Nine Things We Learnt This Week

1. George Bush, explained.

The devil made him

” ‘Evil exists in politics, quite often in fact,’ Father Amorth said.  ‘The devil loves to take over business leaders and those who hold political office.  Hitler and Stalin were possessed.  How do I know? Because they killed millions of people.  The Gospel says: ‘By their fruits you will know them.’  Unfortunately, an exorcism on them would not have been enough, since they were convinced of what they were doing.  We can’t say it was a possession in the strict sense of the word, but rather a total and voluntary acceptance of the suggestions of the devil.’ ”

2. Ships of the Damned.

“The analysis, due to be published this year by the human rights organisation Reprieve, also claims there have been more than 200 new cases of rendition since 2006, when President George Bush declared that the practice had stopped.

It is the use of ships to detain prisoners, however, that is raising fresh concern and demands for inquiries in Britain and the US.

According to research carried out by Reprieve, the US may have used as many as 17 ships as ‘floating prisons’ since 2001. Detainees are interrogated aboard the vessels and then rendered to other, often undisclosed, locations, it is claimed.

Ships that are understood to have held prisoners include the USS Bataan and USS Peleliu. A further 15 ships are suspected of having operated around the British territory of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, which has been used as a military base by the UK and the Americans.”

3. And so it begins. (1)

“His wife going off on a rant about how evil “whitey” is, and conspiracies that he is a covert Muslim trying to infiltrate our democracy are nothing more than rumors…at least at this point. However, there are plenty of things the media don’t put enough focus on that are true about the Obamas. Instead they would rather focus on things like his playful fist-bump. They have to keep their priorities on the important issues.”

4. And so it begins. (2)

The victim of a plagiarized lie

“Despite the tenuousness of this rumor, Obama was actually asked about this non-existent video in front of the national press by a reporter the other day. Understandably, he pushed back hard on the notion that he should have to answer such a question.

Now Jim Geraghty of National Review has claimed that the rumor may be based on…fiction. A political thriller called The Power Broker, published in 2006 by Stephen Frey, features the presidential campaign of Dem candidate Jesse Wood, who’s aspiring to be the country’s first African-American president.

We went out and got the book. And sure enough, in the novel, Wood’s opponents discover video of the candidate himself — not his wife — discussing with a radical black minister how he will ‘f— whitey’ when he gets into office, despite all his public rhetoric about racial reconciliation.”

5. We’re shocked. Really.  (1)

“The space agency’s internal watchdog, the inspector general, reports that from autumn 2004 until early 2006 Nasa’s central public affairs office handled global warming in a way that ‘reduced, marginalised, or mischaracterised climate change science made available to the general public’.

The confirmation of political interference is vindication for James Hansen, Nasa’s chief climate scientist and one of the first to sound the alarm over global warming. Claims of political dallying surfaced when Hansen said he had been blocked from taking part in a National Public Radio interview in December 2005.”

6. We’re shocked. Really. (2)

” ‘In making the case for war, the administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when it was unsubstantiated, contradicted or even nonexistent,’ Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), the committee chairman, said at a news conference. ‘As a result, the American people were led to believe that the threat from Iraq was much greater than actually existed.’

The report, the last and most contentious of a series of Senate reviews of prewar intelligence, sought to compare the administration’s public claims about Iraq with the intelligence reports available to them at the time. While many of the White House’s statements — such as Bush’s warnings about a secret Iraqi nuclear program — were amply supported by intelligence files at the time, the report said, others were not.”

7. Still dead.

Miracle of the embalmer’s art

8. Must-read essay of the week.

“I am not blind to the imperfections of this America, or the failures to always meet these ideals at home and abroad. I spent 20 years of my life in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans as a foreign correspondent reporting in countries where crimes and injustices were committed in our name, whether during the Contra war in Nicaragua or the brutalization of the Palestinians by Israeli occupation forces. But there was much that was good and decent and honorable in our country. And there was hope.

