A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Archive for December 2008

[NON BLOG] Happy New Year!

I’d like to wish everyone reading this a happy and safe New Year’s Eve and a prosperous 2009.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 31, 2008 at 7:00 pm

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[LINK] Torontoist lives!

Written by Randy McDonald

December 23, 2008 at 2:14 pm

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[LINK] “Charles Dickens: Father Christmas”

Over in today’s National Post, Robert Fulford has an article (“Charles Dickens: Father Christmas”) in which he talks at length about the role played by Charles Dickens in defining modern Christmas.

I was talking the other day with Philip Allingham of Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., an expert on this subject since he wrote his PhD dissertation on dramatic versions of Dickens’ Christmas books. He sees the great accomplishment of Dickens as a work of rediscovery. Celebration of Christmas having been a mainly rural practice for a long time, it lost its hold on the British public early in the 19th century as they moved into cities.

Separated from their specific regional cultures, they abandoned many of their ceremonies, including Christmas parties.

As I understand Allingham, Dickens, through his writings, invented a kind of national Christmas, based on tradition and the “Christmas spirit” his characters did or did not embody. A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, “fixed our image of the holiday season as one of wind, ice, and snow without” and “piping hot turkey and family cheer within.” It was Dickens’ idealized recollection of Christmas. England embraced his memories and from England they spread around the world. They formed into an institution that proved durable even among people who had lost their Christian faith and in countries (Japan a striking example) where Christians were a small minority.

Katherine Ashenburg, recently the author of The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, also wrote her PhD dissertation on Dickens and Christmas. As she sees it, the image of Christmas in Dickens steadily darkens over the years. At the beginning it provides him with a symbol of the communal life and a demonstration of the way people should be treated. But as he grows older, angrier and more pessimistic, his Christmas stories increasingly reflect his feelings about how badly the poor are treated by those with money and power. He reflected what Victorians called “the hungry Forties,” when a drop in trade and bad harvests led to widespread misery.

All this found a way into the Christmas stories, along with surprising elements like alcoholism and adultery. There were many prickles on Dickens’ holly, as an English critic, D.L. Murray, wrote. Dickens has often been accused of preaching a philosophy of sugar plums and draughts of punch, plastered with sentimentality. But he really believed, Murray says, “that salvation could be found only in realistic acceptance of life as a whole with an unembittered spirit.”

Written by Randy McDonald

December 23, 2008 at 2:08 pm

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[BRIEF NOTE] Europe’s pioneering internationalization of GLBT rights

The fact that France, backed by the European Union and with broad support not passed without notice.

An unprecedented declaration seeking to decriminalize homosexuality won the support of 66 countries in the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, but opponents criticized it as an attempt to legitimize pedophilia and other “deplorable acts.”

The United States refused to support the nonbinding measure, as did Russia, China, the Roman Catholic Church and members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The Holy See’s observer mission issued a statement saying that the declaration “challenges existing human rights norms.”

The declaration, sponsored by France with broad support in Europe and Latin America, condemned human rights violations based on homophobia, saying such measures run counter to the universal declaration of human rights.

“How can we tolerate the fact that people are stoned, hanged, decapitated and tortured only because of their sexual orientation?” said Rama Yade, the French state secretary for human rights, noting that homosexuality is banned in nearly 80 countries and subject to the death penalty in at least six.

France decided to use the format of a declaration because it did not have the support for an official resolution. Read out by Ambassador Jorge Argüello of Argentina, the declaration was the first on gay rights read in the 192-member General Assembly itself.

Although laws against homosexuality are concentrated in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, more than one speaker addressing a separate conference on the declaration noted that the laws stemmed as much from the British colonial past as from religion or tradition.

Navanethem Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, speaking by video telephone, said that just like apartheid laws that criminalized sexual relations between different races, laws against homosexuality “are increasingly becoming recognized as anachronistic and as inconsistent both with international law and with traditional values of dignity, inclusion and respect for all.”

It’s not surprising that the Europeans have taken the lead in globalizing the GLBT rights dossier, since of all of the regions of the world it’s Europe that was the first to regionalize these issues. Numerous progresses have been achieved by the now-defunct European Commission on Human Rights, a body of the Council of Europe since assimilated into the European Court of Human Rights.

