Why do I care about free speech?

I think it’s a fair question to ask: why do I care about free speech? I live a live of great privilege – I don’t have many unpopular political beliefs, I am not discriminated against in any major way, there are no great social causes that I have to fight for on a daily basis – what does it matter to me? My day-to-day life doesn’t really put me up against the forces of the police or the government (to the contrary, I actually get my paycheques from a government agency). This is, I suspect, the state of affairs for most of you reading this blog. Our lives are very rarely touched by infringements of our rights (save for those who were in Toronto during the G20 protests).

So why talk about it? Why do I care?

As I’ve said several times previously, free speech is one of the core principles of a free society. Freedom is important because it allows us to make decisions that benefit people, not simply ones that correspond to whatever the prevailing prejudice of the day is. Free speech allows unpopular ideas to flourish, and as we’ve seen throughout history, some unpopular ideas are the ones that are the most needed. Allowing all ideas to come to the table and receive equal scrutiny ensures that bad ideas can be abandoned and good ones adopted.

Cracking down on free speech only hurts the progress of society, as the people of Tibet are learning first-hand:

International observers have called for action following accusations that China has been arresting leading Tibetan writers, poets and musicians in a crackdown on cultural figures, as The World Tonight’s Paul Moss reports.

I am a musician, so I must declare my bias towards art and artists. As someone with a sprinkling of knowledge about the history of music, drama, art and world history, I know that you cannot separate the progress and change of a society without looking at its artistic expression. Art is not only used to capture the essence of what is happening in the current cultural landscape, but to express the things that the culture wants and strives for. It is also often used to express dissent against forces that are oppressing the artist, and by extension the society at large. All of these things are true for the artists of Tibet. Silencing artists accomplishes only one thing – takes away any access you might have to solve the problem.

This is why I want racists and bigots and Holocaust deniers to have a platform – not because I agree with their ideas, but because shutting them down doesn’t solve the underlying problems they represent, and only makes it harder to keep track of where unpopular ideas are coming from.

What’s interesting about this story is that apparently it is not the Chinese government (who, as you will recall, is no great fan of free speech) that is responsible for these jailings:

But despite clear challenges to Beijing’s authority, Robbie Barnett, director of Columbia University’s Modern Tibetan Studies programme, said the Chinese government itself may not be behind the arrests and prison sentences. He believes that over-zealous local officials were the more likely instigators: “Local officials make their own minds up about who they’re going to crack down on.”

It is for this reason that I care. Free speech is a fundamental right that is opposed not only to governmental tyranny, but the tyranny that average people inflict on each other. There are any number of people I disagree with, but even if I had the power to I would not silence them. However, because we live in a (comparatively) free society, we take our freedom for granted. It is this complacency that worries me, as I see people telling others that their ideas are better off not expressed. If an idea lacks validity, by all means demonstrate that. If someone has shown your idea to be incorrect, then maybe you should stop talking about it. But don’t ever let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t speak simply because your idea is unpopular. Free speech is something we should all care about, and it’s something I’m going to keep writing about.

Sexism? Only if you… y’know… LOOK for it

A friend of mine sent me a newspaper article that made my heart hurt:

A young black woman working in the medical imaging department at Toronto Western Hospital was sexually harassed and the object of racial taunts in what a hospital investigation concluded was a “poisoned work environment.”

There are three things you should know to put this story in context. The first is that Toronto is the most ethnically diverse city in Canada, and one of the most in the world (more so than Miami, Los Angeles or New York City), having a black population of about 350,000 people (7% of the total metro population). The second is that members of ethnic minorities are disproportionately represented at the lower levels of health care hierarchy (orderlies, custodial workers, nursing assistants) but are underrepresented at the higher levels (doctors, RNs, managers). The third is that while women far and away receive more undergraduate degrees in health-related professions than men do, this trend all but disappears at the graduate and professional level (while this seems to be changing, it is depressingly going in the favour of the opposite gender gap, which is no better). This information is relevant because a black woman who had the education and drive to gain the training required to be a medical imaging technologist is both remarkable and significantly important to a hospital in Toronto.

Instead of recognizing this, Toronto Western Hospital subjected Stacey Walker to months of both racial and sexual harassment, then ignored her complaints for 16 months.

I am sensitive to the fact that there is a significant grey area when it comes to what is and is not acceptable banter in the workplace. I received a text message joke from a friend, and as I was sharing it with the guy I share my desk with, I realized how incredibly sexist it was. Most of the people I work with are women, and my voice isn’t exactly quiet. While it wasn’t an overt kind of sexism, it was still not cool (although it was pretty funny). It can be tough to know where the line is. It is for that reason that there are procedures in place at any workplace to report incidents of sexual harassment and racial insensitivity – they protect both the (hopefully naive) perpetrators and the victims. However, when such reports are ignored, it is strongly indicative of a systemic environment of sexism and racism. The managers may not do it, but they tolerate it.

