Religious Freedom

Standard

Hilary Clinton once said that freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion. She might be excused for espousing such a logical absurdity given that a poll of Americans once found that they would rather have a communist for president than an atheist. Despite the wishes of its founding fathers, America has indeed become a god-fearing country.

This weekend – on January 16th, in fact – some Americans celebrated religious freedom day. It marks the anniversary of a law passed in Virginia, under the guidance of Thomas Jefferson, which removed the Anglican Church (now called the Episcopalian Church) from being the official church of the state. Under this law, ALL religions would be treated as equal before the law and, as is promised in the US Constitution, no religion would have influence over the secular government.

While secular tyrannies abound – such as North Korea – it is far more common to find religious tyrannies in the modern world (Myanmar with its Buddhist extremists or Saudi Arabia where Sunni oppresses Shia Muslims). There are those in the United States who would like to see their own country become one. They would like to change the Constitution to make the USA a Christian country subject to Biblical law. Good luck to them – well, in the falling-down-the-stairs into a pit of flaming oil sense of the words: good luck.

Of course, the fact that there are dozens of varieties of Christians probably poses a bit of the problem. The same way it did in Europe during the Reformation and subsequent 200 years of religious war. It’s hard to tally the number of people burnt at the stake over disputes over the nature of the trinity. One in three or three in one – it’s a dicey question unless you are trying to fix a rusty hinge.

Freedom from religion is at the heart of the idea of the separation of church and state. It means, in essence, that everyone is free to practice their own religion (if they have one) without the worry of being persecuted legally by the adherents of another faith. It means, for all matter that happen outside an actual church, you can’t be discriminated against simply because you don’t believe the things that other people believe.

There are people who don’t seem to get that. A lot of them seem to be running for the GOP nomination for president. Several of those people are Catholics. There was a time in America when Catholics were excluded from membership in certain clubs. One of those clubs was the Presidency. John Kennedy would have won by more than a few hundred thousand votes if he hadn’t been the first serious Catholic candidate for the job.

Having been raised a Baptist, I can see the value of excluding Catholics from high office. Maybe we should even stop them from coming to the country. Some Catholics – Irish ones for example, like Mr. Trump’s ancestors – have been heavily engaged in terrorist acts. Maybe they should be excluded from even staying in the States just until ‘we figure this thing out.’

This is not really satire – it’s simply a case of following things through to their illogical conclusion. Without freedom from religion, there is no freedom of religion.

And that’s ten minutes.

The War on Drugs

Standard

The war on drugs has taken a new and somewhat bizarre turn with the interview of El Chapo – the notorious Mexican drug lord – conducted by actor, Sean Penn and published in The Rolling Stone. It created a bit of a stir among the chattering classes and a lot of embarrassment for Mexican and American drug enforcement agencies who have been trying to track him down ever since he escaped from a maximum security prison six months ago. Meanwhile satirists, critics of the drug laws and Mexicans in general have been having a good laugh. A lot of them admire the nerve of the fugitive, it seems.

Guzman – his real name – wound up being captured, in part because of the interview, and is expect to be extradited to the USA to face charges ranging from murder on down. He will undoubtedly be convicted and shoved in a prison somewhere – if his money doesn’t, once again, help him escape.

The most interesting thing El Chapo said in his interview was that nothing – his capture, his death, millions more for police or fences or prisons – will interfere with the operation of the illegal drug trade. In that he is probably right. If the war on drugs was an actual competition between nation states, the United States would have been on its knees a long time ago.

Prohibitions never stop the prohibited product being consumed. The prohibitions of alcohol did nothing for America but increase deaths from tainted bootleg alcohol and establish the Mafia as the major crime organization in a multitude of cities. It also founded the fortunes of a number of still prominent Canadian families but that’s another story.

It is unclear to me why America is so determined to prohibit – rather than control – the use of drugs. No doubt, drugs do harm but there is plenty of evidence that drug use can be mitigated if treated as a medical condition rather than a moral failing. Studies in cities in England where pilot projects temporarily turned heroin use into a medical issue rather than a legal one saw dramatic reductions in death rates, a virtual elimination of petty crime and even the return of some addicts to productive work and family life – even while their addition was maintained and managed. The experience in Portugal has been similar.

Movements to decriminalize or even legalize drug use in America have taken halting steps, focusing on marijuana which is not, apparently, physically addictive though it may be psychologically so. In the long term, government control of drug sales will reduce the negative impacts of the drug trade and make it less attractive to criminal elements. There will continue to be some violations of the law but it will be reduced to the level of the local bootlegger – a problem for society but seldom a threat.

I’ve long believed that all drugs should be decriminalized, medicalized, regulated and, in some case, legalized. The savings in terms of law enforcement, health care, and personal suffering would be considerable. And I’m not alone – the mayors of America’s largest cities have called for the same thing.

