This blog recently turned 5 years old, and I'm surprised at how many of my opinions have changed on topics of skeptical interest.  I'm certainly not the same person I was in 2008, and I hope to be a better person in 2018. 

But some opinions don't change in that time.  Case in point: I still find St. Patrick's Day celebrations to be one of the most obvious manifestations of proud racism and ignorance that we happily keep alive in North America.


I first made this argument in 2005: While in University, I saw many of my fellow classmates (many of whom were supposed to be forward thinking, liberal minded young students), drink their asses off, get in fights, and get thrown out of bars...in the afternoon...on a TUESDAY! I knew people who would call in "sick" to avoid working on Mar 17, and calling in (hungover) sick on March 18, and nobody batted an eye.  "Oh well, what'cha gonna do?  It's St. Patrick's Day!" was the attitude. 

Right, because when there is a holiday celebrating Irish culture, heritage, and contribution to society, OF COURSE the thing to do is drink your ass off!

We're Irish!  This is what the Irish do, right?  WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU LOOKING AT!?!  YOU THINK YOU'RE BETTER THAN ME?!
I post one of my older articles every year, and it's still available, written with the piss-and-vinegar of someone who just learned that he could write his opinions on a blog.  

Let me be absolutely clear:
If you think you are celebrating St. Patrick's Day by drinking well past the point of sensibilty, and being an arrogant loud-mouthed prick, and that this is the one day of the year that it's okay because this is essentially Be-An-Irishman Day, fuck you. 

You think this is acceptable behavior?  Do you go around during Black History Month yelling "Dy-no-MITE!" moaning about your 'chilluns,' and stuffing your face with fried chicken?  Does your Yom Kippur entail you sporting a Star of David arm band, while bagels and money fall out of your pockets?

Hell no.  Because that's terribly unacceptable behavior, and it's not 1933. 

Why then do you indulge in the worst stereotypes that insult one group of people, and not another?  Why do you pick and choose which ethics and morals to indulge in as readily as you would with flavours of potato chips?

Chances are, you're not an openly racist prick.  Chances are, you're just partying thoughtlessly because everyone around you parties thoughtlessly, and that's just how it's done.  I'm asking you to take a moment to think about the group that is at the butt of your insulting revelry. 

Do you need an excuse to get drunk?  Why?  What is it in your character that is so suppressed that you'll happily turn a blind eye while an entire ethnic and cultural group (many of your friends probably have strong Irish roots) gets humiliated?

Do you need an excuse to fight and be an obnoxious asshole?  Don't.  Just don't.  It's the 21st century, so smarten the fuck up.

Do you need an excuse to spend a night drinking with your friends?  Why?  Just call them and spend time with them!
 
Don't kid yourself: Canada and the US are not filled with a tolerant people.  A quick glance at the gross and overt bigotry faced *every single day* by Mexicans, blacks, Jews, First Nations, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, overweight, disabled, or the elderly will give you a clue as to how closed-minded we as a people are.

St. Patrick's Day not only brags about the worst stereotypes of Irish culture, but it even makes otherwise reasonably good people forget that it's unacceptable to portray an ethnic and cultural group in such a pitiful way.

It's also a day when the truly awful people see that they have license to behave the way they feel most comfortable: like bigoted shitholes.  Go to a bar on St. Patrick's day and count the number of time some jock-bro yells out, "Homo", "Faggot", "Nigger" or any other piece of bile that flows as freely from their mouth as their vomit.  The collateral damage of such vitriol and hate that comes on St. Patrick's day is staggering.

Want to celebrate St. Patrick's Day like a human being who was born after 1840?  Hang out with your friends as you go see an Irish band play!  I'll be seeing my fiance play in the Guelph Celtic Orchestra tonight.

There's nothing wrong with going to a bar with friends and having a good time.  But just make certain you're not being a racist shit while you're doing it.

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 As a current resident of the great city of Kitchener, my local Member of Parliament (MP) is Stephen Woodworth, of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC).  Mr. Woodworth and I have had a lively back and forth on Twitter, primarily about his proposition that Parliament investigate the "question" as to when human life begins.

I first noticed Woodworth not long after I moved here, when his presence on Twitter suddenly vanished during the 2011 Federal Election. During the election, he made a "joke" that went as follows:


A man staggers into a bar.  The bartender says, "Wow!  You sure look drunk!"  The man replies: "Thank god! I thought I was a cripple!"
As someone who had to walk with a cane for the better part of two years, this struck me as in very poor taste.

Liberal opponent Karen Redman called him on this tasteless comment (no doubt sensing blood in the water), and Woodworth, to his credit, apologized profusely.  For some reason, he also left Twitter completely, with three weeks remaining in the campaign.  It was during this same election that Woodworth decided to skip a number of All-Candidates debates. Remember how this was the party that rose to power in 2006 on a platform of having a small, accountable, and open government?

But whatever.  Those were just words.  Fuck em.

The CPC not only won the election (and Woodworth won his re-election in Kitchener-Centre), but they won it with a powerful majority.  That they only won it with a 60% voter turnout, and 39.5% of the popular vote seems not to phase them: They got their coveted majority, and they were going to pass some sweeping legislation, such as a warrantless online spying bill, an omnibus crime bill that downloads huge costs onto the provinces, raise the retirement age, and a bill that robs private sector employees the right to collective bargaining.

