Tag Archives: nationalism

The lies told to justify Canadian foreign policy

Lies, distortions and self-serving obfuscations are to be expected when political and business leaders discuss far away places.

In a recent Toronto Star column Rick Salutin observed that “foreign policy is a truth-free, fact-free zone. When leaders speak on domestic issues, citizens at least have points of reference to check them against. On foreign affairs they blather freely.”

Salutin vividly captures an important dynamic of political life. What do most Canadians know about our government’s actions in Afghanistan or Haiti? Most of us have never been to those countries and don’t know anyone living there, from there or even who’ve been there. We are heavily dependent on media and politicians’ portrayals. But, as I detail in A Propaganda System: How Canada’s Government, Corporations, Media and Academia Sell War and Exploitation, international correspondents generally take their cue from the foreign policy establishment or diplomats in the field.

Journalists are prepared to criticize governments and corporations to a certain extent on “domestic” issues, but the spirit of “challenging power” largely disappears regarding foreign policy. One reason is that nationalism remains an important media frame and the dominant media often promotes an “our team” worldview.

Another explanation is the web of state and corporate generated ideas institutes, which I review in A Propaganda System, that shape the international discussion. In a forthcoming second volume I look at the Canadian Left’s contribution to confusing the public about international policies.

The state/corporate nexus operates largely unchallenged in the Global South because there is little in terms of a countervailing force. Instead of criticizing the geo-strategic and corporate interests overwhelmingly driving foreign policy decisions, the social democratic NDP has often supported them and contributed to Canadians’ confusion about this country’s international affairs. The NDP endorsed bombing Serbia and Libya and in recent years they’ve supported military spending, Western policy in the Ukraine and the dispossession of Palestinians. The NDP has largely aligned with the foreign policy establishment or those, as long time NDP MP Libby Davies put it, who believe a “Time Magazine version” of international affairs.

Closely tied to the NDP, labour unions’ relative indifference to challenging foreign policy is another reason why politicians can “blather freely” on international affairs. On many domestic issues organized labour represents a countervailing force to the corporate agenda or state policies. While dwarfed by corporate Canada, unions have significant capacities. They generate hundreds of millions of dollars in annual dues and fund or participate in a wide range of socially progressive initiatives such as the Canadian Health Coalition, Canadian Council for Refugees and Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. But, unions rarely extend their broader (class) vision of society to international affairs. In fact, sometimes they endorse unjust international policies.

To the extent that politicians’ “blathering” is restrained it is largely by other countries. The recent political conflict in the Ukraine provides an example. Canadian politicians have aggressively promoted a simplistic, self-serving, narrative that has dominated the media-sphere. But, there is a source of power countering this perspective. Moscow financed/controlled media such as RT, Sputnik and others have offered a corrective to the Western line. A comparatively wealthy and powerful state, Russia’s diplomats have also publicly challenged the Canadian media’s one-sided portrayal.

An important, if rarely mentioned, rule of foreign policy is the more impoverished a nation, the greater the gap is likely to be between what Canadian officials say and do. The primary explanation for the gap between what’s said and done is that power generally defines what is considered reality. So, the bigger the power imbalance between Canada and another country the greater Ottawa’s ability to distort their activities.

Haiti provides a stark example. In 2004 Ottawa helped overthrow Haiti’s elected government and then supported an installed regime that killed thousands. Officially, however, Ottawa was “helping” the beleaguered country as part of the “Friends of Haiti” group. And the bill for undermining Haitian democracy, including the salaries of top coup government officials and the training of repressive cops, was largely paid out of Canada’s “aid” to the country.

A stark power imbalance between Ottawa and Port-au-Prince helps explain the gulf between Canadian government claims and reality in Haiti. Describing the country at the time of Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster, former Globe and Mail foreign editor Paul Knox observed, “obviously, in the poorest country of the Americas, the government is going to have fewer resources at its disposal to mount a PR exercise or offensive if it feels itself besieged.”