Of course, the immediate reaction is to blame the victim:

According to the report, the senior technologist admitted to conduct the investigators deemed was sexual harassment. The technologist is quoted in the report describing Walker as a “very troubled, insecure individual” who has “mental issues.”

‘Well sure, I did it, but it was that bitch’s fault for being so crazy!’ It doesn’t matter if she has “mental issues” (read: a uterus) or not, you violated policy, ignored warnings, and behaved not only inappropriately, but in such a way as to compromise her job performance and the safety of her patients. The fact that this kind of effect isn’t obvious to this man is strongly indicative of the power imbalance present in the hospital – it is not just an isolated incident.

As I’ve said before, when a culture of racism (or sexism, in this case) is allowed to propagate by simply masking it and pretending it isn’t there, there will be periodic incidents that are indicative of the real underlying problem. You can’t substitute cologne for bathing, and you can’t substitute “I’m not racist” or “I’m not sexist” for actual progress.

There’s a group of women in India who seem to have the right idea:

Scores of young girls and women applaud the display, and then learn for themselves how to fight back against “eve-teasing” — the south Asian term for sexual harassment in public places. Women across India are often victims of provocative remarks, aggressive male posturing and even physical assaults such as groping on the street and in crowded buses and trains.

In an attempt to combat both the perpetrators of harassment and the underlying culture that seems to permit men to objectify and systematically exploit women, Radha Sharma is instructing women in self-defense. The offshoot of knowing how to fight back is that you internalize the idea that you can fight back, and that it is not all right to allow bullies to have their way. Considering a recent case in which the suicide of a Bangladeshi girl was directly linked to this “Eve teasing” (what a disgustingly euphemistic term for such a horrible practice), such an approach is timely. It’s somewhat more socially effective than a rape-deterring program in South Africa, in which women wear condoms with spiked teeth inside their vaginas (sort of like the “bait car” idea except it maims your penis).

The way to combat sexism and racism is exactly what these Indian women and Ms. Walker have done – talk about it. Don’t stop talking about it until changes are made. Don’t stop fighting until the problem is solved. Don’t simply go along with the crowd, or accept vague promises in lieu of action. Don’t buy the lie that since most people are good, we should pat ourselves on the back and pretend the problem isn’t there. It takes consistent and assertive action to make social changes, but it is definitely possible.

How NOT to do secularism

We secularists are in a tough spot. Religion has dominated the political and social landscape for so long that it is held by many to be an intrinsic value, and one that ought to be free from criticism. Of course this is nothing but special pleading – no ideas are sacred, criticism is the only way we figure out which ideas are good. That being said, there is a reality that the challenge of secular society must take into account that people do have an intrinsic right to belief and conscience, and we have to respect those rights. However, if the goal is to create a society that establishes equal rights for all people, the secular agenda will often come into conflict with the religious agenda. In cases like that, there is a right way to handle it, and an unbelievably stupid way to handle it.

So now it’s time for another “Good Idea, Bad Idea”

Good idea: treating a church with the same respect that you would treat any other business in the conduct of a criminal investigation.

Bad idea: drilling holes in the tombs of dead people to find non-existent hidden documents:

As well as searching a couple of main Church offices and a cardinal’s home, [Belgian] police had drilled holes in two archbishops’ tombs, said the Church.

Personally, I don’t share our society’s taboo about death. Once you’re dead, that’s it. You’re beyond caring about what happens to your body after you die – “you” don’t exist anymore. You could dress up my dead body in a Klan robe if you wanted to… I’d be too dead to notice. However, the way we treat our dead does have consequences for those who are still alive. We respect the integrity of the dead person out of respect for those who knew him/her, and because it shocks the conscience to see a body’s resting place violated. There are occasions in which it is reasonable to violate this respect, if the consequences to the living warrant it. However, drilling holes in tombs to find allegedly secreted documents of sexual abuse is extreme, and doesn’t do our side any favours. Just because some priests have done horrible things does not in any way justify the mistreatment of priests in general. They have the same rights as any person, and should be treated with the respect we extend to anyone else. Bad job, Belgium. I prefer my Tomb Raiders to look like this:

Good idea: granting freedom of religion and freedom of conscience to people.

Bad idea: letting “freedom of religion” trump reason in the court of law:

In a decision handed down Friday, Justice Gérard Dugré agreed with Loyola’s opposition to teaching [a provincially-mandated course on ethics and morality] on the grounds of religious freedom. Loyola argued the course was redundant because the school already offers instruction on ethics and morality from a Catholic point of view.

