banner photo:

"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

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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Holocaust-themed parade float "extremely respectful"

According to this story, a Rio de Janeiro samba organization plans to enter a float in Rio's Carnival Parade depicting piles of dead Holocaust victims, despite objections from local Jews. The samba group's parade theme is "Shockers" and "includes floats depicting the shock of birth, the shock of horror and the shock of cold."

Organizers deny that the float is disrespectful, since it would be the only float without dancers on it. "If we had people dancing on top of dead bodies that would indeed be disrespectful" said a spokesman. Indeed.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Heath Ledger changed my life

I was shocked to read last night of the death of Heath Ledger at the age of 28 - shocked and saddened, because two years ago Heath Ledger changed my life.

I grew up in a small town in Canada in the late 60s and early 70s. Homosexual sex was illegal in Canada until 1969, and homosexuality was considered a psychiatric disorder (listed by the American Psychiatric Association under Sexual Deviancy) until 1972. Every Hallowe'en in the early 70s, hostile crowds descended on the infamous St. Charles Tavern on Toronto's Yonge St. to taunt & harrass the "faggots". There were absolutely no sympathetic treatments of gays in the media or in popular culture, and gays were regularly beaten in horrendous gay-bashing incidents. Needless to say, I grew up with the message that homosexuals were perverts and that being gay was a ticket to a life of shame, humiliation, loneliness and even danger.

When I first discovered my own homosexual feelings in the early 70s, I fought hard to suppress them. I dated girls & was outwardly straight. In my twenties & thirties, I wanted the middle-class dream of a wife & kids and a house with a white picket fence, and I felt that being gay was incompatible with that dream. I convinced myself that I was bisexual, and that if I worked hard enough at it, I could suppress my gay side and live a heterosexual life. In my forties, when I couldn't make it work, I stopped dating altogether, moved out to the country & bought a house, & resolved to stay single - I just couldn't bring myself to admit that I was gay and take that final step across the threshold to a different life.

Then, in January of 2006, I went to see Brokeback Mountain. I wasn't sure what to expect. I had heard all the gay cowboy jokes on late-night TV, but nothing prepared me for the impact that movie had on me. Heath Ledger's portrayal of Ennis Del Mar, the self-loathing closeted cowboy living in rural Wyoming who passes up a chance at true love for a life of misery & loneliness, hit me like a physical blow. After watching the final scene where Ennis caresses a shirt that once belonged to his now-dead lover and struggles to keep his grief under control, I could hardly breathe. I didn't sleep for two days, and after a brutal period of intense self-examination, I resolved to make a change. I came out to my family & close friends.

It wasn't easy. Coming out in your late forties is like finding yourself in a foreign country where you don't speak the language or understand the rules. I made a few attempts to meet other gay people, which isn't easy in a rural area. Eventually I met a great guy & we are starting a new relationship together. For the first time I feel like a well-adjusted, whole, happy person.

I don't usually write about my personal life in this blog, but the death of Heath Ledger deserves some comment by people like me who were deeply affected by his performance in Brokeback Mountain. He appeared in a lot of forgettable roles in many mediocre movies, but that one performance was a masterpiece, and it was a watershed in my own life. The ancient Greeks had a term to describe a type of response by audiences to moments of great tension or emotion in a drama - catharsis. It refers to an emotional crisis or breakdown accompanied by a feeling of renewal and purification. I experienced catharsis that night when I watched Heath Ledger on the screen as Ennis Del Mar.

It is sad when celebrities whom you admire turn out to have feet of clay, and it is troubling that his death apparently involved something as sordid as a drug overdose. He deserved better than that.

