Wednesday, January 28

A Step Forward 


The Prime Minister is calling for an Inquiry into Arar's case.  Finally!

Concerning Power Rangers (what an unfortunate title) 

Reading The New Yorker yesterday I came upon this article by Joshua Micah Marshall. It is well worth reading (although I recommend printing it up first or even, gasp, buying a hard copy since it is rather long for screen perusal).  Although some have criticized his blog, Talking Points Memo, as being a tad arrogant, I've been a longtime fan. Not only is his political analysis intelligent, but he writes well.

Here, his theme is the American Empire.  And as an Americanist (who did his doctorate in American History at Brown) he uses an American historical analogy to understand where the US is now, noting:  
Hard-liners like Perle and Frum would do well to remember that America began as an empire, formally and officially. It wasnÂ’t our empire, of course; it was BritainÂ’s. And the story of how Britain lost its first empire may be more instructive for Americans today than how Britain found itself without its second.
Marshall argues that the root of Britain's control over its American colonies lay in the colonies consent to be ruled.  The British Empire's mistake was that "it confused the power it had on paper—its claims to sovereignty and dominion—with the nature of the control it exercised..."  Marshall points out that America may be making the same mistake right now, in insisting that the world recognize its imperium.

Of course I agree.  I've frequently remarked that the key to the Roman Empire's power lay in acquiescenceence of those who were ruled rather than the relentless application of imperial might.  

It strikes me, however, that this concept might be easier for Canadians to understand than Americans.  After all, Canada obtained confederation through negotiation rather than revolution.  And even now, she maintains an allegiance to the British monarchy as a member of the commonwealth.  Personally, as an ardent republican (in the British sense!), it galls me to have Elizabeth's face on every coin, but I suspect that one of the reasons her presence evokes so little popular resentment is the deep seated understanding that she is there by our  consent.  Should Canada choose, she would disappear.  The commonwealth exists because it suits the member countries to maintain it, not because England would go to war if any were to secede.

The United States, on the other hand, has built its own national identity upon the mythology of revolution and conquest.  Movies are made about the Alamo (painfully bad movies if the trailers are anything to go by), not the purchase of Alaska.  Presidential candidates are expected to display military experience rather than skill at peaceful conflict resolution (Jimmy Carter is an excellent example).  

Marshall argues that America probably cannot continue to act with such bluster and so little acknowledgement of the realities of power.  I tend to agree.  But I wonder if one of the self-perpetuating mechanisms of empire (true for Rome and true for Britain) consists of the willingness of so many provinces to do the Empire's dirty work.  To patch together a working solution after the Empire has done its work.  The US was able to go into Afghanistan, to wage a war and declare a victory, and then essentially abandon the country.  Now it is up to countries like Canada to send soldiers in an effort to maintain some semblance of control.  Now everyone hopes that the UN will go in to manage Iraq.  It may be that one of the benefits of Empire is having a host of others to fix your mistakes.  Or at least die trying.

Friday, January 23

Righting Wrongs 

Sorry for being silent for so long.

I've been roused out of my winter stupor by the ongoing story of Maher Arar.  His case has revealed so much of what is problematic in "post 9-11" Canada (and her relation to our neighbor to the South) that I cannot stay quiet.  

As you probably know, the Canadian who was deported by the US while he was in transit on his return home is now attempting to sue the US government for their actions.   "Arar alleges he was deliberately sent to Syria so torture could be used to extract any information he might have." It seems a reasonable claim, although (pessimist that I am) I will be surprised if he is able to obtain justice from John Ashcroft, Tom Ridge, or any of the other officials named in his suit.  He may, however, obtain some justice back here in Canada.  Even if he never obtains personal redress for his suffering, his case may help prevent similar abuses from occurring to other Canadians.

When Arar's situation initially surfaced, it seemed that the US had simply trampled roughshod over the rights of a Canadian.  Now, however the situation grows murkier.  The US media recently revealed  that "while Canadian diplomats were demanding answers from the U.S., it turns out that it was the Royal Canadian mounted police who had been passing U.S. intelligence the information about ArarÂ’s alleged terrorist associations."  Moreover Canadian investigations indicate that the Prime Minister was left in the dark.  Chretien was not told that the RCMP was investigating Arar, or that they had passed on information to the US government.

