Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Logic of Rendition

There's a new movie out called Rendition. It's about (guess what) torture and seems to be loosely based on the experiences of Maher Arar, although with American characters.

The pro-torture argument is laid out by the US official played by Meryll Streep. When prodded about the illegal use of torture on hidden detainees, she responds:

"Because of this, there are 7000 people alive in London who would otherwise be dead."

In a nutshell, there's the logic of rendition.

And it begs for deconstruction.

1. "Because of this": Translation: "Rendition is the end justifies the means." In effect, if torture can save lives, then torture is good. But let's quantify this saving of lives. What if torture can save only a dozen lives? Or only one life? Is it okay then?

Does it have to be thousands?

And how will an agent know if the plot will involve thousands until after the torture has taken place?

Does this also take into account that violent people like to brag during confessions?

And is the limit just the saving of lives? Could it be extended to other benefits? What if a terror plot involved the sabotage of the US's electronic banking system-- say, a computer virus that destroys valuable information on a massive scale? Would torture be justified if it prevented economic turmoil and the loss of people's life savings?

Should suspicious American geeks be renditioned?

Could we not also propose that George Bush should be killed because he is blocking the world's efforts to stop global warming? Global warming will kill not just thousands, but millions or billions of people, as well as non-human populations, and it will wreak havoc on our economies. Would that be okay according to the end justifies the means?

The problem with the end justifies the means is that it justifies anything -- any end, any means. The end has not been defined or limited; and if officials are working secretly, then there is no way of holding them to any definitions and limits anyway. They could be doing anything for any reason. The public would never know.

2. "7000 people": Really? Keep in mind that rendition is secret offshore torture. This means there are no official records, and everything is "deniable." The public has a jaundiced eye about intelligence-related secret information ever since non-existent weapons of mass destruction were used to justify the invasion of a sovereign state.

If officials want to keep their "facts" secret and deniable, then they can't also expect to be able to use these "facts" as public arguments. Sorry, but you can't have your cake and eat it too.

3. "Alive in London who would otherwise be dead": I want to examine this idea more closely. Does foiling a terror plot save lives? On the surface, one would think so. But this idea fails to consider that most terror plots fail. It also doesn't consider whether more terror agents would simply move in to redo the job if someone got arrested. Al Qaeda keeps trying the same objective until they succeed. So stopping a terror plot simply stops that terror plot. One can't say with any certainty what other effects -- long- or short-term -- might have resulted.

There are also two unstated premises in Streep's character's statement:

1. Saving lives is what government is all about.
Apparently, saving lives trumps the constitution, the laws of the country, the values and principles that have developed through history, and the integrity and scrutability of government leaders. It is also more important than the nation's international reputation, its relations with other countries, and its self-respect. It's more important than justice: tortured confessions are not admissable in court, so legal trials have to be replaced with secret trials, extrajudicial hearings, or just no trial at all.

These are the costs of the lives that torture is allegedly saving. The character that Streep plays simply accepts these costs as something external to the job she has to do. Fortunately for the plot of the movie, another US agent comes to have misgivings.

2. Torture is the most expedient way to get intelligence information--and it's a pity we can't use it more often. Alas, tortured people lie. They'll say anything. The tortured wiccans of the Middle Ages tossed out as many names as they could scream while they begged to be put to death. This creates dubious evidence that is then used to arrest, deport, and rendition more people. Since there is no open scrutiny of this evidence, it can take on a power of its own, like an online meme or an urban legend. When those people in turn are tortured, the net grows wider. More wires are tapped, more calls are traced, more people are arrested. The government leaders crow about how expedient their methods are. Their fingers itch for even more powerful methods.

Yet how much of it is untrue? There is no habeas corpus, no defence lawyers, no trials. The public doesn't know if it is expedient. They don't even know how many people have been arrested or who they are.

Fear makes people behave in terrible ways. If bin Ladin's objective in the 9/11 attacks was not so much to kill as to create a climate of fear that would cause Westerners to turn against themselves and commit democratic suicide, then he was enormously successful.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Spiritual Diet

My son is in occupational therapy for something called "sensory integration disorder" -- his brain and senses don't communicate properly. The general therapy for SID is something called a "sensory diet" which involves making sure the brain gets a full and varied set of sensory information all the time every day. This helps keep the brain alert to sensory information and helps it learn to cope with stimula.

This is tough for a kid who's supposed to sit still at a desk for hours every day!

