Thursday, July 31, 2014

Oppression is Never a Successful Strategy

I'm getting sick of waking up every morning to the latest news of the atrocities going on in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

The list of grievances held by each side is miles and generations long, and quite frankly I don't think either has any claim to the moral high ground.  Over the years that I have observed this mess, it has been a matter of the Palestinian groups engaging in guerrilla warfare, and the Israeli government responding with an ever heavier hand.

Today, the Israeli government has bottled up the Palestinian people behind walls and barricades.  What passes for an economy in the Palestinian territories is strangled by Israel's blockades of trade, limitations imposed on electricity (in a shared electrical grid) and so on.

The Gaza Strip is all of 139 square miles, for 1.6 million people (for comparison, the City of Calgary is 318 square miles for 1.2 million), surrounded by a fence with guard towers along its land boundaries, and a naval blockade at the sea ... all enforced by the Israeli army.  Essentially this is an open air prison, mostly holding people who have never been convicted of a crime.

For all of this, have the attacks on Israel ended?  No.  Of course not.  Like a medieval siege, bottling a people up for protracted periods of time basically has one effect:  it galvanizes the besieged against the besiegers.  Old grievances are nursed and nurtured, feelings harden and any act which allows the besieged to thumb their noses at the enemy is seen as a victory.  If that's one more rocket getting over the wall, so be it.  If that rocket happens to land somewhere that does real damage to property or people on the enemy side, it will be seen as an even greater victory.

Meanwhile, the besiegers congratulate themselves on their overwhelming firepower and the "victories" of hitting whatever targets they are told to hit.  The fact that civilians, including children, are in the line of fire is an unfortunate accident hidden under the rubric of "collateral damage".

Whether or not HAMAS is a "terrorist organization" is political semantics.  At one time the PLO was held in similar regard for the same reasons.  There is little to be gained from such labelling.  Palestinian complaints of disenfranchisement at the hands of Israel cannot be ignored any more than Israel's fears of being overrun by its Arab enemies.  

This will not end well.  Sieges end with brutal occupations which seldom create long term allies; in the middle ages "undesirable" populations were herded into segregated ghettos in urban areas, breeding resentment and worse and facilitating hostile pogroms by the governing powers.  In neither case can one say that the results are anything that we can be proud of in our collective history as a species.

Let me be abundantly clear:  What has happened in the region since 1967 has not worked.  Period.  There was a brief time after the PLO and Israel came to terms which seemed to defuse things a bit, but on the whole, the constant escalating violence of one group trying to assert territorial claims, and another group trying to respond to what amounts to an insurgency simply has not worked.

The political discourse in Israel has been dominated by a particularly bellicose leadership that seems to think that the only response to violence is more violence.  The tighter the iron grip, the more readily that things being squeezed slip between the cracks created.  Just as nations have found time and again in the past, never underestimate the ingenuity of people under great pressure.

Politically, the state of Israel is rapidly becoming a failed experiment, for many of the same reasons that its predecessor Palestine failed.  The very construct of a nation state which denies the validity of all of the peoples who live within its borders is doomed to fail.  Where Mandatory Palestine failed to acknowledge the Jewish peoples in its borders, Israel's approach to the Palestinians has also failed.

The political discourse has to be remade, and moved from the language of adversaries to that of coexistence.  When I think about it further, the entire situation may well require the collapse of the political structures of the current Middle East region in order to resolve.  Much of the region's borders are the result of the European colonial powers redrawing borders in the wake of the demise of the Ottoman Empire.  The net result has made little or no sense in the broader context of the region and its peoples.

I don't know what the long term geopolitical picture looks like in the region.  I do believe that the current arrangements are doomed to fail.  It will take the emergence of statesmen on all sides who can look beyond the grievances of today to build states where coexistence is the rule of the day, rather than the often violent suppression of "rival" sects and populations.

There may be no "right" answers to the question mark that is Middle East politics, but one thing is clear:  the current situation is not working, and the mess in Israel is but a symptom of that.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Radical Feminism Versus Reality

The New Yorker decided to publish an exposé about the ongoing war of words between Transsexual Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) and transsexuals.

Sadly, the author spent most of their time talking about what TERFs have written about transsexuals and failed entirely to present the transsexual side of the discussion in any depth.  In fact, the entire article came across as if the transsexual community's reactions to various TERF proclamations about transsexuals were simply an overreaction.

While I have no doubt that there are those whose fury over the acts of various TERFs towards the transsexual community is such that they have made threats or been otherwise unpleasant about things.  The transsexual community is hardly uniform in its sensibility or willingness to discuss topics when they feel they have been slighted.
Such views are shared by few feminists now, but they still have a foothold among some self-described radical feminists, who have found themselves in an acrimonious battle with trans people and their allies. Trans women say that they are women because they feel female—that, as some put it, they have women’s brains in men’s bodies. Radical feminists reject the notion of a “female brain.” They believe that if women think and act differently from men it’s because society forces them to, requiring them to be sexually attractive, nurturing, and deferential. In the words of Lierre Keith, a speaker at Radfems Respond, femininity is “ritualized submission.”
One might wonder just what room for dialogue there might be when the TERF argument starts with absolute erasure of the lived experience of transsexuals.   Perhaps even more troubling is that the TERF position clearly ignores a large and growing body of evidence that does show that masculinized and feminized brains are objectively different (and that transsexuals reflect brain structures that tend towards female typical).

