Of flawed men and dangerous​ ones

For the CBC on November 30, 2017

In early November, Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston weighed in on the stunning allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against Hollywood icon Kevin Spacey — one of the early casualties of the so-called Weinstein effect — in an interview with BBC Newsbeat.

Cranston suggested Spacey was “a phenomenal actor, but not a very good person,” describing Spacey’s alleged predatory behaviour as “beyond disgusting. It’s almost animalistic … his career now I think is over.”

Cranston’s response was, at the time, a minor entry on the list of celebrity reactions. It was a chat with BBC’s Will Gompertz, just days later, which drew considerable attention — and outrage.

Finding a way back

Cranston was asked if he thought there was a way back for some of the “Weinsteins and Spaceys of the world.” (To be clear, the full conversation was far more substantive than subsequent clickbait-y headlines would suggest.) In response, Cranston spoke of the wider societal problem of sexual harassment and specifically called for male introspection. Then he went on:

“It would take time,” he said. “It would take a society to forgive them, and tremendous contrition on their part … a knowingness that they have a deeply rooted psychological and emotional problem [that] takes years to mend. If they were to show they put the work in and are truly sorry and making amends, not defending their actions but asking for forgiveness, then maybe down the road there is room for that, maybe so.”

It was an admirably honest, thoughtful response to an uncomfortable question of how to deal with perpetrators of sexual harassment and abuse.

Must every offender become a pariah, or is there room for rehabilitation — possibly even forgiveness — depending on the severity of the crime, sincerity of remorse, input from the victims and totality of circumstances?

As Ruth Marcus, deputy editorial page editor for The Washington Post, argued: “The notion of the cleansing purge has its satisfactions.” There’s a tendency, however, to “overcorrect for past sins. If society once ignored sexual harassment — and we certainly did — one risk…is overcompensating for earlier apathy.”

Marcus has a point. That’s not to suggest men like Harvey Weinstein, who embody a particularly heinous sort of sexual predator — those who not only victimize prey, but implicate all those around by terrorizing them into silence — deserve any shot at redemption. Nor do men who prey on children.

But this overdue reckoning with inappropriate conduct will include transgressions that are arguably minor, and not so straightforward; behaviour more ambiguous — boorish and repulsive, perhaps, but not habitual or necessarily criminal, if still wrong. I suspect most — if not all — men have behaved in some regrettable manner at a given time. But it’s a mistake to assume a man’s worst days accurately reflect his character or potential to reform.

Case in point: Senator Al Franken.

Earlier this month, Los Angeles radio personality Leeann Tweeden alleged that the comedian-turned-senator forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a comedy bit back in 2006 on a USO tour. The same tour produced the now-infamous photo of Franken mugging for a camera while reaching for Tweeden’s breasts as she slept.

After the allegations were made public, Franken conceded that he “let a lot of people down,” but said he is determined to make amends: to prove himself a better man and still-worthy senator.

“This is not going to happen quickly,” Franken said. “I have to earn this over time and that’s what I plan to do.”

Long a sincere and fierce advocate for women, Franken recognizes the unique betrayal many women feel and the additional challenge of repairing that bond. “I know I’m not going to regain their trust immediately. There’s no magic words I can say here to make that happen.”

Compare with Weinstein who immediately sought victimhood, claiming his sexual crimes — which were so obviously premeditated choices — were the result of “sex addiction.” The diagnosis has become a handy tool, of late, to absolve sexual predators of responsibility.

After a single week of “intensive therapy” at a luxury Arizona rehab/resort — a choice “treatment” destination for Spacey, too — Weinstein checked himself out. Far from seeking to earn a second chance, Weinstein, who considers himself “the good guy,” apparently feels entitled to one.

Franken, meanwhile, has welcomed a Senate ethics investigation, vowing to fully co-operate and take responsibility.

“I’m going to be held accountable, and I’m going to try to be productive in the way I speak about this,” he said. In addition to his personal, unequivocal apology to Tweeden, which she graciously accepted without hesitation, Franken’s introspection has been laudable. For instance, though he maintains a different recollection of the USO rehearsal, he understands Tweeden’s interpretation differs from what he believes was his intent, and he accepts that some violation happened on account of his actions.

Learning from mistakes

What adds weight to Franken’s words are his actions: he hasn’t just said the right things, he has already taken steps to atone for his sins and learn from his offending conduct. Short of his resignation, what more should we reasonably ask?

Tempting as it is to “burn it all down” amid the torrent of allegations of sexual impropriety — an inclination which gains appeal with each, seemingly daily bombshell (see: Matt Lauer) — tangible progress and lasting change happen incrementally.

Allowing imperfect men to be part of the solution, even if they were, at some point, in some way, part of the problem, can make for a powerful allied force for good. The passion and dedication that those reformed often bring to a cause shouldn’t be overlooked or underestimated.

It’s important we listen to the stories of those who have been targeted and victimized by powerful, horrible men. But careful weighing of the appropriate, proportional response toward all accused will help ensure irredeemable offenders — and their network of enablers — are fully exposed and held to account. Misdirected anger is wasted energy and, ultimately, a distraction from the larger, most crucial end.

 

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Confronting prejudice and changing minds

For Maclean’s on August 31, 2017

One year ago on C-SPAN, Heather McGhee—an African-American woman and the president of Demos, an equality-focused public policy organization—was the featured guest of a call-in program in Washington. Half an hour into the broadcast, a caller introduced himself as Garry from North Carolina, and made a remarkable request: “I was hoping that your guest could help me change my mind about some things,” he began. “I am a white male, and I am prejudiced.”

