Leaving High River

On September 20th, 2013, we started moving into our new home.  It was further away from Calgary (where I work), making for a longer commute.  But the home was dry, and it was ours. We were exceedingly lucky.

Three months from the day that my partner and I were first evacuated, we were leaving High River.

Most of the news that people will hear will focus on the numbers, now.  Insured damage has topped $1.7 Billion, making the flooding throughout southern Alberta the costliest natural disaster in Canadian history.  Even that ignores the fact that the most widespread of the damage (overland flooding) is not covered by insurance plans in Canada… something that has resulted in many fights with insurers over just how much damage is the result of sewer backup or other insured aspects.  Unsurprisingly, the insurance industry is already telling Albertans to brace for a 30% hike in rates.  Meanwhile, many High Riverites — and throughout Southern Alberta (the nearby Siksika Nation reserve was also particularly hard-hit) — struggle to find options.

But there we are, detoured by the numbers again.  It’s the only way we have to measure the scale of what occurred.  Otherwise, we’re helpless to the randomness and madness of it all.  While non-residents seem to have the impression that the entire town was built on a floodplain, the expected flood zone actually accounts for very little of the community… something that is factoring significantly in the conflicts between the Province and inland residents who are finding themselves ineligible for the long-promised relief funding.  While it’s true that the entire town was flooded and evacuated, the reason it did may be more mishap than anything, and probably will be the stuff of lawsuits for the next decade.

As we were moving into our home in another town, a number of High Riverites were also just returning to theirs, in the hardest-hit part of the town.  Others were still living in the trailers set up in various places, while their homes could be restored to habitability. Much of High River’s downtown core is patched up but left dark, with no certainty of whether some of those businesses will ever return.

In nearby Calgary, the volunteer thanking and patting on the back has grown so old that residents are starting to sound almost tediously annoyed when reminded that people remain displaced since the June calamity.  “Isn’t that all over, yet?”

“Isn’t it over, yet?”

It seemed to take forever.

When the flooding first hit, High Riverites were being told to check the town website, to listen to the local radio station, or to follow the Facebook and Twitter feeds. But the town website was offline, and the local radio stations were reduced to dead air. The feeds weren’t being updated. A Calgary station reported that a woman had been washed away from a trailer in Black Diamond. And boats from an RV sales centre were being sighted miles downstream. And the Town of Bragg Creek was underwater. My partner rushed home to gather our shih-tzu and an overnight bag, just in case.  One minute, everything was dry; the next, she was driving out of our community with water up to the bottom of her car door.

There was a severe lack of information in the beginning, and then when updates finally came, they arrived with some tempers and occasional snark.  It was five days before we were able to see aerial photos of the flooding mess, which had inexplicably reached every building in town, including areas that we had previously been certain were too far from the river or too elevated to be in any danger.  But all prior expectations were rendered moot. As someone who had previously researched the worst flooding of the Town’s pre-2005 known history — in the 1910s, which resulted in water a foot deep at the Wales Theatre — it seemed surreal to look at photos now of our local 7-11 submerged almost up to its awning.

The debates are fierce, now, about whether the canal system that had been designed to withstand a 1-in-100 flood like the Town experienced in 2005 actually helped spread the water everywhere, or whether a decision to divert some of the flood waters into what ultimately became the hardest-hit neighbourhood (despite its distance from the river) was a decision (as one engineer called it) to sacrifice that community.  But back then, we didn’t even know enough to base a guess on.

We understood that there was mess and risk, yet the Town seemed to want to go to the overprotective extreme, to have roads completely cleared and utilities, water, sewage disposal, sewage treatment, power, phones, protective services, fencing for “high-risk areas,” and medical centre all fully-functional, and a “welcome centre” in operation, before we were going to be allowed back. Even the most pragmatic of us had to fight the impulse to kick ourselves for not ignoring the evacuation order.  The risk and chaos of living in a houseboat on Lake High River almost seemed like a preferable course of action.

Equally perplexing was the way that during the evacuation, skilled and experienced contractors were being turned away, only to later see the entire recovery and cleanup effort turned over exclusively to a predominantly energy-focused company, before the public really knew that there was a bidding process.  But that came later.

The Town enlisted the Canadian Armed Forces to protect the flood-damaged township from its citizens.  Yet most of the military presence was gone before we were even allowed to see our homes or know the state secret of what was left.  It was a week and a half before residents of select areas were being allowed back in to view their homes — wealthy areas first, it seemed — and secure their things.  My fiancee and I were allowed in at the two-week mark, and arrived to find our window smashed in, so that it could have been easily accessed for nearly a week by the volunteers already allowed into ground zero.

In some media outlets, you’d almost think that the most important story in all of the mess was the RCMP entering of homes and seizing unsecured firearms, rather than the enormous expanse of lake which nearly a month later still sat where the eastern third of a town had been.  Even that little aspect of the flooding gets engineered: you don’t hear from the animal rescue efforts or from residents upset about their belongings left unattended or from homeowners whose firearms weren’t seized. The entire southern Alberta flood has been distilled into a rallying cry for insecure gun nuts.

