Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Strategy of Permanent War. . .

We live in difficult times for anyone who is wants to promote justice and equality. We are living through an era in which large, globalizing corporations have overwhelmingly dominated the political discourse for more than 30 years. And as the Neo-Liberal consensus has begun to show cracks and is basically breaking down, the rightwing has begun to ramp up its strategies of fear: fear of change, and fear of 'the other.' The primary target of this strategy of fear has been the relatively soft target of Islam. I call this a soft target because this has been a pretty safe target for Western leaders for hundreds of years. It is easy to feed on people's underlying bigotry, particularly religious bigotry. And the Neo-Liberal leaders of the West, desperate to consolidate their power and narrow our political discourse, thrive on religious bigotry. Oh, of course they will never admit that this is their strategy because that has become socially unacceptable. But they are fully aware that this is what is going on.

The most interesting (and tragic) part of this strategy is that for a long time now, Western leaders have been quite intentionally aggravating so-called Islamic extremism with the clear knowledge that they need this "enemy" to drive their economy of war and their politics of fear. The grandest deception of modern times is the portrayal of Israel as "victim." But the focus of political Zionism has been fairly clear from the beginning. The creation of Israel was orchestrated by violent "terrorists" like the Stern Gang who intentionally created as much conflict as possible with Palestinians in order specifically to create an image of Middle Eastern Jews as victims. They did this because it was the only ideological shield that they could use to hide behind as they took more and more Palestinian land. This strategy among Israeli leaders has continued unabated now for generations. Take Palestinian land, lock them up in giant prison camps and then portray yourself as a victim on the defensive every time the Palestinians fight back, meanwhile continue to take Palestinian land (in clear violation of international law) while everyone is looking at and blaming the Palestinians. It is a strategy has even deceived many Israelis as so well illustrated by the Israeli peace activist Miko Peled.

But our own leaders have more or less adopted the very same strategy. Part of this has been the simple and clear knowledge that failure to support the Palestinian people will continue to feed the ranks of desperate and angry groups who actively, and understandably, use any means at their disposal to fight back. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have also been central to this strategy. The strategy is this - create conflict, ignore or exploit religious and ethnic differences, arm and incite these groups either directly or through proxy states like Saudi Arabia, and then use these enhanced conflicts to further expand war, military spending, and increased security powers in our own countries. It is, in fact, an age old military/political strategy; create conflict and then use that conflict as the excuse to enhance your power, military might, and surveillance or our own population.

It is a sad strategy in every possible sense. It destroys lives, creates chaos and death, and it is easily sold to a surprisingly gullible population. Part of the problem is that there is a significant conceptual deficit among people when it comes to the issue of power. Most people have only a one dimensional view of power which sees power moving in only one direction and misses the subtleties of how it is used to deceive and how it moves through structures and can expand backward toward the source. Thus, people in the West will, for example, demonize Islam or Islamic nations, failing entirely to see how Western nations not only created these countries (mostly during the First World War) and then exploited thees nations to enhance the need for continual war. It really is just a more complex version of using provocateurs, which governments and capitalists have been doing forever.

Arguably the worst by-product of this strategy of fear and one dimensional view of power is bigotry. You see it all the time and it is profoundly frustrating. People will see the terrible actions of 'the other,' (in this case Muslims) as the main source of conflict and evil, meanwhile they will ignore not only our own Western history of violence and evil, but completely ignore the active part that our governments and arms dealers play in the sustaining this history of violence etc. Thus people will ignore the fact that George Bush started a war almost solely for personal vengeance that killed over half a million innocent people, but they will drone on and on about a single murder perpetrated by 'the other.' This is the kind of ignorance that our leaders are actively promoting.

As Bertrand Russell once said, "Most people would rather die than think; many do."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Western Crusaders and Noble Violence. . .

Defining complex social phenomena is always a convoluted problem. Of course in the 'post-modern' era, where language games and linguistic subtitles are the life-blood of philosophy, definitions themselves become problematical. The very best work of modern philosophers like Derrida, Foucault, and Richard Rorty is really all about the problems of definition. But I digress.

