Useful anger

I’ve written many times before about the West Memphis Three. In case you weren’t paying attention, here’s the nickel version: in 1993 three teenage boys were charged with killing three eight-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The evidence presented against them at trial has come under heavy attack. A key component of the prosecution’s case — that the accused were devil worshipers — got national headlines, but only years later, when the documentaries Paradise Lost and Paradise Lost 2 and Mara Leveritt’s excellent book Devil’s Knot came out, did renewed attention return to the case. Donations to a legal fund have made possible new hearings into the three men’s convictions and subsequent sentencing. The mentally handicapped suspect whose coerced ‘confession’ helped provide the conviction was sentenced to forty years in prison. Another of the three received life in prison, while the last received the death penalty.

Sixteen years later the three remain in prison, but new hearings are taking place. You can read about them in detail at the WM3 blog, and I can’t remember all the details, but the upshot is this: the defense team has hired some kickass forensic experts to refute the opinion of the state pathologist who analyzed the bodies. Their testimony: that what were counted as stab wounds and satanic ritual were actually animal bites, and there was no evidence of sexual abuse.

This testimony casts new doubt, in addition to DNA evidence found two years ago showing genetic material at the crime scene which “cannot be attributed to either the victims or the defendants”, and a slew of questionable evidence presented at the original trial, including lack of murder weapon, lack of motive, the questionable interview and confession of Jessie Misskelley, and the infamous charge of Satanism, borne out by the type of music the boys listened to and black t-shirts they wore. Pile on top of this improper conduct by the jury foreman, incompetent defense, leaks from the police department to the press during the trial, and so on. But the head-shaking doesn’t stop there.

One of the most frustrating parts of reading Leveritt’s book was the testimony of Vicki Hutcheson and her son Aaron. The two of them made incriminating, but wildly inconsistent, statements about the WM3 which Hutcheson later recanted, saying she was coerced and was looking for reward money. That intrigue continues now in a cruel twist. Hutcheson has said she is willing to testify that she lied on the stand at the boys’ trial, but as Arkansas law has no statute of limitations on perjury, by doing so she would face a felony charge. The state could make an exception and allow her to testify without fear of being charged. They chose not to.

And therein lies another twist in the case. The judge presiding over the original case also presides over the hearings. Defense attorneys filed a motion asking Judge Burnett to step aside because of widespread rumour that he would run for Arkansas state senate. Burnett rejected the motion, just as he rejected the motion to re-open the case based on the DNA findings, but it leaves open the question raised by the defence: whether Judge Burnett can rule impartially on a case that, if re-opened — or worse, overturned — would almost certainly kill any political ambitions he may have. Obviously Burnett has incentive to prevent this from happening. Just one more roadblock in the way of righting things.

If you haven’t already, I’d suggest you read Devil’s Knot (amazon | indigo) or watch Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills (imdb). They’ll make you angry, but anger at injustice is a useful thing.

I hope he remembered before he dropped the suit off at the cleaner's

Did you hear about how Stephen Harper may have been wandering around with a piece of Jesus in his suit pocket? The Telegraph-Journal explains:

A senior New Brunswick Roman Catholic priest is demanding the Prime Minister’s Office explain what happened to the sacramental communion wafer Stephen Harper was given at Roméo LeBlanc’s funeral mass.

During communion at the solemn and dignified service held last Friday in Memramcook for the former governor general, the prime minister slipped the thin wafer that Catholics call “the host” into his jacket pocket.

In Catholic understanding, the host – once consecrated by a priest for the Eucharist – becomes the body and blood of Jesus Christ. It is crucial that the small wafer be consumed when it is received.

Monsignor Brian Henneberry, vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of Saint John, wants to know whether the prime minister consumed the host and, if not, what happened to it.

If Harper accepted the host but did not consume it, “it’s worse than a faux pas, it’s a scandal from the Catholic point of view,” he said.

