As you may have heard, the Vatican recently offered indulgences for Twitter and Facebook users along with other virtual participants of last months World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro.

Indulgences are a historical tradition in which the church grants the faithful remission from sins and relief from penitence. In an effort to get hip to the times, the Holy See launched a smartphone application and Facebook page, and then rebranded indulgences for fans of social networking.

But there was a catch. You cant obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine, Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, head of the pontifical council for social communication, explained in an Italian daily. The flock had to tweet and blog about World Youth Day with pious intent. The Catholic scholar Paolo Padrini, known as the iPriest for his frequent online presence, insisted that your click will have come from the heart if you expected any papally endorsed payoffs.

In other words, no lulz. You couldnt expect a slashed sentence in purgatory for reposting that jpeg of a pimped-out Benedict XVI with a clutch of cardinals carrying the train of his gown, and bearing the caption: The Pope Emeritus, wearing a fabulous vintage chiffon-lined Dior gold lame gown over a silk Vera Wang empire waist tulle cocktail dress, accessorized with a three-foot House of Whoville hat and the ruby slippers Judy Garland wore in the Wizard of Oz, on his way to tell us its Wrong to be Gay.

I understand the need for any organization to keep up with the times, especially one that took 359 years to formally apologize for the Galileo Case you know, the one involving the persecution of a  astronomer for his stubborn insistence that the earth revolves around the sun, in defiance of scripture. But the papacy has been burned before by trafficking in indulgences. Why play with fire all over again?

In 1476, Pope Sixtus IV proclaimed that indulgences applied to souls suffering in purgatory. This celestial confidence trick was an immediate success peasants starved their families and themselves to buy relief for departed relatives, observed historian William Manchester in his 1992 book, A World Lit Only By Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance.

In 1517, Pope Leo X announced a special sale of indulgences. As an inducement, donors would receive, not only complete absolution and remission of all sins, but also preferential treatment for their future sins. This otherworldy protection racket, along with the buffoonery of an indulgence-flogging Dominican who denounced Wittenberg professor Martin Luther, led directly to the holy wars of the Reformation.

Back to the present day. As if the Vaticans public relations backfire with digital indulgences wasnt enough, Catholic Church leaders in Brazil chopped down 334 centuries-old trees at the edge of Serra da Tiririca State Park to prepare grounds for Pope Franciss appearance at World Youth Day, according to a report in The Daily Mail. (An ironic greeting for a pontiff who chose his papal name Francis in honour of the nature-loving St. Francis of Assisi.)

Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism, Freudianism, communism, capitalism, materialism, libertarianism, and almost every other ism and have all had their belief-begging moments, courtesy of ideologically blinkered leaders and followers. As the self-described stand-up philosopher Robert Anton Wilson once observed, the abbreviation for belief system is BS.

The words of Vatican social media maven Maria Celli, that indulgences cant be dispensed like coffee from a vending machine, brought to mind some alternative BS from Wilson. In his essay collection, Coincidance, the late author highlighted the Javacrucians, a possibly apocryphal sect who have selected caffeine as their sacrament.

Javacrucianism also has the simplest theology in history, teaching one thing only is necessary for salvation, the American Coffee Ceremony a variation on the Japanese Tea Ceremony. This is performed at dawn, and you must face towards the rising sun, as you raise the cup to your lips. When you take the first sip, you must cry out with intense fervour, GOD, I needed that! If this is performed religiously every morning, Javacrucians say, you will face all lifes challenges with a clear mind and a tranquil spirit, Wilson enthused.

Sounds like the kind of BS tailor-made for caffeine-addled, sun-worshipping Vancouverites. Coffee is the one indulgence most of us cant go without, and as an added bonus, theres no threat of excommunication for ordering decaf.

The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 2


Imagine being isolated in a jail cell smaller than a condominium parking space, 23 hours of the day. Imagine being held there for 41 years. Herman Wallace has lived this reality in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison since 1972. Astoundingly, he was thrown into the hole back when the Jackson 5 were racing up the pop charts and the electronic game Pong was wowing kids in arcades.

Imprisoned in 1967 for bank robbery, Wallace was confined to solitary five years later in the highly questionable murder conviction of a prison guard, with nonmatching fingerprints and two informants recanting their testimony.

The recent PBS documentary Herman’s House offers more than a peek into the heart of darkness that is the U.S. prison industrial complex. It is the story of an unlikely collaboration between Wallace and the American activist/artist Jackie Summell. She had little interest in incarceration issues until she attended a talk in San Francisco by a member of the so-called Angola Three, Robert King, who had been released from 29 years in solitary confinement after his conviction was overturned. Earlier on the day of his talk, the bike-riding Summell got into an altercation with a motorist, which put her later interview with Wallace in perspective.