The country I live in today uses the same words to describe itself, the same patriotic symbols and iconography, the same national myths, but only the shell remains. America, the country of my birth, the country that formed and shaped me, the country of my father, my father’s father and his father’s father, stretching back to the generations of my family that were here for the country’s founding, is so diminished as to be nearly unrecognizable. I do not know if this America will return, even as I pray and work and strive for its return. The “consent of the governed” has become an empty phrase. Our textbooks on political science are obsolete. Our state, our nation, has been hijacked by oligarchs, corporations and a narrow, selfish political elite, a small and privileged group which governs on behalf of moneyed interests. We are undergoing, as John Ralston Saul wrote, ‘a coup d’etat in slow motion.’ We are being impoverished — legally, economically, spiritually and politically. And unless we soon reverse this tide, unless we wrest the state away from corporate hands, we will be sucked into the dark and turbulent world of globalization where there are only masters and serfs, where the American dream will be no more than that — a dream, where those who work hard for a living can no longer earn a decent wage to sustain themselves or their families, whether in sweatshops in China or the decaying rust belt of Ohio, where democratic dissent is condemned as treason and ruthlessly silenced.”

9. Because they can.

House of Commons Votes to Protect War Resisters

Unfortunately, it’s non-binding. The Tories voted against the motion.

From the Canadian Friends Service Committee, the peace and social justice agency of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers):

Today, just after 3 pm, the House of Commons voted 137 – 110 in favour of the 3rd report of the Standing Committee on Immigration and Citizenship, which included this motion:

that the government immediately implement a program to allow conscientious objectors and their immediate family members (partners and dependents), who have refused or left military service related to a war not sanctioned by the United Nations and do not have a criminal record, to apply for permanent resident status and remain in Canada; and that the government should immediately cease any removal or deportation actions that may have already commenced against such individuals.

The motion is not legally binding on the Government to implement (the governing party is the Conservative Party of Canada of which every member voted against the motion). Most would say it is morally binding as it reflects the will of Parliament, which is to reflect the will of the people.

So, there will still be work to be done to pressure for its implementation (the focus now is really on the Government itself, as all members present from the Bloc, Liberal and NDP voted in favour – and all of these Party Leaders and high-profile MPs from these parties were present for the vote, which is significant).

Thanks to all of you for your terrific action, prayers, and persistence in helping this to happen. The War Resisters Support Campaign, in particular, is to be congratulated for their key role along the way.

Small victories are big steps, and we are closer to our desire to see all conscientious objectors receive the protection they deserve, particularly at this time the ones from the USA who refused to fight in Iraq.

Please monitor the “News and Events” section of http://www.cfsc.quaker.ca and the Campaign’s site – http://www.resisters.ca – for up-to-date information on next steps as the E-newsletter is not scheduled until end of June.

In Friendship,

Orion

Jane Orion Smith
General Secretary
Canadian Friends Service Committee (Quakers)

Crocodile Tears

I’m only sorry I got caught

When Tom Lukiwski’s now infamous (and soused) anti-gay remarks became public two months ago, it was reported the hapless MP cried. The more tenderhearted in the media said Lukiwksi wept for embarassing his family, his party, and the government; more cynical wags suggested tears were shed for shattered political propects. It appears the latter was actually correct.

According to The Hill Times:

Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski, who offered an emotional and national apology in the Commons on April 4 and attracted national headlines after the Saskatchewan provincial NDP released a 17-year-old video tape of him making derogatory remarks about homosexuals, still hasn’t reached out to gays in his riding.

Nathan Markwart, a board member of the Gay and Lesbian Community of Regina (GLCR), a not-for-profit organization that runs a community centre in Mr. Lukiwski’s riding, said his organization, along with other Regina-based gay advocacy groups, sent a letter on April 11, both through the mail and electronically, in which they invited Mr. Lukiwski to meet with them, but Mr. Lukiwski did not respond.

“[Mr. Lukiwski] stated he is going to spend the rest of his life making amends, well when does that kick in? It’s been quite a long time [since we sent the letter] and we still have received nothing. He says the only explanation is that it was stupid, thoughtless and insensitive, well I would say isn’t it thoughtless and insensitive not to engage the community after you’ve received an invitation to?”

You’d think. But maybe he’s busy. Maybe he is waiting for the moment political to launch le grand rapprochement. Maybe’s he’s talking to some other gay and lesbian group in Regina — though it’s hard to imagine whom, exactly. Maybe’s he’s mortified into inaction, and spiralling into a pit of depression and self-reproach.  Maybe when he said “the rest of his life” he means some future, yet-to-be-named life uncluttered with confusing and complex realities. Or maybe, he’s just another sad excuse for a politician who really believes what he said 17 years ago and is willing to tell any lie to save a tattered political career.  You choose.

