Category Archives: Canadian Politics

What’s it all about, Alfie?

Facebook image“What’s it all about, Alfie?” sings Cilla Black in the title song for the eponymous 1966 movie. But it could be the anthem for the human race, or at least those with a philosophical bent. “What’s it all about?” is certainly a question that springs to my mind daily as I listen to the news, read a paper or surf the internet.*

What “it” is all about was raised this week when the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal granted that atheism is a “creed” that deserves the same protections in law and public policy as any faith, equal under the Human Rights Code.

David A. Wright, associate chairman of the tribunal, made the statement that,“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity.”

A delightful victory for secular humanists and freethinkers. Atheists of all stripes should have the same right to spread their beliefs or proselytize like any other person who does it in the name of faith. Rights of expression should not be constrained by having no faith. By the same token, they have to obey he same rules as to where and when it is appropriate to do so.

Fair enough. But don’t expect to see atheists showing up at your front door wanting to give you a copy of Skeptic magazine, hoping to be invited into your living room for a chat about your salvation.

The decision also sparked a lot of lively debate about just what atheism is. What is “it” that deserves protection and is there anything definite, some commonality that clearly defines just what an atheist is? Spoiler: the answer is no.

It has also brought to the surface many misunderstandings about atheism – as well as general misunderstanding about what the words “religion” and “creed” mean. As reporter in the St. Catherine Standard, “Commission lawyer Cathy Pike argued in part the tribunal didn’t need to determine if atheism or secular humanism is a creed.” Quite right. But they did anyway.

The decision was a topic on the recent CBC radio show, Day Six, which asked “Is atheism a religion?” – a question not unlike asking “is a fish a bicycle?” Or as one poster on the CBC site wryly commented, “It has been variously said that atheism is a religion as: bald is a hair colour; “Off” is a TV channel, and; abstinence is a sex position.”

Many writers commenting on this decision share similar confusions over the idea of atheism, and mistake atheism for religion (a bit like mistaking a bicycle for a bus because they both have wheels). Perhaps most comments I’ve read come from writers who have a religion they want to defend and have a difficult time understanding a life without faith, so they need to put non-belief into a context they can comprehend.

For example, Licia Corbella, columnist in the Calgary Herald, wrote:

This may be a leap of faith, but here’s hoping that maybe now, atheists — many of whom have proven themselves to be a highly motivated evangelistic group accustomed to ramming their minority religion down the throats of the majority — will face the same scrutiny of their beliefs as traditional faiths have been undergoing for decades in Canada at their behest.

Corbella’s desire to punish atheists for their presumption notwithstanding, that atheism isn’t a religion can be proven by the semantics. While there are many variant definitions of what a religion is, Wikipedia’s is fairly good (emphasis added):

Religion is an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality. Many religions have narratives, symbols, and sacred histories that are intended to explain the meaning of life and/or to explain the origin of life or the Universe. From their beliefs about the cosmos and human nature, they tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws or a preferred lifestyle. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world. adds this (emphasis added):

  1. a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.
  2. a specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects: the Christian religion; the Buddhist religion.
  3. the body of persons adhering to a particular set of beliefs and practices: a world council of religions.
  4. the life or state of a monk, nun, etc.: to enter religion.
  5. the practice of religious beliefs; ritual observance of faith.

Austin Cline quotes an “Encyclopedia of Philosophy” (undefined as to which publisher, since there are numerous such works) for this rather exhaustive definition:

  • Belief in supernatural beings (gods).
  • A distinction between sacred and profane objects.
  • Ritual acts focused on sacred objects.
  • A moral code believed to be sanctioned by the gods.
  • Characteristically religious feelings (awe, sense of mystery, sense of guilt, adoration), which tend to be aroused in the presence of sacred objects and during the practice of ritual, and which are connected in idea with the gods.
  • Prayer and other forms of communication with gods.
  • A world view, or a general picture of the world as a whole and the place of the individual therein. This picture contains some specification of an over-all purpose or point of the world and an indication of how the individual fits into it.
  • A more or less total organization of one’s life based on the world view.
  • A social group bound together by the above.

Almost all definitions state that a religion is a collection of formal beliefs that include a supernatural or superhuman agency. But what agency or organization determines or collates this collection for atheists? None.

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Christmas Creep in August

Xmas XcessOn August 22, we got the Sears “Christmas Wish” catalogue delivered to our home. It was a sunny, hot day that almost reached 30C. The sprinkler was watering the garden while we enjoyed a cold beer on the porch, sitting in shorts and T-shirts.

