Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Co-opting Christmas

Over at Ragged Glory, I have posted my follow-up to the post on controversial Christmas trees. The post is in three parts:
  • a discussion of how Christianity co-opted paganism in the Roman empire;
  • a discussion of how secular humanism is co-opting Christmas in modern Western society, and why I think this is inappropriate; and
  • a proposal for where we should go from here.
(Hat tip to Jack, whose post first drew me out on this subject; and to Jack and Stacey for their dialogue with me, which helped me to sort out my own thoughts on the subject.)

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Controversial Christmas trees

I'm sick of Christmas being a source of controversy. Christmas is a big flippin' deal in North America. But it isn't all peace and joy, let me tell you.

Controversial Christmas tree #1

From the Globe and Mail, a story about a municipality who narrowly voted to put up an artifical tree:
While most cities have been oiling snowplows and constructing ice rinks in anticipation of winter, the politicians in one small Ontario town have dedicated themselves to resolving a historical debate that continues to polarize Canadians this time of year.

Artificial Christmas tree or real tree?

For more than a week, the councillors of Quinte West, a municipality east of Toronto, have wrestled with the question.

At Monday's council meeting they were split, 6-6, until Mayor Bob Campney stepped in with the deciding vote for a fake tree.

The issue erupted last year when some councillors cut down a seven-metre pine and hauled it into town on a flat-bed truck.

Unfortunately, there was a municipal employee who was allergic to the tree. He tried to cope through the holidays with a swollen face, but was forced to buy medication and work outside the building. The municipality had to compensate him almost $2,000.

In the end, the mayor felt his compromise was sound.

"My feeling was, we can put up an artificial tree, a good tree, inside, and put a big real tree outside, and everyone going by can enjoy it."

Councillor Fred Kuypers, who is in his eighth year as a councillor, says when the town decorates the tree outside, he's boycotting the event.

"For me, the fun is gone."

Controversial Christmas Tree #2

From CBC Nova Scotia, a story about Donnie Hatt, who regrets donating a 50-foot spruce tree to the City of Boston:
A spruce tree grower in Nova Scotia isn't happy his Christmas tree has become a "holiday" tree.

Every fall, the province sends a tree to Boston as a thank-you gift to that city for helping Halifax after the devastating explosion in 1917.

But Donnie Hatt, of Beech Hill, says he wouldn't have sent his 36-year-old, 16-metre white spruce this year if he knew it would be called a "holiday" tree. In fact, he'd rather see it run through the wood chipper in his backyard. …

Officials with Boston's parks department decided it would be less offensive to some people and generally more inclusive if the word "Christmas" was dropped.
"I think it's a bunch of bullcrap," Hatt is quoted as saying.

Is Christmas fun anymore? More thoughts to follow in a subsequent post.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Purgatory?! I thought I reserved a direct flight!!

The Dante's Inferno Test has sent you to Purgatory!

I don't often do these online tests, but I was drawn to this one because of the religious theme. When I looked at the questions, I thought they were interesting, too. Here are a few of the questions that leaped out at me for one reason or another.

Please select your gender.
(Only two options, male or female.) This one leaped out at me because I wonder how it's relevant. Am I more likely to go straight to Paradise if, for example, I'm female? Or maybe the assumption is that God (like the Church) favours men!

Do you intentionally cause harm to yourself?
I wonder what prompted them to include this question. There's a separate question on whether you've ever attempted suicide.

Have you ever taken pleasure in someone else's misery?
Ooh, that's a good one! Ever indulge in a little schadenfreude, folks? I like to think I'm a nice guy, but I had to answer Yes, given the word "ever".

Have you ever engaged in oral or anal sex?
I don't really see the point of the question. If I like oral sex, does that make me more lustful? I thought oral sex was virtually universal in our generation. How many people can honestly answer No, I wonder?

Would you sooner go without sex than go without good-tasting food?
Ooh, another good one! I scored "moderate" on the gluttonous scale, but "high" on the lustful scale. If I answered that question the other way, would those two scores reverse?

Have you ever intentionally given bad advice?
I guess I'm just not a devious person — I can't imagine under what circumstances I would intentionally give bad advice to someone who trusted me.

Without further ado, here are my results:

Purgatory (Repenting Believers)High
Level 1 - Limbo (Virtuous Non-Believers)Moderate
Level 2 (Lustful)High
Level 3 (Gluttonous)Moderate
Level 4 (Prodigal and Avaricious)Very Low
Level 5 (Wrathful and Gloomy)Low
Level 6 - The City of Dis (Heretics)Very Low
Level 7 (Violent)Low
Level 8- the Malebolge (Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers)Low
Level 9 - Cocytus (Treacherous)Low

Take the Dante's Inferno Test

If any of the results are inaccurate, it would be the heretics scale. Very low? I don't think they examined my unorthodox beliefs closely enough.

I think the results demonstrate that, on the whole, I'm a nice guy. But not good enough, apparently! How perfect does one have to be to make it to heaven without the stopover en route?

I'm sure it was that "lustful" rating that brought me up short of my destination. Suddenly I'm reminded of Father Guido Sarducci's masturbation skit.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

When cherished values come into conflict

Here's a recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada which I find interesting. It illustrates a point that arises occasionally in the context of public policy debates. The point is, cherished values come into conflict with each other from time to time.

People often get hold of a single truth (or value or principle) and attempt to elevate it above all others. Freedom of expression is a recurrent example, as in this case. According to the Globe and Mail:
The Supreme Court of Canada has rejected a Montreal strip club's claim that it had a constitutional right to broadcast its music soundtracks onto the street outside to attract customers.

The Chateau du Sexe contended the city had violated the club's freedom of expression by invoking a municipal bylaw intended to prevent public nuisances.

In a 6-1 decision, the court agreed the bylaw infringes on freedom of expression.

But it said the infringement is justified by the greater public good of fighting noise pollution.

Justice Ian Binnie, the only dissenter, contended that the bylaw is so broad it could be used to ban people from playing Mozart in their gardens.

He said the city should find a better way to control nuisance sounds and noise pollution.
In this case, two cherished values have come into conflict with each other:  (1) freedom of expression and (2) the prevention of unjustifiable noise pollution.

The same thing happens in the realm of religion sometimes. Here's an example from the Hebrew scriptures. The Torah says, "Do no work on the seventh day of the week" (paraphrasing Exodus 20:10). The Torah also says, "a male child is to be circumcised on the eighth day" (paraphrasing Leviticus 12:2-3).

But what happens when the eighth day of a boy's life coincides with the Sabbath (the seventh day of the week)? To uphold one of the commands is to violate the other.

In such cases, the rabbis ruled that the law of circumcision took priority:  "R. Jose says, 'Great is circumcision since it overrides the stringent Sabbath'" (Mishnah Nedarim 3:11).

I don't have a specific application in mind just now. But when I saw the report of the court decision, I thought I would blog on it for future reference. It is a straightforward example of an important concept.

Friday, November 25, 2005


Here's an activity to consider next time you're bored. Plug a few words into the Internet Anagram Server:  aka, "I, REARRANGEMENT SERVANT".

(Hat tip, Web Junkie.)

Now we can all be as clever as a certain blogger whose blog name (TONER MISHAP) is an anagram of his user ID (Misanthrope).

