Saturday, July 23, 2011

A Moral Panic

Today’s topic may be a little more controversial than what I typically write, but I believe this topic is important. In the past couple weeks, a fellow blogger I respect a great deal, has been posting many stories and opinions regarding the way in which convicted sex offenders are treated in the United States. The reason for the interest is that there are recent laws coming into effect across the United States intended to create a uniform system and procedure for maintaining sex offender registries in all states. The original law is a federal law and states need to make new laws to be compliant with the federal regulations. The difficulty is that being on the registry makes it extremely difficult to get a job and the law also creates additional restrictions beyond those that already existed on where those on the registry may live (ie not near schools, playgrounds, etc.) The reason of course is to keep the public safe from potential predators, and to ensure that offenders continue to be monitored. To read a good selection of articles surrounding this issue visit Scottie’s Toy Box and scroll through. I have a link to his site on my sidebar or click here.

The point Scottie has been making is that this is extreme overkill and unnecessarily stigmatizes convicted sex offenders, making rehabilitation less likely. Also, many on the registry are either victims themselves or are not actually pedophiles or other sexual predators. He also claims that the public and the authorities seem to be putting more emphasis and severity of punishment on sexual abuse, than on other forms of abuse that can be just as damaging, if not more so. The post where he sets out his position on the issue can be found here ( Scottie recently asked me for my opinion on this issue and I decided than, rather than spend lots of time composing a response to him that he would be able to post on his site, I thought that I should at least get a post of my own out of it. Scottie, you may reblog this post in the Toy Box if you wish, with a credit to me and a link back. While I must acknowledge I am not very familiar with the exact nature of the US laws on this issue, I would say that I mostly agree with the statement that the sex offender laws are not well thought out and, in some cases, seem to be overly punitive. Still there are some differences of opinion I will address later.

The biggest objection I have with what is happening is that all criminal offenses that are sexual in nature seem to require being placed on the registry. While the new rules do create tiers of offender depending on the severity of the crime, the only difference seems to be the length of time they must remain on the registry. Most people think sex offenders are pedophiles and rapists. The reality is that a surprisingly large percentage is people on the registry are youth, who may have been having sex while underage and the partner’s parents pressed charges. Or, since there is no allowance for young couples who are close in age, it is considered statutory rape if anyone over 18 has sex with someone under 18. This is a predicament that can potentially face anyone who is sexually active and does not share the same birthday as their partner (that would be most people). While I imagine that making laws uniform is intended to change this, people have ended up on a sex offender registry for public urination. Scottie has recently posted a story about 2 14-year old boys that pulled down their pants and sat on another boy’s face. While this is obviously bullying and unacceptable behaviour, possibly befitting criminal charges, an appeals court ruled that this was a sexual offense and as such, the boys would have to be placed on the sex offender registry for life. The point is that the judges seemed to indicate that this was overly harsh but the law gave them no alternative. On what planet does this make sense?

Another big problem I have is that placement on the registry seems to be allowed to factor into employment decisions. Honestly, unless the job is as a school teacher or child care worker, I don’t see how this is relevant in any way. And I can also understand that a job that requires an employee to be bondable would entail that the employee could not have a criminal record (usually), so there would be a problem in those instances as well. But there are so many industries that don’t require contact with children or other vulnerable people or require security clearances that this shouldn’t be an insurmountable barrier to employment. Yet employers won’t hire sex offenders and so many in the public seem to agree with this. But if society rejects you on a permanent basis, what incentive is there to obey the law and get on with your life?

This issue brings to mind a paper I wrote in a first-year university sociology class about moral panics. This is the short paragraph, exactly as I wrote it in that paper, that defines what a moral panic is - I think you will see how well it applies to the situation with sex offenders.

British sociologist Stanley Cohen, an acknowledged authority on moral panic, is credited with coining the phrase, although it actually made its first appearance in a colleague’s paper (Burns & Crawford, 1999; Thompson, 1999). Despite this technicality, it was Cohen who fully defined the term. In the classic definition, someone identifies an issue as a problem; it is reported in the media so as to influence the general public; the public develops an outrage against the issue; the authorities respond in some way; and the issue will finally either fade in importance or corrective action will be taken (Thompson, 1999). More recently, sociologists have attempted to specify the conditions that give rise to a moral panic (DeYoung, 1998). There has to be a pre-existing worry about the issue (DeYoung, 1998), and it must have the ability to create hostility among the public (Burns & Crawford, 1999). The media must be able to identify what Cohen calls a “folk devil”, a scapegoat upon which the public can easily place blame. These folk devils are very often marginalised members of the community (DeYoung, 1998).

