Thursday, February 17, 2011

Banal anti-Americanism and Zionist Conspiracy Theory Night at the Munk Centre

The Munk Centre is the University of Toronto's showpiece for Global Studies and frequently features brilliant speakers and fascinating presentations. But as Johnny Carson used to say when one of his jokes bombed, "they can't all be gems."

Case in point, a dual program on Tuesday evening called, "In Conversation with Brian Stewart."

In fairness to The Munk Centre, it did provide one thoughtful speaker that evening who provided pertinent facts and intelligent analysis in the person of Brigadier-General Jonathan Vance.

Stewart is a former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reporter who is now affiliated with the Munk Centre. There were two parts to the program. The first was billed as "Canada and Afghanistan" and was an hour of Stewart posing questions to Vance, who is Chief of Staff, Land Strategy for the Canadian Armed Forces.

Vance offered insights into the Afghanistan situation and Canada's military role that are worth noting.  Aside from the obvious fact that the rights and lives of most Afghans have improved since the removal of the Taliban, it's critical to note that despite the implications by friends of the Mullah-ruled Iranian dictatorship, like the Canadian Peace Alliance's James Clark, most Afghans want NATO to be there. They don't want NATO to stay forever, but they do want them to remain until Afghanistan is secure enough to prevent a resumption of Taliban rule. The voices of Afghans who condemn NATO's presence in their country are almost always those who don't live in Afghanistan.

To illustrate that, while millions of Afghans left the country as refugees during Taliban rule, millions are now returning since the NATO intervention. That fact alone should be ample testimony to the benefit of NATO's role in Afghanistan.

The best answers are often elicited from a questioner who challenges the person being questioned. Because an idea or proposition is offered doesn't mean it should be accepted. However there was something about Stewart's questioning, having alternated between cynical and uninformed, which brought to mind the worst practices of the old CBC. Stewart made weird allegations parroted from a group of communists about "the militarization" of Hockey Night in Canada and concluded with a condescending congratulation of Vance for his "honesty," as if anything less could have been expected.

Stewart's position couldn't have been made more apparent than by his shift to the role of obsequious acolyte in the second part of the program called,  "Obama Watch: Historians Review the Obama Foreign Policy Record"

One of the secrets of academia is that a PhD is no guarantee of great intelligence. Sometimes all it means is that an individual who possess one is better trained to articulate banal ideas than the average person. Historians John Milton Cooper and Robert Bothwell provided ample reminder of that. They shared the stage with the Munk Centre's Ronald Pruessen and what was supposed to be a critique of US President Obama's foreign policy instantaneously descended into Cooper bloviating about a Zionist takeover of American politics, only to be echoed by Bothwell's conspiratorial assertion that Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu is more powerful in American politics than Obama.

Pruessen seemed embarrassed by his colleagues and while he sensibly (sanely) stayed away from that delusional line of distraction, he did not challenge it. That is understandable since it might have inspired ostracism given the the anti-Zionist zealotry often prevalent at U of T, which includes entire departments devoted to it.

While it was shocking to hear an outburst from Cooper and Bothwell that could just as easily have been a recital from a neo-Nazi website or a squawk from a Maoist nut like Norman Finkelstein, what was most surprising about the hour-long panel was that among all the many assertions, not once was a single historical fact introduced by any of the historians to substantiate them. Finkelstein routinely presents facts and data out of context, but at least he actually uses facts on occasion.

Such was not the case with the historian's panel. A panel that was ostensibly about Obama, overwhelmingly became just a group denunciation of George W Bush. Cooper and Bothwell seemed personally affronted by the popular conception that Bush's push for democracy in the middle east could in any way be responsible for the wave of pro-democracy rebellions spreading across the region. Cooper appeared to revile Bush to the extent that he could barely bring himself to say his name, almost always referring to him as "the last president," bringing to mind the way that Islamist fanatics cannot bear to say "Israel" and refer to it as "the Zionist entity."

Cooper's oft-repeated use of the term "right-wing", spitting it out as if it were a diabolical curse, implied an ideologically-inspired intellectual vacuity, as if by virtue of an idea's being from a particular part of the political spectrum, it was automatically disqualified from any validity. The best US president of the last two decades was Bill Clinton, whose success was in no small measure derived from his ability to recognize good ideas and adopt them, regardless of their source. The reason the Republicans were so frustrated by him, and their attacks against him so personal, was because it is almost impossible to attack the politics of someone who appropriates your best ideas and implements them as his own policies.

Of course, Bill Clinton possesses one of the most politically astute minds in the world, and Messieurs Cooper and Bothwell, to put it politely, do not.

It was staggering to hear the panel unanimously postulate something that should be discouraging for any supporter of Barack Obama as it is for anyone who welcomes global stability: their positive assessment of an Obama presidency leading to a weaker America. At that point, I realized I was listening to a panel of 20th century historians who have learned absolutely nothing from the history of the 20th century.

They all agreed that America, in the absence of another superpower, was too strong, and it's weakening would be a good thing for the world and the USA . What they didn't say was who they assumed would fill the power vacuum left by a debilitated United States. Unless they meant a nuclear Iran or authoritarian China, the natural assumption would be Europe.

If nothing else can be learned from the history of Europe over the last 100 years, it is that Europe is incapable of functioning for any length of time without a strong America. Cooper, who wrote a well received biography of Woodrow Wilson, the US President at the close of World War 1, seemed to have forgotten the cause of that war was European instability. It took a strong America to end that conflict, since Europe was unable to solve its own problems. History repeated itself with the American intervention needed to end World War 2. It was America's support for western Europe that prevented the Soviets from dominating that continent during the cold war. And if any further reminder was needed, though it shouldn't be, it is the resolution of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, which threatened to turn into a regional war while Europe criticized and ineffectually dithered until an American bombing campaign ordered by President Clinton concluded that crisis.

Given their other proclivities, maybe it should not have been surprising that those obvious facts didn't factor into the assessment of the historical trio.

The Munk Centre provides a tremendous service in presenting different voices and divergent views so that students, academics, and the public can be exposed to a variety of ideas. A moderator who challenges the preposterous rather than allows his own prejudices to be reinforced would provide a good enhancement for these events.

One consolation from the historian's panel is that it conclusively proves that Linda McQuaig is full of..hot air.

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