Here are some of the anagrams I got when I entered "Simply Put":
MY PULPITS (an interesting coincidence for a former preacher)
PITY SLUMP (when it has been a while since anyone took pity on you)
SLIPPY TUM (remember to warm the massage oil first)
and my personal favourite,
I don't know that I'd want to use any of the above for my user ID — certainly not "LUMPY PITS", for example — but "SLY IMP" is pretty good. (It's an anagram of "Simply".)

Try it out! I bet none of you can top "LUSTY PIMP"!

(btw:  "JACK AND ENID" is an anagram of "Dick and Jane".)

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

John's baptism and ritual washings in Judaism

Over at Ragged Glory, I have published another post on Matthew 3:7-12. It explores the question, What was the significance of John's baptism?

I begin with the New Testament data, then consider relevant extra-biblical data, beginning with a passage from Josephus (a first century Jewish historian).

I attempt to demonstrate that John was a theological innovator. His baptism was different from the ritual washings commonly practised by his contemporaries.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Politics and image

It's a truism: in the television era, politics is all about image.

Here's a historic image from Canadian political history. The year was 1974, and Robert Stanfield was campaigning to become our Prime Minister.

CBC News remembers, "In the 1974 election, a photographer snapped a picture of Stanfield fumbling a football on an airport tarmac. It served to depict him as clumsy and inept, despite the fact he had been firing perfect spirals to a reporter for several minutes before the errant toss came his way.

"He once said if he walked on water, the next day's headline would be, 'Stanfield can't swim.'"

Fairly or unfairly, this photograph was partly responsible for Stanfield's defeat.

Pierre Trudeau, on the other hand, was supremely photogenic. This was particularly so when it came to television — moving images.

I was surprised, looking over a couple dozen still photos, to see that few of the images were striking. But Trudeau was transcendent when it came to television. He was always in motion:  often graceful, often dramatic, sometimes a clown, sometimes dandified; always compellingly watchable.

Canadians voted for Trudeau for complex reasons, but being telegenic certainly helped.

This is Bloc Québécois leader, Gilles Duceppe. CTV News explains, "During a tour of a cheese factory during the 1997 campaign, he donned a hairnet that looked laughably like a shower cap. The image was splashed over all the papers and made easy fodder for political cartoons.

"'It took Gilles Duceppe a long time to shake off that shower cap thing,' recalls political analyst L. Ian MacDonald. 'I mean, it was just the right thing to do but it projected entirely the wrong image.'"

Visual images are so powerful, they have the potential to overwhelm a politician's message; or, more accurately, to become the politician's message. Stanfield was inept; Trudeau was charming, capable, intellectual; Duceppe had just fallen off a hay wagon.

Are judgements of this sort — judgements based on photographic images — ever fair?

Meet Stephen Harper, the leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, currently the official opposition. This photograph was on the front page of the Globe and Mail last week, and I found it very striking.

Harper has been criticized for always appearing angry. He's trying to overcome that image:  see him smile? He's really trying to smile, anyway; notice how far he has pulled up the corners of his mouth.

The smile is forced. Maybe you won't see it this way, but my response is to cover the bottom half of his face to focus on the upper half. Are those eyes smiling?

I don't think so. I think Harper's eyes look wary and judgemental, even as the bottom half of his face is making an attempt to be warm and likeable.

It's only a photographic image, but perhaps it conveys relevant information.

Maybe you can be hostile and still make a good Prime Minister. I don't know. But I'll tell you this:  Canadians can't work up any enthusiasm for this particular politician. And I think the photograph illustrates why that's so.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Mary P. writes book

You may already know that Mary P. is participating in National Novel Writing Month:  aka NaNoWriMo. The goal of the organization is to raise money to promote literacy. The goal of participants like Mary P. is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month.

How crazy is that?! Who can write at that pace?!

Mary P. can, that's who. Pshaw!, it isn't enough of a challenge for her! She reached 50,000 words today, only 21 days into the month!

Mary P. got this button at a local gathering of NaNoWriMo participants. She says it should read, "I write book" — singular: hence the title of my post.

I'm biased, of course, but I think the book is really good. Below I offer an excerpt to give you a taste of what she has achieved, at lightning speed.

It's only a first draft, obviously … she couldn't afford to spend any time polishing it. But that only makes the achievement more impressive. I bet you wouldn't guess from the excerpt that this is a first draft, if I hadn't already told you.

I am so impressed!

"You like the blues, don't you?" Josee asked. Her voice permeates my sun-induced languor. She's come over this gorgeous summer afternoon with a bag of hand-me-downs for my kids, but once the clothes have been sorted and set aside, the back yard with its sun and stunning view of the neighbour's solid red brick wall beckons. My kids will be returning from their dad's in the next hour or so, and Josee and I are spending some productive time soaking up the heat. I'm leaning back against the wall of the shed, my face tipped to the sun. She lays on her back beside me. A pitcher of ice water and two glasses sit on a tray between us.

"Love them. Why? Something you'd like to see?" One of the perks of single motherhood that I'd never considered was the weekends off. As a married parent, I'd never had a weekend off. Except when I worked my 8-2 shift at the drop-in tutoring centre on weekends, I was on board with the children. Often, it wasn't their father who cared for them on these days, but a friend - very often Josee. Now, I had weekend afternoons and evenings entirely to myself, something I'd not had since the first child was born ten years ago. Not that I had actually done anything with a weekend evening yet.

"No, not me. But my friend Marc, you know him, the police officer? The one who was on that task force last year looking into runaway kids?"

"I've never met him, but you've mentioned him before. This is Marc whose wife runs that craft shop in the Glebe?"

"Marc whose wife left him three months ago, yeah, that's the one."

"Ah, geez, Josee. I've only been separated a couple of months. You're not suggesting I want to be dating already? And some guy who's on the rebound? Hell, I'm on the rebound! Nobody should be wanting to date me."

"Are you, or are you not enjoying being single?"

"I am loving it! And I'm loving it, already, without dating."

"So don't think of it as a date. Just go down to Tucson's on Saturday night to hear a group with someone else who likes your kind of music."

"'So don't think of it as a date.' How cliche is that? Next you'll be telling me that as long as I pay my own way, it's not a date."

"Well, it's not!"

"And if I pay my own way, I don't have to sleep with him?"

"Get out of here. You don't have to sleep with him even if he does pay."

"That's a relief. I thought you'd suddenly become an afficionado of that 'Rules' book."

"No. Not that it says that, anyway, does it? All I'm saying is that you should just go because it would be a fun thing to do. That's it, that's all, end of story, no big agenda."

"Is that how he'd be looking at it?"


"And you know this because..."

"Because I talked to him. Said I might know someone. Didn't tell him who, and asked if he'd mind."

"God, Josee, I feel like we're in seventh grade here. Look, why don't you give me his phone number." She pulls a business card from her purse.

"He gave you his card??"

"Just in case. But he doesn't know your name, I promise."

I take the card without looking at it, slip it into the pocket of my shorts. "If I feel like it, I'll call him; if I don't, I'll go by myself. I can have fun by myself, you know."

"Yeah, I know, but sooner or later you'll run out of batteries." She grins wickedly as I snort.

"When that happens, maybe I'll give Marc a call. Until then, things are working just fine for me.