And now the press is all abuzz with the recent search and seizure the RCMP performed upon Juliet O'Neil, a reporter for the Ottawa Citizen.  She had written on the Arar case and in one article had "cited 'a security source' and a leaked document offering minute details of what Arar allegedly told Syrian military intelligence officials during his incarceration." The RCMP wanted to know the source of that leak, and evoked the Security of Information Act to obtain awarrantt.  Yet given what we now know, it seems most likely that the source of that leak was within the RCMP itself.  In other words, the RCMP is using its new post 9-11 powers to keep Canadians in the dark about its own operations.  As James Travers pointed out in the Star today,
For more than three years the RCMP has been sliding down a slippery slope toward the swamp it finds itself in today. That slide began when Jean Chrétien's administration, determined to reassure a traumatized Washington that Canada is secure, overruled experience, common sense and the royal commission to put the RCMP back in the spy business. That decision recrossed a line Ottawa drew more than 20 years ago when it recognized the fundamental difference between police and intelligence work. What it learned then and forgot in 2001 is that the RCMP has a disturbing history of human rights abuse and political deception. In its watershed report on barn burning, burglary and theft, the McDonald Commission found the RCMP's elected masters were kept in the dark as it broke laws and rules in the name of national security. In a conclusion that now sounds like a forecast, the commission stated: "The common thread which we have detected through these incidents is that of a willingness on the part of the RCMP to deceive those outside the force who have some sort of constitutional authority of jurisdiction over them and their activities."
"Very clearly, we are not a police state and we have no intention of being a police state," says Prime Minister Martin.  Does this mean he will listen to the call for an inquiry into Arar's case?  A variety of people have come to see the need for one, from the Liberal MP of Ottawa City Centre, to Catholic Bishops, to the stalwart John Ibbitson.  Does this mean that the legalizationn that was passed to appease the US after 9-11 will be reexamined, that its potential for abuse will be reassessed?  Might we actually learn from the past?

I am not by temperament an optimist.  But the media does tend to take an interest in their own.  Now that it is a reporter, and not some Syrian-born civilian, who has come under fire perhaps, just perhaps, we might see some change.  Here's hoping.

Monday, December 8

Civil Liberties in a Northern Province 

The other day I went to a panel discussion on "Human Rights and Security" in Canada at The Forum. The subject is certainly topical. In addition to the case of Maher Arar, which is finally getting media attention, there is the recent debacle of "Project Thread," to remind us of the dangers that the fear of terrorism and corresponding desire for "security" create.  Speakers at The Forum reminded us that this tension is hardly new.  Professor Shin Imai reviewed the justifications and long-term consequences of the treatment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, and Serge Roy detailed how he and many other Quebequois were stripped of their rights during the FLQ crisis.  

What does all this have to do with empires, you may ask?  Well, one of the audience noted that these events all mirrored similar abuses by our Southern neighbor.  True, the US did not deal with the FLQ, but the brutal repression of Quebec activists in Canada echoed the treatment of peace and civil rights activists in the US.  And this is the important point.  While the US was not responsible for the Canadian government's abuses of human rights -- the Empire was not secretly plotting Canadian domestic policy -- nevertheless Canada appears to have looked South for moral guidance, or moral justification.  This is exactly how the Roman Empire worked.  It did not rule by the sword alone.  It did not simply force all its provinces to follow Rome's lead.  The provinces took it upon themselves to gauge what Rome wanted (which given the complexities of Roman politics was not always obvious), and to comply.  It was rare that Rome needed to actually force its provinces to adopt the policies it wanted, even though the provinces had their own governments and legal codes.

So it is that, following the creation in the US of the Patriot Act, Canada passed Bill C-36.  It is legislation with a similar potential for abuse.  And it is notable that it is legislation.  Both earlier examples of institutional attacks upon Canadian civil liberties were legally justified as temporary measures.  They were legitimized by the war measures act.  Bill C-36, on the other hand, has no expiry date.

This is, of course, all very troubling.  No one wants their civil liberties eroded.  Yet it would be a bit less upsetting if we could really believe that it is Canadian security that is at stake.  What galls many is the growing suspicion that Canadians are losing their rights to preserve the security, or perceived security, of the US.  In other words, that these erosions are not merely global trends but a policy of imperial appeasement.

