Twenty Fifteen

George Orwell’s dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, was published in 1949; the year 1984 has come and gone, but the culturally literate recognize references to words and phrases from the novel: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, and Newspeak.

Although there is no expectation that this post will be as popular as Nineteen Eighty-Four or will coin as many words, “Twenty Fifteen” discusses an Orwellian Canadian December and looks ahead to an Orwellian 2015 in Canada. In December, two newly elected Ontario mayors announced they would reconsider the illegal practise of reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of city council meetings.

On December 17, the Mayor of Mississauga, Ontario and her Council voted to keep the reciting the Lord’s Prayer knowing they’re breaking the law, and on the same day, they issued a press release promising to foster “greater inclusion of all [Mississauga] residents and stakeholders.” No doubt all Mississauga residents and stakeholders are thanking their mayor who art in Mississauga for her consideration. Mayor Crombie’s doublespeak is enough to make Orwell’s headstone nod in confirmation of Orwell’s perspicacity.

However, in Brampton, Ontario, Mayor Linda Jeffrey’s refusal to break the law shows a familiarity with Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” an essay that “encourages concreteness and clarity instead of vagueness, and individuality over political conformity.” Mayor Jeffrey uses plain language to explain why the Lord’s Prayer was dropped from Brampton City Council meetings:

Again in Mississauga, a provincial MPP and a federal MP have and will contribute to the Canada’s dystopian 2015. On March 25, 2014,

Mississauga East-Cooksville MPP Dipika Damerla’s private member’s bill proclaiming April 2 each year as Pope John Paul II Day received Royal Assent

On April 2,

the first-ever Pope John Paul II Day in Ontario, Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins celebrated the first-ever Roman Catholic Mass at Queen’s Park in the building’s 154-year history.

In his homily,

Collins reminded his small flock Catholic schools are “a gift to all the province,” while also praising politicians for their dedication.

Collins’ flock inside and outside the legislature need to be reminded that the “gift” of Catholic schools is paid for by all Ontario taxpayers. The Catholic Church itself, which has elevated doublespeak to an art form, is not paying for Ontario’s public but separate Catholic schools.

Worse is yet to come: On December 16, 44 Canadian senators voted against the motion “that Bill C-266 (An Act to establish Pope John Paul II Day) be not now read a third time but that it be read a third time this day six months hence.”  Twenty-six senators voted for the motion because Bill C-266

blurs the principle of separation of church and state, which is a fundamental tenet of the Canadian Constitution, a very serious element.

and because

of some very disturbing things that happened in the Vatican. . . .The most disturbing thing though, in terms of things that have happened at the Vatican, is how poorly they have handled the matter of sexual abuse, sexual abuse against thousands of children by thousands of priests.

Despite these and other objections to Bill C-266, the Act to establish Pope John Paul II Day “passed the Senate Dec. 16 and has received royal assent”: April 2 will be John Paul II Day in Canada.

Conservative MP Wladyslaw Lizon (Mississauga East-Cooksville) introduced Private Members’ Bill C-266, to the House of Commons in 2011. Lizon’s website says,

Born and raised in Poland, Wladyslaw Lizon moved to Canada to pursue the many opportunities our country has to offer new Canadians.

In Lizon’s case, Canada offered him the opportunity to become a member of the Parliament of Canada and the opportunity to lobby on behalf of his Polish-Canadian constituents and on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church.  He has ensured the Polish-Canadian and Catholic vote in the next federal election unless people realize that his “motivation” was not to promote the “values that resonate deeply in our country and with Canadians”; he introduced Private Members’ Bill C-266 to get elected in 2015.

Lizon’s, Damerla’s and Crombie’s political maneuvering will ensure that the Christian God Big Brother will keep our land glorious and free.

The Fairly Extraordinary Claim That Torture “Doesn’t Work”

As if public “die-ins” weren’t sufficiently incongruous with the peace and goodwill of the Christmas season, our American neighbours have been indulging in a ferocious spasm of recrimination over the practice of torture. A committee of the U. S. Senate has compiled a godawful behemoth of a report (PDF here) on the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of prisoners during the absurdly named “War on Terror”. Even the “executive summary”, the only part to have been made publicly available, runs to a forbidding 500 pages or so. I’m not about to read the whole thing, but the main conclusion is evidently that the CIA, by golly, tortured a lot of people and ended up with very little to show for it. This has provided considerable ammunition to the naysayers in a longer-running, and not entirely American by any means, debate over the effectiveness of torture in the context of interrogation.

