Saturday, November 11, 2006

Dear Leaders of the World,

Your states need to be entirely secular. Tolerate and protect religious diversity by all means, but your governments should have no official religion, nor should religious affiliation or ideas be involved in any way in the choosing of public officials.

Your laws should be entirely secular and not based on any faith tradition. No religious schools should be publicly funded, nor should religious groups be subsidized, even through tax exemptions.

Do this now and you will have peace. Continue to define your nations by religion, continue to rule with religious doctrine at the centre of your political ideology, continue to make religion the raison d'etre of your nations, and you will have endless hardship.

Don't say I didn't warn you.


A friend at Pettrichor.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Today's Email

Today I got an email urging me to write to Stephen Harper and urge him to change our aggressive policy in Afghanistan. Now, I'm not a supporter of Harper, nor do I believe we should "support our troops" without regard for what those troops are doing.

But I did find it strange that not too long ago I was getting equally impassioned emails telling me to urge our government to do something about the brutal Taliban regime in that very same Afghanistan.

The emailers were right the first time. The Taliban are fundamentalist toughs who by all accounts, brutalized women, suppressed freedom of religion and expression, and deliberately harboured and supported terrorists. They were never recognized by the international community as a legitimate government. And if the west played some role in bringing them to power when they were fighting Soviet occupation, that is all the more reason we should be there to set things right in that region.

The Taliban fighters are not heroes. They are thugs and bullies. And they deserve what they get.

And I'm emailing this to the Prime Minister.

Monday, November 06, 2006

TV Commercial Hall of Shame: First Inductee

I like TV. I like it very much. And like most people I put up with commercials because they are necessary -- they have to pay the bills and all that.

Now as works of art, most TV commercials suck, particularly local commercials featuring spokespeople who forget how to string a sentence together once they are in front of the camera. C'est la vie. But every once in a while, I see a commercial that fills me with moral outrage and I just have to say something about it. And what are blogs for if not to pontificate about modern culture?

I'm talking about ads like the ones the government put out recently to promote work place safety. In one, a harried father is rushing about the kitchen trying to make dinner for one kid and help another kid with homework; but wait, that's not another kid who needs help learning to spell, that's a full grown woman whose been disabled by an injury! Another ad in the same series shows a little girl who clearly does not want to go out in public with her father who needs help to dress himself due to his injury. The message here is that you should watch yourself at work or else you may end up disabled, and, according to the government, disabled people are an embarrassment and burden on their families. Shame!

But those are a bit old, and my aim is to identify ads currently on the air to ad them to my Hall of Shame.

And the first inductee is: Pfizer, maker of the painkiller Celebrex! Current ads for Celebrex show a series of older folks turning to the camera and enjoing the viewer in various earnest ways, to "ask your doctor about it." Now, under Canadian law as I understand it, drug companies can say the name of the drug or what it does, but not both, so the makers of Celebrex are hoping that older Canadians will take their advice and ask their doctors. Fair enough. That's advertising. But here's the kicker: at the end of the ad, a particularly earnest grandmother type, looks right into the lens and says, "Ask your doctor. He's the expert."

Now, it's bad enough that this commercial implies that patients are supposed to do whatever their physicians advise -- after all, what the hell do patients know? This is especially interesting since a Google search of Celebrex brings up plenty of stories about lawsuits that have been filed against Pfizer in connection with the drug. What really makes this ad shameful, though, is the pronoun: "HE's the expert." He? Leave it to Pfizer to tell us that not only are doctors unimpeachable experts, they are all men too. Women have had to fight hard to gain access to the medical profession and the slow progress can be reasonably attributed to the attitude that real medicine is serious business and only suitable for men -- and this is the attitude that Pfizer encourages with ads like this one. Shame on you Pfizer.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

The case against varsity athletics

First, let me be clear on a couple of things. Number one, I have nothing against sports in general or athletes. More specifically, I have nothing against any particular varsity athlete at my university.

That said, I've been thinking lately about the wisdom of university athletics in general. And my conclusion lately has been that, on the whole, it's a bad idea.

