Sunday, February 12, 2012

On the "Reawakening" of Debates. . . . .

Well, as anyone with a pulse and 10% of political common sense knew, now that the conservatives have a majority we, as a nation have begun to talk about abortion and the death penalty again. As they have always done, the Harpercons have essentially generated this discourse by stealth, attempted to instigate a discussion in such a way that it seems as though it is not them that wants this discussion but like it has been organic or self-generating. This rhetorical technique is familiar to anyone that has looked after kids or is a parent, you gently guide the conversation with the child so that it appears to them that it was his or her idea to go to Subway instead of Macdonald's. If employed effectively it is remarkable how you can convince almost anyone that it was not you that wanted to have a certain kind of conversation or go to a particular event but it was someone else's idea.

However, I have no delusions about the Harpercons - I know that they want to outlaw abortion and bring back the death penalty and they are going to work very hard over the next few years to pursue that agenda while trying to make it look as though it was not them that tried to make it happen.

So, before we go too far down that road, I want to make my position clear on these issues - if only for the sake of self-discourse. I oppose the death penalty under all circumstances and I oppose all laws limiting abortion.

First the death penalty - Liberal discourse on the death penalty has been well summed up by Warren Kinsella in recent days - he, like most liberals, opposes the death penalty because they know that the legal system is imperfect and that, even though in many cases one might want revenge on a killer or a rapist, one should strive for reason over passion. (I hope this very short summation does not mis-characterize Mr. Kinsella's position) Now, this is a decent, rational position because, indeed all legal systems are deeply flawed and in places like the US the death penalty is demonstrably racist and classist. Blacks, and working-class people who dont' have significant funds to protect themselves from courts will always fall victim to the law more than others and they will always be victims of the death penalty more than people with greater resources. If you don't understand that this is always the case in legal systems then you simply have your head in the sand. However, what Liberals like Mr. Kinsella are not doing is taking this argument to its logical conclusion. Many of the flaws in the legal system are simply illustrations of flaws in the state itself. Though great strides have been made by activists over the last 200 years or so since the creation of the modern state to make sure that it represents and protects the people in general, at some basic level I believe the state continues to be an institution that most represents the interests of the wealthy-class. The legal system favours the wealthy because the structure of the entire state is generally built that way. Furthermore, no matter how truly representative a state is, it will always be an institution of power, and power is self-defending and self-replicating. I therefore not only oppose the death penalty because it is demonstrably racist and classist, not simply because it is demonstrably ineffective, not only because it is immoral and 'unchristian,' but because the state apparatus will always have an advantage over people and to use the state in such a brutal and negative way will always represent an imbalance of power to me, and an imbalance that is not intended to protect people but one that is intended to harm them.

Second comes abortion - I will always opposes limiting abortion for the same kinds of reasons that I oppose the death penalty. You can argue at what point "life" begins till you are blue in the face and it doesn't really matter to me. What matters is the fact that even if I were to see abortion as a terrible and tragic act, the right for a woman to control the basic functions of her body will always outweigh for me the other issues of abortion. I don't have a problems with the state outlawing, say, certain kinds of drugs or promoting certain kinds of healthy living, but at a basic level, to me, forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy to term is a kind of control that is just too draconian. Thus, beside the fact that there is a deep-seated sexism involved in men in suits trying to enact laws limited what women can do with their bodies, I just don't believe that we should ever give the state the right to have such control, there are just too many pitfalls to such a system of laws.

I suppose, I am a product of a long history of Anglo-radicalism which found its first voice in activists like Thomas Paine and the members of the London Correspondence Society. I believe that we must continually work toward democracy and work toward the state playing an important role in protecting people, creating a fair distribution of wealth, and creating as much equality of opportunity as possible, but at the same time I also know that the wealthy-class and those who seek power will always have an advantage over those with fewer resources and those who live in a more vulnerable situation, I thus always maintain a healthy skepticism about the state over-reaching it powers in areas where certain kinds of basic rights are concerned.


Owen Gray said...

As was the case with the long gun registry, Kirby, the Harperites will launch their campaign from the back benches.

But, at some point, they are going to bring it centre stage -- despite what Stephen Harper says.

Anonymous said...

These Conservatives are cowards. If they want to have debates they should have had debates. There was something called a federal election held last spring.

Many Conservative candidates never showed up to anything like a debate at all.

Many "debates" that Conservatives attended were nothing of the sort, but rather a "forum" style making it difficult for candidates to address one another (or their policies) directly. This style of "debate" seems strangely popular among Chambers of Commerce doing the hosting.

Finally topics like abortion and the death penalty were never brought up. The all-candidates forums were more a chance to get the candidate's face linked to the pre-packaged national talking points than anything else.

doconnor said...

First I don't think this is a grand conspiracy to reopen these debates. It's just backbenchers expressing deeply held beliefs. The Conservatives try to keep MPs from doing that as much as possible but sometimes honestly leaks out.

