil known as Satan could be traced back to Baphomet and the Church’s attempts to recast the horned fertility god as a symbol of evil.”

Nobody knows what “Baphomet” looked like; most likely the name is a corruption of “Muhammed.” The horned image of the devil probably comes from the Greek god Pan. Pan was not a nice guy. Note the word “panic.”

In his bias toward paganism, Brown seems unaware that the relationship of pagans to their gods was not like that of a Christian toward God. Pagan gods are not generally loved. They are feared and placated.


p. 453: “The boxy annex jutting out to the right was an unfortunate eyesore, although it did little to shroud the original pagan shape [i.e., circular] of the primary structure [the Templar church in London].”

Circular churches are not too unusual in Europe. The Templars’ churches were usually circular. My guess is that they were circular in imitation of the Dome of the Rock, the modern Temple of Jerusalem, which was after all what the Templars existed to protect.


p. 501: Brown’s Boolean search here seems to make no distinction between “and” and “or.” It would not work in practice.


I guess that’s it. Brown is fascinating, as a mirror held up to the culture. But it is scary that so many people seem to believe he speaks with some authority on history, symbols, religion, or culture.