Obama draws fire over ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ (what a stupid name)

I am re-posting this, a post that I wrote about a month ago and posted on Canadian Atheist. Because I am rather proud of it, I’m cross-posting it here for posterity.

I’ve read some depressingly stupid responses to the so-called “Ground Zero mosque“. One came from leading skeptic and atheist Sam Harris:

But the margin between what is legal and what is desirable, or even decent, leaves room for many projects that well-intentioned people might still find offensive. If you can raise the requisite $100 million, you might also build a shrine to Satan on this spot, complete with the names of all the non-believing victims of 9/11 destined to suffer for eternity in Hell.

Nice, Sam. Very nice.

Also flogging the “desirable and decent” horse is Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid:

Spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement that the senator respected that “the First Amendment protects freedom of religion”, but still thought the mosque, planned for a site about two blocks away from the former World Trade Center, should be built in a different location.

Way to stand up for Democratic principles, Harry.

And yet, surrounded by the raging storm of stupid, President Barack Obama has stood up and said that the construction should be allowed to go ahead:

At a White House dinner celebrating Ramadan on Friday, Mr Obama vigorously defended the developers’ right to put the mosque there “in accordance with local laws and ordinances”. Muslims “have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country”, the president said.

As far as his personal feelings on the “desirable and decent” pseudo-argument, President Obama declined to comment, which is his right. His statement, however, reasserted the principles of freedom of religion, tolerance and secular authority that the United States was built on.

That’s really not going to help his poll numbers:

Some 18% said the president was a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009, according to the Pew Research survey of 3,003 Americans. Among Republicans, that number was 34%. Just a third of those quizzed correctly identified Mr Obama as Christian.

Republican critics have accused the President of being out of step with mainstream Americans. If “mainstream Americans” are this stupid and have memories this short (Rev. Wright? Remember that guy?), I’d prefer to be out of step with them. “Mainstream Americans” are in dire need of a civics lesson. So, to help our knowledge-impoverished neighbours to the south (including Sam Harris, apparently), I’ll remind you of three important facts.

1. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not at Ground Zero

The proposed Cordoba Centre is being built 4 blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre remains. It is being built in an abandoned coat factory. Opponents of the building have not provided a proposal for how far away it is okay to built a mosque, nor have they provided some rationale for why such a distance is more acceptable than 4 blocks.

2. The “Ground Zero Mosque” is not a mosque

The Cordoba Centre is being built as a Muslim community centre. It does contain a prayer room (which should surprise exactly nobody, since prayer is a part of Muslim life), but it also contains a basketball court, a gym, a book store, and a culinary school. There is a giant Jewish community centre of the same type sitting at the corner of Bloor st. and St. George in Toronto. I’ve been in there, and I’m pretty sure everybody knew I wasn’t Jewish. It’s a community centre, not a synagogue. The proposed Cordoba Centre is exactly the same thing.

3. There’s already a “Ground Zero” mosque

Apparently there’s some confusion about what was there first – the Muslims or the terror. There’s been a mosque (Masjid Manhattan) 2 blocks from the World Trade Centre site since before there was a World Trade Centre. Muslims have been part of the population of Manhattan since far before these critics knew what Islam was.

Now that we know how intellectually bankrupt the arguments against being allowed to construct a mosque in that “holy site” are, let’s look at this risible “desirable and decent” argument of Sam Harris. Sam, you’re an atheist, right? A pretty vocal one, if I remember correctly. You know who might not find your beliefs, or your out-spoken defence and promotion of them, “desirable and decent”? Millions of Christian Americans. That’s right Sam, by your own argument, you should be keeping your damn mouth shut.

I’m not sure how much I want to explore the stupidity of the conservative critics:

“It’s unwise to build a mosque at the site where 3,000 Americans lost their lives as a result of a terrorist attack,” Senator John Cornyn of Texas said on Sunday on Fox News.

This is about as sterotypical as Islamophobia gets. Senator Corwyn is asking us to complete the following logic assignment:

A. Terrorists blew up the World Trade Centre
B. ???
C. Muslims pray at mosques.

Therefore, we shouldn’t have mosques near the World Trade Centre

The solution to that little logic problem up there, incidentally is B: All Muslims are terrorists. I doubt anybody reading this needs me to explain why the proposition is not only offensive, but incorrect.

