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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)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A frightening glimpse at "gay rights activism" in Egypt

The Jerusalem Post profiles Egyptian Ahmed Saad, self-proclaimed "gay rights activist". His solution (a final solution, as it were) to the problem of persecution of homosexuals in the Islamic world? Give gays an opportunity to go straight, and if they refuse - kill them.
Hostility towards homosexuality has deep roots in Islamic culture and tradition, and many Muslims believe that it constitutes a crime warranting execution. Saad asserts, however, that this attitude represents a blatant misunderstanding of Koranic text: “God,” he insists, “sentenced the homosexuals to death [at Sodom and Gomorrah] only after they refused his guidance.”

From Saad’s point of view, refusal to change is the true transgression – not homosexuality itself. He believes that every homosexual deserves a second opportunity to be straight.

“DON’T FORGET that homosexuals exist among those closest to you and need your help,” implores Saad as an author’s note in his first book, Shab Takaya, published by Al- Alamiya last month. (The title translates literally as “pillow boy” and is a derogatory term for homosexuals; the author uses it as a criticism of the society that stigmatizes them.)

The story begins when a young boy named Haytham is mysteriously found hanging from a rope in his room as part of what initially appears to be suicide. As the tale progresses, the novel’s nameless protagonist – a journalist like Saad himself, whose speech Saad says reflects his own views – seeks to uncover details surrounding Haytham’s death. Saad uses his protagonist’s journey to explore – and condemn – the treatment of homosexuals in Egyptian society.

Yet the extent to which Saad actually defends homosexuals remains a matter of interpretation, which explains why since the book’s publication, Saad has received threats and insults from heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. His book argues for societal acceptance of homosexuals and an end to stigmatization.

Nonetheless, Saad envisions an Islamic society that treats homosexuality as a curable illness. “Society has a critical role to play in treatment,” writes Saad’s anonymous protagonist, as “any disease, whether physical or psychological, demands support from society and especially from the patient’s close relatives.” Without “the right kind” of support, “the patient’s frustration grows” until he surrenders himself to the disease.

Convinced that their lifestyles are unhealthy and go against God, Saad said in a recent interview that most homosexuals would seek treatment if provided a supportive atmosphere and the opportunity to do so. As to the minority who refuse treatment because they believe in exercising what the West calls individual liberty, most can be disabused of such ideas, he argued. For the remainder, his words were harsh: “As Sodom and Gomorrah’s homosexuals were executed for failing to heed God’s words, so should homosexuals be ‘stoned to death,’ as decreed by Islam, if they refuse to change.”

“The homosexual does not live alone by himself in society,” asserted Saad, whose small build and reserved demeanor bely the determination with which he conveys his message. “If [a homosexual] is freely left to practice his sexuality openly and without shame, he endangers society in its entirety. He will influence children and infect them with his disease.”
Saad gained his insight by "pretending to be gay" and trolling a gay dating website to meet Egyptian men:
Saad said he based his characters on what he saw and heard from people he met through manjam.com, a dating site popular among gay Egyptians. Since he could not present himself as a journalist because no one would agree to talk with him, he said he pretended to be gay himself – a deception he considered “the only way possible” to meet gays in person and learn about their lives.
Sure, buddy - whatever you say.

(HT: Box Turtle Bulletin)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Moral relativism finally taken to its logical conclusion"

Blogging at PJM, Zombie considers an astonishing article from the Guardian:
The Guardian recently published a wicked satire of moral relativism, a Swiftian send-up entitled “End human rights imperialism now” with the classic sub-heading “Groups such as Human Rights Watch have lost their way by imposing western, ‘universal’ standards on developing countries.” Brilliant! Hahahahaha! I didn’t know the Guardian had branched out into humor.

But about five minutes after my laughter subsided, a horrible suspicion dawned on me: Could it be that the author was serious?

A quick re-read confirmed my fears. This was no joke. This was the modern left finally taking its last inevitable step into the abyss of moral oblivion.
Read it and weep.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Walmart & fat people

The Ottawa Citizen is carrying a story today about a study done at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro that claims to conclusively prove that Walmart is responsible for making poor people fat.
Two economists tracked extensive health and population data between 1996 and 2005, a period in which 1,569 supercentres — which sell groceries along with household products — opened across the U.S.

