Playing the Indian Card

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Don't Let's Be Beastly to the Iranians

The newspapers all say Iran, in new president Ahmedinejad, has elected a hardliner; and things seem to be going from bad to worse.

Let’s not push the panic button just yet.

As an Arab academic pointed out to me recently, Iran is in fact one of the most democratic states in the Middle East. We perhaps ought to see it as a beacon of hope for the region, at least as much as the “new Iraq.”

The Majlis, the legislature, and the president, are elected.

Some object that both are subject to the Supreme Leader and the Guardian Council.

True enough, but isn’t it in about the same sense that the US President and Congress are subject to the Supreme Court? The Guardian Council is a group of legal experts there to ensure conformity with Sharia law; just as the Supreme Court ensures conformity with liberal democratic doctrine.

And the members of the Guardian Council are chosen about the same way as are the members of the Supreme Court: half are elected by the Majlis, itself popularly elected. The other half are appointed by the Supreme Leader. And the Supreme Leader is chosen by a body itself democratically elected, the Council of Experts, not unlike the Electoral College. On paper, it seems roughly comparable to the US or British system.

Ahmedinejad’s victory in itself demonstrates that Iran is a genuine democracy. He apparently won because of his popularity with the poor. The people’s choice, not that of any entrenched elite. Note that he is the first non-clergyman to win the presidency. He was not, I gather, the candidate of the mullahs. That was Rafsanjani. And Khatami was the candidate of the economic elite, the upper and middle class.

Some protest that the Iranian government is too religious in nature.

Like, er, that of the Pilgrim fathers? The Mormons of Utah?

Of course the Iranian system is not secular. The British system and the German system are also not secular, do not recognize separation of church and state; why is it an issue here and not there?

Indeed, I think this the most attractive feature of the Iranian experiment. It seems an attempt to create a fully indigenous, Islamic democratic tradition. It can be seen in these terms as an extremely hopeful sign for democracy in the region. Any suggestion that the people of the region must choose between democracy and Islam seems to me cultural chauvinism. Nor are they likely, given that stark choice, to pick democracy.

The threat from Iran to stability in the region is not to be summarily dismissed. On the other hand, I think it is not to be automatically assumed. It makes sense to wait and see, regarding this change at the top, not to man the battle stations.

Just as with Iraq, the development or possession of weapons of mass destruction is not a justification for invasion or “preemption.” The USA has a lot of weapons of mass destruction too; as of course do other countries.

If Iran is developing nuclear weapons _in violation of treaty_ (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty), that is a more serious matter. And it probably is. But how serious? Can we justify “preemption” here when we did not preempt India, or Pakistan, or Israel, or South Africa, for the same thing? Sanctions, okay. Military action? I don’t think so.

Iran seems comparable not to Nazi Germany or Saddam’s Iraq, not to aggressive Fascist states, but to Revolutionary France or Revolutionary America in the late eighteenth century. Both were at least moderately expansionist. We do need to fear a Napoleon; but for now Iran is more an ideological, not a military, threat to its neighbours. And perhaps on the whole, like France or America, a cause for hope.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Blogs of War

Today, our subject is the popular sentiment in favour of pacifism. People actually believe that all war is immoral, that pacifism is always preferable to war, and sanctions are and were the way to go. This comes up especially in discussions of the Iraq War.

Let’s reduce it to simplest terms: a woman is walking along a street, and a man jumps her from an alleyway with a knife and attempts to rape her. Is she really morally culpable? It is a moral failure; but it is not her moral failure.

So it can be in war: war can be in self-defense. Self-defense is a right and, indeed, to some extent an obligation.

And now, imagine a bystander who sees this. He is, as it happens, armed with a pistol. Would it be more moral to watch the man rape and then stab the woman to death, shrug, blame them both, and walk on, or to pull his pistol and tell the rapist to cease and desist?

In such a case, I submit there is a moral imperative to pull out the pistol; not to do so is morally depraved.

Having pulled the pistol, of course, there is also the real possibility that he will have to fire it—if, for example, the assailant refuses to desist or even lunges at him instead of desisting.

Then you are at war.

As in this example, it can often be immoral not to go to war. It can be rank cowardice. It can be pure selfishness.Sanctions as an alternative? In Iraq, for our example, sanctions did not work at all. We now know for certain Saddam was scamming the system: the Oil for Food scandal. Meantime, 500,000 Iraqis died “as a result of the sanctions”; by his own estimate.

Sanctions usually punish the innocent poor, rarely harm a corrupt leadership.

Hussein was fully capable of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction despite the sanctions, by all intelligence estimates. We do not know why he did not--if he did not.

At the time, sanctions were tried against Fascism too. They were the chief weapon of the good old League of Nations. That was the plan: sanction aggressors. So they sanctioned Mussolini as soon as he invaded Ethiopia.

It did not even slow him down. But it did prompt him to enter an alliance with Hitler.

