Unsigned editorials

What is the proper place of religion in society, and what limits should be placed on the discussion of it?

When Mark Steyn, the conservative columnist, writes in a book chapter reprinted in Maclean’s magazine that jihad is unnecessary because the fertility rates among Muslims mean they will soon achieve dominance through democratic means, is he engaging in “hate speech”? Even if — as the Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) complains to various human rights commissions in BC, Ontario and the federal government — Steyn’s views are offensive to Muslims, should he be prevented from stating them publicly?

How about the view, expressed by CIC president Mohamed Elmasry on television in 2004, that all Israeli adults are legitimate targets for terror attacks? Is that hate speech? Should that be forbidden?

What about the Bible, one of the foundational texts for all three of the major religious groups in Canada, in which it says (with authority often claimed to be divine) that men who have sex with other men are “detestable” (or an “abomination,” depending on your translation) and should be put to death? Is this hate speech? Should anyone printing bibles or repeating the words of the Bible be charged with a crime?

Or, to look at it from another angle, what about vocal atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, who claim in print — citing the Bible, among other things — that religions, including Christianity, Islam and Judaism, are murderous nonsense that inspire hatred and violence? Are they engaging in intolerant hate speech? Should they be forbidden to do so?

Or does the tolerance and freedom of religion that allow us to live together in peace actually require us to allow the expression of such divergent and often offensive beliefs?

Does American presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s recent speech on “Faith in America” shed any light? When he says “Freedom requires religion, just as religion requires freedom,” is he making the slightest bit of sense? When he claims that he believes that Jesus Christ is the saviour of mankind, and that the American government is inseparable from “the God who gives us liberty,” and then goes on to say that his Mormon religious beliefs are irrelevant and that asking questions about those beliefs is intolerant, is he trying to have his cake and eat it too? Doesn’t his intolerance of the irreligious “religion of secularism” actually lay the theoretical framework for intolerance of his religion of Mormonism, or intolerance of any other religion?

Would it be fair to say that a speech in 1960 by US presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, in which he said that his Catholicism was irrelevant because he believed that the separation of church and state was “absolute,” was more coherent? When he went on to say that the president’s “religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office,” is he actually sketching an entire ideology for governing?

Does a view that everyone is entitled to their own religious beliefs —?or lack of them — actually require that the state itself remain agnostic? And does that freedom of religion actually require, for its very existence, the protection of speech that expresses contradictory beliefs about religion and its uses? And doesn’t that protection, by definition, require the tolerance of opinions that some of us will find offensive and hateful?

And is it going too far to point out examples from societies where this freedom was not protected — say in Sudan, where a British schoolteacher was jailed for allowing children to name a teddy bear after the Muslim prophet; or in Medieval Europe where Muslims were tortured and murdered; or in World War II Germany where genocide was attempted in response to a religion that was deemed dangerous and evil?

In the end, is it even possible to have freedom of religion at all if that freedom does not extend to all religions (and to the irreligious too)? And if not, what exactly do we mean by freedom?

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on December 13.


Come Remembrance Day this week, Canadians will, as always, solemnly recite the verses of Canadian World War I soldier John McCrae’s poem “In Flanders Fields,” including its stirring final stanza: “Take up our quarrel with the foe: / To you from failing hands we throw / the torch; be yours to hold it high. / If ye break faith with us who die / We shall not sleep, though poppies grow / In Flanders fields.”

Written on the battlefield, McCrae’s words are powerful and beautiful, and they have been held up as a proud symbol of Canada (look, there they are on the $10 bill). But, in that it could easily serve as the text of a recruiting poster or, as it does for the Montreal Canadiens, the slogan of a sports team, that final stanza is not typical of the poetry of World War I soldiers.

Most soldiers shouted home a different message. English soldier Seigfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” concludes in a manner closer to the general mood: “You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye / Who cheer when soldier lads march by, / Sneak home and pray you’ll never know / The hell where youth and laughter go.”

