Animals deserve respect, but they are property — not people

First published at Global News on May 26, 2017.

My wife says my love of dogs — signified by the look of longing I get whenever I see one — borders on “pathological.” So, what I’m about to say is not for lack of love of animals, I assure you.

A Canadian Press story this week sparked a great deal of outrage by revealing that healthy pets are sometimes put down for no other reason than the owner no longer wanting them. While upsetting, these killings of convenience aren’t banned by statute or veterinary regulations.

Animal Justice executive director and lawyer Camille Labchuk, who is a great advocate for her cause, said this is similar to a parent deciding they no longer want a son or daughter.

“If a child is in a situation where the parents can no longer care for that child, whether the parents have financial issues, mental health issues, or they die, the government steps in and the state supports that child,” she said. “Why we wouldn’t do the same thing for vulnerable animals is beyond me.”

I wasn’t familiar with the phenomenon of unjustified euthanization before reading the CP piece, and even since, I’ve yet to learn of a rash epidemic sweeping the nation. Not only did the vets cited in the story say the situation was rare, but also that many of their colleagues wouldn’t fulfil an owner’s wishes in those circumstances.

Even so, the vast majority of respondents are pushing for the practice to be legislated out of existence, which couldn’t happen without redefining what pets are under the law, which is property — exactly how they should be classed.

To ban euthanizing healthy pets would set a concerning precedent for how animals must be treated in other areas.

Animals already elicit enough double standards from humans. To most people, dogs and cats are different from raccoons and squirrels, just as we view lions and elephants in a different light than chickens and cows.

Some animals are beloved pets; others are meals. Many are merely vermin while a select few are regarded as majestic creatures.

All are living beings, but we set arbitrary boundaries around how each should be treated. As humans, I maintain this is our prerogative. How else could we justify eating meat for pleasure if not for an inherent right to decide that animal lives matter less than our own? (I say this as someone slated to judge a Ribfest later this summer.)

Most animal rights activists view human slaughter of animals as inhumane. But, after watching a recent National Geographic Channel marathon of Animals Gone Wild, I can assure you it’s far more brutal when animals kill each other.

If we say a human can’t put down a pet dog or cat without a good reason, will we extend the same guidelines to a farmer who owns hundreds of cattle and horses? Is a barn cat that gets rid of your property’s rodents a pet or a tool? How about those countries where dogs and cats are routinely killed for food? We’ve all seen stories of three-legged puppies who survived abuse, or even lame cows with artificial hoofs. So how injured does an animal have to be before you’re justified in euthanizing?

These questions may make you uncomfortable, but that only underscores how difficult it is to draw a line differentiating pet and non-pet animals that isn’t rooted in emotion.

Most animals are acquired by either purchase or simply being claimed — either one gives the human owner complete control.

For many people of faith, that dominion of mankind over other living creatures goes back to the book of Genesis.

Beyond the philosophical and ethical questions, there is also one of enforceability. If a human has callously decided he/she no longer wants to fulfil the commitment made when adopting a pet, they’re faced with three options: adoption, euthanization or abandonment.

With many rescue centres and shelters at capacity, pet abandonment — which seems far crueler to most domesticated animals, whose survival instincts have been bred out of existence, than euthanization — is a real concern.

In my family, we’ve always viewed the dogs as part of the family.

Pets are more like family heirlooms than family members, however. They have an emotional significance setting them apart from other belongings, but at the end of the day, they are owned entities.

Your pets are not your children, nor are you their parents. This designation doesn’t take away from the emotional connection, shared memories, and painful loss that come with pet ownership. But it is still ownership nonetheless.

If you lose the right to make decisions as an owner of something, you eventually lose the right to own it at all.

With pets, this would be a desirable outcome for the Rutgers law professors who published an essay last year calling domestication of animals “torture,” arguing pet ownership is no different than “human chattel slavery.”

The case for that claim comes from the same place as Labchuk’s push for tighter restrictions around pet euthanasia.

Vets should refuse to do it, and animal lovers should open their doors to rescues, but the reprehensibility of killing an animal for no reason is a moral wrong, not a legal one.