Garry said his views were rooted in fear—among other things, the fear of black crime and “young black males” needing to turn to crime “to get money for drugs”—and he didn’t want to think or feel that way. But he didn’t know how else to feel.

McGhee, recognizing that Garry had for some reason found a friend in her, took a deep breath and thanked him for being honest, and for opening up a conversation that, too often, isn’t had. “Asking the question you asked, ‘how do I get over my fears and my prejudices,’ is the question that all of us … people of all races and ethnicities and backgrounds hold onto these prejudices … your ability to just say ‘this is what I have, I have these fears and prejudices and I want to get over them,’ is one of the most powerful things that we can do at this moment in our history.”

McGhee recognized Garry’s aversive racism—“I don’t want my fears to come true, so I try to avoid… and I come off as prejudiced”—and gently and non-judgementally addressed the racist assumptions Garry listed before offering concrete suggestions of how he could work to counter and confront those fears, like visiting a multi-ethnic church, getting to know non-white community members, fostering conversations about these fears with family, and learning more about African-Americans in the country.

The compassion offered by McGhee not only allowed for a truly constructive bit of discourse, it provided a direct refutation to Garry’s belief that blacks were inherently angry, aggressive, and dangerous. Had McGhee mocked or chided Garry for his beliefs, or responded in the way that’s become far too common across social media—vindictiveness or dismissal—Garry’s fears would seem justified, and that small window for change would be forever sealed.

When it comes to racial prejudice and intolerance, there are far more Garrys than there are David Dukes or Richard Spencers—a sentiment that, in today’s charged climate, can feel false. On its own, that August weekend in Charlottesville where toxic male aggression, combined with seething racial tensions and overt white supremacist ideology, inevitably ended in violence, would seem to prove otherwise. But while this degree of far-right extremism and neo-fascism needs to be explicitly called out and unequivocally denounced, it would be a mistake to assume that racist, bigoted, or discriminatory beliefs are wholly indicative of the individuals who harbour them.

However morally satisfying, viewing racism through a Manichean lens—where people are either evil or good, “racist” or “not racist”—misunderstands the complexities which drive the formation of irrational beliefs and misguided assumptions of someone else. It assumes—wrongly—that all people who hold racist views explicitly choose to hold them. Quiet, implicit biases, for instance, are often come by honestly. And while no one is free of them—within every race and ethnicity you’ll find varying degrees of prejudice toward specific others, as it’s part of an evolutionary in/out group tendency—there are differing degrees of awareness to individuals’ own soft bigotries.

Knowing this makes it easier to accept that good people—including those you may know and love—can hold deplorable views without being fundamentally deplorable human beings, and in getting beyond the desire to write off those who maintain such views as entirely irredeemable, you can actively work toward challenging—and changing—their flawed mindset.

While some eagerly embrace intolerance, many are reluctant to acknowledge—or may be entirely blind to—their own prejudices, because those quietly acquired beliefs are so far out of line to their consciously held morals. As Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in 2013, “we believe racism to be the property of the uniquely villainous and morally deformed, the ideology of trolls, gorgons, and orcs. We believe this even when we are being racist.”

 It’s easier to cling to the “white hood” theory of racism—the notion that hateful people like Duke are the epitome of the problem—than to confront our own subtle, insidious views about a given other. This makes harmful beliefs pertaining to race and matters of social justice so notoriously resistant to change. While there’s no single foolproof approach to changing misguided ideas, what’s been proven the least effective and most counterproductive effort is the shaming method.

“When people have their self-worth validated in some way, they tend to be more receptive to information that challenges their beliefs,” said Peter Ditto, a psychology professor at UC Irvine—that is, treating the person as worthy of debate, no matter how unworthy you’ve deemed their opinion, creates opportunity for constructive dialogue. Because mood factors into how receptive we are to new information or different ideas, direct antagonism—whether through point-scoring, name-calling, or the use of epithets (which includes the allegation of being “racist”)—immediately puts the other on the defensive, which not only kills any chance for discussion, but instinctively drives a doubling-down on the problematic beliefs.

Further, by separating the person from their views, thus removing any sense of moral failure or shame on their part, you can more effectively, even directly, challenge the faulty beliefs without attacking at a personal level. In acknowledging someone’s identity outside of a particular view, you provide assurance that while you may find their point of view detestable, you don’t hold them personally so. When people respect your approach and feel they’ve been fairly heard—that care has been taken to consider a point of view they may hold passionately—they are increasingly likely to consider your counter-argument.

Once you’ve started some dialogue, asking the other to expand on their specific idea—giving them full opportunity to explain, in detail, precisely why they hold that opinion—will open them to the limits of their own understanding. It’s easy to hold some gut-level belief, but given how those often arrive without conscious effort, asking for in-depth reasoning will expose the absence of it, and without any effort on your part. Even if the person’s mind isn’t changed, the introduction of doubt to one’s certainty can help begin the education process. And if you can’t offer a thorough response yourself, to help fill the information gap the other has revealed, then chances are your own knowledge of the matter isn’t as complete as you believe it is. This presents an opportunity for you to broaden your own understanding and deepen your knowledge, which will then strengthen your argument down the road.

In The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, co-authors Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach explore the limits of knowledge, and the precise role that groups play. The way we rely on the expertise of others to make personal sense of the world is what sets the stage for over-confidence in what we think we know. Leaning on others’ knowledge without a full understanding, over time, creates the illusion that we ourselves possess the expertise. 

