Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Masculinity, Chivalry, and Caring

I don't have any solid support for what I'm about to say - consider it the musings of someone who has been gathering some very anecdotal evidence. I'm sure this has been studied in greater depth, and maybe I've been shown to be wrong, but it's been on my mind, so here it is.

Most of the service organizations I see are run by women. In my high school, the environmentalist club, the two youth chapters of the local service clubs, both the Christian and the Muslim clubs, and basically everything that was community-oriented was run by girls. This pattern has followed me through life - of every club, project, program, and service organization I know of, the majority are either run by girls, or their operations are vastly more dependent on their female membership than their male membership. Males seem generally unlikely to run an organization that they won't personally benefit from.

Men don't seem to care, in the broadest sense of the term - we (the reader may have already determined that I am, myself, of the not-so-fair sex) don't take leadership positions in matters of community service, we aren't passionate about issues. Those are vast generalizations, but from personal experience, the number of girls who will speak passionately to me about some social problem or another vastly outnumbers the men I know who would do the same thing. Political office seems to be the exception, but, I suspect, for the wrong reasons.

Has it always been that way? I don't know. Maybe men have always been more self-interested creatures. Maybe we are more interested in power as an end in itself than we are in morality, in altruism, in effecting change. Maybe that's why we write such great histories about one another, and let the heroines of history go unsung.

I think though, that there have been subtle changes in the way we in Canada view gender, and the way in which gender roles are presented. To care seems synonymous with empathy, with an emotional attachment to the cause or to the subject. People who care don't seem to be people who are characterized by aggression, ego, power, competition, detachment, and insensitivity. I don't say that those are all desirable qualities, and yet if you asked people to rate each of those qualities as being masculine or feminine, they would probably each come out as being masculine.

Now, this is going to seem very old-fashioned, but stand on the porch with me and don't let my rocking-chair distract you: I believe that men and women have, in the aggregate, different ways of looking at the world, and that these differences are so entrenched in any civilization that we can conceive of that they may as well be biological. Those bad qualities I just mentioned, the ones that are masculine, for most adult males they are probably hardwired. That's not to say that all men are inherently overbearing, aggressive, detached, self-interested animals, or that there are no women who exhibit all those traits. I am talking about the averages, in relation to one another.

So when we are asked to care about an issue, we are presented with what seems like a feminine proposition. To most men, it seems almost like a homosexual tendency. I don't mean that in a necessarily pejorative sense - I just mean that "caring" doesn't seem to fit in with their perception of themselves, doesn't interest them, and doesn't seem sustainable in the long term.

Yet male heroes who strove for the sake of the community are not hard to find in history. As a Muslim, I am charged with understanding and emulating the immense legacy of several such men. In both the West and the East, however, we have invented this idea of chivalry - a historical concept that we have, in the age of feminism and women's equality, relegated to the mists of time. Maybe it never really existed. Maybe we really did invent it, just to paper over the faults of barbaric eras gone past.

Even if that is the case, though, chivalry did represent caring as a masculine quality. The knight, the mujahid, the Confucian Noble Man each expressed an understanding that his interests were subordinate to that of the collective, and a uniquely masculine sense of responsibility for those more vulnerable than him. Chivalry is not incompatible with ego, power, aggression, detachment, and insensitivity - it just forces their application into different spheres of life.

Men today do not value chivalry. In the Muslim world, what was once chivalry has been, in the darker corners, twisted into a self-interested excuse for misogyny, a way to blame women for failings that belong entirely to men. In the West, chivalry seems quaint, predicated on the notion that women are fragile and vulnerable, when everyone is supposed to believe that men and women are absolutely equal in all spheres of life, and that "femininity" and "masculinity" are outdated, harmful, unfairly prejudicial concepts.

This is all so much hand-waving, based on nothing more than my own biased perception of the world. Maybe more women are self-absorbed hedonists, and more men are devoted to altruistic causes than I give credit for. The reverse has, unfortunately, been my experience. I think if we truly want to mobilize young men to be involved in issues facing their communities, and facing our species as a whole, we need to rekindle a uniquely masculine ethic that will motivate them.

We need to rediscover a masculine way to care.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

What was I saying. . . ? (MMP)

Yet again the pace of life hasn't really given me time to type out all the posts I compose in my head when I'm doing more tedious things. I hope to get to some of that stuff this week. Where was I before this hiatus? Right. . . MMP. It probably won't matter again for at least another 4 years, but for what it's worth, I voted Yes to MMP.

Read a little (or a lot) about the proposal here:


Unfortunately, the referendum didn't pass - probably because most Ontarians didn't understand it, and not because they thought it was a bad thing. Yet another reason why high voter turnout isn't always desirable. There was an organized campaign against it - with certain interest groups playing on the public's misplaced mistrust of politicians to cynically manipulate public perception of the system ("does Ontario really need even more politicians? Do you want party bosses choosing your candidate?"). On the other hand, there was basically no one advocating for, or even explaining MMP. I'm usually a pretty up-to-date guy. I had no idea of what MMP was until an acquaintance of mine, shocked that I didn't know about a referendum that was happening right around me, e-mailed the information. The result of the referendum would have been predictable just from that.

