Category Archives: Politics Specific

Putting the Propaganda Cart before the Foreign Policy Horse

A Letter to Larry Miller, MP for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound

Good morning MP Larry,

I am writing to protest about the public face that the Government, and the Prime Minister in particular, is putting on Canadian foreign policy in four distinct areas: Ukraine-Russia, Iran, Iraq-Syria (“ISIS”), and Israel-Palestine. I am prepared to find that the actual policy is more complex than than the public face, but the public face is what we are allowed to see.

I am particularly concerned that the propaganda forming much of the public face has started to drive the policy, rather than the other way around.

Let me explain how I think this works. I am assuming that the affairs of most countries, and our relationship with them, admits of very substantial and important patches of grey, that such matters are very seldom black and white. I can believe that most competent governments start by working intelligently with the grey. I believe, however, that for reasons that it thought sufficient, the present Canadian government began to tilt towards a more black-white world view. In order to sell that approach to the Canadian public, it began to paint the view somewhat more black and white than it could possibly be. At some point, in this process, it crossed the line between explanation of policy, which is legitimate, and propaganda, which is not. That was the first mistake. Then the second was to start believing its own propaganda, and tailoring the policy to conform to it.

In one case—Iraq-Syria (ISIS), we are now tailoring domestic policy in order to match the propaganda driving our foreign policy. I refer to the recent proposal to expand the powers of our security agencies, who operate under entirely inadequate parliamentary oversight—and please don’t try to tell me that non-parliamentary oversight is just as good, because it is not, for obvious democratic reasons. The truth, in fact, appears to be that our security forces are doing very well with the powers they have now. I do not believe that the kind of attacks we have experienced can be prevented by expanding the powers of security agencies. They were not the right kind of attack for that. They were carried out by disturbed individuals acting alone, and the answer to that, to the extent that there is one, lies in improvements to our mental health system, not in more vigilant policing. And preventive policing is a very dubious concept indeed, under our constitution, in any circumstances.

But I am straying from my  main point, which is the Government, with the enthusiastic encouragement of Mr. Harper and Mr. Baird, has tipped over the propaganda cliff and is falling faster and faster into the black-white void where intelligent understanding of complex situations and careful diplomacy are no longer allowed to operate. Let me be specific:

Ukraine-Russia: Here we have a small country and nascent democracy whose history with its much larger neighbour is long and troubled, and having its own difficult ethnic divide between west and east, and where every nuance of the situation is washed in grey, and we have decided that for our purposes the previous elected government was black; that the demonstrators and their armed assistants who overthrew that government were white; that the pro-Russian people in the east and the south are not entitled to their point of view and that the Russian government is very black indeed for supporting them; that Russia is not entitled to express any strategic interest in its neighbouring country; and that the only just solution to the problem is the one that happens to serve the strategic interests of the United States, at least as aging and emerging Cold Warriors might choose to define them.

Do we think that the United States has no valid strategic interest in us, or in Mexico? I bet we do not think that, and I am sure the United States does not think so either. Small countries who live beside big ones and who also want to reach out into the wider world must balance their policies carefully, as we have learned to do in 150 years. We have also learned much, starting even further back, about the sensible conduct of a country with an ethnic divide. Ukraine is a new democracy. Surely our contribution to them should be to pass on what we have learned and to support them in a balanced policy. Climbing on the black-white bandwagon does not do that.

Iran: I am not sure what is driving our policy towards Iran. It cannot be our own strategic interests, or any principle except possibly nuclear non-proliferation, a principle about which we have shown considerable flexibility in the past. Certainly it shows little knowledge of or regard for the history of that country, its strategic interests, or its complex relationships with its neighbours. I think perhaps that the Government thinks it is showing support for Israel. Israel has nothing to fear from healthy bilateral relations between its friends and Iran, and much to fear, in the long term, from its own unhealthy bilateral relations with that influential country. A more sophisticated policy on our part could do much to serve the interests of the whole Middle East, and the rest of the world.

