Black, atheist, bigoted

Welcome Pharyngulites and Redditors! Thanks for reading! There is another part to this story that I’d appreciate you reading if you wouldn’t mind clicking through.

Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta is a non-crazy freethinkers group in Atlanta, and you should check them out.

One of my daily reads is Hemant Mehta’s blog, Friendly Atheist. This past week, he posted something that is well within my wheelhouse, and did so in a way that I think requires followup. The post itself concerns a black atheist public access show in Atlanta, Georgia which is in the southern United States. The hosts of the show devoted the first third of that particular episode to discussing homosexuality, in a way that embedded my face so firmly in my palm that I had to get it removed surgically before I could write this response.

Fair warning: the following video contains homophobic language, so if you’re particularly sensitive to bigotry you may not want to watch. It also contains considerable amounts of stupidity, so if you’re sensitive to that then you might want to… well quit using the internet I guess:

I am going to try and take these arguments as they come, so you can follow along if you like. The shit hits the fan at about 3:00 in:

3:05 – Black Son: …The homosexual community is co-opting the whole atheist movement.

No, it really isn’t. There are many homosexual groups that work within a religious framework, and try to change the religious organization from within. Successes in, for example, the Anglican church, are testament to the tireless effort of religious gay rights campaigners. The confluence of the gay community and the atheist community that does exist like has two sources. First, anti-gay attitudes lead many gay people to question whether or not the ideas put forth by religious leaders are true, which can lead to questions about the truth of any religious ideas, which can lead to atheism. Second, many atheists are skeptics and humanists. As a result, we look to science and reason as the foundations for our beliefs, rather than appeals to tradition. To claim that gay atheists aren’t really atheists is a claim made without evidence or logic supporting it, and can be dismissed as such.

5:52 – KD: …if you are of African descent, then you also accept the values, customs and traditions of traditional African people.

Yeah… no. Being of African descent doesn’t have anything to do with what ideas you believe, or what values you accept. First off, “traditional” African beliefs include religion, although not usually of the organized variety (rather beliefs that are embedded in culture and lived as part of lifestyle). Lack of belief in a god/gods is a rejection of “traditional” African values, customs and traditions, and yet the hosts still consider themselves black.

6:20 – KD: This is a historical fact

No it isn’t

6:22 – KD: I’m not a bigot

Yes you are.

6:55 – KD: Homosexuality is a byproduct of Western individualism…

Black Son: So you’re saying it’s all about ‘me me me me’…

KD: Yes, it’s same sex relationships, it’s about having a relationship with yourself. That’s not complementary, that’s not balanced.

It was at this point that I felt as though a trillion pairs of eyes were all rolling at the same time. Black Son and KD have arrived at the home turf of every anti-gay bigot out there: homosexuality is a choice. KD, are you saying that the only reason you are attracted to women is because you recognize the importance of “complementary” relationships? Are you attracted to men, but have decided to to sleep with only women because you choose to be heterosexual? Or, have you always been attracted to women and haven’t felt the need to explain why? Because if it’s the latter case, congratulations – you have just illustrated that homosexuality is not a choice you ignorant motherfucker.

7:57 – Black Son: When I talk about God or the deity not making no sense, I come from a scientific point of view, so when you deal with science you’ve got to deal with it all the way, so when the topic of homosexuality comes up, I always bring up the Law of Reproduction.

Interesting fact to note here: there is no such thing as the Law of Reproduction. Black Son has simply wrapped his bigotry in a sciency-sounding phrase and then claimed the win. His argument is that the purpose of a relationship is to produce children. Homosexual sex does not yield children, and therefore homosexual relationships have no purpose. However, he’s not relying on science for this conclusion, he’s deputizing teleology. Teleology is not a scientific position, and it has no evidence to support it. Relationships provide a number of things to humans, children being only one of them. It is conceivable that Black Son has had, or would not object to another man having, a relationship with a woman that isn’t for the purpose of producing children. I doubt he’d get hot and bothered over someone who’s had a hysterectomy getting together with an infertile man. These relationships also violate his fictitious “Law of Reproduction”, and yet escape the criticism. It’s hypocrisy, nothing more.

8:41 – KD: …and this is why we say – if you’re European, if you’re white, that’s their thing. Do what you do.

Ah yes, if you’re gay and you’re black, you’re adopting a European custom. You’re not “really black”, because “real” black people make babies. Hey Black Son and KD, do you know how many black women are raped in the Congo and in South Africa each year at the hands of “African tradition”? Some of those women “reproduce” – are we saying that this is a custom that is acceptable to you, whereas consensual homosexual sex isn’t?

