Movie Friday: Movin’ on up

So I couldn’t find a version of this video with the actual music, but this is close enough. I have exciting news, and today’s video is a big clue about what it is. For those of you who can’t guess (or haven’t already), stay tuned for a special Saturday post explaining what’s been going on, and what’s in store for your immediate future.

I want to take this moment, seeing as I don’t have much else that is relevant to say, to thank you all for being loyal readers. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have anyone read this stuff, let alone the number of you who comment, and e-mail, and Facebook, and quietly lurk in the background. You make me want to be better at this every time I put pen to paper (to borrow an aphorism for which there is no electronic equivalent yet – ‘fingers to keys’ makes me sound like a David Firth character).

Nothing more to say, so here is a hilarious video of a kid who reminds me of me at that age:

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News blast: police edition

Once again, because of time constraints and my lack of willingness to let things simply slip through the cracks and into my delete bin, I am giving you abstracted versions of news items that I think should have been developed into full-length blog posts, but for the lack of time. Sometimes my trouble as a blogger is finding enough material to get me going – this week I have the opposite problem. Here’s some stories about police, law, and justice.

‘Occupy Wall Street’ protest draws police brutality

The peaceful Occupy Wall Street protest march turned violent as the NYPD corralled and pepper sprayed the participants. Mass arrests were made and loaded onto a NYC bus further locking traffic. The protest march took a route from Zuccotti Park to Union Square on East 14th Street. The protesters were marching back to Zuccotti Park when the NYPD turned violent. Hitting, arresting and forcing protesters into a small area. At that point a NYPD supervisor yelled shut up to one of the protesters and shot pepper spray into her eyes point blank range and hitting a half dozen protesters (including 3 police officers) when they had nowhere to go. The same supervising officer was seen (photographed) laughing after the arrests while looking at his text messages. The peaceful protest march started as 300 participants but rose to over 1,000 as the event stopped traffic in lower Manhattan. People spontaneously joined the march over a 2 hour period.

I usually like to source these kinds of things from major media outlets, but sadly the trial of Michael Jackson’s doctor and Amanda Knox seem to be far more interesting to even outlets like the BBC. Maybe you hadn’t heard, but this vicious gang of thugs has destroyed billions (perhaps trillions) in wealth by manipulating markets and selling bad loans. Instead of being punished, incidentally, they were rewarded through concerted lobbying in the halls of power. If you’re pissed off, you can join a few hundred of your fellow citizens to demand that something be done about the surreal level of irresponsibility and fraud being perpetrated against the people of the world by a small group of elite jerkoffs. But don’t protest too hard, or you’ll get pepper-sprayed in the face.

Luckily the asshole who committed this assault is being named and shamed. Even if the police don’t prosecute him (and they won’t, because they circle the wagons around their own like the Catholic Church every time one of their officers breaks the law), he has been tried in the court of public opinion. Click on the link above to see some pretty graphic images of what happened that day.

Sixty percent of Toronto police arrests result in strip searches

More than 60 per cent of people arrested by Toronto police last year were forced to undergo a strip search, according to police statistics. But a police accountability group says routine searches are against the law and alleges Toronto police are using the practice to humiliate and intimidate people. Police figures show that 31,072 people were strip-searched in 2010, up from 29,789 the previous year. John Sewell of the Toronto Police Accountability Coalition (TPAC) said that means about 60 per cent of those arrested in Toronto were subjected to a strip search.

“Silly Crommunist”, you are probably saying while shaking your head and smiling indulgently “that’s an American story! Up here in our glorious north our police are respectful and kind! They’d never do that.” Yeah… seems not to be the case. Toronto cops, by their own statistics, have revealed themselves to be just as brutal, unforgiving and short-sighted as their American counterparts. Strip searches may be necessary in a small minority of cases, but unless Toronto criminals are in the habit of keeping dangerous goods taped flat to their bodies, a thorough search could be just as easily accomplished by a pat-down. This isn’t just my opinion, either – it happens to be the opinion of an Ontario superior court judge. If their goal is to humiliate and intimidate (which it seems to be), then I have no more sympathy for the Toronto police than I do for the fuckwads in New York.

Vancouver street cops still de facto mental health workers

Vancouver ‘street cops’ are still filling the gaps in B.C.’s flawed mental health system, despite recommendations in a powerful 2008 report on policing the city’s mentally ill, an updated report finds. The 2008 report, titled Lost in Transition: How a Lack of Capacity in the Mental Health System is Failing Vancouver’s Mentally Ill and Draining Police Resources, detailed flaws in B.C.’s mental health system and their effects on policing. The problems included the lack of available long-term care, lack of hospital space and difficulties in getting people assessed.

