Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Another Child is Born

In Prince Albert last week, a woman walked into a Wal-Mart, gave birth in a washroom, and left the baby face down at the bottom of the toilet. The store manager discovered and resuscitated the child.

The police asked that the perpetrator come forward “to ensure that she is OK.” The Saskatchewan Attorney-General announced that any woman doing something similar “won’t be prosecuted.” The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix reported “an unprecedented amount of public support for the mother and baby channeled through the store.”

A few days later, the woman did indeed come forward, and was given counseling. No charges were laid, although police say they are reserving that option. She spent no time in police custody. Her identity has been protected by authorities.

Now imagine the same situation, with only the sex of the perpetrator changed. A young man slips into Wal-Mart and leaves a baby face down in a toilet. The mother knows nothing about it.

Would he not be charged? Would his identity be protected? Would he be sent for counseling at government expense?

I doubt it. What do you think?

As the public outpourings illustrate, it is almost instinctive among us to want to exempt women from the entire criminal justice system. Laws, and discipline, apply only to men; women are free to do as they choose. In some cultures, this is a matter of law—in pre-modern Korea, for example, women could not be prosecuted for any crime short of treason. In our system, the pro-female bias is less overt, but just as real. I feel the same way myself—instinctively. It is, perhaps, man’s instinctive love for women. Even though, if this sort of preference were given to one class or race of men, over another, the injustice would be obvious.

But there is a serious disconnect here in our thinking. If women are not to be held responsible for their actions, they also cannot safely be given responsible positions. Notably, if they are not responsible for their actions towards children, they must not be given custody of children.

And yet, at that opposite end of the equation, we insist on equality, in the workforce, and absolute preference, in the case of child custody.

We cannot have it both ways. Though there are indeed two different ways in which equality of the sexes can be honoured.

The first way is the traditional one, in more or less all cultures: women are not held responsible for their actions, but are accordingly not given responsibilities, without some male supervision. Rights and responsibilities then balance out overall.

The second is to treat men and women in the same way. But this means, if we are going to insist on “affirmative action” quotas in the workplace and in promotions, we must also and equally insist on quotas in the prisons and in child custody. With equal rights to sue for compensation.

To have one without the other is the one really clear case of discrimination.

But this is not just a question of equality. It is a question of public safety as well. There is great danger in elevating to power and responsibility people who will not be held responsible for their actions, do not expect to be held responsible, and who have not had the prior experience of being held responsible for their actions. Individuals can rise above this, but statistically, it is hardly a prescription for peace, order, and good government.

We have our choice: two forms of equality. But, even for the sake of our future as a society, the current situation cannot be permitted to continue: one in which women have all the rights, while men have all the responsibilities.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Religion and Morality

On May 18, writing in the National Post in defense of atheism, John Moore dismisses the moral argument in favour of religion. “This might be a compelling reason, were atheists any more prone to immoral or criminal behaviour than the general population,” he notes, “but that is not the case.”

But it is. It is very much the case, and so we indeed have a compelling reason, in his own terms, for religion. The evidence is strong that atheist and anti-clerical governments, at least, behave a lot less morally than those claiming some affinity with the universalist religions.

Similarly, the observantly religious fairly statistically have a higher level of personal morality than the general population. Many studies show this: one national US study found that frequent worship attendance corresponded closely with lower scores on a dishonesty scale that assessed, for example, self-serving lies, tax cheating, and failing to report damaging a parked car. A metastudy at the University of Pennsylvania suggested--duh!--that juvenile delinquent behaviour corresponded with low levels of religious commitment. And does anyone really think that, if you went into the prisons and asked inmates about their religious commitments before incarceration, you’d find a pack of Quakers?

Charities know better. Americans who never attend church give about 1.1% of their income to charity. Those who are weekly church-goers give 2.7%, and account for almost half (48%) of all charitable contributions.

This being so, the religious deserve some respect, if not support, from the rest of the population. Indeed, everyone else, regardless of their own beliefs, has a direct personal interest in encouraging others to be religious.

This being so, it counts heavily as well against Moore’s second point. Moore rejects the observation—made here recently—that atheists seem too angry, too actively hostile toward religion, not to suspect some ulterior motive beyond the mere quest for truth. “The larger issue,” Moore counters, “seems to be that many believers perceive the mere questioning of faith as inherently hostile.” But this is a man of straw, and an obvious one. Writers like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are not merely questioning religious faith. They are calling it a “delusion,” and saying it “poisons everything,” in the biggest print available.

