Image: Tom Fisk via Pexels.

In a recent post to the Inroads listserv, Harvey Schachter wrote about the effect of social media on U.S. and Canadian politics:

The Republican Party seems nutso. But it is reflecting the information so many of its people and no doubt leaders are getting on their social media feeds … Biden too old? They know it from their media feed, watching him stumble. Biden a crook? They know it from their media feed. Biden weaponizing the government against their hero Trump? … They are, to their mind, better informed than those sucked down the rabbit hole of the New York Times.1

Schachter cites Max Fisher: “Someone looking at a conservative post or video on social media is essentially two recommendations away – two steps – from extreme right-wing stuff. It’s an easy glide. Jordan Peterson is often a gateway.”2

That all seems sensible, but there are, I think, important omissions. I often find myself frustrated by skimpy or skewed coverage by my most frequently consulted news sources, and I search for alternatives. Take Israel/Palestine, for example. The Globe and Mail and the CBC are loath to criticize Israel. So, I look elsewhere. I consult Al Jazeera and, more often, Haaretz (English edition), a reputable Israeli news source. Haaretz is apparently unafraid of being called antisemitic and will reveal the Jewish state’s myriad failings.

But when researching Canadian stories, there are few creditable alternatives. Take the search for the bodies of Indigenous women in a Winnipeg landfill. Morgan Harris and Marcedes Myran had been missing for more than seven months when police announced that they had been murdered and their remains were in the Prairie Green landfill north of Winnipeg. But police contended it wasn’t safe or feasible to do a search. An expert report said the bodies could likely be found and dangers could be mitigated, but at a cost of up to $184 million. The Manitoba government refused to search, citing not the cost but risk to the searchers.

Looking through over several months, I found dozens of news reports and several opinion pieces. These headlines are typical:

Assembly of First Nations Demands Manitoba, Ottawa Work Together on Landfill Search

Search of Winnipeg Landfill Can Be Done With Reduced Risk, Say Forensic Experts

Daughters of Murdered Winnipeg Woman Call on Police to Recover Remains from Landfill

While Indigenous People Call for Justice, Winnipeg’s Police Take Aim at Graffiti3

Under the head “Reconciliation, and the Search for Two Victims in Manitoba,” the Globe editorial board weighed in: “The families want Prairie Green searched. Their call, and their pain, should be heeded.” The Globe wants the feds to split the tab, even though a few months earlier the editors had declared, “The government’s response to an increasingly sclerotic economy has been more intervention, more bureaucracy, more spending and more debt.” Still, even if the province had to pay the full amount, “a three-year bill for $184-million would be the equivalent of less than 1 per cent of provincial spending this year alone.”4 (More comparisons: $184 million equals 57.5 per cent of the entire Winnipeg Police budget for 2022, and 146 per cent of what the Manitoba government provided this year to address chronic homelessness.5)

The Washington Post covered the issue on October 1 and, in an article generally in favour of searching the landfill, actually provided more detail of the police point of view than any Canadian source I found. Winnipeg police forensics chief Cam MacKid explained why they were able to successfully complete an earlier landfill search for Rebecca Contois, also Indigenous:

The debris was loose, he said, not compacted. Only a few hours had passed between when Contois’s remains were dumped and when police became aware of it.

Waste at the Prairie Green landfill, in contrast, is covered with thousands of tons of wet heavy construction clay and compacted by heavy machinery , MacKid said. The presence of asbestos poses safety risks. The number of animal bones presents another challenge. Further complicating matters, police say they believe the remains of Harris and Myran had spent 34 days in the landfill before investigators realized it. During that time, some 10,000 truckloads of waste were dumped there.

“When it comes up that there might be human remains at a landfill, we approach that with the mind-set that we’re going to be searching,” MacKid told reporters. But after studying the site, he said, “we made the very difficult decision as a service that (it) wasn’t operationally feasible to conduct a search.”6

In late August, Saskatchewan adopted a new gender and pronoun policy for schools, joining New Brunswick which had announced in June “that students under 16 who are exploring their gender identity must have parental consent before teachers can use their preferred first names or pronouns at school.” That’s pretty clear. But according to one Globe and Mail story, protesters “said parents have the right to know whether their children are questioning their gender identity.”7 That’s quite different. Which is it?

As with the landfill search, there have been many news stories and a few editorials, and every editorial has been against the change in policy. CBC Radio’s The Front Burner devoted 26 minutes to “the Canada-wide protests over LGBTQ school rights”; two people were interviewed, both strongly opposed to the legislation. On Day 6, Brent Bambury interviewed an expert who told us “how the parents’ rights argument is fuelling a push to roll back LGBTQ inclusion in schools.”8

The Globe ran articles with heads like “Saskatchewan Child Advocate Says Pronoun Policy for Schools Violates Rights” and “Debate over Pronouns Pits Parental Rights Against the Rights of Children, Experts Say.”9 That sounds balanced, but the only experts the Globe managed to find were strongly opposed to the legislation.

It took a long time before polls were published on the two issues. On September 19, an Angus Reid Institute poll on the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick legislation showed that 78 per cent agreed that parents must be informed, and 14 per cent believed parents need not be informed. And according to a Probe Research poll of September 25, Manitobans were evenly split on whether to search or not to search.10 Older people, men and people outside Winnipeg were all more inclined to oppose the search; and 40 per cent of Indigenous people opposed the search.

In my less thorough investigations of the National Post, Winnipeg Free Press and Toronto Sun websites, I found several news stories and no editorials. Of course, I can’t confirm there were no editorials in favour of the Saskatchewan and New Brunswick legislation or against the landfill search; it’s hard to prove a negative. And obviously, the majority is not always right, though their views are, by definition, not extreme.

My conclusion is that the 50 per cent of the population that opposes the landfill search and the 78 per cent that supports Saskatchewan and New Brunswick government pronoun policies would simply not find their views represented or taken seriously in the mainstream media. In frustration, they might go elsewhere, to social media perhaps, where they might come across, God forbid, Jordan Peterson and find themselves just a step or two away from “extreme right-wing stuff.”

Continue reading “Search the Landfill (Or Not)”

Image: Jakob Rubner via Unsplash.

In 2012, my play Facts toured the West Bank and Israel (in an Arabic translation by Kamel El Basha). Facts is a murder mystery with three characters: Yossi, a Jewish-Israeli cop; Khalid, a Muslim-Palestinian cop; and their primary suspect, an Israeli settler.

The production was directed by Palestinian-Canadian Samer Al-Saber. After the tour, Samer wrote about his experience in an article entitled “Arabic Facts in Palestine: Clashing Hybridities in Transnational Cultural Production.”¹ Overall, Samer was accurate, fair and positive. For example:

The depth of Milner’s negotiation of interpersonal relationships and his exploration of the impunity of West Bank settlers received accolades in nearly every talkback session with the audience. In Ramallah, one audience member remarked: “How is it possible that a Canadian could represent our situation with such complexity?”

But Samer was torn. He and others were worried that the play could be seen as an endorsement of “security coordination” between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. And toward the end, he wrote,

One moment encapsulates my struggles with the text and my experience as director … Milner and I had a number of conversations about the script. In one instance, I objected to the following dialogue:

Yossi: We are peasants. Speaking on behalf of my people. We Zionists had ambitions, we embraced socialism and science. But Israel is full of peasants who worship and idolize. And the Palestinians?

Khalid: We were on our way.

Yossi: To what?

Khalid: To modernity.

In this exchange, Milner adopts a rational liberal humanist belief that a universal modernity exists. He looks at Palestine from the outside, evaluating the historical moment from his own lens. His character, Khalid, recognizes this modernity and not only does he believe it to be attainable, he also declares that the Palestinian people have yet to reach it. As a Palestinian, an Arab, I reject the concept of a universal modernity as a colonial construction. Milner chose to keep the exchange.

This issue greatly troubled Samer and he returned to it at the end: “Although the subject of the play remains topical in Palestine, Western modernity is not indigenous to the land. The gap between our intention … and our final action still haunts me.”

I am reviewing all this in the context of the current crisis in Israeli democracy. The play’s third character, Danny, and his settler friends are now running the Israeli government. The modernity that Samer objects to is threatened, not by Palestinians, but primarily by Jewish Israelis who, as Yossi describes, “worship and idolize.”

I am struck by one phrase in Samer’s critique: “As a Palestinian, an Arab, I reject the concept of a universal modernity as a colonial construction.” Those who have taken over Israel’s government would, as ethnic and religious Jews, reject the concept of a universal modernity – perhaps as an antisemitic construction.

I am not defending previous Israeli governments. Liberal Israelis might have claimed a universal modernity, but they failed miserably to live up to its principles, chief of which, I would say, is “Do unto all human beings as you would have them do unto you.”

The irony for me is that the radicals who, with Samer, criticized Facts for its alleged promotion of Israeli-Palestinian cooperation have also increasingly condemned the two-state solution: one state for Jews and another for Palestinians. It seems obvious that the alternative they promote, the single democratic state, would have a greater chance of success if its constituents identified less as tribes and more as children of the Enlightenment.

One event encapsulates for me the sadness of the current state of affairs. If you’re not familiar with the Palestinian-Israeli writer Sayed Kashua, you should be. For a quick introduction, watch the eponymous film adaptation of his 2002 novel Dancing Arabs. For several years Kashua was a featured columnist in Haaretz. In a 2014 column, “Why Sayed Kashua Is Leaving Jerusalem and Never Coming Back,” Kashua described his effort to explain to his teenage daughter why the family is leaving Israel:

She’s sitting on her bed with her computer. I sit down next to her, knowing I’m about to tell her what my father told me when I was a boy her age. It was my first day at a Jerusalem boarding school, where only Hebrew was spoken … A moment before parting from me, at the entrance to the school, he said, “Remember that for them you will always, but always, be an Arab, understand?”

