When the dark wood fell before me
And all the paths were overgrown
When the priests of pride say there is no other way
I tilled the sorrows of stone
— Loreena McKennitt, “Dante’s Prayer”

The most dramatic moment in President Donald Trump’s speech to Congress on February 28 came when he addressed Carryn Owens, the widow of a Navy SEAL who was killed in a raid on an Al Qaeda target in Yemen in late January. Senior Chief William (Ryan) Owens “died as he lived,” Trump said:

a warrior, and a hero – battling against terrorism and securing our Nation. I just spoke to Mattis, who reconfirmed that, and I quote, “Ryan was a part of a highly successful raid that generated large amounts of vital intelligence that will lead to many more victories in the future against our enemies.” Ryan’s legacy is etched into eternity. For as the Bible teaches us, there is no greater act of love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Ryan laid down his life for his friends, for his country, and for our freedom – we will never forget him.

Initial media comment was effusive. “What the President did w Owen’s widow was capital P Presidential,” noted Katy Tur of NBC. Citing this and other moments in Trump’s speech, Chris Wallace of Fox News said, “I feel like tonight Donald Trump became the President of the United States.”

Questions about whether the Yemen raid lived up to Trump’s characterization of it were left to outlets such as the New Yorker, where Amy Davidson wrote that “Owens was killed in an operation in Yemen that Trump had authorized, and which appears to have gone very badly, with probable civilian deaths, the alienation of the Yemeni public, and exaggerations about the intelligence gained,” and John Cassidy pointed out that Bill Owens, father of the slain Navy SEAL, was demanding an investigation into the mission that led to his son’s death. An earlier New York Times article on the raid summed it up by saying that “almost everything that could go wrong did.”1

But none of that mattered. When a military operation – almost any military operation – is invoked for political or patriotic purposes, the details are unimportant.

As with the Yemen raid of 2017, so with the Battle of Vimy Ridge of 1917.

Of course there are differences. It is unquestionable that the four Canadian divisions that launched the attack on April 9, 1917, did, in fact, dislodge the Germans and capture the ridge. The problem is with the wider context, and especially with the claim, frequently repeated in this year’s observance of the centenary of the battle, that Vimy represented the birth of the Canadian nation – what Ian McKay and Jamie Swift, in their new book The Vimy Trap, call “Vimyism.”

The Vimy Trap is a historiography of Vimy, and of Canada’s participation in the First World War more generally – supplemented by an extensive and useful bibliographic essay. It is not so much about the war itself as about its representation in the years since in books, newspaper photos and their captions, painting and sculpture, films, radio documentaries, exhibits in the Canadian War Museum, even video games. It is about the impact of Vimy on our sense of ourselves.

Though full-blown Vimyism is a relatively recent phenomenon, different conceptions of the war have been in competition in the entire century since 1914. During the war itself, the official attitude toward the war was expressed in what historian Paul Fussell, cited by McKay and Swift, called “High Diction”: the language of honour, valour and sacrifice. Even then, High Diction ran up against the “Low Reality” of the war, a notable expression of which was Fred Varley’s grim 1918 painting For What?

A current of disillusionment ran through the postwar period, and among the most disillusioned were the returned soldiers themselves. Erich Maria Remarque, whose 1929 novel All Quiet on the Western Front typified the “Literature of Disillusionment” of that period, was a veteran of the Western Front; so was the Canadian Charles Yale Harrison, author of Generals Die in Bed (1928).

This mood was reflected in the creation of the imposing monument to Canada’s war dead that was dedicated at Vimy Ridge in 1936. In the Canadian National Vimy Memorial’s dominant figure, sculptor Walter Allward portrayed Canada as a grieving woman, “Canada Bereft” as he called her or Mother Canada as she is popularly known. At the top of the monument’s twin pylons are the symbolic figures of Justice and Peace, with other symbolic figures below. The Vimy Memorial, a familiar image that graces the reverse side of the 20-dollar bill and says “Vimy” to many Canadians, is far from being Vimyist.

And while there were echoes of Vimyism in some of the speeches at the dedication ceremony, others, like that of United Church minister George Oliver Fallis, took on a very different tone. Evoking John McCrae’s plea in “In Flanders Fields” to take up the dying soldiers’ quarrel with the foe and hold high the torch they threw, Fallis urged his listeners to “finish their task and make real their vision of a world swayed by peace and brotherhood.” McKay and Swift comment, “The ‘foe’ with whom one should quarrel, in this 1936 vision, was war itself.”

But after King Edward VIII dedicated the Vimy Memorial, attitudes began to harden. “From the mid-1930s,” McKay and Swift write, “martial nationalism would start to make claims for Vimy that were scarcely credible and would have been generally unrecognizable in 1917 … There was a sense that, after the opening of the monument in 1936, Vimy and the Great War attained a certain untouchability in Canada.”

Still, it took another few decades before Vimyism really began to take hold. Its central creedal statement is the work of Brig.-Gen. Alex Ross, who fought at Vimy and later became a leading figure in the Canadian Legion: “It was Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific on parade. I thought then, and I think today, that in those few minutes I witnessed the birth of a nation.” While Ross may have expressed similar sentiments earlier, this formulation comes from his introduction to a 1967 book by Eberts Macintyre, Canada at Vimy. And Vimyism would have to wait another two decades for its core scriptural text, Pierre Berton’s 1986 book Vimy. As McKay and Swift write, “The ‘Battle of Vimy Ridge’ that has captivated many a Canadian mind – from Don Cherry to former prime minister Stephen Harper to historian Tim Cook – is, to a large extent, the Vimy of Berton’s heroic story.”

In Berton’s telling, the story was one of hardy Canadian frontiersmen whose fortitude, resourcefulness and independence of mind allowed them to accomplish things that the regimented soldiers of Europe could not. But McKay and Swift raise some pointed questions about Berton’s story, and about the Vimyist account of the battle in general. They note that most of the soldiers at Vimy came not from the frontier but from the urban working class. Far from being “innocents abroad,” as Berton portrays them, they engaged in such “brutal tactics” as prisoner-killing and trench-raiding (that Berton himself reports such activities leads McKay and Swift to call his book a “subtly self-subverting text”). The units that won this “Canadian” victory were fully integrated into the British Expeditionary Force. And far from promoting Canadian national unity, Vimy had a “quite unexpected consequence”:

After Prime Minister Borden went to France to visit the wounded of Vimy Ridge, he returned home to Canada in May convinced that the country should move ahead on compulsory military service. Shortly after that, on 24 May, Montreal became the scene of anti-conscription riots. Rather than leading the country almost magically to attain new levels of unity and togetherness, Vimy Ridge was the prelude to an unprecedented conflict in Canada so serious that it raised the prospect of the country’s violent dissolution.

With this background, it is not surprising that Vimyism has never caught on in French Quebec. Indeed, even though Vimy is supposed to represent a key moment in Canada’s achieving independence from Britain, it has been largely a British Canadian phenomenon, and it took hold precisely when the idea of Canada as an essentially British country was beginning to fade. “Vimy as the national origin story can be welcomed without inner reservations mainly by those Anglo-Canadians who retain a fond regard for the British Empire,” write McKay and Swift. “Since the 1960s the members of this group have become a minority – yet one retaining vast political resources and cultural power. In a country of minorities … Vimyism – promoted by a powerful, determined, and affluent minority – fills a cultural void.”

McKay and Swift favour a very different style of war remembrance, typified by a pair of statues by German artist Käthe Kollwitz, which stand in a German military cemetery in Belgium where her 18-year-old son, killed in 1914, is buried. They note that Kollwitz’s work, The Grieving Parents, “has no trace of patriotic bombast.” Rather, it expresses grief for her son, for all the victims of the war, and for her generation’s failure to prevent the catastrophe. A more recent example of appropriate commemoration in the Ring of Remembrance in Ablain-Saint-Nazaire, France, not far from Vimy Ridge, dedicated on November 11, 2014. Consisting of 500 metal panels, it contains the names of nearly 600,000 soldiers on both sides killed in northern France, listed alphabetically without regard to nationality or rank.

Another elaborate ceremony took place at Vimy Ridge on April 9, 2017, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the battle. While there were notes of Vimyism in the ceremony, especially in Prime Minister Trudeau’s speech, the dominant mood was more subdued. Trudeau evoked the familiar tropes of the battle bringing Canadians together and allowing Canada to stand as an independent actor on the international stage. But under the brooding figure of Mother Canada, in a battlefield still pockmarked and dotted with unexploded shells, Loreena McKennitt’s “Dante’s Prayer” better suited the occasion. François Hollande of France, in the waning days of his presidency, had the grace to remember the German soldiers who died as well as those of France, Britain and Canada. Even Trudeau, after his Vimyist excursion, concluded his speech with a passionate call for peace and the words “Never again.” In the CBC’s coverage of the event, Peter Mansbridge and others noted that the capture of Vimy Ridge did not change the course of the war.

Perhaps the high tide of Vimyism has passed and Canada can move on to a more sober assessment of its military past. Perhaps Canada has matured to the point where it no longer needs a battle to define its identity. Perhaps the world is slowly finding better ways to resolve disputes than the use of force. Perhaps.

On April 6 (coincidentally the 100th anniversary of American entry into the First World War), President Trump ordered a missile attack on a Syrian air base in response to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. Once again commentators declared his move presidential (there had been some backsliding since his February speech). Once again, “Donald Trump became President of the United States” – this time according to Fareed Zakaria on CNN.

Whether or not the West should intervene militarily in Syria is a complex issue. Those who favour such intervention have some cogent arguments on their side.2 But evidence of any long-term, thought-out strategy behind Trump’s action is lacking. This is not supposed to concern us. “The motto seems to be: ‘when in doubt, go to war,’” noted Arthur Milner on the Inroads listserv. “Any leader will do. Trump sends a few dozen missiles and suddenly the liberal warmongers decide he’s presidential after all.”

A battle makes a nation. A missile strike makes a presidency. How we remember war affects how we think about it now. McKay and Swift’s account of how we remember Vimy is of more than historical interest.

Continue reading “Vimy and Vimyism”

One morning in the third week of April, as this issue of Inroads was taking shape, I woke up, as I often do, to a CBC radio newscast. The top three items were allegations of irregularities in the Turkish constitutional referendum that had just taken place; Ontario’s nonresident speculation tax, about to be introduced; and a scene-setter for the first round of the French presidential election, scheduled for that Sunday. Despite our leisurely twice-a-year publication schedule, Inroads strives to be timely. As I listened to that newscast, I realized that with this issue we had succeeded to an uncommon degree.

Being timely is always a virtue in journalism, but there are reasons for placing special emphasis on this virtue at this point in history. The rise of populist parties and movements, their challenge to established Western institutions and to classic left-right political divisions, and apparent Russian involvement in helping them along have thrown into question assumptions that have prevailed for a generation or more. We see Inroads as a place where readers can turn for insightful analysis of world-changing developments of this kind. While we have been examining the populist challenge for the last year or so, we offer our most sustained and systematic coverage in this issue, with a particular focus on the role of Russia.

While the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States and the tumultuous early months of his administration have occupied a disproportionate amount of media space, perhaps the most significant developments in the populist-versus-mainstream struggle have been taking place in Europe, and our theme section devotes most of its attention to that continent. Henry Milner and John Erik Fossum provide an overview. Milner takes a wide-ranging look at the erosion of democracy, while Fossum analyzes the nature of populism and its ambivalent relationship with the European Union.

Five articles look at the varying ways in which these dynamics are playing out in different parts of Europe. Philipp Harfst acknowledges Germany’s apparent stability, but notes that the populist Alternative for Germany has gained representation in a series of regional elections. John Richards is only mildly comforted by Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory in France, and looks ahead to Britain’s June election. He describes political institutions in both countries as being in “disarray.” Filip Kostelka and Eva Krejčová report on the methods Russia is using to reestablish its influence in its former empire, Central and Eastern Europe. Giorgio Malet provides background to Italy’s two “electoral earthquakes” of 1994 and 2013. Paul Lucardie explains why if the Dutch election of March 15 wasn’t a victory for Geert Wilders’s populist Freedom Party, it wasn’t exactly a defeat either.

Although Europe is our main focus, we don’t ignore the United States. Ronald Beiner searches for the core of “Bannonism,” which may well survive as a movement regardless of whether chief strategist Steve Bannon remains in favour in the White House. Gareth Morley examines the significance of Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Trump and his context are also the subject of two political columns. Reg Whitaker is concerned about the loss of democratic trust and the possibility of authoritarian rule. Garth Stevenson finds in Trump echoes of earlier populists like William Jennings Bryan and Huey Long, and even such mainstream figures as John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Turkey is another country where democracy has been subject to increasing authoritarian pressures, and we are fortunate to have the distinguished Turkish political scientist Ilter Turan provide background to the April 16 referendum in which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan narrowly won his bid for increased powers.

Canada has been essentially a bystander in these developments. But two Canadian issues examined here show that Canada is not isolated from what is happening in the rest of the world. In a follow-up to his analysis of Vancouver’s housing bubble a year ago, Josh Gordon looks at both Vancouver and Toronto and notes the “toxic” social effects of unaffordable housing, which has its roots in capital flight from China. He proposes a remedy, one that found its way into the recent bc election campaign.

Also in this issue:

*   While finding that, overall, Canadian schools are doing well at integrating immigrants, John Richards also identifies trends that raise doubts about whether this success can continue.

*   Mathieu Wade finds that while New Brunswick is a bilingual province, New Brunswickers have not succeeded in becoming a bilingual people.

*   In an interview with Gareth Morley, Craig Jones of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws expresses qualified approval of Ottawa’s proposed legislation legalizing cannabis.

*   Arthur Milner looks at two ways of crossing North America’s “great divide.”

*   As we mark the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, I review a book that is highly critical of the notion that Vimy marked the birth of the Canadian nation.

As a writer who gained fame primarily by capturing a cultural moment that has long since passed, Jack Kerouac (1922–1969) could easily have faded from consciousness. He was, and remains, best known for his novel On the Road, published in 1957, whose popularity was one of the early signs of widespread cultural rebellion among American youth. But Kerouac and that rebellion soon parted ways; unlike his friend Allen Ginsberg, he never made the transition to the very different cultural atmosphere of the 1960s, and his alcohol-shortened life was over by that decade’s end.

Since then, however, there has been a steady stream of biographies, academic studies, symposia, critical editions of his work, and references to Kerouac in likely and unlikely places. Two such references I chanced upon recently indicate the range: In a 2016 article on “spiritual hitchhiking,” Peter and Sharon Lauricella cite the Kerouac of On the Road as the prototype of the spiritual hitchhiker.1 In Quebec writer (and television presenter) Claudine Bourbonnais’s 2014 novel Métis Beach, Kerouac is a character who is always in the background and sometimes in the foreground. Bourbonnais’s protagonist is a Quebecer who undertakes his own journey across the United States, with a passage from Kerouac to send him on his way.2 Nearly half a century after his death, there can be little doubt that Kerouac is an enduring figure.

Since the opening of the Kerouac archives at the New York Public Library in 2006, much previously unknown Kerouac material has come to light. Two noteworthy new collections of unpublished Kerouac writings give some clues to the reasons for his endurance.

