One of the few benefits of growing old is seeing that the cycle of society is a cycle of stupidity; that the same moronic arguments come, and the same moronic arguments go, and that at a certain point it really isn't worth the time and effort explaining to the stupid just why they are so stupid.
And so it is with this week's typically feigned outrage over Justin Trudeau's comments, made very early after the bombings of the Boston Marathon, that we should look for the "root causes" of these events. My colleague Andrew Coyne has taken time out of his life to explain why there is nothing objectionable about what Trudeau said:
Recall that Trudeau was speaking in advance of anyone having been named as suspects, or any of their background or possible motives having been identified. We did not know what or whom we were dealing with: an organized conspiracy, or a lone nutter. But he was right to suggest that whoever did it would have to be someone who had become, for one reason or another, detached from basic social norms: as he put it, “who feels completely excluded, completely at war with innocents, at war with a society.”
This is so obvious that it beggars belief that anyone would try to find anything nefarious in Trudeau's remarks. But it brings to mind a similar occasion, over a decade ago now, when Jean Chretien was similarly chastised by the Canadian right for proposing that, as part of its response to the attacks of 9/11, the US government should maybe seek to understand the root causes of the attacks.
For his efforts, Chretien was slammed in the pages of the Wall Street Journal by one Marie Josee Kravis, a quasi-Canadian turned New York socialite whose major claim to fame is having been been one of the most completely clueless members of the board of Hollinger in the early years of the millennium. I was asked to respond to Kravis's column by the opinion page editor of the Ottawa Citizen, long before I ever imagined I might one day work for the paper.
The column I wrote bears the marks of the angry young man posturing that was a signature of my writing at the time, but there's so much of the piece that resonates with the current debate I think it is worth posting in full. To paraphrase Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused: I get older, but the arguments stay just as stupid. Here's the column:
Gagging on U.S. whine: Offering an explanation for terrorism is different from justifying acts of terror. Why can't people understand that?
The Ottawa Citizen
Sat Sep 28 2002
Like Conservative lead-er Joe Clark a few weeks back, I find myself in the curious position of coming to the defence of Jean Chretien.
Once again, our prime minister is under fire for an interview he gave to CBC-TV last summer and for a speech he recently gave at the United Nations, in which he allegedly suggested that "western arrogance" might have contributed to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. This latest salvo, by Marie-Josee Kravis, was published on Thursday in the Wall Street Journal and reprinted on this page yesterday.
Mrs. Kravis's article was so full of twisted analysis and half-explained history that it is hard to know where to begin. So why not begin with the first sentence, which finds Mrs. Kravis wondering, "Why is JeanChretien so intent on finding a justification for terrorism?"
I have read the CBC transcript of the interview a dozen times, and I won't pretend to understand every sentence. But one thing Mr. Chretien was certainly not doing was trying to find a "justification" for terrorism, nor was he "blaming the victim" for the attacks. What he was trying to do was grope toward an understanding of the factors that might have inspired the attacks, and which might lead to similar problems "10 or 20 or 30 years from now."
Setting aside the question of whether "western arrogance" and global wealth disparities are what motivated Osama bin Laden and his crew -- I think not, and it is not obvious from the interview that Mr. Chretien thinks so either -- I fail to see what the fuss is about. Offering an explanation for something is conceptually distinct from offering a justification for it.
It is commonly observed in Canada that factors such as poverty, drug addiction and lack of education can lead to a life of crime. When we point this out, we do not thereby justify the crime, nor do we "blame the victim." This is so obvious it is painful to have to spell it out. Mr. Chretien was simply applying this pattern of domestic analysis to the global community. Again, there is nothing here that hints of what Mrs. Kravis calls "misplaced pity for terrorists."
Mrs. Kravis argues that what poor countries need is better access to world markets, which will give them sustained economic growth. Of course they do. But these countries also need a functioning, vertically integrated civil society, stable government, the rule of law, and civil and political liberties; otherwise, economic reform will simply make things worse. Just look at Russia, where most of the existing social capital was destroyed more than a decade ago by western economic geniuses more in the grip of ideology than good sense.
But don't take my word for it. This leftist "social capital" mumbo-jumbo, including the Russia example, is taken straight from the World Bank's Web site, at www.worldbank.org/poverty/scapital/.
I am sure this is all too soft-headed for Mrs. Kravis. She suggests that Mr. Chretien should learn some lessons from Pierre Trudeau, who knew how to deal with terrorists. Send in the army, arrest anyone who looks suspicious, and refuse to consider any sort of political accommodation. Any Americans getting their Canadian history from Mrs. Kravis's article would have been left with the distinct impression that Quebec separatism was killed off once and for all in 1970, since, as she says, it was "Trudeau's resolve that restored order and deterred future terrorist incidents."
Actually, a more plausible explanation is that the FLQ's violent energies were sublimated into the democratic separatist movement that still exists. Quebec separatists just went from blowing up mailboxes to trying to politically blow up the entire country, and they might well have succeeded if it weren't for 30 years of political accommodation, much of it led by Mr. Trudeau. But again, don't take my word for it, read a history book. Or, if that's too hard, read the entry on the "October Crisis" in the Canadian Encyclopedia.
Halfway through her article, Mrs. Kravis takes leave of her original argument and goes off on a rant about the unbearable lameness of Canadian nationalism. She attributes Mr. Chretien's pro-terrorist feelings to his frustrations with the U.S., and even dusts off the old stuff about anti-Americanism being our unfortunate substitute for a true national feeling and self-confidence. Spare me.
To begin with, even the most hostile reading of Mr. Chretien's remarks doesn't come close to the sorts of things that have appeared in Harper's and the New York Times. Second, Mr. Chretien suggested that the powerful should try to be "nice," which Mrs. Kravis interprets as a bit of pique over President George W. Bush's notorious failure to praise Canada for its post-Sept. 11 support. That is doubtful. If anything, Mr.Chretien meant "be nice" as in "don't give money and guns to evildoers like Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein," -- which the Americans did for a long time.
Mrs. Kravis insinuates that Canadians are hypocritical for feeling morally superior to Americans while enjoying access to U.S. technology, capital and television. Since when are you not allowed to feel superior to the people you're doing business with? Didn't Adam Smith set us all straight on this point? Besides, if you want to talk hypocrisy, let us start with Mr. Bush, the biggest hypocrite of them all.
Probably no man so dim has ever benefited so much from crony capitalism, yet Mr. Bush stands in sanctimonious judgment of the executives of Enron and WorldCom. He promised a "hemisphere of freedom," then slapped trade sanctions on Canadian lumber and jacked up subsidies for U.S. farmers. If there were any consistency to U.S. foreign policy, Saudi Arabia would be part of the axis of evil. And so on.
There is nothing wrong with Canada's national self-confidence that wouldn't be helped if only we had fewer grovelling, pro-Yankee fifth-columnists keeping addresses in Toronto and Montreal so they can dump on Canada and Canadians in newspapers at home and abroad.
There was nothing wrong with what Jean Chretien said to Peter Mansbridge and to the UN. Get over it.
Andrew Potter teaches philosophy at Trent University, Peterborough.
I no longer teach philosophy, at Trent or anywhere. I'm currently the managing editor at the Ottawa Citizen