“This is how a community of knowledge can become dangerous,” they observe. “As a rule, strong feelings about (fraught political) issues do not emerge from deep understanding.” Exploring the complexities of an issue and patiently working through the details offers the best chance to “shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

Another promising approach deals with the precise framing of debate. By appealing to the moral concerns of the person whose beliefs you’re challenging, you can work toward finding common ground. “There’s this tricky difference between moral difference and the absence of morality,” notes Matt Feinberg who, along with Robb Willer, studies effective persuasion across ideological lines.

Jonathan Haidt studies the psychological foundations of morality, and his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion introduced the Moral Foundations Theory, positing that liberals and conservatives are uniquely motivated by five distinct moral dichotomies that frame their thinking. Liberals, for instance, place greater importance on matters of care/harm and fairness/cheating, while conservatives value the concepts of loyalty/betrayal and authority/subversion. These competing values, in part, fuel the Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter fight.

Take, for instance, the case of Jeronimo Yanez, an officer with Minnesota’s St. Anthony Police Department, who was acquitted in June on all charges of criminal wrongdoing in the shooting death of Philando Castile, a black man who he’d pulled over on account of a broken tail light. Castile was, by all accounts, the sort of man conservatives routinely suggest are absent in black communities—his record was clean, he was a role model for local youth, he had a job and a girlfriend and served as a father to her four-year-old daughter. Castile’s life approach, described by a longtime friend, was always “‘play it by the books.’ ”

Dashcam video revealed Castile as attentive and respectful toward the officer when he was pulled over, and showed he proactively informed Yanez of the presence of a gun which he was fully licensed to carry. Mere seconds later, Yanez opened fire, unloading seven rounds into the car, five of which hit Castile.

Conservatives who’d always found reason to justify previous deaths of black men at the hands of police, but who decried the officer’s acquittal in this case, were able to find common cause with Castile largely because of the Second Amendment aspect. That moral frame forced them to see not a black man—someone who was “other”—but a fellow patriotic American whose black life should have mattered.

That’s no small revelation. And yet, while many champions of police reform welcomed the conservative advocacy, some couldn’t help but fall back on the call-out/shame cycle, admonishing for “not listening” to what the black community had long been saying.

While frustration is understandable, scolding someone you’ve been trying to reach for making real progress—no matter how delayed—is ultimately self-defeating. What’s more important here: self-righteous point-scoring, or welcoming an ally from the other side to help work toward a now-common goal?

There is courage in admitting to beliefs which could be deemed a moral shortcoming. Making oneself vulnerable in order to become a better person is a harder choice than it ought to be. Making that choice an impossible one—by always greeting honest effort with hostility—guarantees an end to progress. There is also tremendous bravery in responding with compassion when, throughout life, you’ve been afforded none. Though it seems unfair that the bulk of effort to counter harm rests with the those who’ve borne the brunt of it, that’s what social justice activism is about: to persuade those who feel they have nothing to gain by challenging an injustice, to see themselves in the cause, and join it.

You cannot force someone’s change of heart. But you can lead in a way that might entice one.

 

A Most Undignified Death

This column ran in The National Post on January 20, 2016.

The Supreme Court hearing that granted the Liberals a four-month extension to review assisted-dying legislation last week brought out the usual coterie of critics, many of them religious. We are being warned about slippery slopes and disposable lives. Some of the concerns are fair, others essentially boil down to, “My God wouldn’t want you to do this, so it should be illegal.”

One of the more interesting, and credible, reactions, however, from those who would restrict access to euthanasia on moral grounds is that better palliative care is all that’s needed to fully tend to those in the end-stages of life. There is some truth in this — Canada does need a better palliative-care system, for those who’d wish to take that route.

This argument, however, ignores the uncomfortable reality that a sort of medically facilitated death is already well-established in the medical system, but through the cruellest of possible methods. Simply put, our terminally ill are permitted to starve themselves to death.

This isn’t a decision made lightly by any involved — the patient, their family, or the medical professionals tasked with keeping the patient “comfortable” — and it’s an excruciating experience for all. The body can, for a short time, rely on reserves and stores to maintain some basic level of function. In time, though, it begins to consume itself, seeking to convert any usable tissue, including organs, to fuel.

In 2013, I found myself in an unfortunate and frightening medical situation which, by the grace of God, I survived. When I was in hospital, I had a roommate, a woman in her late-70s who, as I fended off sleep for the very real possibility I’d not wake up, sought for herself a very different outcome.

My situation, a gastro-intestinal disease that took hold and spread, making digestion of food impossible, was not terminal. Or, at least, was not meant to be. Her cancer, though, was, and was as at such an advanced state she could no longer handle the daily intubations; the constant poking and prodding and needling; the unrelating physical and mental agony. She was far beyond treatment, and she now had an intestinal obstruction which required surgery to rectify — one which would not add quality to her remaining days, assuming she survived the operation, but would simply allow for the continued oral intake of nutrition.

The alternative was to sustain life through intravenous feeding (TPN). I’d already had that PICC line inserted — a long, specialized IV threaded from the bend in the elbow, up the the arm, and directly into the heart — to deliver basic nutrition.

She was entirely of sound mind and had all other affairs in order, and her family didn’t object when she refused to consent to either the surgery or the central line, asking instead to be allowed to die.

We shared the same highly-skilled surgeon. He was tasked with directing two very different roads of treatment: fighting to keep my body supplied with nutrition while I recovered, and overseeing her demise.

