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.


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.

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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 …”

In his contribution to this section, Stéphane Dion uses the metaphor of the elephant in the room to highlight what he sees as the Senate’s most intractable problem: unbalanced provincial representation. As long as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have ten senators each while the much more populous provinces of Alberta and British Columbia only have six each, none of the Senate’s other deficiencies can be remedied.

Elephants also have another metaphorical meaning, and it too suits the Senate. In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the elephant presents a different aspect to each of the men who touch it, and each comes to a different conclusion about what the elephant is. Our contributors are not blind – they are all astute political observers and practitioners – but each of them sees a different source for what all agree is a crisis of the Senate.

For Tom Flanagan, the source is the method of partisan appointment. The patronage power of choosing senators, he argues, has become a burden even to the government that exercises it. Since the constitutional obstacles to either a fully elected Senate or abolition of the Senate appear insurmountable, he recommends establishing provincial advisory committees to depoliticize the appointment process. He finds a useful model in Britain, where an independent House of Lords Appointment Commission recommends nonpartisan members for appointment to the upper house.

Stéphane Dion rejects Flanagan’s proposal, maintaining that unless the issue of unbalanced provincial representation is dealt with, any reform that would give the provinces a voice in the selection of senators would only make things worse. He suggests some procedural changes that would enable the Senate to better fulfil its role as a chamber of “sober second thought.”

Vincent Pouliot digs deep into our past to find the source of the Senate’s problems. In his account, the Fathers of Confederation intended the Senate as a voice for the local and regional interests of the provinces at the heart of the federal legislative process. Such a Senate would be equipped to act as a balance to the House of Commons and prevent abuse of federal power. However, this intent was never carried out. Pouliot draws our attention to the 14th resolution of the 1864 Quebec Conference as a useful starting point toward creating a more effective Senate – and a more accountable federal government.

photo courtesy Intiaz Rahim/Flickr

The Bishop tells us: “When the boys come back
They will not be the same; for they’ll have fought
In a just cause: they lead the last attack
On Anti-Christ; their comrade’s blood has bought
New right to breed an honourable race.
They have challenged Death and dared him face to face.”

“We’re none of us the same!” the boys reply.
“For George lost both his legs; and Bill’s stone blind;
Poor Jim’s shot through the lungs and like to die;
And Bert’s gone syphilitic: you’ll not find
A chap who’s served that hasn’t found some change.”
And the Bishop said: “The ways of God are strange!”
— Siegfried Sassoon

Many years ago, as I was reading a book by the American diplomat and historian George Kennan, one sentence stopped me in my tracks. The First World War, Kennan wrote, was the great tragedy of the 20th century. For me, this assertion was not just startling but almost heretical. As a Jew born in the shadow of the Second World War, I took it as an article of faith that the great tragedy of the 20th century was what we have come to call the Holocaust. And yet, in the intervening years I have become increasingly convinced that Kennan was right.

It is not my intent to compare the horror of the trenches with the horror of the camps and attempt to weigh which was worse. That is not the point. But I’ve come to realize that the shadow hanging over my childhood was not just that of the Holocaust but that of the whole Age of Catastrophe, as the great historian Eric Hobsbawm called the period between 1914 and 1945. And the First World War, which broke out 100 years ago this summer, was where it all began.

“The war changed everything,” says a character in the television series Downton Abbey, in an episode set in 1922. Certainly the war changed a lot. The old Europe of Empires was gone. The Tsar of Russia, the Kaiser of Germany, the Emperor of Austria and the Sultan of Turkey no longer sat on their thrones. What appears to us now as the naive faith in progress and the continued betterment of humanity that was so widespread in the 19th century had been shattered. Some changes brought on by the war were undoubtely beneficial ones. Most countries in the West finally achieved universal suffrage in the years following the war as women gained the right to vote.

In many ways, however, the war did not change enough. The world did not create a stable international order after the war. The League of Nations proved ineffectual. The short-lived economic boom collapsed dramatically in 1929. Authoritarian and in many cases Fascist rule gradually engulfed most of Europe: Italy under Mussolini, Hungary under Horthy, Austria under Dollfuss and Schuschnigg, Germany under Hitler, Spain under Franco. Communism in the new Soviet Union degenerated into Stalinism. An increasingly fragile peace gave way to a second and even more destructive war. It was only in the years after 1945 that efforts to create a supranational institutional structure in Europe to lessen the possibility of another European war bore fruit – what has evolved into today’s European Union – and that constitutional democracy prevailed throughout western Europe and eventually most of eastern Europe.

Looking back, we can see that these changes needed to happen, but did they need to happen at the cost of so many lives and limbs, of so much grief, trauma, disillusion and despair? And did the outcome of the First World War make a difference? Kaiser Wilhelm was a nasty piece of work, to be sure, but much worse was to come, and had there been no German defeat in the First World War, Adolf Hitler would almost certainly have remained a clown on the margins of German politics, and the horror of the camps might never have been perpetrated.

As is well known, the proximate cause of the war was the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his wife Sophie by a Yugoslav nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. The assassination precipitated a crisis in relations between Austria-Hungary and Serbia in which other countries soon became involved on one side or the other. By early August, Germany and Austria-Hungary were at war with Russia, France and Britain. By October Turkey had come in as well.

From a regional crisis triggered by an assassination to a war that claimed the lives of millions and brought down the entire architecture of prewar Europe is a large leap, and so historians have long sought deeper causes. The system of alliances that turned a small crisis into a big one and divided Europe into two armed camps. The naval race between Germany and Britain. The rigid military plans based on an offensive strategy. The illusion that the war would be brief and victory quick, and the almost complete failure to foresee the ensuing stalemate with its consequences for the war’s duration, scale and horror. National rivalries. Economic competition. The authoritarian systems that gave far too much power to deeply flawed rulers such as Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. From another angle, the increasing influence of public opinion, and of the mass-circulation press that could manipulate it.

And yet, even these causes don’t seem quite up to the job of explaining a catastrophe of the magnitude of the First World War and its aftermath. Beneath those causes there are others – some that may be fixable, others that may not. The absence of international institutions that can resolve disputes between countries before they get out of hand. The very notion of force as an acceptable way of settling international disputes. Or perhaps something even more ingrained in the human species.

