Friday, June 20, 2008


I'll begin with straightforward proposition: we have a right to defend ourselves. By "defend ourselves" I mean use force to protect ourselves from violence. This is hardly controversial, although I understand that there are pacifists who would choose not to defend themselves if they were attacked. I respect that choice, although the matter becomes much more complicated when pacifists choose not to defend other people who are being attacked. It is one thing if I allow myself to be beaten; it is quite another if I allow someone else to be beaten.

And it is the question of others I wish to address. Proceeding from our non-controversial assumption (we have a right to defend ourselves) we must recognize at once that the moral and legal right to self-defense exists within certain ethical limits. For instance, before using force, I should exhaust or have been presented with no peaceful means of resolving the situation, and the force I deploy must be proportional to the threat. If you push me in anger, I may not strike you dead, unless I have very good reason to believe that you pose a further, imminent threat to my life or someone else's life. Above all, I do not have a right to defend myself in a way that harms innocent third parties. I can defend myself from you, but I can't burn down your neighbour's house in the process.

For this reason I believe that the government of Canada should use such weight as it has in the councils of NATO and the United Nations to make urgent appeals for the reduction of nuclear armaments in the world. Much has already been accomplished: the number of nuclear weapons in the world today is lower than it has been in nearly five decades. But thousands of weapons remain, ready to be launched from their silos and submarines and dropped from bombers at a moment's notice, and if they were all used at once our civilization would perish in the process. Even a small exchange, equal to, say, one percent of the weapons available, would result in a catastrophe greater than either of the World Wars.

As a member of NATO, Canada is party to an alliance that has always made nuclear weapons one of the cornerstones of its strategic and tactical planning. Three members of NATO possess nuclear weapons of their own, and for many decades American nuclear weapons were based on Canadian soil. But it is almost impossible to imagine that nuclear weapons could be used without claiming the lives of people who are not party to the conflict, thus violating the ethical principle stated above. The leaders of Russia, China, and the United States have a right to defend themselves against each other, but they do not have a right to kill Ukrainians, Laotians, and Mexicans in the process, which they almost certainly would if nuclear weapons were used.

During the Cold War, Bertrand Russell suggested that surrender was the only moral option when confronted with a pre-emptive nuclear strike by the other side. For this, he was dismissed as a raving crank (not for the first time), but in retrospect the argument makes sense. It would have availed the President of the United States nothing to retaliate after the Soviet Union had launched its thousands of nuclear weapons towards America. Nothing the President could have done at that point would have saved his country from total destruction. But he could have chosen not to take the lives of the millions of innocent people in non-aligned countries who would surely have died in the nuclear winds that would have followed an American retaliation. Needless to say, a policy of non-retaliation would have had to have been kept secret lest it embolden the enemy to attack. But it was, in Russell's view, the self-evident moral duty of any President confronted with those circumstances, and it's hard to see how he was wrong.

Our world is different, but not so different that the governments of the United States and Russia do not see fit to retain thousands of strategic nuclear weapons between them (links to another, less comforting estimate - see page three.) They do not retain these vast arsenals in order to protect themselves from rogue states and terrorists. They have them because of each other, and beneath the smiling and handshakes of American and Russian leaders at summits are men wearing suicide vests. (American liberals who are supporters of Barack Obama should be aware that it is Senator John McCain who has been most vocal in his advocacy of reducing nuclear armaments.)

I will repeat that it is an urgent cause to pressure governments to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals. Canadians can start by writing letters to their own MPs, encouraging them to put the issue on the agenda at NATO summits. Atomic bombs are older than colour televisions, and it is impossible to imagine that they will ever be eradicated from the Earth, but reducing their number would lessen the incalculable human impact of their general use.

Unfortunately, this is not a cause that the political left shows much interest in anymore. Self-proclaimed peace activists on campuses across North America and Western Europe profess an intolerance for violence in the course of human affairs, but in fact their animus is directed only at one side in the current global struggle. When an American bomb falls anywhere in the world, their denunciation is automatic and axiomatic; when terrorists fly airplanes into buildings, they urge us to consider that the terrorists were genuinely and perhaps justifiable aggrieved. It seems unlikely that people who believe that Osama bin Laden is the purveyor of some kind of liberation theology can ever be persuaded to redirect their "activism" towards a truly just and urgent cause. We will have to do it without them, but perhaps that is for the best anyway.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Apart from eight seconds in an ill-fated attempt at snowmobiling when I was about twelve (I hit a tree), I have never in my life operated a motor vehicle. Not a car, truck, van, motorcycle, all-terrain vehicle, or riding lawn motor. As my high-school friends will recall, this fact was the only potential point of personal embarrassment in what was otherwise an ideal social existence, a golden age when my green eyes, thick lustrous hair, athletic frame, and irresistible personal charisma were envied and resented by all males, but proved almost frighteningly alluring to the veritable legions of giddy and twittering females who attended my every move. But the driving thing was hard to get past. "Why doesn't he get his license?" they wondered. It only enhanced my mystique.

Actually, no. It was and sometimes remains a point of dumbfounded disbelief and even, on occasion, real irritation amongst acquaintances and some relatives and in-laws (my friends have long since stopped caring, bless them.) Among my more distant relations, especially, my refusal to get behind the wheel, coupled with my protracted schooling has, I am convinced, led them to the conclusion that I am "simple" or perhaps even a homosexual. On the plus side it has kept me from participating in that most dreary of male bonding rituals: men with beers standing around cars, admiring engines, discussing performance. (Paging Dr. Freud.)