Because I opine on politics a lot, people have asked me what I would do if I had unlimited political power. Well, the first thing I would do is create some limits, because no one person should have that kind of power, but the second thing I would do is drastically increase the level and scope of mental health care we provide to our citizens. We spend an unbelievable amount of money on health care problems that should be handled through therapy rather than hospitalization. I’d certainly have the Vancouver police on my side, I’d bet. While they are not qualified as mental health workers, they are the ones who provide that service (at a level of pay far below what an actual mental health worker receives, and far below what such a person deserves). To get an idea of how serious the problems are here, take a gander at the blog written by one Vancouver beat patrol officer:

1515 hrs – Exit the courthouse in desperate need of coffee and breakfast. I’m supposed to be working one-man tonight, so I make plans with my old partner, Tyler, to visit Save-on-Meats for their all-day brekkie. But first we’ve got to deal with the shirt-less guy flipping out across the street. He’s flailing around, delivering spinning karate-kicks at phantom opponents and doing the kind of back-bends that would make even Bikram Coudhuryshudder. His behaviour, the track marks on his arms, and the needle and crack pipe in his pocket, give us a pretty good idea of what he’s been up to. We call for EHS, and 36 minutes later our friend is heading to St. Paul’s Hospital with the ambulance crew for some Narcan.

Not a glamorous lifestyle, to say the least.

So while I can sympathize with a police force that is overworked and whose positive contributions often go unrewarded, that is not enough to persuade me from my blanket condemnation of the insular, self-righteous environment that police forces in our country and others operate within. I treat police in the same way I do stray dogs – while they might look friendly, all it takes is one bad one for me to be in serious trouble.

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Mandatory Minimums, Marijuana, and Measurement

I harp quite a bit on our comfortable Canadian myth that Canada doesn’t have a race problem. While I disagree with it in principle, in practice it is true provided you are grading on a curve. Canada doesn’t have nearly the same problem with racism that places like South Africa, South America, or even many places in Europe do. Canada’s history is one of comparative tolerance… aside from the initial displacement and subsequent repeated betrayals of its indigenous peoples… and the internment of Japanese citizens during the second world war… and the treatment of black settlers in the Maritimes… okay this is distracting me from my point.

Our many failures aside, Canada does not have the same history of deeply-entrenched racial animosity and open hatred that our neighbour to the south does. Well we do, but ours is less apparent/violent. Because of our non-identical histories in this regard, we have often compared ourselves favourably to Americans. The open question, one that may never be adequately answered, is the size of that difference. With large sociological and demographic differences between our countries, and due to the diffuse nature of the variable of interest (how do you quantify how racist someone is?), it’s a question that may be beyond our capacity to answer scientifically.

However, thanks to the short-sightedness of our federal government, we may have a shot at estimating a facet of it:

More per capita marijuana arrests are made in [Washington DC] than in any other jurisdiction in the country, according to a recent analysis of MPD and FBI data by Shenandoah University criminal justice professor Jon Gettman, the former director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Pot arrests have been rising steadily every year since at least 2003, mirroring a national trend that began in the 1990s. And they didn’t really work. “We doubled marijuana arrests and it had no effect on the number of users,” Gettman says.

But even with a high arrest rate, some people in D.C. can probably safely get high without worrying that the cops are coming. Those people are white people. In 2007, 91 percent of those arrested for marijuana were black. In a city whose population demographics are steadily evening out, that’s odd. In fact, adjusting for population, African Americans are eight times as likely to be arrested for weed as white smokers are.

If that graph doesn’t shock you, then you’re either completely heartless, or just as cynical as I am. While the rates of consumption of marijuana are roughly equal*, the arrest rate is tipped grotesquely in favour of arresting black people for marijuana possession. Now I can (and often do) speculate about the more indirect or obscure methods by which racism manifests itself, but this one is pretty clear cut: police officers are stopping and searching black people more often than they are white people. The idea of black pot smokers is more apparent in the minds of police than the contrasting idea of good, honest white folks being druggies. As a result, it becomes far more commonplace to look for drugs when stopping black District residents than white ones.

I was once invited to go to Washington, D.C. for a vacation. I politely declined, pointing out that statistics like this are why, despite my love of history and politics, Washington D.C. stands forever on my list of places that I will not visit unless I have to. Of course, most of the U.S. is like that for me, so perhaps that isn’t a big deal. Stephen Colbert once accurate described the city as “the chocolate city with a marshmallow center” – a tiny nucleus of white residents surrounded by a vast sea of unrepresented and underserved black residents. A place like that would render me incapable of functioning.

However, this does point the way to an interesting natural experiment. Now that the Republican North Party has announced its intention to pass a wildly unpopular and ineffective anti-crime bill that includes mandatory minimums for possession of marijuana, we can draw some comparisons. A few years back there was a great to-do about racial profiling in Toronto police. Many hands were wrung and pearls clutched over the fact that we, too, might be racist. With the introduction of mandatory minimums for possession, we can draw some direct comparisons between criminal justice in the United States and in Canada – are charges dropped less frequently against whites compared to blacks? Are black people stopped and searched more often, leading to a disproportionate level of sentencing? Do arrests break down by postal code?

Now it must be said that having this one statistic will not give us a measure of racism across the board. Obviously Canada has a very different rural/urban mix than the U.S. does, and segregated communities are something of a foreign concept to us, with perhaps the exception of certain suburbs. Our demographic makeup is also quite different in terms of ethnic groups, both in terms of size and in terms of sheer numbers. That being said, it will allow us to scrutinize the way we practice law enforcement, and point to areas that need our concerted attention. It is to our detriment to have one segment of our population disproportionately represented in the prison system, since it prolongs the effects of wealth and access/achievement disparities to make them into trans-generational problems.

While I don’t think it’s a good thing that we’re heading backwards in terms of crime, or that racial profiling is a tool used by law enforcement, this new bill may provide us a unique opportunity to measure the effects of both. Hopefully only for a little while, when the next government scraps the stupid legislation and spends our money on something useful. Like ponies.

