Sunday, August 3, 2014

Summer reading



My high school Literature teacher was fond of reminding us that bestsellers were not necessarily good books. A bestseller, in his definition, was a book that appealed to the masses but was of dubious literary merit.  One of my conclusions from his somewhat disparaging comments on bestsellers was that there is no accounting for taste in books.
With that disclaimer, if you are looking for something to read this summer, here are a few suggestions.

Non Fiction:
Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife is Eben Alexander’s account of his own near death experience. In this memoire of his miraculous recovery from a mysterious illness that attacked his brain, Alexander, himself a neurosurgeon, describes his experience of existing in another dimension of reality while he lay comatose for seven days. While Alexander’s attempts to describe the ineffable fall flat, and his proof is unconvincing, the book seems to have a broad appeal; it has been on the New York Times bestseller list for well over a year.

Two standout non-fiction books, also bestsellers, are The Juggler’s Children and In the Garden of Beasts.  

In The Juggler’s Children, Carolyn Abrahams, well known for her work as a medical science reporter for the Globe and Mail, describes her search for her ancestral roots through DNA analysis.  The book reads like a novel and the scientific explanations are easy to follow. If I were to take one lesson from this book, it would be that we are all members of the same human family.  A National Bestseller, and a 2013 finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction, this book deserves its accolades.

A New York Times bestseller, In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larsen, takes the reader into the Berlin of the early 1930’s during Hitler’s rise to power. Through the experiences of the United States Ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, and his flirtatious daughter, Martha, Larsen elucidates the slow, quiet march of insidious events that eventually led to the Holocaust and brought the world to war. 

Fiction
The One Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson, is a fun read. A bit of slapstick, a bit of black comedy, this book revolves around an unlikely but likeable hero whose talent with explosives shaped world history before, at the age of 100 years, he meets up with an assortment of criminals and incompetent police.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce, is about a man who sets off to mail a letter to a former colleague who is dying, and ends up walking from one end of England to the other. As he walks, Harold works through his past. While he cannot save his friend from dying of cancer, he finds healing for himself, his wife and their relationship.

Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese, is the journey of a teenage boy through the mountainous backcountry of British Columbia with his estranged father, who is dying of the drink, and wants to be buried in the “warrior way”.  The book deals with the formation of identity, and with the complexities of coming to grips with our personal and collective histories. 

Tackling a classic
In a pique of ambition, and in honour of the book’s 100th anniversary, my book club tackled Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1: The Way by Swann’s, translated by Lydia Davis.  This book is challenging to read.  There is virtually no plot and the rambling sentences require lots of focus on the part of the reader. There are elements in the boy’s memories of childhood, and in his attempts to make sense of the world that are universal, and, these, I suspect, have contributed to the book’s status as a classic.

My old teacher probably thought well of Proust, but may have not liked some of my other choices, leading me to conclude that a good book is one that the reader enjoys. Whatever your taste, I hope you find one book this summer that satisfies your reading palate.


Sunday, July 6, 2014

World Cup 2014: Did the bishops of Brazil miss the pope's memo?


Are the Bishops of Brazil and Pope Francis on the same page when it comes to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, or did the Bishops miss their CEO’s memo?

At the start of the tournament, the National Conference of Bishops of Brazil added their voice to that of Brazilians who for months had been protesting their government’s lavish spending on the tournament. When millions of Brazil’s citizens lack basic needs and are living in poverty, the construction of enormous stadiums was hard to justify.

The bishops issued a brochure in the shape of a “red card” to express their concern “regarding the inversion of priorities in the use of public money that should go to health, education, basic sanitation, transportation and security”.  They were concerned, too, about the displacement of the homeless, and an increase in sexual tourism and human trafficking. 