“When I cry I always cry in French”

Jack was born Jean-Louis Lebris (Ti-Jean) de Kérouac in Lowell, Massachusetts. His parents were among the hundreds of thousands of migrants who left the struggling farms of rural Quebec in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to work in the mill towns of New England. Ti-Jean’s native language was French, and he spoke no English until he was six years old. As an adult writer, he would often write in French before translating his material into English, and even when he wrote in English there was a French cast to his thought. “In a sense,” writes Jean-Christophe Cloutier, who edited the collection of Kerouac’s French writings, La vie est d’hommage, and prepared English translations of some of the same works for The Unknown Kerouac, “we’ve always been reading Kerouac in translation.”

At the same time, his fondest wish was to escape his Quebec roots, to become a “real American man,” a wish that played out in his wild cross-country adventures with Neal Cassady that became the subject matter of On the Road. He also wanted to be a great American writer like his early role model, Thomas Wolfe, and he pursued that ambition with his first novel, The Town and the City (1950). But he was deeply affected by a review of that book that appeared in Le Travailleur, a newspaper based in Worcester, Massachusetts, whose mission was to uphold the traditional French-Canadian value of survivance, survival of the French language and Catholic religion in the Anglo-American Protestant sea. The reviewer, the noted Franco-American journalist Yvonne Le Maître, while favourable to the book, criticized Kerouac for hiding his French-Canadian ethnicity and his origins in a French-speaking family. In a letter to Le Maître, Kerouac told her of his desire to write novels in French and said that he refashioned English to fit French images.

This duality – perhaps the eternal duality of the French Canadian from the earliest days of New France, habitant and voyageur – was a constant in Kerouac’s life. Even as he became famous as one of the leading writers of the Beat Generation, he continued to live with his mother, Mémère. He shared the Beats’ affinity for Eastern religions, but he described himself as a “strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.” When a New York Post reporter interviewed Jack and Mémère in their home in 1959, Mémère took him up to Jack’s bedroom and pointed to a crucifix over his bed: “If he was so bad, would he have that?” And pointing to a rosary, “And that?”3

“American writers who write and speak only one language are lucky”

At the heart of both these new collections are two novellas that Kerouac wrote in French in the early 1950s, one entitled La nuit est ma femme (The Night is my Woman) and the other entitled Sur le chemin in French and Old Bull in the Bowery in English. Kerouac himself translated bits of the two novellas into English, and Jean-Christophe Cloutier has completed the translations. Cloutier, a native of Quebec who now teaches English at the University of Pennsylvania, also translated a few passages of Old Bull that were originally written in English into French. Cloutier’s work in bringing these novellas to publishable form went beyond editing and translation to something resembling archeology, like deciphering the inscription on an Assyrian stele or piecing together fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This was especially true of Old Bull, much of which was found in pieces in various notebooks in the archives, handwritten and sometimes heavily revised.

The French in which Kerouac wrote was not the French of Paris or even Montreal but the French he heard in his childhood in the homes and streets of Lowell. Its grammar is informal, its spelling is inconsistent and it is laced with English words, but like other popular varieties such as Yiddish and African American Vernacular English, it is powerfully expressive. Kerouac wrote in this language because for him “the language called Canadian French” was “the strongest in the world.” In this he differed from the joual writers of Quebec whose writing in working-class vernacular served a Quebec nationalist agenda. Kerouac’s agenda was simply to find the best vehicle for his memories and experiences.

The pungency of Kerouac’s writing in French does not fully come through in the English translations. On the other hand, the lyrical quality of his English writing is not fully present in his French works. “The reason I handle English words so easily,” he wrote to Yvonne Le Maître, “is because it is not my own language.”

Among other things to be found in the two collections are letters and short reflections, fragments in French of novels that eventually appeared in English, and an extraordinary journal that Kerouac began when he was being treated for thrombophlebitis in the Veterans’ Administration Hospital in the Bronx in August 1951 and kept up until November. It is in this journal that Kerouac made what appears to Cloutier to be his definitive statement about the relationship between the two languages:

Il faut vivre en Anglais, c’est impossible vivre en Francais.
This is the secret thought of the Canuck in America.
C’est important aux Anglais – it’s important to the English … so the Canuck does it.

“ In Montreal I was so homesick to come back home to Lowell … that I was almost sick ”

And yet, despite Kerouac’s self-idenfication as a “Canuck,” his relationship with the actually existing Canada – French Canada – a few hundred kilometres from his native Lowell was always a rocky one. The quote above was inspired by a childhood trip to Montreal in 1934. A visit to Montreal at the height of his creative period in 1953 again left him disillusioned. And when he came to Montreal in 1967 he found himself completely out of step with the new Quebec of the Quiet Revolution. When he was interviewed on a Radio-Canada television show people laughed at the way he spoke French.

It was only after Kerouac’s death that Quebec began to reclaim him as one of its own. Victor-Lévy Beaulieu’s seminal Jack Kérouac: essai-poulet was published in 1972: “Jack’s work is exemplary because it seems to me to be dense with a reality that for a long time was the French-Canadian reality – Look at Mémère in Lowell, watch her live and may my left hand be cut off if that woman is not typical of us.”4

Kerouac books and studies followed. In 1987 a “Rencontre internationale Jack Kérouac” brought American, Canadian and European scholars, along with surviving Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to Quebec City. In 2007 Le Devoir reviewer Michel Lapierre considered it “deplorable” that historian Yves Roby, in his book on the Franco-Americans, failed to mention Kerouac, “the writer who brought a breath of Quebec, attenuated though it may be, to the English language and American culture.”5 Claudine Bourbonnais’s evocation of Kerouac in her 2014 novel was another indication of the extent to which Kerouac has become a figure in the Quebec imagination. All that was left was for a major Quebec publisher to bring out a collection of Kerouac’s French writings – something that has now been accomplished thanks to Jean-Christophe Cloutier’s painstaking work.

“I m lost, but my work is found”

Although “sur le chemin” is French for “on the road,” the French novella with that title is not at all the same work as the novel published in 1957. In his 1951 journal, Kerouac refers repeatedly to a manuscript he is working on called On the Road, but that is not the 1957 On the Road either; it was published after his death as Visions of Cody. Clearly, “on the road” was more than a book title for Kerouac – it was an existential reality. He was eternally on the road: a spiritual hitchhiker, yes, but also an internally displaced person, uprooted from his old home and never able to find a new one.

Victor-Lévy Beaulieu described Kerouac as “the cherry on the Franco-American sundae”6: the pinnacle, and at the same time the end. The Franco-American community could not have produced a Kerouac at any other time, for the institutional foundations of the rich French life in which Ti-Jean grew up were crumbling, and by the end of his life they were gone.

In the years since, this sense of crumbling cultural foundations has become increasingly widespread. In 2016 many of us are internally displaced persons, even – no, especially – the “real American man,” whose cultural alienation has reached the point that he has allowed himself to be seduced by so unlikely a saviour as Donald Trump. The area around the VA Hospital in the Bronx where Kerouac began his 1951 journal is now predominantly Spanish-speaking, with overtones of Mexico and the Dominican Republic. I suspect that Kerouac – at least the early Kerouac, before he became hardened and cynical – would have enjoyed “sketching” (in words) this neighbourhood, but many others see in such places the loss of the America they once knew.

“We must yield to the evidence,” writes Jean Christophe Cloutier. “Kerouac remains, above all, an American.” But what was perhaps most American about him was his duality, and it was only after he fully embraced this duality that he fulfilled his dream of becoming a great American writer.

Continue reading “The enduring Jack Kerouac”

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.


Inroads editors are split between “hawks” and “doves” on the question of military intervention in Syria. John Richards and Dominic Cardy have been critical of the Obama administration for drawing what they see as the wrong conclusions from the Iraq civil war post-2003.1 Henry Milner came to the defence of Obama and suggested the editors read a recent article by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Richards decided to air Inroads’ “dirty linen” and posted the Power article to the listserv, acknowledging the obvious: Inroads editors disagree. The debate took off from there.

From: John Richards | October 9

Henry Milner has recommended that the editors read a recent New York Review of Books (NYRB) article by Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the UN.2 Power is a very smart policy wonk who has preferred to argue from the inside rather than the outside of the Obama administration. Having made her existential choice, she cannot advocate military actions that run counter to the U.S. administration. Historically, however, she has been a “liberal hawk.” She equivocated on the Iraq invasion in 2003, saying that it would probably improve the lives of Iraqis because Saddam was a monster but would open the United States to massive criticism in the Middle East as a neocolonialist.

I agree with much of the NYRB article. For example, she emphasizes that, in many deeply troubled countries, the core of the problems are internal political/religious dynamics. For U.S. diplomats to have an influence, they must get out of their embassies and try to understand who is lining up with whom, who is killing whom and why. While she uses Henry Kissinger’s realpolitik as a foil, she winds up agreeing with much of his analysis. She departs from Kissinger inasmuch as she almost certainly favours some form of military intervention in Syria. Her concluding paragraph illustrates her continuing ambivalence about use of unilateral U.S. force:

Yet there are of course some foreign policy dilemmas for which deepening our diplomatic engagement and marshaling global coalitions will not offer a ready solution. Such as when the aspirations of the people in a given country cut against our long-standing relationship with its government. Or when we know that a government’s actions are setting back our shared interests, while it also appears absolutely impervious to our diplomatic and economic pressure to change course. Or when we suspect that exerting pressure on a government to move toward a more open system that respects human rights may actually undermine the limited influence we have over it. These are not hypothetical balancing acts; they are challenges we are confronting right now in our relationships with countries across the world.

From: Garth Stevenson | October 9

The issues raised by John and Henry are complex and important, but let me put my cards on the table at the outset by saying that I agree with Kissinger. The primary purpose of foreign policy, and certainly of defence policy, is to protect the security of your own country and other countries whose security is considered essential to your own. Sending your young men and women overseas to fight and die is the most serious decision a government can make. Kissinger in my opinion is a better exemplar of how to make such decisions than Don Quixote. Trying to impose our version of human rights by military means on countries with totally different cultures and at a different stage of development is a fool’s errand whose consequences cannot be predicted in advance. The only thing for certain is that the longer the intervention drags on the less willing the people of your own country, including those who have to put their boots on the ground, will be to support it.

Building a modern liberal democratic state is a long and difficult process, the work of centuries. Along the way there is bound to be lots of disorder and suffering. In France it took a very bloody revolution and in the United States it took a civil war that killed 2 per cent of the population and left the southern states in ruins. England’s King Henry VIII was just as bad as any of the modern dictators in the Middle East. For better or worse, he was a stage along the road to modernity. I doubt if foreign military intervention in any of the countries I have just mentioned could have made things better, any more than intervention in Syria and Iraq is doing today. More likely it would have made people’s lives even worse, as war usually does. Certainly in Syria today there is no evidence that Western policymakers know whom they are supporting or should be supporting. Although I am not an admirer of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, he was right to stay out of the Nigerian civil war (remember Biafra?) despite the murmurings offstage of certain Canadians who wouldn’t have known one end of a rifle from the other.

Admittedly a foreign and defence policy based on realpolitik may mean supporting some regimes whose domestic policies fall far short of our moral standards. FDR coined the expression “He may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch.” He could have meant Stalin, who was “our son of a bitch” from 1941 to 1945, but actually he was referring to Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua.

Some people may respond that World War II was fought for human rights, but that is not so, although some human rights eventually benefited from the Anglo-American victory. We fought against Germany and Japan not because of their records on human rights (which as of 1939 were better than Stalin’s) but because their geopolitical ambitions threatened our security. Of course, the surrender of Germany and Japan enabled the victors to impose liberal democracy on most of Germany and all of Japan, but that was a fortunate byproduct of fighting the war, not the reason for it.

From: Reg Whitaker | October 9

It’s been a long time since I agreed with anything Garth has written, so I am pleased to note that I agree with almost everything he says here. Campaigns to spread Western “democracy” (by which is normally meant no more than a voting fetish and the further spread of Western capital) at the point of a gun have been disastrous. Worse, debacles like Vietnam and Iraq have not only failed in the field but impacted most grievously on the domestic politics of the intervening powers (particularly the United States over Vietnam and the U.K. over Iraq), building the long-term distrust of government that is the wind in the sails of right-wing populism. LBJ’s Great Society has turned into Donald Trump’s Angry America; Blair’s New Labour led to Brexit. Being systematically lied to by your government about their bloody interventions abroad leads to easy conspiracy theories of how the elites can no longer be believed.

Western interventions for regime change in other parts of the world are indeed doomed not only to fail but likely to make matters worse (e.g., from Saddam Hussein to the Islamic State). Syria is a case in point. There are no “good guys” to back. Nor are there any conceivable good outcomes. Some outcomes might be worse than others, but all are bad.

The trouble with applying external ethics to complex conflicts is not only the culture shock involved in superimposing a set of standards having little overlap with local cultures but also the problem pointed to long ago in Max Weber’s great essay “Politics as a Vocation.” The absolute ethic (to act in strict accordance with one’s notion of right regardless of context) is applicable to saints and hermits answerable only to their God. Politicians have to weigh the consequences of doing the “right thing” when that may cost more lives and suffering than not doing the right thing. They must employ the ethics of consequences.

Garth is quite right that the ethics of consequences may sometimes lead to alliances with the likes of a Stalin. As Churchill said, a deal with the devil to defeat Hitler was necessary. Once Hitler was defeated, the deal was off. Perhaps a deal with the devils Putin and Assad to defeat the Islamic State et al. in Syria might have been a better idea than a half-assed intervention on behalf of one soi-disant “democratic” jihadist gang of thugs or other, in a quixotic quest to unseat Assad.

The one case where I would qualify nonintervention advice is with regard to non–regime change situations where military intervention can at least stop genocide or large-scale massacres of civilians: Rwanda or Bosnia. In Bosnia, bombing Serb positions around Sarajevo quickly put a stop to the years-long nightmare of the assault on that city. It did not impose a solution on the warring parties, but it did set them on the road to settling. This was, I think, the ethics of consequences in action.

From: Arthur Milner | October 10

Haaretz today had this headline on last night’s debate: “On Syria, Trump was much closer to Obama than Clinton was.” That puts Garth, Reg, Donald, Barack and me on one side; John and Hillary on the other.

The combination of realpolitik and liberal interventionism terrifies me. It allows politicians to lie to themselves and to us.

John trusts the West’s motives, though not its competence. I trust neither. To me, Responsibility to Protect is mostly used as cover for a wide variety of sins.