12:00 – KD: European customs are by nature contradictory or in conflict with African customs

This is a load of horseshit. Customs are not inherently geographical – they are historical. The value of those customs is not based on where or when they came from, but rather what effect they have on human beings. The formalization of the scientific method (which these guys claim to adhere to, despite all evidence to the contrary) came out of… drumroll please… Europe. Does that mean that African people can’t use science? Does it mean that white people don’t value community and family? Absolutely not, and you’d have to be an idiot to think otherwise.

12:12 – Black Son: Absolutely

Oh… well, I guess that answers that question.

13:28 – KD: …in that sense they’re not necessarily colonizing each other because they’re cousins. So if Egyptians go to war with people in Ethiopia, that’s not colonialism. That’s one nation calling another nation to get their affairs in order before the Europeans or the Arabs control both of them.

WHAT? At this point we can safely conclude that KD is just making stuff up as he goes along. He’s pretending that pre-colonial African civilzations lived in peace and harmony, only using war as a means of warning each other that external invaders were approaching (it seems like a strongly-worded letter would suffice for this purpose). He also seems to think that European and Arab people are not cousins to African people, once again flying in the face of science.

After the 16-minute mark they veer off into discussions of black nationalism, which is not relevant to this discussion.

I liken watching this clip to taking a bite of a blueberry muffin, except instead of blueberries, it’s got facts sprinkled in there, and instead of dough, the muffin is made of bullshit. KD and Black Son touch on some things that are absolutely true: African social customs are distinct from European because of separate histories; colonialism introduced many European ideas into the African narrative; many gay black people initially leave the church because of the hatred they experience. However, the hosts then link these facts to conclusions that are in no way supported by either evidence or reason – simply backfilling an explanation for their own hatred of gay people.

I have known black pseudo-intellectuals of this stripe before. They engage in the exact same kind of flawed reasoning that religious people do, and couch it in rejecting “European” values. If I was an atheist in Atlanta, I’d be downright embarassed to have these two clowns representing me, and I hope they catch a shitstorm for being that publicly moronic.

Please remember to read the follow-up to this story!

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Normalizing belief

Today I want to dive back into the issue of “accommodation vs. confrontation” that is currently a topic of discussion within the atheist community, but which is germane to any social movement. Summarized, this debate centers on what the “best” way is to engage public opinion and advocate your position. The accommodation camp prioritizes civility, compromise and co-operation as the optimum solution, whereas those in the other camp elect to use direct and uncompromising language to spell out their (our) position.

You may find it strange that I put the word “best” in scare quotes in the above paragraph; I will explain why. As best I can tell, the two positions are talking past each other (actually, I think it is more accurate to say that the “accommodation” camp simply isn’t listening to the other side of the argument because they have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to respond to the criticisms of both their position and their approach). The “Diplomats” (a term I use for ‘accommodationists’, because it’s much less unwieldy) consistently invoke examples of one-on-one personal interaction, where the intention of the debate is to change the mind of the other party over the course of discussion. The implication is that insulting someone to their face is a poor way of getting the point across.

The problem with this approach is that it is severely flawed both in its premises and its conclusions. First, the majority of interactions between atheists and believers happens in the course of one-on-one interaction between friends or family members – the idea that atheists are going on rants against their acquaintances is largely fictitious (I will completely ignore the straw man that Diplomats erect of how “Firebrands” speak). Second, the assumption that minds are changed over the course of a conversation or blog post is ridiculous – people are largely resistant to completely changing their minds on positions that are of high importance to them. Third, and what I think is the biggest problem with the position, it presumes that believers are the only audience worth speaking to.

Blog posts, speeches, debates, books – any public exposition of ideas reaches an audience with a diverse range of opinions. As a thought experiment, assume for the moment that public opinion vis a vis atheism is normally distributed, and can be plotted on Richard Dawkins’ 7-point scale of statements of belief:

  1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
  2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
  3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
  4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
  5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
  6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
  7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

Both of these assumptions are likely false – there are far more “strong theists” than “strong atheists” in the world, and because of the nature of the variables the distribution terminates at 1 and 7, rather than continuing indefinitely. However, for the purposes of this illustration, violation of these assumptions does not meaningfully impact the point. Granting the assumptions for a moment, we would have a population that looks something like this:

Let us also imagine for a moment that there is something like a “precipice of belief” – a point of confidence beyond which people allow themselves to start asking difficult questions. Arguably, the location of that precipice is entirely dependent on the individual, and there is just as likely to be one for atheism as there is for theism (i.e., it’s theoretically possible for an atheist to begin questioning whether or not there really is a god/gods – in practical terms this is far more rare). But again, looking from the perspective of the general population, there will be an “average” point at which people will start questioning their faith:

It is crucially important at this point to reiterate that I am talking about a population of people rather than any one individual. It is the failure to understand this distinction that is the central flaw of the “Diplomat” position. When an author writes a blog post, or a book, or gives a speech that articulates something from a position of, say, “6”; she/he is speaking to this general audience rather than a particular individual. The goal of the argument is to effect a general shifting of the curve of belief, moving the general population further toward the threshold:

When we consider the new graph, it is immediately clear that while not everyone has crossed the “precipice”, there has been a general shift toward the rightmost edge. But who is it that moved over? It was people who were already teetering on the edge of that precipice, rather than people at the leftmost edge – the “True Believers”, so to speak. True Believers are still believers, but have been subtly moved along in their level of questioning (if it is a particularly effective argument). Even though not a single strong believer has been converted into an atheist, we have accomplished a population-level shift toward atheism, made up of those who were already somewhat predisposed to question.

