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National Capital

Last week, again, I spent a few hours throwing a frisbee around on Parliament Hill. Sean and I met a few other players, and we played a few points of of pick up before heading off to dinner. That night there were a few hundred kids around, junior-high I think, and Sean and I threw with them for a little bit too. I’m sometimes out there after dark, but this time we got there around 7:30. It was a great night, not too hot, and with a tiny bit of breeze pushing around the handful of clouds in the sky.

At some point I looked up at the Peace Tower, and for a moment I was struck by the enormity of what I and a few hundred other people from all over the world were very casually doing: wandering around on the lawn in front of the seat of Canada’s political power, enjoying a beautiful summer afternoon without a care in the world. There were a few RCMP cars around, up at the front doors of Parliament and around the periphery, and every now then one would drive around the ring road and look around, and that was it.

One of the tour guides was explaining the Eternal Flame and its significance to a group of those kids, but he also said that even though they call it the Eternal Flame, they do have to shut it off twice a year for routine maintenance. For some reason, that struck me as well; the guide didn’t tell the kids an uplifting, patriotic fabrication. He said “This is the way we like to tell the story, but you should also know the way it really is”. And for some reason, the fact that the Eternal Flame in front of the Peace Tower needs biannual maintenance seemed like a profound truth, and a way better thing to tell the kids than some elegant, inspirational lie.

It occurred to me then that the most important right we enjoy might be the right to live as though we are not afraid. Not of the government or the police, not of nebulous, undefined (though, strangely, color-coded) threats and not of each other. Everything else, the freedoms to speak out, move around, engage in commerce or activisim, they all fall out of that.

There is so much, so much social and physical infrastructure that needs to exist to support that freedom, from honest cops and a fair, uncorrupt justice system to reliable sewage systems and clean running water. A transparent electoral process and the confidence that a dropped brick won’t cave in a CSA-approved hard hat, or that this drug I’m taking for my headaches isn’t going to give me deformed children. A reliable electrical grid and the fact that I’ll never have to choose between giving my child a meal or a tetanus shot, and that when I am old, I will not be abandoned or forgotten.

Canada is a long way from perfect; some of the warts on my country are awfully ugly, and there’s plenty of work to be done, but a night like that fills me with optimism. There might be half a dozen countries in the world where you can walk around on the front lawn of the main government building, for no other reason than you’ve got a disc you feel like throwing around with your friend.

13 Comments | Skip to comment form

  1. Rob

    They’re supposed to call it the Centennial flame.

    http://www.ottawakiosk.com/parliament/p_4.html

  2. Jeff

    It has been often remarked that half of America –the so-called Blue America– is a lot closer to Canada than it is to Bush-supporting, gay marriage-banning, Fox News Watching, Saddamn blue up the World Trade Center Red America.

    Your entry very well highlights why so often so many wish it were so.

  3. Melanie

    Your points are well-taken, Mike. And while I agree with them whole-heartedly, there’s something underlying at least some of them that is worth thinking about. I have been struggling with this a lot ever since Sept. 11. The point is this: While some of the ills that you speak of have to do with a strong right-wing population in the US that doesn’t exist (or at least isn’t as poweful) in Canada, some of these “freedoms” have to do with the fact that Canada doesn’t have a big target labelled “kick/shoot me here” on its back, like the US does. Canada benefits a lot from the protection of its admittedly coarse and sometimes (especially recently) narrow-minded neighbour. Canada has made a choice over the years to limit its military and focus on being a peaceful nation. There are some serious moral and also more concrete advantages to this choice. There are also some disadvantages. Like, I think actually having military power makes you responsible for how that power is used. The converse is also true – by not having military power, Canada relinquishes the right to judge how that power is used, often to its benefit. It also prevents Canada from taking a more active role in doing some of the really positive things that militaries can sometimes do, like preventing genocide. I know, Canada has a long and valiant history of peace-keeping. But it’s really a token one. Back to Sept. 11. There’s a reason that the terrorists struck US targets and not Canadian ones, and it’s not just because they hate US culture. When compared with their fundamentalist views, Canadian culture isn’t any different. The reason that they struck US targets is because the US has the power to effect real change in the world, change that they are deathly afraid of. Change like democracy, religious freedom, racial tolerance, women’s rights, freedom of expression… sound familiar? I am not saying that Canada should build up a military and start waging aggressive wars in foreign countries. Canada would lose an important part of its soul if it did that, even if it were good wars for the right reasons. But just as I love Canada, and love the fact that the PM can just wander around mostly unprotected and have eggs thrown at him without anyone getting shot, and I don’t worry that a dirty bomb is going to blow up in Ottawa any time soon, I am beginning to realize that I love the US too – because, despite its warts, it really does try to do the right thing, and puts its money (and lives) where its mouth is. And gets kicked/shot a lot for it. Now, if we can just get dubbaya out of office, we can start doing some good stuff again here. I hope.