Of Walmart's 323 stores in Canada, 119 are supercentres.

The researchers found that one new Walmart supercentre per 100,000 residents meant an average weight gain of 1.5 pounds per person sometime over a 10-year period dating from the store's opening. It also boosted the obesity rate by 2.3 percentage points, meaning that for every 100 people, two who weren't obese ended up in that category after a superstore opened.

"I think the most obvious story is that Walmart lowers the price of foods and a lot of the foods it has big price advantages on are the processed, inner-aisle types of food that aren't that good for you," said Charles Courtemanche, an assistant professor of economics at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

"It's not just about Walmart underselling the competitor. It's about the competitors cutting their prices in response to competition from Walmart. Someone might never step foot in a Walmart, but they still might pay less for their food."

Women, low-income families and people living in less densely populated areas are those most likely to put on weight after the arrival of a supercentre, according to Courtemanche and his co-author, Art Carden at Rhodes College.

The researchers incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could not have explained the weight gain.

While the most obvious explanation is that cheaper food leads to more eating, Courtemanche said further research is needed to determine the exact connection between Walmart supercentres and obesity. It could be a combination of diet and exercise, he said, noting that their previous research has shown Walmart's product offerings influence leisure activities — with people buying and watching more DVDs, for instance, after a Walmart moves into town and offers them cheaply.

It's also possible that prices drop more steeply on processed foods than they do on fresh fruit and vegetables after Walmart's arrival, he suggested. Previous research has estimated that Walmart causes prices to drop by between eight and 27 per cent across the board, he said.

"We don't want people to look at this and immediately say Walmart is evil. We want people to realize this is one of many things that are going on, and maybe some are good and some are bad," he said. "Certainly our results should not be taken as, 'Ban all Walmarts.' It's part of a very broad debate."
I find this study infuriating on a number of levels. From the purely scientific perspective, it sets off a number of alarm bells. Correlation does not imply causation; the opening of a Walmart Supercentre in a community and the rise of obesity rates are not necessarily connected. Followers of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster poke fun at this logical fallacy with their dogma that the declining number of pirates since 1800 is the cause of global warming, which of course is also a statistical correlation. The Walmart researchers claim that they "incorporated a variety of controls and tests in their study to ensure that other characteristics of the communities studied could not have explained the weight gain", but I'm still skeptical. The full paper is here if you want to wade through the statistics, but I'm not convinced that the rise in the obesity rate over the period under study is not a result of, say, a general society-wide increase in sedentary life-styles which is independent of the increase in the number of Walmart Supercentres.

But that's not the aspect of the study that I find most annoying; it's the conclusion that Walmart's business model of "everyday low prices" should be inaccessible to poor people. It would be far better, goes the thinking, if food prices were kept artificially high because then the poor couldn't afford to overeat. They would be kept in an environment of artificial food shortage and therefore on a more restrictive diet, and those nasty pounds would just melt away. After all, it was rare to find obese peasants working in the dirt around the manor house in the 14th Century when food for them was a luxury.

And those cheap DVDs that the grubby slobs love to buy at Walmart and then take home to watch on the sofa while stuffing their pie holes with Cheetos? Remember the good old days when the working stiffs staggered home from the mines and collapsed from exhaustion? No time for DVDs then, I'll bet. Wasn't the working class so wonderfully SLIM back then?

People like the authors of this study and the pundits who are tut-tutting over its conclusions don't trust poor people to make decisions with their own money. Bring a Walmart into their blighted neighbourhoods and they might spend the money they'd save on beer and popcorn instead of health-club memberships and triathlon entry fees. Heaven forbid! The peasants must be kept thin by inflating the cost of their food, and kept active by denying them sedentary leisure activities that would consequently only be available to their wealthier betters. I find this attitude despicable.

The arrival of a Walmart store in an economically depressed community is good for the poor. It lowers the cost of food, clothing and other necessities for already cash-strapped customers. Walmart hires low-skilled workers that would otherwise be unemployable. They pay corporate taxes to municipal governments with devastated industrial tax bases.

