Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Matter of Degree

I was at my desk in the conservatory, absorbed in an article on nematodes, when my handyman Ahmed came in, his face a mask of sadness. This was odd -- his coming nuptials with the fair Consuela should have argued for a different mien -- and I wondered what had occurred.

He handed me a newspaper clipping, an AP snippet from some place called Orchard Park in New York state, and said simply, "I am ashamed of my religion. This is behaviour not sanctioned by the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him, nor can it be found in the Holy Qu'ran. Perhaps, my Lady, you could give it a wider audience." Without explaining more, he left.

What was this all about?

I read the article, and had two reactions.

Shock, and rage.

First, the shock. Apparently a TV show managed by Aasiya Hassan and her husband Muzzammil, termed "Bridges", had as its purpose the showing of a more moderate Islam. It dealt with the more lunatic aspects of Shariah law -- amputating hands for theft, stoning women (never men) to death for adultery, the non-education of girls, and the practice of "honour killings." Well good on them, I thought.

But I speak too soon. Apparently what the Hassans dealt with in the abstract level became something quite different at the personal level. From what I could gather the marriage was in trouble, and Aasiya was seeking a divorce. This was a bridge too far for Muzzammil, and seizing a ceremonial sword, he hacked her head off. Can't be "dishonoured" you see. Reading this part, I fondly wished that I could have faced this guy with some good Damascus steel in my own hand.

Now the rage.

A few phone calls to certain people in New York state jurisprudence resulted in the following information. Hassan, having done the deed, phoned the police with some pride, and was shortly thereafter arrested. The Erie County District Attorney, one Frank Sedita, called the crime "the worst form of domestic violence", and charged Muzzammil with second degree murder.


What on earth would it have taken to lay a charge of first degree murder? Subjecting the woman to hanging, drawing, and quartering? I mean really. The act fulfilled both aspects of the mens rea, actus reus standards (planning plus intent) and was hardly done in the passion of the moment, the criteria for murder in the second degree. Dickens' Mr. Bumble surely had it right: "The law is a ass!"

What further enrages is the extremely sparse coverage given to the act. Maybe he should have thrown a shoe at her -- that behaviour appears to get tons of coverage. Good on The Toronto Sun for allowing columnist Peter Worthington to address the whole sordid tale in his column of February 20th, and good on Bill Maher for also leaping into the fray on his HBO show, also on February 2oth. But so little for so much.

A final comment. It is sad when lunatics take over a system of thought -- all right, a religion -- that is embedded in compassion and redemption, and turns that system into something so perverse that even the Marquis de Sade would raise his dandruffy head. I was raised an Catholic, but now I am very far from being a paragon of Christian womanhood. Made the mistake of being pro choice, you see, and Holy Mother Church has cast me out, and in an earlier age would have done much worse. Of course, if men gave birth, abortion would be a sacrament.

But I am in danger of digressing from the major thrust of this note -- the lack of media attention to a truly heinous act, and an idiotic criminal charge. To lean on Dickens again, "Bah. Humbug!"

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Intriguing Nuptials

Back from Los Angeles, and it was good to be back at the Manor and to get at some correspondence that had been left hanging. I needed to check something, so headed for the Manor library. There I discovered some missing texts. I was in the process of writing a brief epistle to an author who had, in my opinion, completely misconstrued a point William James had made in his work, Varieties of Religious Experience. I wanted to be certain of my facts, but where the book should have been, well, it wasn't. I wondered who among my staff was suddenly interested in James, and his rather unique world-view.

Turned out it was Ahmed, my handyman. This was odd, for I had him pegged as an fairly strict Muslim. I discovered the missing text while searching in Ahmed's workroom for some industrial Vaseline (don't ask -- you really don't want to know). While there, I also spotted my copy of John Locke's Essay on Human Understanding. What was going on? These are not books that are high in the Muslim canon; indeed, I doubt that they appear at all. A little conversation with Ahmed was in order.

I found Ahmed doing something obscure to the John Deere tractor snow/plow that my gardener, Consuela, so loved to drive. Indeed, Consuela was hovering near his elbow, anxiety in her face.

"There," said Ahmed. "Just a loose clamp."

"Nothing more serious?" inquired Consuela. "It really felt -- oh, my Lady."

"Just wanted a word with Ahmed, Connie."