Doesn’t aggression turn some people off?

The common response to this line of reasoning is to point out that some people will refuse to engage if their feelings are hurt. The general point is that those who are 2s and 3s might move further left, or simply shut their ears, thus blunting the effectiveness of the argument (and further arguments to boot). There are a variety of reasons why I don’t find this line of reasoning compelling, but I am butting up against the word limit of this post, so I will save my response for another post. In general, there are 4 major objections: 1) someone who believes in something because the opponents are mean isn’t rational; 2) there would have to be a lot of people turned off for this to be ‘counterproductive'; 3) minds change over a period of time, not at a single instant; and 4) believers are not the only people in the audience.

To summarize, when we think of belief, we have to recognize that we are dealing with a population that has a continuum of strength of conviction. Not everyone is at the point where they are ready to question their beliefs, but when we address an audience we can expect that some people can be moved towards disbelief, even if we don’t reach everyone.

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Movie Friday: Kung Fooled

So last week I got a bit heavy on you (although I really hope you watched those videos, and if you didn’t please go back and do so). This week I’m going to give you a bit of a reprieve with some lighthearted comedy:

This video made me laugh in ways that can only be described as indecent. Incidentally, if anyone is curious, I am totally the black guy at the end of the video. I’ve never been in a fight because everyone assumes that I can kick some ass.

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What does winning look like?

It is easy (tantalizingly so) to rail against racism, pointing out only the negative aspects. After all, it doesn’t take a great deal of creativity or courage on my part to say ‘racism is bad’ and for readers to say ‘I agree’. I doubt I will ruffle any feathers making such proclamations, although I know there are definitely some of you that weren’t completely with me at first and have since come around to my way of thinking. This is encouraging, as it means that there is some collision of persuasion and open-mindedness happening on these pages. It takes only a few such interactions to make major change.

And it may… just may be that we are seeing some of that change happening before our eyes:

In 1994, Ellis Cose surveyed successful, middle-class African-Americans and uncovered an often unspoken rage. He described his findings in the book The Rage Of A Privileged Class. Now, 17 years later, Cose has discovered a major change among middle-class blacks: They have become one of the most optimistic groups in America. He reveals his findings in a new book, The End Of Anger.

This is encouraging news indeed, for a few reasons. First, it suggests that at least some progress has been achieved toward a harmonization of the middle class, despite racial differences. Second, it shows a decline in the narrative of ‘us vs. them’ that often seems to pervade the discussions of black/white racism. Third, it flies in the face of those who would claim that black people prefer to play victim rather than work to advance. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, it may be possible to learn what things have worked and what haven’t and to use those lessons to inform future social progress.

To the first point, it is important to be cautious. This study does not say that black people no longer feel like racism is a problem:

Cose tells NPR’s Neal Conan that the rise in optimism is not linked to perceived end of discrimination. “No one black who I talked to thinks we have arrived at a point where we are an equal opportunity nation,” Cose says.

What it does say is that the perception of opportunity is greater, and this has begun to pervade the general consciousness. Spurred perhaps by the existence of prominent models of colour in high-ranking positions (other than the sport or other entertainment industry), black kids have grown up with a substantially different understanding of the possibilities of achievement than their parents did. At the risk of reading way more into this than the evidence warrants, this exact effect is one of the goals of affirmative action policies: increase the number of high-profile professionals that are people of colour (PoCs) so as to provide role models for others. Whether or not that is the reason for this shift is debatable, but it certainly nods in that direction.

Second, this study seems to corroborate what we saw last week: namely, that the entrenched conflict between black and white seems to be diminishing (at least in the eyes of black people). Instead of general frustration at the barriers in place to advancement, young black professionals are reporting belief that with hard work, they can advance. Again, these are perceptions, not observed data, so we must be cautious when interpreting what this actually means. This culture of advancement works to benefit both sides: black professionals can begin to assert themselves and change the narrative about what it means to have dark skin, while white professionals will begin to see that having intelligent and hard-working black colleagues is not a zero-sum game, but rather a boon to their business and productivity.

