Sunday, November 30, 2008

What's in a Week?

All units of time are circular. They repeat themselves endlessly. Day dawns, the morning passes, afternoon passes, the sun sets, night falls and eventually a new day dawns.

The day corresponds to a relationship between the sun and the earth. The year also corresponds to a relationship between the sun and the earth. A new year is born, winter passes, then spring, summer, fall, all follow in sequence.

The “month” loosely corresponds to the relationship between the earth and the moon over a 28 day period. The two words “month” and “moon” obviously are derived from the same word, as is true in almost all other languages.

Tens of thousands of years ago, before the invention of agriculture, all humans lived as hunter gatherers. They told time by the sun, the moon, and the stars. They told tales about things that happened years ago, but they had no concept of a linear system of dating that one could refer to from any point in time. That's a modern invention requiring writing and calendars. Time was circular. People were born, lived and died and new generations grew up to replace them.

A week is a peculiar unit of time that we take for granted but it is not a natural division of time in the same way that a month or year is. Hunter gatherer societies don't really need to divide time into weeks. Their lives are organized around the daily, monthly and seasonal rhythms of nature and the weather.

Dividing a month into quarters and then naming the days probably first occurred with more sophisticated civilizations like the Egyptians and the Babylonians. The length of a week has varied in history from 3 to 8 days. Seven days has always been the most popular, because it divides evenly into a lunar month of 28 days; and because the number 7 corresponds to the seven celestial objects that can be seen by the naked eye: The Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Indeed, in many languages, including English, the days of the week get their names from the seven celestial objects.

The concept of a week is very important in the Hebrew Bible. It's first mentioned in Exodus in one of the Ten Commandments. (Note the connection of the Bible's focus on the week and the backdrop of Egypt here.) In Exodus 31, 16-17 God says: “The Israelites shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Nowadays we work for five days , or even less, but we still like to rest and receive refreshment on the weekend. Building heaven and earth must have been quite a job, even for God, and that's why even God needed that extra day for R and R.

When the Ten Commandments are repeated in the Biblical book of Deuteronomy, instead of citing God's making the world in six days and resting on the seventh, it says in Deuteronomy 5, 12-15: “ ...But the seventh day is the Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work... Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord God brought you out of there...”

It makes sense to me that there are all these connections to work and the week, because the organization of time into working days and resting days has to do with agriculture and urban civilizations where people for the first time were brought together as slaves, servants, or contracted labourers. I find it noteworthy that the author of Deuteronomy uses the idea of liberation from slavery as a justification for the Sabbath. Everybody needs at least one day off in a week, I recommend more. “Let my people go”, as the good book says.

And so it came to pass, that this week was the one week in the year when the Prince Rupert phone book arrives at our doorstep. Now we can figure out which days are garbage days for next year. We can also read about cool outdoor activities and enjoy the local tide table for another year. All units of time are circular. They repeat themselves endlessly.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

God and Gays

I've just read a fascinating book called Biological Exuberance. by Bruce Bagemihl. It's about homosexuality in animals. Many of us have witnessed homosexuality in domestic animals - cats, dogs, sheep, bulls, etc. I had no idea that it was widespread in wild animals. According to Bagemihl, homosexual behaviour has been observed in Mountain Sheep, Mallard Ducks, Ostriches, Lions, Buffaloes, Female Cheetahs, Bottlenosed Dolphins, Grey Whales, Gorillas, Giraffes, female Grizzly bears, Canada Geese, Monarch Butterflys, and the list goes on and on.

I realize that for some readers this will be a topic to avoid at all costs. Homosexuality is morally wrong; It's not natural; It's against God's law; It's just plain disgusting; Etcetera. Obviously it's only a minority of individuals of each of these species that engage in homosexual behaviour, just like with humans. Otherwise there wouldn't be enough progeny to continue the species and it would go extinct. But you may be interested to know that humans are not the only species where same sex pairs adopt and raise youngsters. Female Grizzly Bears sometimes pair up and raise cubs. Pairs of male Black Swans are actually more successful than heterosexual Black Swans, because their combined strength makes them able to build bigger nests, and acquire the largest and best quality territories. Bagemihl says that there are at least twenty species documented in which same sex pairs have successfully raised young.

