Archive for October, 2014

On “On Bullshit” (Princeton University Press, 2005)

October 14, 2014

I wish I had thought of the title. This 2005 booklet of eight thousand words by Harry Frankfurt, a philosopher at Princeton, was first published in 1985 as an essay. It was on the NYT best seller list for twenty-seven weeks. The message is that we are swamped with bullshit, which differs from lies in that there is no deliberate attempt to deceive, rather a milder form of deception either deliberately undertaken, or because the originator feels obliged to give an opinion about something she or he knows nothing about.

Does bullshit matter?

In many instances no, but when it causes conflict or expenditures of vast sums of money, it’s worrisome. Religion and the climate debate often fall into these categories. Frankfurt notes that “Excrement is not designed or crafted at all; it is merely emitted or dumped” (21-22). There are mounds of bullshit in different religions, which are or often have been in conflict with each other, not just Christians, Muslims and Jews, but within each of these beliefs, between Catholics and Protestants, Sunni and Shia Muslims, orthodox and non-orthodox Jews

Climate Change

An example of modern-day religion is climate change. Its Old Testament was the 1972 publication of the Limits To Growth by a group of distinguished writers. Forty-one years later in 2013, it was found to be wrong in many respects both about pollution and resource use – see . The world did not run out of resources. On petroleum and gas, North America with a larger population, will become self sufficient, and the decline of output due to conflicts in the Middle East is coinciding currently with a fall in oil prices. They could rise again, but global energy shortage is not now seen to be a major problem.

When the price of materials which were forecast to be in short supply rose, either new deposits or substitutes were found. While renewable energy provides only a small fraction of energy requirements today, that share is increasing and other energy saving measures are found. In my house in eastern Canada in 1970, there was no insulation in the roof or walls. Older houses have now been insulated and new ones designed to require less heat. The revolution in communications has in many ways been energy saving.

Environmental Movement

Limits To Growth also became the Old Testament for today’s environmental movement. Watch out for not just traces but rich deposits of bullshit, which if the environmental storyline is wrong will cost us large sums of money, and cause as much trouble in its way as religious disputes appear to be doing today.

In order to separate the good stuff from the excrement, consider some of the facts, on the basis that “everyone is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts.” (Attributed to Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a four time elected US senator who died in 2003).

Matt Ridley, a columnist for the Times (London) and a member of the British House of Lords has reported on climate change for 25 years. His summary of the 2014 Report of the International Panel on Climate Change is published in The Financial Post, June 19, 2014, p.FP9

“The IPCC commissioned four different models of what might happen to the world economy, society and technology in the 21stcentury and what each would mean for the climate, given a certain assumption about the atmosphere’s “sensitivity” to carbon dioxide. Three of the models show a moderate, slow and mild warming, the hottest of which leaves the planet just 2 degrees centigrade warmer than today in 2081-2100. The coolest comes out just 0.8 degrees warmer.

Now two degrees is the threshold at which warming starts to turn dangerous……That is to say, in three of the four scenarios considered by the IPCC, by the time my children’s children are elderly, the Earth will still not have experienced any harmful warming, let alone catastrophe.”

The fourth scenario, Ridley notes, produces 3.5 degrees of warming by 2081-2100. It is based on the following assumptions:

The global population will increase to 12 billion – this is at least one billion more than the UN expects, and the rate of population growth is presently declining. The world will burn ten times as much coal as today, producing 50% of primary energy in contrast with 30% today. Assumptions made in the report about nuclear and renewable energy sources mean that fossil fuels will dominate energy production – Ridley considers these assumptions “very, very implausible.”

“That is to say, even if you pile crazy assumption upon crazy assumption till you have an edifice of vanishingly small probability, you cannot even manage to make climate change cause minor damage in the time of our grandchildren, let alone catastrophe. That’s not me (Ridley) saying this – it’s the IPCC itself.”

Listen well to Frankfurt, so as not to be buried under tons of what is currently being spread.


Once More Into The Breech – A view of the Middle East Conflict

October 11, 2014

What kind of war is it?