Here’s why this is so off-the-charts ridiculous: to be convinced that this is, in fact, scandalous behaviour on the Prime Minister’s part one has to literally believe the notion that a tiny wafer blessed by a priest becomes the actual body and blood of Jesus. This is absurd, of course, but let’s say you enjoy dogma and you accept this on its face. You then have to deem it an outrageous affront to put said wafer in your pocket, but eating it (and, uh, shitting it later) it is okay. I know, I know, Jesus said eat this blah, drink this blah. But if you actually spend fifteen seconds thinking rationally about this rather than reciting scripture, it’s painfully obvious that this is a non-issue.

Then again, expecting rational thought on a topic at the intersection of politics and religion might be asking too much. Isn’t that right, Diane Ablonczy?

"That doesn't take courage."

Last week Nellie and I were among hundreds who flocked (ha) to see Christopher Hitchens deliver a lecture about the ten commandments at the Royal Ontario Museum. Attending lectures at museums isn’t my usual Tuesday night activity, but when given the opportunity to see hear as eloquent a speaker as Hitchens on such an interesting topic, one makes exceptions. His lecture covered the expected ground, familiar to anyone who’s read his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything or heard his recent debates with religious leaders. After forty minutes he took questions from the audience, some insightful, some rambling, one angry.

During the less interesting of the questions I found myself drifting off, thinking about two CBC articles I’d read earlier in the day. The first concerned a young girl in Manitoba whose mother and stepfather sent her to school with Swastikas and other white-power symbols on her skin. Following the investigation which uncovered neo-nazi materials in the apartment as well as general evidence of neglectful parenting, the girl and her brother were seized. The stepfather filed a constitutional challenge on the basis that “his right to freedom of expression, religion and association were violated when the children were apprehended.” Predictably this story was met with horror, and condemnation of the parents for teaching hate to an eight-year-old.

The second article described a law, passed earlier that day in Alberta, allowing parents to pull their children out of classes dealing with sex, sexuality or religion. Teachers fear this leaves open the possibility for parents to file human rights complaints against them based on what they teach in their classrooms. I suppose it would be possible to read this as relatively innocuous, that there are a few parents who are extremely sensitive about what is taught to their children in schools rather than at home, and who would like complete control over that. But the set of targeted topics — sex, sexuality and religion — are all pet topics of social conservatives and make clear the intention of the bill. The language of the bill’s legislative supporters point — none too subtly I might add — in the same direction. Conservative MLA Rob Anderson said (emphasis mine), “There are thousands and thousands of parents, the silent majority, severely normal Albertans that are extremely happy with this legislation…” Reaction to this story, while strong, has been less universal than that garnered by the budding skinhead. Clearly there is enough support for this for the bill to have passed in the provincial legislature.

To me, both stories are about intolerance. In one case parents are explicitly teaching a child to be intolerant of other races. In the other a new Alberta law gives parents the right to keep their children from hearing presumably progressive discussion about sexuality and religion. Note: I say presumably for two reasons: 1) this is Alberta, traditionally a far more conservative province than the rest of Canada; 2) a provincial school system actively teaching regressive views on sexuality (e.g., homophobia) and religion (e.g., creationism) would immediately fall under national criticism, which Alberta’s has not, so one can only conclude the parents supporting this bill must be concerned about their children being exposed to topics such as gay rights or evolution.

So why isn’t the second story as widely and vociferously condemned as the first? Is it because the intolerance is passive rather than explicit? Is it because the Alberta bill is intolerance dressed up in doublespeak (the afore-mentioned MLA finished the above quote  thus: “…, that believe it’s right to affirm the right of parents as being the primary educators of their children on these subjects.” The stepfather in Winnipeg is no doubt counting heavily on a similar interpretation of this right now that his little girl’s Swastika tattoos have been discovered) and legalese? Or is it that claiming religious sanctuary still affords one a certain amount of license to be intolerant in the public eye?

