Issues

December 2008

Re: “Canada’s Homeless Portrait Gallery,” by Charlotte Gray

Re: “Canada’s Homeless Portrait Gallery” by Charlotte Gray

Charlotte Gray’s article Canada’s Homeless Portrait Gallery shows how the government has brought portraits into focus through recent decisions about plans for the Portrait Gallery of Canada. But the review of the current Canadian portrait scene is not complete without some mention of the establishment in 2005 of a Canadian portrait prize, similar to those held in Australia, the U.K., the U.S. and New Zealand.

The Kingston Prize, Canada’s National Portrait Competition is held biennially and is organized through the Kingston Arts Council. The prize of $10,000 is presented by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation. To be eligible for the competition, a portrait must be a recent painting or drawing based upon a meeting of the artist and subject, both of whom must be Canadian citizens or permanent residents.

In 2009, the opening exhibition of 30 finalists will be held in Kingston in October, followed by a national tour to Wolfville, Toronto and Calgary.

The popular concept of portraits in Canada is much influenced by the paintings and photographs of politicians and business people shown in many public institutions and companies. These “boardroom” portraits are often uniform in style, perhaps because the artist/photographer was commissioned to produce a portrait conforming to the accepted concept of what a successful person looks like.

A portrait competition has the potential to challenge these displays of official portraits, because it does not simply identify the best portrait within a stable and unchanging paradigm. A significant cash prize and an independent jury both serve to encourage artists of all sorts to try to win the prize, whether by experience and superior skill, or by naivité and brashness. From time to time, outsiders will win the prize and set the course for new fashions and new styles of portrait. Without the competition and the prize, the portrait genre changes either not at all, or at best very slowly.

It is possible that those endless rows of conventional portraits in public places cause the public, and parts of the government, to question the need for a special portrait gallery. A portrait competition serves to undermine that line of argument.

Julian Brown
Co-founder of The Kingston Prize
Kingston, Ontario


Re: “Canada’s Black Chamber,” by James Eayrs

Re: “Canada’s Black Chamber” by James Eayrs

Professor Eayrs indicts Kurt Jensen’s Cautious Beginnings for being long on detail and short on “florid narrative” and “lurid melodrama.” The book is deficient, we are told, in secret agent thrills and undercover anecdote.

Alas, academic-press chronicles of mid 20th-century Canadian foreign intelligence will disappoint those seeking historico-literary equivalents of Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. But this is the risk we take in cracking open serious works of intelligence scholarship.

Professor Eayrs is particularly disappointed that Herbert Yardley, that one-man intelligence roller coaster, was not painted in more flamboyantly sympathetic colours. Eayrs’s enthusiasm for the secret-spilling cryptographer underplays the wartime security dilemmas posed by him. After all, global conflagrations are not generally the time to tempt a proven security risk’s recidivist propensities. No matter Yardley’s technical skills, why risk lives by chancing that a sequel to his American Black Chamber exposé would wind up in the Tokyo Nichi Nichi features section? Whatever next? Exchange programs for Nazi Beobachtungsdienst code breakers to tutor our combat cryptanalysts?

Then the finale: Professor Eayrs looses a Parthian shot at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Canadian foreign intelligence, he says, is “a function for which [CSIS] possesses neither competence nor credibility (nor for that matter parliamentary mandate).” The professor is seriously mistaken.

For a quarter century, the service has properly had foreign intelligence functions. How else to make sense of its parliamentary authority under the Canadian Security Intelligence Service Act’s foundational provisions—sections 2 and 12—to collect intelligence and advise government on threats to Canada’s security? Glance at section 2’s mandate for counter-intelligence—“espionage” and “foreign influenced activity”—to see that the “intelligence” that must be “countered” springs almost by definition from the activity of foreign intelligence services and other entities under foreign influence.

Security screening and counterterrorism mandates carry the same decisive foreign intelligence inference discernible on any plain reading of the Act. That’s why CSIS has a longstanding network of international liaison offices, transnational intelligence relationships and joint operations, all reviewed by the independent watchdog Security Intelligence Review Committee.

Meanwhile, CSIS’s foreign intelligence record takes us from the historic unmasking of Russian “illegals” Dmitry Olshevsky and Elena Olshevskaya to successful intelligence support for the rescuing of Canadians in Iraq and the repatriating of Canadians during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war. Today, in-theatre CSIS intelligence protects our soldiers in Afghanistan and is credited with saving lives there. This intel warns of attacks and contributes to munitions recovery and the arrest of suspected terrorists in the region.

