Collective Rights

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Collective rights are probably the hardest thing for most people to understand — we are too used to thinking that all rights accrue to the individual that there is a bias against even contemplating the collective. Take the American right to bear arms. Originally designed to ensure the right of the collectivity to form militias on a local basis — possibly against a central authority or for local self-protection (it was the late 18th century after all) it was transformed into an individual right by conservative judicial activism. Make no mistake it now is an individual right but only because the courts made it so.

Still, collective rights abound. Sticking with the American constitution, that document provides that Indian tribes have sovereignty within the union. Obviously that is a collective right; it doesn’t provide sovereignty to individual Native Americans. Some radical libertarians have tried to define something along the lines of individual sovereignty but they have to twist themselves in to such knots that every time they try to scratch their butt they pick their nose instead.

In Canada, our constitution and courts recognize both Aboriginal rights and title. They also recognize the constitutional protection of treaties which provide a statement of those specific rights in specific regions. Whether aboriginal rights or treaty rights (and they are not the same thing but space does not permit a full explanation), these rights are exercised by individuals but belong to the community and are very much specific to historical precedence and territorial limits. So, for example a Treaty 11 signatory may have the right to hunt and trap for subsistence without significant (or even any) interference by the government in the area covered by the treaty — roughly the NWT and Yukon with a few overlaps into northern provinces— but has no right to do so in southern Ontario, for example. His or her rights are confined to the traditional territories covered by the treaty (again a simplification but bear with me). These rights remain even if a family has not practiced them for a generation or even many generations. The rights accrue to the community and if they are linked through family, tradition, culture, self-identification and acceptance then they can exercise the right.

It is not just Aboriginal people who have collective rights. French and English language speakers also have them in Canada but that’s a topic for another day.

Why is it important to remember collective rights? Because it may be that only collective rights to clean air, water and so on will save the future for us.

But that’s ten minutes.

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Trans-humanism

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Recently, while selling books at the Toronto Word on the Street (they were science fiction of course), I had a woman express her fears over trans-humanism. I knew what she meant. There has been talk for years about the singularity, about the coming robot overlords who will appear when artificial intelligence transcends that of its creators. Some, of course, welcome these overlords and , in fact, plan to become part of the new über-class by merging themselves with the cybernetic world.

The cyborgs are coming and the fate of humans is sealed.

Well, maybe. Personally I think that ship has already sailed.

That’s not to say I think the singularity is arriving anytime soon. AI like fusion power is only twenty years away and always will be, goes the joke. Others point out that the real reason we haven’t achieved robot or computer intelligence yet is because we keep redefining what we mean by intelligent. There is no doubt that machines can calculate faster than we can and increasingly algorithms can be used to simulate many human behaviors.

But that doesn’t quite capture the essential spark of it. Nor may it for a very long time. The human brain is such a complex thing — some say the most complex structure in the universe with its billions of neurons and trillions of synapses— so trying to model even a few of its better known attributes takes the work of hundreds of scientists using dozens of super computers.

But in any case, we stopped being simply human a very long time ago. To be simply humans meant what in any case — sitting around a campfire at the mouth of a cave staring out into the darkness as age weakened our limbs and faded our vision?

But we are no longer constrained by such things. More and more of us have augmented vision (called eyeglasses) or assistance to increase our mobility. Some of us are kept alive for extended periods by implanted devices such as pacemakers. It is not the brain that is being surpassed by technology but the body.

Which may be what trans-humanism really means. By taking over the failing systems that keep our brains operating at its peak, we may not increase human intelligence but extend it. We may eventually, by focusing on the simple systems like circulation or renal function, be able to keep our thoughts clear and complex for a longer time. And that means a greater store of wisdom and a longer time to apply it to the problems of the world. Intelligence after all is partly a time function; the more time we have to think, the smarter we become.

Maybe more people should apply that to their daily lives now, instead of rushing to solve everything in the blink of an eye.

But that’s ten minutes.

Costumes

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Halloween is rapidly approaching; the signs are everywhere. Carved pumpkins, snow flurries in the forecast for Friday, and of course, people in costumes.

I’m not unfamiliar with costumes myself. I wore quite a few while acting in interactive murder mysteries with Terry Shane and especially with Pegasus Performances in Calgary, Sometimes I died, sometimes I didn’t but I always had fun, especially when I got to wear costumes. The one attached — of the Duchess Kicken-Butte — brings back particularly fond memories. She was the enforcer at medieval feasts who threatened miscreants with much kissing of the French variety. It worked remarkably well in stopping food fights.

My life with costumes goes back a long way. Of course we all dressed up for Halloween and the associated parties as kids but I actually took it a step farther, engaging in cosplay before I even knew such a thing existed.