Years ago I was at a pub with a friend who was a PhD student in sociology and who was writing his dissertation on the subject of cults in Britain. Being intellectually mischievous, I claimed that any distinctions between religions and cults were really just arbitrary and a matter of convenience. This led to considerable anger on his part because his entire PhD career hinged, in a sense, on his ability to make this distinction. But after a long conversion my friend had not, in my opinion, done anything to convince me that such distinctions are not, ultimately, driven by some underlying ideological purpose. In the final analysis, distinguishing between a cult and a religion is an exercise in arbitrariness. But these are the kinds of issues that you will very seldom see discussed in any kind of mainstream media. The failure on the part of the MSM is, in part, due to a fairly simple lack of intellectual capacity on the part of both the mainstream writers and broadcasters, and the North American audience. On the other hand, in Europe, and most particularly in France, you will see in-depth, philosophically sophisticated arguments in popular, widely circulated newspapers. Frighteningly, in Canada Rex Murphy seems to qualify as an intellectual.

I bring this up, of course, because of recent events in Halifax where the police allegedly thwarted a plot to commit a mass-shooting. The hapless Justice Minister Peter MacKay was at pains to clarify the meaning of this alleged conspiracy and told us this - "The attack does not appear to have been culturally motivated, therefore not linked to terrorism." This statement offers an interesting change in the definition of 'terrorism' that is commonly used in our popular culture, particularly by the rightwing. By shifting the idea of terrorism away from 'political motivations' to 'cultural motivations,' the Harper government seems to be attempting to bolster their election strategy of being seen as religious crusaders and it contributes to the creation of fear amongst Canadians for 'the other.' By attempting to guide the public discourse away from political aspects of so-called 'terrorism' (as well as the political aspect of Harper's war as an election ploy), the HarperCons can tap into a much deeper and darker aspect of public fear, a fear that those in power have been exploiting since the time of the Crusades.

But there is a bit of cognitive dissonance here because for a very long time the popular definition of 'terrorism' has been overtly tired to politics. In fact, this morning on CBC they had an interview with some sort of 'expert' on the subject (I missed his name and qualifications) of terrorism, and he defined terrorism this way - 'the use of violence by political extremists.' And since the alleged plot in Halifax involved people who have been referred to as 'Neo-Nazis,' these events would be very clearly tied to a common notion of terrorism.

But what is interesting to me here is the degree to which a definition of terrorism can shift according to the political/ideological goals of the speaker, and the way that people are compelled to shift their definition so that they can continually brand others as terrorist while distancing their own efforts from being associated with such a notion. The Harper regime wants to associate terrorism with religious and cultural issues because it feeds their narrative of Canada being at war with a foreign group of religious fanatics. And if we associate a group of Nova Scotian Neo-Nazis with terrorism, that narrative is threatened because it politicizes the discourse. The same kind of problem recently arose in the U.S. where a man killed a three Muslims but was not branded by representatives of the State as a terrorist. It is vitally important for Western Governments to brand violent actions by non-white 'extremists' as terrorism, while avoiding that epithet being used in relation to Western caucasians engaged in the same kinds of violent acts. This is because the 'terrorist' must always be 'the other' in order for the notion to have the power to sway people with fear and make them support a political program of war.