Is cultural appropriation an act of theft or artistic literary exploration?

First published at Global News on May 19, 2017.

Two Canadian magazine editors have resigned and a television producer has been reassigned after defending the right of authors and other artists to take inspiration from cultures different than their own.

The phenomenon in question is called cultural appropriation: Inherent in the name is the implication that the act is theft, rather than a literary exploration of a world beyond the writer’s own.

Toronto painter Amanda PL was quite open about her work taking inspiration in both style and subject matter from an Anishnaabe artist. She was honouring that artist, not plagiarizing. But that didn’t stop the Visions Gallery from cancelling the event, capitulating to the mob of people accusing the artist of racism and colonialism.

And then came Hal Niedzviecki, the editor of Write — the magazine of the Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) — who contended that authors should be not only be allowed, but encouraged, to craft characters across the spectrum of cultures.

“In my opinion, anyone, anywhere, should be encouraged to imagine other peoples, other cultures, other identities,” he said in the editor’s note, for which TWUC has since apologized.

The union apologized for the hurt caused by the piece, and rather ironically said the magazine aims to be “sincerely encouraging to all voices.” Except in apologizing for Niedzviecki’s piece, the union is in effect saying not all voices are welcome.

The union’s “equity task force” (the in-house legislator for the aggrieved) called for sensitivity training, “affirmative action hiring” practices, turning over the magazine to editors from indigenous communities for the next three issues, and a paid equity officer who must be “active and respected in anti-oppression cultural movements for at least three years.” Of course, this role has priority for “indigenous writers, racialized writers, writers with disabilities and trans writers.”

Any sensible person would see this response — and the myriad accusations of racism directed towards Niedzviecki — as excessive. Especially since Niedzviecki himself wrote his now-maligned column in the spirit of bridging understanding across cultures.

And then came former Walrus editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay, who critiqued the “mobbing” of Niedzviecki in a tweet, on a CBC panel discussion, and again in a National Post column — the latter of which culminated in his abrupt resignation from the magazine, citing a trend of “self-censorship” that put his Walrus role at odds with his scrappy columnist instincts.

Managing editor Steve Ladurantaye of CBC’s The National was part of a Twitter exchange suggesting an “appropriation prize” — even offering to chip in some money for it — for the best example of appropriation each year. Despite posting a heartfelt series of apology tweets vowing to do better in the future, he was reassigned to another role at CBC.

Days after his resignation, Niedzviecki went on a pandering apology tour, saying the situation “breaks my heart.”

He said on CBC’s The Current that his goal was to “push some buttons within the writing community and make sure we didn’t err so much on the side of caution that we’re no longer able to, say, put a person of colour in a piece of writing.”

If that truly was the intention, he should be declaring victory rather than apologizing. He certainly pushed buttons, and proved that the writers’ community is willing to stomp on the value of literary freedom.

Whether a white author should craft a black or aboriginal character is secondary to the far more important point, which is that a writer can create whatever work he or she wants to, for whatever reason. That’s what art is. That’s what freedom of speech is.

There is a fundamental difference, I admit, between censorship imposed by the state — the most egregious kind — and censorship that is self-imposed because of a political or ideological climate, but the result is the same. In both cases, ideas and speech are stifled, meaning thought itself is subverted.

Speaking at an academic freedom conference at Western University in London, Ont. last weekend, academic firebrand Jordan Peterson labelled free speech “the process through which ideas are generated.”

We often view speech as the way ideas are shared, but that process — the dialogue of exchanging ideas — is how new ideas, and by extension new truths, emerge. In the fiction world, it’s how new perspectives and stories emerge.

When bestselling author Lionel Shriver took aim at cultural appropriation during a literary conference last September, she faced many of the same accusations of racism and privilege directed towards the players in the TWUC kerfuffle.

One of the most important points she raised was how much great work simply wouldn’t exist if not for the creators taking influence from people unlike them.

She cited Graham Greene, Malcolm Lowry, Matthew Kneale, and Maria McCann — all writers whose work involved using voices of people of different races, background, and sexual orientations.