With a $300 US million total budget for a country of eight million, the Haitian government had limited means to explain their perspective to the world either directly or through international journalists. On the other hand, the Washington-Paris-Ottawa coup triumvirate had great capacity to propagate their perspective (at the time the Canadian International Development Agency and Foreign Affairs each spent 10 times the entire Haitian budget and the Department of National Defence 60 times). The large Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince worked to influence Canadian reporters in the country and their efforts were supplanted by the Haiti desks at CIDA and Foreign Affairs as well as the two ministries’ communications departments and Canadian military officials.

While an imbalance in communications resources partly explains the coverage, there is also a powerful ideological component. The media’s biased coverage of Haiti cannot be divorced from ‘righteous Canada’ assumptions widely held among the intelligentsia. As quoted in an MA thesis titled “Covering the coup: Canadian news reporting, journalists, and sources in the 2004 Haiti crisis”, CBC reporter Neil McDonald told researcher Isabel McDonald the Canadian government was “one of the most authoritative sources on conflict resolution in the world.”

According to Isabel McDonald’s summary, the prominent correspondent also said, “it was crazy to imagine Canada would be involved in a coup” and that “Canadian values were incompatible with extreme inequality or race-based hegemony”, which Ottawa’s policies clearly exacerbated in Haiti. (Neil Macdonald also said his most trusted sources for background information in Haiti came from Canadian diplomatic circles, notably CIDA where his cousins worked. The CBC reporter also said he consulted the Canadian ambassador in Port-au-Prince to determine the most credible human rights advocate in Haiti. Ambassador Kenneth Cook directed him to Pierre Espérance, a coup backer who fabricated a “massacre” used to justify imprisoning the constitutional prime minister and interior minister. When pressed for physical evidence Espérance actually said the 50 bodies “might have been eaten by wild dogs.”)

The Canadian Council on Africa provides another example of the rhetoric that results from vast power imbalances and paternalist assumptions. Run by Canadian corporations operating on the continent, the council said it “focuses on the future of the African economy and the positive role that Canada can play meeting some of the challenges in Africa.”

Similar to the Canadian Council on Africa, the Canadian American Business Council, Canada China Business Council and Canada-UK Chamber of Commerce also seek to advance members’ profit-making potential. But, the other lobby groups don’t claim humanitarian objectives. The primary difference between the Canadian Council on Africa and the other regional lobby organizations is the power imbalance between Canada/the West and African countries, as well as the anti-African paternalism that dominates Canadian political culture. A group of Canadian corporations claiming their aim was to meet the social challenges of the US or UK would sound bizarre and if they said as much about China they would be considered seditious. (Ironically the US-, Britain- and China-focused lobby groups can better claim the aid mantle since foreign investment generally has greater social spinoffs in more independent/better regulated countries.) But, paternalist assumptions are so strong — and Africans’ capacity to assert themselves within Canadian political culture so limited — that a lobby group largely representing corporations that displace impoverished communities to extract natural resources is, according to the Canadian Council on Africa’s previous mission statement, “committed to the economic development of a modern and competitive Africa.”

To counter the “fact free zone” individuals need to educate themselves on international issues, by seeking alternative sources of information. More important, we should strengthen internationalist social movements and left media consciously seeking to restrict politicians’ ability to “blather freely”.

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Condemning neo-fascists is anti-Semitic? Really?

Weirdly, even some self-declared “anti-fascists” who claim to be intent on “punching Nazis” get uncomfortable when you criticize the Jewish Defense League.

In an incident akin to Canadians organizing to thwart freedom riders during the US civil rights movement, the Toronto-based JDL organized a mob that attacked protesters at last month’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference in Washington DC. Over the past decade the JDL has built itself up by aggressively harassing pro-Palestinian activists in Toronto, which has won them active or passive support from much of the Jewish establishment, dominant media and the city’s broader power structure. As I was slandered for discussing in a previous article, JDL Toronto is now seeking to export their extremist ideology to the USA and is building neo-fascist alliances focused on bashing Muslims in Toronto.