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*I am sure that some pedant will whinge about the self-report nature of the scale. The absolute size of the pot-smoking population is irrelevant. You would have to provide some pretty overwhelming evidence to get me to believe that black people are 8 times as likely to lie about smoking weed than white people, which is what that nitpick implies.

News blast: the race edition

Yesterday there were a bunch of stories that, each on their own, would have made for excellent blog posts. However, in the interest of not deleting them because of insufficient time to address them in depth, I presented them all to you with a brief comment. The week has not gotten any longer, nor my schedule any freer, so I am going to do the same this afternoon, this time about race stuff:

UC Berkeley Campus Republicans host racist bake sale:

Campus Republicans at the University of California Berkeley have cooked up a storm of controversy with their plans for a bake sale. But it’s not your everyday collegiate fundraiser they’ve got in mind. They’ve developed a sliding scale where the price of the cookie or brownie depends on your gender and the color of your skin. During the sale, scheduled for Tuesday, baked goods will be sold to white men for $2.00, Asian men for $1.50, Latino men for $1.00, black men for $0.75 and Native American men for $0.25. All women will get $0.25 off those prices.

“The pricing structure is there to bring attention, to cause people to get a little upset,” Campus Republican President Shawn Lewis, who planned the event, told CNN-affiliate KGO. “But it’s really there to cause people to think more critically about what this kind of policy would do in university admissions.”

Not being able to do this story full justice pains me, because nobody is more deserving of being torn a new asshole on the internet than Shawn Lewis right now. First of all, this isn’t an original idea – these kinds of bake sales happen all the damn time. But, because people are morons, they don’t bother to adapt their approach or their argument when it has been thoroughly skewered. Many people have been bringing up the idea that people should just round up a bunch of Native American women, take all the baked goods, and then sell them at a profit. That would, perhaps, better approximate the history of racial ‘fairness’ in the United States (albeit in reverse). Stunts like this, which are inaccurately named ‘satire’, serve to illustrate how lopsided the treatment of different racial groups has been throughout the history of the Americas, and how certain people simply refuse to get it.

Banana thrown at black hockey player

The NHL called it “stupid and ignorant.” Flyers winger Wayne Simmonds said he was “above this sort of stuff.” A banana came out of the stands in London, Ont., on Thursday night as Simmonds was skating towards Detroit goalie Jordan Pearce in a pre-season shootout. Simmonds is black.

This is the thing about racists: they’re just so funny! Hahaha! A banana! Get it? He’s black! Black people are like apes! Apes like bananas! HAHAHA!

The sigh-inducing aspect of this story is the number of people who took to the internet to defend the guy who threw the banana. “What if he was just planning on eating it, but then got angry and threw it?” Not only would it be a staggering coincidence that someone brought in a whole shit-ton of bananas to a hockey game and just happened to have one left right at the end of the game (through overtime, no less) when the only black person on the ice was taking a solo penalty shot, but who the fuck brings fruit to a hockey game? What is this guy, some kind of health nut with an anger-management problem and an ironic sense of timing?

On a positive note, it is being condemned by pretty much everyone in clear, unequivocal terms, and hasn’t seemed to phase faze Simmonds much [seriously, Crommunist? What the fuck, dude? - props to Beauxeau]. Also, he scored the goal, and Philadelphia won the game 4-3.

Africville Trust director loses her job

The controversial new executive director of the Africville Heritage Trust is out of the job already. Carole Nixon has stopped working for the organization, but trust chairwoman Daurene Lewis wouldn’t say Wednesday if Nixon had been fired. “She’s no longer with the organization, and this is a personnel matter and any speculation (on that) would have to remain confidential,” Lewis said in an interview.

Regular readers will remember this story from last week. Carole Nixon was appointed the director of the Africville Trust in Halifax. One of the issues swirling around the appointment is that while the story of Africville is essentially the generations-long oppression of a black minority by an unforgiving white majority, Carole Nixon is a white woman. It is an interesting story where compelling arguments can be made on both sides: can an outsider truly represent the values of a community, particularly this one? Is it right to restrict jobs to only those of the ‘correct’ race or nationality?

All that discussion has been rendered hypothetical by this dismissal, which may not be for the reason you suspect:

Newspaper clippings from the St. Catharines Standard in Ontario outlined Nixon’s departure from four jobs, including her firing as executive director of the Burlington (Ont.) Downtown Business Improvement Association in 1989 and the City of Toronto’s employees association in 1995. In 2000, the Standard reported, she abruptly stepped down as executive director of the St. Catharines Downtown Association, and in 2002, she was reportedly fired as development director in Watertown, N.Y.

This one’s going to court, I’d imagine.

If someone wants to pay me to do this full-time, I will be able to devote the requisite amount of attention to each of these stories and more that cross my desktop. Until such time, you’ll just have to make do with these brief summaries and my sincere apologies.

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How DARE you?! Conversations about liberal racism

Being a liberal is often associated, rightly or wrongly, with smugness or an air of superiority. For example, oftentimes this ‘superiority’ is the product of a comprehensive education in the humanities and sciences (dare I say a ‘liberal arts’ education)? When someone makes a reductive claim – attributing outcome A solely to input B – liberals often point out that there are causes C-Z to consider as well. What the reductive claim-maker hears is “you’re stupid and I’m better than you because you didn’t know that”. It is no accident that the forces of anti-intellectualism line up almost exclusively on the right.

