I’m an Accomplice, and You Might Be Too

This will be one of millions of blog posts, opinion pieces, vlogs, and commentaries on the shooting this weekend in Orlando, but it’s probably going to be one of the few confessions. I’m an accomplice; I supported the worldview that underpinned this and thousands if not millions of similar attacks. I’m ashamed to say that there was a time in my life when I was part of the problem we saw play out yet again in the largest mass shooting in U.S. history.

Back in the 90’s I attended a moderately conservative Pentecostal Bible college, and during that time I became aware of Evangelical Christian views on gay rights and homosexuality in general. Transgender and other identities weren’t even on the horizon at that point, but I’m sure the general position would have held just as strong there too. It’s deeply embarrassing to think back on times I’d spend in discussions telling people just how wrong and sinful it was to be gay, throwing out chapter and verse, but understanding little and expressing a loving attitude even less. It was an argument that appealed to my gut feelings, that it was wrong, dirty, gross, and unnatural, so of course I went along with it and parroted it whenever the opportunity arose.

God said it was a sin, said it was even an abomination unto Him, so what else was there to say on the matter, right? If it’s written down in the rule book, that’s the end of the appeal process, it’s got to be wrong, and anyone who says otherwise can just take it up with Jesus. I won’t put this on any of my professors, because I honestly can’t think of any of them who would have taught such a blind, graceless, simple-minded view of the issue, but I certainly talked with some pastors, church members, and fellow students who were all too eager to drive home this idea as the only true reading of the matter, and I bought it.

What I didn’t realize when I bought in though was that I was becoming part of a much bigger problem, a tradition of bigotry, and that what I was saying was having an impact, if only in normalizing the prejudice of others who would commit violent acts out of the hate I was implicitly endorsing. Sure, I never actually beat anyone up, never killed anyone, but the beliefs I was spreading around gave the ones who did the violence their justification. I didn’t commit it, but I helped them excuse it; I was their academic getaway driver.

All of the talking heads going on at length about how we should be afraid of transgender women  in bathrooms, how hurricanes display God’s wrath against gay communities, and all the other insane nonsense they spew, it’s the soil these seeds grow in, it’s the bullshit that fertilizes them. If you tell the world over and over again that a group of people are an abomination, that they’re sinners, that they don’t deserve to share the rights everyone else in society takes for granted, you’re loading the bullets in the shooter’s gun, plain and simple. You can’t whip up fear of hypothetical perverts dressing in drag to get into women’s bathrooms and expect those words will never have any unintended consequences (being really charitable on the “unintended”) that will bring harm to others.

I was part of this, I was one of the people going on in public about how wrong “those people” are, and how sinful their “lifestyle choices” were. (I had to close my eyes as I typed that last one, it’s such an embarrassingly trite and idiotic thing to remember yourself saying.) Back then, it wasn’t a matter of arguing the issue of gay couples getting married or adopting children, it was the even more fundamental matter of whether it was ok to recognize them as full citizens deserving protection under the law against discrimination, and I was fighting on the wrong side. I had no idea what I was actually arguing for, but I was really speaking out in favour of protecting the oppressors rather than the people being discriminated against. I was in favour of keeping people down for no other reason than I found them vaguely icky, and the book I was trying to cram into my head said they were bad.

Now, that’s not to say that in the intervening years since Bible college I’ve had some sort of epiphany and now I’m 100% super ok with everything;  that “yuck” thing in my head is still there being just as shitty and repressed as ever and it’s something I have to consciously reject whenever it comes up. When I took my son to the petting zoo yesterday, there were a couple of guys holding hands in the parking lot, and that ugly garbage part of my soul reacted immediately, so I had to force my attention somewhere else to avoid being that disapproving asshole who judges people for being different from myself.

The Orlando shooter’s dad claimed his son murdered 50 or more people because he saw two men holding hands, and I have to confess that I share in a piece of that ugly, fearful, shameful instinct; that whether it’s something innate to me or something that got drilled into me over years of Bible college discussions, it’s something I have to fight against whenever it spits its bile into my mind. I’m ashamed to say I understand it at least to some small degree, it’s a part of who I am too, and I’m willing to bet I’m not alone in this to a terrifying extent. The shooter in Orlando clearly decided to fight on the side of those base instincts, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking there was a difference in anything but degree when we’re carrying the same kind of darkness within us. His rationalizations and actions might have been different, but that core instinct at the heart of it is something I know way too many people would recognize in their mirror.

