Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Can We Speak to Each Other? Who Can, Should, Is ... Able to Speak on Public Issues

The recent controversy over BLM-TO and Pride raised an issue about the character and scope of political action and who can, and should, speak to certain issues, particularly as they take racialized or gendered or class, etc., forms. There is one school of thought which suggests that only those who come from that background -- be it its racialized markers, gender, orientation, etc., -- can speak to those issue. Class tends to get a bit lost in this discussion for reasons that are, to me, both deeply telling and intensely problematic, but that might be a subject for another day.

The first thing we should note is that this issue -- who can speak? -- is, in fact, not new. I don't know when it first surfaced but I've been listening to it, engaging it, disagreeing with it, supporting it, since I was an undergraduate. So, we are talking about at least the late 1980s as a starting point. What is interesting to me is that in that time -- a span of a generation -- we have not really advanced in our discussion. There are people who still say "person X cannot speak to issue X" and people who quickly, then, accuse the first person of censorship or bigotry or something like that. This is, in other words, not an issue that becomes politicized but an issue that is always already political because it deals with questions of power, marginalization, identity, respect, equality, and the like. The fact that we have been discussing this issue without resolution for such a length of time suggests that it is either (a) an intractable problem (which I don't think) or (b) that we have not made the level of social progress we might like in addressing issues of marginalization and inequality in society (which is what I think).

This leads to the first thing that we should learn about this discussion: there is a need to listen as well as speak. Some people -- say, BLM-TO -- are saying things. They are saying that they face inequality, marginalization, disrespect, and institutionalized and personalized violence. For those of us who do not fall into the identity/subject position that they represent, one thing we might do, rather than ask if we, too, can now speak ... is to listen. After all, if Canada with its systemic inequalities and power relations has failed to resolve this issue up to now ... maybe some new voices can indeed offer some hope for the future.

The second thing is that after listening, those of us who are not part of the group speaking (be it LGBTQ, gendered, racialized, etc.), should look to find way of supporting movements for equality if we truly support equality. I find it rather odd that there are those who claim to support equality but who quickly say "I can't support X or Y because I believe in equality for everyone." This is a bit of a linguistic trick that really has nothing to do with equality. It is, in fact, a way of avoiding supporting a movement for equality. It is a way of saying that Black or gay activists or women are not actually interested in equality, or linguistically marginalizing them and treating them a group that has some sort of nefarious agenda. If one were interested in inequality and addressing it, one would support  those movements that address that problem. If you're not interested ... you won't. Is it is as simple as that ... maybe not ...  but it is also not a lot more complicated.

Support, in the case of these groups, takes a variety of forms. Many groups are looking for people to be allies as opposed to leaders. They generate their own leaders, their own ideology, their own politics and don't need advise or direction from those outside the group. One need not even go to the protests and as long as one does not oppose the movement, one avoids becoming part of the problem. There may, too, be things that people can do in their own lives, whether it is making space in class (say, using my job as an example) to discuss issues or raising uncomfortable questions at work.

I make these points because I think people are often too quick to demand that their voice needs to be heard as part of a movement that does not really involve them. They complain that Black activists are silencing *them* or that feminists aren't listening to *them.* I am arguing that they can speak to these issues (and others) but that they should do so with caution and only after they have tried other things, like listening or not contributing to the problems that these groups mean to address.  Said differently, a desire to join in the discussion and start telling activists what they should be doing or how they should modify their demands or politics is a premature step. Other steps should be taken first.

With this in mind ... can someone speak to issues or politics or problems that stand outside their identity group? The short answer is yes. Why? There are, as far as I can tell, a three reasons.

First, because communication is a powerful tool to share ideas, feelings, politics, activism, etc. Said differently, I -- Andrew Nurse -- as a white middle-aged middle class straight man simply do not share the experiences of others as part of my identity. This should be acknowledged. But, we can talk about issues with those people who do have those experiences, read their words, listen to what they have to say. We do not have to share experiences as the only way of knowing about an issue.  If we pause and think about it, we can see that this is true. Communication allows us to know about more than our own experiences. We often relate stories that happened to other people about which we find out by talking to them. We can convey their emotional state (how they felt), the facts of the matter (what happened to them). We convey information to others that we learnt from reading (say, about the past) or from social or other media. Said differently, we communicate every day and in the process of communication we learn from the experiences of others.

Most political movements, in fact, count on this communicative active as a means to meet their goals, whether they articulate this perspective or not. Again, pause. If I -- as Andrew Nurse -- could never understand what it meant to suffer discrimination or violence as a gay or Black Canadian ... then, why would I ever sign on to support their agenda? If I knew only my own experiences, then there would be no reason for protests, for social media, for signs, for books or songs, etc. If political movements are interested in change, they are interested in communicating to people outside their own movement and group. Thus, far from doing something unusual, speaking to an issue with which one might have limited or no direct experience is, in fact, something that we do all the time. There can be problems; there can be confusions, but it is not an odd or unusual thing.

Second, while we need to recognize that some people may indeed have problems speaking to an issue -- that they might need to look things up or listen -- we also want to be careful about limiting who can speak to an issue because it sets a precedent that people might not want to set. What if, people could only speak to issues with which they had direct personal experience? That might work if we think on a broad level. I, Andrew Nurse, could speak to middle-class, white, straight, anglophone, able bodied, etc., issues but not others. But ... could I really speak to those issues that seem to be consistent with my identity? I am, for instance, a Christian. Can I speak to an issue of a middle-class, white, straight, anglophone, able bodied atheist? Some of my friends who are atheists don't think so. Can I speak to issues of people who are white, straight but in different social classes? Or people who have different family structures?

And, can other people speak to my issues? For instance, can someone who is Black or gay or a woman speak about issues in my life? Said differently, identities are fundamental, important, and political but they are complicated and overlapping. We have some identities at some points in time but not at others. Sometimes, for instance, I am a father; at others, a son. The assumption that person X cannot speak to issue Y assumes (a) that they cannot transcend their lack of experience through communication and (b) that their identity as X stable and encompassing. If, however, we take (b) to its extreme, what we discover is that people can, in fact, speak only about themselves because there is no one else who fully shares your personal and individual identity. I might be white but I don't live in Ontario, have a gay uncle, been unemployed recently, or any myriad of a number of different factors that can and do affect my identity.

(As a digression: this is particularly true and important for historical study. No one, to the best of my knowledge, makes this argument any more, but back in the day there were those who argued that, say, white scholars could not speak to the historical experience of Blacks of Original Peoples or men write about women, etc. You can, I am sure, see the immediate flaw in this argument. It is twofold: (a) one could write history only about one's own group and thus the elite white men who wrote only about elite white men were, in fact, doing nothing wrong by ignoring the rest of humanity since they could not speak about them in the first place and (b) it assumed that experiences -- as the basis of knowledge -- are consistent over time. Thus, a person living in the eighteenth century had a great deal in common -- so this argument necessarily assumed -- with someone of, say, the same colour living in the twentieth or twenty-first century. This is a problematic assumption. People might be marginalized or suffer violence [and my point is not to minimize the violence and repression of the past or the present] but no one living today experienced the Irish potato famine at first hand or the highland clearances, to be just a couple of examples. Thus, if no one has these experiences ... no one can speak to them. This, then, became the irony. An argument -- only X can speak to Y -- when transposed onto the past because an argument that, in effect, said "no one can speak to this history." It became an argument for historical silence and that is clearly not what was wanted.)

Finally, I might not -- do not -- share the experiences of Black Canadians but I might  be able to contribute to resolving the problems that affect Black Canadians and do we want to stop that possible contribution. To be sure, I don't solve the problems in the manner of the movie where the white male protagonist solves the problems for Natives for Blacks or women becoming  a supposed "hero" in the process. But, if we can create multi-vocal dialogues about the problems that affect our society ... then, my view is, we have a better chance of building that multi-vocal society that seems to be the goal of much current protest. Said differently, there is, in my view, a benefit in people talking to each other.

To conclude: I am not arguing that any time an activist raises concerns about voice that they are doing something wrong. I think they are not. I think that those people who are quick to call activists bigots because of their concerns about voice should pause and think about their own perspectives. Have they stopped and listened to what activists or marginalized groups have said? Do they have anything to contribute to equality by speaking or would a different role be better and more useful? Do they simply assume that they have a right to speak to any and all issues and ... when did they start believing that? And, are they speaking honestly and in good faith? Do they really want to contribute to addressing the problem or do they, say, just like being a leader or a speaker?

Marginalized groups have had their voices quieted for too long. It would be a shame if, upon reclaiming them, their speech was challenged by those who would deny their concerns.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Being Nice to Bigots? Or, I'm almost fed up with this ...