Monday, January 21, 2008

A Canadian pundit on US health care

The National Post's columnist Don Martin wrote a story in Saturday's paper about former Alberta Premier Ralph Klein's failure to fix his province's health care system despite "13 years of dictator-sized government majorities backed by billions of surplus dollars and the most enterprise-minded voters in the country". Klein identified several obstacles to his attempts to open up the public system in Alberta to private enterprise, including this:
"We faced a hostile news media who loved nothing more than to promote a good fight," he said. "I have often said that political reporters are actually fight promoters and nowhere is that more true than in health care."
Martin, by way of commenting on the perils of private involvement in Canada's public health care system, recalled an incident during a trip to the US:
At the risk of sounding like a fight promoter, I witnessed the harsh consequences of all-private care when one of my children was admitted to a Pittsburgh hospital for life-saving surgery. It may be the best care in the world, but it's also red-taped Mastercard medicare where superior treatment goes to those with the most money and those without insurance sacrifice their savings to pay horrendous hospital bills. Never have I appreciated having a Canadian health insurance coverage more.
I have a few questions for Don Martin, and other Canadians who nod their heads in agreement and tut-tut about the Dickensian system south of the border. First - why were you in the US without arranging for health insurance to cover you during your visit, and why would you expect an American hospital to treat you for free if you are not a resident of the US, or a taxpayer in that country? I travel frequently in the US and every time I do so I purchase private medical insurance to cover unexpected bills while I'm there.

Secondly - where do you think Canadian residents with lots of money go to jump the queue for life-saving surgery? You got it - places like Pittsburgh.

Thirdly - visitors to Canada don't get free government-provided health care from our world-famous system while they're in our country. State-run health care is provided free of charge ONLY to Canadian residents. A tourist from Pittsburgh who required life-saving surgery while in Toronto would also run up "horrendous hospital bills" if they hadn't taken the trouble to arrange for private insurance while on their trip. A few years ago an American teacher lived in my neighbourhood while she was on a year-long exchange at a local school. She naively assumed that she would be able to access our "free health care" while she was here and didn't bother to arrange private insurance. When she got sick here and required a doctor's care, she was shocked to be presented with a steep bill because she didn't have Ontario health insurance, and it hadn't occurred to her that, since she paid no taxes here, she wasn't automatically provided with health care by the Ontario government.

Which brings me to my last point - health care in Canada is not "free". We pay extraordinarily high taxes in this country for the privilege of being provided with mediocre service by an inefficient government monopoly. I challenge Don Martin to do a little research & find out what kind of private health insurance he could get in Pittsburgh for the equivalent money he pays in health-related taxes in Ontario.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Ron Paul gives libertarians a bad name

Ron Paul's run for the Republican Party's nomination in the US has many libertarians all a-flutter. He has set new fundraising records due to his anti-establishment libertarian message, and attracted rave reviews from libertarian media outlets like Reason magazine. However, reporters at The New Republic have done a little digging & come up with some unsavoury statements about blacks, gays & Jews attributed to Paul in newsletters put out by his organization in the 1990s. Here's what the newsletters had to say about homosexuals:

Like blacks, gays earn plenty of animus in Paul's newsletters. They frequently quoted Paul's "old colleague," Representative William Dannemeyer--who advocated quarantining people with AIDS--praising him for "speak[ing] out fearlessly despite the organized power of the gay lobby." In 1990, one newsletter mentioned a reporter from a gay magazine "who certainly had an axe to grind, and that's not easy with a limp wrist." In an item titled, "The Pink House?" the author of a newsletter--again, presumably Paul--complained about President George H.W. Bush's decision to sign a hate crimes bill and invite "the heads of homosexual lobbying groups to the White House for the ceremony," adding, "I miss the closet." "Homosexuals," it said, "not to speak of the rest of society, were far better off when social pressure forced them to hide their activities." When Marvin Liebman, a founder of the conservative Young Americans for Freedom and a longtime political activist, announced that he was gay in the pages of National Review, a Paul newsletter implored, "Bring Back the Closet!" Surprisingly, one item expressed ambivalence about the contentious issue of gays in the military, but ultimately concluded, "Homosexuals, if admitted, should be put in a special category and not allowed in close physical contact with heterosexuals."

