A McCarthyist suppression of dissent is precisely what The Walrus is advocating with Justin Ling's full-throated call, in “Why Google Has a Responsibility to Fight Fake News” (The Walrus, January 5, 2018), for Google to put a prominent Canadian political-commentary website, the Centre for Research on Globalization, out of existence.Read More
This interview with Jane Williams, “WHO report on Iraqi birth defects a whitewash,” was first aired on Redeye, Vancouver Cooperative Radio, CFRO 100.5 FM, on 5 October 2013, 9:05-9:20 a.m. Pacific Time; a podcast is available at Rabble.ca (6 October 2013), http://rabble.ca/podcasts/shows/redeye/2013/10/who-report-on-iraqi-birth-defects-whitewash. The oral quality of the interview has been preserved in the transcript given here.
JW You're listening to Redeye on Vancouver Co-operative Radio, CFRO 100.5 FM.
In 2003, the United States led an invasion of Iraq, based on false allegations of their possession of weapons of mass destruction. After a nine-year illegal occupation ended in 2012, the Iraq war dropped off the media radar, and Iraqis were left to deal with the devastating aftermath. Among the many daily hardships, there has been a sharp increase in cancer rates and babies born with congenital defects. Not only has this been under-reported internationally, there has been a concerted effort to repress this information.
Michael Keefer is a professor emeritus of Theatre Studies and English at Guelph University; he's also a graduate of the Royal Military College, and he joins me by phone this-morning. Hello, Michael.
MK Hello, Jane.
JW Now the Iraqi Ministry of Health just released a report. What's it about, and who is involved in conducting that study?
MK Well, that's a bit of a mystery, because we know that the report comes from the Ministry—there's no indication of authorship, so it's the Iraqi Ministry of Health with the collaboration of the World Health Organization, WHO. And that came out—I think it was released on September the 11th.
What's interesting about the report is that it has been, I would say, universally condemned by researchers and scientists in the fields of toxicology and epidemiology. In particular, there's a newly published article in the medical journal The Lancet, “Questions raised over Iraq Congenital Birth Defects Study.”
Now what's scandalous about the study is that it in effect claims that there's no problem, nothing significant going on, which is of course quite simply untrue. There have been repeated peer-reviewed studies in medical journals carried out by scholars from many different countries. And insofar as this report makes any mention of those, it dismisses them as “lacking in objectivity.”
JW So it's a study about birth defects?
MK Yes, it's a study based on—and this is one of the defects of the study, one would have to say—it's based solely on interviews with mothers. Now there are several problems with that, one being of course that in the case of many of the monstrous births that have occurred in Iraqi hospitals, the mothers are simply informed that it was a stillbirth: they're not told that the child was too horribly deformed for her to tolerate seeing.
Of course in many cases as well where you have subtler forms of birth defect, cardiac problems or other not monstrous sorts of deformations, the parents may not be aware of a defect until some months after the birth. There's also the problem that many of the people in Iraq, many of the women who have given birth to deformed children were themselves very seriously contaminated by toxic agents like depleted uranium, and are dead.
So there are many reasons, methodological reasons, for saying this study is based on the wrong methodology, the wrong research principles. And there's at least one scientist with expertise in the field who has said, “Look, I was consulted by the researchers when they were starting their study,” and he told them, “Look, here's the way to do it; don't do it that way.” And they went ahead in what's, I think, a pretty classic cover-up.
JW But now you've been waiting a while to actually see the report, I understand.
MK Yes. I should make it clear—well, you already did in introducing me—that I'm not myself a toxicologist or an epidemiologist. But I was one of fifty-eight signatories of a letter demanding the publication of this WHO report on Iraqi birth defects.
That letter was made public in May of this year —and the signatories, by the way, include professors of obstetrics, and gynecology, and environmental toxicology, epidemiology, environmental health, neuroscience, genetics, you name it, from universities in Iraq, of course, but also from the U.S., the United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands—in other words, a very serious group of international scientists—as well as human rights activists.
And the response to that letter was thoroughly negative. The group that organized that first letter sent out a follow-up letter in late July, reiterating international concern over the fact that this report was being mysteriously delayed. And of course now that the report has come out, it's quite clear that there have been major political influences exerted on the WHO and the Iraqi Ministry of Health.
