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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Pope Francis is obviously not Charlie Hebdo

Following the radical Islamists’ attack on the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, many of us who air our opinions publicly on a regular basis have been forced to re-examine our stand on freedom of expression.

Some have come to the conclusion that while they believe in the general principle of freedom of speech, they accept the need for there to be certain limits, such as those envisioned in our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Section 2 of the Charter grants to each Canadian—among other things—freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media. Section 1, however, limits such freedom, making it subject “to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

And those so-called “reasonable limits” have not always been regarded as being reasonable by a noisy cross-section of Canadian society. After a public campaign, for instance, a piece of contentious anti-hate speech legislation—Section 13 of the Human Rights Act—was repealed in 2013, thanks to a private member’s bill from Alberta Conservative MP Brian Storseth. This pretty much left hate speech to be dealt with by criminal courts, not by human rights tribunals.

Under Canada’s Criminal Code, spreading hate against identifiable groups can carry up to a two-year prison sentence. The Code forbids hate propaganda, which it defines as “any writing, sign or visible representation that advocates or promotes genocide.” And genocide is defined as the destruction of “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation.”

Pretty strong stuff, eh?

So I suppose many of us who stand for free speech would find that propaganda that advocates or promotes genocide crosses some sort of line and could be reasonably restricted in a free and democratic society.

And, yet, it really bothers me to think that someone could be thrown in jail for something he or she said, rather than did. Yes, I agree that words do hurt, but it’s actions that kill, for example, not words. There’s that old adage, “Actions speak louder that words.” I like to draw the line at actions and leave words to be dealt with outside the courts.

Freedom of speech or expression—so long as the words are true and not libel or slander, that is to say, lies—is a fundamental human right, one of the most precious rights we enjoy. Without unfettered freedom of speech can there even be a democracy?

Something that’s often held up to support limits on free expression is pornography. I find pornography extremely distasteful, especially when minors are involved. But so long as porn is depicted without abuse or exploitation of any human or animal, then I believe it should be left it to be dealt with through peer- or other social-pressure.

Unless the sexual acts being depicted are themselves illegal and have actually occurred and can be proved to have caused harm to others, I’d let porn be—though I’ll chose to avoid it myself as a personal preference.  I’ll leave that choice to others, though, and will not support the mandating of a ban as a reasonable limit on free expression.

The Roman Catholic Pope Francis recently waded in on the Charlie Hebdo debate, though, perhaps he’d been better to have left the debate to others. Pope Francis used what The Guardian website calls the “wife-beater’s defence,” seeming almost to suggest Charlie Hebdo had it coming. The pope reportedly said, as he pointed to an aide:

If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others.”

The pope’s sentiment on this is not at all helpful. I take exception on two counts.

Firstly, what sort of society condones the punching of someone because he insults you? Verbal insults should never be used to justify physical assault. Do so and we may as well turn over our society to the bullies among us.

Secondly, why shouldn’t I be allowed to make fun of the faith of others without fear of physical assault? Am I to believe all faiths—or even any faith at all—are worthy of my respect? I believe it’s socially responsible to tolerate all faiths. But give them all equal respect? No thank you, I will not.

Moreover, least of all will I respect the faith of Islamists and their Medieval Sharia. I’ll defend anyone’s right to be a Muslim, but I’ll not respect the faith of those Islamists who follow a strict interpretation of Sharia, which for many adherents acts as a cornerstone for that faith.

The Charlie Hebdo attacks in France, and the recent scandal caused by Oxford University Press barring writers of its children’s books from referring to pigs or pork for fear of risking sales in the Middle East, or the Harper Collins atlases that don’t show the State of Israel has made it clearer to me that well-intentioned state-sponsored limits on free speech can quickly become assaults on free speech and, consequently, should be avoided.

Post Charlie Hebdo, I’ll be showing a more tolerant attitude towards those who mock church and mosque and condemn those who seek to silence them.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Will Sousa challenge Ontario’s Beer Store monopoly?

According to a report on thestar.com website, Ontario Finance Minister Charles Sousa is brewing up changes that are designed to address the unpopular private monopoly enjoyed by foreign-owned beer companies Labatt, Molson and Sleeman through their ownership of the Beer Store.

