Julia Gillard and the limits to feminism

Originally posted at iPolitics.ca

Julia Gillard is probably best known for deposing a sitting Australian prime minister, Kevin Rudd, in a Labor caucus coup three years ago today, only to find herself the subject of an almost comical series of counter-coup attempts by the selfsame Rudd.

All this has little significance beyond the narrow boundaries of Aussie politics.

But Gillard’s brief, turbulent career as prime minister may be remembered elsewhere for something different: testing the limits of feminism in modern politics.

I use “feminism” here in the very loose sense of the view that women need to directly confront many existing beliefs and institutions, as well as some individual men, in order to achieve full emancipation.

Since Margaret Thatcher’s election as British prime minister 34 years ago, we have become increasingly accustomed to women leaders in Western countries. In Canada today, half the provincial premiers are women.

But Thatcher was no feminist. And while some of the women who have competed for the highest offices have used their sex to political advantage — just as all politicians try to exploit certain of their personal characteristics — few have made explicitly feminist appeals.

When Hillary Clinton ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, there’s no doubt that many voters were attracted to the possibility of the first woman president. But during her brutal contest with Barack Obama she was mostly concerned with broadening her appeal rather than deepening her feminist credentials.

It was only at the end, when Clinton had conceded defeat, that she turned her swansong into a feminist anthem — thanking her supporters for making “18 million cracks” in the glass ceiling.

Julia Gillard has been different.

It might not be fair to say that Australia is an especially sexist society. It may be just that Aussies, with their fondness for blunt speech, say what others only think. But the Australian opposition leader, Tony Abbott, has an impressive record of bone-headed remarks about women — suggesting, for example, that they may not have the natural attributes for leadership.

When Gillard found herself under attack during one particularly crude maneuvre to preserve her minority government last year, she rounded on Abbott in an epic speech in which she denounced his “repulsive double-standards when it comes to misogyny and sexism”.

The video of the scene in which the reptilian Abbott looked on almost unblinking as she dissected his idiocies — including a speech in front of signs describing Gillard as a “witch” and a “bitch” — briefly became a YouTube sensation in North American feminist circles.

But that hardly ended the matter.

Gillard’s sex and sexuality is apparently an inexhaustible source of amusement for some men in the opposition parties. Recently a menu surfaced that had been prepared for a party fundraiser featuring “Julia Gillard Kentucky fried quail — small breasts, huge thighs and a big red box”.

Through all this, Gillard’s personal popularity has been flagging — probably not primarily because of her sex but rather due to a series of poorly executed policy reversals, including a controversial carbon tax, as well as a flagging economy and, of course, the irrepressible Rudd.

Her appeal has remained strongest among women, less so among the working men who were once the Labor party’s most reliable stalwarts.

So recently she has attempted political ju jitsu. She has argued that under Abbott, the gains that have been made by Australian women will be rolled back.

“We don’t want to live in an Australia where abortion again becomes the political plaything of men who think they know better,” she said in a recent speech. She warned that in the election scheduled for September, “we are going to make a big decision as a nation. It’s a decision about whether, once again, we will banish women’s voices from our political life.”

She asked women whether they wanted to live in a country ruled by “men in blue ties” — a reference to the neckwear of choice among conservative Australian men.

Appeals of this kind have sometimes been made by liberal politicians in other countries with some success. Usually, however, these appeals have been made by men, like Paul Martin in the 2004 Canadian campaign — seldom by women leaders whose own sexuality has been as electric as Gillard’s.

The result of Gillard’s feminist gambit was the opposite of what she presumably hoped. Her support cratered among men without any concomitant boost among women.

Blue ties have become a political meme, worn not only by her opposition opponents, but slyly by Rudd and some of his supporters inside Labor.

You will not find an Australian political commentator today who thinks that Gillard will win the election coming in just a few weeks. Many think she may not last as Labor leader even till then.

Julia Gillard will no doubt have a future on the international speaking circuit. Her strength and intelligence, not to mention her experience of sexism in Australian politics and her frank feminism, will earn her a hearing among women everywhere.

But Gillard has probably defined the current political limits to overt feminism by a woman leader in a still male-dominated arena. Whether she will have advanced the cause of women in Australian politics, or caused it incidental damage in her struggle to retain power, it is not yet possible to say.

Just for fun, imagine a useful Senate: One for kids.

Much of the conversation about reforming the Senate has revolved around two things: the problems with the existing body and the difficulties of changing it.

That’s tempted a lot of people, including me, to wonder whether abolishing the damn thing isn’t  the easiest, cleanest way forward (though that too has its complications).

But just for a moment, let’s try a thought experiment and imagine how we might design the Senate from scratch if we weren’t so boxed in.

I offer here a modest proposal: a Senate for children.

In most countries that have them, an upper chamber is supposed to be a more reflective body than the popularly elected lower house, insulated to a degree from the suddenly shifting moods of popular politics. This is what Canadians call “sober second thought”.

Of course, our Senate does nothing of the kind — at least not effectively — because it is, if anything, a more partisan place than the House of Commons.

Upper chambers usually also have a second purpose: to protect groups that might be vulnerable to a democratic majority. The Canadian Senate was specifically designed back in 1867 to protect the interests of the wealthy propertied classes and those of the regions.

I don’t know a soul who thinks that the wealthy don’t have enough leverage in the world today and need a legislative chamber of their own to preserve them from the withering fires of democracy.

As for the regions … I know that this is the way we frame a lot of our politics, particularly when we are talking about Senate reform. Excuse me, but in my lifetime the House of Commons has been dominated by the politics and personalities of the two regions supposedly most aggrieved: Quebec and the West.

I have a different idea. The truly underrepresented group in our society are the young.

