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.

How do you explain to budget crunchers that there’s no money to be made in a park, yet everyone profits? 

It’s a late afternoon in early autumn at Christie Pits: it’s the weekend and the air is comfortable, though the sun is slouching towards the horizon and the leaves are flirting with shades of orange and red. A dozen or so men and boys are playing keep-up with a soccer ball near the goalposts while about as many half-interested passers-by recline on the sloped hill to watch, though players and spectators alike are momentarily distracted by the passing of an attractive dog-walker in unseasonably skimpy clothing.

Across the field, another group of teenagers is playing a slightly more organized game, using jean jackets and sweatshirts to mark the goals. Over on the softball diamond, a handful of men and women are playing a game of flag football on the gravel. You can hear arguments about penalty shots booming down from the concrete rink, where a group of locals gathers every Sunday afternoon to play pick-up ball hockey — in a few months they’ll be here on skates. A poster taped to a lamppost asks us to remember the Christie Pits Riots.

Children in the playground are swinging and sliding and chasing each other around the wooden structures while their parents chat about jobs and daycare and the weather. A solitary man reading a book is momentarily disturbed in order to retrieve a shuttlecock hit his way by a bunch of grade threes playing a game of badminton unconstrained by nets or other visible boundaries. At the south end of the park, families are packing up their picnic materials and lawn chairs to head home, but a pick-up basketball game on the court to the west continues to pick up. A Korean-Canadian teenager and his Italian-Canadian girlfriend walk arm-in-arm on a path beneath a canopy of trees as the ground rumbles from the passing of a subway beneath Bloor.

Here, in Christie Pits, is Toronto at play, surrounded by traffic and commerce but sheltered in a patch of green. The few hundred citizens here have brown or white or black or beige skin, some wear cotton ball-caps while some wear knitted rasta hats, some speak heavily accented English while others speak no English at all. Yet the divisions dissolve here on a Sunday afternoon as a neighbourhood kicks back to savour the last of the weekend and the last of the warm weather.

It makes you wish you had newly-minted Toronto Poet Laureate Pierre Giorgio di Cicco’s phone number so you could ask him to come down to write up a poem about this place in this moment: something beautiful and chaotically perfect in the middle of the city.

But I don’t have Father di Cicco here with me, I have the rather less inspiring writing of the City’s “Toward a Healthy, Active Future: Toronto Parks & Recreation Strategic Plan. A draft for review and comment.” If the title sounds like a mouthful, try reading the thing: “We will recognize the strengths of Toronto’s communities and assist them in meeting their leisure and recreation needs. We will enable communities to form partnerships, create their own solutions and achieve greater self-sufficiency; Measures and targets … will allow the Division to track progress at a high level and better position Parks & Recreation in relation to the three foundations of the Strategic Plan.” This thing has got flow charts and tables of statistics and graphs and appendices. It calls for the development of a three-year business plan for Parks & Rec. At least it doesn’t — as earlier strategic plans did — refer to the citizens of Toronto as “customers.”

It’s easy to laugh at all the pointy-heads trying to apply systems logic and business principles to unstructured recreation, but it’s not really fair. Because, as much as the draft strategic plan is a boring read for those without a taste for the ludicrous, it’s also a sad and necessary reaction to the current political climate. The plan spends much less time actually planning than it does justifying the existence of parks and recreation. It lays out — in pages of lists and tables — why trees and green spaces are important to the environment. Why physical fitness is important (there’s an unseemly insistence on building healthy bones). The ways in which playing or relaxing in the park can cure depression and enhance the social lives of “users.”

Beneath all the detail and the vague laundry lists of ways the department will “initiate, educate and advocate,” there’s the voice of a terrified bureaucrat trying to persuade a balance-sheet-focused political culture that the department’s $160 million per year budget is justified.

So perhaps it’s a blessing that someone at City Hall is at least thinking about the value of public spaces devoted to playing. Though you’d think it would perhaps be better to just take council out on a field trip to Christie Pits. Or to Bluffers Park in Scarborough, which is a sort of communal cottage country and perpetual fish-fry for the largely immigrant population of the east end. Or to Alexandra Park near Dundas and Spadina, where the kids in sports jerseys and baggy pants (who the police call gang members and the City calls “at risk”) divide their leisure time between the community centre and the potholed, beaten up basketball court. Or to Dufferin Grove Park, which hosts a farmers’ market and harvest festival and has become home to a pseudo-political civic centre. Or to virtually any park or garden or public recreational area in the city. When you’re out there, the value of public spaces devoted to play become obvious. But when you’re instead in a meeting room working out a cost-benefit flowchart…

From a meeting room, it no doubt made perfect sense to tear down a huge chunk of the city’s (and the entire public school board’s) playground equipment in response to a non-existent insurance risk. Or to delist the phone numbers of the city’s hockey rinks and replace them with a useless rink hotline full of recorded messages. Or to deny a request from a popular indoor skateboard park for funding for new equipment (even while a city report recently noticed that the city is desperately short of skateboard parks) while spending $70,000 on a new staff safety manual when the old one was less than 10 years old, and spending $2 million per year on meetings, training and advertising. (I am indebted to The Friends of Dufferin Grove Park website for the above specific examples of the dangers of applying business logic to public parks.)
The results of this type of logic can further be seen in a (ever-so-slightly more readable) 2002 United Way report entitled “Opening the Doors: Making the Most of Community Space.” It showed how budget pressures that led to the introduction or increase of fees for the community use of school buildings for organized activities like Boy Scouts and after—school sports and summer day camps led directly to the closing of many such programs. “The fiscal pressures on school boards and the City of Toronto, along with the limited resources available to our community organizations stand as substantial barriers to our on-going community use of public space,” it concludes, “and put at risk the services that contribute to healthy and vibrant communities.”

