Sunday, December 31, 2006

Annus horribilis

As we come to the end of 2006--a miserable year personally, and not all that great politically either--I want to take yet another opportunity to thank bloggers for all the support and comfort you have offered me. It bears repeating that this poured forth, in an unreservedly heartfelt way, from across the political spectrum. And that alone raises some intriguing questions--about politics, why we do it and what it means.

Certainly we will survey the political landscape of 2006 and, Rashomon-like, tell our many conflicting stories about what we've seen and heard. But in Canada it tends to be those stories themselves that go into battle, rather than the tellers.

We've had just under a year of Stephen Harper, which for some reason I keep thinking of merely as an irritant that will soon pass rather than something worthy of my Angst. We've seen him strut about on the world stage, embarrassing the hell out of many of us, offering pleasurable frissons to others. On his watch Canada has offered uncritical support to Israel (which has just this week approved another settlement on Palestinian land, contrary to international law). We were the first country to cut off badly-needed aid to Palestine for daring to vote the wrong way in a democratic election, and we're waist-deep in Afghan quicksand.

Here at home, Harper snubbed the opening of an international AIDS conference, raised the same-sex marriage issue in Parliament once again, and stacked a board with social conservatives to oversee standards for assisted human reproduction. His leadership style is command-and-control all the way, and his public persona is a godawful blend of petulance and paranoia. He could be heading for a majority government in 2007.

The Liberals under their new leader may give the Conservative Party of Canada a run for its money. Stéphane Dion seems actually a rather likeable chap, although I suspect there's less to him than meets the eye. But Liberals have always tried to be all things to all people, while carving out vast swathes of privilege for themselves and corrupting the very nature of politics in the doing. I have rubbed my eyes hard, but try as I might I just see the same party with a new leader.

The NDP is staggering in the polls, which I think is too bad. Jack Layton is at his best when, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, he isn't playing at being Jack Layton. Internally he gave hope to many who were poised to abandon the party. The NDP does offer at least the possibility of alternatives to politics as usual, but it is congenitally timid, and too often, instead of blazing a new trail, is content to occupy the left lane of the corporate highway. The NDP is still non-cynical enough to have a vision--I think--but finds it, for some reason, difficult to articulate. Its strategy, if it has one, is a closely-guarded secret.

As for the Greens, their main achievement seems to be taking votes away from the NDP. Damned if I can figure out what their national position on anything is, although they have some brilliant spokespeople--David Chernushenko comes to mind. If the two parties merged we might get actually get somewhere.

This has also been a year of attempted electoral reform. Ontario now has a shot at it, after failures in BC and PEI. But the whole approach continues to be structural rather than cultural, and, never mind those unaccountable "citizens' assemblies," little or no effort has been made to get people
on the ground involved in actually brainstorming about electoral reform and proposing new ideas of their own. Instead the discussion tends to be channelled into voting systems and models. We'll see how things go in Ontario this New Year, but I'm pessimistic.

Which brings me back to my original question: why do we do politics? And by "we" I mean that small minority of us who are actively involved, whatever our stripe. The fact that most people are left by the wayside highlights a major deficiency in our political culture, as I've said before.

Politics is a highly moral activity. It's how we practically exercise our values. In Canada we tend to do this without hatred--that terrible emotion that seeks to erase and obliterate others. We can be bloody in print, but seldom in person. Indeed, we can befriend each other over yawning political gulfs. But does this mean that politics is a harmless pastime in the agora, and we all go out drinking afterwards?

Well, no. Because our values do not all coincide. And the practical application of any set of values has real flesh and blood consequences.

Certainly there is a widespread sense of decency that transcends many political differences. Nearly everybody means well.
But let's not get all Kumbaya-ish about it. I couldn't be a conservative if my life depended upon it. Many of them want the law to consider a fertilized ovum a person, and give the state guardianship over the carrier. Some saw the devastation of Katrina last year as the victims' fault--they didn't perhaps sing a hymn about God raining down vengeance upon those with an alleged sense of entitlement, but they gave a rousing secular version of it. Right now they are enjoying the spectacle of the Hanged Man, but maybe they'd better check out the archetype, one that will almost certainly take hold in the ashes of Iraq. They talk incessantly about traditional this and traditional that, not recognizing that all tradition is invented and continuously reinvented. They have an abiding suspicion of people Not Like Them, and so we get spirited defences of racial profiling at airports and hand-wringing about veils. They stand for Individual Responsibility, but that tends to be code for leaving those less fortunate to their fate, and rationalizing indifference with finger-wagging moralizing.

Obviously my vision and theirs have little in common. But let me say this about the long voyage that I've been taking on the wild river of politics. As I get older, I have become less tolerant of our own brand of sanctimony, and more and more certain that building the alternative society of our dreams will require that all dreams have an opportunity for expression. I believe that the best politics is the politics not of installing this vision or that but of enabling. For me, democracy is about citizens, not governments. It's about working together, not competing. It's about the collective drawing its strength from the unfettered creativity of its constituents, and about individuals drawing strength from the collective. It's about doing away with the unequal power relations that stand almost immoveably in the way of positive, radical change.

So, what is to be done? Maybe we'll figure it out in 2007. Most likely not. In any case, friends (and here I don't simply mean my political co-religionists), have a happy New Year's celebration, and give your loved ones a hug. We'll be back in the trenches soon enough.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Babbling lunacy

Given the trash job performed on yours truly at that public whipping post known as Babble, and another in the pillory known as EnMasse, I thought I might return the favour, if in a more genteel fashion. Readers will know that I recently stepped incautiously into the debate about Elizabeth May's alleged opposition to choice on abortion. I made the mistake of actually reading what she had to say, and saying so in a couple of forums over at Babble and EnMasse. That resulted in a series of increasingly vile personal attacks on me, which I'll get to in a moment. But first of all, one more brief comment about Stalinism, with an apology.

I had originally written "For some of the gender Stalinists around, there is only one position on anything permitted." That was clumsy and ambiguous. It suggests that there is a class of "gender Stalinists" some of whom actually do permit more than one position. Hence the phrase was open to interpretation (and misinterpretation) as applying, at least possibly, to feminists in general--a left-wing term-substitute for Rush Limbaugh's infamous "feminazis."

That was a serious error
, and I apologize for it. I have dropped the "some of," making it clear that I was referring to precisely that small handful of "line" folks, and no one else. The feminists I know and have worked with are not so eager to rush to judgement. They are not prone to making hateful denunciations. They are not averse to heated, even angry debate (and why should they be?) but they manage to steer clear of the sheer viciousness that prevails at both Babble and EnMasse.

Now, I can handle the mindless namecalling--"idiot sexist" and the like. I'm a Usenet veteran, after all, not a babe in the woods, and I've trolled with the best in my day. And I'm sure Elizabeth May will survive the false charges that continue to circulate about her on the choice issue. "My comments throughout the by-election campaign made it clear that the Green Party officially, and I personally, strongly support legal access to abortions for any woman (under whatever circumstances) who chooses to have one," she says, and that, for anyone with the wit to comprehend plain language, should be that.

But some of the participants cross the bounds of common decency. Here is what one sneering Babbler, who calls herself "remind," had to say about me:

I wonder at those men, who alledgedly [sic] stood firm with feminists for decades, it seems now that they're older they seem to be less embracing of it, perhaps it is the "trophy wife" mentality settling in?

There's a difference, people, between being righteously angry and being gratuitously hateful and vile. (Just don't tell such people to "fuck off," though, or you'll get a prissy* warning from a "moderator" about "personal attacks.") My late partner, who was nobody's "trophy," believe me, would have wondered why such people insist on calling themselves feminists.

One final, only half-serious point: there will no doubt be those who see in the word "lunacy," above, a reference to the moon, and hence to women. I will be accused, once again, of sexism. Let me just note that some of the worst offenders at the two sites mentioned are of the male persuasion--like the fellow who accused me of duplicity and fraud for disagreeing that Elizabeth May is some kind of stand-in for Gwen Landolt. I rather enjoyed the signature of another: "Thinking is so overrated." Lunacy of the political kind is equal opportunity all the way.