Both our bodies were self-catabolizing. Both were in various states of multi-organ failure — the putrid, potent, unmistakeable stench of renal failure was inescapable and unbearable. For me, the threat of imminent death was terrifying. For her, it was a most merciful gift — an escape from the hell of a body in the final stages of rebellion.

Her suffering was considerable, and I lay in silence, listening as her anguish intensified. Sometimes what I heard carried over into dreams. When asleep, I heard the very real sound of nurses struggling to place a tube in her esophagus, played out in my own shallow nightmare in which I was choking on my own and failing to breathe.

After a series of conversations between my roommate, our surgeon, and her family, she was moved to a private, under-no-circumstances-to-be-disturbed room directly across from the one we’d shared, where she’d quietly deteriorate and rapidly emaciate. Her son held vigil, stoic, at first, and then less so.

The end was neither merciful, painless, nor swift. It took weeks for her to die. Her pain eventually came to an end, but her son’s never will. Had euthanasia been available, as she wished it was, it would have spared my roommate the drawn-out ravaging, and her son the unnecessary, additional trauma. The end result, of course, would have been identical.

It’s not clear to me where the ultimate line should be drawn in terms of age or disease, or what would constitute sufficient level of suffering — or how the extent of which would be measured. These issues are, to state the obvious, complicated. But as the government works to draft new assisted-suicide legislation, it’s essential people be aware of what is currently the status-quo, and why it cannot be allowed to stand. We’ve had a form of medically facilitated death in Canada for years. It is far crueller, but no less fatal, than a quick, merciful needle.

 

#RefugeesWelcome

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on November 27, 2015. 

“This is not a federal project, this is not even a government project, it’s a national project for all Canadians,” declared John McCallum, minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, in announcing the long-awaited details of the Liberal government’s strategy to welcome refugees fleeing the chaos in Syria.

It’s an ambitious undertaking, but has already seen Canadians unite to reach out with offers to aid the resettlement and integration of those seeking refuge from war, arriving with little more than the hope of a better future.

Contrary to alarmists’ assertions, this grand initiative will serve to strengthen our national security. ISIL is seeking a clash of civilizations, intent on eliminating what they call the “gray zone” of coexistence. And they loathe the notion of a Muslim population seeking life among “infidels” in the West over their self-styled “caliphate.”

By refusing to close our borders to those fleeing ISIL’s savagery and embracing refugees, Canada is actively disproving the lie ISIL relies on to recruit the disaffected: That Muslims are rejected and unwelcome by the Western world, and you can only find your true identity with ISIL.

Ironically, those seeking to stoke anti-refugee sentiment following the terror attacks in Paris – who share xenophobic memes, perpetuate false assertions and outright fabrications from Facebook pages dedicated to churning out anti-Muslim rhetoric – are in fact answering ISIL’s call.

As Doug Saunders, international affairs columnist for the Globe and Mail and author of Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World and The Myth of the Muslim Tide recently noted, “’Judeo-Bolshevism’ was yesterday’s ‘Islamo-fascism,’ used for same restrictive purposes.”

The former: anti-Semitism employed to sow suspicion of Jewish refugees seeking to escape the Nazis, alleging they were agents of communism, part of a Jewish conspiracy to overthrow nations, Nazis in disguise or Nazi sympathizers sent to commit sabotage under the guise of seeking asylum.

The latter: a tool of anti-Muslim extremists seeking to stoke Western Islamophobia and anti-refugee hysteria. They insist those seeking to escape the combined barrel bombs of Syrian President Bashar Assad and savagery of ISIL are not legitimate refugees, but harbingers of dangerous ideologies — agents of the Islamic State and its sympathizers seeking to terrorize the West, upend Christian tradition and impose Sharia Law.

Despite such allegations being disproven, those initiating them discredited, these fabrications continue to circulate across social media, remaining particularly pervasive on Facebook due to an unwillingness to challenge friends or relatives who are often ignorant to their deep-seated prejudices.

Avoiding the discomfort of confrontation only serves to foster intolerance, enabling the promotion of hatred against an entire population, which then threatens to impede the successful integration and upward mobilization of the most vulnerable — two key elements in thwarting the isolation which aids in extremism’s pull.

One needn’t be hostile or demeaning when addressing dangerous misinformation shared by a friend. Simply linking directly to a reputable source which corrects the record, along with a brief summary, is sufficient. Even if the comment is disregarded by the colleague, others who come across the post might explore the facts further, and may go on to then correct the record on another timeline.

Just as bigotry is learned, so is acceptance. Intolerance cannot be ignored away, but it can be educated into submission. The presentation of facts in the face of irrational and misplaced fears, when combined with patient and constructive dialogue, is remarkably effective in achieving understanding.

If you’ve yet to find a part to play in Canada’s internationally acclaimed national refugee project, consider this your starring role.

No Scrutiny Please, They’re Saudi.

This op-ed appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on October 1, 2015. 

In 2014, on the shores of Lake Geneva and next to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, a lavish ceremony was held to honour the recipient of the Moral Courage Award — an annual honour bestowed by UN Watch, a Geneva-based NGO dedicated to “(monitoring) the performance of the United Nations by the yardstick of its own Charter.“

Surrounded by Canadian diplomats and at least one fellow cabinet minister, Jason Kenney was feted “for demonstrating the courage to lead in upholding the founding principles of the United Nations, and defending the true principles of human rights.”