Small government?  Indeed.  So small it fits in your computer, internet, and your job.

One of the things Prime Minister Stephen Harper (PMSH) said during the campaign was that his party would not re-open the abortion debate:
“Very clearly I am against reopening that debate. That is my position, now and in the past five years as well, and as long as I am prime minister, we will not reopen the debate on abortion. We will leave the law as it stands.”  [source]

No doubt, this action by PMSH helped to sway many moderate, right-leaning liberals.  I confess that when I heard it, my reaction was, "Well that's at least something: The CPC will likely push through economic conservativism, and not social conservativism."

Well, as it turned out, that promise was just words. Just words, so fuck em.

By now, the whole country knows that Stephen Woodworth, my MP, has persuaded his party to let him push his private members' bill, that would launch a parliamentary committee seeking the best scientific evidence as to when a human life begins.  Currently in Canada, a human is a human when it has completed live birth. On the surface, this is a sensible action.  But underneath this very thin veneer of truth-seeking, is a sinister consequence:

It would, by necessity and default, make any woman who gets (and any doctor who performs) an abortion a murderer.  In the truest legal sense of the term, Woodworth wants to grant full human rights to unborn fetuses (without first waiting to see the results of his Parliamentary committee), and therefore, criminalize abortions.

A government so small it fits in your uterus.

I was a bit skeptical of his motivations and his goals, so over a period of a few months, I sought to engage my MP in a discussion.  At first, he was open, but as the weeks progressed, I saw the unraveling of a man so possessed by his project that his debating tactics diminished to Godwin-like proportions. The below conversation is 100% legitimate, and is searchable on the twitter pages of Mr. Woodworth and myself (for so long as Woodworth does not decide to delete his posts)

Early in the "debate" process (the same debate we were promised would not take place), Woodworth's choice of nomenclature was to refer to fetuses as "subhuman"
I found this to be a rather needless usage, as it is divisive and unhelpful.



Woodworth claims to be sticking closely to the legal words. Funny, I wonder where "subhuman" is in the Criminal Code, or the Charter of Rights and Freedoms?  I explained it to him why he shouldn't use "subhuman," in this debate, and he eventually did relent, but not without some stubborn obfuscation:


It seems that Mr. Woodworth (an accomplished lawyer of 3 decades) didn't notice that I already gave him a suggestion, several times.  FETUS!  Use the word "fetus" because that's what the word means!

But whatever.  They're just words, so fuck em.

 
At the crux of my confusion was this: Why would Woodworth be calling for the latest scientific evidence when he is already talking like he knows the answer?  A reading of his proposal, as well as his tweets, reveals a man who is saying that a fetus is a human (or a "child", as he later referred to them), so why was he asking Parliament to see when a fetus becomes a human? Skeptics are well familiar with the "unstated major premise" logical fallacy, so surely a lawyer would be too?

 
 
 

In other words: 
Me: Why are you proposing a study on a question you have already answered?
Woodworth: Shut up.

His last tweet is particularly revealing: He's calling for a review of scientific studies, and yet he doesn't even know what he'd need for an answer.  In science, you declare what your parameters are *first*.  For example: If someone were to tell me that evolution was wrong, I would know what it would take to prove that:  Human remains in the Cambrian strata of the earth.  So if Mr. Woodworth is saying that a a fetus is a human sometime before complete birth, he would need a lot more than to say "before".  Since he has offered up no specific parameters or conditions, he has set himself up to retrofit any data he wants to suit his ends, and I suspect he intends to.

This. Is. Not. Science.


Woodworth seems to think that this is a legitimate debate among scientists:

 


Woodworth is not proposing a scientific question, not by a long shot.  He's not proposing a scientific method, and "at what point does a collection of cells become a full human being with rights and privileges" is a meaningless question, ironically, more suited to the 17th century that he passive aggressively accuses me of being stuck in. He's proposing an ethical, legal, and at best, philosophical question.  That he's citing the need for the latest scientific research is dishonest.  

As a side note, it's peculiar that Woodworth is calling for 21st century science to inform this "debate," when he himself has an outmoded view of gender and sex:
Woodworth, a sitting member of Parliament, an accomplished lawyer who is calling for the latest scientific data, doesn't understand the difference between gender and sex (and this is putting aside the antiquated binary definition of gender).  Compounding this, Woodworth did not even address the comment: that laws can't discriminate on the basis of sex.  By expanding human rights to include fetuses, only women would be subject to criminal liability.

Woodworth claimed that over 500 abortions are performed each year after viability.  I was not able to confirm this statistic (and Woodworth did not disclose his source), but it may very well be true.  Even if the 500+ number is accurate, Woodworth is implying that women who get abortions after viability are murderers.  Not just murders, but....



 Al Assad. Bashar al-Assad is the dictator President of Syria, long known for detaining, torturing, and killing political dissidents.  Hardly surprising, I suppose, given that in the span of just four weeks, a CPC MP equated supporters of the long gun registry with Nazis, a CPC Senator accused Canadian environmental groups as willing to cooperate with Al Qaeda, and Vic Toews accused critics of C-30 of sympathizing with child pornographers.

So for those of you keeping score, that's one Nazi Reference, one al Qaeda reference, one child pornographers reference, and one Al Assad reference.