Enough said. I should have moved on before this. I promise that my end-of-year post will be a better read. But in the meantime, listen up, lunatics: Marianne is not fair game.

UPDATE: (January 10) "remind" and I have had some vigorous b/c discussion on this matter. In brief, she states adamantly that she did not have me or my personal circumstances in mind when she made her comments. In her words:

That comment was a result of observations that came from my own personal observations over the last few years. I know, and have known, many "progressive" couples that have been strong activists/feminists together, throughout their 20's and 30's. And then when they hit, their 40’s the man opts out of the relationships, not only with his partner, but with the equality/progressive political movement, for a 20-25 year old who has a father complex. I am sure you know some of these types too. I was being satirical about how shallow some men's attachment to woman's equality is, so much so that it disappears with mid life crisis.

Without getting into the substance of that, let me simply note that the signal-to-noise ratio at Babble has become unfavourable; comments directed at the person seem to be the norm, as they tend to be in comboxes, too, whether on "left" or "right" blogs.

"remind" was guilty of that, but she is insistent that I clear up my "misconceptions" about the specific intent of her comments. I think my reading of them was justifiable, under the circumstances, but I will accept that other readings are possible. Perhaps if "progressives" would stick to ideas and issues instead of going for each other's throats, we might all be the better for it, suffer less from "misconceptions" of all kinds--and have a shot at changing society and the world. [Cue: "Kumbaya."]

*priggish; exaggeratedly proper; excessively fastidious. The fact that some commentators called the use of this word "sexist" indicates that they themselves consider these traits to be exclusively feminine. Anyone listened to Stephen Harper recently?

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The last word on abortion

Well, you won't find it here. Which is, I think, the whole point, the crux, in fact, of the current Rebick-May controversy.

Actually there shouldn't be a controversy. A woman's right to choose is not up for discussion. May, certainly, favours safe, legal abortion, and wants access to it improved. She doesn't want the choice debate re-opened.* That's the pro-choice position. Keep the state, the courts and angry boyfriends out of it. The decision is solely up to the woman. Period.

That doesn't mean, however, that on the abortion issue itself there isn't a full range of opinion. There is no, and can be no, last word. I've heard misgivings like May's expressed by staunch pro-choicers in my time. But she made the political rookie's mistake of thinking out loud. In our current political culture, that's a rash and foolish act.

One might have expected better of our own progressive ranks, but 'twas not to be, in quite a few cases. Judy Rebick, for whom I have the greatest respect, rushed into print to denounce May without, it seems, even talking to her first. And a horde of bibble-babblers soon joined the pile-on (no links to Babble will be provided here; I feel badly enough having posted at that struck site, but readers can soon find what I'm talking about). EnMasse, meanwhile, had its own separate show trial. The correct position, it seems, is not only that abortion is a woman's decision, but that said woman should have no misgivings about it, not the slightest qualm, and if she does she should darn well keep it to herself.

For the gender Stalinists around, there is only one position on anything permitted. The word "pro-choice," in their hands, is fast becoming a cultish password to determine who is an in-group purist and who is the enemy. Such people are fond of their black and white, and I treasure the words of one debater over at EnMasse who sums up this approach perfectly: "Life isn't nuanced."


Signaling the commencement of the Sino-Soviet split back in the 'sixties, Peking Review published a lengthy article which, among other things, criticized then Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev for being too hard on Comrade Stalin. He did a lot of good things, wrote the commentator, although "he did not always distinguish between contradictions among the people and contradictions between the people and the enemy."

Leaving aside the truly breathtaking understatement here, one might make the same observation of some of the disputants today. Having begun their feeding frenzy on Elizabeth May, their appetites merely increased. For trying to inject the notion that one could be pro-choice and anti-abortion into the debate, I was immediately denounced as a fraud, a poser, a red-baiter, anti-choice and a young member of the Old Boys Club. (I am not young. So there. Nyah, nyah.)

All of the bad old polemical encounters in my life flashed before my eyes. Hell, that's the way I used to talk, back in the day. You'd read a page or two of Lenin to get the flavour, and then go out and denounce people, usually inhabitants of competing groupuscules who were equally eager to denounce you. It was all great fun, and we never got a damned thing done. We spoke for "the people," but I'm reminded of what one commentator said of Leon Trotsky: "He had a deep love for a human race not yet born." A few of us remained loftily above the sectarian "tendencies," calling ourselves "independent socialists." We were perhaps the worst sectarians of the lot.

In any case, some of us got serious about social change, and soon realized that allies and coalitions were the only way that was going to happen. Our styles became different: we stopped the ritual denunciations and public humiliations, and began to talk to people, in all of their complexity, contradictions and diversity--and, with differing degrees of success, to listen to them too. I would recommend a few years in the labour movement--my beat for nearly a quarter-century--for anyone who is seriously interested in the art of working with people of all stripes to achieve positive results. (Not that things can't get heated there, too, but it's a different kind of heated.)

But maybe some of us didn't learn, or maybe the lesson needs to be continually learned: you don't make allies by filtering them through the fine mesh of dogmatic, rigid and simplistic ideology and junking whoever gets caught. Look, it's been tried before. It doesn't work. Stop doing it. It kills people.

And any right-wingers reading this--don't take heart from it. I'm not referring to a widespread difficulty in progressive ranks, only to a tendency that must be named and confronted when it arises. Christ had his Paul, and Marx had his Stalin, and the results, left unchecked, are a matter of historical record. This is not an attack on feminism or the Left. I'm talking about the correct handling of contradictions among the people, here. You're the enemy.

UPDATE: (December 27) Meanwhile, over at EnMasse and Babble, a number of the people I have speaking about are busy being...silenced. :)

1) Are you in favour of restricting abortions to therapeutic abortions through legislation? Elizabeth May: NO.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Christmas tag

Gee, thanks, Chimera.

OK, three things I want for Christmas, three things I don't want, and tag five others, who I am sure have nothing better to do.

As regular readers will know, this is not an easy time for me. Of the three things I want, one is painfully obvious, but I can't roll back time and make it unfold differently. I will, however, name two other things that I'd like to have, if I had my druthers:

2) I want a daily attempt by those across the political spectrum to dig a little deeper when we debate and discuss issues with each other. It seems to take a crisis, like the one in my own life for the past few months, to bring out the common decency to be found amid all of the warring factions in the blogosphere.

Political culture in Canada is, frankly speaking, impoverished. Public politics is carried out by sound bite: woe betide any politician who thinks out loud or tries to inject nuance. Take Michael Ignatieff (please--I'm no fan). I read his New York Times article on torture twice. He's agin' it, period. But his sic et non style of musing that academics love to engage in provides plenty of handholds for those who are prone to rush to judgement. There are plenty of reasons to dislike this patrician expatriate. But his being in favour of torture is not one of them

Or take Elizabeth May, again someone I'd be unlikely to vote for. She made the mistake of expressing personal misgivings about abortion recently, and her words could have been a whole lot better chosen--no woman, for example, chooses abortion "frivolously." But she's clearly not anti-choice on the issue.
May wants safe, legal abortion and improved access to it.

On choice, there really are only two ways to go--you're for the right to choose, or you're not. But on abortion per se, there exists an entire spectrum of opinion, and indeed there is a moral dimension. Why shouldn't this be discussed in all of its nuances? Why should it be a risk for a politician to venture beyond the one-liner or prepared and well-vetted speech?

3) This is probably a continuation of the last. Why do we insist on looking at Canadian politics through the peep-hole lens of individual political leaders? Every time a new one comes along, a messianic aura is bestowed upon him or her by the media. I know that Stephane Dion is a bookish, thoughtful sort of guy with his heart in the right place on the environment. So what? He's one person, heading up a party that did not transform itself from top to bottom in a flash as the convention winner was announced, despite the subtle and not-so-subtle messages to that effect. It's still a party of regional fiefdoms, petty bickering, no clear policies on anything, and scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours business as usual.