You cannot fight a war or engage in conflict by telling your opponents one or more of the following:  that you are only partially committed, that you will remove troops on a certain date, that you will re-evaluate your commitment three or six months hence, that casualties are unacceptable to you, that you will send troops and equipment but not arm them,  that your troops are there just to train local forces, that there will be no boots on the ground to fight, that you will only send planes and drones but don’t expect them to get their paint scratched, and that you are there for humanitarian purposes only.

If you act like this, your adversaries will have difficulty controlling their mirth, and be unable to believe their luck in having such dismal opposition. A boxer does not enter the ring promising to use either one or no hands. The lessons from all types of conflict from WW1 and WW2, to Vietnam, guerilla wars and terrorism are that your opponents will use any means to attack and try to defeat you. There are no rules of war for those who decide not to respect them. The Geneva Convention was signed by almost 200 countries, some with reservations. When it comes to unconventional warfare and terrorism, rules are neither recognized nor respected. The only rules are no rules. Stoning of women and beheading of prisoners by terrorists should be a reminder of this.

The ISIS/ ISIL conflict is not an isolated situation where if you decide not to be involved you will not be affected. The war metaphor is not Northern Ireland where Catholics fight Protestants locally with a few spillovers to bombings in England, and financing from Americans with Irish ancestry. It is more like the Crusades, a religious conflict where, from 1086 for 200 years, Christians fought Muslims over a wide geographic area; or where Protestants fought Catholics in Europe, and where Thomas More was beheaded at the Tower of London for refusing to accept Henry VIII as head of the Church of England, and for not helping the king solve his marital problems.

ISIS/ISIL may appear to be a local religious war but it has already mestastised into a much wider conflict including the Middle East, North Africa, and Africa from the Sudan across to West Africa. It has reached into Western Europe and North America with nationals from these regions travelling to the Middle East and returning to cause trouble at home. Remember the off-duty British soldier who had his throat cut on the streets of London by one such person.

Listen to former Canadian diplomat Robert Fowler, to spokespersons for the CIA and American counter-terrorist organizations. Listen to or read Leon Panetta’s latest book Worthy Fights. Panetta was head of the CIA and Secretary of Defense in the Obama administration. All point out the dangers now facing the West, some of which may occur in the West like 9/11, and bombings in London and Madrid. There could be more incidents, even beheadings in the West, or attacks on soft targets like railway, bus and airline terminals before passengers go through the screening process.

Al Qaeda is a terrorist brand with headquarters in Pakistan. But the followers of what this brand represents have created their own branches, which often operate independently of each other. This is a far stretch from tanks and troops lining up against each other in trenches on a well defined battlefield as in WW1 and WW2.

What has Canada done?

Should Canada send troops to the Middle East and what should those troops be tasked to do? By a majority vote in the House of Commons, with Liberal and NDP members voting against the resolution, the decision has been taken to send troops and planes. The opposition supports troops but only in a non-combat role. But there is no such thing as a non-combat role, unless you tell the troops that they will not carry arms and cannot defend themselves if attacked, even if acting only in an advisory role. The enemy is unlikely to recognise such a distinction. Fine distinctions are seldom respected when shells are flying. Even Liberal/NDP Bob Rae and humanitarian promoter Liberal Lloyd Axworthy recognize the situation for what it is, rather than for what Liberal and NDP supporters would like to believe it is.

Members of Parliament have every right to vote against the motion to send armed forces and planes to fight. Now parliament has done so, these members are in the position of signaling to troops on the ground or in the air that they do not support what they are doing. T’was ever such for pacifists in wartime, and it is happening now in Canada. Opposition MPs who were at one time members of the armed forces, or are reservists now, are withholding their support for active members of the armed services. I would imagine it is not a comfortable position to be in, but even less comfortable for the armed forces and their families.

There is another dimension to the parliamentary decision which has to do with domestic politics, and the historical lack of enthusiasm by Quebec voters to support any type of foreign military action. With 78 of the 338 seats after the next federal election coming from Quebec, it is unsurprising that the opposition parties have an eye on how their actions will be viewed by this electorate. Jack Granatstein deals with this issue in detail in an article in the Globe and Mail for Oct.10, 2014.