“This man spoke about being in a six-foot-by-nine-foot cell for 29 years without any indication of anger,” she told Mother Jones magazine. “I was like: Oh, shit. I have something to learn from that man. Hes been able to channel so much trauma into these constructive mechanisms. Whereas I get cut off on my bicycle on Market Street and I’m ready to throw down.”

Intrigued, she got in touch in 2003 with Herman Wallace, one of the two remaining members of the Angola Three. Two years into their correspondence, she entered a masters program in architecture at Stanford. As part of her thesis, she pitched a peculiar question to Wallace: ‘What kind of house does a man who has lived in a six-foot-by-nine-foot box for over 30 years dream of?’

Wallace’s lifestyle wish-list 70s-era shag carpets, a wall decorated with portraits of African American revolutionaries, a six by nine-foot hot tub (the size of his cell) were enshrined in the artists sketches and computer-aided renderings, and incorporated into an art exhibit that also featured a life-size wooden reconstruction of his cell. The House That Herman Built has been shown in 12 galleries in five countries around the world. The contrast between the prisoners dream home and his shrunken living conditions reportedly left many gallery-goers in tears.

Ten years after their first tentative communications, the collaboration between the prisoner and the artist has grown into an international exhibition, book, documentary film, social sculpture, educational tool, architectural discourse and awareness campaign now aimed at building the house of a man who has been in solitary confinement for over 41 years. Herman’s dream home will be built in his birth city of New Orleans that will serve as a meeting place for art, activism, love, and community, according to, which is accepting donations for the project.

With the 71-year-old Wallace diagnosed in June with aggressive liver cancer, Summell’s struggle for his freedom has become about ensuring he doesn’t die in jail. Amnesty International and other groups have joined the cause. “I think that the best activism is equal parts love and equal parts anger,” the artist says in the film Herman’s House.

Over 80,000 prisoners are in solitary confinement in the U.S., in conditions similar to those suffered by Wallace. Even with countries around the world retreating from the practice, our nations correctional service is aping the American gulag through an increased reliance on segregation cells.

Sixty-seven nations have ratified the 2002 United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture, which considers long-term solitary confinement an inhumane practice with long-term health consequences. Canada is not among the signatories.

Eight hundred and fifty out of 14,700 inmates in federal institutions are in segregation cells, representing almost six per cent of the Canadian prison population. Call it racism by default or design, but the overrepresentation of African Americans in U.S. solitary is mirrored in the overrepresentation of aboriginal people in Canadian solitary  – to say nothing of the two nation’s prison populations.


Cell. The word was first used in the medieval era to denote a small room for monastic contemplation. It also has a scientific meaning as the basic building block of life, and of course in the context of imprisonment. There is plenty of time for contemplation in the latter kind of cell. But the basic unit of the correctional system has little to do with life when its used to isolate a person for months or years at a stretch. Its a kind of living death for the imprisoned.

Certainly there are violent offenders who require cooling off for their own protection or that of others. Yet the issue of extended solitary confinement as a form of torture is getting more press these days, in large part because of public awareness of Iraq war whistleblower U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning, who has spent most of his time in solitary confinement since his arrest in 2010 for submitting classified material to WikiLeaks.

On July 8, 30,000 prisoners in California began a peaceful hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of long-term solitary confinement, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture called for religious leaders across the United States to sign a petition against the states use of it.

As I wrote last week, Herman Wallace has spent 41 years in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Prison, also known as Angola Prison and the “Alcatraz of the South.” What happens to a human being confined so long, and so inhumanely, in a cage little bigger than the back of a pickup truck? I would think that there are very few options; you either become batty or a Bodhisattva. I suspect Wallace and the other remaining member of the Angola 3 in Angola solitary, Albert Woodfox, took the latter option.

Woodfox has clocked 40 years in the hole. In February, Federal Judge James Brady, presiding in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, agreed that racial bias tainted the grand-jury selection in his prosecution. The judge granted Habeas Corpus to Woodfox, compelling the state of Louisiana to release him. It was the third time his conviction has been overturned, yet astoundingly, he remains in solitary.

“If a cause is just noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders,” Woodfox was quoted in Mother Jones magazine. “And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit, they might cause me a lot of pain. They might even take my life. But they will never be able to break me.”

This issue isn’t irrelevant to Canadians. Even while most countries around the world are retreating from the use of solitary confinement, our nation is going in the other direction, following the American gulag model. Admissions to segregation cells in federal penitentiaries grew to 8,600 prisoners per year from 8,000 since 2010 and correctional experts anticipate another substantial jump as tough sentencing policies expand prison populations in the years ahead, according to a March 2013 report in the Globe and Mail.