In many respects, it isn't the TERF's denial of the reality of transsexuals that gets people wound up.  I think if it were merely a disagreement over philosophical points of worldviews, it would be far less contentious than it is.

Unfortunately, TERF writers going back to Janice Raymond, author of a treatise entitled "The Transsexual Empire" have done their level best to erase the narrative of transsexuals.  Quite frankly, Jeffrey's latest work is really just another volley in an ongoing war where transsexuals are concerned. There is very little in it which is new, revolutionary or even evolutionary.

Whether or not "Radical Feminist" theory has any legitimate criticism of the social roles assigned to our male and female citizens is unfortunately lost in the core assumption that denies transsexuals the right to their own stories.  Jeffreys, along with the other TERF writers are blinding themselves to the growing evidence of biology and how it influences the expression of gender.  The rigidity of the TERF position is also its brittleness.  Feminism needs a new direction to evolve.  The work started so many years in the past has not been finished yet, and yet it cannot move forward without including the diversity of gender identities and roles that have emerged in the last 25 years.  I firmly believe that the TERFs like others with rigid, inflexible belief systems will become the intellectual dinosaurs in the coming years.


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Confusing Freedom With Imposition

Canada's "Association For Reformed Political Action" came to my attention this past week.  Just from the name, you can tell that this is one of the groups that is seeking to turn Canada into a theocracy much like the far right is currently doing in the United States.

I decided to spend a little time sniffing through their website, and found a fair bit of interest.

First is an explicit and clear sense of just how deeply these groups are connected with the Harper Government.
... a speech to the ARPA groups from cabinet minister Jason Kenney
Do you think you would find Jason Kenney speaking to a feminist group, or an LGBT group?  Come to think of it, how many conferences have you heard about being held on Parliament Hill in recent years ... besides those which are connected to the religious lobby?  Kenney is well known as a speaker on the "pro-life" circuit, but he is very careful to make sure that no public records of his speaking engagements are readily available.
Parliament Hill was abuzz with close to 70 representatives of ARPA chapters from across the nation who gathered last week and sat down with approximately 50 Members of Parliament and Senators to discuss issues close to our hearts.
In itself, there isn't anything particularly wrong with this group lobbying the government.  In fact, all groups should be able to lobby the government.  The real question is what does an organization lobbying the government actually represent?

Well, in this case, one doesn't have to go too far to start building a picture, and it is one which all Canadians who respect what is good and decent in this land should be concerned by.

Let's start with the following "public policy submittal" from ARPA's website:
Canada is a nation in search of an identity. We don’t publicly recognize any god as supreme, let alone the Christian God. We follow leaders and ideas for a time, only to move on to the next person or thing that stirs us. But hockey, donuts, and beer aren’t exactly symbols on which to build a nation.

Over the decades Canada has divorced the Christian God from our public institutions and replaced Him with self- worship, state-worship, and earth-worship, among other things. Yet we continue to lay claim to, and benefit from, many of the political and legal by-products of the Christian faith, including fundamental human rights, much of the Criminal Code, and the concept of rule of law.
Ah ... this would be the plea for their particular faith to be granted supremacy over all others in the nation.  After all, we were all "Christian" at one time, weren't we?  Ah, here we are:

In a nutshell, civil governments are called by God to be his servant for good, to bear the sword to punish criminal wrongdoing and to promote justice and righteousness (see Romans 13:3-4). The goal for civil government is to allow for citizens to enjoy a peaceful and quiet life (1 Timothy 2:1-2), not to convert souls or eradicate false religions.  
One reason for this limited role of the civil government is because there are other governments instituted by God and described in the Bible. Each of these governments has their own roles and responsibilities. For example, the family is a governing institution that is accountable directly to God, not to the State. It is entrusted with the duty of raising and educating children, among other things. The State has no business telling parents what their children must be taught. The family unit is not subservient to the State. Both are accountable directly to God. 
Ah yes.  The classic arguments that "God" has all the authority, and therefore the state has no reason to intervene in such trivial matters as education.  (after all, there's nothing like teaching your children fables like creationism instead of actual, objective science)

Now, in large part, this looks like the usual religious freedom claims.  More or less, the state has no right to dictate what religious doctrines are taught to children, and that people should be free to do as they please in such matters.
This suggestion that the God of the Bible is the authority from which all human authority is derived sounds radical. But the status-quo is not all that different. Much of what is guiding public policy in the provinces and our nation today is also religious – it’s just hidden under a superficial veneer of neutrality.
Religion is “an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group.”2 Every official is guided by his or her own beliefs or worldview – it is why you entered public office. As historian Link Byfield noted “All laws – not just laws concerning sexual behaviour – are based upon some moral principle. The entire Criminal Code, for starters, is an anthology of morality. Thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not lie, thou shalt not murder, all these rules are moral principles.”3 In many regards Feminist MP Niki Ashton is no less religious than self- described evangelical Christian Stephen Harper. As a result, the policies coming out of our Parliament and Legislatures are also religiously based, though some are more explicit than others (see the example on the right). For example, the belief that health care should be distributed “freely and fairly” is a religious conviction based on a view of human worth and the role of the state.
Frankly, this is a sloppy attempt to say that "everything is religion" - a rather ludicrous reductio ad absurdum claim.  To make such a claim, one has to presuppose that morality is only informed by religion.  A more clear-headed view of the world would realize that someone can arrive at various "moral" positions through paths other than religious teaching.  For example, an atheist whose worldview is informed by empirical evidence and observation may arrive at the proscription against theft on the basis that stealing something harms the other person by depriving them of the fruits of their labour.  This is not a religious position, but rather one which can reasonably be arrived at without even so much as opening a religious text of any sort.  Is this a "religious" position?  Not in the least.

