Root Causes

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A week tomorrow I’m heading for Turkey for a long anticipated vacation. So, you can imagine I wasn’t happy to hear that nearly 90 people were killed when bombs went off at a peace rally in Ankara. The fact I’m not going anywhere near the capital is hardly a consolation.

Still, I know that if I die in Turkey it is more likely because my hot air balloon crashed or I had a heart attack from too much Turkish Delight and too many flights of stairs. Neither is likely but both are more likely than being killed by a terrorist (if terrorists it was) even in a country with growing unrest.

So – unless my wife gets too nervous – I plan to go ahead with my visit. It is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture and, by all accounts, a very friendly populace. I won’t wander into any political demonstrations – it is not my business to do so – but other than that I will go about my business. I’ll be wary but I always am when visiting a place I don’t know. The best way to get mugged is to look like you don’t belong so I’ll try to look confidant and like an old hand.

The upsetting thing – apart for the sorrow I feel for those who were killed today – is that Turkey has long been a stalwart of secular democratic institutions. It is a multi-party system that was a democracy when other countries in the region, when other countries in Europe, were not. Now, it seems to have changed, though my Turkish friends say it is not quite changed as much as the western press seems to believe.

I have my suspicions as to what happened. The current president and former Prime Minister is a charismatic leader who wishes to break down the secular nature of the state and bring a greater influence of religion into government. He was recently rebuffed in elections but instead of cooperating with other parties, chose to call another election to try and get his way. Let’s hope he is rebuffed once again. The fact he is playing the fear card is eerily familiar to the Canadian election but as we see the consequences are greater.

This is not an attack on Islam; it is an attack on any inclusion of religion in the operation of government. I’m as concerned about the Republican desire to make America into a so-called “Christian” nation as I am with Turkey – or for that matter, parts of India where religious based parties dominate state governments.

Religion is a private matter even when conducted in public. Although I am an atheist and view church as a tremendous waste of time, energy and resources, if it works for you, feel free to practice it in the way you see fit. But keep it out of government. It always leads to chaos, discrimination and, yes, violence.

The greatest thing that may have happened in the evolution of British democracy was making the church explicitly subservient to the state. Religion is all well and good but it is always about dividing the believers from the non-believers. Only the state has room for everyone. Only the state can promote freedom and equality. As Canadians say: only good government brings peace and order.

And that’s ten minutes.

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Symbols

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Some people wear their religion on their sleeve; others hang it around their necks or put it on top of their heads or over their faces. A few carry it in their back pocket; more keep it on the tip of their tongue. Of course you can find symbols festooning churches and mosques and synagogues and temples of all kinds and plenty of people have articles of faith in their homes.

You are certainly meant to notice these expressions of faith but heaven help you if you mention them or suggest they might be a bit over the top. What you do in the privacy of your own home is of course your business – well, that’s the theory – but sometimes it does get a bit tiresome seeing pictures of torture and despair staring down at you while you’re trying to enjoy the hors d’oerves. Though you can get used to it pretty quick. At least I can. To me religious symbols are little more than decoration – good art and bad, judged for its own merits and not on some cosmic scale.

I was looking around my own house the other day and concluded that if anyone were to judge me by my decorations, they might assume I’m an animist – a person who sees god in the works of nature. There are oodles of flowers on my balcony which I dutifully tend and my walls and shelves are covered in depictions of animals – photos, paintings, carvings and sculptures. At last count there were 28 of them – more than enough to turn the condo into some sort of spiritual centre.

Of course, anyone who knows me would understand that these things mostly reflect my enjoyment of kitschy souvenirs. The closest thing to a spiritual experience I ever have is when I consult my electronic cat-in-a-box executive decision maker. Like the oracle at Delphi, Bright Eyes often delivers mysterious and contradictory responses to the questions posed. Like most religions, this leaves me free to interpret the results to my own liking. At least most religions where they don’t stone you for getting it wrong.

