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.


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.

Tagging Socialism

Sorry for the long, unexplained hiatus, life sort of got away from me for a little while there, and I’m now living in another province while working on both sides of the border. Not to say I’ve got everything locked down, but it’s back to where I can find the time to write one of these things and not feel like I’m short-changing myself and the people who inexplicably wander by here and read what I post. So, with that said, on to business.

While driving to work the other day, I happened to notice some graffiti that had me wishing I carried spray paint in my car so I could post a reply in rebuttal; it read, “Socialism doesn’t work” in large blue letters, with the philosopher’s name signed below. What I would have written beneath it if I had been equipped to do so was, “Except for when it benefits me, which is surprisingly often; then it’s OK.” I mean, it’s just such a puerile and flippant thing to write on a public building, it ought to have some sort of response to counteract the decaying effect on public thought, shouldn’t it? By no means am I advocating some sort of universal socialism where everything is owned and operated by the government, but to say in stark terms that, “Socialism doesn’t work,” full stop, is such a demonstrably false statement that the simple-mindedness of it calls out for educational correction. It could take the form of a simple list of all the social programs and services that citizens of liberal western democracies enjoy and depend on regularly, including health care, education, roads, water treatment plants, street lights, police and fire protection services, safety regulations, public broadcasting, weather services, and the mother of all social spending items, our various military branches, among any number of other items. This list could go on for ages, itemizing point by point just how many things in our daily lives, from workplace safety regulations to student loans to the new MRI unit at our local hospital, are direct results of socialism, but I really don’t think this is the way to go about addressing this glaring point of ignorance.

Perhaps a better way to approach this attitude is to look at what socialism is at its roots and examine what rejecting it really entails. Maybe there is something down at the bottom of what socialism is that really is a pernicious evil that ought to be opposed, regardless of the incidental benefits we citizens might gain from it. Let justice be done, thought the heavens fall and my Employment Insurance benefits disappear, right?

So, what is socialism then? Is it really the cancerous blight on society that some would say it is? Is Tommy Douglas really the Worst Canadian and not our Greatest? Taking Tommy as our model, we’re talking about someone who is often cited as one of the central figures of Medicare in North America, and his was the first socialist government formed on this continent, so I think he’s as good a person as any to look to as an example of socialist thinkers, and better than most. His roots in this school of thought go deep, right down to his childhood experience with a bone infection that almost cost him his leg; in reference to this he said, “I felt that no boy should have to depend either for his leg or his life upon the ability of his parents to raise enough money to bring a first-class surgeon to his bedside.” This was a man who had socialism right down in his bones, in a manner of speaking.

Well, if that’s what he says was behind his drive to provide socialized medical care to every citizen of Saskatchewan, let’s take him at his word and think about what his statement means. Is it reasonable to think that poor people ought to have access to the same level of care as their richer neighbours? Should a six-year-old have his leg cut off because he had the misfortune to get a bone infection while being the child of poor parents who cannot afford the services of a top-level surgeon, while another child with a similar medical problem is treated due to his good luck of coming from a wealthy family? When you state it in these terms, it seems more than a little cold-hearted to parcel out medical care based on something the patient has little or no control over, such as to whom they were born. In terms of dispensing medical care in a just manner, it seems like such an arbitrary criterion is not well suited for the task, and maybe Tommy’s right on this one point, but that’s just one point, it doesn’t go beyond this context because it’s a special case.

Now unions, that’s one place where Tommy just falls right on his face, right? Nothing like a union to tank your economy; with their outrageous demands, unreasonably high wages, and poor work ethic, there’s no force for economic evil greater than a union, that’s just a fact. Right?