The claim is made (frequently) that our entire system of laws is rooted in religious codes that have been around for centuries.  This is partially true, but to claim that Christian religion uniquely informs our legal traditions is to ignore the fact that human society has had a social contract for millennia, and through many different religious traditions.  In many respects, one might view religion as having evolved from the abstract social contract as a means of ensuring a degree of consistency over time.  In terms of law, we traditionally credit the Babylonian king Hammurabi with creating the first known written legal code.  One might imagine that prior to this, there were laws that encompassed the likely violations of the social contract in various societies, but they were maintained orally.  Further, we know that the Greco-Roman concept of religion was highly legalistic, with various rituals forming a "contractual bond" between humans and the various Gods.  The Romans would claim that their authority was derived from the contractual endorsement between the Gods and man, just as Christianity claims authority from "the eternal God".  It is in fact this reality that causes me to assert that religion is a reflection of the society from which it emerged.

Now, things get interesting.  To this point, what we have is a group running about lobbying politicians to enable their religious freedoms.  Not entirely invalid, and per se, I have no real objection to this.  They should be perfectly free to believe as they wish and practice their faith in peace.

Then we come to some of the other campaigns that ARPA is connected to:

We Need A Law :  A "Fetal Rights" anti-abortion lobby effort.  Headed up by Mike Schouten.

The Truth Is:  An anti-abortion campaign of ARPA, with an associated "Pregnancy Help Line" (a la the misleading "Pregnancy Crisis Center" model the far right in the US has adopted to undermine Planned Parenthood.

Human Rights Commissions:  Part of a far right campaign to dismantle human rights codes and commissions that are enacted both federally and provincially in Canada.  The claim is largely that these bodies unreasonably constrain religious freedoms (which mostly turns out to be it constrains a religious "freedom" to discriminate against people who the religion doesn't like very much - like the LGBT communities).

Here is where the problem arises.  It is not that ARPA wants religious freedom at all.  It is the desire to impose their worldview on others by restricting what others who may not share their worldview are able to do.

For example, the arguments against abortion are largely based on a religious claim that life "begins at conception".  Of course, the definition of "life" is left open, allowing for much shifting of goalposts in debate.  However, making such restrictions effectively deny women's agency in setting up their lives and managing them.  While someone who happens to have the same religious philosophy as ARPA professes to may well not pursue an abortion to end an unwanted pregnancy, someone whose worldview is informed through a different set of drivers may well wish to do so for their own reasons.  In this situation, we have a problem.  The ARPA group is demanding that the agency of others in their own lives somehow unreasonably impinges upon their religious sensibilities and therefore must be limited.

Likewise, the complaints about the human rights laws (which are subservient to the Constitution and Charter - and to my knowledge have never been overturned by challenge before the courts), basically boil down to a complaint that their ability to bully and abuse others who they disapprove of is being restrained by these laws.

So, on one hand they are demanding that nobody, especially the state, impose itself upon their religious freedoms and on the other hand they are demanding that our legislators write laws which reflect their worldview and as such impose that same worldview upon all Canadians regardless of their own individual world views.

Apparently, they have not understood the distinction between individual rights and freedoms and the much broader social contract of cooperation that is needed in a diverse country in order for all members of society to be able to participate fully and freely.

More concerning is that groups like this seem to have far greater access to our current government than those who do not share these beliefs.  

Monday, July 21, 2014

Think That Mass Spying Doesn't Affect You?

Go Read.

It is not just the spying, but the records and how they are shared which is the real problem.

The Harper Government wants people to be afraid.  If they screw up a few people's lives in the process, that's just so much the better for their agenda.  

Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Is A Policy A Non-Policy?


At first glance, this almost seems like a reasonable document.  There are lots of "The schools shall do this" and "shall provide that" statements, and it almost looks as though they made reasonably well informed effort.

Almost?  Why do I say "almost"?  Like most documents, you have to read it through a couple of times before you see the gotchas in it.

Harper Tries To Foment A Crisis

Harper has taken a surprising number of losing cases to the Supreme Court of Canada.  Most, if not all, were obviously places where the government's position is one that is in direct contradiction with the Constitution of Canada.  Even a relative neophyte in Constitutional law in Canada can spot that, whether it is Harper's desire to "reform" the Senate or the government's daft position on prostitution.  

Now we have the CPC caucus starting to trot out the "undemocratic" talking points.
Dan Albas, the MP for Okanagan-Coquihalla, says that while he respects the courts he also believes an increasing number of groups are using litigation to advance policies the government will not put forward. 
"Often the Plan B is to do an end-run around our democratic process and turn to the courts where it seems some judges are quite happy to engage. This can result in decisions contrary to what have been decided in our democratic process," Albas told CBC Radio's The House.
Let's see ... the government is unwilling to engage with the issues that various groups are raising (presumably on ideological grounds, given the pattern of the Harper Government), so they take it to the courts.

First of all, that means that these groups are raising issues which are not just minor problems, but in fact have a legal basis where the current policy or laws are in fact inconsistent with the fundamental principles of Canada's legal system and laws.

