The Amiable Guy with the Portfolio Briefcase

The posters and stickers appeared on the campus of Brandon University seemingly overnight (CBC; Winnipeg Free Press). They are emblazoned with phrases like “European Brotherhood,” “Time to Fight,” and “Join the Resistance.” They are stamped with a version of the “sun cross,” an obvious derivative of the Celtic cross that European and North American white supremacist groups have claimed as their own.

No one has yet come forward to take ownership of this propaganda. No modern-day brownshirts have organized a march or a protest in support of their vile ideology. No fascists have descended upon the university’s main courtyard to denounce the institution’s mission to contribute to a liberal society and a diverse, democratic polity.

In the absence of such concrete actions that go beyond a cowardly poster campaign, how should individuals respond? How should the city respond? How should the university respond?

*          *          *

I remember working this one Saturday at my mom’s used bookstore back in 1990 or 1991, when a guy with a portfolio briefcase stopped by the store. I didn’t recognize him as a regular customer, but he was quite friendly, and we started chatting. He seemed to get really engaged in the conversation when he found out I was a university student, but when he realized I was studying Political Science, his interest and focus sharpened with laser-like intensity.

At that point in my life, I was still passionate about debating politics, and we got into a discussion about the role of the university in society. At first, the conversation was interesting and engaging, but he soon started talking about how institutions of higher learning were becoming increasingly controlled by people with their own agenda. These were people, he argued, who couldn’t be trusted to act on behalf of everyone, who were also exerting secret control in other areas of society.

At this point, I started to think the fellow was pretty unhinged, and I ended our conversation. He left the store very politely, but not before opening up his portfolio briefcase and leaving me with some “literature” that he felt would explain his concerns in more detail. His pamphlet was, of course, filled with contemptible and bilious anti-Semitism.

This guy never showed his edge the whole time we were talking. He appeared genuinely interested in my opinions, and his demeanor was entirely respectful and engaging. He was feeling me out, trying to gauge how receptive I might be before giving voice to his poisonous beliefs. Had I evinced even the slightest bit of curiosity, I’m certain he would have set about trying actively to groom me.

*          *          *

The racist poster campaign at Brandon University is the amiable guy with the portfolio briefcase.

It’s designed to feel out the university. It’s a tentative toe dipped into the water of the campus community. In this sense, it’s an invitation to those who harbour the same detestable views to emerge from the shadows and voice their support. Ultimately, it’s an opening move designed to cultivate more followers.

It’s also a trial balloon to test the resolve of the university community. And if our community – students, faculty, staff, administrators, alumni, donors, neighbours – fails to respond in a unified and unequivocal condemnation of this hate propaganda, then we effectively give license to its further growth. Our silence contributes to the ongoing normalization of xenophobia and racism that has been creeping across Europe and North America. Our silence forsakes the motto that has adorned Brandon University’s coat of arms since 1948: “Aletheuontes de en Agape,” or “Speaking the truth in love.”

Most crucially, our silence betrays our obligation to our students.


Perfect Security

A while back, I was at a little cove with our dog, Ripley. Ripley loves being in the water. He especially likes trolling around like Gollum, watching for any movement on the water surface – little sticks, or bugs, or bubbles. And often, when he spies a likely target, he lunges at it and tries to bite it. This sudden movement in the water invariably sends up a spray of droplets. And when those droplets plunge back down into the water again, they make a little splash. Ripley sees that splash and, thinking it could be another deserving target, he lunges again. And again. And again.

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Arnold Wolfers was an old-school scholar of international relations. He wrote a bunch of great stuff, but many of the young academics being churned out by grad schools these days wouldn’t even know he existed. And if they did, many would turn up their noses and dismiss him as “just another realist.” Well, one of the things he wrote about is the ambiguous nature of national security. He argued that some states will establish forward bases and security zones in an attempt to secure their values and interests. After a very short while, those bases themselves become interests that need to be protected. And so the state extends another ring of bases and security measures to protect them. And again. And again. As Wolfers phrases it, “Pushed to its logical conclusion, such spatial extension of the range of values does not stop short of world domination.”

