Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Don't Mention The War": Libya And The Canadian Left.

In some ways I hope I'm wrong, and in some ways it might be a good thing, but I suspect some seriously ugly craziness will soon be coming down the turnpike in the Canadian debates about the long-overdue Libyan intervention.

True, it's amusing that so many of the sentences to be found in the complaints that Hugo Chavez, the Taliban and the Khomeinist despotism in Tehran have registered in response to last week's UN Security Council resolution are interchangeable. Nothing like a good old democratic revolution against a ruthless jackass dictator to sharpen the contradictions.

More excruciating is that those same sentences can also be made to snugly fit like component parts of the ant-interventionist declarations issued by all the usual contractors to which so many Canadians who fancy themselves to "progressive" long ago outsourced the work of doing their thinking for them. By these I mean the Canadian Peace Congress, the Mobilization Against War and Occupation, and the labour-supported national umbrella organization called the Canadian Peace Alliance. “It’s not about protecting ‘rebels’ – this is a war for oil and neo-con colonialism.” Who said that? The neo-fascist Nick Griffin of the British National Party.

It's worth pointing out how people who fake solidarity in these ways would have responded to the Spanish republican appeal for intervention during the early goings of the last century's great anti-fascist war: "They would sit back and let the Spanish Revolution be burned to the ground by the Falange forces, and they would sit there and watch, doing everything in their power to stop the 'imperialist powers' from 'hi-jacking' the Spanish Revolution. "

Come to think of it, J.S. Woodsworth, the leader of the New Democratic Party's predecessor, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, not only opposed conscription to the international brigades in Spain but couldn't even bring himself to vote in favour of Canada joining Britain in the fight against Hitler. But now I've gone and mentioned the war.

I'm not trying to be mean, but to be fair. There are not a few Canadians on the "right" who misapply the word "progressive" as an adjective to describe their adversaries on such subjects as the role of Canada's military in faraway countries. They do this either out of habit or because of illiteracy or cunning or the inclination to reduce the word to a mere term of abuse. At the same time, the leadership of the "left" in Canada lacks for neither illiteracy, cunning, bad habits nor the hurling of pejoratives. So far as I can discern, these attributes so richly abound in all those places where the "left" is expected to be in Canada that on the matter of "the Middle East," there's often little else to discuss.

But really, let's not be mean. If I am taken to be uncritical of conservatives about this it's just that I don't have any particular expectation that conservatives will show leadership when it comes to what we used to call international solidarity. It's why they're called "conservatives," so fair play to them. If I seem especially uncharitable to the "left" here it is because of certain standards. When it comes to a question so elementary as the duty to heed the appeals of brave young democrats who have risen up in arms against a mad tyrant and his mercenaries, one anticipates that a progressive left would be the least encumbered by narrowly conservative, status-quo and "realist" considerations.

It shouldn't be too much to expect that progressives in any such circumstance would be acutely mindful of what the revolutionaries were wanting, and would fight like hell to get it for them. No "progressive" position worthy of the name would counsel otherwise, least of all take the other side. This should apply whether the revolutionaries have risen up against an Islamist theocracy, a US-backed police state or a plum weird tyranny like the Libyan regime. It should apply where there is oil, and where there is no oil.

What help have the Libyan revolutionaries asked of us in their struggle against the decrepit billionaire and slave-master Moammar Gaddafi? Here's Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, head of the rebel National Libyan Council: "We asked for a no-fly zone to be imposed from day one. We also want a sea embargo and we urgently need some arms and we also need humanitarian assistance and medicines to be sent to the cities besieged by Gaddafi troops.''

When France finally succeeded in leading bigshot countries like America to give the rebels what they had been forced to beg from the UN Security Council, let us not forget the joyful celebrations that erupted in the streets of Libya's rebel-held towns. Hadi Shalluf, president of the Justice and Democracy Party of Libya: "All the Libyans now, they are very, very happy even as this resolution is coming very, very late. But we are really glad and then happy. Today, just now in Benghazi where the people go outside singing, and then dancing, and are very, very happy about this resolution."

But there was little in the way of singing and dancing going on in certain sections of the Toronto Danforth, it is an understatement to say. "The UN Security Council resolution which authorizes 'all necessary measures' to protect civilians from attack is dangerously vague and opens the door to a much larger western military intervention in the country," the so-called Canadian Peace Alliance complains. This is what one might expect from some of the most conservative, narrow-minded, privileged and autocrat-fancying counterrevolutionaries to come along since the early Mussolinists. But in the days and weeks to come, how many degrees of separation will this posture mark from that of the New Democratic Party?