Despite my show of reluctance, I did think about Josee's suggestion. I'd been on my own for two months, and in that time I'd not gone out once. Not a single grown-up evening out. It probably was time I looked beyond the four walls of my home, comfortable though it was now. It probably was time I went out and did something frivolous, something fun, just for myself.

After dinner that evening, I finally remembered to take the slightly crumpled card out of my pocket, and glanced at the numbers on it. Business number, cell phone number, even a fax, if I decided to put myself out in writing. A man who wants to be accessible, at any rate. I set the card on the ledge beside the kitchen window, over the sink, in the stash of other business cards I'd accrued: The Faucet Man, Secondhand Appliance Source, Cheap and Skilful Drywaller, the Plumber who covers his butt, the Lady Chimneysweep, the Electrician who doesn't hit on you....

Marc's card nestled in with the other cards, a potential frivolity amongst necessities. Would I call him? Should I call him? Did I want to?

"Mummy! We've brushed our teeths!" Daniel's voice echoes down the stairs. "We're ready for our bedtime story!"

Saved by the bellow. "Okay, guys! I'm coming right up!"

I love our bedtime routines. Emma, having had her bath, story and snuggle an hour ago, sleeps peacefully. Her blond curls tumble across her pillow as I lean to kiss her chubby baby cheek.

Zoe and Daniel wait in Daniel's room, snuggled side-by-side in his bed. After story time, Zoe will cross the landing to the bedroom she shares with Emma, but stories for the big kids take place in Daniel's room, where we can talk softly and leave the light on without disturbing the baby.

They wriggle apart to make room for me. Daniel carefully pats the pillow into its place against the wall behind us, a cushioned backrest for the snuggling that accompanies all good stories. A child nuzzled under each arm, the book held in front, I open to tonight's chapter, resume the lively story of the brave warrior mice and their struggles against the evil stoats.

My children are nestled warm against me, their breathing rhythmic and gentle, their hair soft against my cheek. I get so much satisfaction from their physical presence, the trust in me their closeness expresses. I am the centre of their worlds right now, as they are the centre of my larger world.

My larger world which includes Josee, the tutoring I do on weekends, the other children I care for during the week, and... What else does my world include? Phone calls to my sister, 500 miles away, each of us too involved with our small children - and, let's face it, too financially strapped - to make the journey to visit very often. Shopping for groceries and necessities for the children. And that's about it.

When is the last time I went out for a drink, or to a movie, just myself? My big indulgence for just me has been my weekly trips to the library — not the trips I make with the children, but the visit I make each Saturday in which I go nowhere near the children's section — and the hours I read each evening. I am not about to apologize for being a bookworm. I love my evening spent curled in a quilt on the couch, safe and secure, reading, reading, reading.

Nor do I have a need for dozens of friends. One or two reliable, caring, accessible friends is all I have ever needed. Oh, and I can't forget my two invisible friends - my Inner Cynic and my Inner Paragon. But still - three friends, two of them imaginary, and a pile of books is not much of a social life, is it? Josee is right: it's time I made a move to expand my world a bit. I don't know that I want or need to include Marc - or any other man - in it just now, but it's high time, yes it is, it's high time my world got a little bigger than my home, the library, and the damned grocery store!

"Mummy? Mummy, you've stopped reading!" Zoe's voice interrupts my reverie. She and Daniel lean out a bit, look up at me in mild exasperation. "It's not the end of the chapter yet."

"Oops. Sorry, love. I got distracted. All right...ah...okay. Here we are."


Friday morning. End of another week in daycare land. I wake before my alarm, and as I do every morning, indulge in the sensual luxury of a corner-to-corner, across-the-mattress stretch. No oppressive, unhappy man shares my bed, and my children now sleep contentedly in their own beds. All that lovely space, all for me! Will this ever become less than a delightful morning gift to myself, this wide, empty bed?

Freedom is made of such small things. A bed shared by no one who isn't welcome. Well, shared by no one at all these days, truth be known, but this is my choice. The right to roll over and stretch to your heart's content. Being able to turn on the light when you wake, rather than stumble in the dark. Getting to take the first shower. Having a morning cup of tea on my own. Solitude is not loneliness; it breathes life into me.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The letter carrier who went postal
and The Israeli soldier who hesitated

In the past 36 hours, I've come across an exceptional number of interesting things in cyberspace. I'd like to call five items to your attention.

1. The letter carrier who went postal

This amusing tale is worth reading in its entirety. It comes from today's Globe and Mail:
For reasons that are still not fully understood, a mail carrier in Montreal decided that instead of delivering the mail, he would hoard it at home. By the time Canada Post caught on, the carrier had stolen a whopping 75,000 pieces of mail over five years. …

On some days, the carrier would deliver the mail to one side of the street, but not the other. Other days, he wouldn't deliver to homes on the second floor. Of the mail he stole, he opened only about 100 envelopes, mostly greeting cards containing cash or cheques. …

Most of the mail belonged to residents of the immigrant-heavy district of Park Extension. Yesterday, residents of the district's De L'Épée Avenue opened the doors to their modest duplexes and grabbed hold of brick-sized bundles of mail, eyes wide.
— i.e., bundles of mail that the letter carrier had been hoarding for months or years, which are now being delivered to the startled householders.

2. The turtle who paints masterpieces

VirtuosoI like abstract art; Mary P. and I proudly display several pieces in our home. But I admit, some pieces could be the creation of a turtle.

According to, Koopa the turtle is developing quite a reputation. Paintings like Virtuoso (pictured) now hang in 46 of the US states.

The sale of Koopa's art has raised over $9,000 for turtle rescue organizations. (hat tip Web junkie)

3. Surprise! European Muslims actively resist integration

I've just discovered Andrew Sullivan's blog. Sullivan writes very perceptively on how the USA is prosecuting the "war on terror", among other subjects.

Today, he shares this quote from the Christian Science Monitor:
Millions of "French Muslims" don't consider themselves French. A government report leaked last March depicted an increasingly two-track educational system: More and more Muslim students refuse to sing, dance, participate in sports, sketch a face, or play an instrument. They won't draw a right angle (it looks like part of the Christian cross). They won't read Voltaire and Rousseau (too antireligion), Cyrano de Bergerac (too racy), Madame Bovary (too pro-women), or Chrétien de Troyes (too chrétien). [Chrétien means Christian.] One school has separate toilets for "Muslims" and "Frenchmen"; another obeyed a Muslim leader's call for separate locker rooms because "the circumcised should not have to undress alongside the impure."
Sullivan comments:
This is not a case simply of an ethnic minority denied integration; it's a case of a religious minority refusing integration, indeed attacking and denying the very values of secularism and liberalism upon which the West rests.
Who can disagree?

4. Burning Man photos

purple headBurning Man is an annual event wherein 25,000+ people travel to the Black Rock Desert to form an experi- mental community for one week. Participants are free to express themselves in ways that are outside the norms that apply elsewhere.

Carolyn was there this year and she has posted a couple dozen photos on her blog. Note:  I can't link to the photos directly because each photo is a separate post. Click on the purple head photo, above, which will take you to the first set, then scroll down past the first few posts. Click here to view a second set of photos.

The event is intriguing, Carolyn's photos capture its spirit, and it's a lot of work to post this many photos! Go, enjoy!