For one thing there is the tremendous cost of such undertakings, even when they are relatively modest. At my own august institution, for instance, there are only five sports teams, with a total of 79 players. It is rumoured, however, that each of those player is paid some $2000 a year to be on those teams. Those payments alone -- if the rumours are true -- total $158 000. And that's just for players. Each of those teams has a staff of coaches whose salaries must, one would imagine, add up to somewhere in the six figures. Add in transportation, uniforms, whatever costs may be associated with training -- and of course, the extra help that athletes are given with their academics -- and the costs must easily exceed half a million dollars. If anyone has the exact numbers from the university budget, I would be grateful to see them, but in general I am not made privy to such information (a search of my university's web site for "budget" yields no help either).

To put that half million in perspective, it's roughly the amount that would be needed to pay salary of 10 new CBU professors. Or somewhere between 500 and 1000 new library books every year.

Now some would argue that this money is an investment. Sports, after all, get people interested and excited and thus draw positive attention to the university, so the money spent is good for everyone. But in a way, it is the attention paid to varsity athletics that is precisely the problem.

After all, sports, in general, is doing very well in our society. Top athletes make millions, sometimes hundreds of millions in salary and millions more in endorsements. Even amateur hockey draws thousands of fans to arenas and even makes the sports channels, not to mention the evening news. Intellectual pursuits, by contrast, do not fair nearly so well. Only an elite few pay any attention to scholarly matters, and for the most part, that doesn't bother me, since most of it is highly specialized anyway.

But the university is the one place that societies have set aside for the purpose of promoting and celebrating the life of the mind. That's what makes them special. That's what sets the university, as a social institution apart. Or ought to, in any case. Is it, then, too much to ask that university resources not be directed towards the celebration of physical agility rather than mental? Is it right that students who win major international scholarships get only passing mention while we are flooded with news about athletes? Is it right that many deserving students get no funding at all, while their classmates get a big chunk of their tuition paid by virtue of having a a particularly high vertical leap? Is it right that our athletic facilities are being constantly upgraded while our theatre fulls into ruin? And if sports do bring attention, is that really what we want to be known for? If that's the case, maybe close down the academic side altogether and make the school one big sports club.

Don't get me wrong. I like sports. And I stress in my experience, many student athletes are both nice people and good scholars. Moreover, I freely admit that I have enjoyed varsity athletics in the past. But I think I will take a break from attending such events.

Maybe we all should.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Why has no one noticed...

...that more Americans have now died in Bush's Iraq war than did at the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001?

Friday, October 13, 2006


I try to keep this blog fairly non-personal because, well, I'm a kind of heady guy and my private life is not very interesting anyway. But it has recently occurred to me that there is someone who deserves to be recognized in this forum for her incredible contribution to my life and thought.

Her name is Vanessa and here are SOME of the things she has has taught me:

1. Sometimes being nice is more important than being right.

2. Sometimes being right is more important than being correct.

3. Think ahead.

4. Look back.

5. Everybody has a harder time getting through the day than you think. Don't begrudge them what they need.

6. You can't always tell what people are thinking.

7. You can't always care what people are thinking.

8. Almost everyone is a nice person if you know how to talk to them.

9. You don't have to be the best.

10. There IS a good argument against private health care: we want the richest and most powerful in our society to have a vested interest in the public system.

So if you see her, say thanks from me.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Help! I might not be opposed to private healthcare!

Recently I was reading yet another article on private health care -- against it of course -- and I was struck by the hollowness of an argument I had never questioned before. You've probably heard it yourself: why should a rich person get faster or better care just because they have money? And we all reply: they shouldn't! down with private health care!

But what struck me this time was that if we apply that principle to health care, it is strange that we apply it virtually nowhere else among our important social institutions. After all, we don't ask the same question about public education. Why should rich people be able to send their kids to a private school while everyone else has to make do with the public system? Or transportation. Why should some people have to rely on public transportation when others get to drive in privately-owned cars?

