Secular Christmas

Every year since I’ve become politically cognizant it seems I’ve had to endure people bickering about the ‘controversy’ over Christmas. Is it a war on Christmas, as right-wing TV and radio hosts purport? Is it offensive to say “Happy Holidays” or “Season’s Greetings” as opposed to “Merry Christmas?” Is being inclusive and saying “Happy Hanukkah,” “Happy Kwanzaa,” etc. a slippery slope? Is it hypocritical at best, politically or ethically untenable at worst, for non-theists to celebrate Christmas? Some non-theists don’t celebrate Christmas because of its religious connotations, and some theists think that non-Christians shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. It’s a whole, annoying bog.

The fact is that all of the alleged controversy can be rendered irrelevant by accepting that Christmas has become largely a secular holiday.

Out of the gate let me say that of course there is certainly a contingent of religious people for whom December 25th is the birthday of Jesus Christ, and who celebrate the date as such. But generally the majority in the world who celebrate Christmas—even in countries with very few Christians—celebrate it as a secular tradition rather than a religious one.

Christmas is mostly about giving and receiving presents, eating a lot of food, getting shmammered, attending parties, and spending time with family and friends. For some, it is about all of these things and attending church. (Although in my experience I’ve found that many of the Christmas church-goers attend more out of habit, tradition, or ‘keeping up appearances’ than to worship a god. In many cases, the folks who attend mass on Christmas only go to church once or twice a year—the other being Easter.)

If the devoutly religious want Christmas to be purely about religion, then they must eschew all of the other Christmas traditions: gifts, food, lights, trees, etc. If they don’t and yet still complain about the secular ‘co-opting’ of Christmas, then they are nothing more than hypocrites.

But what is Christmas, anyway? Is it historically a purely religious, Christian celebration?

If it is true that Jesus were a real historical figure, it is the consensus of most historians and theologians based on available evidence that December 25th was not the actual date of his birth. (Most accounts place it in the spring.) December 25th was originally a Roman winter solstice festival known as Sol Invictus, which celebrated the “rebirth” of the Sun; several Sun gods were worshipped, including Sol and Mithras. Because it was already such a popular pagan holiday, it was claimed as the birthday of Jesus. Even so, celebrating the birth of Jesus was condemned and looked down upon by Christians for most of history, and Christians didn’t start celebrating Christmas as we know it until the 1800s.

The gift-giving part of Christmas—some would say the #1 Christmas tradition—was actually introduced long after the Church decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The tradition does not derive from the three wise men in the bible, as many believe. In fact, gift exchange derived from Saturnalia, a popular Roman holiday dating to 217 BCE that celebrated the god Saturn. Saturnalia involved sacrifices, a school holiday, and, yes, the exchange of gifts.

Even if we grant the war-on-Christmas types the two lies they claim as truth (that Jesus was born on December 25th and that the gift-exchange tradition comes from the three wise men), I wonder how Jesus would feel about people celebrating his birth by literally trampling each other to death in a Walmart in order to buy the $450 video game on sale for $350.

As for that exalted symbol the Christmas tree—it is a tradition that dates to 16th century Germany. It was considered good luck to hang an evergreen at the apex of a house, and over time this morphed into having the tree inside and decorating it. The tradition immigrated to North America along with the Germans.

Traditions are what society is based on, no matter where you live in the world or what your society looks like. Traditions are mostly benign. They are also malleable and tend to change over time. And generally society changes with them. We celebrate Halloween: kids dress up in costumes and beg for candy door to door; adults dress up in costumes and parade and/or party. We do not celebrate the Celtic festival Samhain, from which Halloween is derived, warding off evil spirits by disguising ourselves as them, or slaughtering livestock and casting their bones into bonfires. (At least I hope we don’t!)

Christmas may have meant one thing once upon a time, but now it means something different. No, Virginia, there is no Santa Claus, but we can still celebrate Christmas. Even the non-religious can celebrate Christmas because it’s about tradition, merriment, nostalgia, and making new memories. It’s an excuse to get together with family and friends we don’t see very often. It’s fun to see the excitement and awe in children’s eyes. The food, candy, and chocolate are great and some people even like Christmas music. The sweaters are mostly bad, and feelings about egg nog are split.

As for me, I have grown increasingly weary of Christmas. It seems the magic goes out of it when you’re no longer a child and don’t have children in your life. But it’s the crass commercialism and pure gaudiness that I abhor more than anything. (But if that doesn’t bother you and you still have some names to cross off your shopping list, may I suggest The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by the brain behind the atheist bus campaign, Ariane Sherine.)

