Friday, 17 March 2023

Do Facts Matter?

Facts Aren't truth

People confuse facts and the truth.  Truth only applies when there is meaning.  Facts only have meaning when they are connected.  When all the relevant facts are assembled in a logical and coherent fashion, the result is the truth or at least some degree of truth.

"Agreed-upon Facts":  say what?

In the everyday world, facts are hard to come by.  I find myself repeatedly forced to use the expression "the agreed-upon facts."  Is this expression redundant (a pleonasm) or a contradiction in terms (an oxymoron)?  If whatever is "a fact" doesn't that mean that everyone cogent must necessarily agree?  If whatever must be "agreed-upon" doesn't that mean it is something different from if not the opposite of "a fact"?


The problem gets worse.  We live in an increasingly polarized world.  Beneath this polarization is a world where feelings trump facts.  We accept as fact whatever happens to support and assuage our feelings of the moment, and dismiss those facts which don't fit with our opinions, beliefs and emotions.

How We learn that reason is wrong

The situation isn't accidental and it isn't natural.  Beginning in elementary school we teach children slogans like "follow your heart," "pursue your dreams" and "be true to yourself" without stopping to consider what these instructions might actually mean.  Outside the classroom, we are bombarded with romance, the notion that human desire can overcome reality.  The hero will sacrifice the world--literally--to save the unrequited love of his first sight.  And fiction will always prove him right.  The character who displays reason and logic, if not the villain, will be the weaselly egoist we know to despise at first glance.

Does Fiction affect how we view the world?

We can pretend that our perceptions and vision of the world are unaffected by romantic fiction.   But everywhere I look I see pandering to prejudice and naive melodrama--endless "news" stories implying virtuous heroes, innocent victims and evil villains.  The binaries of absolute good and evil only survive when they are scrubbed of facts and challenging details.  Still the stories survive and propagate because we have all been taught to believe whatever it is that we already happen to believe . . . until a generation later and the story changes.

Thursday, 2 March 2023

Is Donald Trump the Lesser Evil?

"This Thing has to stop"

In a Wall Street Journal editorial, Donald Trump is quoted as saying "This thing [the war in Ukraine] has to stop, and it's got to stop now.  [ . . .] The United States should negotiate peace between these two countries, and I don’t think they should be sending very much.”  Trump has pledged "to clean house of all the warmongers and America-Last globalists."  The editorial goes on to mock Trump's "foreign policy" as "mercurial at best" while noting that the "ever-more-populist Mr. Trump" has set himself apart from his political competition--not just Joe Biden but declared candidate Nikki Haley, and potential primary entrants Mike Pence, Tim Scott, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton who are all on record backing Ukraine.  The question mark is Ron DeSantis who is the focus of the editorial.

Trump's Opposition to arming Ukraine

Trump's opposition to the war has the look of spur-of-the-moment, opportunistic populism.  However, according to John Bolton's White House memoir, Trump has long been reticent about arming Ukraine.  Trump was explicitly concerned that arming Ukraine against Russia could provoke World War III which, despite the guffawing of his critics, is a possibility before us today.  Americans learned of Trump's hesitance to sign off on a 250-million-dollar, military-aid package to Ukraine during the impeachment inquiry in 2019.  At the time, to anti-Trumpists like me, leaked minutes of the telephone conversation between Trump and Zelensky seemed irrefutable evidence that the President of the USA was trying to extort the President of Ukraine to get dirt on his political rival.  However, a close focus on a few sentences of the notes taken of that conversation leaves out much of the context.  Trump might well have wondered why the newly-elected President of Ukraine, a Russian-speaker from the east of Ukraine, a multi-millionaire media celebrity like himself, who had campaigned on a promise of peace with Russia and supported the Minsk Agreements, was now asking for weapons to confront the Russian-backed militias in the eastern provinces.  Trump also rankled at giving un-scrutinized military aid to a notoriously corrupt nation which was supplying military technology to China. 

The Conspiracy theory:  Bidens in Ukraine

Trump had also come to accept a conspiracy theory spun by John Giuliani that Ukraine was the source of disinformation undermining his presidential campaigns.  We now know that some of the details of the conspiracy were not entirely theoretical.  In April 2014, Vice-president Biden was in Ukraine--one of his three visits to Ukraine that year--to announce that "we, the United States, stand with [. . .] all the Ukrainian people" and encouraging a "real fight against corruption and victory over corruption."  In May 2014, less than a month after Joe's anti-corruption preaching to Ukrainians, Joe's son Hunter Biden was invited onto the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company, and paid $400,000, despite Hunter's being, in his own words, in his "deepest skid into addiction."  Even when George Kent, a Secretary of State official, informed the vice-president's office that Hunter Biden was accepting payment from a Ukrainian company whose chief executive was under investigation for bribery and money-laundering, no action was taken, and the details suppressed.  Hunter's infamous lost-and-found laptop revealed that he had failed to pay the required US taxes on the $400,000-dollar Ukrainian payment and, by 2020, he was two million dollars in arrears on payments to the IRS.  Perhaps most importantly, this information was available prior to the 2020 US presidential election and was published in the New York Post.  However, the FBI labelled the claims as Russian disinformation and executives at Twitter blocked the information from being circulated.

Stormy Daniels versus Navy Joan Roberts Biden

Prosecutors are twisting themselves in knots trying to figure out how to turn Trump's paying Stormy Daniels $130,000 into a crime.  In the meantime, Hunter Biden, having denied paternity and balked at child support, has now gone to court to try and prevent his four-year-old biological daughter from using the name Biden.  If Hunter is a "deadbeat dad," does that make the President of the USA a "deadbeat granddad"?

"Avoiding a Long War"

Far beyond conspiracy theories and the melodrama of dysfunctional families, what really matters is the war in Ukraine.  Trump's run for the presidency in 2024 will consequently be a referendum on the war in Ukraine, first within the Republican Party and, if he is the Republican candidate for President, then in the US electorate at large.  No doubt we will hear Trump's plans for a negotiated peace described as farfetched.  However, they do align with a policy paper published by the Rand Corporation entitled  "Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict."  The paper is a clearheaded, pragmatic and comprehensive analysis of the war.

American Interests and priorities

The authors of the paper declare straightforwardly that "This Perspective focuses on U.S. interests, which often align with but are not synonymous with Ukrainian interests." The highest priorities, in terms of US and western interests, are: 1) avoiding a nuclear war (the authors reason that Russia's use of nuclear weapons "to prevent a catastrophic defeat" is "plausible") and 2) avoiding escalation of the war into a Russia-NATO conflict.  Their thesis is that the longer the war goes on the more likely these worse-case scenarios become.  Additionally, the authors argue,  a lengthy war in Ukraine diminishes American preparedness to confront China. 

Negotiated Peace is the likely and perhaps only possible outcome

Perhaps the paper's most important conclusion is that "Since neither side appears to have the intention or capabilities to achieve absolute victory, the war will most likely end with some sort of negotiated outcome."  In fact, the best possible guarantee of peace is a negotiated outcome.  Even if the most optimistic of Ukrainian predictions come to fruition and Russian forces are driven out of all Ukrainian territories, Russia could and likely would repair its military and launch another invasion in four or five years.  To guarantee peace, a Ukrainian victory would have to include not only regime change but the dismantling of the Russian state--a possibility which returns us to the worst of all possible hypotheses:  nuclear war.

