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"Each individual should allow reason to guide his conduct, or like an animal, he will need to be led by a leash."
Diogenes of Sinope

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Thousand Flowers tapestry (15th Century) - Beaune, France (detail)

Saturday, December 23, 2006

"Act with audacity and a lofty spirit": advice for President Bush from Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world between his accession to the throne of Macedonia in 336 BC and his death in 323. Alexander faced an insurgency in Greece in 335 that has several parallels to the situation facing President Bush in Iraq as he contemplates a change in American policy there.

In 338, a coalition of Greek city states led by Athens went to war with Alexander's father, Philip, and was decisively defeated at the battle of Chaeronea. Philip was assassinated in 336, and in 335 the city of Thebes, with the backing of Athens, rebelled against Alexander, the new king of Macedonia. Alexander's advisers ( I can imagine a Macedonian version of the Iraq Study Group) suggested that he withdraw from Greece and treat the rebellious tribes on Macedonia's northern borders mildly and by offering them concessions lure them back into allegiance. The Roman historian Plutarch describes Alexander's response:

Alexander was only twenty years old when he inherited his kingdom, which at that moment was beset by formidable jealousies and feuds, and external dangers on every side. The neighbouring barbarian tribes were eager to throw off the Macedonian yoke and longed for the rule of their native kings: as for the Greek states, although Philip had defeated them in battle, he had not had time to subdue them or accustom them to his authority. He had swept away the existing governments, and then, having prepared their peoples for drastic changes, had left them in turmoil and confusion, because he had created a situation which was completely unfamiliar to them. Alexander’s Macedonian advisers feared that a crisis was at hand and urged the young king to leave the Greek states to their own devices and refrain from using any force against them. As for the barbarian tribes, they considered that he should try to win them back to their allegiance by using milder methods, and forestall the first signs of revolt by offering them concessions. Alexander, however, chose precisely the opposite course, and decided that the only way to make his kingdom safe was to act with audacity and a lofty spirit, for he was certain that if he were seen to yield even a fraction of his authority, all his enemies would attack him at once. He swiftly crushed the uprisings among the barbarians by advancing with his army as far as the Danube, where he overcame Syrmus, the king of the Triballi, in a great battle.

Then when the news reached him that the Thebans had revolted and were being supported by the Athenians, he immediately marched south through the pass of Thermopylae. ‘Demosthenes’, he said, ‘called me a boy while I was in Illyria and among the Triballi, and a youth when I was marching through Thessaly; I will show him I am a man by the time I reach the walls of Athens.’When he arrived before Thebes, he wished to give the citizens the opportunity to repent of their actions, and so he merely demanded the surrender of their leaders Phoenix and Prothytes, and offered an amnesty to all the rest if they would some over to his side. The Thebans countered by demanding the surrender of [Macedonian generals] Philotas and Antipater and appealing to all who wished to liberate Greece to range themselves on their side, and at this Alexander ordered his troops to prepare for battle. The Thebans, although greatly outnumbered, fought with a superhuman courage and spirit, but when the Macedonian garrison which had been posted in the citadel of the Cadmeia made a sortie and fell upon them from the rear, the greater part of their army was encircled, they were slaughtered where they stood, and the city was stormed, plundered and razed to the ground. Alexander’s principal object in permitting the sack of Thebes was to frighten the rest of the Greeks into submission by making a terrible example. But he also put forward the excuse that he was redressing the wrongs done to his allies, for the Plataeans and Phocians had both complained of the actions of the Thebans against them. As for the population of Thebes, he singled out the priests , a few citizens who had friendly connections with Macedonia, the descendants of the poet Pindar, and those who had opposed the revolt to be spared: all the rest were publicly sold into slavery to the number of twenty thousand. Those who were killed in the battle numbered more than six thousand ....

After this Alexander came to terms with the Athenians, in spite of their open sympathy with the sufferings of the Thebans.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Gay marriage: a reply to the Canada Family Action Coalition

A free vote on gay marriage is to be held in the House of Commons tomorrow on whether or not to re-visit the federal legislation that extended civil marriage to gay couples in 2005. The opponents of gay marriage are mustering their troops for a last stand on Thursday, led by Dr. Charles McVety and the Canada Family Action Coalition. They took out a full-page ad in today’s National Post outlining their position; in the interest of open-minded debate, I would like to reply to Dr. McVety and once again make the case for leaving the legislation as it is.