Lauding the Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, UN Watch executive director Hillel Neuer declared: “When others have been silent while serial perpetrators of human rights abuses like Iran and Syria seek to hijack the UN’s human rights and anti-racism causes, Minister Kenney has been a clear and consistent voice for their millions of victims, opposing tyranny, hypocrisy and injustice.”

Accepting the award “on behalf of my colleagues and Prime Minister Stephen Harper,” Kenney sought to reiterate what he, his colleagues, and the prime minister have long portrayed as their unequivocal stance in defending the rights and dignities of those living under the world’s most oppressive regimes.

“Human rights are not subject to interpretation,” he said. “They exist by virtue of the dignity of the individual person. They cannot be written off simply because a handful of particularly brutal regimes have been given a veto powers in a bureaucratic body.”

You’d expect, then, after word leaked that Saudi Arabia, a leader in the abuse of human rights, restriction of religious freedom, and repression of women, was selected to head a panel of independent experts on the UN Human Rights Council, that both Kenney and Harper would be among the prominent human rights advocates – including UN Watch – leading the condemnation of the appointment.

One could argue the confluence of events coinciding with this incomprehensible decision — allegations of indiscriminate killing of civilians and ethic cleansing of Shiites in the Saudi-led aerial campaign against the Houthi rebels in Yemen; the imminent beading and crucifixion of Ali al-Nimr, nephew of a well-known Shia cleric and prominent critic of the Saud dynasty, arrested as a 17-year-old high school student for taking part in pro-democracy protests — made it incumbent upon Kenney and Harper, both of whom position themselves as global leaders in human rights advocacy, to front the charge in seeking to have the UNHRC appointment rescinded, to call for for an investigation into atrocities in Yemen, to demand clemency for a man condemned to death simply for seeking political reform.

Instead, they’ve offered absolute silence on each crucial matter detailed above. That’s not to say the government’s relationship with the Saudis has gone entirely unmentioned in recent days: When questioned about the ethics of his government’s secretive, multi-billion dollar arms deal with Riyadh — secured without the requisite human rights assessments or assurances such weaponry wouldn’t be used against the civilian population — Harper defended Saudi Arabia as a valued ally. He was concerned only, evidently, about possible job losses in Ontario should the deal be axed.

A key element of the Conservatives’ re-election bid has been to present themselves as warriors against fundamentalist ideologies and extremist entities. That they’ve deemed a woman who — entirely of her own accord — wears a niqab a greater threat than providing arms to a regime which adheres to and exports the actual medieval ideology which imposes draconian dress codes on women hints at the emptiness beneath the government’s veil of nationalistic rhetoric and international proclamations of moral authority.

Further reading:

Ten facts about Canada’s arms deal with Saudi Arabia http://opencanada.org/features/ten-facts-about-canadas-arms-deal-with-saudi-arabia/

This thread of links.

Questions for the Minister: HERE and HERE 

The Assault On Planned Parenthood: A Long Campaign Against Reproductive Rights

In 2011, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funding, a move deemed necessary to ensure no taxpayer dollars were used on abortion despite existing federal legislation which prohibits funds granted under Title X from paying for such services.

This vote, a “culmination of a multi-year effort that involved parallel action by top Republicans and conservative media operatives,” relied on the work of anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, President and founder of Live Action, an organization through which she sought to “take out Planned Parenthood” ahead of the 2012 Presidential election by teaming up with disgraced far-right activist James O’Keefe to produce a series of undercover ‘sting’ videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood staff “willing to assist sex trafficking and exploitations of minors and young women.”

Rose’s elaborate production was eventually exposed for the lie it was — manipulated segments of video spliced to create exchanges which never occurred, or to misrepresent things which were said.

Even so, the ruse was – and still is – championed as a credible exposé within the complex network of organizations which make up the greater anti-abortion lobby, with the disproven allegations repeated by influential anti-abortion leaders including Troy Newman, President of Operation Rescue: a militant organization infamous for their relentless campaign against late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, one which only ended after Scott Roeder, an Operation Rescue fanatic, pursued Tiller to his church and shot him to death as Sunday services began.

A longtime admirer of Rose’s efforts – Rose was named Operation Rescue’s Person of the Year in 2008 for her then-early campaign against Planned Parenthood – Newman helped Live Action’s (now former) research director David Daleiden, business partner of Rose and close friend of O’Keefe, establish a new operation from which to launch a fresh assault against Planned Parenthood, providing “consultation services” and both “financial and material support” to the Live Action off-shoot Center for Medical Progress.

In addition to Newman’s professional guidance and financial support, both Rose and Daleiden were students of Mark Crutcher, president and founder of Life Dynamics Inc., a radical anti-abortion operation whose “professional counter-intelligence … intelligence-gathering” methods – including the covert recording of abortion providers and subsequent manipulating of audio/video to fabricate criminal wrongdoing – have become the activists’ MO.

Much like Rose’s failed 2011 Live Action ‘sting’, Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress string of videos are heavily-edited, with exchanges intentionally doctored to grossly misrepresent the context of conversations in order to satisfy a narrative being sold. In this case, that Planned Parenthood is trafficking fetuses, “selling baby parts,” for profit.

The sophisticated, coordinated pre-election rollout and subsequent reaction by conservative media and lawmakers mirrors that of 2011, right down to another procedural vote to defund Planned Parenthood. Though passing the House in 2011, nothing became of the vote, and the renewed effort was defeated in the Senate.