Of course, you can’t talk about global warming.  That would be politically exploitative and crazy.

There’s a perception that Albertans are among the most stubborn of the climate change deniers. Yet, there weren’t very many skeptics milling about outside the Nanton evacuation centre… although the acknowledgement is sometimes made by subsuming things into a biblical paradigm of end-times scriptures about “earthquakes in diverse places.”  Even so, if there was one thing that people in southern Alberta shared, it was a realization that something had changed.  High River and many other towns had already seen a “1-in-100″ flood, in recent memory (2005).  This was different.

And as we waited to return home, it was not lost on people that a record heat wave stretched across the western half of North America, with heat-enhanced fires claiming the lives of 19 highly-skilled firefighters.  Flash sleet mixed with slush (called “hail” on the news, but we could see for ourselves what it was) struck Alberta in July, a monsoon hit Uttarakhand, India, record flash flooding struck Toronto, and now Colorado has experienced something eerily reminiscent of June 20th and 21st.  Bad weather happens.  But greater extremes, greater unpredictability, greater frequency, and greater consequences… that’s unmistakably different.  Especially when we know the magnitude of what we experienced:

When a low pressure system from the Pacific reached Alberta, that parked high pressure cell kept the low pressure backed up against the foothills, dropping rain across much of central and southern Alberta for much longer than expected. Many locations across southern Alberta received as much rain in 18 hours as they would normally receive in two months. Since some snow still remained in the mountains, there was also a rain-on-snow event that added even more water into the creeks and rivers.

From my own perspective, I don’t know how we can know what we do about CFCs, lead, mercury, sarin gas, carcinogens, forms of toxicity, the steps needed to prevent or control chemical leaching, and not think that what we do in industry can have lasting effects on our ecosystems.  Or why we would not feel an obligation to do what we can to be responsible stewards of the world we love.

The Town of High River is a weird little idyll in the Alberta Southwest.  It’s remote enough to feel like a retreat, but urban enough to feel luxurious.  Situated where the prairies begin to fade into foothills, with the Rocky Mountains waiting inspiringly in the near distance, it’s almost an epicentre of rustic western Canadiana.  It’s only a little over an hour into Kananaskis, to the mountains, to the rugged Porcupine Hills, to urban Calgary, to Aboriginal historic sites like Blackfoot Crossing or Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump, to picturesque Banff and Canmore, not quite two hours to the Drumheller badlands, to some of Alberta’s rare patches of near-desert, just a little further into Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, to Waterton Lakes or to the Writing-On-Stone heritage site.  It took something like eight day-trips just to see the most notable filming locations for Brokeback Mountain.  It’s easy to see why series like Heartland would be filmed here, and why the first Mantracker would be a High Riverite.

It seems strange to leave, and also concerning about what the town is likely to become.  Largely untouched by box-stores and big brand retailers (other than fast-food locations), that’s sure to change, as many independent businesses are likely to not rebuild, while larger retailers will probably take interested in rebuilding incentives, and council are not likely to be as choosy.  It’s disaster capitalism on a micro- scale.  The spark of the town is gone.  It seems better to leave entirely than to sit in the midst of the dank and dark that has stained everything.  We feel guilty, overly-privileged, and more than a little resentful of the day everything changed.

On the morning of June 20th, we expected that people would start sandbagging in the morning, and we’d head over to wherever we might be needed, in the evening — probably the floodplain areas.  By then, people would be getting tired, and we could give them some rest, bring coffee, or provide whatever support was needed. We weren’t worried: we’d seen what we’d been told would be the worst, in 2005.  Even so, the morning seemed a little surreal as I left for work in Calgary, and had to struggle to get onto the main road, for all the bumper-to-bumper traffic.

We never thought we’d be leaving High River forever.

Reblog: A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

This is how you decolonize activism.

A wide swath of people have demonstrated how to decolonize activism: not with negativity, but with constructivity.  The following is being reblogged from Feminists Fighting Transphobia, and you will need to follow the link to see the ever-increasing number of signatories who have signed on.  I did not take part in authoring this, but gladly lend whatever support I can — M.

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We are proud to present a collective statement that is, to our knowledge (and we would love to be wrong about this) the first of its kind.  In this post you’ll find a statement of feminist solidarity with trans* rights, signed by nearly 100  feminists/womanists from at least eleven different countries [it's now 383 individuals and 17 organizations -- exactly 400! -- from at least 15 countries] who wish to affirm that feminism/womanism can and should be a home for trans* people as well as cis.  It has been signed by activists, bloggers, academics, and artists.  What we all have in common is the conviction that feminism should welcome trans* people, and that trans* people are essential to feminism’s mission to advocate for women and other people oppressed, exploited, and otherwise marginalized by patriarchal and misogynistic systems and people.

If you are a blogger/writer/academic/educator/artist/activist/otherwise in a position to affect feminist or womanist discourse or action and you would like to sign on to this statement, let us know!  You can use the form on the contact page or you can email us at feministsfightingtransphobia1@gmail.com.  We’d love to hear from you. [NEW: You can also just sign right on in the comments, particularly if you're wanting to sign in a personal, rather than professional capacity--this will be much quicker and also easier on our moderators!]

