03/31/12

Lights out for Earth Hour, Saturday


Earth HourEarth Hour returns tonight, Saturday March 31. Collingwood has been a proud supporter of Earth Hour ever since it went worldwide.

If you care about climate change, or care about the environment, turn your lights out for 60 minutes from 8:30-9:30 p.m. local time. Come on, show you care! Turn those lights out. It’s only for 60 minutes.

Remember to unplug TVs, stereos, etc to stop ‘phantom’ power, too! Let’s see if we can set a record for low power use for Earth Hour 2012.

To learn more about Earth Hour, visit: www.earthhour.org/

03/30/12

Why does Canada need an “Office of Religious Freedom”?


Religious Freedom?Why did the Harper Conservatives establish an “Office of Religious Freedom” within the Department of Foreign Affairs? I don’t get it. Was there some pressing issue in Canada where religious rights were repressed, so it needed a multi-million-dollar government agency to oversee compliance with our Charter of Rights and Freedoms?

That charter clear states, in section two, that all Canadians have four “fundamental freedoms:”

  1. freedom of conscience and religion;
  2. freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
  3. freedom of peaceful assembly; and
  4. freedom of association.

Well, since the ORF is within the DFA (excuse my initialisms), it must mean Canadians are going to enforce religious freedoms outside our own borders, right? So we’re going to become the faith police for the world? Do we send in the army when someone’s faith is being oppressed? Or just mail hurt and sad diplomatic notes? Perhaps something like this one will appear in a Taliban mail box soon:

“Dear Mr. Taliban:
We are truly distressed and hurt that you want to enslave women and turn children into suicide bombers in the name of your religion. We also feel we must protest against the destruction of those irreplaceable, millennia-old Buddhist statues you had dynamited and shelled in the name of your religion. And we are really, really upset that one of your followers threw acid into the faces of young school girls because he was angry that women were being educated. Finally, it was very naughty of you to execute those women for shaming their families by being raped. Stoning goes against our Canadian values.

We sincerely hope you won’t do any of this again.

In the name of love and peace,
Canada.”

Yeah, that’ll change them. One look at a warning letter from Canada and these frothing mad religious zealots will just crawl back into the Dark Ages whence they came. Right.

Given the fundamentalist-right leanings of some of the Conservatives, I am leery of this government – any government, in fact – overseeing rights and freedoms of any sort. But having them oversee religious freedoms is to me like letting the fox guard the hen house. I can’t quite believe a Christian evangelist is going to be fighting for the rights of persecuted Muslims or Buddhists in some developing nation. Maybe it’s just me, but I expect they’re more likely to try to convert them…

Don’t get me wrong: I’m an advocate for religious freedom. As a non-believer, I still support the right of anyone to believe anything they want, no matter how silly, stupid or humorous – right up until the moment it interferes with another human being’s life or rights. Sure, you want to believe the world is going to end and you’ll get carried away safely in a spaceship, go ahead. That’s your right. But you don’t have any right to demand anyone else drink the Kool-Aid with you.

Your religious freedom extends as far as your own skin, and not a millimeter further. It doesn’t allow you to tell anyone else what to believe, what to read, what to think.

protesting TibetansBut why, I ask again, does the government need an office to enforce religious freedom? Will it have its own police force? Will it, for example, send diplomats to Tibet to protest the ongoing, brutal Chinese oppression of Tibetan religious freedom – or just send the PM to Beijing for some chop suey and photo ops while inking some more trade deals and to hell with the Tibetans?

In mid-March, Helene Laverdiere, NDP foreign affairs critic, stood up in the House of Commons and asked the government how this office was formed, who wanted it, what its mandate was, and what it could cost Canadians (full text of her question and the response is here).

The government’s nebulous response was, basically bafflegab, but it did state the office (or rather, as the reply noted, the Office of Religious Freedom Office) would get $5 million a year for a staff of five, for at least the next four years. One million dollars per person per year. Wish I could tap into that salary… This new expenditure comes at a time the government has announced budget cuts in health, food, safety, heritage and the CBC, among others.

