Defending Canadian free speech

A story in The B.C. Catholic describes my Jan. 14 speech to POGG Canada upholding freedom, including freedom of speech, as a founding Canadian principle.

P.S. If you’re interested in booking me for a speaking engagement contact Robert Abrams at Big Idea Speakers Bureau or email me at jr- at – johnrobson – dot – ca.

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The Great War Remembered – and printed

With the 100th anniversary of Canada’s great victory at Vimy Ridge fast approaching, I’m delighted to announce that the book version of my documentary The Great War Remembered is now available for purchase.

The First World War was the defining event of the 20th century, shaping the modern world in ways we still feel very strongly today. Modern technology and logistics created unprecedented slaughter, and partly as a result the long, bitter, bloody conflict undermined faith in Western civilization. But it was a necessary war and the Allies did win it, with pivotal contributions from Canada, which “found itself” in the war and especially at Vimy, not just as a nation, but as a free nation determined to defend liberty under law.

It is appropriate that we remember the costs of the war and lament the loss and the missed opportunities. But we should also remember, and celebrate, the determined spirit that stood up to aggression on behalf of a way of life well worth defending even at this terrible cost.

Order your copy today and take a timely, fresh look at an often misunderstood conflict central to the modern world.

p.s. American and international shoppers should purchase directly through Amazon.

p.p.s. We also have the Kindle version available, here.

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Manz Drowned in Zurich – It Happened Today, January 5, 2017

On January 5 Felix Manz was drowned. Which might seem like bad luck and maybe the occasion for a safety campaign. But I’m afraid it’s considerably more unpleasant than that. You see, he was drowned on purpose, in Zurich, on January 5 of 1527, as what I can only assume is a grimly ironic punishment for advocating and practising adult baptism.

Manz was an Anabaptist, part of an extreme wing of the Protestant Reformation, theologically speaking. Among other things they argued that infant baptism was just wetting a baby and that the ceremony could only have spiritual effect if performed on someone who understood it and did it willingly.

I grant that they could be annoying in a mild way, because they also tended to refuse to take oaths, defend the state or go along with civil authorities. They based this conduct on a very literal reading of the Sermon on the Mount and what strikes me as a wilful disregard of the injunction to render unto Caesar that which is rightly Caesar’s in this troubled and sinful world.

However that may be, Manz was not drowned for refusing to take an oath. He was drowned by the state because on March 7, 1526 the very Protestant Zurich council, whose members included the leading theologian Huldrych Zwingli whose ideas had a major influence on John Calvin, had declared adult rebaptism punishable by drowning. Which ought at least to dispel any notion that Protestants were better than Catholics on the topic of freedom of conscience and on separating Church and state. In fact Zwingli himself was killed in battle trying to force Protestantism on Catholic parts of Switzerland.

I’m not very sympathetic to Anabaptist doctrine or behavior in a lot of areas. I And I can see legitimate grounds for jailing people who will not pay a parking ticket because Jesus told them not to. But it’s the behaviour, not the belief, that matters, and it’s the behaviour of refusing to do something necessary to public order.

I don’t have freedom of conscience to run a red light or refuse to testify truthfully in court about seeing someone else do it. But holding a man under water until he dies for wanting to be held under water until God is happy is surely so grotesque that it’s hard to believe anyone would do it, let alone do it proudly.

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So close, and yet so far

A curious intervention by Barack Obama in Britain’s debate over leaving the EU. It’s not odd that he supports them staying in. He would. But it’s odd that for once he got the premise so right though as usual he got the conclusion so wrong.

After a ritual nod to Britons’ right to decide their destiny for themselves, the American president launched into a rightly derided and probably counterproductive attempt to cajole and bully them into submerging their sovereignty in the European Union, including threatening their access to American markets with a claim that a genuinely independent Britain would go to “the back of the queue” for a trade deal, well behind the EU. So much for the special relationship, I guess.

I find Obama’s performance more than usually curious because his effort to flatter the British drew on the shared values that underlie that special relationship: “As citizens of the United Kingdom take stock of their relationship with the EU, you should be proud that the EU has helped spread British values and practices – democracy, the rule of law, open markets – across the continent and to its periphery.”

He’s quite right about the first part. Those are British and subsequently American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand values. Government in the Anglosphere, as we argued in our Magna Carta documentary and will in the “True North and Free” project currently under way, is dramatically different even from government in the more politically pleasant parts of Europe, let alone the rest of the world. And Obama isn’t normally sensitive to such matters, to put it mildly. But he went on to say “The European Union doesn’t moderate British influence – it magnifies it.” And that’s completely wrong.

