An Open Letter to Vince Agovino

Dear Mr. Agovino,
Recently, in your campaign for the position of Member of Provincial Parliament in Willowdale, you sent out a letter (p1, p2, p3, ad) to all constituents. In this letter, you included an advertisement for a petition regarding the sex ed program in Ontario schools, and a long explanation about the problems you see regarding Ontario schools (Catholic schools, specifically) and the "Gay Agenda".

I have to start by saying that your letter lost some of its impact by arriving at my house on October 12th, a little too late for the October 6th election (besides, I voted in the advance polls). However, I did find it quite insulting that Canada Post seems to think that one cent of postage was not sufficent for this letter, and that I am now personally responsible for $1.81 in outstanding postage.

The mode of delivery of this particular letter, however, is not what offends me the most. What offends me are the views expressed in this letter. But first, a little about myself.  I was born in Ontario and was a student in Ontario's Catholic school system from Grade 1 onwards. As a child, I didn't know lots of things, including much about homosexuality (or, let's face it, about sexuality at all). But I did know that someone you didn't like in the schoolyard was called a "fag", though I didn't use that word very often.

Now, I am living in Willowdale and am raising a family of my own. In a way, my situation is a bit like yours. However, our choice of city (and provincial riding) appear to be the only similarities we share. Because frankly, I found it incredibly offensive that your letter establishes your campaign platform along the following two ideas:
  1. Sexual education for children is bad. 
  2. Gays are bad, or at least, should be ignored, and certainly not supported in schools.
The first point is one that I've already rebutted on my blog.  In a nutshell, the sex ed curriculum changes that the Liberal government had proposed was almost completely unremarkable, and it should have simply been implemented as-is. It is total misinformation and fear-mongering to suggest that children will be learning about "sex" when they should be learning to tie their shoes.  That argument doesn't even make sense. Children can learn more than one thing at a time and the sex-ed curriculum doesn't bump out any other useful knowledge. And also, learning about anatomy is not the same thing as learning about sexual intercourse. Attempting to equate those two things is, basically, lying. Learning about anatomy, and privacy, are important things to teach small children who otherwise can't articulate themselves when an adult abuses them, and this is what the early sex-ed curriculum addresses. Suffice to say, the government was making a positive change with that curriculum and my disappointment lies in the fact that they backed down because of a rabid, uninformed, fear-mongering outcry.

Your second platform point is actually far worse than your first. Your letter reads as a thinly veiled warning that if we don't elect you, the gays are going to have their way with our children. You must really not like gays. Because if you cared about them at all, you'd be appalled that a gay student killed himself in Ottawa recently, and that he did so because he was bullied by homophobic teenagers in his school. And Gay-Straight Alliances, which the Catholic school boards are resisting tooth-and-nail, are an important tool to help deal with that kind of bullying. But your campaign letter says that you will fight tirelessly to ensure that Catholic schools are free to allow students to bully gays.

How does an educated person in 2011 get to be so wrong about such an issue? Let's pretend that instead of gay students we are talking about black students, or Chinese students. If schools were full of systematic bullying and intolerance for black or Chinese students, wouldn't you want the schools to set up programs to help alleviate this? Wouldn't you support the government's attempts to solve this problem? I'll be honest and say that I don't know how effective a solution a GSA is. Maybe it helps, maybe it doesn't. But you aren't criticizing the solution. You are instead criticizing the problem. Because these students were born gay, they are now fair game for bullying, and any attempts they make to improve their lives must be evidence of an evil conspiracy.

Now, you might raise a bunch of arguments here, such as claiming that being gay is a choice, or that being gay is a sin. First, most scientists do not believe that being gay is a choice. The evidence is pretty clear about it. Besides, what possible advantages does it bring? "Gee, I'd like to be attracted to the same gender as me, so that I can have the same amount of sexual satisfaction as a straight person, but oodles more scorn and derision and bullying from people who see me as a freak! Sounds like a good idea!"

As for it being a sin, please note that the Old Testament explicitly condemns homosexuality only in Leviticus, and the Gospels say nothing about homosexuality. Leviticus is a surprising book to read. It starts out with a detailed description of how to sacrifice animals. Then it talks about which things are unclean and how you are a guilty sinner if you touched an unclean thing, even if you didn't know you had. Also it prohibits the eating of lobster, clams, and other sea creatures that don't have scales, because those are abominations. There are whole lists of creatures that you can and can't eat. Leviticus also prescribes that all men must be circumcised. It goes on and on. My point is that almost all the rules of Leviticus are ignored in modern Christianity. Why does the ban against homosexuality get special treatment? Jesus never said anything about homosexuality. But he did command his followers to love their neighbours.