The Hype. The Reality.

From electoral-vote.com:

McCain versus Obama
Electoral Votes: Obama 237     McCain 290     Ties 11

McCain versus Clinton:
Electoral Votes: Clinton 279     McCain 242     Ties 17

There’s a blog called The Truth About John Sydney McCain which has as its tagline:

This blog provides the ugly but well-researched and documented truth about John McCain’s voting record, his fatal inconsistencies, his marital unfaithfulness and divorce record, his absurd and dangerous statements about Iraq and Iran, and all of the reasons why Senator John McCain from arid Arizona ought never, ever become president of the United States of America.

I would probably and unfortunately add, “But will.” Looking at the above maps, I get a sinking feeling, an unpleasant sensation of deja vu.  Since when has recklessness, unfaithfulness and absurdity prevented a  Republican candidate from being elected? John Kerry was supposed to stomp all over George Bush, then eat him for breakfast.  Ditto for Dukakis and the senior Bush.  R. Reagan, the most idiotic and ridiculous of all, won handily, twice.  The plain truth is that Americans and the American media love deeply flawed politicians — if they are Republican.  (There’s even an acronym for the phenomenom: IOKIYAR –It’s OK If You’re A Republican.)

In the weird metaphysics of American political life, obvious character defects becomes assets, because, I think, there is a nice resonance with overtly Christian notions of redemption, and larger American themes of mastering personal obstacles. Reagan’s clear indifference to important details metamorphed into an ability to see the large picture.  Similarly, George Bush the younger’s odd incuriosity is lionized in some places as “studied detachment.”  The transformation of John McCain has yet to begin in earnest, but one suspects his well-documented temper (for example) will become, in time, “assertiveness” or “willing to defend America” or some such tripe.  No such slack is cut for Democrats, who tend to be skewered for the slightest lapses. Contrast Obama’s difficulties with his pastor against McCain’s largely painless collection of John Haggee’s endorsement.

It is admittedly a long way till the November elections, but it seems the Democrats are on the cusp of choosing the unelectable candidate.  Despite the hype confusing desire with reality — and remember the primaries are not the general election — Barack Obama has problems. The mathematics are daunting. Hillary Clinton’s argument, that Democrats ought to choose the candidate who can carry the big states, is essentially correct. Obama’s behind in Florida and Ohio, two states he must carry to win the presidency.  He probably won’t flip any red states.

Politically, the Republicans are going to thump three memes: he’s too young, too inexperienced, and too liberal. The last of these, the tag of liberalism, still strikes fear into the hearts of many American voters, and will be a hard one to avoid, given Obama’s voting record. The ramblings of Obama’s turbulent priest haven’t helped.  The loony right is already circulating stories of Obama being a secret Muslim in thrall to sharia law, and a version of this story has even appeared in the editorial pages of the New York Times.  Like any good propagandists, they know if they say it enough times, it becomes true.  McCain may denounce such idiocies, but note they are consonant with his latest attacks on Obama’s foreign policy objectives. And the media has, thus far, given McCain a free ride, assigning him such vote-getting American virtues as a “war hero”, “straight talking” and “maverick” (though his maverickness has somewhat declined as late: he voted the party line 80% of the time in 2007, as opposed to 65% in 2006.) And he looks like everyone’s kindly grandfather, wisps of thinning white hair blowing in the breeze, though he apparently refers to his wife by a word not repeated in polite company. I will even go on a very windy limb and suggest (with increasing sorrow), that with all of this and IOKIYAR at work, barring some catastrophe John McCain will win in November.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like Obama. If I were an American citizen, I would surely work for him. John McCain I despise, for reasons quite unrelated to his politics. What does it say about his character, to utter a boorish two-liner about an 18-year old girl, even if she is the daughter of a political enemy? (No doubt, somewhere, this is being spun as “straight talk.” And don’t forget IOKIYAR.)

I hope I am wrong, but one must be prepared for the future.  My only advice then, in the face of despair, is to invest in the company manufacturing “Hillary 2012” buttons and related campaign paraphernalia, because surely that’s where she and the Democratic Party are heading.

Free Speech Hysteria: Does Anyone Smell a Rat?