The EU isn’t democratic. It’s not tyrannical. But it is bureaucratic, centralized and unaccountable. It stands more for rule by law than of law, in the vital sense of fair, stable rules that arise from the people and protect their right to make their own choices. And it stands for government meddling not open markets. I do think the British example has made Europe better over time; even France, let alone Germany, has to some extent been embarrassed into creating more responsive and less repressive governments. But both also made impressive efforts to crush British liberty by force. And neither have embraced the common law system under which governments emanate from the people organically rather than standing majestically, or stodgily, above them.

Obama then claimed that “A strong Europe is not a threat to Britain’s global leadership; it enhances Britain’s global leadership. The United States sees how your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world, and keeps the EU open, outward looking, and closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic. So the US and the world need your outsized influence to continue – including within Europe.” Which is utter bosh.

Britain’s influence in the world has dwindled dramatically since it joined the European Economic Community, forerunner to the EU, back in 1973. Not only because it joined. But it was part and parcel of turning away from the glorious heritage of liberty that had made this damp, chilly foggy group of islands a hyperpower economically, culturally and militarily and also the “Mother of the Free” described in Land of Hope and Glory. Worse, Britain’s influence in Britain has dwindled, as law, regulation, and even jurisprudence come increasingly from the alien continental system.

For over a thousand years Britons decided their destiny for themselves, via a Parliament that controlled the executive in a way not even Europeans managed and nobody else really even tried. That is the system that spread to the United States as well as Australia, New Zealand and Canada. And precisely because democracy in the desirable sense, rule of law in the desirable sense and open markets in the genuine sense are British values, they should leave the EU.

Europe is so close to Britain. And yet it is so far away. And so is Barack Obama.

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A sour finding

If you’re looking for reasons we need to fix our Constitution, look at this story from today’s National Post about a customer awarded $12,000 for “injury to his dignity, feelings, and self-respect” after a restaurant stopped accommodating his very special need for pseudo-hyper-clean surroundings. The man apparently suffers post-traumatic syndrome and OCD and can’t cope with lemon in his water or cutlery placed directly on the table. And thus he has a human right to make other people do what he says even if it’s not reasonable.

Now I have sympathy for this person and his struggles. I don’t doubt they are real. But what about the restaurant and its employees? What would happen if everybody demanded very special service including wiping the vinyl seats and always putting him in the same booth away from other patrons? How much would costs increase? And how could you seat everyone away from all other patrons without having a restaurant the size of a stadium?

Once the rule was that if you wanted special service and a restaurant was willing to provide it, as this one was for a long time, you went there. If they refused, or changed their service, you stopped going there. Just as you don’t eat in a place where you don’t like the food, the wait staff, the décor, the ambiance or anything else. They can’t make you come in, and you can’t make them let you in.

You don’t always get what you want. And nor does anybody else. But nobody is able to make anyone else bend to their will regardless of consequences. All transactions must be mutually satisfying. And my right to swing my fist ends where your nose starts.

Not in the Brave New World of human rights tribunals. Instead you get to demand whatever you want of me, and I am in a very real way conscripted labour. You don’t actually punch me if I don’t serve the water without a straw or tell you you’re too much trouble and should leave. You call the state and they send people to do it for you. First a summons, then a fine, then jail if I don’t pay, and cops with weapons if I won’t come quietly. Behind all this lurks the policeman’s truncheon. But not the courts.

This fine came not from a judge or jury, following the due process guaranteed in Magna Carta and generally proudly upheld ever since. It came from a human rights tribunal, specifically the Ontario one. They follow very different rules, far more lenient toward the self-proclaimed aggrieved and far harsher on everybody else. And it’s not a recipe for a good society.

Allegedly in this case the restaurant manager was very rude. And I like good manners. But for heaven’s sake, you don’t have a human right not to encounter rude people. De minimis lex non curat. And restaurants with surly staff lose customers unless the food is great and worth putting up with the abuse, or it becomes a weird kind of cult attraction. (Don’t laugh; when I was in grad school there was a burger joint with an elaborate menu but only cheeseburgers actually for sale, and they ridiculed anyone who ordered anything else. It was always full. And we often asked for something else just to hear what they’d say.)

In short, we work out our own accommodations with our fellows. They can’t use force or fraud and neither can we. We can negotiate but we cannot demand or compel. Or at least, we didn’t use to be able to.

There were lamentable exceptions, of course. Governments drew invidious distinctions based on race or gender and punished people who did not obey such rules. But generally, people got to decide for themselves how to do things and with whom. And if you wanted the sympathy and respect of others, you had to show it for them and their difficulties too.

All that is changing now, into a society where everyone can coerce everyone else. But where does it all end? The Post story quoted a professor of hotel and restaurant management at Ottawa’s Algonquin College that “Responsibility (to accommodate) will never be lessened. It will only be increased with time.”