  4. Mike Hoye

    Mel, I’m reluctant to agree with what you’ve said. I agree with the spirit of it, to be sure, but I cannot agree with the details.

    “The converse is also true – by not having military power, Canada relinquishes the right to judge how that power is used, often to its benefit.”

    This may not be exactly what you’re trying to convey, but as stated this argument is exactly, precisely wrong. It is diametrically opposed truth. You might as well argue that by not having a movie camera, you have no right to critique a movie. If the U.S. Government, hypothetically speaking, proposed torturing and humiliating suspected terrorists in the name of protecting me, you bet I’d have the right to judge. You might as well argue that I have no right to critique art if I don’t own a can of paint.

    For all the good that the U.S. has done, and I’ll be happy to say that it’s an awful lot of good that doesn’t get nearly the press it deserves, the other side of that coin has been the arbitrary, punitive exercise of force, with unjustifiable motives and disastrous results, a trend that shows no sign of stopping or even slowing down.

    The kick-me sign you describe is not hanging there because women are allowed to wear short skirts and vote. It’s there because U.S. foreign policy has been propping up despots, toppling democratically elected leaders and just generally stepping on foreigner’s throats about as often as they “really try to do the right thing”. The U.S. has in balance, I think, been a force for good. But for every despot you can name that the U.S. has brought to heel, I can name one they put in power, and it’s often the same name. Name a country that’s received aid, and I can name one that was embargoed or overthrown. I’ll see your “preventing ethnic cleansing in Kosovo” and raise you eight hundred thousand rotting Rwandan bodies.

    While our peackeeping efforts have been, as you say, token (not always the case, but definitely in the last twenty years or so) there has also been a moral consistency to Canadian foreign policy that has simply not been true of our neighbors to the south. Or, at least, of their elected administrators.

    Oh, and I know this bugs you, but: you have to put in the <p> tags if you want the paragraph spacing to work. Sorry about that.

  5. Melanie

    Here goes nothing with these paragraph markers. It’s not a matter of “bugging me” as much as not knowing the system. Please feel free to edit the heck out of my post if I end up looking like a moron (I assume you have the capability to do this).

    You’re right in the sense you mean that everyone has the right to critique the behavior of others. Maybe I can make my point better with a little creative story-telling:

    Let’s say that the despots of the world are crazed bank-robbers, holding people hostage in the bank. They’ve a gun trained on one of the hostages, and are threatening to kill her unless their demands for a million dollars and a get-away vehicle are met. They’re looking pretty trigger-happy. The US is a macho (but let’s say for the sake of argument, generally righteous) ex-marine who came in to the bank (who knows why) with a concealed gun that he now has trained on the bank robber pointing the gun at the hostage. Canada is (let’s say) another unarmed hostage taking cover behind a desk near the U.S.

    Now, I would agree that Canada has every right to (and possibly the responsibility to) talk to the U.S. and try to talk him out of (or into) shooting the bank robber. And Canada equally has the right to (and probably the responsibility to) make a moral judgement on what the US decided to do. But ultimately, it is the US that decides whether or not to pull the trigger, and it is the US that has to live with the moral and other consequences of that decision. And no-one can know for sure how they would act until they’re standing there holding the gun.