Think about it. On both the right and the left many of our pre-occupations — debt, family life, climate change, education, and even pensions — have to do with equity between generations. They have to do with our collective future — in which the younger you are, the greater your stake.

We know that democratic politics, like the structures of our own minds, often overvalue the present — which is why we have that extra piece of pie when we know we shouldn’t, why we don’t save enough for our retirement, and why we don’t always think clearly about the trade-offs between jobs now and a crackling hot climate later.

And yet children under 18, those most likely to be suffering through the effects of our short-sightedness, don’t get to vote.

Many young adults, meanwhile, don’t bother to do so. Some will say they don’t deserve a voice because they don’t take the trouble to vote. But perhaps the problem is in part that they do not see themselves reflected in the political world.

If we really wanted a Senate that checked the democratic impulses of the moment, we’d be looking for a way to choose people whose first interests were those of children and the young.

Here’s how this might work.

A third of the chamber could be chosen by the federal and provincial governments for their expertise. Think experts in nutrition, health, education, early childhood development, entrepreneurship, economics, the environment — maybe even an actuary or two. Throw in a clown and a toy store owner.

Another third could be chosen by parents on behalf of children under 16. One vote per child. This is sometimes called ‘Demeny voting’ after the demographer who first proposed it, and has been promoted by the Canadian economist Miles Corak and the Washington-based Canadian journalist Chrystia Freeland.

I would have the remaining third of the chamber elected by young adults, age 16-30 — which would almost certainly mean the Senate would be a younger body than the House of Commons, rather than the other way around.

The job of this chamber would be to consider every piece of legislation coming from the House of Commons for its impact on the young, particularly long-term. Its main power would be to investigate, research, hold hearings and propose amendments related to the long-term interests of the young.

I would not give this Kids’ Senate a veto over legislation passed by the House of Commons, but would allow it a two-year power of delay — perhaps subject to an override by two-thirds of the Commons.

The Kids’ Senate would be less partisan because of its complex composition and its limited powers. It would give us sober second thought. It would give representation to the truly unrepresented.

It might actually add something missing from our system — which the current Senate most assuredly does not.

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

The post-Harper era has (unofficially) begun

Originally posted at iPolitics.ca

In the last election, reporters were unlikely to waste the few questions the prime minister so parsimoniously allowed them to ask whether, if re-elected, he would serve a full term.

Having been in office just five years, Stephen Harper was not about to walk away from the job if he won.

But if he does choose to run again in 2015 — and he still has plenty of time to decide otherwise — he will be pelted with questions about his retirement plans until he gives an unequivocal answer.

At some point during the last few weeks, with the party riding at its lowest-ever in the polls under his leadership, the explosion of the Duffy-Wright affair and the resignation of one of his MPs, the switch flicked.

The question for journalists is no longer whether Harper will be defeated, but when he will go. And when he goes, will it be by his own volition, in an election, or at the hands of his own party?

Inside the Conservative party, this transition will be marked by a thousand inflection points, many of which will be hidden from outsiders. That’s when a cabinet minister, a backbench MP, or a party organizer chooses to step forward or step back, depending on how he or she weights the current pressures from Harper against the hopes and fears of a future life under another leader.

The recent restiveness of the caucus is a measure not only of the brittleness of Harper’s strict party discipline, but also of MPs’ recognition he will not be where he is forever.

Already, and for some time now, Jim Flaherty has been showing some uncharacteristic independence (for this government, anyway) about his own political future.

In a well-observed piece in the Toronto Star last week, Tim Harper pointed out that while cabinet stalwarts (and possible leadership contenders) John Baird and James Moore have mouthed the PMO talking points on the Senate imbroglio, Jason Kenney had been uncharacteristically silent.

Whether or not leadership politics is behind this, the point is that others in the party and the media are watching and making inferences.

At the Conservatives’ convention later this month in Calgary, presumptive leadership candidates will be preening with as much unsubtlety as they think they can get away with. The long-form newspaper profiles will not be far behind.

Harper is expected to shuffle his cabinet soon after that. As he does so, he will be aware that who he puts where will crucially affect the shape of a future leadership race. Every leadership contender he puts in a high-profile portfolio will make Harper’s own departure seem more plausible. If instead he squelches the ambitions of possible successors it will not only weaken his cabinet, it will be public testimony to his defensiveness.

At this point in Harper’s career, the power has begun slipping away — perhaps inexorably.

There is no single pattern to the way these things work themselves out. Margaret Thatcher — who, like Harper, resurrected her party — seemed indomitable until, after 11 years as prime minister, she was suddenly and brutally disposed of in a caucus revolt that occurred while she was away at an EU summit. In Canada, though, MPs have no similar mechanism to get rid of a prime minister.

In 1967, Lester Pearson decided on his own to go, but no sooner did he make the announcement than he lost control. There were so many ministers out on the trail campaigning for his job that the Liberals were defeated in a critical vote in the House of Commons and were almost propelled into an election before they could choose his successor.

Tony Blair and Jean Chrétien each had ambitious rivals as finance ministers from the day their first cabinets were formed. In both cases, strange as it may seem, the pretenders — Gordon Brown in the UK and Paul Martin here — thought they had a deal that the prime minister would gracefully exit after two terms, and give them the keys to the corner office.

Blair and Chrétien both defiantly fought on and won a third time, but found themselves wounded and weakened even as they tried to chose the timing of their own departures.

The most obvious route for Harper now, if he does decide to fight another election, is to find some great political project — as Brian Mulroney did in his troubled first term in the form of free trade — and use it to turn the page, drive off internal and external rivals, and regain command.

Expect that too.