The last thing I wanted on my mind was winter. But there it was, two pounds of wildly-inappropriate seasonal shopping choices, refusing to be ignored. As welcome as a fart in a crowded elevator.

It seems every year “Christmas Creep” advances down the calendar, earlier and earlier. Last year I heard Xmas music in stores on November 1, right after Hallowe’en. I was told that canned Xmas crap played on November 11 – while we stood in silence during the Remembrance Day memorial service – in stores where no one takes a mere two minutes of silence to remember our veterans.

That’s seriously ugly and not a little demented. Are we so shallow, our values so twisted that we can’t stop marketing, can’t stop advertising and promoting for a mere two minutes of respect? This egregious commercialism is eroding our values, like the inexorable ocean waves erode the shoreline.

The Urban Dictionary defines Christmas Creep as:

Universally hated, market driven phenomenon that if left unchecked will eventually culminate in an uninterrupted decade of concatenated carol medleys, closely followed by a glorious moment of frantic arson destroying every Christmatastasized mall in America.

Add Canada into that definition, please. I’d call for boycotts, but it seems too tame after that.

Shoppers heard Xmas carols blaring through stores on Oct 27, in the American city of Frederick, in 2010, spurring customer complaints. Didn’t stop everyone from maxing out their credit cards, it seems.

That’s not the earliest, by the way. But shoppers may be getting immune to the hypocrisy, to the calendrical backstep that brings Xmas shopping earlier every year.

One day soon, I expect, we’ll hear Xmas music in stores right after Labour Day. Think I’m crazy? Groupon had “beat the holiday rush” coupons out in July, and Costco had Xmas decorations on display this August!

Despite what the calendar says to the contrary, summer is over for many retailers and Christmas Creep is in full swing.

In Australia, though, Charles Areni, a professor of marketing thinks getting out the Xmas decorations and playing the music the sooner the better is good for sales:

“Christmas carols are a very specific genre. They’re in a major key, they have nostalgic value, they have a reasonably fast tempo – generally they’re pretty happy. With Christmas carols it’s very much about getting people to think about buying Christmas gifts, so they have a very specific purpose.”

In addition, music is specially chosen to appeal to a shop’s target market. If people like the music, they are more likely to stay longer in the shop – the longer they stay, the more likely they are to make a purchase or spend more money.

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Believing is Seeing

Persuasion“He who permits himself to tell a lie once,” wrote Thomas Jefferson (in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, from Paris, France, 1785), “finds it much easier to do it a second and third time, till at length it becomes habitual; he tells lies without attending to it, and truths without the world’s believing him. This falsehood of tongue leads to that of the heart, and in time depraves all its good dispositions.”

Anyone following the ups and downs of federal and provincial politics would have no trouble believing Jefferson’s words. We often believe – without any evidence to support our belief – that politicians lie, simply because other people say so. But Jefferson’s words are a truism that ranges far further, into faith, into social interaction, into relationships and work. It’s all about persuasion, likability and “social proof” or consensus:

…human beings often make choices about what to think, and what to do, based on the thoughts and actions of others. Simply stated: We like to follow the crowd.

People also tend to say yes and agree with people they like (and who shares areas of similarity).

Robert Levine, writing in The Power of Persuasion, says this shows Jefferson “understood the act of taking a stance galvanizes the belief behind the stance.”

In other words, although the speaker knows it isn’t true, by saying it often and loudly enough, the speaker will come to believe it himself, regardless of the truth. Cialdini’s rules of “social proof” and likability come into play here, too, along with the notion of self-justification:

Cialdini says that we’re more likely to be influenced by people we like. Likability comes in many forms – people might be similar or familiar to us, they might give us compliments, or we may just simply trust them.

If you feel the speaker is “one of us,” likable or a peer, someone who shares some similarity with us, we are more likely to consequently repeat the content. We will then commit to that belief by repeating it often enough ourselves.* Continue reading

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How should a municipality deal with cigarette litter?

Telegraph UK imageI was sitting on a decorative rock on the landscaping west of Loblaws, this weekend, waiting while Susan was inside and amusing myself at the bad driving habits of our city visitors in the parking lot. I happened to look down and saw what little, rough grass there was, was almost totally buried in cigarette butts. Toxic, non-decaying, environmentally hazardous and socially hostile cigarette butts. Ugh.

It’s not just there, it’s everywhere. Look along the streets, sidewalks, in the park grass. Thousands of cigarette butts, dozens, maybe hundreds of wrappers and packages every kilometer you walk.