Until he apologizes to me about the al Assad equation, and demonstrated an understanding as to why that was unacceptable, Woodworth has forfeited all rights to a polite and civil discussion.  Other people have called Woodworth childish names, but never once have I engaged in that behavior.

Rather than resort to his tactic (which would be playing his game), I've decided to play my own game, and it's one that politicians of all stripes hate:

I'll ask him simple, honest, direct questions.

All Canadians know what Woodworth is talking about: criminalizing abortion.  Even if he is too afraid to come out and admit publicly what the consequences of his proposal is, we're not stupid.  So the question I posed to my MP is:

If a woman is raped, do you support her right to an abortion?
 
Anti-abortion activists hate this question because it calls them out in a very direct way: If they answer yes, it alienates their base.  If they answer no, it enflames the moderates. Best part is: It's not even a 'trap' question: It's an honest question because it reflects reality.  Reality isn't always a binary, despite politicians' attempts to make it so.  I don't expect Woodworth to answer, but that's because I know his history. Still, I hope he does answer, for one very important reason:

THAT'S WHAT A FUCKING MP DOES: ANSWER QUESTIONS FROM THEIR CONSTITUENTS!

I've asked Woodworth this question first on March 13,  again on March 14, March 15, March 18, March 21, March 26, and twice on March 30. I asked him this question eight times, and still there has been no reply. I was careful to make sure I only asked him this question after he was recently on Twitter (in some cases, within the hour), so as to make sure he saw them.  It's possible that he blocked me on Twitter, but this question has been re-tweeted and/or replied at least twenty times by as many different twitter users (could be more, various twitter clients telling me different things).

My Member of Parliament, Stephen Woodworth is unwilling to defend victims of rape.

During the 2011 election, his party promised not to re-open the abortion debate, and he did it anyway.  Woodworth lied to the voters of Kitchener-Centre: Stephen Woodworth wants to criminalize abortion, and will not defend women who are victims of rape.

Stephen Woodworth is worth very little.









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For quite a while, I've decided not to make a blog post about Dennis Markuze (a.k.a. "Mabus").  I thought that the best way to deal with him was to ignore him, since clearly he fed on people's attention.  It turns out, that ignoring him was the exact opposite way to handle the whole situation.

Most people reading this blog already know who Markuze is.  But for the uninitiated, or those of you in the future, reading this years from now, (newcomers to skepticism hopefully won't have any dealings with him), here's a very brief primer:

Montrealer, and Christian extremist, Dennis Markuze has been sending out reams of harassment emails and comments to skeptics, atheists, and scientists for over 15 years.  These went well beyond the typical "troll" behavior we might expect of internet aggression, and eventually escalated into increasingly incoherent ramblings that threatened skeptics with torture, decapitation, execution etc....

He attended the American Atheists Convention in Montreal last fall, where the long-time target of his harassment, PZ Myers, was speaking (tell me of a single internet troll who dares to attempt a physical confrontation).  His newfound boldness, coupled with his increasingly explicit threats, pushed people into action in new, and innovative ways. 

For more detailed background of this entire Markuze affair, I highly recommend Tim Farley's post on the matter.


In the above image, this is just a portion of the harassment I received in one day. Included in the messages to me, were the usual targets: skeptic friends of mine such as Jonathan Abrams, Elyse Anders, and Nicole Gugliucci. Part of Markuze's tactics were to look through anyone his victims have been communicating with, and attack them too.  He also sent harassment letters to Green Party leader Elizabeth May, as well as my local Member of Parliament, Stephen Woodworth (who is public about his devotion to Christianity), both of whom I was having non-skeptic related political discussions with.

Just about every skeptic who has received his attacks knows his tactics, and many of us have to apologize to people for getting these awful messages at unawares.


On July 6, I received this (and many others like it) message.  It was unlike the others, because it was an explicit threat, rather than just the insinuation-to-kill that was his usual M.O. I gotta admit: I felt a little nervous.  Internet trolls don't talk like that.  Internet trolls are paradoxically inventive and crude (as any gamer can attest to).  This was pretty straightforward:  

"...we are going to torture before we execute you"

Without batting an eye, I called the RCMP, who forwarded me to the Waterloo Region police.  After I had spent a long day at work, the police came over to my house and I filed a report.  The police officer hadn't been briefed upon the nature of the threat (ie: that it was an internet threat), and my partner and I had to spend about 15 minutes explaining to him what Twitter was, how it's not Facebook, or how it's not email.  It was pretty exhausting.  Not to mention baffling ("What's Twitter?  Oh....it's this...internet....thing that....has hundreds of millions of users....that....are you sure you've never heard of it?  TWIT-TER!").

After about an hour and a half, the officer saw my screen shots, seemed to understand what was going on, and he said to me, "My advice to you:  Don't worry about it.  This guy is just trying to get inside your head, and you're letting him".

Needless to say, I was disappointed at this attitude.  I kept pressing him, "Regardless of what we might think his intentions are, he is uttering death threats, and it's my understanding that that is illegal."

He told me that for the the law to be able to act on a death threat, a death threat must have two things: Intention and agency. It's obvious that Markuze meant what he said (and has been saying for over 15 years), but the officer could not reasonably assume that it was a threat he could act on.  From his perspective, he sees an internet troll in Montreal, who would have to drive to Kitchener to cause me harm.

