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Note: contains strong language
Back in 1990 George Carlin performed a stand-up comedy routine mocking the ubiquity of euphemistic language in Western society. Few were more passionate than he in denouncing our obsession with downplaying and sugar-coating the features of life that make us uncomfortable. Things have only become worse recently, with the latest round of US presidential primaries providing a stage for spin-doctors and fear-mongers to lecture audiences on the horrors of gay weddings, universal healthcare, and José Hernandez, the 19-year-old who washes dishes in El Paso. It seems as though a certain intolerable threshold has been crossed, in fact, because today the man himself has made it his business to be here and share his thoughts with us, despite having died almost eight years ago.
Me: Welcome, George. Good of you to join us. Let's jump right into it. What are your thoughts on the euphemisms we're seeing in this year's election cycle?
George Carlin: You mean other than Donald Trump's hair?
Me: Ahaha. You've still got it George!
Carlin: That's kind of you. But in all seriousness, the deceptive language we're hearing now is even worse today than it was when I was harping about it twenty years ago. If you want to know the truth, we're deluding ourselves on a daily basis, and on so many levels. And, you know, you Canadians and we Americans share a lot in terms of culture, of course. But when it comes to our “democratic” elections, let me tell you: you have to stand in AWE of the champions of exaggeration and ambiguity, which are the people up on that debate stage. I mean, there's a lot of bullshit flying around these days, but none of it can even hold a candle to what we get when it comes to picking a president. It's embarrassing.
Me: I think you've hit the nail on the head for sure. I've long found it incredible, and incredibly frightening, how easily misled so many people can be by such transparent rhetoric or such obvious deflections – in Canada and elsewhere as well, not just in the US. Getting a straight answer out of a politician seems very rare these days. Maybe it's always been like this – cynicism ruling politics, I mean – I don't know. I was born the same year that you performed that routine on euphemisms!
Carlin: Oh, believe me, it's always been like this. And it's always been like this because people have always had things to hide, like the fact that the elites in our society benefit from injustice of all shapes and sizes. But they don't want people to talk about those things, so they become very good at changing the subject when asked about it, and most people are none the wiser, if they even care to pay attention in the first place.
Me: Do you think you could give us some examples? We'd be interested to hear your take on the current state of things.
Carlin: Absolutely. Since I kicked the bucket in 2008, I've had so much spare time to listen to all the bullshit I damn near contracted cholera once!
Me: …. Uh?
Carlin: I'll start with American politics, because that's the hot-button thing right now. And while we're at it, let's even go in chronological order. I'm gonna skip over Bush Jr., though – we all know what an epic clusterfuck that was. Let's start with Barack Obama. I think Obama was mostly well-intentioned: he (eventually) pulled us out of Iraq, he tried to get more people the healthcare they needed. He tried to do some good things, and to some extent he succeeded.
Me: Yeah, even though he was being harangued at every turn by a self-righteous faction of the GOP that likes to think its grievances are comparable to those of 18th-century Bostonians.
Carlin: Well they're unhooked from reality. But anyway, since we're talking about euphemisms, let's not forget that Obama dropped a big one right near the beginning of his Presidency. ABC's George Stephanopoulos once asked him in an interview about whether he thought that a criminal case should be opened against members of the former administration. You know, investigating them for occasionally half-drowning some poor bastard chained to a table – oh, I'm sorry – “enhanced interrogation” is what it's called now, because the United States doesn't torture people. Anyway, Obama was asked about this, and it was a yes-or-no question. But Obama didn't give a yes-or-no answer – he's far too shrewd for that. Instead he said “I believe that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backward.”
How convenient. In other words, what he really meant was “there's a snowball's chance in Hell of anybody going to jail, because A) that would make me look vindictive, and I've got a reputation to keep; and B) I don't want to set a precedent that could tie my hands. What if I need to ask any of my people to carry out any …. morally questionable tasks?”
Me: I'd forgotten about that, but it's a textbook example of reframing the whole question. And sure enough, his targeted killing campaign using drones has been “morally questionable,” to say the least.
Carlin: That spin tactic Obama used isn't uncommon, either. I made this point in a speech I gave once, but I'll repeat it, and you hear public figures say it all the time: “I just want to put this behind me and get on with my life.” That's code for: “It would be so great if everyone would just forget about how badly I fucked up!”
Now, listen. I'm all for forgiving someone who really deserves it. You know, if they're actually forthcoming and penitent about it. But when someone says they just want to “put this behind them,” that usually means they want to avoid acknowledging their mistake at all. They just want to bury it – pretend it never happened. That's what cowards do.
Me: I know you wanted to try and go chronologically, but election season has given us dozens of soundbites from everyone all at once. So take your pick for the next one, I guess. How about the elephant in the room?
Carlin: Trump, right? Jesus. You know, I've always said that when you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show, but when you're born in America, you get a front-row seat. And boy oh boy, Donald has succeeded in putting on a show alright. If there really are Seven Circles of Hell, I'd say he's dragged us at least half-way to the bull's eye so far. First, it's “The Mexicans.” Then it's “The Muslims.” He's gonna kick out the Mexicans, put up a giant wall to keep them out. And don't forget, it's gonna be a “great” wall! And Mexico's gonna pay for it! Woop-dee-fucking-doo everybody! All our prayers have finally been answered!
Now let's take a step back for a moment and reflect on this. Even aside from the obvious racism simmering just beneath the surface of it all, what in the flying fuck does “great” mean, exactly? He's gonna build a “great” wall; he's got so many “fantastic” plans; “Make America Great Again.” It means nothing! It's all bullshit! That's the biggest euphemism of them all, folks: The emperor will always tell you he's got clothes on – and in this case, he tells us he's got “the best” clothes.
Me: On that point, did you hear his answer at the debate the other night? The moderator asked him a direct and straightforward question: How will you make Mexico pay for the wall that you're proposing? Trump's answer was: “I will, and the wall just got 10 feet taller, believe me.” And the crowd actually cheered his answer, if you can believe it.
Now, correct me if I'm wrong, George, but I'm pretty sure that if a person gave an answer like that in any standard job interview, they'd tell you to go ride your fucking bike. And yet this is the sort of response we get from one of the leading candidates for the most important job interview in the land. Not only is Trump full of blatant falsehoods (as is the rest of the field), but he also has a very distinct way of speaking, which seems to resonate with ….a certain demographic.
Carlin: Well at this point it's moved beyond just a freak show to become an entire God-damned circus, mostly thanks to Mr. Trump. Harrison Ford was asked about him in an interview, and couldn't believe his idiocy. Even the size of his dick actually became a topic of discussion recently. I mean, this is what it's come to! And you know, on a side note, maybe that's not so bad, because it might finally open people's eyes to what a joke the election system really is. Do you know how filthy rich you have to be to become President of the United States of America? The “debates” that we have to help us choose a leader don't matter. It's all a façade. Money wins elections. Spending records are broken and re-broken every four years! And then some people say “Well actually, lots of people donate money to their favourite candidate, so if someone spends tons on their campaign it's because they had lots of popular support.” Yeah, except how do you think people form their opinions of candidates? People will always trust the devil they know over the one they don't. To become known and popular and to win people's trust you have to put your face on TV commercials, on billboards, and advertise in newspapers. That shit happens to be pretty damn expensive. And then there are the televised events where the candidates are politely asked questions that they're not even obligated to answer – more commonly known as “debates.” We've really deluded ourselves with that word, I tell you. We don't have debates; we have carefully scripted communal interviews. And then we pat ourselves on the back, and tell ourselves that we love democracy. So maybe we needed a campaign season like this one – one that's become so transparently ridiculous – so that people will finally start asking the right questions.
