iVaya Argentina!

Once again, a bit of unexpected good news:

Senators in Argentina are set to vote Wednesday on a bill that would legalize same-sex marriage, but the bill is facing stiff opposition from the Roman Catholic Church and other groups.

Okay, that part isn’t the good news. If you had asked me at the time I first read this story if I thought it would go through, I would have said ‘not a chance’. Argentina, like the majority of Latin America, is prime country for the Catholic Church. The Church is extremely anti-gay (despite what some morons would have you believe), and they are deeply embedded in both the history and political landscape of the entire region. As we saw over proposition 8 in California, whenever religious groups are brought to bear in a population of believers, human rights often get trampled in the name of ‘religious freedom’ (which is, by the way, not at all what that phrase means).

This is particularly true when you have human rights crusaders like Bishop Antonio Marino leading the way:

“In the name of modernizing human rights, what this bill actually does is produce a major step backwards for humanity. If you want to talk about progress, the only progress this brings is towards decadence.”

Getting past the obvious sideswipe about the hypocrisy present in the Church taking a stance against decadence…

… the stance being struck by the church as an advocate of human rights and decency is completely fraudulent. This isn’t about preserving human rights, this is about hating gay people, and teaching that hate from the pulpit.

I have never been so happy to say this: I was WRONG

Argentina legalized same-sex marriage Thursday, becoming the first country in Latin America to declare that gays and lesbians have all the legal rights, responsibilities and protections that marriage brings to heterosexual couples. After a marathon debate in Argentina’s senate, 33 lawmakers voted in favor, 27 against and three abstained in a vote that ended after 4 a.m. local time.

There are two parts of this that are the best part. First, the obvious fact that the damn thing passed. It sends a strong and unequivocal message to the rest of the world, and the rest of the Latin world, that human rights are universal. It states unequivocally that, at least on this issue, Argentinians won’t be pushed around by small-minded religious bigotry when making its decisions. The second is that much of the support for the move came from other civil rights groups, particularly women’s rights groups. I’ve maintained all along that human rights issues are the concern of all people, even those who (like myself) are not necessarily gay, or female. Dr. King put it much better than I could: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I was clearly very wrong about the amount of control the Catholic Church has in Latin America, especially in light of another story I read, in which Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez  ordered a major review of the amount of influence the Vatican has in policy. This is not done out of the goodness of his heart, but as a backlash against the Church’s involvement in the political opposition. I’m not a fan of shutting down the opposition as a rule, but I am similarly not a fan of religious groups wielding political power.

I’m going to throw quotes from two different senators out here, and you can tell me which side you’d rather be on:

“What defines us is our humanity, and what runs against humanity is intolerance.”


“Marriage between a man and a woman has existed for centuries, and is essential for the perpetuation of the species.”

I’m happy with my decision.

P.S. – the human species is much older than centuries. Idiot.

New Westminster gets it EXACTLY right

Here’s a rarity: a bit of good news on the racial front right here at home:

John Stark, the city’s senior social planner, said the Chinese reconciliation process undertaken by the City of New Westminster is the first such process taken by a municipality in Canada. He said research done by staff confirmed that city council acted in a discriminatory matter, particularly by restricting employment opportunities and by asking senior governments to pass discriminatory laws.

I was a bit dumbfounded, to be honest, when I read the rest of the article. Usually, apologies like this are simple declarations that the problem existed, and that the current office-holders are sorry that it happened. While those kinds of apologies do have some merit, at the end of the day there’s very little concrete difference in the lives of those affected. New Westminster has taken an extra (and, as far as I know, unprecedented) step of rolling out an ambitious agenda of a way to make recompense to the community, including the establishment of a cultural monument and earmarking funds to document and incorporate the contribution of the Chinese community into the history of the city. That’s a real apology (are you paying attention, Catholic Church?)