Wilfred Owen, the English soldier many consider the leading poet of the war, wrote “The Parable of the Old Man and the Young” as a retelling of the familiar biblical story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his son Isaac. An angel appears to spare his son: “A Ram. Offer the Ram of Pride instead. // But the old man would not so, but slew his son, / And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

This Remembrance Day, Canadian soldiers are in combat in Afghanistan, and may be for decades to come, we’re told. War rages in Iraq and may soon in Iran and Pakistan. There is much to reflect on. We might well consider the lessons of those brave soldiers from what was to have been The War to End All Wars — this way lies madness, they say, a self-fuelling fireball that engulfs the bodies and souls of all who wage it or who have it waged on them. That has been the lesson of warfare since the beginning of humanity. It was understood by the Vikings, whose greatest saga, according to Lee Sandlin in his essay “Losing the War,” was about a pointless, unproductive battle that engulfs generations and destroys the innocent and guilty alike. “For the Vikings, this was the essence of war: it’s a mystery that comes out of nowhere and grows for reasons nobody can control, until it shakes the whole world apart.”

Even wars generally agreed to be humanity’s finest moments teach the same message: in the service of ending fascism and stopping genocide in World War II, more than 60 million died on all sides, many after surviving years of insane agony on the battlefield, many more as huge swaths of millennia-old civilizations were reduced to rubble. A great part of an entire generation on five continents lived in a waking nightmare of fear that the bombs and guns and death camps would return.

From the American Civil War through Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, history tells the same story, one nearly identical to that of the soldiers returning from Iraq: if war produces just ends, it is only by happenstance, for the logic of war leads inevitably towards carnage; towards the reduction of humanity to its most horrifying state of barbarism and of the world to an unendurable hell.

Yet we have become again a society in which the military is seen as a source of solutions — through the eyes of leaders who have never served in combat, war is a just hammer. To them, every terrorist attack, foreign-policy threat and humanitarian crisis begins to look like a nail. They point to those who warn that war must be a last resort and accuse them of failing to “support the troops.” But the troops are citizen servants of the highest order who go off and learn what soldiers past have tried to teach; they sacrifice their sanity, their lives and their humanity — and inflict untold terror on others —?on our instruction.

In an age when being “strong on terror” has been reduced to tying a yellow ribbon and solemnly swearing to send others to kill and die before sitting down to watch Dancing With the Stars, we might reflect on what our history of violence has been trying to tell us all along:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly November 7, 2007.

Saying marriage is about breeding is silly, whether you’re a bigot or not
On the first day of the election campaign last November, Stephen Harper vowed that he’d hold a free vote in Parliament about whether to once again outlaw same-sex marriage. It was his first promise, and among his most controversial.

Nearly a year later the promised free vote has been repeatedly delayed. We’re in no rush to see the issue reopened. As far as we’re concerned, it’s already been settled: gay couples deserve the same treatment as straight couples in the matter of government marriage recognition.

There are those who disagree, however. Among those considered most credible is Margaret Somerville, a McGill University ethicist who opposes same-sex marriage without referring to the book of Leviticus. Indeed, Somerville claims to be both a proponent of gay rights and opponent of gay marriage.

She recently addressed the subject in delivering the prestigious Massey Lectures, to be broadcast on CBC Radio Nov. 6-9, and published as a book from House of Anansi Press.

Her argument, excerpted from the forthcoming Anansi book The Ethical Imagination in The Globe and Mail Oct. 21, is premised on the assumption that the difference between hetero- and homosexuals is that homosexual relationships are not inherently procreative — this she sees as being of highest importance in the recognition of marriage.

“Marriage is a compound right: the right to marry and found a family. Opposite sex marriage establishes as the norm and institutionalizes the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman, and in so doing establishes children’s rights with respect to links to their biological parents and families,” she writes. “Because same-sex marriage is not an inherently procreative relationship, recognizing it necessarily negates that norm, and with that, children’s rights in this regard.”