As a side note, uttering a death threat does not require the ability to carry out that threat, so the officer I spoke to was wrong (though I didn't know it at the time).  See here for the law covering death threats. In Canada, if you utter a death threat, that's a crime.  If you utter a death threat and you make a person feel unsafe, that's a worse crime.

The officer left, telling me that he would file the report, assuring me that, "If half the things you're saying were true, then the Montreal Police are aware of this guy, and they are keeping an eye on him."  He also told me that more people need to file reports, because it helps build an intelligence file on him.  I've been relaying that message on twitter and facebook ever since.

Well, fastforward a little over a month: A change.org petition, a twitter campaign, and some key media involvement later (again, read Tim Farley's post, it's excellent and well-detailed), the Montreal police finally got involved.

Yesterday, at around 6:00 pm, I received a call from a Montreal detective who told me what everyone on Twitter had already been talking about : Markuze had been apprehended, and is in custody.

In all likelihood, he will be released on bail, and with conditions that he not use a computer.  Markuze will probably not spend any time in prison, but that's okay: He's not a criminal, even if he has committed criminal acts.  It's obvious to anyone with an Armchair Degree in psychiatry that Markuze is not a well man: He is mentally unstable. 

If the judge orders him to get psychiatric evaluation, maybe he will finally get the help he needs.  He's been making these attacks for over 15 years, with a posting rate that can best be described as 'obsessive'. If he had been identified in 1995 (when he was asking for help in obtaining a bomb to blow up federal buildings), maybe he would have been getting the help he needed back then, and he might now have been a productive member of society.

The Mabus/Markuze story may not be over.  It's possible that when he's released, he will be released without conditions that he surrender his computer and stay off the internet.  It's entirely possible that in a month, we all may be seeing the same harassment letters we've been deleting non-stop. And yet, I question the wisdom of people demanding his immediate incarceration, and that the full hammer of the law be brought down upon him.

Now that Markuze is in custody, there is a real chance that a mentally ill person will get the help that he needs.  For the first time, I have honest, and real hope for Markuze. 




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Why we Fight

My friend and fellow skeptic Joey left a thoughtful comment on my post yesterday, and as usual with Joey, I got to thinking.  I think her comment needs addressing, because her point is shared by many, and I think it's getting lost in the fighting.

Joey said,

"To be sure, women and visible minorities do receive an equal, and fair hearing in our lot. So why then, is there still such an imbalance of the genders and the colours?"

Can't speak to the race issue, but as far as women go, part of the imbalance may lie with the other part of this story: I personally am dissuaded by a woman blogger exercising her right to disagree with another skeptic, and being treated extremely unfairly for it. I don't even want to be involved in this "how to get women into skepticism" thing anymore because some of the hypocrisy there is just not something I want to deal with.
Joey, I really get what you're saying.  I think it pains me, and many others that it has gotten as vitriolic as it has. Today, I saw this conversation on facebook (though I'm not providing links that will identify the speakers):

Person A: Nothing can shake my admiration for Richard Dawkins.
Person B: That's a fairly sweeping statement, there. What if Dawkins turns out to be a closet child raper? Still won't shake your admiration?

I see problems with both statements, and they are reflective of the larger debate that is being played out.  As Person A helps remind us, Dawkins has an army of supporters who agree with him because they share his mindset, or because they will agree with whatever he says out of unshakable admiration (also known as "sycophancy").  Person B mentions child rape, as if we didn't need enough extremism in this discussion.
 

However, what I've learned over the past couple of days, is that this issue has gotten bigger than the two things that got people going in the first place:

Elevator Guy and Stef McGraw.

Those were both smaller issues that sussed out a much larger culture of misogyny in the atheist and skeptic communities.  The guy in the elevator sparked a discussion that ballooned up fast, and the issue of Stef McGraw is a side-distraction.  Yes, Stef's issue might imply a culture of hostility by Rebecca, or a culture of  entitlement when Stef speaking of her "ruined reputation," but that's not what this is about anymore.

Usually, whenever smaller events and discussions like these happen, there are a few comment threads here and there, it gets ugly, and in a week, people (for the moment) forget about it. This too, will pass.  But when our most visible leader and spokesperson talks with such insensitivity and hostility to a very important issue, it tells me that we need to distance ourselves from that culture of yesterday.

Dawkins' response cannot go unchallenged, or we are all complicit.

Sadly, this has become a fight.  Hopefully, no one relishes it, though I expect that many revel in the opportunity to insult, berate, and laugh at other members of our communities over feminism.  This is what misogynists do: they ridicule anyone who shows an interest in feminism because they think there is no problem, or they don't care.

I see other people on twitter and facebook exclaiming that "Because I agree with Dawkins, I'm a misogynist."

Perhaps you are, perhaps you aren't.  Perhaps you haven't given it much thought either way (This might help). Feminism is a very difficult concept to come to terms with, because, as I said yesterday, it challenges our most basic assumptions about how the genders interact.  It takes time, and very careful contemplation.  I'm not suggesting that if you disagree with Rebecca, Jen, Phil, Matt, Stephanie, Barbara, PZ, Greg, or myself, that you haven't thought of it enough.  I'm simply asking you to think about it a great deal more.