Competence? Credibility? Parliamentary mandate? It is fun to be florid, but important to be factual.

David B. Harris
Director, International and Terrorist Intelligence Program Insignis Strategic Research Inc.
Ottawa, Canada


Re: “Does Technology Make Us Do It?,” by Arthur Schafer

Re: “Does Technology Make Us Do It?” by Arthur Schafer

It is hard to know how to respond to Arthur Schafer’s “review” of The End of Ethics in a Technological Society. The review, which combines Schafer’s own reflections on technology with a serious mischaracterization of our view of ethics and religion, will make it difficult for a reader of the LRC to gain any idea concerning the contents of our book.

The book is about the role of technological innovation in creating the ethical challenges raised by economic growth, environmental degradation, nuclear power, modern weapons of war, the transformation of reproduction and genetic manipulation. We devote a chapter to each of these in turn. As to our ethical approach, contrary to what Schafer asserts, it is not based in any type of “religious traditionalism” or biblical fundamentalism. We repeatedly deny that these challenges can be met by some sort of “return to former values” achieved by engaging in “nostalgia for the distant past.”

We fully share Schafer’s worry about the implications of a world view that places human beings “at the centre of the universe.” However, we do not share his confidence that techno-science has relieved us of such pretensions. On the contrary, we think that blind faith in technology has intensified this dangerous illusion. Apparently, for Schafer, that is enough to accuse us of religious obscurantism: “The supernatural, they insist, will provide all the answers we need.” This is not our view. Our analysis draws on the insight, articulated by many contemporary philosophers and theorists of science, that the ideology of modern techno-science conceals a fundamental prejudice: the belief that nature is best understood when it is viewed “objectively,” as an ensemble of value-neutral “facts.” We say, on the contrary, that techno-science can never be value-free and the belief that it can be is one of the fatal delusions of our age. Ethical reflection must inform science; it is not enough for ethics to come on the scene only after the scientists have reinterpreted our life-world as so much raw material.

We are critical of the consequentialist, cost-benefit analysis that Schafer propounds. How are we to balance the likely benefits and harms in the absence of any ethical principles beyond the utilitarian calculus? Who is to decide what the balance is? In our calculations concerning the consequences of the expansion of nuclear energy or the refusal to severely limit our carbon emissions, we are not only undertaking risks to the health of our own lives but to that of future generations who will have no say in whether they wish to accept them. The world in which we and our grandchildren must actually live may well turn out to be something quite different from the projected world of scientific and consequentialist calculation.

Schafer asserts that we endorse “technological determinism.” On the contrary, we conclude our book with the statement that “our fate is not determined, and reflection on the nihilism of modern ethics can open up the possibility of meditation on the true end of ethics.”

Lawrence E. Schmidt
Toronto, Ontario
Scott Marratto
West Pennant, Nova Scotia


Re: “Does Technology Make Us Do It?” by Arthur Schafer

When I noticed that your review of The End of Ethics in a Technological Society had the subhead “Two very different views on ethics in the modern age,” I looked—in vain—for the title of the second book under review. However, I soon realized that the second “very different view” referred to the position of your reviewer, Arthur Schafer. Then I read his scornful and derisory review, and wondered whether your subhead might have been put there defensively. Perhaps you were so embarrassed by Professor Schafer’s unfairness to the book you had asked him to review that you wanted to make it appear that what was going on was a debate and not a hatchet job. In any event, no debate ever occurs, since your readers must depend on Schafer for a digest of Schmidt’s and Marratto’s views, and Schafer is so utterly unsympathetic to their premises that he can barely recognize that they have a position, let alone give a fair account of what it is.

Schmidt and Marratto’s meditations on technology belong to a lineage that includes, among others, Martin Heidegger, George Grant, Jacques Ellul and Ivan Illich, all of whom are cited in their book. All these thinkers in one way or another came to the conclusion that one can no longer think about technology by reasoning about the costs and benefits of this or that technique—windmills good, nuclear reactors bad; yes to in vitro fertilization, no to cloning; etc. They have argued that technology now amounts to a comprehensive world view—a fate, George Grant said—that prevents people from thinking in non-instrumental ways. Technology, in other words, is something more than just the ensemble of techniques currently in use. Two consequences follow: first, it has to be recognized that, if technology is a stance toward the world and not just a set of tools, then the essence of technology is, as Heidegger says, “nothing technological” but must arise from some deeper disposition of our now worldwide civilization; and, second, it is scarcely possible for those within this comprehensive fate/stance/paradigm to get outside of it, though those who listen may discern what George Grant called “intimations of deprival.”