As much as I hate to dictate interpretation of the Charter to a provincial judge, Justice Dugré has fundamentally misapplied the concept of freedom of religion. Freedom of religion means, at its essence, that individuals are free to believe and practice as they like. It does not grant special immunity to people from hearing ideas they don’t like, or that conflict with their prejudices set down in magic books. The province of Quebec mandated that all schools must provide instruction in ethics. I am not sure how easy it is to teach ethics to schoolchildren, since their brains are not sufficiently mature to reason abstractly, but surely people of any age can be taught not only what is right and wrong, but be at least introduced to the reasons why. That’s what ethics is – a branch of philosophy that deals in why things are good or bad, not simply a list of commandments.

I have received religious “moral” instruction. Catholic morality is based on the idea of the supremacy of Yahweh, in the teachings of His son Jesus of Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit of Yahweh that dwells within all people. According to Catholic teaching, the Holy Spirit reveals right and wrong to faithful believers, who may use doctrine and scripture (if you have to) to discern between the righteous voice of God and the evil temptations of the Devil.

Of course this is wildly impractical, since it doesn’t really help you work through what is good and what is bad in those situations where doctrine is ambiguous and scripture is contradictory. It also begs the question of how we know doctrine and/or scripture are correct. It’s basically just paternalism – “we know what’s right and wrong. If you get confused, blow this whistle and I’ll come help you.” Religious doctrine and scripture can equally be used for good or for evil.

Requiring students to learn about ethics and the religious teachings of other groups is a great way to instruct them on what processes are available to them to work through issues of right and wrong. If that process conflicts with their religious sensibilities (or, more accurately, those of their parents), then a frank discussion is required. That’s the way freedom of religion works – we can’t tell you what to think, but we can equip you with tools so you know how to think. Education is the purview of the provincial government, who passed a law requiring students to learn ethics. Unless you can demonstrate that the law violates the Charter, the government is free to pass it.

However, it is absolutely false to claim that requiring private schools to abide by the curriculum infringes on freedom of religion. It is no more true than it is to say that laws against murdering your children violate the religious freedom to conduct honour killings, or that laws requiring vaccinations to go to public school violate your religious freedom to stave off measles with a bag of dried chicken heads and a sharp stick. Justice Dugré has acquiesced to the special pleading of this Catholic school, that they should not have to teach their students anything that doesn’t agree with their Christian beliefs. Would we tolerate this same exception for Creationism instead of science, or scripture instead of literature, or prayer instead of phys-ed? I sincerely hope not.

Secular society has to respect the rights of religious people in the same way it has to respect the rights of irreligious people. No group should get special privileges by virtue of group membership, nor should they be unduly punished in the same token. Treat all people fairly under the law – that’s a good idea.

Racism is alive and well in Canada

I want to re-iterate something off the top of this post: I love my country. I love how we have managed to find a way to safeguard individual freedoms without sacrificing our sense of mutual custodianship to each other. I love the fact that we pride ourselves on separating religion from politics, and are, for the most part, very willing (perhaps sometimes too willing) to accommodate the cultural practices of others. I love that things like guns and gay marriage and abortion, things that are currently tearing the United States apart, are relatively foregone conclusions here – not to minimize the struggles of the past to get things this way, but they were much shorter and less divisive.

I love my country… and I fear for it.

I fear for it simply because we are happy to close our eyes and pretend that racism is not an issue here. I was all pumped to write a short post about a news item I saw in the paper:

Hate crimes increased 35% between 2007 and 2008, according to a report from Statistics Canada released on Monday, with Jewish and black people the most targeted groups for attacks. The data shows hate crimes are on the rise in each motivation grouping: race and ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation.

I was going to say that we’re clearly not out of the woods, and that even though much of the rise may be attributable to an increase in the number of reported cases as people become more willing to call a hate crime ‘a hate crime’, a 35% jump is not something to sweep under the carpet, as it may represent a real increase. I was particularly chilled by the fact that Vancouver, my home, was the city with the highest rate of attacks (I immediately thought of Courtenay, BC). It was just going to be a quick piece, reminding us not to be complacent.

Then I read this truly execrable word salad of an opinion column written by Mindelle Jacobs, a woman who, if she got paid anything for writing this piece, was grossly overpaid:

If you look under enough rocks, you’ll find the slimy underbelly of discrimination. But let’s not blow this study out of proportion. After all, this is not Kyrgyzstan, where hundreds of minority Uzbeks have been killed.

The vast majority of Canadians embrace a live-and-let-live philosophy, partly because Canada is wealthy, stable and rooted in inclusive Judeo-Christian principles and the rule of law and partly because we are a nation of immigrants fashioning a comparatively new country.

Gah! So much wrong in only two sentences (I count the first paragraph as one sentence – those periods are inappropriately placed). Let’s see, right off the top we’ve got a brainless downward comparison (oh goody! We’re not as bad as a genocidal country! Calloo Callay!), and an appeal to that shiny old lie that Canada is founded on Judeo-Christian principles. Finally, after relating a completely off-topic story about a friend who wears a Star of David and fears being discriminated against, she ends with this gem:

Hate crimes constitute less than 1% of all our crimes. Yes, we have a few bigoted lunatics. But we have a powerful counter force — millions of Canadians without a discriminatory bone in their bodies.