Until recently liberals largely treated JDL thuggery with kid gloves. For many years the former head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, Bernie Farber, gave the group political cover. The same can be said for former Canada-Israel Committee board member Warren Kinsella, who spoke at a JDL meeting in 2009. These prominent liberals supported JDL intimidation of Palestinian solidarity activists. But, they are now uncomfortable with the group’s racism against Canadian Muslims and ties to other more marginal white supremacist groups such as the English Defence League and Soldiers of Odin.

Incredibly, some people on the “left” also seem to share this opinion. Alex Hundert says it’s anti-Semitic to challenge the JDL if you’re not Jewish or Muslim. In response to my article on the JDL, he tweeted “If ur neither jewish nor muslim, and obsessed w@JDLCanada, ur definitely an anti-Semite.” He added that “a small group of Kahanist [JDL] extremists banding together can’t b excuse for Engler to target Jewish ‘Establishment.’” And to make sure no one was confused about his opinion of my article he slandered me directly, writing “I wish I had the energy to actually take on antisemites like Engler.”

Two weeks earlier some other self-described leftists became similarly defensive when an activist posted a picture in an anti-racist Facebook group of a man wearing a JDL jacket with their arm around somebody in a Soldiers of Odin jacket. A tag was added to the picture of the Toronto rally saying, “JDL and Soldiers of Odin: this has the making of a hilarious sitcom.”

A number of individuals in the forum criticized making light of the growing alliance between the JDL and Soldiers of Odin as a threat to Jews, not to the Muslims or People of Colour mostly targeted by those groups. One person wrote, “I feel really uncomfortable about this being made into a joke. … as a Jew this is less hilarious to me and more shameful – and scary, because it gives leftists ammunition against Jews and puts us in further danger.” Another individual on the private leftist anti-racism forum wrote, “this is exactly what i was afraid of – now in order to be considered one of the ‘good jews’ i have to repudiate the JDL loudly and vocally and make sure no one thinks i’m a zionist, or else no one on the left will protect me.”

While sympathetic to individuals working out their conflicted loyalties and testing their political positions, it is important to note no one was asked to “repudiate” anything in the Facebook group. And it should go without saying that anti-racist leftists would have no qualms denouncing an organization the FBI labeled “a right-wing terrorist group” in 2001.

Sensitivity towards criticism of the JDL undermines both Palestinian solidarity activism and work to counter the group’s role in rekindling fascism in the city.

But perhaps people are confused by their limited knowledge of history. Weren’t Jews the victims of fascism? It’s counter-intuitive that Jews – though some leading members of the JDL may not be Jewish – would play an important role in reviving white supremacist/fascist politics in Toronto.

But, historically, some Jews did support and even help build the original fascism. In A History of Fascism, 1914–1945 Stanley Payne writes:

The Fascist movement was itself disproportionately Jewish — that is, Jews made up a greater proportion of the party at all stages of its history than of the Italian population as a whole. Five of the 191 sansepolcristi who had founded the movement in 1919 had been Jewish, 230 Jewish Fascists had participated in the March on Rome, and by 1938 the party had 10,215 adult Jewish members.

Labeling Margherita Sarfatti “The Jewish Mother of Fascism”, Ha’aretzdescribed Benito Mussolini’s favoured and most influential mistress this way:

The aristocratic, intellectual and ambitious wife of wealthy Zionist lawyer Cesare Sarfatti, and mother of their three children, did not only share her bed with Il Duce. She also helped him forge and implement the fascist idea; she contributed advice — and Sullivan says, money — to help organize the 1922 March on Rome in which Mussolini seized power.

Additionally, Francisco Franco received support from many Moroccan Jews when he sought to oust Spain’s Republican government in 1936 and some prominent figures in Portugal’s small Jewish community backed António de Oliveira Salazar. Early on a small number of German Jewish fascists even backed Hitler. The Association of German National Jews, for instance, supported the Nazis.