Second, if the government is unwilling to engage on these issues, they leave the public with little other option but to force the matter by pursuing justice in the courts.
"Basically what you're having is a judge can overturn and then cost the taxpayer a lot of money without any accountability or representation on their behalf," Albas said. 
... 
The British Columbia MP said it's important to ask whether there is the right balance between the executive branch and the judicial branch to make sure every Canadian is well-represented. 
"If citizens through the democratic process are unable to make policy decisions because of unelected judges and well-financed interest groups, I submit we collectively lose," Albas said.
Well, we already know that Harper views the Constitution of this country as an impediment to his goals.  It stands to reason that he is also going to see the judiciary and any other branch of government that would dare challenge his wisdom as a bad thing too.

The Conservatives are basically taking the stance that as the governing party, they have a right to decide what issues they are going to address and when.  This is true ... to a point.  However, the courts can declare a given law or policy as illegal / unconstitutional on a variety of grounds when a case is put before them.

This is not "undemocratic" in the least.  In fact it is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy.  There are checks and balances in place which curb the power of the "democratic majority" (which I will point out in the last election was effectively just over 20% of the eligible voters) to run amok.

The point of an independent judiciary whose sole job it is to study and interpret the law of Canada is to ensure that the legislative and executive branches of our government cannot arbitrarily abuse the rights of citizens.  Make no mistake about it, what Harper proposed doing with the Senate abused your rights every bit as much as some of his laws.  By attempting to undermine the amending formula, he was effectively trying to set a precedent that the executive branch could propose and enact radical changes to the foundation of this country's laws without engaging with the provinces - thereby negating your democratic voice at not one level of government but two levels of government.

The judiciary in Canada isn't being "undemocratic" at all.  It is the Harper Government which is being undemocratic, and attempting to impose the tyranny of their followers on all Canadians without being held accountable.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Spendaphobe? Give Us A Break

So, according to Rob and Doug Ford, Rob isn't a homophobe, he's a spendaphobe.

Rob Ford's own actions related to pride in the not so distant past (refusing to attend, trying to stop the city from flying the pride flag for example) speak quite clearly to where he stands with respect to gay rights.

However, that isn't the point of this post.  It is the ridiculous moniker of "spendaphobe" that needs to be talked about.

Typical of what we've come to expect from conservative politicians in the last decade, this is nothing more than a piece of jingoism.  It's a meaningless term designed to deflect attention away from the issue at hand.

Rob Ford spends ... often like a drunken sailor, and most of his claims of saving the City of Toronto billions of dollars are largely lies.  Further, Ford's conduct over the last year and a bit have demonstrated repeatedly that the man is a compulsive liar.  Almost every time he has been confronted with his own misconduct, he has lied to Canadians.

So, as a voter in Toronto, would you believe his latest round of denials?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Reference Cases Are Not The Problem

Over at iPolitics, James Matkin and Clive Cocking are busy moaning about how the Supreme Court "kills innovative legislation" in the form of "reference cases".

The basic thesis of their argument is that we need to take away from the Supreme Court of Canada the ability to hear "reference cases".  A reference case is fundamentally a hypothetical case - a "what if we wrote legislation like this" test.  For most Canadians, the most recent "Reference Case" was Harper's "Senate Reform" gambit, which got smacked around for violating various aspects of the division of powers in the Constitution.

Matkin and Cocking complain that these reference cases effectively drag the Supreme Court into the political discourse where it has no business being.

I respectfully disagree with their analysis of the situation.  The problem is not reference cases at all, but rather the manner in which the current government has approached the matter.
Since 1875 the federal government has dumped an astounding 75 reference cases into the lap of the court. Many of them have involved the thorniest of political issues, such as Quebec secession or Senate reform.
Quite frankly, if in 139 years, we have put 75 cases before the Supreme Court of Canada, that's not exactly a huge amount.  Thats one every couple of years, roughly, and for the most part, those have been legitimate cases of the government's lawmakers asking very real questions about the legitimacy of a given legislative approach to a problem under this country's Constitution.

On the whole, it has been quite useful when one examines it as a tool to help lawmakers (who are seldom experienced members of the judiciary) to consider the implications of legislation they are considering, or for that matter the more subtle aspects of constitutional law (as the 1998 Quebec Secession reference addressed).  Given the speed with which the court system moves as a whole, there is much to be said in favour of a reference case being heard - not the least of which is to serve as a baseline for guidance as to how a court would look upon a particular issue in the future.  While these are definitely theoretical moments, it takes years (and millions of dollars) to litigate an issue to the Supreme Court to have it overturned on charter or constitutional grounds.   When it is something which could have been avoided by simply asking the obvious questions up front, it saves all involved an enormous amount of grief (and money).

Citing Harper's Senate reference as an example, Matkin and Cocking seem to believe that Harper should have just legislated as he wished and then have the whole mess before the Supreme Court.  One doesn't have to be a Constitutional scholar to realize that Harper's entire approach to the Senate violated multiple articles of Canada's Constitution.  Since Harper has shown repeatedly that he has no interest in writing laws which respect Canada's constitution, one could arguably say that the reference case saved Canada millions in litigating the matter.

