Doctrinal Purity

Standard

Before he became the ruler of the city-state of Geneva, John Calvin was noted for, among other things, his writings on religious tolerance. During the five years as head of a government – not so much. He oversaw the execution—mostly by burning at the stake—of more than 50 people for heresy. Calvin was catholic in his approach – not capital-C Catholic of course but ‘universal’ as the word also means. He killed pretty much anyone who disagreed with his particular interpretation of the Bible and God’s word. And, if anything, he seemed to dislike his fellow Protestants the most.

Doctrinal purity is a dangerous thing. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Careful how you answer that or you could find yourself catapulted away just like those who can’t figure out the ground speed of an unladen swallow. There is always a finer point of questioning to catch you up. As for three-in-on or one-in-in three, unless you are talking about lubricating oil, you had best shut up.

Thankfully times have changed. You can no longer be burned at the stake for getting some trivial religious interpretation wrong. These days it is more likely to be beheading or maybe just a bullet to the head. But not in the west, surely?

Well, surely not. Here we are satisfied with jailing people for defamation or perhaps shouting them down at a political meeting. Slap suits are a common tool of the rich to silence people who question how they got their money. And give them enough power and they may just remove your right to speak at all.

I recall once being accused of being a Trotskyite by a fellow NDP party member as a way of shutting me up. But that was nothing.  Now you’d best be careful of what you say on any cultural issue or you may find yourself in for a Twitter storm of abuse or much worse – having the SWAT team called to your house by an anonymous tip. Not exactly a walk in the park.

Both left and right have considerable aversion to each other’s shibboleths and doctrines but I sometimes think they hold out their strongest criticism for those within their own ranks who deviate from the received Truth. Just read a few of the repulsive alt-right tweets about John McCain’s recent diagnosis with brain cancer or the silencing of any voice that doesn’t toe the identity politics line – check please (your privilege that is). Silence is far preferable – and apparently safer – than critical analysis or questioning of someone’s facts.

Everyone, of course, can lay claim to their own opinions but increasingly they lay claim to their own facts, too. Cries of fake news started by the right have been embraced by the left just as political correctness, originally a weapon of the left against their own, was appropriated by the right. Oh, and don’t get me started on appropriation.

Of course, the left argue they have the high ground since, while the right rely on religion, they believe in science, except when it comes to the disquieting studies that show GMOs or vaccines aren’t dangerous or that eating meat may not be as environmentally dangerous as we thought.  I could go on but who needs the abuse.

Well, pox on all of them, I say. And if you don’t agree, well, sit down, shut up and wait your turn on the grill. And that’s ten minutes.

Property

Standard

There are few things more contentious than the question of property. For those on the far left, property is theft. For extreme conservatives, it is a sacred right. Most of us come down somewhere in the middle. In Canada, while we guarantee the equality of the sexes in the Constitution, we don’t guarantee the right to own property. The state can – and frequently does – expropriate property for the public good and there are a number of other less formal ways that your property rights can be infringed.

In fact the biggest property owner in Canada is the Crown, which controls vast tracts of land from coast to coast to coast. In most situations, the Crown continues to own subsurface rights to land even if the surface rights are owned by individuals.

For artists and other creative types, the big issue is copyright – that is, the right to own the product of their mind and imagination. In Canada, copyright persists for fifty years after the death of the creator; in the USA, those rights extend for 70 years and there are some – notably big creative corporations like Disney – who would like that extended even further.

The simplest argument people make is that if they own a house they can pass that property down to their children and grandchildren and so on in perpetuity so why shouldn’t intellectual property be the same. Property is property right?

Well, no. We already distinguish between different kinds of property. There is real property, generally referring to land but can also be ascribed to other forms of wealth, and there is chattel property, things like cars or the furnishings in your house. This distinction becomes particularly relevant when you go bankrupt, when most chattel property is forfeit (unless it is the tools of your trade) whereas some real property (such as your primary residence) can’t be touched.

We also make a distinction – in the tax system – between different kinds of real property. Primary residences are exempt, for example, from capital gains tax. Some lucky folks who bought a house in downtown Toronto in the 70s are now millionaires because of soaring house values. When they sell, none of that money is taxable. Not so the people who own a cottage on Georgian Bay (unless it is their primary residence); their property is subject, on sale, to taxes on the difference between the purchase price and sale price.

And, finally, you can only pass down your property when all estate taxes (in the USA) or probate fees (in Canada) are paid. Failure to pay those and your property can be forfeited to cover the cost. As far as I know, probate may (or may not) be applied to intellectual property but it is difficult to estimate its value and hence ascribe a percentage tax or fee to it.

There are some arguments against extending rights to intellectual property beyond a reasonable limit. Extending patents (which are different and shorter than copyright) for drugs for example may – at a certain point – raise prices for consumers without significantly increasing innovation by pharmaceutical companies, which would rather spend their R&D on modifying existing properties than inventing new ones. The same suppression of creativity may well apply to other forms of copyright as well.

And that’s ten minutes.

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.