Critics of anti-racism often charge them (us) with coddling PoCs, and promoting a culture of victimhood. Black people wouldn’t be where they are, these critics say, if the liberals didn’t spoon-feed them and convince them that all their problems were someone else’s (whitey’s) fault. Of course, as is the way with this brand of criticism, it comes without evidence. When the attitudes are measured, we see that as we work to improve society’s permeability for PoCs by legislating against some forms of discrimination, PoCs are ready not only to take advantage of the opportunity but to adjust their expectations. Black people (at least those in this study) are happy to take control when opportunities are presented and barriers are taken down.

This is good and useful information, and this phenomenon must be explored more thoroughly. Considering the increasing visibility of the Latin and Arab communities in the United States, South and East Asians in Canada, and the looming spectre of systemic race problems in Europe, it is vital to have an understanding of what works and what doesn’t. While different minority groups have their own unique issues, we can learn what narratives are conducive to progress and which ones simply allow the status quo of single-group supremacy to maintain indefinitely.

Many of these issues are generational, meaning that children born in this era will likely not see the same kinds of racism that, for example, I saw while I was growing up. They will have a profoundly different understanding of what race means, and they will have to grapple with brand new issues that we can’t even conceive of now. However, it is good to see that their parents will be bringing them up in a world that gives them a positive attitude about what they can achieve with hard work. Some of that may be illusory, some of it may be true only thanks to policies enacted in their parents’ lifetimes, and some may indeed have always been true.

So while we are far from a true version of a ‘post-racial’ utopia, we may be seeing some of the initial signs that point the way to a more productive and equitable conversation about race.

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Democracy – still happening

It’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening in the world, especially when new stories are flooding the news outlets (OMG did you hear that SCHWARZENEGGER had a secret KID? And apparently John Edwards is still relevant?). Something important is still happening, and it’s spreading to places that one might not suspect:

For a man who has lost three disputed presidential elections to his archrival, Kizza Besigye is enjoying the kind of political resurrection that can only happen by accident. The leader of the Forum for Democratic Change has become the face of an unprecedented uprising in Uganda. It began with a “Walk to Work” demonstration in mid-April, a small, unassuming protest against soaring food and fuel costs. Had Besigye and his small group been allowed their demonstration, it probably would have passed without much fuss or attention. But instead they were met with riot police with billy clubs, tear gas and rubber bullets. It was the kind of security force overkill that sends a clear message: The government of President Yoweri Museveni is terrified of dissent and is willing to quash it by whatever means necessary.

I’ve never been in a position of political power, so I can only extrapolate from what I know of history, what I’ve seen in the news and in various fiction and non-fictional media. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction to dissent that happens in the mind of a dictator, whereby whenever someone speaks up against you the immediate reaction is to try and prevent that person from speaking. This seems to be particularly likely when the dictator is surrounded by a group of sycophants.

What’s happening in Uganda, aside from the criminalization of gay people, is that the political infrastructure is starting to crumble under President-For-Life Museveni. Because of his paranoia and sense of slipping control, he has completely overreacted to a small, non-violent protest and in doing so, has elevated his chief political rival.

This overreaction likely owes a debt to a number of factors:

  • The massive uprisings happening across north Africa and the Arab peninsula were triggered, initially, by high food prices and cost-of-living increases under a tyrannical government;
  •  The recent return of Besigye to Uganda after an extended period of exile means that Museveni has a powerful rival now within his own borders, albeit under house arrest;
  • The high level of scrutiny that Uganda has “enjoyed” recently due to its rampantly anti-gay legislation has brought extremely unwelcome attention to a country that, before then, hadn’t really been famous since Idi Amin was in power;
  • The ordinary types of despotic paranoia I mentioned earlier in this post.

So here’s an important lesson for those of you hoping to use this blog as a sort of Machiavellian how-to guide to be a successful political ruler: avoid overreacting. If your political rivals are gaining popularity, figure out what is fueling that rise and then find a way to circumvent it (preferably by fixing the problem your rivals are promising to solve). And, whatever you do, don’t piss off the foreign media:

At the same time, the police were stopping the media from getting in to see Besigye. The roads were blocked with spiked belts. When we tried a back route, our unassuming SUV was first followed then stopped by police. Last week, Uganda’s minister of information called the international media “enemies of the state.” Journalists have been detained, their equipment seized and a few local reporters have been beaten by police as they tried to cover the demonstrations.

There’s no quicker way to raise the “tyrant” flag than to crack down on free speech rights. If you want your rule to extend indefinitely, be open, be honest, and be transparent (or at least appear so). Respect human rights, respect private business (but regulate it when necessary), treat your political opponents respectfully, and if you have to silence dissent, do it swiftly and away from the eyes of the cameras.

Hmm… maybe I shouldn’t have said that last part.

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Guilty of hate speech; guilty of crime?