And by the way, one needs to say that in a formal sense the occupation of Iraq may be over, but the country is still overrun with so-called contractors—in effect, with U.S. military—and it still has that gigantic embassy complex that is a giant blemish in the middle of Baghdad—and it still has of course a very strong U.S. military presence. So it's by no means a properly independent country, or one whose health ministry wouldn't be subject to the pressures exerted by the U.S. and the U.K.
JW Now you mentioned a number of peer-reviewed studies that tell a very different story. What kind of thing do they say about the kinds of birth defects that you can see in Iraq?
MK What they say quantitatively is that the numbers of birth defects have risen catastrophically. There were already in the—Before the invasion of 2003, you remember, there was the Gulf War of 1991, after which the Pentagon acknowledged that it had used something like 320 tons of depleted uranium munitions in Kuwait and Iraq. Following that war, there were studies indicating that rates of birth defects in southern Iraq in particular had more than doubled, and childhood cancer rates had increased in a very disturbing way.
There are subsequent reports indicating much much greater increases in birth defect prevalences—seventeen-fold, according to one study.
So it's a major health disaster, and of course, one can see why, because what you have here is a heavy metal that is radioactive, of course, the by-product of civilian nuclear plants. It's radioactive; it is used by the military because it's extremely dense and it's what's called pyrophoric.
Now, the density means that it punches right through steel armour or through concrete or through stone walls; but when it's fired out of a tank barrel, a depleted uranium shell in effect is already on fire. When it hits something, it goes through it, and fragments into, in many cases, microscopic particles, many of them less than 5 microns. Now a micron is one-millionth of a meter. So these are tiny tiny particles of radioactive material, and of course, anything behind the armour plate or the wall is killed—incinerated, or killed by the shock wave—and the stuff is then dissipated.
Because it has formed these tiny particles, they get carried everywhere. So it's literally impossible, unless you're wearing a hazmat suit, to enter into a depleted-uranium-contaminated setting in an Iraqi city or a former battlefield, wherever that was, without inhaling or ingesting particles of depleted uranium. And once it's inside your body, every radioactive emission from a uranium atom is going to hit something.
So every time one of these particles emits, say, an alpha particle, it's doing damage to you. People can excrete some of it, but of course as it goes through your kidneys it gives you kidney damage. The results have been well known since the 1990s, that DU exposure immediately produces very serious lung damage, kidney damage, produces cancers, and there's now a long series of studies of the genetic abnormalities produced by depleted uranium as well.
JW Now then, it took a long time for the report to be released. Now that it has been released, what kind of response has there been in the media to it?
MK Well, I'm glad to say that there seems to be a gathering chorus of condemnation. There was a piece just yesterday I think in the Huffington Post; there have been other essays, articles, appearing elsewhere.
You see, what's involved here is that the—Basically, it's a corruption of science, and it's a corruption of the international agency whose job is to provide leadership—I'm quoting here from the WHO website—“providing leadership on global health matters, shaping the health research agenda, setting norms and standards, articulating evidence-based policy options,” and so on.
And they also say, “providing collective defence against transnational threats.” It's not clear what they mean by that, but one would think that a country that is showering defenceless victims with depleted uranium is a transnational threat.
Unfortunately, the principal disseminator of depleted uranium weapons is the United States, which has been quite clearly twisting people's arms to prevent the obvious consequences in international law. I mean, it's—these are—The invasion was a war crime. The use of these munitions is quite clearly a war crime. And so the agency that ought to be doing its job, the WHO, is part of the structure of cover-up.
JW Well, thanks so much for talking to me this-morning, Michael.
MK Thank you very much.
JW I've been speaking with Michael Keefer. He's Professor Emeritus of Guelph University, and a graduate of the Royal Military College, and he joined us this-morning from Toronto.
First published as the lead letter in the Toronto Star (11 September 2013), http://www.thestar.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editors/2013/09/10/the_case_against_backing_syria_strike.html.