5. An Israeli soldier hesitates … and makes the right decision

Ben Witherington is a Christian scholar who occasionally travels in Israel. On one of his visits, he hired a taxi for a week. Etan, the taxi driver, formerly was an Israeli soldier. Witherington comments, "He was not bitter, but there was a sadness about him, and he had had to grow up much too fast."

On one occasion, Etan nearly made a deadly mistake that might have haunted him for the rest of his life:
Etan had fought at Jenin. Quietly, and with no vainglory at all, he told of the day that he was attacking a particular Palestinian house thought to harbor Hamas radicals. He had pulled out a grenade, and had pulled the pin almost entirely out when he remembered he had a duty to yell that there was an incoming explosive, in case there were innocents within who deserved a chance to get out of the way. He told me "but we had been fighting hard, and yet something made me put that pin back in the grenade and look inside the house first."

Inside the house he found nothing but women and children who had been locked into the house by their own people so that they could claim the Israeli's had commited a horrible atrocity at Jenin. It made him physically sick, and yet he was so thankful that something had stopped him from throwing that grenade. I had no doubt that "something" was God. Then he asked — what kind of people would do this to their own families in order to shame us before the world? It was a very good question and shows that the whole Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been complex with evil and good on both sides.

Later when Etan had gathered himself, he said to me — "I love my country and this is why I fight, but honestly, if someone would tell me there was a place for us Jews in the middle of a desert where everyone would leave us alone and no one else would claim the territory and we wouldn't have to hurt anyone by mistake, I would move there today. It is not about living on this piece of dirt for me. It is about shalom."

I was deeply moved by his testimony. He had grown up fast and hard as a teen in the Israeli army, and he had seen the worst that humanity can do, and yet there was still a little hopefulness left in him. The human spirit, created in God's image is resilient, and I am thankful that Etan listened to that still small voice on that crucial day in Jenin. He said "If I had not stopped and looked on that day, I would never have slept again."

It's a hard thing to be a soldier with an actual conscience because all war is hell, and yet this story shows what a difference it can make in a case by case basis.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and pray for my new friend Etan.
For the record:  I believe, as Witherington believes, that it was the Spirit of God who prompted Etan to put that pin back into the grenade.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Two effective nude protests

against oil dependency

Getting naked for a worthy cause is all the rage these days. Or is it the other way around — a worthy cause is a convenient excuse to get naked?

Frankly, I think it's a bit of both. To participate in the World Naked Bike Ride, you've got to yield to your inner exhibitionist. If you don't have an inner exhibitionist, you won't be among the participants.

nude protestOn the weekend of June 11-12, 2005, according to, naked cyclists took to the streets in more than 50 cities worldwide. The purpose was to register a protest against Western dependence on oil.

(image originally uploaded by justinphilpott).

Note that no one in the UK was arrested or registered as a sex offender: "Although indecent exposure is a criminal offence in the UK, the Metropolitan Police viewed the ride as a political protest, and no arrests were made." Good for the Bobbies, I say!

I think this protest works better than the "Breasts Not Bombs" events (see my previous post).

It's the bicycles that make the difference. Getting naked in public has nothing to do with decreasing Western dependence on oil. But riding a bike does!

These protesters didn't stand around holding banners and chanting, "Stop indecent exposure to automobile emissions!" They hopped onto their bicycles, thus encouraging people to consider alternative means of transportation.

In my opinion, that's the missing element in the "Breasts Not Bombs" events. They need to devise a "bicycle" — a symbol they can use to divert attention away from the nudity toward the cause they espouse.

The World Naked Bike Ride advocates using an alternative means of transportation. What exactly does "Breasts Not Bombs" ask people to do? Does it have something to do with breasts?

I must admit that I enjoyed researching this subject. Some time when you're bored, I encourage you to google "topless protests" and see what turns up.

pro cunnilingusYou have to know that PETA — People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals — is going to come up repeatedly.

PETA is known for the memorable slogan, "I'd rather go naked than wear fur." This is the same issue, once again — trying to segue from the medium (nudity) to the message (end cruelty to animals).

PETA is also known for their outrageous stunts. No surprise, then, that they came up with the funniest of the protests in my google search.

The cause:  "the persistent and invidious male failure to lick pussy." "Animals get eaten more than we do," is their complaint. (Click on the photo for the story.)

I think this is a successful protest:
  • Nudity makes sense in this context;
  • So does tiger makeup: tiger = pussy, see?
  • And the cage? … well, that's a little harder to explain.
How about this?: going too long between orgasms can make you feel like a caged animal.

Awwww, the poor dear!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

The medium overwhelms the message

topless protest 1
"Breasts Not Bombs" was in the news earlier this month. Two women were arrested for exposing their breasts as part of an anti-Schwarzenegger protest on the grounds of California's state Capitol. If convicted of committing lewd acts, they may be registered as sex offenders! In my opinion, that would be a ludicrous overreaction.

The leader of the movement, Sherry Glaser, explains that the tactic was inspired by the infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction":
The "Crass and deplorable stunt" that occurred during the half-time show of the Superbowl over took National Headlines. The fact that George Bush Lied to the World and the American People about Saddam Hussein having weapons of mass destruction didn’t even make the paper that day. I guess Janet’s Breasts bounced it right off the front page. Am I also to believe that her breast exposure is more horrifying than the death of another six US soldiers and who knows how many Iraqi children and women? Or more indecent than the fact that people are being detained and tortured without any constitutional rights in Guantanamo Bay?

I understand that The FCC is going to order a probe into the Breast situation. They are going to probe the breast exposure. … Isn’t it more in the best interest of Americans for there to be an investigation into Dick Cheney’s ties to Halliburton and his secret meetings with the energy taskforce? …

What I have to surmise from this obsession with Janet Jackson’s breast is that the Breast is mightier than the sword. It seems as though we women have a secret weapon we knew nothing about. The power of the breast. Like any super hero, underneath our everyday clothing lay our true identities. With the slip of some leather and the revelation of a little bit of flesh we command the front page.
I agree with Ms. Glaser to a point. I think the American reaction to the merest flash of Janet Jackson's breast was bizarre. The degree of outrage suggested a certain sickness in the American psyche. Millions of Canadians watched the same half-time show, and the Canadian equivalent of the FCC received fewer than 100 complaints.

But I think Ms. Glaser is misguided to make breasts a vehicle of political protest, as I will explain.

There are three topless people in the photo at the top of this post. (Of a different protest, not the one at California's state Capitol.) Let's consider each of them in turn.

topless protest 2Beauty is a very subjective concept, but I assume we can all agree that this woman is physically attractive.

Maybe too attractive. The medium (breasts) threatens to overwhelm the message (not bombs). I can't help thinking of the line from the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies:

Admiral Roebuck: With all due respect, M, I think you don't have the balls for this job. [Note: M is a woman.]

M: Maybe. But the advantage is, I don't have to think with them all the time.

It's pathetic, but true:  men tend to "think" with their balls. When a man is in the presence of a beautiful, topless woman, all the blood rushes out of his brain and settles in his groin.

I freely confess that if this woman asked me to sign a petition, I would not hesitate. I would sign in hope that she would direct that warm smile at me. Then I would wander aimlessly for the next couple of hours in a happy erotic haze.

