Monday, February 6, 2017

Say No to Nanaimo's $120 Million Arena Proposal

Something local this time: I posted a shorter version of the following earlier tonight on the "No Event Centre for Nanaimo" Facebook page. After the $20 million expenditure on a cruise ship terminal that's used by four ships a year, and the many millions spent on a conference centre that is barely used and that is a continuing drain on city finances, the last thing the city needs is another downtown white elephant. The referendum to decide this issue is Saturday, March 11.
I've just been reading up on this issue. Some numbers, and some thoughts:

The interest on $80 million over 20 years might well be another $80 million. It's almost certain to be at least $40 million (assuming an average 5% interest rate over two decades). That's a total of at least $120 million, even if interest rates stay low. Plus, there is likely to have to be an annual subsidy. See, for example, the Guelph Storm; Guelph ended up spending $40-50 million some years ago to build an arena that was supposed to generate an annual surplus; instead the city subsidizes it to the tune of over $200,000 annually.

The Clippers have a perfectly good arena that already seats more people than the WHL franchises in Kootenay or Prince George attract (which is fewer than 3,000 a game). But because the WHL has told Nanaimo it would only consider us for a WHL franchise if we build a new arena, it's now proposed that we spend at least $120 million. Imagine what that amount could do to help the city's culture--and sports-- facilities, or the many other good causes in the city that need help.

Frank Crane arena in Beban Park can seat 3,000--but it's never full. Why is it supposed that junior hockey of a very slightly better quality could attract 5,000 fans regularly in the future, when currently junior hockey attracts an average of fewer than 2,000? By comparison with a hockey arena, try this number: even the state-of the art baseball facility in the Portland area (seating 5,000) cost only $15 million. How about a baseball park that would allow for a franchise of that sort (Single A) to compete with the Vancouver Canadians? That would be a great rivalry--and it would cost one eighth of what this attempt to get a WHL franchise would cost. At the very least, Sarauxmen Stadium could use an upgrade. And that would still leave an awful lot left over out of $120 million to help the homeless, help the theatre, help the ballet, help the schools, help the Clippers if they need it. Help build a movie theatre downtown. Help build more small rinks for the average citizen to use. Or extend the trail along the waterfront. There are so many things that would benefit the city and that wouldn't be white elephants!

Why kill the Clippers? They are good hockey franchise with a long history in Nanaimo, and they would surely leave or fold if a WHL franchise came to town.

A copy of "Nanaimo City Updates" arrived at our house today. It seems to me to be a totally disingenuous document; it describes the "events centre" as "a community meeting place catering to all and promoting community wellness," with no mention whatsoever of how the WHL has driven this proposal. The document also assures us that "the proposed events centre ... will be paid for through current revenue streams, causing no property tax increase for residents or property owners." How can they be certain in advance that over the next 20 years this massive, massive expenditure will not cause any tax increases? I may be putting it too mildly when I say "disingenuous."

Monday, January 30, 2017

Canadian Values, and the Oath of Citizenship

Controversies over immigration tend to produce more heat than light, and surely there is nothing enlightened about either the anti-immigrant hysteria fueled by Donald Trump or the Trump-lite version propounded in Canada by some in the Conservative Party. “Kellie Leitch,” we are assured on her campaign website, is the only candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party “who will ensure that those coming to Canada believe in the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law.” At one level this assertion is of course absurd: no one could possibly “ensure” anything about the beliefs of potential immigrants, any more than they could ensure anything about the beliefs of native Canadians. But that’s not to say that there aren’t legitimate questions to be raised on this issue. Are we doing enough to make the Canadian values that are enshrined in the Constitution plain to prospective immigrants? What are prospective immigrants being told by our government? Is the oath of allegiance that new immigrants must affirm worded appropriately? These are legitimate questions that deserve to be explored.

Leitch, of course, does not stop at the principles enshrined in the Constitution (the sort of principles enunciated in the sentence quoted above—“equality of men and women, freedom of religion,…equality of all under the law,” and so on). Her website asserts that a much wider range of values are central to the Canadian identity:
• Equal opportunity – We must strive to ensure that everyone has as much of an equal opportunity to succeed as possible, especially our youth

• Hard work – Everyone must work hard and provide for themselves and their families

• Helping others – Once people become prosperous, we all are expected to give back to our communities to help others

• Generosity – Canada is a place that shows what is possible when hard work and generosity come together

• Freedom and tolerance – A Canadian identity that is based on freedom and tolerance to allow each of us the chance to pursue our best lives and to become our best selves

We all hold these values in common and they make our country great. If we want continue to grow and develop that identity, we need to make sure that those who want to come to Canada share those values.
Every one of this additional set of principles that Leitch claims we “all hold in common” seems to me to be in one way or another problematic.
• Why should the principle of equal opportunity be qualified in the way that Leitch does ("as much of an equal opportunity…as possible”)?