From: Joe Murray | October 10

To throw a few more arguments into the mix:

  1. There is good empirical evidence that resolving violent conflicts one way or the other in resounding fashion results in fewer deaths and casualties than prolonging them. If one criterion for evaluating how well protection of civilians is handled in a situation is deaths and casualties, then it might be best to let the “bad” guys win convincingly as soon as possible, or to be bloody-minded in suppressing the bad guys. Of course, judging when either of those courses is possible/probable is hard.
  2. I have been unclear on what Putin’s motives are. Obviously he wants to reassert a Russian zone of influence, at least near Russia’s borders, and to be seen to do that. Yes, he’s got to test out and prove the worth of his missile and air force rebuilding efforts. And yes, it is to his advantage to keep the fight against fundamentalist Islam outside Russia’s borders and to take away the Islamic State’s “homeland” for training fighters to be sent to Russia. But the refugee flow from the ongoing conflict has helped split Europe, which benefits Russia. So I’m not clear whether he wants to finish the war through a thorough win over the Islamic State or see the continuation of the refugee flows.
  3. A humanitarian right to forcible intervention in the affairs of another state provides a pretext that will be abused to start wars, so the 19th-century opposition to such a right is still valid. We’re better off keeping a bright line against wars and in favour of the Westphalian doctrine of nonintervention in the internal affairs of other states.
From: John Richards | October 10

Whether the West, the United States in particular, should intervene more aggressively in the Middle East, and if so how, are “big questions” about which very smart people obviously disagree. Maybe your team is right, Arthur, and mine wrong. Here, however, are a few questions for your team to contemplate:

  1. If the West does not intervene in an attempt to end the Syrian civil war, will the proxy states supporting the war escalate their hostilities into a regional conflagration pitting Shi’a against Sunni powers?
  2. (bonus question) What will be the fate of the Kurds?
  3. Will the EU elect many conservative populist governments that eliminate Schengen, put an end to the euro, close borders, curtail immigration?
  4. As of now, approximately 500,000 have died in the Syrian civil war, about three times more than died in the post-2003 Iraq civil war triggered by the U.S. invasion. What is your estimate of the total casualties if it carries on for another five years?
From: John Richards | October 11

In this issue of Inroads, my friend Paul Delany reviews three books on the post-2003 war in Iraq. As a supplement to his review I add another perspective, that of Chris Hill, the “realist” ambassador to Iraq sent to reach a pragmatic solution that would enable the United States to leave Iraq ASAP and the author of a recent memoir.3

The Inroads editorial team is probably bored with my obsessive interest in events in Baghdad in 2010 when, in my opinion, Obama’s team made a fatefully wrong decision. So be it. These are events that deserve rethinking.

Obama and Hillary Clinton, then his secretary of state, enabled Nouri al-Maliki, a sectarian Shi’i, to enjoy a second term as prime minister despite having narrowly lost the 2010 general election. Maliki was willing to implement the wishes of Tehran, which in turn transformed much of the disempowered Sunni Arab elite into supporters of the Islamic State.

Last year I reviewed Emma Sky’s memoir The Unraveling in Inroads.4 Her book is essentially the version of events as perceived by Ray Odierno, the general in charge of the 2007–10 surge that ended the Iraq civil war, and David Petraeus, the general who designed the surge. The success of the surge enabled a reasonably fair election to tale place in 2010, which gave a narrow plurality to a secular Shi’i leader, Ayad Allawi, willing to compromise with the Sunni Arab minority and the Kurds.

Clinton chose Hill as U.S. ambassador to Baghdad in 2009. He was to be the civilian outsider, a realist free from any sympathy with the army view that, at great cost in life and treasure, the surge had salvaged American honour. As with the various narrators in Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic portrayal of alternative narratives), Hill’s version of events in Baghdad bears little resemblance to that of Emma Sky.

Roger Harrison, former U.S. ambassador to Jordan who currently teaches political philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy, has written an insightful review of both Sky’s and Hill’s memoirs.5 “The best we could hope for now,” writes Harrison in summary of Hill’s version of events, “was the emergence of a somewhat milder and more inclusive version of the sectarian- and tribal-based autocracy we had come to Iraq to overthrow. That meant a new strong man, and there was, Hill thought, no real alternative to Maliki.” In Harrison’s telling, Hill could not understand that “pragmatism is not always a virtue”:

No wonder Hill and Odierno pulled in opposite directions. Odierno, by more reflective, had become the keeper of the narrative flame , with Sky as his torchbearer. Perhaps a wiser or more adaptable diplomat than Hill would have understood that those who had fought the battle required one final effort to salvage more than mere stability from all the sacrifice and blood that had gone before. Pragmatism argued otherwise, but pragmatism is not always a virtue. He might have understood that any remaining hope depended on a concerted effort of U.S. civilian and military leadership, and that he was fated to be the junior member in this partnership, the “wingman,” as Petraeus had patronizingly dubbed Hill’s predecessor, Ryan Crocker. Crocker had been quietly effective in that role. But Iraq seems to have confounded Hill, just as it confounded the country he represented. What had begun for the U.S. government in confusion and tragedy was now destined to end the same way.

From: Patrick Balena | October 12

John, going back to your post of October 10, I think that your first question reveals a lack of understanding of the nature of war. What do you mean by “intervene in an attempt to end the Syrian War”?

All of the parties involved in the Syrian War are attempting to end the war. The problem is that each party wants the war to end differently, and is willing to kill to make the difference. When you participate in the war, you become another of those warring parties.

What you do in a war is kill people and destroy things, and threaten to kill even more people and destroy even more things, until your enemies, hopefully, yield to your political demands. You kill and destroy to make the difference you want.

So the real questions for you, John, would be these: Whom do you want to kill in Syria? What do you want to destroy? What are your political demands? What is your desired end state, and how much destruction are you willing to inflict – and perhaps endure – to achieve it?

Unless we know that you understand at least the first thing about war, it is hard for us to have a reasonable discussion about the matter.

Nevertheless, I’ll venture into the second half of that question of yours. The only significant Sunni power in the region is Saudi Arabia, and the only significant Shi’a power is Iran. If those two don’t go to open war, then none of the lesser countries are likely to go to open war. The comforting thing is that neither has the capability to wage open war against a peer opponent. Therefore, the sort of proxy conflict taking place between them today is likely to be the worst that we’ll see in the near future.

By far the bigger danger posed to the world by the Syrian War is the possibility of an escalation that would involve direct fighting between powers from outside the region: NATO and Russia. It feels strange even to be writing such a thing, but the risk has become, as the saying goes, “nontrivial.”

Your fourth question provided some estimates of casualties in Iraq and Syria. Do you know that the figure of 470,000 deaths in the Syrian War, given by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), is derived from a sampling method similar to, and indeed looser than, the methodology employed by the Lancet, which estimated surplus mortality from the Iraq War?

If you cite a half-million people slain in Syria, you should also accept the death toll in Iraq, approaching one million, which was calculated by the second Lancet survey. If not, you need to explain why a looser sampling method used by SCPR for Syria would be more reliable than the sampling method used by the Lancet for Iraq.

Since you say “three times more,” it would seem to me that you’re comparing the SCPR totals to the Iraq noncombatant deaths estimate given by the Maliki government, which was 130,000. That figure was from, I believe, 2008 or 2009. Since the Maliki government was collaborating with the invading powers in Iraq, the figure would naturally have to be considered lowball. Obviously, more people in Iraq have died in fighting that has taken place since then, although the intensity of fighting has been less than the 2006–07 peak.

Myself, I am suspicious of peacetime sampling methods when employed in war zones. Are the figures derived really all that useful? In any case, these are wars taking place on a substantial scale, and the loss of life, whether combatant or noncombatant, has been fairly heavy.

From: John Richards | October 14

Patrick, you take me to task over the relative deaths attributable to the U.S.-U.K. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the post-2011 civil war in Syria. I admit I took the 500,000 Syrian death toll from recent news stories, and have done no digging into the legitimacy of that estimate. In the case of Iraq, I tend to believe the Iraq Body Count (IBC) methodology over the extrapolation of dubious sampling undertaken by the Lancet. The IBC arrived at a total of civilian deaths between 2003 and 2010 of 116,000. The IBC adds another 50,000 deaths for the 2011–16 period.

Surely, the blame for resumption of hostilities post-2010 is attributable primarily to the corrupt sectarian government led by Maliki who, more or less, did Tehran’s bidding. Finally, in 2014, in the wake of Islamic State military successes, a combination of domestic Kurdish and Sunni Arab groups, abetted by the Americans, forced his resignation. Maybe, Patrick, you are right to suggest more died in Iraq than in Syria. Your overall conclusion is an understatement that both of us can agree on: the loss of life in both wars “has been fairly heavy.”

While the initial invasion of Iraq was incompetently managed and Bush and Blair bear responsibility for that, the American military learned from the errors of their political masters and had, by 2010, brought about a peace, a new status quo better in almost all respects than the dictatorship run by Saddam pre-2003. As Harrison acknowledges in his review of Sky’s and Hill’s memoirs, Obama’s team was so keen to get out of Iraq that they allowed a sectarian Shi’a thug, not much better than Saddam, to retain power despite having lost a reasonably fair election.

Patrick, I assume your pointed questions to me constitute the case against Western intervention in Syria. Answering these questions to my satisfaction, let alone yours, is beyond the space that the editors are willing to afford us. But I will make a stab.

For your questions to make sense, you presumably conclude that any NATO or U.S.-led intervention will kill more people and inflict more destruction than extrapolation of the status quo ante. The same implicit conclusion underlies critics of U.S.-U.K. intervention in Iraq and NATO intervention in Libya. Critics of Western intervention in the Middle East may, in each case, be right. But maybe not. Increasingly, military and political leaders in Paris, London and Washington are abandoning their post-Iraq conclusions that the international community should live with whatever religious-inspired civil wars arise in the Middle East – and whatever tactical moves Putin undertakes. I admit there is NATO self-interest at play. The wave of Middle Eastern refugees has disrupted politics-as-usual in the EU more dramatically than at any point since World War II.

There is no certainty here, but I submit that some combination of safe havens for refugees within Syria, destruction of Assad’s air force, more arms to the Kurds and more NATO special forces would reduce cumulative casualties relative to extrapolating the status quo. Furthermore, these options might well improve the odds of a diplomatic compromise among the major actors outside Syria: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia and NATO.

I have no illusions of transforming Iraq and Syria into Nordic social democracies. But it is worth recalling cases where unilateral, unsanctioned military intervention has improved matters. When East Pakistan seceded in March 1971, the Pakistani army quickly assumed control. By the summer, up to 10 million refugees had fled to India. In December 1971 the Indians launched a unilateral invasion, and quickly routed the Pakistani army. A low estimate of casualties over the nine-month civil war is 300,000. Whatever the inadequacies of the government installed by the Indians,6 few Bangladeshi regret the invasion.

From: Patrick Balena | October 14

John, it took a lot of verbiage just to get you moving away from the empty formula “attempting to stop the war in Syria” and to a grudging admission that you want NATO to wage war against the Syrian government (“Assad’s air force”). Now at least we know whom you want to kill.

You still shy away from most of the implications of making war. For example, you seem to think that you can pick and choose which service branches of another country’s armed forces you want to fight. I think that is absurd. Has the Syrian government agreed to limit a war according to the terms you specify? Do you believe that the allies of the Syrian government will stand by and watch you wage war à la carte?

Serbia had no allies; Iraq had no allies; Libya had no allies. Those were all countries where the United States or NATO could pick and choose the kind of war they wanted, against a completely isolated opponent that was too weak to alter the terms of the confrontation. But Syria does have allies. While I know that Syria’s allies are much inferior to NATO, nevertheless they might have sufficient power to alter the terms of the confrontation if they so choose.

The military matchups, and ultimate casualty tolls, are endlessly arguable or unknowable until determined empirically. However, you must recognize that there is an elementary power-political difference between the Syrian case and those three above-mentioned triumphs of liberal interventionism.

This brings me to the second thing there is to know about war: no one party to the conflict gets to say in what way it is fought, or how long it continues. The war does not end until there are no more parties willing to fight. No single party can ever end a war, but any single party can insist that the war go on, and any single party can escalate or widen a war. That’s one of the reasons why it is always easier to get into a war than to get out of one.

While it is essential to think about what you want when you wage war, it is not good enough to think only about what you want. You must think mostly about the enemy. You may persuade yourself that it would make no sense for the enemy to continue to resist. But are you certain the enemy reasons in the same way? Do you know why they fight? Do you know what they think is at stake?

It is ludicrous to participate in a war for the sake of reducing casualties. You don’t control how long the war lasts, or how hard others choose to fight. Even when we speak of a “decisive victory” in a war, it is not the victor who makes that decision, but the vanquished.

Your remark about the “incompetently managed” invasion of Iraq in 2003 brings into sharp relief your failure to understand this second thing about war. It was never a question of how the invading powers “managed” their war against Iraq. The point is, other parties decided to fight, and that’s what made the Iraq War what it became.

The invaders assumed that because they were incomparably superior, and because the Iraqi government was weak and unpopular, therefore nobody else in Iraq would mount or sustain a meaningful armed resistance. The invaders’ assumption about their own strength was correct, but the conclusions they drew, no matter how rational in their own minds, proved quite false in the event. Advocates of the Iraq War did not seem to comprehend that a war doesn’t end until everybody else says so.

Do you remember all the stupid talk about “dead enders” in the first few months of that war? Over a decade later, it turned out that some former Iraqi Ba’athist officers were providing military advice to the Islamic State. For a dead end, that road has led awfully far – and the world is still on for the ride.

From: Patrick Balena | October 16

While John might be happier to let the Syrian question drop, nevertheless I think it is necessary for me to drive home the point of how ludicrous, indeed monstrous, it would be for NATO to wage war on the Syrian government for any ostensibly humanitarian purpose.

This listserv’s discussion of the Syrian refugee problem has so far been focused on the EU. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that the largest host of people who fled their homes during the Syrian War – by a wide margin – is the Syrian government. In fact, according to International Committee of the Red Cross and Syrian Red Crescent estimates, the Syrian government is looking after about five million refugees.

That is roughly as many refugees as all of the countries outside Syria put together. The most important direction of refugee flow, throughout the conflict, has been from rebel-controlled or disputed regions toward government-controlled regions of Syria. No matter how one may try to explain away or spin it, the fact remains: Assad’s Syria is doing more to look after refugees than any other country.

Now does it make any sense, from a humanitarian point of view, for NATO to wage war on the state that has been coping with a bigger humanitarian crisis than anybody else? Why would a self-described humanitarian want to further weaken or further disrupt that state? Have you considered what it be like if Damascus, crowded with refugees from all over Syria, got bombarded even a fraction as badly as Aleppo?

John, would the excuse be, to use your words, “NATO self-interest at play” Continue reading “Can military intervention reduce casualties – or is it a fool’s errand?”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence. New York: Schocken, 2015. 305 pages.
Does religion cause violence? On one level, the answer would appear to be obvious, as we witness sustained religious war in the Middle East on a scale that has led some to evoke Europe’s Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century. And for some observers, the question does not need to be pursued much further. Thus the neuroscientist Sam Harris, whose 2004 book The End of Faith launched his career as an antireligious polemicist, sees a direct and inextricable link between the holy book of Islam and the violence that has been such a prominent feature of the early years of the 21st century: “If you believe anything like what the Koran says you must believe in order to escape the fires of hell, you will, at the very least, be sympathetic with the actions of Osama bin Laden.”1

As might be expected, things are not quite so simple for former British Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who sees the chain of causation in a somewhat different way. Sacks devotes the first part of his new book Not in God’s Name to mapping out the factors in human life that lead to violence:

Violence has nothing to do with religion as such. It has to do with identity and life in groups. Religion sustains groups more effectively than any other force. It suppresses violence within. It rises to the threat of violence from without. Most conflicts and wars have nothing to do with religion whatsoever. They are about power, territory and glory, things that are secular, even profane. But if religion can be enlisted, it will be.