The answer to all of these questions -- including the one about health care -- is that we value the freedom we have to earn money and spend it as we see fit. We don't want the state telling us exactly what we can and cannot do with our own money. It our money. We earned it or someone gave it to us and we want to trade it for what we want. That's why its better to be rich than poor. That's why we seek to alleviate poverty. That's why we all want to be rich.

Needless to say, this line of thinking has caused me a very Canadian crisis of conscience. How can I NOT be against private health care, progressive Canuck that I am? Surely someone out there can give me a convincing series of arguments that do not require being opposed to private property altogether.

Would the private system drain the best doctors away from the public? Maybe, but that might well be offset by the willingness of the best doctors to stay in Canada rather than pursue a private practice in the US. Moreover, my sources in the education field say that a great many teachers prefer the public system because they are willing to trade lower pay for greater stability. And in any case, the private system would presumably never be very big since there are -- by definition -- only so many elite patients willing to go there.

Would private health care mean governments would invest less in the public system? There's no reason it would have to. That would be a matter of allocating funds just as they do now, and private care would not mean less money would be available for public care. Indeed, the poor and middle class Canadians might be better served if there were fewer people in the public system as at least some seek care elsewhere.

You see how far its gone? Someone, anyone, throw me a lifeline!

Monday, July 03, 2006

Sunday shopping -- a dialogue

C: What is your position on Sunday shopping?

T: In my view, the question is not Sunday shopping but rather Sunday opening. I believe store owners have the right to open on Sundays and that right should not be restricted.

C: But do people really need to shop seven days a week?

T: No, but nor do they need to shop six days a week. Or even five. If it came to need, we could probably get by with one day a week. But it isn't a question of need; it's a question of freedom.

C: I think it's good for families.

T: On what evidence?

C: Well, I don't know what evidence there could be.

T: Well, one indicator of healthy family life might be the divorce rate. If NS was the only province without Sunday shopping and had a much lower divorce rate than other provinces, that might be one bit of evidence. But it doesn't. In fact, NS, is right in the middle of the pack.

C: But still, it's good for families to be together one day of the week.

T: Maybe. Or maybe it's bad if the family is relying on income they could earn on Sundays. In any case, what about the families of people who work at drug stores or convenience stores?

C: Well, there are only a couple of exceptions.

T: Really? What about police officers, casino workers, tourist industry workers, people who work in restaurants and at movie theatres? People who work in radio and television? Taxi drivers? These people all seem to get along.

C: OK, but for those who do work in retail...

T: Yes, but many of those people work on Sundays anyway!

C: What?

T: Yes, because the law does not forbid people working, only the stores actually opening for business, so many stores actually have employees come in to clean and stock shelves even though the store is closed.

C: So what's the point of the law, then?

T: Exactly.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


So I finally warranted a mention in Frank Magazine. It was fleeting and inaccurate, but there I am, nevertheless, identified as one of the professors into whose class women came univited to read their feminist manifesto on International Women's Day.

First, as a matter of fact, this report is untrue. Students did not enter my class on that day. If they ever do, I will insist that they stay and answer questions, including questions from me. No one speaks to my class without having to answer for what they say.

Now my concern is that given my previous post on this matter and the Frank story and what I've just written, some of you might have the impression that I am not a feminist. So let me be clear.

I am a feminist.

By that I mean that I see the amelioration of the overall status of women in our society as a pressing social concern.

One issue that is of particular concern for me, is the unequal participation of women in Canadian politics. In Canada, for instance, we have a House of Commons where fewer than 21% of members are women (that, by the way, puts us 43rd in the world). No woman leads a national political party (though that MAY change soon) and no woman has ever been chosen Canadian Prime Minister by way of a national election.

Now, why has this come to be? Certainly not because women are legally barred from politics; they're not. Similarly, it cannot be that women are naturally unsuited to politics because politics itself is not a natural phenomenon. What we need to ask ourselves is how it it is we are teaching women that politics is probably not a very good path for them, and how is it that we are creating our political systems that they result in parliaments with less than half the women we should expect? Still further, what should we do to change the current situation?