OK, while I’m not going to defend the abuses that organized labour have gotten into, the racketeering, bribes and myriad forms of corruption that union opponents will bring up every time the subject comes up, let’s take a moment and think back to what workers were dealing with a century ago. Working conditions were downright Dickensian, with no limits on hours, no minimum wage protections, and no kind of safety regulations in place to protect people from death and dismemberment while trying to earn a living. In the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, police brought guns to a fistfight, and countless other examples from the period go to show that while our modern unions might be bloated and unnecessary at least in a number of cases, this certainly was not the case back in the early 20th century. Workers had few if any rights and conditions were grim for millions among the working poor. Tommy had a rather clear opinion on this situation, as he illustrated in his Cream Separator parable; he wasn’t saying that Capital should get none of the cream, just that the people producing the whole milk and working the machinery ought to get a little of it as well, rather than pouring all of it down one greedy throat. Think about your own working situation: would you be better or worse off if workplace regulations were thrown out tomorrow and your employer could set their own rules about how you were treated, paid and protected from accidents?

Abuses and corruption aside, doesn’t it seem like maybe unions have done you some good along the way in your working life? And really think hard, can you remember an example of union corruption that had a direct impact on you in any way that wasn’t balanced out or outweighed by some sort of offsetting corporate corruption? In my own direct experience, unions in general have been a roughly zero sum in terms of direct effects; they got me a little higher pay and marginally better benefits than I might have gotten for an equivalent position in a non-union shop, but my union dues didn’t do squat for me when the company shut our plant down, so call it a wash.

Going back to my earlier question, what is socialism then? In its own terms, it’s about being concerned about society in general, rather than our own small clan of friends and relatives. It’s about being social, for lack of a better term. I know it’s kind of an outdated idea, but isn’t that one of those notions we used to think of as being a good thing? You know, helping your neighbour when he gets stuck in the snow, wanting to see the Bob Cratchits and Tiny Tims of the world get a nice roast goose on Christmas Eve? It seems that rejecting this kind of thing is something good people wouldn’t do back when I was a kid, but maybe that’s my age creeping up on me and clouding my memory a little. Don’t we want the rising tide to lift all our boats, not just the luxury yachts we convince ourselves we’ll be owning one day when our ship comes in (to mix nautical metaphors a little)? Are we really so self-deceived that we honestly believe we’re all going to be part of the 1% some day, all the laws of mathematics to the contrary? What else could convince us that stacking the deck for the haves against the have-nots was a good way to set up our society, if not some sort of misguided selfish interest?

This is the center of my gut reaction to that offending graffiti, the idea that being social doesn’t work; that sharing with those around us and caring about the well-being of our fellow citizens is a misguided political philosophy that ought to be rejected by right-thinking individuals. Was this tagger’s kindergarten experience really so twisted that he came away from it with the lessons we all learned as children turned 180 degrees so that sharing was wrong and looking out for Number One was the highest ideal we should base our government and society on? Was this spray painting subversive so traumatized by being forced to share the cookies his mother sent him to school with that it echoed in his political philosophy to this day and inspired him to lash out in an act of vandalism?

Whatever the reason might be, somebody needs to give that graffitist’s inner child a few hours of Romper Room and a nap, because he’s cruising for a time out.

Little Tax on the Prairie

Earlier this year, one of the big political fights in this province was over Saskatchewan’s film tax credit, which helped TV and film productions to operate here on a more even playing field with the rest of the country (at the moment, we are now the only province in Canada without a film tax credit program). Our film industry employed thousands of people, and defenders of the credit claimed that every dollar’s worth of credit brought six more into the province by various means; picture anyone travelling to Rouleau just to buy souvenirs if Corner Gas had never been filmed there. Whether there is any truth to this $1 to $6 claim or not, the estimated tax credits given out were somewhere in the neighbourhood of about $8 million per year, and Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party (Yes, people outside Canada or Saskatchewan, we really have a governing political party named after the province. That is what a hick place we are.) has told us that we just don’t have the money to be handing it out to these carpetbaggers any more. And besides, “If an industry cannot survive at all without a permanent taxpayer subsidy, should the taxpayers subsidize indefinitely?” This was the official reasoning given to us, and it’s the line they’ve stood by since.