That certainly is the way things are going now. But how do we accommodate one another once everyone has special demands, and I can’t sit where I want so you can sit alone and vice versa, and the waiter is afraid of plain water, and the person at the next table but three has to bring their companion snake but someone else has a phobia about snakes? (The last is not an invented example.)

You can’t. You literally can’t build a society with stable rules, mutual respect, and restaurants that can actually operate if people don’t have to respect other people’s autonomy. Instead you get a free-for-all of uncivil demands and hurt feelings and everyone has a right to everything but there is nothing.

If that sounds bad to you, please back our “True, North and Free” project to fix Canada’s constitution so that it really respects individual rights, including the right to run a restaurant where customers can’t march in, redesign the place and call a cop if you object.

 

 

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College students interested in liberty can win money!

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, our fundraising partner on the True North and Free documentary project on fixing our Constitution, has just announced the 2016 version of its Essay Contest for Canadian college and university students.

Their website gives the full terms and conditions. But basically if you were a college or university student in Canada last year or will be one this year, you’re invited to write 2,500 words or less on:

Should the government and government bodies, through law and policy, force voluntary associations (charitable, political, cultural, ethnic, religious, social, recreational, educational, etc.) to be inclusive and welcoming of everyone?

Why or why not?

There are cash prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd place.

 

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A stunning ruling

The United States Supreme Court just made a singularly sensible ruling that stun guns are weapons.

Duh, what else would they be? Perhaps. But here’s the thing. As UCLA Law Professor Eugene Volokh explains (and by the way I heartily recommend his multi-author blog for the Washington Post, “The Volokh Conspiracy“), what was at issue was a bizarre ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Court that the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution only protects weapons in wide use in 1789.

Now as Stephen P. Halbrook pointed out more than three decades ago in That Every Man Be Armed, people would be outraged if an American court tried to impose this sort of narrow construction on any other key right. Imagine the outcry, including from Canadians, if an American judge suggested that free speech was limited to the government, as some have claimed the right to arms is limited to state militias, or restricted its application to 18th-century-style hand-cranked printing presses.

By the same token, there’s no justification for taking such a view with respect to modern firearms or to “stun guns”, often casually referred to by the name of one particular brand, the Taser, which incidentally is an acronym from “Thomas A. Swift’s Electric Rifle” from the 10th instalment in the once very popular children’s adventure series whose excessive fondness for adverbs accompanying speech acts gave us the “Tom Swifty”, of the form “‘I’m thirsty,’ he said dryly.”

There’s another point to consider, and one that speaks directly to Canada’s incredibly tight restrictions on weapons. The Massachusetts decision in question, COMMONWEALTH v. JAIME CAETANO, involved a woman who was found, in the course of an investigation into shoplifting, to be carrying a stun gun for protection against a violent ex-boyfriend.

Is that so wrong? There is no suggestion that the weapon was used, displayed or mentioned in the alleged shoplifting incident, and if it had been, there are criminal sanctions against armed robbery that would apply. But she did say she’d had to display it to scare off her ex-boyfriend at least once, which sure sounds to me like a socially desirable outcome as well as an action clearly protected by the American Second Amendment.

Now consider that in Canada such devices are prohibited. You just can’t have one. Not in your car, not in your purse, not in your house. Only the government can have them.

Why? Does anyone fear a mass tasering leaving dozens dead? Even if you grant the legitimacy of restrictions on certain types of firearms, which I don’t, what possible justification exists for forbidding a woman to carry a stun gun for protection against a stalker? To have one in case she is swarmed by hostile men in a public place? Or at least to have one beside her bed in case she wakes up to find an intruder looming over her?

If you can’t answer those questions either, stay tuned for our documentary A Right to Arms, where we argue that Canadians’ unquestioned historic right to self-defence was sound on utilitarian grounds as well as those of natural law, and should be restored.

Meanwhile, good for the U.S. Supreme Court. They’ve given the Massachusetts court orders to try again, but with a pretty clear warning that it better come back with a more sensible ruling.

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Don’t perform assisted suicide on freedom

In my latest National Post commentary, I remind the politicians and chattering classes that when we make a law in Canada, we don’t stop discussing it, and we don’t coerce people any more than we have to. Doctors who don’t approve of assisted suicide should be free not to perform it, advocate it or give referrals, and Catholic priests and everyone else should be free to say it’s wrong if they think so, and work to change the law.

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Essentials of Freedom, 2016

Later this month Brigitte and I will be in Edmonton to take part in the “Essentials of Freedom” conference organized by our friend Danny Hozack. You can find more information about the event, and the other fine speakers, here.

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