Letters to the Editor

A Selection, 1984-1998

[The following sample of my published letters to the editor is broken down by theme, and chronologically within individual sections. Publication date is listed in most instances; for unpublished letters, the date of writing is given. Headings are those attached for publication, unless otherwise noted. I have made occasional minor alterations to restore paragraphing and punctuation.]


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Politics: Third World

Christ As Liberator

[The Australian, 6 November 1984.]

Whatever B.A. Santamaria or even Father Gore might think, liberation theology does not strike me as a philosophy of expedience, urging the Catholic Church to make its peace with communist insurgents in the Philippines (and elsewhere) because they're bound to take over eventually anyway. Rather, it seems a timely reaction against the traditional negative role of the Church in revolutionary situations. Liberation theologians no longer wish to see Christ used as an excuse for the Church's complacency and inaction - or worse, its outright support of fascist or quasi-fascist regimes, as in Franco's Spain and Nazi Germany. Santamaria's feeble alternative, that Catholics should "get back ... to the Catholic Church's own social doctrines," ignores the salient feature of those doctrines as practiced in the past: namely their remarkable, even enthusiastic elitism. The criminal ease with which the Church has accommodated itself to the status quo, however vicious, invites a Marxian-type analysis all its own.

The activists among the poor of the Third World have seen this betrayal of genuine Christian teachings. The liberation theologians, more perceptive than their [traditional] Church counterparts, recognize that the poor have a case, and that if the Church is to maintain any kind of credibility as their protector and champion, it must be seen to ally itself with them and their cause. One aspect of the struggle is bound to be political; and if Christ "never pretended to be a social reformer," as Santamaria insists, to whom can the theologians turn when radical social reform is clearly necessary? Only those great secular theoreticians of oppression and class conflict - Marx included. Christianity is not subordinated but supplemented, enabling it to become a catalyst for strong, focused mass action in the here and now.

To what end, Santamaria implores us, since "Armies do not surrender power to guerrillas"? But in Cuba, Vietnam and, most recently, Nicaragua, armies - even the most powerful in the world - have eventually crumbled in the face of sustained popular opposition, of which guerrilla warfare has been a component of varying importance. The liberation theologians do not intend to trade in their Bibles for bazookas. But they understand that soothing promises of eternal life are a poor substitute for real Christian commitment and conscience; they know that voices other than Christ's have been raised in the clamour for a new order, and deserve to be heard.

Dissent Is Costly in Guatemala

[The Vancouver Sun, 9 November 1985]

John Payne's excellent letter (4 November) effectively refutes those who would see Nicaraguan "totalitarianism" in a page of a child's textbook (The Sun, 29 October).

If the article on Nicaragua was exaggerated, though, the one that accompanied it, an account of the terror in nearby Guatemala, was not. The juxtaposition - impure texts versus institutionalized carnage - was illuminating, and helps place the Central American maelstrom in some kind of perspective.

Colman McCarthy reports that the Guatemalan state security apparatus, trained and installed by the United States after the CIA-backed coup of 1954, has engineered the systematic extermination of 100,000 people, mostly native Indians. Perhaps U.S. criticism of Nicaragua would not ring quite so hollow if the Reagan government did not continue to bolster Guatemala's murderous status quo with arms (often channeled through other close allies) and sympathetic rhetoric.

It might even be possible to view Guatemala's recent elections as something more than a transparent farce, were not the price of real dissent in that country persecution and grisly death at the hands of the authorities. Meanwhile, we can question the logic of the Canadian government's decision to dispatch "observers," thereby lending credibility to Guatemala's electoral whitewash, while denying Nicaragua the same for its own infinitely more meaningful vote earlier this year [sic: in 1984].

La Prensa Closure Regrettable, But A Wise Move

[The Ubyssey (University of British Columbia), 23 September 1986.]

Rick Hiebert and I agree on one thing: the closing by the Nicaraguan government of the newspaper La Prensa (Ubyssey, 15 August) was a dubious move.

The difference is, I question the closure on the reasoning that it's always best to let a bunch of charlatans hang themselves in print than to give them an aura of credibility by censoring them.

Hiebert, on the other hand, bases his much more strident opposition on a host of distortions and tendentious statements, and displays a total unwillingness to consider the act in the context of a country at war. Ronald Reagan's press secretary could hardly have done better.

Hiebert happily parades the familiar argument that La Prensa, after "helping the [Sandinista] government into power" in 1979, was persecuted for continuing its critical stance after the revolution. It's certainly true that La Prensa prior to 1979 was a "fervent and vitriolic critic" of the Somoza dictatorship, though from a fairly conservative vantage point. The paper's editor, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was an important factor in the mobilization of middle-class opposition to Somoza, and he paid for it with his life in 1978.

What Hiebert conveniently fails to mention is that La Prensa pre- and post-revolution are two entirely different papers. After the Sandinista takeover, a full 80 percent of the paper's staff, enraged by the immediate hostility of the La Prensa ownership to the new regime, quit in disgust and crossed town to start El Nuevo Diario - Nicaragua's third (now second) daily paper.

La Prensa, meanwhile, went its merry editorial way, lacing its pages with National Enquirer-style sensationalism (the Virgin Mary put in a miraculous appearance every few days) and with nauseatingly reactionary commentary.

It assaulted every act of the Sandinista government to disguise the fact that it, and the far-right constituency it now catered to, completely lacked any coherent political program beyond sabotage of the revolution. Not exactly the bastion of the critical "free press" that Hiebert suggests.

Idiocy, of course, is no crime. La Prensa's closure was the result of a far more serious - and seditious - element in the paper's operation. Almost from the start, the revamped La Prensa accepted funds from CIA front organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy. And its servile backing of the Reagan Administration's war against Nicaragua reached new heights in June of this year. The paper's editor, Jaime Chamorro, and the President of its Board of Directors, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, visited Washington prior to the Congressional vote on aid to the contra mercenaries.

Jaime Chamorro paid homage to organizations lobbying for contra aid, and wrote an article for The Washington Post arguing that the "democratic forces" were entitled to get aid wherever they could find it: that is, that the contras could expect the enthusiastic support of La Prensa in their campaign of blowing up civilian buses, kidnapping foreign-aid workers, and massacring peasants at rural co-operatives.

Predictably, La Prensa's closure followed immediately upon Congress's decision to forward another $100 million in aid to the contras.

Think abut that one for a second, Rick. Imagine a newspaper in wartime Britain which actively supported German bombing raids on British cities; that kept going with Nazi funds; whose editors were fond of popping off to Berlin for chats with Nazi officials about how best to bring about a British surrender.

Just how long would such a paper last in wartime? Chances are, I reckon, that most of the staff would be spending their days in a quarry with a pick and shovel, if they were lucky enough to avoid a firing squad for treason.

In this light, the Sandinista treatment of La Prensa displays a quite striking magnanimity. Some, like myself, hoped for even greater forbearance, to permit La Prensa to continue whittling away at whatever shreds of its credibility remained.

After five years of war in Nicaragua, this hope has proved unrealistic. That's a little disappointing, but hardly surprising in context; and that same context makes Hiebert's shallow Reaganite rhetoric seem pretty damn silly.

That's Freedom

[The Times-Colonist (Victoria), 24 October 1987; co-authored with Paul Cottingham..]

We would like to thank Stacey Dewhurst for his cautionary letter, "Nicaragua undeserving" (10 October), about Tools for Peace, an organization dedicated to bolstering the pernicious rule of the vicious Communists in Nicaragua. It sure opened our eyes.

We confess, it never occurred to us that sending rubber boots, hammers and saws, sanitary napkins and so on to an impoverished people could threaten the free world. But then, we did not realize that this country of three million people, emerging from a 50-year dictatorship only to run into six years of ceaseless attack by the most powerful nation in the world, could be seen as an aggressor, bent on flooding all of Central America in a sea of red.

Most enlightening of all is Dewhurst's declaration that the Sandinistas "haven't completely abolished human rights and personal freedoms yet, but they are trying." Recent attempts of the Sandinistas to impose totalitarian rule apparently include: re-opening a treasonous newspaper and allowing it to publish without prior censorship; permitting pro-contra Catholic church leaders to return from exile; declaring local unilateral ceasefires in war zones; and going farther and faster to implement the terms of the Central American Peace Accord than any of the vibrant "democracies" in the region.

Just further proof of Communist cunning, we suppose.

And what about those "democracies" that Nicaragua is attempting to subvert? Perhaps Dewhurst is referring to El Salvador, where at least 40,000 opponents of the regime have been slaughtered, and where the government is currently waging the largest air war in the history of the hemisphere against a defenceless rural population. Or Honduras, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Pentagon.

But of course - that's freedom.. Now it all begins to make sense. We think.