They did not try it again. They had learned their lesson. Sanctions are counter-productive.

Someone once said generals are always perfectly prepared to fight the last war. They also generally forget all the lessons of the war before that.

Even if sanctions work, they harm the innocent, and rarely reduce the threat; but it is almost impossible to get sanctions to work. You need international unanimity. One or two well-positioned countries ignore the sanctions, and they are worse than meaningless; they only harm you, but not the target country. Plus, there is every incentive for someone to break the sanctions: any country doing so profits massively.

Given human nature, how often are sanctions likely to work?

Roughly never.

In Christian morality, there is a presumption against war, and war must be a last resort. But that is far from saying all war is immoral.

There were, you may recall, orders of Christian warrior monks whose charism included the obligation to fight: the Knights Templar, the Knights of St. John of Malta, the Lazars, the Teutonic Knights, the Knights of Santiago. There are similar Buddhist orders: the oriental martial arts began as religious practice, and are still headquartered in the head temple of world Zen Buddhism: Shaolin. Monasteries in Japan and Korea traditionally have fighting monks charged with defending the temple, the religion, and, if need be, the nation.

When, in the New Testament, Jesus was called upon to criticize soldiers, he did not. Soldiery is an honourable profession. He said only, “soldiers, be content with your wages.” The New Testament, and Jesus, give a Roman officer, a centurion, as the model of proper piety. Catholics quote him every week at mass.

Hinduism is even more explicit. The main message of the Bhagavad Gita, in practice Hinduism’s central scripture, is the duty to go to war.

We do not like war; nobody likes war. War is very unpleasant thing for all involved. As a consequence, it is too easy to scapegoat it and those who, for moral reasons, do or must pursue it.Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Confucianism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Hinduism, all have explicit doctrines of the “holy war,” of a war that is not just permissible, but a moral obligation.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The Yellow Peril

Extremely alarming—I would say alarmist—piece in the Washington Times about China. It theorizes about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in two years, leading to war with the US. It calls China a “fascist state.” It suggests China will be driven to war in any event by its growing need for oil:

To which I respond:

China is not going to attack Taiwan in the next two years. China is nothing if not patient, and it would screw up the Beijing Olympics.

Obviously, since it claims Taiwan as its territory, China is going to want to have the military power to take it if it should ever come to blows. What country would not? This does not demonstrate an aggressive intent. China had the military ability to take either Macao or Hong Kong or both for many years and did not.

If it came to war with the US two years from now, the US would crush China. The Chinese I know themselves are disparaging about China’s military abilities. And a sea/air power will always take a land power: the US can cut off China’s supply of strategic materials and oil at will. They might take Taiwan, but they would not be able to hold it against a determined US.

And this, of course, explains China’s need for a further military buildup. It needs the ability, if trouble came, to protect its oil supply: as it becomes more reliant on foreign oil, it needs power and influence in the Indian Ocean. No surprise if it is building a blue-water navy.

If and when China takes an aggressive stance in the world, certain natural checks and balances click in: the US would not stand alone. Japan might well rearm; India obviously has its own interests in the Indian Ocean. Smaller but quite significant powers would also be concerned: Vietnam, South Korea, Indonesia, Australia, Pakistan.

Even if its intent is ominous—and we have no indication it is--for its own best interests, China will for the foreseeable future have to tread lightly and preserve a smiling face.

By the time this is no longer so, the tide of development should have swept India, let alone the US, into rough parity.

Meantime, for how long would any present “Fascist” tendencies, if they exist, continue in China? Might China instead fairly seamlessly segue into a more democratic, liberal, and business-oriented country by the time any realistic possibilities of large-scale aggression emerged? As have South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia in their day?

Because, over the long term, Fascist countries are really left with only two alternatives. Either switch to a more open system, or be left behind by their neighbours in the race for development.

And economic prosperity does lead fairly relentlessly to political liberalization.

Me, I’m not worried.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

More on the Inuit

In defense of the common use of the word “Inuit,” a correspondent writes: “People are best, and accurately, defined by themselves.”

This is a common notion these days. But it is really a novel idea. We do not extend this privilege to European ethnicities. What people call themselves in their language is more or less their own business; but what we call them in English is the business of English speakers. We do not use the native word for the Deutsch, the Francais, the Erse, the Cymru, or either of the two distinct people who call themselves the Han.

And what if one group wishes to call itself “the master race”? For that matter, a group calling themselves “the real people” (“Inuit”) is roughly equivalent; why is it tolerable for one group, but not the next?

And what if I wish to be referred to as “Your Royal Highness the Emperor of Portugal”?

While we’re at it, let’s also dispense with the old saw about “Indians” being a name given to the native people of the Americas by mistake.

From Columbus’s perspective, there was nothing particularly incorrect about calling the natives he encountered “Indians.” That is what they were, by the usage of the day.