The historian Barbara Tuchman spent a professional lifetime approaching the mystery of the First World War from various vantage points. Her exploration began in 1958 with The Zimmermann Telegram, which examined an incident that was crucial in drawing the United States into the war. It was followed in 1962 by The Guns of August, an account of the outbreak and early days of the war. The Guns of August won the Pulitzer Prize and was read by President Kennedy, who – according to Margaret MacMillan, in some ways Tuchman’s heir as a perceptive historian with a talent for reaching a mass audience – acted with restraint in the Cuban missile crisis later that year in part as a result of the book’s influence.1 Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966) was a portrait of Western society before the war. A Distant Mirror (1978) was about the 14th century, but Tuchman’s interest in that era came from parallels between the collapse of medieval civilization and the collapse she saw in our own time in the First World War. And the war was clearly still on her mind when she wrote The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (1984), in which she drew on examples throughout history to ask why governments so often persist in courses of action whose disastrous consequences should be foreseeable:

Why do holders of high office so often act contrary to the way reason points and enlightened self-interest suggests? Why does intelligent mental process so often seem not to function?2

Then there is what Margaret MacMillan has described as “the most dispiriting explanation of all – that the war was simply a blunder that could have been avoided.”3 Did millions suffer and die for a mistake? MacMillan worries about parallels between today’s international situation and conditions before 1914, and warns against comforting nostrums like “countries that have McDonald’s will never fight one another.” She reminds us that Britain and Germany were each other’s largest trading partners before 1914. Could a confrontation between Russia and the West over Ukraine, or between the United States and China over some islands in the South China Sea, lead to war? Unlikely, but no more so than a war over the assassination of an archduke. And what of runaway climate change, a looming catastrophe that requires no Sarajevo to set it off but simply a continuation of exactly what we are already doing?

Whether consciously or not, the First World War remains embedded in our imaginations. First World War expressions survive in the language: home front, in the trenches, over the top, no man’s land. The last First World War survivors have died, and today’s veterans are more likely to have fought the Taliban in Afghanistan, but we still remember our war dead on November 11, the anniversary of the Armistice. And we still recite John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” and take our symbol of remembrance, the poppy, from that poem:


Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The challenge that McCrae issues to us is a real one: How are we to remember the war and those who died in it? The longest battle of the First World War, the struggle over its meaning, is still not over.

For the government and the veterans’ organizations, the way to keep faith with those who died, as manifested in the official remembrance ceremonies, is more or less as McCrae suggested: to take up their quarrel with the foe – to view the war in much the same way as the Bishop in Sassoon’s poem. The poppy campaign, in the words of the Royal Canadian Legion, is about showing our “debt owed to so many Canadians who gave their lives for our freedom.” This theme, that they died so that we could be free, is repeated endlessly in countless variations. And yet, in implying that the loss of life was somehow commensurate with what was achieved, it fits uneasily into any clear-eyed remembrance of the First World War. At the heart of the tragedy of the First World War is its pointlessness.

This is not just a retrospective, revisionist view. In July 1917, in the open letter known as the Soldier’s Declaration, Siegfried Sassoon, then a British officer, proclaimed that men were being needlessly sacrificed and that any legitimate war aims could be achieved through negotiation. For this act he was judged to be in need of psychiatric treatment and sent to the Craiglockhart War Hospital for shell-shocked officers. At Craiglockhart, he met a younger soldier with poetic aspirations, Wilfred Owen, and became his mentor. Together, Sassoon, who survived the war, and Owen, killed one week before the Armistice in 1918, are voices of sanity that speak to us from that mad world of a century ago.

In Canadian war remembrance, the battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917, looms large. Vimy Ridge Day, so declared by Parliament in 2003, continues to be observed. The Bank of Canada recently endorsed a suggestion that its polymer $20 note be nicknamed the Vimy, after the Vimy memorial pictured on its reverse side.4 The statement that “Canada became a nation at Vimy” is heard almost as often as that the dead sacrificed their lives for our freedom.

In the battle, the Canadian Corps captured a German stronghold that had previously resisted French and British attacks. As Pierre Berton told the story, they were able to achieve this because they were not bound by Europe’s rigid class system and outdated military traditions and because of the skills they had acquired on the Canadian frontier:

Trench life in France was appalling for everybody, but at least a good proportion of the men at Vimy had known what it was like to sleep out in the mud and rain, to eat a cold meal in the wilderness, and, in many cases, to knock over a deer with a rifle … They had guts and stamina and, perhaps more important, a habit of self-reliance that would help to carry them through those weary months when the mud and the vermin were almost unbearable, and those tense few hours when the guns roared and the trenches ran with blood.5

But if Vimy was an achievement, it was a limited one. It was part of a British operation, the battle of Arras, itself part of a larger Franco-British offensive intended to break through the German defences and end the stalemate on the Western Front. Despite tactical successes such as Vimy, the offensive failed in its objective and the war went on for another year and a half. Casualties in the offensive numbered in the hundreds of thousands, including the more than 10,000 Canadians killed and wounded at Vimy.

As for the statement that Canada became a nation at Vimy, what it turns out to mean, in Berton’s account, is that Canadians of British stock – who made up the vast majority of the Canadian troops at Vimy – henceforth tended to think of themselves less as British and more as Canadian. Vimy certainly did not unite French and English Canadians. Indeed, heavy losses at Vimy and elsewhere on the Western Front increased pressure on the government of Robert Borden to conscript Canadians for overseas service, to which it responded by introducing its conscription bill in Parliament just two months after Vimy. Conscription during the First World War turned out to be one of the most divisive episodes in Canadian history, culminating in riots in Quebec City in which five people were killed in April 1918.

Even in the hands of Berton, Canada’s great mythmaker, the story of Vimy is dominated by the mud, the rats, the constant presence of death. “Was it worth it?” he concludes. “The answer, of course, is no.”6

Currently in Canada, many people wear poppies in November, and many others don’t. People no doubt have thousands of individual reasons for deciding which way to go. I don’t wear a poppy, but part of me is concerned that this could be seen as a sign of indifference. How to say that remembering the war and the dead means something, but doesn’t mean that?

Various alternatives have been proposed. Some groups have promoted wearing a white poppy, a poppy of peace. I agree with the sentiment but, for reasons I can’t quite pinpoint, draw back from the gesture. The veterans’ organizations fiercely protect their hegemony over the meaning imputed to the war, but I don’t think my reticence is due simply to fear of their wrath. That meaning, even if false, is the only thing that, in retrospect, makes the suffering and death bearable for many. Do I really want to make a public statement whose purpose is to try to take it away?

And so my remembrance of the First World War and its dead is essentially a private one, sometimes shared with a friend whose sensibility about the war is similar to mine. My friend rekindled my interest in the war poets, and so my remembrance, like hers, centres on two slim volumes that I pull down from my shelves every November, The War Poems of Siegfried Sassoon and The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen. One unseasonably warm November 11 she and I read poems from those books to each other in an open square in Waterloo, Ontario. A year later, in the snow, we went to the cenotaph in Waterloo after the official ceremony was over with the intent of enacting a ritual she had designed. But the freshly laid wreaths and the whiff of the earlier ceremony hanging over the cenotaph made it an inappropriate site, and we found a spot in a nearby grove to light candles, read poems and say prayers for peace to our respective deities.

