Glimmers of secular hope

There has been a great fracas recently within atheist/secularist circles as ‘Horseman’ Sam Harris has been subjected to repeated critique* as the avatar of a disturbing trend within atheist circles: using “reason” to mask anti-Muslim sentiment in politically pallatable language. I have noted this tendency previously:

I don’t think anyone could confuse me with someone who is pro-Islam. As much as I find all religions repugnant, the face of Islam we see today is one of repressive fanaticism that stifles human progress. To be sure, there are plenty of examples of fanaticism in Christianity as well, to say nothing of Hindu and Buddhist repression happening in India and other parts of Asia. Whether it is due to anti-Muslim bias and the collision of Islam and secularism in Europe, or a reflection of the true excess of Islamic regimes, the news consistently carries stories of Muslim-dominated countries carrying out horrible acts with the excuses of Qur’anic license on their lips. I will not relent or shrink from criticizing this inhuman (or perhaps all-too-human) display of authoritarianism with claimed divine mandate.

That being said, there is a backlash against Muslims that is not based on their beliefs per se, but about our attitude about the danger that Muslims (and Islam) pose to the world. This attitude is not informed by evidence, but fueled by paranoia and misinformation. It qualifies, by every comparative standard that I can think of, as just as worthy of criticism as racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, take your pick.

My concern is that atheists find it far too tempting to single out Islam for particular opprobium because the stories we hear about Islamist-dominated countries are so dramatic. We conclude from the drama that Islam per se is a particularly twisted ideology, above and beyond the ideology of, say, Christianity. My counter-claim to this assertion is that Christianity contains essentially all of the same commandments and prohibitions and exhortations that Islam does, but time and the rise of secular society have rendered it, in the aggregate, less overtly oppressive than the current incarnation of Islam (again, in the aggregate). [Read more...]

Come too far to turn back now

When I was in Chicago, I was (deservedly) upbraided by a member of the audience for referring to the #IdleNoMore aboriginal sovereignty movement in the past tense. Of course this movement is still ongoing, just as it was before the advent of the hashtag and the dramatic public demonstrations that accompanied it. The latest federal budget, announcing that benefits for First Nations youth (but not youth in other places) would be tied specifically to a Workfare program (with an enforcement budget that is larger than the budget for actual benefits), suggests that despite the statements of intention to co-operate, the Harper government has no interest in treating Aboriginal Canadians as anything other than inconvenient wards of the state who are in need of instruction in fiscal discipline (yes, the ironies abound).

And so, the revolution will go on, and an opportunity to change the toxic paternalism of the nation of Canada to the people it has colonized has been squandered.

Yesterday marked another dramatic milestone: [Read more...]

Canadian House of Commons passes trans anti-discrimination bill

A rare bit of good news coming from the Canadian Parliament yesterday:

A bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against transgender Canadians was approved by the House of Commons on Wednesday. The Opposition private member’s legislation passed by a vote of 149-137, with the crucial support of 16 Conservatives, including four cabinet ministers. It was one of the first tests of the Conservative caucus’ resolve on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights in Canada at a time when Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has been mounting a strong defence of such rights abroad.

The thing to remember in this story is that a majority of sitting members of Parliament are Republican North Party members, and all bills require nothing more than a simple majority to pass or fail. If the government had ‘whipped’ the bill – meaning that a strict party-line vote was required – it would have failed. To Stephen Harper’s credit, one of the few areas where he’s been consistent is in allowing his members to ‘vote their conscience’ on these kinds of bills. Of course his conscience led him to vote against granting legal protection to trans Canadians, but luckily enough of his members weren’t as amoral as the boss. [Read more...]

Reverse appropriation

As much as we might like to ignore or obscure it, we can’t outrun our past. Many of the institutions we rely on were built, or at least conceived of, in a time when bigoted ideas were openly expressed and widely believed (unlike now, where they’re still widely believed but we at least have the decency to believe them a bit more quietly). Nowhere is this more evident than in landmarks that were named during the ‘less enlightened’ days of our civilization. Who could forget Rick Perry’s ranch at “Niggerhead” (or the more than 100 other places with the same name)?