Remember, there was no country called “India” then. “Indian” was used by Europeans to refer broadly to anyone east of the Indus River. Filipinos were also “Indians.” As late as the 1920s, Hermann Hesse referred to modern Singapore and Malaysia (in German) as “India.”

Columbus’s point was that the world was round. Therefore, the inhabitants of the West Indies were also Indians, in that they could be reached by traveling east from Europe as well as west.

You would have thought he had proved his point.

The Spanish for many years after saw America and the Far East as a unit. The Philippines were administered from Mexico.

We just happen to divide the world up differently these days. A matter of cultural perspective.

It is fine to want to change the term “Indians” now. It makes some sense, as there is now a problem of confusing North American Indians with the inhabitants of India. But it is wrong to portray Columbus and our European ancestors as merely stupid.

But what term would be better? “Aboriginal people” is no better than “Indians”: we just cause confusion with a different group, in Australia instead of India. “Native People” confuses them with those merely born in Canada; and is technically incorrect. As far as we can tell, the Indians are no more native to the Americas than are the Europeans who came later.

The currently fashionable “First Nations” is no better. How can more than one nation be first? And doesn’t this term imply different levels of citizenship? Do I get to pull rank on second-generation immigrants from India, because my ancestors arrived on this continent several generations ago?

Why not? I’m the Emperor of Portugal, after all. Right?

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Don't Spend Your Summer Vacation in Chicago

Chicago, to its shame, has started posting on the Web photos of those charged with patronizing prostitutes. All those charged, not just those convicted. This does away with that inconvenient nonsense about presumption of innocence, let alone fussy objections about cruel and unusual punishment.

Mayor Daley explains: “It’s a terrible life, and a caring society has a responsibility to help these women turn their lives around…” Daley said the victims of prostitution are the prostitutes themselves. "Most of them are victims -- real victims," Daley said.

Poor dears.

It’s a time-hallowed practice: if a woman does something wrong, you blame the nearest man. Why is the same compassion not extended to cocaine dealers?

The ACLU has no position on the practice and no comment.

But a social worker is quoted expressing concern. Not, of course, out of concern for the men. She worries the practice might somehow, God forbid, lead to wife-beating.

I’m not making this up. New York Times:

It gets better. State Senator James Meeks has now objected. Not at the unconstitutional discrimination against men. He sees “racial insensitivity.” It turns out too many of the men featured on the Web so far are black and Hispanic. I guess it didn't occur to the authorities that most men who frequent prostitutes are poor--men too poor to attract or support a wife.

Meeks is demanding that a quota of white faces be added.

Easy enough to fix. I guess the Chicago police can go out and pick up a few white guys at random.

I'd be nervous if I were a white male strolling the streets of Chicago.

Friday, June 24, 2005

More Raw Meat for Editors

I trust you no longer use the offensive term “Eskimo”? A recent poster on the League of Canadian Poets’ email list was taken to task for doing so. As every Canadian schoolchild knows, “Eskimo” is an offensive term in a neighbouring language meaning “eater of raw meat.” “Inuit” is the correct term.

Except that it is not so. This is apparently a false etymology, embraced to cultivate a sense of victimhood, on the one hand, and of expertise, on the other.

The first problem is that, if it really means “eater of raw meat,” it is hard to see how it was intended as pejorative. The neighbouring native groups from which the term is supposed to have come, the Algonkians and specifically the Montagnais, also eat raw meat.

Etymologists have also pointed out the awkward fact that the word for “eater of raw meat” in Montagnais is quite different from “eskimo.”

More likely, the original word that has become the English “Eskimo” meant “speaker of a different language,” or “the snowshoe people” (this latter with the broad intended meaning, “northern people”).

Moreover, there are real problems with the proposed term “Inuit.” First off, it is an Inuktitut word. Not all Eskimos speak Inuktitut. It does not mean anything in the Yupik language. Yupik speakers (in Alaska) therefore prefer the term “Eskimo,” and find “Inuit” offensive.

Worse, the actual meaning of “Inuit” is “people.” In other words, to call a specific ethnic group “Inuit” is to necessarily imply that all other ethnicities are not human.

If calling someone an eater of raw meat is offensive, is it better to call them non-human?

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Get Sir John A off the Banknotes

Mark Steyn writes in the Western Standard that Canada is the only country in the Commonwealth that puts pictures of prime ministers on its currency.

It does strike me as crass. No offense to politicians, but if Canada is a nation worth the name, it ought to have something more to celebrate than politicians; every country necessarily has that. Shouldn’t we have pictures of significant contributors to Canadian culture instead, as most other countries do?

I’d like to see: Robert W. Service, Lucy Maud Montgomery, Gabrielle Roy, Stephen Leacock. Obverse should have reproductions of Kreighoff, Group of Seven, Emily Carr, Haida and Inuit art.

Some of these suggestions might sound corny, but I think that’s only because we tend to undervalue our own culture.