Lines on a map

Virtually all wars are about where to draw a line on the map.  Where to draw the line between Ukraine and Russia may be a crucial question for Ukrainian nationalists, but the territorial issue matters little to the USA.  Russia is not a threat to the USA unless of course the situation reaches a level of total madness and a nuclear holocaust.  In 2014, Barack Obama dismissed Russia a regional power and therefore no threat to the USA, which raises the question, why has the USA and, in particular, Joe Biden continued to encourage this conflict?  Biden will need to have a convincing answer for American voters before November 2024.  Will the rhetoric of good against evil, right versus wrong, and democracy versus dictatorship prevail against Trump's pragmatic appeals to American self-interest?  As "Avoiding a Long War" outlines, the world-wide costs of this war far outweigh its potential benefits.   In a Wall Street Journal editorial entitled "Trump's Best Foreign Policy:  Not Starting Any Wars," Republican Senator J.D. Vance, author of Hillbilly Elegies,  announces his support for Donald Trump in 2024 "because he won't recklessly send Americans to fight overseas." Amazingly, American voters may come to decide that Trump, campaigning for a negotiated peace, is on the side of the angels.

Wednesday, 22 February 2023

The World Has Never Been Closer to Nuclear War! Big Deal! So What?

Being born in the decade following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, my entire conscious life I have lived in fear of nuclear war.  Fear is a healthful response to danger.  It's what keeps animals alive.  It allows species, including humans, to survive.  Unfortunately, we humans have always been a suicidal species. Since we discovered that just two atom bombs were enough to kill 300,000 of our fellow humans, Russia and the USA (not to mention China, France, the UK, North Korea, Israel, India, and Pakistan) have stockpiled enough nuclear weaponry to destroy the planet multiple times over.  Fear of MAD (mutually assured destruction) has allowed the planet to survive for over seventy years. However, in recent months our enlightened leaders have been displaying signs of great courage and the world has been celebrating their valour.  All this unbridled, suicidal bravery is truly frightening.

In elementary school we were told that in the event of a nuclear attack we should crouch under our desks.  By the age of eight or nine, we were cynical enough to add to the instructions:  "place your head between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye."

I was ten years old during the Cuban missile crisis.  I still remember the day the local alarm sounded announcing incoming nuclear missiles.  Before word came down that it was just a test, I had time to think about what to do when the world was about to end.  I realized then and I remember now when (to quote Waiting for Godot) "there is nothing to be done," you become deadly calm.


In recent days, people in positions of privilege and power talking fearlessly about nuclear war has become commonplace. In fact, we are explicitly told it is a mistake to fear Vladimir Putin and his threats of nuclear war.  To those many advocates of escalation telling us that Russia must be defeated, I have one question:  How do you know Vladimir Putin will not use the Russian nuclear arsenal?

Perusing the narratives against a negotiated peace and the Minsk Accords in search of an answer to this question, I can't see any credible logic in the responses.  "Putin is bluffing" simply means that he will continue to bluff until he is forced to act.  "The American response will be dire."  What could the Americans do, that they aren't doing now? Are we threatening the Russians with a nuclear holocaust?  Does anyone believe that if Russia is attacked with conventional forces, the Russians will restrain from a nuclear response?

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has re-set the "Doomsday Clock" to 90 seconds before midnight--a level of "unprecedented danger," the closest to midnight it has ever been.  Bookies at Polymarket are offering 20-to-1 odds on Russia using nuclear weapons in 2023.  

The bravura I see everywhere these days reminds me of General Thomas Power, commander in chief of the US Air Command, who infamously responded to the threat of nuclear war saying "At the end of the war if there are two Americans and one Russian left alive, we win!"

As we stand before the precipice, the big news in Canada and the USA is that American "Top Guns" shot down some Chinese balloons.  Balloons for gawd sake!  Who could've imagined that Nena's 1980s satiric pop song, "99 Red Balloons," would end up sounding like it was written in February 2023?

Monday, 13 February 2023

On "Putin's American Cheerleaders"

Critical Thinking skills

I have to preface this post by revisiting "critical thinking skills"--that phrase used by university programs in the humanities and social sciences as a core justification for their existence.  The vast majority of university students graduate from these programs.  In theory,  millions upon millions of university-educated Americans and Canadians can claim an expertise in identifying arguments based on logic and evidence and, conversely, immediately spot logical fallacies:  the ad hominem, the straw man, guilt by association, and rhetorical obfuscation.  

"Putin's American Cheerleaders"

I read Adrian Karatnycky's Wall Street Journal article, "Putin’s American Cheerleaders: How Jeffrey Sachs, Mark Episkopos and Dimitri Simes contribute to the Russian propaganda effort" against the grain, as a string of logical fallacies light on rebuttal evidence.  The headline  makes the ad hominem intent to attack the authors rather than their arguments obvious.  

We Are at war

But let's be clear:  we are at war.  The war is being fought by Ukrainians, but it is a war between Russia and the collective West, led by the USA.  The war has caused global precarity, massive destruction and the deaths of thousands.  Beyond the concrete devastation, the war in Ukraine is, above all, a propaganda war.  Arguably, propaganda will determine the outcome of this war.  In this context, we shouldn't be surprised that we are all likened to soldiers on the battlefield, and any deviation from the Western narrative is collaborating with the enemy, if not betrayal and treason. 

And yet . . .

Even if we are all conscripts in the propaganda war should we accept "to do and die" in a nuclear Crimean War without stopping "to reason why"? Is it unreasonable to invoke "thinking skills" in the midst of this war?  No-one knows the whole story of this war.  Even in Kyiv or Moscow or Washington or Berlin or London or Ottawa, even on the battlefield, even with drones and satellites, people know as much and as little as they can see and hear and read.  In a war, especially in a propaganda war like this one, enormous effort is put into controlling what is seen and heard and read. 

The Dominant Western narrative

The dominant Western narrative, primarily in the legacy media, is that escalation is the only acceptable solution to the conflict in Ukraine.  The argument is presented that Russia must be defeated because failure to defeat Russia now will lead to Russian expansionism and greater escalation somewhere down the road.  Overlaying this argument is an appeal to morality.  Russia must be defeated because the invasion and the conduct of the war are immoral, criminal and evil.  Anything less than total Russian defeat would be a victory for evil.    

Does the Western narrative hold up under scrutiny?

Under the microscope of critical reasoning skills,  the arguments for escalation do not hold up well.  Let me quickly insert that this does not mean that they are wrong or untrue.  They are simply unproven, counterfactual, hypothetical, and speculative.  We will inevitably try to imagine what Russia might do after the war, but there is a weakness in trying to be too specific and too certain about what might happen in the distant future.  We can say with fair certainty that a negotiated peace--what the Western narrative qualifies as a Russian victory--would include some sort of autonomy if not outright Russian control of Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine; that is, those regions with significant populations of ethnic Russians where President Viktor Yanucovitch, who was overthrown in a bloody coup in 2014, had his strongest democratic support.