You have to wonder who exactly is profiting – aside from drug lords like Guzman – from the current system?

And that’s ten minutes.

 

Insurgents

Standard

The Bundy’s are back in the news – briefly. One might recall that the father of the current bunch was engaged in an armed stand-off in Nevada last year. They promised never to stand down. Eventually the federal government threw up its hands and walked away, figuring a million bucks wasn’t worth killing for. Now the sons are occupying some wildlife reserve in Oregon – unwanted by both the community and by the family they came to support. They promise to stay for years. This case is a little different — not a case of unpaid fees but of actual rebellion against the law. The feds may not do much but I suspect they won’t walk away either. I suspect the ‘militia’ will go home in a few weeks – declaring victory. Or they will cease to be newsworthy and hang in for months, ignored and forgotten.

A lot has been made of the fact that these religiously motivated insurgents are not being called terrorists – except by the thousands of social media activists who call them exactly that. It’s true it is a little hypocritical – and maybe a little cowardly – to take guns to a peaceful protest but at least they didn’t enter shooting. The Bundy occupation is similar – though not identical to – the Occupy movement and deserves to be treated in much the same way.  With patience and, to an extent, restraint.

It is true that the Occupy movement didn’t threaten to kill people; it simply suggested that bankers should be arrested and put in prison for life. And they didn’t open carry – though whether no-one had guns is uncertain. It was, after all, America where even grandmas carry pistols in their purses.

Critics are also right to say that they would be treated differently if their skin was darker. I have no doubt that is true but perhaps what is really needed is a less extreme reaction to non-white protesters as opposed to a harsher treatment for this bunch of lame-ass cowboys. Do we really need to have the federal or local police go in shooting?

The real problem is that America is increasingly dominated by groups who no longer believe that America and its government is their country or their government. Most of these groups are right-wing but not all of them. And, more and more, they are supported by prominent Republican politicians who offer their moral and even physical support to people who are clearly in revolt against the legitimate constitutional power of the state – that is, of the people.

Revolt against the law is not necessarily a bad thing. Non-violent resistance has frequently changed societies, even overthrown governments. Armed insurrection has worked from time to time but I doubt if the people hiding out in Oregon really want to emulate the Castro’s and Che Guevara.

In any case, the Bundy clan will eventually pack up their gear and go home – convinced , of course, that the only reason ‘patriots’ didn’t flock to their side is because of some massive liberal conspiracy. And next year, they will find some other place to wave their guns around. Though I doubt it will be any more important than some little known reserve in the middle of nowhere. We won’t see them in Manhattan anytime soon.

And that’s ten minutes.

Conversation

Standard

While at When Words Collide, I participated in a number of panels on a variety of subjects related to science fiction, the future, politics and the environment. The discussions were good. Panelists sometimes disagreed. We sometimes disagreed quite strongly. Knowing most of the participants, I know that those disagreements ran deep.

Yet, there was never an uncivil moment. No one sank to the level of personal recrimination. The ideas were debated, not the people who presented the ideas. Perhaps it was because, while we disagreed on some things, we were all able to find common ground on others. Maybe it was because most of the people involved were Canadians – too polite to be fierce – or that the atmosphere of the event was steeped in collegiality.

Or, more likely, it was because we were debating face to face or more often side by side. It is hard to be nasty when the person next to you could poke you in the nose. Still, I’ve seen debates in legislatures – even in Canada – devolve into fisticuffs. But other than Edward Willett falling off the podium during one exuberant statement, our discussions remained decidedly non-violent.

It’s not that writers can’t be rough-housers. But maybe, in the words of Jim Kirk, we simply decided not to rough house that day. Or just maybe, we are sick of people calling each other names when they happen to disagree about some political or social issue. The resort to threats is after all a symptom of a deeper sickness. For the second quote of my rant – violence is the last refuge of the incompetent. Or maybe it’s the first.

In a democratic society, we do not impose our views on others by force – unless you are one of those who consider all mechanisms of the state, such as law and insistence on fair dealing, to be a form of coercion. Rather we debate – sometimes with great vigour and passion – and we try to persuade others of our views. Yes, we do rely on majority votes to make decisions but healthy states ensure that minority and individual rights are protected from the will of the majority by the strongest instruments we possess – constitutions and courts.

Without rational debate – and I am fully aware of the limits of reason as a tool – we can never solve the big problems. It is only through a collective process – mediated by language – that we can construct anything of significance, anything that lasts. Without it, every creation of individuals has no more meaning or permanence than a sand castle doomed to wash away at the next high tide.

But with ‘conversation’ (from the Middle English – ‘living among’) we can build the pyramids (okay, hardly a democratic example) or go to the moon. We can create big problems but we can then solve them all. It may be, after all, the thing that sets us apart, that makes us human.

But that’s ten minutes.