The ECHR began to form on November 4, 1950 when the Council approved the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. This document became the first international legal instrument to safeguard human rights.

The Convention contains articles that establish a right to life, a ban on torture, the outlawing of slavery, a right to liberty, minimum protections for those charged with a crime, a right to privacy, freedom of thought, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. Article 12 established the right to marry for men and women according to national laws.

These rights did not expressly include the freedom to be queer. However, several of the provisions, notably the right to privacy, have been interpreted in a manner that gives protection to gay men and lesbians.

To ensure the observance of the Convention, the member nations established the ECHR and a European Court of Human Rights on September 18, 1959. The ECHR received applications alleging violations of the Convention. Applications could come from nations, but most came from individuals unable to find satisfaction within their national legal systems.

The ECHR accepted cases only after all domestic remedies had been exhausted and within a period of six months from the date on which the final decision was taken. It charged no fees and did not require a plaintiff to hire an attorney.

The Commission either attempted to achieve a friendly settlement, issued an opinion on whether a breach of the Convention had taken place, or referred a case to the Court. Only the Court had the ability to reach judicial decisions.

The ECHR acted only when it received a petition. Throughout its history, it received relatively few requests for assistance. In the 1980s, queers became more aggressive about pursuing justice and the ECHR began to move.

In 1981, a gay man named Jeffrey Dudgeon asked the ECHR to decriminalize homosexual relationships in Northern Ireland. He charged that the Irish ban violated a person’s right to privacy, contrary to the Convention. Dudgeon won. His victory forced the British government in Northern Ireland to legalize homosexuality in 1982.

The next successful gay rights ECHR case also involved the decriminalization of same-sex sodomy. In 1988, David Norris persuaded the ECHR to rule that the Republic of Ireland’s prohibition of all homosexual acts was illegal.

Considering the strength of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, it is doubtful that homosexual relations would have become legal in that country without the intervention of the ECHR.

While it protected adult gays, the ECHR hesitated to allow minors the right to practice homosexuality. In 1983, British teenager Richard Desmond became the first person to take the United Kingdom to the ECHR over Britain’s age of consent laws.

Unable to broker a compromise, the ECHR sent the Desmond case to the European Court of Human Rights. Desmond lost. The Court deferred to the right of each member state to fix its own minimum age for homosexual contact. It ruled that each nation was entitled to take into account the “moral interests and welfare of young people.”

By 1997, the social climate in Europe had become friendlier to gays. Euan Sutherland, another British gay youth, attempted to use the ECHR to overturn the British age of consent.

Sutherland argued that the difference between the heterosexual and homosexual ages of consent affected his enjoyment of his human rights. He charged that Britain had violated the Convention with a discriminatory law that infringed upon his right to respect for a private life.

Sutherland won his case. The Commission became the first international body to recognize an adolescent male’s homosexuality.

As the news report quoted above goes on to make clear, the regionalization of human rights norms goes both ways.

The opposing statement read in the General Assembly, supported by nearly 60 nations, rejected the idea that sexual orientation was a matter of genetic coding. The statement, led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, said the effort threatened to undermine the international framework of human rights by trying to normalize pedophilia, among other acts.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference also failed in a last-minute attempt to alter a formal resolution that Sweden sponsored condemning summary executions. It sought to have the words “sexual orientation” deleted as one of the central reasons for such killings.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 22, 2008 at 10:27 pm

[BRIEF NOTE] What do Tatar military units mean?

I’ve long been interested in the self-governing Russian Republic of Tatarstan‘s slow consolidation as a non-sovereign nation-state, but this report from Windows on Eurasia suggests that something rather remarkable is now happening.

The Russian defense ministry and the Republic of Tatarstan have agreed on an experimental program to set up military units consisting only of draftees from Tatarstan, a measure Moscow officials say would help eliminate ethnic crime within the Russian army but a step some analysts suggest could lead to the fragmentation of that military force.

The joint decision to create “national Tatar units” on a trial basis in Orenburg and Samara oblasts was taken after human rights activists and families of draftees visited the Tots Garrison where an ethnic Tatar recently fled from his unit because of the mistreatment he received from soldiers of other ethnic groups (www.rbcdaily.ru/2008/12/22/focus/395812).

