I should probably begin by saying that when I first wrote about the opposition of some faculty at the University of Regina to "Project Hero", I don't think my title "The Ivory Cower" was very fair to the players involved. It does indeed take courage to state an unpopular position based on what you feel is right, and this sort of discourse should never be discouraged.
When one of those professors wrote to the Edmonton Journal to defend that position, her letter served more to mousse up my hackles than to gel them in place. Here is the text of her letter (published April 6th).
On March 23, 16 University of Regina professors, including us, signed a letter to our president asking that she review her decision to join the University of Regina to Project Hero. We wrote: "In our view, support for Project Hero represents a dangerous cultural turn. It associates 'heroism' with the act of military intervention. It erases the space for critical discussion of military policy and practices."
What followed was a media feeding frenzy that mostly misrepresented our position, and a week of the worst sort of national attention for us and for the university. Despite several of us doing numerous interviews, most media focused on the erroneous notion that our opposition is to soldiers being considered heroes; and to parentless children being given education assistance.
Those of us who signed the letter have been subjected to virulent hate mail and argument by decibels and epithet. The language of many of our critics would make a stevedore blush and a grammarian wince.
Always helpful, local Conservative MP Tom Lukiwski poured gas on the fire at every opportunity, repeating his claim that we oppose help for the bereaved and honour for the dead and demanding our public apology (boiling oil not being available) for something we didn't say and didn't intend. It seems that some of his fellow travellers have created Facebook groups to maintain that focus and invite people to put pressure on us and on our university. We could be pardoned for thinking that much of the furor has political fingerprints all over it.
What to do? Well, as one elder advised one of us, "Stand firm. Repeat your message. You've argued for peace your whole life."
Here goes, one more time. Our objection to the Project Hero program arises from its language, which we think glorifies war. We object to its adoption, without institutional discussion. It has financial and political implications for our university, as universities contribute tuition and scholarship monies, and in so doing, sign on to the notion of war as heroic. We think war is a problem to be solved, preferably by diplomacy and peace.
We also note that the federal government can and does provide for education assistance for families of soldiers; we have no problem with that. The benefits listed in the Children of Deceased Veterans Education Assistance Act C-28 provide for additional educational expenses beyond tuition. Although the act should be consulted for the most accurate information, the Veterans Affairs Canada website provides a quick summary:
"We have a program to help children carry on with their education past high school if they have a CF parent who dies as a result of military service; or was pensioned at a medium or high level at the time of his or her death. Under the program, full-time students can qualify for grants of about $6,700 a year to help pay for their education and living expenses.
"This amount may change over time to allow for increases in the cost of living. To qualify for the program, students must be under the age of 30 and attend a post-secondary school in Canada. Former students who went to school after 1995 can also apply to have some of their education costs reimbursed."
There was no policy gap and no need for Project Hero. We continue to think our university should not adopt a program that effectively endorses the glorification of war -- one of which now is in Afghanistan. Some of us consider that imperialism. That word bothered a lot of people. We think it fits, but surely, the difference of opinion can be tolerated. After all, Malalai Joya, an Afghan woman politician in the current government, considers Canadian troops as unwelcome imperialists, and wants the troops to leave.
We also think that now, when the U of R is rationalizing its budget; when tuition fees are going up, following the recent provincial budget; when First Nations University is fighting for its financial life against an indifferent federal government -- surely, now, we can argue that all of our students are worthy of funding.
One of our concerns with the language of Project Hero is that such language normalizes militarism, and shuts down democratic and academic space for discussion. Our experience proves us right.
Joyce A. Green, professor, department of political science, Regina
And here is my response, printed in Saturday's Journal:
While I certainly applaud Prof. Green and her colleagues' commitment to peace, and do not feel they deserve hate mail and public ad hominems for stating their views, I still find their semantic opposition to Project Hero disappointing. Leaving aside for a moment whether or not toppling the Taliban after the attacks of September 11, 2001 and working to stabilize the country is fairly defined as 'imperialism', I certainly feel that those who have volunteered to serve their country and made the ultimate sacrifice in doing so are entitled to be called 'heroes' regardless of the political circumstances that put them in harm's way. I also can't help but feel that drawing attention as Prof. Green does to grammatical errors in what is probably very emotionally charged criticism will do very little to change people's minds about 'elitism' or 'ivory tower' perspectives in play.
A letter to the editor should be like a haiku: articulate and evocative, but most of all, succinct. Given more space, I might have further addressed the use of the word imperialism, or noted the irony of Malalai Joya's opposition to Canadian troops in her country, since she is now a member of Afghanistan's government and prior to western intervention, she would not even have been allowed to vote.
Still, Ms. Joya's frustration with corruption and civilian casualties is honest and well stated (she likens Karzai's recent re-election to a rabbit being selected to guard the carrots), and perhaps now that the old regime has been removed, it is time for the Afghan people to forge their own destiny. Unfortunately, the last time this approach was taken, it ended poorly, so I can certainly understand those who think that a premature exit strategy might do more harm than good. Would it have been better if NATO had stayed out and instead tried to negotiate with the Taliban, or attempt to apply pressure through economic sanctions against a country already so disadvantaged? It's hard to believe so.
Worst of all is the sniff of derision and air of condescension in the final paragraph of Prof. Green's letter: "such language normalizes militarism, and shuts down democratic and academic space for discussion. Our experience proves us right." I don't think that opposition to your position automatically grants it legitimacy any more than a lack of visible support makes it fallacious, because if that's the case, I'm afraid we may owe the Ku Klux Klan a big fat apology.
I don't know what kind of response Prof. Green was expecting when she signed her name to a perhaps well-intentioned but ill-crafted letter which seems to compare budgetary considerations, insensitive vocabulary choices and a lack of consultation to the sacrifices made by those who serve our country in our armed forces, especially without giving even the slightest recognition to this service, but honestly, wouldn't you expect a little more insight and judgement from an academician?