But beyond the explanations for why there are reasons why liberals might be seen as arrogant when in fact we aren’t, there certainly does exist some legitimate arrogance that comes from the same source as conservative arrogance, or the sense of superiority manifesting itself in any group. When one associates with only those (or primarily those) that share your group monicker, one begins to believe one’s own propaganda. Tea Party groups really do believe, for example, that they are true patriots who only want government off their backs – that’s because they don’t read the polls that reveal them to simply be the new face of the religious right. Religious groups really do believe, as another example, that theirs is the ‘true’ interpretation of the holy books – that’s because they don’t recognize that their ‘proofs’ of their deity are the same as those of a competing group.

With liberals, the most vexing of these myths is the one about racism being ‘their’ problem. Namely, that being liberal makes you vouchsafed from racist thoughts or ideas. I can understand where this myth comes from. Conservatism, particularly when it comes to immigration and civil rights, is always on the side of the status quo – hence the name. Because an argument against allowing immigrants (which is often an argument against allowing certain immigrants) access to citizenship always carries with it the stench of anti-brown bigotry, those on the conservative side end up holding the bag for racism and xenophobia. The same goes for civil rights and access – it was conservatives opposing the Civil Rights Act, it was (and is) conservatives opposing lesbian/gay marriage rights, which leaves them tagged with repeated instances of bigotry.

Because liberals have been on the other side of these fights (by and large), liberals have become comfortable with the assumption that adopting this political stance is impervious armour against accusations of thoughtcrime. Indeed, when having drinks with a colleague and discussing politics, he made some offhand remark about how as liberals, we had to overcome racism from the right. He was visibly first confused, then alarmed when I suggested to him that, in fact, liberals are racist too. It might not look the same as conservative racism, but it still has the same effect.

It was with these thoughts in the back of my mind that I read this piece in The Nation:

Electoral racism in its most naked, egregious and aggressive form is the unwillingness of white Americans to vote for a black candidate regardless of the candidate’s qualifications, ideology or party. This form of racism was a standard feature of American politics for much of the twentieth century. So far, Barack Obama has been involved in two elections that suggest that such racism is no longer operative. His re-election bid, however, may indicate that a more insidious form of racism has come to replace it.

In it, Dr. Harris-Perry (who I follow on Twitter) lays out an argument for why white voters, who supported Barack Obama in the first election, may be abandoning him now at a greater rate than they did President Clinton in the 90’s – despite the many political and situational similarities between the two. Given that so many of the ostensible reasons for withdrawing support are balanced between the two administrations, racism may explain, at least in part, any differences in voter support and approval. It’s hard to argue that race and racism have not played a role in this particular presidency far more than in others.

Because I liked both this article and a related one that more closely explored the racial attitudes of Bill Clinton more specifically and liberals more generally, I fired a quick message to Dr. Harris-Perry in support, because I knew that she was taking quite a bit of flack for her audacious temerity to suggest that liberals weren’t the immaculate paragons of fairness that we make ourselves out to be. Basically, just a “hey, I liked your piece in the Nation.” Didn’t even get a reply. No biggie.

It was a few short hours before a friend of mine sent me a seemingly-indignant message, asking me to defend my support for Harris-Perry’s article. She/he had procured statistics suggesting that all presidents lose favourability in their first terms (which the article doesn’t dispute), and that she/he saw more differences between the two presidencies than the article had pointed out. When I replied, briefly, that the article was more about the attitude I have described above, she/he challenged me to provide data demonstrating the racism at play. It was at this point that I simply gave up, as I wasn’t really interested in defending someone else’s work while trying to eat my dinner, and the article in question talked about the next election, not the current polling.

This exchange wouldn’t be unusual, except that I happen to know that this person is a regular reader. I say all kinds of unsubstantiated shit on these pages pretty much every day. While I do my best, I don’t always provide full citations for my conclusions or speculations, leaving it up to the reader to dispute them. Most of the time, this particular friend chooses not to dispute, even when I am talking about racial topics. However, this particular statement – a throwaway line of congratulations in a Tweet – stuck in her/his craw long enough that she/he went stats hunting.

So in the same way that Harris-Perry has done, I am openly speculating here that this kind of “prove it” attitude from liberals who spontaneously become skeptical whenever they have a dog in the fight (which, by the way, Harris-Perry wrote another piece about), comes at least in part from the cognitive dissonance at play when they are accused of racism. “I couldn’t possibly be racist,” they say, as though being liberal means you were raised on a different planet. We are all products of the same system. If someone points out that a behaviour has racial connotations, instead of reflexively reaching for counterexamples, perhaps take the time to consider the possibility, and engage in the argument that person is making, rather than the one you hear through your rage.

I will close with Dr. Harris-Perry’s words:

Racism is not the the sole domain of Republicans, Conservatives or Southerners. Not all racists pepper their conversation with the N-word or secretly desire the extermination of black and brown people. Racism is complex, multi-layered, and deeply rooted in the American story. Name calling is not helpful in uprooting racism, but neither is a false sense of moral superiority.