But I would be no more of a pacifist than I was before. Throughout our encounter, the medium would have more of my attention than the message.

topless protest 3This photo may offend some folks, but it doesn't have much impact on me one way or another. (source) I understand that some men are convinced they are really women trapped in a man's body. Some such men resort to hormone therapy and radical surgery to become the other. And some, like this fellow, are content to stop half way and be a bit of each.

I've never had a transsexual friend, so I'm sure I'm not as sympathetic as I might otherwise be. But I can't help but wonder about this person's motives. Is s/he here, sans shirt, primarily because s/he believes so deeply in the pacifist cause? Or is the cause primarily a pretext to expose his/her breasts and flaunt his/her transgendered state?

In the final analysis it probably doesn't matter too much. We all suffer from the same syndrome:  even when we do the right thing, we never do it 100% for the right motives.

But I know this much for sure:  the medium is once again overwhelming the message, even more powerfully than in the case of the first woman.

topless protest 4

Meet Sherry Glaser, the driving force behind the "Breasts Not Bombs" movement. She says it takes real courage for a woman with a body like hers to disrobe in public:
I must confess, as I did before I disrobed, that this act was terribly frightening. Not just because there were police ready to arrest me and media surrounding me, not to mention registered sex offenders, but because my breasts are huge, I know. I don't have to tell you that.

I do not fit into the acceptable, popular culturally desirable body type. I'm more like every woman. Every woman who has doubts about her body. Every woman who is afraid to undress with the light on for fear that her flaws will overwhelm her beauty. Everywoman who blossoms at middle age into her full power and voluptuous sexuality. Every woman who is afraid some man will judge her as ugly or fat. Every woman who is afraid that she's just not right. So it took a mountain of courage for me to do this act.
I find Ms. Glaser's first-person account very moving. And her fears have been realized:  some men are infuriated because Ms. Glaser isn't young and gorgeous:
I receive e-mails that are downright stunning as to what my body looks like to them. "Beastly" HUGE TITS" "Disgusting" "hideous" — things like that. People calling me a moron, suggesting I should go to a mental hospital. …

My favorite interaction came from a retired Army Sargeant who served in Viet Nam. His e-mail began, "Do you have any "members with a DECENT HUMAN set of tits? All I have seen are OINKERS. Now I know the meaning of pornography. Put your shirts on Mothers." Our correspondence began that way and went on for a couple of weeks with a total of about five messages to each other. We came to realize that we were both angry and it wasn't really about each other.
If Ms. Glaser is willing to put up with such crap, she is obviously deeply committed to the pacifist cause. It's hard to criticize a woman who is willing to pay a deeply personal price for her convictions. But, in the final analysis, I still think she is misguided.

It's clear from the hate mail Ms. Glaser receives that the medium is, once again, overwhelming the message. I think it's appalling that people attack her for not having smaller, perkier breasts. But clearly that's the only impression the protest makes on many observers.

Aside from the tendency men have to think with their balls, there is another reason why such protests are doomed to fail:  there is no natural connection between breasts and pacifism.

Ms. Glaser and her colleagues try to establish a connection in people's minds. They cry out,
Breasts Not Bombs, Titties Not Tanks, Nipples not Napalm, Mammaries not missles. The issue is SOFT TISSUE!
I admire that last phrase, "the issue is soft tissue" — it's very clever. But even if we set the sexual response to one side, the first subject (breasts) does not provide any kind of segue to the other (the carnage in Iraq and elsewhere).

The medium seizes our attention, quite effectively. But then Ms. Glaser and her colleagues struggle in vain to shift our attention to the message. What remains is only the base sexual response, which leads either to arousal or disgust, depending on the beauty of the woman and the maturity of the onlooker.

I have a short follow-up post in mind — no more than a post script, really. But here's my advice to Ms. Glaser and others who stage similar protests involving public nudity. To achieve your goal, you've got to find an intermediary step to shift attention by stages from the medium to the message. I have an example in mind which I'll share tomorrow.

If the women readers have a different perspective, I'd be very interested to hear it. I know I've discussed the issue entirely from the perspective of the male response.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Race riots: coming soon to your neighborhood?

First, an update on the rioting in France. Since Wednesday, forty municipalities have imposed curfews on minors. In Paris, according to the Globe and Mail,
police banned public gatherings that could "provoke or encourage disorder" from 10 a.m., local time, Saturday to 8 a.m. Sunday. It was the first such ban in the French capital in at least a decade, said police spokesman Hugo Mahboubi.
Rioting has weakened in intensity since the curfews were introduced. Nonetheless, police counted 315 cars torched across France yesterday night.

Europeans are nervously monitoring events in France, wondering if they soon will be facing a similar crisis. The Washington Post reports:
The burning cars and social fury exploding across France have transfixed the rest of Europe, where countries with sizable and growing immigrant populations are confronted by some of the same underlying tensions but are cautiously hopeful that the violence won't spread. …

While politicians and police chiefs in other European nations with substantial immigrant populations — notably Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands — say they have seen no visible signs of unrest, they acknowledge that the French riots have grabbed their attention and reminded them of what could happen if they don't do more to address problems at home.
One phenomenon cries out for an explanation. The discontent in France and elsewhere is traced not to recent immigrants, but to the children of immigrants. In other words, visible minorities who were born in Western cities. The issue first came into focus when it was discovered that some of the perpetrators of the London bombings had been born in England.

An article in yesterday's Globe and Mail offers an interesting perspective. Recent research
shows an emerging population of Canadian-raised daughters and sons of visible-minority immigrants à la France whose accents and cultural reference points are as Canadian as maple syrup, but who in many respects feel less welcome in the country than their parents.

"Their parents came to improve their lives," says University of Toronto sociologist Jeffrey Reitz, one of Canada's foremost academic experts on immigration and multiculturalism.

"They can make comparisons to where they were. They can [move] on. But for their children born in Canada, they don't have the option of going anywhere else. And they expect equality. Therefore their expectations are much higher."
I don't know that this is the full explanation, but it's the first analysis that makes any sense to me.

(an idyllic photo from Citizenship and Immigration Canada)

Visible minorities born in Western cities have higher expectations than their parents. Westerners boast about equal opportunity for all, and they take those comments at face value. When they discover that a lot of doors are closed to them it comes as a rude shock.

Are the doors closed because they are visible minorities? Or do they face the same kinds of obstacles as those who are not visible minorities?

We all start out with some characteristics that work to our advantage and others that hold us back. For example, some studies have shown that income is related to height, with each inch adding about $789 to one's yearly income. If this is true, the fact that I'm vertically challenged (5'6½") holds me back economically.

On the other hand, if you're Paris Hilton, you can become rich and (in)famous despite having neither talent, brains, nor anything else that should qualify you for success in a meritocracy. Equal opportunity for all doesn't work out quite as advertised.

Still, you can't argue with people's experience:
Listen to the voice of 22-year-old Rahel Appiagyei, a third-year student in international relations attending Toronto's elite bilingual Glendon College at York University.

"No, I don't feel accepted," she says. "The one thing I don't understand — me, personally, and for blacks in general — is why we're still seen as immigrants."