I want politics as it should be in this country: our emphasis should be on an engaged citizenry, with far less focus on leadership, razzle-dazzle and relatively infrequent E-days. We need a quotidian kind of politics, in which policy gets made by people, not backroom committees and conventions of the faithful. We need to debate ideas on the ground, make new alliances, encourage new thinking from the bottom up. More on this later, perhaps.

Now, three things I don't want:

1) A Conservative majority. What you've seen so far is Harper lite. He is a bitter, shallow ideologue, but the real problem is that he's surrounded by a host of others, simply because he can't tolerate anyone who questions his rule. So--just to avoid any charges of contradicting what I said above--my concern is precisely with the party as a whole, and its policies, and its lock-step brass, and what this relatively disciplined outfit intends for Canada. Hint: we are looking at transformation, all right, and it won't be very nice.

Just a few examples that adumbrate the Conservative revolution, which I sincerely hope will not come to pass, may be found here. A few more: a public employee is disciplined at NRCAN for objecting to instructions to refer to the current regime, in correspondence, as "Canada's new government." Our Maximum Leader tends to lash out in all directions at imagined slights.

And all of this is happening while he has a tenuous minority government. Whew. Don't let it happen. Please.

2) A Liberal majority. Dion brought in Jean Chrétien to advise on transition. Yikes. Need I say more? Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose....

3) More foreign adventures using Canadian troops. I support our troops, and so should you. Let's show it by bringing 'em home. We have the Northwest Passage to defend, after all.

Five tags:

Buckdog, Kate McMillan, Cerberus, Zerb and James Bow.

Should be fun.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

For Christmas sake...

Rival Greek monks went at it hammer, crowbars and fire extinguishers yesterday, putting seven of them in hospital. Three of the more aggressive religious have now been banned from the 1,000 year old Mount Athos monastery. As a non-believer, I'm trying not to enjoy this story. If these robed rumblers really love their enemies, as their Master commands, they have an odd way of showing it.

Meanwhile, Christmas trees are in the news again, or at least one tree, which has been wandering about in a Toronto courthouse. A judge, whose name indicates that she is not Christian herself, ordered it removed for fear non-Christians might be offended. Offended. I've been blinking over that one for a few days now.

Let's untangle this one, first of all, by going to the source (the Bible). What are we told about Christmas trees there? Here you go, courtesy of Jeremiah, chapter 10:

1Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:

2Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.

3For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.

4They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.

(Don't buy into the nonsense that the reference here is to idols. If Christians can take the words of the Bible literally, so can I.)

Christians, in fact, are no more consistent about Christmas trees, or even Christmas itself, than they are about loving their enemies. Early Christians were opposed to the pagan practice of decorating their homes with evergreen boughs to celebrate the winter solstice. Later on, the Puritans squeezed every ounce of joy from the holiday: in fact they outlawed it. Today, there are various Christian denominations that don't celebrate Christmas at all (e.g., Jehovah's Witnesses), and there are Christian grinches aplenty who have more than enough to say about this event.

Well, bah, humbug, say I. I love Christmas. I like everything about it. Sixty years on this planet and the magic still hasn't worn off. Stockings, tree, gifts, carols, Dickens, A Child's Christmas in Wales, lights, dinner, the whole nine yards. It's part, dare I say it, of my cultural identity (a concept I shall not attempt to unpack here).

In other words, Christmas trees aren't even Christian in any fundamental sense. I love 'em. Many Christians don't.

So when I heard about the judge's decision in Toronto, I took the time to be offended myself. This, frankly, is Going Too Far. Not that I have a problem with a good deal of what gets too easily dismissed as "political correctness": language is important, and so are images and symbols, and one should never assume that any of them are part of a natural order of things. We use the word "person" unselfconsciously these days, and we try not to be gratuitously offensive in our terminology and our representations, excluding or erasing those not like ourselves. And, it is true, sometimes things must be pointed out to us by those on the receiving end.

But, Judge Marion, get a grip. The mere display of material culture shouldn't "offend" anyone. If it does, then such people are the authors of their own offence--as the Chinese proverb has it, "You're only offended if you want to be." If Jews want to put a menorah in a courthouse, good on them. And those who celebrate Diwali, Eid ul-Adha or Kwanzaa have their own set of practices and symbols. If any group wants to display its culture in the lobby of a courthouse, why not? It's a public space. What on earth is the problem?

Unfortunately, it's bubble-headed decisions like this one that will inevitably be used to cast aspersions on the entire project of inclusiveness and diversity. I recognize that I am, at least in some respects, part of the majority culture in Canada, but "majority" doesn't have to--and shouldn't--mean "dominant." Surely a Christmas tree by itself oppresses and excludes no one. Put the darn thing back, and let's be inclusive again.

But there's more, it seems. I hope that Attorney General Michael Bryant had his tongue planted firmly in his cheek when he announced that a "Christmas tree placement policy" is in the offing. On the other hand, speaking of culture--how quintessentially Canadian. Makes me feel right at home.

UPDATE: (December 21) Dalton McGuinty squelches the "placement policy" foolishness.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Wilkins, go home

Fidel Castro, or maybe it was Daniel Ortega, was once asked why the US has always had political stability, while instability was the rule in Latin America. "There is no US Embassy in Washington," he responded.

US ambassadors have long been known for their malicious interference in the affairs of other countries. And the current US ambassador to Canada, David Wilkins, is no exception. I
t appears that Maher Arar is still on a US "watch list," and consequently forbidden to enter the country. Wilkins' current comments about Arar, tortured in Syria thanks to the American policy of "extraordinary rendition," are the sly and sneaky stuff that one expects from top-level US mouthpieces. No evidence. No facts. Just a continuing string of alibis for US excesses in the "war on terror," and a vicious attack on an innocent Canadian citizen in his own country. Indeed, to his credit, Sean McCormack, speaking for the US State Department, stated that any "evidence" that Arar is a threat to national security certainly didn't come from his shop. From where, then, does this slander originate? And what, precisely, is it based upon?

"Can't say," says Wilkins, citing Arar's current lawsuit against the US government. How convenient: he can try to blacken a Canadian citizen's reputation, and then smugly refuse to provide any evidence at all for his claims.

There is no need, of course, for Wilkins to promote political instability here. He has a powerful ally in Stockwell Day, our (God help us) Minister of Public Safety. Has anyone bothered to look at Day's
response to Wilkins' slander? Here it is:

I have received assurances from the Americans that no information provided to them by Canadian authorities was used to place Mr. Arar on a watch list or would be used to deny Mr. Arar entry into the United States.

At first blush, this might be seen as defending Arar, but read it carefully. Day is engaging in precisely the same defensive manoeuvres as Wilkins (Arar is suing the Canadian government too). He is not saying that Arar is innocent; in fact, he is broadly hinting the opposite--that the US might be on to something. "Whatever they have," he nudges and winks, "it didn't come from us."

All of this is intolerable. Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen and the subject of an exhaustive inquiry that declared him innocent of any wrongdoing (unlike the cops who helped get him tortured in a Syrian dungeon, and the unnamed officials who leaked slanderous factoids to the public with the help of complaisant journalists), must have closure and some measure of peace. He most certainly does not deserve these on-going insinuations and unfounded defamatory statements: indeed, none of us does. Stockwell Day needs to be held to account for his comments--a prompt "clarification" would be in order. And, for his disgraceful behaviour while a guest in this country,
David Wilkins should be sent packing without delay.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


A couple of news items, oddly juxtaposed in today's Globe & Mail. Item: two conjoined twins are found to have a tissue "bridge" connecting their brains. And an outspoken St. Francis Xavier professor is in deep trouble, not for being a Holocaust-denier, but for going to a conference on the Holocaust in Iran, and expressing surprise that Holocaust-denying "hacks and lunatics" (his words) were present.

