The Islamic State, Consensus and Fifth-Column Paranoia in Canadian Journalism

This was written a while back, and then overtaken by recent events in Ottawa. Nonetheless, I think the point is still applicable.

The disagreement between the three major parties how to proceed with war against the Islamic State is a good thing, and anyone who says otherwise is missing the point on just how serious the decision to go fight a war ought to be. 

Despite this, writers in newspapers across this country are practically stumbling over each other to simultaneously denounce Justin Trudeau and Tom Mulcair and demand immediate action against the militants who have seized a swath of Iraq and Syria. 

It’s not just the air of self-satisfaction among those who want war, but that there appears to be absolutely no consideration about the actual prosecution of this conflict. Indeed, the Ottawa and Toronto babbling classes are hardly even making the case for war; they’re too busy sneering at the opposition. 

It reeks of Cold War psychosexual paranoia that those suspicious of military adventures are sissies forming a fifth column. 

And so, the rhetoric for war has mostly taken the form of questions: what if homegrown terrorists attack? What if the Islamic State is left alone and acquires weapons? 

That’s hardly a convincing way to make a case. 

Mulcair keeps harping on in Question Period, asking questions and staking out a position against the Conservatives, receiving nothing but snooty dismissal from his opponents and the media. 

Columnists need not be hairy beatniks to appreciate Mulcair’s tactics — the slightest skepticism that Harper and company might not have all the facts straight will do. Skepticism (the default position of journalism ought to be that people in power aren’t telling the whole truth) is critically important. If we’re skeptical about a budget, we sure ought to be skeptical about the rationale for going to kill people.  

As for the criticism of the opposition, Mulcair can be asking the wrong questions — even unanswerable ones — and Trudeau can be a lightweight on foreign affairs, but it’s still true that we just don’t know very much about what this intervention in Iraq is going to look like, and we are going to be the ones bankrolling it. 

In his seminal essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell identified just why govenments and hawks are so vague in what they say about war. 

“Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification,” Orwell writes. “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

And so we have “air strikes,” “no boots on the ground,” and other terms designed to hoodwink and avoid a practical discussion about what on earth we plan to do. 

Some very smart people have made the case for war — but it sure hasn’t been the government. At least a few writers have actually travelled to that part of the world recently, thankfully. For the rest of them, armchair generalship is fine — in a democracy, it’s the best we’ve got — but the view from a desk in Toronto or a parliamentary office in Ottawa is a shuttered one at best. 

At least part of the reason for the inane treatment of war skeptics is that far too many people believe that consensus in politics is good. 

Far from presenting a unified front, representing the will of the nation, a three-party consensus demonstrates an utter lack of critical thinking. 

The decision to go to war shouldn’t be made with complete agreement, it’s worth a political brawl that the best side wins. 

It may be the case, for example, that the end date of the mission is open, and so we can’t know the answer to that question. That’s fine — but what is the plan if dropping bombs doesn’t cripple the Islamic State? Maybe it’s to depend on the notoriously unreliable Iraqi army to roll them back. Well, is that a good idea?

Indeed, is dropping bombs even the best strategy? Rockets falling from the sky has been intensely controversial in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. Is that still the case here, or have we somehow settled (or rather, elided) that debate entirely?

Moreover, the govenment has opted for silly demagoguery, and that ought to be enough to pique suspicion, as it’s often the symptom of a bad argument. In short, we know little, and aren’t having much of a debate (that, at least, is partially Trudeau’s fault, who shamefully failed to show up to an emergency debate on the issue). 

Thankfully, the opposition has noticed that and is attempting to do something about it. It’s too bad that the national media — normally so hard on the Harper government — have adopted such a subservient posture.

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