Outward displays of faith often seem to me to be more about the community than any real connection to the divine. After all doesn’t God or the gods – in case you have a pantheon – judge the inner man and woman? What purpose outward displays then if not to conform to the communal demands of family and authority? Much of the religious passion and outrage seems more about the secular concern for control than anything else.

But maybe that’s just me. I’ve never been one to judge a person by their covering.

But that’s ten minutes.

Fundamental

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While you might think that fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Jews and fundamentalist Muslims and fundamentalist Hindus would have nothing in common and would, indeed, despise each other, you might be wrong. All fundamentalism shares common characteristics: an adherence to specific text and teachings, a belief that they are literally true, a focus on received wisdom – that is, all knowledge descends from a divine source, and so on.

But what really unites them is a hatred of change which in the modern world represents a hatred of progress. Certainly fundamentalists embrace the benefits of modern science while preferring not to know how it works. In fact in some cases they would argue that it doesn’t matter how it works – it is only a gift of God and he works in mysterious ways.

Fundamentalists always look to the past – not the real past, of course, but a convenient past that always has a mystical quality and that supports the social and political status quo. Hence, the universal disempowerment of women.

You see this in politics as well. When Fox News commentators wonder  or more likely pronounce what the Founding Fathers wanted or meant, they don’t care what they actually wanted or meant. Rather they attempt to selectively turn certain words and phrases into some sort of frozen edict – wisdom translated directly from the past to the present without interpretation. They of course totally ignore their own twisted interpretation.

Because, of course, one of the other things they hate is complexity. The idea that everything isn’t black and white turns their guts to water and makes their hands shake. It makes them want to reach for their guns. Which, perhaps, is why their emotional range is limited to fear and anger.

Not surprisingly, they have devised ways to avoid complexity. One study of fundamentalists found that on average, they have only read 17% of their sacred text. It may be a different 17% from sect to sect but this narrow reading ensures they avoid contradiction and, most importantly, anything that might disturb the smooth course of their thinking.

Fundamentalists want everything to remain the way it was – they want to return the world to its original state. Barring that, they want to blow up the modern world and all its complex, change-embracing ways.

Progressives are hardly perfect and they are frequently in doubt. In fact, some of us embrace doubt as the only rational way to approach the world. If we refuse to doubt, then what do we have to think about? Unlike our fundamentalist brethren – and to a lesser extent our conservative colleagues—progressives are less concerned with where we’ve been than we are with where we are going.

We seldom want to destroy the world – we’re too interested in how it’s all going to turn out.

And that’s ten minutes.

Leviticus (Redacted)

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Everybody knows all about Leviticus. In fact, most of us are sick to death of the old boy. According to this ancient sheep-herder, it is an abomination for a man to lie with man like a woman. Fundamentalists particularly like this one: they even tattoo the verse on their arms. Which is ironic, of course, since Leviticus thought tattoos were an abomination, as well. Irony is, sadly, wasted on bigots.

Leviticus went on to condemn the eating of bacon and shrimps on the barbie; football was also not on the to do list (touching the skin of a pig being a sin). You can find the whole list here if you are so inclined. Some of it is pretty good advice, I think, such as the prohibition of selling your daughter into prostitution. Just good parenting, I say, but it must have been a fairly common practice if it rates a verse or two in the Bible. Hmmm, makes you wonder why the other stuff got a mention, too. Others are a bit tough, like not mixing two fabrics in clothing – Walmart is clearly a den of iniquity.

Recently, an archeological dig in the Levant turned up some ancient scrolls that included even more things that Leviticus found abominable. I’m happy to share them with you – the first time they’ve appeared in English.

It is an abomination to listen to the advice of your mother-in-law. According to the notes, this almost made the cut; it took a threat from Leviticus’s wife not to lie with him like a woman to keep it out.

Leviticus also included some positive admonishments in his redacted verses.

Glorious is the woman who gives her husband a pedicure.

