Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Why I Will Never Vote Conservative

I like to consider myself pretty open-minded. When I was younger, I listened pretty carefully to what politicians had to say during election campaigns and, in my idealistic youth, actually believed some of it. These days, I still pay close attention to federal elections and, so far at least, I still vote in federal elections. (Local elections are another story - who cares?). I tend to go into any election process with an open mind and at least give the candidates a chance to share their platform before deciding who I will vote for. (My understanding is that in the United States I would be considered an independent, though I also think that term has other connotations that don't apply to me). As Christopher Hitchens has rightly pointed out, politicians are more likely to work at least a little bit for your vote if you don't give it away before hand. There are, undoubtedly, many voters in both Canada and the United States who vote with their preferred party no matter the candidate or the level of the elections. I consider that plain idiotic. Why vote for a complete moron to represent you you government just because they pledge allegiance to an organization (above their allegiance to you, by the way)?

So, in any federal election, I listen to the debates between the leaders of the various parties. I made my decision based on three main factors: the party platform (what they plan to do once elected); the leader's perceived abilities (i.e. what sort of prime minister the leader will be); and the qualities of the local candidate for member of parliament. (If you're not familiar with the Westminster system of parliament, then this may make more sense if you read up on it). In the past, I have given all parties and independent candidates in my riding an equal opportunity to gain my vote. I do recognize that all parties are out to serve the party, not the electorate. I do recognize that pretty much any party that is big enough to have a realistic chance of getting into power has already been bought and will be serving the hand that feeds it rather than the hand that votes for it. I do recognize that every federal government I have witnessed in my life in my country has wasted my tax money, had outrageous scandals, lied and then lied about the lies they've told, and not fulfilled their election promises. I recognize all of that. Yet, I will still vote and choose the candidate that I think represents me best. With one exception.

No matter how well the Conservative Party of Canada lines up their economic policies with my preferences, their social agenda with my beliefs, and no matter how much a local candidate may be the best option, I will never vote for the Conservative Party.Why? Because they are out of touch with basic reality. That sounds like the catch phrase of any disgruntled voter. I could imagine, three years into his presidency, voters complaining that Obama is out of touch with reality. I wouldn't necessarily disagree with them, metaphorically. But when I say that the Conservative Party of Canada is out of touch with reality, I mean it literally, not figuratively. I don't mean they are out of touch with my version of reality. I don't mean they are out of touch with the direction I believe my country should move in. No. They are out of touch with the established reality of the world we live in. And they are officially so. How so? The good old litmus test  of evolution. Evolution, except for a number of deliberately ignorant and religiously motivated fools, is established fact. (Well, it is fact for those fools too, they just don't recognize it as such). But, the Conservative Party of Canada has, by appointing a creationist as Minister of State for Science and Technology, officially taken the position that evolution is not reality. This is as basic as having a prime minister or a president who does not believe in gravity. Think about that for a minute. No matter how much you believe in the vision of your favoured politician, how would your feelings about them running the country change if they did not believe in gravity? Would you still vote for them? Or might you be tempted to start to think that they belong in an institution of some sort. And I'm not talking about the one that sits on Parliament Hill.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Legal Victory for Reason

Polygamy. Nominally it seems like a relatively straight forward legal issue in which the government should stay out of the bedrooms of society. But it is not. In theory, polygamy could be lumped in with other legal battles over the definition of marriage such as the recent (and ongoing in some countries) battle over the inclusion of same sex marriage into the umbrella defined by legal marriage. In theory, if one person wants to have two spouses and the two spouses desire to share that person with each other, then perhaps they should have the legal right to do so. But there are some huge implications to this type of relationship which make all the difference in the world.

Firstly, there is the issue of things like rights to benefits. Imagine being an employer who provides a benefits package to your employees and, after hiring someone (and budgeting in a certain percentage overhead cost associated with average benefits costs) finding out that they had not one spousal dependant but five. Suddenly your arithemetical models used to calculate benefits costs are out the window. Inevitably, with enough of these situations, the whole model of employer paid benefits would shift. This is an important issue, but relatively minor (or non existent) reason for some of the current legal battles over polygamy.

