After the RCMP raided and dismantled the Wet’suwet’en roadblocks, rail, port and transportation blockades have spread across Canada in solidarity.
And they are growing.
After the RCMP raided and dismantled the Wet’suwet’en roadblocks, rail, port and transportation blockades have spread across Canada in solidarity.
And they are growing.
Our new podcast. This episode: on the Wet’suwet’en evicting Coastal GasLink in Canada, and the RCMP raid on behalf of the pipeline company.
Includes an interview with Jeffrey Monaghan, co-author of Policing Indigenous Movements: Dissent and the Security State (Fernwood 2018), and a passage from Nick Estes’s book Our History is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance.
In his short time as foreign minister, the former Liberal leader is building a legacy of disgrace
Published by Ricochet Media: https://ricochet.media/en/1078/from-saudi-arabia-to-israel-stephane-dion-is-continuing-harpers-policies
Editors’ note: Today the Globe and Mail reported, “Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion quietly granted Ottawa’s crucial approval for a controversial $15-billion shipment of armoured combat vehicles to Saudi Arabia in early April – even though the Liberals insisted they could not reverse a ‘done deal’ clinched under the Harper government.”
Stéphane Dion has been an easy figure to ridicule. He was once famous for handing a silly video to media networks during the political crisis after the 2008 election. After Dion’s departure, Canadians wondered if a Liberal could possibly do worse than Dion, and it took Empire Lite Michael Ignatieff in 2011 to prove that, indeed, one could. Dion’s 2008 candidacy was probably sabotaged from within the Liberal Party. Back then, I thought it was unfair that the media were treating him as some kind of buffoon.
But that was then. Dion, as Trudeau’s appointed foreign minister, has racked up quite a few new zingers. Recently, he’s defended a $15-billion dollar arms deal with Saudi Arabia. Cancelling the deal, he has said, “would not have an effect on human rights in Saudi Arabia.”
“Riyadh does not care if the equipment comes from a factory in Lima, Ohio or Sterling Heights, Mich., rather than one in London, Ont.,” he said. He didn’t specify whether he thought there might be an impact on human rights in Yemen, where the Saudi kingdom is busy slaughtering civilians and devastating infrastructure with weapons like the ones Canada’s selling. But Dion’s point came through: Saudi Arabia is indifferent to human rights. Canada’s only choice is whether to profit from the kingdom’s desire for weapons.
But the Saudi achievement is only one of Dion’s disgraceful acts in his short time as foreign minister.
Israel vs United Nations
The United Nations Human Rights Commission recently appointed a Canadian professor, Michael Lynk, to be Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the (Israeli-)Occupied Palestinian Territories. Lynk will be in eminent company. Previous special rapporteurs include John Dugard from South Africa and Richard Falk of the United States.
Reports by previous rapporteurs documented the rise of systematic malnutrition in Gaza under Israel’s siege, Israel’s practices of jailing Palestinians without legal proceedings (“administrative detention”), the killing of Palestinians without legal proceedings (“targeted killings”), the Wall that Israel has built deep in Palestinian territory and between Palestinian communities, and Israel’s periodic massacres in Gaza (2008-09, 2012, 2014). The report on the 2008-09 massacre in Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) stated that “the Palestinian right of resistance within the limits of international humanitarian law and Israeli security policy will inevitably clash, giving rise to ever new cycles of violence”.
A major theme of the reports, especially since the 2008-09 massacre, has been Israel’s refusal to allow the rapporteurs access to occupied Palestine. Phrases such as “owing to the failure of Israel to provide full and free access to the Occupied Palestinian Territory” and “once again it is necessary to highlight the failure of the Government of Israel to cooperate in the implementation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, even to the extent of allowing him to enter occupied Palestine” abound.
The rapporteur that Lynk will be replacing, Makarim Wibisono, resigned because the lack of access caused his mission to fail. “Unfortunately, my efforts to help improve the lives of Palestinian victims of violations under the Israeli occupation have been frustrated every step of the way,” he wrote. The Palestinian side complied fully. Israel didn’t even bother to reply to his requests.
Israel is no fan of the United Nations. It famously targeted and killed five UN peacekeepers in Lebanon in 2006. In 2014, it targeted United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools that had been used as civilian shelters, targeting and killing children and families who had fled to UN facilities, thinking foolishly that the UN could keep them safe. Having been bombed, UNRWA then had to answer Israeli (false, invented) accusations that UNRWA had allowed its civilian shelters to be used by the people Israel was trying to kill: Hamas.