But all of this shifting conceptual ground makes one wonder how do we keep a handle on the uses of the notion of 'terrorism' and of how those uses can influence political discourses and outcomes. Well I think it is actually pretty easy most of the time if we just remember that it is almost always a question of the perceived legitimacy of violence. Terrorism is almost always a label used by people to refer to acts of violence that they believe are illegitimate. A great example from contemporary events is the West's response to the coop in Ukraine. A year ago large numbers of Ukrainians, some of them armed and many of them with ties of fascists and ultra-nationalists, began occupying government buildings and calling for the overthrow of an elected president. Our leaders not only didn't refer to these insurgence as 'terrorists,' but they embraced them as legitimate political activists. However, if large numbers of Canadians, some of them armed, occupied the buildings on Parliament Hill and called for the overthrow of Harper they would be roundly referred to as terrorists and treated accordingly by our government. The Israeli government, with one of the most powerful militaries in the world, has been stealing Palestinian land for over half a century, bulldozing Palestinian homes, killing and imprisoning Palestinian people. But no Western leader has ever referred to the Israelis as terrorists for such acts. On the other hand, any act of violence perpetrated by Palestinians against Israel or other Western nations is continually referred to as terrorism. The distinction is solely one of perceived legitimacy. Terrorism is not really a thing in the world, rather it is a conceptual political tool used by leaders and political commentators to de-legitimize certain acts, and by association to legitimize other acts. The U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was not defensive and resulted in the deaths of around 500 thousand innocent civilians will never be referred to as an act of terrorism by Western leaders.

While we listen to our political leaders continually refer to acts by foreigners or so-called 'home-grown' religious extremists as terrorism, while referring to our own, often indiscriminate and usually ideologically motivated, acts of mass violence as nobel, just remember the issue of perceived legitimacy and think about the agenda of the speaker.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Eve Adams makes me Laugh . . . and Cry.

Nowadays, it takes a lot to drag me to the keyboard to bother to write about politics. For one thing, there are other bloggers out there who, given the terrible shadow that has been cast over this country, do a better job than I, with more rhetorical and emotional force (which is exactly what is called for now). For another thing, I am emotionally spent for now concerning politics. With the gradual rise of a new fascism in many countries, the return to adventurist militarism (despite the lessons of both the Vietnam era and the disastrous Iraq war), and the erosion of basic democratic rights and processes, I am feeling rather bleak about the future now.

But occasionally a little event occurs in the upper echelon of politics in Canada that is just so amusing and depressing at the same time that it is just worth talking about, if for no other reason than to vent a little spleen. Just such an occasion came today with the crossing of the floor of one of the darlings of the Conservative Party, Eve Adams. As everyone now knows, in a surprising move the woman who once seemed to have a great future in the Conservative Party (but had gradually fallen from grace) crossed the floor and joined the other conservative party (ie., the Liberals).

The reason that this event is so interesting is that it demonstrates so many things at once. On the one hand, Eve Adams, though one of the most dim-witted souls in the current Conservative caucus (and this is saying a lot given how collectively dim-witted that caucus is), said things in her news conference that hit the political nail on the head. She said that she can no longer support the "mean-spirited" politics of the current Conservative Party. Though she may me entirely disingenuous with this claim, it is finally a Conservative MP telling truth to power and it is right on the nose correct. The worst indictment of conservative politics in this country has been the unwillingness of conservatives to criticize the poison politics of the current Conservative Party leadership. This silence on the part of party members and fellow travellers demonstrates that conservatives are perfectly willing to abandon democracy, rights, and integrity for the sake of power. I believe that Conservative Party policies are terrible and dangerous to our future, but it is their willingness to abandon basic principles of democracy and fairness that really prove that they are an evil force in Canada. Because your politics can be misguided, but your actions demonstrate your real political spirit.

Eve Adams also hit the nail on the head when she said (and I am only paraphrasing) that she can no longer support a Conservative Party that has become the party of the rich. Well the conservatives have always been the party of the rich and Eve Adams was blind if she couldn't see this, but that doesn't take away from the truth of what she said.

But of course, all of this comes against the back drop of Adams' past (and present). She was an ardent supporter of Conservative Policy for years and not only did she never voice these concerns publicly before, but she was often just as mean-spirited as those she now claims to oppose. But more troubling is the fact that she continues to be engaged to Dimitri Soudas, a guy who was more or less the back-room representative of Harper's mean-spirited, and sneaky politics.