The Middle East situation is incredibly complex pitting countries against each other, and lining up religious groupings on opposing sides – Muslims versus Christians and Jews, and some Muslims against other Muslims. Anyone offering views on this situation will be influenced by their own background and experiences. I offer mine for those who want ammunition to disagree on personal rather than substantive grounds.

My father served and survived as a junior infantry officer in WW1 on the western front. He was wounded three times, once at the Battle of the Somme, and each time returned to the trenches. After the war he served as a staff officer to General Carton de Wiart, who was in charge of the British military mission to advise the Polish military in the early 1920s. WW1 continued after 1918 on the eastern front.  Poland fought the Soviet Union which was trying to extend its territory westwards.  I grew up in England during WW2, living in southeast England thirty miles from London during and after the Battle of Britain. I survived, but my mother did not, dying as a result of an accident that could have occurred in peacetime, but was more likely to and did happen because of the wartime conditions. Later I served for two years required National Service (1952-54) as a junior infantry officer in the British army, in Germany and then Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising.

Ghosts of Empire – Part 2.

October 8, 2014


The Empire in parts of the world today

Writing in Fall 2014, news headlines refer to major stories in The Middle East, Africa, Russia, and China (Hong Kong and the South China Sea). What links Churchill’s empire (1875-1964) to each of these areas and events? When I started writing two weeks ago, Hong Kong was not in the news. Today it is. Where and when will the next major event occur?

The Middle East

The end of WW1 coincided with the demise of both the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. With the British Empire still intact, and France one of the winning countries and a small empire of its own, these two, through the Sykes-Picot Agreement decided on the boundaries of Syria, Lebanon, and the countries which are today Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Gaza/West Bank. Currently violence reigns in this region.

A map of the world in 1900 and 2000 shows how the region – see – was divided up after WW1, leaving the Middle East as host to a series of countries with new borders in which resided different, and often hostile, ethnic groups. Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Kurds, Jews, Christians and various Arab tribes today reside together or apart in these countries. The mix has lead to unstable and violent situations.

As of October 2014, the area from Turkey south and east is in turmoil, especially in Syria and Iraq with ISIS/ISIL trying to establish an Islamic state from existing countries in the region. Iran is also involved, at one time of special interest to the Empire because of its oil resources, especially after the Royal Navy converted from coal to oil, at a time when Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty.

England had also promised a homeland for the Jews which is part of the background to the current Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In addition, Great Britain needed to control Egypt because of the Suez connection to the east (the Indian subcontinent and Hong Kong) and to colonies in east Africa. For these and other reasons, the Middle East was important to the empire.

Moving east, Afghanistan is another hard to govern country. Three times, England invaded Afghanistan first in 1839 and twice more over the next 80 years, each time with disastrous consequences for the invaders. Its aim was to prevent Russia establishing a port in the Indian Ocean and threatening England’s trade with India and points east. William Dalrymple provides masterly coverage of these wars in Return of a King (Penguin 2012).

In December 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and withdrew in February 1989. The US with allies including the UK and Canada entered Afghanistan in 2001 after the 9/11 attack and have since withdrawn. So far no foreign country has been able to subdue the tribes which inhabit Afghanistan. No one would want to unless they caused trouble outside the country’s borders. But with modern technology that is what could happen and why Afghanistan along with Middle Eastern countries remain a threat to the West.

Indian subcontinent

Moving east to the Indian subcontinent of Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, all of which were part of the British Empire and most of which remain members of the Commonwealth – Myanmar as Burma left in 1949 – conflict continues in the west of Pakistan as an extension of events in Afghanistan. India has established a stable democracy with a mix of cohabiting Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. British based institutions exist in its parliamentary and legal institutions. In some of the subcontinent, British influence prevailed and in others not so.