So why have I not made a point of this before? Because on a few social issues, I have positions where, keeping in mind that feminists take a variety of positions on things, I suspect many feminists might strongly disagree and I did not want to seem that I was not taking feminism seriously by claiming to be a feminist and yet opposing what many would see as obvious "feminist positions." But I now think that no one could or should claim that any given feminist must hold any given position on a particular issue, provided that their overall view does not promote the reduction of women's rights or the degradation of women in general. Moreover, I think it is important and beneficial for men to identify themselves as feminists to help fight the notion that feminism is somehow a fringe concern or only the concern of women. It's neither.

Will I tell you on which issues I think other feminists would be inclined to disagree? I will, but before I take positions that might be taken as anti-feminist (I don't think they are), I want to make sure that I have treated the issues in a way that reflects their complexity. So stay tuned.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Don't Be Yourself

Be yourself.

That's one of those things that people say when they want to sound wise without really thinking or drawing on experience. It speaks of honesty and wholesome integrity. Faced with any of life's problems, the answer can always be provided by a well-meaning parent or friend. Just be yourself.

I've been thinking alot about that lately, and I've come to the conclusion that, by and large, this little chestnut is just plain bad advice. It seems to me that being yourself is only called for if you're a genuinely fine person through and through. Now, I have met such people, so I know they exist, but in my experience they are rare. So for those of you genuinely wonderful folk, free of guile, and dishonesty, who never speak a word in anger, never find yourselves jealous or mean-spirited, go to it. Be yourselves.

The rest of us -- and that's most of us -- have a harder road ahead. Take me, for instance. Now I am a modestly decent person. I'm not a criminal; I have a pretty good sense of humour; I like music and animals and sunsets; and I like to think I have dedicated my life to a profession that, in its own way, makes a positive difference in the world. But left to my own devices, I am, by nature, oftentimes cynical and sometimes downright cold. I wish I wasn't. I wish I was a veritable fountain of light shining in the darkness twenty-four hours a day.

But I'm not. And so I work at being a little better than I otherwise would be if I wasn't trying. A little kinder, a little more understanding, a little friendlier. I look people in the eye more than I otherwise would, and I make a point of chatting even when I'm not in the mood. In other words, I try to be better than myself. Frankly, I wish more people would adopt this philosophy. It might be a little easier for me to be better than myself if so many others were a little less satisfied with who they are.

Ah, but there I go again. So I take a deep breath and find compassion and good humour. There we are. Now, I want to stress that I don't think there is anything wrong with not being entirely yourself. I think it's part of being a civilized person. Part of being an adult. So to those handful of supernaturally nice people I know -- Tammy, Linda, Sam, Richard -- you guys are great and, frankly, I don't know how you do it. But I'm not you. I'm me.

But I'm trying not to be.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What Am I? Glad you Asked.

Every once in a while someone asks me about my religious beliefs, and I always almost feel uncomfortable. Sometimes it's because the askers are children and I worry that their parents will be upset in that what-are-you-telling-my-kids-THAT-for sort of way. Other times it's a student of mine who clearly has strong religious convictions, and then I worry that the student will somehow feel threatened in a way that has really nothing to do with the subject at hand. And then of course there's always the nightmare scenario which involves someone shouting about how professors should just stick to their subjects and not try to convert students to their twisted ways of thinking.

But lately I've been coming to the conclusion that there's no harm in speaking my mind respectfully in these matters. So, for those of you who've been wondering, here is the conversation that I hope to have in the future when a well-meaning and curious person asks.

WMCP: So, what religion are you?

ME: I'm an atheist.

WMCP: Really?

ME: Yes. I used to say "born again atheist" but I think that's maybe a bit flippant.

WMCP: So you don't believe in anything?

ME: Oh, I believe in a great many things. I just don't believe in a god. Or, rather, I believe there is no god.

WMCP: Who do you think made the universe?

ME: I don't think anyone made the universe.

WCMP: Then where did the universe come from?

ME: I have no idea. I don't know that it came from anywhere. Maybe it's always existed. Or it came into being spontaneously. Nobody knows and maybe we never will.

WMCP: Maybe it was God.

ME: Maybe, but I haven't seen any reason to suppose it was.

WMCP: But everything in the universe comes from somewhere, so the universe itself must have come from something, don't you think?