*          *          *

Kafka wrote an amazing short story about a burrowing creature. This creature is afraid of potential enemies, both those who might find his hidden entrance and invade his warren from the surface, as well as those subterranean foes who might burrow their way into his lair. In order to keep himself safe from these predators, the creature has hollowed out an elaborate and complex series of tunnels and chambers. While he would like to relax more, and perhaps spend more time resting and munching on tasty morsels from his vast store of food, he is unable to unwind. He has started to hear noises whistling and echoing off the walls of his tunnels. He convinces himself that the noises are caused by the breathing and digging of his enemies as they invade his home and hunt for him. He concocts new plans and sets about digging new tunnels. Ultimately, the creature becomes trapped by his own angst and paranoia. The menacing noises of his approaching enemies are really just the echoing sounds of his own frantic digging and the rush of blood in his head from his sustained physical exertions. The pattern repeats itself. Again. And again.

*          *          *

In an age of terror, we have raised up a vast and sprawling architecture of surveillance and police power and military might. And we like to think that these forces are harnessed to ensure our security. But their very operation creates new enemies where there were none. And their focus, inevitably it seems, eventually boomerangs to settle on a domestic target, looking for quislings and fifth columnists in our midst.

Perfect security is a myth. But more than that, the effort to achieve perfect security plays a counterintuitive trick on us and leaves us broken and vulnerable. The more we set about trying to insulate ourselves from all threats, the more insecure we become.

“No greater friend in the world than Canada”

With the launching of Israel’s ground war in Gaza, the latest chapter in the ongoing tragedy of Israeli-Palestinian relations is headed in an increasingly deadly and destructive direction. Throughout this downward spiral, Canada’s diplomatic response has been consistent. The government has been unwavering in its support for Israel. This is not new. Under the current Conservative government, Canada has been steady and forthright in its unambiguous backing of Israel’s position. In a representative example of this enduring loyalty, the country’s foreign minister recently declared, without a hint of hyperbole, that “Israel has no greater friend in the world than Canada.”

The rhetorical foundation upon which the government bases its support for Israel is moral in nature. That is to say, the official justification for Canada’s position is premised, publicly and emphatically, on declarations of moral certainty. And there is little doubt that many Canadians support their government’s stance on Israeli-Palestinian affairs precisely because of its “moral clarity” and its rejection of “moral relativism.”

*          *          *

In the aftermath of 9/11, political leaders in the United States quickly came to understand the terrorist attacks through a moral-metaphysical framework.* Within this framework, the complex historical and political roots of that terrible act of violence were reduced to something akin to cartoon villainy. US President George W Bush spoke incessantly of “evil people” and “evil folks.” His rhetoric promised a “crusade,” and he pledged to “rid the world of the evil-doers.”

There was perhaps a brief window of opportunity when a more nuanced understanding of the roots of the 9/11 attacks might have found purchase. For a few days after September 11th, some Americans were earnestly asking the question, “Why do they hate us?” However, Bush’s simplistic explanation of 9/11 rendered serious reflection entirely impossible. Once the “good versus evil” frame was invoked, references to “root causes” were invariably met with scorn and accusations of insensitivity or disloyalty. As a consequence, the only answer that ultimately achieved traction in response to “Why do they hate us?” was the simplistic, nonsensical and self-serving canard, “They hate our freedoms.”

*          *          *

We should be suspicious of simple narratives about the world and about ourselves. Such stories are dangerous, especially when they come drenched in righteous indignation and pre-packaged with “common sense” claims of moral clarity. They are problematic for multiple reasons, but three stand out.

First, their lack of realism and complexity make it too easy for us to cast ourselves in the role of the hero. Consider, for example, Bush’s narrative about 9/11. In the epic quest to vanquish the evil-doers, it was obvious and unquestioned that the United States would play the role of the lawman, the caped crusader, the agent of civilization and metaphysical good. Seeing ourselves as the embodiment of all that is “good” and “right” robs us of the capacity for critical self-reflection.