An estimated two million cigarette butts are littered in the USA every day. Phillip Morris even notes that cigarette butts make up the first item of garbage on every American beach. It’s not simply a problem: it’s a disaster. This stuff is seriously toxic.

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But is it news?

Rob FordToronto Mayor Rob Ford seems to get more than his fair share of headlines these days, most of them negative. The stories that follow are full of allegation, innuendo and “unnamed sources.” Gripping tabloid stuff. Real time soap opera. But is it news?

Most of these stories seem based on a simplistic media prejudgment of the man. Ford: bad. Stories that belittle, humiliate, denigrate and ultimately crucify Ford: good.

And in this heated, increasingly toxic environment, allegations, gossip and rumour get given the same status as fact and build on themselves. Everything is sensationalized to such an extreme that it becomes impossible for the audience to pry even shreds of truth from the media frenzy. It’s like trying to apple bob in a piranha pool.

This, of course, one expects of Fox News, QMI and Sun News. The latter two Canadian media groups waffle between defending Ford (usually for no other reason than he is a Conservative) and wallowing in the mud with the likes of The Star, Globe and the NatPost. After all, tabloid-style headlines sell papers, and they don’t want to miss out on the public appetite for scandal, real or imagined. Dollars are at stake.

And, of course, some of these media outlets have political agendas and allegiances with other political parties. Reporters may also have personal or social allegiances they try to shove below the radar while they write their latest exposé, based on anonymous sources.

Even the once-credible CBC has gotten into the act, barely able to contain its delight while it roasts Ford over yet another allegation, all the while justifying its lack of actual fact by uttering stock phrases about not having seen the video, or the allegations being unproven. As if that makes a difference to the listener. It’s just the old nudge-nudge-wink-wink and no one is fooled.

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Quackery and Big Bucks Infect Health Canada

Homeopathy cartoonHealth Canada has allowed an increasing number of useless “alternative” healthcare (alternative TO healthcare in most cases) products to be sold in Canada over the last decade, despite the lack of proper (or in some cases, any) research data to prove their claims, effectiveness or safety. Most recently, however, Health Canada went further into pseudoscience and licensed homeopathic vaccines, proving that the agency has bowed to corporate pressure and given up trying to protect Canadian health.

According to the BC Medical Journal,

“…Health Canada has licensed 10 products with a homeopathic preparation called “influenzinum.”[8] According to providers, in­fluenzinum is for “preventing the flu and its related symptoms.”

Homeopathic vaccines are available for other infectious diseases as well. Health Canada licenses homeopathic preparations purported to prevent polio, measles, and pertussis.”

The author, Dr. Oppel, concludes with the reason behind this astounding act that seriously discredits both the once-respectable Canadian healthcare and the agency itself:

Natural health products are big business, and the voice of providers is never far from the ear of government. While patients are free to make health decisions, government has a duty to ensure that false or misleading claims do not interfere with consumers’ ability to make an informed choice. Nowhere is the case more clear than in the realm of unproven vaccines for serious illnesses. When it comes to homeopathic vaccines, Health Canada needs to stop diluting its standards.

Homeopathy is not medicine. It is not science. It is codswallop. It was invented by a charlatan named Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. According to Wikipedia

Hahnemann believed that the underlying cause of disease were phenomena that he termed miasms, and that homeopathic remedies addressed these. The remedies are prepared by repeatedly diluting a chosen substance in alcohol or distilled water, followed by forceful striking on an elastic body, called succussion. Each dilution followed by succussion is said to increase the remedy’s potency. Dilution usually continues well past the point where none of the original substance remains.

Get that? The dilution continues until all you have is… nothing. But “nothing” is not harmless. It can be very harmful. As in death. Wikipedia continues (emphasis added):

Homeopathic remedies have been the subject of numerous clinical trials. Taken together, these trials showed at best no effect beyond placebo, at worst that homeopathy could be actively harmful. Although some trials produced positive results, systematic reviews revealed that this was because of chance, flawed research methods, and reporting bias. The proposed mechanisms for homeopathy are precluded by the laws of physics from having any effect. Patients who choose to use homeopathy rather than evidence based medicine risk missing timely diagnosis and effective treatment of serious conditions. 

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Understanding the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act

Another of the Acts that direct municipal governance is the Municipal Conflict of Interest Act. While considerably shorter than the previously-discussed Municipal Act – eight pages, 15 sections and less than 3,500 words – it is of perhaps equal importance. While it may seem vague to outsiders, it was written to clearly identify the nature of a conflict in black and white.