Of course there is more to it than that. Group identity is more likely to lead to violence if it is reinforced by dualism, and especially what Sacks calls “pathological dualism,” a “mutant form” of group identity that “sees humanity itself as radically, ontologically divided into the unimpeachably good and the irredeemably bad.” Sacks also follows the French cultural anthropologist and literary critic René Girard in maintaining that it’s violence that causes religion rather than the other way around: “All societies generate internal conflict that can become violent and self-destructive. Therefore all societies require religion, which performs the task of ‘casting out’ the violence, deflecting it away from the group itself by placing it on an external victim, thus turning violence outwards instead of allowing it to turn destructively inwards.”

Another important factor is sibling rivalry. Girard saw the root of violence in “mimetic desire,” or wanting what someone else has because they have it. This occurs especially within families, so that sibling rivalry, Sacks writes, plays a central role in human conflict. This factor is especially germane to conflict within the Abrahamic family of religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – as these religions have a sibling relationship with one another. Of course, there has been conflict between other religions as well, but conflict between Judaism, Christianity and Islam has been especially intense and long-lasting. For Sacks, this conflict is not just a product of the emergence of the newer Abrahamic faiths, Christianity and Islam, but has its root in a central text of the oldest of them, Sacks’s (and my) own Jewish tradition.

This is the biblical book of Genesis, in which sibling rivalry is a major theme – perhaps the major theme. In generation after generation, one brother or sister is chosen over others: Abel over Cain, Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Rachel over Leah, Joseph over his brothers. Each generation’s conflict plays out in a different way, from Cain’s murder of Abel to Joseph’s ultimate reconciliation with his brothers, but none comes to an easy resolution. Therefore the heart of Sacks’s book is a rereading of these stories to find more positive elements than are present on the surface. Biblical exegesis isn’t a genre that readers expect to encounter in Inroads, but please bear with me as I summarize Sacks’s reimagining of the story of Jacob and Esau. Before I do that, however, we need to step back and look at the question of how religious texts are meant to be read.

This is a crucial point of difference between Sacks on the one hand and both religious fundamentalists and antireligious polemicists like Sam Harris on the other. For the latter, the text means what it appears to mean on the surface. To try to make it mean anything else is to distort it, to bamboozle readers into making them think that religion is something other than what it is. According to Harris, to reform religion is to read Scripture in “the most acrobatic” terms.2

Another word for “acrobatic” in this context is “rabbinic.” (Other traditions have their equivalent terms as well, such as “Jesuitical”). Finding new interpretations of ancient texts is central to the rabbinic enterprise, and it proceeds from the conviction that to do so does not do violence to the text but rather deepens and enriches its meaning. “As in an Escher engraving, the text of the Torah flickers with ambiguity,” writes Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, not a rabbi because of her sex but a brilliant contemporary interpreter of the Bible. “And the reader experiences that inner shift that destabilizes the idolatrous security of meaning. Perhaps only a text that flickers in this way can maintain its power over time.”3

A common technique for finding new meaning is close reading – probing the text for the anomalous word or phrase (or even a single letter) that does not fit with existing interpretations and suggests a previously undiscovered layer of meaning. One word is enough for Sacks to cast the relationship between Jacob and Esau in a more positive light.

The twins

Jacob and Esau are twins, but Esau emerged first and so has the privileges of the eldest son. Esau is a hunter, a man of the field; Jacob “a simple man, dwelling in tents” – but not so simple when it comes to besting his virile but less quick-witted elder brother. Jacob is the favourite of the twins’ mother, Rebecca, while Esau is the favourite of their father, Isaac. This is the story of an ordinary and somewhat dysfunctional family of the second millennium BCE, but also of the line that leads to the people Israel that will establish a covenant with the God YHWH at Mount Sinai.

The climax of the story comes when Isaac is old and blind and wishes to bless his eldest son, Esau, before he dies. Rebecca has been waiting for this moment and sets up Jacob to disguise himself as Esau and obtain the blessing for himself. As soon as Isaac has blessed Jacob, the real Esau comes in, and when he and Isaac find out what has happened, they are both deeply shaken. Isaac has a blessing for Esau as well, but an apparently lesser one. Furious at Jacob’s deception, Esau threatens to kill his brother, and Rebecca saves his life by sending him off to Mesopotamia on the pretext of finding a wife.

Jacob remains in Mesopotamia for 20 years. When he returns with four wives, 12 children and much sheep and cattle, he hears that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Fearing the worst, he goes off by himself and camps overnight, and there he wrestles with a mysterious being, later termed an angel, who gives him a new name, Israel. Then he goes to meet with Esau, who instead of trying to kill him, embraces him. The brothers then go their separate ways.4

This is the story as people who learned a few Bible stories in their childhood generally understand it. Jacob and Esau are pitted against each other. Jacob is chosen, Esau rejected.

But Sacks sees more in the story. Central to understanding it is Jacob’s “mimetic desire.” Jacob wishes to have what Esau has, to be what Esau is. He grasps Esau’s heel as they come out of Rebecca’s womb, buys Esau’s birthright for the proverbial “mess of pottage” and then tricks Esau out of the blessing. The blessing that the blind Isaac gives to Jacob is Esau’s blessing, a blessing of wealth and power.

However, it is rarely noticed that Isaac gives Jacob a second blessing, knowing that he is Jacob, just as he is about to set out for Mesopotamia. This is a blessing of children and land, the blessing of covenant, Jacob’s blessing. But Jacob still needs to renounce the first blessing, the one intended for Esau. And he does. When the brothers meet 20 years later, Jacob offers Esau lavish gifts. Esau says, “I have an abundance, my brother; let what is yours be yours.” But Jacob persists: “Please take my blessing that has been presented to you, for God has been gracious to me, and I have everything.” The text goes on: “And he pressed him, and he took it.”

Here is Sacks’s key word. Why does Jacob say “Take my blessing”? Because, Sacks suggests, he is returning the blessing he had stolen from Esau 20 years earlier. Jacob and Esau each have their own blessing. “The choice of Jacob does not mean the rejection of Esau,” writes Sacks. And this also elucidates the nature of Jacob’s struggle with the mysterious intruder the night before. Jacob was struggling with himself. Would he continue to long to be Esau, or would he accept his own destiny? “Jacob is Jacob, heir to the covenant,” writes Sacks. “Esau is Esau, with his own heritage and blessing … Before Jacob could be at peace with Esau and with himself, he had to overcome mimetic desire, abandon sibling rivalry and learn that he was not Esau but Israel – one who wrestles with God and never lets go.”

Does it matter?

All this may be clever and creative, but does it matter? Even if the core text of sibling rivalry in the Abrahamic family can be interpreted so that it does not lead to conflict, who is listening? Islamic State militants?5 West Bank settlers? Christian fundamentalists?

For Sam Harris, who can dismiss a profound and inflential theologian such as Paul Tillich as attempting “to hide the serpent lurking at the foot of every altar,” the answer is clear. Efforts such as Sacks’s lead nowhere: “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith.”6 Sacks, however, maintains that the problem of religious conflict can be resolved only within a religious context. The world, he observes, is becoming more religious rather than less. This is partly because religions are very useful in the contemporary quest for identity, and partly a simple matter of demography – religious people are having more babies than secular ones. The religious conflicts that tore Europe apart in the 17th century were essentially resolved by depriving religion of power. The religious doctrines that led to these conflicts were not addressed, but “since power had been taken out of religious hands, there was little damage they could do.” However, Sacks writes,

That is no longer the case. In a world of declining superpowers, sclerotic international institutions, a swathe of failed or failing states and a Hobbesian chaos of civil and tribal wars, religious extremists are seizing power. This means that we have little choice but to re-examine the theology that leads to violent conflict in the first place. If we do not do the theological work, we will face a continuation of the terror that has marked our century thus far, for it has no other natural end.

In contrast to Harris’s vision of a world without religions, Sacks puts forward a vision of religions living with one another in mutual respect. I find Sacks’s vision more appealing, but I acknowledge that it will be just as difficult to realize as Harris’s – perhaps more difficult.

Not that Sacks’s vision is without its flaws. While he emphasizes the importance of being self-critical, he studiously avoids even the mildest criticism of the state of Israel. There is a striking example of this avoidance. “For a Jew, Christian or Muslim to make space for the Other,” he writes, “he or she would have to undergo the most profound and disorienting role reversal. A Christian would have to imagine what it would have been like to be a French or German Jew at the time of the Crusades. A Muslim would have to imagine what it would have been like to be a Jew in Baghdad in the eighth century, forced to wear a yellow badge of shame, walk the street with downcast eyes and stand and be silent in the presence of a Muslim.”

Now, would it not be appropriate for the third term in this series to be something like “A Jew would have to imagine what it would be like to be a Palestinian Muslim or Christian living under Israeli rule in the West Bank”? But no. Instead we have a sentence that is not really parallel to the first two: “A Jew would have to imagine what it would be like to be a Christian or Muslim facing the threat of death because of their faith in Syria or Iraq today.”

Another problem arises in relation to the question of where Abrahamic monotheism stands in relation to other traditions. Not in God’s Name is, essentially, a book about Abrahamic monotheism rather than about religion as such, and that is entirely legitimate. However, there are places where Sacks gives the impression that Abrahamic monotheism alone contains the resources for confronting hatred and violence. Thus, in discussing the importance of separating religion from politics, he writes, “Polytheism, with its vision of multiple forces and perennial conflict, is compatible with the sacralisation of politics. Monotheism is not.” Or: “There is a connection between monotheism and letting go of hate … When bad things happen to an individual or group, one can either ask, ‘Who did this to me?’’ or, ‘Given that this has happened, what then shall I do?’ The first is the question a dualist asks, the second is the response of a consistent monotheist.”

Abrahamic religions are the ones I am most familiar with, but the contact I have had with religions outside the Abrahamic family has suggested to me that similar issues arise, and comparable resources for dealing with them exist, in polytheistic Hinduism, nontheistic Buddhism and Western Pagan traditions, to name a few. And monotheism comes with its own issues, which Sacks acknowledges – notably the temptation to proceed from the premise that there is only one God to the conclusion that God loves only those who worship God in the same way I do.

But these weaknesses do not negate all that is humane and constructive in Sacks’s exposition. Since – despite Sam Harris – religion is not about to go away, more voices like that of Jonathan Sacks need to be heard, in all religious traditions. Continue reading “Untangling the relationship between religion and violence”

In the Summer/Fall issue of Inroads, which came out in May, political scientist Irene Martín took the measure of Greece’s new left-wing Syriza government.1 Since then, Greece has rarely been out of the headlines for very long, with repeated loan payment deadlines, negotiations with the “troika” of institutions (European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund), a referendum, a split in the governing party, and a new election in September that returned Syriza to power. In July, as these events unfolded, Inroads listserv participants debated the deeper causes of the Greek crisis.

From: Henry Milner | July 16

The current Inroads has a good piece on Greece up to a month ago by Irene Martin. Following upon recent events, however, hindsight makes obvious that:

  1. The majority of Greeks, given the choice, chose to up the ante, first by electing Syriza and then, via Syriza, by trying to bluff the other players, though holding no cards and already in debt beyond the capacity to repay to the others. This was a strategy bound to fail. Perhaps they held on to the notion that the eurozone countries were terrified of a Grexit, which gave them the illusion that they had cards to play. In fact, it was the Greeks who never for a moment considered the idea of a Grexit, which probably would have allowed the earliest recovery of the Greek economy, though at great short-term cost.
  2. For Greece to stay within the euro, the least bad strategy was to engage in confidence-building measures, showing that it was serious about living within its means by reducing its bloated bureaucracy and ending very early retirement – in essence voluntarily carrying out the measures it has now been forced to undergo – and to seek allies in Europe who would support debt relief measures. By choosing instead to play chicken right to the last possible moment, the Greeks alienated possible allies, in effect confirming the often-expressed views of those who said, on the basis of the sad experience of false national accounts, that you cannot trust the Greeks to do what they say. Which makes it all the harder now for them to get the debt relief that everyone understands is a sine qua non for the economy to recover. To a large extent then, in the last six months as in the profligate years, the Greeks have been the main authors of their own misfortune.

I realize that there are Greeks who gained nothing from the profligacy and who will suffer unfairly. Yet ultimately the responsibility lies with the Greeks who did benefit.

From: Harvey Schachter | July 16

Henry writes, “The majority of Greeks, given the choice, chose to up the ante, first by electing Syriza and then, via Syriza, by trying to bluff the other players, though holding no cards and already in debt beyond the capacity to repay to the others.”

This assumes that Greek voters were thinking like university professors or global strategists.

I doubt it.

They were acting like voters: angry, uncertain and confused. And each person was acting individually, not thinking what should we The Greek People do or knowing what the outcome would be.

I don’t mean to pick on university profs, by the way. Journalists do this a lot, particularly on election night.

It doesn’t take away from what you indicate was the impact of their vote.

From: Garth Stevenson | July 16

I agree with Henry that the Greeks (the politicians more than the people, admittedly) are largely to blame for their own misfortunes. The other thing I would say about the Greek situation is that it proves what Eric Kierans and Robert Bourassa said 40 years ago. Sovereign states trying to share a common currency is a nonsensical idea. It is especially so when some of the partners are much richer than others.

From: Patrick Balena | July 17
  1. Greece should never have joined the currency union to begin with, nor should the other members of the currency union ever have let it join. The whole euro currency affair has been characterized, from its inception, by deliberate overselling and obfuscation on the part of all of the states and institutions concerned.
  2. Foreigners who lent money to Greece need to lose that money. They made a really lousy business decision. Those who lend to sovereign states must – simply must – make a serious assessment of the actual creditworthiness of the borrower, and of what sort of use will likely be made of the funds. Put it this way: if I saw a country with a relatively small population and economy trying to host the 2004 Olympics, there would be no way I’d be subscribing their public bond issues, no matter the yield. In recent times, credit of all kinds, on all scales of action, has been so loose and liberally available that malinvestment predominates everywhere, while lenders and ratings agencies have seemingly lost all ability to do their jobs properly.
  3. At this point, default, or even outright repudiation, is the only practical option for Greece. It is scarcely possible, given the present structure of its economy and the demographic profile of its society, for Greece to generate a sufficient primary surplus to defray more than about a third of its public debt – unless the country itself is to be treated as a set of assets to be seized and liquidated. When I mention the structure of the present Greek economy, I am thinking of such examples of Greece being a Mediterranean country that is a net importer of fresh fruits and vegetables! That should give you an idea of what sort of trade distortions and malinvestment must have been taking place in Greece, and indeed across the European Union, over the past couple of decades.
  4. The tiresome game of “extend and pretend” is being played by all participants. The troika are mostly focused on recapitalizing overextended lending institutions, so they make a series of sternly silly calls on the Greeks for “reforms” while slipping any bailout money to their own banks. The Greek governments, regardless of party, don’t want to take responsibility for telling their people that they can’t be in the eurozone any more, so they’re prevaricating until Force Majeure conveniently arrives on the scene.

