Author Archives: Tom Stringham

Tom Stringham: Canadian conservatives should embrace urban design

When it comes to ideological wars of words, conservatives often find themselves on the defense. Constantly shoring up the status quo, we fall into a pattern of only reacting to change, neglecting to anticipate and shape it. If we intend to win our battles, we should press our advantage when an opportunity for forward-thinking conservative activism presents itself. Here’s one policy drum for conservatives to beat, at least at the local level: urban design.

The bright minds at The American Conservative magazine have given space to a new conversation about urban design by way of a year-long feature called “New Urbs”. The idea is that America’s cities, and especially its sprawling suburbs, have become lifeless, ugly and isolating. Cultural redemption for a community comes, according to the philosophy of New Urbanism, through a renewal of its physical architecture.

New Urban communities feature businesses and shops in the midst of houses, abundant parks and wide sidewalks, so as to encourage residents to come into contact with each other frequently and develop a sense of community absent in many suburbs. Buildings themselves are designed in a neo-traditional, non-utilitarian style, where cupolas, weather vanes, gables and arched windows are not out of place.

The concept of neo-traditional urban planning is a few decades old, but the practice has not caught on except in isolated patches across North America. In Canada, there are no more than a handful of such neighbourhoods. Where New Urban design has been implemented, it has been local developers that have led out, and often they have faced challenges from municipal governments. In McKenzie Towne, a New Urbanism-inspired neighbourhood in Calgary, developers have been forced to leave apartments above stores empty, because of zoning laws that require commercial and residential properties to be physically separated.

Advocacy for sophisticated, family-oriented urban design at the municipal level is something conservatives will be able to do best, because we believe that economic and cultural activity is best organized at the family and community level. In our heavily suburbanized nation, it’s critical that conservatives do not simply defend their vision of the world in workplaces and college classrooms, but that they also construct it in their own families and neighbourhoods.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: “Beta marriage” and other bad ideas

Some neologisms are wed so effortlessly to the zeitgeist of their time that they are all but destined for linguistic immortality, even from the moment of their conception. One week ago, Time magazine acquainted the world with “beta marriage”, a conceptual try-and-buy marriage which can either be formalized or dissolved at the end of a two-year trial period. In a survey of American adults, 43% of the Millennial generation said they would be interested in this arrangement.

The theoretical appeal of beta marriage is simple. If, at the end of the trial period, a couple found they were not sufficiently satisfied with each other’s partnership, they could go separate ways without legal penalty. This is a horrifying idea to the older generation, but to Millennials it is nothing short of intoxicating.

Leaving aside my personal feelings on beta marriage, it’s clear that generation-specific assumptions about marriage separating Millennials from their grandparents are at the root of this discrepancy. The rising generation is the second (after their parents) to believe that marriage is in its essence a union of love and commitment, and that its defining good is mutual personal fulfillment. Previous generations, in contrast, saw marriage as the way that a couple started a family together—love and fulfillment certainly attended healthy marriages, but these things did not identify or consummate the union.

Millennials with the love-centric view find it difficult to make a philosophical criticism of a trial marriage institution—doesn’t love come and go? Can’t commitment mutually fade? In the conjugal view, however, permanence is imperative because the very appeal of marriage is that it binds a family, so that each child conceived will be born and raised by his or her mother and father.

Why are views of marriage changing so rapidly? The study’s author suggests it’s because Millennials are “nimble and open to change”. But regardless of my generation’s personality profile, it would be almost impossible for their views on marriage not to dissolve into near-meaninglessness given their institutional surroundings. The conjugal, child-centric view of marriage is definitionally offensive to an epicene marriage institution.

As the world watches Millennials ask ever more unsettling questions about marriage—why must marriage be permanent? Why must it be sexually exclusive? Why must it be restricted to two? Why must the government be involved in the first place?—some of us will remain entirely unsurprised. Watch for “beta marriage” to stick around in our lexicon, and for worse and more enterprising marital innovations to come.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Could Christianity topple the Chinese government?

Chinese authorities appear to be cracking down on Christianity, removing crosses from dozens of churches and demolishing at least a hundred more under the pretense of enforcing building codes. The growing popularity of Christianity, which is officially legal in China, is undeniable. According to analysts, the leadership of China’s ruling Communist party share a fear that Christianity is a political threat. They are probably right to worry.

Unbeknownst to many Westerners, a Christian uprising in China is not without precedent. From 1850 to 1864, in a mass revolt known as the Taiping Rebellion, a peasant named Hong Xiuquan who believed he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ took control of a region of China inhabited by 30 million people. Hong’s “Heavenly Kingdom” movement almost succeeded in dethroning the Qing emperor, but was pushed back by a combined Chinese and European force before it took Beijing.

Hong’s movement was unmistakably religious, as witnessed by his own writings and those of his followers, despite projections of political motives onto his crusade by later ideologues. This fact is not lost on Chinese leadership, who understand the power of religion to move millions.