    Now, in my mind, there are hundreds of bank robbers all around the world, and the US has to make a decision about pulling or not pulling the trigger on each one. I am among the first people to say that the US doesn’t always make the best choices about this. But if the bank robbers are about to spray bullets liberally through the bank, I’m happier knowing there’s someone with a little firepower who’s on my side.

    I’ll end the metaphor here because it’s beginning to stretch a little thin and hurt my brain. But hopefully you understand my point.

    I will, however, respond to this:

    “The kick-me sign you describe is not hanging there because women are allowed to wear short skirts and vote. It’s there because U.S. foreign policy has been propping up despots, toppling democratically elected leaders and just generally stepping on foreigner’s throats about as often as they “really try to do the right thing””

    First of all, if you think the 9/11 attacks were because Osama was pissed off because the US has supported dictators, you’ve got your head up your ass. I’m sorry, but this kind of talk makes me really angry. People who spread this kind of bullshit are just as guilty as the people who go around saying that Saddam was responsible for 9/11. It’s a real short hop from there to “the US deserved to have 3000 innocent people killed”. Just because the US has squandered international sympathy for the attacks doesn’t mean we don’t deserve it in the first place. Osama attacked the US because it is a powerful symbol of Western ideals and democracy, pure and simple. Osama is not some warm-hearted anti-globalist in terrorist’s clothing.

    Secondly, I will reiterate that I am among the first to criticize the US government (especially this one)’s actions when it comes to foreign policy. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough about the “struggle” I have been having with myself on this issue since the attack. I agree that there is a moral clarity in Canadian foreign policy that is often missing from US foreign policy. What I am trying to get across is that a major reason for Canada’s ability to have moral clarity is that Canada is not holding the gun. And someone has to hold the gun, because the bank robber isn’t some desperate father trying to feed his children, who can be talked out of it by the negotiator. The bank robber thinks killing the infidels will get him a spot in heaven with 70 virgins. The US has made morally grey verging on black decisions in the past to preserve our way of life, but nothing like the kind of thing it is faced with now. And I don’t doubt that it is failing the current test. The Abu Graib pictures made me cry, literally, and I wasn’t even able to bring myself to look at most of them. But I don’t think Canadians have to right to be too self-congratulatory – they aren’t even taking the test.

  6. Lara

    Melanie, you are saying that the US was attacked because you’re so powerful and progressive, and has nothing to do with US foreign policy in the last 50 years or so and you’re saying Mike’s got his head up his ass? Don’t injure anything patting yourself on the back there.

  7. Mike Hoye

    It is one thing to say “those New Yorkers deserved to die”, which I did not say; it is entirely another thing to say that U.S. foreign policy has incited this retaliation, which I did.

    Let’s not forget that U.S. policy in the middle east includes, among a litany of other things, arming an expansionist Israeli government to the enormous detriment of the Palestinians and the propping up of the House of Saud with troops stationed in Muslim holy lands. What brought me close to tears about the atrocities at Abu Grahib was the fact that the President of the United States had the gall to go on an Arab television station and claim that this was the act of a few individuals, as though Nebraskan National Guardsmen are supplied with dog collars, bags for prisoner’s heads and electrodes for prisoner’s genitals as part of their standard field equipment. It was such a transparently offensive lie that anyone in the Arab world smart enough to read the newspaper it came in would be able to see through it.

    Do innocent people deserve to die? No. But in New York, like Afghanistan, “deserve” has nothing to do with it. I could not listen to that and not understand why somebody would want revenge.

  8. Melanie

    Bleh, OK.

    Maybe this is a tougher conversation to have than whether someone has the right to marry a herd of cattle.

    Lara, I can’t pat myself on the back for US policy over the past 50 years (even if I wanted to, which I don’t), because (a) I haven’t lived that long and (b) I grew up in Canada.

    OK, I am probably responsible for upping the anty on tone, here, but let’s try pull back a little, shall we? I think we can all agree that Osama and Saddam are both bad guys, Abu Graib was a horror before and after the war, and it wasn’t just some frat-boys turned marines having a little fun, and George W. Bush is a pretty scary guy to have as President of the United States. And that he’s done some things that make me so angry I can’t imagine how they make Arabs feel.