I have long been fascinated with the problem of consciousness, but my ruminations on this topic would probably make me lose the small (but dedicated) audience I already have. Suffice it to say that I have found little in the literature that satisfies me, although there is, admittedly, much more to be read. My own thought-experiments have to some extent focussed on the Star Trek series, although to my chagrin philosophers such as Derek Parfit and Richard Hanley (The Metaphysics of Star Trek) turn out to have done a far more thorough job of it. In any case, one of those experiments was to wonder what would happen if some of my neurons were physically joined to those of someone else: would we coexist, but know each other's thoughts? Would we become one person, staring out, as it were, through two pairs of eyes? Would the quintessential "thisness" of each of us disappear if a new person is created?

If the twins survive, we may get an answer to some of these questions.

Turning now to Professor Shiraz Dossa, whose consciousness per se is not yet an issue, although there have been calls for his head, one has to wonder about his stunning naivete about the Tehran conference. Imagine, a meeting to discuss whether the Holocaust took place, and anti-Semitic Holocaust-deniers show up. It's like attending a CLC convention and expressing shock that there are actually people there who favour the strike option.

The funny thing is, I believe him. People lie for advantage. Dossa simply made himself look incredibly unworldly, and for a professor of geopolitics, that's confidence-shaking, to put it mildly.

As for the conference itself, roundly condemned in most quarters, it should be pointed out that Dossa was not the only attendee who rejected Holocaust-denial. Ultra-orthodox Jews mingled with the usual suspects: ex-KKK leader David Duke, Robert Faurisson, a French Holocaust-denier, and Michele Renouf, an emissary of the disgraced "historian" David Irving currently in jail.

The event does raise some interesting issues, though. Should only the ludicrous side be heard? Does a professor really disgrace himself, his university and his country (his university president has publicly denounced him in the letters section of today's Globe) by showing up at this function and calling Holocaust-deniers hacks and lunatics?

More important, is a discussion of the social construction of the Holocaust really off-limits? Another Globe correspondent, for example, took issue with Dossa's reference to "the Jewish loss" in the Holocaust, claiming that the two were one and the same. But they aren't. The Holocaust claimed twelve million victims, including Poles, Roma, trade unionists and Communists. (My source for that figure, by the way, is the impeccable Nizkor website.) Yet only half of the Holocaust lives in the public mind. In commemoration ceremonies at Auschwitz in 1995, Roma representatives were not even permitted to participate.

Questioning the truth of the Holocaust, in any case, isn't an exercise in historical research, but bigotry and hatred, pure and simple. But must we be silent on the uses to which that truth is put? Professor Dossa thought not, and he will pay a stiff price, not only for
his odd obliviousness about the venue he chose for his comments, but for the comments themselves, which actually have some merit.

I doubt that he added lustre to the dismal Tehran colloquium, contrary to the shrill views now erupting all over the media, but
by attending he clearly acted against the interests he was trying to represent. Through his signal lack of consciousness, in fact, he had managed to conflate criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism far more successfully than Israel's perennial apologists.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Wear it with pride, CUSA

The National Post has attacked the Carleton University Students Association (CUSA) for passing a motion denying funds, recognition and subsidized space to groups seeking to criminalize abortion. The article is a handy compendium of every untruth that has been circulated about the CUSA action. It also exposes a radical inconsistency in conservative thinking, but more on that in a moment.

Here is the list of claims by the anonymous writer, with my responses:

The Carleton University Students' Association (CUSA) has decided that pro-life groups on campus are not entitled to student-club status, will not receive student-union funding, nor be able to use CUSA-administered meeting rooms.

Not so. Denial of resources and recognition applies only to groups that engage in anti-choice activity as their primary purpose, such activity being defined as "campaigns, distributions, solicitations, lobbying efforts, displays, events, etc. that seek to limit or remove a woman's options in the event of pregnancy."

CUSA's policy is aimed at what it calls the "anti-choice" agenda. Their anti-anti-choice solution is to do what they can to penalize students who argue for a different choice. The new policy at least clarifies that CUSA is not "pro-choice" at all, but flat-out pro-abortion.

Nonsense. Note the playing with words that seems to be the stock-in-trade of those without arguments. "Anti-choice" refers to activities that are effectively aimed at making women criminals for choosing abortion. Opposition to this discriminatory position does not make one "pro-abortion," whatever that means. It is a logical extension of an anti-discrimination policy that is already in place. The writer might just as well argue that opposition to racist activities makes one "pro-Black" -- whatever that might mean.

The other issue here is the notion of "penalizing" students who argue for criminalization. Precisely how are they being penalized? They are simply being denied resources from an organization that stands for human rights, including the rights of women. I don't agree with the NP writer--must I therefore send him a cheque so he doesn't feel "penalized?"

To the extent that pro-life students want to organize themselves, it is mark of civic engagement, a willingness to question campus orthodoxies, and of no little courage, given the hostile environment on campus. A vibrant campus should welcome such students. To set them aside for special, punitive treatment fails even the basic test of courtesy, to say nothing of fairness.

"Special, punitive treatment" means not giving anti-choice activists money and student-subsidized space. Other non-recipients might be those who want to recriminalize homosexuality, or promote white supremacy. Must CUSA fund every single group that comes along, no matter how intolerant, how bigoted, when its own anti-discimination policies run completely counter to the values such groups might promote? A chapter of the now-defunct neo-Nazi group Heritage Front was denied club status at Carleton back in the 'nineties -- would our intrepid writer demand that a group like that be funded?

[W]hat added advantage is to be gained from this policy, at a serious cost in terms of the university's reputation as a place of debate and free speech?

Of all the falsehoods circulated about the CUSA motion, this seems to be the one with the longest legs. There is nothing, repeat, nothing, in the CUSA motion that shuts down debate or free speech. The motion isn't about free speech. It's about spending student resources on activities that aim at removing the rights of women, including Carleton students who would, in effect, be forced not only to put up with discriminatory actions, but to pay for them as well.

A member of the Carleton University Debating Society asked point-blank at the meeting on December 4 whether a debate on abortion would be proscribed by the motion. The answer, on the record, was "No." And indeed it would be hard to see how a debate could be considered an anti-choice activity.

On campus it is an open secret that diversity usually means everyone sharing the same opinion.

We have a here a classic case of the fallacy of converse accident. The denial of recognition and resources to a group that promotes discrimination does not, of course, mean that only one opinion on anything is permitted. In fact, in this case, there is no ban, no shutting down of debate, no abolition of freedom of speech. CUSA simply won't spend its fairly meagre resources to promote anti-choice activities on campus.

The larger question, though, is one of conservative inconsistency, as noted at the start. Normally strong opponents of using tax dollars to promote "liberal" agendas, in this case they are, unthinkingly and unreflectively, quite cheerfully taking the opposite view: "liberals" should be forced to subsidize illiberal activities. Odd, that. I would suggest that, until a campus referendum abolishes the human rights guidelines that govern CUSA, the latter are acting well within their area of responsibility to defend the rights of women on campus. Good on them, in fact, and shame on those who continue to falsify the debate that actually took place for their own ideological purposes.

In any case, an attack from the National Post is nothing less than a badge of honour. Congratulations, CUSA -- looks like you've made the big leagues.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Commissioner Zaccardelli and Commodore Bainimarama

Two comic-opera figures are strutting about on their respective national stages at the moment. In Fiji, the treasonous head of the armed forces, Commodore Frank Bainimarama, has seized control of the government in a bloodless coup, and will now try to run things through a collection of puppets and unwilling senior public servants while he begs for fuel from a French company to keep his army vehicles running. Fijians, whose economy is fragile, are facing tough times, as international sanctions are already beginning to be put in place.

Here at home, RCMP Commissioner Giuliano Zaccardelli has been caught in a's just say he misspoke himself, although we don't know precisely when. This past September he said he had been aware since 2002 that his force had passed on erroneous information to the Americans about Maher Arar; now he tells us that the whole thing came as a complete surprise to him after he read the O'Connor inquiry report released this Fall. I suspect that Arar lawyer Julian Falconer, presently pursuing civil action against the RCMP and the Commissioner in particular, nailed it this morning on the CBC news: someone, he said, must have just shown Zaccardelli Maher Arar's statement of claim.