In the Canada of her experience, she says, "the word 'immigrant' is used to mean coloured and the word 'Canadian' is a code word for Caucasian." Her parents emigrated from Ghana in 1988, when she was 5. Immigrants from Ghana — along with those from Ethiopia, Somalia and Afghanistan — have the highest rates of poverty in Canada, between 50 and 80 per cent. She, her parents and five siblings live crowded into a three-bedroom apartment.

Ms. Appiagyei, whose idiom and accent with trademark raised ou diphthong are flawlessly Canadian, says with pride that her family has never needed a penny of welfare, that her father has steadily worked since he arrived, and that she is the first in the family to be accomplishing what her mother and father brought their children to Canada to do.

She cites the Toronto school board's policy of zero tolerance for violence and points out its targets are overwhelmingly black students. Something can't be right with a policy that winds up being aimed at a single racial group, she says. "It gives me a lot of messages."

Ms. Appiagyei tells the story of living one summer in Quebec with a family to learn French. The father made clear that he associated blacks with poverty and one day commented that he had never thought blacks attractive until he met her. "It was a compliment and insult at the same time."

The Ethnic Diversity Study found 37 per cent of Canada's visible minorities report discrimination, and for blacks alone the figure is 50 per cent.

Ms. Appiagyei says the more engaged and involved in Canadian life she becomes, the more she encounters gaps between her expectations of what Canadian society should be and the reality she encounters.

She tells of being often asked: "'You're from Africa, how come you know English so well?' I feel I'm always being assessed with lions and tigers, with remoteness. Why is it we're not allowed to feel we belong here?"
I accept that visible minorities face an additional obstacle to success. And maybe it's a big obstacle — there's no way for caucasians like me to evaluate it.

Nonetheless, as I explained in my previous post on the riots in Paris, I think the social problem is particularly acute in France. Citizens of other European nations evidently feel the same (returning here to the Washington Post article):
European lawmakers and analysts also pointed to evidence that the French riots were being fueled by conditions that were not mirrored elsewhere. While there is widespread dissatisfaction with the pace of integration and assimilation throughout Europe, they said, segregation, unemployment and social alienation seem much more pronounced in the suburbs around Paris and other French cities. …

Friedrich Heckmann, a professor of immigration studies at the University of Bamberg in Germany, said studies show that it is more difficult for second-generation French to move out of the slums or segregated neighborhoods and find jobs than for people of the same age and background in Britain and Germany.
That's my impression, too — that conditions here in Canada are not what they are in France.

But maybe I'm unduly complacent. What is your opinion? Are similar riots likely to break out in Canada? Are they likely to break out in the UK or the USA?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Variant accounts of John the Baptist's message

I've published a new post over at Ragged Glory: Jesus' performance evaluation, part 2: variant accounts.

The topic is still the depiction of John the Baptist in the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). In the new post, I explore the difference in John's message as reported by Matthew and Luke, on the one hand, and by Mark, on the other.

This leads to a brief discussion of the "two source" theory.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lest we forget

World War 2 Death Count

Military Civilian Combined
USSR 13,600,000 7,700,000 21,300,000
China 1,324,000 10,000,000 11,324,000
Germany 3,250,000 3,810,000 7,060,000
Poland 850,000 6,000,000 6,850,000
Japan — —  — —  2,000,000
Yugoslavia 300,000 1,400,000 1,700,000
Rumania 520,000 465,000 985,000
France 340,000 470,000 810,000
Hungary — —  — —  750,000
Austria 380,000 145,000 525,000
Greece — —  — —  520,000
USA 500,000 none 500,000
Italy 330,000 80,000 410,000
Czechoslovakia — —  — —  400,000
Great Britain 326,000 62,000 388,000
Netherlands 198,000 12,000 210,000
Belgium 76,000 12,000 88,000
Finland — —  — —  84,000
Canada 39,000 none 39,000
India 36,000 none 36,000
Australia 29,000 none 29,000
Albania — —  — —  28,000
Spain 12,000 10,000 22,000
Bulgaria 19,000 2,000 21,000
New Zealand 12,000 none 12,000
Norway — —  — —  10,262
South Africa 9,000 none 9,000
Luxembourg — —  — —  5,000
Denmark 4,000 none 4,000
Total 56,125,262

World War 2 death toll in perspective
First World War (1914-18):  15,000,000
Russian Civil War (1917-22):  9,000,000
Stalin's regime (USSR, 1924-53):  20,000,000
Second World War (1937-45):  55,000,000
Mao Zedong's regime (China, 1949-1975):  40,000,000

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Religion, politics, and tax-exempt status don't mix

The Los Angeles Times reports,
The Internal Revenue Service has warned one of Southern California's largest and most liberal churches that it is at risk of losing its tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon two days before the 2004 presidential election.
Discussion over at Ragged Glory.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

French nationalism and the Paris riots

No doubt most of you are aware that Muslim youths have been rioting in Paris, nightly, for nearly two weeks now. A 61-year-old man was beaten to death. A woman in her 50s, on crutches, was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire. The rioters are burning more than 1,000 cars per night.

I would like to draw a connection between the riots in Paris and an event here in Canada ten years ago.

1995 referendumOn October 30, 1995, residents of Quebec nearly voted to separate from Canada. According to Wikipedia, the final vote was 50.58% against to 49.42% in favour of separation. English Canadians watched the returns with our hearts in our throats:  we had no say in the decision as our nation was very nearly torn in two.

But what is the connection between this event and the riots in Paris? The answer is, French nationalism.

Someone who was being interviewed on CBC radio tried to explain the alienation of the Muslim youths who are rioting nightly in Paris. He said that the majority of the population does not regard them as "really" French. Even Muslims who were born in France are up against that prejudice.

When I heard those comments, I thought of the 1995 referendum.

Let me step back and provide a little historical context. There was a time when the Francophone population of Quebec had good reason to resent English Canada. Mordecai Richler explains,
[French Canadians] can recall when they weren't welcome in the higher reaches of Quebec's leading law firms, brokerage houses or banks. In 1961 French Canadians, though they made up something like a third of Canada's then population of nineteen million, held somewhat less than fifteen percent of responsible federal jobs. A survey showed that while four fifths of the directors of 183 major companies in Canada, were Canadian born, less than 7% of these positions were held by French Canadians.
But those days are long past. The sea change began in the early 1960s with the Quiet Revolution, which profoundly redefined the role of Quebec, and Quebeckers, within Confederation. Quebeckers have assumed their rightful place in the boardrooms of the nation and at the highest echelons of government. It is often pointed out that Canada's Prime Minister has come from Quebec for 32 of the past 33 years.

Thus it is hard to understand Francophone Quebeckers' continuing alienation. At a time when the United Nations repeatedly chose Canada as the best nation on earth in which to live, Quebeckers seriously considered leaving Canada to found a separate nation.

The impulse is attributable to French nationalism.

When the result of the 1995 referendum was clear, the leader of the separatist cause offered an infamous explanation of the result. Then Premier Jacques Parizeau said:
Let's stop talking about the francophones of Quebec. Let's talk about us. Sixty per cent of us have voted in favour.
We need to pause here just for a moment. Who is the "us" to whom M. Parizeau refers? The answer is, "real" Quebeckers. These folk sometimes identify themselves as pur laine (pure wool) Quebeckers — those whose ancestors came from France and who settled in Quebec many generations ago.