The thing is, it’s not the instinct that defines you or determines that you’re going to be a moral monster kicking down at people who want nothing more than to live in peace with the same rights and freedoms the rest of us have. What matters is whether you make up arguments and build an entire theology around it or if you fight against the hateful instinct and choose to reject the rationalizations and moralizations people have fortified over the years. It’s not about becoming an enlightened saint who loves everybody unconditionally by nature; it’s about getting down into the trenches of your own soul and consciously choosing to fight your own worst instincts every day so that you don’t let yourself get used by them to hurt others.

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Why Are There Any Other Issues?

With the resumption of the Mike Duffy trial this week, Canadians are being deluged with behind the scenes information from the Prime Minister’s Office as they tried to manage the growing Senate scandal through various means. From the evidence presented, it looks like several senior staff members in the PMO had a hand in trying to keep things under wraps, whitewashing a Senate report on the matter, and even meeting with auditors from Deloitte in order to influence the findings of their investigation of Duffy’s expense reports and Nigel Wright’s infamous $90,000 cheque, or bribe, depending on how charitable you happen to feel. Since Mr. Duffy is currently being tried for Bribery among the many other charges against him, it seems like “bribe” would be the correct term to use as far as the Crown and RCMP are concerned, though it does seem odd that only the person on the receiving end of the alleged bribe is facing criminal charges.

The official story we’re being given is that Mr. Harper had no idea any of this was going on, and that several members of his senior staff, including his then chief of staff Mr. Wright, were only keeping him informed of the situation in the “broad strokes”, with no details whatsoever about the payoff or subsequent cover-up and attempts to keep the matter from being referred to the RCMP. If we take this version of events at face value and accept the notion that Mr. Harper honestly had no knowledge of the payoff or subsequent cover-up, does that actually make things better or worse?

Have Canadians really got such short memories that we’ve all forgotten the Liberals’ Sponsorship Scandal from 10 years ago that more or less brought down Paul Martin’s government and cast Jean Chretien as a crook? (I mean, there were plenty of things going into that image, but this was a big one.) Back then, the Gormery Commission came to the conclusion that while Chretien initiated the sponsorship program, and his PMO was heavily involved in the mishandling of funds in that affair, he was not personally guilty of any wrong-doing. As well, while Mr. Martin was Finance Minister and senior member from Quebec under Mr. Chretien, and was responsible for creating the framework under which Chretien’s PMO inappropriately dispersed funds, again the Gormery Commission found no evidence Mr. Martin had a direct hand in any wrong-doing. Thing is, when all of this was coming out, I don’t remember a whole lot of Canadians accepting the idea that Chretien and Martin were the innocent angels they presented themselves as, and the whole affair played a large part in Mr. Martin’s defeat at the polls in 2006. The choice I remember being presented with as I went to the polls was that either Mr. Martin was complicit or incompetent, neither one a ringing endorsement of his job as PM.

Now it seems like history is repeating itself with another PMO deeply involved in scandalous and even illegal activity, another Prime Minister making claims to “plausible deniability”, and another chance for Canadians to give some serious thought to the ever-expanding powers of the PMO. Going back to the question of whether the idea of Mr. Harper not knowing about a fairly involved criminal conspiracy to bribe a sitting Senator and to cover up said bribe makes things better or worse, what does the party line on this matter really say if we take a good hard look at it?

Sticking with the charitable side of things, we can take Mr. Harper’s word at face value and accept the idea that he really had no idea his Chief of Staff and a number of other senior members of the PMO and Conservative Party of Canada were working out a scheme to bribe a Senator, cover it up, attempt to pressure Senate officials into keeping a lid on it, and meeting for weeks with auditors from Deloitte with a view to influencing the results of their investigation of the Duffy matter. What does it say about Mr. Harper if we accept this claim that he was completely in the dark about several senior members of his staff and the CPC taking part in a conspiracy and trying to keep it away from RCMP investigation? If he can’t even manage his own office or party, what does that say about his ability to oversee the federal government? How many other shady deals could be going on right under his nose without him ever sniffing them out? How much corruption could potentially be working its way through the Conservative Party entirely out of Mr. Harper’s control if he can’t even spot some pretty serious wrong-doing going on in his own office? Is he fit to lead anything if he’s that oblivious to people blatantly abusing the considerable powers of his office for that long? Even when things started coming to light, the only person to leave the PMO was Mr. Wright (won’t even try to speculate on whether he quit or was asked to resign), while other key members of the behind-the-scenes dealings were promoted, including the PMO’s current chief of staff, Ray Novak.

