Sparring with ghosts

Not only will same-sex marriage be nationally legalized in the United States, but so too will marijuana. Moreover, same-sex marriage will ultimately be legalized in all but the most oppressive political regimes in countries the world over. I predict it now. Check back in ten years to see if I’m correct. (That is, ten years for western/industrialized/democratic/economically well-off countries; maybe 20 for some others.)

Because the fact is that the law and institutions always lag behind societal and cultural progress.

Whether we’re talking about cultural, social, political, economic, or technological changes, “the people” are generally ahead of the law, which inevitably has to play catch-up.

Which is why it’s somewhat amusing (in a non-funny way) that the debate over equal marriage keeps raging. That California, for the first time in history, revoked the civil rights of a significant segment of its population in its Proposition 8 vote is more than appalling—it’s embarrassing. In a few years, Californians will look back and shamefully shake their heads, as I believe most Americans will in time.

Countries like Canada, Netherlands, Belgium, Spain, Norway, and even South Africa legalized same-sex marriage long ago, and people in these countries already look at countries like the United States and shake their heads. Because we have embraced the truth that opponents of equal marriage seem to be denying: the debate is actually over.

Looking back at history, the same always holds true: while some people are busy fighting to prevent change from occurring, change occurs.

The torrent of social and cultural change cannot he held back with lies, propaganda, fear, hatred, or even constitutional amendments. It’s like trying to hold back a tidal wave with your hand. Humanity moves ever forward (from time to time it’s two steps forward and one step back); this is most evident in civil rights and technological advancements. It can’t be stopped. Shut down Napster and five other file-sharing sites will pop up.

The Civil Rights and Suffragist movements did not halt because they had ardent and often violent opposition. Society mostly agreed that black people and women, in their respective times, should have equal rights despite pockets of folks who felt differently and tried their damnedest to hold back the tide. And as society went, so went the law. Eventually.

During the industrial revolution in the U.S., the chasm between the working conditions of the rich versus the poor was great. Progressives decided that the working class needed to be protected and so established minimum wages and maximum working hours. The Supreme Court struck down much of this progress, saying that it was unconstitutional (something about the freedom of contract, but it was really about the free market and capitalist economics). And what happened? Society progressed anyway, insisting on minimum wage and fair working hours, and the law had no choice but to follow.

So why do people bother trying to fight the inevitable? Do they really think the progress of human rights can be halted or turned back? I don’t know about this. I really don’t know the answer. I suspect that even the most ardent opponents of equal marriage have to realize that they are sparring with a ghost.

The legalization of marijuana may be an even more contentious issue on its surface. But logic dictates that pot should, and will, be legalized.

Prohibition does not work. The first point of evidence is…well, prohibition. In the late 1920s and early 1930s the U.S. made alcohol illegal. It’s pretty common knowledge what the outcome was. The buying, selling, and use of alcohol did not cease, it was just driven underground where it led to a hell of a lot of crime and profiteering. Criminals got rich, people paid a lot more for alcohol than they should have, and the government lost great amounts of money “fighting” the crime syndicate, not to mention on lost revenue they could have been making on the taxation of alcohol.

The second point of evidence is this “war on drugs” that has been waging for decades. People are still using drugs, only now the prohibition has caused a very dark and violent criminal underworld to emerge that is making society less functional and less safe. Look at what’s happening on the Mexico-U.S. border right now.

People will never stop using drugs. They have been using drugs since the beginning of time and will continue to do so. Legalizing and regulating them—taking the “market” out of the hands of the criminals—is the only way to deal with criminality.

One can easily argue, with evidence, that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol. Yes, pot kills brain cells, but it seldom if ever incites people to kill each other. No one has ever fatally overdosed on pot, nor gotten “pot poisoning.” Seldom do people smoke a joint in a bar and end up attacking each other with broken bottles and pool cues. Most people don’t get high off marijuana and beat their spouses or kids. This article is a pretty decent overview on the subject.

Pot is arguably less harmful than tobacco, too. There are no ties, as yet, between marijuana and any form of cancer. Yet alcohol and tobacco are legal and regulated, and marijuana is illegal. It seems absurd to a rational person. But those hardliners who are anti-pot base their stances on a mythical sense of morality. There is nothing inherently immoral about smoking pot, and nothing moral about drinking alcohol. The cultural mores are in fact cultural myths.