One of the examples I had mentioned, though it was not central to the paper, was the allegation of satanic ritual sexual abuse in day care centres in the United States. In the 1980's there were claims that at least one (and later others) day care centre was sexually abusing children in their care using satanic symbolism. The only evidence was the claims of the children, many of whom were under 4 years old at the time and, even when questioned years later, were still young children. It later came out that these stories were all pure invention, but a large number of day care centres had come under suspicion and were shut down in the interim and forever casting suspicion upon their operators.

But looking at that definition above, I’m sure you can see how well our current hysteria regarding sex offenders fits the pattern. The pre-existing issue is obviously those cases of child abduction and molestation that make the news, everyone is outraged and demands horrendous penalties for the perpetrators and there has been a large quantity of legislative response, mostly ill-considered. This building of a moral panic is why you see so much of a push to have a public registry of sex offenders. While anyone who looks carefully will know that most registered sex offenders are not accused of a crime stemming from pedophilia, this is the offense most people imagine when discussing sex offenders. The actual occurrence of child abduction is very rare (although child sexual abuse is not - it is more often perpetrated by family and/or friends) but a whole variety of sexual indiscretions can result in mandatory registration, from brutal, violent rapes, to in some places, indecent exposure. Also, the part about the folk devils being marginalised members of the community is especially obvious here: the focus is exclusively on pedophiles, since adults having sexual desire for children is considered so revolting and incomprehensible to most people. These people also tend to have histories that involve abuse and neglect, meaning they are even further marginalised. Putting them on a “list” underscores this separateness from society and makes it easier to create laws that would be considered excessive and cruel for any member of the “normal” society. For this reason, I am strongly opposed to the way in which congress develops these laws. The laws are supposedly about all sexual offenses, yet they name these laws invariably after victims of child abduction (Adam Walsh, Megan Kanka, etc.) The way I see it, if there are so few victims of a particular crime you know all the names of the victims, is so much social and legal change really needed? In Ontario in the early 1990's there was a serial killer on the loose, raping women and abducting, abusing and killing girls. Eventually the perpetrator was found to be Paul Bernardo and his wife/girlfriend Karla Homolka. While some may argue that Homolka was not sufficiently punished (she testified against him, striking a deal for 12 years in prison and has already served the full sentence), Bernardo was rightly identified as a dangerous menace, was convicted of many charges. He received life in prison and was declared a dangerous offender, rendering him ineligible for parole. Because we have dangerous offender status and a somewhat lesser status of high risk offender, this means that if an individual is too dangerous and at too much risk to re-offend, we have methods to keep such people off the streets but only on a case by case basis, and it is not an easy designation to get. We also do have a sex offender registry, but it is not generally available to the public but only to the police. Maybe this is a better way to go, as there is still monitoring and tracking of potentially dangerous people, but does not have the high potential for vigilante justice as in the US where the registry is available to any member of the general public, some of whom have questionable motives.

Then there are the issues over which I disagree with my friend. First there is the nature of the crime and the prospects for rehabilitation. While it may be true that sex offenders, as a group, are the second least likely class of offenders to reoffend, I think this has a lot to do with grouping all kinds of tenuously related offences together, from child abuse, to young love, to rape, to a domestic dispute. Age of consent issues will of course not result in a re-offence, since once the “criminal” ages a bit, the crime can no longer be committed. For some who use force in sexual situations, therapy and rehabilitation is possible and effective. The same can be true when the crime happened as a result of substance abuse. So why is there an impression that sex offenders cannot be rehabilitated? Because some - those that get most of the press but make up a very small percentage of the offender population - commit crimes that are usually the result of a very serious compulsion for which an effective rehabilitation has not been found. Pedophiles are extremely likely to re-offend, as are some serial rapists. But even though they are a small percentage of all sex offenders, these are the most serious crimes in the category, and the fact that treatment and rehab is highly unlikely in these cases is a concern we need to take seriously. This is why the strict conditions, reporting requirements, and tight restrictions are in place. These people are known to be dangers and in all likelihood will remain so unless carefully monitored. Now, why every other sex offender is subject to all the same restrictions is beyond me, but that does not mean that we throw out the baby with the bathwater (is it inappropriate to use that phrase here? Oh, well). While this means convicted pedophiles are going to have a hard time finding a place to live and a good job, safety is a very real concern, and no they should not be working with kids if they have molested children before. And if they live near playgrounds and such, they will be too hard to keep track of and they will be too close to temptation. But for other sex offences that have no relation to children, especially for those who can be rehabilitated, I do agree that all those restrictions are draconian, not to mention pointless.