Studied outrage over the tribulations of Mark Steyn and Maclean’s before various human rights commissions continued this last week, with editorials appearing in both the National Post and Maclean’s.  Granted, the complaints were an abuse of process, and means need to be found to prevent the frivolous and vexatious from reaching the tribunals.  Freedom of speech ought to be absolute, no matter how odious the subject.  But at the same time, I find myself unmoved by the suppression of free speech the complaints supposedly produced.  In point of fact no one’s speech was actually curtailed.  As much as some might have wished,  the authorities have not sequestered and burnt the original Maclean’s article in any figurative or literal public square.  Mark Steyn continues to issue his screeds from his New Hampshire redoubt, unmolested.  No agents in the name of state security have hauled him to a nameless gulag.  A cursory glance at the magazine rack indicates Maclean’s still publishes openly, its reduction to the status of samizdat postponed to the indefinite future.  At the end of the fuss, it’s rather unclear as to whether Maclean’s et al. are outraged over attempts to limit their speech by a few law students, or whether someone had the audacity to challenge the received wisdom on Islam and the West.

To be sure, the importance of freedom of speech cannot be underestimated, and the complaints, where they have been adjudicated, have been rightly tossed out.  My sourness at this triumph of freedom of expression resides in the generally parlous state of civil liberties in general: the subtle contempt for notions of human rights and due process by the present government, the replacement of open and fair trials by arbitrary justice, accusation treated as evidence for determining guilt or innocence, the implicit endorsement of torture as state policy, even if we do not condone it on our own soil, the endless intrusions on individual privacy by a government already bloated with information, “no-fly” lists, and the gaping void of secrecy which obscures all of these activities  — all in the name of national security against a nebulous enemy whose strength the public cannot begin to gauge, because that too is secret.  While Maclean’s, The National Post and other organs of the free press fret away countless pails of ink on the real and imagined dangers to free speech, the erosion continues, unchecked and unremarked upon by the right-wing press (and the media in general), in this country and abroad. 

Examples of undereporting are numerous. If you believe this is because civil liberties in Canada are intact, think again.  For example, in April 2007 The International Commission of Jurists held public hearings in Toronto and Ottawa to investigate the impact of counter terrorism legislation on civil liberties. I quote part of its report at length:

The definition of terrorism and related offences under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA)

  • Concerns were expressed about the speed with which ATA was enacted and in particular about the broad definition of “terrorist activity” contained in the Act and the risk that the clause requiring that the act be committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” leads to discrimination against the Muslim and Arab communities. Many witnesses, including representatives of Arab and Muslim communities drew attention to a widespread belief within these communities that the implementation of the Act is directed against Muslims and Arabs resulting in their stigmatization and a sense of insecurity. In this context, some participants welcomed the October 2006 ruling of the Superior Court of Ontario in the Khawaja case striking down the motivation requirement provision for being a violation of the rights to freedom of religion, expression and association while others expressed concern that the decision in fact broadens the definition. The Government representatives informed the Panel that they were aware of the concerns of the Muslim community and that positive action is taken to create a climate in which these concerns can be addressed and resolved. 
  • Concerns were raised about the breadth and imprecision of terminology used in the ATA, in particular the offence of “facilitating terrorist activities” and its potential implications for charities and persons.

Privacy

Concerns were raised about warrantless electronic surveillance of international communications introduced under ATA and the lack of adequate safeguards over collection, storage and sharing of the data. Participants expressed the view that an erosion of privacy within a free and democratic society could, in the long run, make the Canadian population less secure.

Secrecy

Growing secrecy surrounding national security measures was raised as a major issue of concern, in particular, the increasing reliance on untested intelligence information that becomes a substitute for evidence. In addition, concerns were expressed about cross-border sharing of intelligence information and about action taken on the basis of that intelligence that may have been obtained through torture and has often proven to be inaccurate. These actions are a matter of great concern when liberty is at stake as documented by the Maher Arar Commission of Inquiry. In light of these concerns, the introduction of a provision in Canada’s domestic legislation to clearly prohibit the use in all legal and administrative proceedings of evidence obtained by torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment was proposed by some participants.