The most important issue surrounding polygamy is abuse. The vast majority of polygamous cases that the government is interested in prosecuting involve abuse of women and children (and sometimes men). Typically, polygamy occurs in communities in which religion of some sort is deeply ingrained and entrenched, and the polygamy stems from some religious belief about marriage and relationships. Polygamy was, after all, not uncommon in the Bible, and continued to be officially sanctioned by mainstream Mormonism until relatively recent times. Modern day polygamy normally involves one man marrying many women who are typically much younger than he is, and who are often coerced into the act of marriage. They may feel as though they are taking the decision of their own volition, but that is normally because they have been raised in a culture in which they have no other expectations about marriage. Often women are married at a young age, still as teenagers, to middle aged or older men, who are commonly a distant relative of some sort (a function of the limited size of such sects). It is not hard to understand how this constitutes abuse. A girl raised to believe that polygamny is the norm, or indeed the "right" approach to marriage, and then pressured into marriage at 16 to some familiar relative whom they may have known all their life would eventually become their husband, is abuse plain and simple. One could also argue that the boys who grow up in the same culture and eventually end up being the "beneficiaries" by marrying many wives, are also victims of abuse. They know no other lifestyle and often make their choices out of religiously motivated fear.

A modern day example of a polygamous community is Bountiful, British Columbia, Canada. The community is known as a fundamentalist sect of Mormonism (i.e. a claimed sect of Christianity of sorts) in which patriarchal male figures marry multiple young women. The local government has wrestled with the legal precedence of the situation for some time, but yesterday a supreme court judgement ruled that the law against polygamy is constitutional. (See this news article).

People have freedom of religion in most Western, democratic societies. But, their freedom of religion should never infringe on someone else's right to freedom from religion, or on anyone's basic human rights. Good for the legal system in making the right decision in this clear case of abuse of society's most vulnerable. Let's hope they follow it up with some prosecutions.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Top Ten Suggested Changes to Democracy

Everyone who lives in a democracy thinks the system is good in theory; everyone likes having a say in how law is written and money spent by the government. Everyone likes the thought of accountability of the people in charge by way of elections every few years. But, I propose that there is a growing unrest an unease about democracy in practice. The recent "occupy" movements seem to indicate that people are fed up with what is perceived as too cozy a relationship between governments, big business, and banks. All democracies require some rules and regulations around which they are organized (for example: the Westminster System of parliamentary democracy). But, I propose that the following regulations would make democracy better in the sense of being closer to the intention of democracy rather than the usual realities.

1. Make voting mandatory for all adults. 
Whatever the legal age of adulthood (whether 18, 19, or 21), require that all citizens of sound mind vote in each election.

2. Include a "none of the above" option on the ballot. 
No citizen should be made to vote for someone whose policies they disagree with. Given the common likelihood of not finding a candidate for whom you would feel comfortable voting, provide the ability for voters to cast a "protest vote", and report the percentage of votes that went to this option.

3. Make it illegal for any media or person to poll voters during an election campaign, or to publish mass opinions on which candidate is likely to win the election. 
Often, in modern democracies, the outcome of the election is known prior to the voting. This discourages voter participation, and indeed undoubtedly influences election outcomes. This single change would encourage more people to vote with reason rather than voting for the perceived winner.

4. Ban private and corporate sponsorship of or donations to political parties or candidates. 
Everyone accepts that corporations and special interest groups are better represented in governments than individual voters are. By donating millions of dollars to a campaign, special interests (who typically don't have the ability to vote themselves - such as a corporation) can influence policy in their favour and possibly away from the favour of the electorate. The government should serve the electorate, not special interest groups.

5. Limit the ability of elected politicians to accept corporate positions following the end of their term, or board positions during their term. 
Similarly to point 4 above, there is a need for regulations to limit the influence of non-voter special interest groups. Even if corporations are limited from contributing to a campaign, they may significantly influence a politician's actions by "buying" them while in office with a promise of a high-paying corporate position once they leave politics. This is a tricky one because it is a regulation that starts to infringe on an individual's personal freedoms once they leave office. But, by making it clear that politician's have limits on their working positions following retirement from politics, only those truly interested in serving the people would enter politics, and those interested in politics only for future accumulation of wealth would be less common.

6. Make it illegal, during an election campaign, to comment on an opponent's platform or position. 
Election campaigns have become little more than mud-slinging competitions. Voters should really be exposed to the platform and policies of each candidate rather than the interpretation (and purposeful misinterpretation) of an opponent's platform. This might seem like an impractical regulation, but in time it would likely be no more difficult to enforce than something like a plagiarism law.

7. On every single vote in the house of elected members of government (e.g. in the American House of Representatives, the British House of Commons, etc.), publish the question going to vote and the results of the vote, member by member.
Constituents should not have to rely on the inevitable mud-slinging by opponents to report how their elected member of government voted on an issue, or how often they were present for a vote.