The picture coming out of the email exchanges between Wright, Novak, and others is not a flattering one for the PMO at all. Bribing a senator is just the tip of the iceberg, it seems that officials from the PMO were wielding enormous power, even over the Senate, and completely unchecked by the Prime Minister if we’re to believe his official version of events. Senior officials in the CPC knew in advance about Duffy’s inappropriate expense claims, and were initially prepared to put up $30,000 to cover them until they found out the full amount and refused to pay it. Again, we’re being asked to accept that all of this happened without the leader of the party knowing anything whatsoever about it, aside from what we’re told are “broad terms” about Duffy paying back inappropriately claimed expenses. If the CPC and PMO really were keeping the PM in the dark to this extent, and for this long, doesn’t that say something really unflattering about how out of the loop Mr. Harper was with regard to his own party and office?

It seems that Canadian voters have to make a decision on this matter about what they believe, either that Mr. Harper was completely out of the loop in what appears to be an extensive conspiracy within the PMO and among senior leadership in the CPC. or he’s just lying to Canadians about his knowledge and involvement in the matter in order to hold on to power, and has talked people into committing perjury in order to cover for him.

Is either option really a strong recommendation for someone to continue to hold the highest office in the country? Maybe he’s not Machiavelli, but is Mr. Magoo really a better choice for Prime Minister?

Why are Conservatives so Bad at the One Thing They Say They’re the Best At?

Over the last four decades, there’s been a growing trend among conservative parties in Western democracies toward ever increasing radicalization and a drive toward an almost fanatical ideological purity. We’re seeing this play out almost farcically in the current Republican primary process, and up here in Canada, we’ve seen it on a smaller scale in the way the “red tories” have become all but extinct in the Conservative Party. This drive to ideological purity is strange on its own, but what I’d like to talk about is the way one particular article of faith among conservatives in general has been working out in the world’s economies.

The article of faith is that the best people to run a country’s economy are the people who are the best at running companies; basically, that being personally wealthy means you will be the best person for the job of managing and growing a healthy economy. On the surface, this seems like a reasonable assumption to make; being successful at making money seems like a pretty good bona fide for the position of finance minister, at least on paper. However, following this particular article of faith and taking the advice of the wealthiest people in our society when they tell us the best thing for everybody is to slash top tax rates, deregulate markets and financial institutions, and constantly push the idea of global free trade, has not led to the results we’ve been promised. Not only has this country been hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs constantly since our biggest companies shipped production overseas to countries with much lower wages and little or no protections for workers, but the jobs we’ve been getting back in return haven’t been the high-paying, high-skill jobs we were promised would flow out of the free trade agreements we were locked into, rather they have been mostly in retail and service industries.

While on paper the unemployment numbers don’t look like a total catastrophe, when you dig past the question of simply how many people are working and ask what jobs they’re working at compared to the job market of 20-30 years ago, the conservative plan doesn’t seem to be working out all that well for anyone earning a wage in this part of the world. While the stock market has been hitting all kinds of record highs and big corporations have been taking in record profits, not a lot of people on the ground are seeing record-setting pay raises, or any at all for that matter, while household debt is the only record high most middle class families are setting these days.

So why is this happening? What’s the fatal flaw with the idea that rich people know best how to manage a country’s finances? To put it in philosophical terms, the problem is that conservatives are making what is known as a category error; they believe that companies’ accounts and countries’ economies run on roughly the same principles, when the reality is that they are two very different things indeed. While the purpose of a company is to make money through increasing efficiencies where it can, cutting costs wherever possible, and taking a pretty hard-nosed approach to the world in general, the purpose of an economy has a completely separate focus. Where a company is focused on maximizing profits for stockholders, a country’s economy has to be concerned with maximizing the returns for all stakeholders, not just the managers and owners, and not just in terms that can be written down on a balance sheet.

A company’s executives are responsible to its board and shareholders, it is concerned with its own supply chain, its own productivity, its own profitability, and anything not on a balance sheet is considered an externality. In the context of running a business, this is a perfectly sound way to run things, it’s how businesses succeed in their world. The problem is, the kind of person who excels in the world of business is uniquely unsuited for the world of macroeconomics on the scale of a national economy precisely because of the kind of mindset it takes to do really well in the world of microeconomics. Yes, Donald Trump can make a hell of a property deal, but would you really want him being the guy . . . god, doing anything, ever?

The people in charge of a national economy have to be concerned with not just maximizing profits, but with seeing to it that society as a whole is served in a way that meets the needs of people living in it. Efficiency does matter, but is not of primary concern if a particular inefficiency means a net gain is made overall in the well-being of the general population. The job of government is not to see to it that widgets are made in the most cost-effective manner possible, it is to facilitate the overall flourishing of society in the nation they serve. That means being a patron of the arts, providing funding for massive infrastructure projects that do not turn a direct profit, but enable people to do more as a society. Governments are not supposed to turn a profit, they’re supposed to help people build happier, more secure lives. When people are staring down the barrel of crippling debts and stagnating wages, what kind of happiness and security is our government building for us?