• Much as I value hard work, I see no reason why “everyone must work hard and provide for their families” should be made a universal principle. Were we to make it a universal requirement that Canadians adhere to this value, those not qualifying would include the young Pierre Trudeau (whose family wealth enabled him to live for decades without much by way of regular employment) and the young Leonard Cohen (who spent years as a young man dividing his time between writing and drug taking—“I took trip after trip, sitting on my terrace in Greece, waiting to see God. … Generally, I ended up with a bad hangover.”)

• I would happily endorse “helping others” as a value worthy of support—but not with the apparent qualification Leitch attaches (that the obligation to help others kicks in only once one has become prosperous).

• How much should we be patting ourselves on the back for our “generosity”? Decades ago we committed ourselves to devoting 0.07 of our GDP to helping the world’s less fortunate nations; since then, the percentage we actually give has declined to 0.024. (Meanwhile Britain, Denmark, Sweden, and several other developed countries have exceeded the UN’s 0.07.target.)

• Most Canadians today do indeed tend to value freedom and tolerance, and that's a good thing. But Leitch shades her endorsement of these principles. When you think of freedom only in terms of the freedom to become “our best selves,” you open the door to arguments that would restrict freedom—that would call into question the freedom of those who do not seem to be using it to fulfill their potential. (People like the young Cohen and the young Trudeau? Tell them to get a proper job!)
I'm sure not everyone shares in the complaints I have about the Leitch long-list of values--and I'm sure others would want to add to my list. The point here is not only that Leitch's list of values is poorly thought out and sometimes contradictory. It is, more importantly, that any such list of values will be entirely subjective--no matter how loudly we may assert that it expresses values we supposedly "all hold in common."

The narrower concern prompted by Leitch’s agenda, though—are we doing enough to try to ensure that those coming to Canada accept principles such as the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law—deserves serious discussion. Unlike Leitch’s broader list—her subjective grab bag emphasizing the value of hard work—this short list names values that are enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. I suspect that it is this sort of screening that Canadians have in mind when they say they support “screening immigrants for anti-Canadian values”—as a large majority of Canadians have said they do (in various polls taken by the Toronto Star, Nanos, and Forum Research). It’s not just Conservatives who say they support such screening; one poll reported that 57% of Liberal voters and 59% of New Democratic voters joined the 87% of Conservative voters who supported the proposal. The idea of trying to screen immigrants on this basis has intuitive appeal to many Canadians who are aware of cultural practices in some parts of the world that are horribly cruel on a systemic basis to women, or to gays and lesbians. And it may have particularly strong appeal to those who are aware of Immigration Canada having entirely abandoned in-person interviews. (Such interviews were an important part of the process until early in this century, when they were abandoned as too costly.)

Any discussion of these issues should begin by acknowledging that there have been relatively few cases over the years in which immigrants have committed horrendous acts--so-called honor killings, for example--that are clearly linked to their holding values antithetical to those enshrined in our constitution. Certainly there have been far more such acts committed by native Canadians than there have by immigrants. From the systematic brutality practised against First Nations Canadians over many generations, to the Montreal massacre of 1989, to gay-bashing (and murder) in places such as Vancouver's Stanley Park, to the Quebec City killings of January 2017--this list only scratches the surface. Doing everything we can to dissuade native Canadians from adopting values that disparage other groups (and that spawn hate crimes) should be a much higher priority for us that worrying about immigrant values.

Moreover, there's plenty of evidence that, in cases where immigrant families do arrive holding, for example, deeply embedded prejudicial feelings against women, the next generation tends to acquire mainstream Canadian values.

We should not, then, be overly concerned at the prospect of immigrants subverting the values enshrined in the Canadian Constitution. But to say that immigration-related issues should not be given a high priority is not to say we should ignore them. It is surely entirely appropriate to ask if we are doing all we can to make clear to prospective immigrants what values are enshrined in the Constitution--and to make some effort to dissuade those who hold views antithetical to those expressed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms from immigrating.