That boy that committed suicide recently, because homophobic teenagers bullied him? His name was Jamie Hubley. He was a boy, learning about the world and growing up to be a man. And he's dead now, because homophobes made his life unbearable. How can we let something like this happen? How can we pretend that this boy "chose" to be tormented to death? He was a boy, and a human being, and he deserved better from the world and from his school. And your campaign strove to undo any advances this child needed.

That attitude sickens me to no end. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, since you've aligned yourself with the same party whose Federal brothers and sisters unanimously voted against officially legalizing gay marriage, despite it being clearly required by the Charter of rights and freedoms. It was a mere technicality, yet the entire cohort of elected Conservatives stood up to declare themselves homophobic. It should come as no surprise that you too have the same views as they. But your letter, your anti-gay beliefs are why you, and your party, lost the provincial election: the people of Toronto stood up and denounced this bigotry.

I am sending this letter to you directly from my personal email, and also cross-posting it to my blog. If you reply, I will post your reply as well, so that you can get your word in.

LEGO Kingdoms 7189 Mill Village Raid

I recently found the Lego Kingdoms set 7189 on sale at Toys R Us and decided that I had to have it.

There are lots of things I like about the latest Kingdoms line. First, I am crazy about the evil faction, the dragon knights. They have great minifigs and colours. So a set that features these minifigs is always nice to see. Of course, the main highlight of this relatively large set is not the knights, but rather the peasants.

This set represents the continuation of the recent years' foray into medieval scenes featuring civilians. In the past, virtually all Castle sets featured only combatants, except the odd wagon now and then that might have a lonely farmer. Lately, LEGO has added more "daily life" sets to the mix. One signature set in that series was the Medieval Market, which featured medieval city buildings, farmers, cattle, food, and other day-to-day things you might find in a medieval city.  Now with 7189 they are bringing out a rather large farm set that really shines.

This set is divided up into four stages. Each stage has numbered polybags of parts, so that it's easy to assemble the first time. The first bag has the minifigs and the wagon.  The wagon is nothing great but frankly, who cares. Lego has almost never put out a good wagon and that never bothered me. It serves the purpose of having something to hitch to the horse. The horse, by the way, is really nicely done, with shaggy hooves and blinders. Not a warhorse at all. Aside from the horse, you also get three chickens, two goats, and a pig. I've never seen Lego farm animals before and I have to say that these are really, really, really cute. They look good next to the farmer, his wife, and their son (who needs a haircut, in my opinion :) )

The second stage is the windmill. This is a nice little building, on a rotating base, with a sloped roof. The windmill actually rotates a central shaft that has a grindstone on it. You can turn a crank or turn the blades themselves and the stone grinds. It's really well done. The only thing I didn't like about this windmill is that it's very fragile, for a building. I can never recall when I've ever accidentally crushed a model I was building while trying to attach a piece, but this happened a couple of times while I was putting this together.

The third stage is one half of the barn, and the fourth stage is the other half. The barn is well made; it swings apart so that you can reach inside, and it features a winch, a trap door, and two stalls for the animals. The construction is fairly sturdy and it looks nice when it's completed. There is not too much to remark on, construction-wise.

One thing I did notice is that this model shows how some of the parts in the Lego repertoire have evolved over time.  Consider the door that is used on the mill. On an older kit, this door would be used. It attaches using a special brick that has little tabs hanging off. This mechanism is very old; I have lego from the early 1980s that uses this for shutters. It's also fairly fragile; the tabs on the brick could break off, and the doors fall off during play. In 7189 the door looks like this, and the clips that hold it in place are standard vertical claws. In this particular model, the claws are part of a giant, 3-tall brick with the claws permanently molded in. But there is nothing special about these claws and any standard claw can be used.  The same is true of almost every other hinge in this set. The older hinges have all been replaced with standard claws.  This is an amazing improvement, because it means that you can now be far more versatile in how you connect these pieces. I'm a bit disappointed that all my old doors are obsolete but I'm glad to see real progress.

The other thing I was glad to see in this model is that there are virtually no off-colour parts that are included for bizarre reasons. LEGO often puts a single bright-blue brick in the middle of a model for some reason. In this set, that was kept to a minimum and most of the colour variation is on-palette, that is, it's different shades of brown and grey. And I love the new super-dark brown, and the dark-tan, both of which are used a lot in this set.

Overall, aside from the fragility of the windmill, I find that this set is extremely well constructed. The part selection is really good. The minifigs and animals are excellent. Overall a very good set and worth owning.

When to admit you're mistaken

Cameron Johnston, a York University prof, is in hot water for uttering the words
"All Jews should be sterilized"
in his lecture. Naturally, this upset one of his students,  Sarah Grunfeld, who says "that’s pretty serious," and so she emailed Oriyah Barzilay, the president of  an Israel advocacy group on campus who then sent a press release to media and other Jewish community groups calling for Johnston to be fired.

