Author Archives: Tom Stringham

Tom Stringham: Don’t reject the wisdom of elders

Sometime around 920 BC, according to the Old Testament record, the Kingdom of Israel, whose union had been secured by David and maintained by his son Solomon, split into its Northern and Southern halves under the reign of Rehoboam, Solomon’s son.

Before the division of the kingdom, upon Rehoboam’s accession to the throne, the Israelites are recorded as giving the new king an ultimatum: “Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” The Bible narrates the king’s response:

Then King Rehoboam consulted the elders who had served his father Solomon during his lifetime. “How would you advise me to answer these people?” he asked.

They replied, “If today you will be a servant to these people and serve them and give them a favorable answer, they will always be your servants.”

But Rehoboam rejected the advice the elders gave him and consulted the young men who had grown up with him and were serving him. He asked them, “What is your advice? How should we answer these people who say to me, ‘Lighten the yoke your father put on us’?”

The young men who had grown up with him replied … Now tell them … my father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.’”

Rehoboam took the advice of his young friends. Not to the elders’ surprise, the people did not, after being threatened with burdens and scorpion whips, elect to serve Rehoboam, and the kingdom fractured.

The temptation exists as always, among politicians and pundits as well as kings, to reject the wisdom of elders and inhale the zeitgeist of the young. In the time of Rehoboam, youth was bewitched by violence. Now it is drunk with modern individualism. Regardless of generation or era, the philosophy of youth is often hollow, glazed with the intoxicating sheen of moral certitude.

Young people are not wrong by necessity, and even the rashest juvenile has fits of wisdom. But across the wide gap that exists between today’s young adults and their parents and grandparents, our politics might do well to deign to age for wisdom’s sake—much more than the union of a kingdom could very well depend on whether we do.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Endless war in Palestine

A barrage of Israeli missiles in Gaza has cast the light of our attention once again on the scene of endless carnage in the Middle East. Once again, Hamas has smuggled rockets into Gaza and launched them at Israeli cities, stirring a response by the Israeli Air Force. Once again, a lasting peace appears impossible.

Westerners are troubled by the tangible animosity between the Jewish state and many of its Arab neighbors, and by the strange asymmetry of the ongoing conflict. Israel has the power to destroy Hamas, but not the will, while Hamas has the will but not the means to destroy Israel. The asymmetry of animus gives Hamas the ability to start conflicts, much to our regret, while the lopsidedness of power allows Israel to end them, to our general disapproval.

Hamas understands the strategy of Israel and its allies reasonably well. Its leaders know that Israel will not utterly wipe the regime out of power or attempt a brazen occupation of Gaza in the near future, if for no other reason than that liberal democratic Israel depends too much on the support of public opinion, both within and without the Jewish state.

Gazan rockets will awaken exactly the response from the Israelis Hamas intends them to awaken: hundreds of civilian casualties in Gaza, which will understandably stir the sympathies of the international public. These sympathies are Hamas’ best chance of meaningfully weakening Israel.

But while Hamas has a cynical perceptiveness of Israel and the West, the West generally does not understand Hamas, in the way that civilization often misreads sophisticated barbarity. The material goals of liberal democratic polities—peace, order, good government, and so on—are not ends for Hamas, and they may not even be means. The end, as always, is immaterial and beyond this world. For the Islamist, the existence and stunning success of a Jewish state in the heart of the Muslim world is not just humiliating but theologically disturbing. The salvation of the region’s Muslims is in the destruction of that state.

This is why the regime would not be appeased even if Israel emptied its national treasury for the Arabs, or handed over half its land, and why negotiations will continue failing in the coming decades. The only scenarios involving eventual peace are all stark: either the destruction of Israel, the destruction of Arab Gaza (and likely the West Bank), or an incalculably costly worldwide reformation of Islam.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Marijuana is not a medicine

Canadian potheads, ill and otherwise, are abuzz as the emerging market for legal “medical” marijuana begins to take shape. As of April this year, cannabis sold in Canada may be produced industrially. So far, thirteen firms are licensed to produce the drug commercially across the country, but dozens more are making applications and could join the market in the coming months.

The growth in industrial supply coincides with a massive increase in the number of licensed medical users. A decade ago, the number of licensees was less than a thousand nationwide. As of this month, there are more than 40,000, and the population of licit cannabis users will grow to more than 300,000 by 2024.

As predicted by many observers, the federal medical marijuana policy is quickly turning into a legal marijuana regime. The National Post reported on a dispensary in Vancouver where an on-staff naturopath “prescribes” the drug to any customer willing to claim they have any one of a diverse set of maladies. The demand from these faux-medical dispensaries seems to be growing so fast as to outstrip supply.

It’s possible that medical marijuana legalization in theory leads to legal recreational marijuana in practice because, in fact, marijuana is not a medicine.

The New York Times recently reported that researchers in the US are baffled by the political popularity of “medical marijuana”, arguing that compared to pharmaceutical drugs, marijuana has not undergone rigorous testing, and has never been proven to effectively treat the diseases its proponents claim it does—in fact, for patients with certain illnesses, doctors say that smoking marijuana actually has an iatrogenic effect, aggravating the affliction it is meant to treat.