People are starting to realize this. And since the latest spate of bloody violence in Mexico and the United States by the drug cartels, it’s not just the hippy fringe groups who are arguing for the legalization of pot; members of the U.S. government know that the war on drugs isn’t working. They know that there are a great many benefits to legalizing, regulating, and taxing marijuana, not the least of which is taking away the one thing the drug lords need to be drug lords—a desperate population of consumers who can’t get their product anywhere else.

And so, over time, the moral outrage will wane and rationality will emerge victorious. Because progress happens, things change, even while those who fear it have both feet planted firmly in the past with their shoulders bracing against the wave that will eventually carry them away.

Emoticons of hearts, flowers, butterflies, and smiley faces

I heart Rachel Maddow so very, very much.

Hi, I'm Rachel Maddow.

Hi, I'm Rachel Maddow.

She is incredibly intelligent (a Rhodes Scholar), informed (a true geek, she bones up on all of her subjects before speaking about them), and a policy wonk (she seems to know a lot more than many politicians). Furthermore, she is extremely amiable and affable—you can’t not like her. (Really; that’s an order.) She’s funny, not above infusing her show with ample doses of humour, and she explains things really, really well. She doesn’t just report stuff. She goes one further and makes a real effort to understand complicated issues, often deeply, and then conveys what she has learned to the general public in ways that we can all understand.

But the thing about her being amiable and affable does not mean that she should be trifled with. On her show last night Rachel showed a side of herself that doesn’t come out very often and, oh my, did it give me goosebumps. (Okay, I was actually going to write that it had another physical effect on me, but I don’t wanna get dirty. Use your imagination.)

In the spirit of Rachel Maddow, here’s a little background first:

On the previous night’s show, Rachel talked about North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, who said that after a briefing in Washington last year about the looming financial crisis, he called his wife and told her, “Tonight, I want you to go to the ATM machine, and I want you to draw out everything it will let you take. And I want you to tomorrow, and I want you to go Sunday. I was convinced on Friday night that if you put a plastic card in an ATM machine the last thing you were going to get was cash.”

I'm amiable, affable, and funny.

I'm amiable, affable, and funny.

He said this, and Rachel reported it. Word for word.

You might want to watch the original story; this is what first got me feeling a little…tingly in my…naughty bits. “The FDIC insures your freakin’ deposits, Senator Genius.” Oh…Rachel…<drool>.

(By the way, I call her Rachel because I think if she met me she would want to be my best friend. I would never refer to my soon-to-be best friend by her last name!)

In the past Rachel has also condemned Burr for blocking the nomination of Iraq War veteran and double-amputee Tammy Duckworth as Assistant Secretary of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs for the Veterans’ Affairs Department. Duckworth is very highly regarded and her nomination was disputed by pretty much no one, except Burr. And he has yet to explain why he was blocking the nomination.

Okay, so on to last night’s show where Rachel responded to a letter of complaint she received from Senator Burr’s office accusing her of, among other things, defamation.

But don't mess with me or I'll take you down.

But don't mess with me; I'll take you down.

You gotta watch this. (It begins at 1:20.)

Oh, Rachel, <hearts>, I didn’t think it was possible to love you more. Your last line…it’s like an an aphrodisiac!

Your take-away from these clips: Don’t mess with Rachel Maddow! (And Rachel Maddow wants to be my best friend. It’s a subtle subtext, but it’s there.)

Create a new reading of the world

One of my favourite radio shows is This American Life, which I listen to online. Recently I listened to this episode, called Mapping. In five acts, it tells stories about mapping the world through each of the five senses.

In act two (sound), Atlantic Monthly editor Toby Lester tells his story. While sitting at work one day he became aware of the musical hum of the heating system and the fainter hum of his computer. He brought in a pitch pipe to figure out what the two notes were, and discovered that the interval they created together was a major third—traditionally considered a happy interval. But once he added the note of his telephone’s dial tone, which he heard a lot throughout the day, the three-note chord produced was an augmented fourth—a decidedly grating chord.

The segment producer/narrator said at the beginning of the story that once you begin to pay attention to all of the sounds around you, you will be unable to not hear them. And he was right. I don’t have the musical knowledge to determine the notes that surround me, but I am suddenly hyper-aware of the hum of my heating system and computer, along with the drone of traffic outside my window. And even the clacking of my keyboard provides a certain rhythm to it all.

I desperately want to know what chord I’m listening to all day (when not listening to podcasts, that is). Is it a minor chord (known to sound sad), or a major (known to sound happier)?