Vietnamese History Was Misrepresented

[The Vancouver Sun, 1 March 1988.]

John Lukacs's article from the Los Angeles Times, "Misreading Afghanistan" (Commentary, 17 February) should be titled "Misrepresenting History."

Comparing the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with the U.S. war against Vietnam, Mr. Lukacs notes the alleged "differences": "There was a South Vietnamese government accepted by the majority of its own people. But it eventually lost most of that often-unspoken support as those people became aware of the American willingness to negotiate with North Vietnam."

One wonders exactly which South Vietnamese government Mr. Lukacs is referring to. Is it the Diem regime, sponsored by the U.S. in the south following the Geneva Accords of 1954? Ngo Dinh Diem cancelled the scheduled reunification elections at U.S. behest, when it became clear (as was everywhere recognized in U.S. policy circles) that Ho Chi Minh would walk away with about 80 percent of the vote.

Diem then launched a war against his own people that killed and uprooted hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese. By the time he was overthrown and killed in 1963, his position was so tenuous that the Kennedy administration conspired in the army coup that ended his rule and his life.

Then again, perhaps Mr. Lukacs is referring to the dizzying string of U.S.-backed military regimes that followed Diem in South Vietnam through to the end of the war in 1975. They were apparently so confident of the extent of their "unspoken" support that they never bothered to put it to a simple test - like free elections.

As for Mr. Lukacs's claim that these governments' popular support among South Vietnamese disintegrated once the U.S. began negotiations with North Vietnam, perhaps the best that can be said for this exercise in illogic is that it provides a convenient pseudo-explanation (together with "often-unspoken") for the "loss" of a political legitimacy that never existed.

All in all, the parallels with the Soviet war in Afghanistan - or with any of the other grim imperial campaigns in recent history - seem greater that Mr. Lukacs cares to admit.

Letter on Nicaragua: Genuine Insights Would Be Better Than "Second-Hand Smear Job"

[The Globe and Mail, 4 September 1992.]

[N.B.: This is the only letter I've written that has had the unusual distinction of being published twice in the same newspaper. On 4 December 1992, I was transported briefly into the Twilight Zone when I opened my morning Globe and discovered the same letter, with the same headline, published in the same position on the editorial page (a spot normally reserved for the Globe's columnists, but occasionally turned over to longer or more analytical readers' letters). A quick phone call established that a production error had occurred in which the template for the editorial page of 4 September 1992 had been used to design the page for 4 December - but they'd forgotten to remove my letter from the template. I wasn't complaining, but I did think the Globe could have sent some money my way, since they'd now filled a total of half a page of editorial space with my text. They stuck to their stated policy of not paying for letters, unfortunately.]

It seems the subject of Nicaragua hasn't disappeared entirely from The Globe and Mail and other North American media. It resurfaces whenever some neo-liberal commentator has an axe to grind ("Nicaragua Fails A Vital Test of Democracy," Focus, August 29).

Anna Husarska's feature, reprinted from The New Republic, tells of the controversy over the death of a [Nicaraguan] teenager, Jean Paul Genie, allegedly killed while trying to overtake a military convoy headed by army chief Humberto Ortega.

There is no space here to respond in detail to Ms. Husarska's charge of a cover-up, except to note that she herself concedes the evidence is "circumstantial."

Some contextual details might be useful. The death of Jean Paul Genie has become a key rallying point for the most revanchist elements of the Nicaraguan right, led by National Assembly head (and former contra spokesman) Alfredo César.

Their political program is plain: they will settle for nothing less than the obliteration of every trace of the Sandinista revolution from the Nicaraguan landscape. If this means they and their U.S. patrons end up ruling over rubble, so be it.

Mr. César and his allies take evidence of Sandinista "atrocities" where they can find it, or invent it. They are assisted in this by U.S. media commentators like Ms. Husarska, who cites Mr. Genie's death as suggesting that Sandinista "commandants" still run Nicaragua "like their private fiefdom.."

The fact that Humberto Ortega is no longer a Sandinista commandant, or even a member of the Sandinista front - he resigned months before Mr. Genie died, in order to remain head of the army under President Violeta Chamorro - somehow escapes her notice.

I was in Managua early last year when Enrique Bermudez, former military chief of the contras, was assassinated in the parking lot of the Hotel Intercontinental. His death, too, was trumpeted by Mr. César's faction as an act of the satanic Sandinistas.

Subsequent investigations suggested Mr. Bermudez had been killed by fellow ex-contras, or by his drug-running buddies - often the same people, of course. You don't hear much about the Bermudez case any more, but the Jean Paul Genie bandwagon is still rolling. [1998 note: I am no longer so sure about the Bermudez assertion. But if this excrescence was indeed killed in a Sandinista "hit," I shed no tears.]

There is a deadly serious aspect to this bluster. The ongoing negotiations between the Chamorro government and the Sandinista Front - still the most potent organized political force in the country - have laid a shaky groundwork for co-operation among the various opposed sectors of Nicaraguan society.

For a country in a state of near-collapse after eight years of U.S. attack, a modus vivendi is vital to regenerating the national economy and securing a semblance of social peace.

Foreign aid is also integral to that process. But charges of continuing Sandinista dictatorship, reiterated here by Ms. Husarska, are being used by some in the Nicaraguan National Assembly and the U.S. Congress to block hundreds of millions of dollars in desperately needed assistance to the Chamorro government.

It is particularly foul that The Globe and Mail chose to reprint a critique of Nicaraguan democracy from a publication whose editorial line, throughout the U.S.-sponsored carnage of the 1980s, was that you can't make an omelet without breaking a few eggs - and human rights be damned.

Couldn't you, instead, have dispatched one of your very able foreign correspondents to the scene? That might have given your readers some genuine insights into recent developments in Nicaragua, rather than exposing them to this shallow, second-hand smear job.

[For a description of life in Managua after the Sandinistas' fall from power, see Nicaragua, 1991: After the Earthquake.]

Castro: Who Are the Snakes and Vipers?

[The Vancouver Sun, 22 December 1995.]

The Vancouver Sun leads off its article on Fidel Castro's visit to Vancouver with the claim that Castro "call[ed] Americans 'scorpions, vipers and snakes'" ("Castro sees no quick end to blockade," 15 December). This is also the quote used in a News Summary snippet in The Sun's main section.

In the body of the article, we discover that what Mr. Castro actually said was: "What do you think about scorpions, vipers and snakes? How do you like dragons and lions? That's how I feel about the U.S. blockade against Cuba."

To my knowledge, Mr. Castro has always been careful to maintain a distinction between U.S. government policies he condemns, like the blockade [sic: embargo] that has strangled Cuba for decades, and the American people themselves. For the people he apparently has a healthy respect and affection. This is often reciprocated in surprising ways, as the reception Castro received on his recent visit to New York testifies.


[The Globe and Mail, 13 March 1996.]

Jeffrey Simpson writes that Fidel Castro is nowadays "powerless and irrelevant beyond Cuban borders" ("The Flags May Be Tattered, But Castro's Revolution Marches On," 6 March).

In global power-political terms, Mr. Castro and the transformations he helped to engineer in Cuba may indeed matter little. Still, it's interesting to contrast Mr. Simpson's comment with the story published in the 28 February Globe and Mail, noting Cuba's dispatching of 96 medical workers to impoverished rural areas of South Africa. Apparently, Cuba is not powerless to work directly for the good of poor people halfway around the world - an example the U.S. might do well to emulate, beginning with its own inner cities.

[Click to go back to the top of the Letters page.]

Salvador and Memory

(with Peter Prontzos)

[Published in truncated form in The Georgia Straight, edition of 19-26 February 1999.]

In a way, it was amusing to see Greg Lanning revive his Cold War shtick for the turn of the millennium ("Lurking commies found in El Salvador," Straight Letters, Feb. 11-18). We're reminded of those Japanese soldiers who stumbled out of the jungles of New Guinea for years after World War II ended, and had to have it patiently explained to them that the emperor was dead and their cause was history.

Lanning proclaims himself vindicated by evidence suggesting links between El Salvador's FMLN rebels and the former Soviet Union. For him, it all proves that the policies of the "courageous" Ronald Reagan were ahead of their time. (Reagan, you'll recall, spent his war years making movies.) Lanning's evidence for this bone-chilling conspiracy is as follows: a fraternal-sounding exchange between Soviet and FMLN leaders; a request for weapons that was apparently "studied and endorsed" (and no doubt implemented by that efficient Soviet bureaucracy); and lastly, documents indicating the Soviets may have trained ... wait for it ... 30 Salvadorean rebels. Well, if that isn't enough to make the U.S. and its regional allies quake in their boots! Any fighter-bombers in there, Greg? Helicopters? Napalm or white phosphorous? All the stuff the United States was happily supplying to some of the worst thugs and torturers of this century, to the tune of half a billion dollars a year, while you cheerled?