The Moral argument

The moral argument for escalating the war is equally weak.  The argument depends on our accepting as axiomatic that the war is between absolute evil and pure goodness.  The goal of propaganda is to promote this vision, but even cursory scrutiny of the context of the war makes this absolutist vision impossible to maintain.  Some 13,000 people were killed in the Donbas region in the aftermath of the bloody coup overthrowing President Yanocovitch in 2014 and before Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022.  Even the US Congress has banned the sale of weapons to Ukraine's Azimov Battalion on the grounds that the battalion openly includes neo-Nazis in its ranks.

Naming and Shaming

I first read "Putin's American Cheerleaders" because it provides a list of a half dozen Americans who question the proxy war between Russia and the West going on in Ukraine--which isn't generally easy to come by.  The article is a telling example of widespread, ham-fisted attempts to discredit, shame and silence anyone who dares to question the war. Articles of this ilk are emotionally evocative and are based on an underlying presumption of moral superiority shared by writer and reader.  The vocabulary is emotionally charged but logical consideration of risks and outcomes is avoided.  For potential outcomes, the war in Ukraine should be compared to other recent wars spearheaded by the USA--Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Vietnam and Korea--but these are comparisons which the dominant narrative tends to avoid.

Guilt by Association

While Mr. Karatnycky concedes that "experts are free to challenge the pro-Ukraine views held by the vast majority of Americans," he decries the fact that these American experts have appeared on a Russian program hosted by Vladimir Solovyov, whom he describes as a Russian propagandist. Karatnycky has more to say about Solovyov than about the "American cheerleaders."  The Americans' failure is guilt by association with Solovyov.  According to Karatnycky, what Jeffrey Sachs said on Russian media was

that a “massive number” of Americans “wish to exit the conflict in Ukraine,” condemned the U.S. administration for “disinformation,” and called President Volodymyr Zelensky’s conditions for peace “absolute nonsense.”

None of these claims about American attitudes are obvious errors of fact.  Zelensky's conditions for peace go beyond total Russian defeat and surrender.  They sound a lot like the "conditions" imposed upon Germany after the First World War. The Washington Post has reported that the Biden administration has been asking Zelensky to dial down his "conditions for peace." 

Framing the War as exclusively between Russia and Ukraine

Karatnycky's awkward--and therefore revealing--attempts to frame the war as between Ukraine and Russia leaving the USA and even NATO out of the equation is typical of the dominant narrative.  People who dare to suggest a negotiated peace are not identified as critics of the war but "Ukraine critics." Americans who endorse escalation of the war are identified as "pro-Ukrainian."

NATO Expansion isn't a threat!  Really!?

Jeffrey Sachs is characterized as a "Putin cheerleader" because, as with a number of other "foreign policy realists," he "has long argued that the West provoked Russia into invading Ukraine in 2014 by virtue of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 'threatening' expansion toward Russia."  Karatnycky's quotation marks around the word "threatening" are intended to display a tone of sarcasm.  Still, no matter what your politics, how can anyone look at the ongoing expansion of NATO to Russia's borders and logically conclude that the expansion of an inimical military alliance to a nation's very borders is not "threatening"?

What Jeffrey Sachs said . . .

Furthermore, beyond the threatening posture of NATO, as Sachs points out in an interview on Democracy Now, [ . . .] the United States, very unwisely and very provocatively, contributed to the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych in early 2014, setting in motion the tragedy before our eyes."  

What Cannot be said:  Ukraine is ethnically divided between east and west

One argument which shaming the authors is designed to preclude is that Ukraine is ethnically divided.  As Sacks elaborates:

The "Minsk Accords" must also be denied

The resulting Minsk Accords, as we have seen, are quashed and denied in pro-war editorials, even when the narrative requires contradicting its own sources.  Sachs argues:

What happened — and this is crucial to understand — is that, in 2015, there were agreements to solve this problem by giving autonomy to these eastern regions that were predominantly ethnic Russian. And these are called the Minsk agreements, Minsk I and Minsk II.

John Bolton was in Ukraine in 2019 and reports that Volodymyr Zelensky, who was elected promising to end Ukrainian corruption and make peace with the eastern regions,  "was determined to get the Donbas back as soon as possible and end the war within the Minsk agreements" (457 The Room Where It Happened).  However in the intervening years there has been consistent repudiation and denial of the Minsk Accords in Western and Ukrainian media.  It is as if they never existed.

The Zeitgeist:  Preparing for the historical dialectic

Karatnycky claims that "Most U.S. guests on Russian media come from the fringe."  He names Virginia State Sen. Richard Black and former United States Marine Corps intelligence officer, former United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM) weapons inspector Scott Ritter.  However, the first name on his list of "Putin's American Cheerleaders" is Tulsi Gabbard, a former American Congresswoman and candidate in the 2016 Democratic Presidential Primaries.  In her interviews she has a very simple and clear message:  "The world has never been closer to a nuclear war."

The rule of the historical dialectic is that the Zeitgeist will change over time and the dominant thesis of the age will give way to its antithesis.  If the rule of the dialectic holds in this case, those "fringe" arguments against escalation, which are everywhere on social media in blogs and vlogs and interviews but nowhere in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, or Globe and Mail, may soon become the dominant Western narrative.

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

Is the War in Ukraine about Democracy?

The number of articles, essays and editorials on the war in Ukraine is overwhelming.  They also tend to be quite tedious because the vocabulary--the word choice and adjectives--invariably announces in advance what the authors are going to say.  Any fact can be spun in one direction or another to fit an established narrative.  Is it possible to say anything about this war without surrendering to spin?  I have decided that on this subject less is more.  My ambition is to present a few facts and let you, dear reader, decide what conclusions or interpretations should be derived from those facts.  Hmmm, already I'm being disingenuous.  I'm choosing the facts, so my choice of facts already implies a particular interpretation or conclusion.  Let me try again.

It is a common claim that the war in Ukraine is being fought to preserve democracy both in Ukraine and, in some accounts, more widely in Europe and the Western world.  In his State of the Union this week, President Biden called the war in Ukraine "the defense of democracy." I have come across a number of agreed-upon facts that may not contradict this claim but should at least invite us to consider the question.  These are uncontested facts.  They may be avoided or re-spun or buried beneath a mountain of verbiage, but no-one is denying that they are true.

1.  Viktor Yanucovitch was elected President of Ukraine for a five-year term in 2010.  The election was overseen by the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE/ODIHR).   According to the organization's final report:   "The presidential election met most OSCE commitments and other international standards for democratic elections [ . . . .] The process was transparent and offered voters a genuine choice between candidates representing diverse political views."

2.  In 2013, President Yanucovitch pursued a trade agreement with the EU but pulled out of the negotiations before it was signed.

3.  Demonstrations began in Maidan Square in reaction to the news that the trade agreement would not be signed.  Demonstrations continued for months and eventually became violent.  Over 100 people were killed.  President Yanucovitch fled the country in February 2014 for exile in Russia.

4.  In February 2014, Russian forces seized control of Crimea.  

5.  In May 2014, Petro Poroshenco was elected President of Ukraine and signed the EU trade agreement June 2014.

6.  In 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected President of Ukraine, winning 73.22% of the vote over the incumbent Poroshenco with 24.45% of the vote.  Later Poroshenco had to flee the country accused of corruption and treason.

