Sunday, October 30, 2005

Rocks and trees and trees and rocks

Canada is a rugged country. Thing's birthplace is located somewhere on the Canadian Shield — it must be so!

This weekend, we travelled from Ottawa to Peterborough to attend my Mom's 75th birthday party. (See previous post.) The distance is 270 kms / 167 miles. The drive takes about three and a half hours, one way.

Canada is vast and sparsely populated. It takes about 45 minutes to leave Ottawa behind. After that, you pass through occasional towns; but mostly, Canada consists of thousands of square miles of uninhabited land.

The trees are colourful since we're well into autumn weather now. (In fact, many trees have lost most of their leaves.) And in this part of Ontario, the highway has been cut through tonnes of rock.

Note the parallel, vertical lines in this photo:

Years ago, when they built this highway, they wanted to make it as straight as possible. So they opted to cut through much of the rock rather than curve the highway around it. The lines resulted when they drilled long holes into the rock. They dropped dynamite into the holes and blasted the rock away. As a child, I sometimes heard the blasts in the distance. ("Mom, I just heard thunder, but it isn't raining.")

If you've never visited Canada, how shall I describe it to you? In the immortal words of the Arrogant Worms:

We've got
rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and rocks and trees and trees and rocks
and water.

Water? I almost forgot:

Brule Lake, Ontario
photo taken by my sister Arlene one week ago

75th birthday

This weekend my sister Linda hosted a 75th birthday party for my Mom.

Actually, there was a bit of a mix-up. Mom turned 75 last year, but we thought it was only her 74th birthday. (Only?)

When we found out that Mom was already 75, we scheduled the party one week before her 76th birthday. Snuck it in just under the deadline!

To make the most of the occasion, Linda purchased a pinata.

Here's the birthday girl, taking a poke at the pinata with her cane.

And here she is, withdrawing from the field of battle, her dignity intact.

It was a draw:  Mom didn't bust open the pinata, but it didn't bust her open, either.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Roadside memorials

[source; note the work gloves]

From time to time, I pass a handmade cross on the side of the road. I am vaguely aware that such crosses mark the site of a tragedy. These are very personal memorials to loved ones who died prematurely and violently. But I hadn't really attended to the practice until this weekend.

Evidently they have become a social phenomenon.

It was this article in the Ottawa Citizen that made me stop and think. And today, when I googled "roadside memorials", Google returned 38,000 hits, including this one:
On the Pacific Highway in [New South Wales, Australia], north of Clybucca, is a white cross by the roadside.

It tells any passerby that Timothy was born on November 5, 1987 and on April 8, 2001 he was 'born to eternal life'. Motorists speeding by see Timothy's memorial out of the corner of an eye, friends and family come to mourn there and bring floral tributes, and road maintenance workers know to leave it alone.

In the process of claiming public road space for themselves, those who construct these memorials clearly desire to go beyond the management of mourning practices and spaces provided by the traditional authorities of the church and the state. Timothy was 'born to eternal life' by the roadside; that place is now sacred space.

[source:  Pointers, journal of the Christian Research Association, Australia]
Road memorials mark the site of a traffic fatality. They have proliferated because so many people die prematurely in automobile accidents. The Citizen reports:
Once found mostly in Catholic countries, roadside shrines are now common in Canada, the United States, Europe, Britain and Australia, where about 20 per cent of road deaths attract memorials. With an estimated 1.2 million traffic deaths worldwide annually — including nearly 2,800 in Canada, 850 in Ontario and about 30 in Ottawa — there's no shortage of victims to memorialize.
Undoubtedly this is part of the message of these roadside memorials, sprouting up like so many mushrooms after a week of rain. They are probably not intended as a gesture of protest, but they do have that effect. Don Baccus puts it succinctly:
What's the message behind these photos? How does "drive safely" sound?
It's a good reminder. When you're behind the wheel of a car, it only takes a moment of inattention at the wrong time to cut short someone's life. I do not want to live with that on my conscience.

Despite the obvious connection with automobile accidents, roadside memorials originated in an era before cars. This account takes us back to a simpler time:
THE CUSTOM of marking the site of a death on the highway has deep roots in the Hispanic culture of the Southwest, where these memorials are often referred to as Descansos ("resting places"). …

"THE FIRST DESCANSOS were resting places where those who carried the coffin from the church to the camposanto paused to rest. In the old villages of New Mexico, high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains or along the river valleys, the coffin was shouldered by four or six men.

"Led by the priest or preacher and followed by mourning women dressed in black, the procession made its way from the church to the cemetery. The rough hewn pine of the coffin cut into the shoulders of the men. If the camposanto was far from the church, the men grew tired and they paused to rest, lowering the coffin and placing it on the ground. The place where they rested was the descanso.

"The priest prayed; the wailing of the women filled the air; there was time to contemplate death. Perhaps someone would break a sprig of juniper and bury it in the ground to mark the spot, or place wild flowers in the ground. Perhaps someone would take two small branches of piñon and tie them together with a leather thong, then plant the cross in the ground.

"Rested , the men would shoulder the coffin again, lift the heavy load, and the procession would continue. With time, the descansos from the church to the cemetery would become resting spots. …

"Yes, there have always been accidents, a wagon would turn over, a man would die. But the journeys of our grandfathers were slow, there was time to contemplate the relationship of life and death. Now time moves fast, cars and trucks race like demons on the highways, there is little time to contemplate. Death comes quickly, and often it comes to our young."

[source:  Descansos; the text in quotation marks is from Descansos:  An Interrupted Journey, by Rudolfo Anaya, Juan Estevan Arellano and Denise Chavez (Del Norte , 1995)]
Contemporary memorials mark an evolution in our religious practices; a kind of democratization of religion, given that this is a grassroots phenomenon. The Citizen reports:
"These practices mark an historic change," says John Belshaw, acting dean of arts at Thompson Rivers University in Kamloops, B.C. "The grieving process has gone into the public domain." …

One of the striking things about roadside memorials is their similarity in every country in which they appear. While some are simple wreaths or bouquets of flowers, the more permanent shrines usually feature crosses, often with the name and date of death of the victim. Some also include personal mementoes such as stuffed teddy bears, pictures, cards and letters, sports equipment and other meaningful items.

A few shrines are virtual celebrations of hard-living, risk-taking machismo. While such memorials are most common in Australia, they can be found in Canada as well. One that Mr. Belshaw and Ms. Purvey found in B.C. featured beer bottles and packs of cigarettes, with images of well-endowed women plastered on the cross.

"In that case, the cross is clearly being used ironically," he says. "He clearly didn't lead a good Christian life." …

Mr. Belshaw admits that when he and his wife began their research, the whole notion of roadside memorials left him feeling a bit queasy.

"I thought it was a bit grisly and grim," he says, "but I'm increasingly of the mind that it's one of the healthiest things the public's ever done."

That's a view shared by another academic who has studied the roadside memorial phenomenon, Jennifer Clark, of Australia's University of New England. …

This represents "a dramatic shift towards the democratization of memorialization," Ms. Clark contends.

"Roadside memorials are not earned as a reward for selfless or admirable deeds, nor do they commemorate service in public office. Rather, those they remember are ordinary men, women and children with no claim to fame. They may even have died because their actions were foolish, such as speeding, driving while drunk, or driving while tired."
I found this comment particularly poignant:
Researchers have noticed the tendency to infantilize victims in their teens and twenties by surrounding their memorials with soft toys and other talismans of childhood.