I read another bigoted post on Facebook recently and I know that I should not take these things too seriously but ... well ... I do in the sense that I think they contribute to a culture of prejudice. At the least, they reinforce the views of those who are already prejudiced and this reminds me of friends and relatives of mine who have the same type of bigoted views. The question I have is: what to do about it? For a long time I ignored it ... well, that might be a bit of an exaggeration.  There were always posts that set me off to which I had to reply. And, I won't claim to be a long time aficionado of Facebook. But, in the time that I have been -- and, elsewhere in life -- I tended to ignore bigotry perhaps because it was upsetting or perhaps because I just thought it would go away. It didn't. And, this is one of the things that as I reflect on my job, my age, and what I used to think that confuses and upsets me. When I was the age of my students now, I used to assume -- as did many of my friends -- that bigotry was on the way out, in all its forms. Surely, we thought, even bigots recognize this and they are becoming a smaller and more vocal and idiotic-sounding group of racists whose only supporters were skinheads and KKK wannabes. To be clear, no one expected racism or sexism or homophobia to disappear right away but we had a sense that those of us who supported equality, who supported compassion, who supported kindness and progress were on the right side of history.

Current debates over refugees in Canada highlight the degree to which we judged incorrectly. I take a great deal of heart from the fact that overly bigoted people are a minority of the Canadian population. The vast majority of Canadians -- and the vast majority of people about whom I care and for whom I respect -- have risen to the challenge of helping people who need help; who recognize what it means to flee from ISIS or famine or militarized extremism in an unfortunately diverse range of forms.

But, I still can't shake the deep feelings of disquiet that haunt me when I read posts by people I know or even don't know who recycle sad clichés and try to pretend that they are not bigots all the while talking bigotry. The other day, for instance, I read a post reposted by a friend, a person who is a member of the same church I attend and who would self-identify as a Christian. This person frequently asks for prayer support and help because ... well ... she needs it owing to her current life circumstances. Fair enough. That is what she should do. I would do the same thing in her situation. But, she will also periodically posts bigoted and inaccurate statements, urging our support for prejudiced views. For instance, a couple of weeks ago she re-posted a complaint against Muslims not wearing motorcycle helmets while all good Canadians did. The post included a picture that showed supposed Muslims flaunting the law, riding what appeared to be ATVs, with long beards flowing. Her accompanying text complained that hard working Christians built this country and they were being treated as second class citizens (because these supposed Muslims could here be seen flaunting the law).

You know the story and you don't need my discourse analysis to highlight words like "hard working" attached to Christians but not others and the implications of that link. But, the image that was posted was all wrong. It showed Sikhs not Muslims at a parade, shriner-like. In other words, what looked like a service club having fun at a parade was politicized into an anti-immigrant statement. (I would, btw, strongly advise anyone to wear a helmet when driving a motorcycle).

This is just plain wrong. It is wrong because it is uncharitable; it is wrong because it is inaccurate; it is wrong because it asks us to think about groups of people and make judgements about them based on their heritage and not who they are as people.  It is wrong because it treats civic spirit as a crime and it is wrong because it distorts history and tells at best half truths ... .

Over the years, I've tried to approach these types of things in the way I have thought best: with reason and evidence. Years ago, I was chatting with another father on soccer pitch. He found out what I did for a living and began -- as people are often wont to do -- to tell me my job. He explained that when I taught about Canadian heritage I had to treat things in context (OK, yes), for instance, no one back in the day thought deporting Acadians was wrong and so we should not teach that it was wrong. I thought about this for a second and asked him "don't you think the Acadians thought this was wrong?"

My question was pointed but asked in an even voice and designed to highlight (a) that context is complicated; it is rarely a simple thing and depends on the perspectives of those who experienced that history (b) that he was violating his own rules by not taking account of context. I did not pause to call him a bigot or belittle his lack of knowledge of the Deportation. I tried to intimate that good relations between different communities could, in fact, be build on accuracy about history and that we should not excuse tragedy.

My question then, as often now, fell on deaf ears. Rather than continue the discussion, the other father walked away from me. And, I hate to say it, that is more often than not the response I get from people when I use the even keeled reason and evidence approach.

I get it. I am often not talking to the person to whom I am actually speaking but setting a model of reasoned engagement in public issues for others to follow and from which others can learn. But, I will also confess that I am getting tired of the barrage of racism and bigotry and if I am tired of it, how much more tired must be the people who actually experience this bigotry and racism?

What should we say to those people who do not want to help children fleeing sex slavery? Or, who don't want to see hospitals rebuilt because there might possibly be some sort of use to someone who does something wrong? Or, who feels that the reality of poverty in Canada means that Canadians should not help someone fleeing for their lives?

I ask these questions because they expose what I think was the fallacy of my old reasoning. I used to believe -- back in the day -- that reason would win out because the bigots and racists and sexists of the world simply did not understand the issue. At heart, I believed, they were good people who were misguided. Once they discovered that they had made a mistake, they would behave like I behave when I discovered that I made a mistake. They would correct it. They would be generous, support equality, not want to see innocent people hurt.

Was I wrong about that? I don't think so but the evidence is mounting. Every day I read posts from people -- including people who are Christian friends -- who ignore the tragedies of others' lives, who don't want to see Canada reach out to help and play a constructive role in world affairs, who ignore sexual slavery and torture as they complain about refugees who they treat as a bunch of slackers riding off the Canadian welfare state. They -- safe in their homes -- claim they are the aggrieved party -- the person to whom something wrong has been done -- and not the child about to die; not the man about be beheaded; not the woman about to be sold.

Perhaps, indeed, these people have grievances. Perhaps we should talk about their problems. But, we have that luxury. We can talk about their problems tomorrow. For the refugees that they stop at our borders ... the matter is somewhat more pressing. For the kid in Gaza who will die without medical treatment, the issue is someone more grave.

I don't agree with what she says but I almost  ... almost ... get why Rona Ambrose stands up in the House of Commons and distorts the truth. I'd urge her not to, if she cared about my views. I'd tell her that she could and should be a principled conservative who did not have to pretend that there were no implications to not providing medical aid in Gaza. I'd tell he that she did not have say that Israeli lives mattered but we can ignore Palestinians. She could play a leadership role in building a better and different type of conservatism in Canada and that she did not need to pander to the basest voices in our society. She could be better than this. I almost get it. She is trying to get votes and those votes don't come easy because she is selling a product, as it were and using a metaphor, that most Canadians don't want to buy. And, this is why she plays the politics of distortion.  I almost get it, even as I hope she'd be better and more responsible and more humane.

But, I don't get why others hold these views. What is so threatening about refugees who want to live? About women who want to be something other than abused? About religious minorities that want to practice their religion without fear of beheading?

What is most disturbing, of course, is the realization that there are people out there who simply do not care about others. Ambrose is playing a role for her own reasons, so we can leave her to one side, but what about those people who actually believe these things? When did they lose -- did they ever have? -- their sense of human decency, of kindness, or compassion? When did they start to argue that kindness and compassion were bad?

Racism is back and it is back with a vengeance. It has been broken free from the bounds of simple human decency to make the other not someone worth caring about. It is an ideological trajectory that runs, in my view, disturbingly close to fascism.

I have decided that I will be polite in most circumstances in response but I have also decided that people need to be "called" on their views. If a Christian friend of mine posts a bigoted statement I will say "this is not Christian". If a non-Christian friend or relative does the same thing, I will say "you are wrong" and in cases where people are being racist idiots ... I feel compelled to say "you are being a racist idiot." I am not at all certain that racists and bigots of all sorts should be let off the hook. I suspect, in fact, that bigots count on the reasonableness and proper behaviour of the rest of us. They assume that they will not be called on their points (or, if they are, they can dismiss us with their ready answer of "oh, you're a liberal" -- another thing that happened to me). If someone is making a stupid point ... should we be polite in response?

Likely yes and the model of those who suffer directly from bigotry but continue to make polite responses, continue to argue in reason, continue to try to animate the better nature of others, stands as a model. For me, however, every once in awhile, I think it is necessary to call things for what they are.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

BLM-To and Pride: Thoughts

Matt Hayday has already said much of what I could say regarding the BLM-TO protest at Pride and its demands. His post is here:

http://pamplemoose.blogspot.ca/2016/07/of-police-protest-and-pride_4.html

I should, of course, that there are things that I can't say. I can't say I'm gay. I can't say I've ever come out. I can't say I'm in my 30s. I can say I've led a privileged life and I'd like to believe that I recognize that privilege but ... of course ... so what? Stating that one recognizes one's privilege is pretty easy.

I should also say that I don't post on Black Lives Matter (BLM) and perhaps should. My reasons are not a lack of interest or a failure to support their aims. They are dealing with an issue of the highest importance. I've rejected (in exchange with other people) the idea that BLM is doing something wrong because, as one of its critics said "all lives matter". And, I rejected this idea because it entirely missed the point of BLM. Of course all lives matter. Who said they didn't (and don't give me some anecdotal heat of the moment tweet to tell me differently)? The sad and unfortunate truth is that some people's lives matter more than others in the societies in which we live. There are lines of inequality that product horrible consequences and I've tried to point those out over and over and over again.

I have tended to avoid commenting on BLM, then, not because I think they are "on the wrong page" but because their goals seemed so straightforwardly self evident to me ... that the only thing I could do is say "yes, I agree." I had, in other words, little to offer that would have been constructive in this blog that could not also have been addressed in a tweet. And, for me at least, that is not a good enough reason to write a blog.

The recent issues with regard to Pride and BLM-TO's request that police not be allowed to march or participate is something I don't like. Now, someone, rightly, might say "so what. Andrew, you're a straight white middle-class guy. What have you got to say to this issue?"