To dogmatically impose the cliche “write what you know” on writers would make literature very boring. Whether you’re reading a book about wizardry, spies or bank robbers, there’s a high likelihood that the author wrote it from a place outside of their own identity.

We need to restart viewing that as art, not theft.

Canada’s gun laws aren’t saving lives — they’re just making them more complicated

First published at Global News on May 12, 2017.

If I were a more daring person, dinner with my parents last week could have cost me jail time.

No, I’m not talking about a family meal devolving to blows before the dessert course, but rather a bizarre provision of the law that impacts hundreds of thousands of Canadians — including me.

I needed to take my handgun to the gunsmith last week for a minor maintenance issue, dropping it off before work with the plan of picking it up afterwards.

I live on one end of the city; the gun store is on the other — the same end in which my parents live (though my mother would be mortified by this juxtaposition.)

If I were getting my knives sharpened or squash racquet restrung, I would have picked it up, gone to dinner, and then headed home. With a gun, it’s not so simple.

To transport a restricted firearm, the class in which handguns fall, the law requires I take “a route that, in all circumstances, is reasonably direct for the specific indicated purposes.”

The precise interpretation of that depends on the jurisdiction, and the police officer who catches you, but one firearms expert told me even a Tim Hortons stop on the way home could be illegal.

When I asked the Ontario firearms office for advice on my scenario, I was only reminded of the conditions of my license.

Those conditions also prevent target shooters from stopping at the gun store for ammunition on the way to the range. If you get caught, it could mean seizure of your firearm and revocation of your license — and possibly even criminal charges.

Who does this law protect?

Had this been a non-restricted gun — which most rifles and shotguns are — I could have taken whichever route I wanted and even kept it in my car during the work day, provided it was stored properly.

It’s reasonable to maintain strict rules surrounding ownership and transportation of firearms, but people must realize gun owners have already passed safety courses, been vetted by law enforcement, and are subjected to almost daily police checks.

We’re also subject to warrant-less home searches, despite a constitutional right to freedom from search and seizure.

Yet still, running afoul of the regulations could be irreparable.

The penalty for these minor regulatory infractions would be akin to having your car impounded and your driver’s license suspended for being late in renewing your stickers.

That I needed to drive 20 kilometres out of my way is certainly a first-world problem, but it’s indicative of the bigger mess that is Canada’s bundle of convoluted and needlessly strict firearms rules as laid out in the Firearms Act.

The more I learn about guns themselves, the less sense the laws make.

To get a handgun that shoots a .22 LR calibre round (with a length of 15.6 mm), one needs a restricted license complete with transportation restrictions, registration, and increased oversight from law enforcement. A rifle that shoots a .50 calibre round — a cartridge the size of a small flashlight — accurately to over two kilometres away requires only a basic possession and acquisition license.

Someone could walk into a gun store, buy it, and leave in a matter of seconds after only flashing their license. Even so, most Canadians don’t view firearms as a clear and present danger.

When someone does commit an atrocious crime with a gun, the regulations are irrelevant.

If Justin Bourque or Michael Zehaf-Bibeau used restricted guns, I doubt their plans would have changed had they been reminded to take only a direct route to and from home and a gun range or gun shop.

Regardless of classification, if someone is intent on killing, they’ll use the resources they have available to them.

I would blow past my word count for this column if I listed all of the firearms that bear stricter classifications than others that shoot the same ammunition at the same rate of fire. Often, the sole difference is aesthetics.

Some guns just look scarier than others. Should that make them harder to get, or more convoluted to transport?

It sounds like a trope to say we shouldn’t penalize law-abiding gun owners, but the firearms system does that every single day.

These headaches exist even after improvements put in place by Stephen Harper’s government simplifying some of the rules around firearms and changing the classification guidelines.

The stakes are higher for gun owners than most other groups in Canada in the event of a slip-up.

What if my cable lock isn’t closed all the way? What if I forget my license at home? What if I need to stop to change a flat tire on my way home from the range?

These questions shouldn’t be the difference between one’s arrest and one’s freedom.

By the way, I made it to dinner — gun-free.