But great policy debates are by their nature complex and difficult for reporters to explain. Those of us who covered free trade — or Meech Lake for that matter — can tell you that the broad public only becomes engaged at the final decision point when they suddenly scramble for information.

A leadership race, on the other hand, can be understood like a hockey game: a competition that can generate excitement, even if the understanding of some spectators is not that great. In the media, politics usually trumps policy.

So ready or not, Stephen Harper — here it comes.

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

Why hating Harper is wrong

I know, I know. Those cruel, pale blue eyes. Those thin (cruel) lips. The cringe-inducing handshake with his son. Only one funny joke in 7 long years as prime minister. (Go ahead, look, it won’t kill you).

I get it. Many of you are fed up with the guy. And judging by my Twitter feed, the frustration you feel with his government has calcified into detestation of Harper the man. We are in an era of personalized politics, and with Harper it certainly is personal.

The same thing happened to Pierre Trudeau, Mulroney, Bush and Blair near the end. A lot of people couldn’t stand the way they talked, the way they walked, the way they held a cup of coffee.

Now we have had the explosion of the Duffy-Wright affair, which predictably brought out the worst in Harper: the closed, uncommunicative man we have come to know so well. For some people, the fury is so powerful their third eye can see what the few known facts obscure: that Harper was right there in the room and handed Nigel Wright the pen with which he wrote the infamous $90,000 cheque.

These days, even conservatives find themselves doubting Harper’s moral gyroscope — maybe also (heaven forfend) his political savvy.

There is no doubt that if he is still the Conservative leader when Canadians next go to the polls, an awful lot of them will be casting their ballot against Stephen Harper as much as they will for anyone else.

The recent B.C. election reminded us once again to be suspicious of polls. But they do often catch a public mood, however shallow, transient or whimsical. The mood they capture these days is one in which the Conservatives are at their lowest ebb since Harper became prime minister, and the Liberals have wafted into majority government territory.

As a progressive, perhaps I should be happy that the anyone-but-Harper vote has begun to assert itself.

But here’s my problem. It’s not like I have been retroactively swept off my feet by pullover-sweater Steve. (Remember him?) But I can live with a prime minister I don’t particularly like if he is taking the country in the direction I think it should go. My real problem with Stephen Harper is not his personality but his policies, especially on the environment and the economy.

The Liberal party which is flying so high at the moment has a history of, shall we say, flexibility. The party was against the free trade agreements with the U.S. and Mexico until (in government) it wasn’t. It wanted to replace the GST until (in government) it couldn’t. And it was in favour of ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions, except (in government) it didn’t.

One place where the Liberals’ new leader, Justin Trudeau, has put a tent-peg down decisively is on the Keystone XL pipeline. He has attacked the Harper government for not doing enough to promote it.

Most scientists and economists concerned with the environment believe the pipeline would be a critical step towards quicker development of one of the dirtiest fuel deposits on earth, which would palpably degrade the quality of our children’s lives if not our own. There is no doubt that the tar sands have driven not only the Harper government’s environmental policies but also its approach to the entire economy, including the non-Alberta parts most of us have the misfortune to occupy.

There is no more important issue on which Canadians can pass judgement at the next election than how to manage, regulate, develop and tax this resource.

To be as generous as I can to Justin Trudeau, it may be possible to construct a progressive environmental and economic program that includes enthusiastic promotion of the oil sands. But it is not easy to imagine — and so far we have not seen it laid out for us by his Liberal party. We have no idea where he plans to put the other tent pegs down, but this is not a promising start. At the very least we need to see much, much more before we will be in a position to judge.

Personally, I don’t just want to replace Harper with a hipster — a cooler, kinder, gentler soul with much the same policies. I’d like to see change and would like to know what that change might be before I go to vote.

So when you find yourself getting a hate-on for Harper, stop a moment and think about who you would prefer as prime minister. And then ask yourself: Precisely why?

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

John Baird, Stephen Hawking and the end of hope

Originally published at iPolitics.ca

When I was posted to the Middle East about a dozen years ago, there was a truism about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that went like this: “We all know the solution; it’s just a matter of getting there.”

The self-evident “solution” followed the outlines of the Camp David talks led by Bill Clinton, which seemed to point towards a separate Palestinian state at peace with Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. This was all supposed to be negotiated between the government of Israel and the quasi-government of the Palestinian Authority.

Since Camp David, though, in the neighbourhood of 7,500 people have died in the conflict in the Palestinian territories, and more than 600 in Israel.

Except for a brief period when Ehud Olmert was prime minister, the Israeli government has been uninterested in negotiations with the Palestinians (though the pretence has been maintained with various degrees of obvious insincerity). In the meantime, Israeli settlements have grown like blots of battery acid on the map of the West Bank and Jerusalem, corroding the territorial basis for a settlement.

In 2005, the Palestinians elected a new president, Mahmoud Abbas, who is deeply committed to a negotiated peace. However, he had an uncertain grip on the Fatah party he inherited from Yasser Arafat, which was itself riddled with corruption. A year later, the militant Islamist group Hamas won parliamentary elections and soon the Gaza Strip drifted off into its orbit.

There is simply no one left on either side with the desire, legitimacy and power to negotiate the solution which once seemed so obvious.

It is not unusual in a long and bitter conflict to see despair grip both sides. Look at Northern Ireland. It was outsiders in America and in Britain who kept the flame of peace alive and eventually led the parties back to the table.

But with the Israelis and the Palestinians, we can now see outsiders increasingly inclined to leave them to their doom.

A couple of weeks ago Alan Dershowitz, the American academic who has been a vituperative defender of Israel, was himself jeered by an audience of Jews in New York when he suggested that Abbas might be a willing partner for peace.