Siegfried Sassoon began this article, so it is Wilfred Owen’s place to close it:


If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, –
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est


Pro patria mori.



Continue reading “In the trenches”

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.

The possibility of American military intervention in Syria in response to use of chemical weapons dominated world headlines in September, and it dominated the Inroads listserv as well. What follows is an edited version of the listserv debate; a fuller version can be found on the Inroads website at www.inroadsjournal.ca (omissions from the Web version are indicated by “”).

Gareth Morley touched off the discussion just as President Obama was seeking to rally support in Congress for a U.S. strike.

From: Gareth Morley | September 4

I opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, but I worry that the West has overlearned from the consequences of Bush’s decision.

Since conflict is inevitable, the only alternative to unrestrained violence is some form of law. Law rests not on a single coercive authority, as Hobbes incorrectly thought, but on norms that are typically followed and whose violations are at least typically punished.

The world cannot afford to lose those norms in relation to armed conflict that it has painfully acquired. The norm against the use of poison gas, developed out of the experience of the trenches in World War I, was strong enough that it wasn’t violated by any of the combatants in World War II. The last clear violation by a sovereign state was in 1988 by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

I would prefer of course that action against a sovereign state was endorsed by the UN Security Council, but that is obviously unrealistic as long as the current regimes last in Russia and China. As Mill pointed out in the mid-19th century, nonintervention loses its force when there is intervention on one side – and whatever the United States does will hardly compensate for the support Russia has given the Assad regime.

I am concerned that the British Parliament and the British Labour Party – the party of Bevin and Attlee – have embraced a stance that will give impunity to sovereign lawbreakers. I hope the U.S. Congress doesn’t follow the same course.

Obama’s belated intervention in Libya had good consequences. It is impossible to know whether the same would be true in Syria, but it is possible to see that America needs to retain the credibility of the anti–chemical weapons norm, since no one else is going to.

I think the opposition is right to demand a parliamentary debate on the subject, even if Canada’s participation will be virtual. But I also hope that they are true to their parties’ collective security traditions and do not just bow to a passing populist and anti-American sentiment.

From: Jan Narveson | September 4

Thanks to Gareth for an important contribution to this difficult matter. Alas, though, how the idea about law is to be brought to bear on this situation is extremely difficult to discern – imponderable, even.

As I see it, we have the problem that we are not sure who the Bad Guys are – though, of course, there are plenty on both sides. But that’s the trouble.

I have seen a credible-sounding account by a reporter “on the ground” in Syria who tells us that the gas “attack” was not an attack but a mistake by a rebel group that didn’t know how to handle chemical weapons; result, several of their own people killed as well as a bunch of others.1

The Americans claim to be sure that it was Assad who pushed that button. That is on the face of it amazingly improbable, as so many have said. Assad may be a bad guy but he isn’t a damn fool. I suspect that Obama is being led into a trap.

Given that there is no such thing as “the” rebels, but a whole welter of internally competing ones, very prominent among whom are Al Qaeda types (so I understand), and if indeed Assad didn’t actually order the gas attack anyway, it seems to me that prudence requires continued abstinence, despite the growing list of casualties.

Or if you’re going to do something, it should be a lot, and it should be such that none of the really awful groups end up in power in Syria. America is the only country that could possibly do that; even if it wanted to (and it surely doesn’t), doing it without full support of at least most of the other members of NATO and preferably a lot more than that is exceedingly tricky; and all in all, as I say, it seems to me that “we” should just continue to sit, uncomfortably, on the sidelines. Force accomplishes something useful only if it’s clear why and against whom it is being exerted, and very probable that the envisaged good outcomes will actually happen. None of those conditions obtain in this matter, alas.

From: Joe Murray | September 4

Indeed, an important issue here is whether we are seeing an additional step here away from traditional international law which requires the Security Council to explicitly invoke Chapter 7 to authorize the use of force except in instances of self-defence. From broad coalitions to a coalition including only France and perhaps a few weak states, the United States is attempting in its rhetoric to justify its actions as upholding international treaties by using military force to punish an alleged violator.

I’m not sure that a policy of using force not authorized by the UN to punish international actors like states which violate important norms like the ban on chemical weapons is a prudent one that will accomplish the end of ensuring better respect for those norms.

At another level, Obama and his administration are pushing back at Russia for various irritants, not least of which is harbouring Snowden.

In the circumstances of this bloody war with many casualities and atrocities on both sides, analyzing who would profit most from credible allegations that the Assad regime used chemical weapons leads to the conclusion that the rebels would have a stronger motive to use them than the regime.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 4

Syria offers the chilling definition of “conundrum.” There are no good solutions, and a great many bad ones. Even Israel-Palestine is a case of a seemingly intractable problem that could be resolved, theoretically, even if the possibility of all the parties coming to an acceptance of the logical no-winner no-loser solution is, shall we say, dim.

But Syria is a nastier beast. It’s the ancient dilemma of political change in autocracies: at the end of the day it’s always kill or be killed. But it’s not just Assad’s hide. With the Alawite minority backed into the corner with his regime that has been so narrowly based, the Shia-Sunni conflict is also kill or be killed on a larger scale. The Alawites will go down with Assad to the last, if it comes to that, because they have in effect dug their own graves. And if, as is more likely, Assad finally triumphs over an exhausted and shattered country, the retribution against the Sunni opponents will be ghastly. Add to this the jihadist element that has been gaining among the opposition, and you can see why the blowback from direct intervention for regime change à la Iraq would be even worse than Iraq.

The case of the use of chemical weapons does, however, stand somewhat outside these parameters. Of course Assad has slaughtered far more with conventional weapons without eliciting a military response from the West (see above for why). It is also true that far more were slaughtered in World War II by conventional bombs than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, yet atomic weapons have been given a privileged place as absolutely unacceptable. Same thing for CW. What the United States is talking about is a strike against Assad in direct response to CW use on his own citizens, a war crime. Any such action is explicitly not for regime change.

One can entertain grave doubts about the efficacy of such a response, but still grant that it has a better moral and ethical foundation than the Iraq fiasco.