To Mr. Belshaw, this is a reference to the victim's lost potential for redemption. "When a 19-year-old comes out of a bar three sheets to the wind and wraps his car around a lamp post and the next morning you find teddy bears at the accident site," he says, "that's a statement that essentially this was a good person who could have been redeemed."
The article from Pointers (cited earlier) also reflects on the spiritual significance of road memorials. The authors call attention to the concept of sacred space:
Although memorials that use apparent religious symbols signal a significant link with Christian faith, this is not necessarily the case. The use of such symbols may in fact be little more than an attempt to find culturally appropriate symbols to express death, where there has previously been a paucity of such symbols apart from those offered by institutional religion. …

The memorials witness primarily to the spiritual significance of place. Their role is to mark the very spot where life was lost. Some memorials are explicit about that and refer, for example, to Sharon who was 'tragically killed at this spot' or Sandra, Stacey and Joanne, all 'tragically taken at this spot' or Jody who 'died here'. …

When a roadside memorial is erected it suggests that the cemetery or crematorium is unsatisfying as a focal point for mourning. Anecdotally the place of death holds a stronger spiritual connection with the individual than any place of final rest of the body. There remains something intrinsically more important about the place where life ceased or, more accurately, where a life-changing event occurred.
At this point, I think we are approaching an explanation for the phenomenon. The majority of people no longer feel any sense of personal attachment to a religious institution or a church community. When it's time for a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral, the clergy who performs the rite of passage is often a complete stranger. Even the cemetery has become a place of little spiritual consequence:
When the state-controlled secularised cemeteries replaced the more communally-based churchyards in the 19th Century, a sense of community was lost, as well as a spiritually meaningful place to mourn the dead.

'The cemetery,' wrote Thomas W. Laquer, 'would not speak of a place but of people from all places … unknown to each other in life and thrown together in a place with which they might have had only the most transitory acquaintance'.
By contrast, the site of the death is instantly infused with a profound personal significance.

Not everyone is thrilled with the proliferation of roadside memorials. It certainly puts municipalities in an awkward position:  the space has been privatized and hallowed, but it remains public property. West Virginia has posted a primer for roadside memorials on the Web to try to retain some control.

Private citizens may have mixed feelings, too. Returning to the Citizen's account:
Family members are not always pleased when friends erect roadside memorials to their loved ones.

Mr. Belshaw tells of a woman in Victoria [British Columbia] whose son was killed in a traffic accident. Friends put up a memorial and she went along with the idea. But she had to drive past it every day to get out of the cul-de-sac where she lived. "It was like a knife through her heart," he says. "She really suffered with it."

Sometimes property owners near the accident scene object because they find the constant reminder of tragic death depressing.

"People tend to react fairly viscerally to them one way or another," says Mr. Belshaw. "Some will say, 'I don't need to be reminded of my own mortality on a daily basis.' Others will say, 'Yes, you do'."
Put me in the latter camp. We're too insulated from death in our society. If road memorials remind people that we all have to take death into account, I think that's a social good.

[source:  Don Baccus, cited above]

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The "war on terror" is like ...?

This is a follow-up to my previous post, in which I summarized an article written by Rick Salutin.

I am gratified to note that in their recent comments on the post, Jack and Cyberkitten are taking the discussion in precisely the direction that I felt we needed to go. They are debating whether 9/11 constituted an act of war.

But let me take one step back. In the previous post, I didn't say whether I agreed with Salutin or not. For the record, Salutin is too far to the left for my comfort. In particular, when he suggests that we should seek out a different interpretation altogether of events such as 9/11, I'm a little alarmed by the direction he's taking us in.

Even so, I think his perspective is valuable, which is why I shared it with you. Salutin provokes us into examining the "war on terror". I find myself asking questions like, Is the "war on terror" really a war?

Or this one:  when President Bush whips up support for the war by saying, "We stand for democracy and peace; the extremists would ban books, desecrate historical monuments, and brutalize women" is that just typical war-time propaganda? — so much empty rhetoric?

Similarly, the terror alerts:  is fear just another tool to whip up support for the "war on terror"? (Note the irony, if the Bush administration is fighting terror by sowing terror among the US citizenry.)

I propose that we explore the issue as follows. I invite you to fill in the blank in the following sentence:  The "war on terror" is …
  • like World War II.
    In this analysis, Osama bin Laden is cast in the role of Adolph Hitler; George "Dubya" Bush therefore plays the part of Winston Churchill.
    David Warren, a columnist for the Ottawa Citizen, is a proponent of this point of view.

  • like the Cold War.
    In the Cold War, communists and proponents of democracy fought for the global supremacy of their system of government. The war was largely ideological:  the USA and the USSR never declared war on one another (hence the term, "cold" war).
    Over at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, Dr. Bean and ball-and-chain believe the "war on terror" is the same sort of conflict.

  • a phoney war.
    Rick Salutin is a proponent of this position. To reiterate:  The "war on terror" is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.
I think the question is significant. How we fight the "war on terror" depends on how we characterize it. In World War II, England and Germany bombed each other's cities into a state of ruin (and the USA dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan). In the Cold War, there was no direct conflict between the USA and the USSR; but a series of proxy wars played themselves out around the globe (for starters, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan come to mind).

On the other hand, if the "war on terror" is a phoney war, presumably the West shouldn't resort to military force at all.

At this point, once again, I turn the discussion over to you. I'd like to hear your answers to the following questions:
  1. The "war on terror" is …?
  2. Therefore we should fight it …?

Monday, October 24, 2005

Problematizing "the new normal"

Rick Salutin has a written a particularly good column on the subject, Torture and the new normal. First he poses the question:
Can you justify torture under "the new normal"? This is sometimes done in the name of the ticking bomb. What if you know one is set to go off in a subway etc., wouldn't that validate torturing a terrorist who has details?
Then Salutin concedes that we're all capable of committing acts of violence if the provocation is sufficient:
Now, I certainly think you can imagine a situation in which any of us might act brutally under stress for the sake of a noble result, often involving kids or loved ones, or mass murder of innocents. You don't have to be Jack Bauer on 24.

Personally, I can imagine anyone doing almost anything, under certain conditions. If you get tossed into that blender, you have to achingly do what seems right or required, and live with the consequences. That's what having a conscience is all about:  lonely individual choice and responsibility.
This is a provocative point in its own right. My inclination is to agree. Occasionally — though I don't know why I should daydream about such a topic — I imagine how I would respond if someone broke into our house and threatened my sweetie. I don't have any trouble believing that I could resort to violence, and be pretty pleased with myself about it, too.

As Salutin says, the scenario necessarily involves kids or loved ones. If the only person at risk was me, I'd be more likely to passively cooperate with the intruder and hope he only wanted my valuables. (An amusing thought, because I have no valuables.)

Salutin asserts, "having a conscience is all about lonely individual choice and responsibility". That's an interesting image:  when it comes to moral choices, Salutin pictures each individual as alone in the universe, just her and her conscience.

As a theist, I don't quite see it that way. I believe that moral direction comes from outside of ourselves. And not only that, I also believe that God provides support to help us do what is right:  at least an inner nudge in the right direction. It's a partnership, not a lone individual grappling with a grave and difficult decision in an indifferent universe.

But I admit, even from the perspective of a theist, there's truth in Salutin's way of expressing things. When I am confronted with a moral decision, ultimately only I determine which path I take. It helps if there's someone watching. A little social pressure often tips the scales in favour of the good. But ultimately I am responsible for my moral decisions:  not God, and not society.

But we still haven't gotten to the issue Salutin set out to address. Here it is:
U.S. law prof and human-rights buff Alan Dershowitz thinks torture should be legalized under clear conditions in these harsh times, so as to control and regulate its negative effects. He says this precisely because, he claims, he is opposed to torture. There's a fine legal mind at work. …

I'm against legalizing acts like torture. … They should remain crimes, to be punished or — very rarely — treated as exceptions, full of moral ambiguity.

But perhaps it doesn't seem so ambiguous to you. Isn't it just a matter of the end justifying the means, even if that means is torture? I'd say the problem with means-ends arguments lies usually not in the means, where attention mainly focuses, but in the ends, which tend to go unexamined.
I have set the last sentence in bold type because this is the point upon which the discussion pivots.

We need to pause here to consider what "means" and what "ends" Salutin has in mind. Torture is proposed, by people like Alan Dershowitz, as a means to a noble end. The end is, the victory of good (Western ideals like democracy, individual freedom, the separation of church and state, equality for women, and the like) over evil (terrorism, Islamo-fascism and the like).

That's the logic that is being thrust upon us, and we're not supposed to examine it too closely. But Salutin deconstructs it. He doesn't just want us to reject the means — torture — he wants us to reject the end:
The "war on terror" is no real war, more an endless state of tension like the wars in Nineteen Eighty-four. Even George Bush says it will last years, or decades.

