Pride continues!

On Thursday Argentina voted in favour of legalizing same-sex marriage nation wide, becoming the first Latin American country to do so.

Extremely contentious rival demonstrations were held outside of Congress in Buenos Aires, with pro-equal marriage demonstrators facing off against anti-equal marriage demonstrators, their respective ‘vigils’ lasting all night. The Roman Catholic Church, those bastions of what is good and right (ahem), waged an ardent and expensive campaign against passage of the law.

But after a 16-hour Senate debate, the vote was held after 4am and gays and lesbians won the same legal marriage rights and protections afforded to heterosexuals. (The law was already passed in the lower house, so once the Senate approved it and published it, the law became official.)

Buenos Aires has long been considered one of the most queer-friendly cities in South America and this new law will no doubt bring many gay and lesbian couples from throughout the region to Buenos Aires to marry. Uruguay and some states in Brazil and Mexico have legalized same-sex unions; in Mexico City gay marriage is legal; and in Colombia queer couples have inheritance and health insurance rights; but Argentina’s new nation-wide equal marriage law grants same-sex couples more rights than civil unions, such as adoption and inheritance rights.

Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez has been a strong supporter of equal marriage; speaking about the Catholic Church’s campaign of hatred and discrimination, Fernandez said, “It’s very worrisome to hear words like ‘God’s war’ or ‘the devil’s project,’ things that recall the times of the Inquisition.”

Sen. Norma Morandini, a member of Fernandez’s party, compared the discrimination queers face to the oppression under Argentina’s past dictators: “What defines us is our humanity, and what runs against humanity is intolerance.”

Congratulations, Argentina!

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Happy Pride 2010!

I’ve posted about Iceland’s Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir before – she was the world’s first openly gay head of state.  And now she is the world’s first openly gay world leader married to her same-sex spouse.

Johanna Sigurdardottir

Iceland’s Parliament unanimously passed equal marriage legislation on June 12th. Sigurdardottir, 67, had previously had a civil union with her spouse, but as soon as equal marriage became legal she addressed a crowd of people celebrating the new law by saying, “I have today taken advantage of this new legislation.”

I still love you, Iceland. Despite some of your other woes, you are progressive when it comes to equal rights and all countries should aspire to that.

Happy Pride everyone!

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.

Canada and the U.S.: Collectivism and individualism

DISCLAIMERS:

  • This is a long posting, so settle in or read it in chunks.
  • This one could get me a lot of comments, particularly from Americans. I know how it will come across to some and I understand defensiveness, but please try to read with an open mind.
  • The opinions herein are opinions, but they are informed by research. They are generalizations only. No one statement refers to all people. Never would I use the word “all” and in fact I seldom use the word “most.” What I’m talking about here is big-picture perceptions of Canada and the U.S. I know that some Canadians are awesome and some Canadians suck. I know that some Americans are awesome and some Americans suck. Canada and the United States are both great countries, relative to many of the other countries in the world. I like the U.S., and I appreciate your contributions to the world in science, art, humanitarianism, and your good people.

Map of North AmericaMany people see North America as one homogenized socio-political glob. Or, more aptly, they see North America as the U.S., and Canada as barely distinct from America, as inconsequential, as America’s “little sister.” (I like to joke that this is true in that Canada is Lisa Simpson and America is Bart.)

Americans don’t really care much about Canada (except those who wanted to immigrate here during the reign of Bush Jr.), and they don’t really care if they are lumped in with Canada politically, socially, or culturally (although they are always quick to point out that Celine Dion belongs to us!). On the other hand, many Canadians don’t like being lumped in with Americans, especially in the past eight years. (You read about Americans travelling overseas having to pretend that they’re Canadian, even going so far as to wear Canadian flags and get fake Canadian passport covers. Now imagine being an actual Canadian mistaken for an American during this time!)

Yesterday U.S. President Barack Obama visited Ottawa and Canadians were practically peeing their pants with excitement over it. It got me thinking about why we’re so excited about this president, and about the historical differences between Canada and America.

Sure, we share the same chunk of land and ingest the same food, art, and pop culture, but from equal marriage (in 2005 Canada became the third or fourth country, depending on the source, to legalize same-sex marriage), to legalized pot (Canada has decriminalized small amounts of marijuana), to the separation of church and state (Canada keeps religion where it belongs—out of politics), the two nations are almost diametric. Why?