The sensory diet is not something a non-SID person would ever think about. Who considers whether they have pushed, lifted, listened, balanced, rubbed, squeezed, chewed, and bounced enough in a day? Most people will just listen to Mozart, not listen to a "diet" of music. The sensory diet is really a mind-opening concept.

I think too about the "spiritual diet." Going to church/meeting is one item in the diet. Reading books is another. Talking, listening, centring. Then there's political action, social action, environmental action. I'm probably missing some things from the spiritual "food groups" here, but you get the idea. Emphasizing one area of the spiritual diet too much makes us spiritually malnourished.

Maybe some of us drop out of one part of the spiritual diet because we feel we are getting too much of one thing, not enough of another. Like my son who can't "hear" his senses, we can't "hear" our spirit/Spirit. The revolving-door aspect of many of our meetings may reflect this spiritual diet thing.

This week, another book came in on the reserve list at the library, this time a well-known US author, Barbara Kingsolver. Her newest book is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and -- if this ain't proof that there's a global movement going on here -- it's about a year of local eating.

Reading the two books (The 100-Mile Diet [aka Plenty] vs this one) back to back, there is a temptation to compare. The Smith/MacKinnon book is less thick, more translucent, more open about human frailties and failures. Kingsolver's book is dense, brisk, and heavier. Perhaps more practical in many ways, too, with more how-to elements in it. Smith and MacKinnon were flying by the seat of their pants, relying on near-genius cooking skills to survive, still in many ways wondering who they were going to be when they grew up. Kingsolver is already a bestselling author, who sits proudly on the list of the 100 most dangerous people in America.

Both sets of authors touch on the cultural antipathy toward spiritual values in diet. But Kingsolver drives the point home.

She points out that as guests, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist people can politely turn down the platter of ham on the grounds of their spirituality, with no hard feelings from the host. And in many ways, a vegetarian can do the same thing for lifestyle reasons, although possibly with a more tight-lipped smile from the host.

But what about the person who, for spiritual reasons, cannot eat food that was grown by people paid less than $2/day in a far-away country, then shipped at the expense of our environment to our table, with rich corporations taking all the profits? Or those who, for spiritual reasons, feel they must eat the food that their region produces? Refuse to pour greenhouse gases into their refrigerators and mouths? Respect the dignity and value of an animal's life before it dies to become our ham platter? Treat the human body as a temple and forsake GMO and mass-produced pseudo-food?

"No, thanks, I'm on a spiritual diet"???

Hm, I envision said platter of ham up-ended in someone's lap in response.

Somehow, these values that I/we consider spiritual lie outside of the accepted boundaries of spirituality and therefore don't get the same respect as rules printed in ancient documents. And there are those other rules, equally ancient -- rules of hospitality and good graces -- that trump anything newfangled.

My parents are coming to visit in a couple of weeks for a weekend. I am trying to bring myself to buy the required food-things. Breakfast includes orange juice and oranges. Bread is white and comes with a brand name on the bag. Salads are green at all times of the year.

Do I dare offer them red cabbage and carrot salad, with squash soup, a handful of the mini kiwis I grew in my backyard, and the wonderful meats that I get from my farmer? Maybe some dolmades made with chard leaves, or bruschetta of my own tomatoes and garlic, roasted onto crusty local bread? All of it grown, sought, gathered, preserved, and/or cooked by my own hands, gifts of the earth as the days grow shorter and colder?

Would that seem like a gift to them? Or a snub?

Probably a snub.

I wonder if Woolman's hosts were snubbed when he would slip into the back kitchen to pay the slaved people who had served him. I wonder if he even ever worried about that.

I wonder if he ever snubbed his parents.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Eating What We Are

I finally got around to reading "The 100-Mile Diet" by Alisa Smith and James B Mackinnon (entitled "Plenty" in the US -- I don't know why they came up with a different title for you guys. Isn't that kind of weird??). Actually, my name in the queue at the library hold listings finally came up. It was a good read -- funny, warm, quirky, non-self-righteous.

It's also like a gauntlet being tossed down. Eat locally. Pull thy head out of the sand. Take up this quest.

We've sort of being eating a sort of local diet for a long while now. Mostly the meats and veges. But it's that final push we've never done, the business of saying No More. This book has inspired me. I mean, if they can do it...