Then last week, Stephen Hawking, the Cambridge physicist who is arguably the world’s most eminent scientist, cancelled a schedule appearance at a conference in Israel, embracing an academic boycott organized by Palestinians.

Human decency has been so far lost in this conflict that Hawking’s shrivelled body — the result of Lou Gehrig’s disease — was relentlessly mocked on Twitter by supporters of Israel. For his part, Dershowitz basically called Hawking an anti-Semite.

In the past, entertainers such as Stevie Wonder and Elvis Costello have declined invitations to Israel as part of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement — or BDS, as it is known. But Hawking’s decision made headlines because, whatever their views of Israel, many scholars feel a boycott conflicts with the academic principle of openness and free dialogue.

BDS was started by Palestinians who had given up on peace negotiations and were searching for another non-violent path to promote their cause. But it is not at all clear from its formal documents, and certainly not from the declarations of some supporters, that BDS acknowledges Israel’s right to exist.

For those of us who do not see what alternative there could be for Jews living in the Middle East other than the state of Israel, that is a problem. Israel is unlikely to freely negotiate its extinction.

There is a strange parallel between the despair embodied in BDS and the recent visit to Israel of Canada’s foreign minister, John Baird.

Baird met an Israeli minister in her office in East Jerusalem. This is something that other governments, including that of the United States, do not permit — nor have previous Canadian governments.

The reason is that East Jersualem is occupied territory taken by force of arms by Israel in 1967. Treating it as Israeli says, in effect, that the issue of the city regarded as holy by both Jews and Muslims was settled by war and will not be revised by negotiations.

Baird’s claim that the location of his meeting was “irrelevant” and had no significance in policy is dishonest and unserious. He knew precisely what he was doing.

What Baird’s little adventure represented was a ratification of Israel’s policy of creeping predation on Palestinian land.

Today, the Gaza Strip can be said to resemble a vast outdoor prison established by Israel, in which a prisoners’ gang, the Islamist Hamas, has the run of the joint.

Meanwhile, the West Bank and East Jerusalem — as much as Israel’s defenders hate to hear this — increasingly resemble features of South Africa under apartheid. A disfranchised ethnic minority is crowded onto the least desirable land, is subject to different laws, is not permitted to travel on major roads, and faces stunted life prospects punctuated by violence and indignity.

It really isn’t clear right now what the friends of peace outside the region can do to advance the revival of negotiations and the prospects for a dignified mutually agreed resolution. The least we can do, though, is avoid giving comfort to its enemies.

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

Will the Conservative caucus be the last closet?

First published at iPolitics.ca

Watching the fascinated reaction of my 14-year-old sports-mad son to the Jason Collins story last week underlined for me the continuing potency of “coming out” in changing values about homosexuality — what one activist has called the “gay superpower”.

Now that an active NBA player has come out, there are rumours that a group of NFL players may soon follow. And inevitably the trend will reach the NHL, and eventually cease to amaze us.

In Canadian politics, the first gay MP to speak openly about his sexual orientation was Svend Robinson in 1988. Since then, there have been openly gay MPs in every party in Parliament — every party but one, that is. Although we can presume from statistics that the Conservative caucus has some gay members, none has yet come out.

To Canadians it may seem obvious that there is an irresovable conflict between being conservative and being gay, much less openly gay. But if you look internationally, that’s less apparent.

In the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn, who was openly gay, led a right-wing populist party that flourished in the 1990s.

In England there has long been a subterranean High Tory homosexual sensibility nurtured in upper class boys schools and the Oxbridge universities, and most memorably captured in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisted. Christopher Hitchens, of all people, claimed to have had affairs while at Oxford with two men who later became ministers in Margaret Thatcher’s government, though no one owned up — and you can imagine all sorts of reasons why they didn’t.

What was once behind the curtain at the Palace of Westminster is now much less so. Currently, there are roughly a dozen British Conservative MPs who are openly gay (one of whom was implicated in scandal this week). North of the border, the leader of the Scottish Conservative party is an out lesbian.

Still, the issue is hardly resolved in British conservative circles, as we were reminded this week through a faux pas by the Anglo-American conservative academic superstar, Niall Ferguson. He reportedly told an investors conference that John Maynard Keynes did not understand the economic long run because he was a childless homosexual. (Ferguson subsequently apologized.)

But in the United States, there has has been very little nuance in the conservative view of same-sex relationships. Fear and hatred of homosexuals was a core element of the the anti-communist strain of conservatism propagated by Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950s. Among those persecuting anyone with a whiff of homosexuality about them was McCarthy’s oleaginous aide, Roy Cohn — himself a closeted homosexual. Never has the term “gay” been more inapt than in Cohn’s case. He was in many ways an archetype of the self-hatred bred in the closet of American conservatism.

While the Red Scare faded with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the rise of the evangelical Christian community as a core Republican constituency stoked the party’s homophobia. In the 2004 presidential election, George Bush’s strategist Karl Rove encouraged local referenda to block the extension of rights to homosexuals and thus drive social conservatives to the polls where they would, incidentally, vote for the president.

Nonetheless, there were two openly gay Republican Congressmen in the 1990s — one of them outed by a colleague on the floor of the House of Representatives, remarkably enough. There is a long-established gay organization called the Log Cabin Republicans, though it has had a sometimes uneasy relationship with the official party. GOProud is a more recent, and more conservative, organization also existing on the fringes of the party. An openly gay Republican candidate, George Tisei, was narrowly defeated in a run for a Congressional seat in Massachusetts last year.