That said, Gareth is right to call for a parliamentary debate. It is shameful that while the U.K. and U.S. have had debates in their legislatures, here we have the Prime Minister and his foreign minister claiming a kind of executive privilege to hold decisions of war and peace all to themselves. The Canadian people never directly elected Harper or Baird, yet even Obama who was directly elected felt called upon to consult Congress. Parliament, for all its faults, is the only body directly elected by the Canadian people, and in Parliament all parties can have their say, not just the Conservative minority of the public (their faux seat majority notwithstanding). What a disgraceful state of democracy this government has given us.

ps: I can’t buy Jan’s argument about the rebels using CW. We know for a fact that the regime has stockpiled sarin and other deadly agents and knows very well how to deploy them. The ragtag rebels do not seem to have access to such an armoury. The American and French intel is reasonably convincing on this. If the UN finds evidence of sophisticated use of sarin, the conclusion is obvious.

From: Patrick Balena | September 5

While Gareth regards the Libyan war with approval, he forgets to mention that Russia and China indeed allowed resolutions to be passed by the Security Council concerning a “no-fly zone” during the Libyan war. Those resolutions, however, did not authorize an overthrow of the Libyan government.

What happened next? The United States and its allies brazenly surpassed the authorized limits of force set forth in those Security Council resolutions.

Now Gareth complains that the Russians and Chinese have become less cooperative.

Some in the United States are afraid of a loss of credibility if the United States does not go to war with Syria. But the people who make an argument about credibility disregard the loss of credibility the United States suffered after exceeding its mandate in Libya.

Gareth claims to have learned (but not, let us be clear, “too much”!) from the Iraq War. But perhaps he learned much too little from the Libyan War.

What does it mean to learn “too much” from the Iraq War?

Is it too much to learn that we cannot accept a great power’s supposed intelligence findings merely on that power’s own authority?

Is it too much to learn that the UN covenant’s restrictions on waging war have proven to be quite sensible?

Is it too much to learn that wars can grow bigger, and last longer, and cause more suffering, than a belligerent choosing that war could have ever expected?

The Iraq War is rich in lessons. One cannot learn too much from that war. One can only choose to keep learning, or not.

From: Patrick Balena | September 7

Gareth insists that the UN Security Council is inoperative. He blames Russia and China for any problems in the Security Council. He dismisses the Libyan example as a “fluke,” even though, if his own argument were valid, we would have expected Russia or China to have been systematically obstructive for obstruction’s sake.

But let’s look at Russian and Chinese action in the Security Council following the end of the Cold War:

  • In the Kuwait crisis, Russia voted in favour of full military action against Iraq (#678), while China abstained.
  • Neither country interfered in Security Council resolutions concerning Serbia and Kosovo (e.g. #1144, #1260), although both countries disapproved, and even though NATO forces destroyed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
  • If Russia or China were such jealous guardians of integral sovereignty, then why did neither country veto Security Council resolutions concerning the division of Sudan (a long series culminating in #1999)?
  • More closely involving Syria, when the Security Council demanded a withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon in 2005 (#1559), Putin’s Russia did not veto, despite its longstanding ties to Syria.

So then, in light of some of the most important Security Council activity over the past two decades, including examples which directly touch on matters of individual state sovereignty and indeed on Syria itself, on what factual basis does Gareth argue that the Security Council is broken, let alone that Russia and China are the ones that have broken it?

Libya was no “fluke.” Russian or Chinese complaisance at the Security Council has in fact become the norm rather than the exception while, unfortunately, it is by no means exceptional for the United States to exceed any authority it is granted by the Security Council – as it did in both Kosovo and Libya.

From: Gareth Morley | September 10

There needs to be a little nuance here. I don’t reject the UN Security Council as completely useless or advocate a policy of refusing to engage diplomatically with Russia and China. I would say, though, that they obviously have strong and self-interested reasons to promote a policy of letting each regime do whatever it wants to its own people, and that if Security Council appproval is an absolute prerequisite for humanitarian intervention, it is not going to happen.

Note that if the United States and NATO are sometimes willing to engage in action without Security Council blessing, there will be a different dynamic, in which Russia and China might use the leverage they have in the Security Council to limit international intervention, but will also compromise sometimes. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but you can’t hypothesize a world in which the U.S./NATO never interevene without Security Council blessing and assume Russia and China would also compromise in that world.

Further, most of Patrick’s examples don’t prove what he says they prove.

The Iraq invasion and annexation of Kuwait was a violation of Westphalian norms, so it raises different questions. Moreover, the USSR was in its last days and China was seeking to get back into the international system after the crackdown on the student movement in 1989. I don’t think it tells us much.

Serbia was a Russian client during the 1990s. Russia made compromises, but it also shielded Serbia and its military allies from effective UN action to end the war in the Balkans. It was only with unilateral NATO action that the war came to an end. There really isn’t much doubt about this.

Sudan is a complicated situation, and I don’t claim to fully understand it. Essentially, the rebel leadership in the South and the Khartoum regime both preferred a division of the country to international scrutiny. China is pretty happy with the result as well. Both successor countries are tyrannies and seem to be relapsing into internal ethnic warfare. Maybe this is a Security Council success story, but if so, we shouldn’t want to rely entirely on the Security Council.

Round 3: The 98-pound weakling?

When reports began to surface of a Russian initiative to rid Syria of its chemical weapons, along with tentative expressions of interest by the Assad regime in Syria and the Obama administration, the focus of the discussion shifted. That was round 2. Then, a Toronto Globe and Mail column by Margaret Wente accusing Obama of letting himself be pushed around by Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked a third round of debate. When the Globe wouldn’t print Henry Milner’s letter in response to Wente’s column, he shared it with the listserv.

From: Henry Milner | September 15

Margaret Wente is at least honest. “Like most everybody else,” she writes in the Globe on September 14, “I’m confused as hell over Syria.” This however does not prevent her from showering Barack Obama, “the 98-pound weakling,” with 950 words of invective. It comes down to a pissing contest and Barack Obama is losing, letting that schoolyard bully, Vladimir Putin, kick sand in his face.

Were she less confused, she might admit that Obama is playing the hand he has been dealt as well as it could be played. Obama has understood from the beginning that neither side, given their internal and external support, could defeat the other: the only solution would have to be a negotiated one. And that could only happen if Russia were involved.

Instead, this is treated as a joke. Putin is “the guy who has been arming Bashar al-Assad to the teeth and blocking the United Nations from doing anything about it.” By the same logic the United States should not be expected to contribute to peace in Palestine since it has been arming Netanyahu to the teeth and blocking the UN from doing anything about it.

So faced with a regime that gases its opponents and knowing that, in the end, it will only be removed through a negotiated settlement, what is Mr. Obama to do? Hide his head in the sand and pretend there was no poison gas? Send in the marines? Or build up external and internal support for action to make it clear that this is unacceptable?