But what makes the whole thing both amusing and depressing, is the fact that it highlights better than anything could the hypocrisy at the heart of present-day politics in Ottawa. Last week, for the Conservatives (despite her nomination troubles etc) Adams was one of the gang and represented the principles of the party. The PMO distanced itself from her to a degree because what she was doing was garnering bad-press, but she had long been one of the Party's darlings and they defended her many times despite her hopeless dim-wittedness. Now the CPC will unceasingly criticize Adams, suggesting they never really liked or trusted her. Then the CPC will say that Trudeau's new support of Adams demonstrates his political ineptitude, despite the fact that they themselves supported her last week. Meanwhile, the Liberal Party criticized her roundly for years and now suddenly they will laud her as a woman with integrity and political savvy. It is a terrible demonstration of the worst aspect of politics - blatant hypocrisy. Political parties will defend (or even praise) a person or action from their party that they vociferously condemn from another party. And sometime it just gets sickening.

So the two lessons of the Eve Adams defection are 1) The truth of a message is not determined by the integrity or intelligence of the messenger, and 2) the hypocrisy of the Ottawa gangsters knows no bounds.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Harper and the Ignorance Factor. . . . .

My esteemed peers Montreal Simon and Owen Gray at Northern Reflections have highlighted today Bob Hepburn's op-ed piece in the Toronto Star asking the thorny, but essential, question of how Harper has gotten away with the slow but sure destruction of our country and our democracy. Strangely enough, though he asks the many important questions of how Harper has gotten away with the various, and atrocious, anti-democratic things he has done, Hepburn has no ready answers. He seems to point to apathy or simple complacency as the primary culprit in Harper's ability to undermine our democratic system. And there is no doubt that the Canadian public has been apathetic and have ignored much of what Harper has actually done. This apathy has been fed by a media that, despite Conservative efforts to portray themselves as the underdogs hated by a "Liberal" media, has utterly failed to do its job in exposing what the government has been doing. But beneath the hapless, rightwing media, the efforts of the Conservatives to change things quietly behind the scenes and through legislation hidden in omnibus bills, there is another central factor in this debate that people just don't want to talk about - ignorance.

The plain and simple fact is that Harper has systematically disassembled our democratic system and has gotten away with it because the vast majority have absolutely no idea how our democratic system is supposed to work and has worked. At the level of practical political science, most Canadians don't know how parliament is supposed to function. They don't know what prorogation is, they don't know how legislation gets written and put through parliament,  and they don't know how the Westminster System has traditionally functioned. As a result of this ignorance, many of Harper's outrageously anti-democratic efforts don't register with most of the Canadian public. When Harper was found in contempt of Parliament, for example, it appeared that the vast majority of Canadians didn't understand what that meant and what the implications are of the first government ever to use the Westminster System to be found in contempt. Many people might know at a very basic level what an 'omnibus' bill is, but few understand its implications. Most people don't know how parliamentary committees work so it means little to them when they hear that the HarperCons are manipulating them and shutting them down. Canadians don't know that one of the functions of parliamentary debate is to help inform citizens about what the government is doing, so when the HarperCons shut down debate people don't really know what that does to public discourse. The simple fact is that if you don't know how your parliament works, it is easy for the government to pervert that parliament without people's notice.

But at a more troubling scale, Canadians don't understand how the Canadian Government has traditionally functioned in its wider relations with civil society, the civil service, and with other branches and parts of government. Thus, when Harper dismantles the freedom of information system, when he muzzles scientists, when he dispenses with environmental review processes, when he attempts to interfere with the Supreme Court, when he refuses to meet with the provinces, or when he intentionally thwarts the efforts of Elections Canada to ensure fair and legal elections in this country, most people don't care simply because most people don't know what any of these things mean or how they work. Furthermore, people have little clue about how previous governments have conducted themselves in their relations with government appointees who are meant to monitor our system, or with NGOs, or on the international stage.  So when Harper fires government monitors like Nuclear Safety Commission president Linda Keen, when the HarperCons refuse to release documents relating to residential-schools, when the Harper government undertakes a surveillance program of a lawyer like Cindy Blackstock simply because she is an advocate for First Nations peoples, when Harper signs trade documents that de facto give foreign governments powers over our citizens and resources, when Harper instructs Revenue Canada to audit only those organizations which dare to question government approaches and policies, when the Harpercons end almost all funding for literacy programs across the country or organizations that advocate for women's rights, when the Harper Government actively criticizes provincial governments and their policies against all Westminster traditions, or then Harper dispenses with every tradition of diplomacy on the international level, these things don't mean anything to most Canadians. Most people just don't know that our democracy, though far from perfect, has been protected by a particular approach of governments to civil society that prevents governments becoming tyrannical organizations and has traditionally maintained a certain degree of openness in our society and our social and political discourse. Harper has been able to eliminate these traditions simply because the majority of people didn't know that they were traditions.