Taking a totally optimistic view of the type of person advocating this conservative article of faith, they may sincerely believe that in just the way they would pay their employees more and hire more people if their profits were to go up, so would everyone who benefitted from a huge cut in their taxes, kicking off a virtuous circle of profit and wealth sharing, but the problem is that this just doesn’t track in the broader scope. It very well might be the case that if we gave Joe Factory Owner a break on his taxes, he’d be able to afford more staff at higher wages, but it could just as easily be the case that he happily pockets all of those tax savings and either tucks them away in his mattress or spends it on an extra week’s vacation, benefiting nobody but his investment broker and some bartenders in Cancun. Or it could even be the case that the increased profits to his company just can’t translate to any extra jobs because his factory is already making all the widgets the market needs right now, so extra workers would lead to wasted overproduction. He might want to hire more people, but the fact is it would be an act of charity on his part, not sound business management.

The virtuous circle fails to come together because reality and ideology don’t match up, and we’ve seen the results of this disconnect in this country in the way Conservative governments have consistently racked up our largest public debts and strung together records of deficit spending, even turning private business losses into public liability in the form of corporate bail-outs in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown.

What’s going on is analogous to someone who is an excellent driver with a spotless record believing that’s all the credentials he needs to become a successful city planner. You might be the best driver in the world, but that doesn’t mean you know anything whatsoever about how best to lay out an infrastructure system that best facilitates people getting from one place to another. For that matter, the best city planner in the world might not even have a driver’s license at all, because physically getting in a car and driving around town has that little to do with the job of city planning. Thinking someone can manage an economy because they can manage a company is the same kind of category error as thinking the best driver is going to know the best way to lay out a new subdivision, and the traffic jam our economy has become is the result.

Night Terrors

I’ve been watching my way back through Doctor Who and I’ve just gotten to Series 6, Episode 9, Night Terrors, about a little boy (well, not exactly a little boy, but you know, Doctor Who, timey wimey and all that, right?) who puts his fears in a cupboard in his room, only to have all the monsters he’s been afraid of turn out to be real (again, not “real”, but timey wimey, yadda yadda…), and everyone’s in danger. A lot of episodes, I’ve watched through with my nearly-4-year-old Jake in the room with me, and he’s come to understand an awful lot about the Doctor and how he operates, but I was a little worried about watching this episode with him, because it’s particularly scary, especially for a nearly-4-year-old with a big closet in his room. I do stand by that, because I don’t think he’s quite old enough to understand, but I think some time in the not too distant future, I’m going to want to sit down and watch this episode in with him, because I think it contains a very important message that I want my son to take to heart and carry with him through life. That message, simply put, is that the monsters in your cupboard (or closet) are real. There are real things out in the real world that you absolutely ought to be afraid of; monsters are real. Trying to shield him from this reality is a very parental instinct, I think we’re all conditioned to think that we ought to create a bubble around our children that will keep them protected from any bad thing even entering their consciousness, let alone hurting them in any way. However, I’ve come to think of my job as a dad as more of an introducer of scary things in constructive ways. It’s important to me that I raise my son to know that there are scary, horrible things out there in the world that can really hurt him, and in a way I’m not really teaching him this fact at all, because he already knows it.

G. K. Chesterton said, “Fairytales don’t tell children that dragons exist; children already know that dragons exist. Fairytales tell children that dragons can be killed,” and I think there is an essential truth for dads to grab onto in this. Yes, the monsters in your cupboard are real, but so is the Doctor. There are absolutely things to be afraid of in this world, only an irresponsible dad would ever raise his son to think the world is a fuzzy warm place where everyone loves you and every dream you ever dream will come true with minimal effort or pain. The trick is to teach him that while the monsters are real, so are the things that will carry him through and kill those monsters when they need killing. I don’t need to tell Jake that the world is a scary place, I need to tell him how the scary things can be beaten, and how they can be sent back into the cupboard, even when you’re scared, because the Doctor is real. When he hits something in his life that scares him, that frustrates his plans for his life, I want him to know that if he’s clever, if he’s taken the time to build relationships with people who will have his back when he needs them, he’ll be able to come up with some way to beat back the monsters and come out of the encounter stronger, smarter, and more secure in the fact that there are people who love him unconditionally. I want to raise a son who knows that the monsters of this world can be beaten, that if he doesn’t panic or give up, he can beat them, he can take his fears and turn them into strengths. He might even come to realize that some of his monsters are in turn afraid of some bigger monster he can’t even see, and he’ll have a wealth of spirit that will enable him to love those monsters in a way that turns them into something else. I want to raise a son who doesn’t just kill dragons, I want a son who befriends those dragons and leans on their strength to lift him even higher.