The fact that you claim that capital punishment is immoral (although your main argument is that the justice system is immoral which isn't the same thing), yet apparently you don't believe it is immoral to kill a fetus. That suggest there is a point where you believe life begins. (We've debated this before.)

kirbycairo said...

IF you read more carefully dconnor, you would have seen that I didn't imply one way or another whether I believed it is immoral to "kill" a fetus. I said regardless of what one believes in this regard, I believe that the rights of women to control their own bodies would trump other considerations. The moral argument concerning the status of the fetus does not, therefore, concern me.

Furthermore, since I didn't anywhere in the piece imply a claim of moral absolutism that killing is wrong, your argument doesn't obtain.

doconnor said...

So to avoid 9 months of discomfort, inconvenience and loss of control could justify killing?

I hate to break it to you, but the current punishment for murder is 25 years or more of discomfort, inconvenience and loss of control.

kirbycairo said...

Sorry dconnor, sometimes people disagree. Given the long history of women's oppression, I simply say their right to control their bodies outweighs any other considerations, period. Frankly, I am not convinced that abortion is murder under any circumstance because I believe what is attached to another person's body - de facto belongs to them in a philosophically and morally unique way. This is an argument that is far too long and complicated to address here. But for me the argument is irrelevant anyway because the political issue of women controlling their bodies trumps all others. And to suggest that it is simply a matter of discomfort and inconvenience simply ignores the history of oppression and control.

And again, "breaking" it to me that their are serious penalties for "murder" is, besides being uncharacteristically condescending, irrelevant because I have never claimed that killing is always and under all circumstances, wrong. Furthermore, given the biased nature of the legal system, I take it as read that penalties for murder are also biased toward those with fewer resources, and since the State has all the resources at its disposal to convict and incarcerate people, I treat absolutely every conviction with a significant grain of salt. All one needs to do is take a close look at the history of the legal system in countries like England and Canada to understand the degree of skepticism with which one should treat the actions of prosecutors and police.

Anonymous said...

Why an absolute prohibition on execution?

There will always be a very few cases where the crime is so heinous, the facts so undeniable, that all doubts of inefficiency, racism and classism are erased.

kirbycairo said...

Dear Anonymous, the argument I made already dealt with yours, if you followed the reasoning. Even if one were to claim, as you have, that there are some occasions in which the injustices of the legal system clearly don't apply, legal systems are uniform. Who becomes responsible, and on what criteria are they to decide, in which cases these issues are (in your word) "erased?" Obviously, these cases would be susceptible to the very same inequalities and problems from which the entire system suffers. It would be like admitting that lynching was generally bad but arguing that there were some cases where the racist mob found somebody who really deserved it. Thus we shouldn't get rid of lynching.

The argument is that the problem IS SYSTEMIC, therefore there would be no fundamental way to overcome the systemic bias and decide on cases wherein that systemic bias could be overcome or does not apply. That is the very nature of a systemic problem. This really is a logic 101 issue.

If you believe in the death penalty you must believe either* a) no systemic bias prevails of b) those systemic biases can be overcome in general or c) that can at least be overcome in "certain" cases. All of these cases seem to me to be patently and demonstrably false. If someone maintains a, it seems that they aren't paying attention. In the case of b, I don't believe that such inequalities could ever be overcome in general because seems to be in the very nature of systems of power that they are subject to bias, and at the very least a legal system will necessarily reflect the injustices of the society from which it flows. And in the case of c it seems to me that it is tautologically false, or demonstrates itself to be false.

(*Just a footnote on this point, there is a chance, of course, that someone might simply not care that there are biases in the legal system and still believe in the death penalty. This would be what I would call the US republican "too bad for black people" position.)

Anonymous said...

Where there is doubt, I agree, executions cannot be substantiated. But there are a few cases - often the most horrendous - where there is no doubt:

A man walks into a kindergarten and executes two-dozen children. Security camera record the whole thing. He confesses. Witnesses identify him. He is apprehended on the scene within minutes.

Why not execute this man?

kirbycairo said...

Your really aren't getting this Anonymous. . . . even if one believes that in your scenario (and I am not saying I do) the person should be executed, there is no unbiased way of delineating such cases. The examples of other countries demonstrate very well that as soon as you open the death penalty as an option grey areas immediately emerge and you will quickly have cases in which "well, the evidence isn't that good but . . ."

You just don't get the logic here. Your example sounds perfectly reasonable to you but it doesn't escape the problem that in the law, you need specific statutes to make determinations about which cases can apply and which cannot. And as soon as you attempt to do this you will have two problems 1) they will be arbitrary (as such things always are) and 2) they will have biases. You cannot just write a law and say "well, when this guy thinks the case is really strong and systemic bias have been "erased," well then we can use the death penalty." It doesn't work that way.

Thus, in conclusion, even if you are morally ok with the actual death penalty, the systemic biases cannot be overcome because they are inherent in the process.

Anonymous said...

By that logic, however, no application of any policy can stand. No justice is just. No election fair. No driver's test legitimately enforced. No recreational hockey league has a legitimate champion. All fall down as biased and arbitrary.