She will be blessed who kisses the feet of her husband.

The feet of the weary man is a badge of honour in his faithfulness to God. It is not clear what this last one even means other than Leviticus seems to have had something of foot fetish.

Mockery as you know was big on the list of admonitions. No mocking of God and so on. Apparently he also included a prohibition of mocking Leviticus but his editor – the Big Guy – removed it as being too meta. I guess I can be thankful for this. Most people already think I’m going to burn; I’d hate to do it on a mocking –Leviticus rap.

But wait there’s more. Leviticus forbade the eating of insects with four legs unless they be jointed. Leviticus was clearly not an entomologist – insects all have six legs, jointed or not. Perhaps he was thinking of spiders who had been injured in the war. In the redacted version, Leviticus also forbade the eating of jalapenos (too hot), ice cream (too cold) and porridge (just right). Leviticus was well known for his culinary prescience.

I realize that I’ve probably pissed off my fundamentalist friends (sorry Jim-Bob) but sometimes I am overwhelmed with the need to be sarcastic – also an abomination in Leviticus’s eyes.

All I can say is Thank Heaven, I don’t believe in Hell.

But that’s ten minutes.

Respect

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Some years ago I was visiting Chichen Itza in Mexico. It is one of the largest of the abandoned Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula – with many features including temples and ball courts. Though sometimes called a city, it was, in fact, even the days of the Mayan empires, a place with great religious significance. Most of the building there served the theological classes of that culture. It was therefore a sacred site.

Though the Mayan political system largely disappeared just prior to the arrival of Europeans, the people are still there. You can see it in their faces, many of which resemble those carved in stone. You can also see it in their religious rites where Catholicism is wedded to ancient Aboriginal traditions and practices. Like most Aboriginal peoples, these practices are closely tied to the land, especially waterfalls and jungle pools, as well as to man-made structures.

On this particular visit a small group of us were being escorted by a guide – actually a local college teacher – who was well-versed both in the history and current significance of the place. He asked us to speak in low tones and generally behave in a manner that we would adopt if we were visiting a gothic cathedral in Spain or England. Even if we didn’t believe, we should act with respect.

In the course of our tour we came across three or four twenty somethings, stretched out on one of the shelves of a pyramid, sunbathing. They were dressed only in their bathing suits – very skimpy ones. To say the guide was upset would be an understatement – you could see it in his face and body. But he calmly went to them and explained that they were violating a sacred place with their behavior and that local people – who had already lost so much to colonialism – would be offended and hurt by their actions. Maybe it was his manner; maybe these people (all Europeans) were more sensitive to issues of oppression than some others – but in any case they were clearly embarrassed (I told you they were nearly naked and I can attest that a full body blush is possible). They apologized profusely, gathered up their clothes and slunk away.

Respect is not a hard thing to grant people and cultures not our own but all too often tourists arrive in a place, completely ignorant of the people and places they are visiting. It is all just a theme park to them. They paid their money and they seem to feel they have a right to take the ride any way they please.

That’s what the situation in Malaysia is all about. People arrive from foreign lands and want to do something – they seem to have no idea that their actions may cause cultural earthquakes if not real ones. How is stripping off your clothes (with your sister!) and pissing on a sacred site different from doing it to a war memorial or in a church? Of course, there are some people who have no problem doing that either.

Maybe the ability to show respect for other cultures should be one of the questions people get asked before they are granted a visa to go.

But that’s ten minutes.

Insults

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Laws against blasphemy make the least sense of all laws. If god is all powerful why would he possibly need anyone on earth to protect his name from insult? After all, she gets all of eternity to punish the blasphemer. And in the face of eternity the entire life of a heathen — or whatever the right term is — is only a blip.

Well, of course, most states that have laws against blasphemy, such as Iran, also have laws against insulting the Supreme Leader. There is a Canadian sitting in an Iranian prison right now on some such trumped up pretext. So this might be a real clue.