Fair enough, I suppose, though it does raise the question of our massive tax subsidies to the oil and potash industries, which for oil amounts to something like $327 million per year, and while projections on the ten year tax holiday potash is going to benefit from on top of the $100,000 per year for each office job created and subsidized electricity for their mining and processing operations are difficult to come by, it’s a safe guess that it will total somewhat more than $8 million per year. However, many will protests that this is not a fair comparison, this is apples and oranges; you can’t compare heavy industry like oil and potash to the film industry, the natures of each are far too different for that. This is perhaps a fair criticism, it’s not as if film companies have to take on massive capital expenses like the ones mining and oil exploration require; all you need is a few cameras and a couple of actors, maybe a script, and you’re set. Oh, and maybe some sets. It’s not like you’re dropping a mineshaft or drilling for oil, the expenses are not comparable, and neither is the economic impact on the province (or the environmental impact, but shut up about that, you commie tree hugger).

Again, fair enough. However, the other big news is that the Roughriders are getting a new stadium, with a $278 million price tag. The funding breaks down this way: an $80 million grant from the province, a $100 million loan from the province to the city of Regina, $73 million coming up front from the city, and the final $25 million coming from the team. As far as the Riders organization is concerned, they’re getting a quarter billion dollar plus stadium for 90% off, so it’s a really good deal for them. Add in the plan to raise ticket prices by 50% (from $8/ticket to $12) once the new stadium is built, and the pot just gets sweeter and sweeter in Riderville. So, with just the up-front expense that the provincial government is throwing at this project, you could fund the film tax credit program for the next 22.5 years, maintaining an industry that employs thousands throughout the province and adds to the provinces artistic and cultural contribution. But look closely at the wording of Mr. Wall’s tweet, it’s a “permanent” taxpayer subsidy he’s objecting to on principle, and this is a one-time expense, totally different things. Well, other than the $675 million in capital requirements over the proposed stadium’s 30 year life expectancy, so it’s really a thirty-year-long one-time expense, but thirty years isn’t “permanent”, so nuts to you. And while that would cover the film tax credit for a little over 84 years, after that 84 years is up, what then, Mr. Smartypants?

And then there are the political realities to consider. The Sask Party is for all intents and purposes a rebranded version of the Progressive Conservative Party (yeah, I know, it’s not like “Saskatchewan Party” was a step down in silly names, but we are one of the most bush league political arenas in the world, so cut us some slack.), and if there’s one thing that conservatives aren’t historically keen on, it’s hippy artsy fartsy types like you get in the film and TV industry. These people are never going to vote for Mr. Wall’s party, and they are just jerks enough to encourage other people to vote against him too, so why would he want his government’s money going to support them? It just makes sense to slash their funding from a political perspective, these people are his political enemies, so the politically smart thing to do is to encourage them to leave the province (which they are doing in droves).

Now, as for the Riders? Hell, just putting on a green tie on Labour Day in this province will net most politicians a five point bump in the polls, and signing over $675 million over 30 years to our only professional sports team is as close as you can get to buying an election without actually breaking any laws. Brad Wall gets to show up on the cover of the Star-Phoenix in his Riders jersey with a novelty cheque in his hands, and suddenly he’s Ed McMahon with nicer glasses (seriously, you can’t find nicer frames than the ones Brad Wall has, I need to find out who his optometrist is). This is a total no-brainer for any politician; he has all but locked in another term as premier by doing this, and he would have turned huge numbers of voting old people against him if he had killed the deal. Now that Corner Gas is off the air, there isn’t a film or TV production in the province that could ever hope to sway voters the way the Riders do; and even Brent Butt himself couldn’t hope to get you the kind of polling boost these days that a green tie in September would.

So let’s take a step back from this and reconsider Mr. Wall’s explanation of why his government killed the film tax credit. Eight million a year is pocket change next to the subsidies we routinely throw at other industries in this province, crying poverty over something as relatively minor as this is disingenuous at best. It’s not that it’s a tax burden our economy can’t bear; even without the money flowing into the province from outside and offsetting the expense six-fold, it’s about eight bucks per person out of our pockets, it’s not going to break us. By way of contrast, just the province and city’s initial costs on this new stadium would be enough to buy every single resident of Saskatchewan a 10-pack of tickets to see the Riders in every home game this year. Now, if we actually had a million people showing up to every Rider game for a year, that could very well justify the expense of a new stadium, but seeing as they’re running around 30,000/game, maybe the other 970,000 of us aren’t getting our money’s worth on this deal.