Note: this blog in general and this post in particular are places where trans* people can come and find welcome and support from feminists.  For this reason, all comments are moderated for now, and hateful or abusive or bigoted discourse directed against marginalized groups or their members will not be approved.  It will either be deleted or it will be replaced with mockery of that discourse, depending on what the moderators feel like doing.  To be clear, transphobia, misgendering, racism, misogyny, slut-shaming, etc. are unwelcome.

We particularly welcome comments regarding ways in which feminists and womanists, both cis and trans*, can organize to demonstrate solidarity with and support and acceptance of trans people.  Reading the names of prominent feminists on statements of transphobia is heartbreaking to many of us, but as Joe Hill said, “Don’t mourn; organize!”

– Moderators

A Statement of Trans-Inclusive Feminism and Womanism

We, the undersigned trans* and cis scholars, writers, artists, and educators, want to publicly and openly affirm our commitment to a trans*-inclusive feminism and womanism.

There has been a noticeable increase in transphobic feminist activity this summer: the forthcoming book by Sheila Jeffreys from Routledge; the hostile and threatening anonymous letter sent to Dallas Denny after she and Dr. Jamison Green wrote to Routledge regarding their concerns about that book; and the recent widely circulated statement entitled “Forbidden Discourse: The Silencing of Feminist Critique of ‘Gender,’” signed by a number of prominent, and we regret to say, misguided, feminists have been particularly noticeable.  And all this is taking place in the climate of virulent mainstream transphobia that has emerged following the coverage of Chelsea Manning’s trial and subsequent statement regarding her gender identity, and the recent murders of young trans women of color, including Islan Nettles and Domonique Newburn, the latest targets in a long history of violence against trans women of color.  Given these events, it is important that we speak out in support of feminism and womanism that support trans* people.

We are committed to recognizing and respecting the complex construction of sexual/gender identity; to recognizing trans* women as women and including them in all women’s spaces; to recognizing trans* men as men and rejecting accounts of manhood that exclude them; to recognizing the existence of genderqueer, non-binary identifying people and accepting their humanity; to rigorous, thoughtful, nuanced research and analysis of gender, sex, and sexuality that accept trans* people as authorities on their own experiences and understands that the legitimacy of their lives is not up for debate; and to fighting the twin ideologies of transphobia and patriarchy in all their guises.

Transphobic feminism ignores the identification of many trans* and genderqueer people as feminists or womanists and many cis feminists/womanists with their trans* sisters, brothers, friends, and lovers; it is feminism that has too often rejected them, and not the reverse. It ignores the historical pressures placed by the medical profession on trans* people to conform to rigid gender stereotypes in order to be “gifted” the medical aid to which they as human beings are entitled.  By positing “woman” as a coherent, stable identity whose boundaries they are authorized to police, transphobic feminists reject the insights of intersectional analysis, subordinating all other identities to womanhood and all other oppressions to patriarchy.  They are refusing to acknowledge their own power and privilege.

We recognize that transphobic feminists have used violence and threats of violence against trans* people and their partners and we condemn such behavior.  We recognize that transphobic rhetoric has deeply harmful effects on trans* people’s real lives; witness CeCe MacDonald’s imprisonment in a facility for men.  We further recognize the particular harm transphobia causes to trans* people of color when it combines with racism, and the violence it encourages.

When feminists exclude trans* women from women’s shelters, trans* women are left vulnerable to the worst kinds of violent, abusive misogyny, whether in men’s shelters, on the streets, or in abusive homes.  When feminists demand that trans* women be excluded from women’s bathrooms and that genderqueer people choose a binary-marked bathroom, they make participation in the public sphere near-impossible, collaborate with a rigidity of gender identities that feminism has historically fought against, and erect yet another barrier to employment.  When feminists teach transphobia, they drive trans* students away from education and the opportunities it provides.

We also reject the notion that trans* activists’ critiques of transphobic bigotry “silence” anybody.  Criticism is not the same as silencing. We recognize that the recent emphasis on the so-called violent rhetoric and threats that transphobic feminists claim are coming from trans* women online ignores the 40+ – year history of violent and eliminationist rhetoric directed by prominent feminists against trans* women, trans* men, and genderqueer people.  It ignores the deliberate strategy of certain well-known anti-trans* feminists of engaging in gleeful and persistent harassment, baiting, and provocation of trans* people, particularly trans* women, in the hope of inciting angry responses, which are then utilized to paint a false portrayal of trans* women as oppressors and cis feminist women as victims. It ignores the public outing of trans* women that certain transphobic feminists have engaged in regardless of the damage it does to women’s lives and the danger in which it puts them.  And it relies upon the pernicious rhetoric of collective guilt, using any example of such violent rhetoric, no matter the source — and, just as much, the justified anger of any one trans* woman — to condemn all trans* women, and to justify their continued exclusion and the continued denial of their civil rights.