Finally, there is the issue of damage caused by sexual abuse as compared to other forms of abuse. I think the key thing to remember here is that everyone is their own individual and reacts to the events of their lives in different ways. Also, having not been abused myself, I don’t really have a frame of reference. Although from what little Scottie has shared with the reading public on his blog, I get the impression that the sexual abuse he suffered was not as extensive or painful. Also, something that I believe makes a bit of difference, he seems to suggest that those who abused him physically were more direct family members than those who committed the sexual abuse. I apologize if I got this wrong, and if it is, just take this as a theoretical example of someone else for whom this was the case. If someone very close, such as a parent, abuses you in ANY way, I would think that this abuse would have longer-lasting psychological effects, as there is also a deep betrayal of trust that goes along with the physical pain, guilt and/or shame suffered. For others, the sexual abuse could be worse. And while physical abuse may be more likely to cause long term health effects, the same thing can happen if a sexually transmitted disease is contracted as a result of a molestation. Several months ago I was following the blog of a young man who had been sexually abused by the father of one of his friends. Because of this, he contracted Hepatitis and HIV and died last winter. Sexual abuse can have horrific consequences as well, it is just a matter of what happened in each individual case.

To summarize, I think that the biggest problem with the manner in which sex crimes are dealt with in the United States is the failure to separate the more serious crimes from the less serious ones.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Restaurant Review - Vittoria Trattoria

Before starting this review, there is some blog news to share. The Writer’s Kitchen is now a featured blog on Restauranteers is a restaurant and food blog that also collects a wide variety of food blogs with an amazingly wide variety of different topics. I was initially unsure about joining with the site as I also write about other topics, but decided to go ahead because they are looking for a diverse collection of blogs. This will introduce more readers to this blog. For those of you who are not foodies, don’t worry - this partnership does not mean I will only focus on food. The mix will stay similar to how it has always been. Check out the blogs they have to offer at There is also a new badge on my sidebar that will take you to their home page. Another change is that I have added a button for readers to subscribe to my RSS feed. My blog always had that funcLinktionality, but now it is easier to grab my feed.


My mom and I arrived in Ottawa a day earlier than originally planned so we could help her sisters, who were organizing our family event, with some setup tasks. The payoff for this was we were able to get together with a few early arrivals for a dinner in the Byward Market. The restaurant chosen was Vittoria Trattoria, a fairly well-regarded restaurant in the heart of the market. Since there were 10 of us for dinner I wasn’t really keeping track of what everyone on the table was having. The menu focuses on the neighbourhood Italian standards, with the expected antipasti, many pizza and pasta selections, and secondos such as veal, chicken, and lamb. To start, I ordered the mussels with grappa, raisins and pine nuts. The mussels were fine. I kind of liked the touch of pine nuts with mussels and the broth was excellent, and I believe the grappa was useful in allowing the mussel broth to be the primary flavour (as opposed to, say, wine). However, when I make mussels myself I always try to find the freshest possible and cook them immediately, so the mussels are usually exquisitely fresh. These, while they were absolutely not spoiled or obviously old, were not as supremely fresh as mussels can be. This is probably an unrealistic expectation in most restaurants though, so I will say I liked the starter.

I had veal marsala, an Italian classic, for my main course. The sauce was fairly good, but the meat could have been prepared better. Veal scallopini requires careful treatment to be sure it is at its best. This veal had a slightly pasty texture on the outside, likely a result of too much flour used to coat the veal before pan-frying. Also the veal was just a little tough. There could be a couple of reasons why this happened. First, the veal was probably overcooked. Second, veal scallopini is usually cut from the leg, a tough cut of veal. In order to make this a tender cut, you must cut very thin slices and then carefully pound the meat to make a very thin, wide piece. This may not have been pounded enough. The sides were decent but not excellent. Several in our party had pasta and, from what they said, the pasta was cooked perfectly and the sauces ranged from acceptable to very good. For dessert I had zuccotto, a layered cake and mousse based dessert. That was excellent and definitely the best part of the meal. Other desserts include a good tartufo and a less than stellar molten chocolate cake.