“Don’t worry,” Ms. Jacobs says “everything is okay! You don’t have to worry about it! Only 1% of all crimes are hate crimes! And it’s only done by ‘those people’, not by good-hearted Canadians like you and me!”

Here’s a hint for Ms. Jacobs: if you’re going to write an article about race and race issues in Canada, it might help if you do… let’s say 5 minutes of reading on the topic before you publish an opinion piece with national circulation. This idiotic scribbling was picked up by dailies all over the country, spreading the pablum of “everything’s okay, we don’t have to make any changes because we’re not Kyrgyztan” to Canadians everywhere.

So this post is going to be just a little longer than it was supposed to be. Since we’ve already talked about Nova Scotia, both present and past, and of course Courtenay making the news, the particular challenges Canada faces with regard to race, and a number of recent examples of cultures clashing here, I thought I’d bring one more thing to the table.

Isn’t it great when, while the rest of the world is coming together to play soccer and set aside their differences, we here in Canada are happily tossing racist epithets at children? Yes Ms. Jacobs, there’s no race problem in Canada; well, unless you ask someone who isn’t white. This poor girl was not only the victim of comments from the other kids on the field, but by their parents as well. What kind of person do you have to be to insult a child… regardless of the nature of the insult. Hatred of Natives is widespread pretty much everywhere across Canada, and this incident is merely an obvious example of it. People here in Vancouver like to make insulting comments about Native people to my face, as though it’s okay to be racist against some people, because I’m not part of that group. I can only make assumptions about what kinds of things they say about black people when I’m not in the room.

So we’ve got racism coast to coast, and a columnist who seems to think it’s just a handful of isolated incidents. Ms. Jacobs asks if Edmonton and Calgary are hotbeds of racism, pooh-poohing the idea. This means that she has spent zero time talking to any black or Native people who live in these cities. She’s never bothered to look across the prairies and see how South Asians and Natives are treated by the communities there. She’s never seen the race divide and ghettoization of immigrants in Southern Ontario. She’s clearly never been to Surrey, or any Native reserve where white Canadians are distrusted and hated. No, Mindelle Jacobs clearly doesn’t know anything about race in Canada, happy to stick with the lies instead of poking her head out and seeing anything that challenges her rose-tinted view that Canada is a happy, Christian place where “only” 1% of our crimes are based on hate. I’d much rather live in the real Canada, which has its flaws, but where real progress can be made.

Sometimes… some crimes… go slippin’ through the cracks

One of the frustrating things about doing this (blogging) is that there’s only 5 blogging days in the week (4 if you consider Movie Friday) and I don’t like inundating you with blog posts. Maybe once I am able to build a larger reader base I’ll be able to get away with it, but I think one post every day is probably enough. Because a lot of my content comes from articles in the news, there are a lot of stories that I’d like to write about but don’t make the cut for whatever miscellaneous reason. To illustrate what I’m talking about, here is the stuff that didn’t make it into its own post this week.

I’ve talked recently about the unbelievable stupidity of trying to pass religious-based “morality laws” that outlaw homosexuality. First of all it’s not even “immoral”, and second you can’t legislate the way people are born. Of course, nobody has told that to Zimbabwe, who is now arresting gay rights activists on drummed-up pornography charges and “insulting President Robert Mugabe”. Hey Mugabe – you’re a moronic pig-fucker who still breast feeds and wears Rainbow Brite pyjamas to bed. Maybe we should start an “Everybody insult Robert Mugabe” day. All this while the White House and the House of Representatives are trying to abolish “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. Ever get the feeling some places are moving in opposite directions? Well have no fear, because we’ve still got homophobic assholes here in Canada. Let’s all join hands!

I was joking when I said women shouldn’t vote. Apparently Rabbi Elyakim Levanon reads my blog and doesn’t have a sense of sarcasm. He’s told the female members of his community that voting is a man’s job. He wants to prevent a circumstance wherein women would have different votes from their husbands. Good thing there’s still someone out there promoting “traditional family values”. Sheesh.

Yeah, it still sucks to be a woman in a theocratic country. An imam in Mali suggested that maybe women shouldn’t be religiously and legally required to obey their husbands, and the cry went up. Mali, which is Muslim, ought not to be confused with Malawi, which is Christian. They’re both asshole countries ruled by religious stupidity, but it’s a different kind of religious stupidity so the differences abound. The joke of course being that it doesn’t matter what god you believe in, you’re going to keep doing the same bigoted and abusive things to your women.