Marriage

Standard

Marriage. Whenever I hear that word I can’t help but also hear the intonations of the impressive cleric in The Princess Bride. Peter Cooks’ elaborate lisp and towering hat lend both gravitas and ridicule to the great institution. The real crux of the matter, in any case, is ‘true love.’ Marriage – however otherwise understood – is simply a formalization of agreements made in other ways. Marriage vows barely carry the surface meaning of the ‘marriage of true minds.’

I know whereof I speak. I’ve been married four times, each time undertaken with full solemnity and with every intention that it be forever. As the law requires. And as the heart desires. It is only in retrospect – hindsight being twenty-twenty – that one realizes that the agreements undertaken were in some way flawed or insufficient to the task.

No matter what any religion or moral system might proclaim, marriage is, more than anything, a legal state – a legal state that exists even when the formal state has not been proclaimed. Increasingly, we understand and treat marriage as existing as a matter of common law – indifferent to the manner that the relationship is created. This, perhaps, is as it should be.

Quite apart from the niceties of state-sanctioned unions, two people who have chosen to live together and to act as if they were married should be recognized as having the same rights as those who are joined by the most holy ceremony. That is often what is at the crux of the marriage debate – equality before the law. When two people of the same or different sex are denied those rights, then the law must intervene – must change – to provide them. Those who don’t want to permit gay marriage are not upholding the institution of marriage – they are defending their own belief that such relationships are invalid under any terms. Bigotry, not religious freedom, is what lies behind the resignations of marriage clerks. I wish them luck feeding their families and paying their mortgages with hate. But I digress.

What then is at the heart of every marriage? It is, in the end, a matter of agreement – not necessarily formally stated or written down, though that is sometimes the case. It is by way of an informal contract, a spoken or more frequently acted out agreement as to the rights and obligations of each party. We may not realize that when we marry – but we learn it when we split up.

My mother used to advise me to start as you mean to go on. That is, your behavior today will determine your outcome tomorrow. Almost any arrangement is acceptable (though abusive ones are not) but, when willingly entered by both parties, they form a tort. If a couple shares the financial burden and split the efforts of housekeeping and childrearing, that is the nature of their agreement. If another prefers a single breadwinner while the other carries the load at home, that is theirs. If the relationship dissolves, no-one should be surprised that the courts will impose conditions reflecting the agreement the couple made themselves. Though child custody has fortunately been largely separated from the issue of marriage breakdown in many jurisdictions, men or women who supported their spouse to stay home will be expected to continue to do so after divorce, at least for a while.

Not that anyone should ever enter marriage with the expectation it will end. But, like a boy scout, perhaps one should always be prepared.

But that’s ten minutes.

The Space Between

Standard

When you look into a clear night sky, what do you see? Stars, of course, sometimes so thick that the light seems to blur into streaks. Some people of an imaginative bent can see constellations. Some claim to see the future – which is nonsense; everything we see is hundreds or millions or billions of years old.

But what we don’t see – or don’t notice – is the space between the stars. Empty space – though it isn’t empty. Even the purest vacuum has a few atoms in it and waves of energy pouring through it. Then, there is the mysterious dark matter and dark energy that makes up the bulk of the universe.

It is in fact the spaces between the stars that connect everything together. It is how we can talk about their being a galaxy or a single universe. It is because they are all connected by space and time that they are one thing, instead of a bunch of whirling bits doing their own thing with no impact on each other.

Sort of like society. Margaret Thatcher famously said that there was no such thing a society. It was glib but it was almost certainly what she thought. Mrs. Thatcher, though hardly a libertarian ideologue, tended to see people or families moving around, seemingly independently, acting for good or ill, without always seeing the space between them, filled with language and tradition and negotiating frameworks and cultural expression — things that don’t merely constrain individuals but construct them.

Much of what makes up human life is invisible or, on the surface, incomprehensible. Take language. When you hear someone speak you hear words and sentences. This is an illusion. Try listening to a foreign language and you will see what I mean. You hear sound and nothing more. On an oscilloscope it is impossible to tell where one word ends and another begins. Even on the printed page – if you are illiterate or dyslexic it may look like nothing but random marks. The code that deciphers it is not strictly in our head – it is in our collective heads. Language fills the spaces between us and language lets us accomplish so much that we could never do without it.

The law is much the same on a different scale. Parliamentarians often think that they make the law. It consists of the Bills they debate and pass. But each of those Acts exist in relationship with all the laws that were passed before – not merely in one country but increasingly in all countries. The law is an amorphous and largely invisible thing, constructed by individual Acts of Parliament but also by constitutions, legal proceedings, even the very debates and arguments that oppose the individual bits of legislation that majorities pass. It permeates almost everything we do in a civil society. Some would argue it is what most people mean when they say society.

Society exists, Mrs. Thatcher, and continues to exist long after its residents, like you, are gone.

And that’s ten minutes.