Iraq-Syria (ISIS): Here we see the Government’s propaganda machine in full cry these days, with the Prime Minister’s minatory warnings about “violent jihadism”. That kind of language is pure propaganda, and it bothers me to hear our Prime Minister using it. I agree that ISIS shows no sign of being the kind of government that we like to see, but the same could be said for Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and a host of other governments, including all the autocratic ones. Iraq and Syria were blatantly the creations of oil-seeking imperialism in 1919, and have proved themselves ungovernable except by brutal repression. I think that an indigenous effort to create a new state out of the mess should at least be studied carefully before it is judged, and in judging we should use the same standards as we apply to other autocratic Islamic states. And we should avoid taking sides in any Sunni-Shia conflicts. The legacy of western imperialism in the Middle East is a tangled one, which must be sorted out locally.

Israel-Palestine: I have written to you before with my concerns about the one-sidedness of our policy towards this conflict. Of course Mr. Baird was correct to say that the matter can be solved only by negotiation, which is obviously in the best interests of both sides. The problem is that the two parties are so grotesquely out of balance in their military and economic strengths that any suggestion of fair negotiation is absurd. The Israelis are unenthusiastic about negotiation because they think they can go along very well without it. And the Palestinians are unenthusiastic because they know that under the present imbalance they are going to be on the losing end. I think that our diplomacy therefore has to be extremely sensitive in the pursuit of what is in our interest, and everybody’s interest, which is a balanced negotiating environment leading to a settlement.

It cannot be in Israel’s long-term or even medium-term interest to be so thoroughly hated by its neighbours. How can the country survive forever, which is what we would want it to do, in the face of that hatred?

In conclusion, I think that the departure of the belligerent Mr. Baird gives us an opportunity for a thorough review of our foreign policy, in pursuit of a balanced approach in all parts of the world, an approach that is not driven by our own or other people’s propaganda, and which does not have to be sold by means of propaganda. Our population is well educated and could, with proper presentation, become complexly informed. The present propaganda-driven approach can thrive only if the Canadian people are deliberately kept uninformed and worked upon. Surely that would be bad policy in any field.

No black hats, no white hats, just grey hats, a humane understanding of people’s circumstances and difficulties, and a lot of diplomatic skill and patience.

Sorry this is so long, and thank you for your attention. I hope that you are wintering well, and in good health.

Warm regards,

Advertisements

I Do Like Elections! How Did We Do?

We had ourselves a municipal election this week, up here in the mostly woods of Northern Bruce Peninsula, just like everybody else in Ontario. In the reflective mood nurtured by the demands of writing this blog, therefore, I have been wondering how well we, the voters, have done our job, which is to elect a mayor, deputy mayor and three councillors to govern our little patch of jurisdiction for four years. We have passed judgement, according to our duty, on our governors. Perhaps we should do the same on ourselves. Here is what I would contribute to that conversation.

I would note, first of all, that 3,700 people voted. Our permanent population is about 3,900, although almost two-thirds of our private dwellings are occupied by seasonal residents who are entitled to vote but may not know any of the candidates and probably therefore should not vote. It is therefore difficult to be statistically precise about voter turn-out. I think that 3,700 represents a good result, an opinion that is reinforced by the numbers who turned out at our three all-candidates’ forums. We enjoy an engaged electorate, at least at election time. Good for us.

This year, for the first time, we used on-line voting, making it much easier for non-residents to vote. Voting was easy, if you followed the instructions exactly. The local press reports, however, that people who tried to get to the site through Google could not. I myself would be unsympathetic to complainers. The Clerk gave us a map to the voting booth; all we had to do was follow it. Even for those who tried to improvise their own routes, the map was right in front of them.

We gave a solid vote of confidence (60%), richly deserved in my view, to our present mayor, Mr. Milt McIver. Lively dissenting voices were not lacking during the campaign, however, and the previous deputy mayor was certainly a credible candidate for promotion.

In choosing a new deputy mayor, however, we got confused. If margin-of-error analysis were applied to that poll, we would have three of them. But the rules say only one, and the voters gave the nod to a former councillor who had been out for a term, Ms. Patricia Greig, over Mr. Ray Burns, a member of the out-going council, by 33 votes, or 1% of those cast. I don’t know personally the third candidate, Mr. Wes Rydall, who was another 1% behind. I would have said beforehand that choosing between Ms. Greig and Mr. Burns was a coin toss, and so the voters saw it. Three good candidates is a luxury, if a confusing one.