Hitler’s efforts to eliminate European Jewry obviously discredited fascism in the eyes of most Jews. But, Israeli politics has seen a surge of supremacist neo-fascism in recent years, which has strengthened the JDL in Toronto.

Another explanation for why people don’t associate Jews with fascism/white supremacy is a perception that Jews are an “oppressed community”, as Anne Frank Center director Steven Goldstein recently put it on Democracy Now. But, Canadian Jews are widely viewed as white and the community is well integrated into Toronto’s power structures. Possibly the best placed of any in the world, the Toronto Jewish community faces little economic or political discrimination and has above average levels of education and income.

As such, a militant group ‘representing’ Toronto Jewry would tend to be “supremacist” rather than “defensive”. To understand this point it may help to consider similar types of groups/actions.

No matter one’s opinion about their tactics, it wasn’t supremacist when Montréal feminists aggressively disrupted Roosh V last year since the “pro-rape” blogger crassly reinforces patriarchy. Ditto for a Black Panther Party patrol. The English Defence League, on the other hand, is a supremacist organization because those it claims to be “defending” – white, English, people – actually dominate that country.

Considering their minority religious status, the history of anti-Jewish prejudice and continued cultural (if not structural) anti-Semitism, the “supremacist” character of the JDL isn’t as clear-cut as in the case of the EDL. But, when it comes to the Palestinian struggle the JDL is an entirely supremacist organization. On that issue the JDL acts as the thuggish tool of the Israeli nationalist Jewish establishment, which themselves operate within a decidedly pro-Israel Canadian political culture.

Despite film of JDL thugs beating a 55-year-old Palestinian professor and a younger Jewish activist, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs couldn’t bring itself to criticize the attacks. CIJA spokesperson Martin Sampson responded to a National Post inquiry by simply stating, “the approach adopted by the JDL is not reflective of the mainstream Canadian Jewish community.”

But, where does the JDL get its funds? Why has it been allowed to march in Toronto’s annual Walk with Israel? Why has it been allowed to recruit in Jewish schools? CIJA, B’nai B’rith and the other Zionist organizations that have enabled the JDL should be pressed to answer for its violence.

Palestinian solidarity activists should also exploit the tension between those who back the JDL’s anti-Palestinian posture, but oppose its alliances with fascist/white supremacist organizations. We must consistently point out that if you are against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, you must oppose all forms of fascism. History points to where that leads.

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Why does mainstream media keep repeating lies about Lester Pearson?

While coverage of Justin Trudeau’s recent visit to Washington was embarrassingly banal in its emphasis on “bromance” between Obama and the Canadian PM, at least it was accurate (in the limited sense valued by the dominant media), except for the 60 Minutes feature that comically confused a photo of Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall for Margaret Trudeau. However, one aspect of the reporting did stand out as both a lie and dangerous nationalist mythology.

A number of media outlets discussed Lester Pearson visiting Lyndon Johnson the day after he reportedly gave a “scathing speech on American involvement in Vietnam.” The Canadian Press described the former prime minister’s speech and meeting with the US president this way: “Pearson never visited again, after a famous 1965 dust-up. He’d spoken out against the Vietnam War, and Johnson grabbed him by the lapels and snarled: ‘Don’t you come into my living room and piss on my rug.’”

Pearson’s speech at Temple University in Philadelphia the night before he met Johnson is probably the most cited example of a Canadian leader (supposedly) opposing US militarism. Even generally sensible authors such as Linda McQuaig point to it as having “contributed to ending the U.S. war effort in Vietnam.”

But here’s what Pearson really said in Philadelphia:

The government and great majority of people of my country have supported wholeheartedly the US peacekeeping and peacemaking policies in Vietnam.

