Monday, February 25, 2008

Data and development

Here's a fascinating talk by Hans Rosling about international health and development. His presentation reminds me of Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth.


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Sunday, February 24, 2008

A tale of two civil servants

Once upon a time there were two senior civil servants, Linda Keen and Rick Hillier. Linda Keen was head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, and had serious concerns about the safety of an aging nuclear reactor. She was steadfast in refusing to go along with the Conservative government's intention to reopen the facility. Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to her in parliamentary debate as a "Liberal partisan". She was fired with a late night phone call.

General Rick Hillier is Canada's Chief of Defense Staff. On several occasions he has publicly expressed his opinions on Canada's military presence in Afghanistan. Not on how to conduct military operations, which is his job, but on political issues such as how long Canadian troops should be there. Just a few days ago he argued for an extension and went on to suggest that domestic debate about this was endangering Canadian troops:
... the longer we go without that clarity, with the issue in doubt, the more the Taliban will target us as a perceived weak link.

I'm not going to stand here and tell you that the suicide bombings of this past week have been related to the debate back here in Canada. But I also cannot stand here and say that they are not.

And, certainly, there is a perception out there that the Taliban will try to take advantage of the debate back here and try to prevent a cohesive mission and will indeed attempt to attack our Canadian Forces in Kandahar.
Hillier's job is not to advance his political views, which can certainly be described as "partisan". But apparently that's ok if the partisanship is of the Right kind. Needless to say, Hillier's job remains safe.

So there you have it: do your job and if it's inconvenient for the Conservatives you'll be labeled as partisan and fired; step way outside the bounds of your job with partisan commentary and if it's convenient for the Conservatives then it's all good.

Which is troubling enough. But consider the specifics: Linda Keen was responsible for nuclear safety! As for Rick Hillier, is it not clear that in a democracy, political interference by the military is problematic?

I'm not so sure that we'll all live happily ever after.

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Logical aggression

I spent some time recently exploring a number of pro-war blogs, and posting comments challenging some of the opinions expressed there. The results were discouraging. Though I tried to be respectful, I experienced some unpleasantness. On another occasion, when I pointed out a flaw in reasoning, the blogger just repeated his claim. More than that, I was appalled by the generally nasty tone of much of the writing. I also experienced what is sometimes called the "echo-chamber" of like-minded political blogs. There's precious little interaction between opposite sides of the divide, and what interaction there is tends to be extremely unproductive. Why does there seem to be so little room for logical argumentation?

I imagine there are several reasons. But here's one that comes from a pacifist perspective. I've been reading Choosing Against War: A Christian View by John D. Roth, and I'm especially interested in Chapter 4, "A case for pacifist humility". In a section on epistemological humility, Roth writes:
Since the European Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, reason has been the foundation for most political discourse. And it has typically been the way Christians have argued about doctrine and engaged in missions as well: gather your evidence, marshal your Bible verses, make a tightly constructed rational argument, anticipate all the loopholes, and the powerful logic of the persuasive Christian point of view will, in effect, force your discussion partners to concede the point. ... As such, rational arguments for Christianity very easily become subtle forms of coercion.
Although Roth refers specifically to "rational arguments for Christianity", I think his point generalizes: logical argumentation can very easily take on a coercive character.

Nobody likes to be forced to do something, much less believe something. And yet logical arguments are often employed for just this purpose. A logical argument says if you accept these premises, then you must accept this conclusion. The only logical avenues of escape are to challenge the validity of the argument itself (in case there is an error of logic) or to challenge the premises. But people often try other avenues of escape: introducing a different issue or argument, or behaving aggressively. Where does the aggressive behaviour come from? On the face of it, it would seem to reveal nothing more than immaturity or bad manners.

But if the logical argument is employed with aggressive intent, or if it is interpreted that way, then it is not surprising that an aggressive response is elicited. In other words, even if one's motives are not at all aggressive, the argument may be interpreted as an attempt at coercion. And in all honesty, how often can any of us say that we have no aggressive intent? How often do we not have a desire to "win"? To demonstrate our intellectual or moral superiority? Even if we "take the high road" and scrupulously avoid the slightest hint of an insult or sarcasm, how often are we free of any competitive frame of mind?

To be clear, I'm not suggesting that one should abandon one's beliefs, or one's desire to advance them. Nor am I suggesting that logical argumentation is inherently coercive. But I do think that productive engagement is unlikely when there is a perception of logical aggression.

So what could work?
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Monday, February 18, 2008

Commanding and receiving respect

Today being the (inaugural) Family Day holiday here in Ontario, I took my son and a couple of his friends on an outing. We went to a wonderful exhibition called Secret Riches - Ancient Peru Unearthed at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. The exhibition was about the Sicán people, who preceded the Incas by around 400 years.

The Sicán developed advanced metallurgical technology, and produced fabulous artwork, such as the headdress on the left. A text panel nearby the headdress referred to a Sicán lord who would wear such a headdress "commanding and receiving respect".

Conspicuous consumption continues to this day. I was reminded of the recent news about a UAE business man who paid the equivalent of US$14 million for a vanity license plate (somehow the description seems inadequate). The Abu Dhabi plate bears a single digit: "1".

To be fair, the plate was purchased at a charity auction. But still, $14 million? "The price is fair. After all, who among us does not want to be number one?" said the business man.