Representative of the naysaying side is a piece that Martin Robbins published in the Guardian a few years ago. Robbins is all the more credible as a torture skeptic because he is quite unapologetic about being open to the idea of using torture if it could be shown to work:

I’m a pragmatic humanist , and so I don’t really believe in absolutes when it comes to morals. Could I support the use of torture in some contrived situation? Yes, definitely, and it would be irrational to say otherwise. If mutilating John Doe’s balls is going to stop a nuclear bomb going off in my favourite London pub then hand me the curling tongs.

Of all the things that might threaten the well-being of an honest London pub, nuclear bombs are probably well down the list, but the hypothetical scenario does more or less clarify where Robbins stands on the ethics of torture. On the separate issue of the effectiveness of torture, Robbins’ main point is a familiar one:

Suppose I start beating you around the head, demanding that you tell me that Justin Bieber is in fact a supremely talented artist. Eventually, although it may take several days of torture to get there, you’ll tell me what I want to hear, but that doesn’t make it true.

I like to think that it would take several weeks of such treatment before I was prepared to admit that Bieber was anything but a syrupy, shallow confection served up by an artistically bankrupt pop music industry. That aside, Robbins is trotting out the standard criticism that torture is ineffective because its victims will “say anything” in their desperation to make the pain stop.

But here’s the thing. Torture has been used to loosen reluctant tongues in many parts of the world, if not most, since time immemorial. Common sense suggests that it should work pretty well, and in this case common sense is backed up by a clear and straightforward logical argument. People are generally very averse to experiencing pain. If someone has information that he or she is reluctant to share, inflicting pain and other unpleasant treatment (such as the truly bizarre “rectal feedings” mentioned in the American report) should provide one hell of an incentive to spill the beans. With that in mind, the claim that torture “doesn’t work” looks like a fairly extraordinary one, or at least one that deserves careful skeptical analysis.

The problem with the “say anything” argument, it seems to me, is that it assumes a rather naïve approach on the part of the torturer. What Robbins and his fellow naysayers appear to have in mind is a protocol like this:

  1. Capture some people.
  2. Tell them what you want to hear.
  3. Torture them until they say it.
  4. Believe them!

It’s only fair to point out that torture has often been used in essentially this way over the centuries, for example to extract confessions without much concern for their truth or falsity. I once attended a lecture by Craig Murray, who was Britain’s ambassador to Uzbekistan during the height of the War on Terror. Murray claimed that the Uzbek government had been torturing innocent citizens of its own country in exceptionally brutal ways, for example by boiling them alive, in order to make them “confess” to having links with Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The resulting “intelligence” would then be dutifully handed over to the Americans, I suppose in return for brownie points and perhaps a few concrete favours.

A torturer who was generally interested in extracting reliable information, however, would surely make it clear that what he or she “wanted to hear” was the truth. Distinguishing truth from falsehood would likely be far from straightforward, but that’s undoubtedly the case in any adversarial interrogation – no matter how much “rapport” may appear to exist between interrogator and subject, the latter often has every reason to lie through his or her teeth. Whether or not torture is being used, then, the interrogator will need to ask questions to which he or she already knows the answers in order to gauge the honesty of the subject, cross-reference the information being obtained with intelligence provided by other subjects, check whatever details of the answers given by the subject are susceptible to empirical verification, pay attention to what the subject doesn’t say, and throw in some questions that lead away from what the interrogator suspects to be the truth in order to see how the subject responds. It’s an exercise, come to think of it, that should warm the heart of any committed skeptic. The relevance of torture to this process is that it gives the interrogator a suite of particularly harsh options for punishing silence, evasiveness or demonstrable mendacity on the part of the subject, or for “softening up” a subject prior to interrogation. Every other trick in the book can still be used, but the interrogator who is able and willing to resort to torture has one more card up his or her sleeve.