Now I cannot not “map” the world around me according to sound. Riding down the street I hear the voices of people, the sound of cars whooshing by, the screeching of street cars on their tracks.

This led me to think of something else.

One of my university Literature professors used to talk about how we were going to “create a reading” of a book. That term struck me as odd. Create a reading. What did that mean? You read a book; you didn’t create a reading of a book.

But I soon realized. If you read a book keeping an eye out for religious imagery, homoeroticism, or the treatment of women, then those are the things you will notice, mostly to the exclusion of other things. You are creating a reading of the book.

It’s like scanning a column of words looking for ones that begin with a certain letter; your eyes graze the other words while instantly spotting the ones you’re looking for. Same thing if you’re looking down a column of phone numbers for a particular one.

(Have you seen the count-the-basketball-passes awareness test? There is a new one now, too, and you can see them both here.  I’ll say no more so as not to ruin it, but you’ll get the analogy after you watch them.)

The “mapping the world through sound” story on This American Life in conjunction with this memory of my university Lit course made me realize that we create a reading of the world every moment of every day.

As a queer woman, I view the world through my particular lens. I see injustices and inequality every day in the ways in which women and queers are treated versus men and straight people. From the seemingly harmless focus on female politicians’ physical appearance and dress, to the blatantly harmful taking away of civil rights, I see it.

As a rationalist and critical thinker, I see the myriad ways people are fooled—or fool themselves—constantly.

As a cyclist I tend to miss seeing the little details on the streets of my city.

As a person living in a big city, I take for granted my access to art and culture, but probably don’t notice so much the lack of nature until I’m in nature.

Black people, disabled people, Jewish people, religious people, non-religious people, beautiful people, obese people—each of these “groups” constructs a reading of their world based on their own worldview, their own particular lens. And their reading restricts them from seeing the world as others may.

How often do you notice the presence or lack of wheelchair ramps?

Before I listened to this radio show it never occurred to me to pay attention to the mundane sounds that surround me every day, and certainly not to hear them as musical. And before reading this blog post, it probably never occurred to you take note of whether or not there is a wheelchair ramp on the building you are entering.

But now I can’t not hear the chords produced by the world around me. And, for a while at least, we will be unable to not notice whether there are wheelchair ramps.

Which means that we can create empathy!

Empathy is the ability to identify with and understand someone else’s experience or feelings. If we focus on creating a reading of the world using a lens that is not our own—skin colour, sex, sexuality, ability, aesthetic, etc.—we can at least momentarily empathize with people of that ilk.

Imagine for even one day that you have a physical disability. Of course you won’t be able to fully know what it’s like, but truly try to imagine that you are in a wheelchair for example. As you move through your day remind yourself, “I’m in a wheelchair.” Take note of how often you don’t have access to a building, or have to go around to the back to use a ramp, or take the elevator to another floor to use a wheelchair-accessible washroom (as in my workplace!). Very soon you will at least somewhat understand what it means to be a disabled person in this world.

Or imagine that you’re queer. Walk down the street thinking, “I’m gay.” Note all of the heterocentricity in the world—every single ad, the couples walking down the street, most of the music and television and film. Note how everyone just assumes that you, and everyone else, are straight. Try to understand how it must feel to not be represented by the society in which you live. Listen for and take to heart homophobic comments and looks (though they won’t be directed at you). Try to understand how it must feel to be hated for who you are by people who don’t even know you.

If we pay attention to how we create our own readings of the world by viewing it through our own lenses, be they social, political, physical, or whatever, then we may come to understand our biases and prejudices better.

And if we really try, even for a day once in a while, to construct a reading of the world via others’ lenses, we can become more empathetic, compassionate, tolerant, accepting, and open-minded.

Do as I say, not as I do

There is mounting and unequivocal evidence that the United States participated in torture. And by “participated in” I mean performed.

In February 2007, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was granted access to 14 “high-value detainees” being held in the Guantanamo Bay prison. Among them were Abu Zubaydah and Khaled Shaik Mohammed, whom you’ve probably heard of.

The ICRC is the only international organization that is granted such privileges. It produces reports that are meant solely for the authorities for whom they are written. It is on the grounds that these reports will never be made public nor discussed publicly that access is granted.

Recently, the February 2007 report the ICRC prepared for the CIA was leaked. Entitled “ICRC Report On the Treatment of Fourteen ‘High Value Detainees’ in CIA Custody,” the report details—and I mean details—what it refers to as “torture and/or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.”