It is hardly his fault that many prefer to hide their head in the sand – to say, like Margaret Wente, that this is Mr. Obama’s problem, not mine.

In fact, Mr. Obama’s stance on the poison gas has led to the first progress toward a negotiated settlement – however fleeting – that we have seen since this all began. Surely that’s what really matters, not who wins the pissing contest.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 15

Henry, excellent letter.

The Wente “weakling” line on Obama is of course a perfect crystallization of the Fox News–Republican line on the Russian-U.S. agreement. The right’s position has always been to demand that Obama attack Syria so that they could then attack Obama for attacking Syria! Ironically, we have also seen a bizarre criticism from the left that first branded Obama a warmonger for threatening to respond to Assad’s use of chemical weapons, and then views the agreement to divest Assad of his weapons as Putin pushing Obama around when Obama couldn’t control his own Congress. It seems that Syria is a classic lose-lose for every politician in the West. Cameron was humiliated by his defeat in the Commons, but Milliband who led the opposition has been if anything treated with even more contempt by the U.K. media.

Meanwhile, Putin has raised his diplomatic profile perhaps, but by backing Assad to the hilt he has hardly helped advance Russian prestige with the Saudis, Qataris, Egyptians and Turks, all opposed to the Assad regime. And Hezbollah, which emerged from the Israeli attack on Lebanon as the rock stars of Arab pride, has got itself into a terrible hole with its military role in Syria which is already blowing back on it in a Lebanon flooded with refugees from Assad’s brutality.

The ultimate Syrian idiocy has to rest with our own ineffable “foreign” minister, Baird. After making it clear that Canada had no intention of lifting a finger to assist the United States in carrying out strikes against Assad, Baird is now denouncing the Russian-U.S. agreement to make Assad give up his weapons. Syria’s offer to abandon its weapons is, in Baird’s carefully chosen words: “ridiculous and absurd.” Baird asserts that Assad “could not be given extra time.” Presumably, his only choice is immediate surrender or Generalissimo Baird will order the Americans to attack!

Of course, no one outside Canada gives a rat’s ass about John Baird’s bombast. But what is particularly weird about this is that Baird has lost the plot of his so-called Middle Eastern policy, which has never amounted to anything more than a blank cheque for Benjamin Netanyahu. Contrast Baird’s bluster with the comments quoted today in the Israeli media from Netanyahu: “We hope the understandings reached between the United States and Russia regarding the Syrian chemical weapons will yield results.”

Has the ventriloquist lost control of his dummy?

From: Arthur Milner | September 15

I think Baird has now fallen into line: “We welcome today’s developments in Geneva as a first step,” said Baird (quoted in multiple sources).

Now he’s just as progressive as Netanyahu.

It turned out well, all in all, but did Obama threaten to bomb Syria to prove he wasn’t a ”98-pound weakling”?

From: Matthew Barlow | September 16

Obama has no need to prove he’s not a “98-pound weakling.” As Joe Biden continually reminded the nation last year, Obama is the man who killed Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, the opposition to Obama’s stance on Syria down here has been downright comical. Only the die-hard Obama supporters continue to justify his position here. But the left of the Democratic Party has been vicious in its condemnation, until they get reminded of the chemical weapons, whereas the GOP is still screaming about Benghazi, and demanding that Obama do something, only stopping long enough to scream incoherently about Syria. It is obvious to me that Obama always had a negotiated settlement in mind, but he rattled sabres and went to Congress to call out the GOP. He did it hamhandedly, but I think he got what he wanted out of this.

From: Arthur Milner | September 16

Matthew, re: “Obama has no need to prove he’s not a ‘98-pound weakling.’ As Joe Biden continually reminded the nation last year, Obama is the man who killed Osama bin Laden.”

I hope that’s a joke. For those who care about such things, a fighter is only as good as his last bout.

And “It is obvious to me that Obama always had a negotiated settlement in mind.” Good for you! He sure tricked me.

From: Matthew Barlow | September 16

If he tricked you, Arthur, you weren’t paying close enough attention. At the same time as Obama was rattling sabres, his secretary of state was making noises about negotiated settlements. Obama’s entire run to Congress was a power play: as you know, the Constitution requires the president to seek Congress’s input on war. Since Lincoln, all presidents have done this post facto, if at all (Reagan didn’t bother when he invaded Grenada). So, given that Kerry was engaged in diplomacy abroad while Obama rattled sabres at home, the outcome seemed pretty much preordained from where I sit.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 16

The most important element in the current situation may be that top-level meetings are now being planned with the Iranians. This is itself likely an offshoot of the Russian-brokered deal on chemical weapons, as well as the new openness of the post-Ahmadinejad leadership in Tehran. If the Iranian nuclear issue can be taken off the table, Netanyahu will have no more red herrings to divert attention away from dealing with the Palestinians. But even then Obama-Kerry are so tied up by the pro-Israel lobby within both political parties that they have little freedom of manoeuvre on that front. My only hope is that Obama in the last days of his lame-duck tenure could damn the domestic consequences and beat some reason into Netanyahu, but I wouldn’t bet defunct Canadian pennies on that happening.

From: Gareth Morley | September 16

To get where Wente is coming from, it is important to realize that she does not care, and never has cared, about Middle Eastern politics. Marxists used to say the only war that mattered was the class war. Today, the only war that matters is the gender war.

To anyone with a basic grasp of strategic thinking, diplomacy and the use of force are not opposites. Rather, the whole point of having the ability to project force is to be able to credibly threaten to use it for diplomatic advantage. And the only reason to use force is that sometimes signalling breaks down, and if you don’t use it, you lose diplomatic credibility. So it just makes no sense to say either “Obama should try diplomatic solutions, rather than threaten force,” as the left tends to say, or “Obama is a big wimp for talking with our enemies,” as the right says. From the point-of-view of rational choice theory, these are just thought errors. You don’t get to talk to Putin or Iran’s leaders if you can’t credibly threaten them. And you don’t accomplish anything unless you get people who don’t share your objectives to cooperate with you. Negotiation is not a reward for being a nice guy: it is a process of communicating how it is in someone else’s interest to do what you want.

But at a deeper level, what is going on is not a dispute over policy options in the Middle East. It is a battle between (1) those who think that the feminization of Western culture is undermining our martial virtues and therefore our ability to keep the Other at bay and (2) non-crazy people. The idea that we are becoming more effeminate and eventually will be overridden by barbarians always seems to involve mentioning both poor old Neville Chamberlain and the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but it was actually a pretty old theme when that Empire was at its height. It is just a persistent motif in Western civilization.