Earlier this year, the American Medical Association reemphasized its opposition to legal marijuana. The Canadian Medical Association continues to aver that “physicians should not be put in the untenable position of gatekeepers” for marijuana, because the drug “has not undergone established regulatory review processes as required for all other prescription medicines.”

“Medical marijuana” policy expands across the Western world, however, in almost total oblivion to medical reality. Canadians shouldn’t be fooled: activists, not doctors, are behind the new drug regime. And getting high, not getting well, is what inspires them.

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: What would a fully developed civil union for gay couples look like?

For a decade now, gay couples in Canada have had access to the institution of marriage and the legal rights that attend it. In the midst of the national debate that led to that social watershed, however, there was much ado about “civil unions”, a nebulous institution that would endow gay couples with all the rights of marriage except the claim to the word itself.

Last year, Jackson wrote an article, asking “what would have been so bad about civil unions?” He argued that the objection to civil unions by comparison to blacks who were “separate but equal” in the American South fails when examined closely, since blacks were physically separated from whites, whereas marriage versus union is a legal distinction.

Whether or not he’s correct, it might be worth asking more boldly, “could civil unions leave gay couples better off?” The question is strange, but the logistical differences between same- and opposite-sex couples could in fact enable an expanded set of rights for gay couples in civil unions–rights absent in the marriage institution.

For example, in Ontario and other provinces, a marriage may not be annulled if it has been consummated. Historically, this restriction has existed to prevent the easy dissolution of a marriage in which the couple may have conceived a child. For gay couples, however, the restriction seems unnecessary, as consummation of their union cannot lead to pregnancy. In a distinct gay civil union institution, the eligibility for annulment could be broadened.

The historical definition of marriage as between a man and a woman has engendered other restrictions: under Canadian law, sibling marriages are prohibited in order to prevent inbreeding and in accordance with religious moral views. However, two siblings of the same sex cannot procreate. A gay civil union institution would have no reason–apart from religious beliefs–to withhold the right of union to brothers or sisters. If recent history is an indication, millennia of religious tradition would not be an obstacle to the modern logic of human sexuality.

In addition to supplementary legal rights, a gay union distinct from marriage could take on a unique character as a social institution. In our marriage culture, opposite-sex couples are generally expected to have children and infertility is lamented. In a gay union culture, these traditions, and many others, could be abandoned as unnecessary. Marriage and gay unions could each have their own set of norms, the second not oriented toward procreation.

The gay marriage debate may be over in Canada, but a related debate never took place: with fully developed civil unions, would “separate” enhance “equal”?

The Hustings

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Tom Stringham: Jim Prentice and alcohol policy

Last week I attended a local citizen’s meeting conducted by Jim Prentice, former MP and member of Stephen Harper’s cabinet, and leading candidate for the leadership of Alberta’s ruling Progressive Conservative Party. I took the opportunity to ask Mr. Prentice whether he was in favor of new policies to fight excessive alcohol consumption: specifically, restrictions on alcohol advertising and higher alcohol taxes.

I asked this question because over the last few months, I’ve discovered that the most recent epidemiological literature on alcohol paints a bleaker picture of the drug’s harms than anyone used to think. Earlier this year in its report on alcohol and world health, the World Health Organization attributed 5.9% of worldwide deaths (3.3 million per year) to alcohol consumption. As recently as 2004, the WHO had reported the figure as 3.2%: almost certainly an underestimate. This year, the WHO reports, in a highest-ever statistic, that 6.8% of Canadians—more than two million people—have an alcohol use disorder.

Furthermore, the link between alcohol and cancer has recently become clearer: we now know that even in low doses, ethanol has a carcinogenic effect on every internal tissue it touches as it decays into acetaldehyde during digestion. Alcohol is linked to esophageal cancer, stomach cancer and liver cancer, along with others.

The WHO recommends restrictions on alcohol advertising and high alcohol taxes. This would diminish the public health impact of alcohol without compromising the ability of adults to purchase and drink it. These proposals were my suggestion to Mr. Prentice.

Not to my surprise, he was caught off guard by my question. While he acknowledged some of the societal harm caused by alcohol, he did not appear to have in his platform a plan for addressing it. Prentice turned down the policies I suggested without explaining why.

If Prentice has a blind spot on alcohol harm, however, he isn’t unique. While Jim Prentice is an intelligent, principled and even visionary politician (I plan to vote for him), he’s like any other public intellectual in Canada. He’s likely never seriously considered the idea of meaningful changes to alcohol laws, and is probably unacquainted with the literature on the medical and social harms of the drug.

Like all Canadians, Prentice hopes for a better Canada, and intends to leave a richer inheritance to the next generation. He and other people of influence have an opportunity to make this happen: they can turn the tide of policy on our society’s last, and deadliest, acceptable drug.

The Hustings

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