For all my bluster and polemic, I am tormented by a fundamental uncertainty when it comes to hate speech laws. My position on hate speech is unequivocal – I am against it. Spreading hate is abhorrent, and its effects tend to move beyond the words themselves. I am particularly aware of the fact that anti-gay hate speech is part of what is considered civilized discourse in this part of the world, and that the prevailing anti-gay attitude is resulting in serious and often deadly consequences for gay people.

The situation is much worse in Africa:

The South African ambassador to Uganda, a former columnist for South Africa’s Sunday Sun paper, has been found guilty of hate speech for an anti-gay article. South Africa’s Equality Court fined Jon Qwelane $14,450 (£8,920) and ordered him to apologise for promoting hatred in the column published in 2008.

Regular readers will need no reminding about how serious the problems for gay people are in Uganda. Anti-gay hatred has reached the level where people are attempting to pass legislation that would make being gay a jailable offense, with bonus death penalty for ‘repeat offenders’. This is the level where simple hatred has gone beyond privately-held beliefs and entered into the realm of bigotry with the force of law behind it.

However, I am still conflicted over the outcome of this story. The issue with criminalizing speech – any speech – is that it tends to slowly creep toward criminalizing unpopular speech under the guise of labeling it ‘hate’. Many people would label the kind of vociferous criticism of religion that appears on this and other atheist websites as ‘hateful’. Much of this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of the word ‘hate’, some of it comes from the inability to separate a criticism of ideas from a criticism of those that hold those ideas, and some of it is the knee-jerk reaction that happens whenever religious is lampooned.

My concern, therefore, is partially selfish. Even if I were given the opportunity to explain the difference between criticism of sacred ideas and ‘hate speech’, it’s unlikely that judicial authority or the court of public opinion would buy the argument. Popular ideas need to be criticized, because they are the ones that are most often accompanied by legal authority, even when they are wrong or harmful. They are also the least likely to be examined critically by those that agree with them a priori. Punishing those that express criticisms serves to chill fair and open-minded scrutiny.

This example, however, is not a question of fair and open-minded scrutiny. It is a question of victimizing a group of people based on intentional lies and distortions of a segment of humanity whose ‘critics’ don’t want to understand the other side of the story. Those kinds of criticisms are not the kind of thing we think of when we talk about protecting free speech – we think of it in terms of ensuring that police forces aren’t allowed to shut down protest against a corrupt government. However, that idea assumes that popular opinion is on one side of the issue, and the authority is on the other side. I have no doubt that Mr. Qwelane sees himself as standing up against the ‘gayification’ of Africa, and thinks that his is a noble cause.

There is another issue that doesn’t seem to filter into the discussions of hate speech laws – the issue of whether or not they work. This is a real scientific question I’d like to see answered: does the existence of legislation against hate speech reduce its incidence or effect? I’m inclined to think that while fines or prison terms might prevent people from going out in the public square and screaming hateful things in front of police officers, it will not meaningfully reduce the amount of hateful speech spoken among individuals or in groups. We know from observation that while explicitly racist speech is wildly unpopular, there are other ways of conveying the same ideas without saying the words themselves.

I can see the appeal in banning hate speech, because it seems like a tidy way of disposing of a problem. However, there are no quick and easy solutions to systemic problems such as anti-gay homophobia or racism. Hate speech laws are very tempting to abuse, especially since they can be ushered in with high public approval ratings. After all, they are brought in with the very best of intentions:

“We are hoping really that this finding will send a message to community members, a message that says gay and lesbian people have an equal right to the protection of their dignity,” said Vincent Moaga, spokesman for the South African Human Rights Commission, which initiated the complaint against Mr Qwelane.

But there is no real evidence that, beyond donating the proceeds from the fines to LGBTQ advocacy groups, criminalizing hate speech reduces it. More likely, it just makes the identification of hate speech more difficult as bigots learn to adjust their language. And then, as the lines become more and more obfuscated, more and more types of speech are classified as “hate” until even legitimate criticisms are subject to punishment.

My conclusion on this is that, absent of empirical evidence that hate speech laws reduce the amount of hate speech or have a meaningful impact on the climate of hate, coupled with their potential for abuse and the fact that they violate human rights to free speech, I cannot support them. However, I think there is value in identifying hate speech and making it clear that governments and other large organizations aren’t okay with it. Like when Laura Schlessinger did, well… whatever you want to call it… she wasn’t sanctioned by the government or fined – she was just made to leave.

As I said, I recognize that there are many weaknesses in my position, and I am open to evidence showing that laws against hate speech are useful or warranted, but I suspect such proof won’t be forthcoming.