Me: That's an interesting point. And by the way, for the debates, to even be invited to participate in one, you have to be polling above a certain threshold, which depends on your level of media exposure, which in turn requires tons of money – tens, even hundreds of millions of dollars per candidate. This is something that Ralph Nader has lamented for a long time, in fact. It really all comes back to the disastrous Citizens United case – the one Bernie Sanders often talks about – which removed the cap from individual campaign contributions.
Another question just occurred to me, though. Donald Trump has been railing on how much he hates political correctness, and you've spoken in the past about how political correctness and euphemisms let us dance around things we don't like, conceal reality, etc. Do you agree with Trump on that?
Carlin: Well you're right about that. I have no time for political correctness if it's gonna to prevent us from calling a spade a spade and discourage critical thinking. But all Trump has done is concealed xenophobia and racism under the guise of dispensing with political correctness.
Take his thing about how Mexico is “sending” people into the US, and how they're “pouring” over the border. So we're supposed to believe that the Mexican government is directly responsible for illegal immigration? That they're “pushing” them over the border, as he puts it? I remember Trump was asked once for evidence to support his claims, so he brought up some wishy-washy, anecdotal story about how he talked to a border guard once, and that was supposed to count as proof! You never hear him present statistics, just stories of conversations he had here and there that nobody can possibly verify. And hey, I'm sure illegal immigration is a real problem. But you know why? Because they need to support their families, and they can't find a job at home! You may have heard that we Americans love to brag about how our country is the best country in the world. It's such a bountiful cornucopia, overflowing with freedom, and justice, and opportunity, and generosity. And then some poor Mexicans come along, looking for work and safety because NAFTA killed their livelihoods and the drug cartels are hanging people from bridges, and what do we do? We cock our guns and tell them to fuck off!
Me: And as if that wasn't bad enough already, Trump added at the end of his tirade, as a minor footnote, that “Some, I assume, are good people,” and that he loves the Mexican people, apparently. How very kind of him. And according to real statistics that demonstrate reality, illegal immigration from Mexico has actually been declining since 2007.
And then there's the whole Muslim thing, too. His plan is to ban all Muslims from entering the United States “Until we can figure out what's going on.” There's a misleading statement for you. You'd think that if he really wanted to know “what's going on” – whatever the hell that's supposed to mean – he might start by asking the people who know about those things, like the FBI, CIA, and NSA. That's what they're there for, after all. But he's not really interested in understanding anything, he's just trying to sell fear to the American public. Letting Muslims enter and exit the country freely like anyone else has nothing to do with being political correct, and to say otherwise is to imply that every single Muslim is a threat. But that's clearly false, unless, of course, you accept this insane idea that an entire religion worth of people should be indicted for the actions of a radical few. That's just racist stereotyping 101.
It seems that Trump has capitalized on feelings that already existed among the paranoid part of society, and he's encouraged it even further because he knows that fear is an easy card to play. It's the low-hanging fruit. As Senator John McCain put it, Trump's gone and “stirred up the crazies.”And then, because of herd mentality, he's been able to make this veiled racism seem acceptable and mainstream to a lot of people, and it's snowballed into what we're seeing right now. It's become fashionable to reject political correctness, and often for good reason, as you mentioned. But the way Trump has harnessed that sentiment shows how dangerous it can be in the wrong hands.
Oh, I almost forgot. Get this, Trump also said “I have so many fabulous friends who happen to be gay, but I am a traditionalist.” Let's untangle this one for a second. He doesn't really like homosexuals, but he knows he can't just say that. So he makes it clear that, while he doesn't have gay friends per se, he does have a few friends who just “happen to be” gay, like it was an unfortunate accident or something. But then, wait, all you homophobes out there can still vote for him, because he believes in “traditional” values – as opposed to the pagan values of his heathen acquaintances, who happen to be abominations. Speaking of which, if you'd like to see what a real abomination looks like, watch this video.
Carlin: He also once said: “If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, perhaps I’d be dating her.” So he wants to fuck his daughter! That's what he's thinking, isn't it? Just say it, Donald. Or would admitting that you're into her be too …. politically incorrect?
And you know what “traditionalist” really means, right? If we read between the lines when somebody talks about the “traditional definition” of marriage, they're implying that there is a traditional definition for it. Somebody, please, show me where that was written down. Which of the Ten Commandments is that, exactly? People who say that don't really give a shit about a gay person's happiness, if you stop and think about it. Either they want to dictate their actions, or they want to try and “save” them. What could be more patronizing? And then Ted Cruz had the gall to call the Supreme Court's decision to allow same-sex marriage the “very definition of tyranny.” Well ho-ly shit. If irony was a crime, he would've gotten the needle for that.
Me: Isn't that the truth. During one of the debates Ted Cruz said something else that caught my attention as well. North Korea had just launched a rocket that evening, so the topic of discussion shifted to nuclear weapons, which these days inevitably includes questions concerning Iran. Cruz said
It is qualitatively different, dealing with a country once they have nuclear weapons. It's why you prevent them from getting nuclear weapons in the first place. Because your hands are somewhat tied once they have nukes, it's why this Iranian nuclear deal is so catastrophic.
The thing is, he's absolutely spot on about one part: the presence of nukes changes calculations enormously.
Noam Chomsky: I'd be happy to explain why that is, if you'd like.
Me: Noam! What a pleasant surprise! Please, by all means.
Chomsky: Well you see, when he says “your hands are somewhat tied,” that translates to “We can't bomb them or invade their country if they've got any nukes, because of the risk of nuclear escalation.” In other words, we can't attack anyone with impunity if there's a chance they could fight back effectively. That's part of the reason why we haven't invaded North Korea. Even during the Cuban Missile Crisis we didn't attack, although we probably would have if the Joint Chiefs had had their way. Luckily President Kennedy found a diplomatic solution first. There was a time when Saddam Hussein was trying to develop nuclear weapons, but he was pressured to abandon that project, and he eventually gave it up in the 1990s. Same thing with Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. Since then they've both been overthrown and killed. So North Korea got the message, loud and clear: get nukes, or get invaded. Iran may or may not be pursuing the same agenda, but can we blame them if they are? They're not stupid, and we're excellent teachers.
Me: Thanks for that analysis, Noam.
Carlin: While we're on the subject of nukes, did you hear what Trump said about ours? It might be the single stupidest answer I've ever heard. Somebody asked him “What's your priority among our nuclear triad?”
Me: For those of you who don't know, the nuclear triad refers to the three different ways that the US can nuke somebody, theoretically. That's by dropping a bomb using an airplane, by missiles from a submarine, or by missiles launched from silos in the ground.
Carlin: Right, and you can see in this video how Trump answered the question.