Second, asserting a position of moral certainty makes it too easy to delegitimize or silence other perspectives. We see this dynamic playing out all the time. For example, Justin Trudeau found out speculating that the causes of terrorism are multiple and complex can be easily pilloried and dismissed as “committing sociology.” Worse, comments out of step with the narrative of moral certainty frequently invite accusations of moral relativism. Perhaps worst of all, when it comes to supporting the state of Israel, the high ground of moral absolutism is used to hurl specious charges of anti-Semitism down upon those asking questions or voicing dissent. While these kinds of attacks may be great for scoring partisan points, they create an environment that is obviously not suitable for debating and crafting Canada’s foreign policy.

Third, the self-righteous assurance of moral certainty makes it easy to dehumanize “the enemy.” And this has the tendency to enable some truly horrific kinds of government action. It was the moral certainty surrounding the evil-doers of 9/11 that led directly to a bloody war in Iraq, a global assault on personal privacy, the normalization of indefinite detention and torture, and an ongoing shadow war in which US military personnel are able to obliterate suspects without even getting out of their chairs.

*          *          *

Despite a surplus of attempts to impose moral clarity on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, the situation in Gaza is anything but simple and straightforward. It may indeed be tempting to believe otherwise, but this drawn-out tragedy has neither “good guys” nor “bad guys” in the classic sense. Indeed, the very notion of seeing this intractable dilemma in terms of simple explanations or simple solutions is absurd.

And yet, Canada’s reaction to the current crisis in Gaza embraces precisely this perspective.

On July 13, the Prime Minister released a brief statement on the worsening crisis. This official statement of Canadian policy was entirely strident and unapologetic in its one-sided support for Israel. Indeed, it made no meaningful mention of the broader situation facing Palestinian civilians in Gaza. The most striking takeaway message from the statement was this sentence:

“Canada calls on its allies and partners to recognize that these terrorist acts are unacceptable and that solidarity with Israel is the best way of stopping the conflict.”

This passage may seem harmless enough, but it prompts a few simple questions: Why would the Prime Minister assert “solidarity with Israel” as the most effective way to stop the crisis? Why not call on both sides to refrain from violence? Why not call for negotiation?

Viewed through this government’s rigid worldview, Israel is unequivocally framed as the “good guy.” In Stephen Harper’s moral framework, headwear does not come in different shades of grey; there are only white hats and black hats. And he sees the current situation as an opportunity for Israel to finally get rid of the black hats. Essentially, the Canadian government wants Israel to have a free hand to crush Hamas, regardless of the costs this would inevitably visit upon regular Palestinians. So, its one-sided call for “solidarity with Israel” is about preempting other governments. Stephen Harper is effectively running interference for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, working to dissuade European governments from interfering or pressuring Israel to show restraint. Ultimately, the goal of the Canadian government is to insulate the hawks in Israel from international criticism and outrage as the Palestinian body count inevitably rises.

As I said above, moral certainty gives license to governments to do unconscionable things.

*          *          *

It is difficult to know how this ongoing crisis can be resolved. However, it will certainly require inspired and creative leadership to find a way forward, and in this sense it is clear that Stephen Harper can be of no assistance whatsoever. In this context, I think of Rachel Fraenkel, the mother of one of the three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. In the midst of her pain and sorrow, this grieving mother was able to find the compassion to denounce the revenge killing of a sixteen year old Palestinian boy:

“Even in the abyss of mourning for Gilad, Eyal and Naftali, it is difficult for me to describe how distressed we are by the outrage committed in Jerusalem — the shedding of innocent blood in defiance of all morality, of the Torah, of the foundation of the lives of our boys and of all of us in this country.”

This is a version of moral certainty that makes sense to me. Perhaps Stephen Harper should take some notes.

* Megoran, Nick. 2006. “God On Our Side: The Church of England and the Geopolitics of Mourning 9/11.” Geopolitics 11 (4): 561-579.