Is that card an ace or a joker? As far as I can see, all of the available evidence is anecdotal and contradictory. The U. S. Senate report says that torture “was not an effective means of obtaining accurate information or gaining detainee cooperation”; former U. S. Vice President Dick Cheney and some self-described “former senior officers of the Central Intelligence Agency” retort that yes, it bloody well was. U. S. Senator John McCain, who was “trussed up in ropes tight enough to dislocate shoulders” in Vietnam, sides with the Senate report (in part because “all men are endowed by the Creator with inalienable rights” – pull the other one, John); former SAS sergeant Andy McNab, who was whipped, burned and subjected to extreme dentistry in Iraq, sides with its detractors.

The opinions of actual torturers are similarly contradictory. Don Dzagulones (quoted on p. 355 of this PDF), who tortured Viet Cong prisoners, ended up as a naysayer:

If it happened, I’m certainly not aware of it. Like prisoner X comes in, you beat the living snot out of him. He tells you about a Viet Cong ambush that is going to happen tomorrow, you relay this information to the infantry guys, and a counterambush and the good guy wins and the bad guys loses all because you tortured a prisoner. Never happened. Not to my knowledge.

On the other hand, Paul Aussaresses, a deceased French general who made Dick Cheney look positively cuddly, credited torture with his successes in Algeria:

He arrived in Philippeville (now Skikda), Algeria, in autumn 1954, just as full-scale hostilities were about to break out. There he made no bones about his “enhanced” interrogation techniques, and quickly won a reputation for his ability to penetrate FLN [Front de Libération Nationale] cells. Such was his success that, in 1957, he was promoted to chief of intelligence by Gen Jacques Massu, leading what Aussaresses himself described as “the company of death”. In the alleyways of the Casbah he and his men specialised in snatching suspected FLN fighters off the streets, or from their homes, usually at night. Those taken were frequently never seen again. They were subjected for lengthy, brutal interrogations, and their tortured bodies would then be disposed of.

In his old age, Aussaresses opened up about his Algerian experiences, earning a fair bit of opprobrium in the process. He summarized his attitude in pithy terms:

The revelations, made when Aussaresses was 82, could hardly be called confessions, because they were not accompanied by any sign of remorse. On the contrary, Aussaresses noted that if confronted by the same situation again “it would piss me off, but I would do the same”.

On the empirical question of the effectiveness of torture in extracting information, I must admit that Cheney, McNab and Aussaresses sound to me like the ones who are talking sense. Aussaresses presumably didn’t get promoted for nothing, and Dzagulones (like many other naysayers) is setting the bar awfully high. How often does any interrogation technique yield intelligence about an “ambush that is going to happen tomorrow”? The question is whether torture can sometimes shake loose more information than an interrogator would otherwise be able to obtain, not whether it yields successes of a kind that could hardly be expected outside the confines of a Saturday-morning cartoon.

On the question of whether torture should be used, I suppose it depends on the circumstances. If Canada were embroiled in a conflict in which defeat would be disastrous, the odds were stacked against us, and the use of torture could plausibly snatch victory from the proverbial jaws, I’d be happy to raise a glass to Aussaresses and break out Robbins’ not-so-proverbial curling tongs. However, that kind of scenario seems comfortably remote. Deranged would-be jihadists may be able to knock off a soldier here and there, but they’re too weak and disorganized to represent a strategic threat, and for some strange reason Allah isn’t providing them with all that much help. They may piss us off, but surely we can frustrate most of their knavish tricks without any need for curling tongs – and, for that matter, without any need for assaults on our traditional civil liberties.

For the moment, then, we Canadians can sit in our armchairs and debate the effectiveness of torture without much sense of urgency. However, I’m amused to note that Martin Robbins ended his piece with a disclaimer:

Minor edit: Amended the closing paragraphs slightly to avoid giving anyone the impression I’m daft enough to suggest the government conduct randomized controlled trials for torture!

I don’t see why such trials shouldn’t be carried out, with respect to techniques that are unlikely to result in permanent harm, provided a pool of volunteer subjects willing to provide informed consent could be assembled. Data are good.

Happy Birthday Henrietta Edwards

henrietta-edwards-Today’s Google Doodle honours Henrietta Edwards by celebrating her 165th birthday. Google explains,

This depiction of one of Canada’s greatest advocates for women was illustrated by guest artist, Kate Beaton who has been known to explore the lives of other historical figures in her collection, Hark! A Vagrant.