And just as Planned Parenthood was cleared of the allegations levelled in 2011, the current round of increasingly-hyperbolic accusations have already been thoroughly, and repeatedly, disproved.

In full accordance with the law – one which has long-enjoyed broad bipartisan support – women who undergo an abortion can choose to donate usable tissue toward science. Fetal tissue is unique and provides a crucial form of stem cells without which public health advances – the eradication of polio, for instance – would not have been possible.

Planned Parenthood is not selling fetal specimens, which, it’s important to note, are acquired with the full consent of those terminating a pregnancy, be it a medically-necessary referral or an elective procedure. Nor do clinics profit from the donation of fetal tissue.

Despite claims to the contrary, abortion services are not the driving force behind Planned Parenthood, nor are they performed for monetary gain (profit) or as a means of facilitating ‘immoral’ and ‘promiscuous’ lifestyles (abortion on-demand as a recreational activity).

Planned Parenthood is a leading provider of high-quality, affordable health care to both men and women across America. In addition to the sexual health and reproductive services — screening and treatment for STIs, low- or no-cost reversible contraception (condoms, birth control, IUDs) and emergency contraception (Plan B), family planning and counselling, including pregnancy guidance and support, pre- and post-natal care, access to adoption services, and sexual education — Planned Parenthood offers a range of general health services, such as screening for breast and cervical cancer, and public immunizations.

Abortions account for only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s activities, and the most recent comprehensive report on induced abortion in the United States found 92% of all abortions occur within the first 13-weeks of pregnancy — only 1.2% occur at or after 21-weeks.

That 20-week mark is a crucial point of contention for anti-abortion activists who, unable to overturn Roe v. Wade, have sought to outlaw the procedure beyond 20-weeks, often without exception — meaning in the case of rape or incest, even if the victim is a child, the pregnancy must, by law, be carried to term.

Beyond the 20-week limit, activists push lawmakers to enact TRAP laws: impose redundant and wholly irrelevant requirements on abortion providers and clinics to regulate them out of service.

It’s the network of anti-abortion organizations who organize and finance the activist campaigns, and which reward the politicians who enact the legislative changes demanded.

Though hardly as influential north of the border, this cabal spans across Canada, sharing resources, swapping speakers, providing on-demand ‘experts,’ and partnering in campaigns  – including the effort against Planned Parenthood – with organizational allies.

Both Live Action and Operation Rescue are revered by Canada’s anti-abortion activists, and two prominent figures – Jonathon Van Maren, communications director for the Canadian Centre for Bio-Ethical Reform (CCBR), representing the “educational arm of the pro-life movement” and Alissa Golob, Executive Director of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC) Youth, representing the “political arm of the pro-life movement” — the pair behind the graphic #no2Trudeau anti-abortion campaign – recently shared a stage with Operation Rescue’s President, one of the old hands working the strings behind the curtains of the series of video ‘stings;’ controlling the dance of the new, fresh-faced anti-abortion marionettes.

Newman was a keynote speaker at this year’s CLC Youth Banquet (Rose had the honour in 2010), a companion event to the annual March For Life on Parliament Hill. Buried among the litany of hyperbole and flat-out lies about abortion and the medical professionals who provide them – absurd allegations found in the hysterical, low-budget pseudo-documentary Bloodmoney, a film championed by CLC, CCBR and their anti-abortion affiliates, and treated as gospel by Golob – Newman tipped his hand on the upcoming strategy against abortion providers.

As reported by those in attendance:

Because abortion is an immoral activity, Newman and his fellow pro-life activists suspected other immoral activity would also take place in and around the abortion industry and Operation Rescue aimed to uncover and expose malfeasance and criminal activity. “The job is to point out the true villains … to put them in orange jumpsuits and put them behind bars.”

Ironic that Newman chose the following quote to motivate the CLC audience: “In times of universal deceit, to tell the truth is a revolutionary act.”

A more fitting Orwell citation, and perhaps the most succinct summary of the ongoing quest to not only destroy Planned Parenthood, but to rescind advances in public health and personal freedoms gained through the liberalization of sexual and reproductive rights: “We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue, and then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right.

Abortion rates are lowest where the procedure is legal — where laws regarding the practise are the least-restrictive and women have relatively-easy access to a full range of reproductive health services.

Of course, the most effective anti-abortion strategy is contraception; a woman need not seek to terminate an unintended pregnancy if she’s able to prevent the pregnancy from the start.

It’s telling, then, that those dedicated to the cause of ending abortion are the ones working to ensure demand for the procedure never fades.

For instance, in 2009, Colorado launched a state health initiative specifically targeted at combating the soaring rate of teen pregnancies. Funded entirely by a private donor over 5-years, the Colorado Family Planning Initiative provided more than 30,000 contraceptive devices at low- or no-cost to women across 68 family-planning clinics.

The result was astounding: By 2013, the teen-birth rate plummeted by 40%; the abortion rate dropped even further, falling a full 42% from its previous demand.

As noted in the New York Times:

The changes were particularly pronounced in the poorest areas of the state, places like Walsenburg, a small city in southern Colorado where jobs are scarce and many young women have unplanned pregnancies.

In 2009, half of all first births to women in the poorest areas of the state happened before they turned 21. By 2014, half of first births did not occur until the women had turned 24, a difference that advocates say gives young women time to finish their educations and to gain a foothold in an increasingly competitive job market.