“I understand,” my daughter said and hugged me close, “I understood it already by myself.”² 

No single Israeli, Palestinian or Jewish, has made a greater effort than Kashua to reach out across the ethnic, religious, cultural and political divide. No one has done more to fashion himself into a loyal Israeli. No failure is more indicative of Israel’s failure to be a liberal democratic state, accepting of Palestinians who accept Israel.

In a recent interview, Peter Beinart asked Kashua, now in the United States for almost 10 years, how he maintained his children’s connection with “Palestinian-ness”:

I’m not the best nationalist father one can imagine. If they ask, I tell them my opinion, of course. But we don’t have a picture of Al-Aqsa Mosque or go to mosque on Fridays, or have Palestinians flags in our home – nothing like that. But they are activists. My daughter and older son are very well aware. When we went to visit Palestine in 2018, my youngest said, “I’m sorry, Dad, I couldn’t tell who’s Arab and who’s Israeli. They all look the same to me and all sound the same to me.” Well, that’s also a very good approach. They are aware of the situation, they follow the news apparently. But I’m a very bad person to deliver national values to my kids. More universal values, I think. I hope.³

Israel is now run by Jews who look at everything, unashamedly, from the standpoint of Jews. The current coalition government is composed of two ultra-Orthodox parties (18 seats), one religious nationalist party (14 seats), and one far-right party (32 seats). The ultra-Orthodox and the religious nationalists have birthrates twice the national average; and by and large it is liberals who leave Israel. So, it’s likely that support for the ultraright will only increase in the future.

I wish Israel’s democrats all the best. However, since I am a Canadian, democracy in Israel is not my concern. Or let me say I’m as concerned about democracy in Israel as I am concerned about democracy in Turkey and Argentina. But I am greatly concerned for the safety of Palestinians who are trapped in this fight between liberal and fascist Israelis, and who seem to me at greater-than-ever risk of murder and expulsion. If you think I’m exaggerating, consider Netanyahu’s commitment to allow National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir to form his very own Schutzstaffel.

This would be a good time for the international community to act pre-emptively, by forcing Israel out of the occupied territories and leaving behind an army to protect Palestinians.

Continue reading “A Government of People who Worship and Idolize”

I never paid attention to Ukraine until the Russian invasion this past February. I ended up quitting a pro-Palestinian Jewish online discussion group because there were too many Putin apologists. And I got into furious arguments on Facebook with acolytes of Christopher Hedges.

It happens that these days I live in Regina, a two-minute walk from the Saskatchewan Legislature and a 10-minute walk from a monument to the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33, known as the Holodomor. I’d barely heard of the Holodomor – I mispronounced and usually misspelled it. I started making regular pilgrimages to the monument; I’d sit on a park bench and wonder why the world had paid so little attention to the famine. It was rule number 1 in our Jewish family that nothing could be compared to the Holocaust, but it became obvious that comparisons between the Holocaust and the Holodomor were inescapable.

A few months ago, a good friend recommended that I read Timothy Snyder’s 2010 book Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.¹ It’s enough to ruin your summer. Bloodlands won many international awards and earned praise from a lot of famous and impressive people. So let me say that for the time being, and for this article, I will take what Snyder writes as accurate.

Here are some things I learned. The Russians murdered about six million Ukrainians between 1930 and 1939. Over the same period, the Germans murdered 20,000 Jews. The murder of Jews did not begin in earnest until 1941.

Some 3.5 million Ukrainians were killed during the Holodomor (with more murdered during the Great Terror of 1937–38, and millions more exiled, injured and imprisoned).

The Holocaust killed some six million Jews. Initially, the Nazis sought to get rid of Germany’s relatively small number of Jews by making their lives miserable. When Germany occupied eastern Europe, where millions of Jews lived, it was impossible to get them to leave and no one would take them, so the Nazis killed them.

One could argue that initially the Russians killed Ukrainians by mistake. According to Marxist theory, socialist revolution requires an advanced working class, such as that found in Germany or the U.K. The Russian Communists were convinced that they could build the prerequisites of socialism in backward Russia through rapid industrialization. To finance industrialization, they would need to produce more food for workers in the cities, and also for international markets. Marxists also believed that collective agriculture would be more efficient than individual peasants working their own land.

But yields declined. The Communists confiscated what produce there was, resulting in mass starvation. That left fewer peasants to work the land, further reducing yields. Stalin suspected that the peasants were intentionally sabotaging socialism, that they were hiding grain and not really dying – at least, that was the official story. According to Snyder, “It was not food shortages but food distribution that killed millions in Soviet Ukraine, and it was Stalin who decided who was entitled to what.”

We’re pretty familiar with the horrors of the Nazi death camps. Here is Snyder describing mass starvation at the hands of the Russians:

(Women) prostituted themselves with local party leaders for flour … Some parents loved their children by protecting them, locking them in cottages to keep them safe from the roving bands of cannibals … The desperate peasants holding up infants to train windows were not necessarily begging for food: often they were trying to give their children away …

Countless parents killed and ate their children and then died of starvation later anyway. One mother cooked her son for herself and her daughter … The good people died first. Those who refused to steal or to prostitute themselves died. Those who gave food to others died. Those who refused to eat corpses died. Those who refused to kill their fellow man died. Parents who resisted cannibalism died before their children did … Boys and girls lay about on sheets and blankets, eating their own excrement, waiting for death.

The Communists set up watchtowers in the fields to stop peasants from keeping any of the harvest. Party activists took what they could and ate their fill: “They humiliated the peasants wherever they went. They would urinate in barrels of pickles … Women caught stealing on one collective farm were stripped, beaten, and carried naked through the village.”

Not surprisingly, Hitler made use of the famine in election campaigns. It was proof of the dangers of Marxism. Look, he said, millions of people are starving in a country that could be a breadbasket for the world.

In 1934, Soviet policy was changed to allow peasants to cultivate a small plot for their own use. Requisition and export targets were relaxed. Starvation in the Soviet Union came to an end. Russians came to take over Ukrainian houses and villages, as “the demographic balance in Soviet Ukraine shifted in favor of Russians” – which might explain why so many Ukrainians are of Russian descent and/or speak Russian.

It should be noted that there was no war at the time of the famine, and its victims were not combatants. Ukrainian peasants were killed because they were inconvenient to Marxist theory. Because their deaths made Stalin look bad, he punished them by killing more of them.

The Holocaust gets far more attention than the Holodomor. That’s not surprising, but the discrepancy is astounding. Here’s an example from my current home province. Of Saskatchewan’s 1.2 million people, 14.5 per cent are of Ukrainian ancestry and 0.5 per cent are Jewish (there could be some overlap, of course). A search of the Saskatchewan public library system turned up 2,388 books about the Holocaust and a grand total of 28 about the Holodomor. The University of Regina library offers 144,377 listings under “Holocaust” and 449 under “Holodomor.”

Why has the Holodomor received so little attention? Unlike Germany, which quickly accepted responsibility, apologized and paid reparations for the Holocaust, the Soviet Union at first denied the famine entirely and then denied responsibility: “The Soviet census of 1937 found eight million fewer people than projected … Stalin suppressed its findings and had the responsible demographers executed.”
The Russians, and Vladimir Putin, deny that the Holodomor constituted genocide. Did it? I’ll let the courts decide. I’d say the Russians set out to kill millions of peasants, most of whom were Ukrainian. Perhaps it was “classicide.”

The point is, Russia should apologize – immediately after withdrawing from every bit of Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

Memorials are, of course, controversial. If we have memorials to the Holodomor and the Holocaust, should we also have memorials to the Armenian and Tutsi genocides, South African Apartheid and the Nakba? The Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg covers each of these, except for the last; there’s no mention of Palestine.

I’m very fond of the Holodomor memorial overlooking Wascana Lake in Regina, Bitter Memory of Childhood by Petro Drozdowsky (see photo), which is a copy of the one outside the Holodomor Museum in Kyiv. The statue is very clear and compact; it resists the temptation to be grandiose conceptually or physically, and is quietly unnerving.

I have to ask myself: why am I so intrigued, even obsessed, by the Holodomor? Perhaps I am eager for us to understand that there are things that can be compared to the Holocaust.

The current war on Ukraine is another reason. Do the Russians not understand that Ukrainians will not easily agree to be a Russian colony?

Maybe it has something to do with “victimhood.” It’s not that I’m eager to add the Ukrainians to the long list of self-proclaimed victims, though victims they undoubtedly were. They were victims of the left, and for a period of time, they fervently wished to be liberated by Hitler’s Germans. Putin and his apologists here continue to use that against desperate Ukrainians. But can we not understand that we would likely have done the same?

“Unfortunately,” Snyder tells us, “claiming victim status does not itself bring sound ethical choices. Stalin and Hitler both claimed throughout their political careers to be victims. They persuaded millions of other people that they, too, were victims: of an international capitalist or Jewish conspiracy.”

It’s tempting to believe that Nazis or Soviet Communists or your favourite genocidaires are inhuman. That, Snyder warns, takes us “a step toward, not away from, the Nazi position”:

To find other people incomprehensible is to abandon the search for understanding … To dismiss the Nazis or the Soviets as beyond human concern or historical understanding is to fall into their moral trap. The safer route is to realize that their motives for mass killing, however revolting to us, made sense to them.

I would put it this way. We’re a single species. If you go back far enough, to the right times and places, we were all perpetrators of genocide, and we were all its victims.

Continue reading “Lessons From the Holodomor”

Pictured: Israeli settlers make fun of a Palestinian woman evicted from her home in Sheikh Jarrah. Via Reddit.

Nelson Mandela was released from prison in 1990, heralding the end of apartheid in South Africa. On November 29 that year, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 678, empowering states to use “all necessary means” to force Iraq out of Kuwait. The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, giving rise to 15 newly independent states. A thus far successful compromise ended hostilities in Northern Ireland in 1998. East Timor (Timor-Leste) won its independence from Indonesia in 2002.