I think we can say that the HarperCons have been able to destroy our democracy because most people didn't actually know we lived in a democracy. For most people democracy means nothing more than voting every four years or so and it ends there. They just don't understand that a healthy democracy requires an open civil society, an open political and social discourse, a system with arms length advocacy groups and systems of review, and significant controls on arbitrary powers. The Harper government has undermined and destroyed all of these things. But the majority of Canadians go happily on because they just don't know what is going on. MSM and even many bloggers don't want to talk about this because they fear that it would sound elitist and condescending. But it is time to admit that ignorance has been Harper's greatest ally and in many cases that ignorance is not only willful but a matter of pride for many people who advocate a know-nothing ideology.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Why I will NOT vote NDP in the next Election. . .

If the NDP was looking to create reasons for us not for vote for them then their past year has been a resounding success both provincially here in Ontario and Federally. If you want to know what is wrong with the contemporary NDP you need look no further than this weekend's Ontario NDP convention. Despite Andrea Horwath's miserable failure as NDP leader, yesterday at their convention she underwent an obligatory leadership review and received more support than she did last year. If you are having trouble letting that sink in, I will repeat it for you. She received more support than she did last year. Andrea Horwath is an embarrassment to the NDP that extends well beyond Ontario's borders and a poster-girl for hypocrisy. As you will recall, after supporting the minority Liberal Government for years, in their last budget round she suddenly decided to pull that support and force Ontario into an election. This election held serious problems beyond Ms. Horwath's crass and crude style. The plain truth is that the Liberal budget was arguably left of any budget that Horwath herself would have presented if she had been premier and at the very least if an NDP government had presented this budget Horwath would have been the first to champion it as a great leap forward. This is just hypocrisy. There is no other word for it.

But aside from this act of unabashed hypocrisy, it was the political style of the Horwath campaign that progressives should find most troubling. Whether or not Horwath has taken the party to the right is something many people have argued about. But regardless of the veracity of the claim, many traditional NDP supporters were concerned during the election and this concern prompted 34 NDP heavyweights to write an open letter to Horwath saying that they she was "rushing to the centre." The people who wrote this letter, like Judy Rebbick for example, surely did not take this step lightly and the very fact that it emerged demonstrated that there was a serious breach taking place in the Party's core. Did Horwath or her team take these issues seriously the way anyone committed to democracy should do? Of course not. Instead they accused thee NDP 34 of being "hacks" and "has-beens" and NDP strategist Kathleen Monk even went so far as to suggest that they were working for the another political party and intentionally sabotaging the Horwath campaign. That accusation in and of itself is reason enough to never vote NDP again.

This Karl Rove/Stephen Harper strategy-style has not only infected the Ontario NDP, it has become the stock-in-trade of the federal NDP under the leadership of Tom Mulcair. Let's take two important events in recent NDP history. First, the NDP's prevention of the nomination of Paul Manley. The NDP clearly blocked Mr. Manley's nomination because of his (and his father's) stance on Israel, particularly on the Israeli naval blockade of Gaza. Not only did the NDP deny that this was the reason for blocking Manley's nomination (a denial that is universally suspected to be false) but, more importantly they  adopted the Harper political strategy and proceeded to smear him publicly. Manley claims that in private the NDP admitted that Palestine was the reason that they denied him a nomination. The NDP denied that claim, but when Manley asked for a written reason for the blocking of his nomination, the NDP, in true UN-Democratic style flatly refused. But the wording of this refusal was deeply problematic. Andrew Mitrovica wrote about it on ipolitics in an article well-titled, "Is Mulcair just another Harper with a Beard?" Mitrovica wrote -