As Radley Balko pointed out at the Daily Beast:
The mere presence of a Wal-Mart in a community results in the equivalent of a 6.5 percent increase in annual income, which, as The Washington Post’s Sebastian Mallaby has pointed out, makes the store a bigger boon to the poor than the federal government’s food-stamps program. And Carden and Courtemanche began their study before Wal-Mart began its $4 prescription drug program, which also delivers a big potential health benefit both to Wal-Mart customers and other consumers in the area, because many competing stores were moved to implement similar programs.

...

Every time Wal-Mart tries to open a store in a big city like Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York, it encounters a storm of protest from politicians, labor unions and activist groups who claim to speak for the poor and low-wage workers. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who proposed the one-year moratorium on new fast-food restaurants on L.A.’s south side to combat childhood obesity, also in 2004, backed a bill to keep Wal-Mart out of that same community.

In Chicago in 2006, a proposed Wal-Mart store met with fierce opposition from groups critical of its labor practices—a position just reiterated by Mayor Richard Daley. So instead, Wal-Mart opened in Evergreen Park, one block outside the Chicago city limits. The store received 24,500 job applications for just 325 positions, and now generates more than $1 million per year in taxes for the small town while boosting revenue for local businesses.

Had Chicago’s politicians not been so obstinate, that economic windfall could have been enjoyed by the city’s low-income, mostly minority Chatham neighborhood—whose residents might have dropped some pounds as well.
Walmart drives nanny-state liberals nuts. They would prefer that the poor and the working class be kept in a condition of dependence on the all-knowing government, and everyday low prices just don't fit the master plan. The modern Marie Antoinettes of the welfare state look down their noses at the fat proletariat outside the gates of Versailles and sneer "Don't let them eat cake".

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Banned in Canada? Seriously?

On behalf of sensible gay Dire Straits fans everywhere, I humbly apologize for the actions of a gay radio listener in Newfoundland who has succeeded in getting the song "Money for Nothing" banned in Canada:
Money For Nothing, a classic-rock radio staple by Dire Straits, is too offensive for Canadian broadcasts because of its use of the word “faggot,” the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has ruled.

The ruling, released Wednesday, responded to a complaint submitted to St. John’s radio station CHOZ-FM over a Feb. 1 airing of an unedited version of the song, which mentions the word three times.

The complainant wrote that the song’s lyrics were “extremely offensive” to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people.
A 25 yr old song has now been sent down the memory hole because of a single complaint - one - from an offended gay listener.

For the record, I am a member of the tribe described in the complaint as "gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people". I am also a Dire Straits fan, and I have this to say to Mr. Lighten Up in Newfoundland; you don't know what you're talking about. If you paid any attention to the lyrics that sent you into a hissy fit, you would realize that the use of the word "faggot" in the song is ironic and is actually poking fun at homophobes who use the word as an insult.

The song describes a supposed conversation between two blue-collar working men who make a living delivering and installing refrigerators and microwave ovens. They are watching rock videos on MTV and lamenting the fact that the band on TV (presumably Dire Straits)is making obscene amounts of money by prancing around and playing guitars ("money for nothing") while they slave away doing hard physical labour for pitiful wages. They are particularly incensed by someone in the band with outlandish hair and an earring whom they presume is a "faggot" and thus doesn't deserve to be rich and famous while they languish in obscurity:
Now look at them yo-yo's that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on the MTV
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and your chicks for free
Now that ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Lemme tell ya them guys ain't dumb
Maybe get a blister on your little finger
Maybe get a blister on your thumb

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these color TV's

(See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup
Yeah buddy that's his own hair
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he's a millionaire)

Gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchen deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
Gotta move these color TV's

I shoulda learned to play the guitar
I shoulda learned to play them drums
Look at that mama, she got it stickin' in the camera
Man we could have some
And he's up there, what's that? Hawaiian noises?
Bangin' on the bongos like a chimpanzee
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Get your money for nothin' get your chicks for free

We gotta install microwave ovens
Custom kitchens deliveries
We gotta move these refrigerators
We gotta move these color TV's

Look a' here
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
You play the guitar on your MTV
That ain't workin' that's the way you do it
Money for nothin' and your chicks for free
Money for nothin' and chicks for free

Money for nothin' and your chicks for free

Look at that, look at that

Money for nothin' and your chicks for free
I want my, I want my, I want my MTV
Money for nothin' and chicks for free
Clearly the song is meant to satirize the narrow-mindedness of people who would use the word "faggot" as an insult and is not intended to offend actual gay people. I'm as offended as any gay person when that slur is used around me and it can be very hurtful, but in this case by putting the word in the mouth of a bigot, it is a way to negatively stereotype the users of the insult, not the targets. In that sense it is empowering, not insulting.