The newsletters were particularly obsessed with AIDS, "a politically protected disease thanks to payola and the influence of the homosexual lobby," and used it as a rhetorical club to beat gay people in general. In 1990, one newsletter approvingly quoted "a well-known Libertarian editor" as saying, "The ACT-UP slogan, on stickers plastered all over Manhattan, is 'Silence = Death.' But shouldn't it be 'Sodomy = Death'?" Readers were warned to avoid blood transfusions because gays were trying to "poison the blood supply." "Am I the only one sick of hearing about the 'rights' of AIDS carriers?" a newsletter asked in 1990. That same year, citing a Christian-right fringe publication, an item suggested that "the AIDS patient" should not be allowed to eat in restaurants and that "AIDS can be transmitted by saliva," which is false. Paul's newsletters advertised a book, Surviving the AIDS Plague--also based upon the casual-transmission thesis--and defended "parents who worry about sending their healthy kids to school with AIDS victims." Commenting on a rise in AIDS infections, one newsletter said that "gays in San Francisco do not obey the dictates of good sense," adding: "[T]hese men don't really see a reason to live past their fifties. They are not married, they have no children, and their lives are centered on new sexual partners." Also, "they enjoy the attention and pity that comes with being sick."

Paul now claims that he did not write the articles in question. Jacob Sullum at Reason is inclined to believe him:
If I thought Ron Paul might be president in 2009, I'd have to admit that his newsletter negligence raises questions about his judgment and about the people he'd choose to advise him. But since the value of the Paul campaign lies in promoting the libertarian ideals of limited government, individual freedom, and tolerance, the real problem is that the newsletters contradict this message.

Give me a break. Ron Paul gives libertarians a bad name - he may not be a homophobic race-baiter himself, but at one time he must have surrounded himself with people like that who spoke on his behalf in a publication that carried his name. At the very least he shows appallingly bad judgement. Ron Paul's fifteen minutes of fame are up.

Plan 9: The Best Lines

Described by many as the worst movie ever made, Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space defies description. Here's a YouTube clip with some of the movie's classic howlers:

Monday, January 07, 2008

Huckabee, evangelical Christians & Canadian conservatism

I just got back from a vacation in the US, where I had a chance to closely follow the presidential race & Mike Huckabee's win in last week's Iowa Caucuses. Many Republicans are appalled by his victory & subsequent propulsion to front-runner status. Some right wing commentators are suggesting that the GOP has reached a watershed moment, where it either becomes a fringe party of right-wing evangelical Christians, or severs its ties with the Christian right and embraces a libertarian ideology of free market economics coupled with personal freedom & individual responsibility. The folks at Powerline link to a story by Mark Falcoff of the American Enterprise Institute which makes that case:

It’s been a long time in coming. For years the Republicans have depended on evangelical voters to assure them control of the White House and at least a fighting representation in both houses of Congress. Sooner or later their most reliable, most motivated constituency would want more than just verbal assurances of support or even votes on issues of importance—abortion, gays in the military, and so forth. Eventually evangelicals would want a president of their own.

The best metaphor is that of the blacks in the Democratic party. For years, nay, for decades, they have been its most reliable constituency, essential to winning states rich in electoral votes in presidential races. Of course the Democrats haven’t always won these elections, mainly because they have fielded charmless candidates like Mike Dukakis, Al Gore, or John Kerry. But they wouldn’t have come as close as did, particularly in 2000 and 2004, if it weren’t for that reliable Afro-American vote.