Whether we are cis, trans*, binary-identified, or genderqueer, we will not let feminist or womanist discourse regress or stagnate; we will push forward in our understandings of gender, sex, and sexuality across disciplines.  While we respect the great achievements and hard battles fought by activists in the 1960s and 1970s, we know that those activists are not infallible and that progress cannot stop with them if we hope to remain intellectually honest, moral, and politically effective.  Most importantly, we recognize that theories are not more important than real people’s real lives; we reject any theory of gender, sex, or sexuality that calls on us to sacrifice the needs of any subjugated or marginalized group.  People are more important than theory.

We are committed to making our classrooms, our writing, and our research inclusive of trans* people’s lives.

Signed by:

Individuals

Hailey K. Alves (blogger and transfeminist activist, Brazil)

Luma Andrade  (Federal University of Ceará, Brazil)

Leiliane Assunção (Federal University of the Rio Grande do Norte, Brazil)

Talia Bettcher (California State University, Los Angeles)

Lauren Beukes (novelist)

Lindsay Beyerstein (journalist)

Jamie “Skye” Bianco (New York University)

Hanne Blank (writer and historian)

Kate Bornstein (writer and activist)

danah boyd (Microsoft research and New York University)

Helen Boyd (author and activist)

Sarah Brown (LGBT+ Liberal Democrats)

Christine Burns (equalities consultant, blogger and campaigner)

Liliane Anderson Reis Caldeira (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)

Gloria Careaga (UNAM/National Autonomous University of Mexico)

Avedon Carol (activist and writer; Feminists Against Censorship)

Wendy Chapkis (University of Southern Maine) – “I don’t love the punch line ‘people are more important than theory.’  More to the point, it seems to me, is that feminist theories that fail to recognize the lived experiences and revolutionary potential of gender diversity are willfully inadequate.”

Jan Clausen (writer, MFAW faculty, Goddard College)

Darrah Cloud (playwright and screenwriter; Goddard College)

Alyson Cole (Queens College – CUNY)

Arrianna Marie Coleman (writer and activist)

Suzan Cooke (writer and photographer)

Sonia Onufer Correa  (feminist research associate at ABIA, co-chair of Sexuality Policy Watch)

Molly Crabapple (artist and writer)

Petra Davis (writer and activist)

Elizabeth Dearnley (University College London)

Jaqueline Gomes de Jesus (University of Brasilia, Brazil)

Sady Doyle (writer and blogger)

L. Timmel Duchamp (publisher, Aqueduct Press)

Flavia Dzodan (writer and media maker)

Reni Eddo-Lodge (writer and activist)

Finn Enke (University of Wisconsin, Madison)

Hugh English (Queens College – CUNY)

Jane Fae (writer and activist)

Roderick Ferguson (University of Minnesota)

Jill Filipovic (writer and blogger)

Rose Fox (editor and activist)

Jaclyn Friedman (author, activist, and executive director of Women, Action, & the Media)

Sasha Garwood (University College, London)

Jen Jack Gieseking (Bowdoin College)

Dominique Grisard (CUNY Graduate Center/Columbia University/University of Basel)

Deborah Gussman (Richard Stockton College of New Jersey)

Dr Sally Hines (University of Leeds)

Claire House (International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, Brazil)

Astrid Idlewild (editor, urban historian)

Sarah Hoem Iversen (Bergen University College, Norway)

Sarah Jaffe (columnist)

Roz Kaveney (author and critic)

Zahira Kelly (artist and writer)

Mikki Kendall (writer and occasional feminist)

Natacha Kennedy (Goldsmiths College, University of London)

Alison Kilkenny (journalist and activist)

Matthew Knip (Hunter College – CUNY)

Letícia Lanz (writer and psychoanalyst, Brazil)

April Lidinsky (Indiana University South Bend)

Erika Lin (George Mason University)

Marilee Lindemann (University of Maryland)

Heather Love (University of Pennsylvania)

Jessica W. Luther (writer and activist)

Jen Manion (Connecticut College)

Ruth McClelland-Nugent (Georgia Regents University Augusta)

Melissa McEwan (Editor-in-Chief, Shakesville)

Farah Mendlesohn (Anglia Ruskin University)

Mireille Miller-Young (University of California, Santa Barbara)

Lyndsey Moon (University of Roehampton and University of Warwick)

Surya Monro (University of Huddersfield)

Cheryl Morgan (publisher and blogger)

Kenne Mwikya (writer and activist, Nairobi)

Zenita Nicholson (Secretary on the Board of Trustees, Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination, Guyana)

Anne Ogborn (frightening sex change)

Sally Outen (performer and activist)

Ruth Pearce (University of Warwick)

Laurie Penny (journalist and activist)

Rosalind Petchesky (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, and Sexuality Policy Watch)

Rachel Pollack (writer, Goddard College)

Claire Bond Potter (The New School for Public Engagement)

Nina Power (University of Roehampton)

Marina Riedel (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil)

Mark Rifkin (University of North Carolina – Greensboro)

Monica Roberts (Transgriot)

Dr. Judy Rohrer (Western Kentucky University)

Diana Salles (independent scholar)

Veronica Schanoes (Queens College – CUNY)

Sarah Schulman, in principle (College of Staten Island – CUNY)

Donald M. Scott (Queens College – CUNY)

Lynne Segal (Birkbeck, University of London)