M. Parizeau was dividing Quebec voters into "us" and "them". They may be francophones insofar as they speak French, but they are not to be mistaken for us. He continued:
… It's true we have been defeated, but basically by what? By money and the ethnic vote. All it means is that in the next round [i.e., the next referendum], instead of us being 60 or 61 per cent in favour, we'll be 63 or 64 per cent.
This notorious phrase, "money and the ethnic vote", continues to resound ten years later. It is true that allophones (those whose first language is neither French nor English) voted against separation en masse (see the Wikipedia article sited above). But all residents of Quebec were entitled to participate in determining their fate. M. Parizeau's remarks suggest that he bitterly resented allophones for scuppering his pet project.

Paris burnsNow let us return to those Muslim youths in Paris — the ones who doubt they are accepted as "really" French. Is this scenario plausible? I think so.

By no means do I condone the rioting in Paris. All around the world, Muslims are responsible for acts of violence and the murder of civilians, just as we are now seeing in France. Evidence continues to mount that there is something in contemporary Muslim culture which lends itself to such acts.

But surely we should still consider whether the Muslim youths of France have just cause to feel alienated. Timothy Smith, described as a specialist in French history, offers this opinion:
Whereas Toronto has small pockets of self-segregated ethnic communities (which tend to disperse over a generation or two), Paris has entire suburbs, with hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in almost complete isolation from the mainstream, decade after decade.

The French government refuses to recognize ethnic communities as legitimate actors — it would prefer that they simply disappear quietly into the mainstream. North Africans are expected to jettison all their cultural and religious baggage at the border, and pretend that their ancestors are the Gauls. Multiculturalism is dismissed as a dangerous Anglo-Saxon import. … The French believe that multiculturalism would only privilege individuals by association with their ethnic, religious or racial roots.
Smith believes that France could learn a thing or two from Canada's example:
There is no such concept as Algerian French. By contrast, one can be Chinese Canadian and still be considered a full citizen. Before immigrants to Canada become equal in the economic sense, their culture is already considered equal in the theoretical sense. The one helps lead to the other. …

Most Canadians see immigrants in a positive light — they add diversity to the cultural scene, they spice up our cuisine, they make important economic contributions, they will help pay for the boomers' pensions. …

Obviously, racism exists in Canada, but where is the equivalent of France's unabashedly xenophobic National Front party, which received 5.5 million votes in 2002? Which political party in Canada is led by a man who plasters city walls with election posters vowing: "When he [this leader] comes, they [the immigrants] are going?"
Even in Quebec, multiculturalism has been embraced as a social good. Jacques Parizeau's offensive remarks on the night of the 1995 referendum marked a high-water mark in bitterness directed toward "ethnics". The new generation of separatist leaders actively courts the allophone vote. They hope to hold another referendum some day, and they want immigrants to feel that there is a place for them in an independent Quebec.

France can, indeed, learn a few lessons from Canada's example. The article by Timothy Smith concludes:
Amazingly, there isn't a single member of the National Assembly from mainland France who is a visible minority, even as 9 per cent to 10 per cent of the population is Muslim. If there were one such politician, perhaps he or she could visit the suburbs and deliver a message of hope.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Escaping gravity

All of us have dreams in which we are flying. I wonder why that is. Why do we all dream about doing something that none of us has ever done?

In my dreams, people are always amazed that I can fly. I explain that anyone can do it, and I show them how.

When I was younger, I used to fly higher than I do now. I would start running, and somehow get in sync with the wind, and then I would lift off the ground. I would fly high above the trees, cutting great swooping arcs through the sky like a kite. I would feel it in the pit of my stomach, like you do when you drive over the crest of a steep hill.

I didn't flap my arms to fly. Not like the old joke:  I flew in from Miami yesterday … and boy, are my arms tired.

It was just a matter of escaping gravity. As long as my feet were on the ground, gravity had me in its grip. But once I lifted off just a little, I was free:  the sky was the limit.

And why not, I ask? Scientists tell us that gravity is a weak force:
Although it may be hard to believe after you have helped a friend move a sofa up to a third-floor apartment, gravity is by far the weakest of the fundamental forces. The reason it dominates our lives the way it does is that we spend our days on the surface of a huge mass (the earth) that functions as a gigantic generator of gravitational force. However, the fact that you can pick up a nail with a magnet shows that even the entire earth pulling on one side cannot counteract the magnetic force exerted by something that can be held in your hand. (James S. Trefil, The Moment of Creation.)
I still fly in my dreams, just as I did when I was twenty years old, but now I stay much lower to the ground. I've put on a few pounds in the intervening years. Maybe gravity has more of a hold on me.

Or maybe the explanation is psychological. As a kid, I was sure I would grow up to be a pro hockey player. As a teenager, I dreamt instead of being a rock star or a renowned actor. Then, as a young adult, I developed a bit of a Messiah complex:  I was going to save the world, or at least rescue many individuals from their unhappy circumstances.

Much to my surprise, it didn't work out that way. These days, my ambitions are much more modest. I am grateful to have a decent job and provide for my children's financial needs. Mary P. and I bought a house together last June, and I'm relieved that we can make the mortgage payments.

My ambitions are much more modest; and in my dreams, I fly much lower to the ground. Coincidence? I think not.

But I still believe that anyone can do it. Gravity is a weak force. And the human spirit is designed to soar.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Jesus' performance evaluation

Over at Ragged Glory, I have published a new post. I encourage inquirers to subject Jesus to a kind of performance evaluation.

Each of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) begins with John's prophecy about the "Coming One". That prophecy functions as a standard against which Jesus may be judged — suitable criteria for a performance evaluation.

Is Jesus the Christ (i.e., the Messiah)? His ministry corresponded to John's expectation — but imperfectly.

I'm going to publish the historical data section as a separate post, probably later this weekend. There I will discuss the difference between the accounts of Matthew and Luke, on the one hand, and Mark, on the other.

This will open up a discussion of the "two source" theory of Gospel origins. The two source theory suggests that Matthew and Luke had two primary sources which they utilized in constructing their Gospels. First, they incorporated most of Mark in their Gospels (with many editorial changes). Second, they utilized a lost account of Jesus' sayings, which scholars designate "Q".

(Yes, just like my pseudonym in the blogosphere … what a coincidence.)

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Why it's better to be a boy

A colleague at work forwarded a jpeg image to me, which sparked an amusing dialogue. Here's the image:

I'm not taking this warning very seriously; maybe if I was another ten or fifteen years older it would hit closer to home. But naturally, I had to respond to the sender.

The dialogue is colour-coded so you can keep the characters straight. Hint:  blue is for boy.
Every pre-pubescent boy's fantasy! (I don't know what little girls do for entertainment. They're at *such* a disadvantage.)

I am not going there!

... can't even write their names in the snow.

Yet can write novels at a very young age.

Hah! You call that *fun*?!!!
And that's where the dialogue ended. My last point was so compelling she turned off her computer and left work early.

Stanley Cup winning coach reveals he is illiterate

Jacques Demers, now retired after achieving great success as a coach in the National Hockey League, has just revealed that he is illiterate. He managed to hide the fact from his colleagues and even from his children until now.

demersDemers coached more than 1,000 games in the NHL; he won the Jack Adams Award as NHL coach of the year twice; and he capped off his career by guiding the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup victory in 1993.