Gotta admit, it’s a step in the right direction. Zimbabwe is relaxing the tight grip that the government holds on newspaper publication. This is a good thing, as I talked about earlier this week. If you allow free media, you allow a robust opposition, which in turn allows tyrannical leaders (like Mugabe) to be cast down. Let’s hope this gains some steam. Maybe they’ll start writing about how Robert Mugabe likes to sniff the underpants of old ladies and dresses up as a Japanese school girl on weekends.

Ban internet porn? Two words: Good luck.

This is what I like to see. A school is not living up to its educational standards? Shut it down. So what if it’s a religious school? They have standards to maintain, and are staunchly refusing to adhere to provincial requirements. You don’t want to play by the rules? Great. Shut your doors.

I’m sure you think you know where I’m going with this story, but actually I’m all for it. A lot of good things have come out of the Islamic world, and those things are part of our shared history as human people. We should be aware of both the good and the bad that comes out of religion. We can take the good stuff (art, music, culture, mathematics) and leave behind the stupid parts (YahwAlladdha). Put it all in museums, and let people see all sides of Islam.

So yeah, that was all stuff from this week alone (and by this week, I mean the last week of May, because I write these things way before they go live). There are a few other things (the mosque bombing in Lahore, the rise in internet banking in the developing world, rugby becoming an integrated sport in South Africa) that I am saving and hope to write about in context with some other things. The take-home message is that there’s a lot going on out there. Lots of it negative, some of it actually wonderfully positive. I don’t have the time to write about it all, and I suspect you don’t have the patience to read my take on everything even if I did.

P.S. Bonus points about for anyone who recognizes where the title of today’s post comes from.

P.P.S. Robert Mugabe lost an arm-wrestling contest to a 6 year-old, and has Hanson posters all over his bedroom. C’mon, pig fucker! Arrest me!

Update: Pakistan’s “Everybody be Stupid Day” Facebook/Youtube Ban

You might remember a couple of weeks ago when I mentioned that Pakistan, reacting to a Facebook campaign to showcase the stupidity of bans on drawings of Muhammad, decided to up the ante of stupid and ban Facebook, Youtube, Flickr… basically the whole internet. Of course, this move completely missed the point of the event, which was not about attacking Islam, but about protesting the fact that people’s individual religious beliefs are somehow sacrosanct, and that non-believers must make allowances for other people’s superstitions. Why not a governmental cull of black cats, or a ban on the number 13? Those are obviously stupid, but throw belief in a magical sky-genie into the mix and all of a sudden “there are some things you just don’t question.”

Well Pakistan is a theocracy, and like many Muslim countries is run essentially by religious leaders. So when they saw a criticism of their superstition, they reacted by throwing a tantrum, taking their ball and crying home to their mommy. But, because they’re politicians, they made sure to use the opportunity to seize more political power:

Many observers and internet users in Pakistan now feel the authorities have gone too far and used the Facebook row as an excuse to bar any content deemed too critical of the government.

Political power and opposition have a bizarre relationship, something like a rebellious teen and a parental figure. While those in power hate being opposed and will do just about anything to get out from under the opposition’s thumb, the only way to ensure long-term stability is to have an effective opposition. It forces those in power to make concessions to their policies, ensuring the maximum benefit to the greatest number. But of course, nobody who has power likes to be reminded of that. The first step in establishing an iron fist to rule over people is to silence your opposition. The trick to this, of course, is that if you’re caught doing it, then people begin to cry ‘foul’. However, if you can spin it such that you’re infringing on free speech ‘for the good of the people’, you get carte blanche to do whatever you want. This is exactly what Pakistan has done.

Even after the government started allowing content to go through again, they kept their thumb firmly planted down on Facebook. It’s funny, I was among the number of people who derided Facebook when it first came on the scene. “I’ll never get Facebook,” I said “I’m not a 12 year-old girl.” It has since completely replaced my use of MSN messenger, and largely eliminated most of my non-professional e-mail use. And I’m not the only one who’s seeing this:

The research by Spot On Public Relations, a Dubai-based agency, says there are more than 15 million subscribers (from Arabic countries) to (Facebook). The total number of newspaper copies in Arabic, English and French is just under 14 million.

I realize that Pakistan is not an Arab country, but since the Arab world is largely Muslim, and Pakistan is a Muslim country, I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to conclude that Facebook plays a major role in how many people in Pakistan communicate with each other and gather information. Shutting down Facebook is then basically the same as banning free press, a textbook tyrannical move. All done in the name of “religious protection”. YahwAlladdha forbid anyone see anything that is critical of religious superstition.

Political opposition and free press are the lifeblood of an egalitarian society. Erosion of the fundamental right to free expression is the first step in establishing a tyrant government. And if that offends you, you don’t have to read it.

Sodomy laws are sooooo gay!

You might remember last week when I talked about a Malaysian politician who has been charged with violating the country’s sodomy laws. For good measure, I mocked the ridiculous attitude of religious bigots in that week’s edition of Movie Friday. It seems that things aren’t getting any better for LGBT people around the world.