This is a tale of neoliberalism, so of course it’s a farce. Things will only really get interesting if Golden Dawn2 wins an election.

From: Henry Milner | July 18

Harvey’s point about interpreting the choice made by the Greek people voting for Syriza is true at one level. The decision was made by individuals, each of whom had their own reasons. But can we leave it there? They had been told clearly over four years by their creditors and by previous governments that the kind of cutbacks now imposed were inevitable. Instead a large enough number voted for an extremist party with no government experience that promised them the impossible. And six crucial months and loads of goodwill were lost. If we believe in democracy, we need to accept the fact that the people can make wrong decisions.

From: Reg Whitaker | July 18

I disagree entirely with both Henry and Garth about Greeks being authors of their own misfortune. The blame game in the euro catastrophe is pointless. Blaming the Greeks for what happened in the past as the basis of a formula for what should be done now (the German “solution”) is plainly irrational, just digging a deeper hole that threatens ultimately to drag in the rest of the eurozone.

Patrick is quite right: “Greece should never have joined the currency union to begin with, nor should the other members of the currency union ever have let them join.” The idea of a monetary union without a fiscal union is, and always was, foolish.

But there was complicity all around when members broke the fiscal guidelines that were supposed to emulate a common fiscal policy (and that even includes the Germans at one point). The German and French banks went to town encouraging the Greeks (and the Spanish and the Portuguese and the Irish and the Italians etc.) to keep on borrowing to support the banks’ reckless calculation of their windfall profits, all the while winking at departures from the fiscal guidelines.

There is a clear analogy to the U.S. subprime-fuelled housing bubble that led to the great financial crash of 2008: banks waved cheap up-front mortgages at people who had no capacity to pay in the long run, and then securitized the debt and sold it globally, while paying themselves huge bonuses on the basis of unrealized and unsubstantiated profits based on the speculative house of cards.

Goldman Sachs made close to $800 million selling the Greeks on a secret loan of €2.8 billion disguised as an off-the-books “cross-currency swap” – converting foreign-currency debt into a domestic-currency obligation using a fictitious market exchange rate. Then the whole thing exploded in the Greeks’ face, with them left to foot a ballooning bill while Goldman Sachs walked away with its near-billion-dollar profit.

In both cases, the banks then blamed the victims of their con-job salesmanship, demanding multibillion-dollar bailouts for themselves – and let the devil take care of the victims in the aftermath.

Be it noted unequivocally: there is no “bailout” of Greeks, only a bailout of banks. For their part, the Greeks are consigned to ever harsher levels of austerity which make it ever more difficult to pay off the ever-growing obligation to the banks. There is no way the Greeks can pay off this staggering bill, ever, as the IMF has made clear.

In the early 1950s, Germany faced even more massive debts, stemming from its moral culpability for two world wars. In an act of enlightened self-interest, the creditor countries recognized that forcing the Germans to pay it all would be self-defeating for everyone (see Keynes, Economic Consequences of the Peace). Half their total debt was forgiven, and they were required to pay back the rest only as GDP growth permitted.

Now these same Germans – who, be it noted clearly, as an export-driven economy have benefited enormously from the weak euro resulting from the Greek debt crisis – sanctimoniously demand that the Greeks bear the entire burden of the disaster.

Apart from the sheer hypocrisy involved here, the plain fact is that the Greeks can’t possibly bear the entire burden, or even a large portion of it. The result would be a humanitarian catastrophe that would shame Europe, if it can still be shamed, or the coming to power in Greece of the Nazi Golden Dawn, just as Hitler rose on the disaster of the debt-ridden Weimar Republic.

From: John Erik Fossum | July 18

I thought Henry was putting too much of the blame on the Greeks. It is difficult to think that the EU was unaware of what the general situation was in Greece. There was, for instance, lots of talk about an implementation deficit way back in the 1990s, and the European Commission cannot have been entirely unaware of the economic situation there when it admitted Greece into the eurozone. So part of the story would seem to be neglect. And, I should add, perhaps also EU impotence to deal with structural flaws and defects in the member states, stemming largely from member states jealously guarding their prerogatives and preventing the EU from taking positive action.

Another factor pertains to the monetary union which is not only highly lopsided but also now based on an unsustainable economic philosophy (growth through austerity). A monetary union without a stabilizing fiscal union and very tough measures to punish those that fail to comply is inherently vulnerable (the chain is never stronger than its weakest link). Competitiveness gains cannot come from devaluation and therefore will almost inevitably come in the form of regressive social policies. The main casualty is the European social systems.

One might even be tempted to say that it might be a kind of counter-countercyclical system that punishes those in recession and locks them into a monetarist straitjacket that will at best allow them very limited patterns of growth. Note also that Germany and France were among the first to violate the stability pact in 2003, creating the need for tougher sanctions. A major reason for the German breach stemmed from the heavy costs of German unification. So it seems hypocritical of Germans to pontificate over profligate Greeks. It might be useful to remind them of the vast sums they spent to absorb East Germany.

A third factor is that the European Monetary Union became a zero-sum game, and Germany, through the socially regressive Hartz reforms under Gerhard Schröder, became the most competitive economy in the eurozone, with very strong exports to the BRICs.3 So a monetary union system created with hopes of engendering convergence has seen deep divergence. It is also worth keeping in mind that Germany has benefited to the tune of hundreds of billions from the low value of the euro as opposed to the Deutsche mark.

Fourth, whereas they (Schäuble) insist that EU law prohibits giving debt relief, the Outright Monetary Transactions that the European Central Bank has launched are of dubious legal status. They have throughout the crisis “stretched” the treaties to make them work their purposes. Finally, the two previous bailouts for Greece may have been as much motivated by the goal of rescuing their own banks as by restoring Greece to economic viability. In many ways the measures were preemptive – to prevent the massive fallout from a Grexit.

This is not to say that there are not big internal problems in Greece; there certainly are. Greece needs modernization, and a workable public system. But the crisis has exposed deep structural flaws in the EU construct, and the way the EU has handled the crisis earns it little credit. There has been quite a bit of integration, but through strengthening the EU’s intergovernmental quasi-diplomatic components at the cost of democratic and constitutionally sanctioned procedures. A major casualty has therefore been democratic constitutionalism in Europe. The present situation is a toxic mixture of recognition denied (in debtor states) and regressive patterns of redistribution.

From: Henry Milner | July 19

I don’t think where blame lies is the issue. The question is how to understand the current situation. Initially I thought that with the expression of willingness to reduce tax cheating and take a few other measures described by Irene Martín, the Syriza government was negotiating in some semblance of good faith. It turned out, especially when they called a referendum in support of their refusal to act, that this was not the case.

The simple fact is that this spring the Greeks were still continuing to increase their indebtedness, i.e. to live well beyond their means on other people’s money. It has been long understood that to live within their means, the Greeks had to reduce bureaucracy, cut early pensions and raise the VAT. This is something that was supposed to happen last fall, but the election put it off – until the day the money ran out.

This brings us to the question of debt relief. How the Greeks expected their creditors to forgive their debt when they were continuing to build it up is something I cannot understand. Of course, if the decisions were entirely in the hands of technocrats in Frankfort and Brussels, such subjective factors could be expected to be irrelevant. But the decision lies in the hands of politicians accountable to voters. It’s easy to attack the Germans, but the Germans’ feelings are largely shared in the eurozone, especially among the poorer countries that have not had the largesse from which Greece benefited.

The analogy to 1950s Germany brought forward by Reg is way off. It had no bloated bureaucracy, no army of young pensioners. Though very poor, without the means of repaying its debts, it had immense unused capacity. The Marshall Plan made perfect economic sense.

In simple economic terms, the best thing here would likely be haircuts for all: for the Greeks to leave the euro in a structured manner with the help of Brussels and Frankfort. But the Greeks are determined to maintain the illusion of being rich that the euro provides, and expulsion would have been seen as punishing the victim.

From: Reg Whitaker | July 19

Let me fix on one element that rather leaps out for me, beyond the cockeyed economics of neoliberal austerity robotically applied where it can only make things worse. I am speaking about the political dimension, of how the once infamous democratic deficit in the architecture of European union has now turned into something much, much worse: an authoritarian coup by the unrepresentative and unaccountable elites of wealth and power that seek to go beyond simply ignoring, to actively punishing, those who have dared challenge them in the name of ordinary people.

Pinochet (Wolfgang Schäuble) has rounded up the leading left-wing suspects (the Greeks) in the soccer stadium holding tank. But whatever torture (austerity) is inflicted on the Greeks is not an end in itself, but an example: pour encourager les autres. The prisoners are, to be sure, offered a Hobson’s Choice: they can stay in the stadium and await their fate at the hands of the police, or they can leave – and promptly plunge into the chaos of a return to the drachma under conditions of financial collapse and international quarantine. Some choice.

Thus, henceforth no one should dare to challenge German hegemony, or they will be subjected to the same treatment as the Greeks today. Take note, Spaniards, Portuguese, Italians or anyone else who veers from the path of obedience to Berlin.

Henry explains this all as follows: “A large enough number voted for an extremist party with no government experience that promised them the impossible. And six crucial months and loads of goodwill were lost. If we believe in democracy, we need to accept the fact that the people can make wrong decisions.”

Syriza “an extremist party”: the words of the Euro elites. It is “extremism” to assert democracy at the only level of Europe where people can actually elect more or less accountable governments, the national level. Democratic opposition is indeed forced to extremes when there is no normal, institutional, outlet.

Unfortunately, most of the Eurosceptic opposition has taken the form of far right-wing nationalist populism. Like UKIP in the United Kingdom, or LePen and the Front National in France, or the openly racist anti-immigrant neofascist movements in many other countries. Syriza is emphatically not like that at all. Nor is Podemos in Spain. These are progressive left movements with national democratic aspirations that eschew immigrant scapegoating and focus more on class as an organizational target.

It is quite true that Greek political culture is deeply implicated in clientelism and attendant corruption that is itself a major barrier to democratic advance. Both the old parties, New Democracy on the right and the so-called “socialist” PASOK, were and are no more than patronage scams to enrich their own supporters. They are at the root of the very economic behaviours (like the flagrant tax evasion of wealthier Greeks) that the German Euro cops are now decrying. But these discredited old clientelist parties are the very ones that the same cops want to put back into office, and whose votes Tsipras has now been forced to rely on to enforce Schäuble’s medieval bleeding prescription.

Syriza promised a break from this corrupt old culture, but its tragedy is that it has only arrived in office (not in power!) as a result of the catastrophic crisis in which Greece is engulfed, which gives it no room to do anything but bow to the overlords of the north, and fall back on the old parties to enforce the overlords’ will (“goodwill” in Henry’s words?).

Schäuble et al are determined to crush the “populist” opposition to the Euro elite project. In crushing Syria and its democratic aspirations, they are congratulating themselves. But with more than 50 per cent of young Greeks now unemployed, and that number sure to rise yet further and nothing but endless economic misery on offer, the political prospect may be for the further rise of Golden Dawn which joined Syriza dissidents in voting against accepting the draconian “bailout.” Golden Dawn is not, in my view, properly termed “neo-Nazi”: it is just plain Nazi.

If despairing Greeks turn to this very dark and ugly pretender to democratic expression, Schäuble et al. may have reason to regret their unbending ideological zealotry.

This is where, contra Henry, I think the 1950s forgiveness of German debt does have very high relevance to today. That act was one of enlightened self-interest, and it worked wonders. Where is the matching imagination today?

From: Patrick Balena | July 19

Henry, if you have even the least concern for the prospect of economic and administrative reform in Greece, the only practical place to start is with default. Any other suggestion is, in today’s parlance, “non-serious.”

Trying to maintain as much as possible of Greece’s existing public debt will doom any prospect of effective reforms, because more and more economic activity in that country will simply find its way into the grey or black market. Over time, the parallel economy will become more entrenched than it is already; corruption will become worse than ever.

In order of priorities, the housecleaning in Greece must start with a massive writeoff for the foreign creditors. No worthwhile reforms in Greece can begin until that happens.

Greece cannot become economically competitive while most Greeks are encumbered with high euro-denominated prices for real estate and other fixed costs which have mostly accumulated in recent years. It will take far too long for “internal devaluation” to occur through the eventual renegotiation of myriad contracts involving millions of people in Greece. That is not a practical option.

The only way to make an orderly adjustment is therefore through an external devaluation. This would be easier to do if there was a cooperative effort to help Greece reestablish a separate currency. In any case, whether Greece remains in the eurozone or not, the foreign creditors must get wiped out.

It’s not a question of austerity. Of course there will be austerity. Real and valuable resources were invested in Greece, but those investments were mostly nonproductive. The money was wasted, and it cannot be paid back. That is a plain physical fact.

The question is about the distribution of the austerity. That is a question that neither the various recent governments in Greece, nor any other governments in the EU, seem to be able to handle in a mature and businesslike manner.

I don’t know what it is about today’s capitalists, but they just don’t seem to do physical reality very well.

From: John Richards | July 20

I am willing to follow Reg and others in their denunciation of the behaviour of Goldman Sachs and other financial institutions in New York, London, Paris and Bonn over the two decades leading up to the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008. This was capitalism at its worst. One consequence – among many – was encouraging corrupt governments in Greece to take on too much debt.

I agree also with all those, from the IMF to Paul Krugman, who insist that a necessary condition for Greek economic revival is a major writeoff of debt – or a smoke-and-mirrors equivalent by extending repayment and lowering the interest rate.

But …

Reg acknowledges that “Greek political culture is deeply implicated in clientelism and attendant corruption.” But this is an afterthought. It is not integral to his analysis. It should be. I have no privileged insight into the German elite’s thinking, but a reasonable interpretation of Merkel’s weekend television interview is as follows: “Of course there must be debt relief for Greece, but before we entertain the idea, we want evidence of Greek politicians’ willingness to tackle the many perverse institutional distortions in Greek politics and society.”

While Greece was not part of the Soviet empire, it has suffered similar politicization of all aspects of its economy, with the consequent impact on productivity. Understanding this dimension of the Greek tragedy helps understand the “chorus” of eastern European states that echoed German criticisms. They rightly perceive Greece as the equivalent of what they were a quarter century ago.

Greek writer Nikolas Bloudanis argued recently on the Libération website that, for over a century, Greek nationalism has been perverse in that it acknowledges no internal Greek responsibility for the country’s political problems, first as victims of the Ottomans and finally as victims of the Germans.4 The effect has been to render responsible government impossible. Thomas Piketty and others draw a parallel between Greece now and Germany in the early 1950s when its impossible debt load was written off. The distinction is that no government was more enthusiastic in rooting out past domestic nationalism than the post–World War II German government. The World War II allies agreed to help. Until/unless Greek elites undertake something similar to the cultural revolutions in eastern Europe and Germany over the second half of the 20th century, the eurozone countries remain sceptical and, in their overnight bargaining in Brussels a week ago, they all insisted that the “pain” must precede the “gain.”