Christmas is no Halloween, but if I remove the religiosity and the crass commercialism, it’s a pretty nice holiday. For whatever reason The Sound of Music is always on TV this time of the year, and that’s enough for me.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Festivus, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Human Rights Day, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy New Year, Happy Omisoka, Happy St. Lucia Day, Happy Winter Solstice, Merry X-mas …and Happy any-other-December-holiday-you-may-celebrate-that-I-may-have-inadvertently-left-out!

A few quotations from well-known scientists, skeptics, and atheists on this subject:

“But of course it has long since ceased to be a religious festival. I participate for family reasons, with a reluctance that owes more to aesthetics than atheistics. I detest Jingle Bells, White Christmas, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, and the obscene spending bonanza that nowadays seems to occupy not just December, but November and much of October, too. So divorced has Christmas become from religion that I find no necessity to bother with euphemisms such as happy holiday season. In the same way as many of my friends call themselves Jewish atheists, I acknowledge that I come from Christian cultural roots. I am a post-Christian atheist. So, understanding full well that the phrase retains zero religious significance, I unhesitatingly wish everyone a Merry Christmas.” – Richard Dawkins

“It seems to me to be obvious that everything we value in Christmas—giving gifts, celebrating the holiday with our families, enjoying all of the kitsch that comes along with it—all of that has been entirely appropriated by the secular world.” – Sam Harris

“My personal war on Christmas is fought in a way the Bill O’Reillys of the world don’t even recognize: I blithely wish people a Merry Christmas without so much as a germ of religious reverence anywhere in my body. I take this holiday and turn it into a purely secular event, with family and friends and food and presents. I celebrate the season without thought of Jesus or any of the other myths so precious to the pious idiots who get upset when a Walmart gives them a cheery ‘Happy Holidays!’” – PZ Meyers

Poor people, make way for sports!

Now that Rio de Janeiro has won its bid to host the 2016 summer Olympics, it will be interesting to see what happens to the 1.3 million impoverished people who live in the over 750 favelas on the hills surrounding the city.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Favelas are essentially slums or shanty towns (“favela” translates into “slum” in Brasilian Portuguese) set up in the suburbs of a city by by the poor who have no other means of shelter. They have existed since the late 1800s after former African slaves were ‘freed’ but had no rights to land ownership, means of education, or means of employment. Poor and with no rights or place to go, they started setting up shacks in rural areas and over the years moved closer and closer to the cities in an effort to find work. Now, Rio de Janeiro has the second greatest number of favelas in Brasil after Sao Paulo — 612 for Sao Paulo and 513 for Rio based on the 2000 Brasilian census, although the number for Rio is now over 750. Nineteen percent of Rio’s population lives in favelas and the population growth in favelas is higher than the population growth of Brasil as a whole.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Various governments throughout Brasil’s history have attempted to remove the favelas, beginning in the 1940s when many of them were destroyed in favour of public housing. When the public housing was not delivered, the favelas essentially went right back up on the grounds from which they were originally cleared. Again in the 1950s the government attempted to ‘clean up’ the favelas by building two large apartment complexes, which did not solve the problem of the need for favelas. In the 1970s, while under military dictatorship, the government once again tried to destroy the favelas and move their inhabitants to public housing. However, the poor could not afford even public housing, and so the favelas persisted.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

Rio de Janeiro's favelas.

The number of people living in these slums is due largely to the economic divide in Brasil, which is among the biggest in the world. Over one third of the population lives below the poverty line. The poor and middle class continue to grow poorer while the rich grow richer and control the majority of the wealth.

And of course, drugs and gang warfare are huge problems in the favelas. Thanks to internationally successful films such as City of God (Cidade de Deus), Last Stop 174 (Ultima Parada 174), and to a lesser extent Favela Rising, most people have a sense of what life in the favelas is like.

It could be that getting the Olympics will be a good thing for the 1.3 million impoverished people in Rio. But it’s also likely that they will suffer (even more) from it, as the poor of Durban, South Africa are now suffering from being the host city to the 2010 World Cup.

Durban is one of the most highly populated countries in South Africa, and tens of thousands of people still live in shacks because, although housing is included in their Consititution as a basic human right, the poor have so far not benefitted from this because of the anti-poor sentiments in post-apartheid South Africa. Again, a huge gap between the rich and the poor (here this means between whites and blacks) is in evidence.

Durban's shacks.

Durban's shacks.

There is an organization in Durban called The Shack Dwellers Movement, which comprises tens of thousands of poor people who have been waiting for housing since 1994. Durban itself has 14 informal settlements of about 5,000 to 7,000 people each.