Is this all government balderdash, as several bloggers (like this one) think? Just pandering to the Conservatives’ Christian roots, while scoring extra points in the multicultural communities for looking pro-active (of the six-member panel created to consult with religious groups in closed-door sessions, four were Christian. None were Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist).

Should our government even inject “religion into a secular foreign policy” as the Toronto Star asked. I just can’t help but feel – given the government’s history and makeup – that this is just being used to further another agenda.

03/28/12

Please preserve the CBC: no more cuts!


Huffington PostCanadians who care about media content, journalistic integrity and fair reporting are anxiously watching for tomorrow’s federal budget announcements. Big cuts to the CBC are expected, according to this Huffington Post story:

Cuts to CBC funding expected in the upcoming federal budget could have dramatic implications, touching everything from popular television programming to foreign news bureaus and eliminating hundreds of jobs, observers predict.

The CBC’s own story about the predicted cuts doesn’t mention the CBC, but it does say, “…many public servants in Ottawa are bracing for staffing cuts, which may not arrive through relatively painless attrition or early retirement packages”

The CBC has been the target of numerous Conservative governments since Brian Mulroney, and suffered successive budget cuts under the Conservatives ever since. The once-vaunted Radio Canada International was reduced from an internationally acclaimed, award-winning short-wave service that was the voice of Canada for millions of listeners worldwide, to little more than a repeater service for the CBC, thanks to budget cuts.

Cuts have crippled the CBC for almost three decades, ever since Mulroney (a humourless, mean-spirited prime minister if ever there was one; he rapidly sank to being one of the most unpopular politicians in Canadian history, in part because of his attack on the CBC).

Friends of Canadian Broadcasting, a media watchdog organization, took up the fight to save the CBC last year. A Globe and Mail story from last fall begins,

The CBC is stuck in a “stranglehold” as Conservative MPs attack the broadcaster and threaten to end or decrease its funding, a broadcast watchdog says.

On the Friends website, the latest story says, “New opinion research shows that 6 in 10 Canadians want the Harper Conservatives to keep their election promise to increase or maintain funding to the CBC.”

Majority opinions have never caused Harper to change his mind or his direction. He’s from the west where the CBC has been demonized as the “Communist Broadcasting Corporation” by the uber-right. One can hardly expect him to have any more sympathy for non-sycophant journalists than Rick Santorum showed for the New York Times recently.

For the right, especially for the American right, media is a tool of the party, not for journalistic truth or objectivity. Worse is that the CBC in the guise of comedic shows like This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Royal Canadian Air Farce and Rick Mercer Report have actually dared to tease and make fun of Steven Harper. Well, they have a long history of poking fun at all parties and all politicians, but some – like Harper – seem to take it very personally.

Instead of growing a thicker skin, he cuts their budget. Harper and Mulroney share some unfortunate personality traits in that.

As the Friends website notes, Harper’s cuts are not just cost savings, but rather a strategy to cause the public support for the CBC to dissipate because it won’t be able to provide what Canadians expect from a national broadcaster:

Further cuts would be to the bone and make it impossible for the CBC to effectively fulfill its mandate, leaving our national broadcaster open to increased criticism that it’s wasting taxpayer money, unfairly competing with private broadcasters for advertising dollars and calls for dismantling. There is no more room for efficiency; every dollar has to come out of programming – off the air, off the screen.

Budget cuts have been stripping Canadian content from the CBC for the last 30 years. It’s become more and more American in almost everything it does, while Canadian content and culture suffers from a shrinking venue for exposure of our own material. Harper and his allies seem to prefer American programming – the slavishly sycophant Fox and its ilk – to Canadian programming, but then they also seem to prefer American-style attack politics, so that’s no surprise. No wonder Sun media has a place in their hearts.

CBC is ESSENTIAL to continue to connect Canadians from coast to coast. We need to continue to support and increase funding for the CBC to create more Canadian content.