While the Suez Canal and coaling stations in Aden were important for England’s connection with India, the jewel in their crown, these have become less important with air transport and electronic communications. Further east, Malaya, now Malaysia and Singapore, and Hong Kong have strong imperial connections and traditions in both their political and legal institutions and the commercial institutions which still operate there. Trading companies such as The East India Company, Jardine Matheson, the Swire Group and British banks operate in these countries, or in regions of China as in the case of Hong Kong.

The lease on Hong Kong from China which ended in 1997 was originally established so that the British opium trade to China would continue as a means to provide payment for tea and spices from China. (Britain’s control over Hong Kong began in 1842 with the Treaty of Nanking which ended the First Opium War). Parts of the empire thrived on the drug trade, as it did on the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The Empire, warts and all, are with us today. In the case of slavery, as a result of Ebola, the US is talking about banning visitors from West African countries, which marks a change in the earlier welcome of transatlantic flows of persons to America from Africa.

There are obviously imperial connections to be made with events in the Caribbean and Central and South American countries, but these can wait for a future posting. At this time happenings in Europe are noted.


Eastern Europe

Russia has fought with and against the Great Britain at various times. In WW1, Queen Victoria was head of state in England with two of her relatives being leading statesmen in her ally Russia and her enemy Germany. For a short time, in WW2, Russia allied with Germany against, France and, from 1941, with the US. When Germany invaded Russia, the latter became allies at least until 1945. The Cold War then broke out and lasted until 1989 and the Humpty-Dumpty demise of the Soviet Empire. Putin is now trying to glue these parts together again in the Ukraine and Crimea with threats towards Moldova, parts of Georgia and the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Finland may even be on Russian radar.

The British Empire has out of geographic necessity been concerned with developments in Western as well as Eastern Europe stretching into Russia. The UK became and remains a member of NATO which may get a new lease of life with the current threatening behavior of Russia. In earlier days, the Empire competed with European (Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Spain and Portugal) countries for colonies, especially in Africa at the end of the 1900s.


This journey started in the Middle East including Egypt which after the demise of the Ottoman Empire was in fact ruled by the British. Today there is violence in varying degrees in parts of Africa, going clockwise from Egypt to Eritrea, Somalia, Kenya, the Sudan, Rwanda, Angola, Nigeria, The Congo, various locations in West Africa, Algeria, and Libya. Many of these countries were at one time part of the British and other European Empires. Their success in weathering the present unrest, and the threat posed by Islamic terrorism, may have some connection with their former colonial status. It’s too soon to know.

One of Churchill’s earliest books was My African Journey (Hodder and Stoughton, 1908). It contained an account of his time as a journalist both in Afghanistan and in South Africa during the Boer War. Richard Toye’s book, Churchill’s Empire, opens (p.ix,x) with the description of a 1954 meeting between Churchill and a white Kenyan settler, Michael Blundell. Their discussion concerns the then Mau Mau uprising in Kenya. Churchill remarks that the Kikuyu rebels were “a happy, naked and charming people.” He goes on to say that the Kikuyu “were persons of considerable fibre and ability and steel, who could be brought to our side by just and wise treatment.” In fact, after independence, Kenya not only remained within the Commonwealth, but its first President, Jomo Kenyatta when released from prison by the British took no revenge on his captors. Many of the white settlers remained to farm coffee, tea, sisal and now cut flowers sold mostly in Europe. Currently, Kenyatta’s son is President, and the country is home to the father of President Obama. Has this President brought America back into the imperial fold? Churchill never forgot that he had an American mother and English father and thus his constant reference to the “English speaking people,” although more Americans may now be speaking Spanish.


The Ghosts of Empire Today – Part 1

October 8, 2014



The British Empire continues to play a major role in world history. The question is how? Richard Toye Churchill’s Empire, The World that Made Him and the World He Made, (Macmillan 2010) places a spotlight on the role Churchill played in the empire’s evolution and decline. Though not written with this purpose, Toye provides a backdrop to events in the world today. In the Middle East, Africa, North America, the Caribbean, and China current affairs have strong empire linkages. Others are found in Europe, parts of Asia and Russia. The Empire in its heyday was involved in many parts of the world which today feature in news headlines.