Zaccardelli remains defiant about calls for his resignation, which means his ass will shortly be grass and he knows it. When Stephen Harper expresses "concern," you know he's in for it. It's hard to see how Commissioner Z. can keep a straight face through it all, but that appears, in fact, to be the only thing this stunningly inept man has going for him at the moment. Whether it's rummaging through the home of a newspaper reporter, or intervening improperly in a federal election, the force under his watch has run badly off the rails. And his own performance on the Arar file has been vintage Keystone Kop material.

The interesting question is how such fundamentally hollow people as the Commissioner and the Commodore rise to where they are. One has the sense, observing the ridiculous ego, arrogance, incompetence and (as though to compensate) the surrounding pomp that emerges as the hallmark of these leaders, that some key ingredient must have been missing all along. Do they keep their true selves a closely-guarded secret, to be revealed with a flourish once their ambitions have been achieved? How did Italians fail to laugh, if only up their sleeves, at the peacock performances of Il Duce? Was he always like that, as he rose through the ranks? How could anyone take the self-consciously posed Zaccardelli seriously? Or, for that matter, Bainimarama? All three of them look like they were separated at birth--but not kept very far apart. Perhaps it's just as well that none of them appears particularly hungry at the moment.

UPDATE: Commissioner Z. has quit.

UPPERDATE (December 7): A rousing chorus of newspaper editorials, columns, comments and letters to the editor has erupted, excoriating the ex-Commissioner in words that make mine seem a little tame. My favourite comment comes from the former Chair of the RCMP Public Complaints Commission, Shirley Heafey: "
I would never say he was dishonest, he's just incompetent. He just never understood anything. It's shocking, somebody at that level, and I don't know whether it's because he didn't bother or because he wasn't able to . . . He just never understands and he never gets it." Note the shift to the present tense: she was clearly reliving the five years of frustration she suffered at his hands.

But where was all of this when Commissioner Z. was top horseman? Is it only safe to criticize such people once they fall from grace and power? There have been suggestions, not entirely tongue-in-cheek in my opinion, that Zaccardelli might have been a kind of J. Edgar Hoover figure, amassing incriminating information to make himself untouchable. But, whether this is the case or not, and I hasten to note that I've seen no evidence that it is, it doesn't explain the complicit silence of the media over the years. I invite discussion on this topic.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cowardice at Carleton U.

A controversy is swirling on the campus of Ottawa's Carleton University. A motion is to be presented in a few days to the Carleton University Students Association (CUSA) to deny CUSA funding or space to an organized campus anti-choice group called Lifeline Carleton. (This one ought to put conservatives on their mettle, and I shall be interested to read what they have to say about it. Will they defend social conservatism to the point of supporting compulsory taxation on its behalf?)

Some are framing the whole thing as a freedom of speech issue, but it's not. Carleton has broad official policies favouring diversity, human rights and respect. If diversity is going to be made to encompass bigotry and intolerance, then the word simply loses its meaning. So I emerged to send the following letter to The Charlatan, Carleton's student newspaper:

Dear Editor:

I applaud the proposal to deny CUSA funding and space to an organization that promotes a message that, if ever it became law, would result in misery and back-street abortion deaths for Canadian women.

Make no mistake--this is not about "free speech," or open debate, although there are those who, for their own reasons, might want to frame the current discussion that way. Simply put, this is about maintaining diversity and respect, consistent with Carleton's declared human rights policy. If there is "intolerance" being shown, it is intolerance of intolerance.

The proposal now in front of CUSA goes part of the way to redeem Carleton's reputation after the unconscionable award of an honorary doctorate to a local activist homophobe earlier this year. No one is telling the "Lifeline" folks that they can't meet or discuss their reprehensible positions--just that student resources, collected and maintained for the benefit of all students, should not be used for this purpose. Makes sense to me.


I received within the hour a hastily-written email from the editor. We can't use the word "homophobe," she said--it's libellous. The reference was to Rabbi Reuven Bulka, about whom I blogged here, back in the summer. Briefly, the man sits on a so-called "Scientific Advisory Committee" of NARTH, a cranky US-based outfit that believes homosexuality is a disease, and that pushes something called "reparative therapy" to cure it. So I called the editor.

"We can't call him a homophobe," she insisted. A journalism professor told her this could lead to a lawsuit. "But...but," I sputtered, "calling homosexuality a disease is homophobic." "Sorry," she said. "I know a lot of gay people see it that way..."

"OK, then," I said, " call him an "anti-gay activist." "Can't," she said. "He's an anti-poverty activist. He doesn't do enough in Ottawa to merit the other term. But we have a compromise position."

"OK," I said. "And so do I."

"What if we said, 'unconscionable award of an honorary doctorate of laws to Dr. Rabbi Reuven Bulka*, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Committee of NARTH, an organization that considers that homosexuality is an illness to be cured.'"

I tried not to wince. "How about, 'unconscionable award of an honorary degree to Dr. Rabbi Reuven Bulka, who believes homosexuality is a disease.'"

"But that's not a provable fact," she said. "Are you suggesting," I asked, "that he would sit on an advisory board of an organization that exists to push a 'cure' for homosexuality, and not have that position himself?"

"We can't prove that he thinks that way," she said. (Certainly if NARTH had a broader focus, she would have had a point, but it doesn't.) "The professor we consult knows a lot about media law, and we could be sued."

"Well, I've blogged on this and no one's lifted a legal finger."

"Blogs aren't like newspapers," she said, indicating the depth of her knowledge of media law.

"Let's forget it, then," I said. "I'll blog about it instead."

And so I guess I'm back.

*I was informed that a person with many titles must have them all published before his or her name. "If he had a knighthood, would he be Sir Dr. Rabbi Bulka?" "That's correct," she told me. "It's the new CP style."

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Violence against women

Not that I'm back on the blogging trail--far from it--but this story was a bit much.

Want to let the Chief Crown Prosecutor know your thoughts?

Gordon Wong
Chief Crown Prosecutor
Crown Prosecutors Office
15th Floor, 615 MacLeod Tr. SE
Calgary, Canada AB

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Marianne Elizabeth MacKinnon April 1, 1958--October 29, 2006

My dear Marianne passed away early Sunday morning, after a dreadful three-month battle with pancreatic cancer.

I can merely sketch in inadequate language who she was, and what she meant to me. Lives overflow words, and they are not narratives. Marianne was a person who opened up the world anew for me, with her huge appetite for life, her pure enjoyment of the pleasures of living. She had a smile that lit up her whole face, and everything and everyone around her. Travelling in particular was an ecstatic time
for both of us--as we began our many journeys here and there in the world, we could feel our spirits lift in harmony. (Of course, getting out of Ottawa can do that for many others as well!) She guided me over the Chilkoot trail, having done this arduous hike three times before, once with young children. She loved Shakespeare, and poetry, and the songs of Leonard Cohen, and blues. We both enjoyed dinner parties, and cooking, and we moved around in our tiny kitchen as a team.

Marianne was born in Aotearoa (New Zealand) and came to the Yukon in the late seventies. She ended up as a Yukon Territorial Government tax inspector, and on at least two occasions looked down the barrel of a gun. Her relatively diminutive size and gender, though, tended to be both literally and figuratively disarming, although she had martial arts training, was a member of the Canadian Rangers, and could handle herself in rough bars. She was a union activist, in her own union (the Yukon Employees Union, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada) and in the Yukon Federation of Labour.

She dismantled, piece by piece, my political and academic dogmatism. Marianne's political ethos came down to the dream: people should not only have them, but have the practical means and the encouragement to work together to make them come true. They should have a say in decisions that affect them, and they must be allowed to speak for themselves: if others speak for them, the latter must be held strictly accountable. And sometimes, in fact, it is impossible for others to speak for them with any reliability, especially where there are cultural differences and unique historical experience involved.

What did this mean politically? It boiled down to local control, local organizing, a deep distrust of statism (which I came to share), and workable techniques for activating and encouraging people to get involved in their communities and in society. Working together was the key, and she had a deep and abiding interest, therefore, in conflict resolution.