An unfortunate tendency that promoting our arts on our banknotes might help correct. Because it’s a tendency that threatens the existence of Canada as a country. As Keith Spicer lamented, we need more poetry about Canada.

In fact, we have it. But we too seldom hear it.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Colonialism and Neo-Colonialism

My good friend Jim Taylor, who writes a broadly left-leaning (NDP/Green/United Church) newspaper column in B.C., writes:

“If the world’s newer nations are to ‘grow up’ -- despite any negative connotations of that description -- we need to offer more than just debt relief. We need to be willing to send mentors -- the brightest and best of our youth, our managers, our doctors, our technologists -- to go and work with their people, in their conditions, in their society. Not to hold them down, but to help them up.”

Jim feels this would be better than just throwing money at the problem. And perhaps it would.

But I have my doubts.

If a lack of trained expertise is indeed the problem, the first thing we might consider is to stop stripping the Third World of their best-educated people with our immigration policies. It makes no sense to take, as we now do, all their doctors and managers, then send Canadians at public expense to replace them.

And, having often been one, I am skeptical about “foreign experts” in any case. It is not so easy for a foreigner to understand how things work, and why, in an unfamiliar culture. I think of bulls and displays of fine porcelain. Several folks I met back in Alberta had done this kind of thing in the Third World: going and showing the locals how to better do things they had been doing for a thousand years.

Is this likely to work? Aren’t the locals going to understand local conditions better than the newcomers? Are they going to share the same objectives? What does a typical Canadian really know, say, about tropical subsistence agriculture, or how community decisions are made in Sulawesi? More than a typical Sulawesian?

Unless you assume that Canadians are intrinsically racially superior beings, it defies common sense.

And heck, isn't this exactly what Kurtz was supposedly doing in the upper reaches of the Congo? Isn't this exactly the old colonial enterprise?

One guy had invented a new process for turning the soil. It was a mobile chicken coop; the chickens would naturally claw and hack away at the soil, and once it was fully chopped up, the coop was moved on to the next section. The other guy had a little solar oven for drying crops with the sun’s rays. No need for power. Both were still, years later, terribly proud of their contributions.

Their ideas were clever, in a Mother-Earth-News-article sort of way. But were they really useful? I doubt it. I suspect the chicken coop idea was practical only if you could afford to have your land fallow for months at a time while the chickens worked it over. And had some efficient way to remove all the chicken droppings, which would burn the crops.

And the solar oven might have dried faster than the sun's rays alone, but so what? Was there any financial benefit to the farmer in drying his peppers a day sooner? Enough to pay for the new equipment?

Just, I sadly suspect, a case of upper-class North Americans indulging their control fantasies with the illusion of making a big difference to world poverty. And having a good lark after college or in early retirement at taxpayer expense.

Mister Kurtz, he dead.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Pacino as Shylock and The Merchant of Venice

The best thing about the new movie version of “The Merchant of Venice” is Al Pacino. He dominates the film as Shylock with the best piece of Shakespearean acting this humble correspondent believes he has ever seen. Maybe the best acting, full stop. He is utterly real, in a way the other characters are not. It is Shylock’s play.

But then, it always was, wasn’t it?

The worst thing about the movie is the awkward attempts to deal with the “anti-Semitism” of the play. Not the director’s fault: this was necessary, so as not to fall afoul of current political correctness. But it did distort the play, and was embarrassing to watch.

Is “The Merchant of Venice” anti-Semitic? In the strictest sense, it is not. It has no interest in Shylock’s Semitism. Anti-Judaism, perhaps. And it has no interest in stirring up trouble for Jews; there were no Jews in England.

It is a very Christian play. It is an apologetic for Christianity, as Christian in its way as last year’s “The Passion.” It genuinely believes in Christianity.

It necessarily follows that it does not believe Judaism is true: two claims, if they disagree, cannot both be true, regardless of what postmodernists want to assert. Aristotle settled that one for all time.

Christianity has the right to make its argument for the falsity of Judaism.

In making the argument, though, is the play fair to Judaism?

No, it is not. It claims that Judaism lacks the concept of divine mercy, and of mercy to one’s enemies. But this concept is clear in the “Old Testament,” the Hebrew Scriptures. God forgives Nineveh; he forgives David; he forgives Israel many times. His covenant with Israel clearly does not depend on the people’s just deserts.

But the play is not really interested in disproving Judaism either. Judaism, as noted, was not a philosophy with adherents in England at the time. Judaism, and Shylock, are rather symbolic representations of an imperfect Christianity: Christianity without Christ. It is just a historical accident that the play came to be known in places where it might be misinterpreted as anti-Semitic.

That said, note too that Shylock is not just a foil, not just a comic humour, but the hero of the play. He dominates, and he is meant to dominate. No Christian character comes close to his importance to the story: the Christian lead is split three ways, among Portia, Antonio, and Bassanio, and none of them is brought to life the way Shylock is. Antonio and Portia, by contrast, seem cardboard figures; neither they nor Bassanio show any character development. It is they who are foils for Shylock.