Harper has tried to use this to claim that Senate reform is "impossible".  Of course, what Harper is really saying is that he is unwilling to engage with the provinces to make the amendments needed to achieve his vision of a reformed Senate in Canada.  Since 2006, Harper has not once met with all the provincial Premiers.
Justice Frankfurter of the U.S. Supreme Court rightly described such advisory opinions as “ghosts that slay”, particularly innovative legislation. Our Parliament has repeatedly used this legal device to dodge its duty to act on tough issues. One of the most craven examples was the federal government’s 2011 decision to let legislation creating a national securities regulator die stillborn in the face of a negative Supreme Court reference opinion – when three sections of the constitution give Parliament adequate trade and commerce powers to enact such legislation.
Oh ... it kills "innovative legislation"?  No more than writing that legislation and having it struck down as a result of subsequent litigation.  Again, the example that the authors cite is another case where Harper and his government would have to engage with the provinces directly in order to develop an acceptable model.  Harper refuses to engage with anyone outside his inner circle in the PMO, and he is incapable of developing any kind of meaningful compromise.

The problem is not reference cases, nor is it the politicization of the Supreme Court that they argue arises from such cases.  The problem is a government which has no respect for the Constitution of Canada and a Prime Minister who is unwilling to actually engage with the provinces.  Harper is the problem, not the reference cases.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Religious Beliefs Are Not Ethics

In the wake of the recent uproar over a doctor in Calgary refusing to prescribe hormonal birth control, and the SCotUS decision in Burwell v Hobby Lobby, it seems that there is more than a little bit of a misunderstanding about the distinction between a religious belief and ethical conduct.

In today's Calgary Herald, we have lawyer and right-wing activist John Carpay spouting off on the issue of the doctor.
Apparently Prentice believes that a doctor should simply do and provide whatever the patient wants done and provided, regardless of the doctor’s education, training, experience, conscience, and professional judgment. 
This raises some interesting questions. If a doctor, based on her experience and research, believes that liberation therapy (dilating and opening blocked neck veins) is not a good option for patients suffering from multiple sclerosis, must she provide that therapy simply because the patient demands it?
Let me point out first that professional ethics and practice guidelines are seldom "black-and-white", especially in matters where we are not necessarily talking about life-and-death, and to be sure, a prescription for birth control pills is hardly in that latter category.

However, there is an enormous difference between prescribing a birth control pill (with well known and quantified effects), and an experimental therapy that up until recently had no clarity around the degree of effectiveness of the treatment.  I would expect a doctor to provide enough information that a patient could make an informed decision in either case.
What about a doctor who is convinced that anti-cholesterol pills do more harm than good? What if a doctor refuses to prescribe birth control pills because she believes, apart from any religious teaching, that they compromise women’s health? Should this physician disregard her own research, analysis and conclusions and prescribe what she considers to be a dangerous product?
Like a lot of things, the question at that point becomes "where's your evidence?".  Medicine has moved beyond the era of "doctor knows best", and has been moving towards an informed consent model for a number of years.  Blanket refusals to provide this or that treatment without explanation speak more of condescension, and fragile belief systems, not rationally arrived at conclusions.
A free and democratic society allows consumers and providers to accept or decline each other’s business, without state coercion. In a free society, the government does not force doctors, lawyers, butchers and other people to do things that they do not wish to do.
A doctor is not in the same class of occupation as a butcher.  A doctor is dealing with people's lives.  Their duties supersede "personal beliefs" much of the time.  The doctor's blanket refusal ignores the potential risks to the patient.  For example, is it ethical for her to refuse to prescribe birth control pills to a woman who has been advised by a physician to avoid becoming pregnant because of the risk to her health?  (Yes, it does happen - it happened to my own Mother)

Oh wait ... women aren't supposed to _enjoy_ sex.  It's supposed to come with some kind of punishment (aka "consequences").

To put medical services into the same arena as buying a slab of meat at the butcher is a bit of a fallacy that ignores the more subtle complexities of the picture.  It's not like we have a surplus of doctors in Alberta.  In fact, we have a serious shortage even in urban areas, and heaven help you if you live in a small town and lack a car.  Further, a doctor's chosen profession reaches beyond the "free market", and the kinds of expertise involved are such that there is no guarantee of there being an alternative available - especially in small towns.

The issue that I have with this particular situation is not with the doctor herself, but rather with the "escape hatch" clause in the ethical guidelines that are involved.  I have no problem with the idea that someone may have strong beliefs in one respect or another.  That does not give them a free pass to decide that they are going to impose a blanket refusal on everyone based on those beliefs.

If there was real evidence that she had concerns about, that would be one thing, but based on a number of bits and pieces that we have seen in the media, her objections appear to be largely moral rather than evidence based and objective.

Quite frankly, I do not go to my doctor for "moral lessons", nor do I expect that my doctor is going to demand that I live by their moral code.  I expect my doctor to be informed, and to be able participate in helping me achieve an informed decision about whatever treatment I am seeking.  Individually, this doctor has essentially issued a blanket refusal which precludes her making an informed decision about any patient's situation.

On a higher level, I am not accusing the doctor of violating the ethical guidelines of her profession.  However, I am questioning if the "conscience clause" and its application here.  It seems to me that the clause itself is overly broad and untestable.  This has the unfortunate consequence of making it difficult for people to access health care - especially gender and sexual minorities, but even women - because at the outset the doctors are able to invoke this escape hatch without any evaluation of the patient, their situation or whether reasonable alternatives exist.