It makes me respect the power in that phrase, the new normal. It normalizes what is absurd, objectionable and entirely questionable (and not so new, either). Instead of challenging this absurd and disastrous "new" version of reality — clash of civilizations, war on terror and their like — you end up agonizing over issues like torture, as a response to it. You don't seek out a different interpretation altogether of events such as 9/11. Instead, you fall in line with the war mentality, though you might be for or against a particular tactic.

Means and ends reverse:  The end of fighting a successful war on terror becomes the means to multiply practices such as torture and moods such as fear. I'd say this applies as much to Osama bin Laden's jihad as to George Bush's "war." All the intensity would be far better invested in rejecting their versions of reality, which jibe minimally with actual conditions in places such as the Middle East and offer no hope for a better future.
There are all kinds of provocative remarks here:
  • the "war on terror," is no real war, more an endless state of tension;
  • we should vigorously reject this absurd and disastrous "new" version of reality;
  • we should not even consider torture as a legitimate means to achieve victory in the "war on terror";
  • neither "George Bush's 'war'" nor Osama bin Laden's jihad — the two worldviews are depicted as parallel — offers any hope of a better future.
Well! You are cordially invited to offer your thoughts in response to Salutin's provocative point of view.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

In the shadow of John the Baptist

Over at Ragged Glory, I have published a new post, "In the shadow of John the Baptist".

In brief, the New Testament writers emphatically consign John to Jesus' shadow. Despite such assertions in the Gospels, in those early years, Jesus' superiority to John was hotly disputed. The Church laboured to remove Jesus from the considerable shadow John had cast.

My analysis of this subject illustrates how historians approach events in the Gospels and try to determine the actual history.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Rick Mercer reports from Afghanistan

Readers who do not live in Canada (which is 72% of you, and nearly 100% of those who leave comments) presumably have no idea who Rick Mercer is.

(Shame on you! What passes for culture in the USA and the UK, anyhow?)

Mercer is a comedian from the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. All the funniest Canadians hail from that province. Potatoes grow in the red earth of Prince Edward Island; comedians sprout from The Rock.

Mercer is an honest-to-goodness icon. I have irrefutable proof:  he has his own entry at Wikipedia. In the digital age, that's how you demonstrate that you've joined the ranks of the gods.

Anyway, Mercer just returned from a week in Afghanistan where he visited the Canadian troops and did the Bob Hope thing. Mercer comments:
Show-biz folk love a captive audience; we will gladly travel across the world and visit a war zone to find one.
Mercer is also a blogger. He has cleverly named his blog, Rick Mercer's blog. (No one is inspired 100% of the time.)

Mercer's posts on Afghanistan stand out among his usual fare. (Mostly he likes to roast Canadian politicians you've never heard of.) This excerpt is the highlight for me:
This was my second trip to Afghanistan and the capitol city of Kabul has changed dramatically since Canada showed up. Kabul looks and feels like a city on the mend. New construction is everywhere, the stores are crowded, there is fresh produce in abundance and women are seen everywhere on the streets — many without Burkas. Canada has played a huge part in this transformation.

Now things start to get real tricky. The bulk of Canada’s troops will soon be stationed in Kandahar. This is the Wild West. Kandahar is, bottom line, far more dangerous than Kabul. If you wanted to drive home this fact all you have to do is take a look inside the front gates of the Canadian camp. Inside the gate sits a British armoured vehicle that was recently hit by a suicide bomber. Because of the armour everyone walked away from that attack.

Kandahar 1

Kandahar 2
Canadians on patrol in this area drive now similar vehicles made by Mercedes.
But check it out for yourself — Mercer provides an interesting, first-person perspective.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Catholic priests and their wives

I've published a new post at Ragged Glory. First, I discuss a group of Roman Catholic clergymen who are married, with the Pope's approval.

Then I quote an evangelical author who attempts to explains why Jesus and Paul promoted celibacy as an ideal state for some Christian ministers.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The world is getting safer

Another story from today's Ottawa Citizen. And a good news story at that! The world is a more secure place than many of us imagine it to be:
A startling new Canadian study has found that all forms of political violence, except terrorism, have plummeted 40 per cent since the early 1990s.

The first Human Security Report, by the Liu Institute for Global Issues at the University of British Columbia, which is being dubbed the most comprehensive survey to date of trends in warfare, genocide and human rights abuses, has also found that the gravity of armed conflicts has dropped dramatically since 1992.

In 1950, the study found, an average of 38,000 people were killed in each conflict; by 2002, that number had dropped to 600 — a decline of 98 per cent.

While the number of deadly terrorist strikes has increased sharply since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., terrorism still accounts for a fraction of the annual death toll from war, the report points out.

The study's findings "run very much against the grain of today's conventional wisdom," says Andrew Mack, director of the University of British Columbia's Human Security Centre and author of the study.

Mr. Mack blames the popular misconception that we live in an increasingly violent world on the media, which "gives far more coverage to wars that start than the greater number that quietly end."

Until now, he adds, there was little data to combat such myths because "no international agency collects data on wars, genocides, terrorist acts or core human rights abuses," not even the UN, where Mr. Mack served as an adviser to Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1998 to 2001. "The issues are just too politically sensitive," he explains.
The report, which was funded by Canada, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Britain, is to be published by Oxford University Press next month. It identifies trends in world violence:
In spite of massacres in Rwanda and Bosnia, the total number of genocides and other mass killings worldwide plunged by 80 per cent between 1988 and 2001, Mr. Mack says.

Reports of human-rights abuses have fallen in five of six regions in the developing world since the mid-1990s, and the number of attempted coups has declined by about 60 per cent since 1963, the study says.

The generations born after the end of the Second World War have enjoyed the longest interval without wars between major powers in hundreds of years, the report says.
Mr. Mack cites a number of factors which contribute to the reduced loss of life. If you are a critic of the United Nations, you'll be taken aback by the first item on his list:
  • Mr. Mack traces the trend to a more peaceful resolution of conflicts to the United Nations, which, despite high-profile failures, has been quietly leading "a remarkable explosion" in conflict prevention since the end of the Cold War. The report notes that, since the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, UN diplomatic missions to head off conflicts have risen six-fold; the number of peacemaking missions has quadrupled.

    He also cites a study by the RAND Corp., a U.S. policy think-tank, that found that two-thirds of the UN's peacebuilding missions had succeeded.
Other factors, according to Mr. Mack:
  • So-called proxy wars, where the major powers bankrolled conflicts in other countries to undermine each other, ground to a halt in the late 1980s when the Cold War ended.

  • The end of colonialism also brought a sharp decrease in violence, as the wars of liberation that raged around the world from the 1940s to the 1980s finally wound down.

  • The nature of conflict has changed. While Cold War-era clashes often led to major wars involving large armies, today's clashes typically pit weak governments against ragtag rebels.

  • Many more civilians now flee conflict zones, so fewer wind up in the line of fire.

    Mr. Mack says displacement, while it has reduced battlefield casualties, is a "humanitarian tragedy," and stresses that the study did not take into account millions of indirect deaths related to conflict, such as disease and malnutrition.
As for terrorism:
Despite its relatively low death toll so far, terrorism remains a significant threat, Mr. Mack says, pointing out that the "war on terror" has sparked major conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and "almost certainly increased the number of potential terrorist recruits."

Even more chilling is the lingering fear that terrorists may acquire weapons of mass destruction, he says.

Clinton weighs in on the softwood lumber dispute

This is a follow-up to two earlier posts on the Canada/USA softwood lumber dispute, American government shows contempt for the rule of law and a later update.

The issue is still front-page news here in Canada, but I gather that it receives little attention in the US media. The Wall Street Journal is a notable exception; it has repeatedly supported Canada's position, most recently a couple of weeks ago.

Former US President Bill Clinton spoke in London, Ontario, last night, and offered his thoughts on the Canada/USA softwood lumber dispute.

According to the Globe and Mail, Mr. Clinton "strongly endorsed Prime Minister Paul Martin's tough public stand on softwood lumber and implicitly criticized Washington's refusal to abide by a NAFTA panel ruling on the issue."

Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin has, indeed, been talking tough. Earlier this month, the Prime Minister implied that that the USA may be jeopardizing its access to abundant Canadian energy supplies. On October 8, the Globe and Mail reported:
Paul Martin won kudos from The Wall Street Journal for his tirade against U.S. tariffs on softwood lumber while he was in New York, but George W. Bush's spokesman conceded he wasn't even aware of the Prime Minister's public relations blitz south of the border.

"I haven't seen his comments," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.

In a New York speech Thursday, and later in a brief afternoon interview on CNN, Mr. Martin hinted at using Canadian energy as a trade weapon and called the U.S. refusal to lift the roughly 20-per-cent duty "nonsense."

In an editorial yesterday, The Wall Street Journal said the duties on Canadian lumber are at odds with Mr. Bush's professed belief in an integrated North American economy.

"Americans have a stake here too, since the duties add about $1,000 (U.S.) to the cost of a new home and affect thousands of jobs in industries that depend on lower-cost Canadian lumber," the editorial said.

"President Bush's vision of a strong North America depends upon the integrated market being allowed to work. That's as much in the interest of Americans as Canadians."
Mr. Clinton says that Prime Minister Martin had no other option. "If I were the Canadian prime minister, that's what I'd say."
At the same time, Mr. Clinton echoed the line taken by senior U.S. officials in recent days, repeating that both sides should get back to the bargaining table. …

Mr. Clinton repeatedly called for a return to negotiations, saying the North American trade relationship is simply too important to do otherwise.

"If I were [Mr. Martin], I'd be very firm in public and try to work on it behind closed doors," he said.
Mr. Clinton believes that the NAFTA ruling harms American states. Nonetheless, he implied that the US government should abide by it:
He spoke at length about U.S. states' concerns over Canadian stumpage fees — payments to provincial governments for cutting trees — which U.S. lumber producers say are unfairly low.

However, he repeatedly suggested, without going into specifics, that he strongly believes in bilateral and multilateral agreements, and that countries should enter into and adhere to those agreements, even if they occasionally sustain rulings not in their favour.

"I believe in institutional co-operation, even if it means you disagree with the occasional decision now and then."
In my view, that last paragraph is exactly right.

Of course the US government doesn't like the fact that the NAFTA panel ruled against it:  no one likes to lose in arbitration. But the free trade agreement is a package deal. On the whole it is in the best interests of both countries. For that reason, the USA should respect the NAFTA ruling, even though they don't like it.

It may seem absurd for Canada to get into a trade war with the USA. It seems obvious that Canada needs the USA more than the USA needs Canada.

But not so fast:  Senator Orrin Hatch doesn't see it that way. According to today's Ottawa Citizen:
Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, one of the most influential Republicans on Capitol Hill, said yesterday Canada is poised to surpass Saudi Arabia as "the world's oil giant," and that energy-hungry Americans can ill afford to alienate their northern neighbours.

"Neither of us can afford to kick the other one in the teeth," Mr. Hatch, a 29-year veteran of the Senate, said ….

Mr. Hatch said the U.S. will increasingly need to tap into the huge supply of Canadian oil from Alberta's oilsands.

"Anyone watching what is happening up north will recognize that, before long, Canada will inevitably overtake Saudi Arabia as the world's oil giant," Mr. Hatch said.

"What does this all mean for the United States? … It means that the United States can enjoy a new gigantic source of oil from a friendly neighbour." …

Canada ranks second to Saudi Arabia in proven crude oil reserves, including an estimated 174 billion barrels from the oil sands.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Most Overrated Virtue, revisited

When I published this post the discussion went off on a tangent. I raised a general question, What is the most overrated virtue? I didn't anticipate that my comment on the narrower issue of introverts and extroverts would provoke a controversy.

The post continues to show up in search queries. And the question I posed continues to interest me.

I just received a late entry from anonymous, and I think it's a good one:
the most underrated virtue? thats easy, silence. everyone has something to say. whatever happened to just shutting up and listening for a change?
Hmmm. I wonder whether anonymous has read the other posts on this blog. "Everyone has something to say" describes the dynamic pretty well.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

In other sports news

You think boxing is a tough sport? Consider hockey:

Pat Quinn, coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, sports two black eyes

If this is what the coaches look like, imagine what it's like to be a player!

(I apologize for the poor quality of the photo, but it's a picture I took of a TV interview.)

Boxing: a legal form of attempted murder?

"I don't think there's anyone to blame here other than the circumstances. He's a victim of his own courage."
Boxing promoter Lou DiBella, commenting on the death of boxer Leavander Johnson. Johnson died due to injuries sustained in a professional boxing match.

A Jesuit publication, Civilta Cattolica, has created a stir this week by condemning the sport of boxing as "merciless and inhuman", a "legalized form of attempted murder." Yesterday's Ottawa Citizen reports:
Editorials in the 156-year-old Civilta Cattolica are cleared in advance by the Vatican secretariat of state and are believed to reflect the Pope's official views. The article, titled "The Immorality of Professional Boxing," appears today [Saturday].

The editorial cites the deaths of hundreds of boxers in the past century, including Leavander Johnson, who died last month after a Las Vegas fight. …

Boxing "violates the natural and divine moral perception against killing," but commercial forces are too strong to call for a legal ban on the sport, the editorial says.
Johnson, who was 35 years old, was the champion in the lightweight division of the International Boxing Federation. He was also the father of four children. He died after a fight with Jesus Chavez.

The Johnson-Chavez fight was stopped by referee Tony Weeks in the 11th round but Johnson then collapsed outside his dressing room. ABC news reports:
Margaret Goodman, chairwoman of the Nevada medical advisory board to the state boxing commission, said the tragedy would be examined urgently.

"The commission is going to sit down and look at everything again and again and again," she said. "We really need to look at what can be done in the future."

Goodman was the ringside physician on Saturday and entered the ring at the end of the 10th round to check Johnson's condition. She said she saw no sign that he should not be allowed to continue.

"Something is wrong," she said. "I don't know what it is and I don't know what needs to be changed but we need to re-evaluate the entire way we approach the testing and treatment of boxers. These kids trust their lives to us and we are failing them."
According to, "Johnson was the fourth fighter this year to suffer a serious brain injury in a boxing match in Las Vegas and the second to die from his injuries. Martin Sanchez died on July 2, a day after being knocked out by Rustam Nugaev."

The raw data are certainly startling:
An editorial in The Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Washington, after the [Johnson-Chavez] fight said nearly 900 boxers had died as a result of injuries in the ring since 1920.

"It is time to halt that tabulation," the newspaper said. "It is time to ban boxing, a sport in which death is the predictable outcome of athletic proficiency … it is surprising that more boxers don't die.

"Even among prizefighters who walk away, the American Association of Neurological Surgeons estimates 15-40 percent of ex-boxers have some form of chronic brain injury and most professional fighters — whether they have apparent symptoms or not — have some degree of brain damage."
In light of the above stats, it's hard to make a case in favour of professional boxing. But if you doubt that boxing is a legitimate sport, just watch a highlight reel from the career of Muhammad Ali. The man was the very picture of athletic grace, even as his career was in decline.

What do you think? Is the Vatican right — should boxing be banned?

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Q's new blog: Ragged Glory

I have started a new blog, Ragged Glory. The primary purpose of the blog is to explore the Gospels, with the question of the "historical Jesus" ever in mind.

Thanks to all of you who responded to my earlier request for feedback. In the end, I decided not to publish my Gospel posts here at Simply Put.

I will continue to post on religious matters from time to time. But I have decided that the Gospel posts should be published elsewhere because the Gospels are inescapably evangelistic documents. Having cultivated a readership here at Simply Put, I want to avoid any appearance of proselytization.

What I will do is this:  each time I publish a post at Ragged Glory I will publish a link here at Simply Put. Those who want to read the Gospel posts can do so with minimal effort (no need to add another URL to your blogroll); those who prefer to skip those posts won't have them thrust in your face.

The inaugural Gospel post discusses Mark 1:1-5 and the ministry of John the Baptist. John called the people of Israel back to the wilderness to rededicate themselves to God.

