Saturday, 28 October 2006

The Amish go to court

The Amish have generated an enormous amount of good will in recent weeks by their immensely dignified and Christ-like response to the massacre of their daughters by a neighbour, Charles Carl Roberts. I personally was enormously impressed by the sacrificial courage of some of the girls themselves and was obliged to revise my admittedly superficial impressions of the Amish as a sect hopelessly mired in legalism at the expense of the greater principles of the Christian faith.

Legalism, for those unfamiliar with the word, is a religious term used to describe the mindset of those who get caught up in the letter of the law as opposed to its spirit, and whose pursuit of holiness and the knowledge of the Holy One gets sidetracked into the pursuit of infractions and endless wrangling about the petty details of what constitutes holiness. The Taliban are probably the most vicious modern examples of this kind of mindset. The Pharisees were the incarnation of legalism in Jesus' time.

So I was greatly heartened to see that the Amish, in their retreat from modern society, had managed to keep the core principles of their faith alive and well, even robustly vigorous,despite the weight of detail of their "thou shalt nots."

But now another Amish man, "John Doe," is intent on demonstrating that though the foundations are solid, some of the construction above ground is shoddy and silly. He is a Canadian who has married an American, "Jane Doe," and is suing the American government over its insistence that he pose for a photograph as part of his application for American citizenship.

"Interpreting the Bible literally, they ... believe that photographs are 'graven images,' the making of which is forbidden by the Second Commandment," reads the lawsuit. Now it is not up to the courts to determine the theological validity of the argument, and I earnestly hope they stay away from that entire aspect, but I am not a court, so I am free to make my pronouncements.

This is not a literal interpretation of the Bible at all. It is an extrapolation, precisely the kind of thing that legalists delight in. Let's take a simple, straightforward law, interpret it widely and spin off a host of regulations based on that interpretation, with which to burden the hapless followers who trust our "wisdom."

The whole point of the second commandment is to avoid the worshipping of material objects, not to avoid the making of images. God himself, subsequent to giving the Ten Commandments to Moses, commanded the making of a bronze serpent, which was destroyed by Gideon generations later, precisely because it had become the object of worship. If the thrust of the Second Commandment had been the sinfulness of making images, he never would have commanded Moses to do such a thing.

So I honestly don't believe they have a theological leg to stand on. And I really wish that John Doe had not undertaken this lawsuit. The court is going to be obliged to either rule on the validity of their theology, or infringe directly on their freedom of religion, both very negative outcomes, in my mind. The other alternative - ruling in their favour - would also be a negative, because it would provide a loophole in national security that could be exploited by various groups who do not possess the gentleness of spirit of the Amish.

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Friday, 27 October 2006

Evaluating Harper: patient wait times

Part five in my evaluation of the Harper government, Conservative priority number five: working with the provinces to establish a Patient Wait Times Guarantee.

Hmm, this won't take too long to comment on. Even the Conservatives are not pretending they have accomplished this yet and wait times have actually lengthened ever so slightly since they have been in office.

Of course, it is always a very tricky thing for the federal government to wade into the whole health care issue, seeing as that is provincial jurisdiction. Unfortunately, that doesn't stop voters from blaming the feds for whatever is happening in health care, so Ottawa is politically obliged to make appropriate noises. Seeing as they do actually contribute to provincial budgets, they have to try to leverage that influence in such a way as to impress voters without enraging provincial governments. It's not surprising that this was the last of their five priorities, as it will probably be the most difficult to implement. I don't know if they'll get a chance to try before the next election.

I'd be somewhat tempted to throw rocks at them for even making promises in this area, but really, this is a case of voters getting what they deserve. We shouldn't be holding the federal government accountable for something under provincial jurisdiction, but we do. This is pretty much a no-win situation for any party.

Havings said that, I would dearly love to see some new dialogue in the whole area of health care in Canada. It is time to start thinking outside the box and getting past old orthodoxies here. I am heartily sick of the "American system" red herring waved around with great mock indignation at every election. Every time a (Conservative) politician makes the obvious observation that we have problems with our health care system, the Liberals and NDP trot out the same hysteria. And it's a (I'm trying to think of a polite way to express this, as I am basically a polite person, but it is truly challenging...) um, logical fallacy. We are not restricted to two choices and two choices only. There are other things in the world besides the Canadian and American systems and even if there weren't, we could invent something new. It's time to get our heads out of the sand and start questioning the way we do things. This is going to be very difficult with so many different players, but somebody should start. This probably would fall to a province with some guts - probably Alberta - to just strike out and do something different and demonstrate that it can work. Alberta is the best candidate, first because they have never felt obliged to kowtow to Ottawa or the other provinces and second, because they have the budget to pull it off without help.