Me: “Somebody who really knows what he's doing,” he says? So not him, evidently. It almost makes me shudder when I remind myself of all the hawks who are vying for the White House right now. Trump isn't even the worst of them, in terms of foreign policy, though it would help if he knew what the nuclear triad is. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz won't shut up about how “American Strength” is supposedly a way to prevent war. What they neglect to mention is that America's strength is waging war. War and “strength” are essentially the same damn thing in their minds! Cruz has a favourite rehearsed line that he loves to drop, too, about “clarity of vision and strength of resolve,” which I take to mean “We'll do whatever the fuck we want, whenever the fuck we want to, because people like me think we're infallible.” And Hillary Clinton isn't much better, mind you. She also loves to preach about how American “leadership” in the world is so crucial, even though that's a euphemism for unilateralism and global hegemony. Like how the United States is historically the runaway leader in using the UN Security Council veto, even when a vote is otherwise unanimous.
Clinton is a savvy political tactician, though. The way she tries to distinguish herself from Bernie Sanders is by referring to herself as “a Progressive who gets things done.” Right now she needs voters to view her as a Progressive, in order to win the Democratic nomination. Then when it comes time for the general election, her strategy will change. She'll emphasize the “gets things done” part, which means she's a Moderate, because that's more appealing to the centrist voters who she'll have to win over from the Republicans. There's method behind everything that gets said.
That includes being a spin-doctor, when necessary. Sanders sometimes points to the fact that she's very cozy with the big banks on Wall Street, and that she takes massive speaking fees from the likes of Goldman Sachs. Funny enough, she fulfilled a sort of Family Guy prophecy when she spun a question about her involvement with Wall Street into a wrap-herself-in-the-flag answer about 9/11 having occurred in Manhattan. It was actually quite insulting to the intelligence.
Carlin: It probably comes as no surprise that Bernie Sanders is my guy in this race. Maybe he's guilty of speaking cryptically, too, but the only things that stick in my mind are the times when he's spoken real truth to power.
Me: Well, like Trump, Sanders has said things that would normally be considered political suicide, but in the opposite way. Trump promises to magically solve all of America's problems by himself, whereas Sanders has literally stated that no president alone can solve the country's largest problems. That's why he says that a sort of revolution is needed. It might be shocking to some people who have been unplugged for while, but it's true.
Carlin: I haven't got long left here, but tell me a little bit about the dynamic up in Canada. Is the rhetoric just as bad over there?
Me: Haha, well it's nothing like the shit show that you Americans have to deal with, but it gets pretty bad sometimes. A few months ago our new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, did a bunch of televised conversations with random, ordinary people. Unscripted stuff, where they could ask him pretty much whatever they wanted. So, naturally, several of them asked him some pretty tough questions about the economy, unemployment, oil and gas pipelines, that kind of thing. His go-to reply for many of the questions was that “There are no easy answers.” Now, that's true, of course – some of these people were asking him about stuff that can't just be solved by snapping your fingers. This shit is chess, it ain't checkers. But he couldn't just say that, obviously. He had to be diplomatic about it. The “no easy answers” line was his way of politely saying “Sorry, pal, there's not much I can do for you at the moment. This interview is as much about the optics as it is about trying to solve your problems.” And by the way, I won't go into it right now, but our last government under Stephen Harper was much, much worse. He sugarcoated plenty, and was a master spin-doctor, but he didn't have to do it in person because he never even sat down with ordinary people like Trudeau's done.
And of course, when Trudeau's been asked about the US election, he's also made reference to how it shouldn't be about “building walls.” We all know what he means by that.
Carlin: That's been a common theme down here too, on both sides of the aisle. I swear to God, if Trump somehow manages to weasel his way into the White House, that'll be a true indictment on the American voters who put him there. People are gonna have to wake up before it's too late. But this election campaign is getting people interested in the political process, so at least that's something. Otherwise there should just be a campaign slogan that says “The public sucks. Fuck hope.” How's that for inspiration?
Me: I'd laugh, except that's hardly something to joke about, at least according to polling data that says 30% of Republicans, 41% of Trump supporters, and even 19% of Democrats are in favour of “bombing Agrabah” – the fictional country from the movie Aladdin.
Carlin: It's no wonder Trump is finding support. You know what they say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
In today’s Western society, what we traditionally refer to as “the media” is a for-profit industry that sells news information to the public. Until about ten years ago, finding out about the goings-on in the world could only be achieved by turning to traditional news media sources, with private companies controlling what was effectively an information bottleneck. While overall that control is eroding, traditional news media in Canada today is still dominated by conglomerates: Post Media Network Inc., for example, owns more than half the English-language daily newspapers in Canada,i including fifteen major outlets.
However, it's now well understood that the advent of social media has revolutionized the way that news is being distributed. Since the dawn of the internet age around the turn of the millennium, news media have increasingly shifted to online platforms as a way of becoming more cost-efficient and reaching a wider audience. Now those traditional news sources also must compete with millions of social media users who, in addition to being news consumers, have the ability to produce news as well. This new paradigm will benefit Canadian democracy as long as we take the time to understand and guard against the potential harm it can do to our liberal society.
The pivot to distributed digital resources is part of a wider phenomenon, the essence of which is captured by the concept of “zero marginal cost.” Jeremy Rifkin argues that the capitalist system is being undermined by “the dramatic success of the very operating assumptions that govern it”ii: as technological productivity improves within a competitive market, the marginal costs of producing commodities and services will eventually drop to almost nothing, thereby negating the profit-margin that provides incentive for players to participate in the first place. Just as applications like Uber and Airbnb continue to put strain on the traditional taxi and hotel industries, so to are Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube beginning to obviate elements of traditional news sources. Of course, until there comes a time when social media and the personal technology that supports them advance to the point where traditional news networks are rendered obsolete, those traditional sources will survive because the market for news analysis, in addition to delivery, lives on. That's not to say that social media isn't capable of providing analysis, because anyone can volunteer that at any time by blogging or posting a YouTube video. The main hurdle for an individual trying to gain mainstream reach through social media comes down to perceived credibility. Conventional journalism faces no such burden because it’s more familiar to most people.
Despite the head-start that traditional media has over social media for providing credible news, the gap between the two is closing – both for better and for worse. Only days before polls opened in the recent Canadian federal election, every newspaper owned by Post Media Network ran a front-page advertisement endorsing a specific political party. It was a decision that reflected the private interests who own the newspapers, who were flexing their executive control over the publishing and editorial policies regardless of the personal views held by those newspapers' employees or readers. Although private actors are entitled to express their political opinions, the gesture in question amounted to a form of propaganda because it came from a purportedly objective source, and tacitly portrayed itself as speaking on behalf of the organization as a whole, including its many subsidiaries. Such a move also reflects a degree of democratic deficit in mainstream Canadian news media.
The obvious benefit of social media here is that the information bottleneck is widening as the traditional media oligopoly gradually loses its exclusive grip on providing news. From a democratic standpoint this is surely a positive trend. An eventual proliferation of news delivered instead via social media, which disperse the sources of news provision among individuals in the collaborative commons, will in theory mount a serious challenge to the traditional media oligopoly's relative stranglehold on the news market. The vitality of liberal democracy – the type of democracy that is cherished in Canada and in most of the West, and which is constrained by the rule of law and guided by a political culture that embraces pluralism – depends on a free, transparent, and ongoing public dialogue taking place so that a variety of viewpoints and policy options can be tried in the court of public opinion. News media are essential for such a conversation to be possible, because they are the channels that transmit those ideas to the public, and are the avenues through which members of the public can make collective demands of their elected representatives. Liberal democracy suffers when there's a bottleneck that narrows the spectrum of views available for public analysis. Social media has an important role to play in preventing that bottleneck from existing.