The Act allows no grey areas: there are no “perceived” conflicts in law, only clearly defined legal ones. This is obviously intended by the stringent wording that lays out what construes a conflict of interest.

This clarity absolves everyone of trying to second guess the intention of the Act, or trying to interpret degrees of conflict.

As lawyer Stephen D”Agostino writes,

The Municipal Conflict of Interest Act (“Act”) places a significant burden and risk upon local representatives. The standard of care in the Act is greater than that placed on elected representatives at the federal and provincial levels. Since its original proclamation in 1972, the Act has been tested in the Courts on numerous occasions. Often, the context for the dispute involves circumstances outside of the Act; the remedies of the Act providing a convenient arsenal for strategic advantage… The Act follows a simple model. Generally, if there is a “matter” before Council that touches on the councillor’s “direct or indirect pecuniary interest”, then there is a duty on the councillor to refrain from participating in the decision-making process related to the matter. Unfortunately, when dealing with conflict matters, this simple framework has been complicated by statutory exceptions, inclusions, and judicial interpretations.

There are two kinds of interest in the Act: direct and indirect. While direct conflict is not clearly defined, indirect is:

Indirect pecuniary interest
2. For the purposes of this Act, a member has an indirect pecuniary interest in any matter in which the council or local board, as the case may be, is concerned, if,
(a) the member or his or her nominee,
(i) is a shareholder in, or a director or senior officer of, a corporation that does not offer its securities to the public,
(ii) has a controlling interest in or is a director or senior officer of, a corporation that offers its securities to the public, or
(iii) is a member of a body, that has a pecuniary interest in the matter; or
(b) the member is a partner of a person or is in the employment of a person or body that has a pecuniary interest in the matter. R.S.O. 1990, c. M.50, s. 2.

Further, the Act defines ‘controlling interest’:

“controlling interest” means the interest that a person has in a corporation when the person beneficially owns, directly or indirectly, or exercises control or direction over, equity shares of the corporation carrying more than 10 per cent of the voting rights attached to all equity shares of the corporation for the time being outstanding;

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Propaganda, PR and Spin

What is propaganda? The word gets thrown around easily by people who obviously mean “anything we dislike or don’t agree with.” It’s a pejorative often used by a small group to describe anything official that any level of government puts out, no matter how benign or factual. Libertarians, for example, often grouse that government information about, say the efficacy of flu shots or the safety of fluoridated water, is “propaganda.”*

Ironically, many of these individuals and groups then turn around and create their own pieces, blogs and websites to counter these government’s declarations, and aggressively spread them through the internet and social media while decrying the government’s documents as “propaganda.” Pot calling the kettle black, eh?

Wikipedia describes propaganda like this:

Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed towards influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position by presenting only one side of an argument. Propaganda is usually repeated and dispersed over a wide variety of media in order to create the chosen result in audience attitudes.

Chapters Indigo imageI usually find Wikipedia a reasonably valid source of information, albeit one that has to be weighed in the balance most times, and I think its description here is a tad weak. It needs enhancement.

In their excellent book, PR: A Persuasive Industry? (Palgrave Macmillan, New York, USA, 2008), authors Trevor Morris and Simon Goldsworthy dedicate the whole of chapter seven to wrestling with a definition that differentiates between public relations and propaganda, and to explain the mechanics of each. While recognizing some of the similarities between the two (and their common origins), they write,

“…there is no real moral distinction: both practices are essentially amoral, capable of serving any cause. However, there are some practical differences. The ubiquity of propaganda as a term arises from the fact that it does not just describe a debating technique or a particular mode of persuasion such as media relations. Instead… it is all-encompassing. Thus propaganda is perhaps best seen as an orchestra of persuasion. Propagandists exploit all possibilities for influencing human thought and action.”

Two key phrases appear in their description: ubiquity and all-encompassing. Morris and Goldsworthy underscore the “sheer scope and scale of the levers available to the propagandist…” in their chapter. They conclude by laying out three distinct ways in public relations is different from propaganda:

  1. It has far fewer levers of influence to pull on;

  2. It exists in conditions where competing persuasive messages are communicated;

  3. The public relations practitioner, unlike the propagandist, doe not have effective powers of censorship or any lasting control over the media.

To believe any small town bureaucracy and government has such power and control, is somewhat delusional. Censorship? Would the local papers or radio stations stand for that? You’d have to believe that town hall gives them their orders on what to print or broadcast.