Professional sports teams have also struggled with this issue. Coming from a time when casual racism against Native Americans was considered normal and healthy (so like… 6 years ago? 7? Less?), we get names like “Braves” and “Indians”, and perhaps the worst of all, the “Redskins” – although like landmarks, this is not the only thing to bear that name:

A picture of a taffy candy called "Redskins"

Taste the casual racism!

[Read more...]

What it means to be represented

Following up on our discussion this morning of the Canadian legal system and whether it has improved in its ability to represent the best interests of aboriginal people. I think that, considering where we have come from, the courts are doing a better job than they were. However, I have time and again railed against the false comfort of downward comparisons, and I do not wish to come across as trying to make the point that we have ‘fixed’ the problem. A multi-generational history of white supremacy doesn’t get canceled out by a few court cases washed down with the tears of angst-ridden liberal settlers.

The problem isn’t that judges were white supremacists, and now they’re not, so we can stop worrying. The issue undergirding all of these problems, be they about race or gender or culture or ethnicity, is one of representation. Any supremacist system is one in which a single group of people is empowered to make decisions that affect all other groups. In Re: Eskimos, we saw an overt ‘classical’ case of white supremacy, in which aboriginal people were not even notified let alone consulted before their ethnicity was made into law. In the cases this morning, it was still up to a white judicial system* to recognize the rights** of aboriginal peoples.

No, we can’t really call a system ‘fixed’ until the people who are subject to the machinations of power are able to fairly and proportionately participate in the exercise of power. And, as I mentioned this morning, we have some cause to think that may start happening: [Read more...]

Re: Aboriginal people in Canada and the courts

Jamie and I had, in the not-too-distant past, a disagreement over whether or not the Supreme Court of Canada (in its contemporary form) is an ally of justice when it comes to aboriginal people in Canada. Indeed, based on Monday’s post, it would be hard to make the case that Canada’s court systems are anything other than the most hypocritical arms of a white supremacist system, garbed as they are in the clothing (both figurative and literal) of justice. Any court that doesn’t recognize Canada’s current system of legislated inequality and discrimination when it comes to aboriginal sovereignty and the recognition of Treaty rights cannot really lay much claim to the title of ‘Supreme’.

That being said, I understand (perhaps better than Jamie, perhaps only differently from him) the Constitutional limitations of the court. It is the duty of Parliament, and not the courts, to create legislation, and most judges are quite loath to overturn the will of the elected government* unless there is an extremely compelling reason to do so – i.e., the law violates the Charter rights of Canadians. Judges are also bound to interpret the law according to the way it was interpreted by previous courts, making it a dispositionally conservative entity.

All that being said, as I pointed out before, the Court has made some recent decisions that I support. Decisions that I believe reflect a progressive sense of justice, and a decision-making process that prioritizes harm reduction over tradition, and attempts to balance maximum freedom with the greater good. Of course if I’m happy, that means that there are a lot of people on the political right who probably hate every single Justice, but that’s rather beside the point.

What was the point again? Oh right… Canada’s courts aren’t completely awful: [Read more...]

A truffle rooted out from the heap of… bad news

There was one more bit from one of this morning’s stories that I thought was an interesting development, and deserved its own post:

The proportion of women among the ranks of Canada’s wealthy elite has almost doubled over the past 30 years, new data released by Statistics Canada Monday shows. The data agency published its analysis of the richest one per cent of Canadian tax filers between the years 1982 and 2010 on Monday. From the total number of all Canadian tax filers, Statistics Canada narrowed its list down to 254,700 people at the top, who make up Canada’s “one per cent.”

Among numerous findings, the proportion of women in that group nearly doubled over the time period, from 11 per cent in 1982, to 21 per cent by 2010. That’s 53,200 individuals. The women in that group were slightly less likely to be married or partnered than the men were. Some 68 per cent of women were married or in a common law relationship, compared with 87 per cent of men.

So the sort of ‘broad brush’ good news aspect is that there’s something in the Canadian economy that makes the elite-level wealth professions not quite as gendered, or at least less gendered than it was in 1982. Whatever structural adjustments that have been at the levels of education and training, and more than likely an accompanying cultural shift in attitudes toward women, has resulted in the closure of a gender gap in this particular echelon. This news fits well with shifts we’re seeing in political representation at the highest levels of government. So while we’re not seeing proportional gender representation in all walks of life, we’re at least seeing things moving in that direction.