More generally, the social media revolution is facilitating public dialogue by providing a readily accessible forum that renders physical distance irrelevant. During the recent election campaign more of this public conversation played out on digital media than ever before. Certain campaign advertisements were run exclusively on YouTube, targeting a younger voting demographic. Most notably, Twitter was shown to be truly sharp at both ends: a politician looking to connect with modern voters in real time needs to have a Twitter presence; at the same time discretion is paramount, as compromising Tweets that were unearthed from the archive poisoned the election hopes of several candidates.
The advent of the social media age represents a turning point in democracy's history. It has forced a change in the way that democracy is conducted by making ordinary people privy to up-to-the-minute information around the clock, and by allowing (and encouraging) them to disseminate information to a wide audience instantly. In other words, social media is enfranchising. If you wanted to spread an idea to many people in the days before social media, you had to write an article or a book, or start a website. Those options are not necessarily accessible to everyone. Before the birth of the internet, you could listen to politicians debate one another on television or radio, but to ask them a question of your own you had to attend a debate in person, or mail in your question to the moderator or interviewer ahead of time. Earlier still, before the birth of electronic media people could only inform themselves on current events by reading the newspaper. The nature of public political life and election campaigns has evolved accordingly since then. In the present day, any candid moment or ill-timed slip of the tongue is rarely forgiven as it once might have been, and instead is available online for all to see. Today's public figures are more visible than ever, and are arguably more accountable because of it.
Liberal democracy clearly has the potential to benefit from the high degree of connectivity that digital media offer us. But we must also beware the subtle but significant ways in which liberal democracy can be damaged when citizens are constantly connected at light speed.
Although a news media oligopoly presents an opportunity to abuse power, as with Post Media’s owners, Canadian newspapers generally hold themselves to a high standard of balanced editorial integrity provided they aren’t receiving dictatorial directives to the contrary. The downside of the hyper-connectivity that social media provide is that it enables unfounded propaganda to be spread spontaneously. For instance, during the recent election campaign, debates over Canada’s refugee policy, and over whether Muslim women should have the right to wear a niqab while swearing the oath of citizenship, became hot-button issues. Many of the viewpoints that circulated on social media didn't consider the relevant evidence needed to have an informed opinion on these matters, instead often assuming the form of “memes” that essentialize and sensationalize the issues. Since young people disproportionately comprise the demographic that is active on social media, many users are impelled by deceivingly rudimentary portrayals of complex issues because they haven't yet developed or implemented the critical thinking skills needed to analyze those issues in a reasonable way. Democracy is thus left in a double-bind: on the one hand, part of Canada’s democratic deficit is due to a relatively low level of civic engagement and voter-turnout; on the other hand, encouraging increased democratic participation means the inclusion of viewpoints that are not necessarily informed by evidence, and which are particularly vulnerable to demagoguery.
Social media can easily be used with malicious intent, just as other forms of media have been used to manipulate people throughout history. Tabloid newspapers regularly print misleading and potentially libelous stories about celebrities for the sake of gossip. In the most extreme cases, we need look no further than the racist propaganda spread by newspapers during wartime to dehumanize the enemy, or the use of radio to incite genocide in Rwanda.iii Contrary to many naïve expectations during the 1990s, digital and social media are not inherently good forces for liberal democracy either – they merely facilitate further the political agenda of whoever uses them. Evgeny Morozov observes that “we confuse the intended uses of technology with the actual uses,” and that by subscribing to a deterministic view of technology as a necessarily positive development for liberal democracy, we delude ourselves regarding the associated pitfalls that technology carries.iv
Instead, we should be vigilant, embracing technological advancement for society's benefit while not forgetting that it's ultimately we who shape our political community, whether intentionally or inadvertently. Digital media in and of themselves are non-moral tools, and will augment liberal democracy only to the extent that we use them as such. The real lesson to be drawn is that liberal democracy's enduring vitality in our country will depend on cultivating our collective capacity for critical thought, first by normalizing it as a central pillar of childhood education, and then by continually enriching it as a Canadian cultural norm through its conscious use in the media.
The success of Canadian democracy so far is laudable considering that liberal democracy isn’t just a goal to be achieved, but an ongoing process that demands empathy and communication if it's to be preserved and reinforced. Still today, liberal democracy is strained even in Western countries like Spain, the UK, and across the European Union, and its mere establishment looks a tall order throughout the Middle East and elsewhere. Canada is doing a good job so far. Let's keep it that way by understanding and confronting frankly the challenges that our own political and technological advancement poses.
i Willcocks, Paul. 2015. “Who, or What, Is Behind Postmedia's Election Endorsements?” The Tyee, October 19.
ii Rifkin, Jeremy. 2014. The Zero Marginal Cost Society. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 2.
iii Hate Radio. Rwandan Stories. 2011. Accessed on November 30, 2015 at <http://www.rwandanstories.org/genocide/hate_radio.html>
iv Morozov, Evgeny. 2009. The Internet in Society: Empowering or Censoring Citizens? RSA Animate. Available at <https://www.thersa.org/discover/videos/event-videos/2009/09/the-internet-in-society-empowering-or-censoring-citizens/>
What do Canada's economy, the world's poorest 3.6 billion people, and the world's richest 62 people all have in common?
They're each worth about $1.7 trillion.
Included in a recent report by Oxfam, these jaw-dropping statistics present us with an updated picture of not just how much of a chasm exists between the world's haves and have-nots, but also between the world's reality and our perception of it.
We're all aware that there's poverty in the world, and that there are rich people, and that there's the much-discussed “middle-class,” to which most people reading this article belong. But when we bring data into the equation, and begin wondering about the empirical scale of the big picture, our notions of the situation at hand aren't just removed from how things really are, they're not even in the ballpark.
That's because the world's richest 2% are now wealthier than the rest of humanity combined. It can actually be difficult for this to sink in until you see a visual representation of it, so check out this video, courtesy of the people at therules.org. In fact, that video was made back in 2013, when, as it shows, the world's richest 300 people were as wealthy as the bottom 3 billion human beings put together. The fact that things have become much worse even in just the past three years gives an indication of how quickly the imbalance is spiraling out of control.
You might be saying to yourself “Ok, I get that things are bad in other countries and in the world at large, but at least in Canada we're pretty egalitarian, right?”
Well, yes and no. It's true that disparity is worst on a global level, and that in many other countries it's horrendous. In the United States in 2013, 75% of the country's wealth rested in the hands of the top 10% of families, and over 35% went to the top 1%, while the poorest half of American families were left with only 1.1% collectively. But even in Canada, where disparity is relatively tame compared to the rest of the world, in 2012 the bottom 50% of families collectively owned just 5.6% of our country's wealth, while the top 10% owned nearly half.i That's not exactly something to be proud of.
In another article I'll address some criticisms of Oxfam's numbers, and explain why those criticisms don't change the fact that massive wealth disparity is very bad for several reasons, both politically and economically.
i Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2015.