But there are always conspiracy theorists in every community who see dark shapes in the shadows, where the rest of us just see the chiaroscuro (honest, we’re not building secret mushroom farms in the terminals…).

The word propaganda means “to disseminate” or “to propagate.” In 1622, the Catholic Church created the “Congregatio de Propaganda Fide” (Congregation for Propagating the Faith), which actively and aggressively spread Catholicism in non-Catholic countries.**

In short order, this was shorted to simply being known by the Italian word for dissemination, “Propaganda.” Catholics associated the word with spreading the truth (their truth, of course). Protestants, however, didn’t share their view and associated it with spreading lies. By the 1790s, the word had migrated from religious use to secular activities.

Political propaganda (PP) as a national, government activity played a major role in the Protestant Reformation, and then in the 18th century Revolutionary War between the US and Britain. It played a major role in the Revolution in France and Napoleon subsequently used PP to justify his actions and rule. PP was used in the American “Indian wars” and Civil War of the 19th century.

Chapters Indigo imagePropaganda really came into its own in the early 20th century. Governments on both sides of WWI ran agencies or departments dedicated to propaganda. One of the American practitioners, Edward Bernays, was schooled in its art, and took his skills into the private sector after the war, when he applied psychology to public relations to become the “father of modern PR.” From the early 1920s, PR became a discipline that used psychology and sociology and mass media. Propaganda followed apace.

The Soviets and Nazis were masters at propaganda (and reputation laundering). They both used every tool and technique at their disposal to develop widespread and ubiquitous propaganda. Mao Tse Tung’s Communists would learn from them and take propaganda even further during the Cultural Revolution. Today several nations live under a constant barrage of state propaganda that reaches through all media, culture, faith, government, recreation and business – Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Tibet among them (Tibet being the subject of Chinese propaganda, of course, not the originator).

Generally no nation is free of some form of government propaganda. However, as Morris and Goldsworthy note, it’s amoral – it is neither good nor bad. It just is. Encouraging flu shots, rabies shots for pets, recycling, and not smoking are propaganda, too. It takes a fairly high level of authority and a lot of money to produce anything effective or widespread, and it isn’t always self-serving.

Every government also practices public relations (sometimes called public affairs, although there is a disagreement over whether PA and PR and the same), which is usually focused on single issues, rather than trying to sustain or create a particular national culture and mindset.

Spin is inherent in propaganda, but is not necessarily present in PR. Of course, PR frames the discussion in the most beneficial light, but this is not always spin. Spin is defined as presenting only the favourable side of the argument and deprecating the unfavourable.

A single flyer – Collingwood Councils’ Half Time flyer – is not propaganda, merely public relations.Some people complain that council doesn’t communicate with the public, others complain when it does.

Nor is it “blatant campaigning at the tax payers’ expense” as one person complained. Since municipal politics are non-partisan (at least in such small urban centres like Collingwood, and despite the overt partisanship of at least one previous mayor), it would not be a very effective campaign tool, since every member of council is listed and pictured, and no individual gets any credit for the accomplishments of the group. Not to mention that not a single one of us can legally declare our candidacy for council until January 1, 2014.

It cannot be called “spin” either, because it did not crow over council’s accomplishments aside from its teamwork, and does not deprecate anything. The inside merely listed what had been achieved for the greater good of the community. It was not “biased and misrepresentative,” simply a list of things council has initiated, passed, or accomplished. It is unclear how, say, approving a new fire station, reducing the debt, keeping taxes at a 0% increase, or resolving the patio issue satisfactorily can be misrepresented this way. I suspect that anything this council did would be objectionable to some people.

Simply because someone doesn’t like a council decision, listing it as an accomplishment for the greater good is a far distance from propaganda. So if we’re going to have a civil discussion about any council activity, we must first lose the emotionally-laden and wildly inaccurate vocabulary, and stick to the facts.***


* In a similar manner, the politically naive uber-right of the USA labelled Barack Obama a “socialist” during the election, which merely showed they were ill-educated in the actual meaning of the term. It would have been as meaningful to call him an Aspidistra, which they might have done, if they could have spelled it.

** Propaganda via mass media can be traced back to Pope Sixtus, who used the new printing press of the late 15th century to attack the Medicis.

*** And stop calling every council decision you didn’t understand or appreciate “hypocritical.” If you truly wanted to understand or debate a decision, you could call or email any member of council and ask for an explanation, instead of whinging in the media about how it baffled and angered you.

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