"To blunt the blowback, McGrath (The NDP's National Director) wrote concerned and outraged NDP supporters, telling them "I can assure you the issue being cited in stories and social media about Manely's rejected application is not accurate. The rejection is not related to the NDP's position on the Middle East." That just poured gasoline on an already out of control fire. Not surprisingly, Paul Manley saw this as a "smear" because it leaves open the possibility that he was guilty of some immoral, illegal, or unethical act."

Mr. Manley rightly pointed out that this was not a job application but was supposed to be part of a democratic process. It is one thing for a Party to block nominations, but to fail to give reasons for that is an entirely different matter and is blatantly untransparent and smells distinctly undemocratic. Mr. Manley is correct to see what Anne McGrath said as a blatant smear because the vocal refusal to explain the blocking of the nomination coupled with a denial that it is Manley's stance on Gaza suggests to anyone who is paying attention that the nomination prevention is rooted in something nefarious of which Mr. Manley is guilty.

But worse than their treatment of Paul Manley was the NDP's treatment of MP Sana Hassainia. Ms. Hassainia ostensibly quit the NDP over their overt support of Israel and their failure to defend the rights of Palestinians. Though the Party did attempt to defend its position in the days following Ms. Hassainia's resignation,  (a defence which in my opinion was sorely wanting) they quickly reverted to their Harperesque default position which was to attack and smear Mr. Hassainia. Party spokespersons quickly suggested that Ms. Hassainia had a terrible attendance record in the House and that she was too busy being a new mother to be an effective MP. The entire affair was nauseatingly reminiscent of  the Harper regime's attitude toward anyone who disagrees with them.

The fact is that there are many significant policy reasons for progressives to stop supporting the NDP. But increasingly there are also many other reasons to reject the poison politics of the NDP and the provincial and federal levels alike. There is no question that the Harper regime has poisoned Canadian politics. But the NDP can choose to follow the Harper example or to operate with integrity, transparency, and honesty. It is increasingly clear that they have rejected the path of good and opted for the path of poison.


Friday, November 14, 2014

Can we move beyond our culture of violence??

One only need reject a few of the prevailing beliefs of one’s society to be almost entirely alienated from vast majority of people. In Canada all you really have to do is dislike Hockey and you suddenly find yourself marginalized. But all marginalization should be not be regretted, because sometimes holding unpopular beliefs is the beginning of chance. Some marginalized beliefs can keep you outside the mainstream while giving you counter-culture credibility. The abolitionist movement in England was such a case. Over a period of one hundred years the abolitionists went from being marginalized to being a credible, and much admired, political force. However, certain core beliefs of a society are so widely accepted without question that to bring them into doubt not only sets you against the vast majority but also can make you appear downright unhinged by most people. If, for example, you were an Aztec and you suggested that the sun was not a god, your fellow citizens would simply think you were crazy.

According to the well-known German philosopher Jürgen Habermas this notion of unquestionable beliefs is what sets modern society apart from so-called more traditional ones. Habermas in his ground-breaking work The Theory of Communicative Action, claims that what sets “modern” societies apart is that its citizens can voice competing moral and normative claims and that those people can, if called upon, discursively redeem these claims. In simpler terms, this simply means that, according to Habermas, we can disagree about social and moral issues and we can discuss them and potentially defend them through some form of ‘rational’ discourse. When I read Habermas’ work in the early 1990s I was fairly dubious about this claim. The more I thought about it the more it seemed to me that, just like older societies, our own “modern” society contained certain beliefs that are simply not up for discussion. If, for example, you claim in our society that competition is a bad thing, ninety-five percent of people will simply think are crazy or stupid.