The perils of dissenting

This link will take you to a truly remarkable video (I tried to embed it, but had no luck). If you have the time (less than five minutes out of your life) and stomach for it, I would highly recommend it.

The clip shows a law student directing a question to a panel of “experts” on US national security. The panel members are discussing the Benghazi incident and sharing heated (some might say paranoid) accusations of US government inaction and cover-up. However, their discussion is clearly framed inside a broader critique of US foreign policy in the Middle East. Anyway, this student poses a question about the substance and direction of US foreign policy in the region, a question that (I think) is germane and of crucial importance to the topic:

“How can we fight an ideological war with weapons? How can we ever end this war? The jihadist ideology that you talk about – it’s an ideology. How can you ever win this thing if you don’t address it ideologically?”

The response from panelist Brigitte Gabriel (she’s a real gem) is very telling. Rather than actually engaging the question, she turns it around and launches a tirade against the student. She lambasts the student for having the temerity to ask a question that does not fit within the panel’s narrow, partisan and self-serving Benghazi narrative. She twists and disfigures the student’s question beyond recognition in order to give her own response more punch and simplistic, rhetorical appeal. She effectively questions the student’s loyalty and morality for posing a question that was not properly mournful of the death of four Americans at Benghazi. And, in the end, she indicts the entirety of Muslim America for not doing more to condemn radical Islam. Not a bad day’s work for just one response!

Again, to be clear, the student’s question is not out of bounds. Not in any way. She is making the relevant point that bombs and bullets are probably not the most effective way to address the threat of a radical ideology. In short, she thinks the US response to terrorism suffers from a lack of ideological considerations.

But here’s the thing: the premise of the student’s question is actually incorrect. While the United States is indeed fighting this war with military force (drones, anyone?), it is fighting it at an ideological level too. However, while the military component is most certainly aimed outward towards Muslim countries, the ideological effort is aimed inward towards US citizens. In other words, the ideological component of this war isn’t aimed at “radical Islam” or “the Islamists” or “the Jihadists” or “the terrorists” or (my favourite) “the Islamo-Fascists.” And it isn’t even aimed at moderate Muslims in the Middle East. It’s actually aimed at Americans.

In fact, in this clip, the ideological response is aimed directly at the student who asked the question.

The approach to national security revealed in Gabriel’s scathing jeremiad, and embodied by the panel itself, is designed to support and embolden an ideological worldview in which the US accumulation and exercise of overwhelming military force is not just made possible, but rendered the only logical course of action. This is the essence of the neo-conservative agenda. And the first step in enabling this political program is to effect ideological closure. This ideological component of the so-called “War on Terror” is designed to banish domestic dissent. It attempts to construct a single, coherent and entirely homogenized response. The end goal is to ensure that those who disagree or pose questions are shouted down, silenced or marginalized.

If you watched the video, you saw how Gabriel played the crowd, a crowd that erupted in nationalistic fervour part-way through the aggressive dismissal of the student’s question. That’s the precise response that Gabriel’s jingoistic tirade was seeking to achieve. But the intended audience isn’t just the one sitting in a single Heritage Foundation lecture hall (that would be low-hanging fruit, to say the least). The real intended audience is the one comprised of the entire spectrum of the US population.

That video has gone truly viral and sparked a social media sensation. When I last checked, the version that came across my Facebook news feed (which is presumably just one of many that are now circulating) had been shared over 440,000 times in under 6 days. That specific version, originated by a Facebook user named “John Adams,” carries the telling caption, “I’m guessing this woman wishes she had not asked the question.” This is the ideological component of the War on Terror hard at work.

(For any masochists out there who might be interested, here is the whole Heritage Foundation conference on Benghazi in its brain-numbing, 3.5 hour entirety.)

Binders full of enemies

Of all the criticisms lodged against the current Conservative government in Canada, its penchant for identifying enemies is one of the most striking. The broad claim is that instead of understanding their foes simply as mere opponents or rivals, the Conservatives tend to define and treat them as categorical enemies. This is not a new critique; a number of publications and individuals have made this point (you can find examples of this charge here and here and here).