It’s hypocritical to change London’s voting system without the voters deciding

First published at Global News on May 5, 2017.

When Londoners head to the polls next fall, they’ll have the option to rank council and mayoral candidates instead of choosing only one.

By a margin of nine to five, city councillors voted Monday night at a special meeting — hours before the midnight deadline set out by the Ontario government — to abandon first-past-the-post in lieu of ranked ballots.

The decision was met with great excitement from advocates — many of whom live outside of the city — while most Londoners responded with a shrug, at best.

If first-past-the-post was threatening the foundation of civic democracy, most people seem to have missed the memo.

The lead-up to the vote had eerie similarities to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s abandoned attempt to change Canada’s voting system. That discussion ended when Trudeau told his new democratic institutions minister that electoral reform wasn’t part of her mandate.

It was a significant broken promise by the Liberals, who told Canadians unequivocally the 2015 election would be the last under first-past-the-post. After getting elected, however, it became increasingly apparent that few people really cared about changing things, save for those who change would directly benefit.

I don’t fault activists for advancing reforms that would benefit them: who wouldn’t? It’s important that the rest of us recognize the self-interest in their advocacy, however.

Proponents of ranked ballots say voters will be more likely to support a “fringe” candidate if their votes can be later allocated to a more electable beneficiary. People are less likely to vote based on electability, in other words.

It doesn’t seem to increase the likelihood of fringe candidates actually getting elected though.

Ranked ballots benefit moderates because they make for palatable second choices. A right-winger would rather have a centrist than a socialist, and vice-versa. Even if someone gets 40 per cent of the vote on the first ballot, surpassing all other candidates, they could still lose.

The system penalizes those who run on bold ideas and policies.

The current system has its own flaws, of course, which is why any discussion of change has to be far more involved than London’s council’s was.

Regardless of one’s position on specific reforms, no elected representative should be able to change the rules on how they’ll seek re-election.

It was wrong for the Liberals to discuss reform without considering a referendum, just as it was for councillors in London to approve a change without one.

At least the Liberals told Canadians the reform was on the table. A small number of London councillors were forthright in the 2014 election about their hope to move away from first-past-the-post, but it wasn’t a significant election issue.

London is in the midst of a half-billion dollar rapid transit discussion, which has overshadowed any half-baked attempts at electoral reform engagement.

The City of London attempted to consult — I use the term generously — residents of the city. Just 815 people filled out an online survey on the subject. Among them, 52 per cent said they would prefer to vote for only one candidate in an election.

Half of those surveyed said they were in favour of changing to a ranked balloting system.

No other possible reforms were presented.

The city hosted four open houses to discuss ranked ballots and address people’s questions. Ninety-one people showed up — total. One meeting had a mere 12 attendees.

Even the federal Liberal government had more people show up at its electoral reform roadshow whistlestops.

Online engagement was more abysmal.

A report by London’s city staff said there were six Facebook posts and 14 tweets from Londoners weighing in. Perhaps the question should have been posed alongside a cat GIF.

Proponents of ranked ballots insist the current system gives too much power to a small group of people.

We hear this rhetoric about our federal political system as well. A party can have a majority in Parliament with only 39 per cent of the national popular vote.

These voices are blind to the hypocrisy of having nine people change our entire way of voting.

Nine people elected under a system they say is flawed, I might add.

If they’re illegitimately elected — based on their own contempt for first-past-the-post elections — how can any vote they cast on how democracy is enacted be legitimate?

This goes far beyond weighing the pros and cons of the status quo versus reform. Any serious discussion needs to engage voters directly through a referendum, not four tea parties and a handful of tweets.

If electoral reform were actually about democracy, it would be decided by the people.

To update the famous T.S. Eliot quote, democracy in London died not with a bang, but with a whimper.

30 years ago, a professor predicted the ‘closing of the American mind’ — how right he was

First published at Global News on April 28, 2017.

Organizers pulled the plug on a planned lecture by author Ann Coulter at the University of California, Berkeley this week. This is only the latest example of speakers — generally conservatives — being shut down by riots or the threat of violent protest.