The NDP's timid contributions to date eerily resemble the party's failed effort to find its feet on the matter of Afghanistan in the months following September 11, 2001, which was the last time the Canadian Forces got called to duty in democracy's cause. It is in light of the uniquely ridiculous corner into which the NDP ended up painting itself on the Afghanistan question that its timorous responses to the calls of the Libyan revolutionaries may suggest a harbinger of some seriously bad craziness on the horizon.

In late 2005, right at the moment when Canada actually started to matter to the course of events in Afghanistan, the NDP first objected to Canadian soldiers being sent to Kandahar on the grounds that the Yanks were still running the show down there. When NATO took over - and indeed when Canada itself was put in charge of NATO's operations in Kandahar - that wasn't good enough either, for some reason that clearly had nothing to do with an overbearing devotion to the UN and multilateralism. When Paul Martin's Liberal government collapsed, the NDP was presented with a perfect opportunity to articulate at least something like a comprehensible, centre-left and progressive position on Canada's role in Afghanistan. Instead, the NDP chucked up an epic fail.

The NDP's demented, let's-just-run-away stance made the party the darling of every pseudo-anti-imperialist goofball and the laughing stock of every sensible and mainstream left-of-centre party in the English-speaking world. In the matter of the Libyan intervention, the NDP appears to be coming out of the gates just like it did on Afghanistan, with a non-policy of occasionally uttering expressions of dismay, trying to change the subject, or otherwise gingerly and cautiously falling in behind the other parties. Not a good sign.

Long after the Libyan rebels were pleading for cruise missiles, NDP foreign affairs critic Paul Dewar was lagging way behind, to slightly embarassing effect: “We call on the Harper government to immediately refer Gaddafi and his cronies to the International Criminal Court to be held accountable for crimes against humanity.” Apart from ignoring what the Libyan revolutionaries actually wanted, this was more than passing strange, because by then, the Harper government had already arrived at that position all by itself. And unlike Dewar, Harper had actually gotten it right, by calling on the Security Council to refer the Gaddafis to the Hague. Canada cannot simply "refer Gadhafi and his cronies" to the ICC because Libya never signed the Rome treaty.

To the extent that the Liberals have had anything to say, at least they've managed to get their basic facts right, even though they have tended slightly to cleave to the false virtue of what is wrongly described as a "cautious" approach. But I don't want to be jerk about this, so full marks to Liberal foreign affairs' critic Bob Rae, author of the very useful and spectacularly timely Exporting Democracy: The Risks and Rewards of Pursuing a Good Idea. I'm thinking particularly of Rae's contempt for Ottawa's unconcern, which led to Canada siding against France and Britain and with Obama's pipsqueaking friends when the subject of a Libyan intervention came up at the G8 last week.

The reasons why Canada should stand ready to offer ongoing, meaningful and assertive contributions of military and material solidarity to the Libyan democrats should need no enumeration for sensible Canadian socialists, social democrats, liberals or conservatives. The reasons go beyond Libya, and go beyond the implications for the interrupted Arab revolution that is now showing signs of revival and emergence in such unlikely places as Gaza and Damascus. For Canadians, the absence of principled, clearly-articulated and devoted support for the Arab uprisings will leave a hollow core in Ottawa that will inevitably get filled with all sorts of claptrap.

This is why what happens on "the left" should matter to everyone. It's because it calibrates the spectrum of grown-up conversations by settling the content at one end of mainstream debates. What happens on the left can determine the content of the loudest critiques aimed at the government side, and the Conservatives would benefit from intellectually robust critique and scrutiny. When you look back at how Canada's debates about Afghanistan ended up so paralyzed, useless, boring and stupid, it had almost everything to do with the enfeeblement of what we used to call the "left."

By the first years of the 21st century, across Canada's liberal-establishment commentariat and throughout the NDP's activist base, the "progressive" critique had become thoroughly transfixed by the frivolous transgressiveness of a cynical Chomskyan avant-garde. The shame of an earlier time's pacifist isolationism had become by then a point of pride - indeed a defining signifier of what it meant to be on the "left." There was a vacuum in the middle of the NDP, the labour movement, and the student movement. What got sucked into the centre from the margins was not just a lexicon, but a language and an entire mindset that could not describe or even comprehend the Afghan struggle except in such cartoonish terms as Third World "resistance" and American "imperialism." And that's before things started to go downhill.

Just one consequence was that the troops-out, peace-talks stance the NDP ended up adopting as its Afghanistan policy was a mirror image of what progressive, liberal, democratic and reformist Afghans recognized as the position of Afghanistan's crypto-fascists, Pashtun-chauvinists and the Afghan religious right. And hardly anybody in Canada, least of all the NDP, even noticed.