Hogwash. The right to found a family and exist as a family is not tied to marriage in Canada today — common-law relationships are recognized as familial. Furthermore, procreation — having kids — occurs within and without marriage (and even without the existence of courtship, often); and we give no institutional preference to the fruits of marriage over the fruits of one-night stands.

And marriage is not tied to breeding: we allow marriage between those who are sterile or beyond their childbearing years, or those who simply do not want kids. No one (that we know of) suggests restricting senior citizens to “civil partnerships” because their wombs have dried up, or automatically downgrading marriages that prove to be childless after time.

Marriage in our society is many things, but it is not sacred (as both no-fault divorce and Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire? attest) and it is not tied to parenthood. Marriage in our society is the recognition of the desire of two adults to be recognized as a family unit. Kids are beside the point.

Somerville writes: “One can be, as I am, against same-sex marriage and against discrimination against homosexual people.” Somerville’s argument does not illustrate that position. Despite her protests, she argues for discrimination against homosexuals on a false assumption of what our society recognizes as the purpose of marriage.

The imprimatur of the Massey Lectures gives this ridiculous argument more credence than it deserves. It should be filed right next to the objections of religious dogmatists in the waste bin of irrelevance. We hope that, should this matter come before Parliament again in the near future, our legislators will recognize that.

Originally published on October 26, 2006 in Eye Weekly.

She was an urban legend: the saviour of neighbourhoods and intellectual grandmother of today’s Toronto activists

As Eye Weekly‘s Stroll columnist Shawn Micallef puts it, “Jane Jacobs was the greatest gift America ever gave to Toronto.” Jacobs was a woman who hated the profession of urban planning but was perhaps the most influential urban-planning thinker of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, an intellectual, activist, economist and the psychological head of Toronto’s political and activist life for four decades. She died April 25 of an apparent stroke.

Though Jacobs has died, her legacy will long be reflected in the cities of North America and her thinking will influence how cities develop for years to come.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs came to worldwide prominence after moving to New York City for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which would become — and remains — the single most influential book on city planning. In it she criticized the then-prevailing urban renewal movement that championed highways and suburban tract development, using Greenwich Village as an example of her idealized neighbourhood — vibrant, organic and slightly messy, where commercial and residential life existed side-by-side, where the economy was local, where the streetscape was of paramount importance.

She walked her talk in New York throughout the ’60s, leading the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The ultimately successful fight to stop the expressway saw her arrested twice, but saved the internationally celebrated neighbourhoods of SoHo, West Greenwich Village and Chinatown from the wrecker’s ball.

She moved to Toronto in 1968 so her two sons could avoid the Vietnam draft, and soon applied her highway-fighting skills to help lead the fight to stop construction of the Spadina Expressway, which would have paved an entire swath of downtown Toronto, including her home in the Annex.

That levelling such neighbourhoods to make room for expressways is unthinkable today is a tribute to her influence. In many ways, the Toronto we live in today is a product of Jane Jacobs’ thinking, and hers is the intellectual foundation of our most interesting and forward-looking plans for the future. In her books and through her activism, Jacobs gave us the approach to cities that her detractor Lewis Mumford called “higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness”: the elevation of the neighbourhood as the building block of cities, the recognition of the necessity of a thriving street life, of cycling and pedestrianism, the preference for low-rise over skyscraper, the need for trees and the celebration of the small.

Jacobs had three children, two sons and a daughter, but Toronto — and perhaps North America and the world, too — is full of her intellectual children and grandchildren. David Miller is an apostle of Jacobs (“Jane Jacobs’ legacy is embedded in the fabric of our city,” Miller said in a statement at City Hall Tuesday. “[She] literally and figuratively wrote the book on modern city building and most of the principles that we hold dear in how we approach city building”), as was former mayor John Sewell.

