Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Legislating acceptance

With the passage of Bill C-38 in the House of Commons last night, Canada is about to become one of only four countries to recognize same-sex marriage. (The Netherlands and Belgium already do so, while the Spanish parliament is set to give the go-ahead on June 30.) The Prime Minister and Jack Layton have argued that same-sex marriage is a human right guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Stephen Harper has argued that civil unions, but not "marriage", is what the Charter requires, and believes that the Supreme Court would likely accede to Parliament's will in this matter. The two positions can be found in Hansard for February 16, 2005, and are worth reading. In allowing a free vote for Liberals, Paul Martin was trying to have it both ways: he was recognizing that there is a deep division in the country and within his party on this issue, while using the Charter argument as a shield to deflect criticism of the legislation. ("The Charter made me do it!") Jack Layton was more consistent, arguing that you don't have free votes on matters of fundamental human rights.

I'm not convinced that attaching the word "marriage" to civil-union legislation is a matter of human rights. A prospective father who claimed it was his fundamental human right to be granted "maternity" leave (and not "paternity" leave, even with the same provisions) would be laughed out of court. Same-sex "marriage" is not as much about recognizing an alleged human right as it is about social acceptance. Gilles Duceppe got it right when he said the legislation was not merely about law; it was about citizenship, and that its passage would be "sending a very strong message" about justice and fraternity. This is the often-unspoken subtext of this debate. Parliament has just declared that homosexuality is socially accepted in this country -- by a vote of 158 to 133. There's a massive contradiction there. Passage of Bill C-38 will not make the issue go away, but I expect that the passage of time will.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Whaling arguments

CBC's The Nature of Things tonight ran Part One of Whale Mission, a two-part documentary on whales and whaling. Much attention focused on a meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), and the attempt by whaling nations to expand the allowable killing of whales. The delegate from Japan was a particularly slick and disingenuous man, who defended that country's continued whaling as necessary for "scientific research". The argument goes: In order to conserve whales, we need to study them scientifically. In order to study them scientifically, we need to kill a lot of them. And since regulations require that the whales killed not be wasted, we have to sell whale meat to the Japanese public. Right.

Japan uses foreign-aid incentives to get some very poor nations to join the IWC and vote with Japan in favour of whaling. European countries that favour whaling include Iceland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, and, of all places, Switzerland. The documentary interviewed a Norwegian apologist for whaling who trotted out the refrain about how we all must take life in order to live, and then compared eating whales to eating beef. The argument here is: Whatever we must do in order to live is morally justified. To live we must kill. Therefore killing, whether it's killing whales or killing cows, is morally justified. (He might have added that, according to his logic, so is killing soybean plants or killing human beings morally justified. I wonder why he didn't mention those implications of his argument.) For more on whaling, see here and here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Happy 100th, Jean-Paul

"Christ!" he said out loud. "No one shall say we didn't hold out for fifteen minutes!"

He made his way to the parapet and stood there firing. This was revenge on a big scale. Each one of his shots avenged some ancient scruple. One for Lola whom I dared not rob; one for Marcelle whom I ought to have left in the lurch; one for Odette whom I didn't want to kiss. This for the books I never dared to write, this for the journeys I never made, this for everybody in general whom I wanted to hate and tried to understand. He fired, and the tables of the Law crashed about him -- Thou Shalt Love Thy Neighbour as Thyself -- bang! in that bugger's face -- Thou Shalt Not Kill -- bang! at that scarecrow opposite. He was firing on his fellow men, on Virtue, on the whole world. Liberty is Terror. The Mairie was ablaze, his head was ablaze. Bullets were whining round him free as the air. The world is going up in smoke, and me with it. He fired: he looked at his watch: fourteen minutes and thirty seconds. Nothing more to ask of Fate now except one half-minute. Just time enough to fire at the flowers, at the gardens, at everything he had loved. Beauty dived downwards like some obscene bird. But Mathieu went on firing. He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free.

Fifteen minutes.

Iron in the Soul
Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 - 15 April 1980)

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Don't do it, Michael!

Don't take those drugs imported from Canada. Thanks to a tip from a Canadian friend in Michigan, I now know why the Runaway Bride ran away. She was trying to get to Neverland to warn Michael Jackson not to use unsafe drugs from Canada. ("Michael, they'll turn your skin pasty white. They'll make your nose go pointy. They'll make you weird.") Unfortunately, she never got there, but, thank goodness, drug giant GlaxoSmithKline has the best interests of Americans at heart and has mounted an altruistic campaign to warn of the dangers. Nasty drugs aren't the only threat. USA-hating Canuckistan is also swarming with terrorists, like the 9-11 hijackers, all of whom, including Saddam Hussein (who personally flew one of those planes into a WTC tower), entered the US from north of the border, where their minds had been corrupted by the socialistic CBC.