Wente’s job is to annoy Globe readers, not to know things about the Middle East. The Iraq war was good because it represented Western males no longer taking it any more and showing the fuzzy wuzzies who is boss. Obama is bad because he bowed to the Emperor of Japan and insisted on getting involved in a conflict with a lot of confusing Arab names that at least GWB would have pronounced wrong.

From: Patrick Balena | September 17

Too many Inroaders have attributed too much foreknowledge to Obama:

  1. If Russia had not vetoed Security Council resolutions, the United States would have already been attacking Syria.
  2. Obama had no way of knowing that Cameron would suffer a caucus revolt. With a U.S./U.K./French coalition, escalation would have been likely.
  3. Obama had no way of knowing that Sisi’s new government in Egypt would block Arab League action against Syria.

One would need a deep conspiracy theory to imagine those three strings in Obama’s hands.

The evidence indicates that Obama was trying to follow the strategy used against Libya, but things just didn’t come together.

Since Obama waited about two years before preparing a U.S. attack on Syria, it is clear that such an attack was not his first option. On the other hand, if one believes that Obama in good faith always wanted to make peace in Syria, then one needs to answer some questions:

  1. Why did the United States recall its ambassador from Damascus when fighting in Syria had scarcely begun?
  2. Why did the United States insist that Assad step down as the precondition before even beginning any talks?
  3. Why did the U.S. and its allies attempt to recognize the Syrian National Council as the legitimate government of Syria – even to the farcical extent of installing an American citizen, Ghassan Hitto, as the nominal head of that council?
  4. Why did the United States try to disparage as useless the UN inspection team sent to investigate chemical weapons use before it had even begun its work?
  5. Why has the U.S. not encouraged Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Qatar to participate in multilateral talks, and why did the United States repeatedly reject Iranian offers to negotiate over Syria? All of those countries are involved in the war, and they ought to be involved in the peace.
  6. Why did the United States repeatedly try to pass resolutions in the Security Council authorizing armed force against the Syrian government, but not back any Security Council resolutions mandating high-level talks?

While it’s fair to say that Obama was not eager to go to war against Syria, the claim that he always wanted a negotiated settlement cannot be supported. War was not his first option, but it was high on the list.

Obama wanted the Syrian government to fall, but hoped that it would happen quickly and cheaply. The resilience of the Ba’ath government in Syria and developments elsewhere have put him off-balance.

If “optics” are a concern, then the “optics” are bad. But would anyone prefer McCain’s hysterics? If Obama doesn’t go to war in Syria, then he has done right, even if hostile pundits think he looks klutzier than Ford.

We still have to wait three more years to find out whether a Nobel Peace Prize, when immediately awarded to an incoming U.S. president, can be an effective prophylactic treatment. The clinical trial is ongoing.

Round 4: Democracy or liberalism?

A final round focused on the oft-stated American goal of bringing democracy to the Middle East.

From: Anthony Westell | September 17

U.S. involvement in the Middle East started with Bush’s invasion of Iraq which was supposed to topple a dictator and allow the people to establish a democracy. Instead, a civil/religious war has produced a shambles. Similarly, the much-heralded Arab Spring in Egypt was supposed to make way for democracy, but now the military are in control. NATO helped the rebels overthrow the dictator in Libya, which seems still to be having trouble. Given the severity of the civil war in Syria, the outcome will be bloody and painful whichever side wins. What Obama did or didn’t say, or should have done, is merely of academic interest. The fact is that democracy is a sophisticated system which developed over centuries in Europe and will probably take many years, even decades or centuries, to take root in the Muslim Middle East.

From: Gareth Morley | September 17

Tony may be right that democracy will not be established in the Middle East soon. There are plenty of reasons for pessimism.

Still, I am skeptical of the “democracy took centuries in Europe” argument. In fact, plenty of what appear to be well-established European democracies today had little or no democratic experience before the 1970s or even 1990s. The same is true in east Asia. In 1940, democracy really only existed in the white Anglophone world, Sweden and Switzerland. If South Korea and Poland can be democracies now, I don’t buy that there is a metaphysical necessity that Libya or Syria can never be.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 17

I agree with Gareth that the “democracy took centuries in Europe” claim exaggerates the depth of democratic roots. Even in Britain, the “democratic” nature of the political system well into the 20th century has often been exaggerated. In Canada I have often shaken my head in disbelief when latter-day enthusiasts babble about the Fathers of Confederation establishing “democracy” here: that was the definitely not on their British agenda as democracy was seen as a dangerous American fashion. It was democracy, after all, that had allowed America to tear itself apart in a brutal civil war. Sir John A. once remarked that the idea that a man (let alone a woman!) should vote just because they breathed was repellent to his moral sensibilities.

To complicate any analysis of why democratic experiments seem to be faltering in the Arab world, there is a wide range of theorizing about democratization in the political science world, which I can’t even begin to touch on here (do I hear exhalations of relief all around?).

We can point to a couple of relevant factors that do help explain the difficulties, while not denying the longer-term possibilities.

The transformation from outright autocracies to more widely-based forms of governance tend to falter on the weakness of civil society (itself a direct result of autocratic rule). Autocratic rule lacked legitimacy, being based nakedly on violence and fear. But since civil society has difficulty forming viable broad-based coalitions that could provide legitimacy to the post-autocratic state, what tends to happen instead is the scuffling for advantage of sections of the society that are too narrow to command wide legitimacy.

Worse, in the Arab case, certainly in Tunisia and Egypt, the best-organized and most popularly rooted political elements are Islamist. Islam also provides a common language for a people suddenly told to engage in a political discourse they had been long barred from. Unfortunately, Islamist movements like the Brotherhood are good at winning office in the new dispensation, but once in office their ideology blinds them to the need to reach out and compromise with the secularist (and other sectarian) forces. The result is an either/or, winner-take-all mentality that mirrors the previous autocratic rule. Morsi’s Brothers “won” the election in Egypt with a minority of votes and then tried to rewrite the constitution and the basic rules to reflect their own narrow vision, which not only alienated but terrified secularist and other opponents. Hence the bizarre spectacle of the “people” of Tahrir Square applauding the military coup.

This does not look good but the situation is not without hope. Turkey (despite some recent stutters) does provide a relatively vibrant model of an Islamist political project that can command wide legitimacy in a democratic framework. Let’s remember that this does not have long historical roots. As late as the 1990s the rather intolerant secularist forces in Turkey were still intent on blocking the Islamists from even participating in the political sphere.

From: Jan Narveson | September 17

Discussions among Westerners of the political developments in the Middle East tend overwhelmingly to be in terms of “democracy.” But those who put it in these terms are, I suspect, confusing two possibly very different things: Democracy and Liberalism.