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Health care ‘rationing': Canada vs. the USA

Once again, and I hope you will forgive the digression, I’d like to talk a bit about something that has absolutely nothing at all to do with the usual topics of this blog. This topic is one that is more in line with my professional interests rather than my personal ones (if those two can be really thought of as distinct – I chose this career for a reason). As I may have intimated previously, I am a passionate believer in public provision of health care services.

While private-sector advocates often point to the increased competition and innovation possible in a for-profit delivery model, they neglect two important factors in their argument. First, health care is consumed almost entirely at a point of crisis. People walking into a hospital are not really in a position to “shop around” – they have an acute need and are therefore far less capable of making a dispassionate consumer choice. Second, the only way a for-profit health care delivery system could work is if it is either stringently regulated (a position that is wildly unpopular) or if we just stopped caring if sick people get gouged by unscrupulous corporate interests. Private delivery has the interest of maximizing profit, and while increasing efficiency is one avenue of doing that, companies have figured out that extra billing and price fixing are much more lucrative ways of turning a profit.

The debate over health care reform in the United States has introduced a new word into the public lexicon: rationing. Basically, rationing refers to the belief that under a publicly-administrated health care system, only a certain level of care would be available, and if you want more than that, it’s tough shit. It is from this idea (and an intentional misrepresentation of ‘end-of-life counselling’) that the now-infamous “death panels” became a talking point. People became outraged at the idea that the government would step in and say “grandma can’t have that hip replacement, because it’s too expensive”.

First, here’s what’s true about that argument: a publicly-provided health care system will introduce rationing. There will be medications, technologies and procedures that people will not have access to because of lines drawn by government about what is acceptable care and what is excessive.

However, there is already rationing in the American system, and it happens all the time. Any health care system will require rationing – the demand for health care services will always exceed the amount of available resources. Our concepts of disease and health are plastic, and shift as new innovations are made and the understanding of the human body increases. In order to understand health care we must first understand that there is no method of delivery that is free of material constraints – the question then becomes “how can we provide the greatest level of health care with what we’ve got?”

Canada’s approach, and indeed that approach of most industrialized nations that have publicly-funded health care delivery, has been twofold. First, a list of services is drawn up. The Canada Health Act allows for all “medically necessary” services – a definition that is intentionally vague. This imprecise wording means that the number of services that are provided can expand and contract based on need and resource availability. If you have a specific medical need that is not listed – for example, you have a rare disease or want a type of drug that is not covered – then you will have to pay out-of-pocket for it. Obviously, this is non-ideal, but by delineating it this way and drawing up the list in such a way that covers the majority of health care needs, the Canadian system can provide some form of care to everyone, even if it is not the absolute best.

Second, the Canadian system rations in terms of accessibility – the notorious waiting lists. Given a finite level of capital resources (and I am putting human resources on this list as well), demand may fluctuate in such a way as to exceed the availability of the system to deliver services immediately to all people. For example – if you have the ability to do 10 bone scans a day and 11 people walk in the door, 1 person is going to have to wait until tomorrow (when, hopefully, only 9 people will come in). These waiting lists can be managed with varying levels of efficacy, and we’ve gained some ground in recent years. The fact remains, however, that people cannot necessarily get immediate care for all health conditions (although acute and emergency needs are always prioritized and get attention reasonably fast).

Rationing in the United States is far less publicized, and far more dangerous. Given the same situation (finite resources, high demand), the USA’s system handles rationing by artificially reducing demand by curtailing access. Whereas there may be the same proportion of people requiring care, the United States simply does not provide care to certain people. By knocking people off the rolls (prohibitively high cost of insurance, de-insuring people for a variety of reasons, making coverage contingent on employment), the system ensures that everyone who can get care gets it quickly and to the extent they want/can pay for.

The reason why I call this type of non-explicit rationing more dangerous than the Canadian solution is because the consequences are far more dire for individuals and the economy. For individuals, because losing health coverage (or never having it in the first place) means that people are unable to get care for anything but emergency conditions. For the economy, because those emergency conditions are far more expensive to treat than they are to prevent, and because medical bankruptcy has a ripple effect through the economy at large. This is to say nothing of the reality that public provision is far cheaper than for-profit schemes (despite what free-market advocates would have us believe).

Conclusion

While “rationing” sounds like a scary word, people need to realize it is the inevitable result of a level of demand that is always greater than available supply. Rationing is no more rare in a for-profit system than it is in a publicly-funded one; the only difference is the method of rationing we choose to use. The Canadian solution is to provide services up to a certain level with some barriers to access (waiting times). The American solution is to curtail the number of people who are able to access any level of care. These solutions have different effects, and for reasons of both utilitarian ethics and personal/economic outcomes, the Canadian approach is superior.