Churchill lived from 1875 to 1965, the period in which Richard Toye and others have documented his imperial mood swings. For example, Churchill’s reluctance to grant independence to India is well known, although he always knew that at some time it would be one man one vote on this subcontinent. However in East and South Africa, he resisted the idea that Indians would be treated equally with whites at least until independence was declared. Until then, all non-whites were to be second or third class citizens.

This was the situation Gandhi (1869 – 1948) confronted when he arrived in South Africa in 1893, and which he fought unsuccessfully to change. Previously Gandhi had studied law in England. When discussing independence for India in 1931, Churchill made some now famous disparaging remarks –  “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half naked up the steps of the viceregal palace….”. This is only one of the many examples of Churchill’s interest in the Empire. Only a reading of Richard Toye’s book can do justice to this topic.


Spread of Empire

From Elizabethan times, the British Empire grew geographically to around the early 1900s and then declined, and had almost disappeared by the 1960s in terms of its political influence over parts of the world. But, I would argue, its influence and ties in other respects remain with us. Many of today’s independent countries were previously part of the empire including the so-called white commonwealth of the USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, many African and Caribbean countries, the Indian subcontinent (today’s India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Sri Lanka), Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Over time, the empire evolved into the British Commonwealth, and then in 1949 British was dropped and it became The Commonwealth, where the two most important events are the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting every two years, and the Commonwealth Games every four years. Presently, it has 53 member states, two of which, Mozambique and Rwanda, were never part of the British Empire. The Queen is the Head of The Commonwealth and monarch of 16 of it’s the member states.

The members today account for about one quarter of the world’s land area, one third of the world’s population, and seventeen percent of world GDP. If the US is included, on the basis that the original 13 colonies were part of the empire, the land area increases from 25% to over 30%, population from 33% to around 38%, and share of world GDP from 17% to 42%. Commonwealth member countries adhere to certain values but are otherwise independent. With these metrics, it is unsurprising that fallout from the British Empire is found in many parts of the world, which feature in today’s news headlines.


Churchill and empire

Churchill was born into and grew up in an atmosphere which exuded empire topics. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849 – 1895) was Secretary of State for India (1885 – 1886) in a Tory administration lead by Gladstone, although he was highly critical of Gladstone’s support for certain British adventures in Africa. Lord Randolph, who may have contracted syphilis, died ten years before his son was appointed Undersecretary of State for the Colonies from late 1905 to April 1908; and Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1921-1922.

Winston Churchill’s reputation suffered during WW1 as First Lord of the Admiralty due to the Gallipoli fiasco of 1915. After resigning from the cabinet, he served in the army on the Western Front before returning to England. He was a Conservative MP from 1900-04 and from 1924-64, and a Liberal MP from 1904-24. His life and interests coincided with the Empire which reached its peak around the early 1900s and then rapidly declined to the 1960s, leaving, as noted, the Commonwealth and other influences in its wake. It is these influences and connections which I try to trace in today’s world.


Today’s use of English

As a child of American and British parents, Churchill often spoke of the English-speaking world which included not only most of Commonwealth member countries but the US as well. He argued that WW2 was fought not just by the Britain and its Empire against Germany, Japan and the axis allies, but by the US as an English speaking countries as well. Until the revolution, the thirteen American colonies were part of the British Empire. While there was reluctance and opposition by some in the US to join the allied forces in both the first and second world wars, it entered WW1 in 1917 and WW2 in Dec 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour.

The spread of empire coincided with the spread of the English language. Today’s use of English is described by the British Council,

“English has official or special status in at least seventy-five countries with a total population of over two billion, (about 30% of world population). English is spoken as a native language by around 375 million and as a second language by around 375 million speakers in the world. Speakers of English as a second language will soon outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Around 750 million people are believed to speak English as a foreign language. One out of four of the world’s population speaks English to some level of competence. Demand from the other three-quarters is increasing.”