8. On every single vote as above in point 7., prior to the vote provide every voter with the opportunity to complete a poll on the issue within their electoral district or riding. 
Every elected member of government should have timely feedback on how their constituents feel on a particular issue.

9. Require that every leader who wants to take their country to war must, prior to the onset of the war, resign their position and join the unit of the armed forces which will most likely be on the front lines. 
Put your money where your mouth is! If a president or prime minister really feels so strongly about going to war, if they really feel like it is the right thing to do, if they really feel terrible each time a soldier is killed, then  let them lead by example.

10. I'm open to suggestions...

America: Ruthlessly Self-Serving

Almost a decade ago now, I engaged in some pretty heated debate with a number of hawkish Americans about their country's intent to go to war in Iraq. I can respect any point of view that is backed up with rational thought, even if it is contrary to my own. Had someone been able and willing to defend the decision to invade Iraq rationally (as Christopher Hitchens did and continues to do), I would respect their position though I would strongly disagree with it. I am a pacifist in general, so there aren't many military interventions that I can get behind philosophically, but I am most vocal against military action when I see a country projecting their self-interest under the guise of spreading freedom, protecting democracy, or simply protecting human rights.

A couple of Americans with whom I engaged on this topic insisted that America's plans to invade Iraq were purely altuistic. The argument was the Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrrant (which is true) and that his people needed freeing from him as a dictator. In addition, of course, there was the issue of weapons of mass desctuction (WMD) that were about to turn into mushroom clouds all over the West. I challenged those I argued with on this, saying that America's interest in invading Iraq was purely self-motivated. It had nothing to do with care for the average Iraqi, and all to do with promoting long-term American interests in the region. Had someone acknowledged that fact, and yet clung to the position that their country was justified in projecting those interests, I would have respected their argument (thought I would still have disagreed with the invasion) a lot more than if they bought the propaganda about freedom and human rights.

I saw a chart in The Economist today that I thought was relevant to this discussion. Before looking at the chart, try to think of the one region in the world that, in the past 60 years, has seen more dictators and government corruption, and less democracy, than almost any other region in the world. Do you think of Africa? If you don't you probably should. Since the Second World War, you'd be hard pressed to isolate another region in the world that has had more ruthless dictators and less democracy and basic human rights. Idi Amin, Muammar Gaddafi, Charles Taylor, Sani Abacha, Laurent Kabila, Robert Mugabe, are just a few of the men who have ruled with impunity and fear. The continent has wallowed in fear, civil war, and genocide for generations. True success stories of democracy, human rights, and lasting peace are few and far between. If ever there was a continent that begged for intervention to "install" democracy, peace, and human rights (if all those things can be installed from outside) then Africa was it. 

Yet, take a look at this chart from The Economist online on November 21st 2011

You'll notice that the number of American troops deployed to Africa is so negligibly small as to be amost unmeasurable. Why?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Lunacy of Defence Spending

You don't need my blog to recognize that the money spent on defence in our world is ridiculous. Upwards of a trillion dollars a year is spent on weapons. The biggest spender is, of course, the United States followed by countries like Russia, China, Britain, France. What is military spending? Ultimately these days, it is an investment that allows or ensures (depending on the amount spent) that a country can protect and exert its interests around the globe. Often ruthlessly so. However you happen to feel about the American war in Iraq since 2003, you must recognize that it cost a tremendous amount of money (figures upwards of $3,000,000,000,000 or three trillion dollars are batted around). What did that money provide? National interests were protected. Whether those interests were control over oil or protection of freedom, they were national interests. The U.S. would not have invaded Iraq if it had not been in its national interest. Americans should be rightly nervous about how their national interests will be protected through the coming century. The current level of funding simply isn't sustainable. China will almost certainly outspend American on defence in the coming decades. America will likely try to keep up, but futily so. The overwhelming debt will eventually bankrupt the country if defence spending is continued at the current percetage of GDP (maybe around 5% or so).There is simply no doubt about the fact that China will exert its will and influence around the globe more and more powerfully in the coming decades. It will get to the point that China has the ability to thumb its nose at anyone who doesn't agree (as the United States has been able to do effectively for a long time, and unabated since the end of the Cold War).

Canada is currently planning the purchase of a number of high-tech fighter aircraft. There is a lot of conflict over the necessity of the purchase. Critics point out that it will cost billions of dollars and will do little to actually defend the country or its interests. Who is Canada likely to have to defend against in the coming generation of fighter jets? That's a tricky question to answer, but I read a viewer's comment on this CBC news story on the issue recently, and I thought they put it very well:

BackBushBilly wrote:
"10Billion dollars for war planes than Washington, Moscow or Beijing can obliterate in under 3-minutes. Hell, for $500, I will be glad to shoot each of you in the foot!