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News blast: women’s headlines from around the world

As I mentioned this morning, there’s been a lot of stuff going on that I haven’t been able to get to, but that I would like to. I’ve only done this a couple of times before, but instead of a full-fledged Crommunist Manifesto treatment, I’m going to have to provide mini-commentary on these. Please do not interpret this as an indication of anything other than the fact that there are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week. This post is for the ladies.

Saudi women may vote: King Abdullah

Women in Saudi Arabia are to be given the right to vote and run in future municipal elections, King Abdullah has announced. He said they would also have the right to be appointed to the consultative Shura Council. The move was welcomed by activists who have called for greater rights for women in the kingdom, which enforces a strict version of Sunni Islamic law. The changes will occur after municipal polls on Thursday, the king said.

This move is so obvious and risibly behind the times that it’s almost hard to praise it. However, this small concession could potentially have profound meaning for the women of Saudi Arabia. That’s the problem, I suppose, with trying to impress liberals like me: you do something we ask you to do, and then we ask you why you didn’t get it done faster. There seems to be a lot of popular support for this move, and the least cynical side of me is inclined to say that this is indicative of a desire for true reform from the Saudi royal family. Within the structure of Shariah law there will never be legal equality for women in Saudi Arabia; however, it’s still a positive step that women will be allowed to make some decisions for themselves. Now maybe the car keys too?

Social media protest nets rape arrest in Nigeria

The Nigerian police have arrested two people in connection with the gang-rape of a woman posted on the internet. Bala Hassan, the commissioner for police in Abia State, said the two men were detained after cyber activists posted pictures and names online. The video has shocked Nigeria both for the brutal nature of the rape and the initial failure to investigate.

Once again, I have no words to describe the contempt I have for the vile slime that would participate in a gang-rape, let alone videotape it. They are perhaps one level below the police who, given evidence that can clearly identify the victim and perpetrators, decide to drop the case. While we (rightly or wrongly) often deride internet activism under the increasingly-inaccurate label of ‘slacktivism’, it’s great to see it being used as a tool for greater justice. While it is a double-edged sword that can be used to shame victims, this is a case where the reverse is true and those who failed to uphold their duty to justice were shamed into doing their jobs.

Wangari Maathai dies at age 71 

Kenya’s Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai has died in Nairobi while undergoing cancer treatment. She was 71. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for promoting conservation, women’s rights and transparent government – the first African woman to get the award. She was elected as an MP in 2002 and served as a minister in the Kenyan government for a time. Ms Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, which has planted 20-30 million trees in Africa.

It’s a shame, and a testament to my shitty scholarship, that I only learned about Wangari Maathai – a black African woman with a Nobel prize. Talk about your stereotype smashers. Reading her obituary, Ms. Maathai was a consummate warrior against the sexist status quo, and refused to let the patriarchy back her down. Kenya is one of the more stable and progressive countries in Africa (man… that makes me sad – Kenya is no Norway), and it owes quite a bit of that to the work of Ms. Maathai and those she inspired.

Report on sex trade needs to focus on roots of issue

Angela Marie MacDougall was exploited as a young girl, trafficked to grown men for sex. From ages 15-21, she continued working in the sex trade, mostly in Vancouver. It’s the usual story of how girls are inducted into sex work, she told a public hearing Thursday at Vancouver city hall on a city staff report about how to deal with sexual exploitation and Vancouver’s sex trade. “We hear in the report that we’re talking about women,” MacDougall said. “But guess what? Many of us aged into adulthood in terms of [selling sex]. We did not start as adults. We can’t pretend we’re not talking about girls here. By ignoring that in the report, we are failing.” MacDougall, who now works for Battered Women’s Support Services, told council the report needs to focus more on how and why young girls are being pulled into the sex trade in the first place, to get to the root of the problem.

I had a blog reader e-mail me (I love it when y’all do that, by the way) to encourage me to speak more about issues of the sex trade. For the record, I am pro-sex, provided that both parties consent and there is no coercion or exploitation involved. If that means money changes hands, then by all means throw those bucks down. Criminalizing prostitution only makes it more dangerous for all parties involved, particularly those who work as prostitutes. Vancouver has a thriving sex trade, but the structure of Canada’s laws and our puritanical views of sex make it a dangerous occupation. While some of the opinions expressed in the article are mind-numbingly stupid, it is a good sign that this kind of conversation is happening in the open.

My apologies for not giving these stories the individual attention they deserve. I invite your chastisement and further exploration of the issues behind the stories in the comments section.

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Why do we trust these people?

My friend Brian once used an argument that has stuck with me ever since I heard it (it’s super effective!). Imagine yourself at the deathbed of a loved one – say a spouse or a child. You are approached by someone who tells you that if you give him your life savings, he will be able to secure YahwAlladdha’s personal intercession to save the ailing party. Would you do it, even if you knew the chance of success was remote? If your answer is ‘yes’, then that is an argument in favour of atheism. Faith healers are a dime a dozen (actually, far more expensive than that), and none of them do what they claim to do. Someone who knows that intercessory prayer does not work, no matter how devout the petitioner, is forever protected against this specific type of huckster.

The fact is that this is not, for many, a hypothetical question.

‘Miracle Babies’ pastor to be extradited

An evangelist who claimed to have created miraculous pregnancies through prayer is to be sent back to Kenya to face child abduction charges. Gilbert Deya, who has held services in Peckham, south London, has fought a legal battle to stay in the UK since 2007, arguing anything else would breach his human rights.