But the Palestinian struggle is moving backwards. More Palestinian homes and villages are destroyed to make room for more Jewish settlers. A new “Basic Law” makes Jewish dominance in Israel explicit. The Palestinian leadership is increasingly fragmented. And we’ve seen much improved relations between Israel and its Arab neighbours.

On the positive side: 138 UN members have recognized Palestine as a state. Major human rights organizations now agree Israel practises apartheid. Several university departments and a few trade unions have endorsed a boycott of Israel. Ireland is thinking of boycotting settlement products. And Ben & Jerry’s has stopped selling ice cream in settlements.

In contrast, South Africa, having proclaimed apartheid in 1948, was forced out of the Commonwealth in 1961, barred from the Olympics in 1964 and suspended from the UN in 1974.

On the face of it, Palestinians should have made progress. Every country in the world agrees that, as international law stipulates, the settlements are illegal. Various countries, especially the United States, have put effort into peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, though these have come to naught. Supporters of Israel will say Palestinians have been offered several excellent deals, but this is nonsense. The most promising deal, the Oslo Accords, died soon after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered by a Jewish fanatic — though Oslo really died on the day Foreign Minister Shimon Peres convinced Rabin to allow ongoing Jewish settlement of the West Bank.

Here are reasons for the Palestinians’ failure:

  • Israel is a relentless foe with powerful and loyal friends. It has built an informal but effective coalition of liberals and premillennial dispensationalists. If there ever were Israeli leaders who were genuinely willing to accept partition and abandon the Zionist dream of “Israel from the river to the sea,” they’re long dead. Political forces in Israel opposed to the two-state solution have steadily gained strength.
  • Palestinian concessions and moderation went unrewarded and were thus discouraged.
  • With a lack of success, the Palestinian leadership lost support. We now have the moribund Palestinian Authority and the militant Hamas. “Militant” is the nicest thing one could possibly say about Hamas. If the goal is military victory over Israel, Hamas is a cruel joke. If the goal is building international support for the Palestinian cause, only a Palestinian branch of the Islamic State would be less successful.
  • With the vacuum of political leadership in Palestine, effective leadership has moved to radical academics and activists abroad, whose signature policy is the “single democratic state.” I doubt that any significant organization in the world supports the single democratic state, though one could argue over the word “significant.”

My experience of pro-Palestinian radicals in North America is this: (a) If moderate demands fail, make more extreme demands. (b) If 500 examples of Israeli brutality don’t do the trick, go for 10,000. (c) If accusing Israel of oppression, racism and occupation doesn’t work, throw in apartheid, cultural genocide, genocide, ethnic cleansing and settler-colonialism.

Some very legitimate organizations — B’Tselem, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty — have issued careful and thorough reports accusing Israel of apartheid. But these are human rights groups, not Palestinian political organizations charged with developing a practical strategy. The reports received little media coverage and, in any case, no sooner were they issued than radical critics of Israel announced they didn’t go far enough. The problem is: the harsher the criticism of Israel, the easier it is for Israel’s defenders to make accusations of antisemitism stick.

My recommendations to Palestinians and their supporters:

  1. The opinions of supporters of Palestinian rights who live outside of Palestine and Israel (like me) should be ignored.
  2. Palestinians have for the most part based their struggle on winning the support of liberal Westerners. If you believe there is an alternative to this strategy, spell it out. Otherwise, Palestinians will have to gain international support, which means they will be dependent on winning the support of liberals and liberal countries, just as was done in South Africa and as is being done, let us hope, in Ukraine.
  3. Keep in the very front of your mind that Palestinians are fighting Israel, i.e., Jews. Palestinians, the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu noted, are “the victims of the victims”: their tragedy is that their oppressors are the victims of Europe.¹ Liberal Westerners care more about Jews than about Arabs. Let me repeat that. Liberal Westerners care more about Jews than about Arabs.

This will strike many as odd if not totally absurd. It is true that for many woke radicals, White Jews are simply privileged White people while Arabs are people of colour and therefore oppressed. But outside of a few university departments (where such views can make life unpleasant for Jews) and certain media, such views are rare. When I say “Liberal Westerners care more about Jews than about Arabs,” I am referring to the liberal mainstream.²

There are many reasons for this, but prevalent among them are: Liberal Westerners feel guilty about the Holocaust and the centuries of Christian antisemitism that preceded it, and they believe Jews remain vulnerable and need protection. Liberal Westerners did not feel that way about Afrikaners, Russians or Indonesians. My experience is that a major part of liberal identity is to be protective of Jews. Many of us who support Palestinian rights have worked to get our colleagues to treat Jews and Israel like ordinary people and an ordinary country. Many radicals would like to treat Israel as a full, or at least junior, partner of the Global Hegemon – the United States. But it won’t work. Quite simply, liberal Westerners believe it is more progressive to care about Jews than about Arabs.

  • Israel will call its critics antisemitic at every opportunity. When Israel is accused of apartheid, genocide etc., more damage is done to the accuser than to Israel. As a result, radical critics of Israel spend a great deal of time defending themselves against charges of antisemitism, which is Israel’s preferred terrain. The pattern is similar when critics of Israel announce they are “anti-Zionist.” Much ink flows defending anti-Zionists against charges of antisemitism.
  • Forget about a single democratic state. The Israelis will paint it as – and believe it is – an attempt to eradicate “the only Jewish state.” Do you actually believe Israel will accept being outnumbered by Palestinians in a democracy? Do you actually believe Western liberals will force Israel to put itself in that position?
  • For the same reasons, Israel will not be forced to accept an extensive Palestinian right of return.
  • The Palestine Liberation Organization is on record as having endorsed the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative,³  which calls for Israel’s “complete withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories, including the Syrian Golan Heights, … and the territories still occupied in southern Lebanon” along with “a just solution to the problem of Palestinian refugees to be agreed upon in accordance with the UN General Assembly Resolution No 194” and “the establishment of an independent and sovereign Palestinian state … in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. In return the Arab states will … establish normal relations with Israel.”

The Palestinian Authority, then led by Yasser Arafat, immediately embraced the initiative. Support continued under Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas, who asked U.S. President Barack Obama to adopt it as part of his Middle East policy. In 2013 the Arab league re-endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, with the possibility of minor swaps of the land between Israel and Palestine.

The Arab Peace Initiative is a perfectly reasonable compromise. It does not give Israel what it wants and Israel will not accept it unless forced. But the initiative does not endanger “the Jewish State,” and it could be the basis for building a coalition with liberals and liberal countries around forcing Israel to end the occupation.

It is up to the Palestinian leadership to decide what it will demand, and accept, of Israel. Palestinians will need a unified, consistent and legitimate leadership. Elections will be needed. It will be difficult. It is hoped that foreign radicals who have spent years slagging the Palestinian leadership (less so Hamas) will shut up.

Finally, it’s a mystery to me why leftist radicals believe Jews and Palestinians must live together in a single state whether they want to or not. (Perhaps they could pick on the Koreas, or Slovakia and Czechia.) When I consider the prospects for a peaceful, democratic, single state in Israel/Palestine, I look at the accompanying photo.⁴

Continue reading “Advice to Palestine: Forget the Radicals”

Image: Library Am Guisanplatz de Collection Rutishauser, via Wikimedia Commons

F.W. de Klerk died on November 11, 2021. He was 85. De Klerk is one of my heroes. Like Mikhail Gorbachev, he decided at some point that no more people should die in a hopeless cause – apartheid in de Klerk’s case and Soviet Communism in Gorbachev’s.

People wanting to blame Palestinians for their own predicament like to ask, “Where is the Palestinian Mandela?” In Inroads in 2014 I wrote, “This is the wrong question. Mandela languished in South African prisons for decades as apartheid thrived. Let us ask instead: Where is the Israeli de Klerk? If Netanyahu were an Israeli de Klerk, (Palestine President Mahmoud) Abbas would be the Palestinian Mandela.”1

Of course, de Klerk didn’t do it alone. For starters, there had to be enough pressure on South Africa. The boycott and especially sanctions were effective – South Africa had been kicked out of the Commonwealth and international sports, for example. While many Whites believed that de Klerk was a traitor, others knew apartheid was a lost cause.

To be a de Klerk, you must be a person of vision – to see the end of apartheid – and courage – to stand against your own people. But you have to be successful, too. Imagine if, just before he stepped down, de Klerk had been assassinated by a White nationalist and his successor had stopped the whole transition. In that case, de Klerk wouldn’t be de Klerk and Mandela wouldn’t be Mandela.

It is possible, then, that Israel has had a de Klerk. According to this theory, Yitzhak Rabin had two out of three: a vision of the end of expansionist Zionism and the courage to stand against his own people. But he was murdered by one of his own and a successor saw that Rabin’s efforts came to naught. So now liberals and radicals can argue about whether Rabin was saviour or shyster – just as South African liberals and radicals would be arguing about, had he been killed, de Klerk.

Following his death, a video was released in which de Klerk stated, “I, without qualification, apologize for the pain and the hurt and the indignity and the damage that apartheid has done to Black, Brown and Indians in South Africa. I do so not only in my capacity as the former leader of the National Party, but also as an individual.”2

Blessed are the peacemakers.

Continue reading “Rest in Peace, Frederik Willem de Klerk”

Israeli security forces are seen as they enter Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem during prayer, May 7, 2021. Photo: Mostafa Alkharouf, Andalou Agency.

This past January, a major and respected Israeli human rights organization published a new report on Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories titled A Regime of Jewish Supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea: This is Apartheid. It was a long and detailed explanation of why B’Tselem now believed that “the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group.”

Around the same time, the International Criminal Court ruled that it had jurisdiction in territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Two months later, Chief ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda announced her decision to open an investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israel and Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the decision “undiluted antisemitism,” while the U.S. State Department said the ICC had no jurisdiction in Israel/Palestine. The European Union stood by the ICC but the decision was condemned, to varying degrees, by Austria, Lithuania, Germany, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Canada.

