Monday, November 30, 2009

Nixon's Ghost

A few weeks ago, historian Michael Bliss wrote that Stephen Harper was beginning to look like another Mackenzie King. I wrote at the time that the analogy was pretty specious. While Harper's principles are as elastic as King's, this prime Minister is more mean spirited and paranoid than King.

When Richard Colvin testified three weeks ago that he had sent repeated warnings to Ottawa expressing his -- and The Red Cross's -- concerns about what was happening to the prisoners our soldiers had transferred to Afghan authorities, Mr. Harper and his acolytes first tried to shoot the messenger. Last week, former head of Canadian Forces, Rick Hillier, along with retired lieutenant general Michel Gauthier and major general David Fraser sought to discredit Colvin. Hillier called Colvin's claims "ludicrous;" and he told the committee investigating the matter that there was "nothing" in Colvin's memos which merited his attention.

Hillier affirmed that he had read the memos before he testified in front of the committee. David Mulroney -- no relation to Brian, and currently Canada's ambassador to China -- was the man to whom Colvin reported. He, too, reviewed the memos before testifying. He told the committee that, while the government was aware of allegations of torture, "there was no mention specifically of Canadian-transferred prisoners." There were echoes here of Bill Clinton's response to the Monica Lewinsky allegations: "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is."

But the crux of the problem is that, while the generals and Mr. Mulroney were given access to Colvin's memos, the government will not allow members of the committee the same privilege. They argue that "national security" trumps the committee's right to know what the government knows. That claim sounds a lot like Richard Nixon's claim of "executive privilege" -- his justification for keeping the White House tapes away from members of Congress. For awhile -- particularly in 1972 -- Nixon looked invincible. He used government agencies, like the FBI and the IRS, to discredit and destroy those on his "enemies" list.

Nixon was an introvert in national politics. He trusted few people, even those closest to him. In the end, his campaign of dirty tricks -- and his own paranoia -- did him in. Mr. Harper is an intelligent introvert who has risen to the highest office in the land. His circle of trust does not extend far. And the attack machine he has assembled has its own team of dirty tricksters.
His attempt to deny Parliament access to the Colvin memos is tantamount to Nixon's refusal to release the tapes.

We do not know whether -- like Mackenzie King -- Mr. Harper keeps a crystal ball stashed somewhere in the basement at 24 Sussex Drive. If he has such a device, I doubt that he is trying to converse with King's dead mother. However, I am beginning to wonder if he as been communing with the ghost of Richard Nixon.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Whatever It Takes

Just when the Harper government starts moving up in the polls, it always manages to reveal the mean spiritedness at its core. Richard Colvin, a career diplomat, testified last week before a Parliamentary subcommittee. He claimed that, while he was posted to Afghanistan, he sent reports to 76 people in various government departments, detailing his suspicions that prisoners captured by Canadian Forces were turned over to Afghan authorities and tortured.

He also claimed that his reports were, for the most part, ignored. When they were brought to someone's attention, he was told that the information he sent was too sensitive to be put in writing. His reports could be delivered orally; but he was to leave no paper trail. He was also told that if he brought his information to the Military Police Complaints Commission -- a government agency specifically established to deal with these issues -- legal action would be taken against him

The next day, the government rose in righteous indignation, claiming that the man it had promoted to a senior post in Washington was not to be believed. Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said that Colvin's testimony was full of "holes" -- and that he (MacKay) had never seen any reports of suspected torture.

But, as Chantal Hebert noted in The Toronto Star, the government's claims of ignorance ring hallow: "Colvin, among others, was supposed to be their eyes and ears in Afghanistan." And, given the fallout from the Gomery inquiry, it is hard to imagine that the civil service would "keep its Conservative masters out of the loop."

The problem is not new. It has bedevilled the government before. Former Defense Minister Gordon O'Connor was removed from his post in part because he bungled earlier reports that our troops had handed over prisoners to Afghan torturers. The issue is no mere scruple. If Canadian soldiers are found to have cooperated in torture, they can be convicted -- under international law -- of war crimes.

Any claim of government ignorance begins to sound like the Cheney-Rumsfeld version of what happened at Abu Ghraib: It was a few bad apples who were responsible for the outrage. Time -- and good journalism -- have revealed that the directions for "enhanced interrogation techniques" came directly from the vice president's office.

Mr. Colvin knows that his testimony is not improving his career prospects. And the government's reaction is part of a pattern. When the RCMP suggested that the gun registry was a useful tool, the government trained its rhetorical guns on the Mounties. When the opposition formed a coalition last November, the Harperites fulminated about how the other parties were in league with "the separatists" -- the same tactic they had used to try and topple the government of Paul Martin. And, of course, there were the ads picturing puffins pooping on Stephane Dion, and the ad hominem attacks on Michael Ignatieff. And that is the point: the only way Mr. Harper and company know of dealing with criticism is to launch ad hominem attacks on those who criticize them. They will do whatever it takes to destroy those who will not tow the line.

Handing a majority government to these folks would be the equivalent of handing the cars keys to a fourteen year old. It would be an act of parental neglect.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Barbarians at the Gate

Glenn Beck, who is one of the emerging faces and voices in the Republican Party, made news last week when he claimed that Barack Obama has "a deep seated hatred for white people or the white culture." It is very sad, indeed, that Obama's mother and grandparents are no longer able to respond to Beck. The patent absurdity of what he says would be easily dismissible, if not for the fact that people like Beck are nothing new in American political life.

As Richard Hofstadter has noted, Beck's virulent paranoia has a long history. Its "sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy" first raised its head with the early fear of Masonry -- even though several of the founding fathers were Masons. And it was revived in the anti-Catholic movements of the 19th and early 20th century, when Catholics and their secret agents, the Jesuits, were said to be "prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery."