In an age when attitudes in the West to homosexuality have been changing with startling speed, Canada has been a little ahead of the curve legislatively: decriminalizing homosexual sex, prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, accepting openly gay people in the military and, more recently, allowing same-sex marriage. So far as we can tell Stephen Harper does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation in his own political circle. And there are obvious reasons why some gay people might be attracted to aspects of Canadian conservatism — particularly its libertarian strain, which places a premium on individual freedom.

On the other hand, Canadian conservatives have opposed every meaningful legislative advance for gay rights. To be a Canadian conservative and gay is to live a dilemma. There has never been a national Canadian equivalent to the Log Cabin Republicans. The Conservative party has a significant socially-conservative wing which may be legislatively impotent but recently has become more vocal. A few conservative organizers, such as the Mike Harris aide Jaime Watt, have been open about their sexual orientation. But that’s it.

Of course, none of us wants to have our politics defined by one narrow aspect of our being — whether that is race, religion, language, income, region, gender or sexual orientation. But neither should we have to renounce who we are to support a major national party.

If the Conservatives are to continue as one of the great parties of state — which I believe is probable — they likely will have to change their posture on sexual orientation, just as they have replaced the dog-whistle racism of the old Reform Party with a greater openness to immigration and new Canadians.

As a straight man who has never suffered either the agonies of the closet or the frightening prospect of coming out, it is not my place to tell anyone what they must disclose or when. As a journalist, I admire the reticence of Canadian media to pry into the sex lives of politicians. I can think of instances when reporters have ignored or downplayed stories that otherwise would have grabbed headlines to avoid such a breach of privacy. And that’s a good thing.

But if a Conservative MP or minister came out freely, it would be a liberation for him or her, no longer to be stalked by rumour and innuendo. Not only that: It would toll the bell of personal liberty for the conservative movement and the country.

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

The trouble with the National Holocaust Monument: when remembrance becomes forgetting

First published at iPolitics.ca

The festival of blood we call the Second World War remains the most confounding moral mystery of our civilization. How in the heart of Europe did murderous ideologies emerge that would take the lives of so many people for no other reason that who they were?

Last week, the Harper government announced the location of a National Holocaust Monument to be erected not far from Parliament Hill.

But the announcement was as striking for what it ignored as what it included.

“The Holocaust stands alone in the annals of human history,” Immigration Minister Jason Kenney is quoted as saying in the government release, “for its systematic cruelty and for the brutal murder of six million innocent Jewish men, women and children.” No mention was made in any of the several government media releases of anyone else killed in the Holocaust or in the wider war.

The systematic murder of Europe’s Jews — Hitler’s so-called Final Solution — is surely one of the most grotesque crimes in human history. But it occurred in the context of a larger evil.

The best estimates are that more than 60 million people died in the Second World War — roughly 2.5 per cent of all the people on earth at the time. This is not to mention the other violence and abuse, including rape practiced on an industrial scale by the German, Soviet and particularly the Japanese armies.

Of those killed in the war, perhaps 34 million were civilians. Civilians were deliberately targeted in so-called strategic bombing by all sides — Coventry, Dresden, Stalingrad, Tokyo and Hiroshima — in some cases without a discernible or realistic military objective.

Even many of the soldiers killed during the Second World War could be said to have been murdered. They were among the more than 20,000 Poles massacred by the Soviets in Katyn, for example. Prisoners of war were often deliberately starved by the Germans, Soviets and Japanese. In some cases, Soviet soldiers considered cowards were not only summarily executed by their own commissars, but so were their entire families. The Soviets even murdered their own returned prisoners of war.

Of course for many of us, the particular horror of the Holocaust was the Nazis’ goal of eliminating whole categories of people through an assembly line of death — genocide, in short. But even here, the Jews were not alone. The Jewish Virtual Library estimates the number of non-Jews killed in the Holocaust at 5 million. Though the numbers are difficult to ascertain, perhaps half the European population of Roma (once erroneously known as gypsies) perished. Other victims included homosexuals, Communists and the disabled.

It is awkward to introduce domestic politics into this gruesome subject, but unfortunately it is obviously at play with the Harper government’s approach to remembering the victims of the Second World War.

The Conservatives have sedulously cultivated Jewish political support: It is perhaps the most obvious success in their campaign to win over selected ethnic groups which previously voted overwhelmingly Liberal. This is part of the reason behind Canada’s policies in the Middle East that are cringingly submissive to the whims of Israel’s Netanyahu government.

At the same time, Jason Kenney, who is at the centre of the Conservatives’ ethnic outreach, has been famously unsympathetic to Roma refugees from central Europe, whose troubles sadly did not end with the Second World War.

The government’s relationship with the gay community has been, shall we say, complicated. It is hardly worth saying that the Conservatives have never been seen to shed a tear about the Communists murdered in the course of the war.

The government website for the proposed National Holocaust Monument uses inclusive language — sort of. It says the monument will bring “Canadians of all faiths together” in remembrance, which I have to note excludes humanists, atheists, agnostics and others without religious faith who might also be sickened by the murder of so many millions.

But more pertinent, the government-appointed group leading the fundraising for the monument appears to include only people involved with the Jewish community.

The Jewish community deserves enormous credit for keeping the memory of the Nazi atrocities alive over the last 70 years. Sad to say, though the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis was unprecedented in historic scale, it had very little to do with why the Allies went to war. There were requests for the Allies to bomb the death camp at Auschwitz as early as 1941, but only the neighbouring industrial plant was ever targeted.

After the war, there was every reason for the Jews who survived to fear that without their own efforts the Nazi genocide might be forgotten. Given the long history of violence against Jews stretching back centuries and the well-entrenched anti-Semitism in many countries, including Canada, the act of forgetting itself would have been a crime.

That every educated person today knows that six million Jews died in the Holocaust is a touching tribute to the way Jews have kept faith with their families and forebears.