For more info go to www.therules.org Production Company: Grain Media (grainmedia.co.uk); Motion Graphics Artist: Nick Pittom (nickpittom.com); Music: Sup Doodle and Apple Juice Kid (AppleJuiceKid.com); References: http://www.therules.org/inequality-video-fact-sheet; Accompanying article in Al Jazeera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/201349124135226392.html
Feminism can be a scary word for a lot of people, but it shouldn't be. Feminism's first and second waves accomplished much for women's rights, but it's third and fourth waves are still struggling to find an identity. Add to the equation the phenomenon of men's rights activism, led by misogynistic opportunists like Roosh V and Julien Blanc, and it becomes clear that feminism's mission is far from complete. That's why I'll argue here not only that men need feminism just as much as women do, but also that feminism needs and begins with men.
Sometimes it comes as a bit of a surprise to people when they hear me describe myself as a feminist, probably because I'm a white man who is able-bodied, heterosexual, and cis-gendered (meaning that I self-identify with the gender that corresponds to my sex). An acquaintance of mine once expressed her minor astonishment when I mentioned in passing that “men need feminism.” My guess is that most feminists – who are usually not straight men, in my experience – take it for granted that their movement is unnecessary for, and unappealing to, those who represent the epitome of privilege, as I do.
But it's not despite my position of privilege that I'm a feminist, contrary to what one could be excused for presuming. I find it important to be a feminist because of who I am, and my reasons for why that's the case form the crux of this article.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” For the vast majority of people in this day and age, that normative statement is self-evident. There's still clearly work to be done, though, since a corollary of men's very real privilege is, by definition, disadvantage for everyone else. That disadvantage takes well-known forms: domestic violence, sexual harassment and abuse, and certain other cultural impediments embedded within the fabric of our society.
It's a natural reflex to attack such problems directly, and efforts to do so formed the impetus for feminism's first three waves (which you can learn more about here). Our society's backward cultural norms long excluded all but men from positions of great wealth and power; women like Hillary Clinton and Sheryl Sandberg are now popular icons for having broken through those barriers, although they are in the minority. Some others, like writer Mia Mackenzie of Black Girl Dangerous, embody a “scrappy” and “kick-ass” brand of feminism that's proud of its brashness.
Despite their popularity among feminists, both of the aforementioned examples of feminism are exclusionary, and both fail to see the forest for the trees. By fixating attention at the point of observable grievances and halting our analysis at that point, as today's pop-culture feminism does, we advance no closer to addressing the root causes of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and economic imbalances. These forms of injustice are merely symptoms of an underlying cultural pathology, the bulk of which still remains unacknowledged.
That pathology is the dominance of masculine values in our society, meaning that feminism's true aim should be to overcome the hegemony that masculinity wields. That's not to say that masculinity should play no part in our lives, because it has some useful aspects. But patriarchal societies are sustained when masculine values dominate and marginalize feminine values, so it's these values on which we need to focus our thinking.
Feminine values are traditionally understood to include things like compassion, tenderness, intimacy, and empathy, whereas traits like competition, power, victory, glory, strength, and domination are considered to be masculine. The feminisms represented by Mackenzie, Clinton, and Sandberg are deficient because they've become divorced from feminine values. Mackenzie's signature feminism explicitly harnesses the language of anger and violence, which not only alienates outsiders due to its perceived hostility, but is also simply antithetical to feminism's core values: militant feminism is an oxymoron.
Clinton's and Sandberg's elitism makes them out-of-touch, and the version of feminism that they represent, inaccessible. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton is a foreign policy hawk: she favoured the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya that killed over a million people – many of whom, let's not forget, were women and children. It's extremely difficult to reconcile war with feminist values, especially when it's conducted on frivolous grounds.
Feminism has historically lauded female leaders like Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, and Hillary Clinton for having reached high positions in male-dominated cultures. But their stories can also be viewed as masculinity's success in co-opting women, evidenced by the fact that these figures all exhibit(ed) masculine traits, and are known as “strong” women. A feminist is as a feminist does, and being a woman doesn't automatically make one a feminist, at least if we define it by its intended values.
Aggressive styles of feminism have given the whole movement a bad reputation for being “man-bashing,” and backlash has even led to creation of the term “Feminazi.” Incredibly, men's rights movements have developed that cater to some men's perception of being oppressed at the hands of feminism. But even putting these outliers aside, it's not hard to see why many people – women included – are reluctant to identify as feminists despite having sympathy for much of what it stands for. In order to overcome this problem, feminism needs to be reunderstood from a more accommodating perspective.
Instead of acting as a reactionary force that “pushes back” against patriarchy's oppressiveness, feminism needs to be thought of as a way of “lifting off the chains” that patriarchy imposes. Accomplishing that, in turn, requires removing the burden that masculinity places on men.
Men need feminism just as much as women do, although this fact is grossly overlooked. For every girl or woman who's slut-shamed because of the clothes she wears, or whose ambitions are limited by the “glass ceiling,” there's a boy or a man who suffers in silence because who he is and what interests him doesn't conform to society's expectations of what a man is “supposed” to be.
Throughout adolescence and into adulthood boys and men are bombarded with the lesson that physical toughness must be an integral part of their identity if they want to be respected as men. That's why most insults directed at men and boys attack their gender identity: calling a boy a “pussy,” “faggot,” or “little girl” shames him into conforming to a masculine ideal if he hopes to be dignified among his peers and male role-models. Such practice is especially commonplace in sports, where hyper-masculinity thrives in the echo-chambers of hockey and football dressing rooms. On a side note, it's little wonder, from this perspective, that fighting in hockey is not only accepted as being “part of the game,” but is also encouraged and applauded by coaches, teammates, and spectators alike, despite the message it sends to children and the culture of violence it reinforces.
Not only will being viewed as weak or frightened – in action or in physical appearance – make a boy an afterthought on his football team, it also shatters his confidence in relationships with girls. The desire to be sexually and socially attractive according to what one's gender norms demand applies to men and women equally. Famous feminist scholars like Judith Butler have observed that gender is something that's performed, not endowed, which means that certain actions are required to sustain one's gender. Just as there are gendered stereotypes that encourage women to slim their bodies down, which can drive some to anorexia or bulimia, parallel stereotypes pressure many men to “get jacked,” leading some men to spend excessive time in the weight room, or even turn to harmful body-enhancing drugs. As an example, YouTube has become inundated with advertisements from channels like Six Pack Shortcuts, and Gregory O'Gallagher's uber-pretentious Kinobody, that are intended to have the equivalent effect on boys and young men as skinny lingerie models have on girls and young women.
Gender-performance norms play out most starkly in the sexual arena, which is why a feminist analysis is key for understanding issues like sexual assault and domestic violence. For heterosexual men, the logic of masculinity tells them that they must “out-man” other men if they want to be attractive to women and respected among their male peers. There's an understanding among teenage boys that you can't “become” a man until you've have sex for the first time, and a man's urge to assert his masculinity through sex continues into adulthood. Violence against women in all its forms chiefly reflects power-seeking behaviour that asserts masculinity by establishing dominance over someone. A crucial part of feminism's mission is to reveal that you don't necessarily have to be masculine to be a man, just as womanhood doesn't necessarily require femininity. It's about freedom of identity. A man who adopts a feminist outlook in relation to his identity as a man is far less likely to act violently – especially against women – because he no longer feels the need to constantly prove himself by meeting destructive masculine criteria.