With three councillors to choose from a list of nine, the voters made a nicely nuanced choice between old and new blood. Mr. Tom Boyle, an experienced councillor, widely respected, received 300 more votes than the second, a newcomer, Mr. Rob Rouse: a strong vote for continuity, almost as strong for a new voice. The most interesting result is between third and fourth, between Mr. Griffin Salen, 23 years old and completely inexperienced, elected, and Ms. Betsy Stewart, no longer that age by some margin, incumbent, ejected (by 190 votes). I don’t think either of our newcomers is a voice for radical change however, although Mr. Salen will certainly bring a youthful perspective.

I myself was particularly pleased that the only “libertarian” tax-cutter on the list came dead last by a wide margin. I have no patience with over-simplified politics, or with candidates for office who denigrate the importance of the work, which is to provide public services and regulate important matters in a complex and highly constrained environment.

All in all, therefore, a group nicely balanced in interesting ways: spread across the geography and diverse in their age and experience, with plenty of the latter in the top two jobs. I think that we the voters of Northern Bruce Peninsula can give ourselves a pat on the back, and congratulate ourselves on our good fortune: a nice clean process, with good candidates and no need for negative or strategic voting. We did well. Now, if we can only keep up the enthusiasm.

In Favour of Newtonian Reaction

In 2005 four members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were killed on a farm in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. In 2014 three members were killed on a street in Moncton. Last week two members of our military were run down in a parking lot, and one of them killed. Yesterday another was shot and killed in  Ottawa. The word “terrorism” is being used freely to describe the most recent killing, and maybe the one before. I don’t recall it ever being used for the first two.

When does a murderous attack by one deranged or insanely misguided person on those who have put themselves in the line of fire to protect us, become terrorism? When it has a political motive or justification? When it is organized and directed as part of a campaign? When by its nature it tends to frighten people into believing it could happen to them or in their immediate surroundings? When it happens in some place of symbolic importance? When it seems likely to unravel the fabric of society? When a politician decides to call it so?

My dictionary (The Canadian Oxford), defines “terrorism” as: “1 the systematic employment of violence and intimidation to coerce a government or community, esp. into acceding to specific political demands. 2 an act of terrorizing, esp. continued over an extended period of time; persecution.” I am deeply saddened by the killing in Ottawa yesterday, as I am always by acts of murderous violence, and concerned about over-reaction on the part of the authorities, but I am not terrified.

Brian Stewart, in a sensible article on CBC News this morning (http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/ottawa-parliament-shooting-we-ve-known-this-day-was-coming-1.2809722), draws our attention to warnings by the US army about possible threats to military personnel and “lone-wolf (why ‘lone-wolf’ instead of ‘lone-person’, I wonder) attacks on police, government officials and media figures” in that country, and this warning is no doubt well founded here, but does the risk of free-lance murderous violence by individuals on police and soldiers add up to terrorism? Can something so apparently random be the same as something systematic? Not in any mathematics I ever studied.

What frightens me is the risk that inherently among all the wonderfully diverse, creative, humane, and fulfilling possibilities nurtured in contemporary society thrives a set that encourages derangement and insane misguidance of murderous kinds, and that if we over-react to it we will dilute or even lose the wonderful ones too. Freedom of speech and thought means, unfortunately, the freedom to think and even speak in deranged and insanely misguided ways. When they spill over into action, as they will from time to time, we do not need to scream terror, but calmly get on with our lives and let our police, judiciary and mental-medical institutions do the work we have entrusted to them.

The late Isaac Newton, in his Third Law, tells us that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. That’s “equal and opposite”, fitted to the real size and nature of the action, not “hysterical and excessive”.

As one of my correspondents put it yesterday: “So, a sad day in the country today.  I am not looking forward to some of the rhetoric we’re going to hear over the next few days, and I particularly wish that people would drop the notion that today’s events mark some sort of massive change in the fabric of Canada.  They don’t, or at least they don’t need to.” Amen to that.

Just Imagine!

Last week I attended a meeting of the Bruce Peninsula Environment Group (www.bpeg.ca), where we received a detailed report from a new local organization called PACE (Peninsula Action Committee for Education) whose blog (http://bpeducationmatters.wordpress.com/) will inform you immediately about the “timing of ARC announcements at BWDSB”, thus proving that the day of the acronym has not yet gone. I am not sure that economy of keystrokes necessarily contributes to clarity of expression or sonority of speech, but that is an issue for another day, indefinitely postponable. The issue being confronted through the advocacy of the Committee, however, which is the fate of small schools in small population centres at a time of declining enrolments, is not.