But now it seems we are faced with a delicate and different problem. The way in which the government has chosen to pursue this supposedly national monument seems deliberately to exclude, or at least minimize the suffering of many others in the war and even specifically in the Holocaust more narrowly defined.

We have a National War Memorial in Ottawa for those in uniform who died in all of our wars. It is fitting also to honour and remember the many civilians who were murdered in the greatest global blood-orgy in human history.

But remembering the suffering of some should not be the occasion for effacing the suffering of others.

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

Our obsession with the political centre

“Extremes to the right and left of any political dispute are always wrong.” — Dwight D. Eisenhower

When I was little (which for historical purposes was back in the Diefenbaker-Pearson days) my dad used to say that he was “middle of the road” politically.

That seemed sensible to me and I didn’t give it much thought.

In its most exalted form the idea can be traced back to Aristotle’s via media, the middle way, or if you like the Golden Mean — the idea that virtue is to be found between the extremes. So, for example, on the spectrum from recklessness to cowardice, you find the virtue of courage nestled snugly in the middle.

As a political idea, it’s appealing to think that between the extremes there is always a sensible centre. But clearly that isn’t always right. Not at all. Sometimes searching for the centre can lead you wildly astray.

Take a stark example: the United States in the 1850s and 1860s. On the one extreme there were the defenders of slavery; at the other there were the abolitionists. In between there were all sorts of centrist compromisers, including Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who famously debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858. Douglas argued the “democratic principle” that each state should decide for itself whether it would permit slavery. After 1860, having failed to forestall the Civil War, the centrists pushed for a peaceful settlement with the rebel South, one result of which surely would have been to preserve slavery there.

History has not been kind to the “Copperheads” as the centrists were sometimes called — hardly more than to slave-owners themselves. Nowadays, we’d call them enablers.

This gets to the obvious problem with centrism as a guiding principle. Centrism can only be defined in relation to other ideas. If you are in the centre, you need to state where your centre is — between what and what.

English Canadians tend to think of Jean Chrétien as a classic centrist, and for them maybe he was. He was conservative fiscally, but he also put money into refinancing social programs once the deficit was eliminated. On social issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he seemed always to be searching for the sweet spot where he could be with the majority of Canadians.

Yet in Quebec, where the traditional spectrum of left and right was crosscut by the often more salient issue of sovereignty versus federalism, Chrétien wasn’t in the centre at all. He embodied one of the extremes. Most English Canadian “centrists”, so far as I can tell, are OK with that.

Once you get past our vague memory of Aristotle’s ethics, you are really hard pressed to find much intellectual fibre behind our modern fetish of the political centre.

Socialism, conservatism, fascism, libertarianism, Marxism and, yes, liberalism, all have much more fully-developed principles and ideas than centrism.

And yet many people in the media throw the word centrist around like it was the ultimate compliment. Whatever it is, the Liberals love it, and we are told the NDP and the Conservatives are meticulously plotting a course towards it.

Without ever thinking about the matter explicitly, many journalists hold to a crude version of the median voter model. Put simply, it is that whichever party is best able to represent the “median voter” — the one statistically in the centre of the political spectrum — will win the next election.

Certainly it is possible to think of any number of politicians who crowded the centre with success: Mackenzie King, Eisenhower, Bill Clinton and, of course, Chrétien.

Yet a little concentrated thought serves up many examples of politicans who succeeded by doing anything but. Last week we were all honouring the career of Margaret Thatcher.

Or not.

Other examples of politicians who succeeded not by seeking the centre, but by trying to shift it, include Tommy Douglas, René Lévesque, Ronald Reagan, Mike Harris and George W. Bush. Oh, and Abe Lincoln.

Although centrism seems to shift its meaning quicker than, say, a flip-flopping politician, there is one use of the term that does have deeper significance in North America. As capitalism — or the “market economy” as we sometimes call it nowadays — exploded in the 19th and 20th centuries, it created enormous new sources of wealth. It also chewed up other, mostly agrarian ways of life, it chewed up towns and villages, and it chewed up people.

In this context, centrism meant finding a way between the cruelty, volatility, monopoly and inequality that characterized raw capitalism and the most commonly offered alternative: socialism or state command and control of the economy.

During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal tried to save capitalism from itself by reining it in, managing it and creating programs to attenuate the insecurity and distress it created. So centrism in this tradition fit between the extremes of socialism and unconstrained capitalism.

But there’s something odd nowadays in thinking about the management of “capitalism with a human face”, as British prime minister Harold Macmillan once put it, as centrism. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there is no longer a viable model of society that doesn’t include a large role for markets — unless you count North Korea, which most of us don’t.

Moreover, it is a long time since any political party in this country argued for abandoning market capitalism as the predominant economic model.

The NDP recently removed some of the most boldly socialist language from its constitution — something that German Social Democrats did in 1959 and the British Labour party did in 1995. These constitutional changes have always been lagging indicators: something parties do long after they have abandoned any intention of nationalizing the “means of production, distribution and exchange.”

In the recent Liberal leadership, the notion of centrism was tossed around without much careful thought. Alone among the candidates, Martha Hall Findlay did seem to offer a definition, which was essentially for the party to cheat right on economic issues and left on social issues — which, when you think about it, isn’t really a definition of centrism at all.

But the truly beguiling sense of centrism for many Liberals — and closer to Justin Trudeau’s intention, I think — is more narrowly tactical.

During the Chrétien-Martin years the Liberal party gravitated towards what was once considered one of the extremes: the ideology that the freer the markets are the better life will be for everyone. It did not completely abandon the old-fashioned progressive ideas that ran from FDR and Mackenzie King through Pearson and Trudeau that there needed to be more to democratic life than markets — but it greatly diluted them.