Let's ask, then, if bringing back interviews could in fact come anywhere close to ensuring “that those coming to Canada believe in the equality of men and women, freedom of religion, and equality of all under the law”? Let’s listen to what former Immigration officials have to say on this point. They deserve to be quoted at length:
When I worked at Citizenship and Immigration Canada, we seriously considered whether a values pledge for permanent residents or new citizens would be effective, or even just a useful symbolic statement. After looking at examples from Australia and the Netherlands, we concluded that, while they may have an intuitive appeal, such pledges are ultimately empty exercises. Even assuming one could agree on a list of values that newcomers would pledge to uphold … it would be about as meaningful as clicking “accept” on a computer program’s ‘Terms of Use’ and, in practice, probably even less enforceable.

Nor are the experiences of Australia and the Netherlands — both of which have similar or worse integration problems than Canada — a compelling endorsement of such “screening.” … People will sign or say almost anything to come to Canada (or Australia, or Europe). Just ask the officials charged with immigration fraud detection. The tens of thousands of people who submit fraudulent education and employment credentials, marriage licenses and language test scores along with their Canadian permanent resident applications every year will hardly balk at signing a values pledge that is neither verifiable nor backed by a credible threat of enforcement.

An in-person interview is a [good] idea — but not for the reasons [Leich] proposes. Face-to-face interviews, which were the rule for most immigrants until the early 2000s, are much more effective at catching all sorts of fraud than a paper file review that is often conducted half-way around the world by people unfamiliar with the language or culture of the applicants. Former immigration officer James Metcalfe’s description of what was lost when Immigration Canada abandoned interviews is typical of what many older officials in the Department of Immigration will tell you:
There are all kinds of things that tipped me off about the veracity of an applicant’s claims. For example, I have never met a chef or cook who did not have burn marks or cuts or scars on their hands or arms. I have also never met a mechanic who had lily-white hands with no cuts or split fingernails … (O)fficers … could assess the individual’s ability to communicate in English or French right there, because they were in the same room together.
But note what Metcalfe doesn’t talk about: abstract values or beliefs. The criteria that an in-person interview can confirm are the objective and verifiable traits of language ability, education, employment history and criminality. Leitch is quite right that in-person interviews absolutely should be required of permanent resident applicants — but as part of the existing vetting process, not a new “values” screening process. (Howard Anglin, “Leitch is mostly wrong — but also right — about immigration,” iPolitics Insights column, January 24, 2017)
To me at least, Anglin and Metcalfe’s arguments are entirely persuasive: re-instituting screening for immigrants makes good sense—so long as the aim is to stop fraud, and not to screen for values. As a byproduct, it’s hard to imagine that the process of catching fraudsters would not also result in entry being denied to a number of applicants who do not in fact share the values of most Canadians. But trying to design a system that would directly screen for values—and do so effectively—would be futile.

If we don’t screen for some subjective set of values, what (if anything) should we be doing in this area that we aren’t doing now? Two things, it seems to me.

First of all, we should make the Canadian values that are protected under our Constitution far more plain to prospective immigrants than we do now. Currently, the wording used emphasizes the protection accorded to the new immigrants themselves—and downplays the protections provided under the Constitution for others. It makes no specific mention of the principle of gender equality, or the prohibition on discrimination based on sexual orientation. Here is how the Government of Canada “Apply to Immigrate” web page presents our values to prospective immigrants:
The Charter Protects Your Rights The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is part of Canada’s Constitution and protects you from the moment you arrive in Canada. It sets out the values that Canadians live by and describes the kinds of personal human rights and freedoms we can expect in this country. Some of those rights and freedoms include: The right to life, liberty and personal security; Freedom of conscience and religion; Freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media; Freedom to hold peaceful meetings; Freedom to join groups; Protection from unreasonable search or seizure and unjustified detainment and imprisonment; The right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty; The right to retain and instruct counsel (a lawyer) without delay; The right to a fair trial, through due process of law; The right to equal protection and benefit under the law, without discrimination.

Rights come with responsibilities People who live in Canada are expected to understand and obey Canadian laws, allow other Canadians to enjoy their rights and freedoms and help preserve Canada's multicultural heritage. It is also important for Canadians to become informed about politics and help to improve their communities and the country. Citizens of Canada have other rights and freedoms, such as the right to vote in elections. To learn about these rights, see the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Surely it would be appropriate to give stronger and clearer guidance right at the outset to those who are considering applying to immigrate to Canada. Rather than simply referring applicants to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, let’s include Section 15 on Canada’s official “Apply to Immigrate” website:
Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination and, in particular, without discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.
And let’s be explicit as to how our judicial system has interpreted Section 15—making absolutely clear that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and sexual identity is as much against the Constitution as is discrimination on the basis of gender, race, or religion. Let’s make clear that, in Canada, men can marry men and women can marry women. And let us add, politely but firmly, that those who are not comfortable with the values enshrined in the Canadian Constitution are strongly advised against applying for Canadian citizenship.