The Shack Dwellers are trying to fight for their rights to homes while they are being displaced by the government in order to build stadiums, malls, and freeways for the 2010 World Cup. The Slum Act, which was introduced by the government in 2006, essentially says that anyone who resists eviction can be fined or sentenced to prison terms. Evictions are occuring in great numbers now as land is being appropriated for the aforementioned stadiums, malls, and freeways in preparation for the big soccer matches.

Durban's shacks.

Durban's shacks.

The World Cup coming to Durban has meant the mass eviction of poor people and the destruction of their shack homes. The poor are being shuttled to transitional relocation camps on the promise of public housing about 50 km outside of the city (and 50 km away from their jobs, schools, and hospitals). In fact, this public housing does not exist and the poor are going to have to live in these relocation camps for at least 10 years.

The film District 9 is not an analogy for South Africa during apartheid; sadly, it is still a reality for many of the poor there. It’s a new apartheid.

Will Brasil’s successful Olympic bid provide the same fate to the favela dwellers in Rio as South Africa’s successful World Cup bid provided to the shack dwellers in Durban? Only time will tell.

Quotation of the week

“When will our consciences grow so tender that we act to prevent human misery rather than avenge it?”   – Eleanor Roosevelt

Happy Pride!

PrideThis year’s Pride marks the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall riots (Pride month is generally June).

In the United States in the 1960s, gay bars were raided by police regularly, and anyone found within was alternately beaten or arrested, or both.

But on June 28, 1969, the people fought back. The patrons of the Stonewall Inn in New York City resisted the police and as many as 2,000 people took part in the ensuing riot, which lasted several days.

The Stonewall riots are often credited with sparking the modern equality movement of the GLBT community.

It is worth remembering and thinking about this as we celebrate Pride this year. Gay Pride events around the world celebrate the movement’s progress towards equality for queer people, and it’s hard to imagine “the movement” without Stonewall.

We have come a long way in 40 years, but full equality is still elusive. The Gay Pride movement is as important as ever. But some argue that events like Pride parades mar “mainstream” society’s perception of the queer community, doing more harm than good.

Non-queer or non-queer-friendly people may look at the display with disdain, imagining that the nudity, Dykes on Bikes, leather daddies, bears, drag queens, and drag kings are a representative depiction of the queer community as a whole. And these people would be hypocrites who haven’t taken a moment to really think about it.

Do Americans have to struggle to prove their legitimacy and normalcy after Mardi Gras? Does the rest of the world imagine that all Americans are always drunken, vomiting fucktards in elaborate costumes who get naked for some cheap plastic beads? Do Brasilians have to prove their legitimacy and normalcy after Carnival? What about teenagers and twenty-somethings after Spring Break? Do they all have to go back to their respective high schools, colleges, and home towns and prove that they aren’t always drunken freaks who will fuck and suck anyone or anything in front of a camera?

Do people who participate in Mardi Gras, Carnival, or Spring Break relinquish their politics?

Pride, like Mardi Gras, Carnival, Spring Break, and probably most weddings you’ve been to, is a celebration. It’s a liberation. Once a year, queers and queer-friendly straight people come together to celebrate and party. And on Monday they all don their normal clothes and go to their normal jobs, come home to their normal spouses and make a normal dinner for their normal kids (or what-have-you).

You needn’t look hard to see that the political/social struggle for equality and resistance against discrimination and oppression are still alive and well within Pride events: signs, booths, petitions, flyers, buttons, flags, and statements from stage are ubiquitous. Members of the queer community who bemoan Pride events as lacking politics are perhaps missing the point. Gay Pride is a celebration first and foremost, but it is also a political statement by the very fact of its existence.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with a group of friends while watching one of the early season one episodes of the lesbian show The L Word. The conversation was about whether or not The L Word was a political show. Someone asked me my opinion and I said that I thought the existence of the show itself is a political statement.

Marshall McLuhan said “the medium is the message.” In this case, the Pride parade itself—that thumping beat, that rainbow flag, that naked body, that cheering crowd—is the message. That is the politics.

Millions of people from all over the world travel to some of the biggest Prides, in New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Mexico City, Sao Paulo, Sydney, etc. It’s a celebration, but the message is that it’s okay to be queer and proud of it, that it’s okay to celebrate sexuality. These are still political messages.

The sexual liberation of Pride owes a lot to the feminist and “free love” movements, advocating that it’s okay to be sexual, to enjoy sex, to talk about sex (as long as it is between, or among, consenting adults). The queer community embraces and celebrates queerness, sexuality, and the body. That’s political.

Not that Pride is all about sex. Far from it. It’s about community, family, politics, music, kids and dogs, water guns and stickers, drinking and dancing, open-mindedness, acceptance, celebration, and…pride.