That is a good question and it is fair to ask. IOW, if someone were to ask it, they would be doing nothing wrong. And, they would be right in their characterization of me. Some people might even say "you have no right to speak to this issue" ... and they would have a point to which others should listen. I'd ultimately disagree with them (and, perhaps, sometime I should explain why). Some of my disagreement ultimately comes down to the type of society in which we want to live, how we conceptualize identity, and what we think about our abilities to communicate with others and speak into their lives. Said differently, it is not a discussion that we can have quickly as a preface to this blog. I'll ask you to take what I said on faith, then, allowing that there is an argument on which it is based.

Finally, I might also say that I am aware that BLM-TO has been roundly criticized for their actions in Pride and for their platform already. I don't mean to pile on and I don't think we need to be pretty worried about the politics of that criticism. It is a way to marginalize BLM-TO's demands and legitimate concerns. It is a way to avoid talking about the reason that the movement exists in the first place. Those are the important issues and the ones that should not be lost sight of.

This said, I like police participation in Pride for many of the same reasons Matthew Hayday does. It signifies some sort of historical change. There is no doubt that the police were a mechanism of regulation that marginalized and harmed LGBTQ people. This is not old history. Its recent and that, too, is one of Hayday's points. When I see police involved in Pride, when I see them openly supporting LGBTQ citizens, I think of the conservative politicians in Steinbeck who ran for cover rather than participating in a local pride parade.

In other words, I think that those police officers had a choice. They chose to be in Pride; they chose to support LGBTQ equality, and they chose to make that support visible and manifest, knowing that there are other people who do not support equality and who were quite happy with the repressions of the past.

Having the police participate in pride says a number of things but one of the things it  says is that even the most bigoted institutions can change. To cast aspersions over anyone who happens to be a police officer is to generalize about their lives on the basis of a lack of knowledge of it. Like Hayday, I, too, have students who became police officers. They were good people, aghast at repression and marginalization who were trying to do the right thing and trying to protect citizens equally. I don't think they should be rejected because other people -- perhaps even acting in their name -- were repressive and violent. I think we should take pride in the distance Canada has traveled and in the visibility of the symbols that mark that distance.

Does this mean that BLM-TO is wrong to protest or in their platform or demands?  ... I'd be really reluctant to say that. In place of that kind of binary and easily politicized statement -- a statement that we don't need politicized -- I'll step back and just urge what BLM-TO and Pride both want: discussion. Pride has become something different over the years. For anyone who wants to doubt its current political importance, however, think of Steinbeck.  It has become a very public celebration and a broad range of different voices are now looking to contribute to its politics and its celebration. That is, in my view, both inevitable and good. There are important intersections of racialization, repression, marginalization and orientation that can and should be articulated  and in the process ... not everyone is going to agree. That is the character and nature of democracy and both Pride and BLM-TO strike me as concerned with nothing less than democracy.

But, I also feel that the celebration itself -- its upbeat, diversity and inclusiveness -- is important in itself.  I am not certain we should stop and say this group or that group cannot participate because of who they are or because of what they represent. To say that would be to say that there can be no change; that we are frozen in time. And, if that were the case ... well ... we wouldn't have Pride.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Trinity Western, Religious Education and Equality Rights

There will be those who settle easily on one side or the other of the Trinity Western (TWU) law school issue. As it stands right now, TWU law school grads cannot be certified to practice in Ontario, BC, or Nova Scotia. Although there are various conflicting court rulings on this matter, the Ontario Courts recently ruled against TWU. You can find the story: here. (If you have not been following this issue, TWU is a BC Christian university that has a faith test, as it were, for admission or employment. In effect, one has to promise that one is either straight or  celibate; and not having sex if one is not married. Some provinces have refused to accredit TWU grad on the grounds that the university discriminates against LGBTQ.)

The question is: should the court have ruled in this way? Ontario is the big lawyer prize, after all. I think TWU would view it as a problem if BC and NS were not on side and would continue to press for accreditation but Ontario, well, that is a big hunk of the market since TWU seems uninterested in Quebec. The other provinces have agreed to accreditation, although the matter is far from settled in some provinces and I expect this story will not end until the Supreme Court decides whether or not it will hear the case and, if it does, until there is a verdict.

The easy answers come from simplifying the issue. Those who support TWU argue that they are just an educational option -- something similar to Crandall with a law school -- and that freedom of religion (which is actually freedom of conscience) protects their students. Hence, even if TWU has some strict rules that intrude on people's personal lives (something other universities do not) and which, de facto and I believe intentionally, discriminate against LGBTQ people ... well, that is, say its proponents, just a matter of worship in which the state should not be involved.

Hold it, say TWU's opponents. Religiously based schooling is problematic precisely because it is discriminatory. Look at what has been going on in the US where the evangelical offensive has limited equality rights and promoted some odd sets of views that seem to say it is OK to discriminate against people as long as you do it for religious reasons. Do we really want that in Canada? Moreover, should a lawyer -- a member of the bar -- sworn to uphold the Constitution and the Charter actually be in a position where they support a law school that denies Charter rights? Is that not a bit too much to swallow?

One of the bigger issue is one I touched on some time ago: how do Christians make a place for themselves in a late modern pluralistic society where their views can no longer be taken for granted and where they, themselves, cannot influence public policy the way they used to? This is not an issue that would have been an issue, say, 50 years ago simply because every university would have accepted -- at least discursively -- the place where TWU now stands. What does that place look like? I tried to suggest that one approach Christians had taken was to create parallel institutions and then try to claim that their institutions allowed them full participation in society writ large. Thus, their schools -- even if they discriminate -- should be taken as the same as any other school. I'm not sold on this as a prescription, but it is one approach that Christians have taken.

I suspect that TWU has a long road to hoe on this one. Why? Well, because TWU is -- without recognizing it -- playing with fire. They are so convinced that this issue is about them versus secular society and efforts on the part of someone in secular society to deny them equal rights that they are missing the bigger picture. I'll argue below that the Supreme Court needs to take that bigger picture into consideration if it gives leave to TWU to hear this case. In fact, it is the Supreme Courts job to look at the bigger picture.

On the other hand, I can't agree with those who dismiss TWU out of hand either. TWU is doing nothing wrong by using the legal channels to advise its case. We might disagree with them -- I have some serious problems with discrimination as I suspect most of the people reading this blog do -- but citizens have the right to use the courts and to advance any argument they so choose. Rosa Luxembourg once said that freedom is freedom for the other. That is, the test of our commitment to democracy was not our insistence on the exercise of our rights but our willingness to ensure and protect other people's rights. Thus, if we are interested in rights, we need to think about our willingness to defend the rights of others with whom we disagree ... and perhaps passionately. I have limits (and I've spelt these out before and so I won't again) but the TWU folks and their advocates have obeyed the law and attempted to make their case in a reasoned and legal way that is -- they at least allege -- consistent with the Charter. We cannot, then, fault TWU for doing what we expect citizens to do in a mature democracy: use peaceful, legal, reasoned and constitutional means to voice decent in an effort to get change in specific laws.

(Nor do I think that this one case will transform Canada into Alabama or even Indiana. The political culture, electoral system, etc., is so different that we Canadians are not about to run into the problems with the denial of rights that has occurred in some states in the US.)

This said, the other bigger issue is likely the one that most people want to talk about: should TWU be accredited? The answer to this question is complicated by three factors:

1. A denial of accreditation affects graduates and not necessarily the law the school and the people who run it. Accrediting the school means allowing graduates to practice law in that province. This is important to note because we do not necessarily know what those graduates themselves think.  Safeguards could be put in place to ensure that our legal profession in each province does indeed support the Charter. Private firms have the right to hire who they will and they would be completely -- as far as I can tell -- at liberty to say to a prospective hire "look, we need to know that you support the Constitution and the Charter and that means that you must be committed to equality. We hire women, we hire straights and gays, we hire on merit, not on faith. If we are going to hire you, we need to know that you are on board with that. Are you? You will not use your position here to place this law firm in the awkward position of standing outside the law."

Private firms can ask that because they are spending their money. They are not refusing to hire anyone on the basis sex or faith or anything. Instead, they are making a commitment to the Constitution a condition of employment. And, to be honest, if I ran a law firm, I'd want to know that my co-workers were committed to the law that they are supposed to be upholding and sustaining (all lawyers must agree to uphold the law in order to practice).

Said differently, I am not 100% sure that we should judge the lawyer by the school from which he or she came. I've said this before but it goes double for law schools ... we don't know why some people chose particular schools and we don't know their views. I go to a church that has made a strong commitment to ensuring that religious education gets the same funding as the public system. If you've read my blog, you know that I'm far more ambiguous on that issue and I don't want to be judged by what others in my church say, particularly when I disagree with them. So, before we scratch TWU off the list -- and we might end up doing that anyway -- we should pause and think that we might be scratching people off the list who actually share our views. Is that a good thing to do?