ME: Not at all. The qualities of a the parts of thing are not necessarily the qualites of the whole. A car tire is made of rubber, but cars are not made of rubber. And even if Something somehow caused the universe to come into being, there's no reason to imagine that Something was God in any sense that religions use the word.

WMCP: But you can't prove that God doesn't exist.

ME: No, but typically I don't expect proof for the non-existence of things. Typically I expect people to prove that something does exist. I can't prove that unicorns don't exist, but in the absence of evidence that they do exist, I feel confident that they don't.

WMCP: You're comparing God to unicorns?

ME: No offense, but in this case yes. Both are things that potentially could exist, and could be verified with evidence if they did exist, but they haven't been and so must be taken as non-existent.

WMCP: Aren't living creatures too complex and too obviously designed to have arisen by accident?

ME: No. In the final analysis, living things are not as complex as we often imagine. Just little strings of 4 bases that code for strings of amino acids called proteins. That's what's so profound about evolutionary theory. It explains how seemingly complex creatures arise from very simply processes.

WMCP: But doesn't the Bible show that Jesus was the Son of God and thus that God exists?

ME: Well, what exactly the Bible says about Jesus is fairly complex, but simply put, I don't believe everything in the Bible is reliable. I think there is good deal of wisdom in it, and that's valuable, but I think you can take the wisdom and not believe the everything.

WMCP: Some people say that Jesus was so wise, he could not have been a normal man.

ME: Maybe not normal, but there have been many extraordinary men and women who said and did remarkable things throughout history. As for Jesus, his call for peace and compassion are valuable, but I think his argument for non-violence even in self-defence is dubious. Further, I think the Christian notion of sin without action -- which Christ supported -- is a pernicious doctrine that has led to much needless suffering.

WMCP: I don't know...people have always believed in God. Most people still do. Are you saying that all those people are wrong and you're right?

ME: Yes. But that's not as egotistical as you make it sound. First of all, all those people you mention don't even agree with each other about what God or how many gods or even if there is a god in the way that you mean it. In the west, religious people often speak about "higher powers" and that sort of thing, statements that would have made them atheists by the standards of just a few hundred years ago. Besides the fact that lots of people have believed things in the past is no reason to believe them now.

WMCP: So you're against all religion then?

ME: Not at all. I think most serious religions have wisdom to offer and we would be foolish to ignore it. There is precious little wisdom in the world; I'll take it where I can find it. Whether it is a pagan like Marcus Aurelius or a Christian like C.S. Lewis or a Buddhist like Jack Kornfield. If you have someting that makes sense, I'll listen and be glad for the chance to think more clearly.

WMCP: What is the wisdom that Christianity has to offer?

ME: By their fruits you shall know them. An evil tree does not produce good fruit and a good tree does not produce evil fruit.

WMCP: You're paraphrasing, of course.

ME: Of course.

WMCP: And what happens to you after you die?

ME: Nothing. I don't believe in a soul or an afterlife.

WMCP: Doesn't that make this life meaningless?

ME: Just the opposite. It means we have to make the most of life while it lasts, because this is it. If this life is just a prelude to an infinite afterlife, well, that would make life seem meaningless to me.

WMCP: Hmmm... well, I still believe in God.

ME: I'm not trying to convince you otherwise. And I try not to be judgemental, either. Life is hard. Everybody does what they have to do to get through. If your faith helps you along the journey, I would not dare begrudge you that.

WMCP: Well, this has been a really interesting conversation.

ME: I couldn't agree more. Shall we get a muffin?

WMCP: Yes, let's. And some chocolate milk. I see the Blue Jays lost again...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Memo to...

Winning Sports Teams: if you are photographed in front of any kind of banner indicating that you have won something, there is no need for you all to put up your first fingers to indicate that you're number one.

The Bob Show: New Episode

Twelve Angry Bobs: Bob is on a jury and disagrees with the other eleven members and so must convince them that he's right.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Bear Alert

In light of recent events at CBU, I want to stress, for the record, that this blog is a personal site and not in any way affiliated with or endorsed by Cape Breton University.