Why did the majority of Greeks vote “no” on the recent plebiscite, while polls consistently indicate majority support for keeping the euro? My interpretation is that the plebiscite was an exercise in traditional Greek nationalism, but a majority of Greeks do understand that their political institutions are rotten and there must be change. Will Greek politics change? Perhaps.

From: Henry Milner | July 21

Patrick, there is simply no way Greece can stay in the euro and have all its debts forgiven. It is time to live in the real world. The choice is Greece’s, not mine or yours.

From: Patrick Balena | July 22

In reply to John, I think that a comparison between Greece (and the other 1980s southern European entrants to the EU), and the recent EU entrants in eastern Europe would be intrinsically biased against the Greeks, Spanish and Portuguese.

5_Aluminium_de_Grece

First, the southern European countries joined the EU before the current global tide of trade liberalization and extreme capital mobility. By the time the liberalization wave arrived, Greece, Spain and Portugal had already become relatively high-cost countries and could not really compete on the same terms as the more recent EU entrants. This was a structural adjustment problem that the advocates of EU expansion never addressed.

Second, while countries such as Poland and Slovakia have enjoyed some impressive recent expansion in their industrial sectors, this is largely due to the concomitant expansion of German industrial exports which, as has already been pointed out on the listserv, itself can be seen as evidence of structural trade distortions within the EU. Poland and Slovakia in particular enjoy locational advantages in being relatively low-cost countries close to Germany. Industry in “New Europe” rides on Germany’s coattails. Is it surprising, then, that eastern European governments favour Germany’s point of view in monetary matters?

Third, the eastern European countries have exported labourers to elsewhere in the EU. Countries such as Latvia (which experienced a 15 per cent drop in population, almost all from the younger cohorts) are now heavily dependent on remittances. Absent virgin land, this sort of solution to structural adjustment does not scale well. If Greece and Spain embark on the mass export of labour, that would not steady the EU ship; it would capsize it.

Fourth, all of the eastern European countries have demographic trends pointing to a future of huge unfunded liabilities – and ultimately national extinction. This is true, of course, of the entire developed world, but in few places do the trends manifest to such an extreme as in “New Europe.” Poland has a total fertility rate of 1.32! Even the famed “herbivores” of today’s Japan are more likely to reproduce a future generation of human beings. At this rate, a nation such as Poland, which survived all of its infamous partitions, might well be destroyed by a short spell of integration.

So while I don’t blame eastern European EU members for taking some pride in their programs of reform, and for the success they have earned thereby, if I should personally hear any of them do so in my presence, I would simply tell them that they need to smarten up.

Political economy is not called the “dismal science” for nothing. Continue reading “Greek tragedy – or farce?”

The fuse on the niqab time bomb that exploded during the election campaign was first lit in December 2011. Jason Kenney, then Immigration Minister (and now the subject of much speculation as the likely successor to Harper), issued a ministerial directive requiring citiizenship judges to insist that people uncover their faces while taking the oath of Canadian citizenship. The directive would apply notably to Islamic face coverings such as the niqab.

An immigrant from Pakistan who wears the niqab, Zunera Ishaq, challenged Kenney’s directive in court. Judge Keith Boswell ruled in favour of Ishaq’s challenge in February 2015. While Ishaq’s challenge made an argument in terms of the Charter right to religious freedom, Boswell’s decision was based solely on a technical matter: inconsistency between the ministerial directive and a regulation under the Citizenship Act requiring citizenship judges to “administer the oath of citizenship with dignity and solemnity, allowing the greatest possible freedom in the religious solemnization or the solemn affirmation thereof.”1

The government immediately announced its intention to appeal the decision, and within weeks filed a notice with the Federal Court of Appeal. Meanwhile, the government continued to highlight its support for a ban on the niqab on its website. NDP leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau supported Judge Boswell’s decision.
The Court of Appeal upheld the lower court decision on September 15, in the middle of the federal election campaign. The court’s timing was deliberate, as it wanted to allow Ishaq to take the oath of citizenship in time to vote in the October 19 election – which she did. However, it also threw an unexpected and unpredictable element into the campaign, especially in Quebec. The Conservatives continued to press the issue – among other places in a French-language television ad that listed “acquiring citizenship with face uncovered” as one of the values of Quebecers that they had protected. It became associated with other policies carried out or advocated by the Conservative government, such as the priority given to security concerns in its cautious response to the Syrian refugee crisis, revoking the Canadian citizenship of people convicted of terrorism-related offences and a tip line for reporting “barbaric cultural practices.”

The niqab was the subject of a heated exchange in the September 24 French-language leaders’ debate, with Mulcair and Trudeau squaring off against Harper and Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles Duceppe. It generated much discussion in various corners of Canadian society, including the Inroads listserv, where a debate began in late September and continued into the postelection period (the Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Inroads will carry extensive coverage, based on the listserv debate, of the questions raised by the niqab discussion).

But did it affect the election outcome? It is hard to find evidence of a direct effect. In Quebec, despite polls showing overwhelming support for a ban on wearing the niqab while taking the oath of citizenship, the main shift of votes relative to the 2011 election was from one party that opposed such a ban, the NDP, to another with a similar position, the Liberals. The Liberal share of the vote increased from 14.2 to 35.7 per cent, while the NDP share dropped from 42.9 to 25.4 per cent. The Bloc Québécois, which supported a ban, also saw its share drop, from 23.4 to 19.3 per cent. There was thus a net 17 per cent shift to the Liberals from the NDP and a 4 per cent shift to the Liberals from the Bloc. The Conservatives’ share of the vote changed by only a fraction of a percentage point, from 16.5 to 16.7 per cent.

Both the Bloc and the Conservatives did gain seats in Quebec, with the Bloc rising from four seats to ten and the Conservatives from five to twelve. But those gains were the result not of an overall shift of votes but of geographical concentration and the vagaries of three- and four-way races. Except for Manicouagan, a sprawling constituency on the North Shore of the St. Lawrence River, all the Bloc seats are in a horseshoe to the north and east of Montreal, while the Conservative ridings form a belt stretching from Lac-Saint-Jean through Quebec City to Mégantic on the U.S. border. Eight of the ten Bloc seats, and six of the twelve Conservative ones, were won with less than 40 per cent of the vote.

Nor is there a niqab effect visible in the rest of Canada, where a ban is supported by an only slightly smaller majority than in Quebec. Outside Quebec, the Liberals doubled their share of the vote from 20 to 40 per cent, picking up 11 per cent from the Conservatives and 9 per cent from the NDP. Of course, both inside and outside Quebec, it’s possible that the niqab could have tipped some votes in some ridings. But its overall direct effect on the results was negligible.

A far more plausible case can be made for an indirect niqab effect. John Richards made this case on the Inroads listserv on October 10, when the polls had begun to shift dramatically in favour of the Liberals:

on the raw realpolitik I am confident that Mulcair’s suppport for the right to the niqab was stupid. It has cost the NDP dearly. It is perhaps the key tactical decision that has returned the party nationally to its traditional level of popular support in the low 20 per cent range. An NDP victory has always depended on maintaining the great majority of Quebec seats. According to today’s CBC prediction, the NDP will lose nearly a third of its present Quebec caucus on October 19.2

Admittedly, Trudeau has adopted an even more “principled” stand on behalf of wearing the niqab. But the Liberals do not much matter in Quebec and, outside Quebec, the offensive nature of politicized Islam is less prominent. (Here in B.C. “only” 72 per cent in the Léger poll oppose the wearing of the niqab.) If the NDP cannot hold its Quebec base, those opposed to Harper and willing to support either the NDP or Liberals are, quite sensibly, opting for Trudeau.

The NDP’s campaign manager, Anne McGrath, came to a similar conclusion. Two days after the election, she spoke at a luncheon sponsored by Maclean’s magazine:

A lot of the progressive Canadians that were looking to us felt that the base level of support in Quebec was an important factor in supporting us, because they were looking for the best vehicle to replace Stephen Harper, so we did see an immediate drop in support. What was surprising was that drop in support in the early days didn’t go to any one particular place; it kind of went to a few different places, some to the Bloc, some to the Liberals. It didn’t kind of attach on to any particular place, partly because our positions were identical with the Liberals.

I do think that a lot of Quebec voters, when the niqab happened, took a second look and, so they weren’t necessarily, in my view anyway, voting or expressing support on that particular issue, but it sort of shook them loose from where they had been. Then I think that they went out and looked around, and so I don’t think it was necessarily on that issue, but I think that’s what shook them loose from NDP support at the very beginning.3

In any case, while Islamic garb clearly generates considerable unease among large numbers of Canadians, opposition to it has not yet proved a winning election strategy. On October 19, Stephen Harper joined former Quebec Premier Pauline Marois4 in the ranks of those who found that out the hard way. Continue reading “The niqab time bomb”

On January 7, two Islamist gunmen forced their way into the Paris headquarters of the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, which had published articles and cartoons mocking Islam, and opened fire. They killed the paper’s editor, several staff cartoonists and others who happened to be in the office, as well as a police officer outside the building. The gunmen, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, French Muslim brothers of Algerian descent, were later killed by police. Meanwhile, an associate of the Kouachi brothers, Amedy Coulibaly, took hostages in a kosher supermarket in a Paris suburb. Four hostages were killed, as was Coulibaly.

These deeply disturbing events raised many questions. A debate on the Inroads listserv focused on how to respond to the ideas underlying the attacks in a context of religious pluralism.

From: Henry Milner | January 12

In light of recent events, there is a clear consensus on the need to protect freedom of expression from religion-based violence. But so far the discussion about means has been limited to police actions against possible perpetrators. The more difficult question concerns how to respond to the spread of the underlying ideas in countries that recognize religious pluralism.

I would like to start a discussion of this matter, seeking contributions especially from those who know something about the application of laws. I have been thinking about what nations based on the rule of law could do to oppose those whose preachings in places of worship, on the internet, in publications, etc. incite violence in the name of religion. What is needed is a simple applicable principle that nations could agree to, one that is applicable across widely different situations. I first thought of focusing on those who promise rewards in the afterlife, but I think I have a better principle and would like some feedback about the principle and how it could be applied – from removing tax-exempt status to possible civil or criminal proceedings. It asks countries to adopt a law whereby the right to preach is recognized only for those explicitly accepting and publicly expressing the following principle:

“There is an expectation of conformity to the preachings of this religion only upon those who have freely chosen to be bound by it. The beliefs and legal actions of those who practise other religions or no religion cannot be the object of any such expectations, direct or indirect.”

From: Bob Chodos | January 12

I support Henry’s effort to find a way to distinguish legitimate religious preaching from preaching that creates a climate in which events such as those of last week in Paris are likely to occur. The principle Henry puts forward should be broadly acceptable. Something quite similar – “There is no compulsion in religion” – is stated in the Qur’an (2:256).

However, interpreting Henry’s statement will not be a simple matter. I would like to point out two possible difficulties of interpretation:

  • What constitutes a “religion”? Religious violence often occurs between groups espousing different interpretations of the same religion – e.g. between Catholics and Protestants in 16th- and 17th-century Europe. Similarly, the actions of today’s Islamic State are largely directed against Muslims who don’t agree with its interpretation of Islam. Jews in Orthodox neighbourhoods in Israel throw stones at other Jews who violate the Orthodox version of the Sabbath.
  • How do we determine whether or not people have “freely chosen” to be bound by a religion? It could be argued that “free choice” in religion is actually quite rare. My being a Jew, for example, is a product of my growing up in a Jewish family and being educated in a Hebrew day school, not my free choice. When does the influence of family and community become coercive community pressure? When does “education” become “indoctrination”? These issues have been raised in the context of the debate over Muslim women’s “free choice” to wear the niqab.
From: Gareth Morley | January 12

Another problem is that religions teach what they consider to be general moral principles. Serious Catholics don’t just believe that abortion is wrong for Catholics. They believe it is wrong for anybody. You can think that is benighted. But then how would you deal with the U.S. civil rights movement? It was clearly based in black American Protestantism. Biblical rhetoric was omnipresent. But it didn’t say that segregation was wrong when practised by adherents of the black Protestant denominations. It was wrong in general. Same with the antislavery movement, Gandhi’s movement to free India, the current movement to free Tibet, etc., etc. So you can’t have a principle that religious teachings are only binding on religious adherents. Some are; some aren’t.

From: Frances Abele | January 12

Bob raises powerful and important points. I am not sure how to handle either issue.

Would it be helpful to start at the other end, so to speak, by whittling away the easy targets? Would we denounce (or legally sanction?) all preaching that exhorts violence against anyone or any group? How about preaching that disrespects other faiths?

From: Louis Germain | January 12

The Charlie event is not really a religious act. It is not a political act. It is a violent act that derives from social illness. There is a deep difference between the Islamic State attack on neighbouring countries and the Charlie killings.

The Islamic State has an agenda. It is trying to establish a political territory where laws will be primarily defined by the way they interpret Islam. The Islamic State wants political power. It wants to spread its so-called Islamic rule all over the world. The Charlie killers did not have a political agenda; neither had they a plan to spread their religious beliefs. Their gesture simply expressed unsophisticated revolt. Revolt resulting from the social decay the modern urbanized way of life brings to the low-income classes. Some of these young men become religious fanatics; others become narco thugs.

The Charlie killers were not “primed” by imams at the mosque but by the internet. Religion is the wall on which clings the vine of their revolt.

That revolt is a much more complex and difficult problem to solve than the Islamic State war. Yet, in order to curb terrorism, governments will almost certainly put the emphasis on repression, throwing money into police budgets while, for the sake of deficit elimination, cutting funds to social programs benefiting the milieus where violence grows.

Cherchez l’erreur, as we say in Québec.

From: Henry Milner | January 13

I am pleased to have received thoughtful responses to my posting. I realize this is highly complex matter. Nevertheless, I am convinced that it is a challenge that won’t go away, and countries practising religious pluralism need to try to face up to it. I am not concerned directly here with individual religious expression which, I agree, we cannot separate from other forms of expression. In using the term preach, I am referring to something organized and recognized. So how could the principle I proposed earlier be applied? The key element is respect for the law in a democratic society:

“There is an expectation of conformity to the preachings of this religion only upon those who have freely chosen to be bound by it. The beliefs and legal actions of those who practise other religions or no religion cannot be the object of any such expectations, direct or indirect.”

Consider the example of Catholics and abortion. If abortion is legal, then the Catholic Church as such would agree that in preaching on abortion it would accept the above principle. Expectations/duties can be placed on a Catholic prospective mother and a Catholic medical practitioner but no one else. And the mother and doctor have every right to withdraw from the Catholic Church. It is true that this may conflict with official Catholic doctrine, but any drawing of lines in a pluralist society will encounter such situations.

Consider Islamic or Orthodox Jewish preaching about female dress. The same principle would apply. To be recognized as a legitimate religion they would agree that there would be no condemnation of women dressing in a manner within the law unless they have chosen to be bound by the particular religion.

In other words, religious groups acting within the law can be illiberal, but only within their own freely entered (and exited) community.

Are these restrictions enforceable in some way? Clearly the question is complex. But it is one that needs to be asked.

From: Bob Chodos | January 13

Religious groups seek to enforce certain norms of individual behaviour – Henry brings up the example of female dress. We can agree that these norms cannot be made to apply outside the boundaries of the religious group.