  • Concerns were raised also about the use of security certificates under the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) as a form of administrative detention against non-citizens suspected of being a security threat and that, in practice, has led to the detention for years without charge or trial of those subject to the certificates with very limited judicial review.
  • Concerns were expressed about the secrecy of the proceedings (ex parte and in camera) in security certificate cases where evidence is presented only to the judge in the absence of the suspect and his or her counsel who only receive an unclassified summary of those proceedings. 
  • Although almost all individuals subject to security certificates have been released as a result of the Charkaoui decision, strict conditions and limitations have been imposed on them affecting their freedom of movement and their right to privacy. These measures constitute a severe form of punishment for persons who have not been accused or convicted of any crime. Several participants have expressed scepticism about the possible resort to special advocates as used in the United Kingdom as this system also falls short of guaranteeing due process rights.

 Deportation on the basis of diplomatic assurances against torture

  • Serious concerns were raised about increasing reliance upon diplomatic assurances against torture to deport non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorist activities. It was stressed that such deportation constitutes a major departure from the absolute prohibition in international law to send persons to countries where they face a risk of torture or ill-treatment.

This collection of particulars, from government invasion of privacy, to effectively imposing punishment on suspected terrorists without trial, to the use of immigration law as a tool to detain suspected security risks — an abuse of process if there ever was one — garnered exactly two references in the Canadian media, a Canadian Press story subsequently picked up by a Montreal radio station. In contrast, a quick Google News search on the Steyn complaint yields 398 returns. Bloggers in this case did a bit better: three posts referred to it.  The outrage was palpable, except it wasn’t.

Or we can talk about the larger international scandal of detainees in United States custody.  Sami al-Hajj, an Al Jazeera journalist was released from prison four days ago. If you haven’t heard of him, don’t be surprised: the likes of Maclean’s and Mark Steyn –or CBC, CTV, or CanWest Global– aren’t particularly interested in his plight.  He was one of the 275 faceless prisoners still remaining in American custody at Guantanamo Bay.  He was arrested in Pakistan after the Afghan invasion, despite being accredited with Al Jazeera, apparently for the crime of being Muslim, Sudanese, and a journalist all at once. He had obtained an interview with Osama bin Laden and between 1996 and 2000 he transferred money at the behest of his then employer to Islamic charities linked to terrorist activity.  He spent 78 months at Guantanamo as an “enemy combatant.”  No charges were ever laid. He was never tried.  His lawyer was prevented by law from seeing the evidence against him.  He went on a hunger strike, and for the last sixteen months he was force-fed by means of a naso-gastric tube twice daily, a procedure when administered against an unwilling person, is the very definition of torture. When finally released, one imagines a few hushed words of regret, a token offer of compensation, a handshake and the equivalent of a second-hand suit and a bus ticket.  There was none of that. Instead, he was blindfolded, handcuffed and chained to his seat on his flight home.  “In Guantanamo,” he says, “rats are treated with more humanity.” One can believe it.

Sami al Hajj’s treatment at the hands of U.S. authoities is not unusual.  The 275-odd prisoners still confined at Guantanamo are just the beginning.  Reprieve, one of the few organizations which will advocate for “enemy combatants” estimates that 14,000 men are imprisoned in secret American jails, caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare of bureaucratic doublespeak, without legal recourse or even simple hope, and in far worse conditions than Guantanamo. 

Which brings me back to Maclean’s, The National Post and other media organizations which tilt rightward.  How many column inches did the magazine, or any other media outlet in Canada devote to the story of Sami al-Hajj, or to any of the thousands languishing in secret prisons, or even on the concerted attack on civil rights in this country in the past year?  Instead we receive lengthly sermons on the supposed threat to individual liberty posed by those firebrand, authoritarian-minded human rights commissioners  — a danger that in any reasonable analysis is negligable and in any case easily fixed, at least compared to the hysterical morass of anti-terrorist measures. Free speech is integral to civil liberties.  But does anyone seriously think Mark Steyn’s right to free speech and Maclean’s right to publish this speech was ever in jeopardy?  There is a certain gap in credibility, where the rightwing press can mouth pieties about free speech while wilfully ignoring more egregious violations of human rights.  Apparently the rights of well-connected pundits and the corporate media are sacrosanct.  Everyone else can go rot.