Democracy is Rule by the People, as distinct from rule by dictators, kings, or aristocracies. Liberalism is respect for individual persons, attributing to them the right to live the sort of life they want, just because they want it.

When Westerners discuss democracy, they assume (a considerable measure of) liberalism. But Middle Easterners do not. When Mohammed Morsi was elected, he took his victory to imply that at last, his “Muslim Brothers” got to assert totalitarian rule over the rest. The same general syndrome goes for Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and various presidents and such in other countries in Africa. Democracy means the majority hands dictatorial power to the guy they elected.

This is an inherent problem of democracy: why shouldn’t the majority just beat the crap out of the minority? Isn’t it majority rule?

Well, that isn’t what “we,” Westerners, had in mind. Western democracies are constitutional: they attribute pretty strong rights to everyone, and they assume that when governments are elected by majorities, those governments will respect the rights of everyone, not just those who elected them. (Yes, they’re often wrong. But that’s the inherent problem of democracy asserting itself again. At least it’s under some control in the West. Not so – as yet – in typical Middle Eastern and African contexts.)

As between the two – government by people who were elected versus governments that respect individual liberties – which is more important?

Answer: liberalism, by far. Some states have prospered without democracy. For perhaps the most outstanding example, take Hong Kong, which under British ultraliberal “rule” but without elections went from nearly the poorest state in the world to one of the wealthiest per capita, with civil liberties generally strongly respected. On the other hand, Russia, despite its elections, is not far from a dictatorship (hopefully that will change). And Libya? And Egypt? And if the “rebels” win in Syria, does anyone expect a liberal government to emerge? I don’t think so!

Which is a major reason why Western countries shouldn’t be in too big a hurry to support those rebels, who are turning out to be Islamists, with all that implies (which is a lot).

In Canada, and the United States, we are fortunate to have appreciable Muslim populations that are, by and large, becoming solid supporters of the sort of liberalism we expect. Neither the Muslim religion nor any other major religion has to be devoted to a political takeover of the governments of the countries they inhabit, with forcible conversion of the rest upon defeating them in a “democratic” election. But it isn’t an easy lesson to learn.

Nor is it fully learned by all here, as we know: the self-styled “Christian Right” is dedicated to antiliberal goals not greatly less radical than those of the Islamists. And any number of aspirants to political office hereabouts are ready to try to get their favourite ideas about how the rest of us are “supposed to live” legislated over our objections. And so it goes.

From: Gareth Morley | September 17

Jan is of course right that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing. As John Stuart Mill (who was basically right about everything) taught us, we have to worry about the tyranny of the majority.

Still, in practice, democracy, defined as a system in which the right to govern depends on free and competitive elections conducted on the basis of universal suffrage, tends as a matter of statistical generalization to go together with greater degrees of personal and economic freedom than alternative political systems.

Some amount of liberalism is necessary for democracy, since if there are no limits on what government can do, it is hard to meet the acid test of democracy, which is peaceful transition of power when the will of the majority changes. Moreover, liberalism reduces the stakes for minorities and so reduces their opposition to majority rule. If Christians and Alawites had reason to think they could peacefully exercise their religions if the majority chose who ruled Syria, they would have a lot less reason to cling to the Assad regime.

On the other hand, I am sceptical of the idea that restrictions on democracy to promote liberalism will actually do so. It seems to me that it is hardly an accident that the most democratic countries have been the most liberal. The majority tends to have a certain degree of common sense and a majority coalition will be hard to keep together if it is oppressing a minority. The main counterexamples, like the Jim Crow South or present-day Israel, are places in which most of the oppressed couldn’t vote. As LBJ pointed out in promoting the Voting Rights Act, “Once you give the Negro the vote, every cracker politician will kiss his ass.” That actually worked a lot better than Brown v. Board of Education did.

Controlling democracy for the benefit of liberalism is the big idea behind judicial review of statutes, independent central banks and the European Union. These phenomena have reduced the range of democratic choice in the Atlantic democracies substantially compared to what used to exist. To some extent, that may mean more liberalism, but in Europe in particular it has led to both an economic and a governance crisis. The independent central bank cares about bank solvency, but it doesn’t care about employment. The result is millions of young people unnecessarily unemployed who would have jobs in a system in which devaluation was possible. As Europeans realize that the real decisions get made by tribunals and agencies they have no control over, they increasingly vote for extremists.

In Canada, we seem to be more docile in accepting that the real decisions will be made by the Supreme Court of Canada, the Bank of Canada and perhaps some arbitral panel under an investment treaty hardly anyone has heard of. The Carney Bank and the McLachlin Court haven’t used their powers quite as aggressively as John Crow and Brian Dickson did. Still, I think we have a big democratic deficit and the poltical system is less able to integrate and address popular concerns.

I would basically say that democracy and liberalism actually tend to go together in the Muslim world and in Africa, just as they do elsewhere. I don’t think what will come after Assad in Syria will be liberal, but then I don’t think it will be particularly democratic either.

From: Reg Whitaker | September 19

In response to some of Gareth’s interesting and important points on democracy and liberalism:

I should have expressed myself better with regard to civil society in the Arab world. It would be a mistake to treat civil society as a measurable quantity. To say postautocratic Arab countries have “less” civil society than post-Communist Eastern European countries is nonsensical.

What I meant by the weakness of civil society in the Arab world was specifically in relation to those elements that would encourage democratic development. In some sense, the very strengths of Arab civil society – particularly the ideological and cultural power of religious faith and religiously based social organization – are what hinder Arab countries in building viable democracies.

A crucial element in workable mass democracies is surely the willingness of all major groups and interests to recognize the legitimacy of opponents; to accept that your side will sometimes be in office, and sometimes not; to recognize that your side doesn’t always get its way, while the other side sometimes does; to live and let live, as it were. By this token, democracy in the United States broke down completely with the slavery issue and had to be settled by force. By the same token, the intransigent and intolerant behaviour of some of the Republicans in Congress seems to put into some question the current viability of democracy: they threaten to bring down the entire government unless Obamacare, passed by a majority and endorsed by the Supreme Court, is repealed to appease their minority opinion.

The problem of democratic construction in Egypt is that Mubarak’s autocratic rule systematically blocked and undermined those secularist and “modernizing” forces that would have nurtured liberalism in civil society while at the same time encouraging (ironically through repression) those powerful religious elements in civil society that produced the ideological tunnel vision and cultural intolerance of the Brotherhood, Nour and other Islamist groups. These groups had learned much about how to organize grassroots support among the rural and urban poor, but nothing about cooperation and compromise with secularist and liberal groups that are educated and progressive but woefully weak on the ground outside their own networks.