This would be considered beyond the pale if one religious group suggested it in print of another. Atheists ought to be held to the same standards.

And it really does suggest that Dawkins and Hitchens are not content to merely explain their own position. They would rather like everyone else to believe likewise. As this is against the best interests not only of society as a whole, but even of themselves, we have a right to wonder why.

After all, if God does not exist, as Pascal pointed out, the consequences of believing or not believing are trivial. It is not as if anyone’s immortal soul were at stake.

No; their real point seems not to be that God does not exist, and he is a very bad fellow. Perhaps he is bad for allowing evil into the world. Perhaps. As often, he is a very bad fellow for expecting them to do things they do not really want to do. I cannot avoid the obvious observation that the current general ill-repute of religion follows in lockstep with the current general decline in personal sexual morality. The problem with God, really, is that he insists we cannot have sex with whomever we want, and then, if worst comes to worst, simply abort the child.

Which is to say, for expecting us to act morally at all times.

Aye, there’s the rub. Better to stick our fingers in our ears and loudly hum our little atheist songs.

Moore also rejects the argument that the lives of atheists are empty: “Of course this is untrue. You don’t need God to revel in Mozart, the company of family and friends, the enormity of the universe or the Earth around us.”

Of course? I am reminded of a short story by H.G. Wells, “In the Country of the Blind.” A mountaineer falls into a hidden valley in which all the inhabitants are stark stone blind. Remembering the proverb, “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” he expects to be greeted as a king, even a god, for sharing with them his amazing knowledge.

Instead, they declare him insane.

So might it be for atheists trying to understand the religious.

Interestingly, those who find faith use just such terms: “I once was blind, but now I see.” “I saw the light.” “Enlightenment.” “Emerging from the cave.” “No longer through a glass, darkly.” And so on. Of course, atheists who were previously at least nominally religious can and do make the same claim at times. But at best, Moore cannot tell who has it right.

Even when I did not believe, I could see plainly something special in the faces of many who did: a certain radiance. I’m afraid I’ve never seen the same in the face of an atheist. It was obvious enough for me to wish I could myself believe, even when I did not. I find it hard to believe that Moore has never seen this himself.

But that, I suppose, is between John Moore and his non-existent maker.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

"Hitchens is Not Great"--God

I wish I had more time to follow and comment on the continuing controversies in the National Post regarding atheism and religion. Work is too pressing—and too much fun. Not to mention a new addition to the family.

Christopher Hitchens’ new book, God is Not Great, was excerpted in serial two weeks ago, and it was an enjoyable read. Hitchens writes well. But his points seemed mostly predictable, familiar to anyone deeply interested in religions. Village atheist stuff, their thinness covered often by bombast. Or does he, methinks, like so many atheists, protest too much?

But in any case, it is the duty of this column to make some comment. So the editorially plural we will.

Let’s take “Abusing God’s Children” (National Post, 12 May, 2007)—Hitchens’ most direct attack, and grand finale. Hitchens begins by citing a Hasidic practice of sucking off a baby’s foreskin. He claims this has led in the case of one mohel to the spread of herpes and even to the deaths of two babies. He intones that “no New Yorker would permit atrocities against infants if not for … the foul practice being holy and sanctified.”

But in fact, fairly obviously, they would. There is an exact parallel here: the vaccinating of babies. This too has, in a similar small minority of cases, caused the spread of disease and even the death of some children. Yet this practice does not attract Hitchen’s censure.

Why? Because Hitchens believes in medical science; he does not believe in Hasidism. The risk, for him, is far outweighed by the potential gains, as understood by modern medicine.

Yet the Hasidic parents could and would say exactly the same thing. They believe in Hasidism, and the potential gains of undergoing this particular procedure—heaven itself—far outweigh the risks.

Hitchens’s point holds, in other words, only if you assume Hasidism is false. His reasoning is tautological.

In seeking to prohibit the one practice, however—circumcision for religious reasons--and not the other—vaccination; or, indeed, circumcision for medical reasons--Hitchens is showing religious intolerance—showing the sort of fanaticism in favour of one’s own world view for which he unfairly blames religions.