Israel bombs civilians, including children, hiding in UN shelters, and the UN finds that it has explaining to do. Such is the logic of this conflict. The UN does its best to placate the power that kills its personnel and bombs its schools.
But for Israel and its advocates, it’s never enough. In addition to the right to kill civilians and UN personnel at will, in addition to the right to prevent UN rapporteurs from even getting into the territories it occupies, Israel also wants the right to veto and malign these rapporteurs. Israel hated Dugard and Falk, and as Michael Harris reported in iPolitics, Israel advocates also “knocked” Penny Green, a law professor and reknown critic of Israeli human rights violations, “out of the running” before going after Michael Lynk.
Real change missing on foreign policy
Israel’s methods are standard and probably written in a manual somewhere: find instances of criticism against Israel, highlight them, and accuse the rapporteur of bias against Israel.
Since Israel is the more powerful party and since Israel has been on an increasingly genocidal path towards the Palestinians, anyone who reports honestly about what Israel is doing will find plenty of violations of international law and human rights to describe. If they are legal advocates, they then typically make recommendations about how to hold powers like Israel to account. Such reports and recommendations, to advocates of Israel, are evidence of intolerable bias.
Of course, the only people that have not made such reports and recommendations are either unqualified for the position of special rapporteur, since they have no experience with the conflict, or they are advocates of Israel who ignore Israeli crimes and show interest only in the crimes committed by the occupied, not the occupier, in the conflict.
For Israel and its advocates, the only acceptable rapporteur would be one who went on a guided tour of Israel, accepted a complete denial of access to the Occupied Territories, ignored Israel’s crimes, and repeated whatever Israeli officials said about the Palestinians.
Perhaps they felt that Michael Lynk would not be such a rapporteur. Luckily for them, they found an ally in Dion, who promptly fired up his Twitter account and tweeted at the UNHRC to reconsider Lynk because of his bias. In so doing, he managed to insult Lynk, malign the UN, and embarrass Canada, sending a message to the world that in foreign policy, changes of government from Conservative to Liberal matter very little indeed. Perhaps in so doing he made Israel advocates happy. But, like the UN, he should know that it will never be enough.
The message from Israel advocates to Lynk was clear enough: Israel can get the Canadian government to denounce you, before you’ve written a word in your capacity as rapporteur. Lynk was forced to respond by emphasizing how balanced he is, even describing his willingness to expand the rapporteur’s mandate to look more closely at crimes by Palestinians under occupation. Lynk told the press that he had never said Israel was an apartheid state and never compared Israel to Nazi Germany — a comparison he said he finds “odious.”
Odious? Saying things the Nazis said is odious. Doing things the Nazis did is odious. But is comparing people, countries, or political movements to Nazis out of bounds now? I don’t think the Internet got the memo (see Godwin’s Law). Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, compares Iran to Nazi Germany frequently and has done so for many years. He has also invented outright fictions about the Holocaust, in order to incite violence against the Palestinians.
As for Lynk’s vehement assertion that he has never said that Israel is an apartheid state, would that be such a strange thing to do, following Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu, and several Palestinian and Israeli writers who have done so? Since apartheid is a crime under international law, and the UN is one of the only spaces where states can be held accountable, that the UN rapporteur was forced to distance himself from any mention of Israel’s policies before starting his job does not bode well. Surely whether Israel is committing the crime of apartheid is a matter for investigation.
Lynk, in other words, had to try to prove himself to Israel and its advocates in the public arena. By qualifying himself to fanatical supporters of Israel, he is forced to declare reasonable and well-evidenced positions out of bounds. The bullied have to explain themselves to the bully.
Dion’s disgraceful speech and action on this issue doesn’t start and end with Twitter. He came up with another zinger when the Canadian Parliament voted to condemn a nonviolent, largely campus-based movement based on international law: the movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
The demands of the BDS movement are equality for the Palestinian citizens of Israel, the dismantling of the Wall and an end to the occupation, and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. All these rights are enshrined in international law and UN resolutions. The BDS movement’s methods are entirely nonviolent and largely based on trying to spark debate and discussion of the issue.