A section of Ontario’s Liquor Control Act gives the Beer Store a monopoly as the only private firm allowed to sell beer directly to consumers without brewing it on its premises. This status is, apparently, being challenged by lawsuits such as the one launched by a Burlington pub owner in a potential class-action against the LCBO and Beer Store.

The legal challenge comes on the heels of Toronto Star columnist Martin Regg Cohn’s story about a secret 14-year-old pact that limits competition between the provincially owned Liquor Control Board of Ontario and the privately owned Beer Store.

According to Regg Cohn’s story, the LCBO agreed it would sell only six-packs of beer to consumers and would not sell two-fours to restaurants and bars.

“We’re going to maximize the benefits to consumers and protect the industry at the same time. We’ll review the whole thing,” said Finance Minister Charles Sousa who, reportedly, will unveil changes in his budget in March.

Readers have probably heard of the ten scariest words in the English language: I’m from the government and I’m here to help you. Well, hang on to your hats because Sousa’s words seem to convey similar sentiments, i.e., “We’re going to maximize the benefits to consumers ….”

When the Ontario government—yes, the McGuinty-Wynne government—says it plans to maximize benefits to consumers, they are using code for we’ll gouge more money out of you, but we’ll call it a benefit. The Ontario Grits are all about tax and spend and making cosy deals with their friends and financial benefactors. Consumers are their cash cows.

I’m sure Sousa will make some changes. He needs to address the Beer Store’s status, which is becoming a real embarrassment to his government. And may be beer, especially craft beer, will be more available, perhaps more convenient to buy.

But count on beer still being taxed and marked up to the hilt and still being tightly controlled and though we were a province of ten-year-olds who need Granny Wynne to take care of us and make us pay through the nose for the privilege.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Is a carbon tax the latest Ontario tax grab?

Two national newspapers, at least, have carried articles recently alerting us to the likelihood we’ll have a carbon tax imposed in the near future.

According to Adrian Morrow of today’s The Globe and Mail, “The Ontario government is closing in on a plan to put a price on carbon emissions after nearly seven years of delays.” And Terence Corcoran warns us in the Financial Post, “Get ready for the great carbon tax grab.”

When I hear terms like “carbon tax” or “pricing carbon” my blood pressure rises to unhealthy levels. It’s not that I disagree entirely with the concept, it’s because I know left-wing politicians would like nothing more than to find a new revenue stream to fund ever more social programs that are well within the responsibility of individuals to fund for themselves.

Many, perhaps most, conservatives like me are not at all against reducing pollution or conservation of national resources. And if a carbon tax helped us reduce pollution and/or to conserve our precious carbon-based resources, I’d welcome it.

Moreover, if I were sure any new carbon tax would be applied on a revenue-neutral basis, I’d be fully accepting. A carbon tax that was applied with across-the-board reductions in other taxes such as GST, income tax, capital gains and business taxes would be very popular with me.

But what’s the chance of that happening, especially with a Liberal government in office?

I’m sure you readers remember Stéphane Dion’s 2008 “Green Shift” scheme. Dion assured Canadians the tax would be revenue-neutral, telling us:

The Liberal Green Shift will cut taxes on those things we all want more of—such as income, investment and innovation—and shift those taxes to what we all want less of: pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and waste.”

But, when Canadians checked the fine print they found that Dion was also promising to use the new revenue to fund (a) a new universal child tax benefit worth $350 per child annually; and (b) to add a $600 increase to the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors, and increase benefits for low-income Canadian families.

In other words, when all was said and done, the Green Shift was just another tax grab to use to buy votes for the Liberal Party and was not at all revenue-neutral.

Dion was cute though. By his definition, Green Shift was revenue-neutral since in his words, the plan “will put every single penny back into the hands of Canadians.” Every tax, of course, goes back in some way or the other into the economy. But most reasonable people would agree than revenue neutrality implies that one tax is added/increased and another is rescinded/reduced. Dion’s plan involved a significant redistribution of wealth, not revenue-neutrality.