At 12 I was a huge comic book fan and collector. Eventually I had over 3000 comics, though they are all gone now. I loved to turn my comic book heroes into characters for the superhero games we played in the neighbourhood. As the chief librarian I was the game master for these live action adventures. This was in 1967 so I think I got the jump on LARPs.

I always had a little money in my pocket (as a kid I was a mad entrepreneur, working at anything to feed my book, comic and movie habits) and when I learned that my friend Alan knew how to sew (he had four older sisters) I immediately proposed we buy some material and make costumes. I can’t remember what we made for him but I was to be the Boy Wonder. Robin’s costume had all the advantages — it was colorful, could partly be constructed from my wardrobe and best of all had a very simple mask (we had no idea how to make a cowl).

Off we went to the fabric store — not a specialized one in those days but part of Margolian’s department store. I’m sure we got a few odd looks as we gathered up bright yellow and red yards of cloth and purchased the right color threads and some needles. But this was Amherst in the 60s where the explanation for everything was “They’re just kids having fun.”

I won’t say the costume was a work of art — Alan’s skills didn’t live up to his brags — but I did wear the final product for plenty of adventures all that summer. Maybe that explains a lot — or maybe it explains nothing at all. Just kids having fun.

And that’s ten minutes.

Spotlight

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I’ve spent most of my life working behind the scenes. It’s what I’m paid to do and, really, it comes quite naturally to me. Whether working for a politician or a volunteer board, it was never my job to be the front person but rather to help those I worked for appear in the best possible light. I’m quite comfortable in that position. Even in my artistic life I’ve gravitated towards behind-the-scenes roles — a director rather than an actor. Lately I’ve been doing more editing than writing.

I’m not uncomfortable in public. I perform quite well despite certain inner trepidations. But when the performance is done I want to fade into the shadows, go back to the places where I am most at ease.

So the last week has been kind of weird. Fate has thrust me forward, made me a witness to terrible events and, as a witness, I am obliged to tell my story — not just to the police and authorities but to my friends, my family and to the public.

So I’ve given a half-dozen media interviews, mostly to journalists in the Northwest Territories where I lived for nine years and where I’ve visited for work for many more. But I also wrote an article for the Ottawa Citizen and have been quoted in the Globe and Mail. I even had my picture in the Globe, captured accidentally while giving my statement to the police.

It is an odd feeling, to be a witness, to be, even a little bit, in the public eye. It is somewhat of a burden if you don’t mind me saying so, adding a little to my anxiety when I walk up to Parliament Hill to do my job.

But it won’t last. The eyes of the media are wandering eyes and already they are beginning to shift to Jian Ghomeshi, to the results of municipal elections in Ontario (no more Ford!) or by-elections in Alberta. Ebola is back in the headlines and, over the next few days, the media and then everyone else will forget that I was there in Ottawa at the War Memorial bearing witness.

They will forget but, for now, I won’t or can’t. Though, eventually, even my memory will fade and my thoughts, already drifting to other issues and other problems, will no longer return on a regular basis to those 10 or 12 seconds that have been my life for the last five days.

Time passes and wounds heal. But the one thing I will never forget is what a wonderful country I live in. It’s a wonderful world despite its flaws or maybe because of them.

But that’s ten minutes.

Intellectuals

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Today, by way of a break, I’ll tell you a little tale about how intellectuals fight.

I’ve often been accused of living too much inside my head — to which I reply, well, where else would I live, that’s where all the thoughts, emotions and sensual detail are processed and stored.

My wife, Liz, is pretty bright herself (a bit of an understatement – she’s frigging brilliant) so when we fight it tends to have a cerebral component. Now we don’t fight often but the few fights we have had are memorably, especially the first big one about 14 years ago.

We had been together just over a year and it hadn’t been easy in some ways because of the circumstances of our coming together but we were happy and mostly at peace with ourselves. Still, there had been some growing tension.

But it took John A. Macdonald to bring it out. We were driving to our writing group meeting in Calgary. CBC was playing an interview with a noted historian about how little Canadians knew about their history. The subject of our first PM came up and Liz took the ‘great man’ position on his importance whereas I argued he was a product of ‘forces of history.’ So she believed John A. made history and changed the world whereas I argued that history made the man and changed him. We were of course both right but that’s not much fun

By the time we got to the meeting it had devolved into a screaming match — bringing in some more recent history but still revolving around the central dispute. It was clear that people with such diametrically opposed world views could never be together. At one point, I threw the car keys at her and stomped off home. By the time she found the keys and drove off some of her anger, she came to our apartment to find me packing my bags. “Are you really going to leave me over John A. MacDonald?” she wailed. I stopped and thought. Of course not! Leave the woman I love over a dead drunken CONSERVATIVE prime minister. We laughed and hugged and talked about the real things that were bothering us.