Opponents of BDS use methods that are largely based on trying to shut down debate and discussion, regardless of Charter rights, constitutional rights, or academic freedom — for example, having Parliaments and legislatures condemn the BDS movement. After the Liberals voted with the Conservatives to condemn little groups of activists for Palestinian human rights, Dion came up with this brilliant comment: “The attempt of the Conservatives to divide this House on this issue failed yesterday, and it will always fail as long as we have this government.” This is typically convoluted, but translates more or less to “Liberals and Conservatives stand together forever for Israel’s right to do whatever it wants to the Palestinians.”
Israel/Palestine has offered, and will continue to offer, many opportunities for Canadian politicians to disgrace themselves and support bullies. Ignatieff and Bob Rae had a public row while fighting for the Liberal leadership, because Ignatieff referred to some Israeli war crimes as war crimes (then said he wouldn’t lose sleep over them). Harper spent a decade proving he was more pro-Israel than Israel. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair declared himself an “ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and circumstances” and purged the party of pro-Palestine candidates (although credit goes to the NDP for not voting with the Liberals and Conservatives on the condemnation of BDS, and credit goes to Elizabeth May for this sensible and minimalist petition).
And of course it isn’t just Canadian politicians. Everybody kisses the rings. Supposed maverick Donald Trump got standing ovations at AIPAC for channeling Netanyahu (take a look at Rania Khalek’s interesting social experiment on the similarities between Trump and Netanyahu’s inciteful rhetoric), and Hillary Clinton has been talking about taking the U.S.-Israel relationship to the next level. It’s hard to imagine the dizzying heights.
Scrolling backwards from late March on Dion’s Twitter feed, there’s a tweet about Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic’s conviction for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Dion commented that the conviction proves that the reach of justice is long. Karadzic, a political leader, was found guilty for a massacre committed by military forces. In the Bosnian Civil War, Karadzic’s Serb forces faced Muslim forces that had a much better military balance than the Palestinians have compared to Israel. The Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995 separated and targeted males for massacre — unlike Israel, which kills children and families indiscriminately in its aerial and artillery massacres.
By the logic of International Criminal Tribunal, Israeli political and military leaders could be tried and sentenced for the Gaza massacres of 2008-09, 2012, and 2014. For the time being, that is a very remote prospect: first, because international criminal courts are not for all war criminals, just those who lose wars, and second, because the world’s foreign ministries are populated by people like Dion.
Linda McQuaig wrote a book about Canadian foreign policy, published in 2007, called Holding the Bully’s Coat. Dion has only just started, but his foreign policy legacy is setting up to turn the country into a coat rack, with hooks for the United States, the Saudi kingdom, and Israel. Can you picture Dion, in a grainy video, standing in front with his hand out, waiting for the next coat to hang?
The Conservative Party is on the hunt, and with the help of the NDP and Liberals, they are cleansing Canadian politics of anyone who might think of Palestinians as human beings.
In the first weeks of the election campaign, two NDP politicians have had to distance themselves from statements about facts that are utterly obvious to anyone who knows Israel/Palestine, one nominated candidate has had to resign, and many more NDP members have been blocked by the party from seeking nominations to run for office.
Quebec NDP candidate Hans Marotte expressed past support for the first Palestinian intifada, a mass movement against Israel’s occupation to which Israel responded with the “broken bones” policy of violent repression. When the Conservatives dug up his comments, Marotte said it was proof they couldn’t find anything more recent. He didn’t recant, but he was effectively silenced.
Ontario NDP candidate Matthew Rowlinson had to issue a statement apologizing for signing an “incendiary and inaccurate” letter that included the documented and provable claim that ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is ongoing in Jerusalem. The “inaccurate” part of the letter said that Israel seeks a Jerusalem free of Palestinians. As for “incendiary,” we would do better to look at some of the weapons Israel deploys against Palestinians — more on that to come.
Then there are those who have been dumped by the party. Nova Scotia NDP candidate Morgan Wheeldon had to resign for calling Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza, which killed more than 2,200 people including more than 500 children, a war crime. NDP member Syed Hyder Ali, who had wanted to run in Edmonton, was told to withdraw his name — because he also said that Israel was guilty of war crimes. Jerry Natanine of Nunavut, the mayor of Clyde River, was tossed because, in his words, “I often side with the Palestinians because of all the hardship they are facing and because nothing is being re-built over there.”