I think the whole message Doctor Who has for dads can be put into the words of Rudyard Kipling’s “If”:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

If I can teach this to my boy, and see him grow and prosper, I’ll have done a proper father’s job.

Because the monsters in the cupboard are real.

But so is the Doctor.

On to Closing Time, ultimate whovian dad episode, must go now, good night.

Post Script

Recently, Canada Post announced that they will be ending all remaining home mail delivery in urban centers, phasing out over the next few years, though no firm timeline appears forthcoming. What will replace this service will be community boxes, though again with few details as to what this will look like, or what accommodations will be made for the elderly and disabled, so Canadians are left to trust that something of some kind will replace their current service, eventually. Yesterday, Canada Post’s CEO made a statement that included the claim that “seniors have told the corporation they want more exercise and fresh air in answer to an MP’s question about how the elderly will be especially hard hit by the cancellation of home mail delivery,” and used this as part of his argument supporting the move to make Canada the only developed nation in the world with no home mail delivery.

At the heart of the matter, in my view, is the nature of Crown Corporations in Canada, and their role in providing services to our citizens. While many Crowns do make money, this is not their sole purpose, and for some it is not the purpose for their mandate at all. Never mind the slap in the face of doubling the price of a stamp while cutting services many Canadians rely on, the question Canadians need to be asking is whether our postal service is something we view as a public service, or just another money-making venture that happens to be owned and operated by the Crown. One of the problems that comes as a result of looking at government and evaluating it on business terms, as if we were all shareholders or employees of Canada, Inc., rather than Canadian citizens with more than a purely financial stake in the running of our nation. Our postal service is a public good, and one that we will not receive at the hands of the private sector, or they would be providing it right now. Aside from being a public service, it is our corporation, and Canadians ought to have a say in how we want our Crowns to provide their services to us. The complete lack of public consultation (or even a hearing in Parliament until the Opposition MPs demanded it when the announcement was made after Parliament went on winter recess) on this matter is hugely disrespectful to Canadians, and people ought to be concerned that our public sector is being run on private sector principles.

For the moment, set aside the matter of whether urban seniors and people with disabilities will be well served by this move (they won’t, and aren’t in smaller centers where they need to make special arrangements to get their mail already), this large a shift in policy for a Crown without proper warning or consultation is something Canadians should be concerned about. Rule by fiat is not something Canada was built on, and it is not in keeping with this country’s character. The lack of leadership on the part of Canada Post’s executive has resulted in 8,000 well-paying, union jobs being put on the chopping block, and what’s more, the union members weren’t even given the courtesy of getting notice before the story was on the national news. While other countries’ postal services branched out into postal banking and other services, Canada Post has rested on its e-commerce cash flow and apparently ruled out following the examples of other successes; for people giving the public arguments about decreased profitability, the CEO and his management team doesn’t seem too motivated to do much besides cut jobs and increase fees. Of course, Mr. Chopra was still able to see his way clear to accepting a 33% bonus in his compensation package for captaining a sinking ship, but that’s the cost of getting top-tier people in your executive positions who can provide superior results, right? Of course, Canada Post has only lost money one year in the last century, but the problem doesn’t appear to be that they’re losing money, but that they’re not making enough money based on no discernable reasoning. For 2012, CPC posted a net profit of $98 million, hardly what I would call chump change, but for some reason this is not enough, we need to cut jobs and services for some reason. CUPW also ran the numbers, and the support Canada Post is claiming for this move just isn’t there.

Now as to the matter of seniors and people with disabilities, the line quoted above about exercise and fresh air ought to be contemptible to anyone with a grandmother, who knows someone without full mobility, or other limitation that would require that they make special arrangements in order to get their mail. Claiming that the rise of email means that people who still rely on letter mail had better catch up and give up a service they depend on daily is not part of who we are as Canadians, we care for each other and recognize that we don’t all have identical needs in our pursuit of a fulfilling life. We are the people who brought Medicare to our people before the rest of the West, because we cared about our neighbours and recognized the value in working to maximise everyone’s quality of life rather than trusting that making a few people extremely rich will somehow benefit others, if they are lucky enough to have something the rich want. Part of this national character is tied up in Canada Post’s role in society, connecting Canadians across a vast distance in ways that e-communication doesn’t match for many of us. This time of year, this should be obvious to anyone who’s received a Christmas card in their mailbox; it’s not the same as an e-card, and doubling the cost of that experience while cutting back the service delivering it seems to tie into my last blog post more than an argument about Santa’s ethnic background. The fact that many Canadians already don’t have this experience anymore isn’t an argument in favour of eliminating it for the rest of us, it’s a continuation of the ongoing race to the bottom in terms of what we expect out of our government.