I first started thinking about this many months ago when a friend of mine told me about an article he read. It was something about Flagshow the births of Canada and the United States as nations reveal a lot about what kind of countries they are today. Wouldn’t it be nice if I had the link here? Sadly I don’t even know the name of the publication or what exactly the article said. But what follows is what I think the gist of it was.

Here is Canada’s birth in a nutshell. Both the English and the French came to Canada in the late 1550s/early 1600s and established settlements and colonies. Of course there were wars between the two and a bunch of other stuff happened: the original 13 colonies of the United States were handed over to America by the British, “New France” grew and shrank, Canada was divided into Upper (French) and Lower (English) Canada, there was the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, blah, blah, blah.

Although Canada came close to having a massive rebellion and maybe even a civil war, we did not. Instead, Canadians were hungry for unity and responsible government, so French and English Canadians united under the Act of Union. In 1840 “The Canadas” became “The United Province of Canada” and by 1849 parliamentary democracy was established for all of the provinces. Confederation occurred in 1867 with The Constitution Act, and “The United Province of Canada” became “Canada.”

Canada gained independence slowly throughout the years via the Constitution Act, participation in World War I, and joining the League of Nations independently from Britain in 1919, among other things. In 1931 Britain affirmed Canada’s independence with The Statute of Westminster, deeming Canada and the other former dominions (including Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and South Africa) “autonomous communities.”

Throughout the years, Canada adopted official bilingualism, official multiculturalism, social programs such as universal health care, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. All was looking just dandy. But Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution” sparked a nationalist movement seeking secession from the rest of Canada. In 1980, Canada held a referendum, in which we rejected secession (sovereignty). In 1995 we held a second referendum, in which we also rejected sovereignty (but just barely). In 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled secession unconstitutional.

Okay, now on to the U.S. The United States was colonized by a lot of European countries from the late 1400s until the 1700s, but mainly Britain, which established the aforementioned 13 colonies (“The Thirteen Colonies”). In 1775 The Thirteen Colonies declared their independence from Britain and attempted to gain said independence via armed conflict. This was the American Revolutionary War and, with the help of France and Spain, the Americans were successful. But it was a bloody and brutal war.

For about 50 or 60 years following, America expanded westward. But in the 1850s and 1860s, conflict between northern and southern Americans escalated. Essentially they disagreed on just about everything, especially the issues of slavery and how the government should be run. In 1861, after Abraham Lincoln was elected, most of the southern states seceded from the union and established The Confederate States of America (P.S. see the movie by the same title!), which sparked the Civil War. And we all know how bloody and brutal that was—the U.S. lost 8% to 10% of its entire male population.

The point of this quickie history lesson is that Canada did not have a bloody revolution. Rather, it quietly gained its independence from Britain. Nor did Canada have a bloody civil war. Rather, it democratically held referendums on the issue of separatism. The United States had both a bloody revolutionary war to gain its independence from Britain and a bloody civil war to deal with the issue of separatism.

This, I think, was the thesis of the article my friend told me about: The independence and unity of Canada was achieved politely, quietly, and democratically, whereas the independence and unity of the U.S. was achieved through violent wars. This illustrates the divergent…aesthetic? ethic? ideology? sensibility?…of these countries today.

While Canada and the U.S. share the famed “longest undefended border in the world” and are each other’s best ally and largest trading partner, we couldn’t be more different in what makes us us.

A little-known fact is that when World War II ended, Canada had one of the largest armed forces in the world. Who would have thought that?! But Canada didn’t go all imperialist and superpower-y. Instead we were one of the founding members of the United Nations and are known the world over as a peace-keeping nation.

During the last U.S. election, it was funny to the outside world, especially Western countries like Canada, to see some Americans demonize any candidate favouring peace over war, taking care of the less fortunate over “every man for himself,” or seeking unity over individualism.

I’m sure you remember it. Argh, I hate to even bring up this guy’s name because I am so sick of him, but…Samuel Wurzelbacher. You know, the guys who’s name isn’t Joe and who wasn’t a licensed plumber? Yeah, that guy. In his exchange with Barack Obama over Obama’s plan to raise taxes by 3% for people making over $250,000 a year and lower them for the rest, Obama said this:

“I’m gonna cut taxes a little bit more for the folks who are most in need and for the 5% of the folks who are doing very well—even though they’ve been working hard and I appreciate that—I just want to make sure they’re paying a little bit more in order to pay for those other tax cuts. And I do believe for folks like me who have worked hard, but frankly also been lucky, I don’t mind paying just a little bit more than the waitress that I just met over there…[who] can barely make the rent. My attitude is that if the economy’s good for folks from the bottom up, it’s gonna be good for everybody. I think when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.”