The post also looks at one text from the Dead Sea Scrolls, which some of you may be curious about.

Thursday, October 13, 2005


Today is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the most solemn day of the Jewish calendar.

(Actually, since the sun has gone down, Yom Kippur was yesterday by Jewish reckoning. As usual, I'm a little slow to post.)

In the Hebrew scriptures (see Leviticus 16), the Day of Atonement centers on the activities of the High Priest in the Temple. This was the only day of the year when the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies, where God was enthroned in the midst of Israel.

The High Priest sacrificed a bullock and sprinkled some of its blood in the Holy of Holies. In this way, he atoned for the sins of himself and his fellow priests.

Next, the High Priest sacrificed a goat to atone for the sins of the rest of the population and to cleanse the sanctuary.

Then the High Priest placed his hands on the head of a second goat and confessed the sins of Israel. The goat, known as the scapegoat, was driven into the desert where it symbolically carried away the people's sins.

It has been impossible to carry out the activities just described for nearly 2,000 years now. In 70 CE*, the Temple was destroyed by the Romans. Jews cannot rebuild the Temple elsewhere; the site in Jerusalem was chosen by God.

The destruction of the Temple could have marked the end of the Jewish faith. But the Rabbis of that era, led by Johanan ben Zakkai, gathered in Jamnia (Jabneh) and reconstituted the religion to correspond to the new reality. G.F. Moore comments,
the work of conservation and adaptation was accomplished with such wisdom that Judaism not only was tided over the crisis but entered upon a period of progress which it may well count among the most notable chapters in its history.

["Reorganization at Jamnia" in Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era]
Christians will find it interesting to note that Johanan ben Zakkai was a Pharisee.** The destruction of the Temple marked the end of the Sadducees as a religious/political power. The rabbinical council in Jamnia "was a purely Pharisaean body. It was the definitive triumph of Pharisaism."

Christians are deeply committed to a principle expressed in the letter to the Hebrews (a New Testament document). Hebrews 9:22 says, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

The Rabbis who gathered in Jamnia did not see it that way. The destruction of the Temple was, from one point of view, a profound tragedy, lamented to this day. But from another point of view, it merely furthered a trend that had been building momentum for some time. At least as far back as the Babylonian captivity (6th c. BCE), Jews had been scattered among the nations. G.F. Moore observes,
The vast majority of the Jews, dispersed as they were over the face of the earth, never had opportunity to make such sacrifices, even by proxy; while the inhabitants of the more distant parts of Palestine, who resorted in numbers to the Holy City at the festivals, could make but infrequent use of all the sacrificial purifications and expiations provided in the Law. …

The Day of Atonement, [a day] of fasting and humiliation before God, of confession of sins, and contrition for them, and of fervent prayer for forgiveness, was, even before the destruction of the temple, the reality, of which the rites of the day in Jerusalem, whatever objective efficacy was attributed to them, were only a dramatic symbol.

["Ritual Atonement" in Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era]
The activities mentioned above remain the focus of the Day of Atonement today, 1900 years after the gathering in Jamnia. The day involves humbling oneself before God, fasting, confessing and expressing contrition for one's sins, and praying for forgiveness.

The efficacy of the appeal for forgiveness ultimately hinges on God's character. If God takes pleasure in punishing us, the appeal will be rejected. If God takes pleasure in forgiving us — I might exaggerate and say, if God is looking for any pretext on which to forgive us — then God will respond to our acts of contrition by absolving us of our sins. From the Jewish perspective, no blood sacrifice is required; our contrition and God's mercy are all that is necessary.

I know from my experience in evangelical Christian circles that the emphasis on personal guilt and contrition can be overdone. But presumably it can also be "underdone".

This year, because of the Jewish contacts I have made in the blogosphere, I received an e-mail asking my forgiveness for a small offence. In fact, I had not taken any offense whatsoever; but I understood the blogger's concern to clear the books of any sins outstanding from the past year.

I feel honoured to have received that e-mail. That isn't the point, I know. But I am deeply touched nonetheless.

Repentance and confession are salutary practices, with power to cleanse the soul and effect reconciliation where relationships are strained. Yom Kippur could serve as a reminder to us gentiles. We would do well to step back from our daily activities once in a while:  to reflect, take responsibility for the wrongs we have committed, and seek forgiveness.

*CE = Common Era, standard terminology used among scholars in place of A.D. Likewise, BCE = Before Common Era.

**I caution Christian readers that the depiction of the Pharisees in the Gospels is highly prejudiced. It was written at a time of great controversy, from the perspective of one of the parties to that controversy. It is not an objective historical account.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Keeping an open mind re the Iraq war

I pride myself on keeping an open mind. At the risk of shocking my liberal readers, here's a chance for me to illustrate the point.

For many months now, in comments on various blogs, I have been describing the Iraq war as "a colossal blunder". Now I'm having second thoughts. I may have been wrong in that judgement.

That admission should surprise you, because I am decidedly left-leaning in my politics. But some time in the last ten years I embraced the motto, truth over ideology. My policy comprises these two major principles:
  1. follow the evidence wherever it leads;

  2. be receptive to new information even after you have reached a conclusion.
I have already changed my mind about Iraq once. I supported the war back when I still trusted President Bush not to lie to the American people (and the rest of the Western world).

In the aftermath of 9/11, I was prepared to support the American invasion of Iraq if Saddam Hussein constituted a real security risk. President Bush told us that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. I had no way of verifying the allegations, but President Bush's solemn assurances were confirmed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair. Despite the strenuous objections of the United Nations, I concluded that the invasion of Iraq was justified.

Like everyone else, I was startled when no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. At the same time, allegations began to surface that the American administration had distorted the intelligence information available to it. Some critics have not minced words:  they say that President Bush lied to the American people.

It is very difficult to prove that someone has lied when their assertions were based on classified information. But sufficient evidence has emerged to suggest that "lied" is not too strong a word. Over at Toner Mishap, blogger On the Mark offered these examples (in a comment here):
here are a few [of President Bush's lies] without even having to give it much thought:

"the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" in the State of the Union address in 2003; which his administration had concluded was bogus in March 2002.

"We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda." Aboard the USS Lincoln. Actually, they didn't remove one, they created one.

"We gave him a chance to allow the inspectors in, and he wouldn't let them in." In press conference with reporters on July 14, 2003. In fact, after a Security Council resolution was passed demanding that Iraq allow inspectors in, they were given complete access to the country.

His citing of a United Nations International Atomic Energy report alleging that Iraq was "six months away" from developing a nuclear weapon; and that Iraq maintained a growing fleet of unmanned aircraft that could be used, in Bush's words, "for missions targeting the United States." There was no such report by the IAEA and these aircraft lacked the range to reach the U.S.
The list is quite damning, and I am sure that others could add to it. President Bush's credibility has been damaged, perhaps beyond repair, which makes it very difficult for me to support the war in Iraq.

But my policy is to be receptive to new information. Here is what I have learned in recent weeks.

First, Saddam Hussein may have collaborated with Osama bin Laden. The evidence is found in the article Case Closed written by Stephen Hayes. (The article was first published in 2003, so it isn't actually new — it's just new to me. Hat tip to Ralphie over at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse):
OSAMA BIN LADEN and Saddam Hussein had an operational relationship from the early 1990s to 2003 that involved training in explosives and weapons of mass destruction, logistical support for terrorist attacks, al Qaeda training camps and safe haven in Iraq, and Iraqi financial support for al Qaeda — perhaps even for Mohamed Atta — according to a top secret U.S. government memorandum obtained by THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

The memo, dated October 27, 2003, was sent from Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith to Senators Pat Roberts and Jay Rockefeller, the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. It was written in response to a request from the committee as part of its investigation into prewar intelligence claims made by the administration.

Intelligence reporting included in the 16-page memo comes from a variety of domestic and foreign agencies, including the FBI, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency. Much of the evidence is detailed, conclusive, and corroborated by multiple sources. Some of it is new information obtained in custodial interviews with high-level al Qaeda terrorists and Iraqi officials, and some of it is more than a decade old. The picture that emerges is one of a history of collaboration between two of America's most determined and dangerous enemies.