Might not some people who are misogynistic or homophobic still apply? Certainly they might. But at least some who are so inclined would surely think twice, and consider applying elsewhere instead.

Making the values that are enshrined in the Constitution far more plain to prospective immigrants than we do now is one thing we should do. Another is revise the Oath of Canadian Citizenship. Leitch’s “Canadian values” campaign has paid little or no attention to the wording of this oath—and that’s more than a little strange, given that Canada's Oath of Citizenship (like that of any other nation) in some very real sense already constitutes a "values pledge." The difference between an oath of citizenship (or allegiance) and a Leitch pledge "screening for Canadian values" is simply that an oath of citizenship or allegiance typically references objective, fixed criteria rather than subjective ones. Again, it would to my mind be folly to think of adding any reference to values to the Canadian Oath of Citizenship beyond the objective criterion of those values that are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But here's the odd thing: currently the Canadian Oath of Citizenship makes no mention of the Charter. Here is the current wording of the Oath of Citizenship:
I swear [or affirm] that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, her Heirs and Successors, and that I will faithfully observe the laws of Canada, and fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
That’s 23 words about the British monarch and her heirs and successors, and only 17 words about anything clearly Canadian. Even dyed in the wool monarchists might agree that this is disproportionate.

Not only is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms not mentioned in the oath; there is no mention of the Constitution of Canada at all. Now you might say that “faithfully observe the laws of Canada” implies adherence to the principles of the constitution. But the two are, in a very real sense, different things. To be sure, the constitution of a sovereign state is often defined as its “supreme law”—but it is law of a different sort from the laws that one “obeys” or “observes.” It is as much a set of principles governing the interpretation of other laws as it is itself a law. It is not in ordinary laws but in the Canadian Constitution—and, in particular, in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—that core values are most clearly expressed.

Those who have paid attention to the wording of the oath have not infrequently argued that the prominence it gives to the British monarch is entirely inappropriate to modern Canada. As Joe Killoran has pointed out, it’s not only her status as monarch of another sovereign state that makes Elizabeth an unsuitable candidate for modern Canada to swear allegiance to. It’s also the restrictive religious status that goes with the job. The British monarch is head of the Church of England, and must always be a member of that branch of Protestant Christianity. So long as we retain the British monarch as our head of state, Canada is part of a hierarchy in which the head position is not open to Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or atheists. If a monarch wanted to leave the Church of England, she or he would have to abdicate.

For the foreseeable future Canada is stuck with the British monarchy. But we are unlikely to be stuck with it forever—and we need not foreground it in the Canadian Oath of Citizenship. Let me propose a change, then—a change that, to be sure, is at some level merely symbolic, but that another level would be truly a change of substance. Let us adopt the following wording for the Canadian Oath of Citizenship:
I faithfully affirm that I accept and will abide by the principles set out in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that I will observe the laws of Canada, and that I will fulfil my duties as a Canadian citizen.
While we’re at it, we might consider requiring non-immigrant Canadians to take a citizenship course before they turn 18—at the end of which they would be given a chance to themselves affirm the same oath of citizenship. Given a chance, only. Not compelled.

And the oath itself? We don’t need a requirement to be willing to “bear arms,” as you’ll find in the American Oath of Allegiance. And we don’t need any long-winded guff about the monarchy. Just something modest and to the point. Canadian, you know.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Animals and Plants, Pain and Suffering

When omnivores ask vegans why we’ve chosen not to eat animal products, many of us are likely to say, first of all, that we want to do what we can to reduce the suffering of non-human animals. Omnivores will often then trot out the following argument: But plants are living creatures and feel pain too; if you were consistent in your views, you’d have to consume nothing at all except water.