The HuffPost noted,

In addition to prime-time programming, sources familiar with the file told HuffPost the upcoming cuts may lead to the closing of some foreign bureaus and will necessitate employee layoffs.
Barry Kiefl, head of the independent Ottawa-based firm Canadian Media Research Inc. (CMRI), cautions against “taking it for granted that there’s going to be a 10 per cent cut,” before details of the budget are revealed on Thursday. But he maintains a trim of that magnitude could result in the elimination of 1,000 jobs.

Jobs will not only be lost in the BCB itself, but in Canada’s cultural industry: independent filmmakers, producers, directors, script writers and others will have no place in Canada to work:

In addition to stoking concern among CBC employees, (Mary) Darling says the possibility of significant belt-tightening is contributing to widespread uncertainty among the legions of independent producers, such as herself, who create the network’s English language dramatic programming.
“People are beyond tense. This is our livelihood. This is how we make our living and send our kids to school,” said Darling, who alongside husband Clark Donnelly runs Toronto-based Westwind Pictures, the company behind Little Mosque.
Currently in its final season, the sitcom won’t be affected by looming cuts. But if the rumours are true, Donnelly predicts the network won’t pick up similar programs in the future, putting several programs Westwind is currently developing in peril.
(Mary Darling is executive producer of the network’s hit TV show, Little Mosque of the Prairie.)

The CBC provides us with a stronger national identity. Without it, we would be little more than the 51st state of the USA. Without it, we would have no bulwark against American culture.

It will be a tragic day for Canadian journalism, Canadian culture, Canadian media, Canadian unity and Canadian values if the Harper Conservatives do any more economic damage to the CBC than they have already done over the past three decades. But I suspect they won’t rest until the CBC is gutted and dead.

03/26/12

Scribble, scribble, eh what?


Typing cartoonJust passed the 13,000 word mark on my current book about Machiavelli and municipal politics, this weekend. So far, I have gone through explanations of Chapters 1-10 of The Prince. The Prince has 26 chapters, so I’m about 40% of the way through my analysis, more or less on track for a 35,000-40,000 word book.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes, but so far I think I’ve done a fair job of finding relevant metaphors, issues and events. The next chapter, on ecclesiastical states, might be a bit of a stretch, since their relevance today is minimal, so I suspect I’ll need to conflate a couple of chapters here.

It’s a little tough in places trying to fit Machiavelli’s words and ideas to modern issues and themes.

I hope to have the core material written over the next two weeks.I’m working with several translations of The Prince, but the core material I’m quoting comes from the public domain Marriott translation. It’s a bit of a stodgy version and isn’t broken into paragraphs for easy reading. Fortunately for me, I have a print version that is, so it’s a bit easier to find material and to read.

Once the basic overview of The Prince is complete, I’ll bring in selections from The Discourses to bolster my arguments, as well as throwing in some quotes from Sun Tzu, Han Fei Tzu and one of my favourite books on leadership – Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power. Then I’ll try to add a few examples from Canadian municipal politics to it. Toronto these days seems to have a wealth of stories.

I want this to be about the same size as my last two books, so I have to try to focus and not be too long-winded.

One of the books I’ve been reading recently while doing this is Maurizio Viroli’s Niccolo’s Smile, an excellent and highly entertaining biography of Machiavelli. Understanding the events that shaped his life makes it easier to understand Machiavelli’s political theories.

I’ve also been reading books and online essays/articles about Machiavelli’s political theories, ethics, and morals. Some have been a bit densely pedantic (is that an oxymoron?), but others have given me some material to consider.

Well, back to work… 1,000 words a day is my minimum target and the day’s not getting longer.

03/23/12

This is about keeping schools secular, not about atheism.


Diversity?I stumbled across a story this week about a school district in Ontario that had decided to disallow free distribution of the Bible by the Gideons in its schools. My first thought was, “Wow. I didn’t even know the Gideons were still in business.”

Then I wondered why anyone was distributing bibles at a secular school in the first place.