That argument, that rural Canadians and those living in newer developments already don’t get home delivery is not something we should see as supporting this move, but as evidence against it. This creeping claw-back of services Canadian citizens get from our government and our Crowns is not something we should want to spread to the whole country, it is a bad thing, something we should be pointing to as a reason why this is a wrong decision. Telling people, “Hey, lots of Canadians already get worse service as a result of cutbacks years ago,” is not an argument that should recommend this decision to us, if anything, it should get people in unserved areas fighting to get their services and their jobs back.

This is my own point of contention with the overall governing philosophy of the Harper Tories in particular and neo-conservatives in general: running everything on a basis of dollars and cents rather than more intangible matters of much greater value, is short-sighted and all too often brutal in human terms. Cutting services in every way possible is not good government, it is government by corporate raider philosophy. Canada Post is not just a business, it is not merely concerned with its bottom line, it is part of the public trust, the national character, and gutting it down to the lowest price point possible is frankly un-Canadian. In this country, we’re proud that we have concern for people with needs we don’t share in every particular, and part of that pride is expressed through our extensive public service sector. This monomania for maximizing profit and cutting employees as if they’re nothing but a liability is not who we are as a country, and the fact our publicly owned Crowns are being run like private corporations is a problem all on its own. The fact that 8,000 people stand to lose their jobs is bad enough, but this shift in government philosophy has meant that they aren’t the first casualties, and they won’t be the last by a long shot between now and 2015. Continuing this policy of cutting well-paying positions with decent job security and replacing them with McJobs is a huge disservice to Canadians, and one of the leading causes of the erosion of our middle class.

Canada’s government and Crowns do not exist purely for the sake of maximizing profits in this country, they are there to see to it that Canadians get services we can’t get through other means. Private industry has shown little to no interest in picking up the business of letter mail, and this is something that millions of Canadians still depend on, so cutting it back to the bare bones is not in keeping with the purpose of government or Crown Corporations. We don’t expect lighthouses and bridges to operate at a profit, because they are part of our national infrastructure, and so is Canada Post. The Tories were right when they called mail delivery an essential service and legislated striking postal employees back to work in 2011, and have taken a totally hypocritical position now that it’s a matter of cutting thousands of union jobs. Well, I say hypocritical, but it is in keeping with the Harper Tories’ governing philosophy of striking out at unions at every opportunity, and that is what looks to be behind this move. It was bad leadership when home delivery was discontinued to rural areas, it is bad leadership now, and it is what comes from putting profits ahead of people, from treating citizens like customers.

Fighting the War on Christmas

To hear certain people in the news tell it, there’s a concerted effort on the part of atheists, socialists, and whatever other group you’d care to name to tear down any reference to Christmas in the public square, and Christians are under attack from Black Friday till Boxing Week. Secular humanists are suing schools to keep kids from getting presents, atheists are banding together to force people to say “Happy Holidays” instead of a Christmas greeting, cheeky Seinfeld fans are erecting Festivus poles beside nativity scenes, and it’s all a part of the ongoing culture war being fought in classrooms, courtrooms, and most of all in living rooms on the 24 hour TV news. It’s gotten to the point where Christians are feeling attacked at every turn, like they need to run everything they say or do past political correctness censors to avoid blowback over every little crèche and marble monument to the Ten Commandments on public property. And it’s not enough just to gag them, even Satanists have gotten into the act, petitioning to add a monument to the Oklahoma state legislature, and a Hindu group is proposing the same for their monkey god, Hanuman. As if that wasn’t enough, people are even talking about giving Santa Claus a serious makeover!

Or, could it be a group that has enjoyed a cultural hegemony for centuries is facing a changing demographic landscape in a world they used to unconsciously dominate, and the adjustment just isn’t going very smoothly for various reasons?