While I can appreciate that there are circumstances where a doctor will find themselves in a place which is in conflict with whatever moral beliefs they may follow, I think that the escape hatch in the practice ethics needs to be tightened up considerably.  At present it is overly broad at the detriment of the patient.

How Harper Wastes Your Tax Dollars

Harper likes to style his government as a "firm, steady hand on the tiller", especially on matters of the economy.

But the man is so blinded by his hatred for our country's laws and the foundational principles of the Canadian Constitution and The Charter of Rights And Freedoms that he simply writes legislation that is based solely on his ideology.

The net result:  unjust laws that are in fact illegal under Canada's Constitution, and millions of dollars spent trying to sustain those laws before the courts of the land.
June 2014: Supreme Court upholds privacy rights
April 2014: Feds can't go it alone on Senate reform
April 2014: Judges have discretion on sentencing
March 2014: Medical marijuana users win injunction
March 2014: Early parole abolition repealed
March 2014: Marc Nadon rejected by Supreme Court
December 2013: Court strikes down prostitution laws
November 2013: No mandatory minimums for guns
September 2011: Supervised injection clinic remains open
... and those are just the cases the court has ruled on.  There is more before the court, and more challenges yet to come based on legislation that this government has rammed through.  Including the "Fair Elections Act", "The Strengthening Canadian Citizenship Act", and the "Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act" for starters.  

There's more, including a "cyberbullying bill" that is really just a trojan horse for widespread surveillance without warrant, and a litany of evilness that has been rammed through as part of "budget omnibus bills" which should never have been given the time of day.

Fiscal prudence?  Hah!  

This is government by ideology.  Harper views the Constitution of this country as an impediment, not as a framework.  

Friday, July 04, 2014

The Real Error The Hobby Lobby Decision Exposes

I've been spending a bit of time going through the Burwell v Hobby Lobby decision lately.  I'm no expert on US Constitutional law, but it seems to me that the fundamental principle underlying the ruling is the somewhat dubious notion in US law that extends the rights guaranteed to citizens to corporations.

First of all, the logic under which the law extended those rights to corporations contains a fundamental error:  namely that a corporation is not able to exercise certain rights in any meaningful sense.

Consider the following:  A corporation is a legal construct.  It is not a person, and it cannot exercise autonomy from the persons who operate it.

When was the last time you saw a corporation walking down the street, or having a coffee with a friend in a cafĂ©?  The fact is you haven't seen it - ever.  It doesn't happen.  Yes, a corporation exists, and has a certain reality associated with it.  However, we should never make the mistake of assuming that it is anything other than a legal fiction.

The error was made ages ago when the US passed a piece of legislation which effectively defined a corporation as equivalent to a person for all intents and purposes, a definition which was referenced explicitly in the RFRA act that seems so central to the Hobby Lobby decision.  Since then we have seen a series of cases where corporations have asserted that they must have access to human and civil rights under the law.

Hobby Lobby is just another incremental expansion of those rights, and it is perhaps the most concerning yet.  Few would disagree that there is a reasonable right for a corporation to have access to free speech, or fair trials under the law.  This decision now extends to the corporation the adoption and exercise of rights related to religious freedom.

Consider for a moment the grand irony of such a proposition.  In what universe can we imagine a legal fiction being able to adopt or practice any particular human faith?  You will never see that corporation sitting in a church, or otherwise engaging in worship.  The very idea that a corporation can be said to be "religious" in any way is ludicrous.

Granting a corporation the right to exercise the "proxy right" to reflect the religious beliefs of its ownership is also problematic.  First, the understanding of religious beliefs is highly variable.  Second, the expression of those beliefs is highly individual.  Third, the concept of a "religious belief" has no objective and reasonable test that can be used to establish its validity.  A religious belief is whatever the person who claims it says it is.

While we might commonly think of these rights in the context of a Judeo-Christian understanding of what a "religious belief" is, one has only to look at the breadth and depth of human spiritual/religious thought over the centuries and millennia to realize that there are many "beliefs" which could be asserted that are arguably repugnant.

As has been demonstrated time and again by the decisions of corporate management and boards, at their most fundamental, corporations are inherently sociopathic.  They exist to make their owners money first and foremost.  That means we get decisions such as those we see where health insurance providers do everything in their power to deny treatment; or decisions like those around the Ford Pinto's fuel filler get made.

These are not the decisions of individuals.  They are the collective decisions of committees of people - people who are at the end of the day held accountable to the financial performance of the corporation.  For the management of any corporation to sit there and pontificate about how this or that practice is "immoral" and insist that the corporation must reflect those "moral" beliefs, when ultimately no corporation exists for any purpose other than making its owners money.  

It is my opinion that while there are legitimate rights for corporate entities, those rights must be described separately and apart from the individual rights held by citizens.  Further, those rights must be held as subservient to the individual rights of a country's citizens.

The Hobby Lobby decision allows a corporation's asserted rights to supersede those of the citizens who work for the corporation.  This is an error not of the application of law, but of the creation of law itself.  It is unfortunate that the SCotUS did not acknowledge this in its decision or on its blog.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Bishop Henry ... It's Been A While

For those who don't live in Calgary in the fair province of Alberta, you may not have heard the uproar over a doctor refusing to prescribe birth control pills to patients.  Unsurprisingly, a lot of people are upset by this.  

