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Canadian Politics, Economy and Foreign Policy, Web Exclusive

Web Exclusive: All Unquiet on the Northern Front

When All Quiet on the Western Front was screened exactly 80 years ago, on December 5, Joseph Goebbels had the screening violently suppressed. It was subsequently banned throughout France, Austria and other parts of Europe. But the film has lost none of its relevance today, as the latest WikiLeak cables stream across our television and computer screens.

The film begins with a university professor giving a rousing speech to young men, calling on them to fight “for the fatherland.” The latest Canadian Forces advertisements are notable for their sophistication, but the basic message remains the same.

Certainly, the medium has changed. Gobbles would revel in today’s technological innovations. The sheer pace at which information can be disseminated, and its subsequent ability to mobilize entire populations into furious delusion, is beyond anything comparable in modern history.

Another clear difference between then and now is that the level of jingoism and indoctrination has become far more subtle. The film cannot be banned in a country like Canada, so indoctrination is achieved in a more subtle manner. But it is no less evident to the discerning eye, and the menace of Canadian liberalism is perhaps of equal concern to anything Gobbles could conjure up, precisely because of its subtlety.

The state is painted in all of its altruistic glory, intervening abroad to liberate women, sending children to school and preventing “rogue” states from acquiring nuclear weapons. Deeply woven into this ideology are notions of humanitarianism, freedom, human rights and a tinge of social democracy that instills a sense of pride in many, if not most, Canadians.

Even when successive Liberal and Conservative governments have acted almost systematically to dismantle these values, this deep-rooted liberal ideology persists. The media are perhaps the most effective at instilling this ideology, which says something about the supposed left of mainstream Canada. And again, this ideology is no different from what has been achieved in earlier, more violent times.

It is also strange and troubling that a nation has become fixated on comparing itself favourably to the most violent and dangerous state in modern history. This is hardly an adequate measure from which to base a nation’s internal and foreign policies.

A recent and comprehensive report by the Department of Defence reveals none of this is likely to change. Titled The Future Security Environment, 2008-2030, the document states that “Canadian national values will not change any time soon. Not only will Canada remain a democracy, but Canadians and their government will continue to stand up for peace, order, and good government; for human rights and freedoms, respect for the dignity of all persons; and for obedience to and support of lawful authority.”

In principle, these “national values” of democracy, peace and human rights are worthy and merit pursuit. In practice, Canada has often worked at home and abroad to subvert many of these basic principles and supposed “national values.” Kosovo, Haiti, Afghanistan and Israel are recent notable examples. Space is too limited to substantiate all of these cases, but there is ample evidence available for each of these cases in the public record.

To cite just one example, Canada appealed to its national values in the 1999 bombing of Kosovo. Lloyd Axworthy, the foreign affairs minister at the time, is now remembered as a “radical” if not “revolutionary” champion of human rights during his four and a half years as minister. With Axworthy, academics and the press praised the nation’s return to its “glorious Pearsonian past” as the nation asserted a “proudly independent Canadian foreign policy.” Axworthy’s September 2000 resignation “stimulated a kind of premature obituary industry” according to historian and an avid Axworthian, Robert Bothwell. “Canadians get time to reflect on their loss and say how much they will miss the Minister,” he wrote. Axworthy appealed “to a long tradition of liberal interventionists, some Canadian, like Pearson, but also to figures like the 19th-century British prime minister William Ewart Gladstone and the American president Woodrow Wilson” The comparisons are telling. Pearson supported all of the basic war aims of Vietnam and Canada even played a minor role in the conflict.

It is therefore of little surprise that Axworthy justified the bombing of Kosovo on humanitarian grounds. “It was and is the humanitarian imperative that has galvanized the alliance to act […] NATO’s actions are guided primarily by concern for the human rights and welfare of Kosovo’s people,” he wrote. Canada conducted full 10 percent of the bombing in 1999. The bombings exacerbated killings, outward migration and regional tensions, which persist today.

The ideology inherent in this “glorious Pearsonian past” has likewise worked its way into a new generation of Canadian elites. Extensive research funding has been allocated to young scholars in the fields of arctic sovereignty and military studies. At a recent military conference in Halifax, a young Canadian Liberal Party researcher presented an assessment of Canadian foreign policy options toward Iran. His analysis was remarkably similar to the current policy orientation adopted by President Obama, with all of its despicable consequences. These new mandarins of Ottawa are entering the public service at a fairly consistent rate, and it is not long before this young generation starts winning seats in Parliament.

With the Prime Minister having unilaterally extended the war in Afghanistan, and with an increasingly confrontational stance taken against Iran and much of Latin America, the menace of Canada’s liberal ideology is clear. Serious efforts are required to challenge this distorted view of reality, and to present the present trajectory for what it really is: a modern version of All Quiet on the Western Front. The film offers a sober reminder of what may well occur as Canada prepares to “stand up for peace” against the latest supposed threat to “Canadian values” and a “glorious Pearsonian past.”

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Leo Panitch, professor, editor of The Socialist Register

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