And speaking of risks to your health, here's a BBC summary of another study linking meat consumption to cancer. Coincidentally, today's Globe and Mail has the latest in a fatuous series called "The Men's Club". This one, aptly titled "Meatheads", has Ian Brown, Seamus O'Regan, and Russell Smith salivating over the barbecue. Smith, whose fiction shows him normally to be a keen and witty observer of the urban scene, leads the pack here in the standard blather about how macho barbecuing meat is, and how women defer to men at the grill. Brown says, "If there is something specifically masculine about barbecuing, it's that the men leave the kitchen, they leave the safety of the domestic and move into the outdoors where there is danger everywhere." This twaddle echoes a key apology for hunting, but more about that another time. Brown also raises the issue of the risk to health, but Smith responds, "Why would you seek to prolong your life if your life has no pleasure in it?" My question is, how insecure about your masculinity do you have to be to imagine that it is reinforced by grilling the dismembered corpses of your fellow creatures?

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Oil pique

So you're not impressed by the ancient Mayan prediction that the world as we know it will end in 2012? You don't give much credence to those astrological forecasts of a global meltdown beginning in 2009? Well, how about considering the implications of peak oil. The idea, which has become a hot topic recently, is quite simple. Industrial civilization runs on oil. There's only a limited amount of oil to be had. Fewer and fewer accessible oil reserves are being discovered. World production is hitting its all-time peak, and from here on it's all downhill. Couple that with skyrocketing demand, particularly from China, and the future looks grim. If you think present fuel prices are high, just wait a few years and you won't be able to believe how cheap it was back in 2005. This is party time; tomorrow comes the hangover. Not to mention the blackouts, rationing, famines, and wars: Mad Max minus the cars.

Technological optimists reject all this as just fashionable doom-and-gloom. Julian Simon, for example, maintained that the key resource is human ingenuity, and that's inexhaustible. We don't want coal or oil as such; we want the services they provide, and we can always find alternative ways of getting those services. But there are a couple of problems with the optimists' view. First, resources like breathable air and clean water have no substitutes. Second, even where substitutes for something like oil can be found, they may not be found and developed in time to avert major social disruption. A hydrogen-sustained economy sounds good, but hydrogen is not free for the taking. It needs to be produced, using lots of energy from other sources. A viable hydrogen economy, if a possibility, is still a long way off. Similarly, although Alberta has a vast amount of oil locked in its tar sands, getting it requires lots of energy, mainly from non-renewable natural gas, and the process is environmentally harmful.

James Howard Kunstler argues that we are headed for what he calls "the Long Emergency". Although his focus is the USA, the energy crisis will be worldwide. Kunstler predicts it will be "a tremendous trauma for the human race". In the US and other industrialized nations:
The circumstances of the Long Emergency will require us to downscale and re-scale virtually everything we do and how we do it, from the kind of communities we physically inhabit to the way we grow our food to the way we work and trade the products of our work. Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are. Anything organized on the large scale, whether it is government or a corporate business enterprise such as Wal-Mart, will wither as the cheap energy props that support bigness fall away. The turbulence of the Long Emergency will produce a lot of economic losers, and many of these will be members of an angry and aggrieved former middle class.
The struggle over the world's energy resources has already begun. The Middle East is the key geo-political arena here. The Gulf War and the Iraq War have not just been about getting the bad guys. (As someone asked, would the United States have invaded Iraq if that country's main export were broccoli?) But now US policy-makers are becoming aware of all that oil and gas in Canada. The push is on for "deep integration". If that doesn't work, well, those crafty Canucks have had nuclear power for decades, and who knows what weapons of mass destruction they may have hidden away in grain silos...

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Belinda is right

Belinda Stronach is right: Canada needs a healthy conservative party. She is also right in believing that the present Conservative Party is not what Canada needs.

In a 2003 speech, Stephen Harper laid out his historical analysis of the conservative movement and made his argument for the direction to be taken. He distinguished between economic conservatism (essentially classical economic liberalism) and social conservatism—the latter deriving from Edmund Burke. Harper argued that, with the triumph of the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan, and the collapse of communism, the battle for economic conservatism had been won; liberals and even those who still called themselves socialists no longer challenged the primacy of the market. What remained was the battle for social conservatism: the battle for a society rooted in strong moral values and respect for tradition.