This was precisely what led Jesse Jackson to seek the Democratic nomination in 1984. Given the peculiarities of our primary politics, this wasn’t as outlandish a proposition as it might seem in retrospect. Although he didn’t win the Iowa caucuses, Jackson did go on to win primaries in South Carolina, Louisiana (where most white Democrats failed to go to the polls, since they were planning to vote for President Reagan anyway) and Michigan (where less than two percent of the registered Democrats actually bothered to vote—one can easily discern which two percent it was). The next big contest was in New York State. In the runup to that event great was the panic in establishment Democratic ranks. What if Jackson won New York? Could they deny him the nomination? Fortunately for the party this eventuality never materialized, although this didn’t stop Jackson from insisting that as the winner of the second largest basket of primary delegates he should at least be the vice presidential nominee. The Democrats wouldn’t go for this either. They wanted votes from Jackson supporters, but they knew perfectly well that the reverend’s presence on the ticket would be political suicide. Black voters had no choice but to go back to being what they’ve always been—a major but not defining constituency of the Democratic party. What makes the Obama phenomenon particularly intriguing is that, although technically black, he is certainly not a “black candidate” in the sense in which Jackson was. Indeed, at this writing Hillary Clinton is still the first choice of most African-American voters.

With Mike Huckabee’s victory in Iowa, however, the Republican party is now entering what might be called its Jesse Jackson moment. If Huckabee goes on to win more primaries he will have a reasonable claim to the nomination. He may, of course, lose New Hampshire, New York, California and Michigan. But let’s suppose that he manages to win enough primaries in the southern and border states to make the results in those three states irrelevant. It’s all a question of numbers. In spite of itself, the party might end up with him as its nominee, and with it, heading down the shortest road to disaster since the Goldwater debacle of 1964.

Make no mistake about it: an electoral defeat of these dimensions would represent a major watershed in the history of the Republican party. It would be faced with only two possible roads forward. One is to become the party of the religious right, a sectarian agglomeration somewhat like the small ethnic parties in inter-war Europe, perhaps capable of holding some governorships and seats in Congress but never again competitive in a presidential election. The other would be to cut itself free from the religious right and seek to appeal to the wide and growing tranche of independent voters who are socially liberal but economically conservative. In that case the Republican party would gradually resemble some of the “liberal” (that is, conservative) parties who periodically win national elections in Western Europe or Canada. These parties are friendly to market-based solutions to economic problems—that is, they are broadly libertarian.

Think this is impossible? Think again. The business of politicians is first and foremost to get elected, not to preach sermons. A Huckabee nomination would not merely assure a Democratic presidential victory but gains in both houses and a Supreme Court packed with justices somewhat resembling Ruth Bader Ginsberg. But the news is worse than that: even a Huckabee victory in the race to the White House (as difficult as it may be to imagine at this point) would also toll the death knell of the Republican party as we have known it. Indeed, as recent opposition research has hown, none of the candidates is as far from the legacy of Ronald Reagan—either in domestic or foreign policy--as the former governor of Arkansas.

As Mark Steyn has properly stated it, the choice between Huckabee and some Democrat would be a choice between the Religious Left and the Secular Left. Evangelicals—many of them my neighbors and friends--need to take note. The peril is great and it is near.

I think a similar situation existed in Canada not too long ago. The brand-new Conservative Party of Canada was an often uneasy amalgam of social conservatives from the old Reform Party and Red Tories from the Progressive Conservatives. Social issues like abortion & gay marriage threatened to split the party, and Liberals screamed that Stephen Harper had a hidden [read evangelical Christian] agenda.

Harper, successfully I think, stared down the controversy and has largely succeeded in taking these issues off the table. Social conservatives are not happy & are threatening to desert the CPC, but I think the strategy is sound in the long term. The primary purpose of a political party is to get elected & form a government - the alternative leads to political oblivion.

RELATED: The California State Republican party - compare & contrast (ht - Independent Gay Forum):
[There's been] a change in the image of the California Republican Party and a change in the kind of candidate it nominates. A generation ago, it was a pragmatic, broad-based party that emphasized issues such as taxes and spending of concern to the broad middle of the electorate (and even to many on either side). It was a conservative party when conservative was defined largely in economic terms—low taxes, efficient public services, and limited government. Today, it is an ideological, narrowly based party that defines its conservatism by social and cultural issues like abortion and gay marriage that are of only secondary concern to most Californians. Moreover, most Californians take more liberal views on such issues than do California Republican activists. The middle of the road in California runs through the economically conservative but socially tolerant quadrant of the ideological space.