Hitchens goes on, even less logically, to blame religion for female genital circumcision. Here he misses the most vital point: female circumcision is not mandated by any major religion. It is a social custom, or indeed a local medical practice. This makes doubly ironic his claim that “No society would tolerate such an insult to its womanhood… if the practice were not holy and sanctified.” The same is true of Hitchens’ condemnation of “Hindu” child brides. Hitchens seizes on the fact that they are Hindu for a post hoc, ergo propter hoc argument: they must then be child brides because they are Hindus.

Leaving aside the question whether marrying young is objectively immoral, or merely a question of cultural prejudice on Hitchens’ part, does being Hindu and marrying young automatically mean Hinduism is the reason one is marrying young? Of course it does not. The practice is not called for by the Hindu religion. It is a matter of custom, economics, and practicality.

Going even further astray from the logically defensible, he then finishes by accuses the Catholic Church of child molestation. This is an even further stretch: the Catholic Church is vocally opposed to child molestation, and always has been. If a Catholic, or even a Catholic priest, is nevertheless guilty of the sin, does that make Catholicism responsible? By the same logic, if an American commits a crime, America and the American government is responsible. This is the sort of corporate guilt that other religious fanatics once used against the Jews.

Hitchens’ other excerpts are even weaker. On May 11, the featured chapter was “Joseph Smith’s Long Con,” in which Hitchens repeats the familiar claims of fraud against the founder of the Mormons.

There is no news here; all the information Hitchens presents was well known in the 1940s. He is wasting our time. Let’s assume, in order to cut to the chase, that all Hitchens says against Joseph Smith is true. That makes Smith rather precisely the religious counterpart to the nineteenth century’s many traveling snake-oil salesmen and medicinal mountebanks. All that distinguishes him, indeed, is his appeal to religious, rather than scientific, authority.

But if one patent medicine does not do what it claimed to do, and was marketed dishonestly, does that prove that medical science is a fraud? Of course not. And it is a double standard to judge religion differently. Hitchens merely believes, a priori, in science, and disbelieves, a priori, in religion.

On May 10, Hitchens argued that the prohibition against eating pork in Judaism and Islam is due to an attempt to prevent cannibalism rather than, as is commonly suggested in scientistic (not scientific) circles, to prevent trichinosis. This at least is a relatively novel theory; I think so too, and have advanced this possibility myself in the past.

But, in terms of Hitchens’ main point, so what? What bearing does it have on whether the practice is or is not divinely sanctioned? God is actually quite likely to be opposed to cannibalism, after all.

In the attempt, however, Hitchens reveals again his general ignorance of his subject. He is unaware, in the first place, that the cannibalism theory is not original with him, as he claims. He seems unaware that the Talmud does not prohibit the eating of pigs per se—a point he surely needs to address. It bans instead the eating of a very broad range of animals, which, apparently arbitrarily, includes pigs—along with most other animals. If the issue were pigs, per se, then why the broader restriction? Hitchens also tosses out as comparison “the now-lapsed Catholic injunction to eat fish on Fridays.” Again, Hitchens does not seem to have done the necessary research. There is no Catholic injunction to eat fish, and never was. The injunction is not to eat meat.

And it has not lapsed.

Hitchens also oddly supposes that a prohibition against eating them shows a hatred of pigs, while freely devouring them slathered with mustard expresses affection.

He must be fun on a date.

Hitchens ends with three conclusions: “religion and the churches are manufactured; ethics and morality are quite independent of faith, and cannot be derived from it; …[and] religion is—because it claims a special divine exemption for its practices and beliefs—not just amoral but immoral.”

Conclusion one he is not entitled to; he can have no idea in principle, for it requires proving a negative. But indeed, even if he could, so what? Some religions, like Buddhism, are quite happy to assert that they are man-made. Others are quite happy to assert that most or all others, saving themselves, are man-made. Hitchens seems simply or willfully unaware of this.

Conclusion two, any good Catholic would happily agree with. Hitchens again does not seem to be aware of this: religion holds that morality is objective, binding on all, and can be demonstrated by reason. It is, surely, the atheists and relativists who sometimes assert otherwise.

However, I am not clear what Hitchens means by saying morality “cannot be derived from” faith. This seems self-evidently false: it need not, but surely it can be, and demonstrably often is. Acknowledging we are all children of the one God goes a long way towards promoting an appreciation for the golden rule, to treat all other people as equal in worth to ourselves. Hitchens again seems to be drawing unwarranted conclusions, missing the distinct difference in meaning between “must” and “can.”