Movie Friday: Ain’t No New Thing

Last Friday, a great American poet and musician died. Gil Scott Heron was a significant mouthpiece for the black community in the United States, exposing black and white audiences alike to the social and political issues happening with urban black people in the 1960s and 1970s. Part of a great tradition of blues musicians, Scott Heron blended their ability to evoke the pain and suffering of the working-class and poor black man and woman with the emerging scene of spoken-word poetry to pioneer a contemporary method of articulating the struggles of his own community.

Scott Heron’s musical style laid the foundation for the next generation of musicians and artists to perform the same function – funk and soul in the 1970s, followed by hip-hop in the 1980s and 1990s. While he is often credited with the appellation, Scott Heron eschewed being thought of as the forefather of hip-hop music:

Shame on every writer who reported Gil Scott-Heron’s death with the blurb, “Godfather of Rap,” writers who have—per Angela Davis’ observations—totally missed the point of the man’s career. It was a term that Gil Scott-Heron was not ambivalent about: “There seems to be a need within our community to have what the griot provided supplied in terms of chronology; a way to identify and classify events in black culture that were both historically influential and still relevant (Now and Then: The Poems of Gil Scott Hereon, xiv).

This is less Scott-Heron distancing himself from Hip-hop (though he would do so from time to time), but more a recognition that what he did, sat at the feet of traditions that came before him. He writes, “there were poets before me who had great influence on the language and the way it was performed and recorded: Oscar Brown, Jr., Melvin Van Peebles, and Amiri Baraka were all published and well respected for their poetry, plays, songs and range of other artistic achievements when the only thing I was taping were my ankles before basketball practice.” (xiv)

Scott was perhaps best known for his immortal work The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people.
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, a tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl.
The revolution will not go better with Coke.
The revolution will not fight the germs that may cause bad breath.
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat.

But I think my favourite work of his is a poem called simply Brother:

We deal in too many externals, brother
Always afros, handshakes and dashikis
Never can a man build a working structure for black capitalism
Always does the man read Mao or Fanon
I think I know you would-be black revolutionaries too well
Standing on a box on the corner,
Talking about blowing the white man away
That’s now where it’s at yet, brother
Calling this man an Uncle Tom and telling this woman to get an afro
But you won’t speak to her if she looks like hell, now will you brother
Some of us been checking your act out kinda close
And by now its looking kinda shaky the way you been rushin’ people with your super black bag
Jumping down on some black men with both feet cause they’re after their BA
But you’re never around when your BA is in danger…I mean your black ass
I think it was a little too easy for you to forget that you were a negro before Malcolm
You drove your white girl through the village every Friday night while the grassroots stared in envy and drank wine,
Do you remember?
You need to get your memory banks organized brother.
Show that man you call an Uncle Tom just where he’s wrong
Show that woman that you’re a sincere black man
All we need to do is see you shut up and be black
Help that woman
Help that man
That’s what brothers are for, brother

As a musician, I recognize the importance of history. We all build our lives on the shoulders of those that have come before us, and we hope to add a little piece to their legacy. If we can’t do that, we can at least try and bring the work of those others to a new audience. What we cannot do, what we must not do, is pass off the works of others as original material, and divorce it from its origins. To sever that link to history is to lose all meaning, all context, all life from art, rendering it meaningless.

We’re used to having white people try to rob us
Ain’t no new thing, we have dug his game
Charlie Parker will live on
John Coltrane will live on
Eric Dolphy will live on
Billie Holiday will live on
Jimi Hendrix and Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan will live on
And on in the sunshine of their accomplishments
The glory of the dimensions that they added to our lives [emphasis mine]

Gil Scott Heron is dead. A tireless voice for the American black community has fallen silent, but has left a long legacy that lives on in those that carry that voice forward to a new generation.

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Tyranny: American style

Emergency powers are a funny thing. Granting extraordinary leeway to a governmental authority is crucial when lines of communication have the potential to get crossed, and swift action is needed to address an urgent situation. However, the tricky part comes when it’s time for that governmental authority to give up those emergency powers. When the ‘emergency’ is vaguely defined, it becomes easy to justify extending the powers indefinitely. The ability to violate those pesky civil liberties becomes far too tempting, especially if there’s no organized opposition to point out how egregious your abuse of the law is.

Guess who’s finding this out?

US President Barack Obama has signed a four-year extension of the Patriot Act from Paris, extending post-September 11 powers allowing the government to secretly search records and conduct roving wiretaps in pursuit of alleged terrorists or their supporters. Hours after the US Senate and House of Representatives passed the law, through votes taken in rapid succession, and just minutes before the law was to expire at midnight in Washington DC, Obama sent in a digital signature, finalising the renewal on Thursday. During congressional debates, legislators rejected attempts to temper the law enforcement powers to ensure that individual liberties would not be abused [emphasis mine].