And the central dilemma of the play is Shylock’s dilemma: the conflict between our holy thirst for righteousness, and our own need for mercy.

We accordingly, as audience, identify with Shylock, and are meant to identify with him. We feel the insults he has suffered. Note that the play was apparently commonly known, in its day, as “The Jew of Venice,” not “The Merchant of Venice.”

The title may have shifted because this seems to make the play a tragedy, not a comedy; properly, Shylock is a tragic hero.

But it is not quite that: Shylock does not go mad and die, as a tragic hero should. Instead, he must pay a fine and become a Christian. And he must forgive his daughter. This might seem harsh, but it is mostly symbolic: neither Christianity nor Judaism recognizes forced conversions.

It is, perhaps, not a comedy or a tragedy, but a morality play.

But if Shylock is a tragic hero, his tragic flaw is his righteousness—remembering that the same characteristic must be responsible both for the hero’s greatness and his undoing.

Shylock is, notably, more righteous, more honourable, than the Christian characters.

Bassanio, to begin with, is a wastrel. Antonio is arrogant; we know he has spat upon Shylock, and we see him being arrogant even when asking for the moneylender’s help. Shakespeare intends his anti-Semitism, indeed, to count against him in our eyes. It is arrogance, surely, and contempt, that tempts him into his fool’s bargain of the pound of flesh.

Both Bassanio and Antonio try to give a gratuity to a judge. This would have been morally suspect at the time just as today—Francis Bacon was up on charges for having accepted such a gratuity.

Portia’s guilt is even greater: it is of course outrageous for her to judge the trial under a false identity, with no formal qualifications, and feigning disinterest in a case in which she is vitally interested. Shylock is cheated.

In converting to Christianity, Shylock’s daughter Jessica runs off with boxes of his gold; never mind the matter of disobedience to a parent. As if this is the essence of what “becoming a Christian” means.

Shylock points out that Christians commonly do not forgive; and everyone in Shakespeare’s audience would know this to be true.

So Shylock is a good man, an upright man, and a better man than those around him. Nevertheless, he is betrayed by this very trait: by the great importance he puts on righteousness, on his covenant, his bond. For this is still not as admirable as mercy.

The story is told in small, as so often in Shakespeare, in the parable of the three boxes. Paganism, represented by Portia’s suitor, chooses “what many men desire”—it is driven purely by desire. An imperfect righteousness seeks justice: that each man get what he deserves. But a higher morality, true Christian virtue, will hazard all he has for others.

Shylock is at stage two, and the play is his journey to stage three. The audience, in being made to identify with him, is drawn with him through the same moral choice and, one hopes, the same moral revelation.

The theme of the play is the difference between justice and mercy. It only works, it seems to me, if the audience identifies with Shylock. If we do not see that we are all Jews, and scorn Shylock as a villain, we have missed the point of the play.

And called judgment upon ourselves.

Sunday, June 19, 2005

Lest We Forget: Happy Fathers' Day

Happy Fathers' Day.

I congratulated the Dads I know at work. The response was the same every time: “Oh, is it today?”

I take it none of them got any gifts from their children. Or even special greetings.

One did recall one of his two grown daughters phoning a few weeks ago and asking if she had already missed it.

Looks like she missed it again.

A woman overheard my greeting, and said, “Oh, my goodness. Is that today? I must phone my father.”

Then, after a moment’s reflection: “Nah, screw him. I just phoned my mother yesterday.”

Me, I’m gonna go out and buy me something.

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Forum of Oppressed Husbands Forms

A female barrister in India, Aruna Mukherjee, has founded a “Forum of Oppressed Husbands” to protect the rights of men abused by their wives, at home and in the courts.

She is also lobbying for a change in the laws regarding spousal abuse, because, she says, they are “loaded in favour of women.” Unscrupulous and abusive women are able to take advantage of the law, by which only men can be charged with spousal abuse.

Mukherjee says the organization, based in the southern Indian city of Kolkata, fields 150 complaints a month.

Wouldn’t it be nice if Canada, too, had such an organization? For surely the problem is at least as prevalent in Canada. Not to have such an organization, in the face of many resources for abused women, is obviously prejudice on the basis of sex. As is often the case, they see these things more clearly in the Third World.

And why, amid all the feature stories about how women in the Third World are supposedly mistreated, do we not see stories like this in the Canadian media? A Google news search on the keywords “Forum for Oppressed Husbands,” the organization’s name, and turned up only Indian references.

More on the organization here:

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Chinese Spies in Canada?

Apparently the Chinese diplomat who recently defected to Australia claims China's largest spy network is in Canada:

Having had some experience in China proper, I believe this; intrigue is an integral part of the Chinese (PRC) scene. And I find Canadians frighteningly naive about this.