Then several things started happening all at once:

  • For years, Muslims observing Ramadan had been gathering in the evening at the square by Damascus Gate, one of the entrances to Jerusalem’s Old City. This year, for no apparent reason, police barricaded the square.
  • Daily protests were taking place in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah where, for many years, Palestinians have been evicted from their homes to make way for Jews. Israel’s High Court of Justice was about to pronounce on the most recent eviction efforts.
  • Human Rights Watch offered its views on Israeli apartheid in a report called A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.
  • Meanwhile, Jews were preparing for the annual Jerusalem Parade, which celebrates Israel’s 1967 capture of east Jerusalem. Hundreds of Israeli fascists were already marching through the streets, chanting “Death to Arabs.”
  • Thousands of people were celebrating the end of Ramadan on the Haram al-Sharif (Temple Mount). Police were deployed in large numbers and at one point fired stun grenades into the al-Aqsa Mosque, where hundreds of people were gathered.

Palestinians were winning on several fronts: police finally reopened the square by Damascus Gate; Israel’s High Court of Justice announced it would delay its decision on Sheikh Jarrah, meaning the evictions, too, were delayed; police announced changes to the route of the Jerusalem Parade, and then its cancellation. One journalist commented in Haaretz on “the fearlessness of the young Palestinians and their willingness to confront the police, even at the risk of injury or arrest.” Another wrote in Middle East Eye that “a new generation of Palestinians is rising under (Netanyahu’s) nose, which no amount of skunk water, tear gas, and sound grenades will stop.” Others compared this new generation of Palestinians with protestors who gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

That’s what the month was like: international reports about ordinary Palestinians standing up against Israeli overreach and police violence; and condemnations of Israeli apartheid and a possible trial at the International Criminal Court. It was several bad weeks for Israel’s reputation. The protective shell of Jewish victimhood was cracking, if just a bit.

Then Hamas saved the day. It’s always the same. Two men are fighting, an Arab and a Jew. A cop breaks it up. “How did this start?” asks the cop. The Jew points at the Arab and says, “It all started when he hit me back.”

There are conflicting stories. Initially, it seemed, Hamas had announced it would fire rockets at Israel unless police were withdrawn from the Haram al-Sharif, and then Hamas fired rockets. But who knows? Maybe Israel fired something into Gaza first. Who cares?

What’s clear is that Hamas has succeeded in stealing the spotlight and that international commentary is now about Jewish victims and Israel’s right to defend itself. Defenders of Palestinian rights have effectively been silenced. Many entirely ignore Hamas; some apologize for Hamas: one Palestinian commentator understood Hamas’s “frustration and rage.” Another said that people tend to be a little “fixated on what Hamas says and does.” A Jewish Israeli criticized Hamas for undermining the “nonviolent struggle.” But this isn’t about violence versus nonviolence – it’s about resistance versus terrorism.

It’s time for Hamas to renounce immediately and forever all attacks on civilians. Pending that, it’s time for Palestinians and those who support them to cut Hamas off. Even if it’s true that “Israel started it,” even if the media are biased, even if Fatah and the Palestinian National Authority (PA) are corrupt and compromised, and even if you believe there is some ethical excuse for sending rockets in the direction of civilian targets, you have to face the fact that it is a suicidal tactic and that, intentionally or not, terrorism is a subversion of the struggle for Palestinian justice.

Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody. Durham, NC: Pitchstone, 2020. 352 pages.

In 1992, at a theatre party, a young woman holding a pretend microphone announced, “Hello, everyone. Our question tonight is ‘What is poststructuralism?’ Mr. Milner, can you tell our listening audience, in under 60 seconds: What is poststructuralism?”

There were a dozen confused people in the room. I spoke quickly:

“It’s complicated. Poststructuralists believe that we can’t actually communicate through language. The effect is, since writers can’t communicate, they go for style – pretty writing that doesn’t mean anything.”

“Can you give an example?”

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje.”

The English Patient had just won the Governor General’s Award. There were audible gasps.

I was talking about postmodern fiction. Making fun of postmodern academic writing was, 25 years ago, a small industry. There was the notorious “Sokal affair” of 1996: New York University physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a deliberate parody, complete with impenetrable writing, myriad references and footnotes, arguing that the laws of physics have political implications and do not apply equally to all people. “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” was published in the prestigious academic journal Social Text. Sokal admitted to the hoax and generously offered, “Anyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my (21st-floor) apartment.”1

The Journal of Philosophy and Literature’s annual Bad Writing Contest stipulated that entries must be “non-ironic. Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread.”2 Judith Butler (first place, Bad Writing Contest, 1998) complained in the New York Times that the contest “targeted left-wing scholars.” Editor Denis Dutton defended his journal: “At this time bad writing is the stronghold of the post-structuralist left.”

Poststructuralism can be attributed, at least in part, to the disappointments of Marxism. The economic contradictions of capitalism were supposed to radicalize the working class and lead us to socialist utopia, but instead we got two world wars, the Nazis and Stalinist Russia. Marxists like Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser and members of the Frankfurt School concluded (in their different ways) that the capitalist state – through its control of the “superstructure” (education, media, religion) – was undermining the revolutionary potential of the working class.

Enter Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and a host of others. The ruling elites always manage what we believe. Knowledge is always ideological and has always been “socially constructed.” In Catholic theocracy, “knowledge” was revealed in the “Bible” as interpreted by priests. In modern bourgeois societies, “knowledge” was to be “discovered” via “science” and “reason,” but these too were made-up stories. Which meant, if I understood correctly, that physics is no truer than astrology and Darwin is no better a guide to nature than Genesis.

I wasn’t buying it.

After a thirty-year gap, I returned to university to study avant-garde theatre. All the younger professors – younger than me – were Theory aficionados. In researching my thesis, I learned about the symbiotic relationship between indecipherable avant-garde artists and incomprehensible poststructuralist theorists. Soon, I was sure, avant-garde art and Critical Theory would die their self-inflicted and irrelevant deaths.

Now, two decades after that, it’s clear that poststructuralism’s children are still kicking. Recently, a close friend shouted at me when I said “Aboriginal” instead of “Indigenous.” Another friend informed me, as if I were ignorant beyond belief, “Black people can’t be racist.” I blame poststructuralism. But how did we get from Foucault to my friends’ odd behaviour? That’s what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay try to explain in Cynical Theories.

Early in the book, Pluckrose and Lindsay assure us of their commitment to gender, racial and LGBT equality and make clear their preference for liberalism, which they describe as “political democracy, limitations on the powers of government, the development of universal human rights, legal equality for all adult citizens, freedom of expression, respect for the value of viewpoint diversity and honest debate, respect for evidence and reason, the separation of church and state, and freedom of religion.” Liberalism is best thought of as a “framework for conflict resolution.”

But, they say, liberalism and modernity are at great risk from both “far-right populist movements claiming to be making a last desperate stand for liberalism and democracy” and “far-left progressive social crusaders (who) portray themselves as the sole and righteous champions of social and moral progress.” The threat from the far right is pretty clear. But are the “far-left progressive social crusaders” a genuine threat to liberalism?

Pluckrose and Lindsay take us from poststructuralism (philosophy), to applied poststructuralism (political theory) to reified poststructuralism (political action guided by Social Justice scholarship). “It” goes by many names: poststructuralism, postmodernism, Critical Theory, Theory. When writing about poststructuralism and its descendants, Pluckrose and Lindsay always write Theory with an uppercase T.

Since its beginning, Critical Theory has been guided by two “inextricably linked core principles” and “four major themes.” The core principles are:

  1. The postmodern knowledge principle: radical scepticism about whether objective knowledge or truth is obtainable and a commitment to “cultural constructivism” – that “knowledge” is always socially constructed.
  2. The postmodern political principle: “a belief that society is formed of systems of power and hierarchies, which decide what can be known and how.”

And the major themes:

  1. The blurring of boundaries: Blurring boundaries is the postmodernist’s favourite sport. Different poststructuralists staked out their areas of specialty, exploring and calling into question boundaries between science and art, natural and artificial, low art and high, health and sickness, sane and insane, male and female.
  2. The power of language: For poststructuralists, language is inherently unreliable and “cannot represent reality or communicate it to others.” There is no real meaning: a writer’s intended meaning carries no more weight than a reader’s interpretation. Language has inordinate power to create (false) categories such as race and gender. “Deconstruction” means looking for contradictions, inconsistencies and hidden meanings.
  3. Cultural relativism: We can’t judge another culture because we are doomed to judge it by our standards.
  4. The loss of the individual and the universal: The individual, too, is a product of language. The universal is an effort to force dominant discourses – about nature or morality – on everyone.

Poststructuralism was immediately embraced by literary studies and the arts. Even though “postmodern Theory’s high deconstructive phase burnt itself out by the mid-1980s,” it didn’t die; it “matured, mutated, and evolved” and the two principles and four themes have remained pervasive and culturally influential as Theory diversified into distinct strands.

Critical Theory became explicitly political in the late 1980s, just when liberal movements had seen 20 years of remarkable legal and political progress toward racial, gender and LGBT equality. Still, racist, sexist and homophobic attitudes survived, and postmodern political Theory developed to confront not legal discrimination but attitudes.

Frantz Fanon’s 1961 book The Wretched of the Earth “set the stage for postcolonialism and postcolonial Theory.” To Fanon, “colonialism represented, above all else, a systematic denial of the humanity of colonized people … Edward Said, the father of postcolonial Theory, took inspiration from Fanon’s depiction of the psychological impacts of having one’s culture, language, and religion subordinated to another.” The downside is that postcolonial Theory, “with its disparagement of science and reason as provincial Western ways of knowing … impedes the progress of developing (countries. The) claim is not only factually wrong, morally vacant, and patronizing; it is also negligent and dangerous.”