In Quiet ComplicityCanadian involvement in the Vietnam War, Victor Levant puts Pearson’s talk in proper context:

In his Temple speech, the Prime Minister did accept all the premises and almost all the conclusions of US policy. The chief cause of the escalation of the war in Vietnam, in Pearson’s view, was North Vietnamese aggression. ‘This situation cannot be expected to improve,’ he said, ‘until North Vietnam becomes convinced that aggression, in whatever guise, for whatever reason, is inadmissible and will not succeed.’ This had wider implications, since ‘no nation… could ever feel secure if capitulation in Vietnam led to the sanctification of aggression through subversion and spurious wars of national liberation.’ If peace was to be achieved, the first condition was a cease-fire, and this could happen only if Hanoi recognizes the error of its ways: ‘aggressive action by North Vietnam to bring about a Communist liberation (which means Communist rule) of the South must end. Only then can there be negotiations.’ Since US military action was aimed at resisting Hanoi’s aggression, the measures taken so far, including the bombing of the North, were entirely justified: ‘the retaliatory strikes against North Vietnamese military targets, for which there has been great provocation, aim at making it clear that the maintenance of aggressive policies toward the south will become increasingly costly to the northern regime. After about two months of airstrikes, the message should now have been received loud and clear.

Levant continues:

On the other hand, Pearson argued that continued bombing, instead of weakening Hanoi’s will to resist, might have the effect of driving it into an even more intransigent position. He therefore suggested, as a tactical move, that the United States consider a carefully timed ‘pause’ in the bombing: ‘there are many factors which I am not in a position to weigh. But there does appear to be at least a possibility that a suspension of such airstrikes against North Vietnam, at the right time, might provide the Hanoi authorities with an opportunity, if they wish to take it, to inject some flexibility into their policy without appearing to do so as the direct result of military pressure. If such a suspension took place for a limited time, then the rate of incidents in South Vietnam would provide a fairly accurate way of measuring its usefulness and the desirability of continuing. I am not, of course, proposing any compromise on points of principle, nor any weakening of resistance to aggression in South Vietnam. Indeed, resistance may require increased military strength to be used against the armed and attacking Communists. I merely suggest that a measured and announced pause in one field of military action at the right time might facilitate the development of diplomatic resources which cannot easily be applied to the problem under the existing circumstances. It could, at the least, expose the intransigence of the North Vietnam government.

Let’s further dissect Pearson’s “anti-war” position. Approximately three million Vietnamese died during the US war in Indochina, with about 100,000 killed during the US bombing of the North. To put Pearson’s Temple speech in the crassest terms possible, opposing the bombing of the North was a call to end 3.3% of the death toll.

When Pearson met Johnson the next day the president was mad because senior US foreign-policy planners were debating a pause in the bombing of North Vietnam (which would take place months later and when Washington restarted their bombing campaign Pearson publicly justified it). By speaking out Pearson effectively sided with Johnson’s opponents in the US administration after he enabled the bombing campaign. According to the leaked internal government documents known as the Pentagon Papers, in May 1964 Pearson agreed to Johnson’s request to have the Canadian Commissioner on the International Control Commission, which was supposed to enforce the implementation of the Geneva Accords and the peaceful reunification of Vietnam, deliver US bombing threats to the North Vietnamese leadership. In so doing Canada’s Nobel peace laureate actually enabled a serious war crime.

The story about Johnson challenging Pearson the next day only came to light a decade later, once US actions in Vietnam were widely discredited. In 1974 former Canadian Ambassador in Washington Charles Ritchie wrote: “The President strode up to him and seized him by the lapel of his coat, at the same time as raising his other arm to the heavens.” Ritchie reported Johnson saying, “you don’t come here and piss on my rug.”

While the ambassador’s description is almost certainly an exaggeration, subsequent commentators have further embellished Richie’s account. In one telling Johnson “grabbed Pearson by the lapels of his coat and violently shookhim.”

An entertaining story perhaps, but simply not true, just as saying Lester Pearson opposed the war against Vietnam is a lie.

While logic and facts are irrelevant to nationalist myth-makers, it is critical that we understand the reality of our past if we wish to build a better future.

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Filed under Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, The Truth May Hurt