I've always thought that the most important criterion for the ability to be a parent was to love and care for one's children. In my book, it's better to be raised by loving same sex parents than neglectful or abusive heterosexual parents. But in the recent U.S. elections, people voted in Arkansas to make adoption by same sex parents illegal and voted in California to prohibit same sex marriages.

I used to think that the whole same sex marriage issue was trivial. Why were Fundamentalist Christians making such a big deal about it when there were real issues to contend with, like the loss of biodiversity, global warming, and growing inequality? What difference does it make if homosexuals can or cannot marry? No church is going to be forced to marry same sex couples. The way I see it, this whole thing is a wedge issue, used by the Republican Party in the United States to manipulate Christian believers into supporting and campaigning for their candidates. Karl Rove is an atheist, but he learned how to motivate Fundamentalists to volunteer their time and money to support George W. Bush in two presidential elections.

But after the latest elections in the States a protest movement has sprung up. Gays in California and elsewhere in the U. S. are angry about Proposition 8. They see it as a human rights issue. I admit that this whole issue makes me nervous because the more that it's championed the more vociferous the backlash from Fundamentalists, and the easier it is for right-wing politicians to use it to their advantage by motivating their religious base. Even writing about this topic is risky as I am certain to turn off a number of readers by doing so.

But for what it's worth, I think that the fact that homosexuality is widespread in the animal kingdom, as documented by biologists and other close observers of wild animals, has important theological implications. If the practice is widespread in other species then who's to say it's not natural? One can argue that it's a moral question when it has to do with humans but is it really morally wrong for same sex giraffes, and lions, and butterflies to get it on? And if it's not a moral issue for them why is it a moral issue for humans? Why don't we save morality for behaviour that helps or harms people rather than consensual activities that adults do with each other for their own enjoyment?

And if homosexuality occurs throughout the animal kingdom there must be a reason. Why does God create homosexual animals? I think a lot of people will refuse to accept the evidence in Bagemihl's book because they see homosexuality as a defect. And if it's a defect, how could God be responsible for it? That's why they think that people are not born gay but choose to be that way. Because God couldn't possibly have created them to be that way. But think about it for a minute. Why would anybody choose to be gay? There's no advantage to it. You're virtually guaranteed to be despised and ostracized if people find out. It makes it way harder to have a decent life and raise a family.

I don't remember any time in my life when I chose to be attracted to the opposite sex. It's just the way I've always been. I would think that the same would go for gays. If God created straights to be attracted to the opposite sex then God created gays to be attracted to the same sex. I'm not sure why, but how could it be otherwise? We can't always understand God's creation but that doesn't mean we shouldn't respect it in all it's manifestations.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Rise and Fall of the "Southern Strategy"

In the recent U.S. Presidential election Barak Obama won a majority everywhere in the United States but the South. There, McCain won Southern whites by 38 percentage points. For the first time in 50 years a Democratic Presidential candidate was elected who wasn't from the South.

The fact that Obama was elected President without the American South means the end of the Republican party's forty year old strategy of appealing to a Southern white evangelical base. We saw this in the recent Presidential campaign, where the veiled attacks on Obama, an African American, for being - too different, not a real American, a scary radical – appealed to the Republican base but fell on deaf ears for everyone else. The “Southern strategy” that worked so well to keep the Republican party in power had finally exhausted itself.

The Southern strategy was premised on the South's unique identity: A more rural, less educated, less tolerant, more church going, more racist white population. For almost a hundred years southern whites had voted for the Democratic party because it was the Republican party under Abraham Lincoln that had led the Union to victory against the Confederacy. But in the 1960's Kennedy and Johnson, two successive Democratic Presidents had supported the civil rights movement and enacted civil rights laws that had challenged white supremacy in the South. Because of this association an opportunity arose for the Republican party to get Southern whites to switch their party allegiance.