Julia Serano (author and activist)

Carrie D. Shanafelt (Grinnell College)

Rebekah Sheldon (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis)

Barbara Simerka (Queens College – CUNY)

Gwendolyn Ann Smith (columnist and Transgender Day of Remembrance founder)

Kari Sperring (K L Maund) (writer and historian)

Zoe Stavri (writer and activist)

Tristan Taormino (Sex Out Loud Radio, New York, NY)

Jemma Tosh (University of Chester)

Viviane V. (Federal University of Bahia, Brazil)

Catherynne M. Valente (author)

Jessica Valenti (author and columnist)

Genevieve Valentine (writer)

Barbra Wangare (S.H.E and Transitioning Africa, Kenya)

Thijs Witty (University of Amsterdam, Netherlands)

Groups:

Bishkek Feminist Collective SQ (Kyrgyzstan, Central Asia)

House of Najafgarh (Najafgarh, India)

House of Kola Bhagan (Kolkatta, India)

Transgender Nation San Francisco

[See http://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2013/09/17/welcome-to-our-most-recent-signatories/ for our newest signatories, as of the end of the day on September 16, 2013]

[See http://feministsfightingtransphobia.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/six-hours-later-we-have-a-new-signatory-list/ for our newest signatories, as of the end of the day on September 17, 2013]

The Not All Like That Christians Project

Christians are “Not All Like That” (i.e. anti-LGBT).  I get it, and try to phrase my writing accordingly.  Society, on the other hand, *doesn’t* get it, and the extremists have been successful in painting their position as the “Christian” position.

If it is not your position, here’s a way you can add your voice to those wanting to make this clear.

What LifeSiteNews’ attack on Pat Robertson says about religious freedom.

Last week, there was some curious notice given to American televangelist Pat Robertson, after he expressed support for transitioning trans people, and their access to sex reassignment surgery.  Less noticed was the backlash from other far-right groups over the same comments.  But it’s worth revisiting, because of what that backlash says about the far right’s battle cry over religious freedom.

It’s very common for far-right ideologues (who I try to distinguish from “Christians,” because they don’t speak for all Christians) to hide behind religious freedom, and cry censorship when they are called out for transphobic and homophobic comments.  It has created a public perception of there being a false dichotomy between LGBT human rights and religious belief / practice.  It also creates a weird conflation between holding people accountable, and “persecution.”

Personally, I’d rather that folks speak freely.  It’s much easier to challenge the content of what is being said, and demonstrate the authentically bigoted attitudes underlying far-right agendas.  We’ll probably never change the minds of the Fred Phelpses of the world, but their words and actions say a lot to society at large.

That’s probably why I keep coming back to LifeSiteNews.

LSN is a Canadian faux-news website under the aegis of Campaign Life Coalition (CLC), which is pretty unabashed about wanting to end or restrict abortion (with no exceptions), contraception, hormone therapy, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), feminism, organ donation, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, LGBT relationships of any type, LGBT parenting, cohabitation and divorce, and far more.  LSN has cheered on Russia’s highly punitive and violent legislation against LGBT people (Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be a champion of religious freedom to LSN, of late), and continues to support organizations that foment anti-gay hatred in Africa, despite having been called out for doing so.  LSN has been known to deliberately omit important information, like when the website cheered on new anti-gay legislative proposals in Nigeria, while “forgetting” (despite reminders) that 14 Nigerian states already have the death penalty for LGBT people.  Other coverage will sometimes conflate homosexuality and pedophilia, or make a total ban on LGBT expression and advocacy sound like it’s protecting children from pornography.  But overall, LSN’s agendas are usually fairly nakedly obvious with just a little bit of examination.  So it often provides vivid examples to clearly demonstrate what the ideological far right wants to do.

CLC has also regularly used the LSN blog to attack Catholic organizations that don’t follow exactly the kind of path that CLC believes is proper and Catholic.  LSN has attempted to punitively police the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and was sued when they went after a Quebec priest who LSN portrayed as a “former homosexual prostitute” and a “so-called priest who supports abortion.” Recently, American and international Catholic hospitals, agencies and charities who provide (or support organizations that provide) access to birth control have come under fire.

LSN has even “clarified” the new Pope.  (But to be fair, LSN was not the only ideologue to do so).

Now, LSN is encouraging readers to swamp the Christian Broadcasting Network main switchboard with complaints about Pat Robertson, partly for saying that contraception is an acceptable way to provide assistance to impoverished people in Third World nations (specifically, Robertson showed some racism by referring to “Appalachian ragamuffins”), and partly for expressing support (for at least the third time) for sex reassignment surgery and the trans people who seek it.

LSN’s attempt to police Pat Robertson and American Evangelicals on these issues puts the lie to cries of religious persecution, censorship and infringement on religious freedom.  As the website and its contributing allies continue to play banhammer on Catholics For Choice, the National Catholic ReporterCatholic Relief Services, affirming churches, priests and congregations, and more, it shows no qualms about attempting to censure or silence the religious freedoms of other Catholics and of Protestants as well:

In addition to complaining that CRS was involved in distributing abortifacients and contraceptives, the clergy expressed dismay that the majority of CRS’ employees in the country are not Catholic and that it does its work apart from the local church.