Awesome. [Read more...]

Good news for UBC professors

I got notification about this story a couple of days ago:

All University of British Columbia all full-time, female-identified tenure and tenure-track professors are getting a raise to counteract gendered pay inequity.

The two per cent salary increase, retroactive to July 1, 2010, is part of a three-year process between the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the UBC Faculty Association (UBCFA) to solve pay inequity among full-time tenure-track faculty. The study did not look at pay inequity among UBC academic or administrative support staff.

Inspired by pay equity reports in 2007 and 2009 from UBC’s Equity Office, the University and UBCFA created two separate working groups: the DATA Working Group for collecting data on pay equity and the SMART Working Group to devise solutions.

According to a joint message from UBCFA and UBC’s two provosts sent to faculty today, the DATA Working Group’s “analyses indicated that after accounting for the factors of under representation of females at the full professor level, experience, and differences in the gender balance across departments, a pay differential of 2% remained, that could only be explained by gender. This unexplained female pay disadvantage is considered a systemic discrimination issue.”

This is a ‘win’ story for not only female-identified faculty at UBC, but for the university at large. They identified an issue (eventually), took it seriously enough to collect and analyze the data, and then committed to make restitution for an arbitrarily unfair system. What is most interesting is that, while there was a strong financial and psychological incentive for them to attempt to explain away this difference as “assertiveness” or “different time commitments” or any of the other ‘just-so stories’ that are used to justify administrative inaction, they were sensible and aware enough to treat it as an issue that warranted a system-wide response.

I say that this is good news for the university because they will likely gain a great deal of (justified) goodwill for taking the issue of gender equality seriously. UBC is a large, wealthy, and old institution. Groups like that don’t often make changes like this, even in the face of data like this. It will be interesting to see if Canada’s other venerable institutions follow suit (or, indeed, if UBC is actually the last to do this – it’s certainly possible).

So thumbs up for that!

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Glass ceilings, cliffs, and the wrong side of history

Undoubtedly, the vast majority of you don’t pay attention to Canadian provincial politics. To be quite honest with you, I don’t either (outside of a bit of attention paid to my own province, mostly by accident). However, this past Saturday my non-provincial-politics-watching streak was broken by the occasion of the Ontario Liberal leadership convention coming to a close. Without wanting to go too far into the history, the former premier (a position equivalent to a governor in the United States) resigned quite suddenly in the midst of a number of political crises. The convention on Saturday was the result of a democratic process internal to the party to select his successor, and the presumptive premier of the largest province in the country.

In a move that may have surprised a number of people, the winner of the election, on the third ballot, was Kathleen Wynne, an experienced politician and member of the provincial cabinet. After a second round in which Ms. Wynne was the front-runner alongside Sandra Pupatello. Two other candidates trailed, but with enough delegates to sway the final voting in either direction. They both chose to endorse Wynne, and brought a large percentage of their delegates along with them, cementing Ms. Wynne’s appointment by a final vote split of 57% to 43%.

If you care to do so, you can read some of my initial reactions to the outcome as a Storify log. What I want to do in this piece (and likely in a subsequent one) is to explore a few of the statements I heard in the wake of the announcement. [Read more...]

#IdleNoMore: Something is happening

It is more or less always true in social justice conversations that if you’re talking more than you’re listening, you’re fucking up. This is particularly true when you’re advocating for a group you don’t belong to. I realized that I was guilty of this a few months back, particularly when it came to aboriginal Canadians. While I think the challenges faced by First Nations, Métis, and Inuit Canadians are criminally underdiscussed, what I failed to realize is that the root cause of this is the absence of aboriginal voices in the conversation. If nobody takes your contributions seriously (or worse, you’re not even provided a platform to contribute at all), then even if your problems are addressed, they are done so in an extremely paternalistic and often half-hearted way.

And I was doing that.

Luckily, technology allows me to do something about that, so I put out the call on Twitter, asking for accounts from aboriginal persons, preferably those that discussed political realities and interpretations of news items. A trickle quickly became a flood, and my ‘following’ list exploded. This doesn’t mean that hey now I am magically allowed to talk at length about stuff, but it does mean that I’m slightly more aware of stuff than I was before.

And it’s a good thing too, because something’s happening right now: [Read more...]