    I could go into a long treatise about casualties of war versus deliberate attacks on civilians, but I’ll assume you understand my point, and I don’t want to sound like I’m minimizing civilian casualties of war. Saying that Bush is a bad guy doesn’t help your argument about 9/11 any, though, because the plans for that attack were in place long before he was even running for office. Maybe you want to blame Clinton? That’s a serious question – some people do.

    I think I’m really just fundamentally failing to make my point here. Mike, you made a really good argument in your original post about what makes Canada great. And I believe/agree with every word of it. What struck me, though, was the contrast between that picture, which is the picture of my childhood, and a cherished one, and the current reality of my life. That current reality includes a fear that a dirty bomb is going to blow up in the city that I live in next month, because the Democratic National Convention makes such a GOOD soft target. That reality includes watching my civil rights to privacy and presumption of innocence get piddled away because people fear their neighbor might be a terrorist. That reality includes watching the soul of my adopted country get drained away through ignoring the Geneva convention, holding people without trial, abuse, torture, and other things I’d rather not think of. That reality includes watching Iraq dissolve into chaos because my President wasn’t willing to listen to advisors telling him he had to have a plan to win the peace, and that he would need international support to do so, and what harm could waiting a few months do. That reality involves a day in which we sent email around to friends checking to make sure they were still alive because the phones weren’t working and we were about an hour’s drive from one of the attack sites.

    The easy way to ressolve that discrepancy is to just say that Canada is a much better place than the US, filled with better people who have better lives because they stay out of trouble and make good decisions about socializing health care, etc. That seems to be the point you were trying to make, and honestly, ten years ago I might have agreed with you. Maybe even in August, 2001. But September 11th was senseless violence on such a massive scale that I have spent the years since trying desperately to understand how someone could be brought to do such a thing. I have concluded that Osama is just a really evil bad guy. He came from wealth and priviledge, not desperate poverty or a killing ground. That he was able to build an organization of people willing to do evil things was helped by the world not being a place of roses and sunshine. But ultimately, he’s just a bad bad guy.

    I don’t know if we could have made a world free of Osama bin Ladins and Saddam Husseins and genocide and Aids and world hunger if we’d just tried a little harder over the past 50 years. I do know we’ve made a lot of mistakes and bad decisions, and things could be better. [As an aside: I do know that Israel has lost a big part of its soul because of the conflict with Palestinians (but if the Arab world really wanted to help the Palestinians, there is a lot they could do other than supporting terrorists that they aren't doing).] And I do know that if we didn’t have Aids and world hunger and other bad things, it would be a lot harder for Osama to recruit people to go blow themselves up. I am not blind to that. And we are ALL responsible for that – Americans, Canadians, Europeans, Africans, etc. You talk about ethnic cleansing in Kosovo and rotting Rwandan bodies. It’s easy for Canadians to say “we need to go in there and fix it”, because if we go in there and instead make things worse, who gets blamed? Not Canada. The US gets blamed for interfering in other countries in about equal measure for the amount it gets blamed for not interfering. I’m not saying that the coach has called all the right plays, and maybe we’re losing the game. I’m just saying its easier to be an arm-chair quarterback. And in the World War II of the current world stage, we can’t all be Switzerland. If we are, the Nazis win.

  9. Mike Hoye

    I don’t have time for an elaborate response right now, but Mel, I’ve got to tell you, I don’t think we need to change the tone at all. I love the “You are my friend, and I love and respect you, but in this regard you are too stupid to tie your own shoes” way we do this. Seriously, I think it’s great.

    “This may not be what you intended to convey, but if what you’ve said means I understand it to mean, you clearly have your head so far up your ass you might as well train your liver to tie your tie. But I say that with all due respect.”

  10. Melanie

    OK, agreed. Just keep in mind that I do have strong emotions tied in with some of this. Looking forward to your reponse.

