Sunday, April 11, 2010

Correspondence Despondence

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.

Stephen Fitzpatrick
Edmonton, Alberta

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?


  1. I'm going to have to disagree with you on this one Stephen.

    I agree that the letter is poorly done perhaps with too much condescension and not enough pithiness. If that was the main point of your disagreement, I wouldn't be here. I also agree that they did a disservice to their own cause by invoking "imperialism" as it distracts from what I see as the core message.

    What I think gets lost in translation here and in your previous post is a couple of the other points that came out of her letters. Maybe it's cherry picking, maybe it's the greater context that is at issue, but I have to agree with her on a few points:

    1. Dying in the course of military service doesn't inherently make you a hero in my books, I hold heroism to a higher standard. I think it's amazing that people do that, and I'm thankful for the freedoms won for the likes of me through their actions, but I don't think it is heroic merely because they died. This is what she contends too: “It conflates heroism with the death of individuals who are in the military service and we think that the death of individuals is always a tragic matter, but we think that heroism is something different.” For me, heroism is the sort of thing we award extra notice for, like the Victoria Cross and other honours. Frankly, that part of the program sets my radar off as it smacks of dangerous politicking instead of true care for the welfare of the families. Think of some of the egregious U.S. laws, like the PATRIOT Act (yes, it's an acronym); by using loaded words, they hope to defer or defeat criticism and perhaps short change the debate.

    2. Speaking of debate, the lack of debate by the University before adopting the program is also troubling. Perhaps they felt the pressure, or were swayed by the name, before joining the program. Perhaps they made the just made the decision in haste, which is rarely good, regardless of the reason.

    3. They claim there is already a plan to pay for the education of children of parents killed while serving in the forces, so why do we need another one? That smacks of politics again, since it's much harder to tout a program that already exists (possibly from a different government). So, what does this new program provide that didn't exist already?

    Certainly their letter could have been less inflammatory and at little more focussed, if that was indeed their issue. If it wasn't, maybe they were just trying to justify their less palatable objection to "imperialism", in which case I can't defend them nearly as much.

  2. You raise more than one valid point here; certainly any semantic debate can wrangle the definition of 'hero' until the cows come home. I've never refined my own definition, but I know it will involve those who knowingly risk their lives in the defense or service of others. After this it tends to get into hair-splitting though; is the guy killed by the first mortar shell lobbed into an unsuspecting compound less of a hero than the guy who gets killed while dragging a wounded comrade back into cover? Perhaps, but wasn't he still risking his life in a warzone? What about the aid workers and civilians building schools and wells, despite the knowledge that there are people not very far away who would happily decapitate them on YouTube for doing it? I wish someone would set up a scholarship for the families of those heroes... At any rate, how much is enough when it comes to heroism? It's a sticky wicket.

    And you are also right in that 'hero' is a loaded term, and if a cynical sort were to use this as a means of muzzling debate or gaining de facto approval for something already potentially divisive, well, that is certainly worth condemnation.

    Thanks for the comment, it is certainly food for thought!

  3. I think one of the points of difference here is that both Steve and I alone (I think) of our weird little circle come from families with a military background. I grew up ON a military airbase, not just near it, and it think that may affect our thinking here.
    We are predisposed to think of the people in uniform as being heroes, from a childhood spent watching out fathers put on a uniform.
    My 2 cents.