Finally, with regard to liberalism and democracy, democracies can be illiberal and still democratic, in that they broadly reflect the majority popular will. These can be authoritarian populist and may inflict repressive majority rule over minorities. The historical record does tend to suggest that such states are inherently unstable in the long run, however. The segregationist South is an example. Apartheid South Africa affords another example – although in that case it was minority rule over a majority, which is even more unstable.

Let me quickly offer a couple of liberal elements that according to Francis Fukuyama2 are necessary to viable democracies: accountability of government (taken broadly) and the rule of law. Without these, even popularly based regimes – such as China – have a problem.

Continue reading “Syria: The questions remain”

Jean-Louis Roy,
Chers voisins: Ce qu’on ne connait pas de l’Ontario.

Montreal: Stanké, 2013.
370 pages.

As a young journalist, I was taught that the essence of a news story is “man bites dog” – a reversal of expectations. Since then I’ve also learned that there are many newsworthy occurrences that don’t fit that simple formula, but I still sometimes come across stories that have clear “man bites dog” appeal. “Distinguished Quebec writer falls in love with Ontario, writes book” is certainly one of them.

The Quebec writer is Jean-Louis Roy, who was publisher of the Montreal daily Le Devoir in the early 1980s and later Quebec delegate-general in Paris and then secretary-general of the main administrative body of la Francophonie, the international organization of French-speaking nations. It would be unusual for someone with Roy’s CV even to be interested in Ontario, let alone to have nice things to say about it. But what makes his book Chers voisins even more surprising – and relevant to the current debate about Quebec’s proposed charter of values – is that what he likes best about Ontario is the way the province has adapted to the increasing cultural diversity of its population.

Chers voisins takes the form of a reportage: Roy interviews a variety of people in Ontario, reports and makes observations on the interviews, and stitches together the threads that emerge from them. The book is divided into three sections: the second and third deal with the province’s economy and cultural industries respectively. But it is the first and longest section, labelled “Les Ontariens,” that is the heart of the book.

“Multiculturalism” is the word that is usually used to describe the way various cultures are expected to live together in English Canada. It is regarded with deep suspicion in francophone Quebec, and there are sound reasons for this. At its origins, multiculturalism was a diversion from the “biculturalism” that formed part of the mandate of the Laurendeau-Dunton Royal Commission appointed by Prime Minister Lester Pearson in the 1960s. It became part of the federal government’s policy toolkit in the 1970s under Pierre Elliott Trudeau, widely regarded as a foe of anything hinting at the specificity of francophone Quebec. On this take, the goal of multiculturalism was to reduce francophone Quebec to the status of one of many “cultures” coexisting within Canada.

But while there is considerable truth in this account, multiculturalism acquired a life of its own, especially in the large metropolitan areas of Toronto and Vancouver, transformed by increasing and increasingly diverse immigration in the last decades of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st. And it is this life that Roy discovers in his journey through Ontario. Indeed, he finds that the transformations have been so profound that multiculturalism is no longer an adequate word to describe Ontario’s “unprecedented cultural space”:

Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s vision of multiculturalism, inspiring as it was in its time, no longer corresponds to Ontario society and the way Ontarians practise the racial, cultural and linguistic diversity that is now their world. In Ontario, diversity is now the very ground of common life; it is quantitative and substantial. In this sense, it is not a perfected form of multiculturalism. It goes beyond multiculturalism and represents the appearance of something else, a postmulticulturalism in which the will of the majority is no longer the source of the diverse communities’ recognition and status.

This idea of “postmulticulturalism” is echoed by a number of Roy’s interview subjects. Thus Rahul Bhardwaj, President of the Toronto Community Foundation, describes diversity as “the very DNA of Ontario society,” contradicting both the old “metanarrative” of an Anglo-Saxon society and the new one of Canadian multiculturalism.

Roy acknowledges the social and economic gaps that continue to disadvantage some of Ontario’s ethnic groups, but they do not disturb his generally positive view. He also acknowledges that there are in reality two Ontarios – the Greater Toronto Area and the rest of the province – but his attention is directed almost exclusively toward one of them. Chers voisins is, in essence, a book about Toronto. I found little in it that relates to the small-town Ontario where I live, where diversity is, if not completely absent, still something of a curiosity, and not one that is always welcomed by longtime residents.

Still, Chers voisins captures something real and essential about contemporary Ontario. And it raises a question that Quebecers need to pay close attention to: the relationship between the majority and cultural minorities:

In this society of diasporas, the idea and the reality of a majority are fading away, to be replaced by a singular entity in which a constellation of communities, only yesterday still designated by the term “minorities,” live together. Ontario society seems to have been preserved from the hate-filled debates, recurring fears and violent crises that feed the West’s deep malaise in the face of the diversity that now defines it.

Has Ontario really achieved this status of a collection of communities living together, with no one dominant majority setting the rules for the rest? Is this desirable? How would this apply in Quebec, where the crucifix in the National Assembly has been defended not on religious grounds but on grounds of Quebec’s “heritage”? I remember being struck a few years ago by a Muslim woman’s comments on the Bouchard-Taylor Report on reasonable accommodation:

How can harmony among cultures come to be when there is a relationship of domination in which other cultures are subordinated to the culture of the Québécois de souche? How can a vivre-ensemble that takes different cultures into account be constructed when the references are those of Quebec culture? The Bouchard-Taylor Commission missed the opportunity to discuss a common culture to be built with – not outside of – new Quebecers, taking into account their cultures, and not just a single culture, that of the established majority.

What she was proposing was something very similar to what Roy purports to have discovered in Ontario. It is not something that most Québécois and Québécoises de souche have bought into, or are likely to buy into in the foreseeable future. Most Quebecers would likely agree that the majority should be generous to minorities – the extent of that generosity is part of what is at issue in the debate over the charter of values. But the proposition that the majority, if such a thing exists, should be on an equal footing with minorities, culturally as well as economically and politically, is another matter.

It is undoubtedly easier for an English-speaking society such as Ontario, where the dominant language group can simply take its dominance for granted, to be multicultural or even “postmulticultural” than it is for a society such as Quebec whose language is constantly in need of protection. Nevertheless, I’m not sure that most Ontarians have bought into the above proposition either, at least not consciously. (It is worth remembering that it is in Ontario, not Quebec, that state-funded religious education is available to you if you are a Roman Catholic but not if you belong to any other religious tradition.) And I would not venture to predict how debates surrounding this proposition are likely to play out.

But what is clear is that for healthy debates to take place, the idea of a society without a culturally dominant majority needs to be out in the open, and not hidden behind other issues. In making this idea explicit, Jean-Louis Roy has performed a valuable service, for Ontarians and Quebecers alike.