“Maybe CRS’s participation in artificial-contraception-promotion programs is the reason that CRS mainly hires Protestants, who have no objection to family planning,” suggested Fr. Liva, SMM, Pastor at St. Thérèse Parish in Tamatave. “If CRS hired Catholics, some of those Catholics might object more strongly to CRS’s participation in that kind of thing.”

Back in January, LSN’s Managing Director Steve Jalsevac declared that affirmation of LGBT people in Catholic congregations, teachers’ unions, hospitals, universities and schools was something that needed to be dealt with “urgently and forcefully:

When the various Christian churches, not just the Catholics, are largely cleansed of this rejection of authentic Christian morality, then a power of faith will be unleashed that nothing can stop.

In fact, with this attack on Robertson and other insinuations about Evangelicals, LSN now appears to be trying to police who can and can’t be considered Christian.  This is also apparent in the website’s latest posturing over poll results which show that a majority of Catholics and a significant number of born-again Evangelicals still support the availability of abortion in at least some cases (let alone contraception), as well as calls to excommunicate legislators who support abortion access and LGBT human & marriage rights.

Granted, there has long been a hypocrisy in the religious freedom argument, with Evangelicals like Bryan Fischer and Pat Buchanan arguing against allowing religious observances of people of other faiths, like Muslims. But at this point, it should be obvious to all that for the people now attempting to define and drive what qualifies as “Christian,” the only religious freedom that matters is their own.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

Porn opt-ins, soft censorship and buttbuttinating personal responsibility

On Monday, British Prime Minster David Cameron announced that internet service providers in the U.K. would be required to filter out online porn as part of several new rules to come into effect by the end of the year.  Adults will still have the ability to opt in to view porn, but filtering will be the “unavoidable choice” default that ISPs will need to provide.  The same day, Twitter announced that it would be implementing a tagging system to fight porn, apparently at the British government’s urging.

Meanwhile, the chairman of the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP), Tom Copeland, revealed that an opt-in idea like Britain’s had been discussed in Canada off and on for several years.  On Tuesday, Conservative MP for Kildonan-St. Paul, Joy Smith, expressed a wish to implement the initiative in Canada, calling it a “common sense approach” to protect kids.  She has promised to flag this for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to address when Parliament resumes.

Soft Censorship

The initial rationalization being given is that as an “opt-in” policy, nothing is actually being “censored.”  It sounds like it’s just as easy as unchecking a box, to opt back in.  Easy, right?

Unfortunately, reality doesn’t work that way, and it would be impossible for an opt-in scheme to become anything other than a softer kind of censorship.

“This Website is Unavailable”

The biggest concern being raised so far is the inaccuracy of filters, and their tendency to affect many things that are not actually porn.  Cameron has already had to concede that the filters required in the U.K. could end up blocking sexual health, sex-ed and clothing and / or novelty stores.  There’s really no guarantee that discussions about womens’ reproductive health, sex workers’ rights, transsexuality and more would escape the filter, and remain available to the general public, rather than just those who opt to view porn.

The implementation would almost certainly target consensual BDSM (an acronym for bondage & discipline / dominance & submission / sadomasochism), given that the filter announcement was accompanied by a declaration that  it would be illegal to produce or possess anything that could be considered “violent” or that simulated rape — something that drew fire from former MP Louise Mensch, who commented on Twitter: “It is not for our government to police consensual simulation, between adults, of one of women’s most common fantasies.”  [The U.K. already has an unusual and related legal precedent in which the House of Lords ruled that a person could not legally consent to violence (aside from things like surgery), although subsequent rulings have left that legal landscape a bit unclear.]

Tumblr illustrated the problem with filters when it drew some complaints over the weekend for flagging and tagging blogs as “NSFW (not safe for work),” or “Adult,” applying filters, and preventing tagged blogs from showing up in searches. Terms like “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “transgender” and more were affected — words that could just as easily call up a porn niche as summon a wealth of social discussion.

Autostraddle notes:

“Although Tumblr’s settings page allows users to opt out of hiding NSFW posts in searches, it seems blogs that have been labeled NSFW (with or without their consent) have not been appearing in searches at all, basically blocking them from gaining new followers through anything but reblogs and word-of-mouth. In addition, many noticed that a whole host of vaguely “adult” tags, including those listed above, are now unsearchable on some mobile apps, including Tumblr for iPhone.”

The effect of targeted tags being dropped from search engines and functions cannot be understated — and could easily become a naturally organic consequence, as search engines and algorithms adapt to the “new normal.”  Soft censorship.  Say goodbye to your favourite LGBT blog.

If that last comment sounds melodramatic, then note that Tim Horton’s also had to apologize for blocking the gay and lesbian news website Xtra from WiFi users (also over an apparently busy weekend), after LGBT people and allies began lobbying to boycott the coffee chain.  Once filters are a factor, this is hardly an unusual occurrence.

And as discussions become inadvertently filtered, they become less accessible and less traveled… factors that almost inevitably drive their ranking down on complex search algorithms like those used by Google.