And you remember what happened next. Republicans took “spread the wealth” in a death grip and would not let go.

CommieCommunist! Socialist! Commie! Red! Terrorist!

Suddenly the party line on the right seemed to be that if you are in favour of balancing out the classist economic structure by making the stinking rich a little less stinking and the poor a little less poor, then you’re a communist/socialist. If you’re in favour of pulling troops out of Iraq, you’re a communist/socialist. If you’re in favour of universal health care, you’re a communist/socialist. If you’re in favour of welfare reform, you are a communist/ socialist.

So many things about this are funny. First of all, that these Americans used “communist” and “socialist” interchangeably (not to mention “liberal” and “terrorist”). They are not synonyms. Communism is a system whereby the government controls the means of production—there is a very rich upper class, but everyone else makes the same amount of money. (So if anything, Obama’s plan is anti-communist.) Socialism is a system that allows private enterprise and personal success, but the government provides necessities such as hospitals and schools, plus welfare for those who can’t work to afford food and shelter.

America is not yet socialist, but the funniest part about this to me is that many Americans believe this would be evil!

Some people are anti-science, until they need that new cancer treatment to save their life. Some people are anti-socialism, until they lose your job and can’t get another one. Some people are anti-government, until the market needs a bailout.

I would say Canada is a socially democratic country. We have universal health care. I don’t have medical benefits through my job, so if I fall down and crack my head open I can go to any hospital, get treated, and go home, and I will not receive a bill. I will not have to go on social assistance, sell drugs, rob a house, sell my stuff, or be rendered homeless because I cannot pay my medical bills. If I get sick or injured and can’t work, or if I lose my job and can’t find a new one right away, the government will help me afford food and shelter while I’m not working, but I can’t just sit around on my ass in the meantime.

These aren’t handouts. We all pay taxes. We pay taxes to keep our roads paved and cleared of snow, and our street lights working. And we pay taxes so that every single person, regardless of how much money they make, can get healthy if they are sick, fixed if they are broken.

But for some astronomically unbelievable reason, many Americans (let’s face it—it’s mostly Republicans) think this is a bad thing.

I think that Canada’s “nationalism,” our sense of what makes Canada Canada, comes from its people preferring a system of justice, fairness, equality, and democracy for all.

America’s nationalism seems to come from its pursuit of “the American dream,” which originally meant to amass material wealth. It has morphed through the years, piquing in the 1950s and 1960s I think, into getting married, owning a house (or two) and a couple of cars, having a couple of kids and a dog, and making lots of money so they can buy boats and go on vacations and retire wealthy. But do not ask me to sacrifice for anyone but me because I’m pursuing the American dream! This propagates a system of justice, fairness, equality, and democracy for some—mainly those who can afford it.

Canada recognizes and values the role of government in society to keep order and peace, and to make sure money is collected from individuals to better society as a whole. From what I can tell, the U.S. values a limited government to do the bare-bones stuff, and leaves everything else in the hands of the marketplace. That good ole free market that was left to run rampant so that citizens would never be curtailed in their pursuit of happiness (i.e., accruing the most money and stuff).

Canada has a collectivist nature. The United States is based on individualism.

That being said, while Americans claim individuality and are in fact individualistic in their system, they are politically conformist. Most Americans are “registered” as an adherent to either the Democratic or Republican party (some are Independent). The two-party system ensures that most Americans pledge blind allegiance to their party, regardless of its actions or stances.

Blind allegiance is a dangerous thing. All it takes is a rally, speech, commercial, or talk-show appearance to make people start chanting “drill baby drill” or “Iraq has WMD” or “Obama is a terrorist” like mindless automatons.

While Canadians generally respect their government’s authority, we are not blindly obedient to it. We tend think critically, analyze evidence, and question authority.

We have a multi-party system and we do not “register” as a party member. Our political system is much more nuanced, much more of a spectrum. It is not black and white.