You can’t make play time — for grown-ups and kids alike — appear valuable on a balance sheet. It doesn’t bring in any money. Yet it is important. Consider that child developmental psychologists recognize the value of play — and especially of unstructured and unsupervised play — to children. Kids have recognized the value of playing forever, and fought — usually in vain — to have their parents see the value of it, too. In those situations kids learn to use their imaginations and expand their sense of curiosity. It’s also where they learn how to properly socialize with their peers, to organize themselves, and to resolve disputes. The same could be said of society.

It’s precisely in the places that a community plays — parks, schoolyards, beaches, community centres — that it most becomes a community, drawn together despite economic or ethnic or artistic differences, and because of a common interest in blowing off steam or competing or relaxing. You can’t get that at the mall.

If we lose access to public spaces for recreation, consider the consequences: those who can afford cottages will go to them, those who can and want to join sports leagues will, those too poor to do either will find ways to play in the street or in their homes. And mostly nobody will notice, but those disparate groups of people with their varied interests will find life a little more expensive and unpleasantly structured and, more importantly, will not encounter their neighbours who do not share their specific means and interests.

And if you’re sitting in Christie Pits running all of this over in your mind, the question remains: how do you put this beautiful, pure and unifying thing in front of you into a city hall report?
How do you explain to the budget crunchers that though there’s no money to be made here, everyone profits? And how do you explain the potential costs of saving money by cutting spending on places for society to play? Perhaps they should fire the bureaucrats and hire a poet. Or a child.

Originally published in Spacing in Spring 2004.

Featuring Kate Lynch, Carly Street, Jordan Pettle, Kristen Thompson. Presented by Cara Pifko, Avia Armour-Ostroff. Mar 3, 8pm. Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst. PWYC. 416-504-9971.

Featuring Ellen-Ray Hennessy, Dinah Watts, Erika Hennebury, Charlotte Gowdy, Erin Thompson. Presented by Maev Beaty, Vanessa Shaver. Mar 3, 8pm. PWYC. Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas W. 416-588-4536.

Featuring Renee Hackett, Heidi Weeks-Brown, Heather Braaten. Mar 3, 8pm. Victory Cafe, 581 Markham St. 416-539-0076

In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, women from opposing states unite to stop a war using their only available leverage: they withhold sex from their husbands. More than 2,400 years later, as the US prepares for a seemingly inevitable war against Iraq, the ancient comedy is inspiration for an unprecedented international display of
theatrical dissent.

On March 3, actors around the world, including five groups in Toronto, will stage readings of Lysistrata to protest the coming war. “When Aristophenes wrote it, the idea of women stopping a war was ludicrous,” says Carly Street, who reads the lead role at the Factory Theatre performance. She sees a wry parallel with the thespian protest. “Women in 500 B.C. had about as much pull as the artists’ community does now.” But in the end both have an effect on the cultural fabric.

“It’s possible to reach people through entertainment.”

That idea has captured the global theatre community, just six weeks after it was hatched by New York actors Kathryn Blume and Sharron Bower. They decided a reading of the play might ease their frustration with the Bush administration’s unyielding push towards war. They established a website, emailed friends, and as of Feb. 25, 766 groups in 43 countries were planning Lysistrata events.

Maev Beaty, an organizer of the Babes Not Bombs event at the Lula Lounge, discovered the project through an email. “I saw the site and freaked out. I loved the project so much that I instantly wanted to find out if someone was doing one in town and make sure that one happened… we started organizing and it’s become this incredible thing. This incredible anti-war horse.”

Babes Not Bombs’ reading of the play will be followed by presentations from “peace-loving” groups such as Physicians for Global Survival and Canadian Voice of Women for Peace.

Beaty is awed by the global scope of the project, “It’s pretty fuckin’ heavy,” she says. “The fact that there are so many companies doing this around the world, that there are women doing this in their living rooms in Iraq and Palestine. People are holding readings in some of the most voice-quelling places. I feel like it’s our duty over here where we’re free to add to the great volume.”

Despite the gravity of the global effort and war’s mood-killing tendencies as a subject of conversation, Beaty says the nature of the play will ensure the events are fun. “It’s so beautiful to me that [the Lysistrata project] is using this play that was written more than 2,000 years ago,” she says. “It’s hilarious and sexy and bawdy, and these are the things that we’re trying to preserve and that we can’t preserve if we blow each other up.” Cara Pifko, an organizer of the Factory event, promises laughter and “a good spread of food and drink.” She says people will leave in a good mood.

Proceeds from both the Lula Lounge and Factory Theatre events will go to Physicians for Global Survival, an Ottawa-based anti-war group working to abolish nuclear weapons. As well as funds, Street hopes the project will raise the volume of public discourse about the looming war. “The thing that scares me most right now is silence.”

Originally published in Eye Weekly on February 27, 2003.