One suspects under different circumstances the hue and cry might be different and–let’s say it softly–another agenda might be at work. Fulminations against the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 and the civil rights iniquities of Pierre Trudeau are still regular fodder for pundits even now, twenty-four years after Trudeau left office.  Under the present government, not to mention the Bush Administration, similar abuses of power, and worse, are given a pass.  It should not be forgotten either that human rights commissions have been intensely disliked by conservatives since their inception.  They interfered with property rights, said conservatives, or religious or personal belief , and  they even proposed the hackneyed arguments that more appropriate remedies were to be found in the market place or the civil courts. (Let pass that not so long ago racial and religious discrimination was justifed by Holy Writ, and that the poor and marginalized haven’t the money to buy their way out of discrimination or launch a lawsuit.)  However unjustified the proceedings against Steyn and Maclean’s, their cause has become a vehicle to attack the HRCs in general as inquisitional bodies hellbent on destroying individual liberty, whether the facts bear this interpretation or not. Lastly, can it be that the conservative media has bought the government’s position that the threat of Islamic terrorism is so overwhelming that the safety of all is worth the sacrifice of a few civil liberties and the notion of due process?  Subtext: the story is already done (though the abuses continue,) the debate is over, and who really cares if a few grubby Muslims are caught up in the net.

Complicity with the authoritarian’s eternal cry of safety trumping freedom or even silence becuase one has common cause with the ruling party’s ideology, is a dangerous game for the conservative press.  At best it exposes the rhetoric around freedom of speech for what it is — rubbishy cant.  In the long view, secrecy, arbitrary proceedings, extraordinary renditions and the rest of it are the antithesis of democratic society, for ultimately all of these are the root of corruption of power and the seeds of tyranny, where no accountibility is possible: a no man’s land where predators roam freely.  The contrast with the much-maligned human rights commissions, with their insistance on due process and open proceedings, accompanied by a vigourous debate on their purpose and relevance, could not be greater.  It is a contrast worth pondering.

A Fungus Among Us

For the apocalyptically-minded, another sign the end is near.  According to an article in the New Scientist, forget about cropland being diverted to feed SUVs (anyone want to talk about the morality of that?) Forget about droughts and export bans and food riots, forget about the new middle classes in China and India driving demand.  What we should be worrying about is fungus, black stem wheat rust, Puccinia graminis:

It can reduce a field of ripening grain to a dead, tangled mass, and vast outbreaks regularly used to rip through wheat regions. The last to hit the North American breadbasket, in 1954, wiped out 40 per cent of the crop. In the cold war both the US and the Soviet Union stockpiled stem rust spores as a biological weapon

Wheat rust has been around since humans decided brioche was preferable to grubs as the breakfast food of choice. The problem now: a new variant strain of wheat rust called Ug99 has emerged.  The strain was first identified in Uganda in 1999, and has spread into east Africa.  Fungicides are effective against rust, but are generally unavailable to poor farmers in the developing world, and are even limited in the first world.  Resistant varieties of wheat are being developed, but it may take as long as eight years to be produced in sufficient quantities for seed.  Ironically, agricultural techniques and high yield seed lines developed during the Green Revolution of the 1960s are contributing to the problem: wheat is grown far more densely than in the past, so fungus has a chance to get a foothold in damp, warm conditions.  The potential for an exacerbating food shortage is alarming, especially if it affects large wheat producing countries or places where life depends on a good crop.

The great fear, according to the article, is that wheat rust spores will be blown into central Asia, where wheat varietals are generally not resistant to the disease, and where its alternate host, the barberry (Berberis vulgaris) is native. This last is important, because it is on B. vulgaris and related plants that wheat rust swaps genetic information, producing new variants.  B. vulgaris, it should be added, is widely naturalized in North America.  A crop scientist (unintentionally engaging in humour) comments: “As if it wasn’t challenging enough breeding varieties that resist this thing. All I know is that what blows into Iran will not be the same as what blows out.”  True of many things, not just wheat rust.

Except the wheat rust has in fact been detected in Iran:

A new and virulent wheat fungus, previously found in East Africa and Yemen, has moved to major wheat growing areas in Iran, FAO reported today. The fungus is capable of wreaking havoc to wheat production by destroying entire fields.

Countries east of Iran, like Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, all major wheat producers, are most threatened by the fungus and should be on high alert, FAO said.

It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of all wheat varieties planted in Asia and Africa are susceptible to the wheat stem rust (Puccinia graminis). The spores of wheat rust are mostly carried by wind over long distances and across continents.

“The detection of the wheat rust fungus in Iran is very worrisome,” said Shivaji Pandey, Director of FAO’s Plant Production and Protection Division.