Laws against blasphemy are not to protect god — despite all the mealy mouthed arguments to the contrary —they are to protect the secular power of those who wield it in god’s name.

Power is a drug. Once people have it they want more of it and they will construct every possible argument to justify why they should have it, why they should keep it. Whether power comes from some spiritual realm or from filthy lucre the results are the same. Powerful people will always try to subvert society, the law and the state to serve their own purposes.

That’s a pretty simple thing to see — nothing profound here folks, move right along — but the ubiquitous nature of power addiction does present real problems for people who sincerely want to have a re-ordered less hierarchical world. Who not only view such a world as a just moral goal but as a practical useful thing for society. Not only does power corrupt the individual (including the reformer) it corrupts social life itself.

Poor people are not as intelligent or as productive as people who are less poor. Lots of evidence shows that children who are born poor have less of a chance to succeed than those born to well-off families. We used to think that it had to do with socioeconomic status alone — better opportunities and so on — but now we know that being poor creates a biological impediment. Staying poor only makes it worse.

As someone who is not poor and who even as a child always had the essentials if not the luxuries of life, I care very much about eliminating poverty and any form of social inequality.

I care not only because of my strong belief in social justice but because I know that raising up the large number of people who are impoverished or discriminated against or made powerless by domestic, community or society wide power differentials will lead to a wealthier and healthier society. Which is good for everyone.

So my rejection of things like blasphemy laws (you thought I forgot) comes from the same place. They don’t come from the fact I’m an atheist and just think they are meaningless (they mean a lot to those who act on them) but because — just as hunger and powerlessness impoverish the physical lives of people, blasphemy laws or other social structures that enrich a few ‘special’ people impoverish their souls.

And that’s ten minutes.

The Niqab

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Stephen Harper is often cited as a brilliant strategist. I disagree; most of his long-term plans get scuppered on the shoals of the Constitution, the common law and the common sense of Canadians. I expect (or at least hope) ten years from now it may seem like he never existed. However, in the short game, one should never count Mr. Harper out. His tactics are often painfully effective. Take the Niqab.

The federal Conservatives have suddenly taken a deep interest in anti-women cultures. Never mind that murdered and missing Aboriginal women are ‘not on the radar,’ and ‘rape culture’ is overblown. It is the covered face that represents the greatest threat to Canadian liberty. Especially when it is worn at the most solemn of occasions — the Citizenship ceremony.

The debate now raging — almost exclusively among progressives — is miraculously divisive for everyone except the Conservative base. They all know what they think — Jason Kenney has expressed it well. But for progressives it is a very tough issue to come down on one side or the other.

Some see it as standing up to symbols of female oppression. None of these women choose to wear the niqab; they are being forced by a patriarchal culture to do so. It is not about religion they say but tribalism. Others argue vehemently that it is a matter of choice and that people’s religious and cultural values should be respected. So which is it?

We saw what happened to the PQ when they tried to make this the centre point of the Quebec election. They were defeated. But I doubt if it was religious symbols in public that was the turning point — it was concerns about the economy and worries about another referendum.

Which is ultimately why this debate will do short term damage to progressives while doing long-term damage to social discourse and whoever has to run a divided and fractious country. Including Stephen Harper.

I actually understand both sides of the debate. I’m no big fan of the niqab or the burka. But then I find people who wear giant crosses on their chests kind of creepy, too.

Rules requiring women to bare their face in court (though not their hair) are a much greater issue and go to the heart of the right of an accused to face their accuser. I have no problem banning the face scarf there.

But to get in a turmoil about the citizenship ceremony? Give me a break. It’s not as if those people haven’t already done everything necessary to earn their citizenship — including passing exams that most natural born and raised Canadians would struggle with. The final oath is a formality and a symbol of what it means to be a Canadian. It is a time to wear your finest. And in multi-cultural Canada that might include African robes or tuxedoes or niqabs. It’s no different than wearing a veil to a wedding.

And that’s ten minutes.