A couple of years later I was at a political convention (Liberal in case you’re wondering) and a young entrepreneur was selling PM action figures. I couldn’t resist — I bought the one of John A. MacDonald. And whenever fights seem to be about to escalate, we bring him out and ask: What would John A. do? It must work, we’ve rarely had a fight since.

So that’s how intellectuals fight. Just as crazily as anyone else.

And that’s ten minutes.

Vigilance

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Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Attributed variously to any number of early American and British speakers, including (perhaps incorrectly) Thomas Jefferson, this line epitomizes early liberal thinking about the constant dangers to our freedoms. Sadly, some have interpreted it as an excuse for endless security and increases in police and state powers. Security in defence of freedom is one of the new mantras.

I’ll give you a second quote: Those who trade freedom for safety deserve neither. We cannot allow the terrible incidents of the last week turn us into a closed frightened society. This is the one thing we must not do in the vain hope it will stop another madman doing another mad thing for whatever deluded rationale he may have in his head.

But what to do? Not witlessly expand the powers of surveillance to the point where even thinking dangerous thoughts is a crime. That is Orwell at his finest — or his worst.

So, I railed (another sign I’m getting back to normal) when I heard Minister of Public Safety Stephen Blaney describing his plans for yet more tightening of the security apparatus and especially his dismissal of politicians who had the temerity to question his motives and rationale.

Perhaps Mr. Blaney hasn’t heard that one definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We’ve had years of tightening the security system, of increased powers of surveillance and detention. It seems to have worked so well, hasn’t it?

There are other approaches. Germany has had real success diverting young men from Islamic extremism, using the same techniques used to divert them from neo-Nazi activities for decades. It doesn’t involve the police constantly hovering over their shoulders. It involves education, social programs, in some cases, treatment for mental disorders. Vigilance, yes, but designed to inculcate them with a sense of freedom, to integrate them into society. In this they have, in fact, learned from Canada’s approaches to multiculturalism but have taken it farther.

Denmark is trying something even more controversial, radical if I can use that word before its meaning is completely destroyed. They are meeting returning extremists at the border — men who have gone to fight in the Middle East — and given them counselling, education, jobs. They think it is working.

It certainly can’t do any worse than constant hounding, driving disaffected and unhappy men to desperate measures. So, yes, more vigilance — but don’t stop there. Teach them — show them — the value of a free open society.

That’s the way ahead.

But that’s ten minutes.

Normal

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Yesterday I started my journey back to normal. It may seem too soon for some but it may be a long trip so the sooner started the better. What follows may fall into the category of too much information but bear with me.

They say that people faced with death or fear or trauma often react physically. One way is to make love to your partner. Yet for two days, we cuddled and held each other without any other desire than to be together. Our bodies like our minds had grown a little numb. On Friday we woke up and made love. Normally. It was neither death defying nor defying death but it was tender and it was good.

After I wrote my blog I had a scare. Someone had sent me a parcel I wasn’t expecting and I had a brief frisson of fear before answering the door to the Purolator guy. It was irrational but it was there. After, I laughed but realized normal was still a ways off. I had never been afraid to open my door before.

I went to work on Parliament Hill. It was still closed to the public so I had to go through the single open gate and walk across the precinct to East Block. On Thursday, it had caused my heart to pound but yesterday it was easy. Almost peaceful. I felt proud to be there – the way I felt the first few times I went there nearly 12 years ago.

At work, I did a few things and then decided to talk to a counsellor. This is not what I usually do when I am upset – I have a wide circle of support and my own coping mechanisms – but this was not a usual day. Talking about my life – and really I spent more time doing that than on the event – for 45 minutes to a warm and kind stranger was very useful. Then I went back to my desk and did some more work – though honestly I spent a lot of time on social media absorbing the things my friends around the world were thinking about. Mostly it was the daily events of their lives. Normal things.

At the end of the day, I went to a small gathering of staff who work for Liberal Senators. It was nice – most of them didn’t know what I had experienced but I spent some time listening to their stories before sharing mine. They had been scared and locked in their offices – often by themselves, with no source of information. In some ways that was worse – I, at least, knew what was going on and I got to go home and be with my wife.

The rest of the day – I did housework, went grocery shopping, ate dinner, drank wine, made bad jokes even one (that I won’t share) about the DAY itself. I felt normal. Liz and I even danced in our living room. That might seem surprising – but, for us, that’s normal, too.

But that’s ten minutes.