There are other, deeply held, beliefs that our society overwhelmingly accepts without question. Patriotism is one such belief. Try questioning the notion of patriotism in mixed company and watch the reaction. People will either have a strong (even violent) reaction, or they will just seem utterly confused and treat you as some kind of weird hippy or naive, mental incompetent. I know this because I have experienced such reaction to many of my beliefs all my life. And no belief has elicited a stronger reaction than my rejection of the military.

From the time I was a young kid, I was deeply disturbed and confused by society’s unquestioning and unconditional support for the military. (And I grew up in Vietnam-Era US, where there was much more doubt about the military than there is today.) My argument was, and continues to be, simple. The military is an institution whose sacred operational mechanism is blind obedience among its members to kill anyone that the state tells them to. Of course, as I became older I realized that like with so many things, the majority of people believe that their own nation’s military is somehow different from all the others in the world and throughout history, and that their military would only do good things. But regardless of what I believe is willful naivety on the part of most people, I think the issue is still very simple, and history demonstrates it remarkably well. Standing armies unquestionably obey any orders that they are given and killing is their stock and trade. Let me dispense, from the beginning with the obvious objections that will come, probably vociferously, to many people’s minds. Of course, killing isn’t the only thing that soldiers do. Professional Hockey players don’t only play hockey – their job involves lots of activities – but hockey is their institutional imperative. Putting aside whether this or that war is ‘necessary’ or morally justified, many good things might happen in the midst of an armed conflict. The real question here is the notion of what they used to call a ‘standing army,’ a fixed institution that relies on a set hierarchy and blind obedience within the ranks and, ultimately, to the state.

Part of my objection to the military grew gradually out of my experience with people’s reaction to armed conflict. Though practically everyone I met claimed that they thought war “is bad,” the claim more often than not seemed entirely hollow. The longer I live, the more I think that the slogans “war is bad” or “war is a necessary evil” are ideas that people feel the need to say but seldom actually believe. In fact, as Bertram Russell came to believe through his pacifist activism, I think many people are secretly thrilled by the idea of war. If they weren’t, I don’t think war movies and violent action films would be so overwhelmingly popular. The idea of military conflict makes people feel powerful and in many cases I would even contend that it gives many people (particularly many men) a psychosexual thrill. I have come to believe that this thrill has become central to our social and political systems. People continually pay lip-service to ‘peace’ and to anti-bullying campaigns, politicians tell us that violence is terrible and even cowardly, but bullying and violence are integral to their very operation.


The violence and machismo that is at the heart of our military, and people’s admiration of the military and unwillingness to question it, is part of a web of violence that permeates our society. There has been a great deal of talk recently about our ‘rape culture.’ But we will never eliminate our culture of rape while bullying and violence still permeate every part of our society. Albert Einstein said that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” And he is right. To achieve peace, equality, and a life without violence means fundamentally changing the way we think about our most sacred institutions like the military, sports, education, and our political culture. It cannot happen overnight. We are all, to a great degree, products of our environment and we carry all sorts of difficult baggage into daily life. But until we are willing to at least question notions like “necessary war,” or cut-throat elections, or our hero-worshipping, our obsession with appearances, etc., then real social change will continue to be well beyond our reach.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Another Remembrance Day, And my Scepticism Lingers . . . .

Four years ago today I wrote a blogpost expressing my concerns with the modern manifestation of Remembrance Day. Even as recently as this week I received a positive comment on that post. I genuinely believe that more people would express concerns about Remembrance Day but they fear the reaction. This is unfortunate. When people in what is supposed to be a democratic society are hesitant to express rational and meaningful concerns about something, particularly about the dangers of nationalism, I get concerned. But since almost no one else is willing to talk about it, I will.

I grew up partly in Los Angeles California during the height of the War in Vietnam. It was a turbulent time and even as a child I had a sense of the turbulence, the violence, and the ideological rifts that were tearing apart the nation and the world. Though my parents weren’t activists, they were still vehemently against the war in Indo-China and the inhuman way violence that was being committed there. Though my maternal grandfather was a retired Master Sergeant in the USAF there was little sympathy for the war even in my grandparents’ household.