Pride is a confluence of politics, community, and celebration. Maybe the overt politics do come second to the celebration. But it is a celebration after all. Some 363 days of the year most queers live their politics, constantly fighting for equal rights. Two days out of the year they celebrate because they are not ashamed of who they are; they are proud to shout it from the back of a flatbed truck.

If Pride were a three-day conference with political speakers and action groups, do you think anyone in the mainstream public would care? Would municipal governments, business owners, and the media clamour to be a part of it? Would we be all over the television, internet, and newspapers? Not a chance.

The gay rights movement, like any equality movement, is about the socio-political struggle for equal rights. Pride is about celebration.

The two can, and do, converge.

The torture debate is torture!

Again in the news today the Republican Party is bleating the same old nonsensical party line.

The Republican Party has incurred the wrath of many by speaking to the press about a closed Intelligence Committee hearing on interrogation that took place on Thursday.

And what did they say? “Torture worked,” of course. It’s the same line many, especially Dick Cheney, have been touting for months and months now. Except that they don’t use that word “torture;” they say “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

First they denied that the United States tortured. “We do not torture,” said Bush and Cheney and others.

Then all of this stuff called factual evidence came out proving that the United States did indeed torture, so now they’re denying that it was bad because it “worked.”

And now everywhere—on every news program, in every newspaper, on every blog, on every political commentary show—people are just arguing over whether or not torture “works.”

Back and forth, back and forth. Over and over and over again. It’s nauseating.

Because amid all of this headache-inducing arguing, no one is saying the one thing that actually matters, that is truly important, that will render the debate irrelevant: IT DOESN’T MATTER!!!

While it’s nice that most evidence indicates that torture does not work (worse, that it is detrimental and impedes the interrogative progress), it simply does not matter. It is illegal. Period.

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture quite clearly:

From Article 1:

  • “For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.”

From Article 2:

  • “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”
  • “An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.”

The United States signed this Convention in 1988, about three years after 24 other nations signed it.

The United States and all of the other countries in the world also signed The Geneva Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, which states in part:

  • “The present Convention shall apply to all cases of declared war or of any other armed conflict which may arise between two or more of the High Contracting Parties, even if the state of war is not recognized by one of them.”
  • “The Convention shall also apply to all cases of partial or total occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party, even if the said occupation meets with no armed resistance.”
  • “Prisoners of war are in the hands of the enemy Power, but not of the individuals or military units who have captured them. Irrespective of the individual responsibilities that may exist, the Detaining Power is responsible for the treatment given them.”
  • “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated. Any unlawful act or omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited, and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention.”
  • “Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”
  • “Prisoners of war are entitled in all circumstances to respect for their persons and their honour. Women shall be treated with all the regard due to their sex and shall in all cases benefit by treatment as favourable as that granted to men. Prisoners of war shall retain the full civil capacity which they enjoyed at the time of their capture. The Detaining Power may not restrict the exercise, either within or without its own territory, of the rights such capacity confers except in so far as the captivity requires.”

Okay, so here we have the two legally binding, international agreements signed by the United States.

And over here we have the pile of evidence (including Dick Cheney’s own use of the word “torture”) showing that the United States did in fact violate the UN Convention against torture and the Geneva Convention. This International Committee of the Red Cross report (among many, many other papers that have been released or leaked) proves that these violations occurred.

And nowhere will you see in the UN Convention or the Geneva Convention a line that reads: “But if you think that torture works, then please disregard all of the above.”

It simply doesn’t matter whether or not it worked. It is heartening to know that most evidence suggests it does not, as that lends credence to the folks fighting for justice and human rights—but it’s irrelevant.

The only relevant point is that torture is illegal; it’s not to be done.

But nobody is saying this! Talking heads and…writing hands are all busy making noise about whether or not it worked. If somehow Dick Cheney manages to get his two imaginary “all-proving” memos declassified and released, will that absolve the U.S. because the torture worked and therefore was not illegal?!?!

I work in the arts and therefore don’t have a lot of money. I’ve got student loan debt and credit card debt. I’d love to travel and buy a new bike. But I don’t have money. Perhaps I should rob a bank! I wouldn’t be breaking the law, right, because if I robbed a bank I’d have money, which would prove that robbing the bank worked.

There are some people in this world I don’t like. I don’t use the word “hate” (and mean it) very often, but there are a couple of people I wouldn’t mind being dead. Maybe I should kill them! I wouldn’t be breaking the law, right, because if I killed them then they would be dead, thus proving that killing them worked in accomplishing making them dead.