The headline states (ad copy in italics): "Does Your Member of Parliament Care About:"

  • Freedom of Speech: Should it be against the law to publicly express your views on morality? Of course not. We live in a democracy, and freedom of speech is a cornerstone of that democracy. No one should be punished by the state for expressing opinions on an issue. However, freedom of speech is circumscribed by laws and traditions against slander and libel, so lets keep the debate civil and factual. When opponents of gay marriage frame the debate with derogatory insults about homosexuals, as David Warren did recently in the Western Standard (Oct. 23, 2006) saying, among other things, that "the Devil has control of the media, the courts, the bureaucracy and the education system", and "the systematic attack on our common law is part of a larger attack on all norms of public decency", then it’s hard to take the freedom of speech argument seriously. When the "Reverend" Fred Phelps in the US pickets funerals with placards saying "God Hates Fags", the principle of freedom of speech may allow him to do so, but Members of Congress should be free to ignore him.
  • Freedom of Religion: Should clergy be protected from being forced to perform same sex marriages? Should marriage commissioners continue to lose their jobs? Should places of worship be protected? As far as clergy and places of worship are concerned, they should absolutely be protected from performing gay marriages if their doctrine forbids it. After all, membership in a church is voluntary, and if one doesn’t agree with the church’s position, one is usually free to leave. However, this right does not extend to civil marriage commissioners: their job is to uphold the law of the land, and if the law says that gays can marry, then that is the end of the discussion. No-one is forced to be a marriage commissioner - if you can’t in good conscience obey the law, then the decent thing is to resign your commission. Unlike membership in a church, citizenship is not voluntary; we cannot pick and choose which laws we will obey and which ones we will not, be it the criminal code or the federal marriage statutes.
  • Children’s Rights? Should children lose their rights to a mother and a father? This is a common argument against gay marriage, but to me it is a non sequitur. Let’s face it - gay couples cannot have children on their own, so how does allowing gay couples to marry somehow deprive children of heterosexual parents? This may be an argument against gay couples adopting children, which is a totally separate issue from gay marriage, but gay couples don’t get married to split up existing family units. Furthermore, many gay households already include children (the figure in the US is 27%), usually the biological children of one member of the couple. Should these children be denied the right to live with married parents, even if they are the same sex? While we’re on the subject, the biggest reason for children growing up without a male and female parent is divorce, not gay marriage. Is Dr. McVety advocating changing Canada’s divorce laws as well?
  • Teachers' and Parents' Rights? Should teachers be forced by law to teach same-sex relations to children? Should parents lose their authority over sexual curriculum taught to their children? See comment on marriage commissioners, above. If a teacher works in a public school, then he or she is obligated to follow the rules and regulations that govern the school system as determined by the democratically elected authorities who administer it. We cannot choose which laws we will obey and which ones we will not. Teachers who cannot in good conscience follow the law should get out of the profession or find employment in the private system. As far as parents are concerned, if you send your kids to a public school, you shouldn’t expect them to be treated differently from any other student. Again, we cannot pick and choose the laws we want to follow, and like it or not, provincial school curricula are the law of the land. If you cannot accept the moral tone of a public school, then work to change the tone through democratic channels, or send your children to a private school or home-school them. Of course, all parents have the right to instill whatever moral values they want in the privacy of their own homes and churches - it should be possible to teach your children private moral values while still sending them to an "immoral" public school, shouldn’t it?
  • The Social Impact of Re-defining Marriage? Should Parliament study the impact of redefining marriage? France did, why not Canada? Well, let’s leave aside the argument that Canada should look to France for guidance on how to run a country. This debate has already happened in Canada, and the legislature has spoken. One can probably argue that the debate was perfunctory in 2005 and there is not yet enough evidence to assess the impact of the change, but the fact is that the law has been re-written and over 10 000 gay Canadians have been legally married since then. The social impact of changing the policy now may be worse - are we suddenly going to tell these couples that the legal partnerships they entered into in good faith are now null and void? If we allow currently married gay couples to stay married but forbid gay marriages in the future, that sets up an intolerable situation where the state gives privileges to some gay citizens but denies them to others. What signal does this send to society at large, that legally binding social contracts can be nullified by an emotional vote in Parliament?
  • Serving Constituents? 64% of Canadians want Parliament to review existing legislation, according to a National Post/Institute for Canadian Values/ COMPAS poll. Will MP s vote according to their constituents or special interest? Well, we should always take poll results with a huge grain of salt. The Strategic Council did a poll this week that reported that only 38% of Canadians want the law changed to return marriage to its "traditional" definition. Anyway, we don’t make laws in this country by referendum - we elect Members of Parliament to vote in the legislature on our behalf, and that is a good thing - as English Prime Minister Robert Walpole said in 1738, "Are all desires proper to be gratified? Is an inflamed populace to give laws to the legislature?" Lets face it - one of the purposes of having an elected legislature pass laws rather than holding a referendum every time is to remove emotion and mob rule from the legislative process. This is one of those situations - there are emotional irrational arguments flying around on both sides of the debate, and Parliament should decide the issue in a free vote. MP s must take into account many aspects of the big picture nationally, including but not limited to the wishes of their local constituents, and for better or worse, we should let them make the decision. The proper time to pressure them is during an election - if enough people are unhappy with the direction of Parliament, then MP s get voted out. Dr. McVety and the Canadian Family Action Coalition tried unsuccessfully to target pro-gay-marriage MP s during the last election and failed. Try again next time, but let Parliament do its job now.