I suspect it’s all of these. The first is perfectly understandable: racism is repugnant to most, and Nazi fascism is universally despised outside of a few pockets of extremism, so any right-thinking person will be horrified at the idea of an eight-year-old being taught this filth, even if the parental law in this case is a gray area. The second is unavoidable; politicians and special-interest groups will always find ways to obfuscate their true aims by wrapping bad intentions in good rhetoric: patriotism, family values and so on. The third explanation is most frustrating, but also gives me the most hope. I’ll explain:

Look back at the first sentence in my last paragraph: not many would argue with the statement “racism is repugnant to most” and yet, not long ago, this simply wasn’t true. Far from it. But just two generations removed from Jim Crow, the idea that lawmakers allowed (let along condoned) “separate but equal” treatment based on skin color is nearly unfathomable. Given that, I have no reason to think homophobia will follow any different a track than racism. Now, I have no delusion that intolerances like racism or sexism have been wiped from our lives, but in each case society has eventually progressed to the point where — for the most part — it no longer creates or allows law which systematically oppress people. Arthur Schopenhauer said, “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” It takes generations to think away intolerance, but it does happen. For gay rights I think we’re somewhere between Schopenhauer’s second and third stages. For secularism I think #2 is just getting heated up.

Mr. Hitchens concluded his response to one of the final questions (which ran something along the lines of, “Plenty of religious people are good, and religion can be helpful. Would you oppose that?”) in this way: he had no issue with anyone who found comfort in religion, and that indeed it could be helpful, but two things must be kept in mind. First, the devout should not be able to impose their religion on those who do not want it — he used the example of attempts to force the teaching of creationism in various school boards in the US. Second, the devout should not suppose that religion somehow excuses immoral behaviour.

If you want to hear the podcast of the lecture, you can download it here.

"Kids had never been attacked in this kind of way"

Yesterday marked the tenth anniversary of Columbine, the familiar title given the killings at the Columbine high school in Littleton, Colorado. CNN yesterday ran a piece about the release of a new bookColumbine, by Dave Cullen — which I’ve been meaning to pick up. The big draw of the book for me is that is tells the real story of what happened and debunks many of the myths which sprung up in the immediate aftermath. Among them:

  • There was a group of kids at Columbine called the Trench Coat Mafia, but Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold weren’t part of it.
  • The killers did not target jocks (those wearing baseball hats, as it’s sometimes reported) or black kids. There was no discernible pattern to their killing.
  • Harris and Klebold, though clearly unstable and dangerous, were not outcasts or loners, nor was their rampage apparently caused by bullying.
  • Cassie Bernall, reported to have been killed when she replied to the killers that she believed in god and subsequently made a martyr by evangelical christians, in fact said no such thing. Another student was asked whether she believed in god; she answered yes, was shot and lived.

The first three myths are explained by psychologists in the CNN article as being persistent because they were (irresponsibly) reported immediately after the killing, and are convenient for people to believe because they point to Harris and Klebold being misanthropes, different from everyone else, conveniently monstrous. People don’t like to think that normal people can do terrible things, so they cast them as evil. While not logical, this is understandable as a coping mechanism.

The last myth, though…that’s the one that gets me. By the fall of 1999 it was well established that the rumour about Bernall was false, but her parents still earned royalties from a book about her death called She Said Yes released in Aug 1999 (and reprinted several times) and earned $3,500 per speaking appearance in the years since. Misinformation is one thing; exploitation another.

Let's get ready to rumble!

Welcome to this bout for the superheavyweight ridiculousness championship of the world.

In this corner we have the Canadian minister of state for science & technology, Gary Goodyear (who obviously missed his true calling: cartoon race car driver), who refuses to say whether he believes in evolution:

Jim Turk, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, said he was flabbergasted that the minister would invoke his religion when asked about evolution.

“The traditions of science and the reliance on testable and provable knowledge has served us well for several hundred years and have been the basis for most of our advancement. It is inconceivable that a government would have a minister of science that rejects the basis of scientific discovery and traditions,” he said.

Mr. Goodyear’s evasive answers on evolution are unlikely to reassure the scientists who are skeptical about him, and they bolster the notion that there is a divide between the minister and the research community.