That’s not quite as ludicrous an argument as some vegans would have you believe. A common response by vegans is to begin and end with ridicule—as, for example, Gary Yourofsky does in this Facebook post for the Evolve Campaign:
The second inanity of meat-eaters is attempting to indict the vegan lifestyle by claiming that plants suffer and die to feed the vegans of the world. Yet, I am still searching for People for the Ethical Treatment of Carrots, Last Chance for Broccoli or Apples Deserve Absolute Protection Today and Tomorrow. … People for the Ethical Treatment of Carrots doesn't exist because everyone knows the difference between taking a carrot out of the ground and slicing a pig into pieces. Everyone also knows the difference between mowing a lawn and tossing a live baby male chick (egg industry) into a rendering machine. If one does not understand the difference, then that person is disingenuous, irrational and illogical. (“The ridiculous ‘But you're killing plants’ argument,” March 6, 2011)*
Much as Yourofsky may be amusing, the ridicule seems to me to be unnecessary and unfortunate. Along the way, though, he does come close to making one reasonable argument. Everyone does surely sense there to be a “difference between taking a carrot out of the ground and slicing a pig into pieces, [or] between mowing a lawn and tossing a live chick into a rendering machine.” But do we know that the carrot and the blade of grass do not suffer? Do we even know that the carrot and the blade of grass do not suffer to the same extent as the pig or the baby chick? Do we know those things with absolute, 100% certainty? I think if we are honest we probably have to answer no to that question.

For some years a small minority of scientists and philosophers have been suggesting that plants should have moral standing (see, for example, University of Victoria philosopher Thom Heyd’s interesting article, “Plant Ethics and Botanic Gardens,” PAN: Philosophy Activism Nature, Issue 9, 2012); and that plants possess some form of sentience and should be granted rights (see, for example, Brilliant Green: the Surprising History and Science of Plant Intelligence, co-authored by neurobiologist Stefano Mancuso, 2015**).

I’ve been a bit nervous in the past about giving credence to such arguments—primarily, I realize now, out of a fear that, to the degree that those of us who are interested in reducing animal suffering accept them, we open the door to just the sort of reductionist anti-vegan argument outlined above. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m persuaded that we should in fact welcome the sorts of arguments that Heyd, Mancuso, and others put forward. We should welcome them, first of all, as we should welcome all disinterested inquiry. But we should welcome them too because, if anything, they strengthen the arguments for adopting a plant-based diet.

A key consideration here is that we need not have absolute proof that plants do not experience pain in order to argue against the practice of inflicting what is obviously extreme suffering on farm animals; we can readily enough deal in probabilities. Scientists such as Robert Elwood have spent a good deal of time investigating the degree to which creatures such as lobsters and shrimp feel pain, and concluded that they do in fact experience something closely akin to what we call pain; in many cases exhibiting “prolonged and complicated behavior, which clearly involves the central nervous system,” as Elwood puts it. We know from our own experience under local or general anesthetic how important our nervous system is to our ability to experience pain. Even if plants, which of course lack a central nervous system, can feel something akin to the pain that vertebrates feel, it seems fair to conclude that the overwhelming weight of probability is that killing and eating animals entails causing a great deal more suffering than does the killing and eating of a carrot. For this argument based on probability to constitute a sound ethical justification for a vegan diet, we need not claim that we know with 100% certainly that plants do not feel some form of pain less extreme than that of the screaming pig—and we certainly need not claim we know that plants lack any capacity whatsoever to experience pain.

But what if it were true that the carrot and the blade of grass suffered just as much as the screaming pig? The ethical argument for a plant-based diet would in that case become even stronger. That’s because “food animals” do not arrive on humans' plates ex nihilo; they consume vast quantities of plant matter over the course of their lives. Indeed, as the film and associated book Cowspiracy make so dramatically clear, “worldwide, 50% of the grains and legumes we’re growing we are feeding to animals. … In the United States, it’s closer to 70, 80%--about 90% of the soybeans.” (Dr. Will Tuttle, as quoted on page 244). So if killing plants does in fact cause pain and suffering in itself, we’re causing twice as much of that pain and suffering by eating meat and dairy products as we would if we ate only plants—in addition to all the pain and suffering we inflict on non-human animals.

From any angle, then, in order to reduce pain and suffering we should adopt a plant-based diet. But arguably, we should emphasize certain plant foods over others. One of the interesting points Heyd makes is this:
[W]hen we obtain food from plants we need not kill the plant, as in all the cases in which fruits, seeds, nuts, or ‘spare’, non-essential, leaves are consumed. This is the case with most staples, such as wheat, rice or the various sorts of beans (legumes), which are seeds normally harvested after maturity of the plant. It is also the case with regard to all the food items that, in common parlance, are called ‘vegetables’ but really are fruits, such as tomatoes, squashes (such as zucchinis and pumpkins), cucumbers, or tubers (such as potatoes).
I would stop well short of suggesting there is any moral imperative not to eat carrots. But Heyd, Mancuso, et al. give us plenty of food for thought—and even more reason to stick to a plant-based diet.