It took me years (including an undergraduate education in political studies) to understand feminism as I now do.  There was a time when I was hostile to feminism: lumping it in with the stereotype of bra-burning and man-hating.  There was a time when I was ambivalent towards it: thinking it a fine pursuit for others but not me.  There was a time when I was modestly curious about it: seeing how much of a body of thought it was, and thinking I could never hope to penetrate its dense tomes.  There was a time (now) when I saw the incredible value of it, and strove to learn as much as I could (while still leaving time for food and work).

For most people, the colloquial definitions of feminism are fine enough, because they're easy to grasp, and easy to approve, or reject. But real feminism, as we see Rebecca and others trying to discuss, is much more subtle.  As I said in yesterday's post, understand the historical and cultural context of a feminist question first, then question.  Dawkins (and his numerous supporters) asked the question without first understanding the context.


The worst, most intellectually dishonest thing anyone can do is to reject an entire discussion, as I see being done now, and in the recent past.

I see how an important discussion turning into a fight can be disheartening: it is. But we fight because we care too much, and this is simply too important to let slide.  Dawkins is not the only highly visible member of our community to act like this, and its time to make it known: Skeptics (and atheists) take women's issues very seriously.

I want to give Dawkins the benefit of the doubt here: he is a highly intelligent, eloquent, and educated academic, one who understands ethics better then most.  Will he take this moment to truly reflect on what he said, and what others have been saying, or will he soldier on like a smug, privileged British intellectual, completely removed from society?   Hopefully, time will tell.

As with alternative medicine harming people, psychics bilking people, and religions hindering education, we fight because we care.

And as for Joey, and the numerous other people that have been turned off because of this whole affair:  Please come back, and please don't hold what we're doing against us.  I understand why you're taking a break, and don't blame you: this has gotten nasty, exhausting, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.  But it is going somewhere positive, I promise. I also hope you understand why we fight:  the consequences of not standing up for feminism at this moment are too severe.

When this blows over (and it will), we'll save your seat for you.



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I've not wanted to wade into this Rebecca Watson / Richard Dawkins / Steff McGraw / Jen McCreight / just about everyone kerfuffle, but things are getting about as heated as they can without a cage match. I generally dislike blogging on these meta-issues of skepticism, because I feel smug when I do it. And yet, I say these following words with humility, and I beg your indulgence. 

Full disclosure: I consider Rebecca a friend.  She and another Skepchick blogger Carrie once drove three hours, across to the Canadian side of the border to come to my house for what was effectively beer, pie, and coffee, so I'll put it out on front street: I may not be entirely unbiased here.  

See?  Bestest. Friends. Ever.
Also, I'll not link to many outside sources in this post, except when required for context, so as to not inflame the already raging fires more.

That being said, here are some simple lessons that I hope we have all learned:

1) Calling someone a "rape apologist" serves no one. Smarten up, and don't do that.

2) Just as when Randi publicly questioned climate science a little over a year ago, Richard Dawkins displayed some extraordinary insensitivity and ignorance to feminist issues.  When our heroes get stuff wrong, it reminds us not to practice the hero-worship and sycophancy that we all aspire to avoid.

3) Feminism needs to be discussed. Skepticism is too big, too important, to not discuss it. I see too often in comment threads and in some blogs (no, I'll not be naming names here, sorry) where people (usually white, straight, and male) talk of being tired of feminist issues being discussed, because it's not really a problem. The idea that because we're a science-based community, then equality and evidence is our M.O.  To be sure, women and visible minorities do receive an equal, and fair hearing in our lot.  So why then, is there still such an imbalance of the genders and the colours?  Well the answer is simple, but no less challenging: we have equality, but we don't have equity.  The outcome of our collective input still favours those with white skin, and penises.  Of if you like, Whitey McPenises.

4) If problem A is 10 serious, and problem B is 3 serious, it's still okay to oppose problem B.  One does not subtract problem B from A in order to assess how serious a situation is.  Feminism is not a zero sum game, where lots of oppression somewhere makes a little oppression seem like people should not complain.

5) Women have a different set of shared experiences then men do. I am normally loathe to speak of identity politics and post modernism with any sort of weight, but here it applies: It is wrong, ethically, morally, and culturally to assume that the male standard(s) of social interactions can be any sort of measuring stick against what is largely (but not uniquely) a female experience.  Men: stop it.

6) Atheists have often trumpeted (or parroted) the words of Dawkins with respect (or lack of respect) to religious persons, and too often have the religious been labeled as 'crybabies' when called out in the biting way that only Dawkins can deliver.  Maybe now we feminist atheists are getting a taste of the sting that the religious feel when Dawkins insults them, to cheers of applause from atheists.  Respect: It's time we all learned it, and not to define others by what they believe, but by how they act.


7) Don't let the extreme right wing, or any armchair political analyst fool you: "radical feminism" is not a body of thought in the feminist literature, at least not in the way you are being led to believe.  What they call "radical feminism", I call "white guy thinks vaginas are out to take his job away". Radical feminism is about abolishing patriarchy, not men.  During this whole affair, nowhere did true radical feminism come into play.