If this were all the story, I might sympathize with the outrage and the demands for Mr. Johnston's resignation. But, you see, that isn't what he said at all.

What he did say was
Everyone is not entitled to their opinion. “All Jews should be sterilized” would be an example of an unacceptable and dangerous opinion.
See what happens when you add the context? It's quite significant. But not to Ms. Grunfeld, who states
“The words, ‘Jews should be sterilized’ still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.”
No, Ms. Grunfeld, you are wrong.  It is not serious that he mentioned those words. Just like if I write the word "nigger" on this page, that does not mean that I am calling anyone a nigger or exhibiting racism. If you remove the context of the words you change the meaning of the words. And there is a major difference between using a word and mentioning it.

Ms. Grunfeld is adamant, however, that she is correct and doubts that Mr. Johnston is, in fact, Jewish, as he claims he is, and says that maybe if he IS, he just thought that he could talk "smack" about Jews. That statement made so little sense that I thought my head would explode.

Ms. Grunfeld: You owe Mr. Johnston an apology. You were wrong when you misunderstood a perfectly reasonable statement and so caused trouble for him, and now you are wrong when accuse him of lying about his background and questioning his motives. It's time to back down and admit that you were wrong. Please do it now before you become even  wronger.

More non-English phobias

The Telegraph (in the UK) published a piece about how immigrants should be required to learn English before they settle in England.

I love the ironic ignorance of history, linguistics, and anthropology that leads to articles like this. And I love the totally ironic error in the sub-headline:

The inability to speak a host country’s language ... is a very reasonable requirement of any immigrant.

I guess the Normans don't belong in England. The Saxons came after the Angles, and THEY replaced the Celts, who were themselves cultural and linguistic invaders. None of them spoke the "native" languages.

But what is more ironic is that the author claims that we need to all speak one language so that we don't have "dangerous divisions". This is a totally unsubstantiated claim; lots of countries do just fine with minority populations that speak different languages; but then the author goes and cites CANADA as an example of a country that requires a language test to get in. Um... maybe someone should tell him that we don't all speak the same language in Canada? Yeesh. I guess we're dangerously unstable? Oh wait... nope, it's just a few crackpots that occasionally cause the odd ruckus about Quebec, while meanwhile separatist sentiment waxes and wanes. Oh wait, didn't England have a problem of this sort? Like, hm, Ireland? I'm pretty sure they speak English there.

I addressed some of the points about immigrants learning new languages in my previous post on this topic. To sum it up, I don't think it makes sense to force immigrants to learn the language when we don't force natives to learn the language. Research has shown (and your own intuition should also show this) that the children of immigrants assimilate quite quickly and within a couple generations they are indistinguishable from the natives. This is most true when it comes to language, as children learn languages really really easily.

What this all amounts to is that language is used as a proxy for racism and xenophobia. You can't shut the door on immigrants, you can't single out all the Muslims or Indians who want to move to England, but maybe you can raise the bar high enough that it's impractical for those people to move there.

As an aside, Joshua Gans wrote about his taking of the English test for moving to Canada. Frankly it's quite absurd that an economics professor from Australia, who has published books in English, is made to take a test to prove that he speaks the language. Surely this is something that would be immediately apparent from a simple 15-minute interview? Testing native speakers is a waste of time and money, and testing other immigrants is xenophobia and racism.

Virginity tests

In Egypt, the military administered virginity tests on female prisoners.

W. T. F.

The general who admitted to this crime rationalizes his behaviour:

"The girls who were detained were not like your daughter or mine," the general said. "These were girls who had camped out in tents with male protesters in Tahrir Square, and we found in the tents Molotov cocktails and (drugs). ... We didn't want them to say we had sexually assaulted or raped them, so we wanted to prove that they weren't virgins in the first place," the general said. "None of them were (virgins)."
My irony meter exploded when I read that last part.  So, to prevent them claiming that they had been sexually assaulted, you ... sexually assaulted them? And since they supposedly weren't virgins at the time of their capture, that means you have no way to prove that they haven't been raped in your captivity. Boy, you must be disappointed that you went to all that trouble for nothing!

Sadly, this sort of behaviour is too commonplace in other parts of the world. Here in Canada, we generally don't tolerate sexual abuse or rape. It must suck to be female and to live elsewhere. Dear women of Egypt, and other places where the men can't be trusted: you are welcome to come to Canada. Leave the jerks behind though.