External Affairs Minister John Baird's concern over the atrocities being inflicted on Syrian civilians is commendable. But he should examine the relevant evidence before throwing Canada's support behind a plan for bombing Syria that will result in the deaths of far more than the 25,000 civilians whom he imagines as the victims of the next poison gas attack.
Carla Del Ponte, of the UN Independent International Commission on Syria, stated in May that there was “strong, concrete” evidence (though not “incontrovertible proof”) that rebels—and not Assad's regime—had used nerve gas in previous attacks on civilians.
Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, an organization of former senior U.S. intelligence officers, informed President Barack Obama on September 6 that sources within U.S. intelligence “are telling us, categorically, that ... Bashar al-Assad was NOT responsible for the chemical incident” of August 21, that this incident “was not the result of an attack by the Syrian army,” and that CIA Director John Brennan “is perpetrating a pre-Iraq-War-type fraud on members of Congress, the media, the public—and perhaps even you.”
They add that there is “a growing body of evidence,” mostly from sources “affiliated with the Syrian opposition,” that this incident was “a pre-planned provocation by the Syrian opposition and its Saudi and Turkish supporters” intended to “bring the United States into the war.”
Contrary to Baird's belief, it is not Assad but Obama who is testing us. Obama wonders whether we have forgotten the lies about WMDs that legitimized the invasion of Iraq in 2003—as well as the principles enunciated at the Nuremberg trials, according to which aggressive war “is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
Professor Emeritus, University of Guelph,
I sent this letter to the Toronto Star on September 8, 2013, and with it all of my relevant contact information. Two days later, having received no acknowledgment, I sent my letter in a second time, accompanied this time by a note pointing out that it had raised matters not just of opinion, but of quite crucial evidence and of international law, and indicating that I thought the newspaper's Atkinson Principles (which are stated on the Star's website) implied respect for issues such as these.
Shortly after noon on September 11, I received from Kathy English, the Star's Public Editor, a boiler-plate expression of regret. After explaining that the paper “receives many many letters to the editor from readers expressing their views on news and issues of the day” and publishes more than a dozen of these on any given day, but doesn't make a practice of contacting people whose letters are not chosen for publication, Ms. English thanked me “for taking time to express our [sic] views.”
I replied, thanking her for the information, but noting that the point was now moot, since my letter had appeared in print that morning. I added: “May I take the small typo in your last sentence as a Freudian slip, an acknowledgment that 'our views' on the so-far narrowly averted US bombing of Syria are the same?” To which she responded:
“I'm sorry I did not see that your letter was indeed published. A typo, indeed!”
In February 2008, I received an email from a University of Guelph student who said that she and a colleague who worked with her on the weekly student newspaper, The Ontarion, were planning a new column, “Professor Profiles,” and would like to interview me for the upcoming issue. I was off work for a couple of days for medical reasons, and wrote a quick response. In the event, the proposed column was never launched: The Ontarion's editorial board may very sensibly have decided that such a feature would be unbearably dull.
Dear G. (and C.),
Sorry for not responding earlier: I was in hospital for minor surgery yesterday. Nothing dramatic, though it means I have a fat bandage on one foot and will have to stump around for a couple of weeks more in the walking cast I've had to wear since before Christmas.
The new column sounds like a fine idea. Will Tuesday morning be early enough for a meeting? It would have to be early (say, from 9:00 to 9:30 a.m., because I have a graduate seminar that runs from 10:00 to 1:00). I could also be free from 2:00 to 2:30, if that would be preferable. We could meet in my office, or, in you like, get an earlier start over the telephone. I'll be working at home tomorrow, and this wretched foot will be keeping me indoors all day [...].
Let me tell you a bit about myself ahead of time.
Facts: six-feet-six-inches tall former not-very-good rugby player; degrees from the Royal Military College of Canada (B.A.), University of Toronto (M.A.), University of Sussex (D.Phil.); teaching experience at universities in France, England, and Germany as well as Canada.
I've had an upside-down career. Academics often do increasing amounts of administrative work as they get on in years (and supposedly wisdom). I did heaps of it when I was young and foolish: Chair of the English Department and head of the Senate (at a very small university); Chair of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council's Research Grants Adjudication Committee in Literature; President of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE); and substantial involvement a decade ago in this university's Strategic Planning Commission. I'm now trying to focus on teaching and research. (Perhaps late in the day? I turn 60 this September.)