Out of sight, out of mind. Solitary confinement is the part of the criminal justice system least accessible to media awareness and public accountability, although there are occasional chinks in the walls. Former federal inmate Bobby Lee Worm, who won a settlement with the government for her treatment after spending three and half of her six-year sentence in solitary, described her experience in a May press conference in Vancouver.

Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a persons will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you’re losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don’t know if you’ll ever get out, Worm said.

Correctional Service of Canada had a protocol of prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement for female prisoners deemed to be high risk. After Worm posted her lawsuit, the federal government abandoned the segregation of women for indefinite periods. Hopefully this indicates that the part of the criminal justice system least amenable to public accountability can still be nudged into modern times. Considering the Harper government’s enthusiasm for American models of penal servitude, continuing pressure will be required to keep them from building a bridge to the 16th century.

The Vancouver Courier, July 19 and July 26

Yesterday’s Black Comedy is Today’s Surveillance State

ImageTerry Gilliam’s 1985 tragicomedy Brazil begins with a housefly’s misadventure. After an annoyed civil servant flattens the insect, it falls into a teletype machine cranking out a list of terror suspects. The name “Tuttle” is misprinted as “Buttle.”

In a paramilitary raid on Christmas Eve, Archibald Buttle is arrested, hooded and shackled in a manner that anticipates the imagery of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib. The hurried recitation of his rights, which leaves no doubt that he has none whatsoever, plays like a preview of Homeland Security overreach.

To question the state is to invite punishment. Buttle’s neighbour becomes a terror suspect herself when she petitions the regime’s bureaucracy for answers to his fate.

Three decades on, Gilliam’s absurdist sci-fi seems that much closer to a documentary. The nominal hero of the tale, Sam Lowry, is a civil servant pummelled nightly by visionary dreams. He becomes something a fly himself, caught in the nightmare gears of a surveillance state dependent on both real and manufactured fears.

Brazil’s security apparatus is really after Archibald Tuttle, a renegade air conditioning specialist who merrily breaks into buildings and homes to fix malfunctioning ventilation ducts. His unauthorized break-ins are echoed today by the whistleblowing exploits of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange and USA army private Bradley Manning. Their expressed motivations have been the same: to fix broken systems. Respectively on the run, cornered, and on trial, they are said to have compromised “national security” through the release of classified material. They are today’s Tuttles.

U.S. president Barack Obama made an election promise to close the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, and is still working on that file five years on. If that’s not evidence for a broken system, what is? In 2009, former State Department official Lawrence Wilkerson said most of the prisoners at the black site were innocent. They were noncombatants who were in the wrong place at the wrong time: Buttles rather than Tuttles. (Prisoner releases and transfers have since reduced the Guantanamo numbers from a reported 240 to 166.)

Obama’s administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than any president before him. In an attempt to plug leaks, the White House has introduced “The Insider Threat Program,” a government program requiring federal employees to keep tabs on their co-workers for suspicious behaviour. “Hammer this fact home … leaking is tantamount to aiding the enemies of the United States,” reads a 2012 Defense Department document on the snitch program, as revealed by McClatchy news. Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s muzzling of Canadian federal scientists seems like kindergarten in comparison.

Image“Nobody is listening to your telephone calls,” the president assures Americans. The previously secret surveillance programs supposedly operate by reading metadata only: the time, duration, subject headings, and addresses of communications.: the time, length, and addresses of communications. This may actually be even worse than outright listening in, says author Christopher Simpson. Any kind of communication, from a wrong phone number to an email forwarded from someone you barely know, can plunk your particulars into a network subsuming “persons of interest.”

Canadians are hardly outside the Anglo-American panopticon, with its top-down transparency and bottom-up brick walls. Canada’s Communication Security Establishment also trolls Internet, telephone and other traffic for metadata, according to the Globe and Mail. Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) regularly taps transatlantic optic fibre cables for vast quantities of Internet and phone traffic, which it shares with the NSA.

Could these headline stories have a chilling effect on free speech, by making people anxious about their communications, both online and off? Absolutely, and the recent leaks may not be a total bother for the Powers That Be. From their perspective, it’s win-win if initial media focus and public outrage pales into yesterdays news, leaving behind a mildly paranoiac citizenry that’s more cautious about what they tweet, text, blog, phone and publish.

Julian Assange has said that social networking sites like Facebook have turned the Internet into the biggest “spy machine” in history. We’re all potential Tuttles and Buttles for the time being, at least until the tools of digital media are used to forge a true global democracy, rather than a real-life version of Terry Gilliam’s slapstick dystopia.

The Vancouver Courier, June 28