Issues

October 2012

Re: “A Quiet Ruin,” by Christopher Westdal

The roots of Russophobia date back for centuries. Returning from a trip to the court of Ivan the Terrible in 1568, Englishman George Turberville penned a poetic letter to a friend advising him, “The cold is rare, the people rude, the prince so full of pride,/The realm so stored with monks and nuns, and priests on every side,/The manners are so Turkish like, the men so full of guile/…If thou be wise, as wise thou art, and wilt be rul’d by me,/Live still at home and covet not those barbarous coasts to see.”

It would be absurd to expect such deeply entrenched prejudices to disappear overnight. Nevertheless, the continued demonization of Russia in the aftermath of the Cold War is somewhat surprising. Russia poses no significant military, political or economic threat to western interests. Progress towards western-style liberal democracy has been slow and sporadic, but progress there has been. For all the condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s alleged authoritarianism, there never was a golden age of Russian liberalism under Boris Yeltsin before Putin’s arrival on the scene. Yeltsin, after all, was the man who turned battle tanks on the Russian parliament. Russia today is a far freer society than it was under the Soviets, and a richer one too. The Russian economy in recent years has outperformed other former communist states in Eastern Europe. Increases in pensions have significantly reduced poverty; the demographic decline has been halted, as the death rate has fallen and the birth rate has risen; and gradual liberalization of financial markets is slowly opening the Russian economy up to the world. Severe problems, especially corruption, remain, but on the whole Russia in the past decade has been more of a good news story than a bad one.

Christopher Westdal’s condemnation of the Harper government’s Russian policy hits the proverbial nail firmly on the head. It is true that there are differences of opinion between Russia and Canada on certain foreign policy issues, such as Iran and Syria. But these are not of sufficient importance to justify the level of anti-Russian feeling that seems to emanate nowadays from the Canadian government. Canada would be better off if it realized that sometimes the Russians are right. As Westdal says, by alienating Russia, “we lose … a reality check for our certitudes.” Listening to the Russians rather than ceaselessly condemning them would be in our own interests just as much as it would be in Russia’s.

Paul Robinson
Ottawa, Ontario


Former ambassador Christopher Westdal has a point. The history of the relationship between Canada and Russia is characterized by ambivalence and numerous ups and downs. He is also right that now there are grounds for moving from “a quiet ruin” up to a partnership. Just one aspect should have been emphasized more: the eventual détente has as much to do with the recent developments in Russia as with the current situation in Canada.

Both Russia and Canada have economies that depend on natural resource rents (revenues from oil, natural gas, coal, mineral and forest rents) to a greater than average extent. Natural resource rents represented 5.33 percent of Canadian gross domestic product for the period from 1970 to 2010, as compared with 3.48 percent of world GDP (according to calculations based on World Bank data). And Harper has indicated that this share of the country’s economy will grow in the near future. Russia’s dependence on natural resource rents is even stronger: 23.32 percent.

The two previous détentes (Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1983 visit to Ottawa and Adrienne Clarkson’s visits to Russia in 2003 and 2004) occurred around periods of high oil and mineral prices, which further boosted the contribution of natural resource rents to the two countries’ economic performance. Mineral and oil prices are at their highs these days again. Harper’s government sets its policies accordingly: the resource-rich west of the country is given priority over the ­manufacturing-, service- and high-tech-oriented east. Westdal rightfully regrets missed ­opportunities.

As Leo Tolstoy once observed, happy families are all alike. In a way, societies living on natural resource rents are similar too. They tend to have relatively less transparent and more corrupt governments than those relying on other sources of income. Resource bounty makes the government less dependent on its constituency.

There is a correlation between the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index and the value of natural resource rents in 2010. It would be an exaggeration to say that all resource-rich countries are corrupt, yet a drift into non-transparency characterizes many of them. Compared with the other Commonwealth countries, Canada has the least open government, as a recent British study from University College London suggests (see “Canada Ranks Dead Last in Transparency,” in the February 2011 issue of the CAUT Bulletin). Namely, Harper’s government shows no inclination to provide access to information under its control for Canadians.

In such conditions will the Canadian government strongly criticize its Russian counterpart for corruption and non-transparency? Probably not: who wants to be perceived as a hypocrite?

Anton Oleinik
St. John's, Newfoundland


Re: “A Dark Dystopia,” by Alanna Mitchell

Book reviewers are entitled to their critical opinions, but I take issue with three points that Alanna Mitchell makes in her otherwise engaging review of my book The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude.