Some information on my research. I'm a Renaissance scholar by training: lots of articles and conference papers on 16th-century writers like Marlowe, Shakespeare and Nashe; and two new editions, in 2007 and 2008, of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus—both with lovely glossy covers and enough footnotes in them to make a scholar's tiny heart beat faster.
Also articles on Renaissance philosophy, on Descartes, and on the contemporary philosopher Jacques Derrida. That last name takes us into the uneasy borderlands between philosophy and literary theory—and perhaps into the battles over theory which raged during the 1990s, when literary theory and English profs were being represented in the media as (I kid you not) threats to the survival of Western Culture. As president from 1992 to 1994 of ACCUTE, a national association of people supposedly devoted to the destruction of Western Culture, I got drawn into those debates—hence my book Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from the Culture Wars (1996), in which I found myself trying to explain and defend contemporary literary studies and, more largely, the social function and value of humanities research and critical thinking in universities and “the public sphere.”
I feel strongly that scholars who have devoted years of study to research on cultural history and cultural processes, and who have thought hard about issues of ethics, justice, and human rights, have a responsibility to apply our capacities as researchers and critical thinkers, in the public sphere, to the crises of our own time and place.
In my case this has meant taking a public stand against crimes of state committed by our own government, and by those of friendly powers. Not just any old public stand, I would insist, but one that is supported by strenuous research and a scrupulous sifting of evidence.
And why against our own government and its allies? Doesn't that seem vaguely perverse? Noam Chomsky has remarked that as citizens we bear some responsibility for what our government does, and can aspire to change its behaviour for the better: there's no moral courage involved in ignoring our own country's crimes and misdeeds, and those of friendly states, and joining a chorus of critics denouncing 'enemy' states for crimes we cannot hope to control.
Stealing elections, to take one example, is a crime of state. I've argued in a series of articles that the Bush Republicans stole the 2004 presidential election—which means, since they weren't elected properly in 2000 either, that for the last seven years the United States has been governed by a regime that has no democratic legitimacy. (Does that seem “off the wall”? It is confirmed by a very large body of evidence.) Other abuses have followed from the primal abuse of disrespecting people's right to vote and have their votes fairly counted: among them the systematic gutting of the US Constitution and Bill of Rights, the cancelling of habeas corpus, the institutionalizing of torture....
Wars of aggression are criminal in a larger sense. Unprovoked aggression, as the Nuremberg Tribunal ruled after World War II, is the primal crime from which all the others follow. At least 1.2 million Iraqis have died since 2003 as a result of the invasion and occupation of their country by the US and Britain. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was likewise a war of aggression. (There is conclusive evidence that it was planned before 9/11, that the Taliban regime offered to hand over Bin Laden for trial in Pakistan, and that, as the FBI has itself acknowledged, the US has no evidence linking Bin Laden to the appalling crimes of 9/11.)
The occupation of Afghanistan, in which Canada is participating, is thus also a violation of international law—and Canada's treatment of prisoners is, in particular, a flagrant violation of the Geneva Conventions. Canada has also, rather more seriously, been involved in crimes against democracy and human rights in Haiti. (I'm completing a long article on that subject at the moment.) I won't say more about my political writings: many of them are archived, if you're interested, at the website of the Centre for Research on Globalization (http://www.globalresearch.ca), where you can get to them via the Author Index.
What about my teaching, then? Right-wing polemicists like the creepy David Horowitz, or his feeble epigones in this country who run the Western Standard magazine, assume that any professor whose political views challenge those of the complacent 'mainstream' must be a frantic indoctrinator, bullying students into echoing his or her opinions. (That's the explicit assumption of the Western Standard, which did me the honour a little more than a year ago of including me in a list of the twelve “nuttiest”—by which they clearly meant “most deserving to be unemployed”—professors in Canada.) But perhaps this tells us more about their own ethics than anyone else's.