*In fairness to vegans, Yourofsky's tone does not seem to me to be typical. More representative, more measured in tone, and better reasoned are the arguments on this point put forward by Free from Harm: ("Eating Animals: Addressing Our Most Common Justifications," by the Free From Harm Staff Writers, March 27, 2014). **I’m indebted to Rhona McAdam for pointing me in the direction of this book recently.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

What is "Real Food"? The Case of Vegan Mac & Cheese

Maureen and I ate at an excellent vegan restaurant in Victoria yesterday (Be Love); their cashew/coconut cream macaroni rivals that of The Sneaky Pickle in New Orleans for the finest macaroni dish I’ve ever had—far, far tastier, to my mind, than the macaroni and cheese dishes I used to love for so many years. Be Love calls this dish Mac & Cheeze (similarly, they call their delicious cashew-cream-based dessert Cheezecake). Such dishes are often referred to (including by those of us who are vegan or vegan-friendly) as “fake mac & cheese.” When we use a phrase like that, we are of course acknowledging that, however much they may differ from (and be an improvement on!) the macaroni and cheese we enjoyed as children, such dishes are created with reference to (or in memory of) “real” macaroni and cheese. But we don’t for a moment think that there’s anything fake about them in any broader sense.

Sad to say, not everyone thinks of “fake” and “real” in this way. A case in point is Alexandra Gill’s snarky review of two new vegan restaurants in Vancouver in today’s Globe and Mail, which concludes in this way:
I get it. It’s not really cheese. And for some people, these processed reproductions are a godsend. But if you can’t fake it, why even bother trying to make it? There is so much better to be found in its natural form.
Let’s leave to one side Gill’s extraordinary incomprehension (“why even bother…?”) of the many reasons other than taste for people to want to eat a plant-based, whole food diet (far better health, infinitely less damage to the environment, eliminating the appalling cruelty that farmed animals are routinely subjected to); I’ll keep the focus in this post on the nexus of real, fake, natural, and processed.

To begin with, Gill evidently assumes vegan dishes that reference familiar cheese-based or meat-based dishes to always be designed with the intent of slavishly coping the features of those dishes. That may be the case with some such vegan dishes, but a good vegan “mac & cheese” is no more a copy of a traditional mac & cheese than Manet’s Olympia is a copy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino—or Shakespeare’s King Lear is a copy of the anonymous play King Leir that he drew on for much of his source material. In such cases the later works resemble the earlier, but it would be entirely wrong-headed to call the later work a copy of the “original.”

But Gill doesn’t just assume that all vegan “inspired by” dishes represent attempts to copy slavishly; she also assumes that such dishes are less “real” in other senses. Here she is writing about the vegan mac 'n cheese served at Meet in Gastown:*
The mac ’n cheese does a better job of faking it [than do the restaurant’s vegan burger offerings]. The yellow cashew sauce is thick and melty, and the nutritional yeast sprinkled over top adds crumbly, gratin-like texture. But honestly, the green side salad is the most satisfying part of the meal because it’s real food.
So which is more real—traditional mac & cheese or vegan mac & cheese? To Gill, the latter is a “processed reproduction” of the real thing. But let’s give the matter of processing a moment’s thought. Cashew cream—the main ingredient in the sauce of most vegan “mac & cheese” recipes, is minimally processed; all you do is grind the cashews until they become smooth and creamy. What about cheese—which is of course the main ingredient in the sauce of traditional mac & cheese? Because humans have been making it for so many centuries, we tend to regard cheese as natural, and as unprocessed. You may well be unshakeable in your belief that it’s “natural” for one species to take the milk of another (and take the babies of that other species away from their mothers in order to do so). But you can hardly maintain that cheese is not a highly processed food: from the heating and fermentation of the cow’s milk through the manipulation of lactic acid levels, the addition of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminants, and the separation into curds and whey, to the inducing of mold and the complex aging and curing process—it’s all highly complex. The twentieth-century creation of industrial products known as processed cheese—which of course are even more highly processed—has no doubt helped foster the sense that “natural” cheese is an unprocessed food. In fact it is by far a more processed food than the cashew cream that’s the basis for vegan “cheese” sauces—and a less natural one too, if it comes to that.