The state can make the same qualifications requirements of the job, but more so. My wife works in the NS Public Prosecution Services and they have an even higher burden to maintain the law than those in private practice. They cannot reject the Constitution because they are the ones who are supposed to uphold it. Thus, the state can say to prospective new lawyers: look, you have to uphold the Constitution and that means that you will have to defend equality for gay people and -- potentially -- argue against funding for religious institutions like the one from which you graduated or you might have to take the same side as gay and lesbian plaintiffs against discriminatory religious institution (FYI, I don't believe this is going to happen but follow the argument). Can you do this? Said in other words: the state is more than at liberty to say "we're in the Charter enforcing business and we can only hire lawyers who are in that business. We are the state. We have to treat everyone equally and personal religious perspectives are not good enough to opt out of that obligation."

2. The second thing that we need to bear in mind here as a complicating factor is that, unlike Crandall, TWU's faith-based requirements really might impose some level of material harm on LGBTQ people. There are, by design, only a limited number of law school positions in Canada. If a certain percentage of those are not accessible to LGBTQ people and only accessible to those who mirror the faith-based criteria of TWU ... then, we do have a more substantial problem than a small primarily undergrad institution like Crandall, where substitutes are readily available.  In effect, Christians are saying that a percentage of the legal profession will be de facto reserved for them and will, de facto, exclude LGBTQ people.

Since, as I have explained previously in this blog, the law in Canada must work in a way that promotes equal benefits (and I explained why previously), this is something more than a minor issue. In effect, to accept TWU's claim is not simply to allow freedom of conscience, it is to allow a situation where there is *not* equal benefit of the law. Christians are not prohibited from applying any law school in Canada. They are not required to abrogate their faith to attend those schools or to enter into social or marital or sexual arrangements which contravene their faith. They may -- for their own reasons -- prefer to attend TWU but those are personal reasons, not legal ones. The fact is this: neither Dal nor UNB nor any other law school has an admission requirement that prohibits admission to straight Christians (the TWU market). Thus, we have discrimination one way but not the other.

What I am trying to say is this: TWU is not simply asserting freedom of conscience, something I can get behind, as I suspect can most people, but they are a legal institution that is engaging in a practice that is denying equal benefit of the law.  This does not mean that the Supreme Court will rule against them but it does, in my view, damage the case they are making.

3. The third complicating factor is precedent. And, I suspect that this may weigh heavily on the Court's mind (because, of course, it has to since their rulings establish precedents). Several years ago there was a bit of a stink about Sharia law in Ontario. It was never a serious option (we don't need to get into the details) nor a seriously considered option, including by the vast vast majority of the Muslim community. But, it briefly incited a significant debate about the boundaries between religion and the state. My view at that time was that religious groups did not have a right to call on the state to enforce religious laws that stood outside the criminal code or civil or administrative or regulatory or constitutional, etc., law in Canada.

What TWU needs to think about -- why I think they are playing with fire -- is that they are moving to establish a precedent that I suspect they will regret trying to establish: religion in law is OK and discrimination is OK if you can claim it is religiously based. TWU's case, in other words, is that their discrimination is based in faith and therefore protected by freedom of conscience. The state, IOW, must protect and facilitate the very thing that upset people about Sharia law. The state can be called upon to enforce religious law: in this case allowing accreditation to a legal educational institution that denies equal benefit of the law and -- apparently -- rejects the equality provisions of the Charter.

Because the Canadian state must treat people equally, the state cannot, then, deny rights to other groups that it upholds for TWU. Just about anyone can, then, provided they use a religious defense, create institutions that discriminate and the state must accept and accredit its graduates. What if that freedom of conscience meant prejudice against black Canadians (don't say "no way" Christianity does not have a good record on slavery), or Native people, or that women should not have certain jobs (I know Christians who fundamentally believe that women should not be in leadership roles and can site scripture to that purpose) or ... the converse: an atheist who believes that Christians should be second class citizens and denied equal rights?

Said differently, TWU thinks it is defending its rights and the rights of its graduates but it is doing something, the implications of which are far broader and deeper than they realize. They are, as it were, asking the court to legalize Sharia law. And, as Canadians, might ask: are we happy with that?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Bloom and the Rose (Part III): The Problem of the Political Right

In two previous blogs I tried to argue that Donald Trump is more interesting and more important for what he tells us about US political culture than for what he might actually do as a presidential candidate or political leader. He is made possible, I have argued, by an odd series of cultural currents that confuse fantasy with reality, misjudge and do not understand economics, believe in simple answers to complex problems and that "deals" can be cut, as well as an interesting syncretism that has come to stand in for Christianity in the US. Trump epitomizes these trends. 

There are, of course, other factors. Xenophobia, bigotry, sexism ... and they come in a special form; that is: overt bigotry, etc., denying that it is bigotry. When I listened to crowds chant on video -- built that wall -- I really did start to wonder deeply about the cultural values of those people chanting. It was something that I never expected to hear in my life. But, it clearly speaks to a particular perspective within American culture that is not simply xenophobic or bigoted or sexist, but one which is distraught at not being able to be publicly xenophobic or bigoted or sexist. This is a perspective that sees nothing wrong with evaluating women's looks and speaking openly about female body parts, as if a reference to a women's figure was a complement women should want. This is the most extreme reaction to "political correctness" - a dated and over-used and near meaningless term. It seeks not to curb the extremes of political correctness nor even to reverse the equality agenda. It seeks a way back to a past that, as it were, never really existed: where one could openly and with impunity use epitaphs or recycle insults because "there was nothing wrong with that" as if black people liked to be called niggers (or, even more disturbingly, knew that they were niggers) or women liked to be sexually objectified. This is an odd cultural trajectory that views simple politeness (something we were all encouraged to be by our parents) as oppression.  

These trends are part of what fuels Trump's candidacy. But, I want to argue in this blog, Trump represents and extreme version of this trend because of the way in which right wing politics has developed in the US since the Reagan era. These developments have led to Trump; in fact, they may have made him inevitable. What developments am I talking about? 

Since (and, including) Reagan, the US right wing was willing to play with fire. This may, in fact, date to Nixon's "southern strategy," a political strategy that was intended to win votes in the largely rural and middle-class sections of the white American south because without these votes, the Republicans stood no chance of winning the presidency. With the Democrats dominating organized labour (still powerful then), the youth, and minority votes ... the only easy and ready source of votes available to Republicans -- that did not involve significant changes in their political-economic views -- was the white south. Under Reagan, Republicans continued this strategy wielding together an odd coalition that included evangelical (and, largely southern) Christians, social conservatives, and white middle-class voters who were in the midst of a "tax revolt" blamed largely on the poor and minorities. It was a body that did not stand for a great deal other than militarism in foreign policy because the different parts of this coalition fit poorly together. After all, Christians (the non-syncretic type) should be concerned about tax revolts (render unto Caesar) and concerned about the materialism it prescribed as the solution to social problems (buy more and make yourself feel good). The full-scale embrace of consumerism, in other words, should have given Christians some pause but this pause (if people had it) was put on hold for power.

In short, the Republican party -- a party with a noble history -- was transformed under the weight of political expediency -- into a party of "no". No gun control, no to equality for women, no to the welfare state, no to socialized medicine, etc. It knew no forward looking policies other than the deregulation of capitalism, which has actually served the Republican voting base very poorly. Problems (say, state spending deficits) that should have been addressed in other ways were ascribed to the effects of progressive policies and, in the process, the idea that minorities, women, the poor, workers, etc., were the people to blame for economic problems became attached to a deeply conservative social view that defended itself as "tradition." 

Part of this  trend necessarily became entangled in the troubling and deeply tangled politics of racialization in the US. Noting the depth and importance of this issue, it is likely that this could not have been avoided. The Reagan-Bush era Republican strategy with regard to race was to play on the fears of white people by using imagery and key words. They found ways of opposing affirmative action (relabeled "reverse racism") without actually coming out and saying "we are racist". They talked about a law and order agenda (minimum mandatory sentences, say) without overtly saying "we'll put blacks and Hispanics behind bars in record numbers," even though -- I strongly suspect --that this is what their voters took away from these discussions. 

The points that they were making, without actually making them, were this: you -- poorer or middle class white voter -- are poorer or not as rich as you would like because your taxes are unfairly being taken from you to pay bills for illegal immigrants or black education or women's equality, etc., and if we just did not have these things ... well, without affirmative action, your son would get into a good school. Without feminism, your son would have a better job, etc. I recall a Bush I campaign advert that showed a black criminal getting leave from jail and supposedly attacking white people, which was blamed on the Democrats. 

The point is this: Republican policies were racialized but Republicans tried to maintain their own sense of propriety and dignity. They didn't chant to build walls or talk openly about their wives' or daughters' bodies. Even if this was done regularly behind closed doors, it was understood that this needed to be done behind closed doors. To be overtly racist or sexist would alienate that part of the Republican vote -- the Orange County crowd -- who were not racist and sexist and who were in the Republican gig for purely economic, lower my taxes because I want to buy a new BMW reasons. 

Somewhere along the line, Republican policies and discourse started to radicalize in extreme ways. There were likely a number of reasons for this because, after all, the Republicans had to run against themselves. It was hard for Bush I to fault government for the problems in the US because he'd been VP for the previous eight years. They did, but it got more and more difficult and so the discourse had to become more and more extreme. 