The End of Ethics in a Technological Society broods on this difficulty: how is ethical reflection on technology possible when technology is also the horizon within which the reflection is supposed to occur? Arthur Schafer takes the view, if I understand him rightly, that technologies have costs and benefits, and we can sort out which is which in a realm called “politics” that stands outside technology. This would be all right if he recognized that another view is possible, and that politics, on Schmidt and Marratto’s account, is itself no more than a branch of technological science, but he does not seem able or willing to give his opponents even this much credit. Instead he simply calls them impertinent and inappropriate names. He diagnoses technophobia. He calls them religious traditionalists. He implies, by his account of how “science makes it difficult to hang onto the comforting notion that humankind is at the centre of the universe,” that Schmidt and Marratto may still believe in Ptolemaic astronomy. He claims that they appeal “to ‘miracle, mystery and authority’ in the spirit of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor.”

Schmidt and Marratto, in Arthur Schafer’s eyes, are mystagogues and obscurantists in the grip of a phobia. On my reading of their book, this is untrue and grotesquely unfair. I’m sure The End of Ethics could have been constructively criticized, but this would have required your reviewer to engage with the book instead of patronizing it.

David Cayley
Toronto, Ontario


Re: “Does Technology Make Us Do It?” by Arthur Schafer

I was very disappointed in Arthur Schafer’s review of Lawrence E. Schmidt and Scott Marratto’s The End of Ethics in a Technological Society (“Does Technology Make us Do It?” December, 2008). Regrettably, Professor Schafer has critiqued a book that appears to be a phantasm of his own imagination. This constitutes a double loss: the loss of an opportunity for Professor Schafer to provide us with some insight into the arguments that the Schmidt and Marratto book actually makes and the loss of an opportunity for the readers of the LRC to make their own independent and intelligent assessment.

Professor Schafer is of no assistance to the readers because the straw men he sets up are nowhere to be found in the book, leading one to surmise that his review is a mere pretext for advancing his own rather superficial agenda. The End of Ethics itself raises the more far-reaching concerns of how to assess what constitutes “the good” for man in a post-modern context in which the metaphysical grounds for making that assessment have been eroded. Schafer’s only significant contribution to that discussion is to advocate a socioeconomic critique of modern technological change. But that precisely raises the question of what generally held values are to be used as the touchstone of mankind’s social and economic well-being. It does not assist the task of grounding values in a normative sense of objective good simply to add one more ideological tool to the toolbox. A socioeconomic analysis, unless so grounded, simply devolves into a yet another utilitarian solution that, as the authors show, assumes a tacit, but unexamined and uncritical, ethical framework.

On the bright side, LRC readers have no other remedy, if they really wish to understand the current ethical dilemma, than to read the book itself—the one, that is, the authors actually wrote.

Vincent J. Murphy
Etobicoke, Ontario


Arthur Schafer Replies

Lawrence Schmidt and Scott Marratto complain that I mischaracterize their view of ethics and religion. In particular, they deny that the ethical stance adopted in their The End of Ethics in a Technological Society is based upon any type of “religious traditionalism.”

My review explains that Schmidt and Scott Marratto are wedded to the doctrine of “natural law.” Natural law doctrine, they claim, is the ethical orientation needed by western society if we are to avoid nihilism.

What does this mean and why is it important? Schmidt and Marratto insist (without argument) that we live in “an orderly universe.” It is clear that they are here referring to a divinely created order rather than to the appearance of order associated with Darwinian natural selection. They go on to explain the enormous ethical importance of their belief: “The doctrine of natural law asserts that there is an order in the universe and that right action for human beings consists of attuning themselves to it.” Since this provides them with the ethical foundation for their book and since this is also the fundamental basis of traditional Catholic ethics, it seems to me that my review gave readers an accurate picture of the book’s ethical and religious framework.

Schmidt and Marratto believe that they have access to “a mysterious dimension of reality” that will provide us, somehow—they don’t explain how—with the guidance we need when confronted with modern technologies, such as repro-genetics. I recommend, instead, that we continue to grapple with the difficult task of figuring out the balance of benefits and harms involved with any new technology, attempting where possible to maximize potential benefits while minimizing potential harms.

In criticizing my argument that political judgement is needed if we are properly to control modern technology, David Cayley writes that “politics, on Schmidt and Marratto’s account, is itself no more than a branch of technological science.”