Leaving conclusion three: is demanding a divine exemption for one’s own practices and beliefs immoral? I think not. In social terms, this is merely the doctrine of human rights: the right to choose for oneself what to believe and the right to act on one’s conscience. And in individual terms, it is morality itself: standing on one’s beliefs and the practices they require.

No, it is refusing to do this, and refusing others the right to do this, that is immoral.

This is what Hitchens, ultimately, seems to want. He is, in the end, a fanatic.

There always seem to be proportionately far more fanatics among atheists than among the religious.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Angels at our Table

"Be not forgetful to entertain strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares." (Hebrews 13:2).

A prominent US Cardinal, Mahony of Los Angeles, apparently agrees with my sentiments on immigration, but for strictly moral reasons. Perhaps the moral argument should therefore be added as one more reason to open the doors to immigration.

Cardinal Mahony points out that the Hebrews of the Bible, the chosen people of God, were at their origin in Exodus, and have always been, a nation of immigrants. Surely there is a lesson in that: we are to welcome the stranger. This is also the teaching of the parable of the Good Samaritan, isn’t it? The wounded man was a traveler, and his helper a foreigner. All of the apostles, too, were immigrants, as they spread out to deliver the Gospel: Peter in Rome, Thomas in India, and so forth.

It is therefore ultimately our Christian obligation to accept immigrants. And, moreover, not just to accept immigrants, but to accept poor immigrants as a priority, not the wealthy and educated.

It seems to me that opening the doors on a first-come, first-served basis is indeed most likely to produce immigrants meeting the description given in the Beatitudes of God’s own people: the poor, the oppressed, the discontent, those who seek peace, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. In a real sense, the best people. We really would be getting the cream, and it would, quite frankly, be to our own benefit, in this world as well as the next.

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For …I was a stranger and you invited me in.” (Matthew 25:34-35).

Fairly clear, isn’t it?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Memo Re: Writing Memos

Have you ever stopped to notice how beautiful some of the words used in everyday work can be? There is a kind of folk art there.

I had reason recently to look at some of the terminology used around an oil rig. Fine strong words like swamper, monkeyboard, mud, doghouse, block and tackle, sour gas, wildcat, cathead, pits, kelly spinner, mousehole, rathole, slips. It almost forms itself into poetry. You can almost feel the Alberta breeze in your face.

It is not just the oil industry; every workplace seems to have its own fine terms. The language of the sea is especially well-known. But I do not think this kind of folk poetry is even limited to outdoor jobs; I once put together a poem largely for the sake of playing with common office words which seem to me to have a lovely rhythm to them. Here it is, as originally published years ago in Riverrun:

Memo Re: Writing Memos

Demands on my time are monied and various;
Budgets are burgeoning, time lines are tight;
We shall see, we shall see, we shall see, we shall see;
Why can I no longer sleep in the night?

Tossing in bed with the clock ticking noisily
Tied up in spreadsheets I stare 'till first light
Asking for answers of some absent analyst--
Why can I no longer sleep in the night?

Now and again in accounts of the company,
Figures will jig and will not tally right,
The horror of ink fixing dry yet not balancing;
Why can I no longer sleep in the night?

I hear it at times in the din of the stock exchange;
Some lonely warrior, hoarse from the fight,
Hoping and fearing that someone will hear him cry
Why can I no longer sleep in the night?

God only knows what's the final Gantt diagram;
Critical paths always fade out to white;
Building our high-rise investments in Babylon;
Sleeping through days, and waking through nights.

They lied when they said they were schooling for leadership;
Lied when they said we could win in the fight;
Lied when they promised the whole world would satisfy;
I hope to Jehovah they don't sleep at night.

The one place where you do not get this sort of beauty, it seems to me, is wherever the actual words matter: in sales, in media, in advertising, in government, in law. There, the words instead tend to be irritating: I hate the singular “pant,” the verb “to sauce,” and other such marketing terms. Quite the reverse of usual work vocabulary, which is playful and gratuitously creative, these words are calculating and put on airs. They are pharisaic.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Final Words on Immigration

Do immigrants hurt the economy? As argued previously in this space, I an convinced they do not, long term. They benefit it considerably. The Fraser Institute, on the other hand, has produced a study arguing that recent immigrants do cost the economy something: because of progressive taxation and the welfare state, they are a net drain on public coffers for about the first ten years of their residence. It takes them that long to establish themselves. This is an issue that would not have come up in previous waves of immigration.