Ahmed put down a small wrench he was holding, and said "Well, my Lady, we sort of wanted a word with you." He reached for Consuela's hand, grasped it tightly. "I have proposed, and this beautiful one has accepted."

Hah! I thought. Ahmed's reading material was beginning to make sense. And indeed this was so, for I was informed of the following.

The two were in love -- not being deaf and blind, I had noticed this before -- but their religious backgrounds were severely at odds with each other. Ahmed took his Islam seriously, as did Consuela her Catholicism. How had they surmounted these barriers?

It had been Ahmed who had thought long and hard about this (as well as Consuela's undoubted charms) and had done some research. He had reached the conclusion, aided and abetted by James and Locke, among others, that yes, there was one God, and that the major theme behind that God was compassion and redemption, and that God should have no business in the grubby and all too human running of the state, or dress codes, or dietary edicts, or violence masquerading as religious fervour. Consuela had no problem with this interpretation, artfully quoting the Bible: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God, the things that are God's".

Well, well well.

They asked, and received, my blessing, and I offered them the small guest house adjacent to the tennis court. It needed some fixing up, but those two were more than capable of undertaking the task. As for the actual ceremony, they had asked several imams or priests to preside, and had been turned down flat. I stressed that they were asking a lot of these gentlemen (no women, note) and that if I have learned one thing thoroughly, it is that emotions and ideas follow beliefs, not the other way round. Purveyors of religion work hard to keep their beliefs tightly boxed, lest these beliefs get corrupted by the pervasive nature of human experience.

It was my butler, Irving, who suggested that a friend of his (from his Mossad days) could perform the ritual. This friend had studied to be a rabbi, but got caught in a nasty situation in the Gaza Strip, after which he had quit his studies, come to Canada, and was now a Justice of the Peace.

Perfect. I wished them both happiness, and turned my mind to arranging a small reception at the Manor.

Later, I pondered all this, particularly religious thought that appears to separate rather than bring together. And there is Nietzsche: "Two thousand years! And no new God!"


Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Feminine Wins and Losses

A rather busy little week. I had just returned from Davos, Switzerland, where I had been invited to give an address to the great and the good of the financial world, when I got a call from a reporter friend in Los Angeles. Apparently my youngest daughter, Victoria, was involved in some very odd extra-curricular activities that had nothing to do with her studies in history at Stanford University. It had been some time since I had been in my beach house overlooking the sea, and given the insane weather that is Canada in winter, decided to fly down unannounced and find out what all the fuss was all about.

On the flight down, I reflected on my talk in Davos (grungy little town) and how it had been received. I had entitled my address "The Feminine and Finance". The major thrust zeroed in on the fact -- and it is a fact -- that few women are to be found among the great "Masters of the Financial Universe", the very clowns that had, through greed and the creation of financial instruments that no one understood had caused the global fiscal mess we are currently in. Women, I stressed, are inherently more cautious, and would never have succumbed to the toxic stew of collateralized debt options, dodgy derivatives and stupid swaps that have almost destroyed the world's banks. Women may have been more susceptible to the sub-prime mortgage debacle, for their focus is fixed on the home, but even there, I don't think it would have reached the extremes of obtaining land with no down payment and no credit check whatsoever. Would things have been different if it wasn't Lehman Brothers, but Lehman Brothers and Sisters? I rather think so.

My little speech actually received a smattering of applause when I finished. A minuscule ray of hope piercing the clouds of testosterone gathered at the event? Perhaps.

I had called Victoria earlier, and she said she would meet me at her small apartment near the university. I arrived early, and let myself by employing a very useful tool that doubles as a nail file. The apartment was a mess, with books and papers scattered throughout, most of which dealt with the area of history she was studying -- the Thirty Years War. I was aware of this interest through earlier conversations. Victoria had been quite taken with the originating cause of the war, the defenestration at Prague in 1618. I think she thought the term "defenestration" had sexual overtones, and may have been disappointed to learn that it meant throwing someone out of a window, in this case, two Catholic governors and their scribe. All three landed in a dung heap, great insult was taken, and the war began. What made her continue her study of a highly complex and byzantine event I am at a loss to say -- it's a mystery.

But not the only mystery.