8) It's fine to "just ask the question" about why one simply cannot push the elevator button to escape, if your intentions are *truly* out of intellectual curiosity.  But it's also a huge leap of arrogance to assume that a) you already know the answer and more importantly, b) you can ask that question without a broader understanding of the cultural context of said question.  This is feminism 101: Understand the history and context, then see if your question still applies.  More often than not, feminist issues are not simple, and they have more baggage behind them then most are prepared to admit, or accept.

Going Forward (hopefully)

This is the challenge of feminism: to seriously challenge and question our own assumptions on how society operates with respect to genders.  We skeptics (and atheists) take pride (and boast) about phraseology like "critical thinking" and "challenging the status quo".  And yet here, our most most basic assumptions about human and gender interactions have been brutally challenged: do we have the courage to continue to ask questions about them, or do we dismiss the conversation wholesale, and make no effort to learn anything?

It's easy to denounce religious-motivated female genital mutilation; this is the extreme.  The hard part is seeing gender power imbalances in the mundane, everyday experience. Men: we don't experience life the way women do.  We just don't.


P.S.
Special shout-out to Stephanie Zvan who compiled a helpful list of links in a recent post, where you can read many links and get more context about what happened, what didn't happen, and why feminism is still an urgent, important issue.

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On flying...

 Do me a favour, head over here and vote this up, if you're so inclined to accept my awesome funniness.




Just in case you thought this joke of mine was in poor taste: According to the source of the original photo, in this incident, no one was killed, or even injured.  I chose this image carefully.



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Today is a sick-day for me.  I woke up with a terrible pain in my throat, barely able to speak or swallow.  It's probably a cold that will pass in a few days, but when you're a teacher, it's best not to risk spreading viruses around to kids and other teachers.

I was going to use today to write a post about the upcoming federal election.  Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have noticed a much higher tweet volume than usual.  But today is April 5, and this day means something significant for me, as well as many people born between 1975 and 1982.

17 years ago today, Kurt Cobain pointed a shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Kurt Cobain's suicide note.  I still haven't read this yet...not sure I can.
I won't talk a great deal about Kurt's suicide, his drug addiction, or his depression.  Not today.  I'd instead like to talk about the legacy of music, culture, and art that Kurt Cobain left.  I know this has been done countless times by writers far more eloquent than I, but I've never put my own words on Kurt down before.  This article is for me as much as it is for you.


As a teenager in the 90's, Nirvana was the giant in our music and our culture.  There were many bands that were going strong at the same time the people identified with: Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Soul Asylum, Soundgarden, Stone Temple Pilots....all great bands that stood strong on their own merits.  But there was somehow, something different about Nirvana.
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It might have been the awful singing.  It seemed that Kurt was determined to avoid every lesson a vocal teacher would have told him: "Don't use your head voice!  The power comes from the diaphragm below your lungs, not from your throat!".  Kurt would then use this head voice to whine out lyrics so incoherently, that it was a widespread joke.  Some speculated at the time that there were no lyrics, and this was intentionally part of the grunge "Fuck You."  Weird Al Yankovic parodied this aspect of Cobain's singing style in 'Smells Like Nirvana.'  (Indeed, Yankovic's parody of Cobain was so popular it helped revitalize his career, reminding the world that he doesn't just parody Michael Jackson songs).  Kurt was a terrible singer, but like a lot of things, we didn't care about that.
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It might have been something in the way of Kurt's apathetic demeanor.  The 90's counter-culture scene was one that dripped of apathy, nauseatingly so (captured wonderfully by the Simpsons).  This might be selection bias or confirmation bias on my part, but there seemed to be something genuine about Kurt's apathy.  He seemed to carry himself as a man who had entirely given up, and was simply going through the motions of living.  We learned later that this was indeed the case, as Kurt had long suffered from chronic depression.

Cynics today (and some at the time) admonished Kurt for being a self-centered crybaby while being the biggest rock god on the planet.  Sadly, depression is not a condition that is influenced by how others see the individual.  Kurt felt alone, worthless, and that there was no escape.  This is not to downplay the role that Kurt's well-documented heroin addiction had in exacerbating his depression, but to illustrate that no matter how much genius gets recognized and rewarded at the time, depression still can take down our very best.

The tragedy of the 90's counter culture was that we all celebrated the sense of hopelessness and apathy that, when it was genuine, helped contribute to Kurt's suicide.
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It might have been the songs themselves.  At the time that Nirvana made it big (along with the wave of Seattle grunge that followed immediately after), rock was dominated by the second wave of over-produced hair bands that were desperately trying to mimic the guitar gods of yesteryear, and this is to say nothing about the music that actually seemed to be intentionally hollow (DJ "Jazzy" Jeff and the Fresh Prince, M.C. Hammer and Deee-Lite all come to mind).When Nirvana and Grunge came along, they threw out the whole playbook.  They were poor musicians, poor singers, and the didn't give a shit.  In this respect, they were a lot like the punk movement 10 years prior.  But unlike the punk movement, the grunge musicians still wanted to make music for the sake of making music and expression (as opposed to making music for the sake of saying "fuck you"...a noble goal nonetheless, but not one I identify with).

The songs of Kurt ranged from the mellow and desperately expressive:



To the incredibly defiant and energetic:


The style of Lithium was to later be one of the defining characteristics of many 90's rock and grunge tunes: soft, quivering verses, punctuated by heavily distorted and screaming chorus. 