Since the report has been made public by an unknown source, one can only speculate as to who may have leaked it. Perhaps a member of the U.S. government or a member of the ICRC who felt this information was vital for the public to know.

And it is vital.

There is no denying anymore that the U.S. tortured people. It has been confirmed by far too many legitimate sources, from judges to military insiders to the ICRC. It doesn’t matter why or in the name of what the U.S. perpetrated torture; what matters is that they knowingly, continually, and secretively broke international laws and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions.

We know that if this were done by another country, the United States would at least speak out against it, and at most participate in an international court proceeding to bring the offenders to justice. In fact, they have done so in the past.

Just last week Barack Obama said of North Korea’s most recent failed attempt to launch a missile: “North Korea broke the rules…. Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.”

Am I the only one who finds this hypocritical? I guess it only applies to other countries.

It is time, really, to make an extremely important statement to the world that violations of rules will not be tolerated—regardless of who the violators are. The United States can no longer get away with, “Do as I say, not as I do.” No one should be above the law.

The fact that no one in the U.S. is willing to touch this—yet—is disturbing. Clearly politics is more important than justice.

I urge you to read the International Committee of the Red Cross’s report here. It’s not that long, and it’s very readable.

Keep in mind as you read that it was not only these “high-value detainees” who were treated this way, but most of the hundreds of people they swept up and made prisoners indefinitely. Also keep in mind that, guilty or not, these people should have had charges laid against them, access to legal counsel, and trials to determine their guilt or innocence. They received none of these things. No charges were laid. No access to the outside world was granted. No trials were held. And the prisoners’ loved ones were not even made aware of what had happened to them.

Spread the word, especially if you happen to be American. Your country is working hard to clean up its reputation and standing in the world; Barack Obama is doing a great job of that. But as long as you continue to sheepishly ignore these most egregious abuses by your former administration, you will only be known as a hypocritical country, and you will never be able to claim the moral high ground again.

Save the CBC!

This is specifically for Canadians, but feel free to read on if you’re from outside of Canada. CBC is the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation—our publically funded television and radio network (much like the BBC in the UK, and similar to NPR in the U.S.).

I love the CBC. They are extremely supportive of independent music and always present high-grade television (especially documentaries). Many, many Canadians I know could not imagine life without CBC, so please sign the petition linked to below.

Dear friends,

The government is forcing the CBC to drastically cut 800 staff and programming. We urgently need a massive public outcry to Save the CBC:

Canada’s media networks have all been slammed by the recession. But the government is reportedly considering bailouts for its friends at private companies CTV and CanWest, while forcing the CBC and Radio Canada to drastically cut 800 staff and programming.

Our CBC is a national treasure, and a pillar of public-interest journalism in a country whose media is owned by a few large firms. We won’t hear an outcry from their media outlets, and the CBC is too principled to use its megaphone to make the case for itself. We are the only voice the CBC has.

We urgently need a massive public outcry to Save the CBC, click below to sign the petition. The government is weak and falling in the polls and enough outrage can make the difference. Parliamentarians have promised to deliver the petition directly in the House of Commons, and we’ll even fly a plane and banner over Parliament Hill with the message! Sign now, and forward this email to everyone who might care about this:

http://www.avaaz.org/en/save_the_cbc

The number of signatures on the petition will be crucial to the effectiveness of the campaign, so let’s get everyone who cares about the CBC and Radio Canada to sign.

The CBC is facing a budget shortfall that amounts to just $6 per Canadian, but its request to the government for a bridging loan to cover this was denied. The deep cuts the CBC is making will damage the organization across the board, and they will not be the last. If we don’t stand up for the CBC now, it stands to die a death by a thousand cuts. Harper’s minority government is politically vulnerable and falling in the polls – public outrage could turn the government around on this, but it has to happen now. Let’s move quickly.

With hope,

Ricken, Lisa-Marie, Laryn and the whole Avaaz Canada team.