“If we want to reduce poverty, one of the simplest, fastest and cheapest things we could do would be to make sure that as few people as possible become parents before they actually want to,” said Isabel Sawhill, an economist at the Brookings Institution. She argues in her 2014 book, “Generation Unbound: Drifting Into Sex and Parenthood Without Marriage,” that single parenthood is a principal driver of inequality and long-acting birth control is a powerful tool to prevent it.

Still, when presented with the irrefutable data, Carrie Gordon Earll, senior director of public policy for the Colorado branch of Focus On The Family – a powerful organization within the anti-abortion Religious Right – rejected the findings.

“What we have seen over many years is that access to contraception does not equal fewer unintended pregnancies and fewer abortions,” Earll told the Denver Post. “Availability of contraception leads to increased sexual activity, which leads to unintended pregnancies and abortions.”

And thanks in part to lobbying by Focus On The Family, rather than continuing to fund the proven-effective program, the Republican-controlled state Senate killed the program this past May.

It’s this factsbedamned ideology which drives the anti-abortion coalition, and which leads its members to adhere to an increasingly-nonsensical script.

In 2010, when the Canadian Paediatric Society recommended adolescent health care providers counsel patients on emergency contraception – specifically, Plan B, which does not abort a pregnancy, but prevents it – Golob (as noted above, CLC activist and co-founder of the #No2Trudeau campaign) was incensed. She claimed health care providers mentoring their patients with regards to reproductive options was “a recipe for enabling child rapists to continue sexually assaulting young girls behind their parents’ backs.”

She questioned the “highly suspicious” motives of the Canadian Paediatric Society, claiming doctors would be “profiting off minors who are more than likely going to return because they have some kind of STD, pregnancy etc.”

In a 2012 interview, when asked how sex education “affects the youth’s understanding of sexuality, chastity, and contraception,” Golob responded:

“Sex education that promotes contraception, inevitably promotes promiscuity and abortion. Former abortionist Carol Everett said in the documentary Blood Money, ‘We had a whole plan to sell abortions and it was called sex education. Break down their natural modesty, separate them from their parents and their values, and become the sex expert in their lives so they turn to us. We would give them a low dosage birth control pill they would get pregnant on, or a defective condom. Our goal was three to five abortions from every girl between the ages of 13 and 19.’

Furthermore, a study done in 1999 by the British Journal Education and Health found that government policies that focus on providing family planning, or contraception and abortion, have failed to have any impact on teenage pregnancy rates. Despite the millions of pounds spent in government initiatives over the last four decades pregnancy rates among teenaged girls aged 13-16 have remained steady, while abortion rates have gone up.”

Keep in mind, it’s Golob and her associates who travel across Canada to ‘educate’ Catholic students on issues regarding sex, contraception, and abortion. (Abstinence only!)

Her organization is also one leading the charge against the Ontario government’s new sex-ed curriculum. One only need visit CLC’s website to see just how astoundingly inaccurate and wholly irresponsible their claims are in their push for abstinence-only education — dangerous misinformation which is prevalent throughout the site, such as the promotion of ‘reparative’ therapy to ‘cure’ homosexuality, the presentation of long-debunked health claims regarding birth control and abortion, and the dissemination of anti-vax propaganda to discourage Catholic School boards from implementing the HPV vaccine program.

Planned Parenthood’s Canadian branches, on the other hand – in addition to the exceptional counselling services offered – are working to ensure youth are provided the opportunity to benefit from evidence-based, age-appropriate sexual education.

Lauren Dobson-Hughes, President of Planned Parenthood Ottawa (PPO), says her organization is a proud supporter of Ontario’s new curriculum, which “matches what we’ve been teaching for some time.”

“Through our classroom sessions or our Insight Theatre program, PPO’s sex ed is innovative, interactive and engaging. It covers everything from LGBT issues to STIs, consent, sexting, puberty, and healthy relationships … We not only teach the facts, we teach them in a way that’s meaningful. It’s no good knowing the theory if you’re scared to apply it to real life situations.

At the end of every sex ed session, there’s a question box. This is where youth submit their questions anonymously, to be answered in front of the class. And when youth feel safe, they ask questions like this:”

(Actual questions from sixth- and seventh-graders, as evidenced by photos from a PPO session):

If someone you are texting asks you for a picture, how do you let them know you don’t want to?

Is masturbation normal?

What if it doesn’t fit?

Is one boob supposed to be bigger?

Can you get an STI from kissing?

What do I do if one of my friends thinks being gay is wrong?

If someone masturbates are they still a virgin?

What would be a polite way to say no?

What is the appropriate age for sex?

As was the case in 2011 when – citing the U.S. Congressional investigation stemming from Rose’s ‘sting’ – Canadian anti-abortion activists and their allied MPs set out to strip International Planned Parenthood Federation of funds granted through the Harper government’s Muskoka Maternal/Child Health initiative, the network of anti-abortion operations have latched onto the most recent fabrication, and they have Dobson-Hughes’ organization in their crosshairs.

The recent years’ increasingly-contentious environment regarding sexual and reproductive health had already cut into PPO’s funding, and now, in addition to demanding an investigation, opponents have begun intimidating known PPO donors into rescinding their financial support.

Recently, PPO was forced to turn away a woman a woman whose abusive partner was trying to force her to end her pregnancy.

“I never want to have to do that again,” laments Dobson-Hughes, whose organization does not provide abortion services. What they do offer, however, is confidential, unbiased counselling for those seeking sexual and reproductive guidance.