(snip)

Infertile or post-menopausal women who attended his church in Peckham, South London were told they would be having “miracle” babies. But the babies were always “delivered” in backstreet clinics in Nairobi. The Tottenham MP, David Lammy, had a husband and wife turn up at his constituency surgery who had been through it. “The couple went to Africa, came back into the country with a child that the authorities found out was not theirs through a DNA test.

(snip)

When asked how he explained the births of children with DNA different to that of their alleged parents, he said: “The miracle babies which are happening in our ministry are beyond human imagination. It is not something I can say I can explain because they are of God and things of God cannot be explained by a human being.”

I can’t read this story without being absolutely disgusted by how low members of our species are willing to stoop. This is evil, pure and simple. I don’t think anyone would look at what this man has done to his parishioners and say ‘well his heart was in the right place’. He engaged in a scheme that was equal parts fraud and child trafficking – no amount of justification can possibly excuse this, except in his own mind. I can only sympathize with the heartbroken people who were lied to, and the others who were desperate enough to need to part with their newborn children (for reasons I can only guess at).

Buddhist monk charged with raping girl in 1970s

A Buddhist monk has been charged with raping an underage girl in the 1970s, the Metropolitan police has said. Pahalagama Somaratana Thera, chief incumbent of Thames Buddhist Vihara, Croydon, has been charged with four counts of sexual abuse, police said. The alleged rape and three counts of indecent assault occurred in Chiswick, west London, in 1977 and 1978.

I don’t think I have to provide a sophisticated argument or compelling statistics to have you agree that rape is horrible. While we collectively have this myth that rapists are leering perverts hiding in dark alleys and jumping on unsuspecting women (who are dressed too slutty, donchaknow), the truth is that the vast majority of rapists are known to the victim. Oftentimes they are family members or close, trusted authority figures. The sense of betrayal can only serve to turn the physical violence into a full-blown existential crisis. To be raped by a religious teacher – a person who commands absolute trust – must be horrible beyond imagining.

So these are the stories. They’re both about awful people who did awful things. There are awful people who do awful things that have nothing whatsoever to do with religion. A NYPD supervisor pepper-sprayed a peaceful protester point blank in the face, then laughed it off while checking his text messages. I doubt he did so with the Psalm of David on his lips. This isn’t the point. The question that popped immediately into my mind when I read both of these pieces was why on Earth did people trust them in the first place? An unbelievable level of faith (wording intentional) was placed in these men – far more than an adult places in their employer or their elected representative or doctor or college professor – people who arguably can demonstrate the reason why you should trust them.

Even if you are a theist (and would you please de-lurk so I know you’re out there?), I think we can build a consensus around the merits placing absolute trust in individual people. There is no shortage of examples of religious leaders who have demonstrated the capacity to lie and distort theological claims to dupe unwitting followers. Those examples include violence against self and others, betrayal of family, complete inversion of ethical principles – any thing that one might describe as ‘sin’. Even if you do believe that some kind of god exists, surely we can get together on the premise that trust should not be given to those that claim its favour.

But this is my main gripe with religion: I don’t really have to speculate what the mechanism is for these kinds of slime to gain the unquestioning trust of their followers. Religion is built on the promotion of unquestioning trust. Trust in the absence of evidence is the fundamental stuff of theistic religion – without faith, religion is simply philosophy (and pretty lazy philosophy to boot). Part of this trust has always been directed at those god-men who claim special insight into the whims of the almighty. A layperson who claims to have had direct communication with an extraterrestrial intelligence is rightly seen as a bit of a nutcase. A politician who claims to have divine direction rockets to the top of the polls. We cannot ignore the encouragement of faith as a major explanatory mechanism for this disparity.

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Liberal privilege and tragic epiphanies

I am one of (I think) few people who can look at where my life is and who I am as a person and be satisfied. Hell, even happy most of the time. In a culture where we are constantly bombarded with images and ideas that serve to undermine our self-confidence and constantly question our self-worth (which, according to advertisers, can only be enhanced by buying whatever product they are selling at that moment), I know how tough it can be to feel good about who you are. Right now I am working competently at a job where I make a positive impact, living in a city where I have lots of leisure activities and great friends to do those activities with, and have realistic prospects for growth in the not-too-distant future. I do not profit from the misery of others, and have regular opportunities to give back. I don’t have any major moral quandaries or vices that I have to keep hidden from the world or my family. All in all, I don’t really have anything substantive to complain about.

It was not always this way, to be sure. Like most people, my teenage years were a miserable and clumsy affair*. I used to be known as a joke killer – people would be laughing and having a good time, I’d try to join in, everyone would stop laughing. I spent virtually my entire teen years completely undateable for reasons that I could never quite figure out. I had very few friends before the age of 17/18. I would always somehow find the exact wrong thing to say (a fact that gives me a wry sense of satisfaction whenever anyone praises my speaking or writing skills). I am reminded of a party I was at where a guy I didn’t care for was having a conversation with a girl I was quite smitten with. He was relating to her that he didn’t have many friends. In an effort to be nice, she said “I’ll be your friend!” I, visited by a bout of assholery, blurted out “yeah, if you pay her!”