Stephen Harper, of course, rejects even a diluted version of those progressive ideas. The personal animosity many Canadians have towards him is partly because he is a more ideologically straightforward representative of a trend that has been going on for thirty years. People who are fed up with him and his party are actually fed up with policies that have been pursued with more or less forthrightness by Progressive Conservative, Liberal and Conservative governments federally — and, truth be told, sometimes by provincial NDP governments too.

If Liberals can make Harper and the Conservatives wear all that pent-up rage, then they have just one job left: caricature the NDP as socialist extremists. Then Liberals can carve out some congenial political space for themselves — in the centre.

But the reality of modern politics is that the muddled middle is no answer at all to the issues facing us.

On economic and social policy, what divides Canadians is their attitude towards three decades of market-liberating policies that have weakened our middle class, increased inequality, corroded social programs, undermined the ability of working people to negotiate a living wage, and left us all more vulnerable and insecure.

There is certainly a discussion to be had about how quickly and by what means these policies should be moderated, revised or reversed — and issues of priority, pace and technique may divide the Liberals and the NDP.

But first, both parties need to decide whether they really stand for a change in direction or not.

This is even more starkly true on the issue of climate change. The last time they were in office, the Liberals talked a great deal about it but did absolutely nothing. This is one issue on which finding a middle ground between action and inaction probably means not doing enough and condemning our children to an uncertain future.

To govern is to choose. The Conservatives have made their choice. The Liberals and the New Democrats need to make choices too, and seeking the soothing warmth of the political centre won’t help them.

You can follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

Strategic voting: the last, worst option for progressives

The events of the weekend mean that Stephen Harper has already achieved what must be his most important strategic objective for the next election: He’ll be competing against at least two viable parties carving up the opposition vote.

This is precisely how Jean Chrétien managed to dominate Canadian politics for a decade with 40 per cent or less of the electorate behind him.

Justin Trudeau’s overwhelming victory in the leadership race, the party’s zoom to the front of the polls, and the fact that, despite all its problems, the Liberal race attracted the most voters in a leadership contest ever, mean that the party is very unlikely to give up its dreams of a return to glory any time soon.

Thomas Mulcair, meanwhile, has demonstrated his command over his own party in its drive for electability, seeing off the most ideologically socialist wing of his party in a way that Jack Layton obviously wished to do but never accomplished.

Joyce Murray and her supporters, who championed party cooperation in the Liberal race, will now be expected to toe the party line, and will cease to be much of a political factor for the moment. This is exactly what happened with Nathan Cullen and his supporters, who dutifully put their team sweaters back on after the NDP leadership race last year.

It is conceivable, but now extremely unlikely, that some particular circumstance in the opinion polls might still drive the two parties together before the next election. If the Liberals and NDP were both were mired in the mid-20 per cent range over the course of year, for example. Or there could be some unforeseen event — a political or economic emergency — that would change the dynamic.

But those like me who had hoped (but weren’t really expecting) that the parties would cooperate have to be realistic: it’s unlikely to happen before the next election.

What is left, then, for progressives? We have two parties — or rather three, counting the Greens — who hold postions similar to our own on the major issues of the day, including climate change, jobs and social programs. And yet each can only grow at the expense of the others. And their competition makes it easier for the Conservatives, who disagree on all these issues, to return to power.

Reluctantly, I have to say that the next step is to look at ways to marshal so-called “strategic voting”. What that means is encouraging progressives to vote in their constituencies for whichever of the three parties — Liberals, NDP or Greens — has the best chance of winning locally.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is a less effective method of engineering a progressive victory than direct party cooperation would be.

First, it isn’t always easy to know which opposition candidate is best situated to win a particular constituency. A party’s past performance is not always a perfect guide to future results when the issues, the candidates and the demographics of many constituencies are in flux. This is complicated, of course, by the fact that we will have new constituency boundaries in the next election.

In the last election, the NDP, which always had played a marginal role in Quebec, raced into first place in the last days of the campaign. In such circumstances, do those urging strategic voting have to turn on a dime and switch their support to the perceived new frontrunner based solely on polls?

Second, progressive voters are likely to be confused if they are being urged to vote Liberal in one riding, when friends in the next riding over are being told to back the NDP. And what happens if different organizations pushing for strategic voting promote different candidates in the same riding?

Third, in an election campaign parties employ huge, well-funded ad campaigns aimed at denigrating all their opponents, including those that are ideologically similar. Look at the Liberal ads in last week of the 2011 campaign: they literally showed Jack Layton and Stephen Harper as two sides of the same coin. Strange, I know. The NDP, of course, ran very successful Monty-Python-style ads mocking Michael Ignatieff as a flip-flopper.

At the moment both parties are positioning themselves to be the natural recipient of progressive and anti-Harper strategic voting. We’ll see how that goes. If one of the parties seems to be taking off nationally, expect it to try to seize control of whatever movement has already developed behind strategic voting. Then expect the weaker party to put up a furious fuss, accusing the advocates of strategic voting of being closet partisans.

Despite all these difficulties, progressive organizations can and should step up and make their influence felt. The leaders of the Canadian Auto Workers, among others, have urged their members to vote strategically in the past. There is a strong current in the broader labour movement that is frustrated with the inability of the Conservatives’ opponents to get their act together.

The web-based organization Leadnow.ca played an important role in driving support to the cooperation candidates in both recent party races, Nathan Cullen and Joyce Murray. It is one of several such independent voices that could chime in effectively during an election campaign.

Environmentalists and their organizations should recognize this as their best opportunity to change Canada’s climate policies.