In 1964, Arizona senator Barry Goldwater campaigned against the civil rights act. He wasn't a racist, he was a libertarian who believed that individual businesses had the right to do business with whomever they chose. But he campaigned for “States Rights” which was a kind of shorthand in the South for continuing the policy of segregation between whites and blacks.

Goldwater lost in 1964 but he carried the South. In 1968 Richard Nixon won the election on the campaign of State's rights and law and order. Nixon was able to appear moderate to most Americans because his campaign referred to integration obliquely through State's rights and busing. Nixon won again in 1972. In 1980 Ronald Reagan started his campaign by giving a speech supporting states rights in Philadelphia, Mississipi, a town who's one claim to fame was the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in 1964. Reagan was not racist himself, what he did was to promote policies that targeted blacks, but without mentioning race.

The South has the highest concentration of white evangelical Christians of any region in the United States. Except for the Quakers, who were driven out of the South, Southern Christians actively supported slavery in the nineteenth century and white supremacy in the twentieth , often citing verses from the Bible in support of their racist views. The US government enforcing school integration coincides with the start of the association between Christian Fundamentalists and the Republican party. The perennial Republican themes of small government and "getting the government off our backs" was seen as code to Southerners for an agenda supportive of segregationism.

Since Reagan, Fundamentalist Christians have been used by the Republican party as dedicated party workers who were key to getting out the vote. Clever operatives like Karl Rove have used hot button issues like abortion, and homosexuality to motivate evangelicals to do the basic footwork for their campaigns. Because Southern Evangelical Christians have such deep abiding prejudices they were especially vulnerable to being manipulated by the Republicans.

Paul Krugman, New York Times Columnist and Noble Prize winner sums it up nicely: “The Republicans above all are concerned with making America safe for the rich. Right wing economic ideology has never been a vote winner. Instead the party's electoral strategy depended largely on exploiting racial fear and animosity. The religious right supplied the passion and the economic right supplied the money.”

A leader like Barak Obama is a great leader precisely because he rises above sectarianism. He seeks that which ties us together, that which we have in common. When we build societies together we benefit from a multiplicity of beliefs and viewpoints. Focusing on what separates us and on emotional dividing lines is ultimately destructive to society. America is changing. A growing Spanish-speaking sector in California and the South-West is making even a covert appeal to racism a non-starter. The Southern strategy has seen it's heyday and the Republican party is about to pay the price for promoting hatred and intolerance.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Value of Democracy is in Getting Involved

Yesterday evening my wife and I went to the municipal all-candidates meeting at Chances. I've been living in Prince Rupert for almost sixteen years and each time that there is a municipal election seems more important and more interesting then the last. It's only in the last two years that I've actually attended any city council meetings and I've been pleasantly surprised to see democracy in action in every one of them.

I've lived in Vancouver and Montreal – two big cities where you could never get the access to city council that you can here. There is something to be said for a place the size of Prince Rupert. It's possible to get acquainted with the mayor and city council members. There isn't a huge distance between them and the public the way there is in the big city.

Sunday's all-candidates meeting was fun. I've been so wired to the U.S. Presidential election and the Canadian Federal election that I'd lost touch with what it feels like to be undecided. Not anymore. There are two mayoralty candidates, both former one term mayors of Prince Rupert. Judging from their words, either one would make a good mayor.

There were the five incumbent city councillors and ten wannabees. They all got to have their say and I thought it gave a pretty good sense of where each of them stood on the issues. If you didn't get a chance to go to either of the two all-candidates meetings you can still listen to this last one on Channel 10, at 5 PM and 8Pm as I recall. Or visit and check out who is running for what. Then google the candidates to look at their web pages.

Unlike our federal and provincial and the U.S. Presidential elections ideology and negative campaigning don't really come into the picture. All the candidates came across as practical and pragmatic and that's a relief. Most seemed aware of the financial and employment problems that we face here, most had good ideas for solutions and most saw the importance of having a well-thought-out vision for the future of our town.