“The fungus is spreading rapidly and could seriously lower wheat production in countries at direct risk. Affected countries and the international community have to ensure that the spread of the disease gets under control in order to reduce the risk to countries that are already hit by high food prices.”

A glass for Robigus, please

I was only being half-facetious in referring to the apocalypse.  The links between wheat rust and religion go back to the dawn of agriculture, when crop disease spelled starvation and pestilence and wheat mysteriously and suddenly withering in the field was a sure indication of divine wrath. Robigus (meaning “mildew” or “wheat rust”) was a Roman god whose propitiation — by tipping a cup of red wine to ground, perhaps, in a conceit of colour or affinity — was necessary to prevent the blight. And long before Mars became a god of war, he concerned himself with fertility and crops, fields and boundary lines. “Neve lue rue, Marmar, sins incorrere in pleores,” cried the ancient Romans, when Rome was a collection of mudbrick huts encircled by a wooden palisade.  Let not blight or ruin attack, O Mars!  It is not a coincidence that March, the time of wheat sowing, was named for Mars. Or think of the dreams of Pharaoh, as interpreted by that likely mensch Joseph: seven heads of thin scorched wheat swallowing up seven full heads.

Maybe a sacrifice to Mars or Robigus might be in order.  Or maybe we should heed Joseph’s advice to Pharaoh, and stockpile for seven years.

A Christian, Persecuted

Several deep threads of irony lace the recent decision of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal against Christian Horizons, a provider of services to people with developmental disorders.  The case involved a Christian lesbian named Connie Heintz, who left her job with this agency, and indeed was harassed out of it. Heintz found herself unable to comply with the agency’s employment contract — containing an explicitly evangelical Christian moral and religious agreement —  which essentially forbade her from engaging in homosexual activity.  Christian Horizons, which views itself as deeply evangelical Christian agency, and its work as an extension of Christian values, attempted to argue that as a religious organization it is exempt from the provisions of the Ontario Human Rights Code. This is despite the fact the agency receives some $75 million in financial aid from the provincial government to operate 180 group homes for 1,500 clients, none of whom (or their families), it might be added, are subjected to a similar moral or religious test. The Tribunal ruled Christian Horizons violated the complainant’s rights and ordered the agency to pay substantial damages as well as implement anti-discrimination policies and procedures. Bottom line: if you’re going to take public money and offer a public service, you need to abide by the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Charter of Rights.  The decision, despite claims of violation of religious freedom, is correct.

Way back in the dark ages, that is, the early ’90s, I knew an extremely personably and bright young Christian woman who worked for Christian Horizons, and who lived in some unholy terror that her employer would discover her lesbian relationship.  Her fear was palpable, and I can imagine the emotional torment the complainant went through.  Like my friend, Connie Heintz grew up in a serious, devout Mennonite household; only after a long struggle could she come to terms with being a lesbian.  She began a relationship.  She was confronted at work, and offered “restorative” therapy to make her “normal”.  And when she refused that a sadly familiar chain of events began, of work evaluations declining from exemplary to poor, and of highly suspect, circumstantial accusations of abusing clients and harassing another employee, before she finally left her employment.  

Reading though the 288 paragraphs (plus addendum) of the Tribunal’s decision one gets the sense of the conflicting rights and values involved, and the care by which the facts are weighed and adjudicated.  Irony seeps out.  Standard — if potentially illegal — human resources techniques of forcing an employee from a job by creating a poisoned work environment and setting up “conditions” for eventual dismissal hardly strike one as Christian, and it is perhaps surprising an organization that so aggressively bills itself as upholding Christian morality would countenance such behaviour, which is essentially deceitful and fraudulent.  There is then the larger inconguity of an organization like Christian Horizons, which according to its own mission statement is run with the admirable view to helping the marginalized, would so persecute a member of another marginalized group, in the name of Christian love.  Heintz’s own professed Christian belief and her ability to reconcile her faith and sexual orientation adds yet another layer of irony. This case boils down a Christian agency harassing a Christian out of her job — for being “insufficiently” Christian.  So much for religious freedom.  True religious liberty requires not only the freedom to practice one’s faith (or not), but toleration for dissent within an individual’s faith tradition.  Evangelical Christians do not speak for all Christians, nor do they hold the lockbox for doctrinal or moral purity.

(Note to Christian Horizons and others wanting to attack the Tribunal for this decision on the basis of religious freedom: the optics really suck on this one.)