Some were impressed with the food but the majority opinion (including my own) was that the food was not excellent but certainly good. It can certainly be considered an average neighbourhood Italian restaurant. The problem is that, because Vittoria’s neighbourhood is the Byward Market, the prices are too high for the quality of the food. The main courses are in the upper 20 dollar range with the high end meats (veal chop, rack of lamb) well over 30. I did not order anything overly expensive and my meal still cost at least 50-60 dollars with ONE glass of wine, before the tip. I have read reviews other places that complain about poor service here, but when we were there, the service was good. Again I would not consider it superb but they were friendly and reasonably accommodating. The wine list is pretty good, with some affordable selections, several by the glass.

Vittoria Trattoria on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

A Visit To Ottawa

A little while ago I spent some time in Ottawa for a family event. Ottawa is Canada’s capital and has great things to see. There are some obvious sights to see and some others that are not as evident. As I have family in Ottawa, I have been there many times. The most exiting time was probably this past weekend, the Canada Day weekend. There are big celebrations on Parliament Hill and a festival in nearby Major’s Hill Park and of course fireworks shot from the Alexandria bridge that runs behind the Parliament Buildings. And this year the Royal couple - William and Kate - were in Ottawa for the event and the Queen was visiting the year before. I recall last year I posted about how sad and pathetic Montreal’s Canada Day celebrations seemed to be, and that had a lot to do with my memories of what this day is like in Ottawa. A modest parade seems inappropriate when you compare it to the massive celebration that takes place in Ottawa.

If you recall my posts about my trip to Washington D.C. last year, I made a point of not mentioning any of the most popular tourist attractions, mostly steering clear of the National Mall. Ottawa is a different matter, as I am Canadian and this is the capital of MY country. That is why my first recommended sight to see in Ottawa is Parliament Hill. This is the home of Canada’s government and is an iconic image for the country. Tours of the Parliament Buildings can be taken free of charge and you may even see Canada’s government in action (or whatever it is they are doing). In the centre of Parliament Hill is the Centennial flame. This fountain was constructed as a project to mark the 100th anniversary of Canada in 1967 and consists of a fountain with a gas flame constantly burning since it was first lit in 1966 coming up from the centre.

There are various other things to see that relate to Canada’s government, some more interesting than others. Some places worth a visit may include the Supreme Court of Canada or Rideau Hall, the residence of the Governor General. Canada is part of the British Commonwealth and, as such, Queen Elizabeth II of England is still our head of state, though all state functions are handled by the Governor General, who is appointed by the Prime Minister. Regular tours of Rideau Hall are available and the grounds are also worth visiting. There are many trees on the walk up to the house, planted by various dignitaries from around the world, including John and Jackie Kennedy, Nelson Mandela and many Royals. The most recent tree planting was last weekend by William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

There are several museums in Ottawa as well, and probably two of the more worthwhile are the National War Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The War Museum is Ottawa’s newest museum, built about 5 years ago on contaminated land that had to be cleaned up at great effort and expense. In keeping with the decontamination project, the building was designed with sustainablility and energy efficiency in mind. It even has a “green roof” so that the building is returning clean air to the environment. In addition, the shape of the museum is reminiscent of an army bunker and on a wing of the roof, there are a series of windows that spell out the message “Lest We Forget” in Morse Code.

The museum of Civilization is very hard to completely describe. It tells the social history of the people of Canada. There are often exhibits relating to native peoples and to specific ethnic groups. There is also a Children’s Museum that teaches kids about Canada and the world with lots of activities and fun stuff. Even kids that don’t like museums will like this, because it is almost as much play centre as museum. There is also an IMAX theatre. This museum is located across the river in Gatineau, Quebec. The grounds have an amazing view of the Parliament buildings, which sit directly across the river.