The “blurring of boundaries” is central to Queer Theory, and the more radical the Theorist, the blurrier the boundaries. Pre-Theory gay activism appealed to universal liberal principles of shared humanity, but “Queer Theory regards the very existence of categories of sex, gender, and sexuality to be oppressive … and is radically sceptical that these categories are based in any biological reality.” Queer Theory is “arguably the purest form of applied postmodernism. It underlies much trans activism and makes an appearance in multiple forms of Social Justice scholarship.”

Pluckrose and Lindsay accept Critical Race Theory’s contention that race is a social construct. For example, tribes abound and are important social divisions in the Bible, but skin colour is barely mentioned: “In order to justify the abuses of colonialism and the kidnapping, exploitation, and abuse of slaves, their victims had to be regarded as inferior or subhuman … Perhaps most importantly, this was done by emerging forms of scholarship in what we would now call the social sciences and natural sciences.” With most of the glaring, legal inequalities between Whites and Blacks removed, postmodern Theorists focused on “microagressions, hate speech, safe spaces, cultural appropriation,” etc.

Prominent Black feminists brought attention to the Whiteness of feminism. Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the initially modest concept of intersectionality in a 1989 scholarly law paper, but it was soon expanded to include more than race and gender:

Trans men, while still oppressed by attitudes towards their trans status, need to recognize that they have ascended to male privilege and amplify the voices of trans women, who are seen as doubly oppressed, by being both trans and women. Gay men and lesbians might well find themselves not considered oppressed at all, particularly if they are not attracted to trans men or trans women, respectively, which is considered a form of transphobia and misgendering.

Critical Race Theory and intersectionality are centrally concerned with ending racism by making everyone more aware of race at all times. Racism is always taking place and the activist’s job is to find it: “The member of the marginalized racial group is said to have a unique voice and a counternarrative that, under Theory, must be regarded as authoritative.” Everything the marginalized individual interprets as racism must be accepted as racism.

Liberal feminists demanded that men and women be treated equally in such things as the right to vote, own property and access to employment. In the 1970s, university-based Marxist feminists connected patriarchy and capitalism and argued that capitalism must be overthrown to end patriarchy. Then came postmodern feminists who argued that it was the existence of categories – feminine and masculine, then female and male – that oppressed women. “As Theorists incorporated aspects of Queer Theory, Postcolonial Theory and, particularly, Critical Race Theory through the concept of intersectionality, the resulting feminism tended to “focus on identity in the form of race, gender, and sexuality.” By 2006, feminist scholars no longer understood “patriarchy” as the literal “rule of the fathers,” but instead as, “in Foucauldian terms, vague notions of male dominance permeating every discourse.”

Intersectional Theory resulted in the virtual disappearance of economic class, replaced by the concept of social privilege – initially White privilege, but soon extended to other identity categories, such as male, straight, cisgender, thin, able-bodied, etc. White feminists are expected to include, but not appropriate, “the experiences of women of color, providing space for them to be heard, and amplifying their voices – without exploiting them or becoming voyeuristic consumers of their oppression. These kinds of impossible, contradictory, double-binding demands are a persistent feature of applied postmodern Theory.”

Disability activism began in the 1960s with the liberal aim of increasing disabled people’s access to the opportunities available to the nondisabled. Disabled people were considered people with some form of disability, but according to “dis/abled” scholarship, disability is imposed upon people by society. Dan Goodley, author of Disability Studies: Theorizing Disableism and Ableism, “considers diagnosing, treating and curing disability as cynical practices, dependent on corrupt ableist assumptions and upheld by a ‘neoliberal system.’”

Although feminist scholars have long written about pressure on women to be thin, fat studies became a scholarly field quite recently: “Within fat studies, it is common to address negative attitudes towards obesity alongside racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, disableism, and imperialism.” Poststructuralism and “feminist science” are used to dismiss the overwhelming evidence that nutrition plays a significant role in health and that obesity “is strongly correlated with early death.” Fat activism could play a valuable role by fighting discrimination and prejudice against obese people but, by “descending into radical social constructivism, paranoia, and science denial … fat studies is currently among the most irrational and ideological forms of scholarship-activism in identity studies.”

In the final three chapters, Pluckrose and Lindsay summarize Social Justice scholarship, look at what happens when Social Justice scholarship leaves the university to become “Social Justice in action” and suggest alternatives to Social Justice ideology. I would suggest several recurring themes of Social Justice scholarship:

  1. Radical scepticism coexists with radical overconfidence: “We now have Social justice texts … that express, with absolute certainty, that all white people are racist, all men are sexist, racism and sexism are systems that can exist and oppress absent even a single person (who is) racist or sexist.”
  2. All ways of knowing are equal. In the view of “research justice,” there is “a moral obligation to share the prestige of rigorous research with ‘other forms of research,’ including superstition, spiritual beliefs, cultural traditions … and emotional responses.”
  3. Some people know better than others. “Standpoint Theory” tells us that one’s position within a social power dynamic “dictates what one can and cannot know: thus the privileged are blinded by their privilege (while the oppressed) understand both the dominant position and the experience of being oppressed.”
  4. Power is systemic: “In Marxist thought, power is like a weight, pressing down on the proletariat. For Foucault, power operated more like a grid, running through all layers of society … Power is a system we’re all constantly participating in.”
  5. Race and gender don’t exist but Social Justice activists must look for them everywhere.
  6. “Thou Shalt Shut Up.” Social Justice educator Barbara Applebaum writes, “The mere fact that they can question the existence of systemic oppression is a function of their privilege.” According to Social Justice scholar Alison Bailey, disagreement is “willful ignorance.” According to Robin DiAngelo, Whites can’t tolerate even a minimum amount of racial stress and defend themselves through “the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving.” If you express anything other than “This is great – I’m learning so much!” you’re guilty of White Fragility. You can’t disagree, you can’t be silent, and you can’t leave.
  7. I’m okay, you’re privileged: “It is profoundly ironic that a movement claiming to problematize all sources of privilege is led by highly educated, upper-middle-class scholars and activists who are so oblivious to their status as privileged members of society.”

Pluckrose and Lindsay point to several ways in which Social Justice scholarship is harmful:

Academics have been fired or denied tenure for crossing intellectual lines visible only to Social Justice scholars (for example, Rebecca Tuvel and Bruce Gilley).

“Universities are among the best, and ideally the least biased, centres of knowledge production,” but “Social Justice scholarship and ethics completely displace reliable and rigorous scholarship into issues of social justice.”

Social Justice scholars “teach students to be skeptical of science, reason, and evidence; to regard knowledge as tied to identity; to read oppressive power dynamics into every interaction; to politicize every facet of life; and to apply ethical principles unevenly, in accordance with identity.”

Social Justice’s focus on race, gender, etc., crowds out practical and measurable approaches to health, education, crime, the environment, poverty and equality.

Social Justice scholars train students to work in a Social Justice industry worth billions of dollars: “According to a major job search website in the United Kingdom, equality and diversity jobs are especially common in the Equality and Human Rights Commission, professional associations, the Law Society, schools and universities, the police, large private sector companies, local authorities, trade unions, and the Civil Service.”

Inside and outside the university, focus on race can be beneficial. In my field, Canadian theatre, it’s led to the hiring of more Indigenous, Black and Asian actors and managers, and will lead to the production of more plays by Indigenous, Black and Asian writers. But would this have happened in the absence of Social Justice scholarship? Perhaps more slowly, but yes: Canadian theatre and the world have been moving toward greater inclusivity for decades.

Outside the university, where few people have heard of Foucault or Butler, what remains of Social Justice scholarship? Language is considered extremely dangerous. The first language rule is: if you’re not Black, never say the “n-word.” There used to be no embarrassment attached to saying the word when reading aloud from a classic novel (or when writing an article like this), but suddenly people started losing their jobs for exactly that. When did that happen? There are many derogatory words for ethnic, religious or national groups – kike and spic, for example – but Inroads and I needn’t fear retribution for writing them out.

Social media have made people far more vulnerable to condemnation for minor offences. It doesn’t help that some of the enforcers are complete idiots. A Black security guard in the United States broke his school board’s zero-tolerance policy on racial slurs when he told a student not to call him the n-word. The security guard was fired – and rehired only after an enormous outcry that included an offer from Cher to cover his legal expenses. Consider, too, the treatment of Lindsay Shepherd by professors and staff at Wilfrid Laurier University.3

How serious is all this? Compared to what, nuclear war? Are these anecdotes unfortunate, rare incidents, or are they the tip of the iceberg? How many people have to lose their jobs to make it a serious problem?

Right-wing populism is a bigger problem than Social Justice activism, but Social Justice activism can help conservative extremists get elected. What do you expect to happen when you tell millions of well-meaning, fair-minded people that they’re racist? What happens when you tell high school dropouts stocking shelves at Walmart that they benefit from White privilege? Judging by the amount of time right-wing populists like Tucker Carlson spend warning Fox News viewers that Social Justice warriors and cancel culture are taking over America, they must think there’s an audience receptive to that message.4

Pluckrose and Lindsay oppose banning or removing public funding from courses rooted in postmodern Theory. “We cannot fight illiberalism with illiberalism,” they say, but we must speak out; if those on the right are the only ones challenging Social Justice excesses, then right-wing extremists will gain support:

You don’t need to become well versed in Theory and Social Justice scholarship … but you do need to have a little bit of courage to stand up to something with a lot of power. You need to recognize Theory when you see it, and side with the liberal responses to it – which might be no more complicated than saying, “No, that’s your ideological belief, and I don’t have to go along with it.”

Don’t leave home without…

A few things with which to arm yourself in preparation for a scrap with Social Justice activists:

  • Areo, an online journal, edited until recently by Helen Pluckrose
  • Counterweight, a liberal humanist organization, founded by Helen Pluckrose, which provides resources for people in trouble because Critical Social Justice is being imposed on them in the workplace.
  • Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker: An excellent compilation and investigation of liberalism’s many successes.
  • Glenn Loury, John McWhorter and Coleman Hughes: Three articulate, brilliant and moderate Black scholars. Hundreds of hours of stimulating entertainment on YouTube.