Even health statistics reveal that there is indeed a sort of hidden crisis among men. It can be hard for anyone to admit that they're scared, or lonely, or confused, but it's even more difficult for men to admit it because of the possible consequences to their masculine identities. That does much to explain why doctors are more likely to diagnose depression in women than in men, even when they present identical symptoms, and why the male suicide rate is 3 times that of women in Canada, and up to 7.5 times higher in other countries.v
Just as men need feminism, feminism needs men to identify with it because otherwise there will continue to be resistance to the movement, and it won't flourish as it needs to. Without men, feminism will remain in the forms put forward by people like Mia Mackenzie, which will always be met with backlash. In other words, feminism's long-term success will depend on giving its detractors incentive to end their resistance against it. Women will only be free of patriarchal forces once men are no longer slaves to the masculinity that sustains patriarchy.
To this Mackenzie might reply that men will never embrace feminism because they benefit enormously from gender inequality in every way, and have little to no incentive to help affect positive change. But her criticism is only relevant if we consider the problem based solely on feminism's conventional definition: the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. The more robust definition that I propose – that feminism is ultimately about overcoming the hegemony of masculinity – still treats the goal of gender equality as important, but goes a step further to ask why those inequalities exist in the first place.
Take the gender pay gap, for instance. Discrimination may play a role in some cases, but the most prominent factors are structural. According to Statistics Canada figures published in 2010, among permanent employees with union coverage females were paid 92.6% of what their male counterparts were paid in terms of hourly wage. Among employees lacking union coverage, that ratio dropped to 78.6%. Among temporary employees, the ratio was 93.9% for those with union coverage, and 91.1% for those without.i When isolated to hourly wage, the gender pay gap is often less of a factor than it's made out to be, though the 4-8% "unexplained" pay gap that consistently remains may well be directly attributable to discrimination.
The gender pay gap also varies between industries. Among sectors like service, trades, equipment operators and transport, processing and manufacturing, and primary industries like agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hydrocarbon extraction, the pay gap ranged from 25 to 30 cents on the dollar. But for other sectors like culture and recreation, health, education and government services, sciences, business, finance, and administration, the gap ranged from 15% to virtually non-existent.ii
From these statistics we can see that the largest gender pay gap tends to be in industries traditionally considered to be “manly,” like fishing, mining, etc. Gender norms regarding occupations are eroding slowly with time, but they evidently still exist enough to make an impact on wage equity. The other immediately obvious correlation is that the industries with more equitable pay among genders also tend to require higher levels of education. Yet, in 2008, among full-time workers median yearly earnings for females were only 76% those of men's, and average earnings only 71%.iii So what does all of this mean?
As the StatsCan publication concludes, “two central factors that contribute to the gender wage gap are the concentration of women in a small number of lower-paying jobs, and the fact that women are more likely than men to make accommodations to balance paid and unpaid work.”iv The unpaid work that they refer to typically means childcare, cooking, and household chores, which of course are dictated mainly by gender norms that have historically designated those tasks to females. The large gender pay gap that exists when measuring average and median yearly income is mainly due to the fact that, on average, women don't work as many paid hours as men.
There has long been a stigma against men who stay home to take care of their children while their partner works at a paid job, or even, for that matter, against men in “female” occupations like nursing. Feminism can offer a solution here by breaking the dogmatic link between masculinity and manhood, and removing the stigma attached to men who value being equitable and progressive in their relationships. Feminism can be reflected in policy-making too, where a publicly-funded childcare program would make it easier for women to pursue paid careers by reducing their opportunity costs at home.
At this point a critic might point out that there are contradictions in my description of what feminism should be, because on the one hand I've argued that it's about reuniting feminism with feminist values, while on the other hand I claimed that feminism is about breaking gender norms. A masculine woman, for example, would fit the latter definition, but not necessarily the former.
Ultimately feminism is indeed about breaking gender norms, even if takes embracing masculine values to do that. But the point I'm making is that the world would be a better place if gender norms were broken while, at the same time, femininity overtook or even pulled level with masculinity's disproportional influence over deciding which values our society holds most dear. Doing so would lead to enormously positive cultural shifts, potentially even on the level of international relations, where a cosmopolitan conception of humanity, which refuses to view the world in terms of "us" and "them," could better unite the human race and discourage conflict.
Men need to lead the 4th-wave feminist charge, because for the type of man who is a already a victim of hyper-masculinity, non-male feminists are unlikely to be taken seriously. Only men who embrace feminism have the ability to effectively resonate with the men who need saving, and to challenge the conventional notions of what it means to be strong and courageous.
Embracing feminism allows one to see strength in compassion, and courage in showing vulnerability. As a man, I'm a feminist because I experience human emotions and because I won't tolerate being called a coward for showing them. Mature people are honest, thoughtful, and empathic, and respect the same emotional intelligence in others because those characteristics demonstrate a person's grasp on the realities of the human condition. Life is too short to live a fucking lie, yet that's exactly what we're doing when we force ourselves to remain reticent for the sake of appearing tough. It makes no sense to act macho when you consider that we, and every other known living creature, share a fragile and finite existence on a tiny blue pebble whizzing through space. We're all in this together, so we ought to act like it.
Feminism is neither about being a girl, nor about “kicking ass.” It just means being real, and that's why we all need it.
Julie Cool. Wage Gap Between Men and Women. Library of Parliament Research Publications. July 29, 2010. <http://www.parl.gc.ca/content/lop/researchpublications/2010-30-e.htm>
vDan Bilsker and Jennifer White. December 2011. The silent epidemic of male suicide. BC Medical Journal. 53:10, p. 529-534. <http://www.bcmj.org/articles/silent-epidemic-male-suicide>
Terrorism is a hot topic these days, but its dynamics evidently still aren't broadly understood, if a recent experience of mine is any indication.
I attended a public debate not long ago where the topic of discussion was what Canada's role ought to be in opposing the Islamic State. During the length of the discussion I had the displeasure of listening to the hawkish historian and columnist John Robson – arguing in favour of sharply escalating Canada's military presence in the Middle East as a remedy to ISIS – give what amounted to a farcical account of terrorism's nature and causes, though he meant it all quite seriously.
Unfortunately, he is not alone in his naive worldview. During his closing remarks he echoed, nearly verbatim, George W. Bush's famous line that Islamic terrorists simply “hate us for our freedom” – a spurious statement that would prove to foreshadow the War on Terror's anti-intellectualism, and whose legacy continues to cloud the minds of many. By invoking evidence and sociological reasoning to uncover the real causes of terrorism, my aim is to try to undo some of the damage done fifteen years ago, despite John Robson's best efforts to the contrary.
There's rather fierce disagreement among public intellectuals and pundits like Reza Aslan, Chris Hedges, Bill Maher, and Sam Harris over whether or not violence is an inherent facet of Islam. That conversation is very complex because it requires exegetical examination of scripture, and even then Islamic scholars differ in their jurisprudential opinions. Instead, I'm going to focus on what motivates terrorists specifically, including those who are willing to commit suicide in the process.
Without being familiar with terrorism's long history, a layman could be forgiven for automatically associating terrorism with Islamic jihad. Outside of intelligence circles, and perhaps aside from the Israeli public, the threat of terrorism did not dominate the West's collective attention before the attacks of September 11, 2001. From that point on, the majority of the terrorist threats facing the West have been posed by Islamic extremists, so it's not surprising that Islamic jihad is usually the first thing that comes to mind when we think of terrorism. In reality it's not that simple. Religious violence is, at its core, political violence, so first we need to break down what that means.