And in this corner, with a reach much greater than Mr. Goodyear’s, is Pope Benedict, who yesterday said that condoms won’t stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.

“You can’t resolve it with the distribution of condoms,” the Pope told reporters aboard his plane to Yaounde, Cameroon. “On the contrary, it increases the problem.”

While health workers — including some priests and nuns working with people with AIDS — advocate the use of condoms to curb the spread of disease during sex, the Catholic church promotes fidelity within marriage, chastity and abstinence.

More than 22 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, according to estimates from the United Nations. Since the 1980s, roughly 25 million people have died from AIDS.

Come out, touch gloves. Let’s have a clean fight. Against reality.

I, for one, find the Harbor Hopper ads very offensive

Just when I really start to like Halifax again, it goes and does something goofy like reject the Atheist Bus ads. (Full disclosure: I donated to the Atheist Bus campaign in Canada.)

A ‘Without God’ ad has proven too controversial for Halifax transit.

Humanist Canada wanted to place ads on Metro Transit buses with the slogan, “You can be good without God.”

But officials with the transit authority deemed that too controversial.

“We’re a public transit system first, and then we sell advertising,” Lori Patterson, spokewoman for Metro Transit, told CBC News on Monday.

“So, if anytime we feel there’s a message that could be controversial and upsetting to people, we don’t necessarily sell the ads.”

First of all, that reasoning is absurd. Virtually every ad could be offensive to someone. If one gives Ms. Patterson the benefit of the doubt and assumes she means “upsetting to the majority of people,” it becomes hard to reconcile the fact that they’ve granted ad space to the anti-abortion organization Birthright, as reported on the Atheist Bus website.

Second, not only is the actual message less inflammatory than the “There’s probably no god…” ads to run in Toronto, it’s completely benign! How can you possibly argue with the statement “You can be good without God.”, let alone find it upsetting? Can, people, can. The ads don’t say you will be better without god, they just state the fact that people who don’t believe in gods are capable of being good.

I’m confident this response — which seems much more like a knee-jerk than a reasoned reaction — is so baseless and silly that, despite how conservative Nova Scotia can be sometimes, will ultimately be reversed. I’m also hopeful that Vancouver will avoid embarrassing themselves in this way.

So far the best response to the ads I’ve heard about is what the United Church of Canada is planning: ads that say “There probably is a God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Hurrah! Instead of trying to silence a contrary argument, they made their own counter-ad, and with a sly wink as well. Well played, UCC. (More full disclosure: I was raised United, and while I’ve been an atheist for many years, my parents remain very active in their church.)

Seriously, the human genome is 3×3, max

I recently finished reading God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. I loved reading it, partly because he was (heh) preaching to the choir, but also because of how eloquently Hitchens writes. He runs through the usual litany of complaints about religion, with which I agree enthusiastically, but he raises one point that, if not the thesis of the book, is probably the most compelling: “If religious instruction were not allowed until the child had attained the age of reason, we would be living in a quite different world.”

That got me thinking about the various categories of belief that I’ve seen in people, and what I think causes the differences. I haven’t spent a great deal of time thinking about it, mind you, but now that I have an MBA I feel compelled to put things into 2×2 matrices, and I think it works.

First, I suspect that if a child isn’t raised with any exposure to religion, they rarely go on to count themselves as believers. I think that’s a rare situation though; most people I’ve ever met had some exposure, if not to church, at least to biblical teachings.

For those who did receive religious instruction as children, I think this is where the matrix comes in. Some of these people will, over the course of their lives, question their religion for some reason. This puts them on the left side of the table. If they then perceive some kind of need for their religion — perhaps a loved one is ill and prayer provides some comfort, or perhaps their church is an important organizing principle and social aspect of their life — they may not feel compelled to cast off their religious beliefs, but retain them, or least parts of them, to keep from unbalancing their own life. I would place — and this is my opinion, not their suggestion — my parents in this category I’ve labeled Traditionalist…they’re too thoughtful and rational to have never questioned their faith, but both see great value in their involvement in their local church. My mother is certainly a believer — she is/was a church trustee, plays the organ every week, leads the choir and is involved in her regional presbytery — but I’ve always thought of her as more spiritual than religious.