Marianne was fiercely proud of her Maori heritage, and teachings she received when she was young flourished in her unorthodox thinking. Marianne did not think outside the box: for her there simply was no box. And she very often suffered the consequences: incomprehension and outright dismissal of her ideas. I must admit that I was guilty in that respect far too often myself.

She attempted, for example, as president of the Yukon Federation of Labour, to institute what is sometimes called the "organizing model," (she hated the term) in which the Federation would operate through a committee structure, composed (horrors!) even of non-affiliate representatives, and non-union members. These committees would work in areas that engaged the rank and file and members of the wider community. That was too much for some of the boyz on her executive and at the Canadian Labour Congress: they ensured that this new change to the structure, duly passed by a YFL convention, was never implemented, and it was finally reversed.

The silver lining in that cloud was that she came to Ottawa in 1998 to move in with me, gathered the kids from the far corners of the earth (the Yukon and New Zealand), and quickly earned two degrees in anthropology. She was a driving force in a community group that monitors police activity, the Ottawa Witness Group, and played a key role in drafting submissions to Justice LeSage's review of the police complaints process in Ontario.

She was also active in the voting reform group Fair Vote Canada, but became disenchanted with what we both came to realize was their narrow focus on changing structure rather than our political culture itself. Speaking out on the deficiencies of Fair Vote Ontario's current campaign--largely top-down, and governed from Toronto--merely succeeded in marginalizing us both (I sit on the National Council of FVC, at least for the moment, and lost enormous street cred over this), so that I came to realize from experience what Marianne's life of engagement had always been like. A profound practical respect for radical democracy--activating people on the ground to make their own decisions and get involved on their own terms in social processes that affect them--is, ironically, a surprisingly unpopular position.

Marianne and I began a consulting business, but given our stubborn natures, it took a long time for us to get in sync in terms of its direction. It is sad that, just as we were beginning to collaborate in a relatively friction-free way, reaching agreement on basic principles and designing and implementing a successful retreat for a union up north, she was struck down.

Marianne was a feminist in the gut. She feared eclipse in a male-centred world from the time she was a little girl. She would sometimes feel suffocated by my relative privilege and my intellectual arrogance. I learned to listen from her, if not very well. Days after an inconclusive argument the penny would drop: I would tell her that at last I had figured out what she was getting at, and that I agreed with her. This, for some reason, did not entirely ease her frustration!

We disagreed over many issues, including Charlottetown and capital punishment, but she and her crew turned me around on the gun registry question over the course of a drunken evening at the Gold Rush Inn in Whitehorse. And we agreed on far more, without the need for such drastic measures. Many if not most of my blogposts are final drafts that followed her initial critiques. Some were born of discussions with her.

She leaves two wonderful kids and a partner who will keep learning from her until he, too, passes on. I had always prided myself on what I imagined was my unorthodoxy and creativity, on taking risks, but once I met Marianne I began to realize my limitations. I have never met anyone so free, in both thought and spirit. Haere ra, taku hoa wahine.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Girlz n the Hood

As widely reported, the latest diktat from the leader of the British House of Commons, Jack Straw, quickly backed up by Prime Minister Tony Blair, and by the progressive Prime Minister of Italy, Romano Prodi, is this: the niqab is a Bad Thing. Wearing it can, and should, according to another British Minister, rightfully get you fired as a teaching assistant in an English school--and an employment tribunal agrees. As for Prodi:

"You can't cover your face. If you have a veil, fine, but you must be seen," Prodi told Reuters television. "This is common sense I think, it is important for our society. It is not how you dress but if you are hidden or not."

For Blair and for Straw, it stands for an unacceptable separation from "society." And, to be fair, a number of Muslim commentators concur that the niqab is not promoting a positive image of Islam. The veil is a vestige of submission from another world and time, it prevents social integration--and recognition.
Our own warm-spirited Margaret Wente joins the chorus: "Take off your veils, ladies."

Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, women are forced to wear the veil: it is a protection, say the powers that be, portable purdah that holds at bay the unwelcome attention of strangers.

Women, in other words, are going to be dressed
à la mode, even if the largely male decision-makers in this respect cannot quite agree on what the mode is to be. The women themselves, of course, will simply be acted upon--as usual.

But what is really at stake here in the West, where the notion of a crazed dictator with nuclear weapons is overshadowed, at least for a moment, by an item of women's clothing? Something is striking a deep enough chord in our cultural unconscious to involve European prime ministers in a matter that applies to an utterly miniscule number of Muslim women in the West. What could it be? Feminists don't seem to know what to make of it--some are vocal, others are mute, as Sheema Khan notes in her excellent article on the subject. And those of liberal bent make their usual impotent pleas for tolerance, without really understanding what's going on.

Let me suggest, first of all, that the liberation of women is an excuse, not the underlying reason for the uproar. The male European leaders who have pronounced on this issue are a little closer to the mark in some of their comments: it's all about separation, and being seen.

Like the archer sending his missiles
from an arrow slit in a besieged castle,covering a wide range while being effectively hidden from view, the niqabi sees, but is not seen. It is not merely that our gaze is thwarted. It is that her gaze is unimpeded. This is intolerable, even in 2006: we cannot permit this advantage to women. In the liberated West, we are told, women can wear whatever they wish (although men tend to dictate the fashions). But let women refuse to be displayed, and the leaders of Western nations will speak out forcefully.

Under cover, as it were, the culture wars continue: we fight feminism anew, and throw in a little orientalism for good measure. Here once again is the mysterious East, whose eyes alone are visible to us, the watcher from the shadows, all expression hidden from view, inscrutable as Westerners once described the Chinese, who made their faces into masks. What are they thinking? What are the subalterns plotting?

Because this is, in fact, all about vision, that sense that our modern age privileges over all others. The gaze immediately establishes unequal power relations: the observer, detached and knowing, and the observed, subject to observation and the object of the observer. Here, though, the niqabi has turned the tables: she is the observer, we the observed. Our own view of the Other, whether the object of our regard is a woman or a Muslim, or both, is deliberately obstructed. Our gaze is turned back. And the deep resonances of this polysemous act by a tiny handful of women, interpreted as resistance, are enough to draw forth the fury of world leaders. The reactions to Kim Jong Il's recent nuclear stunt, on the other hand, if only because entirely predictable in tone and substance, seem tame in comparison.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Update: rubber bullets

Dear friends/well-wishers:

Given your wonderful messages of support, some posted here in the blogosphere, some sent privately, I thought I should provide a short update about Marianne, and take this opportunity to thank all of you for emotional support that we have sorely needed.

Please excuse this little side-excursion first, though. For some reason, I've been wrestling
recently with the notion of how to shoot a person in the back of the head while he's choking me, but my imagination has so far failed me. Such a claim, though, seems to make perfect sense to the RCMP and to the Attorney-General of BC, and has an ignominious precedent in the shooting death of Michael "Wade" Lawson by Peel police officers in 1988. (In the latter case, the officers first testified that he had been trying to run them down in his car, and that they had fired in self-defence. But he too was shot in the back of the head.) What is needed, it seems, is either a contortionist with extensible rubber arms, or a flexible rubber gun that fires real bullets. I still haven't figured out how you get to dodge the bullet that takes out your assailant, but I'm working on it.

OK, enough current events, but this sort of wonderment does keep me sane about now (or insane, depending on your politics).

On the other hand, what has been striking my partner and myself recently is a series of rubber bullets, and the Sniper seems to have plenty of ammo left. You know the diagnosis, and a quick Google search will give you the prognosis too. We had begun to get over the shock, if that is possible, and were looking forward to a promising clinical trial. Today, however, we were given the word: she doesn't qualify. Something is wrong with her lungs, and the new drug can compromise even healthy lungs. So she starts a regime of gemcitabine tomorrow. She will be getting a celiac plexus block on Monday to deal with intractable pain that doesn't seem to respond well to narcotics; meanwhile, there are nausea and GI tract problems to overcome as well.

Folks, it isn't pretty, but I felt you should know the details, likely more than you probably wanted. I guess I want to tell it like it is, not how I'd like it to be. We still hope for a happy ending, which occurs in 10% of pancreatic cancer sufferers. But we're living one day at a time.