This time around, the threat is coming from another Liberal party, that is, Kathleen Wynne’s Ontario Grits. Does anyone believe a Wynne government—a tax-and-spend-and-forget-about-deficits government of the first rank—would care about revenue neutrality?

The Ontario premier and her environment minister, Glen Murray, and finance minister, Charles Sousa, must all be salivating at the drop in crude oil prices that will help ease in their new carbon pricing scheme, whatever that may turn out to be.

I think most of us know the Government of Ontario won’t make a new carbon tax revenue-neutral—they are convinced they can’t afford to do so. (I disagree, of course, since I believe the province already has enough money to balance its books.)

The Ontario Grits have spent a decade on a wasteful spending spree, not to mention its several scandals costing billions of dollars. I believe that not only will Wynne add a carbon tax, it’ll be added on top of the HST (another shameful tax grab, by the way), already onerous gasoline taxes and the unnecessarily expensive costs of electricity and related green energy projects.

The Wynne government has already proven it cannot be trusted with our money; it’s time for us to raise hell when she asks for more. Those Liberals at Queen’s Park are addicted to spending and need our help to kick the habit.

Monday, January 12, 2015

If Islamic radicalization is a disease, Wahhabism is its cause

One way or another, the governments of Western Europe and North America have evolved over the past 250 years or so into democracies. They reached their current status by following different paths, but all seem to have come to the conclusion that democracy demands a separation of sorts between church and state.

It is true our secular laws are underpinned by Judeo-Christian ethical standards, however, most of us—and even the most religious—allow secular law to prevail when at odds with religious teaching. Examples are how we deal with homosexuality and abortion, and the fact that we do not put to death adulterers and adulteresses.

Most people will agree, I believe, that the separation of church law—Christian canon law, Islamic sharia, Jewish halakha, etc.—and secular law as determined by representatives of the people has allowed a greater degree of religious freedom, especially for those belonging to minority religions. Tolerance of religions of all sorts and respect for the right of others to hold beliefs different than our own have been hallmarks of Western democracies.

This social evolutionary process has been a protracted one and the remnants of the past can still be found in unexpected places. In Canada, for instance, section 296 of the Criminal Code makes publishing blasphemous materials—called blasphemous libel—an indictable offence, punishable by up to two years of imprisonment.

Blasphemous libel originally applied to the Christian religion. In recent times, however, section 296 has been generalized so that it may now be illegal to blaspheme other religions as well. We may never know for sure, though, since this has not been tested in court and no one been prosecuted under the law since 1935.

I wonder how the most scathing of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would have fared had they been published originally in Canada and had section 296 of our criminal code been applied to them? But I digress for section 296 is, at least, dormant if not exactly dead.

We in the West are fortunate that we did make the transition to a secular society, at least, as far as our laws are concerned. In fact, my guess is most Canadians would not self-identify as being religious, though, many may still believe in some version of a supreme being, likely the Christian God.

A very significant portion of the 1.6-billion Muslims around the world are not as fortunate as we are, for they live in countries and communities that have religion and culture so intertwined that religious practices permeate virtually every aspect of their lives, including their state/community laws.

There seems to have been little in the way of social evolution in many Muslim societies. Even some Muslims who immigrated to countries that practice freedom of religion and are governed by secular law, like the United Kingdom, choose to segregate themselves into closed communities and subject themselves to Islamic sharia.

Muslim countries have, for the most part, incorporated some level of sharia in their criminal justice system, with many viewing it as the highest law of the land. According to Wikipedia, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Brunei, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sudan and Mauritania apply the code predominantly or entirely.

Why anyone would want to live under laws which have changed little in the past millennium I cannot fathom. Sharia penalties are harsh to the point of being barbaric, including lashing, stoning and beheading though these are not universally enforced. Sharia encourages domestic violence against women. Moreover, under Sharia, a woman’s testimony in court is worth only half that of a man’s.