The main crux of Sam’s piece is that Islam is not merely just another peaceful religion with a few deluded followers – that it, more than Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism or Sikhism (or any number of other -isms) promotes violence and the subjugation of women. I’m not sure I disagree with Sam on this one. In its current incarnation, Islam worldwide is a consistent force for evil (see Somalia, Iran, Pakistan, the Maldives, for evidence of this). I wonder if Sam knows that there is a surefire method to blunt a religion’s influence – secularize it. If Muslims feel cut off from secular America (if you, for example, protest when they try to build a community centre), they will band together under the banner of their religion. This means that the moderate elements are going to feel strong solidarity with the radical elements. No Sam, the answer is to make them feel welcome as possible, and start sending your kids to play basketball and cook with Muslim kids.  It’s harder to draw barriers around yourself when there are people who don’t share your religious beliefs eating at your table or slam-dunking for your team.

Finally, there’s a major flaw in the argument that I haven’t really heard discussed. Even if the mosque was at ground zero. Even if the mosque was a mosque. Even if there was no other mosque there, this thing would still be a good idea. One of the reasons the United States is reviled by the Muslim world is that it is built on the idea that all people are free to believe what they want. In Muslim countries, it is illegal to convert from Islam. Some even require you by law to be a Muslim. They enforce laws that are based on Muslim scripture that supersede secular law. The idea of a place where Muslims aren’t special, where Allah is not even recognized in passing, is offensive to these dictatorial assholes. Putting up a Muslim centre at the site of a terrorist attack sponsored by the Muslim world is essentially a big “fuck you” to those same assholes. It says essentially that not only are we not going to allow your attacks to change our way of life, we’re going to go out of our way to promote those same ideas you find repulsive, and we’re going to use your religion to do it.

This “controversy” is nothing but appeals to what is least-informed and most bigoted in our society, and has no place being defended by thinking people. I’m disappointed in you, Sam.

TL/DR: Sam Harris is kind of a dick, the “Ground Zero Mosque” is neither of those things, and even if it was we should build it anyway.

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Movie Friday: Hardcore Pornography!

Since their first album Mass Romantic dropped almost 10 years ago, I have been a fan of The New Pornographers. They’re an amazing and unique-sounding band that uses unusual combinations of instrumentation and composition to create a musical motif that is not easily classified. Their use of several songwriters and lead singers is something that I’ve co-opted into my own band, which fans seem to enjoy a lot.

(Incidentally, pause it at 3:12 – those of you in Vancouver will probably recognize where this video was shot)

There’s a second reason why I thought I would highlight this particular band today (besides the fact that they’re amazing). Just like the Bare Naked Ladies had to deal with back in the 90s, some puritanical morons in the United States have canceled a performance by the band because of their spikiness over the name:

A Christian college in Grand Rapids, Mich., has cancelled a scheduled concert by Canadian indie band The New Pornographers because of the band’s name. The Vancouver-based band’s website announced the cancellation Wednesday. Calvin College rescinded an invitation to the band to play on Oct. 15 after weeks of discussion, the college said in a statement. The statement said the college found it difficult to explain the band’s name.

Yes, God forbid (pun intended) that anyone mistake the venerable name of Calvin College with anything so revolting as pornography. No, they’d much rather be associated with:

  • Rampant anti-Semitism;
  • Original sin (a disgusting doctrine which preaches that a mythical ancestor ate an apple, and as a result you are doomed to an eternity of torture);
  • Censorship of musical expression (shock! surprise!)
  • Southern Baptist churches (hi Fred!)
  • And of course, Puritanism

Just so long as nobody thinks they’re cool with pictures of nekkid ladies. I felt today’s video was particularly appropriate.

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The short answer is ‘yes’

I laughed my ass off when I saw this. That being said, obviously not everyone in the Tea Party is there because they are racist – smaller and more efficient government has nothing at all to do with race. However, due to its stubborn opposition to any program designed to level the playing field or correct for historical injustices, it tends to attract the racist fringe with open, monochromatic arms. In the same way that supporting a larger role for the federal government isn’t a gay thing, but homosexuals tend to fall on the left side of the political spectrum (because that’s where all the equal rights are).