At the risk of sounding like a member of the tin foil hat brigade, people need to realize that without an effective opposition, the government is not working for your best interests. This is simply the nature of all government; once it begins considering itself the embodiment of the state – rather than the legislative interests of the people of the state – it will become self-serving at the expense of the rights of its citizens. Despite all the hopes pinned on this supposedly liberal president, he has shown – with one stroke of the autopen – to be no less autocratic than his predecessor.

I have supported Barack Obama from the beginning of his first campaign to the office of POTUSA. He spoke a language I agreed with – people becoming more involved with their government and increasing transparency. However, like all leaders, once he gained office he had to begin making compromises. I stuck through him with his ludicrous mishandling of the health care debate and various budgetary fights (his insistence of pretending that Republicans are reasonable people with principled objections rather than seeing them for the howling mob of reactionary plutocrats they are irked me to no end). I cheered when he overturned the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” regulations, and commiserated when he had to sign the renewal of the Bush tax cuts.

However, by signing the Patriot Act back into law rather than simply letting it expire, and by increasing America’s military presence abroad, he has shown himself to be just as unprincipled and prone to corruption as his opening act.

Most chilling about this story?

Congress bumped up against the deadline mainly because of the stubborn resistance from a single senator, Republican freshman Rand Paul, who saw the act’s terrorist-hunting powers as an abuse of privacy rights. Paul held up the final vote for several days while he demanded a chance to change the bill to diminish the government’s ability to monitor individual actions. The bill passed the Senate 72-23.

Any story where Rand Paul is the good guy is one that makes my head spin. The same Rand Paul that thinks that businesses should have the right to discriminate against people based on sex, gender, race… basically whatever they don’t like. This is the guy I have to cheer for standing up for his principles. It’s a sad day.

This is what happens when you don’t have a serious opposition – corruption takes root unabated. The Republicans are too busy trying to torpedo the entire United States economy, by demanding ridiculous service cuts by holding a metaphorical gun to the head of the country’s credit rating, to organize a legitimate force that can criticize acutal government overreach. Although, considering how they explode government interference (while all the while trumpeting for “small government”) when they have power, maybe it’s no surprise that they support unchecked wire taps and surveillance of people who are suspected of crimes in the absence of real evidence.

The lunatics are running the asylum, and the people who were hired as orderlies are too busy trying to steal meds from the supply closet to bother trying to restore order.

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Anti-racism: gettin’ skeptical on yo’ ass

I’m a skeptic. For those of you who don’t know, that means that I subscribe to the general principle that the strength of a person’s belief in an idea or position should be proportionate to the amount of evidence. Ideas for which there is no evidence I do not accept, and ideas for which there is mixed evidence I can be persuaded either way.

I take an identical approach to all positions – if you show me the evidence that something works then I believe it. If the only thing you’ve got supporting your position is vague ideas and logical fallacies, you’ll be unlikely to persuade me. However, I’m only human, meaning that you’ll have to work harder to convince me of something I don’t agree with than you would to gain my agreement on a subject I support. This is bad skepticism – I should apply the identical standard to all things.

I care about race and racism, and that desire to understand the topic better has given me a position that is based partially on experience, partially on research, and partially on verifiable evidence (to the extent that these kinds of things can be observed scientifically). However, it behooves me to apply my same skeptical look for positions I agree with as I do for ones I don’t (like this morning’s example). In the interest of being a fair race skeptic, here’s a position that doesn’t pass muster for me:

University coursework should be marked anonymously to deal with concerns that potential bias against a “foreign-sounding name” can cost students marks, a report by the National Union of Students recommends. The report also urges universities to minimise “eurocentric bias” when drawing up curriculums. “This is critical, not only to demonstrate to black students that their learning reflects their own experience, but to promote understanding among their white peers,” it states. It is standard practice for universities to assess exams anonymously because of concerns about preconceptions relating to race, sex or previous knowledge of a candidate, but the NUS report calls for anonymity to be extended across all “assessment procedures”, which would include coursework…

The report, Race for Equality, is based on a survey of 900 students with African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds. The survey found that, while most students were positive about their institutions, 23% described the universities they attended as “cliquey” and 7% as “racist”. There was also widespread frustration that courses did not reflect non-white backgrounds and views.

I have the same criticism of this finding as I do of the Tufts study – it measures perception and not reality. Are these schools actually cliquey? Are they actually racist? We can’t use the results of student opinion surveys to draw that conclusion, especially given the multitude of possible explanations for the perception. One has to do actual observational work to justify making a huge policy change, not simply jump at every measurement of how people feel.

While I am generally inclined to believe the claims of the respondents (based on my own experience of what institutes of higher education look like as a black student), I think that these responses – like the ones from this morning – are useful and interesting areas for scrutiny. If the scrutiny yields results then a policy change is in order. However, until then, we should remain skeptical of all claims – even those we agree with; perhaps especially so.

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