That's the context missing from Lanning's letter. The respected human-rights organization Americas Watch wrote in its summary of El Salvador's Decade of Terror (Yale University Press, 1991) that the Salvadorean guerrilla movements arose only when all "avenues of peaceful change [were] closed off" by army and right-wing paramilitary terror. The architect of the carnage, and the main U.S. client at the time, was Roberto D'Aubuisson. He was described by the CIA in 1981 as "principal henchman for wealthy landowners and a coordinator of the right-wing death squads that have murdered several thousand suspected leftists and leftist sympathizers during the past year." Other CIA documents, according to The New York Times, "reported that Mr. D'Aubuisson trafficked in drugs, smuggled arms, and directed the meeting that planned the assassination of Oscar Arnolfo Romero, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Salvador," in 1980.

Americas Watch notes that "Political killings of civilians by government forces and death squads reached an estimated peak of nearly fourteen thousand in 1981." In the course of ten sickening days in December 1981, an estimated one thousand peasant civilians in the tiny village of El Mozote were shot, burned, and hacked to death by the elite U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion. It was the single greatest atrocity of the Salvadorean war, and possibly the worst in the western hemisphere in the last half-century. Apologists for the Salvadorean military, like Lanning, covered it up for years. Reviewing Mark Danner's book, Massacre at El Mozote, Jenny Pearce writes: "In 1993 ... 143 bodies of the estimated 1,000 dead were found buried in the rubble [of El Mozote] by Argentine forensic experts ... In some of the most sobering statistics you could read from the history of the Salvadorean civil war, the average age of the dead was found to be six years old. There were only seven adults among the dead."

Summarizing El Salvadorean politics in the 1980s, Americas Watch stated: "Since the outbreak of civil war ... military forces and death squads, equipped with modern U.S. technology, have sought systematically to exterminate the newest generation of popular leaders. Peasant and union leaders, students and teachers, human rights activists, and journalists have borne the brunt of state violence ... Murder, disappearance, arbitrary arrest, and torture have served not only to eliminate political opponents but also to drive home the dangers of openly expressing dissent. Adding to the terror has been the murder of thousands of civilians who had no apparent involvement in political activity. The continued practice of terror, combined with the failure to prosecute a single army officer for a human rights violation [our emphasis], has maintained and entrenched military authority."

Human-rights organizations like Americas Watch and Amnesty International did not ignore abuses by El Salvador's rebel forces. These included the assassination of regime officials, and the indiscriminate use of land-mines, which killed hundreds of civilians. But there was nothing in rebel conduct that remotely compared with the Salvadorean state's outright savagery - including its extensive use of torture and mutilation, and its perpetration of mass slaughters like El Mozote. Don't take our word for it, Greg. Read the human-rights reports. And cite us something to the contrary that isn't sponsored by the U.S. government or one of its branches.

Under the circumstances, perhaps the question to be asked is not why the Soviet Union might have trained a few dozen or even a few hundred Salvadorean guerrillas (those former "peasant and union leaders, students and teachers, human rights activists, and journalists"), but why every nation of conscience did not rush to aid El Salvador's civilian population in like fashion. Our failure to do so is an ineradicable stain on our record. But to read Greg Lanning whitewashing El Salvador's murderers is insufferable. We would sooner listen to Doug Collins prattle on about the Holocaust. At least Collins fought on the right side in the war.

Debray offers a far too cuddly portrait of Serbia

[Guardian Weekly (UK), 13 June 1999.]

I do not support the collective punishment being inflicted on the Serbian people in response to the depredations of Slobodan Milosevic's regime. But Régis Debray's "open letter to President Chirac" (May 30) is a preposterously cuddly and one-sided portrait. There is no mention of the fact that Mr. Milosevic has launched four wars of aggression in this decade; nor that he and his henchmen have been directly or indirectly responsible for the three worst massacres in post-war European history (Vukovar, Brcko, Srebrenica); nor that it was at his behest that the province of Kosovo was stripped of its autonomous status in 1989 and turned into a police state.

As for atrocities in Kosovo, Debray cites the Los Angeles Times journalist Paul Watson as claiming there is "no evidence of any crime against humanity" since the first three days of the bombing. The accounts by Human Rights Watch of the mass killings of civilian men at Meja (April 27) and near Vucitrn (May 2-3) are more persuasive, and thoroughly reminiscent of Nazi actions in Yugoslavia during the second world war. The same edition of the Guardian Weekly carries a report of thousands of tortured and systematically starved Kosovar males finally being freed from Serbian prisons, apparently to make room for more hapless detainees, while tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of other men remain unaccounted for. And is not the expulsion of nearly 1 million Kosovars, continuing through April and May, itself a staggering "crime against humanity"?

There is much more to be said about this war than Nato's spokesmen are telling us; but Debray's report is a shameful whitewash.

Politics: Canada

Average Myth?

[The Province, 14 May 1987]

Congratulations to Jeani Read for her eloquent and cautionary May 8 column on the Tories' "new" pornography legislation. We are still being asked to believe that the "average Canadian" demands a ban not just on depictions of exploitation, degradation, and child sex, but on all sexually explicit material - even if it is performed, produced, and perused by consenting adults. Who is this mythical "average Canadian"? What competence does he or she have in the field? And what right to dictate what others can read or watch?

The Haida and Civil Disobedience

[The Vancouver Sun, 27 November 1985]

So Les Bewley thinks Haida [Indian] acts of civil disobedience are "assaults on the rights and liberties of other citizens," does he (The Vancouver Sun, 23 November)? In fact, the real assault is taking place with chainsaws on South Moresby [Island].

The Haida deserve our admiration for opposing, peaceably and with great dignity, the dictates of an alien legal system. They have shamed a government to whom "growth" means destruction, and for whom heritage is a commodity - or a museum piece.

A New Nero?

[The Province, 27 January 1987]

Is [B.C. Premier] Bill Vander Zalm a latter-day Nero? He certainly seems content to fiddle while the flames rise.

Asked about a sensible, indeed vital, proposal for distributing condoms in high schools to combat the spread of AIDS (The Province, 23 January), Vander Zalm could only mutter something about such a plan leading to "greater permissiveness" in our schools.

The distribution would presumably be accompanied by some heavy lectures on the nature and danger of AIDS. My guess is that alone would be enough to scare many high school students away from casual sex.

For those who indulge regardless, or who have ongoing sexual relationships, the use of condoms could be literally a matter of life and death.

By all means teach sexual restraint and chastity as methods of keeping clear of AIDS. But show some realism as well, or face the possibility that your narrow-minded obstructionism will land a lot of B.C. kids in the terminal ward.

Anti-War Stance Welcomed, Photo Still Questionable

[The Gleaner (Langara College), 8 November 1996. Suggested by Hamish Telford.]

Steffani Cameron's article, "Photos worth 1,000 hypocritical words," does a good job of pointing out the moral evasion we engage in when we send soldiers overseas to face unimaginable horrors, then blame them for the atrocities we ask them to experience and commit. Unfortunately, I'm not sure the example she chooses to focus on - the recent photographs of Canadian troops posing alongside dismembered Iraqi corpses from the Gulf War - really proves her point.

According to The Globe and Mail (19 October), "With the exception of an overzealous F-18 pilot who fired a hugely expensive missile in hopes of killing some Iraqis in an inflatable boat, Canada's soldiers, sailors and airmen saw no combat in the Gulf." The only combat force we contributed, a squadron of those F-18 fighters based in Qatar, was "held back by the Mulroney government until the air war was well and truly over."

Indeed, the Globe story questioned whether the Canadian armed forces even have combat capability at this point. "Asked by Britain and the United States to send a 5,000-soldier mechanized contingent to be part of the huge armoured thrust that would drive deep into Iraq - a real combat unit that Canada had told NATO was available - the senior brass admitted it wasn't possible. So Canada sent a field hospital to Saudi Arabia instead."

This field hospital would have had troops assigned to guard it. My guess is that it was these troops that posed for the photographs. Whoever they were, they saw no combat. They could have arrived - and posed for the photographs - weeks or even months after fighting ended. It took that long to clean up the charnel house of southern Iraq and Kuwait after the ceasefire, stray Iraqi body parts and all.