A commenter pointed out something that didn’t occur to me right away: how racist do you have to be to print out signs and go looking for a black person? I’m trying to imagine their thought process:

“Okay, so we’re going to print out these signs and take them to the rally, right?”

“Yeah, that’ll show all those liberals that the Tea Party is about state’s rights and small government, not a thin veneer of politics hastily brushed over a rotten core of deep-seated xenophobia, unwarranted entitlement and good old-fashioned ignorance!”

“Wow, that was deep.”

“Thanks. I read the New York Times today, and just said the opposite of what was written there.”

“I wish I could read.”

“Hey Steve?”

“Yeah Larry?”

“Wouldn’t it be easier to just take these signs over to the houses of one of our many black friends and/or work colleagues and/or neighbours, rather than having to sleuth around at a rally to find the token fanny-pack-wearing dark-skinned guy at a rally of thousands of white people?”

“We don’t have any black friends and/or work colleagues and/or neighbours, Larry.”

“How come?”

“Uh… because of LIBERALS!”

“Yeah! Fuck those racist asshole liberal faggot commie Muslim terrorist Mexicans!”

“You said it, Steve.”

Madness? THIS… IS… well yes, this is madness

Sometimes something happens in the news that is so painfully stupid that it’s hard to hold out any kind of hope for the future of mankind. It’s like watching a slap-fight between two legless drunks – it would be funny if it weren’t so macabre.

Such is this “International Burn a Koran Day” bullshit. For those of you who haven’t been following the news, there is a tiny church group in Florida that decided it would have a book bonfire, in which they torch several copies of the Qu’ran. Thirty people down in Florida decide to burn a book they haven’t read, to protest a religion they don’t know anything about.

Big hairy deal, right?

Ah, but because it’s a religious thing, of course the whole world goes indiscriminately insane.

Muslims all over the world began protesting, burning effigies, American flags, and chanting “death to Christians.”

Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Afghanistan over plans, now on hold, by a small Florida church to burn copies of the Koran. Three people were shot when a protest near a Nato base in the north-east of the country turned violent. President Hamid Karzai said the stunt had been an insult to Islam, while Indonesia’s president said it threatened world peace.

It’s absolutely shocking the complete lack of a sense of irony or proportion that religious groups have. “30 people burned the book of the religion of peace? Well then we will call for the indiscriminate murder of all Christians, and the President of the United States. Also we will burn objects sacred to you, because your actions threaten world peace!”

So the Islamic world did pretty much exactly what everyone thought it would do – go batshit nuts and renew the chant of “Death to America” or whatever. Ho hum, nothing to see here, move along folks. That should be the end of it, right?

No, let’s turn up the stupid, shall we? General Petraeus, what would you like to sing for us this evening?

“It could endanger troops and it could endanger the overall effort,” Gen Petraeus said in a statement to US media. “It is precisely the kind of action the Taliban uses and could cause significant problems. Not just here, but everywhere in the world, we are engaged with the Islamic community,” added Gen Petraeus, who heads a 150,000-strong Nato force against a Taliban-led insurgency.

Thirty people in Florida are about to do something stupid. What’s a proportional response? Let’s get the commander of NATO allied forces to comment directly on it, elevating it to an international incident! Well now it will absolutely cause danger to the troops, because it’s received national attention!

Hold the line, I believe we have a comment from Darth Helmet:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper added his voice to the global outcry against a U.S. church’s plan to burn 200 copies of the Qur’an on Saturday — the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. “I don’t speak very often about my own religion but let me be very clear: My God and my Christ is a tolerant God, and that’s what we want to see in this world,” he said. “I unequivocally condemn it,” he said. “We all enjoy freedom of religion and that freedom of religion comes from a tolerant spirit.”

Nothing like international attention to blow any sense of proportion far over the horizon. We now have international leaders lining up to condemn the actions of 30 morons in Florida. Are we going to make an international crisis out of every act of Islamophobia? Boy howdy!

Amazingly, the only voices of reason seem to be coming (from all places) Iran and Gaza:

Iran’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani said Mr Jones’ threat was an “expression of hatred of Islam” but called for restraint. “This disgraceful act contradicts the very duties of religious and spiritual leadership to enhance the value of peaceful coexistence and safeguard the rights and mutual respect among religions,” he said.