Food is a metaphor of a culture. North American food is cheap, low-interest, low-taste, and low-nutrition. This is what we as a people have become. We'd rather import garlic all the way from China and put our local farmers out of work than to pay two bucks more per bushel. It's been bouncing around on a boat for two weeks, but we don't care.

Doing the 100 mile diet brings up some really interesting problems. Where will I get sugar, rice, and flour in eastern Ontario?

The truth is I don't know. The likely answer is that I won't. And that's something we have to work out one item at a time. I have to let go of the ideas about food that are tying me to an insane global agro-food business.

For now, sugar is coming from maple syrup (50 km), honey (40 km), and corn syrup from the grocery store that I have rationalized since Ontario grows lots of corn that this is sort of maybe local syrup. The muffins this week weren't so bad, especially with the local pumpkin mush (30 km) to help sweeten them. I am now trying to persuade one farmer at the farmer's market to grow sugar beets next spring and then find an elderly German immigrant to teach her how to turn them into syrup. Maybe you can process sweet corn into syrup in the same way. Has anyone ever tried it?

Maybe I'll try it this weekend.

Is eating local a spiritual principle? I don't think quakers ever made a distinction between everyday living and spiritual living. This little quest is like a prayer for the earth, to make it better.

And as we head into Thanksgiving weekend, it's good to think of food prayerfully.

We can, truly, eat ourselves into being again.

From the second-last chapter, when Alisa and James are at a local food restaurant with a table full of local food critics. A bottle of wine had been presented to them (200 miles), and everyone at the table had hesitated to accept it:

I had expected the 100-mile experiment to be a platform to think about many things, among them a long list of bummers from climate change to the failure of whole generations to learn how to recognize edibel mushrooms. What I could see around thetable now was a less tangible consideration: a sense of adventure. We are at a point in world history where bad news about the state of the Earth is just as jaded and timeworn as the idea that there is nowhere left to go, nothing new to explore. Put those two statements side by side, however, and something hidden is revealed. Of course there are new things to do, and no shortage of them. We need to find new ways to live in the future. We can start any time; we can live them here and now .

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Rachel Carson

I watched a special on PBS last night about Rachel Carson. She was the author of Silent Spring in 1963, the first scientific book to express alarm at how our species was tipping the balance of nature. Her concern was pesticides and chemicals in the environment.

I had only ever known about Rachel Carson as a name, an almost legendary figure in the environmental movement. Now I have seen her face and heard her story. It was very moving.

Carson was vilified, mocked, and shunned even by the science community for her research. She was warned not to publish it. How alone she must have felt. Yet she kept appearing in public, making presentations to anyone who would listen, until she finally got the ear of the federal government.

She didn't live to see much of the results of her efforts because she was already dying of cancer. She died in 1964. Yet she gave up to her last breath to help save a planet.

Sometimes when we feel hoarse and exhausted from fighting for the truth we need to have faith that truth has its own life and power. If we keep speaking it, eventually it will take root, even if we don't live to see it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007


I took a break from Quaker blogging for the spring and summer while my eye healed. It's good to get back into it. I'm pleased to see a lot of new bloggers, and I'm looking forward to getting to know them all.

Coming back to a group like this one, I get to see what we are doing with fresh eyes (ha ha - get it?). I flipped back through some of the older posts that I missed over the summer, just to see what people have been talking about.

And -- don't take this wrong, now -- I have been struck by an almost dominant "down with Quakers" message, like a catalogue of our shortcomings. We seem to come back to this theme frequently, from all different angles.

Sure, sometimes words and ideas come across as negative when they're supposed to be musing or inquiring. That's the nature of the written word: you don't have control of how people read it or what they latch onto. Maybe for commenters, the negative is just more attractive, in the way that the bad guys in movies are so much more interesting than the good guys. So the thread veers toward the negative like a magnet to the north pole.

But my question is: Are these buttons?

When Margaret Fell was writing epistles to the fledgling Quaker meetings back in the 1600s, she lamented their preoccupation with buttons. Who cares whether Quakers wear buttons, she moaned. Who cares whether they wear a hat or keep a day?

I recall one of Lucretia Motts' sermons, where she too laments the buttons of her day: "It has been well said our fathers made graven images, but we make verbal ones."

When we try to discern what is wrong with Quakerism today, are we staring at our buttons?

Like, is this what we're supposed to be doing?

I wonder if I go to any other denomination's blogsphere, will I find largely the same conversations? -- how X needs to be more A (or less B), how it needs to get back to its roots (or get away from old roots), how its gatherings need to be more Spirit-focused (or more active in walking the talk), etc.