Back on the Ontario side is the National Gallery of Canada. This is Canada’s premier art gallery and houses many masterworks and travelling exhibits. On this most recent trip I found something fascinating just outside the entrance to the gallery. It is a piece of public art entitled “Maman” (French for “mother”). It is a 30 foot tall spider made of cast bronze, complete with an egg sac containing 26 pieces of white marble to represent her eggs. The artist did in fact use her own mother as inspiration for the piece, which raises some rather disturbing questions. Supposedly the piece is intended to evoke the fierce protectiveness of a mother but also a sense of entrapment. I guess she had some “mommy issues” to work out.

Another strange piece of sculpture nearby is located beside the United States Embassy, an imposing and rather unattractive behemoth of a building on Sussex drive. The sculpture, pictured below, is called “Conjunction” and supposedly represents the close ties between Canada and the United States and “a joining of individual parts into a coherent and unexpected whole”. Maybe I’m just uneducated about the finer points of interpretive art but to me this just looks like a bunch of metal welded together with no coherent purpose and just looks ugly and pointless. That is certainly not the image one would likely want to evoke when celebrating the bonds between our two countries. Well, take a look and see what you think. Maybe it really is a work of genius and I’m just some philistine.

In this same area is one of my favourite places in Ottawa. For regular readers, it should come as no surprise that this place is yet another public market. In some ways, the Byward Market is much like other markets that I love and visit regularly, wherever I happen to be. But in Ottawa, the market encompasses more than just the market building and surrounding vendor stalls. Like at Jean-Talon in Montreal, there are permanent stores selling meats, cheeses and other food-related items. But the Byward Market distinguishes itself by also housing the largest concentration of bars and restaurants in the city. Some of the city’s most vibrant and interesting restaurants are located here, as are more pedestrian offerings. I will be writing an upcoming review post of my dining experiences during this trip, including one restaurant in the Market. There are also upscale boutiques for those who love shopping for fashions (at least I assume these stores are good - not really my area of expertise). As for the market itself, the volume of offerings cannot compare to Jean-Talon, but I would compare it favourably with Eastern Market, which I visited in Washington D.C. last year and it is also better than most of the markets in my local area. So I suppose this would likely make it one of the better markets I know of.

There are many festivals in Ottawa. Aside from Canada Day there are many must-see events. The city goes all-out for the Tulip Festival in April. Like most other cities, there are jazz and blues festivals during the summer. While these pale in comparison to Montreal’s, especially when it comes to size and enthusiasm, they still attract good performers and make for an enjoyable activity should you happen to be in the city at the time. A block from the Parliament Buildings, the Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall has some noteworthy festivals, including a Busker Festival (buskers = street performers) and a rib and chicken cook-off (more on that in the restaurant review post). Though Canada is not often seen as an attractive tourist destination in the winter, February’s Winterlude is an event not-to-be-missed. Once the weather gets cold enough, the Rideau Canal is transformed into the world’s longest skating rink. Some people who work downtown will use the canal to commute to work on skates while the skateway is open.

In summer, the Canal is impressive too. You can take a boat tour along the canal or go from the start of the canal and take a tour along the Ottawa river. You can visit the locks at the entrance to the canal and, if a boat happens to be coming through, you can watch the canal in action as the locks are raised and lowered to move the ships through. In the same area is the Bytown museum, which tells the story of Ottawa’s early history. There is also the Chateau Laurier, one of Ottawa’s oldest luxury hotels. The hotel was financed by Canada’s railway, headed at the time by an American businessman. When the hotel was scheduled to be opened in 1912, this man was returning to North America to open the hotel but happened to be crossing on the Titanic and he did not survive. It is said that the 5th floor of the hotel is haunted to this day.

One attraction in Ottawa somewhat off the beaten track is the RCMP Musical Ride at the RCMP Stables in the neighbourhood of Rockliffe. This is a contingent of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (Canada's federal police force) that displays the RCMP's tradition of precision horsemanship. They execute very difficult coordinated manoeuvres set to music. The musical ride spends a lot of time touring the country performing at fairs and equestrian events, so they only perform a few times a year in Ottawa at the stables but whenever they do perform, such as last week when I was there, it always draws a large appreciative crowd.

In an upcoming post (or posts) I will publish some reviews of restaurants I ate at during this stay in the nation's capital. I realize I have not been posting much since I left Montreal, but living at home has altered my schedule more than I thought it would. I am now trying to make time dedicated to writing so I hope you should see more posts. There have also been some recent developments on the food side of my blog and, once they are official, I will be able to tell you about them.