If I understand Cayley, he is claiming that we cannot, as a community, make wise collective political decisions about what technologies we want and how we want to regulate them for the public good. We cannot make such decisions because our politics itself is merely an epiphenomenon of our technology. This thesis, associated with Jacques Ellul and enthusiastically embraced by Schmidt and Marratto, claims that we are victims of the “technological imperative.” Technology is in the drivers seat, and we will end up, willy-nilly, where technology dictates unless … unless what? How are we meant to avoid technological determinism? Should we reject technology altogether (including the technologies of reading and writing, dental floss and Aspirin)? The so-called Unabomber, an arch techno-phobe, might say yes, but very few others find this a feasible option. As for Heidegger and Illich, well, if we have to rely on their obscurantist quasi-religious waffle, as Cayley recommends, then we are in very big trouble, indeed.

Vincent Murray challenges me to answer the question “What generally held values are to be used as the touchstone of mankind’s social and economic well-being?” Although Schmidt and Marratto’s book gives the reader no assistance whatsoever in answering Murray’s question, I’m willing to offer a suggestion.

As a framework for thinking about science and technology, let’s find common ground by agreeing to strive for a world in which there is a little less pain and suffering and a little more security, peace and social justice. At the moment we possess technologies that largely serve a corporate agenda. If we seek a more humane and just world, then we will need to wrest control—over which technologies are developed and which are not—from those who view science and technology purely as a cash cow. Technologies that serve humane goals should be adopted. Those that merely enable a powerful and wealthy ruling class to increase their power and privilege at the expense of everyone else (and the environment) should be transformed or rejected.

When, as often happens, the same technology simultaneously offers both promise of benefit and threat of harm, we should support governmental attempts to formulate tough regulations. The goal is to ensure, as far as possible, that the virtues of beneficence and distributive justice are promoted, even when these values subvert the corporate focus on profit maximization. This will be a big challenge for democratic politics, no doubt. But it’s a challenge we cannot avoid, and it’s a challenge we cannot sensibly delegate to those who claim expertise on the Divine Order of the universe.

Arthur Schafer
Professor of philosophy, University of Manitoba
Director, Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics
Winnipeg, Manitoba


Re: “After the Apology,” by Peter Dinsdale

Re: “After The Apology” by Peter Dinsdale

Peter Dinsdale’s review gives qualified approval to Marie Wadden’s Where the Pavement Ends: Canada’s Aboriginal Recovery Movement and the Urgent Need for Reconciliation. Dinsdale commends Wadden for approaching reconciliation “in a number of ways that resonate well with the aboriginal community.” More specifically, he applauds the book for conceptualizing reconciliation in terms of a “full commitment to the spirit of the treaties,” “attempting to find a meaningful relationship between aboriginal spiritual fullness of the past and the hopeless addictions so many find themselves enslaved to in the present” and highlighting the efforts of those “doing really good work in the communities.” The most significant aspect of the book for Dinsdale, however, is that “it is about hope.”

Although this support for Wadden’s book will be appreciated by those who agree that answers to the aboriginal question lie in increasing funds and devolving responsibility to Native-controlled organizations such as Dinsdale’s own interest group, the National Association of Friendship Centres, it is important not to let political sympathies cloud one’s reasoning. The appeal of Where the Pavement Ends, in fact, stems not from its rigorous analysis of aboriginal circumstances, but because its proposals seem to be consistent with what aboriginal leaders “want.” Contrary to Dinsdale’s claims, Wadden does not approach aboriginal problems “as a journalist”; her arguments are those of a sentimental advocate plagued by wishful thinking. She accepts at face value all the claims about the “successes” of the plethora of “healing” initiatives in existence, even though these testimonies come from the very people who are benefitting from the hundreds of millions of dollars that have been (and undoubtedly will continue to be) disbursed.

Even more disturbing than the acceptance of this maudlin credulity is Dinsdale’s agreement with Wadden’s main arguments about how reconciliation can be achieved. Respecting the “spirit of the treaties” is merely a demand to access “royalties from the use of water, minerals, the land and the air”—more bribes to the leadership that will do nothing to facilitate Native participation in the wider society. Condescending references to the “spiritual fullness of the past” also will not address the root causes of aboriginal dependency and social dysfunction. This merely justifies aboriginal segregation from the mainstream by putting a positive spin on the difficulties many Native people are having, because of the encouragement of archaic cultural features, in adapting to modern requirements.

Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard
Authors, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The deception behind indigenous cultural preservation
Calgary, Alberta


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