Although I provide a link from my university page to this page, I have done so only so that students might, if they choose to do so, see what a professional intellectual thinks about in his spare time. Judging from past comments, a few readers have sometimes found the postings here amusing, and I will endeavour to keep it up as time permits.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Because... (revised)

Recently our university was the site of a series of classroom interruptions in which female students came, uninvited, into classes and read the following statement:

Because woman’s work is never done
and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or
repetitious and we’re the first to get fired
and what we look like is more important
than what we do and if we get raped it’s
our fault and if we get beaten we must have
provoked it and if we raise our voices we’re
nagging bitches and if we enjoy sex we’re
nymphos and if we don’t were frigid and if
we love women it’s because we can’t get a
‘real’ man and if we ask our doctor too many
questions we’re neurotic and/or pushy and
if we expect childcare we’re selfish and if we
stand up for our rights we’re aggressive and
‘unfeminine’ and if we don’t we’re typical
weak females and if we want to get married
we’re out to trap a man and if we don’t we’re
unnatural and because we still can’t get an
adequate safe contraceptive but men can walk
on the moon and if we can’t cope or don’t
want a pregnancy we’re made to feel
guilty about abortion and ... for lots and lots
of other reasons we are part of the
women’s liberation movement.

This manifesto has been around for many years and it always annoys me. Not because I am anti-feminist; just the opposite. I am pro-feminist, but statements like this, simple-minded as they are, do a grave injustice to those who really want to ameliorate the place of women in the western world.

I was going to look at this line by line, but I can only take so much at once, so let's look at just a few particularly interesting passages.

“Because woman’s work is never done,
and is underpaid or unpaid or boring or

Well, I suspect that most people, men and women, feel that their work is never done, is underpaid, boring and so on. Unpaid work in the house is an interesting issue, but hardly a woman's issue; studies show that men actually do as much housework as women although it is not always the same tasks (men tend to mow the lawn, shovel snow, maintain the home and so on). That women are underpaid is a serious issue but one that is far more complex than this document allows. For instance, some studies have shown that the difference in pay between men and women is largely a function of education. That is, women who are as well educated as their male counterparts get paid just as well. Aha, but then why are women not as well educated. Good question. Social prejudice? Legitimate choices on the part of women who pursue childbearing instead of education? Or is the latter another kind of systematic discrimination? These are serious questions and they are done no service by the kind of absurd over-simplification of the manifesto quoted above.

“we’re the first to get fired and what
we look like is more important
than what we do”

That men were sometimes kept on in times of financial trouble on the ground that they had families to support may have been true at one time, but such action would hardly hold up in court today. That women are principally judged by their looks may be true in a few fields of endeavour (acting, modelling), I can see no indication that it is widely the case.

“and if we get raped it’s our fault
and if we get beaten we must have
provoked it”

Sadly, it is true that there are those who may try to discount some cases of rape on the absurd grounds that the woman somehow "provoked" it -- and such dismissals are rightly criticized. But the blanket statement that implies that all rapes are blamed on the woman is a needlessly inflammatory overstatement. If this were true, rape would not even be a crime. Of course, many rape cases turn on the difficult question of consent, and to be sure, many guiltless women have had to endure humiliating questions for the sake of guilty men. But what is the alternative, the presumption of guilt in rape cases? Here again, the simplistic treatment of complex isssues is unworthy of scholars.

“and if we raise our voices we’re nagging bitches
and if we enjoy sex we’re nymphos”

I have never heard anyone define “nagging” as speaking with a raised voice. I have never heard anyone define “nympho” as a woman who enjoys sex.

“if we expect childcare we’re selfish”

Apparently the women who were reading this statement last week entirely missed the last election campaign, where every major party was promoting increased funding for childcare as a key part of their platform! Now, as to whether the public should pay for childcare is an issue for another day.

“and because we still can’t get an adequate safe
contraceptive but men can walk on the moon”

Safe contraception? When was this thing written? Probably around the time of the first moon landing. Women have come a long way since then, largely through the work of brave women who fought for them.

Those women deserve better than this.