As Kelly McParland put it in the National Post: has Canada become the world's thinnest-skinned country?
You may have noticed the global snort of derision when it became known that Money For Nothing, a 25-year-old Dire Straits song written by Mark Knopfler and Sting, has been ruled too offensive for Canadian radio play.

What’s interesting, apart from the simple lunacy of suddenly banning a tune that’s 25 years old and has already been played about a billion times, is the reason: A radio station in St. John’s received a complaint.

That’s all it takes in Canada: One person to take offense.

...

Minority rights are fine and all, but when did it become the practice that, in a country of 34 million people, a single person could overrule all the others simply by declaring they were offended?

I would suggest that the one person responsible for this ridiculous decision is not only offended but clueless, and the people at the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council should be embarrassed for caving in.

UPDATE: Mark Knopfler commented on the same controversy in a 1985 interview with Rolling Stone:
The layers of irony in "Money for Nothing" have certainly confused people. I got an objection from the editor of a gay newspaper in London - he actually said it was "below the belt." Apart from the fact that there are stupid gay people as well as stupid other people, it suggests that maybe you can't let it have so many meanings - you have to be direct. (HT: Towleroad)

Monday, January 10, 2011

A sensible court decision on gay marriage vs religious freedom

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal has ruled that civil marriage commissioners cannot refuse to marry gay couples on the basis of personal religious beliefs. The Toronto Sun has the details:
A Saskatchewan court has determined that, regardless of personal religious beliefs, civil commissioners in the province must marry gay couples when asked to do so.

Following proposed legislation that would allow provincial officials the right to refuse to perform marriages that conflict with their religious beliefs, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal was asked to rule on whether the very idea of such amendments would be constitutional.

They're not.

The court found that civil ceremonies free of religious implication are exactly that: free of the influence of religion.

The court also found that people who assume roles in public offices are bound to the rules governing those offices.

"Persons who voluntarily choose to assume an office, like that of a marriage commissioner, cannot expect to directly shape the office's intersection with the public so as to make it conform with their personal religious or other beliefs," the court wrote in its decision.

"In our tradition, the apparatus of the state serves everyone equally without providing better, poorer or different services to one individual compared to another by making distinctions on the basis of factors like race, religion or gender."

To allow civil commissioners to refuse to perform marriages solely on their personal religious grounds, the court ruled, "would violate the equality rights of gay and lesbian individuals."

I think the Court has made the correct decision here. The marriage commissioners involved in the case were not asked to perform a religious marriage ceremony in a private church, but to officiate at a civil ceremony in a public place. The laws of Canada say that it is legal for gay couples to marry - if a functionary of the state cannot in good conscience enforce the law, then he should resign his position.

I fully support allowing churches and religious organizations to refuse to perform gay marriages - after all, churches are private organizations(although their tax-exempt status implies a level of state support). Membership in a church is voluntary; no one is forced to belong and members are free to leave if they disagree with a point of doctrine.

However, citizenship is not voluntary - citizens are obligated to obey the constitutional laws enacted by duly elected representatives. One cannot pick and choose which laws to enforce and which to refuse.

No sensible gay couple wants to force reluctant or hostile churches to perform their marriages, but gay couples who wish to marry have only one legal alternative to a religious wedding - a civil ceremony performed by a non-religious state official. That a secular state official would refuse to provide this perfectly legal service is a violation of the civil rights of the couple wishing to marry. No one is asking the commissioners in question to change their religious beliefs or for their churches to change their doctrine; all they are being asked to do is their jobs.

We would not tolerate a white supremacist commissioner refusing to marry black or mixed-race couples, or a Muslim commissioner refusing to marry a Muslim and a Jew. This case is no different.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

"Piltdown medicine": anti-vaccine quackery exposed

Respectful Insolence has an exhaustive post on the revelation that anti-vaccine crusader Andrew Wakefield's "research" linking autism to the MMR vaccine was a complete fraud:
Pity poor Andrew Wakefield.