Oh Malawi, why do you insist on being such a stupid, backwards country? When you’re not busy protesting the striking down of polygamy laws, you’re prosecuting people for doing what comes naturally to them (under the excuse that it’s unnatural – there’s a head-spinner for you). What exactly constitutes an ‘unnatural’ act? Is driving a car ‘natural’? How about flossing? Am I at risk of being sentenced to 14 years in prison for eating processed cheese (because as you know, nothing could be less ‘natural’ than an individually packaged “cheese” slice that tastes like the wrapper it comes in)? No, it seems that the violation of ‘natural law’ is centred all on where you put your penis. Putting your penis in multiple women under the guise of “sheltering” them is completely natural, apparently, but as soon as it comes near another dude… WATCH OUT!

Of course this is being done for religious reasons, as the Bible likes to think it is very clear on what God thinks about gay people. Again, when religion is done in the privacy of one’s home, I suppose it can be tolerated. However, when people are being put in jail because of a religious prescript rather than because they’ve actually… oh I don’t know… harmed someone, you can’t pretend that religious belief is a good thing for society.

Of course… it could apparently be worse. I don’t know if you click on these links, but this one is a video link that talks about Uganda’s attitude towards homosexuals. It’s pretty frightening. My favourite part is when they talk to Pastor Martin Semper (sic). He gives us little gems of the love and tolerance of the teachings of Jesus like this one:

“Muslims are taking over your country! Your children stuff themselves! You laugh about it! I beg you, abandon sodomy!”

I love the reaction of the reporter, John Simpson who calls him out on it: “This is an act!” Apparently Pastor Marty weeps every time he talks about sodomy. Soooomebody’s been watching Glenn Beck.

Joking aside, Uganda is currently debating legislation that would make it a capital offense (that means state-sponsored execution) to be gay. It is, of course, religious – just like Malawi, Uganda is predominantly Christian. Wait a minute – isn’t Christianity supposed to be the tolerant religion? It’s almost as though any time you allow superstition and nonsense beliefs to dominate politics, you end up with brutal, evil totalitarian states! Weird how that happens…

Not wanting to be left out of the bigotry Olympics, Asia has thrown its hat into the ring. According to a UN report, 19 out of the 48 countries examined have laws against homosexuality ranging from imprisonment to corporal punishment (beatings, whippings) and death. Do you know what happens when you criminalize something? It still happens, just illicitly, and in a less safe manner. When you take away condoms and HIV education and counseling, you don’t stop HIV – you make it worse. How is it that we are unable to see that enforcing a narrow morality, often with its origin in a specific interpretation of religious text, only makes the problem worse? If we want to stop AIDS, making it illegal to be gay (because, as everyone knows, only gay guys get AIDS, and no “straight” men ever have sex with other men and then go home to their wives) is about the biggest backward step you can take.

Of course, we must protect the sanctity of marriage, like the Japanese have done. As everyone knows, marriage is a sacred contract between a man, a woman, and the Kokoro robotics corporation. I’m waiting for the Christians to start protesting this ‘unnatural’ abomination in the eyes of YahwAlladdha – but I’m not holding my breath. What’s hilarious, of course, is that while Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, he had quite a bit to say about hypocrisy. But it’s probably too much to ask religious people to actually read their own scripture… right?

Free Speech under attack… apparently EVERYWHERE

Every morning when I come in to work I scan the headlines in the CBC, local news and the BBC. The more interesting stories, or those that I think deserve my special attention, get thrown into a folder in my e-mail that I keep filed away for later. That’s why sometimes I’ll feature news stories that are separated by a few days or a few weeks. Oftentimes there’s nothing blog-worthy – stories about federal politics and African elections are interesting to me, but not really the purview of this forum.

Other days, the shit really hits the fan.

Seems like I’m always picking on China. There’s a reason for that – the Chinese government is a repeat offender when it comes to free speech. China is in its economic position because it has perfected economic and industrial techniques that were developed in the United States and Europe. Those techniques were only possible under a capitalist system that allowed free speech. It’s the height of hypocrisy to use those techniques to shut down the very principles that made the techniques possible – I am seeing flashes of Hugh Ross and other fundamentalists that rape the principles of science and logic to “prove” religion. China is using the internet, the biggest source of free speech in the history of the world, to shut down dissent. Part of me thinks that people who post comments online should be held accountable for the things they say, rather than being allowed to engage in the kind of hit-and-run tactics we see in forums all over the internet. However, that kind of accountability is not possible under an oppressive regime that makes it a criminal offense to criticize those in power.

Apparently there’s been a state of emergency in Egypt for the past 30 years, such that the emergency powers that allow the government to tap the phones of political opponents, crack down on free media and confiscate property have been on the books since then. Police are also allowed by law to beat protesters – good thing too, because as everyone knows, freedom rings with the sound of boots and truncheons on skulls. While the president has said he plans to remove the wire tapping, confiscation and media provisions, he still insists there’s a constant state of emergency, and that the laws are required “to battle terrorism”. Someone’s been paying attention to the United States – Patriot Act anyone?