If this is true, it's hard to see how Canadian soldiers could have been "taking pride in what they thought was a job well done," as Cameron suggests. They didn't do the job. The mutilated Iraqi corpses were probably just grotesque curiosities. In the kindest interpretation, posing alongside them was a bit of frat-boy posturing. But it's also possible that, in a subtle way, the soldiers were trying to claim false credit by associating themselves with "warrior heroics" that they didn't have a hand in, but think they would have liked to. I agree with Cameron that it's hypocritical to condemn such desensitization from our privileged positions. But if you accept this more likely interpretation of the photos, the soldiers don't seem particularly noble or self-sacrificial.

Full praise, though, for Cameron's eloquent statement that "if we find the photographs horrendous and grisly, then we should ensure they are never given the opportunity to be taken." Important words to remember as 11 November approaches.

[Click to go back to the top of the Letters page.]

Politics: United States/U.S. Intervention/
The Cold War

The Downfall of Detente

[The Australian, 19 September 1984.]

[N.B.: My first published letter. Heavily influenced by Noam Chomsky, who said he liked it.]

I am amused by your claim (editorial, 13 October) that "The level of Soviet rhetoric and denunciation of Mr. Reagan and all things American over the past four years has far outweighed anything Mr. Reagan has ever said about the Soviet Union or its leadership."

In fact, Mr. Reagan has referred to the Soviet leadership as "the focus of evil for the world." If any of his Soviet counterparts has come up with anything to match that phrase for needless provocation and sheer pious arrogance, I would be interested to hear it.

Since World War II, the U.S. government has met every local challenge to American primacy by inflating it to the dimensions of a global crusade against the forces of darkness. To this murky mix, Mr. Reagan has added his own unwillingness to concede the Soviets even a breath of parity in world affairs. It is this stubbornness, more than anything, that has proved the downfall of detente.

Any analysis of the "main cause" of superpower tensions that ignores America's dominant role in the current miasma is blinkered and almost wilfully deceptive.

Arms and Objectivity

[The Advertiser (Adelaide, Australia), 8 January 1985]

So Brigadier Greville ("Defence," The Advertiser, 2 January) reckons the Western media are anti-Western, apologists for the warmongering Communists, and prime disseminators of Soviet propaganda.

Interesting. I must check my back issues of The Advertiser, or perhaps The New York Times, for all those articles decrying the capitalist system, hailing the invasion of Afghanistan, and applauding the Soviet negotiating position at arms talks. Clearly I have missed them.

Setting aside Brig. Greville's quaint world view (since when have Russians been exempt from the "clearly superior values of Western civilisation," if indeed such a concept survived the 19th century?), it is apparent that he resents any attempt to scrape away the muck of Western propaganda and reveal a grain of truth.

That grain might be CIA subversion in Nicaragua. It might be 40 million poor in America as that country's "defence" budget spirals into the trillions. It might even be the suggestion that - horrors! - the Russians and their leaders are human beings, like us: paranoid about national security (well, they have been invaded by every major Western power since 1917, remember), but able to recognize a fair arms proposal nonetheless.

Brig. Greville is quite right that "the only antidote for sensationalism ... is a knowledge of the facts." Unfortunately, not every fact wears a bright NATO badge. It wasn't the Soviet government that vetoed the second SALT agreement; it hasn't been left to the Soviets to take the lead in developing weapons of mass destruction since World War II.

The sooner Brig. Greville is able to look at the arms morass with something approaching objectivity, the sooner he can leave the quotation marks out of his sarcastic references to the "peace" movement.

Grenada Myth

[The Province, 19 February 1986]
[Bold type denotes passages edited for publication.]

Ilya Gerol resurrects some familiar myths in his piece on "Grenada then and now" (The Province, 19 February).

There were not 300 "good soldiers ... posing as construction workers" among the Cubans on Grenada at the time of the U.S. invasion. Indeed, this palpable fiction was quietly abandoned by the Reagan administration immediately after the occupation.

According to the detailed Cuban list (which the U.S. tacitly accepted after wild claims of anything up to 1500 Cubans present), there were 22 military advisers among 784 Cubans on the island. Diplomatic personnel and their families aside, the remaining Cubans were exactly what outside sources on the spot confirmed them to be: civilian construction workers helping Grenadians build their international airport. Nearly half were over 40 years old.

The significance that Gerol infers from his sighting of a dead Cuban, AK-47 machine gun by his side, is simply laughable. What was that Cuban, and all his compatriots who perished in the invasion, supposed to use to defend himself against thousands of U.S. marines brandishing M-16's? A popgun?

Surely President Reagan has enough skilled disseminators of disinformation on his staff. The job of a press commentator should be to uncover such cynical deceptions, not merely parrot them at every opportunity.

Even Reagan's Rhetoric Is Recycled

[The Vancouver Sun, 4 April 1986]

Anthony Lewis is right ("A President's Obsession Poisons U.S. Politics," The Vancouver Sun, 26 March). The Reagan administration's grotesque campaign against Nicaragua points to a much deeper malaise, a true paranoid style in American political life. Fanatical anti-communism, counter-revolutionary subversion - these have been hallmarks of every U.S. administration since the Second World War.

Even the rhetoric is recycled. Nearly 20 years ago, at the height of the war in Vietnam, American political scientist Richard Barnet wrote these words [in his book Intervention and Revolution]:

"Why ... the overthrow of corrupt feudal regimes by local insurgents should pose a danger of world war or a direct threat to the United States is hard to see. ... [T]he notion that the Castros of the future will muster an army of millions, transport them by sampan and burro, and loose them on our cities is nothing less than a psychotic fantasy, so absurd in fact that it is never explicitly stated, only hinted at in vague anxiety-producing historical analogies.

"The idea of preventive war, that you fight a little one now to avoid a great one later, has some validity if you are facing a single adversary such as Hitler. Where there are many adversaries, each with its own local reasons for fighting, the idea can be understood only as an exercise in mysticism, not logic."

Olof Palme's Death An Attack On Us All

[The Globe and Mail, 8 March 1986]

The Globe's story on the assassination of Olof Palme ("Sweden's PM Is Slain," 1 March) said: "He was one of the earliest critics of the U.S. role in Vietnam, although he also attacked the Soviet Union for its invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968."

Why "although"? There was no contradiction in Mr. Palme's stance. His opposition to both invasions was consistent with his belief that peace and non-intervention should be operative principles in international affairs, transcending surface political allegiances.

Nicaraguan Arms

[The Globe and Mail, 12 June 1986.]

On one hand you accuse the Nicaraguan government of obstructing a peace process that would force it to reduce its level of domestic armaments. On the other, you report that a successful outcome to the Contadora [peace] negotiations might, according to a Pentagon study, leave the United States with "no choice" but to invade ("Mr. Ortega Says No," editorial, 28 May).

Are you incapable of making the connection? If U.S. President Ronald Reagan is truly bent on invading Nicaragua and crushing the revolution, is he likely to be stopped by some nebulous regional treaty, or lack of it? After his administration has ridden roughshod over everything from the U.S. Congress to the International Court of Justice in its deranged campaign against the Sandinistas?

With U.S. policy one of direct and proxy warfare against their country, Nicaraguans may be forgiven for wanting to hold on to whatever means of defence they have managed to scrounge together.

A Percentage Plan to Counter Contras

[The Globe and Mail, date unavailable (September 1986).]

The most important observation in The Globe and Mail's excellent editorial, "Canada On Nicaragua" (17 September 1986), is that "only concerted alternative action among U.S. allies in Europe, Canada and South America" can hope to change the course of U.S. policy in Central America.

The guiding principle for any such action must be strong support for Nicaragua's democratically elected government, which is under increasingly murderous attack by U.S.-backed proxy forces. With this in mind, allow me to propose a scheme which might be called "110 Per Cent for Life."

Under this arrangement, Canada will lobby half a dozen nations - Sweden, Italy, The Netherlands, Argentina, and possibly Australia would be good places to start. These countries, most of them sympathetically disposed to the United States in principle, will agree to match any funds voted by the U.S. Congress for the contra mercenaries in Nicaragua - plus 10 per cent for good measure.

This will be retroactive to June's Congress vote of US $100 million for the contras, requiring an immediate contribution of $15 million to $20 million from each participating country. The aid will be siphoned directly into development projects or material-aid stockpiles chosen by the Nicaraguan government, in consultation with donor nations.

It is time for Canada to take the lead, and for our government to realize that a "special relationship" with a neighbour is meaningless or immoral when that neighbour's policy is to brutalize and destroy.

Irony At Sea

[The Vancouver Sun, 29 September 1987; The Globe and Mail, 2 October 1987.]

Was anyone struck by the incongruity of President Ronald Reagan invoking international law to justify the U.S. attack on an Iranian mine-laying vessel in the Persian Gulf?

It is ironic that this incident should occur just a few months after the Reagan Administration was found guilty, by the International Court of Justice, of indulging in numerous illegalities - including dispatching CIA craft to lay mines in the harbours of Nicaragua.