To the extent that there is even yet such a thing as a "left-wing" or a "progressive" Canadian position on this country's role in Libya specifically, and in assisting the pro-democracy Arab revolutionaries generally, there is one small thing that makes matters different from the early days of the Afghanistan debates. This time around, the pseudo-anti-imperialist camp can't so readily invent outbursts of "Islamophobia" or count on courage and comfort from the Islamist factions that have long plagued Arab Canadians. The shared pathology of "anti-Zionism" isn't a sufficiently stable basis of unity, either. All this is because even the geezers in the antiquated clubhouse known as the Arab League wants Gaddafi gone. So it will be interesting to see how things unfold. But not much else has changed.

It is more than amusing in the way one of the NDP's rising stars, last seen supporting a campaign to lose the New and change the name of the NDP to the Democratic Party to cash in on Barack Obama's already-vanished cachet, is expressing his happiness with last week's UN Security Council resolution. Michael Byers likes it because it makes the UN look good (I know, I know, but nevermind), the Arab League approves (!), it might even be as important as "the Pinochet case," and it makes Obama look good (go figure that).

Good for Byers, but it is a little bit transparent in the way he manages to bring in Kosovo, Rwanda and Darfur, but deftly avoids mention Afghanistan, which would perhaps invite comparisons that would be maybe too shy-making. But I'm going to mention the war anyway. Canada's engagement in Afghanistan is also part of a UN-sanctioned multilateral effort, authorized and renewed by several Security Council resolutions, and it involves a military alliance of 43 nations that was and remains welcomed by the overwhelming majority of Afghans. This puts Byers in the role of Basil in that scene from Fawlty Towers, the one with the German tourists in the restaurant. Basil tells the wait staff: "Listen, don't mention the war! I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it all right."

I am not intending to be mean, but really. There's a hollowness at the heart of all this, and so long as this is the case, to take the NDP seriously in any debate about Libya, if this is what we're going to get, will be to unavoidably lower the tone. Undead "anti-imperialist" zombies will continue wander at large, sucking the life out of any prospects for a proper response to the appeals of the Libyan revolutionaries, and Arab democrats will come to learn the bitter lesson that Afghanistan's democrats long ago learned: In their darkest hour, there will be no "progressives" in Canada who can be counted on to hear what they are saying, or to come to their aid. There will remain something inscrutable about the the Canadian debates that isn't worth the bother of trying to understand.


Blogger Mark, Ottawa said...

Nice work on Byers. Brits or French to, er, assume supreme command?


7:02 AM  
Blogger Bernard said...

Woodsworth was a consistent pacifist of religious conviction. He was fired from his job in World War 1 for not supporting conscription.

His vote in 1939 was not held against him by anyone in the House of Commons. The party he lead voted in favour of the war.

Here is what King has to say about his 1939 vote:
"There are few men in this Parliament for whom I have greater respect than the leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation. I admire him in my heart, because time and again he has had the courage to say what lays on his conscience, regardless of what the world might think of him. A man of that calibre is an ornament to any Parliament."

3:16 PM  
Blogger Terry Glavin said...


Odd you should bring this up. Elsewhere I recently found myself engaged with two British "cruise missile leftists" or "socialist-imperialists" or whatever the hell we are supposed to be called by our enemies these days, and we all three agreed on the moral fortitude of the early religious pacifists. Personally, they have been a good influence in my life (i.e. the Catholic Worker movement etc.). For one of my British friends it was the Trappists, if I recall correctly.

As for Woodsworth, by the late 1930s there was nothing to recommend a "pacifist" response to Nazism whatsoever, and indeed the main stream of "pacifism" during the 1930s was opportunistic, reactionary, to the extent it derived from any foundation in Christian-derived morality it was irrational and sollopsistic.

I will concede that the Methodist Woodworth may well have been addled or informed by the Christian basis for pacifism, but that does not absolve his grave error, and his heirs and successors in the NDP leadership wouldn't even pretend to resort to a conscientious religious exemption from the duties that burden all proper socialists and social democrats (dare I say "Christians") in such matters as intervention in Afghanistan or Libya.

Citing Mackenzie King's feigned approval of Woodworth's dodge does nothing to absolve Woodworth or recommend him, and neither is or was there anything distinct about oppostion to conscription in World War I, when all manner of principles supported resistence to conscription, and indeed opposition and resistance to World War I itself. You didn't have to be a Methodist to recoil from that abattoir.

I wouldn't go so far as to dismiss religious objection to "war" as an obsolesence. But it is sufficiently antique as a response ot the "war" in Afghanistan (and our engagement in Libya), so immensely distant from anything our forebears would recognize as warfare, as to complete both the direct lineage from Woodsworth to Layton, and expose the disgrace of pacifism's contemporary iteration in stoppist and anti-war postures as having absolutely no moral content, Christian-derived or otherwise, that might be presented as a defence. To want all the glory and none of the shame of it only compounds the immorality of a "pacifist" stance in the matter of Afghanistan.

5:22 PM  

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