A few quotes from the article:

"How says Canada has more spies operating in it than any other country. ''

"'We estimated at CSIS that we were losing $1 billion a month, $12 billion a year, due to industrial espionage,' he [former CSIS agent] said. "

There is no real reason for panic here: as the CSIS agent implies, these spies are interested in industrial espionage--learning business secrets--and preventing groups here from organizing in opposition to the present Chinese government. They are not interested, say, in invading Canada, or subverting its system of government.

It is just that they do it by spying rather than follow the more conventional channels. It's the way things work in the PRC.

With over a thousand on the ground, though, we should have some concerns about the civil rights of our Chinese-born citizens, and the possibility that Canada's policies towards China might be unduly influenced.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Beat the Thumb Slowly

A feminist canard has been going around for years that the common expression "rule of thumb" refers to an old Canadian law (in England it is an old English law, in America an old US law) that allowed men to beat their wives with a stick no larger than the thickness fo their thumb.

A Woman's Studies professor advises that this is regularly taught in university Women's Studies courses.

It is not so.

It came up again recently on the Editors' Association of Canada email list. When someone found a reference speaking of it as a false etymology, they objected:

"I didn't think that there was any question about its origin from the laws on wife-beating. Certainly it has been quite legal for men to beat their wives in Canada."

A hard truth is always resisted; a confortable lie persists despite all evidence.

In the ensuing exchanges, despite other authorities assuring that there was no such law, and that the phrase comes from brewing or rough carpentry, she persisted. At last, she cited this bit of research from the "Word Origins" website as conclusive:

"Ms Fenick traced the idea back to a pronouncement that was supposed to have been made in 1782 by a British judge, Sir Francis Buller; this led to a fiercely satirical cartoon by James Gillray that was published on 27 November that year, in which Buller was caricatured as Judge Thumb....It might be that he never made the statement that rendered him so notorious. Edward Foss, in his Biographical Dictionary of the Judges of England of 1864 says that to Buller "is attributed the obnoxious and ungentlemanly dictum that a husband may beat his wife, so that the stick with which he administers the castigation is not thicker than his thumb", but says he can't find any evidence Buller said it. But the Dictionary of National Biography and other standard works say firmly he did, as did contemporary biographies."

She concludes from this that the phrase should still be struck by editors whenever found: "So even though this is a persistent misrepresented etymology, there must be something to a phrase and its meaning that has been perpetuated since 1782. "

I quote my reply:

"This is not true; you are mixing up several distinct things:

1. the idea that there was once a law allowing men to beat their wives with a stick;

2. the idea that the common phrase “rule of thumb” comes from this, and

3. the fact that there is a common phrase “rule of thumb,” that has persisted for centuries.

The truth of the third in no way demonstrates the truth of the first or second. Thesis one is the only one directly addressed above: whether there ever was such a law anywhere. It concludes there was not. At most, one judge once somewhere thought it was okay—and this went so much against common opinion at the time that he has never been forgiven for it. That hardly suggests an established practice.

The OED is able to trace the term “rule of thumb” back to 1692, making it impossible that the phrase comes from Judge Buller’s attributed comment in 1782. This speaks, by reasonable inference, against thesis two as well. "

It was not my intent, when setting up this blog, to have it dwell so much on men's rights. But where the need exists,...

For the record, this false etymology seems to have been invented in the 1970s for political purposes.

Christina Hoff Sommers, in Who Stole Feminism?, finds first reference in a 1976 report by Del Martin to NOW, the US feminist organization. Her defenders now say Martin’s use was "whimsical."

Which is putting it diplomatically.

Those who subscribe to the false etymology, especially knowing it is false, are signing up for the sort of political manipulation of language and of history Orwell warned against in 1984; and to a deliberate defamation of males as well. It necessarily promotes the prejudicial notion than men beat women regularly in the past. Not that different, in principle, from the older claim that Jews poisoned wells, or that Indians stole things.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Blame America

A Canadian-born teenager has just been convicted of threatening, possibly trying, to blow up his high school, because he hated all things American.

A friend, by coincidence, notes in his current column that

“…A few weeks ago, at … [a] conference, a speaker referred to ‘American ethics.’

‘Isn’t that an oxymoron?’ I asked.

Most of the audience laughed.”

The rest of us hate to admit it, but I suspect the long-term success of the US in the world actually has a lot to do with a higher standard of morality. Throughout history, cultures and groups with a sense of high moral purpose have tended to be spectacularly successful as a result: Islam in the seventh century, Christianity in the first, Victorian England. The US, largely thanks to its “fundamentalists,” has a relatively stronger sense of moral purpose and public responsibility in comparison to the rest of the world.

This results in a relative lack of corruption throughout the society, top to bottom and bottom to top. And, as Mancur Olsen and others have shown, the main reason the poor Third World is poor is corruption. Corruption costs hugely in efficiency; morality gives efficiency a huge boost.