The wish to be treated with respect by others is universal. But I believe that the kind of respect we all want so badly can't be commanded or purchased. (A number of different kinds of respect have been delineated, and it seems to me that somewhere in there is a core psychological need.)

Still, I believe that each of us is called to treat all others with respect. Immanuel Kant wrote:
Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end.
This doesn't necessarily mean respecting what someone has done, which may be heinous to us. But it does mean acknowledging their basic human dignity, and acting accordingly. I think the political implications are fairly immediate.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

A limited mission or an endless war?

It came as no great surprise: the Liberals today proposed a very gentle amendment to the Conservatives' motion to extend Canada's military stay in Afghanistan. The key difference is that the amendment calls for withdrawal of troops starting in February 2011, whereas the original motion simply referred to extending the stay until 2011 (and then?).

Seems like a cosmetic change to me, but I guess it keeps everyone happy (except, of course, the Canadian public, who have consistently been of the opinion that the Canadian military presence needs to wind down). Stephen Harper must have been delighted. But it's not yet a fait accompli, so he prudently kept his response low-key, referring to the amendment as a "positive development". The Liberals, who got Canada involved in Afghanistan in the first place, have some internal divisions about this. But it lets hawks like Michael Ignatieff pretend to be doves. Here he is, yesterday in the House of Commons:
When the government speaks of extending Canada's combat role to 2011, is this a withdrawal date or a renewal date? Which is it, Mr. Speaker, a limited mission or an endless war?
Note the clever juxtaposition of mission with war. (Note to Payroll: Increase speech-writer's salary.) And yet even with a "withdrawal date" of 2011, who's to say that the "situation on the ground" won't change? Well then we can just get another extension, now can't we?

But don't take it from me ...

There are some excellent posts about the war at the StopWar blog. Eric Margolis has some unique perspectives and insightful analyses, such as his post on the Manley report and his post yesterday on the NATO conference last week. There are a number of good articles at, such as Making war a winner by Duncan Cameron, and Ottawa gets advice of prolonging the war - part I and part II by Roger Annis. Project Ploughshares has an extensive set of documents and commentaries on the war in Afghanistan. There are some good posts on the Ceasefire Insider blog.

There are many more articles and resources out there. But they don't get a lot of play in the mainstream media. Theories anyone?

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Sunday, February 03, 2008


When I talk with people about Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan, their reaction is pretty consistent. Yup, it's a mess. Yup, maybe we shouldn't have gotten involved in the first place. But the Taliban were pretty nasty when they were in power [Agreed!] particularly in terms of how they treated women [Agreed again!].

Should we withdraw? Probably ... except ...
  • Except we have a reponsibility to the people of Afghanistan.
  • Except if we did, the Taliban would take power again.
  • Except if we did, women's rights would disappear.
  • Except our NATO "partners" would be upset.
  • Except how can reconstruction take place unless order is established?
It's no wonder that with obstacles like these, many Canadians feel quite ambivalent about the idea of withdrawal from Afghanistan. But the real obstacles are in our minds: we are imprisoned by our own assumptions. To list a few: the assumption that we know best; the assumption that the Taliban are the source of all troubles in Afghanistan; the assumption that the solution is more violence.

It is widely accepted that ultimately peace in Afghanistan depends on negotiation rather that violence. For example, the Manley report states:
Eventually, achieving a genuine and stable peace in Afghanistan will necessitate a more thoroughgoing political and social reconciliation among Afghans themselves—citizens who have been divided for generations on differences of tribal, regional and political identity. With time, better governance will involve a negotiated coming-to-terms between the present Afghan political leadership and some adherents of the former Taliban regime who renounce terror and repression and adopt the norms and practices of democracy.
Negotiate with the Taliban? No, not the Taliban, some-adherents-of-the-former-Taliban-regime-who-renounce-terror and-repression-and-adopt-the-norms-and-practices-of-democracy. But, to save space let's just call them ... the Taliban.

When Jack Layton, leader of the New Democratic Party, suggested something similar more than a year ago, he was demonized by the right wing and labeled "Taliban Jack".

But rhetorical nonsense aside, the point remains that in the end, negotiation is essential. It certainly wouldn't be the first time that the price of peace was negotiation with unsavoury characters. Refusal to negotiate isn't a badge of moral righteousness, it's a commitment to ceaseless violence.

The Manley report mentions negotiation twice. The first time is in the paragraph excerpted above, in a section on "Governance". The second time is in Appendix 10:
Across the various polls conducted in the last four years, views on the Taliban have remained uniformly negative. In the autumn of 2003, some 75% of Afghans viewed the Taliban unfavourably (62% very unfavourably), 89% felt that way in October 2005 (75% very unfavourably), and 73% in September 2007 (53% very negative). At the same time however, when asked whether President Karzai should enter into negotiations with the Taliban and allow them to participate in the political process, some 60% of Afghans currently believe a negotiated settlement should be pursued.
Though it is not unlikely that some of the survey respondents may have given careful replies, fearing that the "wrong" answer might have undesirable consequences, it seems clear that by in large Afghans are unfavourably disposed to the Taliban. And yet a majority support negotiation. They can't be bothered with righteous moral purity; they just want to live in peace.

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