As far as Harper's government is concerned, I'll let them off with a neutral mark. Something to the effect of "not evaluated this term", like I have seen occasionally on my kids' report cards. There is only so much you can expect from a minority government in less than a year. In the somewhat unlikely event that we still have the same government a year from now, I will be less accomodating.

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Thursday, 26 October 2006

Gleanings from the blogosphere, Oct. 26

I've been more than a little bit miffed with Michael J. Fox and his foray into American politics. While I am very sympathetic to his condition, I don't think it justifies killing babies to solve his problem (or any of my medical problems either). Not only that, it's a highly dishonest ad. Embryonic stem cell research has not shown great promise at all, while adult stem cell research has got an enviable track record. The current limitations on embryonic stem cell research do not threaten any of the advances made so far. The Anchoress spells it all out and backs it all up.

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Evaluating Harper: child care

Part four in my evaluation of the Harper government, Conservative priority number four: helping parents with the cost of raising their children.

This is another issue for which I am going to give the Conservatives some points. I really don't think they deserve the flack they've been getting on this one.

We are talking, of course, about the Universal Child Care Benefit, the $100 monthly given for each child under 6 to be spent on popcorn and beer - er, child care. Those who oppose the Conservatives say that first of all, $100 is nowhere near enough to pay for child care. Of course, it isn't. So? It will relieve the burden by $100, and that's not a bad thing. Why should the government fund daycare 100% anyway? Putting the same amount of money into subsidized day care spots would make a big difference for a very small number of people. For most people it would be no help at all. And the people doing the screaming never do address the issue that the $100 also goes to parents who take care of their own children, who really do appreciate getting a little positive recognition for a change.

The reason the opponents don't address this issue is because it would make them look really bad. They'd have to admit they don't care about those parents because they are - gasp! - taking their lives in their own hands instead of asking government to do it for them and that makes them highly suspect.

There is a fundamental difference of philosophy at play here. One mentality says it is the responsibility of government to solve all my problems and to make sure that I bear the weight of my own decisions as little as possible. The other mentality just asks for basic justice (read - protection from criminal abuse) and security from government and the freedom to make their own way in life. I come down pretty squarely on the second side. I dealt with some severely abused people some years ago and it became very clear to me that an attitude of victimhood effectively blocked any possibility of healing and moving on.

So I have completely lost patience with victimology. And screaming that the government isn't doing enough to make my life easier is just another form of it. Get over it. I raised five children without subsidized daycare. Yes, it meant I sacrificed a possible career or two, and yes, it meant that we lived at a much lower income than we would have with a smaller family. I didn't whine or complain about that. I figured the children were more important than a fancy house and a status symbol vehicle. And not one of those five kids believes that anybody owes them a handout. Of course, they'll take help if it's offered - I did too - but they won't complain if it isn't. They actually believe they should be prepared to make sacrifices to succeed. Somehow, I think that's a more meaningful contribution to society than most careers would have been.

You can see all this as a digression if you will, but I don't think it is. I'm not getting a cent out of the Conservatives' policies for helping families, and I agree that the help is more symbolic than substantial, but that's OK. I kind of appreciate the gesture anyway. It's refreshing to have the government help out more than one kind of family and give a little recognition to those families that have been overlooked in the past.

And I am one of those who think that popcorn and beer comment was very revealing, although it wasn't news. The message was loud and clear: We know how to run your life better than you do and we are going to make sure you do it our way.

If the Conservatives help start to turn that kind of mentality around, it may yet have been worth voting for them. I'll confess to being a little cynical about the possibility, but one can always hope. I can't see that anybody else is even going to try.

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Sunday, 22 October 2006

Evaluating Harper: crime

Vic ToewsPart three in my evaluation of the Harper government, Conservative priority number three: making our streets and communities safer by cracking down on crime.

Well, I've got to start out with a horrific confession. This whole topic rather bores me. *Yawn* I don't see that crime has really got that much worse in recent years and the chances of any government doing anything truly effective to lower the levels we've got seem to be too small to matter. I don't even get excited about the gun registry, either keeping or scrapping it. Sorry. Although if they're going to keep it, they had better get costs under control. The cost/benefit analysis is practically enough to doom the programme all on its own.