I wonder if all this is true. Do we really need these things? Are we being called or led in this way?

Maybe what's important now is not for Quakers to be uberQuakers -- or even Quakers at all. Maybe many are each being called to be Spirit-led in a more nameless, formless way, just following those inner nudges, listening for guidance, building the kingdom of heaven on earth. Maybe the Light is pulling us in different ways, but that it's okay.

Maybe the inner grumblings we feel are just our own. Maybe they're not to be extended to the Quaker group.

I'm just saying maybe because, well, maybe.

The first meeting I belonged to had a yearly tradition of a silent supper at the meetinghouse. The idea was to come together and eat in a Spirit-filled silence, in a manner reminiscent of a communion. I finally managed to attend one of these dinners.

There was one elderly woman, very tiny, a bit childlike in many ways, who had come to the dinner as well. The meeting members were filling their plates and sitting down in silence, but this elder was quietly chatting with people around her. Just pleasant chit-chat. Either someone hadn't told her it was a silent supper, she just didn't get it, or she'd forgotten.

As the meal started and she still hadn't settled into silence, my inner irritation grew. Why didn't someone quietly tell her that she was supposed to be silent? It would only take one or two words. I found it hard to centre down as the puddle of irritation grew in me. I looked up and stared at the people around her, wondering why they weren't doing anything.

And then I saw what they were doing. The Friend beside this elder was holding her hand quietly as they ate. The Friend across the table was listening, nodding, giving his full attention to her. Others were gazing at her, rapt, some smiling indulgently.

It was one of those spiritual whoosh moments. The point wasn't that we were supposed to be silent, but that I was supposed to be silent. And here I was, the whole time, being outwardly silent but inwardly totally nonsilent.

The others had it right. They each kept their own silence. That silence left them open to listen to this elder. They found their ministry through her.

Only I did not.

Silence was my button.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

To End a War

Listening to American politicians debate how to (or whether to) end their role in the Iraq war has left me wondering if any of the discussion makes sense.

How do you end a war? When is it over?

This is a crucial question.

One of the tragic flaws of the whole War on Terror (and the Iraq War, which has been lumped in with it) is that there is no clear way of knowing when it's done. Terror is an abstraction. There is no fixed target or enemy. There is no measurable means of claiming victory and bowing out, as there would be in a war over, say, territory. Hence, the war can never end.

Maybe we can say that very classical wars--and only classical wars-- have measurable endings. Everything ends with the treaty.

Yet World War I didn't end with the treaty because of the revenge it imposed on Germany. Instead, that "end" fed animosity and led to the rise of Hitler and World War II. So it really wasn't much of an "end" at all. And what about Bismark's war before World War I-- did the "end" of that war not feed directly into World War I?

How far back can we go?

Treaties in and of themselves don't end wars.

More war doesn't end wars either. Many people believe that World War II ended because of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. But this atrocity only created detente.

No, the Marshall Plan ended World War II. The Marshall Plan was the stake driven into the heart of a long line of wars that wouldn't end. Afterward, there was peace.

Because the real war was not in the guns and bombs: it was in the hearts and minds of the people. When the shootings and bombings stop, you have detente. To end a war, you have to end the hatred and quell the thirst for revenge.

On both sides.

That's what the Marshall Plan did. It built the foundation for peace. It reduced the likelihood of continued misery. It created hope. It forged a bond of forgiveness and respect.

Ending a war means listening, talking, admitting mistakes and atrocities, making amends, rebuilding, giving, forgiving.

This can only happen at the negotiation table.

And that is the tragedy. That is why this war will never end.

America doesn't negotiate with terrorists.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Walking Prayers

Three nights ago, I watched a geology show on TV with my kids. It was about the geological history of Ontario.

Did you know that 4.5 billion years ago, the highest mountains in the world (higher than the Himalayas) covered a stretch from east of Toronto up to Georgian Bay? And that an immense salt-water sea covered south-eastern Ontario south into the US and west past Detroit? And that a mere 6000 years ago, as the glaciers were retreating, a break in the receding glacier caused a massive flood that filled the Great Lakes and created islands out of dry land? (And that the Ashinabe Indians who live in that area have legends about the flood that created the islands, showing that their oral history goes back to the Ice Age!)