I remember back in junior high, as we were moving up to the big school on the hill, legends of Freshie Week and the hazing that would go on for small, vulnerable 7th graders at the hands of the almost-men in grade 12 was a source of profound terror. Stories of paddling, of humiliating ceremonies designed to strip you of not just your clothing but your basic human dignity, of . . . rose bowls, were whispered among us as we counted down the last days of that summer of 1986. But all that fear turned out to be over nothing (nearly) because as we entered the big school, word came down that there were some new policies banning all the tortures we’d been spending the summer in fear of, we were to be put through nothing but some mildly messy games in the gym, and that’s it. No paddles, no cracker walks, and unbelievably, no rose bowls, just some tricycle races, a slip and slide, and egg balancing, that’s it! However, while we were elated not to have to go through the gauntlet, there were some who were more than a little upset at the move, particularly the students who had recently gone through it and were looking forward to inflicting everything they’d gone through on a new batch of freshmen. They claimed it wasn’t fair that they had to go through it and now weren’t allowed to enjoy being on the giving end of things, and that the school was destroying a tradition that had stood for as long as any 17-year-old could remember. This is not to say that hazing had been completely eliminated, it’s still the reason I never went out for football, despite being one of the bigger guys in my class, out of fear of what I’d heard the gym teachers were turning a blind eye to. As much as I did want to play (big kid in Saskatchewan in 1989? How could you not have Grey Cup dreams?), the fear I had of walking into that locker room, of entering that culture and all that entailed, it was more than enough to balance off my desire to score a touchdown or make a sack, so I never played until college rec league.

That dominant culture, the one that had hazing, humiliation and all the cool kids, it was a big factor in making me feel like an outsider even though nobody could have spotted a visible difference. The fact that this culture was “under attack”, that their traditions were being overwritten against their will by the “politically correct” people of the day, meant that they responded by pushing back and taking out their frustrations on guys like me. I was one of the lucky ones, I was big enough to protect myself and had a few friends, and after a few fights I was pretty much left alone by the bullies, but others weren’t so lucky and paid the price for progress. Looking back, I can see things with an adult’s eyes and know that the bullies were acting on motivations not so different from what’s motivating the “War on Christmas” uproar. Their status quo was changing, and they didn’t like it so they acted in order to maintain it; what was hazing then is not so different from the way Christian culture has been imposed in the past, and it’s easy to forget that at times when you’re celebrating the nice bits of the tradition. Is it really so hard to understand how those on the outside might feel about having reminders of their “other-ness” plastered all over every public space, especially in a country where everyone’s faith is supposed to be seen as equal?

Something tragically missing from the talk about the “War on Christmas” is any sort of recognition for what it’s like for people who aren’t part of the dominant religion/culture in society, except to dismiss them with pejorative terms like “Scrooge”, “Grinch” or “Politically Correct”, often with some reference to the Nazis or Gestapo, as if objecting to having public funds spent promoting one religion’s traditions over all others was something Hitler was a big supporter of. Anyone expressing discomfort at being pressured into participating with traditions that aren’t her own is just being oversensitive, or morally defective in some sinister way that means we should look down on her, because good, moral, upright citizens say “Merry Christmas”, not “Happy Holidays”. Telling people that they need to take part in celebrating the birth of a saviour they don’t believe in or face social repercussions and ostracism is hardly what I’d call in keeping with the Christmas spirit of love and sharing. When people stand up for themselves and assert their rights not to participate, have their children participate, or have their tax dollars pay for the traditions of a faith they don’t share, it’s not political correctness, it’s not being a Grinch, it’s standing on one of the rights our society claims it was built on, the right to freely follow your own conscience in religious matters, and to not be co-opted into the festivals of others as if it was the default for all.

Speaking of being co-opted, Christians, and particularly white Christians, have had their way in the public forum for a really long time, traditions are entrenched, and for some most importantly, an awful lot of money is made on this stuff. Christmas advertising starts at 11:59 Thanksgiving night in the States, and the shopping frenzy kicked off by Black Friday is something retailers and advertising executives have come to bank on every year. More than a threat to tradition, muddying the Christmas brand poses the greatest threat of all, which is why news outlets are paid by those advertisers to devote so much time and effort into shoring up the bulwarks of the shopping season against anyone who would dare to take Santa away from Coca-Cola’s marketing department or encourage consumers not to go out and buy the latest piece of shiny disposable plastic and glass being sold this year because the same thing in a different box didn’t make them happy last year. To my view, this is the real underpinning of the whole “war”, the desire to protect profits related to a brand, not anything to do with the birth of God’s son. If it really was about deep-rooted Christmas tradition, North American Christians would be encouraged to observe Advent, a solemn time of reflection and self-denial in preparation of the coming Christ, not an orgy of consumer feeding frenzies and company Christmas party excesses. The real threat posed by people standing up for themselves in the face of this merry monolith isn’t to a baby in a manger, it’s to the bottom line of the market, and that is why so much time and hand-wringing is devoted to this farce. By playing on the fears of a vocal minority of Christians and hammering further on the anxieties that come with social change, marketing has replaced theology, and the whole thing becomes just one more way we’re being played against each other for the profit of the people writing copy for news channels, politicians and ad companies.