Religious groups also seek to influence the behaviour of society as a whole, on issues that are clearly social rather than individual in nature: war and peace, the right of workers to organize, universal health insurance, civil rights. Of course, a religious group cannot expect to enforce its views on such issues, but its influence may be a factor in determining the course that the broader society follows.

Then there are issues that some may see as individual and others would see as social. Abortion would be one such issue (this is the distinction that Mario Cuomo addressed in his famous 1984 speech at Notre Dame). Same-sex marriage. Euthanasia.

All this raises a number of questions. Is it legitimate for religious groups to seek to influence the behaviour of society as a whole? If so, are there guidelines within which they need to operate? And can we draw a line between issues on which religious groups can seek to influence the behaviour of society as a whole and those on which they can influence only their own members?

From: Garth Stevenson | January 13

Bob’s distinction between “issues that are clearly social” and “issues that some may see as individual and others would see as social” doesn’t make much sense to me. Does he mean it is okay for churches to adopt left-wing positions but not to adopt right-wing positions? This may be good politics but it is poor theology. I don’t recall seeing anything about health insurance in the Judeo-Christian scriptures, although it is obviously an excellent idea. After all, the distinction between left and right was only invented in 1789 AD. Most religions have fairly explicit views about individual behaviour, and most have less to say about collective behaviour.

I think a religious organization has just as much right to participate in public debates on abortion, same-sex marriage or assisted suicide as it has to comment on the other types of issues that Bob mentions. Of course in commenting on either type of issue it runs the risk of alienating part of its own membership, whose consciences may lead them in a different direction from that of the clergy. Protestantism, the religion that I know best, emphasizes the individual’s conscience more than most other religions, I suppose. This may be why, historically, most Protestant churches were somewhat less inclined to express views on public policy than the Catholic Church, since adopting a distinct view might cause divisions among the membership. I am not saying that this is necessarily a good thing, but I think it is a fact.

Of course, where individual behaviour and public policy intersect, it becomes more complex. Should a Muslim working in the public sector be allowed to cover her hair in the office, even if the state is rigidly secular? Should a Catholic doctor be allowed to refuse to perform abortions? I would say yes to both questions, for the same reason that members of pacifist sects like the Quakers are exempted from military service, even in wartime.

From: Bob Chodos | January 14

I think Garth is right that on the continuum between emphasizing individual behaviour and emphasizing collective behaviour, Protestantism is furthest over on the individual side. Pope John Paul II spoke of “structures of sin” and “social sin.” He didn’t dismiss the idea of individual sin, but he acknowledged that that’s not all there is.

Judaism too has a lot to say about collective behaviour. The commandments in the Torah are not only prescriptions for individual behaviour but also a blueprint for a society. The Hebrew prophets’ denunciations of ill treatment of the disadvantaged were directed at Israel as a whole, not just at individuals within it. On the Day of Atonement, Jews confess the sins of the community, not just their own individual sins.

In terms of the distinction between individual and social issues, let’s take the example of the Catholic Church’s opposition to abortion. It could express that opposition by trying to prevent all Catholic women from having abortions (abortion as an issue of individual behaviour), or it could express it by lobbying for legislation that would prevent all women, Catholic or not, from having abortions (abortion as a social issue). That is the distinction I was trying to draw.

From: Henry Milner | January 14

A recognized religious leader could preach:

  • It is the duty of all to conform to the teachings of our faith (but not to in any way try to directly impose these duties on any others than its freely chosen members).
  • The only acceptable way of seeking to extend the duty outside the faith is via the law. That is, it is the duty of all to work democratically to change the law so that all will be bound by it.
From: Gareth Morley | January 14

But surely liberalism requires that Catholics can advocate for any of their political positions. The Catholic Church was against the Iraq war and against abortion. They should be just as entitled to advance the one position as the other. In neither case does Henry’s distinction make sense.

Of course, if you disagree with the church about one or both these issues, you are entitled in a liberal democracy to counterorganize. In the end, your ultimate normative commitments will be just as faith-based as the Catholic ones. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

I think the real danger to liberalism in the West is from overzealous secular majorities, not declining religious minorities.

From: Reg Whitaker | January 15

This has been a thoughtful, and thankfully respectful, discussion. A couple of points:

The religious context within which Charlie Hebdo published its cartoons and the terrorists massacred the editorial board provides motive for the criminal acts, i.e., the gunmen no doubt believed they were acting in the name of their idea of Islam, just as Charlie Hebdo had been acting in the belief that they were furthering their idea of secularism.

My question is: why should we accept these motives as the basis for debate? Let’s say that Charlie’s motives were misguided secularism, needlessly provoking an entire faith in response to the actions of a few taken in the name of that faith. Depicting the prophet Muhammad as a bomb-wielding terrorist transfers the odium attached to the vile actions of a few to all Muslims. That is not an acceptable basis for civil debate. On the other hand, slaughtering the editors in reaction is not a religious act, as such; it is simply a criminal act whatever the motive.

To bring this back to the discussion of what role organized religions can or should play in liberal democracies, if Catholic clergy wish to advocate their anti-abortion views in public forums, they are surely free to do so – so long as their voices are voices in democratic debate, and they accept the verdict of citizens and their representatives when the decisions go against them. Imposing their views as privileged because of their religious motive – in effect saying that I am speaking with the voice of God and you are not – is surely illegitimate, and broadly recognized as such by Catholics and by most other Christians, with some unfortunate exceptions.

The question of individual conscience is a bit more difficult. A Catholic medical practitioner who refuses to assist in an abortion because of their moral conscience must be respected: that is, they cannot be forced to perform an act they find immoral. Nor, however, can this be the pretext for undermining the law of the land. They can step aside individually but they cannot be allowed to act collectively in such a way as to subvert the law as determined by prior democratic decision.

There is also the question of where the claims of some infringe on the rights of others. Evangelical preaching that homosexuality is evil and homosexuals should be punished is not religious free speech, but hate speech directed at promoting violence against an identifiable minority. Silencing such voices by legal sanction is maintaining the necessary ground rules for democratic debate.

In short, I am suggesting that pluralist democracies should be both tolerant of diversity and muscular in defence of liberalism against its enemies. If the latter sometimes calls for “censorship,” then so be it. I would particularly applaud the voluntary censorship of those media like the Globe and Mail, the CBC and the New York Times that have refused on principle to print or broadcast the cartoons in question. If the French government had censored Charlie Hebdo, it would probably have been politically counterproductive and just put wind in Marine Le Pen’s sails.

From: Henry Milner | January 15

I appreciate thoughtful comments like those of Reg, Gareth and Bob, but I think they are based on the assumption that these are isolated incidents and that we will be able to continue as we have been. It is my view that given the territory, wealth and internet and logistical sophistication of Islamic extremist groups, the opposite is the case – though this may be a bit less visible in Canada.

But we do need to react as liberal democracies, avoiding targeting Muslims. It is a matter of subjecting churches, synagogues, mosques to the law. I use a less controversial example, namely Catholics, a highly respected religion these days headed by an almost saintly figure. And I address abortion rather than “blasphemy” or other acts that a given religion considers sinful but are legal and accepted in the wider society.

To what extent can we hold the church responsible for Catholic zealots who target legal abortion clinics? A priest who preaches that abortion is a sin should be required to add that in this country it is legal and as long as this is so, Catholics must respect the right of non-Catholics to abortions.

What about the time-honoured practice of civil disobedience against “unjust” laws? In seeking to change the law beyond using the standard democratic means, Catholics could be invited to picket lawmakers’ offices to publicize their cause, and if ordered to disperse could willingly be arrested. They should not, however, be invited to take any action vis-à-vis an abortion clinic that would impede its carrying out its legal activities.

From: Gareth Morley | January 15

I certainly agree that religious people should be required to follow the law. Obviously, that means not murdering people, but it also means respecting property and rights of access, including of abortion clinics. I don’t think I would agree with a law that required a sermon to include a statement to that effect. There are laws against incitement to violence, and they apply to priests, rabbis and imams as much as anyone else.

I guess the fundamental difference is that I think that it is far more likely that France in 2015 will overreact to these attacks than underreact to them. That’s not peculiarly French: surely we can all see now that Canada overreacted in 1970 and the United States overreacted in 2001. Unlike in Canada and Australia following the Ottawa and Sydney attacks, there has already been a rise in anti-Muslim violence in France.

Of course, there needs to be a police/intelligence response. But the reality is that the best way to disrupt these groups is to get information from infiltrators or associates of terrorists. The more the Muslim community is integrated into the broader society, the easier that is. Nothing can give perfect security. But if 10 per cent of the population is subject to insults and disproportionate police attention and excluded from the labour market, then the other 90 per cent are going to be less safe. France doesn’t really have a principled devotion to freedom of speech: you can be prosecuted for denying the Holocaust or for other things that offend current sensibilities. It is more that Muslims just aren’t in the group that has the power to legally stop themselves from being insulted.

A case in point

At the end of January, a request by an imam for a permit to open a community centre in the borough of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve in east-end Montreal provided a concrete example of the difficult questions the listserv had been grappling with. According to news reports, Imam Hamza Chaoui had stated on social media that democracy was incompatible with Islam because it would allow the election of “an infidel or a homosexual or an atheist who affirms that Allah does not exist.” Imam Chaoui taught that a woman should be accompanied by a guardian in public at all times, that music should be banned and that amputation, as practised in Saudi Arabia, was a more effective punishment for theft than a prison sentence.

From: Gareth Morley | February 3

Of course, a free society must allow a request like this.

Chaoui doesn’t think much of democracy, feminism or post-Enlightenment criminology. At least from the news report, he isn’t advocating killing anyone.

John Stuart Mill, who made a few contributions to democracy, feminism and post-Enlightenment criminology, made the basic point that we can only be confident in our commitments to the extent we let them be challenged.

I certainly don’t wish Chaoui success in persuading people, but the historic evidence suggests to me that his message will lose out in the long run. In the short run, we need to try to split violent fundamentalists from nonviolent ones, since nonviolent ones are most likely to have useful information about the violent.

From: Henry Milner | February 3

These are excerpts from today’s Montreal Gazette. I think Quebec/Montreal is making the right decision. As an individual M. Chaoui should be welcome to express his views, but recognized religious leaders must accept certain constraints.

Chaoui came under fire last week, when he requested a permit to establish the Ashabeb community youth centre in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. The imam preaches that democracy and Islam are incompatible. Couillard’s initial support for Montreal’s decision to block the Islamic community centre the iman wanted to open stands …

Over the weekend, Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre and borough mayor Réal Ménard announced the imam would not be given an occupancy permit for the centre he wanted to open …

“I’m not a ‘radicalization agent,’” Chaoui said in a statement Tuesday. “I’ve never known hatred or violence against a group … I always encouraged young people to integrate harmoniously into Quebec society, to respect the laws, not to make use of violence in resolving any conflicts and to complete their university studies.”

From: Garth Stevenson | February 3

Preaching violence is a crime and should not be allowed, But preaching against democracy is not a crime, as far as I know. H.L. Mencken made fun of democracy all his life. So, from a different perspective, did the Communist Party, when it existed. What about the Jehovah’s Witnesses who were persecuted by Duplessis? They drew some very controversial conclusions from their religious beliefs. Is this case really any different?

From: Gareth Morley | February 4

I agree with Garth. The spirit of Duplessis lives in Quebec. The Jehovah’s Witnesses think that all of humanity other than 144,000 people will be tortured eternally, which is frankly worse than having your hand cut off. Moreover, they are also against life-saving blood transfusions. Duplessis’s other target, the Communist Party of Canada, supported a brutal dictatorship responsible for millions of deaths.

Duplessis said he was not preventing the Jehovah’s Witnesses from preaching their religion. He was denying them the use of the city streets without a permit. Just a littering law. He was not banning the Communist Party. He was just prohibiting them from using a house to propagate Communism. Just a land use law.

If the city is denying M. Chaoui a permit because it doesn’t like his views, it is violating his freedom of expression and freedom of religion. That would be an extremely easy decision. As you know, for justification under section 1 of the Charter, it is harder to predict what will happen. This would certainly be an easy case in the United States, but I am afraid our courts have not come to a coherent principle like viewpoint-neutrality.

The basic principle in both countries, though, is that the government does not need to open up community centres, but if it does, it cannot allow some groups and disallow others on the basis of their religious or ideological viewpoint.

Despite some excesses under the War Measures Act and by the covert wing of the RCMP, this country generally recognized that the terrorism of the FLQ was no reason to suppress peaceful expressions of Quebec nationalism. There has been plenty of leftist terrorism in the last century, but we don’t ban Capital study clubs or anarchist vegan collectives. Let’s keep our heads about us, and not sell our own liberal values short.

From: Henry Milner | February 4

Gareth, the problem with argument by analogy is that context is left out. This comparison would work if in the 1950s some people were being recruited to kill in the name of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The decision in Montreal needs to be justified, or criticized, on its merits today. I have argued that some kind of rule needs to be applied to religious groups sanctioned by the (pluralist) community. I use the example of a priest who preaches that abortion is a sin: the priest should be required to add that in this country it is legal and, as long as this is so, Catholics must explicitly respect the legitimacy of abortions for non-Catholics.

Now let us take the particular case in point. In defending his project, Chaoui is quoted in the Gazette as saying. “I’ve never known hatred or violence against a group … I always encouraged young people to integrate harmoniously into Quebec society, to respect the laws, not to make use of violence in resolving any conflicts and to complete their university studies.” Does this resolve the issue? I am not sure. If you are teaching that democracy is incompatible with Islam because homosexuals or deniers of Allah can be elected to office, are you simply making an intellectual point, or are you teaching your young protégés that these are enemies to be opposed? You may say that you do not preach violence, but if you reject democracy, what form of opposition are you endorsing?

Similarly, if you preach that the presence of unaccompnied women in public goes against Islam, unless you add that that should be their choice, what is the underlying message to young male Muslims? It clearly is not just a theoretical point.

It seems to me that until a satisfactory response is provided to such questions, denial of a permit is a reasonable precaution.

From: Joe Murray | February 4

I don’t think there is any justification to start forcing people to affirm the rider Henry is asking for. A Catholic priest saying, “abortion is a sin,” shouldn’t face state sanction if he doesn’t add that “in my country it is legal, and so Catholics must respect the legitimacy of abortions for non-Catholics.” Presumably, in Henry’s view he should also be required to affirm something along the lines of respect for the legal choice as citizens of Catholics who choose to have an abortion, even if Catholics can have recourse to non-coercive punishments within their community, like refusing communion to people who have had abortions or advocate for women’s choice in their reproductive health.

I think Garth is perfectly justified in making the analogies he does. Freedom of expression doesn’t deserve these limitations just because a small minority of a group such as a religion start to use illegal violence to pursue their ends, like firebombing abortion clinics or shooting doctors who perform abortions. Just because the FLQ started killing doesn’t mean any separatist should have had to affirm something about the legitimacy of the federal state or been barred from renting a room.