Then, a little more than sixty years ago, Joseph McCarthy saw a communist around every corner. One of his acolytes, Robert H. Welsh Jr., claimed that President Eisenhower's brother Milton was "actually [the president's] superior and boss within the Communist Party," and that Eisenhower himself, was "a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy." It was in the midst of this insanity that William F. Buckley founded National Review, in staunch support of McCarthy and his vision. The enemy, Buckley claimed, was Liberalism -- which had established a "gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy." But what really bothered Buckley was the people he thought were the barbarians at the gate.

If Liberalism has stood for anything over the last two hundred years, it has been for broadening the franchise. The first American voters were white, male property owners. Then those men who did not own property were given the right to vote; then the slaves were freed and given that right; then women were allowed to walk into polling booths. All of those who were deemed unworthy at the nation's founding were eventually allowed within the walls; and, for Buckley, that spelled disaster.

Thus, when the Supreme Court declared school segregation illegal in 1954, Buckley wrote that the question was "whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where it does not predominate numerically. The sobering answer is Yes -- the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race."

And that, in a nutshell, is what is at the heart of what Hofstadter calls "the paranoid style" in American politics. All of the bromides about democracy can be thrown out when those who see themselves as members of "the advanced race" feel threatened. The basic rule of one person one vote does not apply. "Universal suffrage," Buckley concluded, "is not the beginning of wisdom or the beginning of freedom."

After the school desegregation decision, the next logical step was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which put an end to all segregation and lynching in the South -- and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Once those two laws were passed, it was inevitable that one day a black man would be elected president -- as inevitable as a Catholic being elected to that office or appointed to the Supreme Court. It is interesting to note that -- at present -- five of the nine justices are, at least nominally, Catholics.

In his inaugural editorial, Buckley wrote that the mission of his magazine was to "stand athwart history yelling Stop." Buckley is gone. But Beck and Rush Limbaugh have picked up his mantle. They are convinced that there are uncivilized hordes standing outside the gate; and that Obama -- a card carrying member of the unworthy -- is ready to let them inside. The same complaint was raised against Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. Mr. Obama is in good company.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Wounds of War

This Wednesday there will be another parade from the Canadian Legion to the Cenotaph, which -- appropriately enough -- is on Main Street, in the geographical centre of town. Each year there are fewer veterans who march to the Cenotaph; and they march there more haltingly.

I live in small town Ontario -- in a place whose existence was officially recognized 170 years ago. The town was founded by United Empire Loyalists, people who thought Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson were rabble rousers. Their allegiance was always to Britain; and so, when the mother country entered two wars in the last century, this town's sons -- ready, aye, ready -- lined up to defend the mother country. The names of the residents who died in those causes are engraved on that monument at the centre of town.

One of our veterans died last spring. On D-Day he was on Juno Beach, where he was wounded. He returned here with a limp and the click of a leg brace, to teach where I taught high school. He himself taught history; and every year, on November 11th, he took it upon himself to organize -- even long after he retired -- the school's Remembrance Day ceremonies. His roots were Loyalist. And, even though there were many who did not agree with his politics, his personal integrity was beyond reproach. He loved his family; he loved his country; he loved his town. And, for him, public service was the highest calling.

I think of him this week. I think of the gunman and his victims in Texas. And I think of this generation's dead soldiers who are flown from Afghanistan to Trenton, not far from here. I think of all the wounded, who have returned home, forever changed. When I was young, I was foolish enough to think that we could banish war the way we had banished polio -- forgetting that the Book of Ecclesiastes warned us long ago that war was cyclical and seasonal. There is something unbearably sad in that realization. And that is precisely why we must remember those who have died, and those who were wounded, this Wednesday.

We, who were fortunate enough to not bear their burdens, enjoy the fruits of their labours.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Playing for Keeps

Michael Ignatieff made two key personnel changes during the month of October. He replaced his Quebec lieutenant, Denis Cordere, with former astronaut Marc Garneau; and he replaced his chief of staff, Ian Davey -- one of the team which went to Boston and asked him to return to Canada -- with Jean Chretien's former director of communications, Peter Donolo. Both appointments underscore the fact that Mr. Ignatieff has had trouble making the transition from public intellectual to leader of a political party.

But, as James Travers pointed out last week in the Toronto Star, Ignatieff is not the first leader to have a difficult -- sometimes bruising -- transition to the centre ring of national politics. "It took Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney a term in office to build teams able to sustain their momentum. Paul Martin failed to turn his leadership team into a cohesive administration and paid the ultimate political price." And Tom Flanagan, Stephen Harper's guide to political victory, went even further. Claiming that Ignatieff needed a history lesson, he wrote in the Globe and Mail that the Liberal leader "has been imitating Mr. Harper so closely" that he should "take solace from the fact that the Conservative leader bounced back."

Both changes show that Ignatieff is learning how to play for keeps. The essential problem in Liberal strategy up to this point has been the assumption that Mr. Harper's intemperate nature will eventually lead him to the guillotine. That may yet happen. But Canadians have also consistently shown that -- while they remain interested in who they are voting for -- they also want to know what they are voting for. And, on this second score, the Liberals have offered nothing. Unlike Stephane Dion, who offered Canadians a radical platform for the future, the post-Dion Liberals have promoted no new ideas.

It is more than ironic that a man of ideas seems to have none at his disposal. Until the party has the courage to do a thoroughly critical post-mortem of its recent failures, there will be no changes in its fortunes. The time and place for that post-mortem is the policy conference which has been scheduled for early in the new year. It will be Ignatieff's task to lead an intellectual renewal of his party. His past history suggests that he is the man for the job. But that job will only get done if the Liberals have the courage to admit their failures and reject what some see as short cuts to the brass ring.