The bishops want the 2014 World Cup to be more than “bread and circuses”, more than a well-orchestrated government distraction from Brazil’s social and political challenges, and are pushing for reforms. Through a campaign called “Steilpass” (translated either as “the decisive turning point”, or, in soccer lingo,  “assist”), the Brazilian bishops, in collaboration with the Conference of Religious in Brazil, presented the Brazilian government with ten proposals focused on building a more just society.  Among the proposals are calls for universal health care, access to a complete public education, meaningful work for all, promotion and protection of youth from violence, respect for cultural diversity, and democratic control of justice and the media.

The bishops’ message to government seems to stand in contrast to the cordial message of Pope Francis on the opening of the tournament. While Francis makes no overt references to Brazil’s problems, the shortcomings of human relationships are implicit in his message.

Francis looks at the world’s beautiful game as a metaphor for the improvement of the human person and, therefore, of society.  “Football”, said the pontiff, “can and should be a school for building a ‘culture of encounter’ which allows for peace and harmony among peoples”. 

Francis draws three lessons from sport that can contribute to peace.  The first is the need to train so that one can grow in virtue.  The second is to look to the common good because “in life, when we are fominhas (individualistic and egoistic), ignoring those who surround us, the entire society is damaged”.  And, the third is to respect both one’s teammates and opponents. The pope indicated that teamwork and respect for others are key components in winning both on the pitch and in life.

“No one wins by himself, not on the field or in life!” said Francis, adding “that by learning the lessons that sports teach us, we will all be winners, strengthening the bonds that tie us together.”

Despite the difference in the tone and content of the message of the Brazilian bishops and that of the pope, their underlying substance is not all that radically different. Both are concerned with the dignity of the human person and the flourishing of human society.

Francis encourages individuals to forgo selfishness and to seek peace and harmony with one another for the good of the entire human family, while the bishops urge those in positions of power to use the resources at their disposal for the advancement of the common good. Whereas the bishops spotlight the messiness of human society, the pope illuminates the ability of the individual to help tidy the mess.

The bishops and the pope have the same currency in hand; their messages are different sides of the same coin. Flip the coin, and on both sides there is a call to conversion, healing and renewal for the sake of social justice, or, in soccer lingo, “fair play”.


Monday, June 23, 2014

Law Societies regulate conduct, not beliefs


BC Lawyers oppose a Faculty of Law at TWU
At a special June 10, 2014 meeting of the members of the Law Society of British Columbia, 3,210 lawyers voted against approval for a Faculty of Law at Trinity Western University, while 968 lawyers voted for its approval. While the vote seems to indicate overwhelming opposition, the majority of the 13, 114 members of the Law Society did not cast a ballot. 

The special meeting was called because a requisite number of lawyers were dissatisfied with the April 11, 2014 decision of the Benchers, who are responsible for governing the Law Society, to approve the law school at TWU for the purposes of the Law Society’s admissions program.

Non-binding vote
The vote, however, is not binding on the Benchers. In a press release following the special meeting, President Jan Lindsay, QC said, “The decision regarding whether to admit graduates from the proposed law school at TWU is a Bencher decision,” adding that, “however, the Benchers will give the result of today’s members meeting serious and thoughtful consideration.”

The Benchers’ decision came after an extensive process of consultation, and a thought-provoking debate that touched upon issues of equality, discrimination, freedom of association, religious freedom and the rule of law. I watched the debate live, and in my view, the Benchers arrived at a principled decision regarding a contentious issue that involves the conflicting Charter rights of two disparate groups.

The opposition to TWU is based on a clause in the university’s “Community   in Covenant” agreement which upholds a traditional view of marriage as between one man and one woman. Students, faculty and staff agree to abide by the covenant. Many, as the vote of BC lawyers indicates, object to this clause as discriminatory, and tantamount to placing a sign at the gate stating that LGBTQ people are not welcome.

TWU has right to its beliefs
While I dislike the idea of a university requiring its members to sign a covenant that governs the most intimate aspects of their lives, TWU has the right to uphold a particular view of marriage, and those who share the institution’s beliefs have the right to congregate and associate with others of like mind. 