7.  In February 2022, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

In this selection of facts, I have dutifully avoided any claim which might be contested.  Recently I came upon this web site which offers a breakdown of election results in Ukraine.

Here is a breakdown of the 2010 election results in which Victor Yanucovitch won the presidency.  I invite you to consider the names of the areas where Yanucovitch had the greatest support.  If you have been following the news on the war in Ukraine, I invite you to compare the sites where battles are being waged with the areas where Yanucovitch had his strongest democratic support.

 Note, for example, these particular regions where Yanucovitch had strong democratic support and battles are now being waged.

Crimea:           78.24%

Donetsk:           90.44%

Luhansk:           88.96%

Kherson:          59.98% 

Odessa:            74.14%

Zaporizhzhia:    71.50%

 Yanucovitch's opponent in the presidential run-off, Yulia Tymoshenko of the All-Ukrainian Union – Motherland Party, challenged the results but her complaints were eventually withdrawn. The OSCE/ODIHR report noted that "During both rounds, Ms. Tymoshenko misused administrative resources for campaigning, thus blurring the line between her roles as candidate and state official and skewing the playing field in her favour."  The report also points out that

In the most recent census, 67.5 per cent of the population declared Ukrainian as their mother tongue, while 29.6 per cent named Russian. As official voter information and election material was available only in Ukrainian, an insufficient command of Ukrainian may have formed an obstacle for minority voters to gain full access to election related information.

Nonetheless, Viktor Yanucovitch of the Party of Regions eventually won the democratic vote, and held office until he was overthrown in 2014 and the war began.

Ironically, in his White House memoir, John Bolton claims that "The State Department didn't want me to meet with Tymoshenko separately because they thought she was too close to Russia [. . . .]" (448 The Room Where It Happened).





Wednesday, 4 January 2023

USA-Russia Prisoner Swap: Where's the Canadian Outrage?

Where's the Canadian outrage?

The USA has completed the prisoner swap of Brittney Griner, the American basketball player, for Viktor Bout, the Russian arms dealer.  I was delighted to see Brittney returned home.  But where's the Canadian outrage?  Remember when the "Two [Canadian] Michaels" were in a Chinese prison and our Prime Minister announced that prisoner exchanges were unacceptable, immoral and dangerous.  The Canadian media reported that the great majority of Canadians (72% in fact) agreed with the Prime Minister.  So why aren't the Prime Minister, the government, the media and those millions of Canadians protesting against this unacceptable, immoral and dangerous exchange of prisoners between Russia and the USA?


Who's Calling the shots?

There are many lessons for us Canadians to learn from this comparison of cases.  The one I would point out:  before the Government of Canada asks "how high?" we should at least inquire about who exactly is telling us to "jump!"

Protests against the Russia-USA prisoner swap

The Griner-Bout exchange is being protested by right-wing conservatives in the USA.  These protestants point out that the reason the US moved so quickly to propose and arrange a prisoner swap with Russia is that Griner--a woman, a Black women, a lesbian, a married lesbian, etc--tics so many of the boxes in the Democratic agenda.  They are not wrong.  The fact that the Democrats chose not to negotiate the release of Paul Whelan, an American former marine who has been incarcerated in a Russian prison for four years on charges of espionage, castes the political basis of the Griner decision in sharp relief.

Who Was responsible for Canada's arresting the Huawei CFO?

Why should Canadians care?  Our compliance in arresting and holding Meng Wanzhou on behalf of the USA while the "two Michaels" languished in prison for almost three years appears even more ridiculous when we see how the US government moved quickly to arrange a prisoner exchange when political party popularity was in play--not to mention that the US has dismissed all charges against Meng without penalty.  If our elected leaders had seriously asked "why arrest Meng?" (as they are required by law to do), they would have eventually arrived at the question of "who exactly is asking?"  I have repeatedly pointed the finger at Richard Donaghue because he was the public face of the arrest and extradition request.  Thanks to the Wall Street Journal exposé, "Inside the Secret Prisoner Swap That Splintered the U.S. and China," we now know who was behind the half-baked scheme to arrest the Huawei CFO:  John Bolton.


President Trump asks the question

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, based on testimony of witnesses, six days after Meng was arrested in Canada, President Trump turned on Bolton and asked "Why did you arrest Meng?" This question says it all.  Bolton describes the December 7 episode in his White House memoir but leaves out this question and anything else which shows his direct responsibility.  From his memoir, we now know with certainty Bolton lied to the Guardian (6 December 2018) when he "said he was not sure if Trump knew of the arrest in Canada when the president sat down to a steak dinner with China’s Xi Jinping in Buenos Aire." In the memoir, Bolton describes making a conscious decision not to inform the President and suggests Trump remained uninformed until "the implications of the arrest spread through the media" (305).

President Donald Trump, right, national security adviser John Bolton, second from right, and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, far left, having dinner on Dec. 1, 2018, at a G-20 summit in Buenos Aires. KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS

"World Peace"

Bolton claims that "my contribution to world peace was suggesting that Xi and Trump, each accompanied by seven aids, have dinner on December 1" (296). Anyone familiar with the memoir will recognize that Bolton's use of the expression "world peace" was dripping with sarcasm.  And, of course, in arranging for Meng to be arrested the same day as the dinner, Bolton was undermining any glimmer of "world peace" that the meeting might produce.  The Room Where It Happened (a title borrowed from the musical Hamilton)  is a long list of pathways to "world peace" which Bolton opposed and/or obstructed:  Paris Climate Accords, INF Treaty, the Law of the Sea Convention, the Treaty on Open Skies, the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty, Iran nuclear deal, the International Criminal Court, UN Human Rights Commission, South Korea's initiative for Trump and North Korea's Kim Jong-un to meet in order to end the Korean War now in its 70th year, meetings between Trump and Putin, Trump and Xi, Trump and Erdogan, entente with Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua, military withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan, etc, etc.

Bolton and Trudeau share a doctrine

To his credit Bolton has remained consistent in voicing opposition to the Griner-Bout prisoner exchange and all prisoner exchanges. The Bolton doctrine is the same argument presented by PM Justin Trudeau in his press conference 20 June 2020.  (In the press conference, the PM repeated two basic lies which went unchallenged:  that extradition is an "independent judicial" process and the US-Canada treaty request created an "obligation" to hold Meng.)

Canada's about turn:  how far will we follow anti-China hawks?

If Bolton is our "Pied Piper," it's time we Canadians grow up fast and think twice before following the rat catcher into his cave.  For fifty years--from Pierre Trudeau to Justin Trudeau, with Clark, Mulroney and Harper following along in between--there was an evolving, three-steps-forward-two-steps-back collaboration between Canada and China.  Suddenly one day, we arrested Meng Wanzhou, then China arrested the two Michaels, and we have been in a cold war with our second-largest trading partner ever since.  That cold war has been heating up fast as the Canadian government has announced an increase of two billion dollars in military spending in the Indio-Pacific, and a plan to confront China by increasing "the number of naval frigates deployed in the region."

What if we had obeyed the Canadian Extradition Act and released Meng?

As pointed out in the WSJ, Justin Trudeau came to power with a promise of closer ties with China.  In 2017, the Trudeau government was on the verge of a Canada-China free-trade agreement.  The question I ask myself and you, dear reader: "If Canada hadn't fallen for Bolton's ploy and arrested Meng in 2018, would we still be saber-rattling--to the tune of two billion dollars--against China today?"