In Gaza, Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Mr Jones was a “crazy priest who reflects a crazy Western attitude toward Islam and the Muslim nation”.

When Iranian Ayatollahs and the head of Hamas are the islands of perspective in a sea of complete insanity, you know that the world has gone completely topsy-turvey.

There are two points to be made out of this absolute lack of cognitive processes. The first has to do with the power of religion. It’s almost completely incredible that the actions of 30 people in a backwater part of the Southern United States can set off an international crisis. We have roughly 30 regular volunteers here in Vancouver’s branch of CFI. If we stated burning copies of the Charter or The God Delusion or the Canadian flag (or all three at the same time), we’d get arrested for mischief without a news camera in sight. Why? Because atheists are boring! But put an equal number of Christian extremists around a pile of burning copies of a Muslim book, and watch as the entire world goes nuts. It’s 30 idiots in Florida. Take a deep breath.

The second point has to do with free speech (my favourite ^_^ <3 ). A number of countries have been demanding that the President directly intervene to stop 30 idiots in Florida from burning some books. Ignoring for a second the 8 or 9 levels of the chain of command that would skip (not to mention the fact that the President doesn’t have the authority to order private citizens to do anything), and also ignoring that it’s just 30 idiots in Florida, the United States constitution strictly forbids any kind of legal response to this – an act of free expression. The whole point of free speech is that you are free to say what you want. It’s hate speech, absolutely. I think it’s bigoted, I think it’s stupid, and I think it sends absolutely no worthwhile message other than “we are idiots, and we don’t understand anything about either Islam or our own religion.” But as I’ve said before, laws against hate speech are a really bad idea.

At the end of the whole debacle, the pastor decided to back down, an appropriately anti-climactic conclusion to a blisteringly-meaningless non-issue.

Of course the tragedy here (besides all of the people that will be killed and injured as a result of people being idiots) is that this pushes American Muslims further into the fringes, and closer into the arms of extremist groups that are the real problem. It’s not quite cutting off your nose to spite your face, it’s like cutting off your own hand and giving it to someone trying to choke you with it.

The correct response to this would for the governor of Florida to say “apparently some fundamentalist extremists have decided to do something stupid. I hope they vote for someone else in the next election. Floridians and Americans have more important things to do than worry about some backwash church led by a nutcase” and let that be the last word on it.

TL/DR:The response to the burning of Qu’rans is completely out of proportion to the act. Thirty idiots in Florida shouldn’t have the power to derail the entire world, and it’s only possible because of religion. Also, free speech ought to be absolute, even when it’s stupid.

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Another proud moment for Christians

Imagine that human civilization is the Little Engine That Could, chugging along up the hill chanting “I think I can, I think I can” as it struggles to reach the zenith of a fair and just society that minimizes human suffering and maximizes human happiness.

Now imagine someone drops a giant boulder in the middle of the track and says “No you fucking can’t!”

Boulder, thy name be religion:

U.S. regulations expanding stem cell research have temporarily been blocked by a U.S. judge. A non-profit group, Nightlight Christian Adoptions, contends that new guidelines on stem cells drafted by U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration will reduce how many human embryos are available for adoption.

I’ll wait for you to extricate your face from your palms before I start in on this. Do it slowly, you might have fractured something.

Okay, ready? Good.

First off, nobody adopts an embryo. It is possible to bring an embryo to term and act as a surrogate birth mother, then claim the child as your own. Unless something dramatic has happened to the number of women who are willing to pursue this option, or unless in-vitro fertilization has stopped, there will always be far more unwanted embryos than willing wombs.

Second, there are lots of live babies and children waiting for adoption. Stem cell research will do absolutely nothing to diminish this supply, and stopping stem cell research in the name of ensuring a sufficient number of adoptees doesn’t diminish it either; on the contrary, it may actually increase the size of this population by reducing the number of potential adoptive parents.

Finally, embryonic stem cell research requires the consent of the genetic parents. There are lots of people who pursue IVF who aren’t comfortable destroying their genetic material, ensuring that there will always be a renewable supply of embryos for those women hell-bent on getting pregnant with someone else’s child.