Ms Beaton says

I think that when it comes to notable people in the women’s rights movement in Canadian history, there are names we know like Nellie McClung or Emily White. They are the token examples in the high school history text; the answer to a multiple choice question somewhere. Maybe we know “The Famous Five” and what they did with the Person’s Case, but I doubt many of us can list the individual women themselves. I believe Henrietta Muir Edwards is one of the women who deserves a wider recognition for her work. Montreal-born–a transplant to the Prairies later in life–she fought for women’s rights, women’s education, women’s work and women’s health, across the country and from a very young age. She was a writer, an artist, a lawmaker and a teacher. She allied herself with likeminded activists and founded a number of movements and societies to improve the lives of women. Henrietta was a woman who made things happen and fought for it all with unflappable conviction. Canada is a richer country for having her as a citizen.


and provides an alternate draft illustration

henrietta-edwards-2 CBC News calls Henrietta Edwards a famous Canadian woman.

So famous, in fact, that she’s part of the so-called Famous Five: a group of Alberta women who fought for women to be declared persons under Canadian law. Their battle started in 1916 and culminated on Oct. 18, 1929, when Britain’s Privy Council officially declared Canadian women to be persons under the law.

A Worthy Cause

In a Canadian Atheist post, Indi says,

Stop giving money to The Salvation Army. Seriously, stop it. They are not a charity, they are a church. They are an evangelical Christian church. This is not opinion, this is fact.

Would you like to take the Christ out of Christmas, but don’t know where to contribute money for a worthy cause that doesn’t come with Jesus attached? If so, you can support the Kelowna Secular Sobriety Group!


January will mark two years of helping local people tackle their addictions. The first non-religious addictions peer support group in Kelowna follows the SMART Recovery program which encourages self-empowerment by providing a safe, respectful and anonymous setting for anyone who wants to work towards becoming and staying alcohol and drug-free.


The Kelowna Secular Sobriety Group has helped many local people who have been struggling with addiction.

One regular participant in KSSG meetings, Tim, found the group so helpful in getting and staying sober, that he has recently trained as a SMART Recovery facilitator himself and is starting a couple of new groups in the New Year.


Check out Tim’s website and support the Kelowna Secular Sobriety Group!

Religion Kills

How many times and how many ways can we say religion kills?

On December 13, 2014 in Calgary, Alberta,

Jennifer Clark, 38, and Jeromie Clark, 34, were charged . . . with criminal negligence causing death and failure to provide the necessities of life.

Their 14-month-old son, John, died the day after he was brought to a Calgary hospital in November 2013.

Police have said the child had a staph infection that was complicated by malnutrition that made it untreatable. They said the child’s family followed strict dietary restrictions based on their faith and nutritional beliefs.

Jennifer and Jeromie Clark are Seventh Day Adventists, and although the “Police say the family followed a strict dietary regimen based on an extreme interpretation of their faith,” this can’t be correct. The Clark children are not Seventh Day Adventists, nor are they responsible for their own nutrition: they are children. This is just another case of adults imposing their religious beliefs and practices on children.

Randy Barber, pastor of Calgary Central Adventist Church, says, “the Clarks had not been active in the church for eight years” and absolves himself and his church from any blame:

the church has a mission to “not only promote healthful living but also make every effort to share beneficial health principles with members and the community at large. Many churches offer classes on smoking cessation and how to prepare healthful, balanced and delicious meals.”

Ah yes, the Calgary Central Adventist Church is all things to all people: it is the source of information on religion, health and nutrition, but note,

Seventh-day Adventists accept the Bible as the only source of our beliefs. We consider our movement to be the result of the Protestant conviction Sola Scriptura—the Bible as the only standard of faith and practice for Christians.

As everyone knows, the Bible contains up to date information on how to quit smoking and on “how to prepare healthful, balanced and delicious meals.” It seems the Bible also advises against fingerprinting:

there was a problem with fingerprinting them after their arrest because of their religious beliefs.

Jennifer and Jeromie Clark have been granted bail.

Jesus Christ!!! Will religion never end?

WordPress theme: Kippis 1.15