As my two cents’ worth in the ensuing discussion I said, drawing on my own experience, that the Committee should expect the environment for advocacy to be polluted by two phenomena: failure of imagination, and the belief that rural children should receive an urban form of education. I said further that these pollutants would be found concentrated particularly at the top and the bottom of the pyramid, that is, in the central bureaucracy, and among the parents. This prediction evoked much head-nodding.

I read somewhere—it might have been in a novel by Robertson Davies—that nothing is more expensive than living in the past. I am not sure about that. I believe it more correct to say that nothing is more expensive than trying to live in the present and the past at the same time. The same can be said for trying to live in the country and the city at the same time. That too is an issue for another day.

I am more immediately concerned about failures of imagination, with which our politics abound at all levels. The most conspicuous one this week is the Canadian government’s decision to bomb some extremely unpleasant people in the Middle East who are known as ISIS, or ISIL. I believe that the lack of imagination shown in this case is so blatant, and so lethal, that it must be confronted explicitly.

Our governors think that if they bomb these people, they (the people, that is) will first “degrade” (whatever that means), then disappear. That is only true if operating in the open in a concentrated, mechanized way is the only way of fighting open to them, and if when defeated that way they will throw down their weapons, put up their hands and go home. Where, in our experience of the Middle East, do we find data for such a prediction?

I am with those who believe that the anger, despair, perverted idealism, and restless energy of these young people will simply rise up in a different form, maybe even uglier if that is possible. Because I don’t think you can bomb anger, despair, idealism and restless energy out of anybody. You have to find new channels for it, and that’s where the imagination comes in. And if you were to ask me what I think should be done, I would say that we should find the people in the Middle East who are trying to approach that problem in imaginative ways, and support them to the full in ways that are compatible with what they are trying to do. That will require imagination on both sides. I expect those people are not hiding. With the eyes we rely on, we simply don’t see them.

And What About the Roads?

A well-loved member of my family posted this question as a comment on my last post. If we take “roads” as a metaphor embracing all the public structures and services that smooth and enrich the course of our daily lives and protect us from harm, what indeed about the roads?

The most recent Editor’s Note by John Macfarlane, editor of The Walrus (October 2014), essays a list of issues that might well preoccupy voters in the federal election soon to come: “health care, the economy, unemployment, et cetera”, to which he adds “the environment … the plight of Aboriginal peoples … the crisis in municipal affairs …” I’m a committed “et cetera” man myself, but I like the addition of this last item to the list of urgent public concerns. What about the roads?

Last winter we had some very bad weather here on Bruce Peninsula, and after one storm the arterial highway on which we all depend, and for which many of us have no alternative, was closed for a week or more. I am willing to concede that the initial closure of the highway was caused by the weather; such events are not uncommon here. But I harbour a deep suspicion that the reason it was closed for so long had more to do with budget cuts. The old Department of Highways of my youth, later elevated into the Ministry of Transportation, held in its heart, I believe, a fierce resolve to keep the roads open and safe, or to get them that way as fast as possible, no matter what. No doubt such resolve came at a cost to tax-payers. I do not believe that the present private contractor, worthy corporate citizen though he may be (I have no evidence to the contrary), is being paid enough to support the same resolve.

Thus do vociferous bands of people who define themselves as tax-payers rather than citizens, that is, who obsess on the negative aspects of the civic relationship and ignore the positive ones, by their strident resistance to paying the just cost of public structures and services, compel us and our neighbours to stay at home for several days when we might better have been out engaged in productive activities. The cost to us, in other circumstances and for other “roads”, could have been much higher.

This is merely one anecdote from one aspect of public structures and services, although a hugely important one for our way of life. And if we in our placid rural backwater are being hurt by this pusillanimous distortion of the civic relationship, then how much heavier the cost must be to the folk in our teeming and vital cities. What about their roads?

Who are these people who force our politicians to adopt their narrow-minded, negative and selfish perspective on our society? What are we and all whom they force to accept the cost: chopped liver?

Mr. Macfarlane says that if we want change in the way our politicians think, “All we have to do is speak up.” So let’s do it.