In the case of Maher Arar it first seemed that the US had simply ignored the rights of a Canadian.  But now there are accusations that he was essentially sold out by Canadian officials to placate the US and Arar and his supporters have been demanding a public inquiry.  Prime Minister Chretien, however, has flatly refused to investigate.  Whether the incumbent, Paul Martin, will go any further remains to be seen.  He has made promising signs, but has not explicitly promised to initiate an independent inquiry.  He should, for a number of reasons.  Not am I alone in thinking so.  It was clear at the Forum that the vast majority of the audience agreed that one was necessary.  After all, over 43% of Torontonians are immigrants.  Arar's status as a dual national is hardly unusual here.  The danger he faced from having two passports is a real threat to many.  

Yet in the end, I would be very surprised were Martin to follow through.  He has also promised to improve Canadian-US relations, and it is hard to see how he could keep the US happy whilst demanding that the US submit to an investigation of its security agencies.  If anything, Martin appears even more likely to appease the Empire than Chretien.  

Will the US invade Canada?  No.  That's not how empires work.  Will Canada transform into nothing more than a province of the US?  That remains to be seen.

Wednesday, November 5

A Modern Cicero? 

Many months ago, I wrote about US Senator Byrd. Little did I know then that he had already composed a slim volume entitled, "The Senate of the Roman Republic".  In it, according to the blurb:
"Senator Byrd sees ample parallels between the willingness of Roman senators to hand over powers of the purse to usurping executives and the compliant attitude of United States senators in responding to presidential urging for a similar grant of powers in a line-item veto constitutional amendment."
Given that it came out in 1995, he must be feeling even more prescient than I normally do!  

He appears again in the news because, again, he stood out as the sole voice of reason in the US Senate.  He was the only one to speak in opposition to the recent bill granting an additional $87 Billion to Iraq.  Given that he was against the war from the beginning, his stance is not surprising.  And given the nature of the current Senate, the outcome of the vote was equally predictable.  What the media has failed to stress, however, and what is truly shocking, is that only six Senators bothered to even show up to vote.  The other 413 votes were cast in absentia, without engaging in public debate.

Byrd's speech was, as always, moving, intelligent, and eloquent.  Yet it is increasingly clear that he is speaking for posterity.  The Senate does not care to debate, and the media is uninterested in publicizing his view.  As Studs Terkel explained in a recent interview:
It's as though a coup has already been accomplished. The coup that began with the November election of the year 2000. You have one voice- and this is ironic, the conservative Senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd. The one eloquent voice, by the way, who throughout has been talking about the dangers of a coup, the dangers of no longer being this country that is so proud of its democratic spirit and openness...

I'm looking at The New York Times right now, and I thought there would be a headline, "Robert Byrd, Senior Senator, Conservative West Virginia and his very eloquent speech." I find it obscene. It had nothing in it about that ...  so how come the New York Times ain't got his speeches or headlines. I'm talking about the so-called best paper in the country. Other papers, too. This is the big question, isn't it? How the intelligence of the American people as well as sense of decency is being so assaulted by the senatorial cave, as it is at this moment.
And indeed, a quick survey of the news proves his point.  This is not a story the mainstream media wants to tell.  It is not a debate almost anyone wants to enter.  In keeping with the trend of Roman analogies, the editor of Harper's claimed that Byrd was like Cicero:
The analogy isn't perfect, but Cicero also saw himself as the principal defender of the Senate as institutional bulwark against a military usurper. Eight days before Caesar crossed the Rubicon, Antony, as tribune, had vetoed a Senate proposal to declare Caesar a public enemy if he refused to disband his army...

Antony had Cicero murdered for his defiance. I fear that Byrd and his ilk are being killed by silence.
But his analogy puts the emperor in a much less stable position than I fear is the case.  Consider history.  Cicero was killed during the chaotic years before the emperor Augustus was either an emperor or "Augustus," when he was merely one of the three men (the trium viri) granted almost absolute power for five years.  Their task was allegedly to rebuild the state after the chaos following Julius Caesar's rise and fall.  In fact, all three were trying to win power for themselves, and none of their powers were rescinded when the specified term was complete.  This was a period of chaos for Rome, when the laws were no longer held in abeyance and massive proscriptions terrified the prominent (killing men such as Cicero) while enriching the triumvirs.  No one was under any illusion that this was life as usual.  Even the triumvirs would not have tried to argue such an insane point.