Clbuttic Mistakes

Filters have improved somewhat since the legendary problem reported by Dick Cheney’s staff, when the installation of new filters targeting offensive words (like “dick”) prevented them from accessing the then-Senator’s own website.  Even so, there are endless examples of filters overreaching and doing what they were never intended to do — sometimes with hilarious results.  Even still, one occasionally runs across a phenomenon known as “The Clbuttic Mistake” — a phenomenon of mangled text that results when auto-format filters replace words considered rude or offensive with milder counterparts, without accounting for context.  In these sorts of situations, “classic” becomes “clbuttic” (18,700 instances on Google), “constitution” becomes “consbreastution” (3,240 instances), “assassination” becomes “buttbuttination” (2,040 instances), and more.  While the filters being sought by the British PM perform differently — preventing the display of a page, rather than changing its text — their programming will inevitably be just as arbitrary.

Good luck finding your town’s website if you live in Dildo, NL.

It gets even more difficult when it comes to trying to filter images, which don’t of themselves have keywords other than the descriptions assigned to them.  The broadest filters could make significant swaths of classic art inaccessible, while still letting actual porn through.   As noted at The Cracked Crystal Ball II:

Let us assume that we have a computer system available to us which can identify nudity in images.  How do we differentiate between the nudity of a great piece of classical artwork and a playboy centerfold type of picture?  Is there in fact a difference?  What a commercial sites that sell sex toys?  Are they to be deemed “pornographic”?  

“Or, come to that, how does one differentiate between a novel with a sex scene and a pornographic story?  Where does the line exist between “legitimate” art (as the anti-pornographers see it) and porn lie?  … and is there any meaningful way to differentiate that a blocking system could identify?”

The arbitrariness of keywords is not the only thing likely to make a filter be applied in an overly broad way.  Obscenity is a perpetually subjective concept, always open to interpretation by individuals.  This often results in the “just in case” mentality, where businesses and individuals apply the rule in an overly broad way, to avoid any possible complaints or legal liabilities.

A Homosexual Propaganda Law for the Internets

And indeed, to many social conservatives, LGBT news sites are considered pornography, or at the very least as potential gateways to pornography.  Linda Harvey of Mission America illustrated this vividly last May on her talk show at WRFD radio, in Columbus, Ohio:

“Homosexual-themed pornography is extremely accessible to young people if they ever visit any websites covering the gay agenda as news. For instance, if your child was during a report on same-sex marriage just researching the political issue and visiting sites that are sympathetic to the social and political goals of the homosexual movement may quickly bring them in touch with explicit images because many of the homosexual news blogs have soft-porn gay dating sites or worse as ads. So what is the reaction of your son or daughter to such graphic images?

“If they feel a curiosity it may start a process of wondering if they could be homosexual. This is not true of course but the really tragic thing is they are not likely to share this question with you the parent, it just seems too personal. If they follow up and visit these sites some will experience sexual feelings and mistake these for the pervasive fiction of some inborn gay identity. After all, isn’t this the message that kids get everywhere that ‘some of you are destined for homosexuality and there is nothing you can do about it so just go with it and be proud’?”

Protecting children from witnessing homosexual love and involuntarily becoming gay as a consequence was the public rationale used by Russia when it enacted its law banning “homosexual propaganda.” But the law affects any public statement, action, publication or gesture that can be seen as LGBT-positive, including Pride parades and events, affirming publications and support groups, and far more.  On Monday, four Dutch tourists were the first foreigners arrested under the ban, when they interviewed passers-by about their views on the ban for a documentary on human rights.  Days ago, Russia also went a step further by making it illegal to “offend the feelings of religious believers.”  Self-described “human rights consultant”and American evangelical Scott Lively has on multiple occasions taken credit for the ban in Russia, encouraging Hungarian legislators to:

criminalize the public advocacy of homosexuality. My philosophy is to leave homosexuals alone if they keep their lifestyle private, and not to force them into therapy if they don’t want it. However, homosexuality is destructive to individuals and to society and it should never publicly promoted. The easiest way to discourage “gay pride” parades and other homosexual advocacy is to make such activity illegal in the interest of public health and morality…”

[Lively is one of the evangelists who inspired Uganda's "Anti-Homosexuality Bill."]

Censoring Silence

In the highly polarized and politically charged atmosphere of the past few years, it’s no secret that there are interest groups with a thirst to censor anything favourable to their ideological opponents.  The will certainly exists.

Much of the censorship proposed lately is rationalized in the name of protecting children, but the list of things that people assert that children should be protected from can quickly balloon into a monster.  Last April, I wrote a three-part series (1, 2, 3) on how social conservatives even targeted the Day of Silence (a day in which LGBT students and allies refuse to speak, as a way of protesting the silencing effect of anti-gay and transphobic bullying and harassment) as offensive:

“Acceptance of others has been conflated with “encouraging experimentation,” and lately also equated to corruption of children and “mental molestation.”  To many, it’s all inseparable.  In this mindset (coupled with heads-as-empty-vessels theory), even silent solidarity with LGBT kids corrupts children sexually and indoctrinates them into homosexuality.”