However, strangely enough what I knew about war and soldiers I was mostly learning from someone who was not in my family. Mr. Campbell was an old man who ran a little five and dime store in my neighborhood in Santa Monica. He as a grizzled, yet charming, old guy who never failed to be cheerful towards me when I came into his crowded little shop despite the obviously difficult life that he led. Mr. Campbell had fought in WWI and had been left nearly blind by gas. “The Germans did everything they could to kill me,” he would say will a crooked smile, “but I am still here.” Despite his injuries, he wasn’t bitter about the war and he didn’t seem to hold it against the Germans as many seemed to do. He even pointed out to me more than once that he had married a German woman despite the war. She had died years ago but whenever he spoke of her moisture came into his eyes and even as a kid I understood the unspoken sadness that overcame him.

I have a few vivid memories of Mr. Campbell, one of which occurred on Veteran’s Day, the US name for Remembrance Day. It must have been in 1973 because I remember it was a Sunday and I walked by Mr. Campbell’s shop and was surprised to see it open on Sunday. I went into the store and there was Mr. Campbell sitting as usual on a tall stool behind the counter reading one of those large print books for people who have severely impaired eyesight I knew it was Veteran’s Day because I had seen some kind of military celebration in Douglas Park on Wilshire Boulevard. I greeted Mr. Campbell and he smiled, as he always did, when he heard my voice. I asked him why he was open on a Sunday, and then mentioned that it was Veteran’s Day.

That was the first and only time that I saw Mr. Campbell look angry, and he spoke to me at length in a way that even now, forty years later, I still recall.

“I have never celebrated Veteran’s Day,” Mr. Campbell told me. “When I was gassed no one cared and they kicked me out of the army with almost nothing. They pinned a Purple Heart on my chest and then kicked me to the curb. And since then I have watched Veteran’s day celebrations with nothing but contempt. They act like they want people to remember but they don’t care. They just use the whole thing as a way to promote another war. They will always have another war for young kids to fight and it is all for making money for some jerk who sells weapons and bombs and acts like it is all noble. But it isn’t, it is just bull.”


I don’t know exactly why I remember these events but they stuck in my head. Perhaps it is because as Mr. Campbell told me these things the war in Vietnam still raged and young Americans were still coming home in boxes. And over the years I came to realize through my youthful friendship with Mr. Campbell that if Remembrance Day is to mean anything it should be a painful reminder that wars are an outward manifestation of our worst failures as a race, and a reminder of the terrible price that people pay for those failures. Meanwhile, blindly pro-war leaders like our own Prime Minister blatantly use Remembrance Day as a way of promoting patriotism and whipping up the very emotions that lead to these terrible human failures.

Perhaps the saddest part of all of this for my life is that Vietnam obviously failed to teach us is that our wars are almost always a machine for making wealth. But the skepticism that Vietnam brought to people didn’t last long and by the 1990s it was all but gone and once again Western Governments seem to be able to commit their nation’s to war with a minimum of critical thought on the part of the media or the people. One war comes on the tail of another and the only thing they have in common is that regular people suffer and the rich make billions of dollars from them.

Here in Canada one war stopped and the next one quickly began. Meanwhile, the many millions that the Government spent celebrating the War of 1812 (a war that was fought before we were even a Country), was spent while they are busy cutting services for the very veterans that they are supposed to be celebrating. It is perhaps the greatest act of hypocrisy from a government that has made a career of hypocrisy.

So I chose to remember Mr. Campbell and the terrible record of human failure that allow our leaders to take us into one war after another. And when people talk incessantly about the “fight for freedom,” I remember that it is not foreign countries that have been a threat to our freedoms. Just like today, the greatest threat to our freedoms are our own governments and the corporation who support them. Every freedom we enjoy from voters rights to gay marriage has been wrenched out of our governments by committed democratic and unions activists.


So while our leaders are ‘leading’ us once again into another ridiculous war remember that such violence almost always bespeaks a basic human failure  and that the real threat to your freedoms are the ones from your own leaders whose chest thumping and drum beating is just another diversion from their real intent.