I will at some point have more to say about our much-maligned medicare system. It's a bum rap, people: take it from us. We've had top-quality care, no interminable waiting, prompt, efficient, sympathetic teams of people. It helps, of course, to live in a major urban centre, but still.

But back to our many well-wishers, from across the political spectrum. When I get back to regular blogging, if I ever do, how the heck am I going to be able to go after certain people (you know who you are) with the same gusto as before? Some of you have made this damned near impossible. I guess I should thank you for that as well. :)

Monday, August 14, 2006

Goodbye for a while

Dear friends and/or sparring partners,

I shall be taking my leave from the blogosphere for a period, and may return only sporadically for the foreseeable future. My dear partner Marianne has just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which is not one of the better ones to have. Every moment with her has become infinitely precious, while the world outside now seems both monstrous and trivial at once.

We are not believers, but any of you who are are welcome to offer up prayers if you wish--we'll take all the help we can get. I hope to return at some point, and will certainly report any positive developments.

Keep up the good fight. As some Republican once said, "I'll be back."

UPDATE: (August 17) I have been at bedside for many days now, sleeping alongside, but just stopped by the house for a few minutes, and have read all of your messages, from right across the political spectrum, the ProgBlog folks and Kate McMillan's article with comments, and Kathy Shaidle's post as well, and Eugene's.... I've been fairly composed until this moment, but your outpouring of support has been utterly moving. There is a level of humanity and empathy that transcends politics, and I appreciate this clear evidence of it so very much. I am back to the hospital and will convey your warmth and caring to Marianne.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Imperial Harper's air rage

Buried at the very end of a long Globe & Mail story about a mega-shuffle of deputy ministers in Ottawa by the Harper regime--apparently he's looking for a battalion of senior yes-persons--was this little anecdote, which speaks volumes about the character and personality of the man who stumbled into power earlier this year:

[O]n a recent trip, the Prime Minister was asked by a flight attendant to turn off his cellphone and BlackBerry. Mr. Harper declined. The pilot then made a request, saying it was for safety purposes. The PM relented. But, at the end of the journey, one of his staffers gave the pilot some news: His services would no longer be required on prime ministerial trips.

The man clearly believes himself to be above the law, and his personal wishes more important than the safety of airline passengers. His petty revenge upon a pilot who was simply performing his duties is symptomatic of an individual with disturbing personal issues.

It should be of serious concern to Canadians that incidents like this remain
underreported, at least up to now. Harper is a person, after all, who might lead a majority government someday. More power is concentrated in the hands of a Canadian Prime Minister than in those of an American President. Do we really want a Maximum Leader with a persecution complex and delusions of grandeur? One hopes not: that style of governance has already been tried.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Hierarchy of hatreds: Gibson vs. Coulter

Let me first of all join the anvil chorus: Mel Gibson is an anti-Semitic moron with a drinking problem. No excuses, no equivocations: in vino veritas. You read it here, in Dawg's Blawg.

But you also read it in a Globe & Mail editorial, and in a lot of other places. Columnists have weighed in, and too many correspondents (now called "letter-writers") to reference. TV, radio and the blogosphere have fallen on the story like famished wolves. Indeed, at last count "Mel Gibson" resulted in 7,440 hits on Google News, and people aren't talking about The Road Warrior. Was his apology sincere, runs one current discussion, or is his soul so stained and stamped with the black dye of anti-Semitism that he is beyond redemption? A perhaps inevitable (but unfortunate) link is also made to the current Middle East crisis and the critics of Israel, sometimes in commentary that is unmistakeably anti-Semitic as well.

Let us leave this über-Catholic (shoot, I hate that prefix, but if you can't beat 'em, join 'em) in the quicksand--someone may or may not pull him to safety, and frankly I don't give a damn either way--and turn to someone else: the redoubtable Ann Coulter. On national US television every week, author of a number of best-selling tirades, a regular on the far-right speech circuit, the febrile Coulter is a woman who has made a career out of just about every form of racist bigotry except anti-Semitism. A selection of public quotes follows:

Press passes can't be that hard to come by if the White House allows that old Arab Helen Thomas* to sit within yards of the president.

The little Injun that could. [writing of Ward Churchill]

If you don't want to get shot by the police, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, then don't point a toy gun at them. Or, as I believe our motto should be after 9/11: Jihad monkey talks tough; jihad monkey takes the consequences. Sorry, I realize that's offensive. How about "camel jockey"? What? Now what'd I say? Boy, you tent merchants sure are touchy. Grow up, would you? [The word used in her actual speech was not "jihad monkey" but "raghead."]

They could use flying carpets! [asked how Muslims would travel if they were banned from flying, a ban that Coulter supports.]

Thank God the white man did win or we would not have the sort of equality and freedom, or life, that we have now.

It’s extremely difficult to come in if you’re coming from a Western European country. However, if you are from a Third World country, ‘Welcome.’ If your genetic ancestors did not invent the wheel, ‘Oh, well, let them come in.’ But they’re the natural Democratic voters.

The Indians were savages…they were nomads, scalping people…We don’t eat people…we don’t engage in human sacrifice.

We should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

This wasn't one drunken incident on a highway. Coulter's been carrying on this way for years.But it seems that, far from being a social pariah (although, in fairness, there are a number of conservatives principled enough or at least strategic enough to distance themselves from her), she even merits the protection of the state when someone is unwise enough to heckle.

Coulter continues to be a kind of warped TV celebrity. Her inflammatory books are always on the best-seller lists. Maybe she'll make a movie someday. But there have been no calls for her head at the Globe & Mail for her vicious, perduring racism. Commentators haven't had to furrow their brows about the sincerity of her apologies, because there haven't been any.
Avoiding the top rank of the hierarchy of hatreds, she escapes being brought to account.

What does it take, media peeps? Does she have to be DUI in California to get your attention?
Or is anti-Semitism the only bigotry that counts?

*Helen Thomas is a senior White House correspondent. Rather than dropping Coulter, her syndicator, uExpress, covered for her, by replacing "Arab" with "dyspeptic" in the print version of her comments.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Israel's "encirclement"

As Israel pounds away at Lebanon, coming ever-closer to Syria, it continues to claim that this is all an exercise of self-defence. A few days ago I quoted a conservative blogger at No Quarter, Larry C. Johnson, and his words remain timely:

Let's see if I have this right. The Arab "terrorists" attack military units, destroy at least one tank, and are therefore terrorists. Israel retaliates by launching aerial, naval, and artillery bombardments of civilian areas and they are engaging in self-defense. If we are unable to recognize the hypocrisy of this construct then we ourselves are so enveloped by propaganda and emotion that, like the Israelis, Hezbollah, and Hamas, we can't think rationally. We can only think in terms of tribalism and revenge.

There is an unpleasant echo in all this, from a different time and place. The claim of self-defence is, in fact, eerily familiar. Germany, too, once considered itself surrounded by enemies, giving rise to the doctrine of "encirclement." This was the rationale it put forward for starting both of the World Wars.

No two historical situations are congruent, and, furthermore, I am not making that tiresome and wrong equivalence between Nazi Germany and Israel claimed by some, an equivalence that obfuscates the geopolitical realities in a gust of inflammatory rhetoric. But I am prepared to make the case that self-defence is a weak argument in the current situation, just as it was largely self-serving propaganda in the case of Germany, under both the Kaiser and the Fuehrer. The notion of "encirclement," in fact, is a current commonplace, even if that isn't the term used today. Googling the phrase "sea of enemies" and "Israel" reveals its transformation into yet another Middle East meme.

There is something odd about "self-defence" being continually carried out on the territory of others. Israel presently controls two pieces of occupied Palestinian territory on its borders: Gaza, a huge prison currently under punitive lock-down, and the West Bank, colonized by settlers under the protection of the IDF. It is munching away on Lebanon (a nation it formerly occupied for nearly two decades, and whose Shabaa Farms region has been under Israeli occupation since 1981), devastating its infrastructure and causing incalculable environmental damage.