It was only in February that Berkeley was literally aflame after hundreds of “anti-fascist” protesters took to the streets in opposition to Milo Yiannopoulos.

The conduct was reprehensible, but so was that of the 100 faculty members who called on Berkeley to cancel the event, citing the offensive nature of Yiannopoulos’ schtick.

Many of these professors have tenure, protecting their right to be controversial. Not as important for others, apparently.

Universities were once bastions of free speech, but genuine dialogue has been replaced by vicious shouting matches and conformity enforced by mob rule. This is particularly sobering at Berkeley, given its long-standing support of free expression.

Anyone caught off guard by this incursion of censorship hasn’t been paying attention: We were warned.

This month marks the 30th anniversary of Allan Bloom’s renowned book, The Closing of the American Mind: How higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today’s students.

Published in 1987, the book lamented the dilution of education and decline of discourse at post-secondary institutions — witnessed firsthand by Bloom, a classics professor and philosopher.

As the culture changed in the 1960s with the sexual revolution, anti-war protests and the rise of feminism, so too did the attitudes of that era’s students, in particular. Universities capitulated to the demand for education that was more rooted in social justice than objective truths.

This didn’t just manifest itself in political theory, but even the arts. Students were more concerned with discrediting, rather than studying, classics (on account of undertones of sexism and racism, invariably). Not even works by Shakespeare, Homer and Aristotle were safe.

Challenging truth and authority is a part of education. Campus progressives wanted their view unchallenged.

Universities responded, Bloom noted, by “offering every concession other than education,” saying “the whole experiment in excellence was washed away, leaving not a trace.”

As cultural relativism, the belief system that rejects any sense of cultural superiority (certainly that of the West) became the norm, students rejected quintessential Western values like free speech.

Despite being the mother of all liberties, free speech was lumped in with any other theory of mythology, viewed as a novel idea rather than a necessary tenet of democracy.

And so began the death of debate.

More than a generation after The Closing of the American Mind, disrespecting free speech is part of progressive doctrine.

Instead of countering controversial opinions with opposing views, it’s more the norm to protest a speaker or try to shut them down altogether.

Student unions routinely block assembly by groups challenging liberal orthodoxy.

Speech codes to guard against allegedly oppressive language are ubiquitous on campuses.

Without ever using the term “political correctness” or “safe space,” Bloom described what is so apparent in academia, and even off-campus, today. He was ahead of his time.

As a concept, political correctness was in action in the 1980s, but not as mainstream or understood as it is today.

It was actually a 1993 Newsweek feature that blew up the national discussion in America about the PC phenomenon, which the author termed, “an experiment of sorts taking place in American colleges.”

The piece shared stories that were unbelievable at the time.

A University of Connecticut student was excommunicated by her school for a tasteless joke about gays. She was later allowed back, but only after a federal lawsuit.

A Brown University student insisted the school refer to young girls as “pre-women,” to avoid belittling them.

Smith College issued a notice informing students of the 10 kinds of oppression they should avoid — from ageism to ableism to heteronormativity.

It’s laughable today to think these were controversial. Stories like these are now the rule, not the exception.

As much as Bloom’s book sent shockwaves through academia, his concerns weren’t heeded by the tenured Marxist professors and peacenik students who tended to run the show.

Idealism was partially to blame, Bloom argued.

In 1987, most college-aged students had a relatively good life. They had more personal freedoms than their parents did, and they didn’t have to live in fear of the Second World War or Vietnam War drafts.

Even the Cold War threat of nuclear attack had waned.

It was easy for students to pick more abstract enemies — misogyny, racism, [insert marginalized group]-o-phobia, and so on. Identifying and opposing these isn’t bad, but it’s problematic when every issue is viewed solely through the lens of oppression.

No one can argue, 30 years later, that things are better.

Perhaps Bloom’s hopefulness was his book’s biggest failing. He looked to the purity of the philosophical discourses in ancient Greece — the Platonic and Socratic dialogues — as model examples, stating that such a return to a culture of ideas and values is always viable.

It seems less so with each passing riot.