How do you know when your government is corrupt? Surely one of the telltale signs must be when people are imprisoned for being critical of government policy and actions. Every night I pray that someone at Fox News spends an hour or two watching episodes of The Daily Show and realizes that it’s possible to keep your ludicrously-obvious bias while divesting yourself of obvious hypocrisy. Clearly, they never do, and feed the beast known as John Stewart’s sarcasm gland more and more each day. In a similar act of blind obliviousness, the Iranian government has sentenced a reporter to 13 years in prison and more than 70 lashes with a whip for reporting on the massive protests and accusations of fraud that surrounded the last federal election. They don’t even have to pretend to be a legitimate government at this point, it’s blatantly obvious that they’re corrupt.

Ever wonder how dictatorships get started? This is how – by giving an elected leader immunity from prosecution, abolishing term limits, and passing laws enshrining him as a figure above criticism. My prediction is that, like Egypt, a state of general emergency will be declared, the president will be granted “emergency powers” that place elections on hold indefinitely, and parliament will eventually be dissolved. It’s not rocket science… it’s barely political science. The paradox of power is that those who seek it the most vociferously are the ones you want to have it the least.

This all happened in one day.

I talk about free speech because it’s important for me. Democracy and enlightened government are built on free speech. The same rights that prevent a government from declaring it illegal for women to own property or for black people to vote have their foundations on principles of free speech and equality of personhood. When those rights are chipped away, we end up with situations like the ones I described above. It is of the utmost importance that we fight for the right to speak freely, to criticize those in power, and to have open, accountable government. I’m much happier living in a society where I can say what I want, even if it means living in a country where morons and racists are afforded the same privilege.

Sodomy – the ULTIMATE sin

For anyone who’s ever complained about the government needing to “get off our backs”, or complaints about legislation being “shoved down our throat”, you can stop whining. It could be way worse:

The trial of the Malaysian opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of sodomy, has resumed after a long delay.

Unsurprisingly, sodomy is a crime in Malaysia. I say unsurprisingly because Malaysia, like Lebanon, has articles in its constitution that make it a requirement for holders of certain levels of political office to be of a certain religion, and can declare portions of its population Muslim by legislative fiat. Any place where there is a constitutional requirement to profess religion to hold high office is likely a place where bizarre Biblical (or, as the case may be, Qu’ranic) statutes are enforced by the power of the state. As CLS has noted before: “The church is pretty much a toothless dog when it doesn’t have access to state power.”

Luckily for the church in Malaysia, it’s a crime to have sex with another man, and they can drag the leader of the opposition through the mud whenever they see fit. Interestingly, this isn’t the first time these charges have been laid against him (pun fully intended).

What strikes me about this story isn’t that Malaysia is backwards because it’s a crime to be gay. Don’t get me wrong – trying to legislate sexuality is about as productive as passing a law requiring you to be at least 6′ tall, and all countries with ridiculous and untenable “morality” laws should be ashamed of themselves. What’s fascinating about these charges is that the people of Malaysia and the government seem to have no problem with Ibrahim having been convicted on corruption charges; they’re just interested in where his penis has been.

It’s a tough world out there, ladies

I mentioned this last week – as much as I make jokes at the expense of women, I do consider myself a feminist (insofar as I think all people should receive equal rights and equal protections under the law). I also see a great deal of parallel between women’s struggle for civil rights and the black struggle for same. Both are historically-repressed groups that were denied fundamental rights and freedoms based on deep-seated prejudice; both groups had to fight legendary battles to achieve recognition as human beings; and both groups are facing a kind of “hidden” “polite” form of prejudice today. We look at our history and say “black people/women have achieved equality, so we can stop worrying about a solved problem.” While the major injustices have been overturned, it will take far longer than a few decades to truly level the playing field to a point where groups are actually “equal”.

And there’s still a lot of women, both in places close to home and far away, who still face major oppression and violence as they pursue their human rights.

Polygamy is one of those things; on paper it seems innocuous enough, but in practice it almost always means horrible repression and abuse of women by men. There are people who try to dress it up prettily, using diplomatic language to make it seem as though it’s not a practice that springs from a view that women are mindless cattle. Apparently, none of those people live in Malawi:

A spokesman for the Muslim Association of Malawi told the BBC… if polygamy were banned, many women would be left without a husband and become prostitutes.

I consider myself lucky to have many female friends. The majority of those friends are unmarried. I am reasonably sure, that none of those unmarried friends are prostitutes (I tried to ask, to get you more precise numbers, but only got slapped in the face for my efforts).

This part is my favourite:

“Every woman has the right to be under the shelter of a man.”