But if true, this is not a major problem. All we need do is suspend eligibility for the full range of social services until an immigrant has been here for eleven years. This is still far preferable to limiting or suspending immigration, for us and for them.

Some fear that immigrants, coming in sufficient numbers, will change Canadian culture. Here’s why that is not a sensible fear: immigrants have made a conscious choice. As voluntary Canadians, their commitment to the whole idea of Canada should actually be stronger than that of someone who has simply been born here—just as converts to a religion are commonly more zealous than those born into it.

Irving Berlin, the author of “God Bless America,” was an immigrant—born in Belarus. The two men most associated with the grandeur of Britain, Benjamin Disraeli and Winston Churchill, both had foreign origins. Disraeli’s grandparents were Italian. Churchill’s mother was American. The typical first-generation or second-generation immigrant, like them, wants nothing more than to fit in. They are in love. The USA, a nation of immigrants, is not notably short on patriotism.

Yes, immigrants do have an effect on the host culture. They will bring new and strange things with them. But, in the normal course of things, the new things will linger and assimilate precisely and only because they are better than the local item. Meaning we all benefit. Was American culture richer without such strange foreign items as pizza, the hot dog, ketchup, the hamburger? Or British culture without such exotica as chutney and tea?

Immigration is good; even—no, especially-- in huge numbers. But this is not to say that our current immigration policy is the right one. It is dead wrong in several ways.

It is dead wrong, firstly, in promoting multiculturalism. Sadly, we actually have this enshrined in our constitution. Multiculturalism accentuates the differences between people. This is alienating, not to say dehumanizing, and especially to newcomers. It reduces society to a human zoo, and them to exhibits. I recall attending Toronto’s Caravan multicultural festival with a girlfriend whose parents had emigrated from Greece. She adamantly refused to visit the Greek pavilion. She found it too embarrassing. Similarly, attending Kingston Farmers’ Market, a girlfriend whose parents had emigrated from the Netherlands dragged me violently away from an exhibitor wearing wooden shoes, insulting him under her breath.

Why would we think recent arrivals would want this exhibition of their old ways? If they really saw nothing in Canada that was better than what they had back home, why would they come?

Meantime, multiculturalism is positively damaging to Canadian culture per se, in several ways. It promotes the idea that there is no Canadian culture, no Canadian “mainstream”; it ought to be government’s business to promote the opposite. The UK’s “British Council,” an arm of government, promotes British culture in other nations. So does the French Alliance Francais, and the German Goethe Institute. But Canada? It spends money instead promoting everyone else’s. That is a provincial, a colonial attitude.

And, in spending this money on foreign culture, the Canadian government actually discriminates against long-term Canadians. They, not having any second culture, cannot qualify for such funding.

Last, but hardly least, we are actually paying people not to assimilate. This is harmful both to Canadian society and to the immigrants themselves. We should instead be doing all we can to help them fit in.

Our current policy is also dead wrong in its choice of immigrant. Currently, we carefully pick the best-educated and the wealthiest. This makes some sense on the face of it: it supposedly avoids immigrants becoming a burden on the aforementioned welfare state. Interestingly, though, the Fraser Institute study shows it has had exactly the opposite effect: under this new policy, it takes far longer for immigrants to reach the same income level as Canadians, they are much more likely than before to be unemployed, and much more likely to tap in to the welfare system.

How can this be?

Many decry our refusal to immediately recognize foreign credentials as holding these new immigrants back. But this is not the problem; they should still do better than immigrants who had no credentials at all, yet they do not. And let’s be frank about this: there is every reason to suspect foreign credentials. In the Third World, it is perfectly possible to purchase a degree.

No, the answer lies elsewhere. Besides the inherent shabbiness of selling one’s passport and heritage to the highest bidder, and the shamefulness of such class discrimination by a purportedly classless society, selecting out those who are most successful in their home country is not going to produce the immigrants most eager to assimilate and to contribute to Canada. The rich and the well-educated can always go back if things do not work out to their immediate satisfaction. Realistically, the advantages of being rich and well-educated are usually considerably greater in the Third World than in Canada—thanks to cheaper labor, corruption—that is, anything can be bought--, and a far more class-conscious society. If Canadian tax rates are disadvantageous—they are almost always higher than in the Third World—such immigrants are also well-placed to manage their assets accordingly.