It is my wish that the vote in the House tomorrow is truly a free vote, and that a majority of MP s will decide to not re-open the debate on gay marriage. Stephen Harper can say to his "social conservative base" that he kept his campaign promise, and then drop the issue once and for all.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Memo to the left 2: Why we're in Afghanistan

I've posted on this before (here , here , and here ), but it never ceases to amaze me how the left in Canada can't get behind the mission in Afghanistan. The situation there represents a perfect storm of causes that the left traditionally supports: women's rights, gay rights, racism, Third World development - you name the issue and Canadian troops are over there making it better. And yet, Jack Layton (and now apparently Stephane Dion) can't seem to figure out why we're there. Here's a clue:

The gunmen came at night to drag Mohammed Halim away from his home, in front of his crying children and his wife begging for mercy.

The 46-year-old schoolteacher tried to reassure his family that he would return safely. But his life was over, he was part-disembowelled and then torn apart with his arms and legs tied to motorbikes, the remains put on display as a warning to others against defying Taliban orders to stop educating girls.

Mr Halim was one of four teachers killed in rapid succession by the Islamists at Ghazni, a strategic point on the routes from Kabul to the south and east which has become the scene of fierce clashes between the Taliban and US and Afghan forces...

(h/t: GayPatriot )

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Ontario's bottle deposit boondoggle

One of the things that irritates me the most about Ontario's Liberal government is its propensity to continually lecture its citizens on civic virtue, with Dalton McGuinty playing the role of stern elementary-school principal to us bad little boys and girls. If we don't shape up, we'll get another serious talking-to by Principal McGuinty. The provincial government is incapable of doing anything about important issues facing us, like our overloaded and inadequate electricity supply or our crumbling infrastructure, but by God they're going to make sure we recycle our wine bottles.

The province has announced that, starting in February 2007, there will be a 10 or 20 cent deposit system on all wine and liquor bottles, and that all containers must be returned to Beer Store outlets for refunds. This will, it is hoped, increase Ontario's recycling rate of these containers by 30 or 40 percent. Being a skeptic by nature, I would like to interrupt the mutual back-slapping and congratulations on this "green" initiative to ask some questions that no-one seems to be asking:
  • There is currently almost no market for recycled glass in Ontario, especially green glass, which most wine bottles are made of. As a result, almost all glass collected in Ontario's current Blue Box program winds up in landfill sites. How is a bottle deposit system going to divert glass from landfills if the Blue Box system failed to do so?
  • The province touts its beer bottle deposit system as a model for the program - almost 90% of beer bottles in the province are returned and re-used. However, this will not be the case for wine and liquor bottles; they will be returned but not re-used, and thus the glass collected will be subject to the same problems that the Blue Box system has. Wineries and distilleries are not set up to re-use bottles, nor are the bottles themselves designed to be re-used. What about imports of wine and spirits from foreign countries - if the province mandates a re-usable bottle system for the industry as its next step, are we still going to be able to buy California or Australian wine, or British Scotch? Will they continue to sell it to us if this system is made a requirement for selling alcohol in Ontario?
  • While we're on the subject, what is so heinous about dumping glass in landfill sites? Glass is absolutely and utterly inert chemically - it is made of the same material that sand is composed of (silicon dioxide). Filling a landfill with glass would have no more effect on the environment or the water table than filling it with gravel. So - why spend $15 million per year diverting it from the waste stream? The money would be better spent diverting truly dangerous or toxic materials, like batteries.

I have a feeling that this is another one of McGuinty's show-piece programs that gets a lot of press but acccomplishes next-to-nothing. It generates good press while making his government look like they're doing something about the environment, and at the same time diverts attention from his policy failures (like the promise to close Ontario's coal-fired electrical generating stations, which the government has admitted that it can't keep). David Suzuki gives him a pat on the back and the chardonnay-swillers in Rosedale feel good about saving the environment, while the net effect of the program is zero.