See? They’re crusading for women’s rights! Every woman has the right to have her life yoked to a man who can’t commit to her alone. Why would you try to deny them this fundamental freedom? Ladies of the internet, I hereby offer to “shelter” all of you. If you’re into it, I can try “sheltering” two of you at a time (perhaps while a third one watches)! I make this offer because I care about your rights. Now show me ‘dem boobies!

Ladies, are you no longer a virgin? Tired of being “honour-killed” by your father and brothers because you slept with someone and brought shame on your family? I know I am; who isn’t? Well now for the low, low price of $2700, you can have your hymen surgically restored! Fool your friends! Impress your family! Don’t get executed for asserting your basic human freedoms! Can’t afford the $2700? Is your new husband totally insensitive, near-sighted and clinically brain-dead? Try our new discount elastic pig-blood fake hymen! It’s made in China, so you know it’s safe!

The person quoted in the article says that this deplorable practice of requiring virginity (only in one partner, and surprise surprise it has to be the woman) isn’t religiously-based. This may in fact be true, since no one religion is unique in its sexual depravity, but I don’t buy it. This issue blurs the line between religion and culture. It’s a chicken and egg thing – does religion devalue women because the societies who birthed that religion are sexist, or does religion instill a fundamental hatred of women in society at large? Secular societies are the ones with the best human’s and women’s rights records. Is that an accident? Maybe neither explanation is right; maybe it’s both. Either way, it seems to suck to be a woman in the eyes of YahwAlladdha.

This is probably the most horrific thing I’ve heard in a while. I talked about the burqa yesterday, and a few weeks back, both as specific highlights of my ideas around religious vs. cultural tolerance, and I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing. What I can tell you is that you’ll never convince me that they aren’t a tool of religious and sexual repression. This story, one in apparently 150 similar attacks per year, puts that claim to the lie. Two sisters had motherfucking acid thrown into their faces for the arch-crime of not being covered from head to toe. I live in Vancouver. There are some sexy women here. Not all of them dress (at least to my eyes) modestly. Some go out of their way to be immodest in their dress. Amazingly enough, however, we don’t have a rash of rapes taking the city by storm. It’s almost as though men here see women as human beings, not objects to be used for our pleasure and permanently disfigured with motherfucking acid (are you serious?) when they displease us. But that’s crazy, right? Women are merely objects created for the comfort of men by the all-knowing YahwAlladdah.

These problems all seem to be happening in far-away backward-ass countries. We don’t have to worry about that shit happening here, right?

Hopefully by now you’ve learned that when I ask a rhetorical question like that, I always disagree with the answer. For those of you who don’t know, it is common cultural practice in parts of the world to surgically remove the clitoris of women at a young age. I use the word ‘surgically’ extremely loosely – no anaesthetic, no sterilization (not of the tools anyway, many women end up infertile or die as a result), and not performed by doctors.

I’d like to take a moment here to talk about the clitoris. The clitoris is probably the coolest thing on the human body. Unlike the penis, which has multiple roles (tonight, the role of Macbeth will be played by my schming-schmang), the clitoris has one function – to make sex awesome for women. That’s it. That’s all it does. It has no reproductive role, it doesn’t even act as a target for infection like the appendix or tonsils. It’s there just to please you. If some company developed a product that made sex that much more fun for women, you’d better believe that every woman (and twice as many men) would go broke buying it.

But what do religious groups want to do? Of course, they want to cut it off! Why should women enjoy sex? They’re just there to make sandwiches (in between making babies). And the AAP wants to help them accomplish this. There is no medical advantage to FGM. There is no reason on Earth to surgically alter the genitalia of baby girls (or baby boys, for that matter). The only reason to do it is religious stupidity, and the AAP has decided to bend over backwards to allow this practice to gain a foothold here in North America. Way to go, AAP. That’ll show those uppity women who want to go through life without discomfort and trauma every time they want to have some sex.

But that’s America. We don’t do that here. Well, not unless you’re a Conservative senator. Then you tell women who want to assert their rights that they should “shut up” on issues that are important to them. After all, why should women’s rights be an election issue? Women aren’t even allowed to vote! Wow, is it 1919 already? How the time flies!

My point in all of this is that, for whatever reason, there remains a fundamental prejudice against women. I’m not going to turn this into a blog about feminism, but in all of the above stories, religion plays a huge role in keeping women oppressed. Nobody can take an honest look at the state of affairs today and claim that religion doesn’t lead to fundamentally sexist practices. The only way to ensure that women achieve equality under the law is to remove all religion from both the laws and public life. Religion should be like auto-erotic asphyxiating masturbation – only behind closed doors, as long as nobody gets hurt.

P.S. MOTHERFUCKING ACID! How do you get your hands on ACID? I’m willing to bet money that most of these assholes haven’t even taken a chemistry class! Who’s giving them motherfucking ACID?