The person wishing you a Happy Holiday isn’t spitting in your face, he’s meeting you half-way and greeting you as a person; any offense at such a greeting is a kind of stealing, taking something that wasn’t being offered to you. The person standing up for her right not to pay for your religious observance isn’t attacking you, she’s asking you to extend the same respect to her as you’d like given to you in such matters. It’s funny to watch the reactions of Oklahoma legislators after the consequences of their Ten Commandments monument came back to them in the form of Satanists and Hindus asking for equal representation in the public space. Well, I say funny, but in the sense that seeing hypocrisy come into full bloom is kind of amusing to watch as the mental gymnastics involved twist the speaker’s logic in elegant loops of special pleading and self-reference. Nothing any of the atheists, Satanists, or Hindus have done to take back their public spaces is an attack on any Christian’s right to celebrate their holiday; by all means, go to church, put up decorations, sing songs and be merry, just don’t do it in a way that hooks in people who don’t want to be included. Nobody is saying they want to ban Christmas or anything remotely of the kind, they just want to keep the public forum open to all, and unless you’re willing to pop up a Festivus pole and a Hanuman statue next to your Nativity down at city hall, maybe just enjoy it in your own churches and homes, the way you insist other faiths do with their holy days and traditions.

And maybe don’t buy quite so much plastic and glass crap you don’t actually need this year.

Selective Remembering

As Remembrance Day is upon us here in Canada, I just wanted to take some time and think a little bit about the day itself and why we observe it. We all know the reason for the day, to remember the sacrifices made for us by the millions who went to war on our nation’s behalf, and those who are serving in our armed forces today. It is important to keep the memory of what was done for us living on, the lives given on our behalf so that we can enjoy the rights and freedoms we have in our country; it is important to remember the scope of what was given for what we gained by it. I think too often we do the observance without making it connect to anything else; Remembrance Day just kind of sits there on the calendar and the rest of our days sort of just brush awkwardly by it. Nobody says “Happy Remembrance Day”, it’s a solemn occasion, and we don’t know how to do solemn all that well any more. We do huge celebrations, we do high holidays, we do all sorts of days that you can buy cards and balloons for, but today is like a funeral we all attend every year to bury the same bodies.

When we observe Remembrance Day, we make certain that we feel gratitude to those who served and especially for those who died, we ensure that we maintain an attitude of thankfulness, of a shared debt we all owe to a dwindling few survivors. As of February of this year, there is not one surviving veteran of WWI; that entire generation of soldiers is gone from the Earth. The First World War is an important touchstone for this day; it is the reason we observe it on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, it was the date of the cease-fire that ended the Great War. The men who fought and died in that war were decimated by the experience; it left scars on the public psyche that continue to have an impact to this day. The poetry of the day was a mix of propaganda in the papers from governments and churches all supporting it and saying things like:

Who’s for the game, the biggest that’s played,

The red crashing game of a fight?

Who’ll grip and tackle the job unafraid?

And who thinks he’d rather sit tight?

– Jessie Pope

while veterans came back from the trenches (or didn’t come back at all) writing poems like Dulce et Decorum est:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

– Wilfred Owen.

That last line, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” is a reference to a well-known passage from Homer, and translates as, “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” It was a phrase that was in common currency at the time, young men were constantly exhorted to join the army and go fight the Huns, but to Owen, it was revealed to be a lie. There is nothing sweet or fitting about drowning in your own blood during a gas attack. The price paid by the young for the wars of their elders is a high one, and at least in the view of some of his contemporaries, it was a price not worth paying.

This, I think, is what we should be remembering on this day; that because we ask our soldiers to pay the ultimate price for us, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that their sacrifice is for something worth the price we’re asking them to pay. This lesson does not seem to be part of our regular Remembrance Day observances; we don’t have a national moment of solemn reflection on what reasons we’re giving to the troops for sending them to some of the worst places on Earth on our behalf. Sit for a moment and ask yourself exactly what Canadian troops serving these past eleven years, one month and four days in Afghanistan have given their lives and service for. Once you have your answer, ask yourself if that reason would be worth sending your own son, daughter or other loved one off to fight and die for.

This Remembrance Day, don’t just be thankful for the soldiers’ sacrifices, count their cost and see if they’ve been given a fair trade for what they’ve given up. One hundred and fifty-eight Canadian mothers have lost their sons and daughters in Afghanistan since 2001; it is the single longest military engagement in Canadian history, and I honestly cannot tell you the mission’s objective, the reason we’ve spent so much blood and treasure for over a decade now. This seems to me like a case of national amnesia rather than Remembrance, like we’ve forgotten to do our duty to our soldiers and protect them from our politicians’ ambitions.