According to the memo — which lays out the intelligence in 50 numbered points — Iraq-al Qaeda contacts began in 1990 and continued through mid-March 2003, days before the Iraq War began.
Hayes indicates that the report is very specific at certain points. For example, it states that officials in the Iraqi military visited Osama bin Laden's farm in Khartoum in Sept.-Oct. 1995, and again in July 1996. In 1999, according to the report, Saddam Hussein personally sent Faruq Hijazi (deputy director of the Iraqi Intelligence Service and later Iraq's ambassador to Turkey) to meet with bin Laden at least twice, first in Sudan and later in Afghanistan.

If we can trust the US administration when it leaks such classified information — which admittedly is a big "if" — then On the Mark was wrong in one of his allegations. President Bush may not have been lying when he said, "We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda."

The difficulty is that we are again relying on classified information. If President Bush's credibility were unimpeachable, that wouldn't be an issue; but I continue to have lingering doubts.

The second item of new information is found in an article published by the Washington Post. (Hat tip to Jack at Random Thoughts):
The United States has obtained a letter from Osama bin Laden's deputy [Ayman Zawahiri] to the leader of Iraq's insurgency [Abu Musab Zarqawi]. …

U.S. officials said the letter was captured during counterterrorism operations in Iraq, but they were unwilling to specify how or when, and would provide only two quotes from it. The senior official said it has been authenticated "based on multiple sources over an extended period of time." They released information about the letter to four news organizations — saying word of its existence had started leaking out to reporters — on the same day that President Bush delivered a speech about the war on terrorism.

The letter of instructions and requests outlines a four-stage plan, according to officials:  First, expel American forces from Iraq. Second, establish a caliphate over as much of Iraq as possible. Third, extend the jihad to neighboring countries, with specific reference to Egypt and the Levant — a term that describes Syria and Lebanon. And finally, war against Israel.

U.S. officials say they were struck by the letter's emphasis on the centrality of Iraq to al Qaeda's long-term mission.

[update: a translation of the letter is available here]
Iraq may not have been central to al Qaeda's long-term mission before the USA invaded it. But surely the shift in priorities is to the US administration's credit. President Bush wanted to ensure that the front line of the battle was elsewhere, not on US soil. He has succeeded, if the information cited by the Washington Post is trustworthy.

Once again we are relying on classified information, with the same caveat as before.

But I am impressed by these two pieces of new information. If Saddam Hussein was collaborating with Osama bin Laden, that is sufficient justification for the invasion of Iraq. And if the invasion has diverted al Qaeda's attention, so that Iraq has become the front line in the "war on terror", then President Bush deserves our commendation. (I never thought I'd hear myself say that.)

Am I fully persuaded on either point? No. But the above data are causing me to reconsider my earlier conclusions. I admit it:  in my earlier characterization of the Iraq war as "a colossal blunder", I may have been wrong.

Principles or ideology?

Many of my readers also read Mary P.'s blog. But those of you who don't might want to check out this post, Parenting Without Ideologies:
I am firmly of the opinion that you are a better parent if you operate from principles and a philosophy, rather than in a constant state of reaction. [But] how do you know whether you are developing an approach and a philosophy, or whether you've crossed the line into ideology?
Even if you're not the parent of a small child (Mary P.'s focus), you may be interested in her criteria for distinguishing principles from ideology.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Supposed media bias … and a real concern

I generally support the mainstream media. This puts me in a minority position among bloggers, who often accuse the media of biased reporting.

I frequently come across posts on this subject. Right-wing bloggers declaim through clenched teeth that the "MSM" is biased to the left; left-wing bloggers are equally perturbed because news media are biased to the right.

In my university days, one of my profs surprised me by her strong feelings on the subject. At the beginning of her course, she handed out a list of online, alternative sources of news and information.

That was in September, 2001. The prof recognized 9/11 for what it was:  a golden opportunity for right-wing ideologues to seize control of the geo-political agenda. She distrusted the MSM and steered us to alternative, online media which consistently offered a left-wing point of view.

She regarded the internet as a great left-wing resource. But the Web is also home to a lot of alternative, right-wing commentary.

Over at Kerckhoff Coffeehouse, where the bloggers are unapologetically right-wing, Oven recently commented, Most of the mainstream (liberal) media portray Iraq as an ever-deepening mess. … What credible sources are putting a positive spin on Iraq these days?

Dr. Bean replied,
GREAT question! Where do you get pro-war stuff nowadays? The answer is the web. Keep your eye on Michael Yon’s blog, Little Green Footballs, and National Review Online. They’ll give you the straight dope from people on the ground and it’s much better news than you’re hearing anywhere else.
Let's consider this for a moment. Some alternative media are to the right of the MSM; other alternative media are to the left of the MSM. So much for accusations of bias! Clearly the MSM does not occupy either extreme.

Despite what I've just said, I think the MSM are left-leaning when it comes to social issues (here in Canada, at least), and right-leaning when it comes to economic issues. So are most Canadians:  it is indeed the "mainstream" position. But that's a generalization. If you consider individual journalists, you will discover exceptions to the general rule.

The Ottawa Citizen gives a lot of column space to David Warren, whose politics are very right-wing for a Canadian. Meanwhile, the fiscally conservative Globe and Mail publishes a regular column by Naomi Klein, a leading light of the anti-globalization movement. Presumably this didn't come about by accident; the policy of both newspapers is to strive for balance.

Why, then, did the MSM get the story wrong — very wrong — when it reported on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina?

I'm sure you remember some of the horrific tales which were reported at the time:  a child was raped, dozens of bodies were stacked in the freezer of the Convention Centre, snipers were shooting people just for the thrill of it.

The tales were false, or at least greatly exaggerated. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the MSM published highly inaccurate information.

The following story was published in the Los Angeles Times on September 27. In brief, Rumors supplanted accurate information and media magnified the problem. Rapes, violence and estimates of the dead were wrong.
BATON ROUGE, La. — Maj. Ed Bush recalled how he stood in the bed of a pickup truck in the days after Hurricane Katrina, struggling to help the crowd outside the Louisiana Superdome separate fact from fiction. Armed only with a megaphone and scant information, he might have been shouting into, well, a hurricane.

The National Guard spokesman's accounts about rescue efforts, water supplies and first aid all but disappeared amid the roar of a 24-hour rumor mill at New Orleans' main evacuation shelter. Then a frenzied media recycled and amplified many of the unverified reports.

"It just morphed into this mythical place where the most unthinkable deeds were being done," Maj. Bush said Monday of the Superdome.

His assessment is one of several in recent days to conclude that newspapers and television exaggerated criminal behavior in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, particularly at the overcrowded Superdome and Convention Center.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune on Monday described inflated body counts, unverified "rapes," and unconfirmed sniper attacks as among examples of "scores of myths about the dome and Convention Center treated as fact by evacuees, the media and even some of New Orleans' top officials."

Indeed, Mayor C. Ray Nagin told a national television audience on "Oprah" three weeks ago of people "in that frickin' Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people." …

"It doesn't take anything to start a rumor around here," Louisiana National Guard 2nd Lt. Lance Cagnolatti said at the height of the Superdome relief effort. "There's 20,000 people in here. Think when you were in high school. You whisper something in someone's ear. By the end of the day, everyone in school knows the rumor — and the rumor isn't the same thing it was when you started it."

Follow-up reporting has discredited reports of a 7-year-old being raped and murdered at the Superdome, roving bands of armed gang members attacking the helpless, and dozens of bodies being shoved into a freezer at the Convention Center. …

State officials this week said their counts of the dead at the city's two largest evacuation points fell far short of early rumors and news reports. Ten bodies were recovered from the Superdome and four from the Convention Center, said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

(National Guard officials put the body count at the Superdome at six, saying the other four bodies came from the area around the stadium.)