What Does "law-abiding" mean?

We might delude ourselves that we have impressed the world with how law-abiding we are, except that anyone who bothers to check would know we refused to follow or even acknowledge Canadian law in holding Meng.  As reported by the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese were quick to point out to the Canadian delegation: "You don't even know your own laws." Ouch.

Double Ouch

When Justin Trudeau asked for a meeting with Xi Jingpin, he was told:  "It would breach protocol for Mr. Xi, China’s head of state, to speak with Mr. Trudeau, merely the head of government of Canada, whose head of state was Queen Elizabeth II."  Double ouch!

Triple Ouch

When Canada's Ambassador Barton met with representatives of the Chinese Foreign Ministry he was told: "You are lapdogs of the United States."  Unfortunately, the Canadian government had shown a great willingness to sacrifice Canadians for what was exclusively a US/Bolton agenda offering no benefit to Canada.

At Least we could depend on US support! (Not)!

Perhaps the darkest irony of the "catastrofarse": when PM Trudeau approached the US President in February 2021 about the "two Michaels," Biden replied “I will not interfere with the judicial process”--the same fallacious justification for inaction that Trudeau himself had been using for two years.

There Is a lesson to be learned

When discussing the US efforts to curtail Huawei, which he claimed"wasn't a company but an arm of China's intelligence services" (305), Bolton mentions that "Former Prime Minister Jean Cretien, never a friend of the US, was arguing that Canada should simply not abide by our extradition treaty" (307-8).  Given the context and the source, "never a friend of the US" is a ringing endorsement.  In 2003, Prime Minister Jean Cretien kept Canada out of the misguided, malign war in Iraq even as the USA, Opposition Leader Stephen Harper, and even members of the Liberal Party attempted to drag us into it.  Herein lies the lesson.  Prime Minister Cretien, Defense Minister John McCallum, and NDP Leader Jack Layton--all stood in opposition to George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq and kept Canada out of a war which should never should have happened.  Sometimes it's possible to act like an independent, sovereign nation and say "no," without a loss of respect and friendship.


Friday, 2 December 2022

Do Right and Left Mean Anything Anymore?

Meanings of Words change

The meanings of words change over time.  Charting those changes of meaning has been the goal of the Oxford English Dictionary since it's inception in 1755.  Being aware of how the meanings of words are constructed and reconstructed over time is what Jacques Derrida called "deconstruction."  I have leaned hard on the notions of "right wing" versus "left wing" in my writing. (See, for example,  Liberal Entropy:  The Challenge of Doing Nothing.)

"When You think you right . . . "

Reading Tara Henley, in particular her substack article "When You Think You're Right even if You're Wrong," I am troubled by the short-comings of the right-left binary, as is she apparently.  I'm supposed to be a left-leaning liberal and she often sounds like a conservative, so it is disconcerting to discover how frequently I agree with her. 

Etymology of left and right wing

Just a quick reminder:  the expressions date to the period immediately after the French Revolution (1789) and referred to where representatives sat in the National Assembly.  Monarchist who tended to be well-to-do traditionalists sat to the right of the Speaker; anti-royalist revolutionaries representing the proletariat sat to the left.  As time has marched on, the binary has been recast as Conservative versus Liberal,  Republican versus Democrat, even Capitalist versus Socialist, though none of these binaries are exactly equivalent. 

Remember when opposing free trade meant you were a left-wing radical?

What counts as left or right keeps shifting.  Remember when opposing a free-trade deal meant you were a left-wing radical?  (The images are from protests against the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City, April 2001.  See also The Erasure of the Left.)  In 2015, Donald Trump, a right-wing Republican, began campaigning against free-trade deals which won over the casualties of globalization, the American working and lower middle class. Eventually, even Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama began to back away from their fulsome support of free trade.

What Has gone awry with the left-right binary?

The real problem in recent years has been the floundering attempts to squeeze every political issue into the left-right binary.  The issues of the day simply do not fit the left-right dichotomy.  Vaccine mandates, Tara Henley's particular hobby horse, are a case in point.   

When Pierre Poilievre, Canada's Conservative Party Prime Minister in waiting, rushed to a photo-op with the anti-mandate "Freedom Convoy" as it headed to Ottawa, I thought he had kissed his political career good-bye.  The convoy managed to arouse a great deal of both public antipathy and fractious support, but the Conservative politician's public embrace of a prima facie working-class protest seemed contradictory if not hypocritical.  Nonetheless, I remained mindful of Steve Bannon's claim that the Bernie Sanders constituency and the Donald Trump  constituency were the same working and lower middle-class voters.  Even David Graeber, a card-carrying member of the left if there ever was one, writes:

Ultimately, the more liberal members of this professional-managerial elite became the social base for what came to pass as “left-wing” political parties, as actual working-class organizations like trade unions were cast into the wilderness (The Utopia of Rules p. 20).


The actual working class, who bore a traditional loathing for such characters, either dropped out of politics entirely, or were increasingly reduced to casting protest votes for the radical Right  (The Utopia of Rules p. 21).

 Left-wing in Canada

When I was working on a local NDP campaign (New Democratic Party; i.e., what passes for "left wing" in Canada), I was struck to learn that our greatest support (number of votes) came from the most upper-crust neighbourhood in the riding.   It made sense to me that "enlightened" professionals would vote for the left, for equality and social justice but, at the same time, it seemed the party whose raison d'être was to represent the working class was abandoning and/or being abandoned by that cohort of voters.

"Luxury Beliefs"

Rob Henderson (another Tara Henley guest) coined the expression "luxury beliefs" meaning "ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes." Henderson surmises that upper-class elites while enjoying wealth and status also want to signal that they are "sophisticated member[s] of the educated class."  As an example he cites a conversation with a middle-class classmate who was raised in a stable home and planned to marry herself but claimed that "monogamy and marriage are outdated [....] oppressive patriarchal institutions.” 

Causes of Poverty

I found his example telling.  When I was preparing a lecture on The Grapes of Wrath, I discovered repeated claims that a significant cause of poverty was marriage breakdown.  It was immediately obvious to me that while marriage and family were, first and foremost, emotional and social bonds, the family is also an economic union. Go looking for who exactly is dealing with poverty and chances are you will discover single mothers and the children of fatherless households.  "It takes a village to raise a child" is a nice idea, but these days few of us live in villages.  In my experience, two parents is the minimal requirement for raising a child, and a supplementary army of siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends and neighbours is helpful if not essential.  However, "family values," (as I've discussed elsewhere) remains a quintessentially "right wing" expression.

Privileged Values 

A corollary to Henderson's "luxury beliefs" are what I would call "privileged values."  (See Virtues, Vices and Values.) Both the detractors and the supporters of woke and cancel culture are, above all, proof that we live in the age of moral superiority.  Today, everyone thinks of themselves as morally superior and behaves or at least vocalizes accordingly.  The great paradox of moral superiority is that people who feel morally superior self-license to  act immorally at every turn.  In other words, if you think you're one "the good guys," then you're likely to think that whatever you do is  "good"--no matter how amoral, immoral or morally challenged it is. And the illusion is easier to maintain if your privileged circumstances insulate you from the challenges, costs, consequences and contradictions of your morally superiority.