P.S. Here are some links for more info on this:

An excellent web resource for information and action on the CBC, including the government’s consideration of bailouts of CanWest and other companies: http://www.friends.ca/

The Star reports on how opposition parties accuse Harper of using the recession as an excuse to gut the CBC:
http://www.thestar.com/News/Canada/article/608591

Union says Harper government strangling CBC:
http://www.cjad.com/news/565/899819

Ian Morrison: Stephen Harper’s hidden agenda for the CBC:
http://www.straight.com/article-206164/ian-morrison-stephen-harper%3F%3Fs-hidden-agenda-cbc

A crisis of identity: A reader letter to the Globe and Mail:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20090327.COLETTS27-1/TPStory/Comment

ABOUT AVAAZ: Avaaz.org is an independent, not-for-profit global campaigning organization that works to ensure that the views and values of the world’s people inform global decision-making. (Avaaz means “voice” in many languages.) Avaaz receives no money from governments or corporations, and is staffed by a global team based in Ottawa, London, Rio de Janeiro, New York, Buenos Aires, and Geneva. Call us at: +1 888 922 8229 or +55 21 2509 0368.

How to be Bill-free

It was announced recently that a lawyer in Madrid, Spain prepared a case to seek criminal investigation into violations of international law by six former high-level Bush administration officials.

No, not Dick Cheney (more on that later), but former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales (the guy who “can’t recall remembering” much of anything), former Justice Department lawyer John Yoo (the guy who wrote the legal memos stating that the president had the authority to essentially ignore the Geneva Conventions), another former Justice Department lawyer Jay Bybee (Yoo’s former boss), former Vice President Dick Cheney’s former chief of staff and legal adviser David Addington, former Department of Defense counsel William Haynes, and former undersecretary of defense for policy Douglas Feith.

The charges against these folks are based on the Geneva Conventions and the 1984 Convention Against Torture. The 145 signing countries have the authority—and, some would argue, the obligation—to investigate torture cases. Of course the stakes are somewhat higher when a country’s own citizens have been abused, as five Spanish citizens held at Guantanamo Bay were.

Alberto Gonzales, John Yoo, and the others are said to have violated international laws by providing the legal framework (read: ass-covering) for torture, including waterboarding.

The National Court in Madrid sent the case for review by none other than Baltasar Garzon—the judge who ordered the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (who was nabbed in Britain, but never stood trial).

Spain is the first country to take seemingly serious action on this, but certainly not the first to be talking about it. Canadian lawyers got in on the act, and there were hopes that they would pounce on Bush himself when he made an appearance here in March. But it turned out to be just talk. Or at least much more complicated than simply slapping the cuffs on him and dragging him away.

Though prosecutions in cases like this are extremely rare, if Spain were successful in this, it could clear a direct path to Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush.

Enter Bill O’Reilly.

An endless source of amusement, O’Reilly has threatened Spain, saying the following in his Fox “News” television show:

“Here’s the deal, Spain—if this goes forward, you’ll be insulting America. Unless this action is condemned by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero, then I am not going to that country.”

Shortly after this aired, Spain released a statement in response:

“Oooooh, we’re scared.”

The following countries have since hurriedly announced that they too would be seeking criminal prosecutions against former Bush administration officials:

  • Afghanistan
  • Albania
  • Angola
  • Argentina
  • Armenia
  • Australia
  • Austria
  • Bangladesh
  • Barbados
  • Belgium
  • Belize
  • Bermuda
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Bulgaria
  • Cambodia
  • Canada
  • Chad
  • Chile
  • China
  • Colombia
  • Croatia
  • Cuba
  • Cyprus
  • Czech Republic
  • Denmark
  • Dominican Republic
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • Fiji
  • Finland
  • France
  • Germany
  • Ghana
  • Greece
  • Greenland
  • Guyana
  • Hong Kong
  • Hungary
  • Iceland
  • India
  • Indonesia
  • Iran
  • Iraq
  • Ireland
  • Israel
  • Italy
  • Jamaica
  • Japan
  • Jordan
  • Kazakhstan
  • Kenya
  • Kuwait
  • Lebanon
  • Libya
  • Luxembourg
  • Madagascar
  • Malawi
  • Malaysia
  • Mexico
  • Moldova
  • Morocco
  • Mozambique
  • Namibia
  • Nepal
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • Nicaragua
  • Nigeria
  • Norway
  • Pakistan
  • Peru
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Portugal
  • Romania
  • Russia
  • Saudi Arabia
  • Senegal
  • Singapore
  • Slovakia
  • Slovenia
  • Somalia
  • South Africa
  • Sri Lanka
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Syria
  • Taiwan
  • Thailand
  • Trinidad and Tobago
  • Turkey
  • Uganda
  • Ukraine
  • United Arab Emirates
  • United Kingdom
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela
  • Vietnam
  • Yemen
  • Zambia

and

  • Zimbabwe

…so far.