But I can't avoid the topic altogether. Other than revulsion at Liberal corruption, the whole law and order question was probably the biggest trump card the Conservatives had in the last election. But as far as I'm concerned, the Liberals were not awful and the Conservatives are not wonderful in this portfolio. And vice versa.

Having said that, I rather like the recent "three strikes you're out" initiative. Under the proposed legislation,
a three-time repeat violent and sexual offender would have to convince a judge why he or she is not a dangerous offender -- a status that carries an indefinite prison sentence with no parole eligibility for seven years.

It's currently the Crown's task to prove repeat offenders are dangerous.

I just don't buy the slippery slope hysteria. I am personally a fierce defender of the "presumption of innocence", because it is at the base of an enlightened legal system. But the presumption of innocence is worn to tatters by the time someone has worked his way up to the third horrific offence, and I don't find it at unreasonable to say that at that point it is the offender who should bear the burden of proof. Protection of society should also be a major goal of the judicial system. I would like to hear opponents of this bill cite concrete cases of where the proposed bill would have brought about an abortion of justice.
Jason Gratl, of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, argued the justice system should be extremely cautious in how it asks for indeterminate sentences.

"We should bear in mind that an indefinite sentence is the nuclear bomb of the sentencing arsenal," he told CTV News last week.

"We don't have anything more harsh. We don't sentence people to death in this country, and we should be sparing in how we apply our most severe sentences."
Please, Mr. Gratl, get specific. I find it very hard to imagine how waiting until an offender has proven himself excessively nasty three times is not applying the most severe sentence sparingly. To get a real grasp of this issue we need two lists: first, a list of all the people who would have been prevented from committing further crimes if this provision had been in force, and the second, a list of all those who committed three horrific crimes, were convicted of them, and then turned into productive, law-abiding citizens without any further ado.

Please keep in mind, that three strikes you're out does not mean an inevitable designation as a dangerous offender. It just shifts the burden of proof, and in those conditions, I find it a very reasonable shifting. I would love to hear from anyone who can demonstrate (not argue) that I am wrong.

So even though this is not a portfolio that inflames me much one way or the other, I give the Conservatives a decent passing mark in this subject. Please feel free to enlighten my ignorance if you find that unreasonable.

Dealing with media bias

The BBC admitted behind closed doors to a strong liberal and anti-Christian bias. Rats! Somebody went and leaked the information, but I'm willing to bet the BBC will find a way to avoid dealing with it. Which is a shame.

I am becoming convinced that the only way to avoid media bias is to mix things up in the newsroom and on the editorial board. If your columnists or reporters have varied political and cultural leanings and are allowed to refute each other publicly, something approaching objectivity and a genuine search for the truth just might come out of the mix. And by allowing rants from different sides, you hold on to your partisan readership or audience. They tend to avoid moderate, balanced opinions, so giving them strong flavours from opposite ends of the spectrum should keep them coming back.

I offer as an example the Ottawa Citizen which has columnists ranging from the extreme right to unabashedly left and most of the spectrum inbetween. I just wish they'd argue with each other a little more often. It's fun and often informative. I'd also even out the weighting a bit more, but still, they're on the right track.

I do appreciate the dilemma the media face. Calm, objective, rational approaches aren't popular. If you don't believe me, take a look at the most popular blogs. They are almost all highly partisan and quite often nastily so. They rant. They rave. They demonize. They fling insults around with self-satsified abandon. And they always know what to say about every story the instant it breaks, which says to me that they are not great fans of research or deep thought. (There are a few exceptions, thank goodness, but they still tend to be openly partisan. They're just more reasonable about it and will tolerate dissent without getting apoplectic.)

So to all the newspaper editors and network executives who eagerly hang on my every word and are just dying for my advice on how to attain objectivity without alienating their partisan readers/audience, I would highly recommend diversifying the backgrounds of your journalists and let them have at each other.

No need to thank me. That's the freebie. Next time you pay.

Hat tip to Stubborn Facts.

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Been too busy to blog

It's been a hectic weekend as the real world insisted on infringing on the virtual one. But I have managed finally to shake myself free from the confines of reality and should be back up to virtual speed shortly.

Oh, you didn't notice I was gone??


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