I spoke in a previous post about the merit of acknowledging the mistakes of the past, but I didn’t really get to put a very fine point on it. There is a common refrain that comes from people who are ignorant of or ambivalent toward race issues when things like this make it into the news: “Why dwell on the past? We have to move forward, and separating people by race only makes things worse.” While I’m sure their hearts are in the right place, this argument is largely nonsense. It’s essentially a re-hashing of the “colour blind” argument that I debunked two months ago. Briefly, the reason why colour blindness doesn’t work as a strategy to improve race relations is because it requires all people to be blind to race, particularly those for whom their race exposes them to discrimination. It is an attempt to paint over rust – it might make things look better but it fails to address the underlying problem and allows it to get worse.

The problem with the “why dwell on the past” argument is that we have buried or otherwise distorted what the past actually is. Immigrant groups (Chinese, African, South-Asian, Irish, eastern European, the list goes on) built this country in just as real a way as English and French immigrants did. First Nations Canadians made real contributions to the foundation of the country before it was even a country. All of these groups suffered systemic and ongoing discrimination for centuries in this country – many of them continue to experience it. Ignoring that legacy isn’t a step forward toward racial harmony, it’s another step along the line of having those types of discrimination become endemic in the social fabric. While it might make some people feel less guilty to have to acknowledge our country’s history of racism, the recognition that we are all a part of that history is a real opportunity to move forward.

Until we acknowledge and accept the real history of prejudice and racism in Canada, as New Westminster has done, we will continue to founder in our attempts to build a nation of equal Canadians. I applaud the city council of New Westminster for taking this step, and I hope it is so successful that other municipalities cannot help but take notice.

It’s not all doom and gloom here at the Manifesto

I’ve been pretty critical and negative for the past couple of weeks, so I thought I’d clear the air with some more things that make me happy.

(WARNING: Pun ahead). This is the kind of international conflict I can sink my teeth into. I’ll pause for a moment until you stop splitting your sides with laughter at my hilarious jokes.

Done yet?

Okay, good.

Apparently in between bombings and incursions into each other’s national territory, Israel and Lebanon have been waging a delicious war to see who can make the most hummus (a delicious chick pea-based spread/dip). I’m all for international rivalries, so long as they’re peaceful and fun like this one. Competition makes us strive to be better. There’s no ethical or philosophical point to be made here, it just made me chuckle.

Muslims are exhorted to pray 5 times a day at specific times. A muezzin calls them to prayer at those times from a loudpseaker at the mosque. Apparently though, some muezzins in Turkey weren’t quite up to scratch, pitch and tone-wise. So the city’s religious affairs officer arranged to get the more egregious offenders singing lessons. I am anti-religious, and I make no apologies for that. However, I realize that not everyone shares my belief that religion should be (or can realistically be) completely abolished. The trick is to find a way to make religious practice more tolerable for everyone, and subsume religious identification in favour of secular identification and obligation. This is at least a step along the right path. Although, now that I think about it, it makes religious practice easier to do… dammit!

Metropole is a club in the area where downtown meets Gastown (incidentally, only a few blocks from where I live). That area (referred to as the Downtown East Side or DTES) has a major drug problem. In addition to being a city with a large homeless population, drugs run through the DTES like mad. Main and Hastings is Vancouver’s Jane/Finch equivalent – low income, high crime, lots of drug use (without the benefit of York University being there). Donnelly Nightclubs is a major group that owns a lot of restaurants, pubs and clubs around metro Vancouver. They (Donnelly) just purchased the Met and are turning it from its seedy roots into a more upscale place. “Gentrification!” the cry goes out. Here’s the cool part: 25% of the annual Metropole profits are earmarked for local charities, including the Vancouver Food Bank and the DTES Women’s Center. It gives me warm and fuzzy feelings when companies show social responsibility and reinvest in the community. Yeah, so it’s all a big PR stunt that makes people look the other way as Donnelly consolidates its grip on the hospitality market. You know who doesn’t care? The single mother who gets food for her kids and job counselling for free from the charity groups supported by rich people’s drinking habits.

So yeah, things do penetrate my heart of stone and put a hop back in my step.