France's anti-veil law

Recently two women were arrested in France for wearing a veil in public. The article in The Star says that one of the women was arrested because she was part of an illegal protest, and because she "refused to disperse" when asked to. (The French law tries to be very PC and avoids mentioning Islam, women, or veils, but let's not be naive. This is clearly about Muslim women wearing veils.)

In the middle ages it was fashionable to hate the Jews, because they had the temerity to keep to themselves and refuse to integrate into Christendom. Now that we're more enlightened, it's fashionable to hate the Muslims, because they dress differently and refuse to integrate into Christendom.

Wait, how exactly can one woman "disperse"? Was she supposed to de-materialize?

Personally, I don't like the Muslim veils. I see it primarily as a tool for male oppression of females. But you know what? If a woman wants to wear a veil in public, she should be allowed to. What's next? Laws banning mini-skirts? Laws banning socks with sandals?

In Canada, we believe in Freedom. Personal liberty is an extremely important concept. Privacy is as well. So why should we tell someone that their dress code is wrong? If they choose to wear it, that's their choice.

Some women don't have a choice. Their husbands or fathers or other relatives will force them, one way or another, to comply with their medieval religious ideals. But guess what? We already have laws against this behaviour. Why would we need another law specifically singling out one kind of abuse? Honour Killings are against the law no matter whether the reason was because she had sex out of wedlock or because she didn't want to wear a frickin' scarf. If some jerk tries to force her to wear the scarf, HE should be punished. If SHE chooses to wear the scarf, by all means, let her.

Inevitably someone will mention some ridiculous edge case that supposedly makes my argument moot. Such as the commentor on the Star who says "I saw a woman driving while wearing a niqab." But we already have laws that stipulate what constitutes safe driving. You could be charged for dangerous driving if you were, say, driving while blind, or driving while wearing contact lenses that block your vision. Even if everyone can see your face.

I can hear the other whiners now. "But what if I'm working at a bank, and this person comes in and says she's my customer, but I can't recognize her? What if we need her driver's license photo? What if, what if?!" Clearly, if a person must be identified, then they must be identified. But how often do YOU need to be identified on a daily basis? I certainly almost never need to be. I can pay for things with a credit-card and enter my PIN and nobody needs to know who I am. I can walk around the city and it doesn't matter who I am. I can get on the TTC with my Metropass and it makes no difference if the driver can see my face or not. So why should it be against the law for me to cover my face? Or for a Muslim woman to do so?

The comments posted on the Star's article are FULL of racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia. Canadians (at least, the ones who posted on that article) seem to be very insecure about their country and the demands that Multiculturalism (tm) places on it.  You know what? Canada has ALWAYS been multicultural. From the very first colonists who landed here and started integrating with the existing population... oh wait, that's not how it happened. Two dominant European cultures came here and fought everyone else into submission for centuries, until they reached an uneasy peace. Then we opened our doors to other cultures... as long as they weren't too shocking. No Asians or Africans or other "visible minorities" please.  It wasn't until the late 20th century that we finally reached something like true Freedom and openness. I mean, until Trudeau, we were a model of tolerance and freedom. Forget about the Japanese internment camps. Or the Residential schools for the natives. Or better yet, DON'T FORGET about those things.  Canada's history (and the world's history) is full of misdeeds and shameful things we'd sooner forget, but we must always remember our mistakes. Let's not add systemic, legalized Islamophobia to that list.

Canada has some important values. Freedom and equality are the most important. Our women must be free from the religious tyranny commonly associated with Islam. But not all Muslim women are oppressed. And not all oppressed women are Muslim. Don't be afraid of the veil. Be afraid of tyranny, and stand up against it. Let ALL our women be free, including being free to choose the veil. France's law, and its oppression of its own citizens, should be condemned.

No, it was the *first* thing that was disgusting

The following story is true.

I was sitting on a crowded subway when I noticed that a couple doors away there was a stroller parked, essentially blocking the door. It didn't much matter that the door was blocked because the stroller was moved in as far as it could be and the train was full. The father was all the way in the train and the mother was at the outside edge by the door, having barely squeezed in. So far, nothing amiss.

Then, at the next stop, I overheard the father telling the mother not to let someone on the train. She was telling the person on the platform not to push her because there was no room for them to get on.  The father started shouting at someone on the platform, and then he said "Come on! I'll kick your ass!"

By now, everyone nearby was watching the spectacle, because the potential for violence on a train always merits vigilance. But I don't think anyone expected the father to do what he did.

As the doors were closing, he spit this huge spray of spit, right out the door.  Right over his kid's stroller, right past his wife, and (because it was a pretty wide spray) he probably got everyone else who was crammed into that doorway.

Someone standing nearby said "That's disgusting!"

His reply? "No. You know what's disgusting? That guy was calling me on, right in front of my kid!"

I nearly burst into flames from the irony.