Continue reading “You’re Privileged, so Shut Up”

Photo: Parti Conservateur du Québec Flickr.

Now that we’ve had a close look at the United States and soon-to-be-former President Trump, how do our own right-wing populists measure up? Luckily, Canadian right-wing populists have provided us with evidence of where they stand in the form of three major speeches in recent months. On August 23, Saskatchewan MP and recently departed federal Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer bade farewell to party members:

The Liberals are all candy before supper … Then all you’re left with is a stomach ache and a serious case of buyer’s remorse … They believe that bigger government and more state intervention will somehow solve all the world’s problems. Conservatives fight for those who don’t have powerful lobbyists getting insider deals. We fight for the men and women who don’t have well-connected friends in Ottawa, who are too busy raising their kids and working hard to attend the cocktail circuit.

The Soviet bloc and eastern European countries all had the same rhetoric. Their policies were supposed to help the poor and promote equality – the exact same rhetoric that the left is using today, but all it caused was misery … It may be tempting to use the government to address the challenges society often faces, but once invited inside, the government is a terrible houseguest … After all, no one ever got shot trying to jump the wall into East Berlin or paddle the raft to get to Cuba.1

Long live comrades Stalin, Castro and Trudeau.

The people of Saskatchewan enjoy Saskatchewan Medical Services, Saskatchewan Government Insurance, SaskTel, SaskPower and SaskEnergy. You’d think Scheer would have noticed that, even with all those awful houseguests, Saskatchewan continues to have elections and – I know from personal experience – you don’t need to jump a wall to get out. Still, we’re told Donald Trump got good mileage, especially in southern Florida, out of comparing Joseph Biden to Hugo Chávez, so maybe Scheer isn’t as ridiculous as he appears.

In the provincial election held on October 26, Scott Moe led the Saskatchewan Party to its fourth majority government in a row, taking 48 of 61 seats and nearly 62 per cent of the vote. In his victory speech, Moe politely acknowledged the NDP (13 seats and 31 per cent). But he kept his most heartfelt declaration for the recently formed Buffalo Party of Saskatchewan, formerly the recently formed Wexit Saskatchewan Party (no seats and 2.65 per cent):

To those voters I want to say, “I hear you,” and I want to say, “This government hears you.” We share your frustrations and we share many of your objectives. We are not happy with the federal government either. You have my word that we will continue to stand up for Saskatchewan as we have always done. There is no government in Canada that has advocated more strongly against a federally imposed carbon tax than the government of Saskatchewan. Together with Alberta we have been steadfast in our opposition to Bill C-69, the no-more-pipelines bill, as well as Bill C-48, the no-more-tankers bill … So tonight, I offer you this: We will be unrelenting in defending our Saskatchewan industries and our Saskatchewan people. We’ll defend them here in Canada and we will defend them around the world. We will always stand up for a strong and independent Saskatchewan.2

The next day Moe clarified: “Saskatchewan should be ‘taking care of ourselves to the degree that we can.’”3

Question 1: On October 30, 2020, which Canadian political party leader said the following?

Private sector union membership has collapsed. In the 1950s, one in three private sector workers were union members. Today it’s closer to one in twenty-five.

Increasingly, especially for younger people, a job can be a dead end, an endless cycle of contract work, with no benefits, no security, no obligation on the part of the employers. Do we really want a nation of Uber drivers?

Free markets alone won’t solve all our problems. GDP growth alone is not the be-all and end-all of politics. The goal of economic policy is more than just wealth creation.

We need policies that build solidarity, not just wealth.

It’s time Canadians took inequality seriously.

___ Justin Trudeau (Liberal)                            ___ Jagmeet Singh (NDP)

___ Annamie Paul (Green)                              ___ Elizabeth Rowley (Communist)

___ Erin O’Toole (Conservative)

Answer: Erin O’Toole.4 Does it turn out the new leader of the Conservative Party of Canada is some kind of Marxist-Swedophile?

Question 2: Which policies did Erin O’Toole suggest would help to promote equality?

___ Increase taxes on corporations                ___ Inheritance tax

___ Raise the minimum wage                                     ___ Job creation program

___ Make it easier to form unions                   ___ National housing program

___ Pharmacare program                               ___ Guaranteed income

Answer: None of the above.

Here are a few more things O’Toole told his audience:

Middle-class Canada has been betrayed by the elites on every level. Political elites. Financial elites. Cultural elites. These elites have only one set of values, centred on unchecked globalization, political correctness, while middle-class Canadians have had another set rooted on family, home and nation.

Full-time employment, a regular, steady salary, a pension, these sound straight out of a bygone era. A generation ago, married couples, with steady jobs and with homes they paid off before they retired, assumed their kids would flourish. Now we’ve come to accept those as quaint notions from a distant past.

Exploiting understandable concerns for the environment, want to implement vast green energy experiments and operate the sharpest leftward shift of the federal government since Pierre Trudeau.

In 2014, Canada’s National Research Council was hacked by China and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of intellectual property appears to have been stolen. Think of this as your intellectual property: gone, to your competitor, at no cost and at no consequence.

O’Toole seems to have gone further than other right-wing populists in his use of left-wing criticisms of capitalist excesses. But his attack on the elites is standard populist rhetoric, as is his condemnation of “unchecked globalization” and “political correctness.” Then there’s the glorification of our idyllic past, the middle-class family and the military (“I was 18 years old when I joined the armed forces to serve Canada”).

Lessons learned

It’s become clear that a great many voters are willing to overlook a great many personal shortcomings if a candidate’s program suits. Trump’s behaviour is, of course, a clear example, as is Scott Moe’s shady driving record.5

Populist politicians are always supporting ordinary people against “Political elites. Financial elites. Cultural elites.” However, the strongest characteristic of liberal voters is not their economic or social status but that they live in cities. In the United States, city dwellers were most likely to vote Democratic, followed by suburbanites. There were fewer in small towns and fewer still in the countryside. It seems surprising that in these days of increased social media penetration and focus, the strongest characteristic of politically similar groupings is physical proximity. It’s interesting to note too that “Americans living in the predominantly red counties of rural America have the worst internet access in the country.”6

Canada’s Atlantic provinces lack big cities and are sparsely populated. They often elect Conservative governments, but they don’t elect right-wing populists. When asked if Prince Edward Island would support Saskatchewan’s court challenge of the federal carbon tax, Conservative Premier Dennis King was forthright: “In no way, shape or form should anyone suggest that we are joining , because we’re absolutely not … Islanders want us to work towards carbon neutrality. They want us to do it responsibly in a common-sense way.”7

For the populist right, domestic enterprise rules. As Moe promises, “We will be unrelenting in defending our Saskatchewan industries and our Saskatchewan people. We’ll defend them here in Canada and we will defend them around the world.” We’ll defend our Saskatchewan industries against taxes of all kinds, and against those fighting climate change and COVID-19.

It’s said that farmers will do anything to help a neighbour. I believe that is literally true. There seems, however, to be a reluctance to help a metaphorical neighbour – in the next town, province or country – who might be suffering from climate change, COVID-19, foreign wars, poverty or statistical racism. If we want to engage in honest discussion with supporters of the populist right, at least we know where to find them. We’ll probably want to choose our battles carefully.

Continue reading “Candy Before Supper”

“The world’s most valuable resource,” noted The Economist in 2017, “is no longer oil, but data.” According to the same publication, in 2019 “big firms spent $32bn … on cloud services” – “cloud services” being where our data are stored.1

Three books, all published in 2019, tell you more about data than you ever thought you wanted to know.

Edward Snowden, Permanent Record.
New York: Metropolitan Books, 2019. 352 pages.

Permanent Record is about Edward Snowden’s short but memorable career in American intelligence. He was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, in 1983. He was a member, he says, of the “last undigitized generation, whose childhoods aren’t up on the cloud but are mostly trapped in analog formats like handwritten diaries and Polaroids and VHS cassettes, tangible and imperfect artifacts that degrade with age and can be lost irretrievably.”

His was also the first generation to be raised with, if not by, computers. His parents seem serious and devoted, descended on both sides from a long line of Navy personnel. Oliver Stone’s 2016 film Snowden makes its subject appear right-wing, at least in contrast with his girlfriend (now wife) who drags him to an Iraq war protest. In the book, Snowden and his parents seem patriotic in a “good citizenship” way. They don’t have strongly partisan views. Snowden joins the Marines, and later the CIA, to contribute to his country.

He tells an interesting anecdote that conveys, I think, the family’s politics. His mother loved giving him math challenges. She’d buy him books and toys if he could mentally total their prices. He had to add in the 3 per cent sales tax.


“Everything we buy, we have to pay three percent to the government.”

“What do they do with it?”

“You like roads, buddy? You like bridges? … The government uses that money to fix them. They use that money to fill the library with books.”

Some time later, she told him,

“They raised the sales tax. Now you have to add four percent.”

“So now the library will get even more books?”

“Let’s hope.”

One day, his father brought home a computer. Soon afterward, he could “dial up and connect to something new called the Internet”:

Internet access, and the emergence of the Web, was my generation’s big bang or Precambrian explosion. It irrevocably altered the course of my life … From the age of twelve or so, I tried to spend my every waking moment online … Gradually, I stopped sleeping at night and instead slept by day in school. My grades went back into free fall.

Snowden and education never got along, and eventually he found work using his computer talents. Then there was a news report “about a plane hitting one of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center,” and then “a second plane just hit the other tower.” Snowden writes that he “accepted all the claims retailed by the media as facts … I wanted to be a liberator. I wanted to free the oppressed.” He thought he could best serve his country “behind a terminal, but a normal IT job seemed too comfortable and safe.” He wanted to work with the CIA or the National Security Agency (NSA), but he didn’t have the educational qualifications:

The more I read around online, however, the more I realized that the post-9/11 world was a world of exceptions. The agencies were growing so much and so quickly, especially on the technical side, that they’d sometimes waive the degree requirements for military veterans.