Things make me happy, y’know

I heard second-hand from one reader that this blog reads like a series of angry rants. Of course, this same reader has known me since high-school, so I’m not sure why that surprised her at all… but whatever. If I come across as angry, it’s because, well, sometimes I am angry. There are a lot of crappy things happening in the world, and I think ignoring them is not going to fix them. The more we talk about, discuss and confront the problems facing the world, the faster we’ll find solutions for them.

But lest you think that my entire outlook on life is a negative one, today I’m going to exhibit some news stories that made me happy. I should mention, at this point, that I am incredibly gay for science. There was a story about a remote-controlled robot that can perform heart surgery that made me dance a little jig on the inside (my outside was at the office – not very professional). However, there are a lot of really good science and technology sites that profile way cooler stuff than I can. This site is about race and religion and free speech – topics I find important and interesting to talk about. And despite the impression I may have cultivated thus far, there are indeed some things on these topics that make me very happy.

Of course, my hard-on for secularism and the removal of religion from society is welldocumented on this site. So I was very happy to read this story of groups of young Lebanese people publicly asserting their right to both free speech and freedom from religious dictates. Lebanon has a system that is so entrenched in religion that the secular values we take for granted here make Canada look like a paradise in comparison. This made me really happy to see.

As a heterosexual man and a quasi-feminist (I believe in equal rights for everybody, which isn’t quite feminism but works quite well as a pick-up line when talking to a feminist) there is a special place in my heart for women. I joke, often, at the expense of women, but if you cut me down and looked at the rings on my trunk, you’d find that I have a deep and abiding respect for women. Islam in its present, public form treats women as an unfortunate and repugnant necessity (this is, I learn, an extremely recent “development” in the overall history of Islam). However, the sensationalized portrayal of Islam covers up the fact that, like all religions, there are individual practitioners and groups who are much less radical and far more accepting of secular principles. This story, about a group that works to teach new immigrant Muslim women how to adapt to life in The Netherlands, made me happy and hopeful for a future in which personal religious beliefs can be superseded by more positive, non-religious, affiliation.

And the women are at it again. Three girls from Palestine, seeing how their blind aunt and uncle struggled to get around obstacles and inclines, invented a new kind of cane for them to use… with freakin’ lasers! At a time when some Muslim theocratic countries won’t even let girls go to school, these girls had the wherewithal and scientific know-how to develop a new technology that could potentially improve the lives of thousands and millions of people all over the world. Yeah, theocrats are right. Girls shouldn’t be allowed education, or to own property, or vote. Clearly that would only raise the standard of living for the disabled. Who wants that?

Human beings are capable of great evil. Our history has been storied with accounts of massacre, rape, torture, unbelievable acts of cruelty… the list goes on. Thankfully, human beings are also capable of acts of great goodness. As I will write about someday soon, I think we’re turning the corner of a new Renaissance with the internet acting as the new printing press. No longer is knowledge stored up in ivory towers, unavailable to all but the initiated, but is readily available at the click of a mouse. This program, designed to bring the world to the fingertips of even the very poor, is a step in the right direction for humanity as a whole. This story, about the One Laptop Per Child program making inroads in one of the most devastated areas on the globe, made me unbelievably ecstatic. Some of the poorest kids in the world being given opportunities to learn that weren’t available to me, living in the lap of privilege, at that age – how can your heart not be warmed?

This one’s a little off-topic, but still pretty cool. City council in Vancouver has put measures in place to ensure that products sold locally are, whenever “possible and practicable”, coming from certified “Fair Trade” sources. This is the way capitalism is supposed to work, where market decisions are influenced by local forces, global conscience being one of those forces. It says good things that a city as large as Vancouver is able to make changes like this. Hopefully this idea catches some steam.

So please let it never be said that I find no joy in life. Just as there are multitudes of horrific events taking place all over the world, and I’m not going to stop talking about them, there are positive, life-affirming events taking place too. If I focus more on the negative than the positive, I do it because I want us all, myself included, to shake off the complacency that can so easily settle in and to recognize that there’s a lot of work to do. I’ll do my best to inject a bit more good with the bad, but try to remember that despite my vigorous polemic, I am a fundamentally happy person who loves puppies and rainbows and stickers.

Here’s another picture of an otter:

Happy now?