In terms of specific examples of this tendency, there are many to choose from. Internal enemies include critics of online surveillance, who are maligned as supporters of child pornography; environmentalists, who are smeared as “radical” operatives of “foreign” interests; government stakeholders, who are categorized and treated as either “friend” or “enemy”; and opposing parliamentarians, who are accused of being traitors engaged in plotting a “kind of coup d’état.”

The Conservatives are not short on external enemies either. Government rhetoric reminds us of the swath of enemies that pose an existential threat to Canada, such as Iran (“the world’s most serious threat to international peace and security”); Russia (a modern equivalent of Hitler’s Third Reich); and international communism (a metaphysical “evil” with seamless links to Nazism and terrorism).

Again, none of this is particularly newsworthy – many media outlets, editorials and bloggers have identified and decried this tendency. But much of this criticism ignores a crucial aspect of democratic politics that is imperiled by this tendency: legitimacy.

*     *     *

Carl Schmitt was a political theorist. He was also a Nazi. I am not sure which of the two associations he cleaved to more passionately.

Schmitt argued that enmity was foundational for politics and the state itself. From his perspective, the identification of an enemy provides the social cohesion that makes the very existence of the state possible. Therefore, it is the raison d’être of a political leader to define the enemies of the state. And, crucially, if a leader were for some reason reluctant or unable to identify and attack the enemy, others within the state who were willing would rise up and seize power for themselves.

To be clear, Schmitt wasn’t just describing his ideas in a detached and analytically neutral manner. For him, this wasn’t only “the way things are;” it was also “the way things ought to be.” He identified enemy-based politics as a normative good. He applauded it.

From this perspective, a leader’s willingness and initiative to identify and destroy enemies does more than simply grant him power; it also grants him legitimacy. Think about that. In this approach, a leader’s legitimacy derives from his willingness and ability to define and crush enemies.

*     *     *

Before I go any further, I should be absolutely clear about something: I am NOT saying the Conservatives are Nazis. That would be a ridiculous and offensive assertion. I find opponents of the Conservative government frequently adopt a Manichean rhetoric that is itself massively problematic. It is not my intention to follow in their footsteps here.

Rather, my point is to argue that the Conservatives seem to cling to the Schmittian understanding of politics. Like Thatcher and McCarthy, and like Reagan and Bush Jr., their default understanding of the political landscape is one littered with enemies.

This bleak and harrowing view of the world around us has important implications for our political culture. This perspective has a corrosive impact on politics. It removes the possibility of compromise, and it leads to cynicism and disengagement among the citizenry. Even more crucially, however, this approach to politics redefines the nature and wellspring of legitimacy. The basis of a leader’s claim to govern drifts away from standard notions of democratic mandates and effective stewardship. In this hollowing-out of democracy, the leader’s legitimacy derives increasingly from the zealotry and rigidity with which he defines his opponents. In this profoundly illiberal world, responding to threats becomes a substitute for responding to the electorate.

This transformation in how we understand legitimacy, and the broader shift in political culture on which it is based, is something that all Canadians should resist.

Entitlement: Then and Now

Elected members of the governing party are apparently enraged over a recent string of Supreme Court rulings that went against the government’s position. As John Ivison explains, the frustration among backbenchers and cabinet members has become “visceral” and is “in danger of boiling over.” In a measure of this frustration, one disaffected MP jabs an accusing finger in the direction of the Conservatives’ political opponents: “The left will celebrate this as a triumph – what they couldn’t achieve politically, they have achieved through decades of court appointees.” There is, in short, much handwringing and indignant talk about appointed judges making decisions instead of elected politicians.