Israel has also arranged a permanent peace with two other border nations, Jordan and Egypt; and is not as yet engaged with the last border nation, Syria, whose Golan Heights region has essentially been annexed to Israel as well. Israel today is hardly a helpless country on the defensive, encircled by a "sea of enemies." Rather, it is a powerful nation, backed by the US, whose surrounding nations and territories are in various states of subjection or neutralization.

Writing of pre-WWI Germany, Allyson Booth, a professor of English at the U.S. Naval Academy, notes: "While the Kaiser worried about 'encirclement,' his chief strategists organized the German army for a project of 'envelopment'." Ah. We
have seen this movie before.

Qana: missing rocket alert

Where are the rocket launchers?

Liberal leadership candidate Michael Ignatieff, waking from a three-week doze, is "not losing sleep" about the massive civilian casualties in Qana. That's what happens, he said, when "you have rocket-launchers within 100 yards of a civilian population."

Ha'aretz, on the other hand, noted some revisionist history in the making a few days earlier:

As the Israel Air Force continues to investigate the air strike, questions have been raised over military accounts of the incident.

It now appears that the military had no information on rockets launched from the site of the building, or the presence of Hezbollah men at the time.

The Israel Defense Forces had said after the deadly air-strike that many rockets had been launched from Qana. However, it changed its version on Monday.

The site was included in an IAF plan to strike at several buildings in proximity to a previous launching site. Similar strikes were carried out in the past. However, there were no rocket launches from Qana on the day of the strike.

The rabid Right, meanwhile, began to fantasize conspiracies akin to those of the Twin Towers "inside job" theorists. It was staged. It never happened. Hezbollah did it. There was a gap between the time the bomb fell and the time the house collapsed! There's a clean pacifier on that dead child! Alas for the credibility of these foamy bloggers and print commentators alike, Israel has now admitted the obvious. In these situations, a judicious use of Occam's Razor is always best.

The "human shields" meme had been advanced yet again, of course, although this blanket knee-jerky claim, made every time a Lebanese civilian dies, is now in some dispute. In this case the building was bombed, we are told, because the IDF thought it was "a hiding place for terrorists." Qana and the area around it, the IDF claims, have been a staging-ground for 150 rocket attacks against Israel.

The usual suspects are still clinging to the "nearby rocket-launcher" theory, even as the IDF has evidently abandoned it. The problem is that evidence of Qana as launch-pad is a little thin on the ground. The IDF has devastated the area, but not a single rocket-launcher has come to light. Where are they? In Syria with Saddam's WMDs?

Certainly the smoking gun has yet to be found in or around Qana. Last word to one of the Qana survivors, Muhammad Mahmud Shalub:

"All four roads to Qana village had been cut by Israeli bombs," he said, which would have made it difficult, if not impossible, for Hezbollah to move rocket launchers into the village.

"If they [the IDF] really saw the rocket launcher, where did it go?" Mr Shalhub asked. "We showed Israel our dead. Why don't the Israelis show us the rocket launchers?"

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The case for Israel

No, seriously. Readers of my blog will know that I have been harshly critical of Israel's continued war on Lebanon and Gaza, which amounts to a war on their respective populations. In this post I want to make the case, not of course for this internationally-condemned behaviour, but for the notion of Israel as a nation-state in a world of nation-states.

This may seem trivial to many. Of course Israel is a nation, they will respond. What does that have to do with anything? But on taking a closer look we can see rather plainly that this is not the way Israel is presented and re-presented in the media and in much public discourse. Instead, the polysemous signifier "Israel" conflates:
  • The Jews. It is a formidable task to separate out these two identities, for a number of reasons that I have noted in a previous post. But it is essential, if we are to confine ourselves to geopolitics in our analysis of the Middle East, and not wander into essentialist metaphysics, that we attempt to do so. Israel is not “the Jews,” regardless of the natural affinity that many Jews may have for a self-defined Jewish state. Whatever its unique features, it needs to be seen through the same lens, and weighed by the same standards, as any other nation.

  • The Israeli people. As I have stated before, there is always a separation that needs to be made between a state and the subjects of that state. Criticizing George W. Bush is not—and should not be seen as—directed towards Americans in general; taking on Stephen Harper is to be distinguished from criticizing Canadians. But being critical of the Israeli state is too often taken as an attack on its people and, by further extension, upon Jews as a homogeneous group, whether they are Israeli citizens or not.

  • The incarnation of a higher morality. Machiavelli teaches us that nation-states act in their own interests and strategize precisely along those lines. Morality is a false front that has its own propagandistic uses, but not the force that drives nations. This is not to say that moral arguments have no worth, or that morality is not an individual consideration: only that such discourses are not the dominant ones in the war-rooms. Israel, however, has not been seen in this way by many commentators, including Rex Murphy and other transmitters of the "Israel has the decency to be tormented by civilian deaths" meme. As is the case with every other country in the world, Israel as a state doesn't have feelings of any kind. That is not to say that individual Israelis do not suffer that torment (although the Lebanese, I suspect, suffer rather more), just that such anguish is not a consideration in strategic military planning and not generally a factor in how states behave.

    The human costs, for example, of the US intervention in Vietnam were catastrophic: two million dead, many cluster-bombed, flechette-gunned, burned alive with napalm and white phosphorus, or poisoned with Agent Orange, a defoliant that is still killing and maiming new generations. The transmission of the gruesome details of this war on civilians, for such it clearly was, helped eventually to put an end to the war. The
    Globe & Mail stated a few days ago that "Democratic countries like Israel accidentally kill civilians when they respond, and regret it profoundly," but Vietnam stands as a particularly stark and bloody counter-example. States kill: and they do it without compunction to achieve their aims.

  • The implicit voice of the West. Israel is represented as an oasis of Western values planted in the heart of Otherness, our beachhead in the clash of civilizations. One cannot deny that in many respects Israel is a repository of the familiar. Lifting the veil on the West Bank, and Gaza and Lebanon has shown it in a somewhat different light, at least to some; but too many others remain in a state of denial. Israel is civilized, runs their mantra, Israel is moral, Israel must have reasons for doing the gut-wrenching things it does, Hezbollah is to blame, never stop cheering. The notion that those who actually do the killing of civilians might somehow be to blame for it never enters their minds.
The current state of denial reaches its absurd apotheosis in the current frenzied attempts by right-wing bloggers to excuse, justify and rationalize the massacre at Qana. We had no less than the Israeli Justice Minister announce that everyone in South Lebanon—everyone—is considered to be a Hezbollah terrorist. Qana followed shortly afterwards, this doctrine put into practice. An Israeli brigadier-general, in fact, repeated the formula in speaking of devastated Bint Jbeil. But such comments are ignored by the sleep-walkers as though they had never been uttered. Instead, conspiracy theorizing of the worse tinfoil-hat variety is making the rounds of the right side of the blogosphere. The massacre was likely staged, goes the claim—Hezbollah did it (who else?), for propaganda reasons. (No doubt they used shaped charges left over from the inside demolition job that brought down the Twin Towers. Kerosene and rabbit-wire experiments to follow?)

What we must realize is that Israel may speak to us in a reassuringly Western voice, but it is a Middle Eastern state that is not above using terror for its own ends, and human shields into the bargain. If we are to judge the actions of nation-states, whether morally, or geopolitically, or strategically, we need to use one weight and one measure. That many of us so signally fail to do so in the case of Israel is due in no small part to the fallacies and conflations noted above, the latter cheerfully exploited, of course, by those whose own considerations are in fact geopolitical and strategic.

It would clear the air to develop a discourse in which Israel as a state is confined to the same dimensions as those of other states. And hence the title of this article is not at all meant to be sarcastic. If we are to progress beyond the current falsification of the debate, punctuated as it is with periodic cries of "anti-Semitism" and "holding Israel to a higher standard" and "democratic states don't deliberately kill civilians" and "everything the IDF does is Hezbollah's fault" we need to
talk differently. Unpacking the complex notion of "Israel" is an urgent task, and the sooner we begin, the better.