I really don’t mind politicians acting out of informed self-interest, I would be disappointed in them if they didn’t do so, and I would wonder what kind of fools we’d elected to govern us. For the most part I have very little against Mr. Wall and his party apart from their silly, comically jingoistic name; what I don’t like is an obvious lie. If you have a clear and obvious political motivation for gutting a program, just say so; don’t hide behind principles you clearly do not hold, it’s insulting to us. We aren’t (all) stupid, we understand that you want to hold on to power, and that doing so is a whole lot easier without quite so many articulate, creative opponents and critics around calling you on things you want to do without getting hassled about it. We get that, we really do, and if you would address us like adults who understand that political concerns really do play in the process of government, I wouldn’t have this growing distaste for the way you treat the people of this province. When your motives are as transparent as they were in the move to kill the film tax credit, you just make yourself look foolish by pretending that it’s about fiscal responsibility in any way. I understand that you need to pretend you’re funding the new stadium out of Rider Pride and all that or the political placebo effect you’re gaining would evaporate, and that’s fine, it’s all part of the game. However, you really need to come up with a more plausible line of bullshit to apply to your hamstringing of your political opponents, or eventually people are going to start noticing a pattern in what programs you’re destroying.

Positive Rights and the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare)

The big story today every news outlet and political blog is talking about is the SCOTUS decision on the Affordable Care Act, ruling 5-4 in favour of the Act’s constitutionality. Now, I’m not a constitutional scholar by any stretch of the imagination, so I’m not going to say anything at all about whether I agree with the ruling on constitutional grounds. Anything I’d have to say about that would be based purely on second-hand information I’ve picked up while following this story, so it would be of very little use to you or me to go on about it. Where I do have some experience is in the realm of meta-ethics, and I think this is the more interesting area to go looking into this story. Clearly, a personal bias, but write what you know, right?

At the heart of the question about the ACA in particular and socialized medical care in general is whether healthcare ought to be considered a right, and on what grounds. Critics of the Act, when they aren’t bogging everything down in myriad fine points of constitutional law they believe backs up their opinion, are usually basing their objection to this law on the grounds that it involves invoking something called positive rights, and claiming that this is an improper move to make philosophically. In the brand of conservatism currently ascendant among North American right-wing parties, there is no such thing as a positive right, only negative ones. (For the purposes of this post, “conservative” is used as a blanket term covering conservatives, neo-conservatives, libertarians, and anyone else on the right-wing side of the political spectrum.)

So what is the difference between a positive and negative right? The simple answer is that a positive right places an obligation on others in society to provide something for you, while a negative right places an obligation on others to avoid doing something to you. In the example of something like free speech, nobody is obligated to provide you with a forum to voice your opinion, but they are required to allow you to speak your mind when you do find a way to do so, hence free speech is a negative right. An example of a positive right would be something like education, where everyone in your community pays school taxes that go to provide children with the necessary buildings, supplies and staff, so this would be considered a positive right, as it requires citizens to provide tax dollars in order to provide the needed funds.

The reasoning behind conservatives’ rejection of positive rights as a concept is the way they ground the notion of rights in general. Violating a negative right involves hindering a person’s free exercise of will in an unjustified manner. Most conservative theorists will recognize that negative rights are not absolute, and very few would fight for your right to yell “FIRE!!!” in a crowded theatre, to use the standard limitation example. In most conservative theories of rights, your right to swing your arms around is absolute, right up to the point of making contact with my nose. You are free to own what you like, say what you like, do what you like, so long as it doesn’t unfairly interfere with the things someone else might want to own, say or do.

This view of negative rights hold up under both conservative and liberal theories in most cases, with a few points of disagreement on the fine print items like hate speech or contraceptive use. In principle, there is much more agreement than disagreement on the topic of negative rights, but the matter of positive rights is a point of major division. While conservatives deny their existence, liberals (and again, “liberals” is a broad, catch-all term here for anyone left of center) have usually tried to justify the concept of positive rights by pointing to the fact that negative rights are useless without certain positive provisions, like literacy, health and similar social spending programs. The thinking is that if you don’t have your health, you can’t exercise your right to public assembly, or if you aren’t literate, you can’t freely participate in the public exchange of ideas, and there is something to be said for this kind of argument. The problem is, this is a utility argument that most conservatives aren’t buying because it interferes with the way they’d like to exercise their own freedoms, violating what they see as their negative rights against government interference in living a self-directed life.

