Saturday, February 18, 2017

On intoxication and consent

In the past 36 hours, social media has exploded over a controversial headline in The Telegram. The story, by court reporter Rosie Mullaly, covered the first day of testimony in the trial of Carl Snelgrove, an RNC officer charged with sexual assault against a young woman to whom he offered a ride home in the wee hours of the morning. (Some have also condemned CBC's and NTV's television and online reporting of the trial.)
Before we get to that, this is what's known so far through evidence presented in court. The constable saw the complainant on a street downtown. She was intoxicated He offered to drive her home. She accepted. After that, the woman says, everything is hazy. She vaguely remembers the officer helping her in through a basement window because she couldn't find her key. She evidently let the officer in the house. Then things go pretty well blank, although she has a fragmented recollection of him engaging in anal sex. And the man's DNA was found on her furniture.
Let all that sink in for a second.
Can anyone honestly disagree this man lacks the moral fortitude to be an officer of the law? You can picture any number of similar situations arising downtown. Men and women, highly intoxicated, lunging at or flirting with each other. Along comes an officer, tasked with serving and protecting the public. It's not clear whether she was sexual flirtatious or not, but even if she was, she's surely not the first person to have been so with a police officer late at night. I imagine it's a regular occurrence. And I would expect any officer on duty to exercise the utmost professionalism and to respect the delicacy of the situation. He (or she) has no business trying to pursue a perceived opportunity in that situation. None whatsoever.
So, yes, this cop is a creep. That's a given.
What the trial is about, though, is whether he's a rapist. While on the surface it may seem so to many people, it's up to the court to establish his culpability under the Criminal Code.
There is a lot of confusion swirling around the issue of sexual assault, and women's advocates have been understandably reiterating some of the important facts in the wake of this controversy.
The main one is that a rape victim is a victim. You can't blame a victim for rape. It is the rapist's fault. This may seem obvious, but experience shows many victims are prone to blaming themselves in the wake of an assault. Did I accidentally lead him on? Was it something I said? Perhaps I shouldn't have gone out so late. Maybe I should have resisted more.
This us why so-called victim-blaming is such a lightning rod. Every now and then you'll hear a judge say something to the effect that the complainant "should have kept her knees together." The fact that such attitudes persist is what leads many advocates to say we live in a rape culture. Sometimes I feel that term is a little overused. But the fact that men are still frequently excused and even exonerated for bad behaviour proves we have a long way to go.
At any rate, here's the headline that caused the storm.

It's not the best headline. It seems to belittle the complainant: Oh, I get it, she was really loaded – well that just says everything now, doesn't it!?
I understand that some may make that inference. It's a knee-jerk response. It's blaming the victim, isn't it?
Except it isn't.
The headline describes exactly the thrust of the testimony in court. The complainant said she has some memories from earlier in the night in question, but doesn't recall consenting to sex.
She was downtown. She was drunk. Heck, almost everyone is drunk downtown at that time of the night. So this is not victim-blaming. It's just a fact.
The question is whether she was too drunk to consent. And if her testimony is to be taken on face value, she was.
(An important sidebar here: simply being intoxicated is not sufficient to prove lack of consent. I've seen several people say this in the past day, and it is wrong. Check the criminal code. The level of intoxication here is key. If you draw a complete blank as to the previous night's events, that's a pretty good sign you were not capable of given consent, according to its legal definition.)
Another factor that may play into this case is that of the authority of the defendant over the complainant. He was a police officer; she was his charge, at least at the time he was giving her a ride. That may be a factor in deciding whether here was a necessary "level playing field" as such for consent to have occurred.
The bottom line is this: the court decides.Don't prejudge the trial until it gets properly underway and the main themes come out.
You can still advocate for victims without letting it blind you against the essential tenets of our justice system.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Trump, annotated

I considered composing my own annotation of Donald J. Trump's inauguration diatribe, but instead will defer to this excellent piece from Vox.