There is literally zero merit to their argument, but a federal judge decided to grant it anyway because it’s not as though delaying the progress of science is going to cause any suffering. Well, except those people with Parkinson’s, Cystic Fibrosis, Muscular Dystrophy, ALS… the list goes on.

This is why secular humanism is a better model for stable and progressive government than theocracy – it is less sympathetic to the capricious whims of a shrieking horde that enters a battle with no evidence and spurious argument. I anticipate that this ban will be overturned by a higher court, but it’s a solid reminder that in the battle between happiness and suffering, American Christianity is on the side of suffering.

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Indonesian Hugh Hefner in hot water

I have a love-hate relationship with pornography (well… more like a “love-love-love-love-cleanup-self loathing-hate” relationship, but that’s probably more information than you really wanted about me). On the one hand, it demeans women by treating them as essentially walking masturbatory aids. On the other hand, it’s a fairly handy barometer of a society’s relationship with free speech.

Indonesia isn’t doing so hot:

The former editor of Indonesian Playboy could face two years in jail after Indonesian prosecutors said they would enforce a 2009 Supreme Court ruling.

Regular readers will remember that our globe-trotting tour of finger-wagging at other countries has stopped in Indonesia before. Indonesia has a pretty crappy human rights record in general, and continues to struggle to protect free speech. This latest development, of course at the behest of conservative religious groups (so common as to be eye-rollingly cliché), is yet another illustration that religion stands in direct opposition to free speech. In order to believe in free speech and freedom of religion, you have to violate your religious precepts (particularly for Abrahamic religions) and consider the possibility that your god or gods is/are not immune from criticism.

Far easier, it seems, to trample on human rights and lock up those who violate your religious sensitivities than it is to examine your beliefs critically.

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Update: Harper government actually stands up for science… wha?

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of our current Federal government. They are decidedly opposed to any use of science in decision-making, preferring instead to appeal to ideologies rather than reality. The study of science and logical positivism make you, on average, more liberal than conservative – preferring to side with what works rather than stapling yourself to what you agree with. As Stephen Colbert so succinctly put it, “Reality, as you know, has a strong liberal bias.”

That’s why I was shocked to read this news story:

The Canadian government will not fund a clinical trial of the so-called liberation therapy for multiple sclerosis at this time, Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq says. Aglukkaq spoke to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, a day after a panel of North American experts announced they unanimously recommended against supporting a clinical trial of the treatment in Canada as yet. Aglukkaq commissioned the expert panel’s report from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which funds medical research, and the MS Society of Canada. “I feel the most prudent course of action at this time is to accept the recommendation of the country’s leading researchers,” Aglukkaq told a news conference (emphasis mine).

Did I say shocked? I should have said ‘floored and rended into a state of utter disbelief’. The Harper government (so called because he calls the shots, and everyone else runs his plays) actually relying on the expertise of people who know what they’re talking about? Surely I must be hallucinating. Particularly from a party that talks a big game about letting people make their own decisions, regardless of how unwise those decisions may be (a view apparently shared by my “nemesis”).

I’ve been skeptical of this ‘liberation therapy’ since it was first announced. My skepticism isn’t merely because it’s a stark departure from accepted practice, but because as a person who works in and is trained in health research, I recognize that many times these ‘radical’ approaches fail to stand up to rigorous scrutiny. A panel of experts recommended against CIHR fast-tracking large-scale clinical trials until smaller, well-controlled trials showed a benefit to the treatment. This is simple pragmatism to anyone in the health research community – it’s not a good idea to experiment on a large group of people unless you are reasonably sure they will actually benefit from it. Ethics boards actually demand this exact type of rigour before allowing research to go through. I am hopeful and optimistic that this treatment could potentially make a positive impact in the lives of people suffering from a horrible disease, but I temper my optimism with skepticism to say that I won’t advocate its use until we know for sure if it works or not.

So the Harper government thinks we should listen to the experts, and make our decisions based on that. Could this be a sign that they’re not as anti-science and ideological as I thought?

No, it’s not:

An RCMP report that evaluates the long-gun registry as cost-effective, efficient and an important tool for public safety hasn’t changed the mind of the Conservative MP behind a bill to scrap the registry. In an interview Tuesday on CBC TV’s Power and Politics with Evan Solomon, Candice Hoeppner says the report told her nothing new. “My position remains steadfast as does our party’s position,” she said. “We believe the long-gun registry needs to end. As legislators, that’s our job, to look at policy, to decide what’s in the best interests of Canadians and make those decisions. So, nothing has changed.”