At one level, this view is perplexing, as it ignores the fact that the composition of the Supreme Court is actually an indirect product of democratic elections. After all, in this country, parties that win elections get to appoint Supreme Court judges. This same view, however, invites ridicule when voiced by members of the current governing party, as it is the Conservatives themselves who are largely responsible for the make-up of the Supreme Court. They have been winning elections for many years now and, as a consequence, have been stacking the bench with their preferred choices. Indeed, Stephen Harper has appointed a majority of the current bench (5 out of 8 judges). A 6th judge, the sitting Chief Justice no less, was appointed by the previous conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney. Given this reality of dominant Conservative influence, bitter grumblings about the influence of “the left” just don’t seem to have much basis in reality.

Well, if such gripes don’t make a great deal of sense on the surface, how else might they be interpreted? There is a sense in which these complaints reflect feelings of entitlement. To be clear, I am not here referring to the super-embarrassing, cringe-worthy, David Dingwall version of entitlement. Rather, the Conservative variety operates under cover of a more populist veneer. So, whereas hapless David Dingwall’s entitlement was really all about David Dingwall, the Conservative sense of entitlement is one that Tory MPs invoke on behalf of all Canadians. Indeed, their earnest and palpable indignation rises up not just for Canadians, but for Canadian democracy itself. Take this quotation from a Conservative MP (also drawn from Ivison’s article):

It’s clear that Canadians don’t make laws through their governments any more. Instead, they watch while unelected courts override important community standards…[Canadians] are powerless to act through their government and left to live by court edict that doesn’t have any public support.

This individual comes across as genuinely aggrieved on behalf of Canadians who are, apparently, losing control of their democracy. This nod to the sanctity of democracy is a fundamentally important aspect of the Conservative sense of entitlement. The party is, after all, the direct heir to the Reform Party’s populist dedication to reinvigorating the country’s democratic institutions. But the version of democracy that serves as their clarion call for action is a meager and anemic approximation. The anger and frustration of disaffected Conservative MPs implies an argument like this: “Well, we won the election, so we should be able to make whatever laws we want.” Their entitlement – the one they so often identify as being under assault – is their presumed right to pass laws and govern exactly as they see fit. They brook no opposition whatsoever and see their uncompromising, divisive and single-minded approach as inherently just and legitimate because they won the election.

This version of entitlement is much worse than the sad and pathetic Dingwall variety, and people of all political stripes should find it deeply troubling. In a democracy, an election victory does not (and cannot) give license for the winning party to arrogate to itself unfettered power. Democracy is not about blindly enacting the dictates of the majority. Nor is it about a government’s sanctimonious entitlement to do whatever it pleases. Crucially, democracy is about an embrace of pluralism as a foundational concept that needs to be preserved and nurtured. In the case of Canada, pluralism achieves concrete meaning and expression in a variety of institutions and traditions, like inclusive elections, the Charter, federalism and judicial independence. Just because a party wins an election does not mean it gets to run roughshod over these institutions and traditions. To do so would be problematic, to say the very least. But to do so in the name of democracy? That manner of effrontery would betray a truly shocking level of contempt for Canadians and their democratic traditions.

But this is where we are at right now. Not satisfied with simply besting their parliamentary opponents on election night and getting on with the business of fulfilling their party platform, the Conservatives busy themselves with settling scores and scouring the social and political landscape for new enemies. And in this search for foes, they have targeted so many of the institutions, agencies, programs and officials that promote and enable our democracy. In a relentless quest for unrestrained power, the most extreme within the Conservative caucus seem to view these institutions not as pillars of a democratic system, but as tainted and illegitimate legacies of previous governments. Among such partisans, our democratic institutions are little more than stubborn, lingering echoes of “the left,” echoes that must be silenced.

Think about the perverse audacity at play here:

The cynical deception and contradictory logic that powers this divisive approach to politics is almost stupefying. It recalls the insidious doublethink that Orwell foreshadowed in Nineteen Eighty-Four: the principle of democracy is invoked in order to enable efforts to discredit and dismantle democratic institutions. This, then, is the real danger of the Conservative approach to democracy: “We won the election, so we should be able to govern how we see fit. We are entitled to our entitlements.”