Every day I read a lot of blogs and newspaper articles from all over the world, I listen to podcasts and radio shows, I watch the news and political commentary shows (yes, even some right-wing shows, though admittedly not very often because I like my head and don’t want it to explode). And I think only twice have I heard someone say that this whole debate is childish and backwards, that it’s irrelevant whether or not torture is effective because no one’s supposed to do it.

One of those people was Rachel Maddow, whose show I happily admit to listening to every day. Here’s what she said on the matter, and I think she sums up the argument brilliantly and viscerally:

“Ultimately I think the debate will have fully matured when we stop debating that point all together. I mean, what if you can get great answers out of people from waterboarding? What if you can get great answers out of people from dangling them out of helicopters over the open sea? What if you can get great answers out of people from raping them or killing their children in front of them? I mean, honestly—where do you stop?! The point about torture is that it doesn’t matter if it’s  effective; we don’t do it!

“The whole debate about effectiveness denies the idea that torture is beyond the pale. The reason that there are statutes against torture is not because people never thought it was effective before and were doing it otherwise. Everybody who has ever tortured did it because they thought it was effective—whether to discover whether or not somebody was a witch, or whether to discover the end of the plot on 24, or whether to discover whatever it was Dick Cheney wanted to discover in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib.

“But the point of effectiveness ultimately will be left behind when the debate returns to its rational foundations.”

Aaaah, fully matured debates and rational foundations. If only.

(For more on this topic, as explored by me, click here.)

Not a few bad apples—an abusive and corrupt orchard

This is an article entitled “Report Details Abuses in Irish Church-Run Reformatories,” written by Sharon Otterman in The New York Times:

A commission investigating child abuse in Ireland’s Roman Catholic-run state orphanages, reformatories and schools released a scathing report on Wednesday, documenting widespread physical, sexual and emotional abuse of thousands of children over 60 years.

Government inspectors failed to stop chronic beatings, rapes and humiliation in the state sponsored institutions. In some schools, the report found, “a high level of ritualized beating was routine.”

The commission, which began its work in 2000, investigated the fate of more than 30,000 children consigned to a network of church-run institutions and schools between the 1920s and the 1980s, when most of them were closed. The Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse investigated complaints from more than 1,700 individuals — many of them now more than 70 years old.

The 2,600-page report, released Wednesday, seems likely to further undercut the moral authority of the Catholic church in a once devout country where attendance at mass has plunged over the last decade. It found that a climate of fear permeated most of the institutions, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment at the hands of priests and nuns. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating or sexual assault was coming from.

“Physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions,” the report concluded. “Sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions. Schools were run in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff.”

The nation’s Department of Education, responsible for supervising the schools, failed to protect the children, the report found, deferring to the religious orders running the institutions day-to-day, chiefly the Christian Brothers for boys and the Sisters of Mercy for girls.

“The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools,” the report said.

The authorities mostly turned a deaf ear to the reports of abuse, particularly sexual predation by priests and inmates in the boys’ institutions, even when the victims came to them with complaints, the commission said.

“The management did not listen to or believe children when they complained of the activities of some of the men who had responsibility for their care,” the commission found. “At best, the abusers were moved, but nothing was done about the harm done to the child. At worst, the child was blamed and seen as corrupted by the sexual activity, and was punished severely.”

The commission, headed by an Irish judge, Sean Ryan, took nine years to release its findings because of delays from church lawsuits, missing documentation and alleged government obstruction. Its original chairwoman, Judge Mary Laffoy, resigned in 2004 after what she said was obstruction by the Education Department. Critics of the commission say the department never fully cooperated with the investigation.

Children were committed to the network of reformatories for infractions as minor as truancy and petty theft, while others, such as unwed teenage mothers and the children of unwed mothers, were sent there by their families. The government paid 27 church orders to run the more than 250 institutions covered by the report.

Many of the 30,000 children ordered into the system had no access to education, and were instead forced to work as virtual prisoners until age 16, victims of the abuse have testified.

John Kelly, the coordinator of the Irish organization, Survivors of Child Abuse, spent 1965 to 1967 in the Daingean reformatory after he was accused of stealing a bar of chocolate as a young teenager. He said he suffered sexual and physical abuse.

“The state abdicated responsibility for the children, they said these people could do what they like,” he said in a telephone interview Wednesday. “And that’s exactly what they did.”

“I feel angry and bitter that we feel deceived and cheated. There is no closure from this report.”

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern authorized the inquiry after issuing an apology in 1999 on behalf of the Irish state to thousands of orphans and other children who were abused in the institutions. It was established as a truth-finding body, with the intention of finding ways for survivors to best deal with their wounds.

The report does not name the accused because of a lawsuit from the Christian Brothers, the religious order than ran many of the boy’s reformatories. Many of the accused priests, brothers and nuns are long dead.