Then came Obama and we discovered that a large section of the white US population just would not accept a black president. But, what is more, a large section of the US population embraced the new syncretic religion that I detailed in another blog. They were willing, for instance, to risk the complete ruin of the US after the global economic meltdown to stick to their principles. They opposed any state involvement in the economy. They cast their supposedly libertarian values aside, on the other hand, and urged new extreme forms of state involvement in civil society. They took their stand against equality for gay people and against whatever vestiges of the welfare state remained and against environmental regulation. They simply did not believe, for instance, that there was an environmental crisis, employing a conspiracy theory that blamed it on "east coast liberals" and egghead academics. They simply gave up trying to find connections between Christianity and science and asserted bluntly that they rejected science. They argued for the more stringent regulation of women's bodies and opposed (in the case of Arizona) holidays that recognized the important contribution of the civil rights movement to the US. 

And, there were other things, too. They saw themselves embroiled in a deep culture war that was epitomized by the idea of equality for LGBTQ and argued that their freedom of religion was infringed if LGBTQ people were treated equally. They argued that they had the *right* to be bigoted, to refuse service to, say, a gay man if they did not like gay people for supposedly religious reasons (needless to say, this is a shockingly -- embarrassingly? -- selective reading of scripture). Finally, they decided that the great stand needed to be made against the tiny percentage of Trans people in the US because, for reasons that they never explained, Trans people were a threat to children. 

From one perspective, this is all very confusing. I suspect -- and will try to produce a discussion of this at some point in the future -- that there are deeper reasons afoot that relate to the ways in which the liberal state made peace, as it were, with conservative elements of it. But, on the surface, one needs to admit that these views make no sense. How, for instance, does equality for a gay person threaten me or my marriage or my children or my country? It simply does not and Canada stands, in an important way, as testament to that. How could one argue *against* stabilizing the economy after 2008? How could one believe that collapsing banks, homelessness, and skyrocketing unemployment were in the national interest? 

How did this produce Trump? Well, these voices -- in the form of the Tea Party -- gravitated to the Republican Party (or, were already in it) and have been looking, metaphorically, for a political savoir for a long time. They tried Sarah Palin but she was such a joke that ultimately even those voices of  extreme decent had to abandon her.  They tried Michelle Bachman but found that her brand of extremism played poorly on the national stage. They had previously gravitated to such luminaries as Dan Quayle (was he the worst VP ever?) and more recently Ted Cruz tried to recruit them to his bandwagon only to discover that they had already decided Trump was their man. Said differently, this branch of American Republicanism has been looking for a leader who spoke their language, who believed what they believed, and who was as immune to reason as they were for some time. 

Let's pause and try to be as charitable and as objective as we can be. Palin ultimately had to confess that she didn't read very much, didn't understand at least some of the policies she was supporting, and -- by implication - had little idea about foreign policy or even, it seemed, basic international geography. If I were running for office and I put those qualifications before you (a lack of understanding of policy, a failure to read up on issues, a lack of understanding of international issues on a basic level) ... would you vote for me? Yet, it did not affect her supporters. When she opted to become a reality TV ... I won't say "star" because her show was yanked ... personality, it illustrated another connection between that branch of the Republican Party and her and illustrated her similarities to Trump. The fact that her life -- expensive tastes when bought on someone else's dime and a family that stood in contradiction to everything that she supposedly stood for -- gave a lie to the cliches she spouted ... her followers -- including Trump -- were nonplussed. They focused on what she said; not whether or not she actually believed or enacted what she said. 

How does this all make Trump possible? The Tea Party wing of the Republicanism that supported Sarah Palin was unleashed by the mainstream of the Party which thought -- and perhaps for good reason -- that it (the extremists in the Party) could be controlled. They wanted the votes of extremists (of those who denied science, for instance) because it fit with their desire not to rein in big business on environmental questions. They wanted the votes of right wing anarchists -- who call themselves libertarians -- because they needed them. But, they never actually thought those people would be more in the way of followers. They (the leadership) played with fire. And, ultimately, they got burned as bad as the people who they were trying to burn. I don't necessarily blame them (well, I might blame them ... but that is another blog) because they were successful. The extremist wing of the party (xenophobes and homophobes and sexists, etc.) were kept under wraps through Nixon and until Bush II, but as Democrats took more and more of the reasonable vote, Republicans were pushed to more and more extreme rhetoric and they found out that once they had let the extremists into the Party ... well, they had a voice and votes and control. 

Trump is, in many ways, the logical fulfillment of Nixon's "southern strategy."  The southern strategy was, of course, not actually about the south except to the extent that Republicans wanted to appeal to deeply conservative white voters who happened to reside there. They had precious little interest in other sectors of southern votes (say, poor blacks or the urban working class). Today, they have little interest in that large section of  the south who are Hispanic (other than Cuban refugees). Each step along the line that mainstream Republicans took to win elections cost them support in other sectors of society and left their core base of support in the hands of a more and more extreme group of people. Today, it is almost impossible to find a "moderate Republican". And, no wonder ... if you were moderate, would you support Trump? 

Trump's successes, then, do not accrue to him, but to the demise of moderation within the Republican Party and the degree to which it implicit condoned extremism in the believe that they could control. Trump's early success illustrates that they cannot. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The Bloom and the Rose II: The Culture of Trump's Economics

Some time ago -- before I got distracted by religious schooling and free tuition -- one of the things about which I was writing was Donald Trump. I don't mean my comments as a critique of Trump.  There are a goodly number of those already and I don't really have much to add to them. This video is actually rather good and if you are interested in a thoughtful critique, I'd recommend that you start here.

In my last post on Trump, I tried to make two points.  The first point I tried to make was that what is interesting about Donald Trump is not Donald Trump. Some people are enthused by what he says; others frustrated, upset, or worried about it. In this blog I am suggesting that we see it as political theatre that provides a window into an evolving dynamic of American culture. Trump is important for what he says, and I will get to that in this blog at some point in time. To say things are political theatre is not to minimize their importance. They are important, but I'll address that in a future blog. What I mean is that Trump is not the author of his own "success." Instead, he represents the culmination of a series of historical and cultural trends. One of those trends, I tried to argue, (and this is the second point) is a certain syncretism that marks an evolution of American Christianity. I went into that in detail in my last blog and so won't repeat it here. What it means, in short, however, is that Trump does not have to win the support of evangelical leaders in the US (as some news stories have suggested) because he already has that support. A high profile conservative evangelical or two might object to Trump but large numbers of "rank and file" do not. They are not concerned about his lifestyle, his approach to marriage, his lack of knowledge of scripture, and a mea culpa or two on his supposed support for women's right to choose will be all that is needed on that front. Why? Because Trump's ideology may indeed be inconsistent with Christianity (for instance ... loving your neighbour, caring for the poor, loving money, being slow to anger, etc.) but it is not inconsistent with the syncretic religion that calls itself Christianity in contemporary America.

(Proviso that can be skipped: I hasten to add, that I am not criticizing this religion. I support freedom of religion and I'm Canadian so the degree to which I should intervene in American public life is limited. After all, Canadians don't appreciate it when Americans tell them what to do with their government  and I don't want to flip that over and start  telling Americans what there business should be. I am, instead, analyzing American public life using Trump as a prism to try to understand where it now stands.)

What I would like to do in this blog is shift ground and look at Trump's economics. My goal here is not to review economic theory or debates in economics but, again, to conduct a cultural analysis that points to its appeal among a certain section of the US population. What is that appeal? It is,  I think, encapsulated in Trump's assertion that he can cut a deal with the US's creditors to lower the debt and hence free up money to do things with. Now, on the one hand, this is an interesting idea. It hasn't worked well for Greece but ... its not a new idea: international debt restructuring. Its merits aside, however, why does this appeal to people?  It seems to me that there are a couple of reasons.

First, it appeals because most people -- perhaps including Trump -- don't understand the US debt. Debt is often incredibly poorly understood because it is put out there either as (a) a boogeyman to be avoided at all costs or (b) not a problem. It is, in fact, neither. The US debt, in my view, is too high and the US should do something about it, provided that is done in a fair and just way. But, this is precisely the course of action that the US has not taken. As US debt has skyrocketed, in fact, the US has done the opposite of what it should so. It continued to outpace the rest of the world (almost combined, I think) in military spending. Its cut taxes, particularly on the rich, refused to regulate the very capital markets that caused the latest economic downturn, and its tried to find ways of squeezing surplus revenue out of those who can least afford to have that surplus revenue squeezed out of them: poor people, sick people, unemployed people.

Donald Trump has, of course, been a master of this and, in this regard, he represents -- which is why I am talking about him -- precisely that trend in US economic. He has substituted real things (businesses that make things) for businesses that don't (get rich quick schemes like Trump U) or "reality" TV shows that substitute an artificial voyeuristic culture peeping in on the rich and famous for real life. I'm not at all surprised that Trump made a good showing for the US Republican nomination precisely because he represents this cultural trend so well because he is part of it (although, I am surprised, but not in retrospect -- which I'll get to -- that he won). His economics, in this sense, are the economics of easy answers: of take this course and get rich or win a contest and get rich. They are the stuff of dreams and I think this is important because we need to ask whose dream and why?