Equally unsurprising is Bishop Fred Henry's contribution to the discussion, published as a "Letter to the Editor" in today's Calgary Herald.
Re: "Doctors' ability to say no must be limited," Naomi Lakritz, Opinion, July 2. Physicians will sometimes prescribe the pill to treat problems like heavy menstrual bleeding, painful periods, pre-menstrual syndrome, endometriosis or severe acne. In these cases, the pill is used not as a contraceptive, but as a therapy for a medical condition. 
This can be morally permissible under the principle of double effect, which allows for the treatment of a serious medical problem (good effect) while tolerating its unintended consequences, when other less harmful treatments are not available. In this case, the unintended consequences would be the impeding of fertility and the pill's potential health risks and side-effects (evil effect). 
Some medical professionals insist that the pill, taken purely to avoid pregnancy, is "health care." It is not health care, but a lifestyle decision. This lifestyle decision is frequently made in the midst of a cultural backdrop that sanctions the misguided view that "health" means we have the right to practise consensual indiscriminate sex without consequences. 
The pill, when chosen strictly for these contraceptive purposes, fails the test of being health care because it does not heal or restore any broken system. It breaks a smoothly working system - the reproductive system - by disrupting the delicate balance of hormonal cycles regulating a woman's reproductive wellbeing and fecundity. 
When taken for lifestyle purposes, the pill is quite the opposite of health care - being detrimental to women's health - in light of its frequent side-effects of weight gain, headaches and depression, as well as its heightened and well-documented risk of thrombotic stroke, heart attack and breast cancer. 
We need more information from the professionals as to how the pill works. Does it prevent fertilization or is it an abortifacient? Or both? 
Bishop Fred Henry 

Calgary
Fred Henry is bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Calgary.
It comes as no surprise that the local Catholic Bishop would be objecting to the idea of contraception.  Last I checked, the official position of the Catholic Church was still that contraception is unacceptable - including condoms.  So, no big surprises there.

However, I take considerable exception to several aspects of the Bishop's arguments.

First, he claims that the contraceptive action of the pill is an "evil effect".  For those who choose to believe what the Bishop preaches, that's just fine.  Go ahead and believe that there is an "evil" associated with the pill.  The issue is not that the medication has effects on the body - that is both well documented and well understood.  To call them "evil" is something of a reach ... but we'll come back to this in a moment or two.

He then moves on to the old saw about how sex must have consequences.  Again, if you bought into the old guilt trip routine that the Catholic Church has been teaching about sex for the last several centuries, that's one thing.  On the other hand, some people actually like sex for its own sake.  I'm certain the Bishop will find this terribly appalling - we aren't supposed to actually enjoy it.  Especially not women.

This is, of course, complete nonsense.  Human beings have used sex as a means of pleasure, social bonding and goodness knows what else for far longer than the Catholic Church has existed.  For at least that long, men have been trying to regulate women's sexuality ... unsuccessfully for the most part.  I for one don't exactly think terribly highly of a bunch of supposedly celibate males trying to dictate how we should experience sex.

Accordingly, because it is "a lifestyle choice", Bishop Henry figures that the Pill isn't "medical care". Is the pill "medical care"?  That's a matter of perspective.  In some countries, it's an over-the-counter medication - walk in and ask for it and off you go.  In Canada, we still require a doctor's prescription. I suppose from the perspective of monitoring the patient for possible side effects and consequences, a visit to a doctor for a prescription isn't a bad idea.  In claiming that it is a "lifestyle choice" and therefore not "care", the Bishop is overlooking the obligation of the physician to ensure that the patient is in fact not experiencing serious side effects from the medication.

Perhaps most annoying about the Bishop's argument is his attempt to muddy the waters further by questioning whether the pill is "contraceptive" or "abortifacient".  This latter claim is relatively recent, and has been used to argue that certain medications are in fact essentially "chemical abortions" and therefore should be suppressed as violently as abortion itself.  It is part of the wedge politics approach to regulating women's sexuality.

Frankly, I don't think it matters which way (or both) that the Pill works.  The decision isn't the Bishop's to make, nor is it the Church's.  Women have a right to administer their bodies as they see fit, and manage their lives as they see fit.  (and that may just include enjoying sex now and then too)

As the old joke goes:  If the Bishop no playa da game, he no make da rules

Emotionally Loaded

Okay, Paul Bernardo is a sociopath.  This should not come as a big surprise to anyone who followed the investigation and trial that eventually put him in prison.

That he has managed to convince a woman that he is a "good man" comes as little or no surprise.  Sociopaths are often experts at manipulating and twisting things to their advantage.  Bernardo has spent the last 20 years in a high security prison.  One might imagine that he has relatively little to do, and no doubt all the time in the world to put into manipulating those people who present any kind of opportunity to mess with them.  

Frankly, if you engage with someone like Paul Bernardo, whether it is for research or personal reasons, caution is essential.  For a man like him, manipulating people and playing with their emotions is sport.  He thinks it is fun.  No more than that.

When the Sun chose to make the alleged engagement between Bernardo and an Ontario woman their front page story, they really just played into Bernardo's ego, and his notoriety.  However, like Bernardo, who has spent months or longer manipulating this woman to make her believe that they are in love with each other, the Sun spends its story and headline space trying to manipulate its readers.

In this case, the Sun has chosen to use the Bernardo story to try and pry open the capital punishment debate in Canada.