In the current context, denial of a permit for a physical space for Chaoui is not yet justified, since he hasn’t yet promoted violence. I think a warrant to monitor his activities, especially online, might be appropriate, since he has indicated he does not believe in the legitimacy of the current Canadian state. But there are many who don’t believe in that, and if we should have learned anything from our history of domestic repression of political dissent, it’s that we should not take that as a reasonable basis for domestic spy surveillance. There might be other information about Chaoui that lends more credence to the view that he will himself cross into illegal activities or promote others to do that, but what has been adduced here so far is insufficient.

From: Reg Whitaker | February 6

I admit finally to being a bit confused by this discussion. Perhaps a different take might be in order. Mayor Coderre said that Imam Chaoui was guilty of “radicalization.” The problem here is that this concept, along with the grotesquely exaggerated and over-the-top legislative response (C-51) to a couple of acts of lone-wolf “radicalized” terrorism, has muddied the waters completely between freedom of speech and incitement to violence. C-51 establishes an offence, punishable by up to five years’ imprisonment, for “knowingly” advocating or promoting the commission of terrorist offences, or being “reckless as to whether” offences “may be committed as a result of such communication.” Terrorism is redefined as a huge swath of potential political activity.

The concept of “radicalization” is pretty much like “Communism” in the Cold War: fill in your own blanks. Coderre has filled in his with regard to Chaoui.

Frankly this is a mess.

From: Frances Abele | February 7

Thank you, Reg, for bringing this back to a consideration of what we are really facing. C-51 appears to be an extremist response to problems we do not really have. It frightens me. I have been listening hard whenever people from the Harper government have defended it, and have heard no reasoned argument – not even a lame one – for why it is necessary. They all seem to have the same fearmongering talking points that do not even refer concretely to what changes C-51 will bring.

Concerning the hateful Mr. Chaoui – well, he must be challenged (by other citizens) and denounced (peacefully and respectfully). If he crosses a legal line and the old ones would do just fine) then he must be charged. There are many people whose views make me uncomfortable (see above). That’s life. I’d add that it would be an excellent idea for all of us to reach out to – and publicly support – the leaders of the majority Muslim community who are also trying to counteract the bizarre and the hateful. We need to keep creating an open and democratic society.

Henry, I am a bit out of sympathy with the question you keep posing, because it forces us to debate what kinds of ideas should be attacked or suppressed through the state. This is certainly sometimes necessary, but there is a great deal that members of the society can do as well – and I believe that the latter tends to build a better country.

The Inroads listserv began in 1997 as a means to link Inroads readers and others interested in policy discussion. With nearly 130 subscribers, it offers one of the few chances for people of diverse views to grapple with social and political issues in depth.

To subscribe, send an email note to listserv@lists.queensu.ca with the following in the subject and body of the message: subscribe inroads-l

Garth Stevenson, Building Nations from Diversity:
Canadian and American Experience Compared.
Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

324 pages.

Garth Stevenson is no stranger to Inroads readers. He has written trenchantly, and with a measured lack of deference to prevailing opinion, on a variety of topics – most recently the demand for an inquiry into missing Aboriginal women (see p. 31 of this issue). He brings these same qualities to his treatment of issues of diversity, an ongoing interest of his and the subject of his most recent book.

Another characteristic of Stevenson’s work is his extensive familiarity with both Canada and the United States, allowing him to switch easily back and forth between the two. Too often the Canada-U.S. border is treated as a Great Wall, and what happens on one side of the border as an entirely separate matter from what happens on the other. While the subtitle of Stevenson’s book announces a comparison between Candian and American experience, what he really does is more subtle and more consistent with reality: he approaches the North American continent north of Mexico as an integrated whole, with the existence of two separate political entities being only one of many factors in play.

He acknowledges the differences, of course, initially rooted in the higher level of conformity required of citizens of a republic than of subjects of the British Crown. But he sees the stereotypical distinction between the American “melting pot” and the Canadian “mosaic” as overblown. And the case studies he presents – the Irish (both Catholic and Protestant), the Chinese, the Jews, the treatment of Japanese and other minorities in wartime, the recent experience of Muslim immigrants – lend credence to his contention that the similarities between the two countries outweigh the differences. Furthermore, he sees both countries’ experience with diversity as fundamentally positive. Here there is an implicit, and sometimes explicit, comparison with Europe, which has had to cope with diversity without its being woven into the fabric of European societies in the way that it is in North America:

Nation-building through immigration, or the ability to attract immigrants and then to integrate them into the host society, will … be North America’s greatest asset in the twenty-first century. Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia face a future of demographic decline with no end in sight. The United Kingdom and France are in a somewhat better situation because of immigration that comes mainly from their former overseas colonies, but neither the British monarchy (which practises a sort of multiculturalism) nor the French republic (which emphasizes uniformity) seems able to fully integrate its immigrants into the host society or to use their talents and skills to best advantage. That fact is both a cause and a consequence of the hostility to immigration that is evident in both of those countries.

Both the United States and Canada have learned, by trial and error, how to integrate their immigrants and turn them into Americans and Canadians, and thus it seems likely that both the United States and Canada will continue to grow and flourish. Even if the people who live in North America a century or two from now may differ from most present-day North Americans in some of their physical characteristics, they will still be recognizably Canadians and Americans, just as the descendants of Irish, Jewish, Italian, and Ukrainian immigrants are today.

Not everyone will agree with this optimistic conclusion. As I write, a debate is in progress about whether a Muslim woman can take the oath of Canadian citizenship wearing her niqab. This has become a partisan issue, which may persist into the fall election campaign: Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has strongly criticized a ban on the niqab; the Conservative government has strongly supported it. “Frankly, if you’re not willing to show your face in a ceremony that you’re joining the best country in the world,” said an Ontario Conservative MP, Larry Miller (Bruce–Grey–Owen Sound), “then frankly, if you don’t like that or don’t want to do that, stay the hell where you came from.”1 Whatever the merits of the case, the debate indicates that not all Canadians are as sanguine as Stevenson about the country’s capacity to absorb immigrants. In a different context, immigration has been a highly contentious issue in recent months in the United States as well.

Stevenson’s answer is: take the long view. We’ve seen all this before. Today it is Muslim immigrants who are regarded as unassimilable; in earlier generations it was Jewish and Chinese immigrants. Concerns about “radicalization” of Muslims find their parallel in the association of Jews with Communism. Nor are geopolitical concerns anything new, as Germans, Italians, Ukrainians and Japanese endured the status of enemy aliens during the two world wars.

In addition to Stevenson’s book, I recently read Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s 1982 classic None Is Too Many, cited by Stevenson as “perhaps the definitive book” on Canada’s unconscionably mean-spirited response to Jewish refugees before, during and after the Second World War. The themes of Jews being dangerously radical and not fitting in with other Canadians emerge repeatedly in the rhetoric of opposition to admitting Jewish refugees. Thus, after the 1938 Munich agreement transferred the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Hitler’s Germany, Vincent Massey, Canada’s High Commissioner in London and one of the fiercest opponents of admitting Jewish refugees (and later the first Canadian-born Governor General), favoured admitting “Aryan Sudeten Germans” to Canada “as they include … many persons who would be much more desirable as Canadian settlers and much more likely to succeed in our country than certain other types of refugees.” At a public debate in Montreal in 1943 sponsored by the Association des Jeunes Laurentiens, one speaker argued that Quebec’s existing Jewish community had done little to earn its place in the community except elect Communist Fred Rose to Parliament.2

The Jewish refugee crisis was solved only with the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, and Canada did not change its policy on the admission of Jewish immigrants until the early 1950s. Yet from the vantage point of present-day Canada, all this seems almost unimaginable. Jews have occupied senior positions in successive federal cabinets – including the current Finance Minister, Joe Oliver. There are Jewish Supreme Court justices and university presidents. Jews are prominent in business and their achievements in the arts have been widely recognized in both Quebec and English Canada. The trajectory of the Jews provides strong evidence for Stevenson’s conclusion that negative attitudes “tend to decline as a new and less familiar group of immigrants arrives and the earlier immigrants or their descendants come to be viewed as normal, familiar, and harmless.”

This process requires conditions that prevail in North America but not in Europe, and even North America has its own mini-Europe: Quebec. Stevenson notes that as in most European countries, but not the rest of Canada or the United States, “the great majority of population share a common ancestry and cultural heritage and are descended from people who lived there as long as perhaps four centuries ago.” Quebec, like some European countries, has gone through a transition from dominance by the Catholic Church to an aggressive secularism. And Quebec resembles Europe more than the rest of North America in being preoccupied with the issue of demographic decline.

These circumstances provide useful background to the series of dramas Quebec has experienced in recent years, from the reasonable accommodations crisis of 2006–07 through the Bouchard-Taylor Commission and Bill 94 to the charter of values in 2013–14. However, Quebec does practise its own form of cultural diversity, which it refers to as “interculturalism” to distinguish it from Canadian multiculturalism. In Stevenson’s view, there is not much difference between interculturalism and multiculturalism in practical terms, “except for the fact that Quebec gives priority to the French language while the federal government is formally neutral between English and French.” (In his book on interculturalism, recently published in English translation, Gérard Bouchard makes rather more of this distinction than Stevenson does, arguing that interculturalism is more suited to a society where there is a longstanding majority language and culture, while multiculturalism is more suited to a society such as Canada where there is no single such culture. He acknowledges, however, that despite their theoretical differences the two models have converged somewhat in practice in recent years.3)

Stevenson devotes considerably more attention to the cultural and political issues surrounding immigration than to the economic ramifications, although these are a major concern of policymakers in Ottawa and Washington. The new express entry system that went into effect at the beginning of January seeks to match immigration into Canada more closely with the labour market. The economic focus of Canadian immigration policy is not without its critics. Some, such as economist Herbert Grubel, who in a 2014 Inroads article suggested making a prearranged job in Canada a requirement for immigration, maintain that the link between immigration and short-term economic gain should be even stronger than it is.4 Others, such as Naomi Alboim and Karen Cohl, advocate a broader set of goals for immigration policy, including long-term social and economic objectives, a commitment to citizenship and enhancing Canada’s reputation around the world.5

The proper balance between hard economic objectives and less tangible goals will no doubt continue to be a matter of controversy in both Canada and the United States. What seems clear, however, is that the optimistic scenario Stevenson presents is dependent on the two countries’ ongoing capacity to offer immigrants a promising economic future. Without that capacity, North America’s history of successful integration of immigrants may not be a reliable guide to what will happen in years to come.

 

Continue reading “Garth Stevenson’s long, broad view of diversity”

In an election in Canada’s multiparty parliamentary system, not every party can seriously aspire to form a government once the votes are counted. Pre-election opinion polls will indicate which parties are in the running for the big prize, and which are not. For those in the second category, there is still a consolation prize to be sought: a Balance of Power. If no party wins a majority, the government’s fate may well be in the hands of a third party, which can use this situation to extract legislative concessions. Such parliaments have not been uncommon in recent Canadian history, at both federal and provincial levels, and in many of those cases the party holding the Balance of Power has been the NDP.

In practice, however, managing a Balance of Power can be tricky. A classic case was the federal House of Commons following the election of 1972, in which Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Liberals were reduced from a majority to a shaky minority. To stay in power, they needed the support of the 31 New Democratic MPs, led by David Lewis. For a while, the Balance of Power worked the way it was supposed to. The government introduced NDP-friendly legislation such as a foreign investment review process and a pension increase. But by early 1974, the sustainability of the arrangement was in question. As political commentator Patrick MacFadden wrote in the Last Post, an alternative newsmagazine of the time:

In the case of the NDP it is possible to write two scenarios. (Everyone writes scenarios in Ottawa.) The first is the coalition government scenario. Its main purpose is to underline the basic sense of responsibility of the party. Being responsible, it has a right to share in the governing of the country. Good legislation will ensue.

The second scenario is what we will call the gun-fighter scenario. The theory here is that to be taken seriously as the fastest gun in the West, you must kill a man – or at least draw on Billy the Kid or Jesse James. The townspeople will then go ooh-ah. “That David,” they will say. “He’s a mean son-of-a-bitch.” …

The trouble with this scenario, apart from the obvious one that it is preferred by a minority of caucus, is that David Lewis’s leadership style leans heavily on caucus opinion. In this, he is very different from T.C. Douglas.

The other difficulty is that you could get shot …

The speech from the Throne will be unnaturally specific this time … There will be nothing in it that the NDP will not be able to vote for. On the other hand, if they vote for it and the Liberals then call the election, the NDP will not have a platform.

On the other hand, there will not be an election before June 25.1

Soon after this was written, the NDP voted against the Liberals’ budget, bringing down the government. In the ensuing election, held on July 8, the voters returned the Liberals to majority status. The NDP caucus was reduced from 31 members to 16.

In the spring of 2014, Andrea Horwath faced a similar dilemma. Like David Lewis 40 years earlier, the Ontario NDP leader and MPP for Hamilton Centre held the Balance of Power. She had her own gun-fighter persona: the Steeltown Scrapper. The budget introduced by Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals contained much NDP-friendly material: an Ontario pension plan, more money for transit, increased taxes on high incomes. But Horwath decided to shoot, announcing that the NDP would not support the budget.

In the ensuing election, Horwath had difficulty defining where her party stood. The NDP campaign was widely perceived as being to the right of the Liberal one. The NDP did not do badly, keeping its 21 seats and slightly increasing its popular vote. But there was a swing from the Conservatives to the Liberals, largely because Conservative leader Tim Hudak was all too clear about where his party stood. The Liberals won a majority and the NDP’s Balance of Power was gone.

As I write this, the next federal election is just under a year away. Much can happen in a year, but at the moment it does not appear likely that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will retain their majority. However, neither Tom Mulcair’s New Democrats nor Justin Trudeau’s Liberals appear to be in a position to gain a majority either. The probable outcome is a Balance of Power. Its exact configuration is likely to be determined in Ontario, with a parliamentary delegation expanded to 122 seats, many of them competitive. Hence the 2014 Ontario election is significant not just for Ontarians but also as a possible harbinger of what is to come on the federal scene.

In this section, two knowledgeable political observers survey the state of politics in Canada in light of the Ontario election and other recent developments. Using a model that converts poll numbers into seat projections, Paul Barber forecasts a minority Liberal government after the next federal election. One of Stephen Harper’s major challenges, he suggests, will be to convince voters that he is not a federal version of Tim Hudak. Nelson Wiseman focuses on the NDP. He examines the reasons for the party’s current weak state despite its federal breakthrough in 2011 and despite the continuing popularity of its ideas among Canadians.

Another election in Ontario, the October mayoral vote in Toronto, also attracted Canada-wide interest. This was primarily because of the spotlight that has been cast on Rob Ford’s extraordinary reign as mayor, finally brought to a close not by conflict of interest or by crack videos or even by the voters but by cancer. But Zack Taylor shows that there are other reasons for people across Canada to pay attention to Toronto’s municipal affairs, which reflect deepening economic and political divides that are replicated in other Canadian cities. The suburban areas around Toronto were a key component of Stephen Harper’s majority in 2011. The continuing strength of “Ford nation” is an indication that the appeal of conservative populism is alive and well in these areas, and should not be discounted as a factor in the next federal election.

Continue reading “As Ontario goes …”