The story actually originated in the Toronto Star. The Gideons have been distributing bibles since 1908, and in Canada since 1911. I’ve only seen the New Testament in any hotel where I’ve stayed, but their website says they distribute both “complete” and New Testament-only bibles. By “complete” I assume that the apocrypha is not included, just the Old and New Testaments.

The decision not to allow bibles to be handed out was made by the Bluewater School Board’s policy committee this week. The committee debated the issue for months (which strikes me as very indecisive) but eventually voted to ban distribution of all religious materials at its 53 schools. The other suggestion was to allow any religious organization to hand out literature. That could open the door to all sorts of fringe religious groups, from creationists to Scientologists. None was the better choice.

Well, not for Kevin Larson, chairman of the board’s policy committee. He said he was disappointed by the decision. “I believe open to all is the way we should be going with the increasing diversity in the world.” Duh. I wonder how he would feel if someone was handing out Korans? The Book of Mormon? Dianetics? The Dhammapada? Bhagavad Gita? What about some Wiccan text? Or something by Anton Lavey?

How would he answer all those complaints from parents whose kid brought home a screed from the Satanic Church? Would he tell them they should relax and enjoy the “diversity”?

An opponent of the decision, Dorothy Adams, commented: “It is an atheist thing and they’re doing harm to the children. What are we trying to do? Destroy our children?”

No, just keeping the separation of church and state. You don’t have to be an atheist to believe that religion does not belong in a secular school.

According to the Gideons’ website, “In 1946, Canadian Gideons began the program of presenting New Testaments to all grade 5 students in Canada whose parents consented. These have become commonly known as the “Little Red Bible” by the thousands of people who received them.” If it’s just the New testament, it’s specifically a Christian text.

The Gideons aren’t apologetic, either. They state clearly they are proselytizing for Christianity:

The main reason for this is because our primary goal is to introduce people to Jesus Christ. If we can ask people to read one thing in the entire Bible, it’s the stories that revolve around the character of Jesus and who He is. We want them to start there and then explore the whole story, including the Old Testament, as they dig deeper into the Bible.

Bluewater’s decision is hardly the first: many other school boards have disallowed distribution of the bibles, as well as all other religious material, in public schools. And so they all should.

Obviously this decision didn’t sit well with the religious right, who packed the committee meetings, waving their Gideon Bibles, and when they went home spent time flooding trustee inboxes with with emails, making phone calls and writing letters.

Adams said Gideon supporters would continue to lobby trustees to avoid the decision being ratified by the full board, in April. She told the paper:

“We believe in the children and bringing up children to have a happy life. If they had the Lord in their life, they wouldn’t be tempted by a lot of the things that are out there.”

So if they had Krishna in their life, children won’t be tempted? Or Mani? Ganesh? Avalokiteshvara? Buddha? Mithra? Prince Xenu? Allah? Or just one of the three Christian gods? Didn’t seem to keep a lot of priests from temptation with altar boys.

I somehow doubt Ms. Adams or any of the opponents give a damn about “diversity” – just about teaching children their own faith. And that’s a good enough reason to stop the group handing out bibles to kids in publicly funded schools.

03/20/12

Is Machiavelli relevant to today’s municipal politicians?


Niccolo MachiavelliAre the political theories of a 16th-century Italian diplomat relevant to today’s municipal politics? Yes, assuming you know and have read his works, not just the bumper-sticker over-simplification that says, “The end justifies the means.”

Actually, Machiavelli never wrote those words. That’s a modern condensation. It’s also an erroneous paraphrase of what he wrote in The Prince, because it overlooks a lot of his comments on the effect of some types of behaviour on the honour and reputation of the ruler. Machiavelli stressed the cause and effect of a ruler’s actions on his power, his honour and his reputation. He had little interest in rulers who abused their power.

Machiavelli did not advocate cruelty or violence towards subjects, and was highly critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience. But, he said, expedient methods could be justifiable if there are clear and measurable benefits from those acts.