Politics is the process of collective action among a group of people, in the name of whatever values they hold dear, to decide on how to allocate resources and regulate the behaviour of people in their society. In a democracy, elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents. But also in non-democratic societies, even if decision-makers are not held accountable legally for crimes or widely unpopular policies, they can still be held accountable politically through public demonstrations, riots, and in extreme cases, uprisings and civil war. Each of these reactions was displayed during the Arab Spring that took place across the Middle East in 2011, and the Syrian and Libyan civil wars that began then still continue today.
Terrorism is the use of violence with the aim of achieving a political goal. As the name indicates, the use of violence is designed to terrorize and coerce a target population, which has the collective power to influence political decisions, as outlined. That's most easily achieved through shocking acts of public brutality – the bloody aftermath of which social media and news cameras eagerly broadcast to billions of voyeurs around the world – that maim and murder random people, making anyone and everyone a potential target. This use of minimal material investment for maximum effect is why terrorism is traditionally thought of as being the weapon of the weak. Blowing up a bus doesn't require advanced and expensive military hardware, but it certainly forces people to take notice. It should also be noted that White terrorism is very real, as was the case when Dylan Roof murdered nine black members of a church in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015, with the stated intention of provoking a race war.
However, it would be more accurate to call terrorism the weapon of the politically weak. We can observe from the Arab Spring revolutions that when people no longer feel that they have any democratic avenues through which to address their concerns, they will inevitably turn in desperation to other, sometimes violent, channels to make their voices heard. This, of course, does not justify acts of terrorism, but it does help to explain why they are committed.
Understanding terrorism as a tool used by the politically weak also reveals – though it's rarely considered or discussed in mainstream Western media – that states commit acts of terrorism regularly, if terrorism's definition is to retain any meaning. Political weakness can apply both domestically and abroad. There have been numerous examples of government regimes brutally cracking down on their own citizens' peaceful protests, including the Chinese government in 1989, and the ruling Libyan, Egyptian, Bahraini, and Syrian regimes in 2011. In terms of foreign aggression, since 1945, and certainly in the post-Cold War era, the United States takes the cake as the worst offender by a long shot; being the world's self-declared policeman means that it has its fingers in many pies. In all of these instances, the aggressor had a certain objective (e.g. protecting the status quo, provoking regime change, gaining control over coveted resources or territory), but lacked the requisite popular support to accomplish that objective democratically, making it weak politically.
In other words, terrorism is not limited to who most people think of as “the terrorists.” Of course, the West's actions abroad are not called terrorism here, because that would make us uncomfortable. It's impolite to make people feel uncomfortable.
The Pakistani, Afghani, and Yemeni wedding parties that have found themselves on the receiving end of Predator Drone missile strikes, to name but one example, have a somewhat different opinion on the matter. The West's military engagements, both overt and covert, have long sought to achieve political goals abroad. Military engagements involve large-scale acts of violence that inevitably inflict collateral damage on civilians which, unsurprisingly, they find terrifying. That is textbook terrorism, at the very least from the perspective of those in the line of fire. And even if the bulk of such escapades were carried out with the most pure-hearted intentions – a generous assumption, to put it mildly – we are all familiar with a certain road that those good intentions are used to pave.
America's imperialist reach is far wider than most Westerners realize, though its impact is certainly not lost on the rest of the world. America's annual military budget is larger than the next ten countries combined, partly because it maintains a physical military presence in most of the world's countries. In a 2014 Gallup poll that surveyed 66,000 people across 65 different countries, a 24 percent plurality of all respondents answered that the United States “is the greatest threat to peace in the world today.” The next largest perceived threats posed by Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, Israel, Iran, and even North Korea trailed far behind in aggregate world opinion.i It should not come as a surprise to anyone that such an enormously arrogant footprint would ruffle a few feathers. If statistics like these don't give hawkish neoconservatives pause, one can only conclude that they are impervious to facts that don't support their ideology. As they say, you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.
During the debate I watched, John Robson attempted nonetheless to make the case that terrorists are simply out to impose their insane, utopian ideology on the rest of us by force, quoting Usama bin Laden as saying, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, that “from north to south and east to west, [the US] is trembling with fear.” What Robson neglected to mention was that bin Laden was gloating about Americans' fear in vengeance, alluding to the fear that the US has facilitated or brought upon the people of the Middle East for many decades, let alone its countless victims in other corners of the world throughout its history. Incredible as it may seem, people like Robson have failed to understand one very crucial detail:
History did not begin on 9/11.
The inconvenient truth is that over the course of several interviews given both before and after 2001, bin Laden repeatedly articulated his laundry list of grievances, no doubt shared by the jihadists of today, which in his mind justify acts of terror against the West as a means of reciprocal justice. Those included:
The ongoing suffering of the Palestinian people at the hands of Israel's illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, for which America shares responsibility;
Iraqi deaths, both as a result of the 1991 Gulf War, and resulting from the post-war sanctions regime imposed on Iraq by the UN, at the behest of the US. It was widely reported that the sanctions had resulted in the deaths of up to half a million children, although those numbers are likely too high. Regardless, ordinary Iraqis suffered immensely as a result of the sanctions.
The US military's permanent presence in Islam's holy land of Saudi Arabia since the 1991 Gulf War, and its support for the ruling Saudi monarchy, which bin Laden viewed as America's puppet regime;
Iraqi deaths as a result of the 2003 US/British invasion, many of whom were non-combatants. Because of the difficulty involved in estimating body counts, the numbers are disputed and the estimated range is wide. While the low end is about 100 000, the true total is probably closer to 1 million deaths;
NATO's invasion of Afghanistan. Since 2001, nearly 100 000 Afghanis have been killed, about a quarter of whom were civilians, and another 100 000 have been injured;
More broadly, he pointed to America's history of crimes as a testament to its hypocrisy, including, in reverse chronological order:
The wars in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, for which the death toll is estimated at up to 3 million people, although the true number will never be known;
The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which together had killed between 150 000 and 200 000 people by December of that year, and wounded countless more;
The genocide committed against America's indigenous population.
Despite holding a Ph.D in American history, Robson's curious stance suggests that, in terms of educating people on the dynamics of conflict in the Middle East, bin Laden himself would have been a better candidate. Neoconservatives cling desperately to the notion that terrorists acting under the banner of Islamic groups like ISIS are doing so for no reason other than to impose Sharia Law on the rest of us, with geopolitical grievances being only a small footnote for their cause. That is awfully convenient for a neoconservative, who then isn't forced to reflect on or apologize for the terror that his own state's actions have brought upon helpless communities far away. Insane worldviews, as it turns out, are not exclusive to Islamic extremists.
Lo and behold, the main external driver of Islamic terrorism is prior acts of terrorism. This was as true during the 1980s as it is now. Back then, the Mujahideen – or defenders of Islam – were struggling to repel the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and topple the puppet government it had installed. They finally succeeded after the American CIA, in an effort to thwart Soviet expansionism, decided to fund the fighters with billions of dollars, not fully realizing the future repercussions that would have. Usama bin Laden was among the fighters who had come from abroad to oppose the “injustice [that] had been committed against the people of Afghanistan.”ii Al-Qaeda would come to be born from this movement. Like those fighting on behalf of ISIS today, bin Laden believed he was answering the call to jihad, and defending the Umma (the global community of Islam) from aggression. People may do bad things, but from their own perspective, they always believe that they are doing what is right. Sound familiar?