A slightly more intelligent critique of the proposal, entitled MMP - An Exercise in Dumb was posted by the wise old man at Atlas Hugged. He's a pretty articulate guy, and if even he couldn't put together a convincing argument against MMP, then I doubt there is one. "MPP for life by MMP?" Well if people don't like you, they don't have to vote for your party. It does cut two ways.

No, I voted for MMP for the same reason I created this blog - to enhance the diversity of voices. Under MMP, it would take 3% of the popular vote to get a seat in the legislature. Under MMP, the Greens, a party I do not support, would already have more than one seat.

So, why is that good?

Democracy, especially Canadian democracy, thrives on a climate in which people have choices in how they are governed. Unfortunately, people have to understand a new option before they will feel comfortable deciding in favour of it, and people can't understand what the new option represents unless it is already established in the legislature. Not being in the legislature makes you a fringe party.

Canadian democracy differs from American democracy in this way, but not enough for my liking. I feel we are slowly tending towards the situation that they have in the United States, where the two parties may propose different policies, but seem to view the world from essentially the same perspective. The Republican party is homogenous - their least conservative candidate feels that American should always be run by a Christian. The Democratic party, faced with the zero-sum game of the Presidential election, will always lean towards the Centrist candidate - not the one they believe is right, but the one who has the greatest appeal to people who would have otherwise voted for Mr. Christian Nation. Watching the Democratic debates, the only people with interesting things to say are the people at the edges of the stage, the ones who get the least TV time. Why? Because they tell a large segment of the population something it does not want to hear. And that's not how you win the Presidency. The idea of a Malcolm X arising as a political force in today's America seems bizarre. Outside of the Christian organizations, America has lost its radicals.

In Canada we have managed to maintain multiple parties, and so we've a modicum more of democracy - but that is always under threat. The Liberals, eager to become Canada's Democrats, complain of nothing more than the NDP, which eats into what they see as their share of the vote. At the provincial level, the Tories march together - either towards the centre (Ontario and the Atlantic provinces today), towards the far right (the Harris Tories), or towards perpetual government (Alberta). At the federal level the question on the right is moot, thanks to the treacherous scoundrel who is our current Minister of Defense.

So do I care that a "Party Boss" will pick the list of candidates on the proportional list? Not one bit. If I don't like the candidates, I don't have to vote for the party. Ain't that a revolutionary idea? If it means that the madmen and the sane people can speak clearly from the same podium, I'm all for it.

After all, the point of democracy is that it's up to us to tell the difference.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How The Proud Islamist Voted

Now that I'm sure my Ontario readers have had their fill of Ontario election coverage, here would be my take on the subject.

Voter Turnout

The fact that it was low has been adequately lamented in the mainstream press - apparently the turnout was at a record low of 52.6% of eligible voters. I've always been confused as to why everyone is so certain that this is a bad thing. Clearly, 47.4 of eligible voters in Ontario either don't know enough or don't care enough to vote in the provincial election. Do we want our government to chosen by apathetic, uninformed individuals? Now, the extent of apathy or political ignorance (it's not clear if either was by itself the culprit) isn't ideal, and of course one would hope that the entire populace would take an active, intelligent role in the political process. . . but raising the voter turnout is by no means a reliable indicator that that has happened.

I object to the notion that a high voter turnout is always desirable, especially when the criteria for eligibility are so expansive. It's always struck me as fairly bizarre that we won't let an 18 year old drive on a four lane highway without subjecting him to 2 years probation and 3 separate exams, but that we will let any Joe or Jane with a functioning brain and a sufficiently old birthdate to choose our elected representatives - as if we were so certain that bad government was less dangerous than bad driving.


Of the handful of readers who know me well, ZERO will be surprised. Of those who only know me slightly, more probably would be. I'm not going to go through every aspect of policy, but social justice is probably my number 1 priority when I vote in an election, and since foreign policy isn't really at play in provincial elections, all of my decisions tend to rest on economic policy.

But let's take the minimum wage, to highlight the point. From January 1995 to February of 2007, we've seen an increase from $6.85 to $8.00, for a boost of 16.8%. From 1995 to 2007, Canadian real GDP has gone up by 22.8%, and since Ontario is one of Canada's economic overachievers, we can expect that it would be even higher in Ontario. Those GDP figures are, however, adjusted in price and purchasing-power parity to 2002 US dollars and prices. The minimum wage figures are not adjusted for inflation. The net result of adjusting for inflation? Minimum wage workers in Ontario haven't actually had a wage increase in over 10 years, since the total cost of a basket of goods an services has since gone up by 27%.