Most commentators believe that Harper and the Conservatives are seen as “scary” because of their social-conservative agenda, and indeed this agenda, as it presently stands, is rejected by many Canadians. However, it seems to me that what may be a greater impediment to Conservative electoral success is the party’s economic conservatism. Most Canadians don’t want Thatcherite economic policies; they don’t want a slash-and-burn approach to taxes and social programs. But a political agenda that supports families and local communities, that is tough on crime, that demands an adequately funded and equipped military, and in general calls for greater personal responsibility in all areas of life, is likely to have wide appeal. Harper is right to point out that liberalism tends to focus on personal liberty to the exclusion of morality. He is right to recognize that there is a widespread hunger for a reinsertion of moral values into public, as well as private, life. Canadian socialism has always had a strong moral underpinning, and it is no coincidence that J. S. Woodsworth and Tommy Douglas were men of strong faith who did not shy from making morality central to their politics. But what democratic socialists have recognized, and what Stephen Harper and the Alberta-firewall crowd do not, is that the unfettered market tends to undermine the possibility of a moral society because it reduces all value to “the bottom line” (because, as Marx and Engels wrote, it drowns every other kind of value in “the icy water of egotistical calculation”).

This is not to reject a role for the market, but to recognize its limitations. What Canada needs—among others things—is a Conservative party that has its roots firmly in the Red Tory tradition: a party that recognizes there is a role for the state in helping the less fortunate in society, in promoting the general welfare through supporting education and culture (it was the Conservative Party that gave us the CBC), and in defending Canada from being assimilated by the economic and cultural forces of the USA. It is now forty years since the publication of George Grant’s Lament for a Nation. (Ron Dart has a summary worth reading.) It’s time for conservatives to rediscover Grant and traditional Canadian conservative values.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Send her victorious

The twenty-fourth of May
Is the Queen's birthday;
If we don't get a holiday,
We'll all run away.

A couple of weeks ago, as is only fitting, we all celebrated the Queen’s birthday. Queen
Victoria’s birthday, that is. How happy and glorious to live in a Dominion that still reveres the memory of Victoria Regina by commemorating the day of her birth with a holiday for its citizens. And in the city named after her (Victoria in this case, not Regina), the occasion is marked each year by a three-hour-long parade down the main street. From far and wide they come, not only from her own realm, but from Washington state, and even Oregon and California. There are endless high-school marching bands from the USA, all in their toy-soldier outfits, playing "Louie, Louie" and other traditional pieces, presumably to express their fervent admiration for Her Britannic Majesty.

Thinking about all those high-school bands, I am struck by how Americans love flags, and marching, and dressing up for war. (The Canadian bands, fewer in number and less expensively outfitted, mostly wear ties and blazers, or casual clothing.) Yes, that’s a generalization, but, as an essay by Geoff Rector argues, in the
United States there is an overlap among religion, the state, and militarism. In this context, says Rector, “the American flag is a sacralized symbol. It is an object of public veneration that focuses the belief systems of a quasi-religious cult of the nation.” A recent poll announces what most people already know: that religion plays a bigger role in the US than in other Western nations.

Why this is so is a complex issue, but consider the ironic fact that a constitutional feature of the
US is the official separation of church and state. Consider also that although the US was founded on liberal principles (summed up in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and Canada was founded on conservative ones (“peace, order, and good government”), today Canada is significantly more liberal than the US in terms of social values. As Michael Adams, author of Fire and Ice: the United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values, argues, the rampant individualism of their nation's history has encouraged many Americans to turn to religion (including, one might add, the worship of the state) in their search for a sense of community. Canadian culture, grounded in a conservative (and even socialist) emphasis on collective responsibility, paradoxically has allowed for the development of individuals who are, in Adams’ opinion, “less outer-directed and less conformist”.

In a democratic constitutional monarchy, the monarch reigns but does not rule. Those who do rule, as temporary representatives of the people, cannot--unlike the US president, who is head of state as well as head of government--claim to embody in their persons the values of the nation or the authority of the state. Toss the scoundrels out!

God save the Queen.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Are we still in Kansas?

Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of the structure of the DNA molecule, has wondered whether life on this planet might have been deliberately seeded by advanced space aliens. A science-fiction scenario like this is plausible, even if unlikely. But how might we go about testing such a theory in the absence of any direct evidence, such as an ancient alien base on the far side of the moon, complete with interstellar Rosetta Stone? And what might lead us to the space-alien theory in the first place? Crick was led to his theory of directed panspermia by the difficulty of explaining how life could have arisen on Earth. If the problem of accounting for the origin of life on this planet were to persist, and become intractable, then panspermia--perhaps even directed panspermia--might eventually be seen as the best explanation. We might come to accept the likelihood that life on this planet was designed by intelligent non-humans. And we just might be right to do so. (Of course, there is the problem of explaining how the alien life forms might have originated. The theory of cosmic ancestry is a version of panspermia that holds that life has always existed in the universe.)

Perhaps you can see where this is going. In Kansas these days, and in other places, particularly in the United States, the debate is raging over whether Intelligent Design should be taught alongside Darwinian theory in schools. And the proponents of Intelligent Design are not talking about space aliens. They believe not only that Darwinian natural selection cannot account for the origin of complex living systems, but that the reasonable inference to draw is that such systems can only have been designed by a supreme intelligence: God. They claim that, in the interest of fairness and open-mindedness, students should be taught about Intelligent Design as well as about Darwin, and should be told that evolution by natural selection is "only a theory".

I think that there's a place for discussing Intelligent Design in schools, but that place is not science courses. Intelligent Design is a modern version of what's called the Argument from Design. In its most famous form, this argument says that if you found a watch lying in a field, opened it up, examined its intricate mechanism, and understood that this intricate mechanism functioned to keep track of the time of day, you would have no hesitation in ascribing the origin of the watch to an intelligent designer. And you would be right to do so. Similarly, if we understand the amazing complexity of the natural living systems around us, which far exceed in sophistication anything invented by humans, we ought not hesitate to attribute them to a supreme intelligence.

Advocates of Intelligent Design may claim that Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is inadequate because it does not make testable predictions, or they may say that if Darwinism is good enough to be called science, then Intelligent Design should be considered good enough too. For their part, those who deride Intelligent Design often claim that Darwinism does make testable predictions. They say, for example, that it predicts change in species over time. The problem with that one is that Darwin himself wrote in The Origin of Species, "I no law of necessary development." Change is always possible, but not necessary. Also, Darwinian theory does not specify just how species will change over time, when they do change. It cannot say, "Three and a half million years from now, horses will have evolved to have a single horn growing from the middle of their foreheads." Nor can it retrodict the exact forms of the ancestors of existing creatures. Defenders of Darwin sometimes claim that his theory is scientific because it is "falsifiable"--not that it is false, but that there are certain conceivable empirical occurrences that, if true, would show the theory to be false. The one I've heard more than once is that finding a fossil hominid in the Pre-Cambrian geological record would show Darwin's theory to be false. Personally, I believe that good fairies keep the flowers growing. Because of this, I am perfectly prepared to say that, if flowers don't bloom next spring, my good-fairy theory will be blown to bits, and I claim on this basis that my theory is testable and therefore scientific.

Obviously, that won't do. No one expects to find fossil hominids in the Pre-Cambrian record, whether they are Darwinists or not. Karl Popper, the philosopher of science who argued for falsifiability as the mark of science, insisted that in order to count as testable, a theory has to make risky predictions--that is, it has to predict observable results that we would not otherwise expect. ("Wow, it's spring and the flowers are actually blooming. I never would have believed it! I guess there may be something to that good-fairy theory after all.") It is not clear that Darwinian theory makes any risky predictions. But that doesn't mean it isn't good science. Darwin provides us with an explanatory mechanism that plausibly accounts for the historical record: for the change from one state of affairs to another according to lawful regularity (even given that the regularity subsumes random changes in an organism's genetic constitution). Darwinism may not be the last word in explaining the history of life on this planet, but it remains a fruitful scientific theory. (Why should we imagine that any scientific theory is the last word?) On the other hand, Intelligent Design, insofar as it appeals to arbitrary acts of will on the part of a designer, is not science--even if it is true. Science, by its very nature, explains phenomena by appeal to lawful natural regularities. So even if we were eventually forced to conclude that the best explanation for the origin of living forms on Earth was one or more interventions by space aliens or by God, what we would be left with in this regard would not be "Intelligent Design science" or "Creation science", but no science at all. That's why Intelligent Design belongs in philosophy or religion classes, but not in science classes.
It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. ... There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
Charles Darwin
Sept. 26 update: Here's a piece that indicates Darwinian theory does make risky, testable predictions.