None of Trump economics, however, have much to do with actual debt and actual work or even actual economics. Watching an apprentice get fired on a reality TV show is not the same as being an actual apprentice or losing one's job. Likewise, taking a get-rich-quick course (and late night TV used to be littered with these but with Trump U they went mainstream) is not the same as getting rich. In fact, get-rich-quick schemes may impede security in wealth. Why?

Ask yourself this: what do get-rich-quick schemes sell? They don't actually sell you wealth. They take your wealth and sell you a promise that if you do X, Y, and Z, you will become wealthy or at least have security. They do so, often, in a very simplistic way: everyone can do this is usually one of the tag lines (or, what the rich don't want you to know). They are often also littered with cliche-ed expressions like "dream big" "take risks" "dare to be successful.," as if the problems with income security were a lack of dreams.  This stuff, of course, works because the person taking the course or buying the scheme thinks ... I can dream; I can dare. But -- and this is the punchline -- how does the person selling the get-rich-quick scheme actually make their money?  They make their money whether you -- the person buying the scheme -- gets rich or not because they are not selling you wealth. They are selling you the scheme. And, that is what they make their money on. Does the scheme work? To the buyer, this is -- or, should be -- an important question. To the seller, it is technically irrelevant. The person selling you (or, me) the get-rich-quick scheme might want you to get rich but it is not necessary because they have made their money off you already.

Why is this important to Trump economics? It is important because it highlights one of the problems that is associated with the cultural perspectives on economics that bring us to Trump: a confusion of fantasy for reality. The idea that wealth is just out there, somewhere around the corner, if you just have the will to go after it, animates those who bought into Trump U and the economics that Trump highlights. In what passes for economics in his speeches, he talks about cutting deals and being tough and forcing others -- bending them, perhaps -- to one's will. He knows how to do it, you just have to trust him ... as thousands of Americans every year trust get-rich-quick schemes.

The second thing to note that follows from the first -- the confusion of fantasy and reality and the drastic simplification of economic issues -- is the idea that a get-rich-quick scheme can save the US. All that is needed, say with regard to national debt, is the right deal. In effect, this line of argument says "we all know what the problem is. We just need the right deal to make it happen." But, that line of argument actually confuses the problem and builds on xenophobia. For one reason or another, Americans have become preoccupied with China and their debt and Chinese business interests do own a good chunk of the American debt but ... not that much. The figure is likely somewhere around 10%. The vast, vast majority of the US debt is owned by ... Americans.  It is convenient to fault the Chinese -- an international rival against whom there are long-standing prejudices in American culture -- for the problems that beset the US economy but it would not be true. Somewhere between 2/3rds and 70% of the US debt is owned by Americans. Cutting a deal with China, in other words (or, in Trump's language forcing them to accept a deal) would only deal with about 10 cents on the dollar. The only debt holder of US debt large enough to make a real difference for the US economy is Americans. So, the truth of the matter is that a deal has to be cut with Americans, something that is conveniently not discussed in discussions of the US debt.

But, for the sake of argument, let's say that Trump is right, and there is a deal to be made with American creditors, what would happen? Imagine that Trump decided -- allowing he was US President -- to pay back only a percentage of the US debt, say 85%, which is the figure I think he mentioned. What that means is that Chinese business (or, perhaps even the state) interests would take a 15% hit on their investment, but ... so would a lot of Americans. Retirement funds, education savings, health care funds, life savings ... my guess is that we'd find a great deal of these things are actually invested in US debt. (For instance, if you or a member of your family ever bought a Canada savings bond -- they are sold through my workplace -- you own a chunk of the Canadian debt. Same in the US.) What happens then? The average middle class person who works 9 to 5 suddenly discovers that their retirement is worth 15% less; their children's educational funds are worth 15% less; they have 15% less in the rainy day investment and in the money they set aside in case they were ill. Said differently, the medicine might be worse than the disease. The only people Trump's economic policy stands to hurt is the very people who seem to be, oddly, lining up to vote for him.

What is my take-away point? Several. Trump's economics make sense because they hit a particular set of cultural values in the US. They confuse fantasy with reality, suggest that there are really simple answers "out there," blame foreigners, and potentially harm the very people supporting him. Its an odd set of cultural and political processes that is predicated, ultimately, by a serious lack of knowledge that relates to economics.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Where Rights Collide? State Support of Religious Education

If there is no attack on religion in New Brunswick and if the "free tuition" problem confronted by Crandall University is -- at least in good measure -- a problem of its own making, can Crandall still make a claim that the policy should apply to its students? In other words, even if the analysis of where the problem comes from is wrong, could the proposed solution -- to extend the policy to Crandall students -- be correct? There are those who will immediately say "yes" and those who will immediately say "no." The "no" side argues that the state should not be in the business of funding religious education, particularly if it is is exclusionary and discriminatory. If Crandall (or, any other institution) wants to offer courses, that is its business, but the state should not support institutions that deny the basic rights enshrined in the Canadian constitution. Those who say "yes" are equally vehement. Crandall offers an educational choice. Why should the state impose its values (the merits of at least some of which they question and suggest might not be as widely held as some people think) on particular institutions? Does it not impose a religious means test on the institutions of our society (those who don't conform to particular state-sanctioned views, don't get funded) and contravene freedom of conscience?

What I want to suggest is that both views have merits and don't. The issue is more complex than quick answers and the quick answers that the proponents of either side offer miss important issues that should be considered. My goal in this blog is to address these issues. I don't think that by so doing I will actually bring clarity to this matter. In fact, I might confuse it more. But, confusing it more might be what is actually needed. What are the complications?

First, the distinction -- as I tried to indicate in a previous post -- between Crandall and other institutions is not as great as one might think. For one reason or another, both the proponents and opponents of Crandall paint it as different, out of step with the rest of the province in terms of post-secondary education. I cannot speak to how different subjects are taught at Crandall but in terms of its relationship with the state, the distinctions are often more matters of degree than kind. Crandall, for instance, can and has benefited from state grants. It does not obtain regular operating financing from the state -- which, again, is its choice -- but over the years its obtained grants in lieu of taxes from the municipal government and infrastructure grants from the federal government. There may be others but those are the two that I am aware of. Its students can also take advantage of tax credits in the same manner as students at any other university, there is a process to transfer credits, its BEd students become teachers in the province so there don't seem to be any problems with certification at the provincial level, and its benefactors can also take advantage of tax credits as Crandall is a registered charitable institution. This, too, of course, is similar to so-called "public institutions."

If we put all this together, in other words, the sharp distinctions that paint Crandall as unique in *not* benefiting from state programmes needs to be qualified. I am not saying Crandall gets as much money as Mount A but that is not, of course, the point (since as I keep saying, Crandall has chosen to define itself differently). What I am saying is this: the idea that it derives no benefits from the state (or, is even under attack by the state) is inaccurate. One can make of this what one will, but the distinction seems to me to be more one of degree than kind, at least in this regard. And, this could be interpreted as support for either those in favour of extending "free tuition" to Crandall students or not. One could argue (a) Crandall already derives benefits from the state and so it is now asking for more -- to be treated the same as Mount
A, say, without wanting to be the same. One might continue to say that no one is saying that these benefits should change but this is the line that is in place and if people at Crandall want to change this line, they are welcome to but that involves a different relationship with the state. Conversely, (b) one could argue that since there is already a practice of state support for Crandall, why would one choose now to impose an artificial limit on that support that penalizes students for the choices that they make when we do not know why they the chose to attend Crandall. To continue: extending free tuition does not give the stamp of approval to Crandall but instead supports students who may or may not have other post-secondary educational options or who may even argue against Crandall's exclusionary policies? Is it fair to harm them particularly when the state has a history of supporting Crandall?

Second, the issue of equality under the law is clearly one that is important. I gather that some folks who support Crandall are considering suing the provincial on the grounds that its new "free tuition" policy is discriminatory in that it precisely limits its provenance to those who attend secularized institutions. This is is not a slam dunk argument, as I've now said many times, because the folks who run Crandall have chosen -- for their own reasons -- to, in some ways, be different. Hence, the issue is not necessarily state policy. But, the Canadian constitution does not simply guarantee equality before the law; it also guarantees equal benefit of the law.

This is an important concept. What does it mean? This: the law cannot actively discriminate or perpetuate discrimination by maintaining policy that produces material harm to identifiable groups of people. As an example, consider one of the original defenses of the old Marriage Act that discriminated against gays and lesbians. One of the defenses of this act was that it did not, in fact, discriminate. Gays and Lesbians were free to marry if they so chose. They just had to marry someone of the opposite sex ... like everyone else! I kid you not. People actually made this argument.

This is where the idea of equal benefit of the law comes in. In this case, the operation of the law worked in a way that discriminated against a specific and definable group of people. They were not deriving the same benefit of the law as were straight people. In fact, the law stopped them from deriving the same benefit. Hence, the issue is not just "does this law treat everyone the same?" but does it discriminate against a specific group of people that we can identify.

In some ways, the "free tuition" law does. It the example I've been pursuing across a number of blogs, it discriminates against poorer students who attend Crandall. Is that sufficient to make the law unconstitutional?