John Bolton versus David Graeber

Perusing John Bolton's The Room Where It Happened and David Graeber's The Utopia of Rules, it is fascinating to read a right-wing hawk and a left-wing dove complaining about the same thing:  bureaucracy.  Graeber's thesis is that bureaucracy is sustained by an underlying threat of violence.  Bolton complains that bureaucracy prevents him from exercising the threats of violence which are his stock and trade.  As Donald Trump once quipped, "If I listened to John Bolton, we would have had World War Six by now." In Bolton's mindset, "Give Peace a Chance" is Chinese propaganda.  Despite my having decried and derided bureaucracy most of my working life (see, for example, This Professor Should Be Fired), reading Graeber and Bolton I came away thinking "Thank gawd for bureaucracy!"  

Bureaucracy or the alternative

To cannibalize a bromide about democracy, bureaucracy may be imperfect, but it's better than all the alternatives.  Bureaucracy protects us from  left-wing anarchy and right-wing corruption.  The important point here is that bureaucracy is neither innately left wing nor innately right wing. In specific cases, bureaucracy may tilt left or right, which is why this binary still matters.

"On Baggage, Bureaucracy and Brokenness"

 However, in her most recent newsletter "On Baggage, Bureaucracy and Brokenness," Tara Henley references Alana Newhouse's claim that

[ . . .] the most vital debate in contemporary America is not between liberalism and conservatism. But rather, it is “between those who believe there is something fundamentally broken in America, and that it’s an emergency, and those who do not.”

The examples are numerous: lost baggage, the bureaucratic run-around, the broken health-care system. We've all been there.  Personally, every time I encounter these screw-ups, I imagine a left-right binary.  Someone is profiting from these screw-ups:  the underfunded health-care system allowing the super-wealthy to remain under-taxed, the telecom giants which deliberately send you from one automated "help line" to another intending that you will give up on requesting service or getting a response to your complaint, the airline company paying minimum wage to part-time baggage handlers.

The Problem of perseverance

Henley's observations about "perseverance" in "When You Think You're Right even if You're Wrong" cut close to home.  My cognitive bias always leans left, so I must admit that when an issue seems left-leaning, I'm likely to get onboard.  And, of course, I always think I'm right, even when the evidence challenges my thinking.  I believe in the left-right binary, but when, where and how the binary applies, and perhaps more importantly, when it doesn't apply--these are the real questions.  The problem is when the binary is applied too quickly and easily, too dogmatically, too broadly, too loosely.  In short, the problem is when the binary becomes a replacement for thinking rather than a way of thinking.



Saturday, 19 November 2022

Mythologizing a Conflict of Solitudes and the Erasure of the Left

Mythologizing a Conflict of Solitudes and the Erasure of the Left

                                                            Jay Sour
                                                            Université Laval
                                                            May 26, 2001

Competing Dramatic narratives   

The objective of this presentation is a discussion of competing dramatic narratives, in fact, melodramas, of Canadian history: a conflict between English and  French solitudes on one hand, and a political struggle opposing the proletariat and a capitalist hegemony on the other. Although neither of these binaries is an adequate structure for the re-telling of Canadian history, 19th century melodrama has proven to be the dominant narrative structure within which the popular media typically constructs contemporary news stories.  This attempt to construct the news and history as a display of strict moral justice, in which a good and innocent protagonist is seen to be oppressed by a stereotypically evil antagonist, has the effect that stories become “news,” are brought to public awareness and general consciousness, because they can be presented in this form.  Narratives are further sustained and gain longevity because they can be presented in terms of the stock features of melodrama: mounting suspense, hidden documents revealed, unexpected reversals, the need for last minute rescues, and even occasional comic relief.  Over time these melodramas become the dominant myths and, as a result, all attempts to tell the story of Canadian historical events are forced to locate themselves in relation to these established binaries in order to have an audience.

Summit of the Americas, April 2001

    My original intention for this presentation was to tease out this competition of narratives from a number of Canadian plays and films, including evidence which has emerged from their productions and receptions.  However, since I first proposed this topic last November, two very obvious examples of what I had intended to “reveal” have been widely and extensively exposed.  The first was the premiere of Pierre Falardeau’s film, entitled Le 15 fevrier, 1839, in which he tells the story of  the rebellion of 1837 in Lower Canada.  The second was the Summit of the Americas held here in Quebec City in April.  
    I must confess that as the Summit approached I became convinced that my argument that the Left existed in a state of erasure in Canada would lose all credibility as the growing attention to the protest and the protesters against the summit (a loosely leftist coalition of  socialists, feminists, ecologists, nationalists, anarchists, human rights advocates and so on)  seemed guaranteed to garner a high profile and visibility.  However, as the television editorialist for the news-magazine show, 60 Minutes II, commented:  “For a week we were shown images of protesters in Quebec, but no-one ever bother to tell us what they were protesting about.”   

Free Trade and the People's Summit

    More striking still was to see Premiere Bernard Landry, whom I have always taken to be a  strong advocate of free trade,  addressing the People’s Summit and describing free trade as a threat to democracy, human rights, the environment and national sovereignty.   In Quebec, the context of his remarks was weeks of media coverage of the debate over Landry’s not having been  invited to address the Summit of the Americas, a battle of signs in which signs put up by Quebec officials were taken down and replaced by those of the summit organizers and vice versa, and a controversy over the fact that Landry had addressed a group of delegates to the summit in French when they were English, Spanish and Portuguese speaking. In short even this ostentatious conflict of proletarian and corporate agendas could, in Quebec, be overwritten as a language debate.

The Prevailing Myth of "Two Solitudes"

    My point in these comments is not to claim that language, culture and politics are mutually exclusive or even separable issues.  In fact, the genesis of my interest in this topic was an interview I did, in 1997, with Marianne Ackerman, founder and Artistic Director of Theatre 1774, a company set up to do cross-over, bilingual and bi- and multi-cultural productions in Montreal.  When I asked Ackerman if the imminent demise of her company was proof that the myth of two solitudes was still intact, she responded, 

“Absolutely.  There is huge resistance to the truth of how Quebecers live, English and French,  which is rather well. On any planetary or historical scale, people here get along well and work together–that’s a fact.  That fact cannot be reflected on stage because it flies in the face of two deeply entrenched visions.”  

The issue I have found myself considering since this interview is not if a conflict of linguistic cultures is allowed to frequently occupy centre stage in the dramas of Canadian and Quebec history and politics--I take this as given--but how and why the dominance of a narrative of conflicting solitudes is maintained.  Seemingly the most obvious response is that this narrative serves the interests of nationalist politicians and the sovereignty movement in Quebec, but even this answer is becoming less and less true. 

Policing the Myth

    In fact, when Ackerman spoke of resistance to her company’s mandate, the institutions she cited were the Centaur Theatre, English Quebec’s main stage, and the Montreal Gazette, the English-language daily.  In an NFB film entitled, Breaking a Leg, Theatre 1774's founding and first production, Echo, directed by Robert Lepage, are documented.  At the company’s first press conference it was Gazette theatre critic Pat Donnelly who asked the question, in French, “What will the  language of the production be?”    As the narrator of the documentary film ominously noted, language would return to haunt the production.  Robert Lévesque, theatre critic for Le Devoir accused the company of false publicity in using a Francophone director and actors for what turned out to be an English-language production.  Pat Donnelly commented that: “If this is what happens when a great French talent crosses over, then maybe separation isn’t such a bad idea.”  And in his own defence, Lepage noted that it was not the production, but the absence of French in the production which had been the basis of criticism of the play.  In other words, no matter what else might have been said about or learned from the production, all discourses were marginalized, displaced, erased or analogized  to the dichotomy of languages, and both English and French critics and the director were drawn into the process. 