Bargains

Standard

Recently, an Environment Canada employee, Tony Turner, wrote and recorded a political protest song against the Harper government. He was subsequently suspended from his position and is being investigated by his department to see if he violated their code of ethics. This has generated considerable protest and demands that he be reinstated. Cries of ‘Censorship!’ are ringing out loud and clear.

While no-one opposes the Harper government more than I do and along the same lines as Mr. Turner (despite his occasional ventures into hyperbole), I don’t necessarily agree with the view that he was perfectly within his rights. There are consequences to speech after all – as the Hydro One employee who shouted obscenities at a reporter on air found out. He lost his job and rightly so.

During the 1980s and 90s, both as a political activist and as a low level union leader (I was a local president) I fought for an expansion of political rights for public servants. Now entrenched in contracts and legislation, most civil servants – right up to the top ranks of middle management – do have considerable freedom to express their views. They can have lawn signs and attend political rallies. They can hand out pamphlets (though not in the workplace where any sign of partisanship is banned) and they can make donations. They can apply for a leave of absence to run for office. This year 37 federal public servants have done exactly that.

Where is the problem then? The deal has always been that you can criticize the government about anything – except the area of your own job. So as an Environment Canada employee, Mr. Turner is free to criticize government for its policies on health care or the treatment of Aboriginals but not so free when it comes to climate change or pollution control.

There are good reasons for this. First, you are in effect criticizing your colleagues who either agree with government approaches (some do) or have agreed to do their best to implement them. Hardly makes for a stress free workplace. As well, one can hardly speak truth to power in the workplace while shouting your opinions to power outside of it.

There was in effect a bargain – civil servants give their advice and decision makers choose to either follow it or do something else. Would you really want something else? Would you want your lives to be run by experts and technocrats with no input from the people who were democratically elected? If so, why have elections at all? Why have politicians at all? Let’s have the country run by faceless bureaucrats like they do in China.

Public servants should speak strongly to the politicians. They should base their views on evidence and they should be as honest as they can possibly be – even if it goes against the public views of the government in power. Governments should listen carefully – and should often follow the advice they are given. But sometimes they should say thank you, we understand but we were elected to do xyz and will accept the consequences of not following your advice. Now go do this. And public servants should then go do that and if they can’t they should find other work. Which is what Canada’s chief statistician did over the cancelling of the long form census.

Unfortunately this bargain has been broken – first and foremost by the current government. Instead of quietly listening, they told public servants to shut up or they replaced them with people who would never say a harsh word. Then, instead of telling public servants to do this particular thing, they told them to do nothing. Go sit in the corner and be quiet. In part, this government lacks the courage of their convictions. They don’t want government to do certain things but fear the political repercussions of actually shutting down offending programs. Instead they tie the hands of civil servants and stifle them.

That’s been a standard approach of these guys. Big talk and not much action. Death by a thousand cuts. And in the end a decided lack of courage when it comes to doing what they really want to do. And thank goodness for small mercies.

Civil servants are used to being denied and to doing what they are told. They are not used to being silenced and told to do nothing. Despite what some people seem to think, people don’t join the public service to sit in their offices and do crossword puzzles.

No wonder morale is so low; no wonder public sector unions are – for the first time – actively campaigning against the government. No wonder Mr. Turner – who probably will be re-instated and told to edit bits out of his song (it’s too long anyway) – is protesting. No wonder so many public servants are taking leave or actually quitting their jobs to run against the government.

Nobody wants to work loyally for a boss who breaks trust with them.

And that’s a lot more than ten minutes. You can protest my broken promise anyway you like.

At the End of the Rainbow

Standard

Rainbows everywhere and I couldn’t be happier. The extension of marriage rights to all Americans on an equal basis is long overdue. Canadians did it ten years ago and guess what? The world didn’t end, society didn’t collapse. No pastors set themselves on fire.

Okay it is true that a 44-year old conservative government was defeated this year in a surprise rise of the NDP, Canada’s modestly left wing party and the same party is leading in the polls nationally. But I’m sure the two things aren’t related.

Besides it took ten years to work through the system so that hardly impacts on the ability of the Republicans to take back the White House, now does it?

However, their unbelievably weak response both to the Supreme Court ruling yesterday, the one on Obamacare earlier this week as well as to the Charleston race-crime murders all demonstrate why the Grand Old Party is rapidly losing touch with America.

Ten years ago, before Obama, 59% of Americans opposed same-sex marriage. This year 60% approve of it, similar to the majority that approved it in Ireland. Over time that number will continue to rise. There will always be people who will oppose it – either for reasons based in their strongly held moral code or based solely in hate – but eventually most people will discover that rights are not privileges.

Whereas privileges can only be gained by one person at the expense of another, rights are infinitely expandable. Increasing the rights of others in no way diminishes the rights of those who already had them. My marriage is in no way reduced by the ability of two men or two women to marry. In fact, as I have recounted elsewhere, it was the recognition of gay marriage in Ontario that led me to get married.