Out of curiosity, I opened one of her closets, and beheld a vast array of skirts, blouses, and dresses that paid homage to the likes of Donna Karan, Dior, Ralph Lauren and God knows who else. I too have such a closet, but I know where the money comes from -- good little sugar beets. Where does Victoria's come from? True, she receives a stipend from me, but no way could it account for this type of expenditure. What was going on? Surely my youngest daughter, who hides her beauty by parading around campus in baggy pants, sweatshirt, and her Sarah Palin-like glasses, couldn't take ownership of such an exotic wardrobe? Was she covering for someone?
As it turned out, she was covering no one but herself. Once she had gotten over the fact that I had broken into her apartment, a situation eased by an excellent dinner at a small establishment near Rodeo Drive, the truth came out. Apparently she was supplementing her income by being dead. Now it is true that Victoria was a great swimmer, and could hold her breath for a goodly three minutes. Well this facility, along with her good looks, made her a very attractive proposition for such shows as CSI, Medium, Bones and others of that ilk, where bodies pop up with regularity, and it doesn't hurt if that body is good-looking. And remembering the items in her closet, I determined that the pay was very good. Very good indeed.

Later, back at her apartment, she proudly showed me pictures of some of her best roles. I was shocked. There was my daughter, mangled, beaten, tortured, suspended -- I had had enough.

"Vicky, what on earth are you doing? What message are you sending to viewers.? That women are objects to be savaged, then cast aside? Good God, there is enough violence against women already, without this sort of encouragement."

"Well," she replied, "the money is so generous that aside from buying the clothes that you saw, clothes that I need when dying or whatever, the rest goes to four rape crisis shelters in Los Angeles. I think of the whole thing as relaying money from one dubious source to others that do very good work, and desperately need the funds."

I have to think about that, although I still have strong doubts about the way she is supplementing her income. Perhaps The Talmud is right (it usually is): "Do not attempt to understand your children. They were born in a different time."

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Funding Priorities

Word has apparently seeped out that my finances are in remarkable condition. This is true -- it was not rocket science to see that keeping large dollops of cash on hand as the banks went to rat shit would be a Good Thing. Really and truly. I mean, I always thought it was the bank's job to lend us money, not the reverse. And this financial hell will, I think, last for some time. Indeed, reading The Economist these days like reading The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

So I was not entirely surprised when Mark, my firstborn son, called asking for some help. Not for himself, mind you (Mark and the rest of my children have been well schooled in the principles of Emersonian self-reliance) but for his Olympic ski team. Mark is not the best of the group, and only finished 23rd at Kitzbuhl, but even getting down that particular precipice in one piece is a bit of a feat. At least he's not attempting the north face of the Eiger.

Anyway, I was glad to help out, and fired off $100, 000. Trouble was, word of this leaked out, and the next thing you know Jaques Rogge was on the phone, stating that a significant donation would greatly assist upcoming Olympic Games in Vancouver and London. I said I was not averse to helping out, but would insist that any Strunskian donations be directed towards specific sports.

You see, I have taken to heart the Olympic motto: Citius. Altius. Fortius. (For those not versed in the Imperial Tongue, this means fastest, highest and strongest). Hence, supporting the likes of skiing, hockey, swimming, racing and the like is fine. Way more dubious is putting money towards such "sports" as synchronized swimming, a goodly portion of gymnastics and that paragon of objectivity, figure skating. Thus fastest, highest and strongest work. No Olympic personage has stepped forward to state that "prettiest" is also in the mix. Allowing this type of sport -- if that term actually applies -- demeans the original triumvirate and opens the door to all manner of unfairness and corruption.

Mr. Rogge argued strongly that judges were there to promote fairness, and I concurred, but it is one thing to start a race on even terms, or to ensure timing devices are used properly; it is quite another to state that this athlete's aesthetics were better than that athlete's.

I'll say this for old Jaques, he stood his ground, rabbiting on about the moral stance of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the outstanding probity of its members. This was patently untrue. Too many of grasping freeloaders in my opinion, and I remained adamant that any funds I might forward be directed to actual sports where the motto actually meant something.

Nope, he wanted a blanket donation, and I indicated that while I might be willing to direct funds on a private basis to certain sports, there would be no joy for the IOC itself until that body concentrated solely on athletic sports and stopped fooling around with aesthetic sports. At this point the conversation ended, the dispute unresolved. And I was left with the thought of poor old Pheidippides in 490 BC, running from the Battle of Marathon to Athens with the news that the Greeks had beaten the Persians, and dying on the spot.

At which point several Olympic judges step forward and state, "Oh no. He didn't fall correctly. Next runner!"

Enough, or too much.