Europe Must Plug US's Political Gaps

[The Christian Science Monitor (World Edition), 13-19 July 1987.]

In his haste to show that European political systems accommodate immorality while downplaying direct accountability, William Echikson misses the crucial point ("US political 'puritanism' baffles Europeans," 18-24 May). Perhaps "prolonged legislative probing" of the Irangate variety is less common in the European democracies. But their parliamentary systems tend to make such probing less necessary.

The crux of Irangate is that a United States President chose to remove himself almost completely from the tangle of daily events, encouraging and condoning the advent of a shadow government. Within the broad ideological framework of Reaganism, that shadow was invested with most of the practical powers - but none of the tiresome responsibilities - of its constitutional counterpart.

Whether the congressional inquiry establishes that President Reagan was actually more deeply involved than he claims is peripheral. Had he, as head of government, been exposed to the direct daily (and usually hostile) questioning of a parliamentary system, his shockingly deficient grasp of events would have been apparent from the outset, and his simplistic world view a subject of general ridicule. It is likely, in fact, that under such a system he could never have gained his party's presidential nomination in the first place.

No doubt European systems have a special sleaziness and corruption all their own. But they do not tolerate ignorance and evasiveness from their leaders quite as readily as their American counterpart. Accountability, furthermore, is a daily requirement, and not a transient phenomenon tied to the vagaries of political scandal.

Tales Need To Be Told

[The Globe and Mail, date unavailable (November 1987).]

Two more émigrés are permitted to leave the Soviet Union, and The Globe and Mail erupts with yet another front-page story, this time on Olga Zablotsky's eight-year battle to win the release of her children ("Tearful Reunion Ends Long fight with Soviets," The Globe and Mail, 9 November).

I have a deep respect for Mrs. Zablotsky's courage and perseverance. And I have nothing but contempt for a Soviet regime that puts daunting administrative and bureaucratic obstacles in the way of free emigration.

Nevertheless, as far as I can make out, neither Mrs. Zablotsky nor her children were ever exposed to physical abuse or harsh persecution within the Soviet Union. Family members were not imprisoned without trial, or brutally tortured, or murdered in their beds. Their relatives did not receive constant death threats, and in their new life in Canada they will not fear harassment or assassination attempts by agents of a foreign state.

There are thousands of émigrés and refugees in Canada, however, who can relate such harrowing tales. These stories cry out to be told.

The problem, of course, is that extensive coverage of these matters could raise some hard questions for Canadians: about our immigration policy and foreign aid programs; often about the foreign policies of our close allies.

Still, perhaps Canada's national newspaper could devote more prominence to these elements of the global human-rights issue. It might help balance your recent excessive emphasis on less severe - but politically convenient - case histories like Mrs. Zablotsky's.

US Military Aid to Latin America Has Accomplished Its Task - Unfortunately

[The Christian Science Monitor (World Edition), 11-17 July 1988.]

In your editorial, "Some Latin lessons for next US president" (World Edition, 13-19 June), you write that "Past US help in training Latin military forces and the emphasis on US military aid have sometimes backfired." Rather than diminishing the domestic power of military forces in Latin America, "US training ... has helped to professionalize them and strengthen their hold on government." You add with dismay that US aid to Honduras in the 1980s, "aimed at encouraging democracy in next-door Nicaragua, has in the process helped Honduran military leaders gain almost complete control over their civilian government."

I frankly cannot remember the last time I saw so much state propaganda swallowed, with such gusto, in a single paragraph of text.

What is the basis for assuming that the US wishes to diminish the role of Latin American militaries in the internal affairs of their respective countries? The facts suggest quite the opposite. Since World War II, the US has perceived the military to be its most dependable and malleable ally in Latin America. Training courses for up-and-coming officers are geared to inculcating "American values" (devotion to the status quo; a violent aversion to radical social change). And the US has fomented or supported military coups - in Guatemala, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Chile - whenever it felt its interests were threatened by democratically-elected civilian regimes. In this context, US military aid has hardly "backfired." It has accomplished, and continues to accomplish, its basic objectives.

Then there is US aid to Honduras, which the Monitor claims is designed to "encourage democracy" in neighbouring Nicaragua. How does building up a hostile garrison state along a target country's border serve to increase the potential for democracy and pluralism? Is this goal achieved by organizing, training, and giving sanctuary to rebel forces pledged to the destruction of the target country's government and social infrastructure?

If the US were similarly under siege, we would hardly expect to see a sharp increase in democratic freedoms. Instead, could it be that the US wishes to ensure no meaningful democracy emerges, or is permitted to survive, in revolutionary Nicaragua? Yes - if we dismiss the self-serving rhetoric and face the unpalatable reality.


[The Province (Vancouver), 16 September 1988.]

The story headlined "Soviets still hungry" (12 September) reports that the Soviet Union has purchased millions of tons of corn from the U.S. and is looking to buy more. But it is wrong to imply that the Soviet population is threatened by major food shortages and malnourishment.

Much more likely is that the corn is simply being used for animal feed, to maintain present levels of meat consumption in the Soviet diet. It is common knowledge that production of a pound of meat requires about six pounds of animal feed, so the high levels of meat consumption in the developed world (including the Soviet Union) are more a luxury than a nutritional necessity.

[Click to go back to the top of the Letters page.]

Politics: The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

History Ignored

[The Province, 3 June 1985]

Ilya Gerol is certainly justified (28 May) in denouncing the brutal and cynical treatment accorded the Palestinians by Lebanon's warring factions and the Arab states in general. A crucial factor, however, is conspicuously missing in his analysis.

Gerol mentions Israel twice: as victim of a perpetual Arab jihad (holy war) and, in a similar vein, as the region's pariah state, seeking only the simple recognition of its right to exist. Though typical enough, both are fundamental distortions: an impartial observer, for instance, noting the initiator of three of the region's four conflicts since 1956, might wonder just who is waging holy war.

Gerol, by his silence, absolves Israel of all responsibility for the Palestinian tragedy. Why are there thousands of Palestinians caught in the Lebanese crossfire in the first place? Presumably they did not cross the border for a holiday and decide to stay.

In fact, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been expelled from Israel since the birth of the Zionist state. Those that remain are barely tolerated, serving as low-wage urban workers when not reduced to near-serf status on land that was once theirs. They are denied even elementary rights of citizenship and political expression - treatment which Gerol finds shocking when it is meted out by the Arab states.

Yes, Mr. Gerol, the carnage continues in the Sabra and Shatila camps [in Beirut], with no Red Cross to count the bodies, no reporters present - and, as you conveniently neglect to mention, no Israeli forces standing by at lookout posts as in 1982, allowing the Palestinians' Phalangist enemies access to the camps and watching calmly the slaughter that results.

It is dangerous to forget history, sir, but shameful indeed to ignore it.

Familiar Ploy Used Against Bewley

[The Vancouver Sun, 20 July 1985.]

[N.B.: This may be the most controversial letter I've published. I had extended negotiations with the Sun letters editor over the wording; it landed me in an extended correspondence with The Jewish Western Bulletin; and a subsequent column in the Sun sought to link me vaguely with the global anti-Jewish conspiracy, which was kind of scary.]

Pleads Mark Silverberg of the Canadian Jewish Congress: "Let's call a spade a spade, shall we?" (Sun Letters, 13 July). Actually, I prepared some comments on Lew Bewley's look at the implications of Israeli state terrorism the day his column appeared (6 July). I didn't submit them - they wouldn't have added much to what I'd hoped would be a lively discussion and debate - but I do recall noting that it was refreshing indeed, "in a North American press suffocated by disinterest and distortion to see a spade called a spade." Emphasis now added.

The flood of letters vilifying Bewley's views was hardly surprising. It's interesting, though, to note that among all the righteous indignation/Nazi comparisons/cancelled subscriptions and so on, only Silverberg even attempted to deal with the examples Bewley cited to indicate the pernicious bent of Israeli policy.

In the main, the writers seemed to feel it sufficed to label Bewley an anti-Semite. That suggests wilful ignorance of the very essence of his argument: that Israel's "closed-fist" expansionism and refusal to seek accommodation with the dispossessed Palestinians can only fuel anti-Semitism, while bringing neither immediate honour nor long-term security to the Jewish people.

It is a time-honoured and familiar ploy to pretend that anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are one and the same, or that concern over the institutionalized excesses of Zionism implies opposition to the existence of a Jewish state. It seems, furthermore, to be a tactic exclusive to "supporters of Israel." If Bewley had condemned the violence and crass cynicism of Soviet foreign policy, or Soviet repression of national minority cultures, he would hardly have been denounced as anti-Slavic.