He joined the Army. That ended poorly, with multiple fractures in his legs and “administrative separation … only available to enlistees who’d been in the services fewer than six months.” He decided to follow the inevitable, by putting his computer skills to use for the government. After 9/11, they were desperate for people with computer skills. But by this time, the structure of government service had changed:

I was amazed to find that there were very few opportunities to serve my country directly, at least in a meaningful technical role. I had a better chance of working as a contractor for a private company that served my country for profit; and I had the best chance, it turned out, of working as a subcontractor for a private company that contracted with another private company that served my country for profit.

Snowden rose rapidly through the ranks. His job was to “make it technologically feasible for a single government to collect all the world’s digital communications, store them for ages, and search through them at will.” But gathering and storing data on U.S. citizens was illegal, and high government officials and top politicians were lying about it. In early June 2013, while hiding out in a Hong Kong hotel, he went public. He was not yet 30 years old.

The U.S. cancelled Snowden’s passport while he was in transit through Russia. I was relieved to read that a year later his wife joined him. They’ve been there ever since.

It’s easy to admire Snowden; he was cautious and disciplined. Without mentioning names, he distinguishes himself from Julian Assange: “I disclosed the government’s documents only to journalists. In fact, the number of documents that I disclosed directly to the public is zero. I believe, just as those journalists believe, that a government may keep some information concealed.”

Snowden was heroic, but I have to admit I’m not as outraged by his government’s behaviour as he is. I oppose it in principle, but I don’t feel threatened by it. As the cliché goes, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to fear.” On the other hand, Christopher Wylie’s Mindf*ck (sic) scared the shit out of me.

Christopher Wylie, Mindf*ck: Cambridge Analytica and the Plot to Break America.
New York: Random House, 2019. 288 pages.
From undermining fanatics to organizing fanatics

Christopher Wylie was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1989. His parents were doctors. He spent his high school years in a wheelchair as a result of two relatively rare conditions: “Not long after I discovered the computer lab, it became the one room at school where I didn’t feel alienated. Outside, there were either bullies or patronizing staff.”

He learned about webpages and JavaScript and other things I don’t understand. He “felt like a conjurer.” At 15, he spent a summer at Lester B. Pearson United World College, with students from around the world, and became interested in politics. That school year, he started skipping classes to attend public events with local members of Parliament. He asked questions and offered opinions:

It was liberating to find my voice. Like any teenager, I was exploring who I was, but for someone gay and in a wheelchair, this was an even bigger challenge … I began to realize that many of the things I was living through were not simply personal issues – they were also political issues. My challenges were political. My life was political. My mere existence was political .

He was brought to the attention of a local Liberal MP and offered a job in Ottawa. But first he spent

the summer of 2007 in Montréal, hanging out in hacker spaces frequented by French Canadian techno-anarchists … By then, with treatment, I could shuffle around without a wheelchair … Most hackers couldn’t care less what you look like or if you walk funny. They share your love of the craft and want to help you get better at it … My brief exposure to hacking communities left a permanent impression. You learn that no system is absolute. Nothing is impenetrable, and barriers are a dare.

When he arrived in Ottawa, Facebook was big and Twitter was growing, but no one in the Liberal Party knew what to do with them. The Liberals sent several people, including Wylie, to observe Barack Obama’s campaign. He was expecting to learn new media, like YouTube; instead he learned about data and “the modeling they used to analyze and understand that data.” He learned that “it was those numbers – and the predictive algorithms they created – that separated Obama from anyone who had ever run for president before.” With data on “age, gender, income, race, homeownership – even magazine subscriptions and airline miles” – you could predict whom people would vote for and what issues were most important to them, and craft messages that might sway their opinions:

For me, this was a wholly new way of understanding elections. Data was a force for good, powering this campaign of change. It was being used to produce first-time voters, to reach people who felt left out. The deeper I got into it, the more I thought that data would be the savior of politics.

He was eager to share what he’d learned. He had his supporters but, in the end, the Liberal Party of Canada didn’t want to spend the money on something they didn’t quite understand. Soon afterward, “The LPC was devastated in the federal election by the Conservative Party of Canada, which had invested in sophisticated data systems at the behest of its imported Republican advisers.”

In 2010, at age 21, Wylie left politics for law school at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He “flourished in London and soon gained a wide circle of friends.” He was soon tempted by an offer from the U.K. Liberal Democrats. It was the the only party to oppose the war in Iraq, he notes, but it was a poster on their office wall that finally lured him in: “No one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.” It all makes for a very funny story – unless you’re a Liberal Democrat. Wylie provided an extensive and devastating report, and the party elected to shoot the messenger. In 2015, “the party was eviscerated, losing forty-nine of its fifty-seven seats in Parliament.”

He was ready for something new. A Lib Dem connection had suggested Wylie apply for a job with SCL Group, because SCL was “looking for ‘data people for some behavior research project’ involving the military.” After several interviews, Alexander Nix, an SCL director, “offered me a three-month contract to do, essentially, whatever I wanted … After all the agonies of dealing with the LPC and the Lib Dems, it was incredibly enticing to be given free rein.” In June 2013, he started at SCL.

Meanwhile, Wylie had started a PhD in fashion at University of the Arts London. Nix agreed to cover his tuition. SCL had contracts with the British and U.S. military. Wylie’s days alternated between “fashion models and cyberwarfare,” but it was models of another kind, “neural networks, computer vision, and autoencoders,” that attracted him:

At SCL we would watch countless numbers of radical jihadist propaganda videos, and we noticed that, beyond the violence of the clips that make it onto the news, there was a rich and well-articulated aesthetic to their style of content. Cool cars were showcased. There would be music … They tried to position their backward ideology as somehow modern or futuristic in a way that echoed the old Italian Futurists’ promotion of a fascism for tomorrow … These films were propagating a grotesque cult of violence and hate … Their style was self-indulgent and naively romantic, and it bordered on kitsch. Even terrorists have pop culture.

Around this time, in September 2013, I distinctly remember thinking, How cool is this? I get to work in culture, but not just for someone’s branding campaign. I get to work in culture for the defense of our democracy.

SCL was trying to undermine extremist movements. If you could get enough information on their members, you could sow discord: “The most susceptible targets are typically the ones who exhibit neurotic or narcissistic traits … because they are more prone to feelings of envy and entitlement, which are strong motivators of rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying behavior.” To find the most susceptible targets, you needed a great deal of data, more than you could sort manually. So you also needed algorithms to analyze the data. That’s what they did at SCL: gather truckloads of data and analyze it. They did it for military security; and then they did it for anyone who had the money to pay for it.

In Karim Amer and Jehane Noujaim’s film The Great Hack, SCL CEO Alexander Nix is shown pitching the company by describing its work in Trinidad and Tobago:

There are two main political parties, one for the Blacks, one for the Indians. And they screw each other. So, we were working for the Indians, and we went to the client and we said we want to target the youth. And we try and increase apathy. The campaign has to be non-political, cause the kids don’t care about politics. It has to be reactive, cause they’re lazy. So we came up with this campaign which was all about “be part of the gang,” “do something cool,” “be part of a movement,” and it was called the “DO SO!” campaign. “Do so! Don’t vote!” … It’s a sign of resistance against, not the government but against politics and voting. We knew that when it came to voting, all the Afro-Caribbean kids wouldn’t vote because they “Do so!” but all the Indian kids would do what their parents told them to do, which was to go out and vote … Now the difference in 18- to 35-year-old turnout was like 40 per cent. And that swung the election about 6 per cent, which is all that’s needed in an election that’s very close.2

It was a young field and Wylie’s task was to develop it by gaining access to new sources of data and writing new algorithms to analyze them: “One unintended consequence of having large pluralities of citizens connected via mobile phone networks was that everybody could be traced, tracked, profiled, and communicated with.” There were “data brokers such as Experian, Acxiom, and niche firms with specialist lists from evangelical churches, media companies, and so on. Even some state governments will sell you lists of hunting, fishing, or gun licensees.”

A great deal of data came from Facebook, which used the data it gathered to sell targeted advertising but didn’t seem to care much who else used it and what they used it for. And when you joined Facebook, you gave them permission to access all your friends’ data too. Eventually SCL had information on hundreds of millions of people, and once they had 5,000 bits of information on you (everything you clicked or liked, every email you sent or YouTube you watched, every Google search you searched), so the claim went, they knew you better than you knew yourself.

The algorithms were about profiling. They’d categorize personality by:

ratings on five scales: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism … This sounds simple, but the Big Five model can be an immensely useful tool in predicting voters’ behavior … Obama ran on change, hope, and progress – in other words, a platform of openness to new ideas. Republicans, on the other hand, tend to focus on stability, independence, and tradition – in effect, a platform of conscientiousness.

Each of the Big Five traits are found in pretty much everyone. There’s also a:

“dark triad” of traits – narcissism (extreme self-centeredness), Machiavellianism (ruthless self-interest), and psychopathy (emotional detachment) – that are less common and maladaptive, meaning that those who exhibit them are generally more prone to anti-social behavior, including criminal acts.

In October 2013, Steve Bannon arrived at SCL, with truckloads of money provided by eccentric right-wing backers. When he first met Bannon, Wylie writes,

We talked for four hours – not only about politics but about fashion and culture, Foucault, the third-wave feminist Judith Butler, and the nature of the fractured self. On the surface, Bannon seemed utterly predictable – another old, straight white guy – but he spoke with a certain wokeness I hadn’t expected at all. In fact, I quickly decided he was kind of cool … He was no political hack, but a fellow nerd given permission to speak freely.