Of the 841 recorded hurricane-related deaths in Louisiana, four are identified as gunshot victims, Johannessen said. One victim was found in the Superdome but was believed to have been brought there, and one was found at the Convention Center, he added.
Why did the MSM get the story so very wrong? The LA Times identifies these factors:
  • telephone breakdowns, which disrupted communications;
  • racial prejudice:  a predisposition to believe the worst of evacuees who were poor African Americans;
  • rash statements from public officials:  journalists might have hesitated to publish some of the more sordid stories, but any such hesitation evaporated when top New Orleans officials provided sensational accounts of their own.
Whatever the explanation may be, the MSM failed in its job. And this is a serious problem. News media perform a very important function in democratic countries. Freedom of expression is protected precisely because it is important to get the facts out when the public interest is at stake. News media are responsible to get the facts straight — no excuses.

Here's my explanation of what went wrong, for what it's worth. (Bearing in mind that everybody has their prejudices, including me.)

News media must attract a readership and turn a profit. To that end, the more sensational the story, the better. When other news media are reporting rapes and bodies stacked like cordwood, you'd better do the same. It can easily degenerate into a race to the bottom.

Moreover, the capitalist system is hostile to sober second thought among journalists. A prudent journalist checks and double-checks her facts. But who has time for that if another media outlet may publish before you?

Left-wing bias? Right-wing bias? — I think such concerns, though they are ubiquitous in the blogosphere, are greatly exaggerated.

My concern is with the distorting influence of capitalism. It turns news reporting into a competition — who will get the story out first? — and rewards sensationalism rather than accuracy.

Acerbic Astrologer

This is Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. (Autumn comes sooner north of the 49th parallel.) A local newspaper published the following horoscope for Aries:
When you wake up this morning, you may feel a bit odd, like you could have your head chopped off any moment. You turkey.
Another one reads:
Sitting inside the pumpkin, munching on seeds and mush, you wonder why you ever called the sorcerer a dork. Maybe you'll be pie soon.
The astrologer must have been traumatized by The Great Pumpkin as a child.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Better to light a candle

I've just read a transcript of a speech President Bush delivered today. The subject is the war in Iraq. (Isn't it always?) As he so often does, President Bush characterized the conflict in binary (us=good vs. them=evil) terms:
  • we're responding to a global campaign of fear with a global campaign of freedom;
  • these extremists want to end American and Western influence in the broader Middle East, because we stand for democracy and peace, and stand in the way of their ambitions;
  • Evil men, obsessed with ambition and unburdened by conscience …
  • they have endless ambitions of imperial domination, and they wish to make everyone powerless except themselves. Under their rule, they have banned books, and desecrated historical monuments, and brutalized women. They seek to end dissent in every form, and to control every aspect of life, and to rule the soul, itself.
The words are harsh, and yet they are not entirely untrue or unjustified. I have real sympathy, for example, with this paragraph, even if it straddles the border into hyperbole:
When 25 Iraqi children are killed in a bombing, or Iraqi teachers are executed at their school, or hospital workers are killed caring for the wounded, this is murder, pure and simple — the total rejection of justice and honor and morality and religion. These militants are not just the enemies of America, or the enemies of Iraq, they are the enemies of Islam and the enemies of humanity.
Nonetheless, I was relieved when President Bush briefly sounded another tone. It is my firm conviction that Islam needs to undergo a Reformation, just as Christianity has benefited from a Reformation from time to time, over the course of its history. (Read my thoughts on the subject here.) Thus I am deeply impressed by these words:
As we do our part to confront radicalism, we know that the most vital work will be done within the Islamic world, itself. And this work has begun. Many Muslim scholars have already publicly condemned terrorism, often citing Chapter 5, Verse 32 of the Koran, which states that killing an innocent human being is like killing all humanity, and saving the life of one person is like saving all of humanity. After the attacks in London on July the 7th, an imam in the United Arab Emirates declared, "Whoever does such a thing is not a Muslim, nor a religious person." The time has come for all responsible Islamic leaders to join in denouncing an ideology that exploits Islam for political ends, and defiles a noble faith.
This may seem like a tangent, but I am reminded of the words of an evangelical Christian preacher who lived in the 19th century. Philips Brooks is best known for writing the words to the Christmas carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem.

When I was a pastor, I read a book by Philips Brooks, On Preaching. The main thing I remember from it is this:  Brooks counselled young clergy, like me, to appeal to the noble side of human nature. In other words, don't dwell on the negatives. Don't berate people, week after week, for all the ways in which they are failing to be the people God wants them to be. Paint a picture for them of what they could become, by God's grace:  the noble objectives they could live by and the great things they could achieve.

And that is what I admire in the paragraph from President Bush's speech. Maybe his negative characterization of Islamic radicals is 100% justified; maybe it isn't. But I wish it was possible for him to spend more time looking at the other side of the coin:  the beautiful elements within Islam, what a great contribution Muslims have made to the history of human civilization in the past, and what glories may yet await discovery in Islam's future.

Enough cursing the darkness, already; let's see if we can't encourage that candle to burst into flame.

Reader feedback, please

In a comment on the previous post, Cyberkitten wrote:
I'm more than happy to discuss the Gospels with you. Maybe you should post a Blog about them & see where it leads.
I'm not sure whether Cyberkitten meant that, or if he was just expressing annoyance with me. (You'd have to read the comment in context to understand why I say that.)

But in fact I have been thinking about beginning a series of posts on the Gospels.

I hesitate to do so for two reasons. First, I don't want this blog to be narrowly about religion. Religion as it touches on other matters, yes; but not an examination of the Gospels as a pursuit in itself.

Second, because the posts might seriously offend you. Some of you do not believe in God; some of the theists among you are Jewish and may not want to hear about the Gospels; and the few Christians among you may well be put off by my liberal theology. When it comes to religion, I am quite capable of offending everyone!

The first objection is not insurmountable. My current pattern is to publish a substantive post a minimum of three times per week:  Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday nights. There is no reason why I couldn't continue that pattern, and publish an additional post on the Gospels each Saturday night. (Time would be the challenge, but presumably I can work it out.)

The second objection is more difficult for me to evaluate. I don't want people to think I'm trying to propagate my religion. Indeed, I fear some of you are already beginning to wonder.

(For the record, I am not trying to convert anyone to Christianity. In my mind, it is no different than discussing my views on any other topic:  e.g., whether President Bush was responsible for the post-Katrina debacle. But I realize there is a heightened sensitivity when the subject is religion — even more than with politics.)

I began to investigate a liberal perspective on the Gospels more than fifteen years ago. Writing on the subject would give me an opportunity to consolidate the disparate conclusions I have formulated over the years.

It would also allow me to explain my beliefs and how I reach my conclusions. I joked earlier that I am capable of offending everyone on this topic. Put in a more positive way, I am in a position to promote understanding between alien worldviews.

Maybe if we have a really good discussion, world peace will break out. Wouldn't that be nice!

I would also gain a great deal from a dialogue on the subject, assuming anyone posts any comments. I am always attempting to sharpen my thinking; you can help me achieve that. It is the same objective for everything I post on this blog. I help you sharpen your thinking; you help me sharpen my thinking; and maybe we move a little closer to understanding one another.

I know your first response will be, It's your blog, you should write about whatever you want to write about. But I want to know:
  1. whether anyone would have any enthusiasm for a series of posts on the Gospels; and
  2. whether anyone would be so offended they might stop reading Simply Put altogether.
I've worked hard to build up a core of regular readers and commenters, and I would hate to lose all of you tilting after windmills.

Feedback, please.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The problem of pleasure

This post is a follow up to the previous one; or rather, a follow up to the dialogue which took place in the comment section of the previous post.

I want to explore an idea which is expressed in this quote from Philip Yancey, an evangelical Christian apologist:
It struck me the other day, after I had read my umpteenth book on the problem of pain (the theological obsession of this century, it seems), that I have never even seen a book on "the problem of pleasure." Nor have I met a philosopher who goes around shaking his head in perplexity over the basic question of why we experience pleasure.

Where did pleasure come from? That seems to me a huge question — the philosophical equivalent, for atheists, to the problem of pain for Christians. On the issue of pleasure, Christians can breathe a little easier. A good and loving God would naturally want his creatures to experience delight, joy, and personal fulfillment. We Christians start from that assumption and then look for ways to explain the origin of suffering. But don't atheists and secular humanists have an equal obligation to explain the origin of pleasure in a world of randomness and meaninglessness?