It was partially in pursuit of this style of polarized music that drove Kurt to design the Fender "Jag-Stang:" a hybrid of Fender's Jaguar (traditionally used as a jazz guitar) and Mustang (a whammy-bar reliant guitar popularized by 60's Surfer music) models.
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It might have been his suicide. If a rocker reaches the level that Kurt did, and they died before their time, they always seem to have a mythic sort of quality to them: Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon, Bob Marley, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison...these rockers have a fan base whose dedication goes beyond simple fandom. It's a kind of quasi-religious like reverence. 

I remember the day Kurt's death was announced.  I was in the 9th grade at the time, and in my first period music class. My friends and I (all budding musicians) shared the news with each other, and we all reacted like it was the death not of a a good friend but of a kind of leader. As a teenager in the 90's, it was hard to not feel the sense of hopelessness and apathy of a world that was going to do whatever it wanted to, and to hell with the young people (contrast this today with the culture of entitlement that teenagers and the youth have). Whether this apathy was misplaced or not, we all felt it (and teenagers have a way of confusing feeling with reality).  Kurt was the one guy who seemed to be most affected by our collective hopeless culture, and he spoke both to, and for us all.  And he was gone.

Our parents were baby boomers, and we were too young to be Gen X'ers.  No one gave two shits about us but ourselves. we were a forgotten generation that just lost its only ambassador.  We were told our whole lives that we missed the greatest parties ever, and nothing will ever be as great as the Beatles ever again. 

Kurt Cobain was our John Lennon.

Our odd form of 90's counter culture kept going a little longer after Kurt's death, but pretty much gave up once the Spice Girls came around.  Love it, hate it, mock it, or be indifferent to it: this sense of hopelessness and apathy was the identity we all shared, and it was ripped away because of heroin, depression, and a shotgun.

Just as there will never be another Jimi Hendrix, John Lennon or Bob Marley, there will never be another Kurt Cobain.

Bye.



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Last night, I attended a local performance of a new play, The Abortion Monologues.  The idea behind this play is fantastic: encourage women to talk about a very uncomfortable topic with the hope that with communication comes understanding.  In the spirit of The Vagina Monologues, it is all about getting the stories out there.  No judgment, no condemnation, no endorsement: just communication. Ostensibly, women who have had abortion experiences will feel a little safer and less like social outcasts if they understand that they're not alone, not by a long shot.

The play was well written (personally, I've never been a fan of the monologue style of theatre, so it was a bit of an adjustment for me), and well performed.  It detailed the stories of 23 women who've had abortions in varying circumstances.  Most of the stories were largely centered around the commonplace abortion story, with little discussion of the extreme cases (rape, incest) prompting abortive instances. I learned later that this was intentional by the author, who insisted that it shouldn't take extreme cases to allow for regular discourse in public*.  I heartily agree. 

There is a certain sense of apologetics and accommodation that gets involved whenever we try to encourage a dialogue using the fringe examples.  Why must we have to bring up the cases of when a drunk uncle rapes a teenager to discuss something that happens every day? This brings up some interesting issues when dealing with civil rights concerns.

After the curtain call, the director invited the audience to participate in an open discussion.  Most of the questions and comments shared were by women, voicing their approval with how the play was written and performed.  Some commenters discussed the stigma that abortion incurs, and others on the state of abortion access in Canada (in short, abortion has been legal in Canada since 1988, but women still have to jump through hoops to get them).  All in all, a constructive discussion.

Until...

One woman commented on how great it was that so many men were in attendance (I'd put it at about 33% men), and many women in the audience roared with applause and approval.  The director (but it might have been a cast member...hard to see from my vantage point) agreed and said something to the effect that it's great to see so many men, and that the men in this audience are an example to the rest of men.

Now, don't get me wrong, this was a well-meaning comment, and put forth with nothing but the best intentions and in the spirit of fellowship.  I understand and appreciate that. 

But...

This attitude is part of the problem.  As one of the men in attendance, I didn't really feel like I belonged there.  It felt like a girl's club (yes, I know the irony there, so don't bother pointing it out), and the men were simply welcome to come along.  There is a fundamental difference between being 'welcome' and 'belonging'.

By making this gesture to the men in the audience, the well-meaning, thoughtful women who applauded painted every man there as an 'other'.  This is unfortunate, because abortion is not just a women's issue.  Don't get me wrong, there is nothing more obnoxious than some guy standing up saying "WHAT ABOUT THE MENZ!?"  This is not what I am doing here. 

Abortion is not just a woman's issue.  It is also a men's issue.  It is also a children's issue, a cultural issue and a class issue.  By artificially making abortion a women's issue, it alienates many people who are also affected by abortion, even those of us who are supportive and pro-choice.  I felt welcome in that hall, but I did not feel as though this was an issue that had anything to do with me.

This is one of the logos I was able to find of the play, but not the one for the performance I attended in Kitchener, ON.  This logo, while certainly not exclusive, is definitely not inclusive either.

This might have been alleviated had there been one character in the play who was a man that had an abortion story.  If the writer wanted to show how commonplace and everyday this experience was, perhaps just one narrative from a male perspective would be beneficial.  After all, abortion is an issue that affects more than just one half of the population, but you'd hardly know it. Men may not be part of the discussion, but they are part of the equation. There may be something to be gained by some feminist women / groups seeking ownership of abortion issues for women, but it effectively leaves half the affected people out of the discussion.