While the creation of such units could reduce the amount of “dedovshchina” as such mistreatment is commonly called, it creates “a very bad precedent,” according to retired general Leonid Ivashov of the Academy of Geopolitical Problems, because now other groups will want the same treatment, a trend that would undermine military cohesion and the chain of command.

That view is certain to be shared by many in the Russian political elite, but senior officials in the defense ministry appear likely to support the creation of such national units given the problems they have faced from the Soldiers’ Mothers Committee and even appeals to the European Court of Human Rights.

In tsarist times, units complected on an ethnic basis were a commonplace, with the so-called “Savage Division” consisting of units made up of various Caucasian nationalities only the most famous because of the willingness of its commanders to defend the tsar and the tsarist system when almost no one else would.

But in the Soviet period, such units were permitted only during the complicated days of the Russian Civil War (1918-1922) and then again during World War II (1941-1945), when the regime was prepared to make compromises with the population in the name of saving the communist system.

Since 1991, many non-Russian groups, led by the Tatars, have called for the establishment of ethnically based units, not only to end the mistreatment many of their soldiers currently experience in the army but also to generate a sense of national pride and to prevent the army from becoming a “russianizing” experience.

Moscow has resisted such a step until now, and this “experiment” may prove stillborn, although having allowed the announce to be made and with the defense ministry having indicated that it supports the measure, the Russian government may well face resistance to any retreat on this line even as it is certain to face demands for such units from other ethnic groups.

Perhaps the first of these additional demands will come from Chechnya, where the republic’s president Ramzan Kadyrov has already said that he favors the formation of Chechen units not only within the borders of his own republic but in the Russian army and fleet more generally.

The alarmism strikes me as potentially overwrought. Here in Canada, the Royal 22e Régiment was founded during the First World War and maintained thereafter as an explicitly Francophone military unit within an Anglophone Canadian Armed Forces, so far doing so without complicating Canadian political and military life in the slightest. Some Québec separatists have talked of making the `Van Doos`the nucleus of an independent Québec’s military, but that talk`s the consequence of a preexisting movement. If I’m correct in thinking that there isn’t a separatist movement of note in Tatarstan, then I would be inclined to bet that Russia has nothing to fear from Tatar military units. Chechnya, now, is a different story.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 22, 2008 at 8:02 pm

[LINK] “Dear Sweetheart”

For the past few weeks, The Globe and Mail has been publishing, blog-format, a series of letters sent by a Canadian Second World War to his wife.

It was the Second World War. A million young Canadians were marching off to risk their lives. One of them, David K. Hazzard, was separated from his beloved wife Audrey, but soon found a way to fight the loneliness with his pen.

He wrote hundreds of letters, beginning each the same way ‘Dear Sweetheart.’ They are a riveting account of what he went through.

How did he cope without Audrey and his two young daughters? How did they cope without him? In the weeks ahead, the series Dear Sweetheart will publish new letters daily. In the end, their story is our story.

We tell it as a homage to those who died, the 180,000 veterans who survive, their children, their grandchildren and Canada’s fighting families today.

The whole section, featuring letters from other people involved in the story of David and Audrey, is well worth reading.

Written by Randy McDonald

December 22, 2008 at 7:28 pm

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[FORUM] What do you think about cloning Neanderthals?

The Neanderthals–classified either as Homo sapiens neanderthalensis or Homo neanderthalensis, depending on the classifier’s view of their proximity to Homo sapiens sapiens–has entered the news recently, as the Neanderthal Genome Project‘ publication of the Neanderthal genome has hit. John Hawks provides an excellent overview

Keeping that in mind, the human-Neandertal difference is startlingly close to this human-human difference measurement. The Neandertal is only 10 percent more different from the draft human genome than these two human sequences are from each other.

It seems very likely that we will find pairs of living human populations where the average genetic divergence is older — maybe much older — than this human-Neandertal divergence. For instance, it seems almost certain that the great genetic variability among living African groups will exceed this human-Neandertal difference.