If we are honest about it, there are any number of examples of the US’s high moral purpose. The US crushed Germany and Japan in the Second World War. Instead of annexing them or looting them, as the USSR did, as the British and French had done in the past, and as would have been the historic norm, the US shoveled money in to help them get back on their feet, and then (other than continuing to help with their defense) withdrew and let them run their own affairs. Same now with Iraq; despite the bad press, and although possibly misguided, it is a model of international responsibility and altruism. Such altruism the rest of the world has rarely seen, and finds it hard, in fact, to accept. This illustrates the American moral edge: the rest of the world finds it literally incredible that another country could be that honourable.

Nor is constant US-bashing morally neutral. If not true, it is the sin of slander. If true, it is the sin of calumny. And it surely leads to acts like 9/11; as directly as anti-Semitism led to the Holocaust. Just remember that Canadian kid wanting to blow up his high school.

As Samuel Johnson said, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. And the worst of patriotism is the demeaning of other nationalities. What is commonly said about Americans might be considered a hate crime if said of Jews, or Quebecois, or Africans. Try this one on your tongue: “Indian ethics is an oxymoron.”

Part of the reason I feel strongly about this is guilt. God knows, I have been guilty of America-bashing myself in my youth. I went to grad school in Syracuse, and walked around with a swagger telling the Americans, in effect, if not in so many words, how superior I was as a Canadian. Most remarkably, I got away with it. The Americans stayed my friends. I now know from experience you just can’t do that in most other countries.

It was also an American, though, in Korea, who blew the whistle on me. He pointed out that if he, as an American, acted as Canadians commonly act abroad, wearing flags and handing out pins, he would be scorned even by other Americans as an outrageous chauvinist. An Irishman in the UAE told me the same thing; he felt Canadians were over-the-top nationalistic, and unreasonably hostile to Americans.

And a Korean once floored me with the question, “Why do Canadians hate Americans so much?”

We don't, do we?

Give an American a hug today.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Medicare: A Few Modest Proposals

In the wake of the Quebec Supreme Court ruling, there is perhaps new incentive to improve Canadian Medicare.

A few modest proposals:

- To prevent abuse of the system, institute at least nominal user fees or deductibles. These could be waived for those on social assistance.

- Stop funding abortions. These are, after all, at best not a necessary procedure, but a purely voluntary one. This is even aside from the moral and human rights issues involved in funding abortions.

- Allow a free market on the supply side. This has no effect on the universality of the system. Competition from the private sector should force down costs. Fund procedures (other than abortions, which, unbelievably, are already funded) at private clinics at the same rate as at public clinics, and the free market should make more care available for the same cost. If not, nothing lost.

- Allow pharmacists to issue prescriptions. They have the training; but the doctors’ monopoly prevents it. This sounds radical; but it is taken for granted in some countries. This would save huge amounts of money paid to doctors simply to renew prescriptions, for which their expertise is not needed.

- Set up and allow diagnosis, prescription, and referral by computer. Computers can do this more competently than physicians, but again the physicians’ monopoly prevents it. You don’t need a trained physician to type on a keyboard. At most you need a nurse or technician to double-check and handle referrals if necessary.

- Stop funding procedures that are not scientifically proven. According to one estimate, only 27% of current medical procedures have a solid scientific basis. But why spend money when we don’t know it is doing any good?

Besides saving a huge amount of money, this would level the playing field between “Western” medicine and alternative therapies: and so, by increasing competition, lower costs for all.

Friday, June 10, 2005

A Hip Check for Medicare

The Quebec Supreme Court has ruled that Canadians have the right to purchase health care privately.

Like the man who brought the case, my own mother has been waiting since last summer for a hip replacement. It will be at least a year. Meanwhile, in addition to the pain, she cannot walk. Kind of puts a crimp in your lifestyle. Making it illegal to get medical care is an obvious violation of human rights; the court ruled correctly. All other Western nations with universal health care seem to have so-called “two-tier” care, which allows people to opt out of the public system if they are prepared to pay for a private plan.

Predictably, though, the left is alarmed. In the Toronto Star, Ian Urquhart has called for use of the “notwithstanding” clause to override the Charter of Rights. Ontario NDP leader Howard Hampton agrees: “This is exactly the circumstance when the notwithstanding clause should be used,” he said. “At the end of the day, the people should make the decisions on these kinds of issues.”

“In its ruling yesterday,” Urquhart writes, outlining the problem, “the Supreme Court has, in effect, placed an individual's right to buy private medical insurance above the collective preference for universal and public medicare.”

God forbid. But that is exactly what the doctrine of human rights is supposed to be about: the rights of the individual against the collective.

And what spectacular hypocrisy, from those who embraced the courts’ recent interventions on homosexual rights.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

So Abortion is Murder after All

News just in from Texas: a 19-year-old male who helped his girlfriend abort has been sentenced to life in prison for murder in the death of the foetus (AP, June 7, 2005). The woman, of course, was not prosecuted: abortion is her constitutional right.