Conversation at the party stopped. Shocked and hurt, the girl looked at me. I quickly realized that in addition to being a petty douche, I had implied that she was some kind of prostitute. Not one of my finest moments, I will readily admit.

I’ve definitely come a long way since then. I still say dumb things, but I am at least aware that they’re dumb before I say them, and nobody’s feelings get seriously hurt. Sometimes though, I will be strolling along my merry way, and a memory like this from my past will float across my conscious mind, completely knocking me on my ass. I will feel so ashamed of the things I’ve said – a feeling that is palpable and stays with me. There’s nothing in particular that will bring one of these episodes on, I’ll just get totally blindsided by what an asshat I was, or how foolish I looked. It’s not a pleasant experience.

From time to time I have a similar experience when I consider people’s religious beliefs. While I am obviously aware that people believe ridiculous superstitions and allow their actions to be guided by them, on rare occasions I will be struck by a deep realization that this is not simply a fun thing to argue about on the internet. Somewhere in the world right now there is a young woman married to a grotesque old man that she doesn’t love, who honestly believes that her fate is justified by the will of her deity. Somewhere else, a young gay man contemplates suicide because he honestly believes that the way he feels is an abomination in the eyes of his creator. Somewhere else, a world leader with access to a massive arsenal of weapons makes his decisions guided by his interpretation of an ancient book. Somewhere else, a mother instructs her children that their neighbours deserve to die because they worship the wrong gods.

These are things that happen every day. They’re so wildly surreal that my brain doesn’t seem to connect them to reality, treating them as abstractions much the same way it copes with the physical laws of the universe – things that are true, but not viscerally so. Occasionally their deeper semantic truth pokes through for a moment and completely throws me for a loop, but most of the time they just putter away in the background.

I can only surmise that this comes from the fact that I am surrounded, for the most part, by people for whom faith is either a non-issue, or who agree with my position on it. I don’t really get into religious debates often, and even when I do I don’t really connect with the fact that this person actually thinks this is true. It’s operating from a position of priviliege, wherein I can’t even start to see what colour the sky is on their planet, because their entire way of belief is foreign to me. Even when I was a believer, I wasn’t so completely god-swarmed that my faith meaningfully coloured my day-to-day reality. I have never believed in the way that someone who is willing to strap a bomb to her/his chest and detonate it in a crowded market believes. That kind of blind faith is beyond me.

Reading over that last passage, it makes it sound as though believers have something I don’t, and that I wish at some level that I had. Nothing could be further from the truth. Any belief, religious or not, that completely blinds you to possibility and forces you to rewrite or ignore facts is dangerous, and I want no part of it. If someone could present me with compelling evidence of the validity of palm-reading, or the existence of ghosts, or the efficacy of rolfing, I’d certainly entertain it, and would be forced to revise my understanding of the world. I see that kind of flexibility as a strength, and the kind of rigidity needed to maintain a belief that runs contrary to the evidence (or forces you to torture the evidence into position) as a weakness.

That being said, until I can see religious faith in the way that those who believe do, I will be horribly handicapped in my understanding of how to disabuse them of their delusions. Of course, that’s not my job, so I’m not going to lose too much sleep over it.

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*I am definitely aware of the fact that some people have legitimate problems during their teen years. I am not trying to say either directly or by implication that I suffered in a way that is comparable to people who were bullied or ostracized or any of the really damaging things that can happen to you during adolescence.

Movie Friday: If it please the court

I would never dream of cheating on my one true love, The West Wing. However, its slightly less hot (but still smokin’) cousin Boston Legal caught my eye one one of those lonely, Bartlettless nights and swept me up in its strong arms. I truly don’t understand what it is that makes it so unpopular to have politically-relevant shows that explore the arguments on both sides of issues. They seem to be incredibly popular when they manage to make it on the air, and yet so few of them ever do. While it’s nice to have 30 Rock stroking all the liberal talking points, I’d love to see a drama that explores them more honestly – even through comedy.

That being said, for all its truly funny moments, Boston Legal also hits us right in the heart at times, often through main character Alan Shore’s closing statements in cases. Today’s video comes from S01E17 – Death Be Not Proud:

Please excuse the cheesy song in the background. I cannot fathom why someone would want to ruin such a great speech with such a terrible soundtrack. Take it up with the uploader.

This video should stand as a tribute to the memory of Troy Davis – a man executed under similarly doubt-ridden circumstances, executed by a state that would rather see a man die for a perverted sense of ‘justice’ than to do a thorough job investigating his innocence.

The transcript of the video is available here, but this is the relevant bit:

Alan Shore: I am here. With all due respect, may it please the court, because I have a problem with the State executing a man with diminished capacity. Who may very well be innocent! I’m particularly troubled, 8 may it please the court, with all due respect, that you don’t have a problem with it. You may not want to regard my client’s innocence, but you cannot possibly disregard the fact that 117 wrongfully convicted people have been saved from execution in this country. 117! The system is hardly foolproof.

And Texas! This State is responsible for a full third of all executions in America. How can that be? The criminals are  just somehow worse here? Last year you accounted for fully half of the nation’s executions. Fifty percent from one State! You cannot disregard the possibility, the possibility, that something’s up in Texas.

Judge Lance Abrams: I would urge you to confine your remarks to your client, and not the good state of  Texas.