When CAIP’s Tom Copeland spoke to the Canadian Press, he noted:

“The discussion has gone on forever and a day, mostly it starts around child pornography and what can be done to combat it and whether or not Internet service providers can play a role, or should play a role,” Copeland said.

“And then every once in a while somebody decides, ‘Well, we need to take this further, it needs to include general pornography sites’ -which aren’t illegal – ‘it needs to include hate sites.’ It needs to include any number of sites that somebody all of a sudden has a burr in their britches about.

“And generally the industry has said we can’t possibly block all of these sites.”

That last point is important.  Requiring a block on all porn becomes a burden on ISPs, especially as technology and the means to evade it changes at rapid pace.  And in giving ISPs the responsibility of “protecting” people from porn, they may also inherit the legal liabilities.  One man recently filed suit against Apple for allowing porn on iPhones, blaming the company for the failure of his marriage and a porn addiction.  In an opt-in world, what kind of legal liabilities do ISPs face, if some porn does slip through?  And if there is the spectre of legal consequences, doesn’t it incentivize the over-application of filters?

There are, of course, many fears that opt-in policies could lead to censorship of other kinds of content, by being exploited erosively, in the same way that restrictions and regulations have been continually implemented in the U.S. to limit and gradually eliminate womens’ access to abortion, and making moves to do the same with contraception.  It’s not inconceivable that an opt-in policy could be instituted and then gradually widened to things that are “controversial” — like sex ed, abortion, sex workers’ rights, environmentalism, transsexuality, atheism, evolution….

Personal Responsibility

Even if that didn’t happen, it’s still the height of laziness to put the burden of parental and personal responsibility on the state.

But then, society has a serious double-standard on issues of personal responsibility.  We’ve been increasingly seeing messaging blaming women for rape, blaming the poor for their own poverty, and blaming minorities for racial strife, in the dubious name of “personal responsibility.”  And yet when it comes to actual personal responsibility in terms of parenting and individual choice, people cry for the government to establish soft censorship to do the job of instructing kids.

The calls for “parental rights” when it comes to shielding their kids from LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying education prove to be a hypocrisy as well, given that those parental rights are easily punted to the wayside when it comes to subjecting other parents’ kids to squishy fetus dolls in candy bags or grisly aborted fetus posters displayed outside schools or family events, to recruit children in the war on womens’ reproductive rights.  It would seem to be that only one kind of parent is supposed to make decisions for everyone else’s children.  And in calling for a national porn opt-in requirement, it’s almost a weird kind of “we’ll happily abdicate the responsibility to the state, as long as the state is doing what we want” sentiment.

Meanwhile, MP Smith has already indicated that she sees it as irrelevant if things get pushed into the cybercloset as a consequence of the measure:

“What you have to weigh on this is how can we better protect our children. It’s not going to be perfect. Nothing we do is going to be perfect. But it’s one more step to protecting our children. And what I’ve heard is people say, oh, as an adult it’s embarrassing for me to have to do this. And my answer to that is, unchecking a box can’t be too much of a price to pay when it comes to protecting and nurturing our children. So it’s not about censoring anything, it’s about protecting the children. And we know the harmful impact of pornography on children because research is showing that. And so this is something that Prime Minister Cameron has done that has been really bold and it’s been collaborative and I think we need to have this conversation right here in Canada and take some of these steps.”

We wouldn’t want the kids to sear their eye sockets, after all.

Won’t Somebody Please Think of the Children?

And this is where we get to the point of the debate that few want to discuss: the possibility that sexual curiosity may be a natural part of youth, one that in practice will probably not be thwarted by an opt-in law, anyway.

As the Toronto Star pointed out, David Cameron’s plan conflates child pornography with youth porn consumption.  Regardless of what one feels about the latter, it mostly happens when kids wilfully seek to view porn, and they have also often proven to be remarkably able to evade security, anyway.  It’s concerning that people are seriously considering changing the fundamental nature of the Internet and seriously squelching the dialogue of some communities, in favour of something that may not achieve its stated goal in the first place, and would be better accomplished by parents monitoring and better educating their kids.

No one can deny that there are some pretty abysmal and misogynistic forms of porn out there, forms we’d obviously rather not be plastered everywhere that kids travel — and that’s why the Internet has organically evolved to mostly limit that sort of thing to spaces where it is deliberately sought out.  You typically don’t get porn in Teh Google unless your search terms are keyed to find it.  And The Huffington Post isn’t likely to advertise porn, since it’s bad for business and readership retention.

It’s not perfect, certainly, but throwing out very positive resources on sexuality that can be found — like Scarleteen — in the process is an unreasonably nuclear option.  It’s not like there’s a lack of (free!) resources already available for parents who want to eliminate any risk of their children burning their eyes.

But it would seem to me that better parenting would be less focused on protecting kids from knowing anything about sexuality, and focused more on keeping good lines of communication open, so that kids are comfortable asking their parents questions while they’re figuring things out.

Either way, given the way some proponents push the idea of soft censorship, it can’t help appear as though some teens have a better handle on sex and sexuality than many adults.

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)

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