Fair enough, I suppose. If you do in fact wish to keep your money to yourself to the greatest extent possible while living in a society, it would run counter to that wish if society were to require you to hand some of your money over to provide care and education for others. In the world of Citizens United, you could even call it a restriction of your right to free speech; giving your “voice” to political programs you don’t support yourself. However, is this really the whole story, or is there something more that is being neglected?

What about the benefits I derive from you being healthy enough to do your job and provide the goods or services I need, or from the education and training that enable you to contribute to society? I gain a real benefit from the fact that the people around me are for the most part literate and able-bodied enough to keep the economy going, does that count for nothing in the question at hand? Every single day, I gain some small benefit from the fact you went to school, got regular check-ups, were able to drive to your job on public roads, and are kept safe by police and fire services. Granted, the benefit I gain from you personally may be exceedingly small, but the correlation here is that I very likely have only done you a similarly small amount of good too. Looking at the aggregates, however, the whole thing scales up in a big hurry. When everyone makes a small contribution to the general good, everyone benefits from it, either directly or indirectly, in big ways.

Your lifetime road taxes would likely pay for about a mile of pavement, but all our taxes pooled together build necessary infrastructure that gets us all where we’re going. Your lifetime contributions to the health system might pay for an x-ray machine, but the tax pool once again builds whole hospitals and medical schools. Now, how much would you benefit from your own personal x-ray machine without a skilled technician to run it for you, a doctor to interpret the results for you, or a surgical team to do something about it if the work of the first two turns up something scary?

But wait, you might say, I purchase private health insurance, which protects my right to freely choose my provider, while pooling my money with the money of other healthy people hedging against that future something scary. It’s the best of both worlds, I get to keep my negative rights while taking advantage of pooled risk, it’s great! Well, that’s as may be, it very well might be great for you, but what about everyone else? What about the future doctor who comes up with a cure for your future something scary? Or rather, the kid who would have been that doctor, if he hadn’t made the rash decision to be born to a poor family and died of a childhood disease because the crappy insurance his parents could barely afford wouldn’t cover that particular childhood disease, or at least not in a timely manner. Yeah, that kid. The one who would have saved your life if he’d lived to adulthood.

Are you starting to see the reasoning here? Your positive rights are derived from the laundry list of ways I benefit from your flourishing. You become a teacher and I learn to read, you become an EMT and I survive a potentially fatal accident. The way that society interconnects all of us and spreads social goods far and wide gives rise to an obligation on my part to see to it that the whole thing keeps on giving me schools and hospitals. Because I can flourish due to what others have done for and given me, I have an obligation to provide for the flourishing of others.

Nobody, and I mean nobody is exempt from this. I’m sure there are some Ayn Rand fans out there that see every one of their fellow citizens as parasites and leeches, cloying at them with their groping, overreaching hands for the fruits of my labours, what I’ve earned by the sweat of my brow. While these people are passionate and often convincing, John Galt is a work of fiction, there is nobody alive in the real world who does no depend on others for their flourishing and survival. Without the farmers providing the food, Mr. Galt dies of starvation; without the justice system and general sense of moral standards, Mr. Galt dies with his head caved in for the sake of his tie pin and the cash he’s carrying. Everyone depends on the kindness of strangers, just as a prerequisite of living around other people.

To sum up, if you really are determined to owe no man for anything, it’s too late, the ledger is already way past your ability to pay it back. The efforts of millions of other people have gone into making you who you are, there is no such thing as a self-made man. If you’d like to cash out and move forward as a free spirit, calling no man sir, I would invite you to make your way out to the woods and Walden the hell out of your suddenly much fewer remaining years. The rest of us will accept our obligations to the people around us and enjoy the countless benefits of living cooperatively with other people