But where does this leave America—increasingly divided into those who want the expansion of liberty and those who only want liberty for themselves? There is a hard core minority who view the rights of others as simply wrong-headed and evil; who view opposing opinions as something that need to be corrected—by Second Amendment remedies if need be. There is no future for a Republican party locked in past grievances and appealing to an aging demographic dominated by old white men. America risks becoming a one party state with a permanent angry minority.

The path forward seems treacherous but it is also one lined with opportunities. One of the multitude of GOP candidates has to find the courage to rise from the crowd and distinguish himself (or herself if Carly Fiorina uses this to climb out of obscurity) by standing for the true conservative values written in the Constitution: the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, then perhaps there is real hope for the GOP to stop its demographically driven death spiral and, so, real hope for democracy in America.

But that’s ten minutes

Privacy and Freedom

Standard

The other day I was getting on an elevator in a hospital and saw a sign that said: Surveillance cameras authorized under the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act. To me it said a lot about how governments of Canada treat both information and privacy; they are less concerned about preserving your rights than they are on protecting their own.

Governments are by nature secretive organizations. Most bureaucrats’ stock in trade is information and they protect it like their first born child. It is not only spy agencies that operate on a ‘need to know’ basis – almost every department has their own little division which decides what can and cannot be revealed, not merely to the public but to their fellow bureaucrats.

When you look around the world there are certainly more secretive governments than Canada – though most of those aren’t democracies. It doesn’t have to be that way. The United States, for example – at least at the federal level – is much more open about decisions and the decision making process than we are here in Canada. Open government, in their view, is the hallmark of a democratic society. And I suspect they are right. Openness does promote a certain degree of accountability and caution. Mike Duffy, for example, might not be in such a pickle if his activities had been more open to view from the get go.

Of course, providing information is an onerous job, especially when you have to go through all sorts of hoops to gather it up and then censor it – making sure that only the absolute minimum required by law is released to the public. It is not uncommon for 90% of a released document under freedom of information to be redacted in black ink.

Which brings us to the issue of privacy. One of the reasons, I suspect, that governments link freedom of information to protection of privacy is to ensure they always have an excuse not to release too many details – we are protecting people’s personal information. It also justifies them collecting lots of information – we need it to provide services but you can be sure it will never be released.

Until of course it is. We’ve all heard of the horror stories of private health or tax information being revealed when it was mistakenly thrown in a dumpster or when a laptop is stolen that contained files that should never have left the office. Or, in certain strange cases, where the files of troublesome people are turned over to bureaucrats and politicians to be used as weapons against them.

With the advent of Bill C-51, things are only going to get worse. This legislation – crafted at reckless speed and in an atmosphere of raw hysteria in the wake of the Ottawa Parliament Hill attack will further erode individual privacy while strengthening the ability of government to keep secrets even from itself.

Perhaps we need to take a step back – determine how much information we really need to keep on our citizens  and start making decisions about how much really needs to hidden in what, after all, is supposed to be a public government.

But that’s ten minutes. Thanks to Louise Holland for suggesting the topic.

Rights 2

Standard

“Man is born free but he everywhere is in chains.” Rousseau’s conclusion marked the end of the first stage of the Enlightenment — which came with the recognition that all people were possessed of basic rights but for the most part they were not able to exercise them. While Rousseau has a lot to answer for — he created the concept of the Noble Savage, after all —this aphoristic description of the state of politics has driven much of the rest of the enlightenment project — an effort to allow people to express the rights they already possess. The free expression of rights by others has been what has driven the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, the civil rights movement, feminism, the establishment of gay rights and so on.

While the final stages of all these movements require individuals and groups to assert and take their rights, in every case the first step required a change in the social culture wherein those who could already express their rights created the conditions that allowed freedom to bloom. It has not always been easy and has been fought at every step of the way.

In some cases the fights have been verbal or political but sometimes they have required the taking up of arms. The end of slavery in the United States required a civil war. Some people are still fighting it.

I was inspired to think of this the other day by the people who expressed discomfort over the Irish referendum that changed the constitution to recognize gay marriage (well, that work is still to come in the legislature but it is a foregone conclusion after the vote). People shouldn’t vote on other people’s rights was the general sentiment.

But how else do you think it can happen? Revolutions? They sometimes work but the French revolution was followed by The Terror and then Napoleon.

Although generally, national referendums have not been the route to inclusivity and the expansion of freedom, it is hardly invalid. The alternative is a political process wherein legislatures pass laws to remove restrictions on people. This was how women gained the vote in the end — it was brought about by protests and arguments (some of which were unfortunate) but ultimately required the law to be changed by the only people who already had the vote: men.

The courts have also played a role — but not by “making law” but by forcing legislatures to obey the highest law of the land, the written and unwritten constitution that lays the foundation of society. But even then it was the political process that created those possibilities. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” And it was the evolution of culture and society that led to the understanding that all men meant all humans.

Rights may be inherent to all people but without the freedom to exercise them they are nothing but a beautiful dream. As Ireland has shown it is time to stop dreaming and start living.

And that’s ten minutes.