Why Mythology works

    These first examples demonstrate that the reason this mythology is invoked is simply that it is easy.   It is an easy means of framing and inflating criticism and offers an equally easy means of deflecting it.   Why this should be so is answered in the fact it is a mythology,  a pattern of beliefs that is almost automatically accepted, with little inquiry into its truth value.  That, of course,  is how myth operates.   The reception of   Pierre Falardeau’s film, Le 15 février, 1839 offers a clear example of the further advantages of appealing to this mythology.

For Love Quebec and Octobre

    To put my reading, and more to the point, my reaction to the film in full context: in the late 70's The Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, produced a play called For Love, Quebec by Robin Mathews, in which Mathews portrayed the FLQ Crisis of October, 1970, as a working-class rebellion.  The criticism of Mathews' play, at the time, was that in portraying the October crisis as a socialist insurrection he had failed to accurately represent the Quebec situation.  Against this background, in 1977, seeing Pierre Falardeau’s film Octobre, which recounts in detail the kidnapping and murder of Pierre Laporte, I was struck by the similarity between Falardeau’s purportedly highly accurate account of the events and the tenor of the Mathews play.  In both cases a Marxist-socialist discourse dominated the dialogue and, in particular, the characters expression of their intentions.  Although the existence of an oppressive English hierarchy is noted in the film, within the enclosed environment of the film the political struggle is expressed in a conflict between Pierre Laporte, a well-to-do Francophone Québécois and his captures, a group of working-class men who are also Francophone Québécois.  In this instance Falardeau showed a willingness to sublimate the specificities of the Quebec situation and the image of conflicting solitudes to the broader political discourse.

Falardeau's Le 15 février, 1839

    However, in his most recent film, Le 15 février, 1839,  Falardeau conspicuously reverses this tendency.  Although the film recounts a number of the events of the Papineau rebellions, it focuses on the imprisonment and executions of a number of les Patriots in 1839.  As such it becomes an intense psychological drama.  In embracing a melodramatic structure Falardeau overtly constructs les anglais as the personification of evil.  The portrayal of the English as villains is hardly new in Quebec narratives, as William Johnson’s book, Anglophobie: Made in Quebec, extensively documents.  Nonetheless, it is surprising that Falardeau would revert to this caricature at this point in time.  

Brault's Quand je serai parti, vous vivrez encore

    In 1999, Michel Brault, a renowned cinematographer and director released a film entitled Quand je serai parti, vous vivrez encore which presented the same historical events (the rebellion and executions) and characters (les Patriots, including the young François-Marie-Thomas Chevalier de Lorimier).  Brault, like Falardeau, is a recognized sovereigntist and his 1974 film, Les Ordres, also on the October Crisis and its aftermath has been described as a chef d’oeuvre.  In relation to the dominant mythology and to the Falardeau film, Brault’s treatment of 1837 was a breakthrough.  The salient elements of this breakthrough were, for example, that Brault afforded a special, sympathetic status the English-speaking Irish, that the Patriots' lawyer,  Drummond, is portrayed as a passionate, bilingual advocate of his clients, and Brault’s film included passing acknowledgment that a sister rebellion was taking place in Toronto.  

The CBC's A People’s History: Rebellion and Reform (1815 - 1850)

    The same week that Falardeau’s film was released, the CBC was broadcasting A People’s History: Rebellion and Reform (1815 - 1850).   Interviewed on the television show Maisonneuve à l'écoute, Falardeau was categorical that the image presented by CBC that “nous étions tous ensemble était faux” [that is, that the image of the rebellion crossing linguistic and cultural lines was simply false].   Falardeau’s claim was not questioned; he was simply repeating the commonly accepted truths about the rebellions in Lower Canada. 

The Patriot's Rebellion in fact and fiction

      As a parenthesis, I should highlight that in Quebec the Patriots rebellion of 1837 is typically taken as the genesis of the Québécois nationalist movement.   For example, in his introduction to Surrealism and Quebec Literature: History of a Cultural Revolution,  André  G. Bourassa claims:  “The voice of our people was first heard in 1837, and this book begins with writings from that year” (xii).  Every year, I  lead a graduate seminar, which includes a comparison of  Rick Salutin and Theatre Passe Muraille’s 1837: The Farmers Revolt and Jacques Ferron’s Les Grandes Soleils, which treats the 1837 rebellion in Quebec. English Canadian students are frequently unaware of the 1837 uprisings in Toronto, but for Franco-Québécois the existence of this historical event seems to come as a shock, because, I have surmised, it problematizes the received knowledge of  the Quebec rebellions as a conflict in which, to quote at least one of my students, “our ancestors died to protect the French language.” 

In an MA thesis prepared at the Université de Sherbrooke analyzing seven disparate dramatic treatments of the rebellions–Papineau by Louis-Honoré Fréchette (1880), Cérémonial funèbre sur le corps de Jean-Olivier Chénier by Jean-Robert Rémillard (1974),  Les Grandes Soleils by Jacques Ferron (1969), 1837: The Farmers Revolt, by Rick Salutin and theatre Passe Muraille (1975),  “Hero at Hatch’s Mill” by George Salverson  (1967), The Patriots by Eric Cross (1955), and At My Heart’s Core by Robertson Davies (1950)–the author, Rod Wilmot, contends that

In Upper and Lower Canada the sources of trouble were essentially the same: the absence of responsible government and the opportunity this gave a select few to abuse their power. . . .
    All the important differences between the two Rebellions stem from the fact that in Lower Canada the struggle for reform had inescapable racial overtones.  (8)
Wilmot goes on to point out these “racial overtones” would almost immediately come to dominate accounts of the rebellions in Lower Canada.  

The Making of Melodrama

    Returning to Falardeau’s most recent film then, Le 15 février, 1939 could only maintain its melodramatic structure at the expense of an atavistic interpretation of the historical events and a corresponding vision of les anglais as stock villains.   For example, in Falardeau’s portrayal anyone who is identified as English is unable to speak or understand a word of French.  This vision of the English garrison certainly contradicts much of the available historical information.  In fact, in her play L’Affaire Tartuff, or the Garrison Rehearses Molière, which became the signature piece of  Theatre 1774, Marianne Ackerman dramatizes the common practice of the English Garrison in Lower Canada of presenting plays in French.  As Jean Béraud observes in 350 ans de Théatre au Canada français si le goût de théâtre s’implanta rapidement et fermement à Montréal, c’est aux soldats de garnison et aux artistes de langue anglaize que nous le devons” (qt in Théâtre Québécois I 31)   A number of other historical facts would problematize Falardeau’s interpretation of events including the revolt in Toronto, the Chouayens who were the French-speaking antagonists of les Patriots, and  the presence in Lower Canada of a number of English-speaking supporters, including the John Neilson of the Quebec Gazette, and Doctors Wolfred and Robert Nelson who were leaders of  the Rebellion.  Robert Nelson is the subject of Mary Soderstrom’s book, The Words on the Wall: Lower Canada’s Forgotten Hero of the 1837 Rebellion.  