For $10B, we can build 143,000 homes (11,000 homes per province and territory) and end homeless for ever

For $10B, we can employ 1000 surgeons for 20 years ($500,000/yr?)

For $10B, we can buy 3334 MRI machines

For $10B, we can feed 10Million starving Africans for a year

Another viewer wrote an even more succinct response, given the tight economic times: 

artonibus rex wrote:

"For 10 billion, we could spend 10 billion less."

Hard to argue against that one.

Monday, November 14, 2011


What can one say about this story of a recent "honour killing" and subsequent trial? It is horrific, of course, but it is also a window into the insane mind of a man who doesn't understand the word honour. Nor does he understand where his own honour comes from.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Fallacy of Freedom of Religion

Freedom of religion seems to be a fundamental human right in societies that we consider to be enlightened, democratic and, well, free. I don't know too many people who wish to change that fundamental right. I've never actually met another atheist or agnostic who thinks that people should not have the right to whatever religious belief they wish, so long as that belief does not infringe on others' rights. In theory, this fundamental freedom is a wonderful idea and it should be protected and preserved. But, the key component of that right that so often seems to become eroded and misunderstood (perhaps deliberately so) by those who have particular religious beliefs, is that this right to believe whatever you wish is not a right to bring it into the public domain as much as you wish. There are limits. Anyone with the least ability to think outside their own religion must agree with the key phrase "so long as that belief does not infringe on others' rights." How many American Christians would actually support the rights of Muslims to bring Sharia law into the government of the United States. How many Muslims would support the rights of Jews to start sacrificing animals on the piece of ground under the Dome of the Rock? No, we don't even need to examine extremes to understand that none of us want others' religions shoved in our faces, and we especially don't want practices that infringe on our human rights to be protected by someone else's right to religious freedom. Surely we can all agree on that?

So, what's the problem? Fundamentally the problem is that the religious too often don't seem to understand when they themselves are putting others in that position. It is easy to recognize when someone else is imposing their religion on you or when their religion is too much "in your face." Just think of the uproar in the U.S. relatively recently over the mosque at ground zero issue. If you are a Christian, it is easy to understand the offensiveness of Islam being "shoved in your face" when you don't want it. It is easy to react to the offensiveness of another religion being shoved into government policy. But, is it so easy to recognize when you do that yourself? Why can Christians not understand that issues like having the ten commandments inscribed on public buildings is as offensive as having a mosque built, not at ground zero, but within a public government building?

In the past few weeks I have been asked several times if I am a Christian or a born-again Christian. [I always ponder the difference and whether the questioner even knows the difference. I'm always tempted to say, yes I am a Christian, since in some ways I am culturally a Christian. In the middle east, many people are categorized as Christian, Muslim, Jew, regardless of their actual practicing religious beliefs. This harks back to the classic joke about Northern Ireland in which a hypothetical Irish man is asked whether he is Catholic or Protestant. When he replies that he is an atheist, he is asked: "But are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?". I love that little joke because it has so much truth to it. The culture of religion is so important in some places that we need to know how to categorize someone. But I digress. I am certainly not a born-again Christian.] Sometimes this question has been raised in the actual workplace. Hard to believe I know. Of course, I have the right to refuse to answer the question, but that normally doesn't go over very well. People seem to need to know what religion you belong to. They need to know that you have heard the "good news" of the gospel so that they can rest assured that they didn't miss a proselytizing opportunity.

In some countries, such as the United States and to an increasing degree in Canada with the current "conservative" government (which is actually anything but conservative but is rather a thinly veiled party of God), the religious seem to completely miss the point of religious freedom. Religious freedom is not a free pass to bring your religion into the public sphere and into public policy. Are you welcome to make your religious beliefs public? Certainly. Are you welcome to push your religious agenda into policy in the workplace or any other public domain? Certainly not. The hard part for the religious seems to be understanding how to separate their religious beliefs from their public duty. We live in a secular society with secular laws. Whether you are a doctor, lawyer, school teacher, politician or electrician, your religious beliefs take a back seat to the public secular laws. You have no right as a doctor to deny someone a blood transfusion based on your religious beliefs. As an electrician you must respect the building codes above your own religious codes. And, most importantly, as a politician, you have no right to bring your religious agenda into the governance of the country. This last point seems completely lost on many politicians and aspiring politicians. I have no problem if you think abortion is wrong. I have no problem if you think God created the earth 6,000 years ago. My problem begins when you try to change the secular laws to fit those two private religious beliefs.