The short answer is this: I don't know. In my view, the law -- as I have said -- does not threaten freedom of conscience. It does not impose any restrictions on Crandall in terms of what it can teach. It does not limit the voices of people at Crandall in terms of their ability to make their case. It does not close down any churches or websites or stop any sermons. I don't see a law suit, therefore, that is launched on the basis that the "free tuition" programme contravenes freedom of religion as likely to succeed. The principle of equal benefit of the law is more problematic, however, and I think there might, in fact, be a case here.

Why do I say that? Well, for the reasons that I've just outlined. We may have problems with some of Crandall's policies and regulations. I do. I've said before I find them scripturally problematic and I am not at all convinced that the types of prohibitions maintained by institutions like Crandall do anything to advance Christianity. At best, they set up parallel institutions that interact poorly with the rest of society. But, even while I have objections to what Crandall does, I find it more difficult to extend -- as I was suggesting above -- that criticism to the students who attend that institution simply because I don't know their views.

At this point in the discussion, someone usually rightly asks "should taxpayers' dollars go to support institutions with which they have problems?" I've tried to explain before that that question is not as simple to answer as it seems. After all, I am required to pay my taxes (and rightly) whether or not I agree with the policies of the state ... and a great deal of the time I don't. So, the issue it seems to me is not like or dislike the policies. The issue is whether or not the state has fulfilled its obligations to equal benefit of the law through its other policies of which Crandall students can take advantage.

At this point, I should also say that I am, partly, confused by this vehemence with which some people put this issue, on either side. I do understand that LGBTQ Canadians have suffered -- and continue to suffer -- a great deal of abuse, violence, and discrimination. They do not feel that institutions that support discrimination should be funded and they have a case. This is something I don't think the people who run Crandall fully realize or have considered as fully and deeply and as sympathetically as they should. We are not dealing with people who are challenges to your religious views in the LGBTQ community, but people who are challenging the old line "God has said that this is a sin, abomination, etc." We have very long history in Canada of using God to justify this-worldly prejudices and I personally believe that this one should be challenged as well. If we look back into Canadian history, we discover that people believed God wanted residential schools or supported racism or opposed admitting Jewish refugees or sanctioned violence against women. Said differently, there are many things that Canadians have believed in the past for which we can find very little scriptural evidence and discrimination against LGBTQ people is exactly the same.

What confuses me about this issue is many things. I'm confused that it has become an issue. I don't understand why some Christians feel that they are under attack when they are so manifestly not (and, if anyone has lived in a place where their religion is actually under attack, they would know the difference between that and modern NB). I don't understand why some Christians have made sexuality "the hill do die on." I've said this before but my "hill to die on" is love God and your neighbour. Likewise, I don't quite get the pursuit of Crandall by its opponents, excepting those people who fall into the category that I just noted in my previous paragraph. Crandall is a small institution with less than 800 students. We are not talking about UoT or UNB or even Mount A.

I began this series of blogs - -which, someone might say "mercifully" -- I now end by saying that if Crandall did not exist, its opponents and its proponents would need to create it.  That might have been an overstatement. The reason this issue -- free tuition for Crandall students -- is important is because it touches fundamental issues in Canadian society that end up not being about education. The key issue, from what I can tell, really is this: is the freedom of religion also the freedom to discriminate? And, if so, how far does that right go? In the US, some people have tried to argue that it extends into society, to the point where I can deny service someone by virtue of their sexual orientation if I deem it offends my religious values.

I don't think we are talking about that in Canada but that is the issue: is the freedom of religion, the freedom to discriminate. As as Christian, I don't think it is. In fact, I am horrified that Christianity is associated with bigotry. I work hard to be open and to be caring and to promote inclusiveness because I think those are the things that are more important to Christianity. I'd be worried, I think, about a society that made that equation (freedom is the freedom to discriminate) easily. It would not be the type of society or the type of religion that is true to my heart and my conception of Canada.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Netherworld of Public Universities: Free Tuition Redux

One of the arguments made against the free tuition programme in NB is that it does not include "private institutions." It includes only, say, its opponents "public institutions," like Mount Allison University, where I work. There are actually reasons for this. They might not be good reasons but there are reasons and those reasons do not include, as some of the policy's opponents suggest, an attack on religion. In my last post, I tried to address this issue with regard to Crandall University. I argued that Crandall was, in fact, the "author of its own misfortune" in this regard. One need not and one should not slag Crandall, insult its students or its faculty or even its mission. These are choices that the folks who run, work at, and attend Crandall have made and we don't have to like them to be polite.

It might however be a different matter to talk about "public" and "private" institutions because the language does not exactly fit the NB post-secondary educational system. This language of "public" and "private" is, from what I can tell, a language imported from the US where there is a distinction between private institutions and state-run university systems (like the University of California system, as an example).  I'm not at all certain that this language applies easily to Canada, although there might be examples of instances where it does. It does not fit the other universities in NB well at all and its use, particularly by those defending Crandall and its desire to obtain "free tuition" for its students, clouds the issue.

The truth of the matter is that so-called "public institutions" like Mount Allison University exist in a sort of netherworld between the state and private institutions. Crandall, as I noted in my last blog, is a "private institution" for its own reasons. It adopted this approach precisely to avoid the influence of the state on it. (That was, of course, their choice and they did nothing wrong in making it. My question is simply this: after making it, do they have to live with the implications of their own choices?) But, does this make Mount Allison, say as an example, a public institution?

In one sense, yes. Mount Allison is bound by the state.  The provincial government, for instance, can tell us how much we charge for tuition (in practice this takes the form of telling us how much we can increase tuition each year -- 2% this year; 0% last year).  While it does not do this -- and is bound by the law of contract (which all parties prefer) -- it can legislate my salary, that of administrators. We are certified by the MPHEC, which tells us what programmes we can offer and whether or not those programmes are up to snuff. Should they want, the provincial government can also tell us how to teach (specifying say, "deliverables" in terms of learning outcomes or something like that). Our budget is, likewise, dependent on the state and we are bound, as a result of this, by the Charter, the Citizenship Act, and human rights legislation. As a public institution, in this sense, we cannot set limits on who we hire (something the folks at Crandall want to do) in terms of diversity. I don't want to make this point too strongly. The hand of the state rests lightly on Mount Allison University. It is there and it imposes obligations (most of which I have no problems with) but it is not a heavy burden.

It differs from private institutions in a number of respects, most which I addressed in my last blog. One key respect, however, is that Mount Allison is not -- and cannot  be -- a for profit institution. It runs a balanced budget but it cannot run a profit. This is what makes it different from most private post-secondary educational programmes. They are in the for profit business. NBCC, of course, is also a state-run not-for-profit enterprise. Other institutions, however, are. They are in the educational game to educate but also to make money. Crandall is different. It is not a money making institution. It might make money. I don't know: I tried to find its budget online and couldn't, which doesn't say much since I won't claim to be good at searching. My point, of course, is that Crandall is private not because it wants to make money but because it allows it to avoid the obligations that affect Mount Allison and other universities (UNB, UdM, etc.) in NB. Is this category appropriate? Likely not and I'd suggest that it likely should be changed. But, it is the category that Crandall chose for itself.

Mount Allison, however, is also a private institution. The state regulates Mount A but does not own it, as it were. It contributes significantly to its budget but it does not provide its entire budget. Mount Allison has its own governors (Regents) who approve its budget and make financial policy. Its president goes to the legislature (actually, I think, a legislative committee) and answers questions about it, but its budget is determined by the Board of Regents, as opposed to the government. Its academic programmes are approved and certified by the MPHEC and the province can tell us what to do, but the University Senate approves individual courses, changes to majors or minors, and the like. There is, in other words, a substantial degree of self-regulation that goes on (in my gig we call this collegial government)-- including that done through MASU (the student union whereby students regulate themselves) -- and that makes Mount A something of a private institution as well.

For those who know it, Mount Allison's history is that it developed as a Methodist and then United Church institution, becoming increasingly connected to  the state for budget support after WW II. At the same time, it was involved in a process of slow secularization, as a result of a variety of factors. As an institution, Mount Allison confers its own degrees, makes its own decisions about building priorities, and sets its own agenda regarding its self-regulation and administration, among other things. This process of self-regulation does not always flow smoothly as those who witnessed or were part of the strike a couple of years ago know, but that is how it operates on a day to day basis.

This is important because some people -- particularly the belated and odd right wing proponents of free speech -- seem to feel that universities are the equivalent of the state and thus they can just go in book a room and give a public lecture that says whatever anyone happens to want to say. Universities are not branches of the state the way, say, the public schools are or community colleges or even public parks. They are also private institutions and, as a result, have the right to regulate who can rent rooms or speak on campus. Said differently, Mount A is not an open space -- akin to a town square -- and does retain autonomy and independence from the state.

Mount Allison is, thus, neither a branch of the state (in the manner of the public school system) nor fully independent of it. It is neither public nor private, retaining elements of each and existing in between ideal types. This is important because the state does not consult Mount A with regard to policy (because it is independent) even while it regulates Mount A (because it is not independent).  This situation seems contradictory and it may be. It is, however, to suggest that the stark distinction some people want to create between public and private universities in NB does not exist. The distinction is the product of choices different institutions have made and the degree to which they are willing to accept regulation.  This last point may be, in fact, the key difference between, say, Crandall and Mount A and that, it seems to me, is something different than saying one is public and one is private.