Melodrama Trumps politics

    In a television documentary about the promotion of  Le 15 février,  Falardeau complained about being described by the press as wearing “son costume de revolutionnaire.”  Falardeau’s appearance is always stereotypically lefty, unshaven, cigarette butt between his fingers, leather or denim and workman’s plaid.   Certainly Falardeau decorates this film with leftist rhetoric. However, when Falardeau introduces a moment into the film in which the melodrama of a French-English conflict might be abandoned in a gesture of working-class solidarity, he uses that moment to reinforce the linguistic and cultural divide.   A young English private on guard duty approaches Chevalier de Lorimier to express his sympathy and solidarity.  The young Englishman explains that he was in the street and forced to go into service to save his family from starvation, but in Falardeau’s film de Lorimier refuses to acknowledge him.  On the scaffold, as the young Englishman is placing the noose around his neck, he pleads with de Lorimier to say something to him.   Finally de Lorimier tells him “I’m not afraid anymore.  Now it’s your turn to be afraid.”  To reinforce the melodramatic structure we subsequently see an English soldier rifle butting one of the condemned men swinging from the gallows in front of  the innocent gaze of a little girl who has accompanied her father to the executions to deliver a load of coffins.

Maisonneuve à l'écoute

    When de Maisonneuve, the television interviewer, asked about the English private, Falardeau allowed Luc Picard, the actor who play de Lorimier, to respond.  Picard, who was obviously concerned in his response, claimed that as an actor he saw de Lorimier’s silence as a way of claiming, of insisting upon, the dignity of his own execution.  When de Maisonneuve then asked if  this was a correct interpretation, Falardeau grunt, shrugged and finally said “Oui.”  Nonetheless, this interaction between the working-class Englishman and the upper-class Frenchman flies in the face of a number of attempts to underline the necessity of solidarity for a left-wing revolution and, for that matter, for the independence of Quebec.  Although, as Ric Knowles points out, the reception of David Fennario’s Balconville depended on its “naturalistic, well-made-play structure . . . together with its political softness . . .” and the play is often publicized as a dramatization of the conflict between French and English, the clear intent of the drama is to argue for the necessity of working-class solidarity across linguistic lines.  In Ferron’s Les Grandes Soleils, which uses the events of 1837 in the presentation of a magical fertility ritual, the future of Quebec is seen to depend on the fecundity of Elizabeth Smith who is from England and the only woman in the play.   She is described as “une petite anglaise qu’on a enquébecquoisée” and is portrayed as an ardent Quebec nationalist.  In Ferron’s vision the future of Quebec depends on the creation of a community out of all the elements of its diversity.

Embracing the Myth in English Canada

    When Falardeau arranged a press conference in Ottawa in anticipation of the premiere of  Le 15 février, a television camera crew accompanied him to document the fact that no-one from the English press showed up.  If we can claim that a melodrama of English-French conflict will overshadow other forms of political and historical dramatization in Quebec, the other side of the coin is that any attempt to present Quebec history as a left-wing struggle is equally resisted in  English Canada.  My conjecture at this point, an intuitive conclusion if you will, is that left-wing theses have been resisted in Quebec because they put into question the myth of conflicting solitudes, and they are rejected in English Canada because they give credibility to the image of the Québécois struggling against the oppression of the English.

Reception and Rejection

    I take the reception of Robin Mathews’ For Love, Quebec as one example of the latter.  And the protracted story of the Vancouver Playhouse’s refusal to present George Ryga’s Captives of the Faceless Drummer in 1970 and the consequent departure of David Gardner as artistic director as another.  Within Quebec, when David Fennario presented his play The Death of René Lévesque at Centaur in 1990, it was booed on opening night.  The play presents a cogent argument that René Lévesque and the Parti Québécois came to power with a left-wing agenda but swung to the right once in power.    Robert Lévesque’s vitriolic panning of the play was published on the front page of the Montreal daily Le Devoir.  

Resistance to History:  Paul Almond's For the Record

    The resistance to understanding or abstracting the history of Canada in relation to Quebec as anything other than the already taken for granted conflict of solitudes puts at risk our ability to read the past and to fathom the future.  In 1979, director Paul Almond produced a television film for the CBC’s For the Record series in which an Ontario engineer accidentally discovers a Canadian military plan to invade Quebec.  In order to protect national security the engineer is tried in camera, convicted and sentenced to prison.  What is remarkable about this little CBC film is that it could well have been a true story and there was, as far as I know and I had occasion to meet the director at the time, virtually no public reaction when it was broadcast.  The salient details of the film’s narrative can be found in a Maclean’s magazine cover story, November 1978,  entitled “The Armed Forces: In from the Cold” prepared by Roy MacGregor in which he describes how a 3,500-member Canadian Special Services Forces was

Formed last year by combining a number of crack Petawawa units with the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, which was transferred under much controversy from Edmonton, the SSF’s lack of any specific task has led to continuing rumours concerning the military and the possible separation of Quebec.  Though the force was planned for more than a decade, its inopportune announcement–just two weeks after the 1976 Parti Québécois victory–and opportune location directly across the river from Quebec have given rise to questions that are also without answers.   (20, 21)

Based on what we now know about how the Airborne Regiment performed in Somalia, we might well have had something to fear in 1978.  And many of you will no doubt remember that in the early 70's a Canadian engineer was in fact arrested, tried and convicted on charges related to National Security.  The public was never allowed to know the reason for his conviction or any information about his crime or the process of his trial.

October Crisis, Keable Inquiry and “Monsieur X”

    I offer these provocative details as my own attempt to provide a competing melodrama of suspense and mystery and, in so doing, to underline that one of the effects of a prevailing mythology is that it prevents us from asking questions.  Histories which partake of the mythologies of a particular audience will be heralded as revelatory, realistic and true.  These same mythologies can also be used as a way to dismiss, or ignore, or claim as an already worn-out story of passed history any number of legitimate and pressing aspirations.  The state of affairs I am describing is one in which a mythology, which can serve as a conduit to communication, becomes a barrier.  Within this state what I continue to find most fascinating is what happens when new information is brought forward which might problematize a mythology.  I will leave you with one more example.  Since at least 1978 there were widely published descriptions of “Monsieur X” who was the sixth member of the Liberation cell responsible for the kidnapping of James Cross.  Testimony in the Keable Inquiry into the October Crisis revealed that police had been aware of his identity since 1970.  It was only in 1980, after the Keable Inquiry, that Nigel Barry Hamer an English Quebecer, who taught electrical engineering at McGill, was arrested as an FLQ terrorist.  In 1981 Hamer was convicted and sentenced to 12 months imprisonment for his part in the kidnapping of James Cross.  But who noticed?  What I find myself wondering is this: Is it possible that Nigel Hamer cannot be seen as a significant figure within the Canadian or Québécois collective imaginations because he cannot be rectified with the prevailing mythologies of the historical event of which he was a part?  That is a question, which to my mind, warrants further investigation.  

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