Using Sharia courts, in several countries a rapist can escape punishment if he marries his victim. In other cases, a victim who makes an official complaint may be prosecuted with the Sharia crime of adultery. Imagine, a sentence of stoning to death imposed on a woman who has been raped.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I do not, however, want to paint too bleak a picture of Islam. Islamic culture has much about it to admire. What seems to be the case, though, is that, broadly speaking, Islam with it’s relatively rigid and unchanging traditions has provided fertile soil into which extremists can plant their seeds of radicalization.

So now Western democracies are being threatened by a minority who want to plunge the whole world into the cultural darkness of Medieval times. Innocents are being killed randomly on our streets. Apparently, even Muslims who live among us are targets—for such was the case of a Muslim police officer killed by Islamic extremists in the recent terrorist attack in Paris.

The minority I speak of has fallen victim to doctrines based on those of the Wahhabi Movement, a small but wealthy and highly influential brand of Sunni Islam. More than any other source,  Wahhabis (aka Salafis) have provided the theological basis for much of what is preached by these extremists. As such, it is not Islam per se that challenges the West, rather it is the doctrines of the Wahhabi Muslims that are at the root of modern Islamic extremism and terrorism. And it is time for Western nations to begin a concerted campaign to do something about this.

Governments of the West need to shine a bright light on Wahhabis and their influence in our Muslim communities where  radicalization seems to be increasing. Institutions funded by or that use teaching material supplied by Wahhabi sources should be identified and have their tax-exempt status revoked. Throughout the West it should be considered socially unacceptable to have anything to do with Wahhabism. Nations and communities that espouse Wahhabi doctrines and supply public funding should be publicly identified, shunned and marginalized.

Isn’t it time to stop treating the symptoms and side effects of Islamic radicalization and begin treating the cause of the disease?

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Are the CBC politically correct wimps?

Once more we are facing the aftermath of yet another premeditated, senseless attack by armed terrorists on defenceless civilians. Twelve people working at or around a satirical magazine in France were killed in this latest incident, all, apparently, to the greater glory of God—or Allah in this case.

Wednesday’s terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo  magazine’s Paris office came after repeated satirical criticism, mainly in cartoon form, of various religions. Now we find it has stirred a debate about how media organizations should balance freedom of expression with freedom of religion and whether they should publish images of Muhammad.

I agree there needs to be a balance between tolerance of religious beliefs and free expression. I do not concur, however, with a wide-held belief that all major religions must be respected equally. Respect is something that needs to be earned and needs not be given just because others demand their belief in the supernatural deserves respect.

The right to free speech/expression is one of the fundamental democratic freedoms. And practice of this right encourages diversity of opinion as well as criticism of political and religious institutions and their leadership—all of which are in the public interest. We are all entitled to our own opinions and should be free to express them regardless of how gratuitous or offensive others may find them. Of course, opinions that preach outright hatred or violence need have limits placed on them for, after all, like most freedoms in a modern society, freedom of expression is not absolute, nor should it be.

As an act of solidarity with the staff of Charlie Hebdo, journalists around the world are being encouraged to publish, uncensored, the offending cartoons of that magazine. And many news sources have chosen to do just that. Notable, however, is the CBC’s decision not to “knowingly show images of the prophet Muhammad.”

I disagree with the CBC. While many Muslims may be offended by the depiction of the prophet Muhammad, to tens of millions of other Canadians he was merely a man of significant historical importance who had a profound impact on world affairs. His image need not be treated any differently than that of any other mortal. After all, we Canadians are supposed to live in a secular country and should not cater to minority religious or other supernatural beliefs as though they were an integral part of our mainstream culture.

Even among Muslims there is disagreement regarding depictions of Muhammad. As I understand the issue, the Quran does not explicitly forbid images of Muhammad; it is in a few hadith (supplemental teachings) that have explicitly prohibited Muslims from creating such visual depictions. In Shia Islam, there seems to be a more relaxed attitude, while among Sunni Muslims there is the belief visual depictions of the prophet should be prohibited.

So let Muslims follow their their own practices and leave our secular world and our secular publications to follow our own traditions, which do not prohibit the depictions of anyone.

The CBC is wrong on this one. It’s a canard to claim the decision is based on a philosophy of respect towards the Muslim faith. The decision seems more to be either political correctness or cowardice—take your pick.

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