Well, I was impressed. All those weird striped rock-islands in Georgian Bay are actually the base of the old mountain range, twisted by the collision of two continents and heated under the pressure of miles of rock.

And the limestone under the shoreline where I live, littered with sea fossils like an ocean garbage dump, is an old sea bottom. The deep underground salt mines in Goderich (ON) and Detroit (MI) still show ripples of sea waves in the salt deposits.

I was suddenly aware of the immensity of time. Those mountains and seas were several "earths" ago, long before dinosaurs, long before life forms.

And yet, here am I. Here are we.

I thought of this two days ago as I was driving to the next town to pick up some fruit. The trees along the 401 are now lightly tinged with orange and red, just a hint of the splendour of fall on its way. I took note of the low, flat-topped hills and gentle valleys, perhaps eroded by glaciers, or perhaps flooded by sea water or glacial floods. I saw rises and falls, and soil that came from somewhere else, and limestone rock-cuts pressed up out of the ground by drifting continents.

What I saw was time, rather than physical space--chapters of the earth's story jutting up, buried here, fading there, covering itself with a new story that simply extends the old one in one long line of 5 billions years.


Praying is in some ways about seeing. In ordinary life, we close ourselves off to too much input so that we can focus on a single task. To pray is to brush that aside and open, look, listen, see, smell, hear, taste.

Of all the bibles, talmuds, korans, and books of mormon that the Creator has allegedly written, there is only one that we can be certain he/she/it wrote-- and that is creation itself. The earth and universe are the first bible. It's the one we really must read if we don't read any others. It's the one we can all agree on. And there is so much written there, such a long story, with such detail, down to molecules and atoms and string theories.

The Old Testament bible covers only 5000 years; the Creator's bible covers 5 billion. How lucky scientists are to be reading such a book. How thankful I am that they share their findings with us so that we too may read the chapter they have found.


I go on early morning walks every day for a half hour before breakfast. It's cooler now, so I have to wear a sweater. As I walk, instead of thinking, I try to open up to this kind of prayer.

Some days, I walk to feel gravity. I focus on feeling the force of the planet, which is large, overpowering me, who am small, pulling me in. I feel the force I need to exert to pull my foot away from the planet. I experience its goodness and rightness. I let its pull embrace me, keeping me safe.

Some days, I walk to see and read. I look at details, feel sensations, inhale slowly to taste the air. What does it all say? Not just the natural surroundings, but the human-made surroundings too, which are made of created matter, molecules, textures, stones. What is being said to me, now, here? If I treat everything as the messenger, will I get the message?

Some days, I walk to be part of Creation. I see everything as the work of an artist's hand, the colours, the textures, the sculptures. I feel the Creator within and beyond it, for his/her/its 5 billion years of shaping and revising. I experience myself as part of the art, one piece split off from the rest, like a piece of clay pulled out of the main block, rolled and shaped, and set into motion. I am art, I walk through art. Through art, with art, and in art, in the unity of creation.

There must be more ways to walk prayer.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Sea Ice Melting

On the news yesterday and in some newspapers was a long report about the Arctic sea ice. Satellite images showed that since 1979, about 40% of the ice has melted.

That's a lot of ice.

Sure, the ice could freeze up again--if we had a few very cold winters and cool summers. But Arctic ice isn't like ice in your freezer. It acts as a giant white mirror reflecting the sun's rays back out into space. When the white ice is gone, those rays heat up the surrounding water, making the remaining ice melt even faster. This starts a cycle of warming and melting that speeds up. It's like trying to make ice in your freezer when the ice tray is sitting on top of a warming pan--and the temperature of the warming pan is slowly rising.

As the ice is released into water and the ice mirror effect fades, the world's climate will go through drastic changes, starting with the drowning of the coastlines.

What sickens me is the response of the four Arctic nations who have no doubt been observing this change for years. Canada, Denmark, Russia, and the US are all staking claims to the Arctic seabed.

Because it contains 25% of the world's remaining oil supply.

They see environmental disaster as an economic opportunity. They sound no alarm bells, wage no international campaigns to save the earth. Instead,, they stake their claims. There is money to be made in this disaster.

Never mind the irony that it's the burning of fossil fuels that has caused a lot of the global warming. They would cheerfully add more fuel to that fire if it made them a few bucks.

That is perhaps the saddest part of this story: the greed and self-centredness it exposes. Rather than try to save our planet, our leaders are lining up to be the first to push it over the edge.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Standards of Truth

On my early morning walks, much mistier and cooler now than in the summer, I'm still thinking about fundamentalism. It is a question that doesn't seem to go away, even after I have paced it through morning after morning.