Of all the new faces I was most impressed by the bus driver. Now there's a great occupation to have as a city councillor. He's bound to get an earful from a good cross-section of citizens every day. I liked the way that he suggested, more than once, that more people should take the bus. He's right and everybody knows it. You can save money and make this a greener city by taking the bus. He's got my vote.

I hope the turnout is good. The turnout for the recent Canadian election was terrible. On the other hand, the turnout for the American election was the best it's been since the 1960's. That's because Americans are so motivated to avoid a repeat of the last eight years and so inspired by the promise of Barak Obama.

Democracy is a treasure that we've built up over the years. In my opinion a treasure is only valuable when it gets shared. If you horde it it becomes meaningless, it loses its value. When we vote, when we attend city council meetings, when we petition city council, when we run for council, and when we write letters to the editor we are making democracy more valuable. The more people get involved the richer we all are. So get out and vote this Saturday and make a difference to the future of this fair city.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Obama's Election Heralds The End Of An Era

By the time most of you are reading this Barak Obama will be the first African-American President of the United States. Elected on a campaign of change, he appealed to American voters, tired of the divisive tactics and incompetent government of the Bush Republican White House.

Ironically, by abandoning international cooperation, waging preemptive war, and legalizing torture Bush and Cheney have seriously weakened American power. President Obama, who so clearly represents the positive aspects of the American Dream has the potential to reverse the decline in American prestige and power because the very fact of his election has resurrected that dream in the minds of people from around the world.

Over the month of October the world has witnessed the biggest financial catastrophe since the Great Depression. In the space of one month, hundreds of billions of dollars has been flushed away by panic and the loss of trust on a truly global scale.

Even Alan Greenspan, a devoted follower of ultra-free market philosopher Ayn Rand, who resisted calls to regulate sub-prime mortgages when he was chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve, has finally admitted that his free market ideology was mistaken. Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, Greenspan said: “Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity, myself included, are in a state of shocked disbelief...”

For years the Republican party platform of “limited government” and privatization has led to the use of government institutions for the benefit of wealthy corporations like Haliburton, Exxon, and Blackwater. The American middle class has had it's income stagnate, while the top 1% has grown immensely richer. Meanwhile fraud and abuse of taxpayer's money has reached epidemic proportions. For the entire eight years of the Bush Administration the government has not served the public interest.

During the last months of the presidential campaign much was made by the Mcain Palin team of Obama's “redistributionist” philosophy. Supposedly, the fact that Obama wants to raise taxes for the hyper-rich, means that he is a socialist. The irony here is that it has been previous U.S. Administrations' abandoning government regulation that has led to the redistribution of wealth from ordinary Americans to Wall Street CEO's.

It should be apparent to anyone today that a country cannot prosper if its government abandons economic and environmental regulation. We've seen how people have no compunction about putting the entire financial system at risk if it means they can enrich themselves by doing so. And this year we've witnessed the spectre of thousands of infants in China being put on life-support because a few unscrupulous merchants increased their profit margins by spiking milk with melamine.

Now who wants to buy food from China? Chinese dairy farmers and milk producers are pouring millions of gallons of milk down the drain and suffering severe financial losses because of the Chinese government's failure to regulate it's own food industry. Americans: Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan, Phil Gramm, and Milton Friedman all believed that capitalists pursuing their own self-interest would somehow magically lead to the best of all possible worlds. And they've been proven wrong by recent events.

Our rights to health care, public education, clean air and water, and old age security should be universally accessible to all. The unregulated market is incapable of providing universal access to these public goods. Nor is it capable of eliminating public “bads”, like pollution and global warming by itself.

A new era is dawning. With Barak Obama, The United States now has a President who is not encumbered by free-market ideology. President Obama can now work to implement universal health care, lead the way in fighting global warming, and, with the help of other world leaders, put the global financial system back in working order.