Some may view Bewley's comments as extreme. If so, they are comparable to most published opinion in North America, which in its mindless, numbing devotion to the Israeli state apparatus tends toward the other extreme - that is, the kind of "media objectivity" Silverberg would doubtless extol. For my part, I detect a surprisingly moderate theme in Bewley's admittedly strident article - witness his praise for the efforts of a substantial portion of Israel's population to restrain the bulldozer mentality of their leaders.

As for the facts of terrorism: surely the "where was so-and-so when ...?" line of Zionist rhetoric has grown a bit stale. That said, it is simply astonishing that in his fulminations over Middle East iniquity Silverberg mentions the "brutalization" (outright slaughter would be more accurate) of Palestinian refugees in Beirut camps by Lebanese Christian militia.

Silverberg must know that those Christian forces, led by Major Saad Haddad, were Israel's vaunted allies in the invasion of Lebanon - and that, as was widely reported even in the mainstream press at the time, their massacre of hundreds of Palestinian men, women, and children was carried out under the noses of the Israeli defence force, which controlled entry to the camps. The Christian militiamen were sent in and permitted to stay for some 40 hours; Israeli soldiers could have watched the carnage [editor's addition] through binoculars from their lookout posts a couple of hundred meters away, and they provided flares to illuminate the scene at night. They then permitted the militiaman to linger and finish the cosmetic task of burying the bodies in mass graves.

Perhaps, after all, Silverberg is right: "terrorism" seems a rather mild word for what strikes me as massive complicity in an atrocity of such [my original wording: great] magnitude. That Silverberg can cite this butchery as an example of the kind of regional amorality that Israel's leaders staunchly foreswear indicates the general level of his invective.

Silverberg and your other correspondents appear to have made no attempt to state a case grounded in logic or reality. [N.B.: This was the editor's way of mulching a more complex, extended passage in the original.] To anyone interested in the facts, I recommend Noam Chomsky's The Fateful Triangle, which over 500 closely-argued and exhaustively-documented pages reveals much of the actual nature of Israel's leaders, past and present, and the policies they have imposed on subject populations within and beyond Israel's borders. Chomsky is a Jew, and much of his analysis is based on reporting in the admirably pluralistic Israeli press, which makes it difficult to dismiss his views as so much transparent anti-Semitism.

Israeli Warriors

[The Globe and Mail, date unavailable (1987?).]

Abraham Rabinovitch may be correct in claiming that the conquest of the West Bank in 1967 was an unexpected bounty for Israel in its war against the Arab states ("The Battle for Jerusalem: It All Started By Accident" - 30 May). Much more dubious is his assertion that Israel awaited war with "trepidation," fearing possible defeat and the annihilation of "an entire generation" of its fighting men.

In fact, key figures in the Israeli command seem to have greeted the prospect of a strike at Egypt with supreme confidence and even enthusiasm. They, it appears, saw the standard David-and-Goliath equation in different terms.

In the words of General Matitiahu Peled, one of the planners of the 1967 campaign: "There is no reason to hide the fact that since 1949 no one dared, or more precisely, no one was able, to threaten the very existence of Israel. In spite of that, we have continued to foster a sense of our own inferiority, as if we were a weak and insignificant people, which ... could be exterminated at any moment.

"I am sure," General Peled added five years after Israel's lightning victory, "that our General Staff never told the government that the Egyptian military threat represented any danger to Israel or that we were unable to crush [Egyptian president] Gamal Abdel Nasser's army, which, with unheard-of foolishness, had exposed itself to the devastating might of our army. ... To claim that the Egyptian forces concentrated on our borders were capable of threatening Israel's existence not only insults the intelligence of anyone capable of analyzing this kind of situation, but is an insult to Zahal [the Israeli army]."

Setting Off the Irony Alarm

[The Globe and Mail, 23 August 1989.]

The Globe and Mail's report on a Canadian Jewish Congress delegation's visit to Israel mentioned "a five-year, $2 billion Israeli plan to build housing for Palestinians" in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip ("Canadian Jews Urge Ottawa to Downgrade Relations with PLO," 5 August).

Drawing Conclusions, in the same edition, featured a cartoon with the caption, "Palestinian Homes Demolished By Army." It depicted an Israeli soldier commemorating another destroyed dwelling by painting a miniature house, flying-ace style, on the side of his tank.

On one hand, we have a well-publicized outburst of "humanitarian" zeal (though it's the outside world that is asked to fork out, and any contracts would no doubt be snapped up by Israeli construction firms).

On the other hand, one notes the ongoing, systematic and illegal policy of collective punishment - razing to the ground the family home of a Palestinian suspected of particular acts against the Israeli occupier.

Do I detect a certain irony here?

Flowing to Only One Pole

[The McGill Daily, 12 February 1992]

The review of Simcha Jacobovichi's film Deadly Currents (6 February) was generally on the mark. But I think it missed one of the more glaring imbalances in Jacobovichi's depiction of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The film presents several Palestinians whose vision of an independent Palestine basically involves pushing Israeli jews into the sea. This extremism is common enough, both in Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) and in the Palestinian diaspora.

I remember, for example, having a conversation with an elderly Palestinian in Amman, who praised Hitler for killing so many Jews. The man assured me that one day Palestine would be drenched knee-deep with Jewish blood, as prophesied (he claimed) in the Holy Koran.

Not once in the course of Deadly Currents, however, are we introduced to any Israeli Jews whose politics tend in the same extreme direction. They certainly exist.

At a Peace Now demonstration in Jerusalem a couple of years ago, I spoke with a member of the late Meir Kahane's Kach movement. He sat on the edge of the demonstration cradling a noose in his lap, which he said was reserved for "traitors" - like the Israelis chanting for peace nearby.

His dream of a Greater Israel was based on expulsion of all Arabs from the occupied territories, and extension of the Jewish homeland into Jordan, parts of Lebanon, and the Egyptian Sinai. [For a more detailed description of this encounter, and others in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, see Springtime in Palestine.]

There are plenty like him in Israel and in the West Bank "settler" movement. At their most murderous, they are the people who stage drive-by shootings of "Arab dogs," or fire their Uzis wildly at Palestinian civilians, or rig car-bombs to blow up Palestinian municipal leaders.

And given prevailing power realities, it's these people whose fanaticism is more likely to be translated into broader policy - with potentially catastrophic results. In fact, as the imposition of Jewish "settlements" on Palestinian land demonstrates, Israeli government policy already reflects the criminal mindset of the zealots.

I respect Simcha Jacobovichi, and I enjoyed his film in many respects. Among other things, it captures some of the vibrant pluralism of both Israeli and Palestinian society. But Jacobovichi seems to have backed away from depictions of Zionism which radically contradict his image (perhaps his self-image) of thoughtful, hard-bitten Jewish humanism..

[Click to go back to the top of the Letters page.]

Gender Issues

Violence Against Men

[The Globe and Mail, 25 May 1990.]

[N.B.: This letter was the seed of the project that became The Globe and Males.]

Re the letters attacking Professor Ferrel Christensen for his statements on anti-male sexism (Letters, 5 May):

One of Prof. Christensen's basic arguments is that the movement to free men from the social strictures that oppress and injure them has lagged far behind the similar movement for women. For example, while violence against women has emerged as a standard analytical concept and a subject of abiding social concern, there is no counterbalancing concept for violence against men. This is true even though men comprise a majority of victims of violent assault and murder.

A glance at The Globe and Mail's recent coverage is instructive in this respect. You have reported, in passing, that men are overwhelmingly more likely than women to be murdered on the job ("Ontario Cabbies, Gas Bar Staff Shown to Face High Murder Risk," 26 March); and that, according to Statistics Canada, men are more likely than women to be violently assaulted ("One In Four Felt Unsafe At Night, '88 Study Shows," 25 April).

In neither of these stories, however, was the obvious gender component the focus of the article. The Statistics Canada data on assault led to a feature piece on violence against women ("Living In Fear," 28 April). But Vivian Smith's excellent article was only half the story, and it included the bizarre and illogical claim that "Women are more afraid than men of being violently attacked, and with good reason. In cities they are now just as likely to be victims of violent assault as men." (Is this good reason to be more afraid?)

Statistics Canada also found (and The Globe and Mail reported) that more than 60 percent of assault victims in rural areas are male. But this shocking figure passes unmentioned by Ms. Smith, and has yet to result in a feature article on violence against men. In general, it seems that male victims of violence are viewed as accomplices in their own injury or death - because they are men, and their assailants are usually "men too." Thus, they are unworthy of the kind of attention paid to women who suffer a similar fate. How's that for blaming the victim?

How About Study on Violence to Males?

[The Gazette (Montreal), 3 July 1991.]

I am pleased to see that the Canadian government is learning to take violence against women more seriously, with its recent release of a report entitled "The War Against Women" (Gazette, 20 June).