I share the opinion of the BC Civil Liberties Association, an organization that has a record of supporting the rights of LGBTQ persons but who took the position, “to deny (TWU’s) application based on the university’s Community Covenant would infringe the Charter-protected freedom of association and religion of members of the faith-based private university”, adding that these are fundamental freedoms and “that’s what s. 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is all about, protecting our freedoms of association, of assembly, of belief and of expression.” (For greater depth, see also the BCCLA Submission to the Law Society of BC. )

In 2001, in Trinity Western University, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that the BC College of Teachers could not deny education graduates of TWU admittance to the teaching profession based on religious beliefs about homosexuality that were unacceptable to the College.

Unfair to assume a lack of professionalism because of a belief
There is no evidence that teachers trained at TWU fail to professionally and competently exercise their teaching responsibilities when employed in the public school system. Similarly, there is no reason to assume that future graduates of a law school at TWU will be incapable of upholding the laws of the land and representing the rights of clients of all persuasions.   If an individual lawyer trained at TWU should prove incapable of doing so, the public can reasonably expect that the Law Society will deal with that person according to the remedial and disciplinary procedures already in place for lawyers who fail to faithfully represent clients and honorably serve the cause of justice.

In my opinion, for a law society to deny candidates admission to the legal profession because of a religious belief that is socially anathema to a percentage of its existing membership is unjustified, and is discriminatory in its own way.  In the absence of evidentiary proof that TWU’s traditional view of marriage and its code of sexual conduct does harm to others, graduates of its law school should be eligible for admission to the BC bar.

The Law Society of BC is properly concerned with the training, qualification, ethics, competency and conduct of its members. It is not its task, however, to regulate belief by excluding those with whom some of its members disagree. 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The digital environment is a double-edged sword


From telephone operators to text messaging
"Vintage Telephone" courtesy of Stoon/
 Free  digital photos.net
Communication technology has come a long way in a short time.  In my lifetime, we have moved from twice daily mail delivery and phones that required the services of an operator to connect callers, to the instantaneous communication of smart phones and text messaging. At the click of a mouse, we can “join the conversation” on any topic, or post our thoughts and images online for the entire world to see. 

The ability to be digitally connected around the clock creates meaningful opportunities for human interaction, but it also comes with some challenges; the digital environment can be a double-edged sword.

Technology can bring people closer, or separate them
On the plus side, technology enhances our ability to stay in touch with family and friends. Recently, my family enjoyed our own version of cross-country check-up via a three-way Skype call on the big screen TV with family members tuning in from Halifax, Montreal and Trail.  While it was not quite as good as sitting around the kitchen table  playing Settlers of Catan, it was an acceptable option for being together under the circumstances.

Just as technology can bring us together, it can also separate us, even to the extent that it can create distance between people in the same room.  I can think of no better example of this than the manner in which we frequently use smart phones. How often have you been in the company of a person who is obsessively checking their phone? In this case, the technology, despite its many excellent applications for augmenting communication, interferes with our ability to be truly present to those who are right in front of us.

A smorgasbord of options - healthy and not so healthy
The digital environment presents us with a smorgasbord of options for everything – current events, documentaries, online learning, and entertainment of many varieties. The Internet makes it possible for us to stretch our understanding of others and the world from the comfort of our recliners.   The accessibility of quality entertainment, online learning, and probing news analysis is truly a boon to human development.

On the down side, the communications media can also provide a platform for the expression of some of the shadowy sides of human nature. Cyber-bullying and access to pornography come to mind, as do television shows of the Jerry Springer variety, and reality television that makes a virtue out of stabbing others in the back.  Not all the options served up for consumption at the smorgasbord are healthy and wholesome.

Runners have a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out”, which means that what you eat prior to a run affects performance.  Our use of digital technology and our media choices can have a similar effect on our mind and relationships.  If we opt for a steady diet of mindless, violent, or sexually explicit entertainment, we may begin to treat others with less than the respect they deserve, and if we always choose sensational newscasts over thoughtful analysis, we run the risk of mistaking human tragedy for entertainment.