I place myself, obviously, in the Non-believer quadrant. As a child I never thought of religious teachings as anything but fables, and many years ago the lack of evidence in a god prompted me to question and reject the hypothesis. I’ve never doubted that thought process.

Of those who have never seriously questioned their faith, I think they follow the same thought process. My theory is that the default position for those on the right side of the matrix would be the Lazy category. I could just as easily have labeled this quadrant ‘Scared’, since (as Hitchens points out) the stories used to ensure compliance among children are ones of eternal damnation, not to mention hairy palms, but ‘lazy’ — as in, intellectually lazy — will do for now. Many people go to church, or don’t but still say they believe in a god, because they were raised to do so and haven’t really thought about why they do it. This isn’t tradition, like those in the upper-left quadrant, but rather habit and fear. These are the people who, when asked why they say they believe in God, answer, “Might as well, just in case.”

Finally, the upper-right: the Fundamentalists, who have never questioned their faith, and have good reason never to do so. They gain some advantage, or perceived advantage, from their religion. Some wield it to get rich or gain political power, though you could argue these are actually corrupt Traditionalists. A rare and dangerous few fuel extremist, even murderous, tendencies with it. Mainly, I think that most in this category simply have a need to feel right. I suspect a defining line between Traditionalists and Fundamentalists could be the desire to impose their beliefs on others, by recruiting, campaigning, altering legislation, etc.

Of these, I find the Lazy category the most frustrating. These people seem to think they’re religious, and speak (and vote!) accordingly, but they don’t follow most tenets of their religion. It’s peer pressure, or latent childhood fear. It’s this tragically silent majority that could make the difference in the world Hitchens speaks of.

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum

A few notes before I slip back into MBA mode (last assignment woooot!):


I’ve acquired a metric shitload of reading material: I just bought And Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris and The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda And The Road To 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. I also have the latest issues of The Economist, Toronto Life and Adbusters to get through. That issue of Adbusters is weird reading, since it goes from right to left, but it’ll be worth the effort when I get to the article entitled “Hipster: The Dead End of Civilization”. Just a few pages in and I’m captivated by the story on China’s approach to global politics.

We’ve reached a point in our civilization where counterculture has mutated into a self-obsessed aesthetic vacuum. So while hipsterdom is the end product of all prior countercultures, it’s been stripped of its subversion and originality, and is leaving a generation pointlessly obsessing over fashion, faux individuality, cultural capital and the commodities of style.

Right now, in between magazines and MBA cases, I’m reading God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens. Mark Kingwell said that “[p]reaching to the choir…is corrosive of courage and reason: it makes you soft-bellied and soft-headed” but sitting in the atheist choir is fun when it’s Hitchens at the pulpit.


Somehow Anya Yurchyshyn ties her hatred of marketing to a book about 20th-century totalitarianism in an article called “Adolf Hitler Was A Marketing Genius“.

Although I think advertising/marketing/branding are evil industries (that help to supply my paycheck), I’m not about to compare the people who work there to Nazis or fascists or even Satan’s gleeful minions. Some of my best friends work in advertising! But it is scary that there’s a superstructure that is trying to control us, and most people have stopped questioning it. Advertising is a part of the landscape; it’s weird when it’s not there.

Somehow I agree with her.


Toronto made Forbes’ list of the world’s ten most economically powerful cities.

Growth and quality are as important as size in our rankings, so smaller but briskly growing economies like Seoul, South Korea, and Hong Kong also make the list. North America, with relatively lower growth areas, still boasts a number of cities in the current power list, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto, the latter of which squeezes past Madrid, Spain; Philadelphia and Mexico City, Mexico.

[via Creative Class, Accordion Guy and a slew of others]

[tags]joshua ferris, lawrence wright, adbusters, christopher hitchens, mark kingwell, anya yurchyshyn, forbes, economically powerful cities[/tags]