What do people use English for? Again the British Council weighs in:

“English is the main language of books, newspapers, airports and air-traffic control, international business and academic conferences, science, technology, diplomacy, sport, international competitions, pop music and advertising. Over two-thirds of the world’s scientists read in English. Three quarters of the world’s mail is written in English. Eighty per cent of the world’s electronically stored information is in English. Of the estimated forty million users of the Internet, some eighty per cent communicate in English, but this is expected to decrease to forty per cent as speakers of other languages get online.”


One benefit of the internet is that it allows groups of people, such as speakers of minority languages, to create communities worldwide and speak to each other. To some extent, this will decrease the importance of major language groups, but when minority languages wish to interact with each other, English will likely remain the preferred language – much to the annoyance of the French and probably the Chinese. Watching television today, it is remarkable how well foreign leaders, especially those from non-English speaking countries, can communicate in English. I can now carry on my freeloading behavior with greater ease as a non-linguist.


Institutions and Democracy

As important as language are the institutions which developed over centuries in England, and which have spread as various forms of democracy with elected institutions and courts. The actual examples do not always reflect the standards which are expected from a civilized society. China, Russia, North Korea, Zimbabwe and other repressive regimes claim that they are democratic by holding elections for legislative institutions, and by operating courts and judicial systems. But the process is flawed. In many generally admired countries, elections and legislatures also have flaws such as the gerrymandering of electoral districts in the US so that incumbent representatives are seldom defeated; elected members in the British House of Commons for Scotland who can vote on matters that affect only England and Wales, while the reverse is not the case; and in Canada where an appointed senate has input into the passage of legislation. Examples such as these are legion, but as long as free elections are held regularly, democracy works reasonably well.

While no country is perfect, and it took England nearly a thousand years to develop a respectable democratic model, the influence which the UK has had throughout the world as a model for other countries is a remarkable achievement, and to the Empire must go some of the kudos. One obvious example is the creation of the US after the 1765-83 revolution. The founding fathers established a country with institutions based on the British model, but included features which were seen to address the deficiencies of how it worked. With its checks and balances, the US constitution created three elected branches of government in contrast with two in the mother country. An elected President replaced a hereditary monarch as head of state.

That was then, this is now. While democracy in its benign form is still the goal of civilized society, it has, in many formerly admired countries begun to decay. That is the opinion of Francis Fukuyama in his latest book, Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalisation of Democracy, (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2014). But I would still argue that what Churchill and others admired and promoted is found most often in places at one time associated with the British Empire.

When Churchill talked of the role of “the English-speaking people” in world events and especially during both World Wars, the phrase was code for “empire,” or those parts of the world which had once been part of it. These were the countries which would stand up against the tyrannies of fascism, communism and nationalism prevailing at different times in places such as Germany, the Soviet Union, China and Japan. While all these countries traded with and were sometimes allied to the Empire, none are considered part of the “English speaking world.”

While there are almost 200 so-called independent countries today compared with far fewer (around 50) at the end of WW2, indices show how democratic they are now. Many had earlier links to the British Empire. The obvious cases are The US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, India, Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt and countries of East Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. South America had commercial (trade and investment) ties with the UK, which made some of these countries part of a shadow or informal empire.

The Global Democracy website ( ranks countries by the quality of their democracy. Ranked “very high” are the US, Canada, the UK, most of Western Europe from the Scandinavian countries to Spain, Australia and New Zealand. India, parts of Southeast Asia and South Africa are ranked as “medium.” Most other parts of Africa are marked “not available, and some parts “low.”

In many parts of the world, there is a good news story for the Empire, based on these rankings, with the not-so-good news being in Africa where the British and other European empires were involved, and the results have been less than encouraging. The reasons are many and some argue the empire is one of them.

Personally, I think that the British influence was pretty positive in many instances, and I am quite familiar with the horror stories which are listed by critics. In contrast with Belgium and Portugal, the British were saints. France, Germany, Italy and Russia are other countries with colonies, and are situations where the record is decidedly mixed.

In a second part to this posting, I will attempt to link the empire to events today in different parts of the world.