When Wylie joined SCL, he believed that data collection and profiling were being used for positive ends, to search out fanatics and prevent acts of terrorism. That changed soon after Bannon’s arrival and the creation of a new SCL subsidiary, Cambridge Analytica. CA continued to search out fanatics, but for different purposes. Bannon was out to organize fanatics. CA would create new Facebook pages “with vague names like County Patriots or I Love My Country.” As people joined these groups, CA would post videos and articles:

Conversations would rage on the group page, with people commiserating about how terrible or unfair something was. CA broke down social barriers, cultivating relationships across groups. All the while it was testing and refining messages …

Once a group reached a certain number of members, CA would set up a physical event. CA teams would choose small venues – a coffee shop or bar to make the crowd feel larger … People would show up and find a fellowship of anger and paranoia. This naturally led them to feel like they were part of a giant movement, and it allowed them to further feed off one another’s paranoia and fear of conspiracy. … The meetings took place in counties all across the United States, starting with the early Republican primary states, and people would get more and more fired up at what they saw as “us vs. them.” What began as their digital fantasy, sitting alone in their bedrooms late at night clicking on links, was becoming their new reality.

That’s one example of what you could do with a lot of data and the ability to select the people you want. But data and technical ability weren’t enough. Wylie describes CA’s work for the Leave side in the Brexit campaign:

The problem with Remain was that they completely failed to understand what they were up against. As Cambridge Analytica identified, provoking anger and indignation reduced the need for full rational explanations immunize target voters to the notion that the economy would suffer. neglected to stop and ask people what they thought the economy was in the first place. Cambridge Analytica identified that many people in non-urban regions or in lower socioeconomic strata often externalized the notion of “the economy” to something that only the wealthy and metropolitan elite participated in. “The economy” was not their job in a local store; it’s something that bankers did.

Pro-Brexit leaders knew that to win they would need to attract a few progressive voters:

One of the most compelling progressive arguments for Brexit was pretty simple … Under EU rules, migrants to Britain from countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany, and Austria did not need a visa to work and live in Britain. But migrants from, say, India, Pakistan, Nigeria, or Jamaica were required to undergo extensive screening and difficult immigration procedures … As the Remain campaign paraded around its “pro-immigration” messages to defend the EU, what many people of color saw was the tacit whiteness of that very message – that it really meant rights for some immigrants … And it was by identifying this bubbling resentment that the pro-Brexit movement managed to create a counterintuitive alliance between some sections of immigrant communities and cohorts of jingoist Brexiteers who wanted them all to “go home” .

One more example:

In August 2016, the football player Colin Kaepernick refused to stand for the American national anthem to protest systemic racism and police brutality toward African Americans and other minorities in the United States. The fashion brand Nike, Kaepernick’s sponsor, stood behind the athlete, and a controversy ensued … Cybersecurity firms also identified fake Nike coupons originating from alt-right groups that targeted African American social media users with offers like “75% off all shoes for people of color.” The coupons were intended to create scenarios in which unwitting African American customers would try to use the coupons in a Nike store, where they would be refused. In the age of viral videos, this scenario could in turn create “real” footage showcasing a racist trope of an “angry black man” demanding free stuff in a store. So why would these disinformation operations target a fashion company and attempt to weaponize its brand? Because the objective of this hostile propaganda is not simply to interfere with our politics, or even to damage our companies. The objective is to tear apart our social fabric. They want us to hate one another.

By August 2014, less than a year after Bannon’s arrival, it all became too much for the one-time adviser to the Liberal Party of Canada. Two years after Wylie and CA parted company, Donald Trump became the GOP nominee: “If my hunch was correct, Cambridge Analytica was not only using the data tool I had worked on to manipulate American voters into supporting him, it may have been knowingly or unknowingly working with Russians to sway the election. … I felt sick to my stomach. And I knew I had to tell someone.” A few months after Trump’s election victory, Wylie went public. When he testified before the U.S. Congress, in June 2018, he was 29 years old.

Brittany Kaiser, Targeted: The Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower’s Inside Story of How Big Data, Trump, and Facebook Broke Democracy and How It Can Happen Again.
New York: Harper, 2019. 400 pages.
The digital arms race

A second book about Cambridge Analytica has been published: Brittany Kaiser’s Targeted. Kaiser, who also has a background in progressive politics, joined CA around the time Wylie was leaving. Targeted doesn’t add much to Wylie’s story. Kaiser seems mostly concerned with explaining why she stayed at CA for four years. None of the three books has an index, perhaps an unfortunate result of the shift toward electronic books.

The three books together are an introduction to another world. It would be nice to think that companies and governments are tightening up rules and legislation to protect our private data, but my guess is that the increasing sophistication of our cybersecurity experts will be matched by the increasing sophistication of our hackers, in a kind of digital-evolution arms race. Snowden, Wylie, Kaiser and a host of others have myriad suggestions. I don’t mean to denigrate them, but they don’t make me feel safe from predators like the wealthy among us who will stop at absolutely nothing in pursuit of their ends. The outcome, if not their intention, seems to be an increasing number of failed organizations and states.

Back in March, declared as “false” rumours that U.S. representatives had used COVID-19 legislation to give themselves a $25 million pay raise. Who started and promoted the rumour?

Would a Cambridge Analytica clone incite Indigenous people to block railways in support of other Indigenous groups?

Did you know that your computer’s camera can watch you, even when the computer is off?

The irony is that while Bannon and friends are out to create distrust and paranoia in all of us, these three books (and a host of films) do exactly that in me.

Continue reading “The World’s Most Valuable Resource”

The University of Calgary closed its campus on March 13. Classes continued online, but our minds were elsewhere.

Initially, everyone seemed to accept Canada’s political and medical leadership. The usual complaints about Justin Trudeau were muted; British Columbia Chief Medical Officer of Health Bonnie Henry became a folk hero; there were even paeans of praise for Doug Ford. I was a bit suspicious: why was Ontario applying the same rules in Toronto as in Thunder Bay, where there hadn’t been a case of COVID-19 within 1,000 kilometres? But the media were a sea of cooperation and concern. “Flattening the curve” – so as not to overwhelm medical facilities – became the national, provincial and local refrain.

There was some dissent, but it was all about how the lockdown should have been earlier and harder. For example, on the April 10 episode of CBC radio’s The House, host Chris Hall interrogated Health Minister Patti Hajdu, and then Karina Roman welcomed several experts. In a half hour of grievance, there was not a single question about whether the lockdown might have been too harsh.1

Most common were government-supporting panic-mongers. CBC Ideas host Nahlah Ayed announced: “People are dying all over the world. Most are old, but many are young. Some were already sick, yet many weren’t sick at all.”2 Natasha Crowcroft, director of the Centre for Vaccine Preventable Diseases at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health at the University of Toronto, announced on TVO’s The Agenda: “It’s killing young, healthy people as well as old people. It’s not just a question of, you know, a few people who might have been near the end of life anyway.”3

No one pointed out to Ayed or Crowcroft that while 2,022 deaths were reported in Quebec as of May 1, not a single person under 30 had died. In Ontario, with 1,121 deaths, no one under 20 had died.4 In both provinces, more than 97 per cent of the people who died were over 60 years old. The 3 per cent under 60 who died included people with “preexisting conditions,” but we’re not told how many. I was unable to find out how many healthy people under 60 have died of COVID-19.

Statements like Ayed’s and Crowcroft’s were ubiquitous and went unchallenged. If anyone said something like “almost all the people who die are old and frail,” someone rushed to assure us that “every death is a tragedy” and “young people are dying, too.” There were occasional articles about Sweden’s iconoclasm, but with headlines that rushed to announce that Sweden’s Relaxed Approach to the Coronavirus Could Already Be Backfiring ( and As Sweden’s Death Toll Mounts, Epidemiologists Urge Leaders to Ignore Their Own Public Health Agency (

But then, one day, everything changed. What happened first? Maybe it was other countries loosening their lockdowns, or Canadian premiers musing about opening things up. Maybe a critical mass of the population realized that we had successfully flattened the curve and hospitals were not inundated.

I don’t have great complaints about how Canada’s various governments handled COVID-19. It was new, and we were learning. And if we overreacted, we at least compensated people who lost their jobs or were otherwise hurt by the pandemic and government action.

I do complain that information wasn’t readily available. Only Quebec’s government site included death statistics by age. Sometimes it felt like we couldn’t be trusted with the facts and were being lied to for our own good. Sometimes it seemed like two sides were drawn: good people willing to shut down everything to save a life; and we the selfish, more concerned about money than health – as if there were no health consequences to the lockdown.

I listened to a half-hour interview conducted in mid-April with Johan Giesecke, Sweden’s former state epidemiologist.6 Maybe Sweden’s approach was wrong but, as Giesecke said, we won’t know for a year. He suspects that the lockdowns were not helpful (and destructive in many ways) and that the number of deaths will tend to even out among countries. He suggests Sweden and other countries erred by not protecting the most vulnerable – the elderly in large institutions and poorer immigrant communities (but those are hardly new problems). Giesecke sounds like what a public servant should be – low-key, honest, without talking points and not looking over his shoulder.

Did we worry too much about schools when our focus should have been nursing homes – as it is with the annual flu? Giesecke described this as a bad flu season.

Every year, more than 400,000 Canadians die; every month more than 30,000. Flu causes about 3,500 deaths in Canada each year.7 At the time of writing (May 7), 3,391 of us have died of COVID-19. A lot of nursing homes, a few meatpacking plants, and Montreal and its surroundings seem to be where the virus remains untamed.

Right now, there are a great many people who have positions to defend – that we did the right thing or that we were too soft. I think we did okay under the circumstances but, in the end, when we’ve had a chance to think it over, I think we’ll decide our focus was misplaced.

What will we do next time? Can we shut down the country every time there’s a serious run of the flu? As Albert Camus wrote, “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.” Continue reading “We Did Okay, but Where was the Information?”