Christianity’s sphere of influence is at an all-time high, its numbers having swelled over the last half-century. In 1949, there were 700,000 Protestants and 3.5 million Catholics in China. Now, the best estimates are that there are around 40 million Protestants and 12 million Catholics. Even these figures are probably low, because so many Christians worship in secret: it’s now rumored that there are more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist Party, to which 86 million Chinese belong.

The political threat of Christianity to an autocratic state comes in part from Christian theology: whereas traditional Chinese religions tend to view the world through a paradigm of balance or stability, the religion of Christ is fundamentally transformative. To a Chinese Christian, China is good but corrupted. If it becomes fully corrupt, it requires redemption.

Rebellion against the People’s Republic has never hit critical mass, and perhaps it never will. Neither the death of Mao Zedong, rapid industrialization nor the internet appear to have destabilized the robust political system. But this week’s crackdown signals a fear in Beijing that the church could be the catalyst for unrest yet unseen. As Christians across China view images of toppled crosses and bloodied worshipers on social media this week, there might begin to stir in their hearts the seeds of political change.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Bloodlust in Europe

Even murder can become mundane. Theo Boer, a Dutch ethicist who sat on a euthanasia review committee for nine years, recently recounted in the Daily Mail some of his reasons for reversing his support for the practice of consensual killing. Here is one chilling excerpt:

Under the name End of Life Clinic, the Dutch Right to Die Society NVVE founded a network of travelling euthanizing doctors. Whereas the law presupposes (but does not require) an established doctor-patient relationship, in which death might be the end of a period of treatment and interaction, doctors of the End of Life Clinic have only two options: administer life-ending drugs or send the patient away.

On average, these physicians see a patient three times before administering drugs to end their life. Hundreds of cases were conducted by the End of Life Clinic. The group shows no signs of being satisfied even with these developments. They will not rest until a lethal pill is made available to anyone over 70 years who wishes to die. Some slopes truly are slippery.

There are two wretched facts that accuse these “travelling euthanizing doctors”. The first is the dark reality that they exist. Real physicians who, like all of their colleagues, have spent a decade of toil and sweat in training on the methods that give, protect and save life. Now they spend their careers ending it. Many doctors are not willing to kill as an exception; these doctors are willing to do it as a rule.

Second, and extending from the first, is Boer’s observation that these doctors of death are restless—restless for more “patients” even as body counts climb 15% every year; restless until the Dutch parliament expands the prescription for their morbid medicine.

The human reality underlying this wretchedness is a vice which tempts like any other. It is not a vice we ordinarily indulge, but as we see, it afflicts even the civilized and educated among us: it is the desire to kill. Appetites only need whetting. For someone with a murderous predilection, the first taste might be one suffering cancer patient, an exception under the rule of a supposedly unslippery law.

Well-meaning euthanasia laws are the “infinitely small wedged-in lever” Leo Alexander warned of half a century ago in the aftermath of a darker period of Dutch history. As euthanasia’s death tolls enter the order of magnitude of that era’s, let us consider that bloodlust is not far from our hearts.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Response to Henry Srebrnik

Henry Srebrnik might just take the cake for this week’s most Putin-friendly account of the downing of civilian flight MH17 over Eastern Ukraine. Outside Russia, that is—mainstream Russian news outlets have claimed the attack was a failed assassination attempt on Putin’s life, or alternatively a US conspiracy to make Russia look bad (the conspiracy must be working). Video, audio and physical evidence have implicated pro-Russian rebels, but Srebrnik, in his narration, was unable to admit this without a quadruple qualification (“presumably”, “so-called” and two sets of scare quotes).

This was, to his credit, a harsher treatment of Putin than the rest of his piece, where he alerted us to “truly alarming” rhetoric from the West. Apparently the Washington Post was so bold as to call Russia a rogue state, and the Daily Telegraph said that Putin was a pariah. Actually, the Post’s op-ed was on the verge of forgiving the Russians for supplying incompetent rebels with advanced anti-aircraft missiles. The rogue state comment was saved until after recounting that the Russian defense ministry actually tried to implicate a Ukrainian warplane in shooting down flight MH17, in the face of a mountain of evidence to the contrary. No one brought it up but you but yes, Professor Srebrnik, this behavior is a little North Korea-ish.

Now, any good Westerner will admit the media’s foreign policy bias toward the Ukrainians. Geopolitics aside, I admit my own sympathy to those who would rather have a European standard of living than a Russian one, despite acknowledging the brutality of the conflict. And as Srebrnik charges, the newspapers certainly led the rallying cry for the home team during the Iraq War and the bombing of Serbia.

But if we’re identifying double standards as he suggests, then saying “I don’t recall any American newspapers calling the U.S. a rogue state” is a little rich, at least while Russian newspapers are making false accusations about American involvement in their own blunders to avoid incriminating Putin.

If we really insist on drawing a moral equivalence between Putinist Russia and the West, then let’s do it right and test Russia against the liberal democratic Western standard. I’ll even offer a challenge (but not really). I’ll go to Russia and denounce Putin and the Russian media, and Henry can continue to denounce the West here at home. Whoever stays out of jail longest loses.

The Hustings

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