Is this your contention?

It's fun to let logic run amok. But I want to live in a community where we band together to protect ourselves from harm.

kirbycairo said...

You are still not paying attention Anonymous - while my approach would, no doubt (and as I have said), cause one to treat all retributory acts of the state with concern and skepticism (a healthy thing for anyone to do I believe) - the death penalty is the ultimate retributory act and has also been subject to particularly egregious biases.

This is by no means letting "logic run amok." In fact it is using one's reason to effectively demonstrate structural flaws and relations of power. These are demonstrations that the wealthy and powerful classes desperately want us not to make because their power depends upon simple acceptance of the assumptions like, for example, "justice is blind," or "we live in a meritocracy."

If you really want to act as a community to protect yourself from harm we should get together and overthrow the banks and oil companies. Since there is a pretty good chance you, and most people you know, will eventually die of cancer developed because of wilful actions of multi-national corporations, and not because of the incredibly rare event of violent crime, then lets really start protecting the community. Oops. . . that would in fact mean overthrowing the government that is demonstrably tied to large corporations in a more or less open conspiracy to undermine democracy and pollute every part of your life.

"Band together to protect ourselves," give me a break. This is not letting logic run amok, instead it is not using logic in any way, shape, or form!!! If you simply looked at the very simple facts of recent events you would have little or no concern about the effects of violent crime on the community but legal corporate acts.

As Woody Guthrie said some men will rob you with a six gun, and some with a fountain pen. Give a man a gun and he can rob a bank. . . give a man a bank and he can rob the entire society!

Anonymous said...

The crimes of CEOs and politicians do not absolve the child rapist and the serial killer. Why not condemn them all? Evil is evil.

kirbycairo said...

They don't all get condemned, Anonymous, and they never do, that is, in fact the real point here. Those with power and resources can always defend their interests, and those without cannot. That is the nature of systemic bias and systemic inequality. All the power and resources of the state can go into condemning an individual who has been accused of a crime and those with resources are continually use their power to make the most vulnerable classes even more vulnerable. Thus, in a country like the US black are two to one more likely to get the death penalty than a white person accused of the same crime. The death penalty doesn't make anyone safer or protect your community but it does allow those in power to turn people's attention away from systemic crime and injustice. Your argument fails because power is not one dimensional - it is multi-dimensional and because of that the death penalty will always lead to a systemic abuse of power.

And this does nothing to address the fact that it actually does nothing to stop violent crime in the first place.

doconnor said...

I don't see how a long history of oppression can justify oppression of some other's rights?

"I have never claimed that killing is always and under all circumstances, wrong."

You seemed to suggest losing control of one's body was wrong under all circumstances, males notwithstanding.

kirbycairo said...

Sorry dconner - I am not sure I am following your point.

If I am following your point, my reply is to read my language more carefully. I suggested that anything growing on or inside a woman's body de facto belongs to her and that she has the right to self-ownership. If this is true then I am not, as you say, "justifying oppression of other's rights," because there is no "other."

However, having said that, we all know that rights are always a trade off and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Taxation could be seen as an infringement on some people's rights, but we trade that in favor of the rights and privileges of the more vulnerable. Let me presumptuously contend that you do such "justifying" every single day and that society is, in fact, built on such normative and moral trade-offs. You could not have society without such trade-offs.

As G.A. Cohen demonstrated in his book on the subject, the question of "self-ownership" is a complex and thorny one, and there is a certain degree of arbitrariness that determines the lines of demarcation, But one cannot disregard history in such judgments. One must tread carefully, for example, with the rights of Black in the US, or First Nations people in Canada because of centuries of abuse.

Omar said...

I do not support the death penalty (regardless how heinous and provable the case) simply because I do not wish to live in a nation where the state has the right to commit murder. Period.

As for abortion, I too believe a woman's right to choose what she does with her own body trumps all else. I've also been curious for sometime about the number used for procedures performed annually. On the one hand, 100,000 per year seems like a large number, but put beside the number 33.5 million in population it doesn't seem (to me anyway) to be anything near epidemic.

Anonymous said...

I love how people such as doconnor class pregnancy as a mere 'invconvenience'. Throughout history pregnancy has been the #1 killer of women! And though death rates are down in modern society (obviously) it is asinine to suggest that its a little bit of discomfort! In addition to this, poor women have an even rougher time b/c they cannot afford proper pre-natal care!

doconnor said...

"I suggested that anything growing on or inside a woman's body de facto belongs to her and that she has the right to self-ownership."

That definition could lead to a lot of interesting thought experiments.

I'm not sure it is legitimate to define someone's right in terms of their relationship with someone else.

Anonymous said...

doconnor said "I'm not sure it is legitimate to define someone's right in terms of their relationship with someone else."

But that's exactly what pro-lifers are doing! They are saying the rights of a zygote --> the rights of a woman!

'you gave this child, this zygote life, so thus you *owe* it life b/c pregnancy really isnt a medical issue, its just a 'tiny inconvenience''