The story is very moving. Demers' father, who was an alcoholic, physically abused him. CanWest News Services quotes Demers:
"My young life was so negative, I developed a positive side to hide everything from people. By not telling people what my Dad was doing to my mom and me, I developed a positive side to hide the ugly truth.

"It was my way of surviving, but I developed anxiety," said Demers, who eventually sought professional help to deal with his personal torment.

"Going to a doctor two years ago helped me understand that when your father says, 'You're a no-good SOB,' you don't go to sleep at night and you can't function or learn at school."
In the 1960s, Demers assumed responsibility for three younger siblings when his parents died a few years apart. He was only sixteen when his Mom died.

A new biography reveals Demers' secret for the first time:
In Jacques Demers:  Toutes En Lettres, a biography written by Mario Leclerc of Le Journal de Montreal and released yesterday, the 61-year-old former Canadiens coach divulges that he never learned to adequately read or write, and shrewdly masked his embarrassing deficiency by getting others to do his paperwork. …

"Everywhere I went, in Detroit or St. Louis, the trainers or someone would always fill out the lineup without knowing my secret," Demers said yesterday.

"I would always tell them, 'You're the best, you know who's playing, you know the sweater numbers in the room.' Eddy [Palchak, the Canadiens trainer] did it for me every single game here and then I'd have an assistant coach look it over.

"No one ever knew my secret but my wife Debbie. In 1984, we were sitting in our kitchen in St. Louis and I asked her to pay some bills. She finally said, 'Look, I'm not your damn secretary.' So I had to tell her and we both kept it a very dark secret.
Even then, Demers continued to hide his illiteracy from his children. According to the Globe and Mail, he told the eldest of his four children only on Tuesday. As of yesterday afternoon, he still had not told the others, who live in the USA.

Demers feared exposure throughout his coaching career and even later, when he became a television commentator for a Francophone TV station:
"Nobody can ever hurt me again. Nobody can fire me now," he said in an interview yesterday.

"But for all those years, I always had at the back of my mind that I could be fired, I could be embarrassed, I could be humiliated.

"I coached five teams, and there's no way the National Hockey League would have given me a chance.

"There's no way they were going to hire someone who says he's an illiterate." …

Former Canadiens star Serge Savard said he only found out the truth about Mr. Demers at the end of their time together with the Montreal Canadiens, in the 1990s.

"He fooled everyone," Mr. Savard said. "He always had notes with him and he looked like he was writing something."
Demers says he learned his survival skills from his mother, who also endured bloodied beatings at the hand of her husband.

When his Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, Demers thought of his Mom. "She was my hero and would have been very proud of me."

Demers plans to donate 60 cents from each sale of the book to Le Chainon, a Montreal shelter for battered women.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

An intractable social problem

In Canada, we call them First Nations. In the USA, they are called Indians. (In fact, Indian is the historic term here, too; it survives in legal texts such as the Indian Act.)

Many First Nation communities live in desperate circumstances. One all-too-typical story is making news this week.

The Kashechewan First Nation, in Northern Ontario, has been under a boil-water advisory since 2003. The community's plight became much worse two weeks ago when deadly E. coli bacteria were found in their drinking water.

E. coli often causes severe bloody diarrhea and abdominal cramps. In vulnerable people, the infection can cause a complication which can lead to kidney failure. A small number of survivors will still have abnormal kidney function many years later, and a few will require long-term dialysis. Other potentially lifelong complications include high blood pressure, seizures, blindness, paralysis, and the effects of having part of one's bowel removed.

In short, E. coli in your drinking water is a serious problem. And the Government of Canada (which has jurisdiction over Indians and Indian reserves) has known about the problem for more than two years. It received an alarming report from the Ontario Clean Water Agency in 2003.

This week, the Government of Ontario declared a state of emergency in Kashechewan after seeing graphic photographs of the community's children. Many of the children are infected with scabies, a nasty parasite, and impetigo, a bacterial skin infection. Meanwhile, the Globe and Mail reports,
95 other Canadian reserves are also under boil-water advisories. A 2001 report by the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs found that 75 per cent of the aboriginal communities in Canada faced "a significant risk to the quality or safety of drinking water." In a sobering report last month, the Auditor-General of Canada reported that most water-treatment plant operators on native reserves across Canada don't "possess the knowledge and skills required to operate their plant safely."
Around the world, wherever indigenous populations have survived into the modern era, the same issues exist. Socio-economic problems abound. In Canada, as summarized by Canadian Press,
The average rate of aboriginal youths committing suicide has soared to six times higher than the national average for the age group. …

Native communities also have higher incidences of infectious and chronic diseases, earlier mortality and face more barriers to health-care access than the general population. …

The high prices for everyday food items in communities like Kashechewan — where a pack of hot dogs costs more than $11 — makes it difficult for residents to eat healthily … although the price of cigarettes does not differ greatly from the rest of the province.
This is an intractable social problem. The Government of Canada spends billions of dollars per year on First Nations, and yet this intolerable situation persists.

Full disclosure here:  I am an employee of the Government of Canada. Specifically, I work for Health Canada, in the First Nations and Inuit Health Branch. I am not trying to exonerate the Government of Canada, nor do I wish to castigate it. I am simply stating a fact:  that if the funding is calculated on a per capita basis, an extraordinary amount of money is invested, to no avail.

The Globe and Mail offers this opinion:
For thousands of years, the James Bay Crees survived by seasonal migration, travelling and living in small groups. Now the Kashechewan residents live in about 200 pre-fab houses in a community of 1,700 with only a tenuous connection to the old ways — some trapping, some crafts, a goose hunt a couple of weeks a year. They survive on money from Ottawa because there are few jobs beyond the ones Ottawa pays for. The Kashechewan unemployment rate is 87 per cent. …

The majority of [Kashechewan residents] are under 24. They need to live closer to employment, with training that will give them a realistic chance of landing that employment — a statement that could be as easily applied to the other remote reserves in this country.
In other words, the Globe and Mail advocates a permanent relocation of the community. Move them south, where the jobs are, and give them the training they need to join non-Aboriginal Canadians in the workforce.

What does this recommendation amount to? The old policy of assimilation:  First Nation people should give up the attempt to maintain a distinct identity and become like the rest of us. Live where non-Aboriginals live, cultivate the same skills that non-Aboriginals rely on, and get yourself the same kind of job.

If that's the solution, it stinks.

I don't have anything brilliant to say here. It seems to me that First Nations are being forced to choose either the frying pan or the fire. Refuse to assimilate and continue to live in squalor and misery; or forfeit your Aboriginal identity for a shot at prosperity.

What kind of choice is that?

How to become a world famous writer

… in three easy steps:
  1. Write something.
  2. Get it published.
  3. Become world famous.
Mary P. has offered to write a column for The Oscar, our local community newspaper, which publishes monthly. Their response, naturally, was to jump up and down for sheer joy for a while. But eventually they calmed down enough to compose an e-mail and take her up on the offer.

The first column ("Diaper Maelstrom") was published this month; we received our copy yesterday. (The November issue hasn't been published online yet, so for now you won't find Mary P.'s column at the link.)

Writing for the local community newspaper is a modest achievement, but I'm proud of her! By my calculation, Mary P. is two thirds of the way to being world famous.