Some geneticists have noted that European and Asian populations seem to be a genetic “subset” of African populations, at least for many genetic loci. With these kinds of numbers, it looks like Neandertals may be a subset of living human diversity in the same sense. I’ve never much liked that formulation, because “subset” is never really an accurate description of the genetic relationships. But if the seat of living human diversity is Africa, adding Neandertals to the mix may not change that pattern at all.

As Green and colleagues note, most of the genetic divergence between humans and Neandertals, and between humans and other living humans, is actually much older than the divergence of these populations from each other.

The possibility that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens sapiens interbred can’t be ruled out–genes may have flowed between the two populations, in one or both ways, before the Neanderthals’ apparent extinction more than twenty thousand years ago.

If we end up developing a sample Neanderthal genome, the rather startling possibility arises of producing cloned Neanderthals. Why not, if the technology exists for people (jaded billionaires?) to produce clones of the woolly mammoth for their chic estates in Alaska and Finnish Lapland? There would be at least some passable scientific reasons for cloning Neanderthals–Stephen Strauss argued last year that cloned Neanderthals could demonstrate abilities that would confirm or deny our readings of their archeological record.

Being able to figure out whether Neanderthals were quasi-human by looking at strings of genes strikes me as likely as unreliable as trying to figure out their language, marriage, hunting, music, art and habits by looking at their fossilized bones.

Again, I repeat we have to see how the total biological machine works. And I don’t see how one is going to do that without making one or two or five or some bigger number of Neanderthals. Then we let the clones loose and see what living Neanderthals do.

Yes, yes, I know this doesn’t account for any putative Neanderthal culture.

If they passed on axe-making tips or told firepit tales of the valour of Ug-Luk the Magnificent, we aren’t going to be able to exactly recreate that.

But we can nurse them to adulthood, try to teach them survival skills, a language and then let them do for themselves. We can bring them back from extinction limbo and let them make a life.

However imperfect this is, it undoubtedly would lift our understanding of the Neanderthals out of its present slough of ignorance.

Against this are the massive ethical issues identified last month by William Saletan in Slate. The terribly fragile constraints applied against human cloning and genetic engineering seem to be strictly limited to Homo sapiens sapiens, not to another human species.

As this uncomfortable reality of the past becomes a future prospect—transitional creatures between human and nonhuman—the “human dignity” framework starts to look a bit shaky. George Church, a leading geneticist, suggests (in Wade’s paraphrase) that scientists could “modify not a human genome but that of the chimpanzee,” bringing it “close enough to that of Neanderthals, [with] the embryo brought to term in a chimpanzee.” No human clones or products involved. At least, no “modern” humans. This leaves the question of whether we’re entitled to mess around in the lab with “another human species.” But it’s hard to see how the bishops and other religious critics of biotechnology can plunge into this area, having drawn a tight moral line around our species.

If we do this Church’s way, I don’t see how conservatives can object. They didn’t object last year when scientists announced the cloning of rhesus macaque embryos. That, too, was the creation of nonhuman primate life. Follow the human lineage three branches beyond the primate order, and the rhesus macaques are still with us. Follow the human line two more branches, and the chimps are still with us. One more branch, and you’re down to us and the Neanderthals. If it’s OK to clone a macaque and a chimp, it’s pretty hard to explain why, at that last fork in the road, you’re forbidden to clone a Neanderthal.

Is the idea repugnant? Absolutely. But that’s not because we’d be defacing humanity. It’s because we’d be looking at it.

The idea of cloning Neanderthals appeals to me on a few levels. The audacity of the technological achievement impresses me and the possible benefits to science of having living Neanderthals might be worth considering, the project’s major appeal to me consisting of the possibility of bringing another human species back from the void tens of thousands of years after our lot wiped them out. Equally, the idea appalls me: I very much doubt that the social and legal frameworks necessary to protect Neanderthals from a gratuitously powerful civilization exist, what with them being technically non-human and all. The possibility that, one day in the not too distant future, there might be a race of human beings deemed “soulless” or some such thing by at least some of the relevant authorities, terrifies me.

What do you think about the idea?

Written by Randy McDonald

December 20, 2008 at 2:27 pm

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