Life "as usual" was said to begin once Augustus succeeded in ousting his two rivals.  Then the Senate announced that the job of righting the state that they had created the triumvirs to address was finally accomplished.  Then the Senate officially gave Augustus his title of Augustus (which had not been his name prior), and began granting him all the powers of a dictator (although he always shied away from the title, which had led to Julius Caesar's assassination).  Then everyone began saying how good it was that everything was back as it should be, and no one said anything against Augustus, or his policies, or the fact that the senate no longer had any real power.

As I've said before, it is precisely this kind of silent acquiescence to the wishes of the emperor, this refusal to openly question or oppose him, that was the root of imperial power.  In theory, the republic was still very much alive under Augustus and his successors.  The Senate met and chose to do everything that the Emperor wanted, more or less.  And so it is today.  The silence that is "killing" Byrd is the same silence that blanketed the Roman empire once the imperial position was firmly established.  

For the American Empire is not just now emerging, it has quietly grown and developed for years.  We are seeing it in its full flower.  Lucky us.

Friday, October 31

A Shared Schadenfreude? 

One of the characteristics of Roman culture that strikes most people today as alien and unpleasant, is the obvious pleasure they derived from watching bloody spectacles. Human misery was entertainment. Watching humans be thrown to wild animals and disemboweled does not seem like wholesome family entertainment now. And while modern critics constantly decry the increased appetite for violence in video games and films, it is the very unreality of the violence that worries them. It is a violence without consequences, in which the people who are shot do not die slowly before you, crying and suffering.  Today many people obviously enjoy watching apparent violence, but we hold ourselves apart from the Romans. We imagine that it is merely the thrill of danger that excites us, not the human misery that we have carefully excised from our movies and games.

But is it?

I've been following the case of Maher Arar, the Canadian who was deported from the US and held in Syria for a year.  Like most people, I assume that he was probably tortured while in custody since Syria has a bad record for human rights violations and Amnesty International claimed:
Maher Arar was reportedly been beaten with sticks and cables, had electric shocks applied to him, been painfully suspended in the "dulab" or tire, and deprived of sleep.
Nevertheless I was surprised to see that as soon as he returned, obviously worn and exhausted, reporters wanted him to discuss the details of whether he had been tortured.  In the days that followed, every reference I heard to his case added the speculation about what may have been done to him.  

Finally the CBC triumphantly announced "Arar says he was tortured in Syria."  Their source?  Undisclosed.  If you actually read the article (or listen to the report on the radio as I did) you learn that what actually happened was that Mr. Arar met with the Foreign Affairs Minister, Bill Graham, and had a confidential conversation.  Moreover,
Graham refused to talk about Wednesday's meeting, saying that he had promised to keep their conversation confidential. But the minister did condemn the "unsubstantiated statements" about Arar.

"I totally, utterly, absolutely condemn all forms of these speculative statements about a person's life because it's not fair to them, it's not fair to the process," Graham said outside the House of Commons Thursday.
In other words, the headline announced something that Mr. Arar did not want to publicly disclose.  And why should he?  Just being held in prison for a year without torture would be a terrible enough experience.  Why one earth should we expect him to share the horrors he endured with us?  And why should we want to hear the details?

There is a salaciousness to the news these days that reminds me of (what else?) the blood-lust of Roman society.  It goes beyond reporting that terrible things have happened, which is after all part of what the news is meant to do.  What I'm referring to here is the way the media tends to linger on sound bytes of human misery.  This struck me forcefully the other day, while listening to the CBC's coverage of the Cecilia Zhang case.  (For those who don't know, she is a 9 year-old girl who was abducted from her home in Toronto and has not yet been found)  

Here is a truly terrible situation, an adored daughter stolen in the night.  And when the media first started its blitz coverage I was torn.  On the one hand it smacked of scare-mongering, but on the other there was an obvious value in alerting the population at large to be on the lookout for anything that might lead to the girl's rescue.  