Mitchell, a good science journalist, makes repeated reference to the author being a fellow “disfigured by rage.” Not true. The Energy of Slaves was not written in anger. It is a moral and philosophical critique of high-energy living. When individuals have as many as 89 energy slaves at their disposal fuelled by hydrocarbons, they behave like slaveholders of old. They become fat, lazy and incompetent. Reviewers might not like the metaphor, but it is an apt one. And yes, it should make us uncomfortable.

The second concerns tone. Mitchell suggests the book is pessimistic and downbeat and that the author unfairly beats up on modern city makers and Big Science. The book is written by a self-­confessed conservative, a former business reporter, a Christian and an agrarian. But it is not penned by a dark-minded soul with visions of Hell in mind.

Every life and every civilization has its ups and downs and the availability of energy resolutely shapes these high and lows. It also informs the scale of our endeavours. Are cities and scientific progress immune to the notion of peak performance? I think not. Do not computers represent a mechanization of mental activity? Do we not lose that which we do not use? Such thinking does not make me a progressive, but it does put me in the camp of hard-headed realists with a sympathy for physics.

Last but not least, Mitchell seems in her own angst (and there is much going around these days) to have missed the essential solution to high energy consumption: burning less and employing fewer energy slaves. In fact, low-energy societies tend to be much happier (and less medicated) than North Americans who now seem incapable of doing anything without the assistance of some mechanical or digital gadget powered by wasteful amounts of energy.

In sum, my lively little book challenges every reader to think differently about the quality and quantity of energy they consume in any form. And I think that’s a hopeful activity.

Andrew Nikiforuk
Calgary, Alberta


Re: “A Foucauldian Hangover,” by Jessica Warner

While ostensibly reviewing my book, Jessica Warner published a diatribe against Michel Foucault and the historians who find his work informative. In her efforts to revive a debate that raged in the 1990s, Warner mocked my work and missed the point.

Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927–44 is about the early years of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario, which was created to deal with a difficult political issue: booze. Investigating the regulation of hundreds of hotels in six Ontario communities during the LCBO’s formative years, I found a story that often belies the stereotypes of liquor control. In contrast to some popular historians’ assertions, the LCBO was not an administration of temperance cranks but rather of bureaucrats trying to balance pressure from the temperance movement with the demands of a diverse, and thirsty, population. Most fascinating was the subtlety with which the LCBO often exercised its regulatory power. Its rules were designed not only to prevent drunkenness, but to create a distinction between good citizenship (my “citizen-drinker”) and deviance. Seemingly mundane factors: the time of day, location and activities associated with drinking determined its acceptability. The Ontarian drinker internalized these rules and in turn controlled himself or herself. This is biopower, Foucault’s remarkably useful concept.

Yet Warner ignores the nuances of the history, fixating on my use of Foucault. But I understand! As a grad student in the 1990s, I too dismissed Foucault out of hand. Twenty years ago, I would have cheered this anti-Foucauldian vitriol. But in the last few decades I’ve found Foucault’s ideas, used in moderation, helpful in analyzing the diffusion of power in modern society.

Sadly, Warner’s prejudice taints her entire review. Preoccupied with a theorist she considers mundane and passé, Warner recycles the tired notion that drinking life in post-prohibition Ontario was “dreary.” Hardly! Here we find a nascent control board beset on all sides: turf wars raged between illegal and legal drinking spaces; Wets and Drys lobbied persistently; beverage room managers “worked the system” to create successful businesses; women demanded their own place to drink. The board’s work was an unenviable balancing act.

Moreover, Warner commits the same academic sin against which I warn my second-year history students: she criticizes a book not for what it says, but for not saying what she wants it to say. She disdains the lack of generalization about complex forms of governance, rejects my use of theory to inform history and dismisses my focus on 17 years of the LCBO as “a slight topic.” Apparently what we really need are longer general histories of bigger things.

I learn from my mistakes and am open to helpful criticism. But all I get from Warner’s review is that a history is worthwhile only if it is theoretically bereft, is full of simplified generalizations and reiterates ahistorical stereotypes over broad periods.

That is not a lesson I want anyone to learn.