Pope Francis's message for World Communications Day
In his message for World Communications Day, Pope Francis writes, “Communication is about realizing that we are all human beings, children of God”, and his message encourages us to think of communication in terms of “neighbourliness”. The communications media and digital environment can help us become like the Good Samaritan who saw the wounded man as his neighbour and crossed the road to care for him. As the Good Samaritan  “tended the wounds of the injured man by pouring oil and wine over them”, our communication can become like a “balm which relieves pain and a fine wine which gladdens hearts.”

When we use digital technology and the communications media wisely, they are a powerful force for connecting people and for fostering positive human interactions.  On its own, the digital environment is neither inherently good nor bad; we decide which edge of the sword to use. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Abortion debate needs voices of reason


The leaders of Canada’s national political parties all agree on one thing; they do not want to talk about abortion.  Yet, with Justin Trudeau’s announcement that going forward all Liberal candidates must be pro-choice, abortion is back on their radar screens. 

Under Trudeau’s leadership, the Liberal Party joins the New Democratic Party in discouraging those who believe in the sanctity of life within the womb from the party folds and from running for Parliament. This leaves only the Conservative Party truly open to those with pro-life sensibilities.

While Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair may want to avoid candidates who are solely interested in codifying an uncompromising ban on abortion, party policy that precludes individuals who are not pro-choice from running for office violates a fundamental principle of Canadian democracy.

Representation is a pillar of democracy
As any well-taught sixth grader in the country knows, representation is one of the pillars of Canadian democracy. Canadian citizens have a right to select their representatives to Parliament. Collectively, these representatives should represent the diversity of Canada in race, creed and opinion.

Representatives have a responsibility to listen to the conflicting voices of Canadians on all matters, including those of conscience, even though they may disagree with those voices. The electorate is not well served when political parties pay lip service to Canadians of all views, but then stipulate, as Mr. Trudeau has in an email to Liberal party members, “incoming Liberal MPs will always vote in favour of a woman’s fundamental rights.”  

While it is true that the Supreme Court of Canada struck down the country’s last abortion law in 1988 on the basis that the law was unconstitutional, and contravened Section 7 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which guarantees a woman’s legal right to life, liberty and the security of the person, there are other ways to support pregnant women besides silencing the voices of those who believe that life is sacred from the moment of conception.

Canada needs voices of reason to move beyond polarized arguments
The practice of discouraging, if not down right excluding, those who are pro-life from vying for office implies that anyone who is not pro-choice is incapable of being an effective parliamentarian. There seems to be an assumption that all pro-lifers are radical zealots. This is simply untrue; many people who hold pro-life views and who have reservations about Canada’s lack of abortion laws are quite capable of approaching the issue rationally, realistically, and with regard for a woman’s right to choose.

Canadians need voices of reason on both sides of the abortion debate at the national level. Perhaps if national leaders were more open to dissenting voices on the topic, and to the concerns of the sixty percent of Canadians who favor some legislative restriction on abortion (such as on sex selective abortion), the debate could move beyond inflammatory rhetoric and polarized arguments. Instead of focusing on universal and unrestricted access to abortion or a complete ban on abortion, Canada could move towards the development of educational and social programs that would held reduce the number of abortions in the country, while at the same time respecting a woman’s freedom and right to choose.  Too often pro-choice means no choice for a pregnant woman because of a lack of practical support for other options during a difficult time.

National parties that prevent Canadians from running for office based on a single issue shut out many talented, principled, altruistic and reasonable people from participation in the development of the broad range of economic, environmental, legislative and social policies that affect Canadian life. 

As Archbishop Cardinal Collins of Toronto noted in his letter to Trudeau, Pope Francis "would have been ineligible to be a candidate" for the Liberals. And, as someone noted on a media discussion board, Mother Theresa would not have made the cut either.

With Trudeau’s “resolutely pro-choice” version of Liberal values, the Liberal Party follows the New Democratic Party in an exclusionary practice that has implications for representation in a parliamentary democracy, and at the end of the day, may do little to support women facing the difficult decision of carrying a pregnancy to term.