Case in point, as detailed by Dobson-Hughes:

Summer was 17, and heavily pregnant when she saw Planned Parenthood’s counsellor. Summer hadn’t wanted to be pregnant, but growing up in the rural North, she didn’t have the access to contraception she needed. She had received no pre-natal care, had not seen a doctor through her entire pregnancy, and had no financial support. Planned Parenthood’s counsellors worked with Summer, ensuring she got a midwife, helped her access assistance for housing, and connected her with cultural support from her community.

And in the end, that’s who loses the most. As fundamentalist culture-warriors position themselves the moral gatekeepers of society, demanding government “stay out” of their lives while seeking to dictate how others’ lives are lived, it’s people like Summer who bear the brunt of the fallout.

It’s the students who ask “Is it OK to say no?” whose questions go unanswered; adolescents who wonder “Is my body normal?” who are left without resources, and without reassurance.

In America specifically, it’s the lowest-income who cannot otherwise obtain cancer screening or pre- and post-natal services who are left without; it’s those whose only affordable access to contraception and STI screening is through their local Planned Parenthood clinic that are deprived.

Still reeling over the recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality, forced to watch as their opponents’ victory was celebrated across the world, America’s social conservatives are grasping for relevance, desperate to recover the political influence – reclaim a status – they once boasted.

That they are doing so at the expense of some of society’s most-vulnerable ultimately speaks to the emptiness of their moral crusade.

How you can help:

Donate to Planned Parenthood Ottawa  HERE
Donate to Planned Parenthood USA  HERE

Speak out. Reproductive rights are human rights — If you support a woman’s right to choose, do so with pride and without reservation.

Meriting A Quota

In seeking to redress the underrepresentation of women in key positions of political leadership, Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau has pledged gender parity within government at decision-making levels, vowing as Prime Minister to appoint an “equal number of women and men” to cabinet.

Unveiled in June as part of a larger “Fair and Open Government” Liberal platform, the gender quota proved particularly divisive, sparking heated debate over the wisdom, or even the necessity, of such policy.

Generally speaking, diversity for the sake of diversity, however well-intentioned, is problematic. It not only fails to address the root of a given inequality, but it feeds into the notion of those underrepresented as being so due to an inability to succeed on merit. Further, it casts suspicion on the credentials of those who advanced on merit, but as members of a subset, are assumed have benefited from the quota.

It’s through this “[x] for the sake of [x]” lens that those who instinctively recoil from forced parity have largely viewed the Liberal proposal.

In pointed fashion, columnist Andrew Coyne challenged the idea that merit need not be substituted for gender. “If merit is defined in traditional terms,” Coyne argues, “this is obvious nonsense.”

“Suppose, in a governing caucus of, say, 180 members, one-third are women. And suppose that the talents and experience to be desired in a cabinet minister are distributed equally between the sexes, such that a fifth of either — 12 women, 24 men — might be considered cabinet material. If nevertheless the cabinet must have an equal number of women and men, then in a cabinet of 36 six women who should not have been appointed will be, and six men who should have been appointed will not be.”

What this scenario overlooks, however, is that a Prime Minister need not restrict cabinet appointments to a given cohort of elected MPs. If based entirely on merit, it would be highly-credentialed, non-partisan, and yes, unelected, experts from pertinent fields tasked with overseeing portfolios.

Proven scholarship of a complex issue would be sought over the proven scholarship of a PMO script.

Coyne acknowledges “the idea that we would judge ministers as individuals, on the basis of their ability to govern the country — that train left the station long ago.”

What, then, is meritorious about the status quo? Beyond the presumption of competence, on what superior capabilities – proven merit – are Ministers currently chosen? What explicit proficiencies would we lose to a quota?

Where Coyne’s column succeeds, if not intentionally, is in demonstrating the problem with how gender quotas, and the notion of merit, are traditionally defined.

In 2014, Rainbow Murray, associate professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, published a fascinating argument in defence of gender quotas — for men:

“The focus on women’s underrepresentation has the unintended consequence of framing men as the norm and women as the ‘other’ … The arguments against quotas, based on meritocracy, assume (albeit sometimes implicitly) that the significant overrepresentation of men, over time and space, is the correct and fair outcome.

A much less commonly aired argument is that men receive an unfair advantage in accessing political power … men may themselves be accessing politics on the basis of their sex rather than their more tangible qualities.

As the traditional status quo, (men) benefit both from the presumption of competence and from greater opportunity to demonstrate their worth … It is not sufficient for women to be interchangeable with men; they are expected to offer something distinctive, without which the democratic process is incomplete, thus necessitating their presence.”

By modifying how the quota is approached, emphasizing the problem of overrepresentation, the onus is shifted “onto men … to prove their worth and justify their coveted place within politics.”

What makes Murray’s thesis particularly compelling is its ability to be applied to any over-represented group; the normative reasoning underpinning the quota being its key feature.

“The central concern lies not with gender equality, nor fairness, valid and important though these undoubtedly are. Instead, the emphasis is on enhancing the quality of representation for all.”

“Meritocracy,” Murray concludes, “can be advanced through challenging the status quo, opening a debate about quality, and making better use of available resources of talent. For the problem of (un)fair competition to be resolved, it first must be recognized.”

Trudeau’s proposal may not be the answer to the institutionalized gender disparity within government, but in the absence of a definitive solution, for the interim, a gender quota can provide a point from which to work toward a more-representative, more deeply and broadly qualified, group of representatives.

We do our country a disservice, risk forfeiting the range of talents offered by those we elect, not in contesting the status quo, but in allowing it to persist without dispute.