  11. Lara

    Melanie, I wasn’t saying that you were patting yourselves on the back for your foreign policy, I was talking about the “they attacked us because we’re so great and powerful and progressive” attitude that I hear so often. Actions have consequences, and US actions in the middle east have earned them a lot of enemies, both by what the US has done, and by their unconditional support of Israel.

    Did those people in the WTC deserve what happened? No. Was it justified? No. Is it understandable that these people would seek revenge against someone they consider to be an enemy? Yes, in the same way that it is understandable that someone who was abused turns into a serial killer. Just because we understand the cause doesn’t mean we approve of the effect.

    So many people I talked to on September 11 were saying pretty much the same thing: “Let’s go over there and bomb the crap out of them”. Can you understand that sentiment? If so, then can you understand someone on the other side, who has witnessed something happen over there that the US was responsible for wanting a little payback?

    Jealousy, fear, resistence to change, these may be factors in the convoluted workings of a terrorist’s mind, but I’d put my money on revenge being the prime mover.

  12. Melanie

    Well, I still object to it being “my” foreign policy, but OK.

    I think I would rephrase what I am trying to say to “They attacked the US rather than Canada because among the great and progressive nations, of which Canada and the US are both listed, the US is the most powerful.”

    I think the Israel question is a totally separate issue. I give money to Americans for Peace Now and receive their weekly emails. But I also understand that things are a lot more complicated there than the far left is willing to admit. I hear a lot of anti-semitism is what is being said about Israel these days. I am an even less big fan of Sharon than I am of Bush, but Israel was a convenient excuse, not a root cause, of Osama’s actions. I am happy to discuss Israel, but that is an even more sensitive topic for me, and I think a bit off track from the current discussion.

    I guess if you see the invasion of Western ideals into fundamentalist Islamic sujugation of women as “abuse”, then your argument works. I don’t see any other way Osama was abused as a child. Watch the movie “Osama” if you would like to see the kind of world view that he was trying to spread.

    I understand the desire for revenge, and I believe I understand mainstream Arab anger (and fear). And yes, I do see it on this side all the time too. I can even (almost) understand why there was dancing in the streets in Palestinian towns when the towers came down, something we in the US do not do when innocents on the other side are killed. What I don’t understand is the belief that Osama’s feelings, beliefs, and actions, have anything at all to do with that. And that if somehow we were able to get US foreign policy to be the way we want it to be, that the Osamas of the world would simply vanish. There are bad guys out there, and they’re not going to just go away because we decide to play nice. Whatever the reason for their being bad guys.

  13. Lara

    I think one of the main misunderstandings that we’re having is that you’re focussing on Osama Bin Laden himself, and I’m thinking about the guys in the planes. I don’t know what his motivations are, but he’s not lacking for volunteers to his cause.

    And I’m not talking about Western culture invading fundamentalist Islamic subjugation of women, I’m talking about the US being responsible for deaths in the Middle East, and their family members wanting payback. I’m talking about the family members of people who died because of weapons that the US sold to both Iran and Iraq, which had a fun little side-effect of keeping the war going and keeping the cheap oil flowing. I’m talking about the US military bombing factories because they were suspected of making weapons and the people who depended on the factories starving. I’m talking about the US supporting Saddam Hussein for years, even though they knew he was killing thousands of people. And I’m talking about the US stationing troops in Muslim holy lands.

    So, when I referred to abuse, that was what I was talking about.

    Osama is an evil man, no doubt about that. One evil man can’t do a whole hell of a lot without people following him. People wouldn’t follow him unless they also had anti-US feelings to begin with. Osama didn’t create those anti-American feelings, he just fed what was already there.

    I don’t believe that getting the US governement to change it’s ways and be a kinder, gentler country will fix things overnight and get rid of evil men. I do believe that if they try to undo soome of the damage that’s been done it will help to reduce the anti-American feelings that already exist, and help to prevent creating a new generation of terrorists, so Random Evil Guy of tomorrow has fewer followers.

    Seriously, how many people do you think would be willing to strap bombs to their chests after looking at the pictures from Abu Ghraib? How long do you think it will take before the repercussions of that will hit?