In 2003, a different government-appointed board authorized government compensation for the child victims of the schools as part of a controversial government-church deal in which the taxpayer, rather than church authorities, footed most of the bill. That committee has distributed almost $1.5 billion in compensation and legal fees to 12,500 people, and 2,000 claims remain pending.

The commission struggled largely unsuccessfully to secure cooperation from the 27 religious orders and the Education Department, which possesses most of the school, reformatory, workhouse and orphanage records. In the end, it went largely on the testimony of a large number of victims, which it found credible.

The commission said in 2004 that only two orders had fully cooperated with the investigation. It said others demanded proof from victims for all allegations, making the commission’s work “more protracted and costly than it should be.”

During the commission’s investigations, hundreds of children held in the system traveled back to Ireland from as far away as the United States and Australia to describe childhoods of terror and intimidation.

The commission leaves open the question of whether individual government officials or inspectors, as well as the members of religious orders who committed the abuse, should be prosecuted.

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.

Slippery slope made of shit

Newshounds is a great web site. Their tag line is: “We watch Fox News so you don’t have to.”

It’s perfect for me because even though I know some people watch Fox “News” from time to time just for a laugh, I can’t do it. It (almost literally) makes my blood boil. I’d love to strap on a blood pressure machine and take some measurements while watching Fox “News.” At any rate, I have to settle for reading about their inanity and then seeking out clips on YouTube and such.

Newshounds, though, cuts my workload down quite a bit because they usually post the videos right there for me! I don’t envy them having to watch Fox “News” and I thank them for doing it so I don’t have to.

Today this little tidbit struck me. On his show, Bill O’Reilly—railing against equal marriage once again—said this:

“Remember, ladies and gentlemen, if gay marriage is okay then you’re going to have all marriages okay. You can’t say gays can marry but triads can’t, or polygamists can’t, or marrying your cousin [sic]. Under equal protection, it’s everybody can do whatever they want. You can’t say we’re just going to get one group in.”

There aren’t enough arghs and blergs in the world to capture how I feel about this.

Okay, first of all, I could just say this and end it right now: Heterosexuals are a group. Therefore, based on O’Reilly’s logic that you can’t just let “one group in,” then no one should be able to get married. “Thankfully straights can’t get married, because if they could then everyone would want to get married. Phew!”

I love how that logic seems perfectly…logical to him, but the same argument for equal marriage does not: You can’t say heterosexuals can marry but homosexuals can’t.

A big derrrr to that one.

Sadly this debate keeps going on and on and on, as if there is legitimately anything to debate. I can’t wrap my mind around it. Letting two consenting adults get married is NOT in any way equivalent to polygamy, pedophilia, or bestiality.

This “slippery slope” argument is often used by bigots, hatemongers, and anti-equal marriage crusaders to oppose equal human rights. It’s absurd. These slippery-slopers say, “If we let two consenting adults of the same sex marry, what’s next? People will want to marry their children, or their dog!”

I wish I could laugh, but sadly these arguments sometimes work on people. It’s a classic scare tactic used by fearmongers and hatemongers.

I also oppose this argument from proponents of equal marriage: “What the hell difference does it make who gets married? People should be able to marry whomever they want! I should be able to marry a chicken or this chair if I want to!”

No.

When people use arguments like this to support equal rights, they instead embolden the enemies of equal rights. It lends credence to ridiculous arguments. No, we should not be able to marry a chicken. Nor a child. Nor a chair. That’s absurd, and to even put it in the same category as a woman marrying a woman or a man marrying a man ridicules and weakens the real and logical arguments for equal marriage.

Marriage between two consenting adults of the same sex should not and must not be lumped in with things like bestiality, pedophilia, and whatever the hell it would be called if people could marry inanimate objects. There is the consensual agreement and commitment between two adults, and then there’s everything else. Equal marriage does not fall into the “everything else” category.

The bigots are now calling their campaign “defense of marriage,” as if equal marriage will somehow endanger the oh-so-stellar reputation of this pristine institution that has a 40% divorce rate.

(By the way, for those religious folks who claim that the bible dictates that homosexuality is wrong, and therefore it is wrong: The bible condemns divorce waaaaay more than it condemns homosexuality. And the argument that it condemns homosexuality at all is specious at best. Oh, and the bible also condemns worshipping false idols, like all those little Jesus and Mary statues and pictures you’ve got in your house, around your neck, or on your car’s dashboard. And it condemns gambling. And owning stuff. It also condemns the observance of special days, like Christmas and Easter and Good Friday and…. )

Let’s get real here and address the fears these scare tactics are meant to stir. Netherlands was the first country to federally legalize same-sex marriage, in 2001. I think Netherlands is still a country, eight years on, and that it hasn’t fallen into the sea. Belgium followed, in 2003, legalizing same-sex marriage country-wide and it didn’t melt into a seething lava pit of sin. Canada (yay!) and Spain were the third and fourth countries, respectively, to federally legalize same-sex marriage, in June 2005.