Monday, January 16, 2017

We're talking about children here

A scene from "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997).
A school bus rides along an open country road in winter. The children are laughing and jostling, the two in back waving at the man in a pickup following behind.
Suddenly, the driver loses control. She tries to straighten the vehicle, but instead swerves off the edge and trundles down an embankment. The man in the pickup pulls over and rushes over to see the bus fishtail out to the middle of frozen lake. It comes to a stop, then slowly sinks as the ice beneath it gives way.
This is the horrific central event in Atom Egoyan's 1997 film "The Sweet Hereafter." There are no special effects or explosions. Just the sickening vantage point from the road as the vehicle slowly submerges. When the witness rushes to the scene, we can hear the screams of children. Fourteen of them perish.
"It is typical of (Egoyan's) approach that 'The Sweet Hereafter' neither begins nor ends with the bus falling through the ice of a frozen lake, and is not really about how the accident happened, or who was to blame," Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film. "The accident is like the snow clouds, always there, cutting off the characters from the sun, a vast fact nobody can change."
 The movie, he wrote, is more about the eternal grief of the "living dead" — those who survived or were most closely touched by the accident. It haunts the parents, the driver, the girl whose legs had to be amputated — even the class action lawyer handling the lawsuit seems uninterested in the money he's about to earn.
"The Sweet Hereafter" is based on a book by Russell Banks, which in turn was inspired by an actual accident in Texas that killed 21 kids. But it could easily have happened in any small town in North America, including Newfoundland and Labrador.
We're no strangers to tragic road accidents here. But school buses are in a category all their own. They are our golden chariots, safely ferrying our most precious cargo to and from school. We expect the utmost standards from their owners and drivers.
It is unfathomable, therefore, to think a contractor in this province would even consider compromising school bus safety for any reason. Yet that is exactly what a west coast firm was recently charged with.
C-MAC Construction has been charged with violating inspection regulations after allegations arose that certificates were issued without inspections actually taking place. In all, 16 buses were taken off the road.
It's the second time a school bus company has been charged since the province brought in tighter regulations last year.
"I think the system is working," school board representative Terry Hall told the CBC. "We are getting through, we are doing the inspections, we are removing buses that we feel need further work or shouldn't be carrying kids at that time."
This is encouraging. But does the punishment fit the crime?
What part of child safety do those behind these violations not understand? Is it that much of an inconvenience to check fuel and brake lines, to tighten a few nuts and bolts?
Can they not imagine the lasting legacy of grief their inaction could inflict on communities in this province?
It's frightening to think anyone could allow such negligence, but Hall admits there are companies out there that try to sneak under the radar.
The solution? Stiff fines. Permanent bans. Imprisonment. Anything to prevent the scenario envisioned in Egoyan's haunting film.
Our children — and their parents — deserve no less.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Do you want a media conspiracy or not?

Until this week, it would have been hard to imagine how the words of Trump and his spokespeople could become any more Kafka-esque. But Kellyanne Conway managed it.

On Monday, the incoming president's chief counsel told an American TV audience that the media should stop listening to what Trump says and look instead into his heart.

The subject was Trump's unambiguous mockery of a disabled reporter during the election campaign — a shameful event revisited by actor Meryl Streep in a short speech at Sunday's Golden Globe Awards. Trump mimicked the reporter's jerky movements during a rally as supporters cheered him on.

Conway, of course, has for several months proven herself unparalleled in her ability to dodge questions. Even Paul Calandra's antics in Canada's Parliament seem amateur in comparison.

On Monday, however, Conway outdid herself.

“Why don’t you believe him? Why isn’t it taken at face value?” Conway told CNN's Chris Cuomo, when asked why Trump has conjured lame excuses rather than simply apologize. “You can’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this and he’s telling you what was in his heart? You want to go with what’s come out of his mouth rather than what’s in his heart.”

Now, it's not clear what Messianic powers Chris Cuomo might wield, but most journalists are taught to rely on what people say and do, not what may or may not be in their hearts. Short of conducting an endless stream of polygraph tests, there's little else to go on.

So which is it? Does Kellyanne want the media to do their job, to fairly cover what politicians do and say? Or does she expect them to look through rose-coloured glasses, to bend over backwards to give the president-elect the benefit of the doubt?

If the latter, why would the media's supposedly generous treatment of the outgoing administration be seen as dishonest and conspiratorial? Were they not just doing what she expects them to do now?

Inquiring minds want to know.

The Putin Network

Saying Russian hacking had nothing to do with the outcome of the U.S. election is like saying sexting other women had nothing to do with Anthony Wiener's political career. The former New York congressman may well have botched things all on his own, but revelations about penile postings — including messages allegedly sent to a minor — certainly put the nail in the coffin.

Most rational U.S. politicians — and there are scant few — realize the Kremlin's interference in the 2016 election is frighteningly unprecedented. Yet Donald Trump's apologists seem more intent on digressing from the central point — none more than Trump himself.

 That Russian president Vladimir Putin's meddling was intentional and far reaching is unassailable, as anyone who's read the intelligence report released Jan. 6 would know.

Perhaps the most ironic section of the report, however, are the pages dealing with Russian TV, abbreviated as RT. This international service is not simply funded by the state, as is Canada's equivalent, but is run by the state as a propaganda organ to deliberately spin news and opinion on world events in Russia's favour. It is inextricably tied to the regime:

This is the alarming implication of the Trump team's relentless attacks on traditional media. Trump describes media coverage he doesn't like as biased, dishonest, in bed with his enemies. Yet RT, one supposes, is the kind of media approach he would prefer, at least while he is in power — one that is not only sympathetic to the presidency, but beholden to it. Taking its cues from the Kremlin, RT has dutifully defended Trump before and since the election.

How long this delusion can go on is anyone's guess. Even when regular news coverage finally started calling out his lies during the 2016 campaign — much too late in the game — Trump's base still took him at his word. There's little sign of that diminishing so far this year.

The movement to discredit honest journalism is well underway. Will it soon give way to the era of Trump TV?

An alarming thought.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Happy New Year

Many years ago, I was at a New Year's Eve party and a fellow I knew suggested we put this song on at midnight. I knew why, but you have to listen to the whole song to realize. Not long afterwards, he committed suicide. So, here's a happy new year to you all. Hope it's a good one. But don't forget to live in the moment sometimes too.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Hell on Earth

Nobel award-winner Bob Dylan basically defined the protest song in the 1960s. What do protest songs sound like today? Well, here's a favourite example, from 2011.