Could there be a clearer case of unequal protection under the law, of discrimination on the basis of sex? What is murder if a man does it, is a woman's human right. Sauce for the goose, is poison for the gander.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Animal Love and People Love

It is currently a truism, at least among social work types, that children who treat animals badly will go on to treat humans badly as well. Where once we thought rather little of boys tying tin cans to dogs’ tails, or pulling the wings off flies, now we believe each is a potential serial killer.

Maybe. On the other hand, there is the curious fact that, in the pages of history, those who have been particularly fond of animals have sometimes not been the nicest folks to their fellow humans. Hitler was a vegetarian and a dog lover. Ceausescu gave his dog his own chauffeur. Caligula made his horse a proconsul.

In the recent hearings on granting Karla Homolka her freedom, it turned out she too was an animal lover.

From the Toronto Star account:

“He (the prosecutor) also tried to debunk key defence contentions that Homolka suffered from battered-wife syndrome and was in the clutches of a calculating psychopath when she participated in the killings.

Ramsay referred to two occasions when Homolka stood up to Bernardo, once when he was smashing a dog's head on concrete, and a second time when he tried to force her into having sex with the family pet.

‘She was willing to risk being alone for the dog. For her sister? No. For two other young women? No. But for the dog, yes ... that says all you need to know about Ms. Homolka's character,’ he said.”

Toronto Star, June 4, 2005-06-05, “She’s Still a Danger, Court Rules.”

At a minimum, there seems to be no connection between kindness to animals and kindness to one’s fellow man. But it even seems possible that the one substitutes for the other: people can love animals as a substitute for loving humans.

It’s so much easier to love an animal, after all: they are completely subservient to you. You are in control.

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Guys: Your Name in Lights

Reuters reports that in Oakland California, the faces of convicted “johns” are now being features on billboards as a type of punishment for their crime. “Other signs invite prostitutes to quit by calling a helpline.”

In Vancouver, I am told—I cannot vouch for this—johns instead are sent to “john school,” where prostitutes are hired to lecture them on the harm they have done.

Clearly, the victim is the prostitute, and the criminal is the client.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to apply this same principle to other crimes of commerce? By this logic, shouldn’t the faces of cocaine or marijuana users be put on the billboards, while owners of grow ops and traffickers are invited to call help lines? How about hiring bookies to harangue illegal bet makers on the harm they have suffered? Those who smuggle in cigarettes could similarly harangue their customers; sellers of illegal satellite dishes could also have a help line; or those who peddle pirated software.

Let’s, just for the sake of argument, forget the prohibition in both the US and Canadian constitution against “cruel and unusual punishment.” Let's trim that human rights fat when it comes to crimes against women.

For what is different, then, between these other economic crimes and prostitution, other than the sellers being female and the buyers male? Could we see gigolos similarly having a moral case against the rich widows who might employ their services? Or isn’t this just a case of scapegoating men and exonerating women for the results of their own actions.

A colleague defends the current practice by claiming that prostitutes are commonly addicted to drugs and therefore not in control of what they do. Fine; this might or might not be true. Those who have tried vouch for how hard it is to get a prostitute to leave prostitution; this makes it seem unlikely they are doing it under compulsion. It has been pointed out that prostitutes make more money than most people pursuing a more conventional career. That does seems a possible reason for choosing the trade.

But even if it is true that most prostitutes are drug addicts, this is also true of many burglars, muggers, and break and entry artists. In these cases, do we feel being a drug addict exonerates them?

No, isn’t it is their sex alone that exonerates prostitutes?

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Pssst--Canadian is Crowned Miss Universe

Canada's Natalie Gelbova won the Miss Universe crown this week. The story was featured on the front page of the Gulf News.

But not even mentioned in the news summaries I get daily from CBC and the Toronto Star. A Google search turns up seven pages of press stories, everywhere from China's People's Daily to the Star of Malta, before I find the first major Canadian media hit--the Winnipeg Sun.

To my mind, this illustrates how limited the Canadian media voice has become--that a Canadian who has bested the world is barely acknowledged in her home country.

And it shows the Canadian hostility to all that is traditionally and uniquely feminine, that deceptively masquerades under the name "feminism."

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Secret

From the observations of someone visiting the Philippines for the second time:

“…the lives that people live there seem more real to me than the lives that people live here in the USA.”

Exactly my impression of the Philippines or Korea versus Canada.

Worth pondering why this is so. But I think Yeats hit it in speaking of the difference between England and Ireland: in Ireland, or the Philippines, each individual is unique and irreplaceable to those who know them. In England, or Canada or the US, if you dropped dead on a streetcorner, there’s be another in your place in half an hour. In Third World countries generally, people are still people, and have complete lives. In Canada, the US, England, now most of Europe, people are machines. Most of the rest of life has been sacrificed for the pursuit of material wealth and status.

It's not a life at all.