So why would they come to Canada? The one advantage they obviously get is this: the rich welfare system. The social safety net. The freebies. That’s what they’re likely to be here for, and that’s what they’re going to go for.

And that is why this new sort of immigrant is not fitting in, and is not pulling his or her own weight.

But it would probably be even worse for Canada if they were. Consider the possibilities: we are bringing in a foreign upper class in massive numbers. What is the expected result? If they all fit in, we will eventually end up with an upper class that is primarily foreign, while the lower classes are native. In other words, we are deliberately turning ourselves into a colony. That’s what you have when the upper levels of society are foreigners.

That would be bad enough. But what sort of ruling class is it going to be?

In the grand scheme of things, most poor Third World countries are poor for a reason, and for the same reason. As Mancur Olsen, among others, demonstrated, the reason is corruption. There is no other way to explain, for example, how the level of income drops so suddenly once one crosses the US-Mexican border, or the border between Spain and Morocco. That is, Third World countries have an endemically corrupt ruling elite. They are not meritocracies; the best do not rise to the top. Rather, the most mendacious rise; while the cream sinks to the bottom.

And we are systematically skimming off the whey.

We were far better off with their tired, their poor, their homeless, their huddled masses, the wretched refuse of their teeming shore. They are the ones who are yearning to breathe free, and they are the ones who would thank us for our efforts. We would do far better even by choosing immigrants randomly.

Some say we need these immigrants to guarantee the solvency of our pension plans. But there again, we are not best off with these particular immigrants. Selecting immigrants to be rich and/or well-educated tends to favour older immigrants.

If we must place limits on the number of immigrants, and for some reason we don’t want to take the poorest, let’s at least simply make it first-come, first-served, advertised widely. That way, we would be getting those with the strongest desire to be Canadian. I can also see some justification for setting an upper age limit: not only would this help our doddering pension scheme, but it would ensure immigrants with the adaptability of youth, hence more able to fit in.

Finally, dual citizenship is also a bad idea. Obliging immigrants to surrender their previous ties in becoming Canadian is a test of commitment. And allowing dual citizenship means, quite literally and practically, two levels of citizenship: those who are only Canadian, and must accept what comes; and those who can board a plane whenever current conditions do not suit them. This is a significant difference in rights, and this should be anathema in a classless society.

So there you are: I say, let’s open those doors wide.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

The Regions

It seems to me there is a natural correspondence between specific Canadian provinces and US states; so that one could translate in order to give inhabitants of either country a sense of how the various states or provinces fit in the national psyche.

Perhaps most obviously, BC is Canada’s California, where strange things happen and anything is possible; and Alberta is Canada’s Texas, where everything is bigger than life. Moving eastward, Saskatchewan is to Canada what Kansas is to the US: a heartland, but a place where nothing ever happens. A place very different from the Land of Oz; the land of the everyday. Manitoba is Minnesota: flat, cold, austere, forbidding, yet somehow dignified; and, of course, both are laden with lakes. Ontario is the industrial Midwest: if one had to choose one state, I suppose it would be Ohio. Industrial, solid, overly earnest and a bit dull. Quebec is Louisiana, a party place, a place apart. The Maritimes obviously correspond to New England. Nova Scotia is Massachusetts, PEI is Rhode Island, and New Brunswick is Maine.

And then there’s Newfoundland. Though much smaller and less influential, Newfoundland really corresponds in Canada to the Deep South in the USA: colourful, backwards, rural, hospitable, historic, neglected, and madly prolific in the folk arts.

I wonder if all nations divide into roughly the same regions. I suspect they do: everyone needs a psychic Saskatchewan, an Alberta, an Ontario of the mind. Britain seems to: Cornwall and the West country are its BC, its place of magic, where Avalon was. East Anglia is Saskatchewan, flat and bland; Yorkshire is Alberta; the Northwest and the Lake District is Manitoba; the Midlands are Ontario; the coast from Dover and Kent to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight are the Maritimes; Wales is Newfoundland. And Scotland, of course, is Quebec.

But one thing Canada needs and sorely lacks; something both England and the US possess: a New York, a London. In a word, a centre. We oddly do not have one, and it is probably not a good thing. It could explain much about our own particular national malaise, our general disunity. Toronto is not one; it is more like Chicago or Manchester than New York: young, brash, and too far inland to be truly cosmopolitan. Montreal was one, but has turned into Boston, or York: a place not of current events but of dignified decay.