Out of date, out of touch
Those who wrote to the party about Morgan Wheeldon’s forced resignation were treated to an incredibly out-of-date, out-of-touch email response, in which Wheeldon was accused of “minimiz[ing] the horror of violence targeting civilians,” which is “unacceptable and contrary to NDP policy, which condemns terrorism.” The party reply also repeats that the NDP supports “a two-state solution that would see Palestinians and Israelis living side by side in independent states.”
The tortured language of this reply to disgruntled supporters is a consequence of muddled thinking. In 2014, it was very clear that the monstrously outmatched Palestinian fighters were focused on military targets. Of 72 Israeli casualties, 66 were soldiers. The “horror of violence targeting civilians” was experienced mainly by Palestinians. Is the NDP saying that what Israel is doing to Palestinian civilians can be justified by “terrorism,” which presumably refers to the use of rockets by Palestinians (and not the use of heavy artillery and bombs by Israel)?
NDP policy is at least a decade out of date. No one in Israel is interested in a two-state solution or a peace process. Israel took a decision just over a decade ago to “freeze” the peace process. Since then, Israel’s war against the Palestinians has continuously expanded, with attacks on Gaza’s trapped, defenceless population in 2006, 2008-2009, 2012, and 2014.
To be fair, Wheeldon’s Facebook posts, which mentioned the bombings of buses by Hamas, were also a decade out of date. The last bus bombing by Hamas was around 2005, and in the ten years since, the organization — labeled “terrorist” by all parties in Canada — has focused increasingly on confronting the vastly more powerful Israeli military, while that military has focused its incredible firepower on Palestinian civilians. It may also be worth mentioning that Hamas has been fighting against ISIS in Gaza, and has lost lives doing so, while there is de facto collaboration between Israel and al-Qaeda in Syria, as Asa Winstanley and others have reported.
The NDP’s response reveals that it does not understand Israel/Palestine today. How might the NDP go about gaining such an understanding?
There is Amnesty International and Forensic Architecture’s Gaza Platform, which has data on every bomb and shell that Israel launched into Gaza in its 2014 attack. It reveals a pattern of attack that is hard to explain in any way except as the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure. It was built as an accountability tool, in the hopes that justice will eventually be done, and that those responsible for the deaths of thousands of civilians, the destruction of thousands of homes, and the deliberate targeting of hospitals, schools, medical personnel, and UN facilities will face some kind of legal consequences.
There are statistics, like the fact that infant mortality in Gaza has risen for the first time in 50 years, thanks to Israel’s siege on the territory it has attacked three times in the past six years. Or the fact that life expectancy for Palestinians is 10 years shorter than for Israelis. Or the fact that Israel decided almost a decade ago, explicitly, to limit the number of calories available to people in Gaza — to “put them on a diet.”
There is Mads Gilbert’s new book, Night in Gaza, in which the Norwegian doctor who has spent many years visiting Gaza describes the 2014 attack as the worst he’s seen. The book shows pictures of the heroic medics and doctors who try to save lives and treat injuries as Israel tests new kinds of shrapnel on Gaza’s children. Gilbert describes what he saw as “infanticide.” He notes that, with a median age of 18, more than half of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are children. Those children are not allowed to leave — they are sealed in behind a wall on three sides and a navy patrolling the sea on the other. Israel has imprisoned them. Gaza, notes Gilbert, is not just a prison, but a child prison.
When Mulcair says, as he did in 2008, that he is “an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and circumstances,” he should be clear that these circumstances include the high-tech slaughter of children, the imprisonment of children, the imposition of of caloric intake formulas for children, and increased infant mortality and reduced life expectancy. By a matter of simple logic, these are all things that Thomas Mulcair supports.
There is Max Blumenthal’s book, The 51 Day War, with its harrowing tales of Palestinians people herded by Israeli soldiers at gunpoint into a house and forced to stay there in the house at gunpoint until the house is bombed and dozens of people are killed.
There is also Harvard economist Sara Roy’s article, which includes a quote summarizing Israel’s approach to Gaza: “No development, no prosperity, no humanitarian crisis.”