Yet as I listened to the CBC replay, over and over, selected sound-bytes of Cecilia's parents' heartbreaking pleas (and finding myself moved to tears every time I heard them), I had to ask myself why they played the small clips they did so heavily.  I would like to think it was so Cecilia or her abductors might have a better chance of hearing them.  Yet the way in which the media emphasized the moments where Cecilia's mother broke down in tears, rather than her words of encouragement to her daughter, makes me fear that is not entirely true.  Although we are loathe to admit it, it may just be that we find the suffering of other people just as interesting, as entertaining, as our Roman predecessors.  We just package it differently.

Monday, October 27

Understanding Iraq 

As you probably have heard, there has been an upsurge in the violence in Iraq. This is distressing, if not wholly surprising, but what moved me to post was hearing Bush explain the causes for these attacks on the radio:
[T]he more progress we make on the ground, the more free the Iraqis become, the more electricity is available, the more jobs are available, the more kids that are going to school, the more desperate these killers become, because they can't stand the thought of a free society. They hate freedom. They love terror.

Isn't it comforting to know that the Emperor understands the situation? I am really at a loss for words at the inadequacy of this analysis.

Thursday, October 23

In Response to a Reader 

A propos of my last post, a reader writes:
I read your blog, and agree with your views about the CBC, and also about the dominance of the American corporate media. BUT, the usa is an empire in the geographic sense. Just ask a Sioux Indian. Not to mention the hundreds of military bases it has around the world. In my view, one of the great paradoxes of the American empire is that it doesn't believe that it an empire (until perhaps recently). Another paradox is that it is one of the most culturally insular empires in history, pace, the amazing lack of knowledge most Americans have about other countries. This is partly to do with the media, but has its roots in decades of teaching cirricula, the idea of manifest destiny, and the puritans idea of a city on a hill, a New Jerusalem. But the reality is that the USA is one of the most impressive territorial empires in history.
I thought I should clarify my view.

I do not disagree that the US has military bases all over the world, including Canada.  I do not disagree that the US itself physically grew in response to an ideology of expansion and manifest destiny, which have also been used to justify its (often successful) attempts to control political affairs in Latin America.

Yes, the military presence of the US is one of the signs of its empire.  I wanted to clarify, however, that the American Empire is not primarily an empire based upon military conquest.  In the popular imagination empires come and gobble up smaller countries, annexing them.  In reality, both today and in Roman times, the signs of empire are more subtle.  The US does not, for example, control the legal systems, the currencies, or even the foreign policies of the countries where it has military bases.  It influences them, to be sure, but that is not the same thing as wholly conquering a place and absorbing it.  

"Empire" is not a legal definition, nor can it be clearly mapped geographically (despite what all those textbook maps of the Roman Empire might suggest), because it is an attempt to describe power -- and power shifts constantly, ebbing and flowing like the sea.  

My reader's secondary point, about the paradoxical insularity of the US empire, is a good one.  Yet while it is indeed paradoxical, and thereby striking, I am not so sure that this is a characteristic wholly limited to the US empire.  The Roman Empire was also quite insular, at least if you look at the ruling classes in Rome.  It is true that they did acknowledge Greek civilization and culture to be worth studying, but accusations of being excessively Graecophilic were standard political slurs (used most effectively against Nero, for example).  And Greece was unique in that respect.  Romans showed almost no interest in the cultures of the other lands they dominated, and reading Roman sources reveals very very little about them.  They renamed local divinities and places with Latin names, yet there is considerable evidence that the people who lived in those provinces did not themselves do so (for example, the re-emergence of the older name Paris instead of the Roman Lutecia after the "fall" of Rome).  In short, the image that Roman sources give us of life in the provinces is both limited and misleading in many respects.  Romans were interested in Rome, and perhaps Italy.  They were forced to deal with provincials, as they streamed into Rome, but you would be hard pressed to find any Roman author celebrating the diversity that resulted.  One has only to look at Juvenal (the Roman Satirist who wrote in the late 1st and early 2nd century).

If the Romans understood the lands they dominated better than the Americans, and I am not sure they did, I would attribute their knowledge less to their interest in those cultures than in the higher esteem in which they held education in general.  But that, I think, is a blog for another day.