So instead of experts using their training and experience to help decide what’s the best use of public funds to protect the lives and property of Canadians, Ms. Hoeppner thinks that political appointees are better suited to do it. Political appointees, I’ll add, that have no experience or training in anything other than politics. Even conservatives will have to agree that if someone’s going to be making our decisions for us, it would be better if they actually knew what they were talking about.

Then again, maybe they don’t have to agree at all:

An article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal slams the federal government for its efforts to shut down Insite in downtown Vancouver, Canada’s only safe injection site for drug addicts… The paper points out that soon after it was elected, the Conservative government removed harm reduction as one of the four pillars of its National Anti-Drug Strategy. The four-pillar strategy, endorsed by the World Health Organization also includes treatment, enforcement and prevention.

I mean, just because a bunch of eggheads who have spent years of their lives studying the problem and potential solutions doesn’t mean that they know what they’re talking about, or that you should listen to them. It definitely doesn’t mean you should accept the evidence that’s right in front of your face.

No wait, that’s exactly what it means.

Stop “Fox News North”

I have a bullhorn, and I’m going to use it.

Those of you who come here from Facebook have seen this already, but maybe didn’t sign it. Stephen Harper, I suppose growing weary of pretending not to be a right-wing ideologue, has decided to shed his sheep’s clothing and put political pressure on our CRTC commissioner to bring a Fox News-style channel here to Canada.

This is a petition to stop it. Please sign it.

A few people, some of whom are people whose opinions I greatly respect (although they differ sharply from my own), have pointed out to me that the media is already biased, and/or that my objection to a Fox-style channel is that I just don’t like conservatives. I feel the need at this point to clarify a few things:

1 – I don’t like conservativism (although I greatly enjoy the company of my few conservative friends – there are few in university science programs, which is my cohort). That’s emphatically not the source of my opposition. I’d be just as against this if it was a bunch of lying arch-Liberal finks (who I also detest).

2 – Even if I did buy that our current media outlets are biased, I fail to see how adding one that is explicitly and purposefully biased makes that situation better. An informed electorate is crucial to a healthy country. Adding another voice to the supposed pantheon of radical viewpoints doesn’t improve the situation at all – it makes people less informed. Fox News isn’t watched by those on the left to “get the other side of the argument”, it’s watched by those on the right to confirm their in-grained biases; the same can be said vice versa. The answer is to reduce the amount of bias in media outlets through careful surveillance, not to burn the whole house down because you spilled some wine on the carpet.

3 – Even if I did buy that adding another biased point of view (as all points of view will be) will somehow improve the lives of Canadians, Fox News is not simply another network. They lie, distort facts, invent facts when they can’t twist the ones that already exist, and are unrelentingly hypocritical in their stance on issues. They are unprincipled, they lack integrity, and they are poisoning the political and social discourse of the United States. Any station patterned after them will do the same thing, sending Canada down the road to destruction down which the United States is currently drunkenly weaving.

4 – Even if I did buy that a Fox News equivalent would be a good thing for the country, the Prime Minister has no business spearheading it, or shilling for it in any way. He certainly has no business forcing out the qualified head of the CRTC simply for standing up for media standards. All of this is to say nothing of the meetings that Mr. Harper has taken with Rupert Murdoch in order to make this a reality. It is a blatant political ploy designed to ensure that he has a channel that is completely uncritical of his policies that he can lavish his special attention and political influence upon, much the way that Bush/Cheney/Rove and the Republican Party has done with Fox News.

Personally, I like my country. I don’t want it to turn into the pathetic circus farce that is the current political reality of the United States, where a Harvard-educated constitutional scholar has to fight with a clueless, ignorant and feckless “hackey maam” from Wasilla to win the trust of the populace. Apparently Steven Harper will be much happier ruling over that country – I think we should be aiming to get better, not worse.

Sign the petition.