Dan Malleck
St. Catharines, Ontario


Not all the food that drinkers were required to order went uneaten. In the mid 1950s, I was in Toronto’s Colonial Tavern listening to Duke Ellington. I was young. I was hungry. I ate the sandwich, unaware that it had been in circulation for a considerable time. I recall the horrified waiters hissing, “He ate the sandwich!” Whether this was because they were concerned about my health, or because another was required, I know not. In all probability, the need for another sandwich. All in all, it was a good evening. No ill effects, and Ellington sat at my table and chatted during one of his breaks.

Michael Abrahams
Oakville, Ontario


Re: “Political Piracy,” by Douglas Hunter

Damned if you do and damned if you don’t seems to be Douglas Hunter’s approach to book reviews. On the one hand my book, Lords of the Sea: A History of the Barbary Corsairs, is as boring as a legal brief, yet on the other hand it “demonizes” the Barbary corsairs as “cruel, bloodthirsty hoodlums,” an effect rarely achieved by dry legal prose. Hunter feels I have not done justice to this “epic” story. No doubt my book is insufficiently swashbuckling for him, lacking a catchy subtitle like “How the Barbary Corsairs Terrorized the Seas and Changed the World.”

If there is one subject that has over the years attracted far too many romanticized and swashbuckling books, it is the history of corsairs and pirates. After these sea rovers ceased to be real threats in the 19th century, they were steadily transformed in popular consciousness from maritime terrorists into jolly figures of fun, no more frightening than Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Only in our own time have the sufferings of the victims of the Somali pirates reintroduced us to the grim realities of piracy.

Over the last four decades, academic historians have sought to return the story of corsairs and pirates from a fantasy world of buried treasure and hook-handed buffoons to a historical reality that sets them in the context of their times. Barbary corsairs were not the bloodthirsty monsters of Christian nightmares, but men who carried out a rational if brutal activity on the maritime frontier separating Christian and Muslim worlds. They seized enemy ships and captives not just for profit, but to extend the power and influence of both the Ottoman Turkish empire and the Islamic world in general. The corsairs are of particular interest because of the willingness of Christian captives to “turn Turk” and embrace Islam, becoming Muslim corsairs in their turn. Since Muslims captured by the Christians rarely embraced the rival faith, the strength of Christian identity in the early modern period is thus an issue for debate.

A measured and scholarly appraisal of the history of the Barbary corsairs has been long overdue—the last serious single volume study in English appeared in 1890—and I hope readers will find my book has filled that gap.

Alan G. Jamieson
Hinton, Alberta


Re: “Churches and States,” by Jonathan Malloy

Jonathan Malloy quotes Jason Hackworth, the author of Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States, as saying the idea that church-based social services can replace the welfare state is simply “a neoliberal fantasy.” From my experience working in post-Katrina New Orleans, I have some thoughts about this.

I arrived in that city with all sorts of biases from my Canadian experience about publicly delivered social services. I shared with Hackworth a suspicion of what I anticipated to be an old-fashioned, sentimentalized role for church charity, paired with ideological rigidity.

But what I experienced was something much more complicated, effective and necessary. I say “complicated” because the role of faith communities in communities across the southern United States isn’t that easy to generalize. My wife and I worshipped at an uptown Episcopal church that ran “undoing racism” workshops, as well as Bach festivals, a counselling centre, food pantries, a prison ministry and a health clinic for the public housing communities three blocks away. I worked closely with a network of neighbourhood-based recovery centres, called Beacons of Hope, which provided relief and support to returning residents and worked in partnership with many denominations and faith groups. Showing me his mobile health clinic, Pastor Bruce described his outreach programs, which included AIDS prevention awareness and condom distribution to the hetero and gay male communities. His Baptist denomination had disaffiliated him because of this program; but he just carried on, now without the moral (or financial) support of “head office,” doing what he clearly saw was the Lord’s work. (“Jesus don’t judge no one,” he assured me.)

None of the models provided by faith-based organizations or local non-profits is perfect. But governments don’t provide social capital; community engagement, offered in often less than predictable facilities, does. Flu shots available in drug stores; blood pressure readings in libraries; ESL classes at local coffee shops; voting booths in church basements; foot care and glucose screenings at temples. Do multiple “modes of delivery” supplant government? The scale of need in most cities is large enough and diverse enough to require multiple ways to share resources and provide services to people who need them. Is looking to faith communities or private philanthropy part of some neoliberal campaign to reduce the role and influence of government? Maybe. But providing resources through the most effective social networks available in a local community might also just be common sense.

Mary Rowe
New York, New York


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