At the start of every one of my courses, I preach a little sermon. I tell students that “academic freedom” isn't just something that tenured faculty possess: it's an essential condition of intellectual life in a community of scholars. That means students possess it too: they have the right to dissent firmly from their professors' opinions, mine included, and to have their work judged by its intrinsic merits—its handling of the evidence, its argumentative coherence, and its rhetorical polish—and not its similarity or dissimilarity to my views. I tell my students I'm not running a cloning factory: our job is to read texts that are much more interesting than I am, so I don't want them wasting time by “reading the professor” and trying to please me by parroting my opinions. (How boring that would be for all concerned.)
I add that there's a major issue of intellectual history at stake here as well: professors who want to clone themselves have failed to understand the historical process at work in their own disciplines. Literary scholars of my own generation differed in important ways from our teachers: we came to understand, as most of our teachers didn't, the importance of feminism and gender studies, and the value of new methodologies carrying names like “poststructuralism,” “discourse theory,” or “cultural materialism.” How stupid it would be not to recognize that our own students will inevitably differ from us, developing in the same manner new methodologies and new orientations to their research. Their development of new insights will of course be linked to their recognition of the zones of our partial blindness.
So what's involved here is not just the crucial principle of students' academic freedom, but also an understanding of the historicity of critical thinking, including our own.
What this means, I hope, is that the classroom becomes a genuinely open space, within which my students and I can give voice to conflicting interpretations and opinions in an atmosphere of honest mutual respect. For I aspire, equally importantly, to making the seminar room or lecture hall a place where we can take the risk of saying things that we're afraid might perhaps seem foolish. (That's what truly original ideas often feel like the first time around.)
I take this risk myself in class—with comments that sometimes, I'm told, end up on Facebook in a page that is devoted, apparently with affection as well as some tincture of satire, to “The Man Who Knows Everything About Everything Always.” (There is a long and worthy tradition of this kind of student commentary: students of Benjamin Jowett, the Plato scholar and Master of Balliol College, Oxford, teased him more than a century ago in a doggerel couplet: “I'm Jowett, Master of this college; / Anything I don't know ain't knowledge.”)
Self-mockery can be instructive, as readers of such classics as Nicolas Cusanus's De docta ignorantia (Of Learned Ignorance) or Desiderius Erasmus's Praise of Folly will learn. But in my classrooms we don't mock one another, and an insistence on politeness and respect opens up the possibility of real debate.
I don't hide my opinions from my classes. I take seriously the injunction of the philosopher Hannah Arendt that teachers need to take responsibility for the world into which we are introducing our students. That means resisting the paradox enunciated by psychologist Robert Jay Lifton in his despairing suggestion that there is an inverse correlation between the importance of any given subject-matter for human survival on this planet and the likelihood of it figuring in the curricula of our universities.
End of sermon. End of this message too, which has gone on far too long. But now I can just sit silently and smile like the Cheshire Cat when you interview me.
In late 1998, my colleague Ajay Heble and I nominated Professor Noam Chomsky of MIT for an honorary doctorate at the University of Guelph, an honour which Chomsky graciously agreed to accept. During his visit to Guelph in February 1999, Professor Chomsky showed his characteristic generosity: in addition to his address at the commencement ceremony, he found time in a tight schedule for what amounted to a seminar with student journalists, and spoke to an overflow crowd at Chalmers Street United Church—where the Chomsky lecture was appropriately introduced by Guillermo Verdecchia, co-author of the hit play The Noam Chomsky Lectures. The church was packed, as were two large meeting rooms linked to the main event by video feeds. As is his habit, Professor Chomsky refused any honorarium; with his agreement, the proceeds from ticket sales were donated to organizations working in solidarity with the people of East Timor and Haiti.
On December 1, 1998, after the University of Guelph had released the news that Professor Chomsky would shortly be visiting our campus to receive an honorary degree, the university's student newspaper, The Ontarion, printed an interview with Professor Heble and myself about this approaching event. Then on February 2, 1999 one of the newspaper's editors published an editorial which clumsily accused us of having effectively misled the University's Senate in our nomination of Chomsky. The following response appeared in the next issue of The Ontarion, on February 9, 1999.
Room 264, University Centre,
Fax: 824-7838. February 4, 1999.