Obviously, whether or not we can influence a terrorist's will to act violently depends on what his goals are. If his sole demand was, say, that the United States burn its constitution and install Sharia Law as the law of the land – as neoconservatives would have us believe – there's clearly no room for compromise or even introspection on our part. It would be foolish to deny that the Islamic State includes among its ranks theological fundamentalists, who would love nothing more than to bring the Middle East, and theoretically the entire world, under the rule of a Salafi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Such a mission's prospects of success, on the other hand, are laughably fanciful, yet people like Robson never tire of lecturing us on the “existential” threat that ISIS poses to our civilized society, which rests across an ocean and under the umbrella of the most organized and sophisticated mass killing machine the world has ever known. But you can never be too careful.
The truth is that the Islamic State's religious fundamentalists are vastly outnumbered by its members who are fighting primarily because they feel aggrieved or disenfranchised in one way or another. Most of its top military commanders, for example, are remnants of Saddam Hussein's military, who were left bitter and unemployed when the Iraqi armed forces were disbanded in 2003. Iraq's religious composition is at least 60 percent Shia, and at most 37 percent Sunni, so when the Shia majority regained control of the state after decades of brutality under Saddam's Sunni Baathist rule, certain policies were implemented that many Sunnis resented. Many Iraqi Sunnis, and particularly unemployed young men, were thus given ample incentive to oppose the occupying Western forces and the new Iraqi government, regardless of who that required allying with. In fact, al-Qaeda and ISIS often refer to Western forces as “Christian Crusaders,” alluding to the military expeditions launched by various Popes between the 11th to 15th centuries CE in an attempt to reclaim the Holy Land from the Islamic empire.
But what about the tens of thousands of foreign fighters who have travelled across the world to join ISIS? Many extremists come from relatively affluent backgrounds (Usama bin Laden was a member of the Saudi royal family!), so it's not necessarily a question of poverty or material disenfranchisement.
Our difficulty in the West to understand the factors that could motivate someone to risk their life in a battle far from home, or to carry out a suicide operation, speaks to our relative ignorance of where people ultimately find meaning in their lives. Ideally, almost every human being desires material comfort. But in the affluent West we have become accustomed to a standard of material wealth that is significantly higher than what is enjoyed in the rest of the world, and it has skewed our worldview accordingly.
As a society I think we tend to underestimate the human need for belonging and purpose, which is a force so strong that it sometimes pushes people to their breaking point. The angst felt due to a lack of belonging or personal recognition can in extreme cases lead some to become homicidal and/or suicidal. When a person becomes convinced that their own life is worthless, whether because of frustration at failing to attract social validation or some other reason, they may decide that the only way to seize recognition is through a spectacular death. From this point of departure, it's not hard to understand why martyrdom in the name of Islamic jihad can look appealing as a last-ditch effort to be part of a purportedly meaningful cause, a chance to leave a personal legacy that will be appreciated by someone, or an opportunity to avenge the death of a loved one. In addition to helping to explain the mindset of a suicide bomber, this analysis also does much to explain a number of tragedies that have occurred in North America, including the 1989 École Polytechnique Massacre, the 1999 Columbine shooting, the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and the 2014 Isla Vista killings. Indeed, emotional pain and frustration was a common expression among the manifestos (excerpts of which you can read here, here, and here) left by some of the perpetrators of these atrocities.
What's more, a person who lacks meaning in their life is more likely to be vulnerable to the type of religious pretense that ISIS propagandizes, because they're in search of a belief system that will give them purpose. The promise of being a warrior for a “righteous” cause can be very tantalizing, especially when having God Almighty on their side solves any moral conundrums they might encounter. The process of radicalization is normally a gradual one, and studies on it refer to these sorts of fragile individuals as being in the pre-radicalization phase, at risk of gravitating toward the Salafi ideology.iii
As mentioned earlier, whether or not Islam justifies killing is a highly abstruse matter, but if we are to judge based on the opinions and actions of the world's Muslims as a whole, Islam is overwhelmingly a religion of peace and kindness. However, that doesn't stop Islamic extremists from cherry-picking passages from their religious texts that will suit their own political agendas, all while insisting that their version harks back to Islam's “purest” form. Mainstream Islam, whether Sunni, Shia, or otherwise, is far too nuanced to be useful to a near-fascist ideology that desires such radical change.
But beyond a disillusionment with the Western world, and likely some degree of personal search for purpose, the “terrorist profile” remains mostly inconclusive, according to leaked details of a classified MI5 report. Regarding British terrorists at least, they fit “no single demographic profile,” and there is no single “pathway to violent extremism.” They “are not unintelligent or gullible,” and “their educational achievements range from total lack of qualifications to degree-level education. However, they are almost all employed in low-grade jobs.” Furthermore, and crucially,
Far from being religious zealots, a large number of those involved in terrorism do not practise their faith regularly. Many lack religious literacy and could actually be regarded as religious novices. Very few have been brought up in strongly religious households, and there is a higher than average proportion of converts.iv
In other words, while the Islamic State's clerical leaders and recruiters may be well-versed in the Qur'an, Hadith, and Sunna, the vast majority of its followers are not. While all of the Islamic State's members are fighting to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Levant, and that mission is draped in religious diction, geopolitical grievances and objectives remain at the project's heart. As this video shows clearly, putting an end to the Sykes-Picot line that separates Iraq and Syria – a product of European colonialism – was regarded as a symbolic milestone.
The neoconservative conception of the Islamic State's nature is erroneous, and does nothing to advance our understanding of terrorism's causes. But even worse than that, taking a hardline view toward political violence puts us in even greater danger, because it plays directly into the extremist's gameplan by reinforcing stereotypes of the West as brutal, uncompromising, and arrogant. Hardliners feed off of one another. Hawks in the West rationalize our enormous violence by claiming that the terrorists are just crazy, can't be reasoned with, and must be defeated at all costs – including any and all ensuing harm to non-combatants. Islamic extremists point to an ongoing pattern of Western imperialism, and an ever growing Muslim civilian body count, to justify continued attacks against Western and Western-backed targets. This theme forms the core of the current crisis we face, but it's buttressed by sub-narratives of racism and religious division, which are often misdiagnosed as primary narratives. The irony is that each warring side gives purpose to the other, yet the cycle continues endlessly because hatred is the most expedient of human emotions.
By equipping ourselves with only hammers, we are forced to view all our problems as nails. If we ever hope to break the tragic cycle of hatred and violence, we must stop denying that we bear any responsibility for its continuation, and we must begin to think of courage in moral terms rather than in military ones. Western culture has long revered the language of violence far too highly for us to be astonished when our victims reply to us in kind. We are all each other's victims.
iEric Brown. In Gallup Poll, The Biggest Threat To World Peace Is … America? International Business Times. January 2, 2014. Available at <http://www.ibtimes.com/gallup-poll-biggest-threat-world-peace-america-1525008>
iiInterview with Robert Fisk, March 22, 1997, 'The Great War For Civilisation', 2005, p.7.
iiiKris Christmann. 2012. Preventing Religious Radicalization and Violent Extremism: A Systematic Review of the Research Evidence. Youth Justice Board for England and Whales.
ivMI5 report challenges views on terrorism in Britain. The Guardian. August 20, 2008. <http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2008/aug/20/uksecurity.terrorism1>