Machiavelli today is also known from the adjective “Machiavellian,” which suggests something evil, underhanded, and sneaky in politics. But that, too is a false impression.

Shortly after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England and the Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. The churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption because presented politics outside the church’s control and influence. Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power, and this challenged the churches’ authority. Hence the demonization, and the attribution of duplicity to the term “Machiavellian.”

Many people recognize that he wrote Il Principe, (in English: “The Prince,”) but few municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it. More’s the pity because it has a lot of lessons for today’s politicians.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility, with the mayor at the top and the nobility squabbling of their portion of the power below. The mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s ruler of Florence: a strong state trying to control the client states, some of whom are allies, others are resentful and want their independence. Uppity or subservient… doesn’t that sound like many on today’s municipal councils?

Machiavelli wrote, “…the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another.”

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected. Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office from inertia, rather than by great acts or by taking brave and principled stands. But Machiavelli warned against complacency and stresses the need to win the public’s love and gratitude. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext message in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe – were in constant conflict, often open warfare with one another. Aren’t today’s municipalities also in conflict with one another? Not through armies and war, of course. We’re more subtle than that.

Sure municipalities have regional agreements, share some resources, and cooperate where it is expedient to do so. But every municipality is competing for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, for new industries and businesses, and for reputation. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant the municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

Yes, I think Machiavelli has a lot of relevance for today’s municipal politicians. I have a new book in the making about this, so stay tuned.

03/20/12

So many bad quotes, so little time


I was browsing through my blog posts today and found I have actually written about improperly attributed quotations on the Net nine times since I first started blogging back in March, 2005.

On my old Mumpsimus blog, I posted two pieces about these bad memes:

On this new blog, which I launched in mid_December, 2011, I have written seven pieces about bad Internet quotes, starting with the Slowly Dies piece, in January, 2012:

Mis-quoting SpockIt’s got so that every time I see some cutely-crafted poster with its quotation done in some artistic font, I have to start searching online to confirm the source. If only the people who designed such beautifully artistic images put a fraction of the work into confirming the source as they do in making their posters look pretty, I would not be so quick to challenge them.

Unless we use critical thinking, unless we use intellectual analysis and skepticism, unless we question, we are condemned to being fooled, to being cheated and being mislead.

Perhaps it’s become a small obsession for me. I’m not the only one who tries to correct these. I’ve mentioned the Quote Investigator and Wiki Quotes in previous posts. Today I found a piece about a popular quote mistakenly attributed to the Dalai Lama (ntweblog.blogspot.ca/2011/10/that-dalai-lama-quotation-and.html). That in turn led to a post about a quote mis-attributed to Albert Schweitzer (ntweblog.blogspot.ca/2007/08/jesus-creed-historical-jesus-series_17.html). Wiki Quotes has its list of popular mis-quotes (en.wikiquote.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations), as does Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_misquotations). And more at Secular Perspectives (secularhumanist.blogspot.ca/2011/01/skeptically-fact-checking-quotes.html) from when comes the image above.

Why bother? Because people are posting and sharing wrong information without checking it first. If information is the currency of the 21st century, then what they’re posting is counterfeit coinage. It’s not simply a mistake; it’s devaluing real information. It contributes to the general dumbing-down of our society. And it underscores the terrible lack of critical thinking that pervades our culture. People are too willing to suspend belief, too willing to accept statements and comments at face value when they reinforce their own beliefs. Instead, they should be thinking, reasoning and above all, questioning.

For me, the words of the Buddhist Kalama Sutra (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalama_Sutta) should guide everyone’s online activity:

Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing, nor upon tradition, nor upon rumor, nor upon what is in a scripture, nor upon surmise, nor upon an axiom, nor upon specious reasoning, nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over, nor upon another’s seeming ability, nor upon the consideration, “The monk is our teacher.”
Kalamas, when you yourselves know: “These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,” enter on and abide in them.

Unless we use critical thinking, unless we use intellectual analysis and skepticism, unless we question, we are condemned to being fooled, to being cheated and being mislead.