For the past two days, I have been thinking about the standards of truth, and I have come to this conclusion.

People who live in today's scientific, rational world have a natural standard of truth based on experience, sense information, testing, researching, comparison and contrast, deduction, and induction. We've been raised this way, our education has formed us this way, and that's how we come to conclusions. We must understand an idea and test it against standards before we accept it. And when there are contradictions, we probe further--there must be an error, an omission, deliberate or incomplete misinformation: for two truths cannot contradict each other and yet still be true.

Now, someone who is a fundamentalist--and it doesn't matter what kind of fundamentalist--has to switch to using a different standard of truth for religious matters. This religious standard of truth is based on whether something appears in a book or a doctrine, or whether it has been stated in a pulpit. If experience, sense information, testing, researching, comparison and contrast, deduction, and induction suggest something different, fundamentalists are supposed to block those ideas from their mind out of devotion to this religious truth standard. They call this faith. If there are contraditions, they must either ignore them or delicately step around them.

Yet these two standards of truth are mutually exclusive. They are polar opposites. Moreover, you can't switch standards of truth on and off like lightbulbs; and you can't do both at the same time. Deep down, you have only one standard of truth.

I think it's the superhuman effort to maintain two mutually exclusive standards of truth in the same brain that pushes fundamentalists to extreme action. They have to prove to themselves that they think according to the religious standard, when deep down, they think according to the natural standard. They have to distract themselves from the discordance in their own minds and from the natural-type truths that must be nudging them.

Perhaps this is why converts are often the most extreme of fundamentalists. They have to work harder to shove their natural standard of truth aside to make room for the religious standard of truth.

Quakers have that old sentence from Fox about knowing things experimentally. Fox's idea was (or appears to have been) that religious truth must be true by natural standards. Reading even revered books demands scholarship and academic discipline, the same as everything else. He seemed to have scorn for people who quoted scriptures to justify their beliefs (You say the apostle says this, and Paul says that, but what do you say?). I believe he was advocating against having a different (and lower) standard of truth for religion. For Fox, religious experience as a natural experience had to be the foundation of religious beliefs and doctrines.

A fundamentalist friend once told me that experience was the basis of fundamentalism. I replied that a religious experience doesn't come with a name tag. It comes simply as a sense of Something Out There or Something Within, or a Nudge or a Beckoning. It's vague and formless, even though it is compelling. You can't have an experience of a doctrine of a trinity, or a duty to wear a burqa.

If one believes that their is only one Being out there, then religious experience must be the same for all religions. (Unless one rationalizes that God speaks to my religion, and the Devil speaks to everyone else's!) So it's the differences that have to be maintained by the religious standard of truth.

Perhaps this is why the world's religions are polarizing into two camps: the moderates, who focus on the commonality of religious experience, and the fundamentalists, who focus on the differences of doctrine.

M. Scott Peck, the author of The Road Less Travelled, wrote another less well-known book called The Lie, about the nature of evil. Peck suggests that all evil proceeds from lying. It's an interesting thesis. Lying can take many forms--running away from truth, abusing truth, masking truth, deliberately distoring truth, omitting truth, and especially lying to oneself and self-delusion. Lies from government, powerful classes, middle-class complacency, myths, and outmoded ways are the spawning grounds of crime, poverty, injustice, violence, and of course, more lies.

One has to lie to oneself in order to hold two opposite standards of truth.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Poverty, Charity, and the Web of Life

A friend and I sat out on the back deck in the cool evening breeze two nights ago while our sons played together. She is a very spiritual Catholic, very involved in political and social action. She and her husband had decided this summer that since the birth of their son 11 years ago, they had been doing less for the poor. There had been so much to do for themselves--especially since their son has Asperger Syndrome. She wanted to know if I had suggestions.

Yeah, so I didn't. I managed to mumble a bit and then kind of sputtered out.

Sure, I have my charities that I support. Most are international in focus--microbanks, social change groups, human rights, the environment, Quaker and Mennonite groups. I also support several political advocacy groups, like the Council of Canadians, the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, and Greenpeace: none of these are eligible for charitable tax deduction status anymore, so they don't get tallied up with the charities. I give often to the Green Party, which is eligible for handsome political party tax credits.