Then there is the Israeli side, for which the required reading is Breaking the Silence’s report, “This is How We Fought in Gaza.” It includes testimonies from Israeli soldiers about what they did in Gaza last year. Every single one of them — and there are 111 — is shocking in some way. Choose a few at random. Maybe read about the soldiers’ songs, like “Palestinians only sing the chorus as they have no verses (houses) left” (testimony 1). Or read about the targeting protocols, about how decisions to fire on buildings were made (testimony 51):
“Throughout the entire operation there was a sort of building far away near the coastline… it wasn’t a threat to us, it had nothing to do with anybody, it wasn’t part of the operation… but that building was painted orange, and that orange drove my eyes crazy the entire time. I’m the tank gunner, I control all the weapons systems … So I told my platoon commander ‘I want to fire at that orange house’, and he told me: ‘Cool, whatever you feel like’, and we fired.”
After a few testimonies, readers can take a break and watch a video of Israeli protesters chanting another song outside the hospital of a Palestinian hunger striker: “Why is there no studying in Gaza? Because they have no children left!” Spend some time looking at some terrifying tweets from last year by teenagers taking selfies with captions including “Death to the Arabs.”
Remember that Israeli newspapers are running columns with headlines like “When Genocide is Permissible,” and Israeli politicians call Palestinian children “little snakes.” And anyone thinking that indifference to civilian lives or hateful, racist, and genocidal beliefs are common to both sides might remember that only one side, the Israeli side, controls every detail of every Palestinian life in Gaza and the West Bank, from where they can and can’t go to their very caloric intake.
Playing the right’s game
Israel is heading in an ever-more genocidal direction towards the Palestinians. Support for this move is only possible for those who give up any pretence of anti-racism, universal human rights, anti-militarism, and democracy. It is only possible, in other words, on the right side of the political spectrum.
On the other side of the spectrum, the pro-Palestine movement and Palestinian civil society are working on a rights-based, not a solutions-based, framework, and are working towards boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). Many Canadian politicians have heard of the BDS movement, at least for long enough to denounce it. Mulcair, for example, has said that he finds BDS “grossly unacceptable,” as one might expect of someone who ardently supports Israel in every situation and circumstance.
If the progressive position supporting BDS is grossly unacceptable, perhaps Mulcair might find more acceptable Hamas’s conditions for a 10-year truce with Israel: an end to the siege of Gaza and the opening of a seaport, an airport, and the land crossing into Egypt. This is actually far short of the NDP’s quaint espousal of a two-state solution, since the occupation would continue. But all the same, for the NDP to call for the opening of Gaza and the freeing of 750,000 children from prison in today’s context would be politically significant indeed. It won’t happen for exactly that reason.
These may be the evil political calculations that have to be made in order to succeed electorally. But here is something to consider. If the NDP purges the progressive, pro-Palestine voices from its party out of fear of supporters of Israel’s ever-escalating violence against the Palestinians, it is playing the right’s game, which it can’t win. Israel’s national politics, which has drifted so far to the right that to call someone a leftist is an insult (and “punch a lefty, save the homeland” and “good night, left side” are slogans chanted at pro-war demonstrations), could teach the NDP something about how this works. There, too, left and liberal parties spent the past few elections trying to pander to centre-right sentiment, and have basically disappeared as a political force.
The NDP’s purge of pro-Palestine candidates can only help Stephen Harper, who doesn’t talk nonsense about a two-state solution but simply and openly supports whatever Israel wants and is doing. Those who want that will vote for Harper, not the NDP.
Meanwhile, if voters want to cast their ballot this October for a major Canadian party that believes that Palestinians are human beings too, they can’t.
First published on Ricochet – for full version with links visit https://ricochet.media/en/562/ndp-purge-of-pro-palestine-candidates-plays-into-harpers-hands
A colleague of mine in environmental science recently told me that he is about to run out of funding since his Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) discovery grant has not been renewed, twice in a row. Scientists like him, focused as they are on their work, are encouraged to think their funding has not been renewed because there is something wrong with them or their research. In fact, there are broader social forces at play.
It turns out that the feminist slogan the personal is political is relevant to science as well. For decades, the membership card in the club of Canadian scientists was the NSERC discovery grant. The purpose of the grant was to give every working scientist basic funding to do their research. In recent years, two changes have been made to this paradigm. First, as detailed in a new book by Chris Turner, the federal government has declared an outright war on science, cutting funding for basic research and redirecting it to business-friendly projects. Second, NSERC has moved to a model of rewarding “excellence,” which in fact has nothing to do with excellence but means concentrating funding with smaller numbers of researchers while leaving many researchers with nothing.