I live in Canada. It’s been four years. So far I have personally witnessed the happy weddings and marriages of a few homosexual couples, as well as those of a few heterosexual couples. What? Did I just say heterosexual marriages? Yes I did. And no, I do not jest. It was a surprise to all, but allowing same-sex marriage did not cause the institution of marriage to instantly implode.

South Africa was the fifth country (2005) and Norway the sixth (2008) to legalize same-sex marriage. Yes, apartheid South Africa.

So can everyone please just shut the fuck up about gay marriage ruining whatever-the-hell? “It will ruin the institution of marriage!” “It will ruin families!” “It will ruin children!”

You know what’s ruining the institution of marriage? You, when you watch The Bachelor, get quickly and drunkenly married in Las Vegas, or abuse your wife.

You know what’s ruining children? You and your hatemongering. Like it or not, gay exists. A significant portion of the population is gay. Someone you love is gay. One (or more) of your children may be gay. A child is born gay. If you believe such things, then god/the gods made her that way. She is told all her life that she is wrong, sick, bad, sinful, distasteful, dangerous, gross, and that she is not afforded protection under the law or equal human rights. She is told these things by you. Do you know that the highest suicide rate among teenagers is among gay teenagers? Yeah, that’s all on you. Have fun living with that.

This argument is always used whenever people fear something, even if they fear it for no legitimate reason. Oh, think of what it will do to families! The institution of marriage! The children! Won’t somebody think of the children!?!?

Families will not crumble if two consenting adults are allowed to get married. Society will not crumble if two consenting adults are allowed to get married. The institution of marriage will not crumble if two consenting adults are allowed to get married. And children will not suffer if their parents are allowed to be married.

In fact, two consenting adults are already allowed to get married all over the world—as long as they’re straight. If they happen to be infected with “the gay” then they can only get married in Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, South Africa, and Norway. For now.

Secondly, can we please start focussing on things that actually do hurt society? How about rape? We could start with priests raping children—that’s a good place to start if you care about the children. What about “deadbeat dads” who don’t pay child support, thus stigmatizing and sending into poverty single-parent families? There are a few wars going on somewhere I think, not to mention some genocides that could use our attention. Homelessness? Addiction? Poverty? Hey, how about the fact that we’re killing the earth, which is already overpopulated and unable to sustain its population? Human trafficking. Child labour/slavery/abuse.

There. I’ve just given you anti-equal marriage crusaders plenty of things you can do to fill your time rather than opposing two consenting adults committing to one another in a loving and legal way, thus enjoying all of the rights they are entitled to as human beings.

Go fight those wars because this is not a war. And even if you think it is, you’ve already lost anyway. Society is always ahead of the law when it comes to civil rights; it’s just a matter of time now before the law catches up in most of the world. So save your breath, your time, your energy, and some trees, and stop protesting equal marriage.

Use your resources for something important. If you really care about children, then go save a child from a real enemy right now—an abusive parent, a pedophile priest, slavery, poverty, gang violence, illiteracy…. Go. Go now.

For further reading on the “slippery slope” argument: http://www.slate.com/id/2100824/.

Can the United States impeach Fox “News”?

On a Fox “News” show Red Eye with Greg Gutfeld the host and his panelists called Canada a “ridiculous country” and made light of Canada’s sacrifices in Afghanistan.

The remarks came after Canadian Lt. Gen. Andrew Leslie had said the military would “have to explore the possibility of taking a short operational break” after Canada’s mission in Afghanistan ends in 2011 because of personnel and equipment shortages.

Gutfeld said:

“The Canadian military wants to take a breather to do some yoga, paint landscapes, run on the beach in gorgeous white capri pants…. Isn’t this the perfect time to invade this ridiculous country? They have no army.”

Clearly he has no understanding of “operational” break. It means no more fighting in wars for a while, not that we’ll “have no army.”

His panelists were all equally absurd, having a good laugh at all the people who have died in Afghanistan.

Doug Benson said, “I didn’t even know they were in the war. I thought that’s where you go if you don’t want to fight” (laughing off Canada allowing war-resistors and moral objectors into our country).

Gutfeld then arrogantly asked, “Would Canada be able to get away with this if it didn’t share a border with the most powerful country in the universe? Isn’t Canada doing what most of Europe does anyway, which is just rely on the U.S.A. in case anything bad happens?”