To the Editor:
The remarks directed against me and my colleague Professor Ajay Heble by Jayson McDonald in his editorial of February 2nd (“An honourary [sic] criticism”) contain an interesting mixture of malice and misinformation.
This editorial claims that, having nominated Professor Noam Chomsky for an honorary doctorate at this university, Dr. Heble and I subsequently revealed political motivations for the nomination which we had concealed from the University's Senate. Referring to a news item that appeared in the December 1st issue of The Ontarion, McDonald writes that
Heble and Keefer spent a full one-third of that article describing their political “rationale” for nominating Chomsky when indeed it had little if any mention in their actual nomination letter or the final selection made by the U of G senate.
As McDonald himself notes, the article in question was written, not by us, but by an Ontarion journalist. It is a novelty, I believe, for people who have been interviewed by a newspaper to find themselves reproached by one of the editors of that same journal for the arrangement and emphasis of the resulting story.
In addition to McDonald's unpleasant insinuation of bad faith, he is also making a claim, in the sentence I have quoted, about the substance of our nomination. That claim is false.
Our letter of nomination, after signalling the unparalleled impact of Professor Chomsky's work in linguistics over more than four decades, and after indicating his influence on a wide range of cultural theorists, went on to propose that this great thinker deserves our respectful attention for other reasons as well. “In addition to being a scholar of worldwide reputation,” we wrote,
he has also repeatedly been described as the exemplary public intellectual and oppositional thinker of our era. Since the mid-1960s, when he became an outspoken critic of the American wars in south-east Asia, Noam Chomsky has devoted his scholarly energies, his analytical lucidity, and his powers of ethical discrimination to a long series of searching analyses of military aggression, human rights abuses, political and economic injustices, and the systems of misinformation and propaganda which help to make them possible.
One of two things becomes painfully clear: either Mr. McDonald had not bothered to read the letter of nomination and was misleadingly making it seem that he had, or else he had indeed read it and was offering a misleading impression of its substance. But he must have read the text, since he knows that it contains no reference either to Mr. George Walker Bush or to the University of Toronto.
It would of course be a very strange thing if it did. But I do not think, on the other hand, that there was anything very astonishing in the fact that the University of Toronto's presentation of an honorary doctorate to ex-President Bush a year ago came up during Professor Heble's and my interviews with The Ontarion. That award had been vigorously opposed by many faculty members of the University of Toronto, and had entered the public record as a matter of controversy. As is well known, throughout Mr. Bush's career as director of the CIA, Vice-President and President, the most trenchant and persistent critic of the many violations of international law and of human rights over which he presided was none other than Noam Chomsky. And as I have indicated, our nomination of Professor Chomsky foregrounded his tireless efforts to promote justice no less than it did the exemplary intellectual rigour of his work as a linguist.
But perhaps we ought to raise our eyes from this petty dispute to the rather more important fact that during the coming days our campus will be honoured by the presence of one of the greatest scholars and public intellectuals of our time. Can we hope that The Ontarion may yet find some more adequate means than Mr. McDonald's editorial of responding to this event?
School of Literatures and Performance Studies in English
This short text was my contribution to a one-day symposium, Finding Our Way: A Public Forum on Universities, Corporate Influence, and the Future of Post-Secondary Education, that was held at the University of Guelph on 22 October 1993. It has not previously been published.
I had the bad luck to be elected to the national executive of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers in the spring of 1991, at just the moment when the “Political Correctness” furore—which had been building up in the United States ever since the collapse of the Soviet empire deprived American conservatives of their favourite demonized Other—burst upon the Canadian scene. As Cathy Davidson observed at the time, academics in the humanities, whom only a few years ago it had been fashionable to dismiss “as silly and irrelevant,” were suddenly being denounced as though, “like Godzilla rising from the muck,” they “threaten[ed] the very existence of Western civilization.”
Does anyone remember the Maclean's issue of May 1991 which informed us that “A New Wave of Repression is Sweeping Through the Universities”? This was not a response to the murder of fourteen young women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal just over a year previously, or to the death threats made that same spring to the editors of feminist journals associated with Queen's University and Dalhousie: from the perspective of Maclean's magazine, those events were invisible.