Last September, a group of scientists took the unique step of organizing themselves into a movement called Evidence for Democracy. Mounting a series of rallies and media events, they announced a platform targeting the federal government with three demands: to fund research from basic through to applied science; to base decisions on the best available science and evidence; and to make scientific findings open to the public.
While their demands are hardly radical, these scientists have been galvanized to step out of their labs and enter the public sphere because of a Canadian government that, like the North American conservative movement from which it sprang, dislikes science. We are at a point in Canada where Prime Minister Harper’s government controls communications by government scientists from Environment Canada and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans. It has eliminated the position of national science adviser. It has scrapped Statistics Canada’s long-form census (vital to research on social inequality) and closed labs and environmental monitoring stations. And more than any other government in the world today, the Canadian government is dedicated to denying the results of climate change science and preventing civilization-saving action at international climate forums.
The conservative movement’s attack on science has several prongs. Where they can attain government office, as in Canada, they use the highly effective tools of funding and de-funding, and regulation and de-regulation, to control government scientists and embolden private interests. The goal is to transfer power and resources from public services and public science to private institutions, while often appealing to moral and religious doctrines in the process.
The success of these attacks on science are partly due to vulnerabilities caused by the way science itself is done in our society, for the word science has multiple meanings.
Albert Einstein said that science is the refinement of everyday thinking. In that sense, science is a fundamental human activity: it means paying attention to evidence, using logic, rendering explicit assumptions, and testing hypotheses formally in a way that is repeatable by others. It is this kind of science that is under attack from conservatives and other forms of authority. Let us call this kind of science Science C, where C stands for curiosity.
Today, hacker subculture exemplifies Science C better than academic science does. Hackers are dedicated to following their curiosity wherever it goes, and the open-source, free software movement that most hackers belong to is also dedicated to making information freely and universally accessible. No one exemplified Science C and hacker culture better than Aaron Swartz. Swartz developed Creative Commons, Reddit, and other innovative works before moving into activism explicitly.
Creative Commons is an organization and a licensing system that facilitates the sharing and use of creative work. Like the GNU Public License (GPL) for software developed by Richard Stallman, Creative Commons has an implicit philosophy that creative work is a collective endeavour and that human instincts to share knowledge and information should be celebrated and encouraged, not suppressed. This is the spirit of Science C.
Creative Commons and the GPL are legal tools to facilitate sharing, and in their domains they are analogous to peer review and publication in scientific journals for scientists. However, like the conflict between free and proprietary software, there is a conflict between open access and proprietary access to scientific publications, a conflict Aaron Swartz became aware of as an activist.
Swartz was so appalled by the privatization of scientific knowledge in expensive journals that he took direct action to make the journals public, breaking the copyright of the academic database known as JSTOR. As Swartz explained, without broad public access, “Everything up until now will have been lost.” Swartz believed the commodification of essential knowledge must be vigorously resisted: “Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.”
Facing dire federal charges that could have landed him in jail for decades, Aaron Swartz committed suicide in January 2013.
If Science C is about curiosity, and as such constitutes a potential threat to those with power, science can also mean authority. Anyone making any claim wants to say that science backs them. In popular media, scientists from government and prestigious universities can make authoritative statements because they possess scientific authority. Let us call this aspect of science Science A, for authority. Ideally, the practice of Science C can lead to the authority of Science A. But in reality, the authority of Science A is abused and sold as a commodity.
In a famous case from the mid-’90s, University of Toronto medical researcher Nancy Olivieri discovered harmful effects of a blood disorder drug called Deferiprone. In the stir of controversy that followed, Olivieri was forced to defend herself, her research, and her job against a wide range of attacks from the drug manufacturer and senior staff at her hospital.
The most pressing attack on scientific authority today, however, centres on the consensus of climate scientists at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which released its fifth and most dire report this past October. Before resigning from NASA as the world’s leading climatologist, James Hansen once lamented “the politicization of reporting of global warming.” Hansen stressed that with corporate consolidation of the media, the task of resisting the negative politicization of scientific inquiry, including attacks on the credibility of scientists, is “formidable.”
Such direct attacks on scientific authority are relatively rare, but they reveal how powerful business interests seek to discredit scientific authority when scientific findings challenge their profits and social control. More insidiously, such business interests do not merely wait to attack scientific results they don’t like. On the contrary, they have developed sophisticated ways of channelling and controlling scientific curiosity.