["The Problem of Pleasure" in I Was Just Wondering]
Yancey's point is that atheists cannot take pleasure for granted — they have to account for it. And I want to broaden the point. There is a whole series of things that atheists take for granted but which cry out for an explanation:  love, kindness, fairness, hope, goodness, beauty, etc.

We assume all of the above values uncritically:  beauty is better than ugliness, generosity is better than selfishness, justice is better than injustice, benevolence is better than malice, etc.

How do we know? We just know. These values are innate:  if not to every human being without exception, at least they are innate to the vast majority of us. And it's not just a societal consensus. Each individual knows in her bones that these values are right and true.

From a theistic perspective, this is not hard to explain. These values correspond to God's nature. Because we are created by God, and created in God's image, these values are deeply imprinted upon us. We know in our bones that these values are right and true because our Creator knitted them into our very being.

On that view, evil is the problem. For evil also exists in the human heart, and surely it does not have its origin in God. Christians are quite aware that the existence of evil and suffering cries out for an explanation, given our theistic assumptions.

Atheists are a little smug about the problem of pain, but Yancey is right. Atheists must account for the other half of the human equation:  goodness, beauty, love, etc. Those values are problematic given the materialist / mechanistic view of the universe to which atheists subscribe.

Atheists believe that the material universe is all that exists. As Carl Sagan famously put it, The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.

According to the theory of evolution, there is no need to posit the existence of a Creator or any transcendent realm from which the material universe was derived. The apparent "intelligent design" of the universe is an illusion. Darwinian natural selection provides an adequate account of everything as it now exists.

I don't want to get sidetracked into a debate over evolution. For my present purposes, I merely wish to point out the obvious — that evolution is an impersonal, mechanistic process. Thus atheists believe in a universe which is entirely material in nature; and its form was entirely determined by an impersonal process.

How then to account for love, beauty, hope, etc.? Such things are immaterial. Not in the sense, insignificant; we are all agreed on this point, that the values we are discussing are profoundly significant. But immaterial as in non-material. You cannot hold hope in your hand or put justice under a microscope.

On what basis does an atheist conclude that such immaterial concepts are right and true, the highest values in a purely material universe?

And where do these values come from? How can such interpersonal imperatives be the product of an impersonal, mechanistic process? (For the Christian, the interpersonal imperatives are grounded in the relationship between God — a personal being — and the "children" God has created.)

Mary P. and I discussed that question tonight. We identified one possibility:  that the values we are discussing are mere accidents of the evolutionary process.

I have read, for example, that sexual attraction can largely be explained by evolution. The evolutionary imperative is to ensure the propagation of the species. Accordingly (so the theory goes), we are attracted to partners whose physical characteristics suggest they can provide us with healthy children.

Perhaps other values can be explained in a similar way. Mary P. suggests, for example, a woman's willingness to make personal sacrifices to ensure the survival of her infant children.

But this explanation gives rise to two questions in my mind. First, does it explain all the values that we hold dear? Justice, for example. Why should I care if blacks living in an inner city ghetto receive an inferior education? Does the evolutionary imperative speak to that concern? — or is there some other explanation for the high value we (supposedly) place on justice?

Second, if our immaterial values are derived from the evolutionary imperative, why should I consent to be held to that standard? Why shouldn't I be selfish, for example, and shamelessly take advantage of others? We began with the observation that evolution is an impersonal process. Why should I respect interpersonal imperatives which are the accidental products of an impersonal process?

Perhaps you don't agree with the explanation Mary P. and I thought up. Maybe you have another explanation for placing ultimate value on love, beauty, fairness, hope, etc.

My point is, Yancey was right. Atheists cannot merely assume these values are right and true; they must account for them, one way or another.

The problem of pleasure is to the atheist what the problem of pain is to the Christian. Stated another way, the fact that these values are a constituent part of human nature is evidence of God's existence.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

When science fails, then what?

This week I went to see the movie, The Exorcism of Emily Rose. I'd like to provide a brief review of the movie, then offer a few comments on the philosophical issue it raises.

The movie is based on a true story. It concerns the teenaged daughter of a devoutly Roman Catholic family. She experiences a series of mental and physical disturbances which defy explanation. A psychologist concludes that Emily has epilepsy, combined with some kind of psychosis, and treats her with Gambutrol (not a real medication).

Emily takes the medication but the disturbances continue. The family decides that Emily needs spiritual help and they call in the local priest.

The priest attempts to perform an exorcism. Emily stops taking her medication and, some weeks later, she dies.

Clearly the priest did not intend for Emily to die; nonetheless, he is charged with murder. Roger Ebert writes,
What is fascinating about "The Exorcism of Emily Rose" is that it asks a secular institution, the court, to decide a question that hinges on matters the court cannot have an opinion on. Either Emily was possessed by a demon and Father Moore did his best to save her, or she had a psychotic condition and he unwittingly did his best to kill her.
I thought this was a pretty good movie, but its commercial potential is no doubt limited. The Exorcism of Emily Rose falls between two stools. It has some of the elements you might expect to see in a horror movie, but it is also very much a courtroom drama.

In fact the movie falls between three stools (which rather spoils the metaphor). Scott Derrickson, who is the director and co-writer, raises a serious philosophical question. I would put it this way:  When science fails, then what?

Are people obliged to continue with their scientific treatment anyway? Does there never come a time when they are free to opt for an alternative, spiritual (or homeopathic) treatment? This is a real issue that plays itself out in the courtroom from time to time.

Derrickson refuses to provide us with an easy answer to the question. This, too, probably detracts from the effect of the movie, as Ebert points out:
Somehow the movie really never takes off into the riveting fascination we expect in the opening scenes. Maybe it cannot; maybe it is too faithful to the issues it raises to exploit them. A movie like "The Exorcist" is a better film because it's a more limited one, which accepts demons and exorcists lock, stock and barrel, as its starting point. Certainly they're good showbiz. A film that keeps an open mind must necessarily lack a slam-dunk conclusion.
Ebert gives the movie three stars; his readers give it three and a half, which seems about right to me:
  • This is a good story, well told. It is visually effective and held my attention throughout.

  • The role of the defense attorney, which is well acted by Laura Linney, is very interesting. She is an agnostic who can't quite buy Father Moore's explanation of events, but is able to view him sympathetically nonetheless.

  • Derrickson handles the material with integrity. The religious characters are not mocked, and the film does not stoop to sexual exploitation. Emily does not dress in baby doll pajamas to face her demons; she dresses as you would expect a teenager growing up in a religious, conservative household to dress.
Here are my personal reflections on the issue raised by The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

We have gained a great deal from science, but it is a trade-off; we have lost a great deal too. I know this from direct, personal experience. I once had a much deeper faith than I do today, and losing many of my core convictions was an acutely painful passage.

Science has given us hope in the face of many illnesses that once would have killed us. Science has increased our life expectancy dramatically, through means both direct (medical advances) and indirect (e.g. we enjoy improved nutrition due to advances in agriculture).

But the benefits come at a price. Sometimes, science fails. Then what? With the loss of religious faith, we have also lost hope of an afterlife. And we have lost the conviction that suffering can be meaningful — even suffering unto death, like Jesus' crucifixion.

The hope science offers is limited to this world. It cannot speak to a life beyond this one; it cannot set our human lives into a context of meaning. At its best, science knows its limitations. The wise scientist remains agnostic about such ultimate questions, and does not presume to offer an authoritative opinion.

The Exorcism of Emily Rose dares to suggests that Emily died in hope. She continued to believe that her life, and her intense suffering, had purpose.

Such a thing is not possible in the absence of a vital faith.

If you have already seen the movie, and you want to read an account of the true story that lies behind it, you will find one here.

Saturday, October 01, 2005


Actually, since I'm Canadian, it's a kilometre-stone. I bicycle to work several times per week, and this week my odometer rolled past the 2,000 km mark! It's a fourteen kilometre round trip to work, so that's a lot of trips back and forth.

When you sit in front of a computer all day (and eat as much chocolate as I do) you'd better structure some exercise into your routine.

My abs are just as taut as my legs, but you can't tell because of the excess insulation that spoils the visuals. I'd publish a photo, but you wouldn't thank me for it.