The same thing, btw, applies to Crandall. Its web site, for instance, tells students and potential benefactors about the tax implications of their tuition or gifts and that they can qualify for public bursaries and the like. I will confess that I am not familiar with these things because this is not something with which I have much interaction but I think you can see my point. Crandall is also dependent on the state for things like tax breaks for its students and benefactors or public bursaries in the same way that Mount A is.

Said differently, the supports of "free tuition" for Crandall are missing a significant point when they define Crandall as a private institution and fail to note the character and nature of what that means: it does not cut Crandall off from the state-sponsored economic benefits. It cuts them off from this one -- the low income free tuition policy -- but not others. Hence, the distinction that they are making between public and private as if it were black and white fails to acknowledge the gray quality of the distinction they are drawing. Crandall is not being treated markedly different from other institutions excepting to the degree that it has asked to be treated differently. Once we understand the netherworld of so-called "public" universities and the degree to which the state already supports "private" universities, the concerns being raised by those who claim that this policy is an attack on religion become even more difficult to understand.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Implications of Our Choices: Free Tuition and Religious Education

Free tuition -- whatever that precisely means -- has become oddly controversial in New Brunswick. In previous blogs, I tried to address some of the controversies but I tended to focus on those who opposed free tuition in order to make the case that education was good and that improving access to it carried with it a series of positive effects for the wider society. I also tried to argue that using the educational system and guaranteeing access to it (allowing one meets certain standards) regardless of incomes is neither a new nor a radical idea. It is generally consistent with the mainstream of post-WW II equality ideals that have animated the Canadian polity and that are, in my view, widely supported by the vast majority of the Canadian electorate. In fact, they are so widely supported that I suspect that the vast majority of Canadians would be surprised that anyone would question that idea that expanding access to education is a good thing.

More recent controversies are not in the public eye as much but are interesting to note because they raise interesting questions about the scope of state support for post-secondary education. Here in NB there are several small Christian universities. The only one of any size -- and, hence, the one around which controversy swirls -- is Crandall, a "private" Baptist university in Moncton, NB. Crandall is one of those institutions that, if it did not exist, someone would have to invent it. Both its opponents and proponents seem to desperately need it. Its opponents -- and I've addressed some matters relating to Crandall in the past -- see it as a discriminatory institution that is duplicitous (at best) in the perpetuation of homophobia. It is discriminatory - in that it maintains a faith test - that eliminates non-practicing Christians or people from other religious groups (say, Muslims or Jews) - as well as member of the LGBTQ  communities and -- potentially -- those of us who support them -- from employment or education.

It proponents, of course, have a different view. They tend to argue that Crandall provides educational choice and that the state should not censor or limit educational choice. As I've tried to indicate before in this blog, I am not in favour of a religious means test as a condition of state support for such things as grants. I would not necessarily consider myself a proponent of Crandall University -- in fact, I've argued against their faith test and its theology in the past -- but I do feel that having the state impose religiously-based conditions for is support (that is, in the case of Crandall that it needs to support a specific religious point of view with regard to equality for gays and lesbians) is problematic and a matter of concern. I've also tried to argue that there might be far more ground than we generally believe to accommodate different religious views within the mainstream of Canadian institutions without, in any way, harming those institutions or lessening our commitments to equality (be it religious or with regard to LGBTQ).

This kind of discussion has been raised again regarding NB policies for free tuition because Crandall -- as a private institution -- is disqualified.  The free tuition programme is intended to support so-called "public" post-secondary institutions (NBCC, Mt A, etc.). Hence, students at Crandall, because it is a private institution, do not qualify for the low-income free tuition programme.  Crandall proponents -- including one of its administrators -- have expressed concern about this and tend to argue that this see this as discrimination. Crandall's students, they argue, should not be excluded from this programme simply because they are attending a Christian university. The Crandall spokespeople whose comments I have read have, in fact, approached this issue in a measured and balanced way.  They are, in my view, involved in a bit of spin but the comments that I have read have been measured, logical and reasoned.

Not so, some of Crandall's other supporters who have used much more extreme language. They have mocked the current government (particularly but not exclusively its decision to create a Ministry of Celtic Affairs), accused it of lying about tax policy, and suggested that this free tuition policy amounts to an attack on religious freedom. They have organized a petition, brought it to Baptist churches to sign, and suggested that further attacks on religious might be forthcoming. Indeed, political pressure needs to be brought to bear on this government -- one chap at my church said that we need to show the government that "Christian votes count" -- potentially to the point of campaigning against the government so as to have it defeated.

This is a different question and begs important questions that I write about here because, I think, they go to heart of key issues in contemporary Canadian public life. These include (but are not limited to):


  • Should the state fund institutions that do practice discrimination if that discrimination is deeply believed, say for religious reasons? 
  • Is religion -- and particularly Christianity -- under attack? 
  • Should the state modify its position with regard to religion, say removing the tax free status of religious institutions? 
  • Should private institutions be included in free tuition programmes? 

I can't -- and likely shouldn't! -- answer all these questions today but I really do want to address one. It is this: religion is *not* under attack in New Brunswick today. The failure of the current government in NB to *not* include Crandall in its "free tuition" programme has nothing to do with religion. In my next blog, I'll try to address the question of whether or not it should have included Crandall, a question that, I want to argue, is far trickier than either the proponents or opponents of Crandall seem to believe or want to concede. 

There could be any number of reasons for excluding private institutions from this legislation. The most obvious one is that the taxpayers of NB are going to put some cash on the line and it is very difficult to regular private institutions (I'll leave the merits of this to one side). It is far easier to regulate "public" institutions like Mount A. Although it *does not* do this, because Mount A is a semi-public institution, the government can relatively easily regulate it. If it wanted -- and it does not want -- it could legislate my pay, change the way in which Mount A is administered, tell us (and it does do this) what we can charge students for tuition. It could, if it wanted, even insist that we meet certain standards say regarding pedagogical objectives. Mount Allison (the institution at which I work and so I use it as a handy example) is, moreover, bound by the specific requirements of the Charter. I personally do not consider these a burden (and you'll see why I make this point in a minute) but they do require that we conform to equality and human rights legislation. Unlike Crandall, for instance, we cannot specify a faith test for employment or enrollment. Said differently, the more extreme Crandall proponents make it seem like institutions like Mount A have all the benefits that have been denied to Crandall by virtue of their status as "public institutions" but this is not actually the case. There are, in fact, a series of obligations -- to conform to the Charter (which, again, I support) -- and to accept state regulation from which Crandall is exempt.

And Crandall is exempt from these obligations by virtue of its own design. The government did not choose to make Crandall a "private" institution. Crandall did. And, it did this to precisely to avoid the obligations under which Mount A operates. In other words, and more specifically, it did not want to be committed to the equality provisions of the Charter. There are, no doubt, other reasons as well but for one reason or another, the LGBTQ issue has come to the fore in recent years. Crandall also looks to impose (and I don't think this imposition is, in fact, a heavy burden for its students or staff but it is an imposition) specific moral standards and modes of living  as well as promoting certain beliefs to be held in common. This, too, is something that Mount Allison (as an example) is simply not allowed to do. Thus, while I do not consider a commitment to equality, say, to be a burden, the folks at Crandall did and they defined themselves as a private institution precisely to avoid this burden. 

Fair enough. I'm not at all certain I agree, but at the time these decisions were made and when they were revisited (as I am sure they periodically are), Crandall was operating within the framework of post-secondary educational law in NB and within the framework of the federal Constitution. We may not like the decisions that the folks who run and support Crandall made but ... that was their decision to make and they did not step outside the law or the Constitution to do it. 

The question of whether or not a self-defined private institution that has made that decision -- to be "private" as opposed to "public" --  in order to avoid Constitutional and legal obligations imposed by the state should have the benefit of state support is a different matter. And this -- not the question of religious free or religion being under attack -- is the question that is actually at issue. To the best of my knowledge, no serious person, institution or government official questions freedom of conscience in Canada (including NB). I have never heard any serious person question it and where I have heard religious freedom questioned (from people who are best considered unusual or extremist) it has been regarding non-Christians groups, particularly but not exclusively Muslims. 

Said differently, the question that the proponents of Crandall would have us ask -- should we have freedom of religion? -- is not actually the question that is at issue. The issue is *not* the right of Crandall to exist; it is not the right of students to attend Crandall; or even the right of students graduating from Crandall with their BEds, say, to be certified as teaches. The question is actually this: can Crandall live with the implications of its own choices? 

There is more to this and I'll get to that in a while, but when asked in this way, we have a different question. After all, as I said, no one opposes religious freedom. But, whether or not a religious institution that does not have to conform to post-secondary obligations imposed on other institutions should also be allowed to take part in programmes designed for those institutions ... is a different question. Said differently, and perhaps far too simply, should Crandall have its cake and eat it too? 

Asked in this -- what I would argue is a more accurate -- way, the extremism of some of Crandall's supporters becomes difficult to stomach. It becomes, at best, misinformation that is produced by fuzzy thinking that clouds (as opposed to clarifies) an important issue that New Brunswick should be discussing. 

I'll break off here because this blog is already too long but I suspect my point is now clear: we need to discuss the issue of "free tuition" accurately if we are going to advance this policy.