The “wave of repression” consisted rather of a number of scare-mongering quotations from academic neoconservatives, and of four actual cases. One of these was the genuinely disturbing harassment of Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist who curated what became a controversial Royal Ontario Museum exhibition, by anti-racist activists. Another, the case of University of Western Ontario psychologist Philippe Rushton, was scandalous in a quite different sense: the racialist pseudo-science of Rushton's publications raised the very serious question of how it was possible for a major Canadian university to provide institutional support for work of this kind. The remaining cases were incidents in which it was suggested that unnamed feminists had been rude to two great artists—to William Shakespeare, who gave no sign of having resented his treatment, and to Alex Colville, who as Chancellor of the university at which an objection was raised to the reproduction of one of his paintings on the cover of the university's Calendar can hardly be said to have been “repressed” by whatever was said.
Such a wave, as I wrote at the time, would scarcely fill a teacup. But Maclean's was not interested in reporting on any actual events within our universities. The object, rather, was to pass on to Canadians an alarming sense of the dangers posed by the politically correct “storm-troopers,” “moral vigilantes,” and “new McCarthyists” whom the American press was already vigorously denouncing.
Let's consider for a moment the last of these terms: “new McCarthyism.” This is a brilliant rhetorical inversion. As a matter of readily ascertainable fact, the people who have been most active in claiming that North American universities have been “taken over” by humourless and authoritarian women, minority groups, and radicals themselves form part of a very interesting alliance of government agencies, corporate foundations, and the corporate news media—an alliance that bears an uncanny resemblance to the constellation of forces responsible for the original McCarthyist Red Scare of the late 1940s and early '50s. Appropriating the one term—neo-McCarthyism—which best describes their own agenda, and applying it to the objects of their attack, was a stroke of genius on the part of the Reagan-Bush cultural revolutionaries. Their story was out and accepted long before anyone could object that no U.S. Senator had stood up before the television cameras waving a list of supposed racists and sexists in the universities.
I'd like to make a couple of suggestions—one outlining a possible research agenda, and the other proposing a principle of caution.
Here's the research agenda—for anyone who remembers how hundreds of billions of dollars were looted from the U.S. treasury by American elites during the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s (which was directly enabled by the deregulation policies of the Reagan-Bush administration). The PC scare has a clear structural articulation, in terms of the recently burgeoning networks of right-wing think-tanks and foundations that fund political correctness polemicists and their publications. It might be interesting to see whether Savings-and-Loan loot is being recycled into ideological structures whose principal function is to close down any space from which a critique of the Reagan-Bush era might be launched. You know the proverb: “Follow the money!”
And here's the principle of caution. I tell my students to be sceptical of everything they read and hear—especially when it comes from someone who has an axe to grind (present company not excluded). One way of exercising caution is to check out whether writers say the same kind of thing when they're trying to persuade you and when they're letting their hair down among like-minded people. Here's an instructive example, from Dinesh D'Souza, author of the polemical book Illiberal Education (1991), and a young man whose whole adult life has been funded by the right-wing foundation gravy train. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly for a liberal audience, D'Souza represents himself as a troubled and scrupulous occupier of the “middle ground” who finds that “It is not always possible in such disputes for a reasonable person, in good conscience, to take any side....” Sounds decent, doesn't it? But writing at the same time and on the same subject for a corporate readership in Forbes magazine, he bares his teeth. Claiming that “the propaganda of the new barbarians” threatens “to do us in,” D'Souza urges a defunding of the universities. “Resistance on campus to the academic revolution is outgunned,” he adds, “and sorely needs outside reinforcements.” How genuine do you think his concern for academic scruples—and academic freedom—might be?
I'll conclude with some thoughts on privatization. A recent article in Taipan blamed the inadequacies of American secondary and university education upon a “rewriting of history by 'politically correct' academics” which “threatens to have a negative effect” on the “progress-oriented work ethic” of the U.S., and could even “result in the redistribution of property rather than the creation of new wealth.” The solution proposed is a continued privatizing of the educational system: “If just 15% of the government's education budget ends up in private hands by the year 2010, it will mean billions of profits for the savvy entrepreneurs who act now.”