Could we now have some similar attention paid to the gender that comprises the majority of assault victims in Canada, two-thirds of all murder victims, 80 percent of suicide victims, a whopping 97.4 percent of occupational fatalities, and roughly 100 percent of the 100,000 Canadians killed in battle in this century?

In your editorial on the government report (25 June), you wrote that "much of the violence against women has certain characteristics that differ [sic] it from the broader category of violence in general, which is why it is worth studying."

It is indeed worth studying - and confronting - but the argument as presented in the editorial is a cop-out. The overriding characteristic of "violence in general," as you so vaguely phrase it, is that men are the ones on the receiving end. (Logically, if violence against women is factored out of the broader equation, then the victims remaining are male.) In your usage, "violence in general" is violence against men. Perhaps this category of violence is also worth studying, since it represents the majority of acts of violent victimization in Canadian society.

Your editorial also mentions the proportion of women murder victims who are killed by their partners. You write, rather snidely: "If those statistics reflected the experience of men rather than of women, the problem would have been classified as a national crisis long ago."

I invite you to consider the statistics of male suffering and victimization cited above. None of these has yet provoked a "national crisis" or anything close to it, even though men constitute the majority (in most cases, the overwhelming majority) of victims.

The gender component of suicide and occupational fatalities, for example, remains all but invisible, while male victims of murder and assault are swallowed up in the airy ambiguity of "violence in general."

To invert your argument, would phenomena like suicide or on-the-job fatalities be more likely to spawn national outrage if 80 or 97 percent of the victims were female rather than male? No doubt - since our culture has traditionally viewed the violent victimization of women, and women's suffering more generally, as much more serious and worthy of concern than the male equivalents.

[Link to The Globe and Males, my study of "the other side of gender bias in Canada's National Newspaper," which features more extended and annotated discussion of the statistical data mentioned here.]

Playing With Stats

[The Gazette (Montreal), 22 November 1992.]

It was indeed shocking to read that in Ontario between 1975 and 1985, 28 times as many men as women were killed on the job. And more than six times as many men as women were murdered at work (The Gazette, 10 November).

Except this wasn't the story. Your headline read, "Study looks at women murdered at work." The article informed us that "women are concentrated in high-risk jobs - particularly retail and service jobs that expose them to violent customers and clients."

What on earth can this mean, when the disparity between male and female victims (as you acknowledge elsewhere in the article) is so overwhelming? Are women disproportionately concentrated in high-risk jobs? Or, as the statistics would suggest, are they in fact concentrated in working environments that accord them a vastly greater margin of physical safety?

You cite the figure of 1,200 men killed at work in Ontario (1975-85), compared with 43 women. Of the total number of workers killed, 73 men were murdered, versus 11 women. But the way this is presented in the Gazette article is offensive and absurd: 11 women murdered, compared with "only 73" men!

False Accusations Happen

[The McGill Daily, 8 January 1992; published anonymously.]

As someone at McGill who has been the object of a sexual harassment complaint, allow me to respond to comments made by Sylvia Di Iorio of McGill's Sexual Assault Centre in the 22 November Daily.

Ms. Di Iorio contends that the existing system at McGill, whereby a harassment complaint is handled by an assessor acting as go-between for the complainant and the accused, is unfair to complainants. "A woman must feel she is believed in a case of sexual harassment," Ms. Di Iorio protests. "But the assessors have to listen to both sides of the story."

I confess my jaw dropped when I read those lines. Surely "listening to both sides of the story" is the foundation of any fair investigative process! Ms. Di Iorio apparently feels that merely making a complaint ought to be sufficient (at least, as she phrases it, if the complainant is female). The guilt of the accused seems to be taken as a given.

But is there no such thing as a false charge? I can attest that there is.

A complaint of sexual harassment was brought against me some time ago. At its heart lay, I think, a misunderstanding rather than malice on the part of the complainant. Nevertheless, the allegation caused me considerable anguish. Anyone who has ever been wrongly accused of a serious offense will appreciate the kind of stress and emotional exhaustion involved.

The charge was handled by a McGill assessor who, as the Daily article points out, was "chosen by the Principal and ... approved by a committee of faculty and student representatives." She interviewed both parties and solicited relevant documents. After weeks of careful investigation, she adjudicated in my favour, finding no evidence of sexual harassment. My department accepted the ruling, and there was no interruption in my professional duties.

At all stages of this often-agonizing experience, I nonetheless felt fairly treated by an impartial assessor who was not operating on a presumption of guilt. Ms. Di Iorio should bear this example in mind when she argues for a change in McGill's policy which would, in essence, destroy the accused's chances of a fair hearing.

Sexual harassment is a problem which deserves attention and action at the highest levels of society and this university. False allegations may be unusual. But they do occur (whether through misunderstanding or malice), and they can ruin lives and careers if they are unquestioningly believed. For this reason, investigative standards ought to transcend the kind of blind partisanship evident in Ms. Di Iorio's comments.

Doesn't Mind Sweetie

[The Globe and Mail, 11 January 1992.]

[N.B.: Possibly my favourite letter, slightly mangled by Globe editors. Bold type indicates passages sadly excised by the Globe.]

It's hard to know where to begin in dismantling Joan Skelton's article, "Terms of endearment that aren't" (27 December 1991). At first I thought I was reading a parody; part of me still isn't certain.

Ms. Skelton protests against the use of the terms "dear" and "sweetie," which for her resemble "the words and actions of sexual harassment." If she really believes these gender-neutral terms are used exclusively by men, and then only to demean women, perhaps she ought to get out more often. I've spent much of my life in woman-dominated professions, as a secretary and typist. I can assure Ms. Skelton I've been called "dear" at one time or another by many of my female co-workers and supervisors. I've had "sweetie" on plenty of occasions as well. In fact, work aside, I reckon I've been called "sweetie" a dozen times in the last 24 hours - affectionately, by my girlfriend.

Of course, these terms can also be used sarcastically to belittle someone. But I'm not sure I trust Ms. Skelton to recognize the difference. She tells us she blew her top when a departing male dinner-guest said, "Thank you, dear. Great party." "Dear? Don't you know my name after all this?" ... He never called me dear again." Quite understandable: I can think of other words that much better describe such a rude and hypersensitive host. [N.B.: I've always regretted that editorial excision, partly because it renders the final sentence of the published version a little incoherent.]

Ms. Skelton also describes feeling perplexed, as a youth, by the fact that "Almost all terms for the female included the male in them: female, lady, person, human ..." I recommend she use some of her freelance fee to buy herself a decent dictionary. "Lady" comes from the Old English hlaefdige ("kneader of loaves"), which may not reflect the modern range of politically-correct career options but has nothing to do with "lad." The root of "person," meanwhile, is the Latin personae: the mask through which the sound (sonus) of an actor's voice issued in classical theatre. Adopting Ms. Skelton's etymological standards, I suppose as a man I could object to the term "male," with its connotations of darkness and evil (malefactor, malevolent, maleficent ...).

Dropping "person," "human," and so on from her lexicon, Ms. Skelton suggests we start relating as "womson to womson." Thanks all the same, but if such grotesque constructions are the only alternative, I'll stick to "dear." Even if it kills my chances of being invited to Ms. Skelton's next dinner party.

Regrets All Around

[Montreal Mirror, 16-23 January 1992.]

[N.B.: The fate of this letter was interesting. The text that follows is my original. Changes made by the Mirror are noted thereafter; lastly, there is the text of my unpublished follow-up.]

The Mirror's year-end roundup (26 December) included the claim (p. 18) that "nearly half of all murders this year in the city were committed by men murdering their former or current spouses or girlfriends."

The last tally I saw of killings in Montreal was published in the Gazette on 24 December. It cited official MUC statistics showing that 75 people had been murdered to that point in 1991. Of these, 15 were women - 20 percent of the total. The MUC also mentions six people killed in conjugal violence. If all were women, this means that, at most, 8 percent of total murders were "committed by men murdering their former or current spouses or girlfriends."

I hope you'll agree that 8 percent is a hell of a long way from "nearly half." I would like to see either a clarification of your statistical method or a prompt and prominent correction.

[In the version of the letter published by the Mirror, the latter half of the second paragraph was garbled. I fired off a follow-up:]

17 January 1992

Ava Chisholm, Letters Editor, The Mirror

Dear Ava,

Word has it you can't stand fax paper, so my apologies, but I wanted to get this to you quickly. Thanks for publishing my letter in the last issue. However, a section of text was removed which renders the central portion of the letter a little incoherent. This is how it reads as published: "... 75 people had been murdered to that point in 1991. Of these, 15 were women, this means that, at most, 8% of total murders were 'committed by men murdering their former or current spouses or girlfriends.'"