Another panelist, Monica Crowley, said that yes, of course Canada can only survive because of the “security backdrop of the United States.”

And Bill Schulz went even further in displaying that trademark ignorance by saying, “We have police, they have Mounties. Our cops ride heavily armoured cars [sic], their cops ride horses. We have bullet-proof vests, they have wonderful little red jackets that can be seen a mile away. This is not a smart culture, Greg.”

First of all, Mounties are police. Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It’s a national police service that, according to the RCMP web site: “[Is] unique in the world since it is a national, federal, provincial and municipal policing body.”

See? Cars, vests, and no "wonderful little red jackets".

See? The RCMP with cars, vests, and no "wonderful little red jackets".

Those “little red jackets” and horses are mostly symbolic and are seen in parades and other public relations events. The RCMP wears police uniforms (including bullet-proof vests) and rides in cars. Like the military has combat fatigues and military dress, the RCMP has its uniforms and its symbolic dress.

Back to the fun right-wing pundits belittling Canada. Crowley went on to say that the Canadian military will be getting “manicures and pedicures.” Oh, and of course she mentioned that we’re “up there” in the “frigid cold,” like that has anything to do with anything. I’m surprised she didn’t say we all live in igloos.

The first thing that comes to mind in response to all this is, who the hell is Greg Gutfeld? Or, for that matter, Doug Benson, Bill Schulz, and Monica Crowley? Let’s all collectively not google them to find out.

The second thing that comes to mind is this: Not doing much to repair the world’s perception of Americans there folks!

But the most important thing is this: Canada has 2,500 soldiers in Afghanistan and 116 of them have died. The death rate among Canadian soldiers is four times that of American soldiers because the Canadians have been fighting in one of the most violent provinces, in the south.

These Fox “News” panelists seem to think of Canada as some differently abled little sibling.

Canada prides itself on being a peace-keeping nation, and it fights when it has to. We were in both WWI and WWII (and we entered those wars before the Americans did). We chose not to get involved in Vietnam or Iraq because neither of those countries was a threat to us or to the United States. The reason we went to war in Afghanistan is because the strike on September 11th can be traced back there, and we were morally obligated to get involved because the U.S. is our NATO ally. Canada is morally obligated not to get involved in unnecessary and/or pre-emptive wars.

This is all so ridiculous I can’t believe I am even giving it the meager amount of attention it will get here on this blog, but I think ignorance and absurdity like this must be called out.

On apartheid

I am only going to say two things about the recent kerfuffle regarding CUPE, Ignatieff, and Israel Apartheid Week:

1) I don’t think it is ever right to restrict academic freedom. Nor free speech. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall (often mis-attributed to Voltaire).

2) I’m growing increasingly frustrated by people arguing about what “apartheid” means and whether or not it’s a fair term to use outside of South Africa. It is a word and it has a definition. It seems fairly simple to seek out the definition and end the inanity, but clearly that’s too much to ask. After a fruitless search of the UN web site, I finally sighed and typed “UN definition of apartheid” into Google and found this as the second link: www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/11.htm (see Article II), which states:

For the purpose of the present Convention, the term “the crime of apartheid”, which shall include similar policies and practices of racial segregation and discrimination as practised in southern Africa, shall apply to the following inhuman acts committed for the purpose of establishing and maintaining domination by one racial group of persons over any other racial group of persons and systematically oppressing them:

(a) Denial to a member or members of a racial group or groups of the right to life and liberty of person:

(i) By murder of members of a racial group or groups;

(ii) By the infliction upon the members of a racial group or groups of serious bodily or mental harm, by the infringement of their freedom or dignity, or by subjecting them to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment;

(iii) By arbitrary arrest and illegal imprisonment of the members of a racial group or groups;

(b) Deliberate imposition on a racial group or groups of living conditions calculated to cause its or their physical destruction in whole or in part;

(c) Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent a racial group or groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing the full development of such a group or groups, in particular by denying to members of a racial group or groups basic human rights and freedoms, including the right to work, the right to form recognized trade unions, the right to education, the right to leave and to return to their country, the right to a nationality, the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association;

d) Any measures including legislative measures, designed to divide the population along racial lines by the creation of separate reserves and ghettos for the members of a racial group or groups, the prohibition of mixed marriages among members of various racial groups, the expropriation of landed property belonging to a racial group or groups or to members thereof;

(e) Exploitation of the labour of the members of a racial group or groups, in particular by submitting them to forced labour;

(f) Persecution of organizations and persons, by depriving them of fundamental rights and freedoms, because they oppose apartheid.

Now stop arguing about what the definition of “is” is, especially when you can just look it up.