Obviously, this is not intentional nor mean-spirited.  My point in writing this post is that maybe more men would feel sympathetic and be supportive on this issue if they felt a sense of belonging and ownership.  Abortion is a men's issue too, and I'd like to see more understanding of this by the well meaning pro-choice community.


* Ostensibly, it is to this point that explains the absence of any narratives involving LGBTQ experiences of abortion.  A conspicuous absence, I thought, for a progressive play that opened in 2009.


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Every year, March 17th rolls around, and people invariably ask me one version of the question, "Steve, you're pretty obnoxious with the way you wear your Irish heritage on your sleeve.  You must LOVE St. Patrick's Day and you you probably love to drink green beer and get drunk!"
These people are "Irish for a day".  Lovely.
That's like saying, "Hey, you're black!  you must LOVE to talk during a movie and dance 
around white people!" or "Hey!  You're Muslim!  You must LOVE to blow up buildings!"
Well, no I don't like St. Patrick's day.  I hate it. I can scarcely walk down a city street today without being called a leprechaun by some drunken (or sober) asshole (No, I'm not making this up).  For years I've found it to be the most nakedly racist "holiday" on the calender. Irish heritage celebration in North America is basically a neo-blackface routine.

It....was a different time....

Since about 2005, I've been writing pretty much the same article for one media outlet or the other, and my opinions since last year's post  (and every other year I post this) haven't changed, so I'll just re-post it here (with a few updates):
St. Patrick's Day: Still Racist after all these Years: 
Every year we “celebrate” St. Patrick’s Day by drinking ourselves stupid, beginning in the middle of the afternoon, then maybe getting into a few fights. This is acceptable behavior because, we’re told, this is the one day of the year that everyone is Irish. Why is this flagrantly racist stereotype still so eagerly embraced? I believe it is because it is still widely acceptable to think the worst of the Irish, at levels unthinkable among other minority-groups.
I did a google image search for St. Patrick's Day, and this came up.  Seriously. 

People don’t pretend to be Mexican on Cinco De Mayo by standing in an unemployment line and selling oranges on the street-corners. On Yom Kippur people don’t wear shirts that say “kiss me, I’m Jewish” while wearing a cheap elongated nose while fake money falls out of their pockets. Black History month isn’t celebrated by enjoying an all-you-can-eat-fried-chicken buffet and starting a gang-war.  
And rightly so: these are all horrible racist stereotypes that reduce huge swaths of diverse peoples into the most negative imagery that is usually reserved for the old-racist-kook fraternity.

Why then, is it okay to celebrate ‘be an Irishman day’ (and lets be honest, March 17th has nothing whatsoever to do with the patron saint of Ireland) by getting slobberingly drunk, making complete asses of ourselves, and be loud, obnoxious pricks? Even to the point of calling in ‘sick’ the next day, and actually getting away with it?  I've worked at places where people would call in sick on March 18th, and the bosses chuckled, and left it at that.  Oh really?  Can I do that on Sept 3?  Or May 7 (the day after my birthday)?  No, of course not.  But I bet that if I did it the day after people pretend to be their racist ideas of what it means to be Irish, it'd be super-dee-dooper, lassie!
This friendly little guy is the emblem of Irish respect in North America. We all act like this. At least when we're not a)drinking b)fighting c)drunkenly beating our wives, or d) having too many children.

I hear the rebuttals, the same every year: 
1)“It’s just an excuse to get drunk!"
2)"It’s just an excuse to have fun with my friends”
Do you really need an excuse to have fun with your friends? Of course you don’t. If you do, maybe you're a bad friend.  Do you need an excuse to drink? Maybe…but is it necessary for the Irish-drunkard stereotype to serve your loathsome late-night frivolities of licentious lewdness and lunacy?

We like to pat ourselves on the back with how progressive we have become through the delusional artifice of pluralism: the colours of Benetton have become united at last! Yet we cannot look past our beer goggles when the clock points to an excuse to drink that, as it so happens, pokes fun at the Irish.  
Society has (rightly) shunned people who use words like nigger, wop, chink, and kraut. Yet  it's still okay to spend $10.00 on plastic leprechaun-wear, get drunk in the middle of the afternoon, and get kicked out of 4 bars in a night because, “Hey! On March 17th, we ALL get to be Irish for a day!” and then begin the drunken chorus of Danny Boy.

If you truly want to celebrate Irish heritage, that's fine.  If you want to celebrate for no real good reason, that's fine too.  Might I suggest a friendly conversation over a couple of pints and a couple of songs.  The Irish don't have a monopoly on that, but it's still fun, honest, and respectful to you and your friends.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to celebrate some else's Italian heritage by controlling a union and eating a spicy meat-a-ball.

Or by playing with these Italian  plumbers who stomp on "Goombas"


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Food that you don't make yourself is always at least two of three things:  affordable, fast, and good.  I think it's impossible to get all three.  Maybe a fourth bubble, "Reasonably healthy" (or perhaps "Not Solidified Battery Acid on a Bun" might suit better) needs to be added.



While this barely qualifies, I'm still counting this under my Infographics for Skeptics.  My blog, my bendable rules.

Of course, you could always go directly to the source and vote it up.


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