Perhaps it will be centre some day again.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

A Good News Day

Things are looking good, in world terms, for the right today. In British local elections, the Tories outpolled Labour 41 to 27%. Majority government territory. In France, Nicholas Sarkozy is maintaining a 6 to 9 % lead over Segoline Royal, on the eve of the final balloting. If these two dominos both fall soon, it will make a big difference, in world terms. (Granted, France is already nominally in the right-wing column under Chirac, but Sarkozy represents a sea change to something much closer to the Anglo-British right.) First, the “Anglosphere” will be almost solid blue: the US, UK, Canada, Australia (little New Zealand being the holdout). And the three largest members of the EU will also be blue: England, France, and Germany—with Prodi’s government in Italy looking shaky, and the new members from Eastern Europe reliably free-market. The American neo-con "disease" is spreading. We may be nearing the end of the left as we know it.

While much is made of the supposed malaise within the US Republican party, the two most likely nominees—Giuliani and McCain—still outpoll any available Democratic candidate. Some complain of a weak field. I don’t know what they’re talking about, unless it's wishful thinking. I've never seen a stronger one. Just consider this: Mike Huckabee has essentially the same credentials Bill Clinton had in 1992. He is a popular ex-governor of Arkansas. Clinton was the early frontrunner and eventual nominee. Even with the help of Clinton’s example, Brownback is lost in the pack. The rest of the field is that much stronger.

Among the three frontrunners, Romney, Guiliani, and McCain, I think any of them has the makings, at this vantage point, of an exceptional, a historic presidency. I'd add Fred Thompson to that list. If any one of the four becomes US president, and in the new atmosphere changing political fortunes elsewhere seem to promise, I expect the world will never be the same again.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Sultana and the Pea

If you’ve been following the newspapers over the last couple of weeks, you are probably properly shocked and appalled by the renewed oppression of women in Iran. Here is a sampling of the actual headlines:

Reuters, April 22: “Iranian Police Start Summer Crackdown on Women’s Dress.”
Houston Chronicle, April 23: “Iran Cracks Down on Dress Code for Women.”
Washington Post, April 23: “Iran Cracks Down on Women’s Dress”
ABC News, April 25: “Iran cracks down on women’s dress”; “Iranian Crackdown on Veils.”
The Guardian, UK, April 23: “Iran Cracks Down on Women’s Dress.”
And, of course, the New York Post:
“Iran’s Vicious Dresstapo Hits Unveiled Gals with Barbaric ‘Banishment.’” April 25.

What you might have missed, reading all those headlines, is that the dress code in Iran applies equally to men and women. For that, you have to read the stories pretty closely. Reuters never mentions the fact. The Houston Chronicle notes this in passing in paragraph 13, the Washington Post in paragraph 14, the New York Post not until paragraph 16. The BBC’s headline is more neutral—“Crackdown in Iran over Dress Code”—but the fact that men too must comply does not come until paragraph 26.

Conclusion: it does not matter what you do to men; only what happens to women.

To be fair, it seems that many more women than men are being hauled in for violations. But, from my observations here in the Persian Gulf, or even in Canada, I’ll wager that fact can be entirely accounted for by fewer men trying to violate the ban. Just imagine any restriction on men’s dress alone being referred to as “vicious” or “barbaric.” No, the truth of the matter is that we really do naturally assume women should have more rights than men. Such a trivial violation of men’s rights would not trouble us in the least; most men would just quietly accept it. Do it to women as well, though, and it is front-page news worldwide.

It illustrates the truth we all learned, if we were attentive children, from the fairy tale of the Princess and the Pea. One who is used to luxury will scream loudest if it is not forthcoming. One accustomed to a hard bed is less likely to complain.

I recall being struck by this truth forcefully while living in Korea. Westerners, men and women, would object strenuously to the treatment of women in that culture: expected traditionally, if not currently, to stay home with the kids with little to do. Meantime, nobody seemed to care that the husbands, were actually dying of overwork. The average Korean salaryman cannot expect fixed hours: he must stay at the office as long as his boss wants him to, on any day his boss wants. This usually means six-day work weeks, and twelve-hour work days. Nothing wrong with that. But let a women get bored? Oppression!

If this is oppression of women, then Marx clearly had it backwards: the idle landowners and capitalists have all along been viciously and barbarically oppressed by the working poor.