Someone like Paul Bernardo, or in the past Clifford Olson, regularly gets trotted out by the proponents of capital punishment as reasons why we should have such a punishment on the books. 

These are purely emotional arguments.  People like these are horrifying.  What they did to others is appalling, and their apparent lack of remorse is horrifying to anyone with a sense of empathy.  Of course they provoke strong, visceral reactions when brought forward of examples of the most heinous of criminals.

However, the discussion around "dangerous criminals" is nowhere near as clear and well defined as we might wish to suppose.  

Many have argued that Vincent Li should be held to the same standard and executed.  That said, it was quite clearly established that Li was suffering from a psychotic episode when he killed Tim McLean.  That doesn't make what happened any less horrible, but it raises the question of criminal responsibility.  Mental illness is a serious issue, and not one that you can simply sweep away with the rubric that he committed a heinous act.  Yes he did commit the act, but given that we know his brain wasn't working normally (hallucinating etc.), can we hold the person who emerges from a psychotic episode responsible for what happened during that episode?

Then there is the ever present spectre of applying the death penalty in a situation where the accused is factually innocent, or there are significant questions about the degree of their culpability for reasons ranging from circumstances to mental capacity.  The United States has numerous cases like this. 

The Sun is being manipulative and dishonest with its "poll" and the associated article.  They aren't trying to create a reasoned debate.  Instead, like a sociopath who enjoys pushing people's buttons until there is a reaction, they are trying to get an emotional response from Canadians on a subject that requires careful consideration and thoughtful analysis.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Dear SCotUS: You Blew It

When you ruled that Hobby Lobby could implement its ownership's personal religious beliefs as policy imposed upon the company's employees, you really opened up the door to a world of abuse.

Hobby Lobby is a privately held corporation.  As are the majority of companies in both Canada and the United States.  Hobby Lobby is unusual in being a large operation with several thousand employees, where most corporations are quite small - a handful of employees at most.

However, I don't care what a corporation's owners "believe".  Frankly, I don't give a damn whether they believe that a condom is an abortifacient form of birth control or if the moon is made of green cheese.  They can believe the world if flat for all I care.

They still have no right whatsoever to stick their nose into my life outside of work.  PERIOD. This isn't just a matter of birth control.  It's a matter of privacy.  By permitting Hobby Lobby's ownership to pick and choose what forms of birth control the company health insurance plan will cover, your ruling allows the company ownership to impose its beliefs on the employees without any recognition of, or respect for, the individual lives that may be affected.  Frankly, I see no difference between Hobby Lobby's position on this and a refusal to provide insurance coverage for lung cancer treatment to a smoker on the basis that I believe that the smoker is making an immoral choice.

In ruling that Hobby Lobby can choose to make such limitations in the coverage of its health care, the SCotUS has provided a wedge that the right wing incrementalists will no doubt attempt to leverage.  We already know that their long term strategy is to incrementally erode rights a step at a time.

The religious right has been trying to dismantle Roe v. Wade for decades now.  You just handed them the tools to chip away further at the rights that Roe v. Wade so clearly set out in terms of women's reproductive health.

We have seen the religious classes argue against access to any kinds of contraception on the basis of their particular worldview.  In fact, in the last decade or so, they have expanded their scope from not just attacking abortion, but going after contraception as well.  Your ruling just handed them wording broad enough that we will no doubt see women's reproductive health pushed off the table in a great many workplaces - on the basis of the "beliefs" of the owners of the company.

How this will play out in cases like the Koch brothers where the company is "publicly traded", but controlling interest is held by the Koch brothers remains to be seen.  Could the Koch Brothers ram through a resolution at the annual general meeting to restrict access to birth control and have it stand?  The Hobby Lobby ruling is ambiguous in this respect.  It talks about the "probabilities", but it doesn't specifically rule out the Hobby Lobby ruling applying in such a situation.  I fully expect to see a series of proxy fights starting in various corporations as religious right groups try to flex their muscles on the AGM floor.

America's LGBT people are also justifiably wary of the Hobby Lobby ruling.  Religious objections have long been at the core of resistance to LGBT equality rights, and underly much of the systemic and explicit discrimination that LGBT people face daily - whether that is when ordering a meal in a restaurant, or trying to land a job.  Quite frankly, although the Hobby Lobby ruling appears to try and exclude such activities from the scope of the ruling, I guarantee you that someone is going to try it.  Religious objections have already been cited by a bakery which wanted to deny service to a gay couple, and I see no reason why this aspect of the Hobby Lobby ruling won't be challenged along these lines.

Let me be incredibly clear.  A corporation is not a person.  It cannot, and should never have been granted "rights" in the same sense that individual citizens hold them.  An individual citizen is possessed of a conscience, of beliefs and above all of individual autonomy.  No corporation can be said to have any of those attributes.  A corporation is a legal fiction designed for the express purpose of making money.  (Has anybody seen Hobby Lobby attending a church?  No, of course not.  Its owners can be seen in court, but one cannot say that the company attends a church)

Yes, a corporation does need certain rights legally supported.  However, those rights must be separate from, and subordinate to the rights of the individuals who participate in that corporation either as owners or as employees.  A corporation is a business intended to perform one function:  make money.  The corporation has a right to reasonable freedoms with respect to the execution of that fundamental goal.

However, those rights must be subjugated to the rights of individual citizens.  A corporation's actions absolutely should never be permitted to interfere with the private lives of citizens in any respect.