So what's it really all about: some notion of improving 'quality,' or a simple looting by “savvy entrepreneurs” of institutions paid for by public money?
Don't make the mistake of thinking that the “PC” furore is mainly just a problem of noise from south of the border, or that “privatization” is a matter of speculative corporate buccaneers casting greedy eyes on a public system they see, from the outside, as offering possibilities for large private profits.
They're inside already, as well as outside; and the process of privatization is well underway. One of the theorists of this process, John Pannabaker, is a past CEO of the Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada and former Chancellor of McMaster University. In a 1992 address to the Canadian Corporate-Higher Education Forum, he claimed that the government bureaucracies, the “hierarchical corporations,” and the “educational, health and social service systems” which absorbed most of the graduates of Canadian universities during what he called the “golden age” of “mass tertiary education” between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s are now visibly contracting, and argued that Canadian universities must accept the challenge of developing a “new paradigm” which will respond to current needs.
The shape of this paradigm is hinted at by his advocacy of “alternative privately-financed and customer-driven institutions,” and his scouting of “possibilities, perhaps at the moment unthinkable, but ultimately the likely way out,” which “probably involve decentralization and 'spin-offs'—even privatization of individual programmes and functions.” It would not, he thinks, be “possible to 'privatize' a major Canadian university”—but the next best thing, it seems, would be to dismember the universities as a group, putting into corporate hands those functions which are most attractive to corporate interests.
What's missing here?
Any notion of a common good, any notion that higher education might have a critical as well as instrumental function, and any recognition that the critical intellectual work carried on within institutions of higher education makes an essential contribution to the self-understanding and capacity for creative and just self-transformation of a democratic society.
This letter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did not receive the courtesy of a response. It has not previously been published.
P.O. Box 140, Eden Mills, Ontario, N0B 1P0
February 26, 1991.
The Right Hon. Brian Mulroney,
Prime Minister of Canada.
Dear Mr. Mulroney,
Canada's participation in the Gulf War has effectively destroyed our reputation in the third world as a nation which, however close its ties to one of the superpowers, could be relied on to exercise a moderating influence at moments of crisis. We should not have taken part in a naval blockade or in any other military activities except under a properly constituted United Nations command. Nor should we have taken part in a war which was launched under the fraudulent pretext that the economic sanctions against Iraq had been ineffective. (That these sanctions were having a crippling effect upon Iraq, and would within months have obliged the Iraqi government to order a retreat from Kuwait was evident to informed observers—not least to Mr. Bush and his advisers, whose about-face on the subject after October of last year was patently hypocritical.)
But my principal concern here is with more urgent matters. Now that the military coalition arrayed against Iraq has achieved the major objective of an Iraqi withdrawal from Kuwait, all military operations should cease at once. Mr. Bush's refusal to put an immediate end to military operations is a clear signal—there have been many other such signals during the past weeks and months—that the aims of the United States in this war go far beyond those of the United Nations Security Council resolutions directed against Iraq.
Further prosecution of the war against Iraq would be criminal. (I use this word in a precise sense—that of the system of international law to which the United States appeals when it is convenient to do so, but which it has openly flouted in its attacks upon small nations, most recently Grenada, Nicaragua, and Panama.) Coalition air attacks have already violated international law in several respects. Refugee convoys on the Baghdad -Amman road have been bombed and strafed; residential areas and civilian air-raid shelters in Iraqi cities have been bombed; and supplies of food, water, and electrical power to civilian populations have been interrupted. The mounting evidence that Saddam Hussein's government is guilty of war crimes against Kuwait—as previously against its own Kurdish population and against Iran—does not excuse such acts: one war crime does not justify another.
I therefore call upon you to order the immediate withdrawal of all Canadian air and naval units from the Gulf region. I do not wish to see the Canadian armed forces stained with the shame of having participated in further attacks upon a routed army and upon the civilian population of an already shattered country.
Michael H. Keefer
“The so-called War on Terror is a criminal fraud, designed to frighten Americans and the citizens of its allies into supporting systematic violations of international law. It was from the outset Islamophobic both in intention and in the wars of aggression it has been used to justify,” said Prof. Michael Keefer in an exclusive interview with Fars News Agency.Read More