This is what I call Science B, the business of science. The sad truth is that most of what scientists do is not Science C, exploring the world through systematic investigation. Most of what scientists do is try to raise funds, generate publications in prestigious journals, find students to work on their projects, and keep up with other scientists according to these metrics. Science B operates like other sectors of capitalist society. It is competitive, comparative, and divided by status into superstars, has-beens, and also-rans.
The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) launched a campaign last summer called Get Science Right. Aiming to overhaul the federal science policy that oversees Science B, CAUT argued for more money for basic science, since funding in the natural sciences has fallen by 6.4 per cent since 2007. Meanwhile, the federal government has increased funding for research partnerships – partnerships between science and business – by 23 per cent since 2011.
The business of science makes science vulnerable to attack by authoritarian governments and conservative movements, streamlining opportunities for the wealthy and powerful to steer science to their own benefit. As a result, we can create tens of thousands of chemicals but haven’t thought much about what to do with them after we’ve used them. Half a dozen countries have nuclear weapons that can destroy whole cities, but no country has a functioning renewable energy system. Human curiosity (Science C) could have solved our environmental problems long ago, but it cannot take flight because it is trapped within Science B.
Writing for the Baffler magazine, the well-known cultural anthropologist David Graeber assessed the problem. “The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic.
“Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone … if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.”
Graeber gives us an important insight into how Science B has come to trump Science C. Leftists, meanwhile, are natural supporters of Science C, and left-wing scientists like the evolutionary biologist Richard C. Lewontin and the mathematical ecologist Richard Levins use the term “people’s science” to describe how science could be done in a better society. While most of us have a healthy anti-authority streak that can bring us into conflict with scientific authority (Science A), the best challenges to that authority, indeed any authority, are themselves made on the basis of logic, evidence, and inquiry. One of the tasks of the political left, then, is to liberate and encourage the rigorous curiosity of Science C.
Marx and the early socialists viewed their work as scientific in nature, and even their errors can be understood as failures to act according to their own scientific principles. Generations later, socialists like Trotsky, Luxemburg, and others tried to popularize scientific discoveries and intellectual culture for the people. Today, even though leftists are few in number and not especially influential, the natural and social sciences are good places to look for them.
Leftists try to make change by convincing large numbers of people to take action in social movements. Insights from the social sciences could inform leftists in these efforts. For example, recent studies correlating a wide range of social problems with economic inequality suggest that people are highly sensitive to status and that social policy should be designed to minimize inequality with this in mind. Philosophers have long debated whether human nature has an instinct for freedom, and while scientific knowledge about human nature remains extremely limited, what little science has revealed suggests that humans do have instincts both for freedom and for equality.
Another set of studies, about moral licensing, suggests that voluntarist appeals have severe limitations. In one study, subjects who had made a green or eco-friendly consumer choice were afterwards less likely to donate to a good cause or help an individual in need. Here, too, we find social science research that suggests that relying on solidarity works better than relying on charity, as charity can be brittle.
A third area of research shows that political ideology affects consumer choices. An American study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that “conservative individuals were less likely to purchase a more expensive energy-efficient light bulb when it was labelled with an environmental message than when it was unlabelled.” Today’s capitalist society means that many of these insights are coming from business-oriented research on marketing and organizational behaviour. Leftists shouldn’t shy from studying these insights, discarding the useless ones, and adapting the helpful ones.
The scientifically minded do not automatically gravitate toward the political left. Partly because of the influence of Science A (authority) and Science B (business), many scientifically minded people assume that to be scientific means to be neutral, to reserve judgment, to refuse a stance even on the most critical issues of the day. In fact, science says no such thing. Scientific objectivity means being conscious of biases within a given framework and acting to minimize them while testing claims against evidence. It does not mean having no opinion and no point of view (or, for that matter, accepting a given framework without question). In fact, in the book Descartes’ Error, the neurologist António Damásio calls on studies that show rational decision-making is impossible without emotions.