But except for some lump-sum donations at Christmas to a few local charities, none of the groups I support is really a poverty action group. Their visions lie elsewhere.

Lately I've been giving to some new groups. Like Avaaz.org. It seems like a funky, international, internet global action group--let's see what they can do. Like Fair Vote Canada, which is canvassing for the Oct. 10 Ontario referendum on proportional representation. And like the Canadian Council of Churches year-long campaign to stop the privatization of water. Sort of things as they come up.

My friend and I ended up talking about the place of poverty in a world of struggle and change. I find I don't think about poverty in terms of poverty, the way I did, say, 20 years ago. I see it now as one element in a broad web. I don't know if tackling poverty will actually tackle poverty. I think it's everything else that's making us poor. Poverty is the effect, not the cause: the symptom, not the disease.

That's not a rationalization: it's more a realization. The solutions to poverty don't lie in poverty: they lie in life itself. And when we are doing what we can to improve life everywhere through countless different ways, we are working toward ending poverty. It's all part of the same thing.

I'ts like the environment. Over the past two years, my husband and I have renovated our house for energy efficiency, gotten rid of the gas-guzzling car, changed all the lightbulbs for fluorescents, and switched our electricity supplier to 100% green electricity (wind and low-impact hydro). Due to better use of our extractor fan and our new ceiling fans, we have had to use our air conditioning only 8 days this summer.

But while all that does have an effect on our ecological footprint, it's only one part of the picture. The environmental picture isn't just how much energy we consume, but also what we buy, what we eat, where it comes from, how it gets here, whether our country is detonating bombs, allowing artificial fertilization crops and deforestation, giving tax breaks to importers, and hauling in immigrants to prevent the population from dropping. In effect, work on social and political action ends up being environmental action.

Recently a British Columbia couple spent a year on the 100-mile diet and wrote a book about their experience. It's currently a best-seller in Canada. For one year, they ate only foods that had been grown within a 2-hour drive of Vancouver. So cinnamon and brown sugar were out. So were tea and coffee. They had to make do with BC produce and meats.

They have said in interviews that what surprised them the most was the variety of foods they ate. When one is restricted to what is available locally, one ends up eating new things, all very healthy and fresh. This is how our pioneer ancestors lived. One also eats only what is in season, which means always eating foods at their best. Currently, the family is still eating about 85% local.

They said they missed lemons.

We too have been trying to live a more sustainable lifestyle by changing the food we eat. For the past three years, we have been eating meats from family farms. We place orders at the market once every two months. We buy local eggs. We purchase our produce from a produce store that brings in locally grown produce and promotes it. These are our food producers.

This summer, we took a bike holiday in Prince Edward County (a half-hour drive) and discovered 19 wineries that we had never heard of. Their wines are not sold in stores. We brought home a afew bottles. Soon we need to go back again to restock. These are our wineries.

There are three cheese factories in the three neighbouring counties. For specialty cheeses, Quebec (slightly outside the 100-mile range, but not too bad) has plenty. We are making an effort to buy all regional cheeses. These are our cheeses.

A part of me struggles with this. I grew up Italian. Good food is cooked with olive oil and sprinkled with real parmiggiano-reggiano cheese or pine nuts. Adriatic cooking contains a lot of fish--something that despite living on the shores of one of the biggest fresh-water lakes in the world, is not available locally due to water pollution. I don't buy food from China, California, or Chile; but I do buy pasta made in Italy (no, the Canadian brands just don't cut it) and ocean-caught fish. So despite buying local, I'm still trying to make it fit with the tastes that I grew up with. Somehow, this part of me has to die in order to live truly close to this area's food.

Regional cuisine develops when we give up on imports and imported thinking and focus on what is at hand.

Yet when I am buying from the farmers and venders I've come to know, and travelling a little here and there to pick up wines and specialty items, I am overcome by a subtle sense of My People. These are My People--not my Italian ancestors, whose culinary idiosyncracies I've inherited. My People and I are part of a web of life. We take from the same land and give back to it.

There is this same sense when one is working on polical change, social change, environmental change, global economic change, or military change. The internet makes it even more intense, because we get to see and hear the voices of My People, far away, doing the same actions as us. The result is almost a tenderness for each other, a global camaraderie. We know that if we pull any one issue in the right direction, it will tug all the connected issues along with it.

I didn't ever give my friend any suggestions. But I think we both left with a sense that what we feel nudged to be doing right now is the right thing to be doing.

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