What’s more real, then? Traditional mac & cheese or vegan mac & cheese? What’s more natural? Perhaps it’s better simply to ask this: what’s better? Alexandra Gill and I will no doubt differ as to what tastes better, while she chooses to simply ignore issues such as what’s better for the environment, what’s better for human health, and what’s better for non human animals. For many of the rest of us, though, such “side issues” matter a lot more than does the matter of taste. It’s simply a wonderful bonus when dishes such as vegan mac & cheese also offer better taste—as is the case these days in many, many restaurants, as well as in many recipes that you can google and easily make for yourself at home.

*I've not eaten at the new Meet in Gastown, but (thanks to my daughter Naomi) I have eaten more than once at its sister restaurant, Meet on Main, which shares the same menu; I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Margaret Wente on the Radical Left "taking over our universities"

In her Globe and Mail column this past Saturday, Margaret Wente tries to argue that, in Canada and indeed North America, "radicals have taken over” our universities. It's worth a closer look.

Perhaps her most striking piece of evidence concerns the percentage of self-described Marxists who supposedly inhabit today's universities. In her column, Wente uses the present tense in asserting that, according to “studies of US universities, 18 percent of social science professors say they’re Marxists.” But check out the study in which the 18% figure appears; “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” by Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University is readily available online.

It's clearly a carefully researched (and well-written) study. But it turns out that the study was conducted in 2006; it's a bit of a stretch for Wente to present it as evidence of current trends.

Secondly, the study consisted of a questionnaire that was filled out by roughly half of those to whom it was sent. The authors themselves write that the results were likely somewhat skewed, under-representing conservatives and over-representing those on the political left; a series of follow-up phone calls by the authors indicated that, for whatever reason, those on the left seemed to have been more likely to fill out and return the questionnaire than those on the right. It would seem, then, that even in 2006 it would have been misleading to conclude that 17.6 percent (the exact figure in the Gross and Simmons study) of academics in the social sciences in North American universities were self-described Marxists.

But what of the overall trends? Wente's column suggests that there's been a huge growth in the radical left presence on North American universities in recent years. Is she right? What did the "18 percent" study have to say about overall trends? As it turns out, Gross and Simmons were very far from concluding that professors were becoming more radical. On the contrary, they said, “the number of moderates in academe appears to be growing.” (p. 40) Radicalism was then a somewhat common (though still very much a minority) stance among professors who had “come of age in the 1960s,” but the researchers found that it was far, far less common among younger professors.*

In Wente’s hands, in other words, Gross and Simmons’ evidence is twisted to suggest exactly the reverse of what they said.

It should readily be granted that Wente is not alone in distorting the results of this study; you can find the 18% figure on a variety of right-wing websites, cited without qualification as if it represented today's reality. But in a supposedly "post truth" world, surely we should expect more from our major, mainstream media.

*For what it's worth, my own experience in calling at a great many North American universities from 1975 onwards absolutely supports the conclusion that Marxists are far, far less common on campuses today than they were 10 years ago--and less common still than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It also supports Gross and Simmons' 2006 conclusion that the group that has been growing most is political moderates. Center and center-left political views seem prevalent in social sciences and humanities faculties, center and center right political views in business and engineering faculties.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cats and Humans, Eating Birds

Margaret Atwood is perhaps the highest profile figure in what has become a widespread North American campaign to restrict cats to the indoors. In "The Case Against Cats" in the December issue of The Atlantic, Britt Peterson reviews Peter Marra and Chris Santella's Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, and asserts that cats are "bad for us, and for our planet." Reviewing the same book in a piece this fall in The New York Review of Books ("The Killer Cats Are Winning," September 29), Natalie Angier insists that it's a no-brainer that all cats should be forced to stay indoors, so that they will not be able to kill birds:
This is a ridiculous point to waffle on: pet cats should no more be allowed to roam around at will than should pet dogs, horses, pythons, or pot bellied pigs.
The reason is that domestic cats are alleged to be responsible for the deaths of "up to 4 billion birds" annually in the US.

That figure comes from a 2013 Smithsonian Biology Institute study, conducted under the direction of Marra. Previous estimates had been in the range of 500 million birds; Marra's study put the range at "between 1.3 billion and 4.0 billion." Marra is clearly not impartial on this issue, and so far as I'm aware, neither the 1.3 billion nor the 4.0 billion figure has subsequently been given credence by other scientific studies. But let's say that his numbers are accurate--and then let's ask where our efforts to save birds and other animals should be concentrated.