Alan Shore: Zeke Borns never had a chance. He was rounded up as a teenager, thrown in a cell while he was still doped up on drugs, brow-beaten and interrogated, until his IQ of eighty was overcome, he confessed to a crime he had no memory of, still has no memory of, for which there is no evidence, other than two witnesses who saw him pumping gas around the time of the murder. He was given a coked-up lawyer, who admittedly did nothing.

I’m now before nine presumably intelligent people in the justice business, who have the benefit of knowing all of this. Add to that, you know DNA places somebody else at the scene, and you’re indifferent! You don’t care! Whether you believe in my client’s innocence, and I’ll assume, with all due respect, may it please the court, that you don’t! You cannot be sure of his guilt! You simply cannot! And failing that, how can you kill him? How can you kill him?

How indeed?

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Troy Davis: Justice is blind, deaf and really really dumb

In light of this morning’s post, I’d like to say a few words (not too many, I promise) about the execution of Troy Davis. For those of you unfamiliar with the case, Mr. Davis was convicted of killing a police officer in 1989 in Savannah, Georgia. The case against Mr. Davis was built on the eyewitness testimony of people who claimed to be there to see the shooting. In the intervening 12 years, 9 of those witnesses have recanted their statements, with some alleging coercion by police. New forensic evidence has been brought forward suggesting that Mr. Davis is not, in fact the shooter. None of that has swayed the appellate courts, who allowed Mr. Davis’ execution to go forward yesterday.

This is a dramatically different situation than the one highlighted this morning, since there are evidently legitimate questions regarding Mr. Davis’ innocence:

A U.S. parole board has denied clemency to Troy Davis, clearing the way for his execution Wednesday in a case that has become an international cause celebre for death penalty opponents. Davis was convicted of shooting dead an off-duty police officer who intervened in a brawl in a parking lot in Savannah, Georgia in 1989, but there was no physical evidence and several witnesses later recanted their testimony.

The thread connecting these two cases, however, is race. Mr. Davis, like Mr. Buck, is a black man. Now, in this case race was not so overtly a factor in the decision to convict or recommend the death penalty. That being said, my point in this morning’s piece is that it doesn’t have to be overt to exert influence. Mr. Davis’ race was a factor in his arrest, in his treatment following his arrest, his prosecution, and his sentencing. While I do not have the resources to demonstrate it, there is often a position of presupposed guilt when a defendant is black, while white defendants enjoy more of the benefit of the doubt.

Greg Laden over at The X Blog illustrates this aptly:

It is especially poignant to see that two young white middle class Americans will be release from an Iranian jail about the same time Troy will take the needle. Not that Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal should not be release or that they have anything to do with it. It is poignant for another reason. If you were an Iranian government official looking at the Shane Bauer and Joshua Fattal case, the assumption that these to guys are spies would be natural. As a person who has traveled a fair amount in or near bellicose regions, and actually met spies along the way (I even spent a bit of time in prison with a spy in the Eastern Congo) I was never closed to the idea, while in the mean time virtually every American hearing of their fate simply knew that the were innocent of these charges. Young American men hiking on the border of a hostile state could not possibly be spies! Meanwhile, in downtown Savannah Georgia, if the police pick up a young black male for some crime or another, there are a lot of people who will assume he is guilty. Or, worse, not care if he is guilty. It’s the inner city. Young black males are the criminals. A crime was committed. Close enough.

But even with the race question left on its own, there seems to be more than enough reasonable doubt in this case to justify staying execution indefinitely. Troy Davis was convicted without any physical evidence linking him to the crime, and police bullied and intimidated their way into securing a quick conviction. When police wring their hands about how people who live in high-crime areas don’t co-operate with law enforcement, they need to understand that this is why. Police are not there unless they are looking to arrest someone, and are happy (dare I say eager) to run roughshod over the civil and human rights of the people in those communities to make as many charges stick as they can. Never mind justice, never mind professional diligence, and never mind protect and serve.

More bizarrely, the justice system, which is ostensibly supposed to correct for the grotesqueries of police overreaching, seems to be playing right along:

A Georgia appeals panel refused to let Troy Davis take a lie detector test to prove his innocence Wednesday, as the American convicted of killing a policeman nears exhaustion of his legal options hours before his execution. “He requested an opportunity to take a polygraph test yesterday from the Board of Pardons and Paroles, which had previously denied clemency,” Davis’s attorney Brian Kammer told AFP. “Mr Davis’s attorneys had a polygrapher at the prison this morning in the event the request was granted. However, earlier this morning, the Department of Corrections and the Board of Pardons and Paroles flatly denied the request,” Kammer said.

The courts seem to be saying “you’re guilty, Mr. Davis, and we will not let any facts get in the way of that story.” Such is the reality for many people convicted by our courts.

This is why my eyes glaze over and my fists clench whenever people talk about the liberal ‘hug a thug’ mentality (a phrase so mind-numbingly stupid, and a position that obviously had so little thought go into it, that it makes me wonder whether the speaker has difficulty not choking on her own tongue). Justice should be difficult. Justice should be fought for and won only after a campaign of diligence and careful weighing of evidence. The decision to imprison someone, much less execute her, is one that deserves more care and deliberation, not snaps to judgment made for the sake of convenience.

Stories like this make me tired. I’m going to need an otter:

Not enough. Gonna need a double shot:

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