You can hear her name dropped by politicians from across the political spectrum in every corner of the country, and you can see her ideas at work everywhere in Toronto: in last year’s uTOpia anthology from Coach House Books, in the work of the Toronto Public Space Committee, the Annex Resident’s Association, Community AIR and, recently, Active 18. Her spirit infuses Spacing magazine and the [murmur] project and a thousand other community initiatives. Jane Jacobs showed us how to — and why we — celebrate our neighbourhoods. She taught us that the often-overlooked everyday details of urban life are the most valuable things about it. She taught us that you can fight city hall, and win, and that if you work hard enough, you may even be able to take the place over.

A few hours after Jacobs’ death was announced, Micallef said “she wasn’t finished yet.” It is the nature of Jacobs’ work that it will never be finished, as cities continue to grow and change and evolve. But though she’s gone, she leaves a legion of spiritual offspring who will carry on. Though we mourn her passing, we can be certain that we’ll live in her Toronto for generations to come.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on April 27, 2006.

Recently, Linda Diebel of the Toronto Star travelled across Canada, coast to coast, and returned with shocking news: the rest of the country hates Toronto. They think we are, she sums up, “rude, snobbish, smug, boastful, pretentious, obnoxious, arrogant, hoity-toity, brash, crass, uptight, workaholic, lazy, self-absorbed, self-centred, self-obsessed, self-satisfied, spiritless, cold, out of shape, unfeeling, unsmiling and unfriendly.” Thusly chastised, our response is to ask, what rest of the country? You mean, like, Mississauga?

Seriously, though, it’s hardly news that Saskatoon and Peggy’s Cove and Kenora are full of Hogtown haters. It has ever been thus, and perhaps it’s natural: who doesn’t hate the smartest, richest, most fashionable, most popular kid in the class?

What’s puzzling is the degree to which Torontonians tend to internalize this hatred. We are forever obsessing about the diverse and far-reaching communities that make up the rest of Canada, and being particularly careful to give equal time to our countryfolk.

Take the case of the two daily newspapers that claim to be national, The Globe and Mail and the National Post. Both, sensibly, are headquartered in Toronto. But neither exploits or emphasizes their hometown. Their on-again, off-again Toronto sections are anemic and distributed only in Toronto, as if Toronto’s politics and culture were irrelevant to the rest of the country.

The news teams at our two big national neworks — CBC and CTV — go through similar contortions, ignoring as much as possible the hard news of Canada’s great metropolis and pretending that a choir performance in Moose Jaw has every bit as much significance as a theatre production in Toronto. (CanWest Global, a regional broadcaster with its newsroom in Vancouver, is excused.)

Conversely, the Toronto Star, the largest newspaper in the country, focuses heavily on Toronto but has almost no distribution outside of Ontario.

All this may play well to the sensitivities and self-esteem of the far-flung townsfolk in the rest of the country. But at the risk of being Toronto-centric, we’d like to point out that it is ridiculous. What’s news in Toronto is and should be news in the rest of the country, and hate us though they might, residents of Prince Albert have a real stake in what goes on here, and would be well advised to pay attention.

Toronto is the biggest, most important city in Canada. We are the economic engine of the country, home to all the big banks, the largest and most significant stock market and 40 per cent of the largest companies. We pay some $9 billion more to provincial and federal governments than we get back in services.

Moreover, as the federal government’s heritage department recently (and sort of needlessly) recognized, we are the cultural capital of the country, home to half its immigrants, its largest theatre community, its film and television industry, its book and music businesses.

All of which is to say, we are Canada.

The funny thing about this countrywide hatred of Toronto that we so tenderly take to heart is that ours is a city populated by people from elsewhere. Survey a room full of Torontonians and you’ll find a few people who are recent immigrants to Canada, a few people from Newfoundland, some Anglo transplants from Montreal, a few who came from the Prairies looking to make it big and one or two Vancouverites who can’t shut up about how much they miss the BC bud. In business and the arts, the best and brightest from all corners of the country come here to meet up and make their mark (excepting perhaps, francophone Quebecers, who migrate to Montreal). In all endeavours except politics, Toronto is the capital of Canada.