On the one hand we have a species--the domestic cat--that is by nature carnivorous. The digestive systems of cats, biologists tell us, are such that these animals cannot choose not to eat the flesh of dead animals. If a domestic cat does not catch and kill its own meat, then it must be fed meat from animals that we humans have caused to have killed. One way or another, it must be a carnivore.

On the other hand we have a species that can choose to abstain from eating other animals (and that will be perfectly healthy if it does so--indeed, much more healthy than if it consumes animal products). Yet most members of this species choose a diet that involves the wholesale killing of members of other species. Moreover, in order to minimize their own expenditure, they confine the animals whose flesh and milk they will consume, keeping them in horrific conditions throughout their lives.

The species that must eat meat is said to be responsible for killing between 1.3 and 4 billion birds in the United States annually.

The species that can choose not to eat meat or other animal products is quite certainly responsible for killing more than 18 billion birds annually in the United States--plus hundreds of millions of cows, and pigs, and other animals. And virtually all of those 20 billion or so animals are subjected to horribly cruel treatment through their lives before the humans have them killed.

Is there a priority here? Of these two species, which should we focus on if we are trying to reduce suffering for other species?

The issue of cats killing and eating birds is not trivial. But it pales beside the much, much larger issue of humans killing and eating birds and other animals. Before we blame humans who choose to keep cats who will sometimes kill and eat birds, let's put the larger share of blame where it belongs--on humans who choose to kill and eat birds themselves, and to kill and eat other animals, all of it cruelly, and all of it utterly, utterly unnecessary.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

New Canada Food Guide - Input Needed

For the first time in many years the Canadian government is revising the advice it offers to Canadians on what we should eat. In the current food guide, two of the four food group categories are consumed by animal products. Mercy for Animals and other organizations working to improve the lives of animals (human and otherwise), and to improve the life of the planet, are asking us all to go the the Health Canada website and provide our input. They have provided one template for answering some of the key questions. I'll provide another below in the hope that it may be useful. But please act now; the website questionnaire is open only until December 8.

To find the questionnaire, google Canada Health Guide Questionnaire.

You'll find the following among the questions:

Would healthy eating recommendations based on the level of processing of foods be helpful to you?

Yes

Why do you say that?


There is now a huge amount of evidence that a whole foods, plant-based diet is the best way to go. The "plant-based" part is vitally important; as the scientific evidence which nutritionfacts.org and pother sites are continually presenting and analyzing clearly indicates, eating animal products is bad for our health in myriad ways (increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and on and on). But the "whole foods" part is important too; processed foods tend to be less nutritious in many ways.

To what extent are the current food groupings (vegetables and fruits, grain products, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives) useful to you?

Not at all

Why do you say that?


The current categories are absurdly weighted in favor of foods that are bad for our health, bad for the environment, and horrendously bad for our fellow creatures. Two of the four categories foreground eating the flesh or the milk of non-human animals--the consumption of which has been conclusively shown to be associated with increased risk of myriad health problems, from cancer and diabetes to heart disease. (Plus, the factory farming methods that produce today's meat and dairy products are horrible for the environment and endlessly cruel to cows, pigs, birds, and so on.)

If animal products are to be included at all, they should be included in a single category of foods that may provide some nutritional benefits but that have huge health risks and other negatives associated with them.

The recommended categories should be as follows:

vegetables (possibly sub-divided into leafy and root vegetables); legumes (or pulses); fruits; nuts and seeds; grains

Rather than including things such as soy milk as "alternatives to milk" or such things as tofu as "alternatives to meat," they should be presented in a category of healthy foods that is separate from any category of animal product.

What else can Health Canada do to help improve the uptake and use of its healthy eating recommendations?

Don't presume that it would be "too extreme" to tell Canadians the truth about the damage we are doing to ourselves by eating animal products, when we'd be so much healthier if we didn't.

Help to make being vegan a mainstream concept, so that (to pick just one example) restaurants would start to be embarrassed if they didn't offer vegan options.

Vitamin information should be included: Anyone over 50 should take a B12 supplement; anyone in Canada should take a Vitamin D supplement; anyone over 50 should either eat plenty of goji berries or take a multi vitamin that includes lutein and xeaxanthan to help prevent macular degeneration; those who eat little or no citrus fruit know should know that vitamin C supplements are not a sufficient substitute; vegans should take Vitamin B12 supplements, etc., etc.

[Much as I was tempted, I did not suggest including beer as a separate, recommended food group. It's under the grains, I guess.]