Inevitably, the religious accuse atheists of exactly the same thing. By keeping society's laws secular, they often become confused about the word "secular" and accuse atheists of trying to bring their religion into the public domain. (And even go so far as to often accuse atheists of corrupting a "Christian nation"). This is a fundamentally flawed concept because atheism is not a religion. By bringing your secular values (as an atheist) into the public domain, one is already in line with the secular nature of the society. The only reason it appears tot he religious that atheists are pushing their "religion" on others is because the religious themselves cannot separate any issue from their own religious biases, and often cannot or will not accept that we live in a secular society. 

In short, the religious simply can't be trusted to keep the "freedom from religion" aspect intact within the "freedom of religion."

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Willful ignorance

I recently read this story about how being sedentary may increase the risk of some cancers. The story itself is somewhat interesting in that researchers isolated the knowledge that a high frequency of physical activity during each day seems to have some benefit for health, particularly related to inflammatory markers that might be related to cancer. This is fundamentally different than the traditional knowledge of the relationship between physical activity and disease which leads to the standard recommendations of regular exercise 3 - 4 times per week. In this study the information seems to indicate that the act of being sedentary between bouts of physical activity is also a risk factor. In other words, you can be active and fit, but if you sit for 8 - 10 hours per day without moving around, you are increasing the risk of some cancers.

But what really shocked me was the response to this study by the people who commented on the news story at the end of the article. Comments (and the rough estimate of readers' views based on the amount of "agree" vs. "disagree" votes with each comment) seem to indicate that the majority of people who read this either dismiss it or are flippant about the data merely because it is inconvenint.

A few sample comments follow:

"This just in: Everything causes cancer. Doctor's prescription: Live your life."

"SITTING? Are you kidding me? Sitting, standing, lying dan, peeing the wrong way, breathing at the wrong time, eating the wrong food (it's all wrong at this it doesn't much matter), looking at the moon at the wrong angle....I mean really...this is GETTING RIDICULOUS."

"A little more fear-mongering...pretty soon they will determine that breathing causes cancer too."

These comments can be summed up with the attitude of: "Sitting may lead to an increase in cancer risk. How inconvenient to me. I'll just dismiss the data because I don't want to deal with it."

Everything does not cause cancer. Cells do degenerate and some factors cause an increase in this process. Stand around some radioactive materials and you'll increase your cancer risk in some cells. Is that inconvenent? Why does no one say: "Radioactivity??? Are you kidding me? You can't do anything these days without getting cancer!" The fact that being sedentary for long periods might cause cells to increase the risk of becoming cancerous might be true (more data will illucidate us). So, if you find that annoying, should you just dismiss it and assume that everything causes cancer?

"This is getting ridiculous." What is getting ridiculous? The fact that we have so much data, or the actual nature of the data? (The nature of nature).

The last comment is perhaps the most ludicrous. More fear-mongering. Yeah, right. There is a huge group of well funded people out there making up data that is specifically designed to get you to stand up from your desk once an hour and go for a 30 second walk. Maybe this is the same group of people that killed Kennedy.

Why are my fellow humans becoming so willfully ignorant? Why do people not want data? Why do people refuse data when it isn't convenient to them? If you had heart disease, wouldn't you want to know so that you could take the appropriate steps to avoid a heart attack? So why is this any different? This trend is very frightening because it denotes an overall mistrust of science. Science is not taught well these days in educational institutions. Science is seen as abstract and relatively useless in our world, rather than as the fundamental process of discovery by which we find answers to everything. The less understanding of science and more importantly, the scientific process, then the more opportunity that people in power with an agenda have of ramming their agenda down your throat. Just look at the state of politics in the United States these days. There are millions of voters who base their vote on things that are known to be false, such as creationism. We know that evolution is true and that the world was not created as described in the Bible. This is established fact, and yet millions of voters cast their ballot dependant on a candidate's acceptance of the known falsehood of creationism. This concept can be extended to any reach of government. Some people like the notion of small government and cast their vote accordingly, but are too un-schooled in scientific unbiased observation to notice that the very people they vote for enlarge government rather than reduce it.

Science education is an absolute must in a healthy society. The process of learning scientific knowledge is only one small portion of scientific education. Equally or more important is understanding the process of science so that, when a politician stands up and makes claims such as climate change being "made up", one can dismiss it as an unscientific claim.

Evidence. Love it or be deliberately blind.