We should accept this role and stop apologizing for it. The US has New York, the UK has London, France has Paris — every country needs an urban centre, and every country resents its own, to some extent. But nowhere else are the residents of the capitals so neurotic and sensitive about their role. The American paper of record is the New York Times, which carries dozens of pages of local news every day and doesn’t pretend that Des Moines is anywhere near as relevant as Manhattan. In Europe, The Times and Le Monde make no distinction at all between the cities they’re based in and the countries they serve. Our cultural heavyweights should follow their example.

And if the rest of the country doesn’t like it, they can examine the tallest freestanding middle finger in the world on our skyline and simmer down. We have the luxury of being able to ignore them. They cannot say the same about us.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly February 24, 2005. 

In 1967, a great Canadian (the third greatest of all time, if you believe the CBC) introduced controversial legislation acknowledging that two men or two women who had sex with one another shouldn’t have to go to jail for it, and that a man and a woman who no longer had sex with one another shouldn’t be forced to remain married. Facing down criticisms from traditionalists and godheads, then-Justice Minister Pierre Trudeau crystallized his government’s argument, saying, “The state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation.” In politics, you don’t find many more eloquent, clear and near-irrefutable summations of principle than that.

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Paul Martin, announcing that his own justice minister would finally introduce legislation recognizing the marital privilege of couples with like genitals, sought to likewise address his critics: “The courts have now given their direction,” he said, “I think it’s [an issue] for Parliament and I think that Parliament ought to accept their responsibility.”

O Pierre, great Northern Magus, if indeed you haunt us still, do you think you might haunt your way over to 24 Sussex and give old Paul a few pointers on how to lead? He’s got big problems in that department, and they aren’t limited to a lack of eloquence (though there’s that, too).

As Martin and his government have mishandled the same-sex marriage issue, nothing has become so apparent as our leader’s unwillingness to lead. He first sloughed the issue off onto the Supreme Court to ensure legislation extending the life sentence of love to queers would be constitutional, then added a further request that the Supreme Court declare the existing definition of marriage unconstitutional. In effect, he asked the court to force him to pass his own legislation because he didn’t want to accept responsibility for it himself.

While waiting for the court to put him in a bind, he predictably refused to stand up and lead the charge for same-sex marriage by actually outlining why recognizing it is justified and why reasonable people in this country — even Roman Catholics like him — should support it.

Even in his strongest statements on the subject, Martin depicts the proposed changes as a matter of obedience to the courts, rather than to the principles on which Canada operates. It’s as if he’s afraid that if he defends the human rights of homosexuals to equal treatment under the law, Ralph Klein will call him a fag in the schoolyard.

This fear would not be entirely unfounded. Like opponents of civil rights legislation past, the lynch mob of intolerance has begun a-gatherin’, crying out for Martin to respect the wholesome common sense of the people by putting the issue of whether a minority is deserving of equality to a referendum. Martin has sensibly said no. But he needs to say more.

He needs to get up and articulate why it is that this legislation is necessary, and to sell it to a public that is sharply divided on the issue. He needs to lead, in other words, to shape public opinion through appeals to principle rather than cower behind the courts and talk of difficult free votes.

He could begin by pointing out that the definition of marriage he is changing is a purely civil institution, one that has nothing to do with the practise of religion. Intertwined as the histories of church and state are, they remain essentially and necessarily separated today. It’s a two-way street: the state does not recognize bar mitzvahs or confirmations as having any legal status, while the Catholic Church does not recognize the legitimacy of civil divorce. No one seems to much care about those things, and rightfully so. Faith is faith; the secular law affects the sacred not at all (and vice versa, we might add).

In fact, the principle protecting minority rights is the one that allows all these many and variously odd religions to practise.

Martin could also point out that — as a married man who is Roman Catholic — his own relationship with his wife and with his church is not altered by same-sex marriages, just as it was unchanged by divorce legislation, just as it was unchanged by Britney Spears’ quickie marriage, just as it was unchanged by Who Wants to Marry a Mutimillionaire? Every marriage in this country is an island, and the strength or weakness of the institution lies in the solemnity with which it is treated by individual couples who participate in it.