In the case of climate change, we have an overwhelming and nearly unprecedented scientific consensus, with all the authority Science A can bring combined with all of the knowledge that Science C has been able to generate. But without major political change, elites are able to continue on a path of greater fossil fuel use and escalating climatic rupture. As with other issues, vested interests direct policy by proactively controlling the direction of science (Science B), using media and government agencies to attack the credibility of scientists, their reputation, and their morale, and hiding or confusing the information available to the public. Facing this kind of resolute political opposition, an approach, a strategy, and a set of political principles must be chosen. Science itself cannot provide these things.
This becomes clear when we consider two different approaches to combatting catastrophic climate change. For many mainstream environmentalists, the path has always seemed clear. We live in a democracy, after all. So, first, we convince enough people that the climate problem is serious. We demonstrate that the technology is available to solve it without sacrificing most comforts and conveniences. Then we convince our leaders to make the necessary technological and policy changes, and if they don’t, then we elect leaders who do. Many of those who make economic decisions aren’t elected, it’s true. But they, too, can be convinced by rational arguments. Business leaders meet with environmentalists regularly. If parts of the planet become uninhabitable and there are a series of climate-related catastrophes, that would be bad for business, the argument goes. So even captains of industry will come along with the right arguments and proposals.
In 2014, as oil and gas production continues at a breakneck pace in Canada and the U.S., we have more than enough evidence to know that such an apolitical approach of lobbying and persuasion has failed disastrously. The basic nature of the system we live in isn’t democratic. It’s a system that takes the elements of life – nature, land, water, energy, cultures, and peoples – and converts them into commodities for profit and control. The system has its own logic. If you are a player in it, you have to follow that logic. You have to take what you can grab – for most people it’s their own lives – and turn it into money. If you’re excluded from the system, you’re excluded from the very means of survival. If you’re excluded and you try to get the means of survival for yourself or your loved ones outside the system, you will be met with violence. Profit, accumulation, and economic growth are more than dominant ideas: they define capitalism as a system of relations.
Thus, for a stabilized atmosphere, we are going to have to defeat some very powerful people and institutions in the process of liberating ourselves – and science – from the dictates of profit. Success in this struggle will require all the tools of social change: organization, communication, demonstration, and experimentation with different actions.
The intelligence that drives scientific inquiry is a profound human capacity, but science alone can never tell us how to act. It cannot provide principles, even though it can help us to act within them once we have them. For this reason, science will never be enough to do political battle with conservative movements or powerful corporations. For that, people have to find moral guidance from other human capacities and other cultural resources: art, literature, philosophy, relationships, and even, in its proper place, religion. In the fight for a just and sustainable world, there can be no substitute for organized political struggle – a fact scientists themselves increasingly recognize.
Justin Podur is an associate professor of environmental studies at York University where he teaches landscape ecology and geographic information systems. He blogs on international politics at podur.org
Dan Freeman-Maloy, whose blog is notesonhypocrisy.com, has collected several significant pieces of research on Canada and the Palestine Question and published them as a single PDF (Aaron Swartz would be proud). He has also done a major talk on the same issue, that elucidates some of the main points in the PDF. For those interested in Canadian foreign policy, for those interested in the Israel/Palestine conflict and the west’s role in it, Dan’s work is indispensable.
A Review of Douglas Bland. 2009. Uprising: A Novel. Blue Butterfly Books.
Writing political books about, for example, Haiti, means knowing that every reader who gets the book is a victory. Consequently, having one less reader get the book is a serious matter.
I tried to send my book to Alex Hundert, a G20 defendant who is currently locked up in Penatanguishene. I was told that books have to go direct from the publisher, so I asked my Canadian publisher, BTL, to do it for me. They were quick and efficient and sent the book off.
The other day I got this back from my publisher:
[This article, by Shadi Chaleshtoori and myself, was first published in The Bullet – version with links is there].
The regressive politics of the Iranian-Canadian Khevari petition
Shadi Chaleshtoori and Justin Podur
November 11, 2011
On October 12, members of the Iranian-Canadian community sent a petition to Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney expressing concern about the arrival in Canada of Mahmoud Reza Khavari, the former chairman of the largest Iranian state-owned banking institution (Bank Melli).
The Occupy Wall St. Movement and the Occupy Together movements that are inspired by it actually have a simple premise: society shouldn’t be run for the unrestricted benefit of the wealthiest. The immediate grievance is the 2008 banking crisis, in which the US banks engaged in fraudulent and criminal activity and were subsequently rewarded for doing so with trillions in government funds, while their victims reaped evictions and foreclosures.