Certainly the Internet creates new opportunities to perform credible analysis to determine who in a riding is the progressive candidate best positioned to win. It also would permit the rapid dissemination of up-to-date information to large audiences of voters. If effectively packaged, it might even be picked up and disseminated by the mainstream media.

It’s very unlikely that such efforts would swing an election in themselves, but they might tip the balance in a close contest.

For progressive cooperation, strategic voting is the last, worst option. It may be the best option we have left for the next election.

Follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29

Obama’s walk on the dark side

Other than Barack Obama the-loving-father-and-husband, there’s probably no image of the president more embedded in our consciousness than the cool, measured constitutional law professor and former head of the Harvard Law Review.

But even before he became president, Obama seemingly determined on a course of stealthily killing America’s enemies abroad that took him into a dark legal, moral and strategic universe which has never been democratically evaluated.

It is hard not to have sympathy with Americans and with Obama. They needed to find some way of combatting genuine, determined, murderous enemies without launching more endless, unwinnable wars as George Bush had done in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Instead of the Bush blunderbuss, the Obama administration employs what it prefers to call a “scalpel” — a campaign of assassinations employing Predator and Reaper drones, pilotlessly navigating the airspace over Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, controlled by someone with a joystick back in Nevada.

The prosecution of this secret war has now been chronicled in a deeply reported and briskly written book, The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth, by New York Times security reporter Mark Mazzetti. It is the most vivid description of America’s secret war on Islamist militants yet published.

Ironically, Obama’s campaign of assasination was born in a reaction to the appalling system of secret jails and torture under the Bush administration, which he had lambasted during the 2008 campaign.

Mazzetti quotes a career CIA lawyer about a meeting with Obama’s security aides during the transition, after the 2008 election but prior to his inauguration. “They never came out and said they would start killing people because they couldn’t interrogate them, but the implication was unmistakable … Once the interrogation was gone, all that was left was the killing.”

It is worth recalling that when Israel embarked on a program of targetted assassinations of Palestinian militants in 2000 and 2001, the practice was denounced by the U.S. ambassador to Israel at the time, Martin Indyk: “They are extrajudicial killings and we do not support that.”

For many years after the abuses of the Nixon era, the CIA was forbidden to carry out assassinations in any circumstances — a prohibition quickly shed after 9/11. Indeed, if the United States can swoop in and kill its designated enemies with drones in farflung lands, why shouldn’t Israel or Iran, Russia or China, gun down its enemies in the streets of London, New York or Toronto?

Although the Obama administration has said recently that it would like to clarify the rules around its drone attacks, the justification in American and international law, like the program itself, is as evanescent as a puff of smoke. On many occasions, senior officials have said that the drone strikes are aimed at high-level al-Qaida leaders actively planning attacks on the United States.

But it is clear that many of those assassinated actually have been the local enemies of the Americans’ often thuggish allies in Pakistan, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. This is the price of allies looking the other way when America does go after its real enemies in their countries.

remarkable story by Jonathan Landay of McClatchy newspapers last week revealed that only six of 482 people killed in drone strikes in the twelve months between September 2010 and 2011 appear to have been senior al-Qaida militants. In fact, more than half were “assessed” by the U.S. as being local Afghan, Pakistani or “unknown militants”. The CIA has adopted the practice of assuming anyone killed in an attack was indeed a militant unless proven otherwise — something not easy to do from thousands of feet above.

The Americans make what they call “signature strikes” — targeting gatherings of what look from the air to be militants, without confirmation from intelligence or ground surveillance.

And they make plenty of mistakes. In one case that Landay reports, they killed the younger brother of the man they were actually after, who so far as anyone knows was blameless. In another case, reported by Mazzetti, an army drone targetted and killed a 16-year-old boy — Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, an American citizen born in Denver — when it intended to kill another man entirely.

Of course, even when the Americans’ aim is true, many of those killed in these attacks are innocent bystanders. The most conservative estimate I have seen is 10 per cent.

It is commonly estimated that the CIA’s drone program has killed three to four thousand people since its inception.

Mazzetti’s book reveals how profoundly lax the CIA and the U.S. military have been in local intelligence on those they target. He introduces us to an extraordinary cast of freebooting adventurers, zealots and golddiggers willing to spy and even kill for cash on behalf of an insufficiently skeptical Pentagon starved for information about its enemies. They include a Virginia horsey-set hostess, businesswoman and failed Republican congressional candidate, Michele Ballarin, dripping in bling, who set herself up in Somalia as manager of an aid agency cum spy ring on the administration’s behalf. The Somalis dubbed her Amira, meaning “princess”. She operated more like a clown, but her network was used and she was paid.

The Obama administration has been studiously evasive about the drone program, so that Americans really have little idea of who is being killed in their name, why or how. As the executive director of Human Rights Watch, Ken Roth, has written, “There are several conceivable rationales for the use of drones … but the Obama administration has articulated none of them with clarity.”

That’s the legal issue. Morally, many of us would not have a problem if the United States were able clearly to identify people planning deadly attacks on its soil, were unable to arrest or detain them, and could target them without collateral damage — to use that awful phrase. But from what little we know, more than that is happening — possibly much more.Of course, murkiest of all is whether the assassinations the Americans do pull off successfully are worth the price of the drone program in terms of blowback — that is, the alienation of bystanders in the Islamic world.

As the main agent of this secret war, the CIA is hardly in a position to provide a dispassionate strategic assessment about whether the radicalized widows and orphans — and those who just read about them — may be growing in number each time a missile thuds into a house, a meeting hall or a restaurant.

This may seem a small evil compared with the towering folly of Bush and Cheney. But it is a dalliance in the dark nonetheless.

You can follow Paul Adams on Twitter @padams29