In other words, Ontario has been robbing from the poor to give to . . . someone else. Other data tend to suggest that it isn't the middle class. Of the 3 provincial parties, the NDP platform is the most aggressive on this issue - too aggressive, says McGuinty, who says that raising the wage would be a shock to small business.

Now I'm not one of those poverty activists who claims that it is impossible to live on minimum wage. It actually is, if you're a single person, working lots of hours, living in low cost housing and mooching off friends and relatives for as much as possible. One thing is, however, obvious - minimum wage earners aren't savers - they're spenders. They have to be - new shoes for a job interview are always going to be higher on their priority list than an RRSP. Your patronisingly-named "sandwich artist" will probably be more likely to himself patronize the store he works for if a meal won't cost him an hour and a half of work. Here, we're talking about service industries, the main employer of unskilled labour in the province, so the argument that it would precipitate an inflationary spiral is more bogus than usual. I would go so far as to challenge anyone to show me a single instance where an increase in the minimum wage actually hurt the economy.

Of course, I am an Islamist (didn't you notice?), and consequently my beliefs on the regular redistribution of wealth are informed by Islam and an inherent sense of fairness. As Muslim philosopher and poet Allama Iqbal once wrote:

Ut ho mere dunya ke ghareebon ko jagaa dho
Jis kathe se milthi nahiin dhekhan ko hai roti
Us kathe ko har goshe gundum ko jelaa dho!

Stand up, everyone, and make way for the poor!
If there is a field that does not give bread to the field worker,
Then burn every grain, in every corner of that field.

More to follow on MMP.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Ramadhan's End

From Pakistan to Palestine, MMP to MPP's, there's been a lot on my mind recently. . .

I didn't title this post "Eid Mubarak" because sadly, it isn't Eid for all the Muslims. It isn't quite Eid for me - my conscience wants it to be on Saturday, as the Fiqh Council said, but then my conscience wants a lot of things that it can't get, for the time being. The Muslim world is back to its usual vice of the unpredictable calendar. Today at the Masjid a proponent of today's Eid-by-Meccan-moonsighting and apparent expert on all the "scientific wonders" of Islam told me that he wished the Muslim world could find some unity, and that if we could only agree on the calendar, then we would be a force to be reckoned with.

I think we are already a force to be reckoned with, we just haven't yet reckoned with ourselves. I replied by saying that in order to have a calendar, you need to know what the dates are going to be in advance. "With modern technology. . . ." he began. Sigh. How can you hope to achieve all that storied grandeur if you can't schedule a meeting for Wednesday the 15th of Shawwal, because you don't know whether it will be a Wednesday or not? With modern technology indeed. . . A complex, resource-intensive solution to an artificial problem. Not that I think we need any more grandeur. It's a love of grandeur that's gotten us into this mess to begin with. . . but that's another story.

I miss Ramzaan already. I know that a few weeks from now, the days will feel . . . normal, mundane. I have a couple of fasts to make-up, but they aren't the same. They won't have the same potential. They will be a punctuation in the rhythm of daily life - not a new rhythm unto themselves. There will be no more standing at length at night, letting my mind expand and contract as the sound of the Qur'an hits the chords of my soul, wandering away and then focusing sharply on the task at hand once it realizes the gravity of what I'm doing, and Whom I stand before.

And so, here we are at Eid. We've made it one more year. Was I forgiven? Was my failure over the last year to control my selfish desires forgiven? Were they even tamed? Will Ramzaan be just a platitude, a lip service to the ideals of Islam, which justifies and excuses the failings of another year? Will I remember that on an average Ramadan day, my food intake is what some people consider a feast? But then again, I am asking these questions as if I have no control over the outcome, as if it were environment that controls my actions, as if God had given me no say in the matter.

Was I angry when I heard that so many Masjids here in Canada had declared today as Eid? No, but I was disappointed. Disappointed about Eid. Astaghfirullah. I'm not disappointed about Eid anymore - practicality forces me to embrace it, and I also have to be sure that my ego is subjugated to my faith. With Ramzaan, with fasting, with Eid, and with everything else, next year, we will try to do better.

If we are still here next year, that is.

So if you're celebrating, Eid Mubarak! If you went with the FCNA's courageous decision, then mubarak to you too!

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Monday, October 1, 2007

I don't know much about Myanmar but . . .

neither really does anyone else around here.

So far, I buy that the Burmese military has launched a brutal crackdown against oppositional supporters and Buddhist monks. HRW says so, and they have yet to steer me wrong. Their take on the situation makes sense, given that the Burmese military has been a great customer on the international arms market, including and especially with the "good guys," according to this article from March 2000, ostensibly from Jane's Intelligence Review.

(As an aside, Jane's Defense Weekly is probably happy about that, given the fact that the publication runs on weapons advertisements.


Unlike HRW, FOX, CNN, and the National Post aren't, as far as I've seen, giving the story prominence, but then I haven't had much time to keep track.

As soon as they do, I will start to get suspicious.

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