The American point of view seems to be that Canada is boring and inconsequential. They think our lack of drama or militaristic history deprives us of an identity or “destiny.” I guess it depends on what your priorities are. I am proud of our lack of drama and militaristic history. During Vietnam (and the Iraq “war”), Canada opened its doors to American draft dodgers and war resistors. We firmly said “NO” to George W. Bush’s invitation to join America in its invasion of Iraq (for some Canadians, one of our proudest moments).

I’m glad my country is not a superpower because history has shown us what being a superpower leads to. Was it Ghandi who said “absolute power corrupts absolutely”? If history has taught us anything, it is that the rise of an imperialist power always leads to the fall of an imperialist power. And sadly, they take down a lot of others in their wakes.

Canada would rather fight for the progress of social justice than fight for world power.

But America seems to have a messianic sense of its destiny as a world power, a democratizer (new word for conqueror?). Political speeches and interviews are littered with language to this effect. There is an action movie-like, self-inflated, overly confident, exuberant sense of a mission to “save the world!” But often they jump in over their heads (Iraq anyone?) and then are too proud to admit mistakes and cut their losses (Vietnam, Iraq).

I understand this from a moralistic viewpoint. Clearly those of us living in democratic countries believe it’s a better system than, say, communism or fascism! But the U.S. seems to view its own politics and international politics through a moralistic, ideological lens only.

It’s hard to peer through an ideological lens with a critical eye.

And most of the world does not view America as the moral beacon they seem to think they are.

The United States is the most religious country in the western world. Not only does it use religion to dictate morality (not realizing that morality predates religion), but it politicizes religion. “Separation of church and state” is a quaint ideal, but anyone who pays attention to U.S. politics knows that it’s not the reality. The ironic thing is that the U.S. shares much in common with regimes they purport to despise. Having religion dictate politics and law is more akin to the Muslim world.

If I were to describe a world leader who had weapons of mass destruction, was fundamentally religious, and believed that his god spoke to him and told him what to do, you’d be scared. Your mind’s eye would probably look towards the Middle East. But that leader was George W. Bush.

Canada is a more “typically” Western society; it is more European than American in its sensibilities. It is politically secular, hierarchical, law-abiding, and respects authority when it is right and questions it when it is wrong. We have the aforementioned multi-party system of government. I do not know what my Prime Minister’s religion is, and I don’t care! Most Canadians don’t.

That’s not to say that there aren’t religious people in our nation—there are, but they know that religion should play no role in politics. Our Prime Minister would never end a speech or press conference asking any god to bless our country, [I stand corrected: I have been informed that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has begun a greatly controversial habit of saying “God bless Canada” after speeches. Many people consider this “un-Canadian” and another way in which Harper was too close to George W. Bush for our liking. For an article on this topic, read this; it’s pretty frightening.] …nor invoke the power of any deity to help him do his job. But the presidents of the United States always do. In a Canadian candidates’ debate, no one would ask any

This joke overtook the web and inundated inboxes after the election of George W. Bush.

This joke overtook the web and inundated inboxes after the election of George W. Bush.

question having to do with the candidates’ religion or religious ideals. In America, they had an entire debate dedicated solely to religion!

Michael Adams is an author and pollster at Environics who has polled Canadians and Americans and reports on the differences between our values. He claims that there is a lot that makes Canada distinct from America, and that the distinctiveness is growing. Adams says that religion means different things to Canadians and Americans. Canadians view religion as “a means of confronting the mysterious aspects of our lives.” For Americans, it’s “a way of eliminating rather than exploring mystery…, one big answer rather than a collection of venerable questions…the end of dialogue, not its beginning.”

Adams confirms my earlier conjecture that Americans tend towards political conformity, and also reports that they express themselves violently and are more apt to accept violence than Canadians, who can have disagreements without violence. Adams states that Canadians accept cultural and ideological diversity much more so than Americans.

(Adams’s findings are very interesting and I encourage you to read them. For example, the differences between Canada and the U.S. in their views of patriarchy raised my eyebrows. Check out the link above and read his book Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values.)

So while Canada may be akin to the United States in many ways, it is different in more important ways. We fight for our own cultural identity with laws protecting Canadian art and commerce, for example, because we know that what makes Canada fundamentally Canada is too important to be lost.

And with their landslide election of a president whose socialist and diplomatic ideals are much more closely aligned to those of Canada than to those of the America of the past (excepting his religiosity and anti-equal marriage views), maybe Americans are realizing they could use a dose of “Canada-ness” in their country.