Apart from the fact that this version skids badly as far as sentence-structure is concerned, it's clear that 15 out of 75 does not "mean" that "at most, 8% of total murders" were women killed in a conjugal setting. 15 out of 75 is, in fact, 20%; the reader is unable to discover how the 8% figure was derived.

I would be very grateful if you could publish a brief correction along the following lines:

"A section of text was accidentally removed from Adam Jones's letter on murders in Montreal for 1991, published in our last issue. The letter should have read: "... 75 people had been murdered to that point [24 December] in 1991. Of these, 15 were women - 20 percent of the total. The MUC also mentions six people killed in conjugal violence. If all were women, this means that, at most, 8 percent of total murders were 'committed by men murdering their former or current spouses or girlfriends.'"

I leave aside here the statement in the Mirror's correction that not only were totals for outlying areas conveniently conflated with MUC statistics (where did you get the 75 total from?), but child murders were also factored in and presented as murders of "current spouses or girlfriends"! Pretty dubious tactics, if you ask me.

If there's any problem with this correction, please let me know. Thanks again for publishing the letter.

[No correction was published, and the letter went unanswered.]

Letter Engenders More Mail

[The Vancouver Sun, 23 July 1993]

Kudos to Barbara Rae-Yuen for pointing out that the word "midwife" is gender-specific in relation to the woman being attended to, not the one doing the attending ("Midwife can only be considered a sexist term if men can get pregnant," Letters, 14 July).

Inadvertently, though, by harking back to Old English for her understanding of "midwife," Ms. Rae-Yuen provides ammunition for those like Lawrence Carpenter who question The Sun's use of the term "fisher" instead of "fisherman" ("How about fishpersons and midspouses?," Letters, 9 July).

In Old English, the suffix "man" was gender-neutral, denoting a member of the human race. The word used for a male individual was waepman, and for a female, wifman.

The prefix of waepman was eventually dropped. Wifman, of course, has endured into the modern era as "woman."

Apparently, then, if "fisherman," "chairman," and the like are deemed too sexist for a family newspaper, "woman" should be banned as well.

Even more objectionable is the word "female," which makes regular appearances in The Sun, but which is an assimilation of the Old French femelle and the indubitably masculine "male."

Isn't some explanation warranted for these editorial inconsistencies?

New Male Cowardice

[The Globe and Mail, 24 January 1995.]

Michael Coren laments the "new male cowardice," men's "cowering" to bullies of all stripes, and calls for a reinvigorated and more heroic manhood (Men, 18 January). Among other things, he rather callously assails male students of the Ecole Polytechnique for failing to come to the rescue of women targeted by Marc Lépine.

A few days earlier (14 January), The Globe and Mail reported the case of one man who did know "what is required" of him as a man, according to Mr. Coren's knights-of-old rhetoric. Twenty-year-old Darren Watts "was beaten into a coma by up to 17 young men who swarmed him when he went to the aid of a woman who was struck by a man outside a Dalhousie [University] fraternity-house party."

Obviously, interventions of the kind Mr. Coren promotes are a very dangerous business. While I hope I would behave honourably in such a setting, I see no reason why this selfless and potentially deadly behaviour should be demanded of men alone - particularly as this sex already provides the vast majority of society's front-line "protectors" in the police, armed forces and other services.

If interceding in a dangerous or aggressive situation is a citizen's responsibility, then it is a responsibility shared equally by women. In fact, in many such situations, women can exploit the "never-hit-a-lady" code to defuse macho posturing, bluster and violence.

And if intercession is deemed a man's responsibility alone, perhaps a few gender-specific tax breaks could be granted to the segment of the population that Mr. Coren would conscript as shock troops in defence of "authentic community."

Sweeping Conclusions About Girls

[The Globe and Mail, 24 January 1998.]

Your front-page headline and story, "Teen's Torture Again Reveals Girls' Brutality" (20 January), bordered on tabloid-style sensationalism. I would be very skeptical about any headline that referred to "men's brutality" in such sweeping terms.

Moreover, the actions described in the story do not justify comparisons drawn with the case of Reena Virk, the 14-year-old girl murdered in British Columbia late last year.

The Globe article relates an incident in Kitchener "in which a 17-year-old girl is alleged to have hacked off the hair of a 14-year-old victim with a knife and beat her so badly that her eyes are swollen shut." She also allegedly "cut off the victim's jewelry."

While ugly, and Ontarian, this is pretty small potatoes by the standards of many violent men and women nationwide. I include those who kicked and stomped Reena Virk most of the way to death, broke her back, and left her to drown.

The article seems more an excuse to give additional publicity to Patricia Pearson, author of When She Was Bad. I think Ms. Pearson makes important points in her study of female violence. But there is something flavour-of-the-month in privileging her pontifications over, say, the arrival of a European delegation in Algeria to investigate the staggering atrocities occurring there. This gets a column inch at the bottom of page 8.

[Click to go back to the top of the Letters page.]


Kafka Works On Sale in Czechoslovakia

[The Vancouver Sun, 9 August 1989.]

The spirit of Franz Kafka is alive and well in the ranks of the Czechoslovakian Communist Party, as Richard Cohen of The Washington Post points out ("Kafka's Work Can't Be Had, But Much Is Kafkaesque," 25 July).

Mr. Cohen is wrong on at least one count, though. Kafka's writings are currently available in Czechoslovakia - or were when I visited that country a couple of months ago. The East German edition of Kafka's complete works, including The Trial, was prominently displayed in bookshops in Prague and elsewhere. (German is the most common second language in Czechoslovakia, with the exception of force-fed Russian.)

In addition, I saw numerous posters in Prague bearing the famous likeness of Kafka that Mr. Cohen mentions. These were apparently advertising a play based on his life and/or works (I don't read Czech). As for the Czech edition of Kafka, my understanding was that it was due in 1991, and would indeed be the complete works - including The Trial, which Mr. Cohen says will continue to be banned. It would be curious if the Czech regime were to excise from the Kafka canon a work that it is already permitting in the German translation.

[N.B.: Several months later, of course, all such considerations were rendered moot.]


[In These Times, 18-24 October 1989.]

I enjoyed Alexander Cockburn's meditation on the impact of World War I on British culture and society (In These Times, September 13). But since Alex is a real stickler for accurate statistics - witness the recent furor surrounding his column in The Nation on the number of Stalin's victims - I have to correct him on one point.

Referring to the Battle of the Somme, which began on July 1, 1916, Cockburn discusses "the consequences of having British generals like Haig order charges that saw a quarter of a million men machine-gunned in a single day." He's guilty here of misinterpreting the reference by British historian Raphael Samuel, quoted earlier in the article, to "the first day on the Somme - the battle in which 250,000 British soldiers had been sent to their deaths."

Samuel apparently meant here the entire course of the Battle of the Somme, which lasted four-and-a-half months and cost some 630,000 Allied casualties (killed, wounded, missing and captured). The notorious "first day on the Somme" was a ghastly affair - "The Black Day of the British Army" - but the casualty toll among British forces by day's end was 57,470, including 19,240 killed. That's almost inconceivable (more casualties in one day than the British suffered in the Crimean, Boer, and Korean wars combined), but it's a far cry from a quarter-million.

[For an account of a visit to the World War I battlefields, including the Somme and Vimy Ridge, see my freelance article for the Montreal Gazette, No Man's Land.]

Chomsky and the Holocaust

[Manchester Guardian Weekly, 29 August 1993]

I was astonished to come across Paul Johnson's assertion that "a few gullible fish, like Noam Chomsky, may have been hooked" by the claims of Holocaust revisionists (8 August). It is well known that Mr. Johnson's antipathy towards Professor Chomsky borders on the pathological. But is he seriously suggesting that Chomsky denies the Holocaust happened?

In American Power and the New Mandarins (1969), Chomsky called the slaughter of the Jews "the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history." Elsewhere, he refers to it as an indubitable "historical reality," and argues that "we demean ourselves by even being willing to enter into debate with people who deny the Holocaust and other Nazi atrocities."

It is true that Chomsky has defended the right of Holocaust revisionists to air their views, however vile. There is no "gullibility" here, only a commitment to Enlightenment values that Mr. Johnson would do well to imitate. Instead, he chooses to tar one of the towering moral and intellectual figures of our age with Holocaust revisionism.

[It was a pleasure to be able to defend Chomsky against an attack by one of his most notorious adversaries. For wide-ranging thoughts from the great man himself, see An Interview with Noam Chomsky.]

[Click to go back to the top of the Letters page.]

Created by Adam Jones, 1998. No copyright claimed for non-commercial use if source is acknowledged and notified.
Last updated: 10 October 2000.