And he could affirm that gay people are not an affront to civilization. They are actual human beings who live, bleed and love. And for that, they deserve to be treated not like a court-ordered obligation, but like people whose rights deserve to be respected.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on December 12, 2004.

You’d never have guessed it, but Councillor Doug Holyday — long-time stormtrooper of council’s right guard — is apparently a raging metrosexual. There’s no other charitable explanation for his approach to one of our city’s chronic social crises: on his way to work from Etobicoke each day, Holyday can’t help but notice Toronto’s growing homeless population; about 80 of these desperate souls with nowhere else to go sleep directly outside the architecturally significant doors of his office, exposed to the elements save for donated blankets or makeshift coverings of newspapers. Surveying the living conditions of these lonely and broken people drawn to the protective awning, bright lights and security-patrolled safety of the city’s public square, Holyday sees a problem of aesthetics.

Holyday announced to the press earlier this month that the people of Toronto (by which we assume he means those who, like him, have jobs and homes and clean, pressed clothes to wear) and tourists to the city shouldn’t have to see and smell vagrants outside City Hall. He called the fact that the city tolerates such open displays of poverty in civic spaces “a total disgrace.”

So Hollywood Holyday proposes an Xtreme makeover that would wash those bums right out of the square: Cop’s Eye for the Homeless Guy, in which security, police and social workers would harass or arrest those unsightly drifters into going somewhere else; to the even filthier and dangerous shelter system, to parks or shop doorways elsewhere in the city or to jail. Then, presumably, a clean-up crew would remove the non-human garbage that remains in the square and the more upstanding citizens and out-of-town guests of Toronto would gather (as in the climax of makeover shows on television) and marvel at the fabulousity that hath been wrought.

The indigent out of sight, Holyday will then be able to travel to and from work without crossing paths with the needy while the editorial board of The Toronto Sun could crow about how he’d solved the homeless problem. Yet while the credits roll on Holyday’s reality show, of course, those without homes will continue to live and die on the streets.

This proposal is complete rubbish, even by Holyday’s standards. We can acknowledge, as Holyday does, that the homeless problem is not easy to deal with. (And by “homeless problem,” we mean something different than disagreeable sights and smells — we mean the real, life-threatening hardships experienced by those with no place to live.) The city already spends something more than $7 million per year in trying to help the homeless, yet their ranks continue to swell.

Concerned people can have genuine disagreements on how to better approach the problem, on whether the psychiatric system needs to be revised, whether building more affordable or supportive housing would help or whether revamping the welfare system is any kind of solution. But Holyday’s proposal does not even properly belong in the debate. To him, homeless people are the problem, rather than victims of it; they offend our sensibilities through their poverty in a way that he feels should be seen as criminal.

He overlooks the simple truth that, though they may be plagued by problems that keep them from functioning in a way we see as normal, though they may not have much in the way of private property, though they may have few stable personal relationships (and yes, even though they look grubby and often smell bad), they still enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship. Much as Holyday may rail that the citizens of Toronto shouldn’t have to put up with the homeless, the homeless are citizens of Toronto. As such, they share the right to make use of public spaces, such as parks and sidewalks and even Nathan Phillips Square.

Moreover, by pitching their cardboard tents at City Hall, rather than in scarcely travelled industrial districts, the homeless provide a constant reminder to fellow citizens, to guests looking to learn about how life is lived in Toronto and, most importantly, to our politicians; a reminder that we, together as citizens, have a problem in urgent need of remedy.

Until that remedy arrives, we think City Hall is the absolute best place for the homeless to sleep. If only two people remained homeless, we would suggest they sleep on council’s doorstep. Let those who work at City Hall, those we have charged with dealing with problems of poverty and housing and mental health, be constantly reminded that not enough has been done, that terrible, preventable suffering remains.

And if Doug Holyday doesn’t like the way they smell and look when they sleep in Nathan Phillips Square, he should find them somewhere else to stay.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial on August 19, 2004 in Eye Weekly

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