2010 was a terrible year for him, and 2011 is starting out almost as bad. In February 2010, the General Medical Council in the U.K. recommended that Wakefield be stripped of his license to practice medicine in the U.K. because of scientific misconduct related to his infamous 1998 case series published in The Lancet, even going so far as to refer to him as irresponsible and dishonest, and in May 2010 he was. This case series, thanks to Wakefield's scientific incompetence and fraud, coupled with his flair for self-promotion and enabled by the sensationalistic credulity of the British press, ignited a scare about the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine in which, afraid that the MMR vaccine causes autism, parents in the U.K. eschewed vaccinating their children in droves. As a result, vaccination rates plummeted far below the level necessary for herd immunity, with the entirely predictable result of massive measles outbreaks in the U.K. Measles, which as of the mid-1990s had been declared under control by British and European health authorities, came roaring back to the point where in 2008 it was declared once again endemic in the British Isles. In a mere decade and a half, several decades of progress in controlling this scourge had been unravelled like a thread hanging off a cheap dress, all thanks to Andrew Wakefield and scandal mongers in the British press.

Wakefield is personally responsible for the deaths of children whose parents refused to vaccinate them based on his fraudulent claims. Shameful.

Monday, January 03, 2011

The Poetry of DH Rumsfeld

Slate finds some quirky beauty in the Pentagon press briefings of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:
Rumsfeld's poetry is paradoxical: It uses playful language to address the most somber subjects: war, terrorism, mortality. Much of it is about indirection and evasion: He never faces his subjects head on but weaves away, letting inversions and repetitions confuse and beguile. His work, with its dedication to the fractured rhythms of the plainspoken vernacular, is reminiscent of William Carlos Williams'. Some readers may find that Rumsfeld's gift for offhand, quotidian pronouncements is as entrancing as Frank O'Hara's.

A sample:

The Unknown

As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know.

—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

The Homosexual Bourgeoisie

Jonah Goldberg writes at National Review Online that "transgressive" gay culture has been "digested by the mainstream bourgeois order", and that's a good thing:
Two decades ago, the gay Left wanted to smash the bourgeois prisons of monogamy, capitalistic enterprise, and patriotic values and bask in the warm sun of bohemian “free love” and avant-garde values. In this, they were simply picking up the torch from the straight Left of the 1960s and 1970s, who had sought to throw off the sexual hang-ups of their parents’ generation along with their gray flannel suits.
As a sexual-lifestyle experiment, they failed pretty miserably, the greatest proof being that the affluent and educated children (and grandchildren) of the baby boomers have re-embraced the bourgeois notion of marriage as an essential part of a successful life. Sadly, it’s the lower-middle class that increasingly sees marriage as an out-of-reach luxury. The irony is that such bourgeois values — monogamy, hard work, etc. — are the best guarantors of success and happiness.

...

The gay experiment with open bohemianism was arguably shorter. Of course, AIDS played an obvious and tragic role in focusing attention on the downside of promiscuity. But even so, the sweeping embrace of bourgeois lifestyles by the gay community has been stunning.

Nowhere is this more evident — and perhaps exaggerated — than in popular culture. Watch ABC’s Modern Family. The sitcom is supposed to be “subversive” in part because it features a gay couple with an adopted daughter from Asia. And you can see why both liberal proponents and conservative opponents of gay marriage see it that way. But imagine you hate the institution of marriage and then watch Modern Family’s hardworking bourgeois gay couple through those eyes. What’s being subverted? Traditional marriage, or some bohemian identity-politics fantasy of homosexuality?

...

Personally, I have always felt that gay marriage was an inevitability, for good or ill (most likely both). I do not think that the arguments against gay marriage are all grounded in bigotry, and I find some of the arguments persuasive. But I also find it cruel and absurd to tell gays that living the free-love lifestyle is abominable while at the same time telling them that their committed relationships are illegitimate too.

Many of my conservative friends — who oppose both civil unions and gay marriage and object to rampant promiscuity — often act as if there’s some grand alternative lifestyle for gays. But there isn’t. And given that open homosexuality is simply a fact of life, the rise of the HoBos — the homosexual bourgeoisie — strikes me as good news.