Lebanon struggles for civil rights

How can people think that religion advances the cause of humanity? At every major milestone of the past century – women’s rights, black civil rights, gay rights – have been vigorously opposed by religious groups. And then, as though we’re all collectively the guy from Memento, Christian groups turn around and start talking about “Christian ideals of tolerance and acceptance.” Nope, sorry, some of us actually read the history books instead of just skimming through the pictures. You don’t get to claim the advances of secular society as religious accomplishments; particularly those done over your strong objections.

Right now a similar fight is happening in Lebanon:

Lebanon’s parliament has, after long delay, passed a law which allows Palestinian refugees to work legally. There are an estimated 400,000 Palestinians living in Lebanon and, given its delicate sectarian balance, their status is a sensitive issue.

Ah, good. People are being granted the right to make an honest living rather than being forced to either live in squalor or return to a homeland where their lives are under constant threat. And where’s our Christian spirit of tolerance and acceptance?

But the law is unlikely to transform their lives, as they will not be able to work in the public sector or for certain professions, nor buy property. To meet objections from a number of Christian factions, the legislation was heavily diluted from the version proposed earlier in the summer by the Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt.

Ah, there it is. There’s the bigotry and intolerance that we’ve come to expect whenever a religious group is granted any kind of political influence. Similar to what Catholics have done in the Phillipines, Christian groups have gutted the legislation so that it barely has a hope of working. Then, in 6 months time, they will come back and say “see? It doesn’t work! Scrap the whole thing!”

Incidentally, we’re not talking about a fringe group here, or radical extremists. These are your so-called “moderate” Christians. What does it say when you are the right-wing opposition to liberal Muslims in the middle-east? It says that something has seriously fucked up.

Canada Revenue Agency stops beating dead horse

Here’s an interesting legal connundrum:

David Little, who has spent the last few years moving back and forth between P.E.I. and New Brunswick, has refused to file tax returns since 2000 in protest of government-funded abortions. He was due in court in Fredericton this week to face a charge of refusing a court order to file them. Little was found guilty in 2007 on three counts of failing to file, and eventually was sentenced to 66 days in jail for refusing to pay the $3,000 fine. He believes it’s his religious right to refuse to pay taxes because he doesn’t want his money funding abortions.

Oh… wait… did I say “interesting”? I meant “stupid”. There is no such right enshrined in the Canadian Charter allowing you not to pay taxes for things you don’t believe in. Freedom of religion and belief is what is termed a ‘positive right’, meaning that you have the ability to pursue it, and that nobody has the right to bar you from such pursuit. It does not encompass the right to exempt yourself from civic obligations because you don’t like them.

For example, it would be permissible for Mr. Little to post anti-abortion tracts on public notice boards, or picket abortion clinics. He could even start a blog and talk himself to death about how abortion is murder. If Mr. Little were a private medical practitioner, he could refuse to perform abortions (doctors are considered contractors to the state, not employees of the state, and therefore are not required to provide any services they don’t want to). All of the above actions are perfectly legal expressions of Mr. Little’s religious objection to abortion (although the Bible says nothing about abortion, and equating it with murder means that he must also refuse to pay taxes to support the military).

Refusing to pay taxes, however, is neither legal nor smart. However, the Canada Revenue Agency recognizes that pursuing him for the money may be legal, but it has ceased to be smart:

“You can only beat a dead horse so long, and then the whip starts to fray,” [Federal prosecutor Keith] Ward told CBC News Monday. Not only are the taxpayers of Canada insulted once by having to pay all this money to go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada on what is a lark of Mr. Little’s, but now they’re going to be faced with it again.”

It also turns out that Mr. Little doesn’t have the money to pay the fine anyway, so the thing is a moot point.

The part of this story that is interesting, however, is the abuse of “freedom of religion” as an excuse for all kinds of things. Many on the right talk about their “freedom of religion” being infringed upon because public schools teach the reality that homosexuality isn’t an abomination; merely a personal trait like hair or eye colour. These same people invoke “freedom of religion” when talking about the rights to gay marriage, sex education, or abortion. Having the freedom to believe in your own religion doesn’t mean you exist in a bubble where no opposing ideas are allowed in, or that you have the right to impose your personal beliefs on anyone besides yourself. It definitely doesn’t mean you have the right to cut your children off from hearing any information you don’t like. What it does mean is that you can express your objection, teach your kids what your beliefs are, and allow them the opportunity to decide for themselves.