Our society is auto-centric. We build our homes and cities on the supposition that automobile ownership is nearly universal. No invention, not even the telephone or the personal computer, has had such an enormous social and economic impact on our lives as the automobile. By choosing not to drive, I have limited my social life, my choice in accommodations, and even my career options. I have to plan my days much more carefully than people who can hop in the car and go. I cycle, I walk, I take public transportation. I accept rides as a last resort. Identification is a problem, too, since the driver's license is almost always the first kind of ID people ask for when they are required to. Nowadays I get by with my passport and health card (although not long ago a very unpleasant special-collections librarian refused me service because I couldn't provide her with a driver's license) but in my late teens and early twenties I had neither. Consequently, I never set foot in a drinking establishment in my undergraduate years, a point of embarrassment then, but, in retrospect ,a fact that saved me a lot of money, time, and probably my grade-point average as well.

My wife owns a car, but cycles religiously — in three years she has racked up only about 9,000 kilometers on the odometer — and she does the driving when we travel. I admit that this is an inequitable distribution of labour. I attempt to compensate by paying more than my share of the car-related expenditures (it works out to a quite obscene $15 per day, by the way), and I do the navigating, although last summer I experienced the sensation of technological redundancy when we borrowed a GPS for our vacation. Not only did it give better directions than me, it didn't talk back. Amanda considered it an ideal travel companion.

At a certain point — it was in my early thirties, I think — I shrugged and admitted to myself that what I have is a phobia and that it didn't really bother me. As phobias go, it's not very common, but it's not that rare, either, and there are hundreds of websites and support groups devoted to helping people afflicted by a fear of driving. Not a chance. I have to have something to make me stand out from the herd and, besides, just imagine the meetings. "Hi, I'm Graham. I'm a Motorphobe. Sorry I was late, I missed my bus." No thanks. I'd rather join the Oprah Fan Club and get in touch with my inner child.

At any rate, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you. Car accidents have been a fixture of modernity in Canada ever since Father George-Antoine Belcourt rolled his steam wagon at his parish's Saint Jean Baptiste Day picnic in 1866. (How fitting that the owner of Canada's first car also had its first car accident.) Father Belcourt survived, but generally speaking the butcher's bill from automobile accidents is positively staggering. In the past ten years, the number of Americans killed in car accidents was about 425,000 - more than the number of Americans who were killed in World War Two. And people make fun of my phobia. How many people get killed or maimed by chickens?

In Canada, the number of car-related deaths in the same period was 27,000 (it is a curious fact that the United States has nine times Canada's population but about fifteen times the number of automobile fatalities.) Granted, the statistics are getting better as cars get safer and as emergency medical services improve — relative to population they were about four times worse in the 1940s — but amongst teens cars are still the leading cause of death. (I actually knew someone whose father bought her a car for her 16th birthday in order to "keep her safe". On the other hand, he wouldn' t let her light the BBQ. I wonder what the stats are on teenage BBQ-related deaths.)

I don't want to create the impression that the possibility of getting killed is at the root of the issue - as a semi-frequent passenger I'm not much better off. It's more a question of finding the whole exercise far too complicated, with too many independent variables and too little margin of error. It's hard to explain, and I probably could overcome the problem if I were inclined to do so, but it's very low on my list of priorities, especially when I still haven't read Northanger Abbey.

In the last year or so, however, I've noticed that attitudes toward my choice not to drive have been changing. I get fewer furrowed brows and uncomprehending guffaws, and once, not long ago, somebody even said, "good for you." It's not hard to figure out what has brought about this transformation: gas prices are growing by leaps and bounds, and the planet is changing. I'm by no means car free, if you will (I still take buses and accept rides) but my ecological "footprint" is far smaller than most of you despoilers of the Earth. And so, my friends, when the ice caps have melted and the polar bears have drowned and the topsoil has turned to dust and you need scuba gear to visit the Guggenheim, don't come crying to me.

Thursday, June 5, 2008


Well, that got your attention, didn't it? And now permit me to burst your bubble: this column isn't about abortion. It's about the right to discuss it, and for those purposes my views on the subject are irrelevant.

I don't get nearly as much exercise I should, but I do make an effort to get my heart-rate up several times a week, and my principal method for doing so is to open my alma mater's undergraduate paper, The Gazette, to see who is trying to ban something this week. In any given issue, one discovers campus organizations trying to ban everything from armed forces recruiters to unpopular professors to Coca-Cola machines. And here is where the exercise effect kicks in: immediately the heart-rate begins to climb, the blood rises, the grip and forearms tighten, and I rattle up the steps two at a time to pound out an angry letter in my office. I hope to add some years to my life thereby.

Earlier this week, with the bulk of the student body in absentia, the student government at York University voted to ban all student organizations that oppose abortion. Other student clubs were assured that they would be free to discuss abortion, provided (quoting one of those who supported the ban) that they do so "within a pro-choice realm", which is to say that they are not free to discuss abortion. "Is this an issue of free speech?" the same person asked, "No, this is an issue of women's rights."

Well, with friends like these, advocates of women's rights need no enemies; if such people ran things, half the work of those who would turn back the clock on female emancipation would be accomplished already. Freedom of speech is a women's rights issue. One need hardly invoke the views of such titans in the struggle for women's liberation as Emma Goldman and Rosa Luxemburg to appreciate at once that it is the most important of all women's rights issues, the one that has made possible all of the progress that so many women have struggled for and have achieved over time.

One's mind can only boggle at the megalomania of certain student representatives, who, having been elected by the most meager fraction of the student body, believe that it is within their mandate to decide what fellow students aren't allowed to say or hear on campus. Our right to freedom of expression and opinion is guaranteed by Article Nineteen of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a signatory, and by Section Two of our own Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Against these epochal achievements in the progress of human rights, the piffling objections of the winners of a virtually subliminal popularity contest should rightly amount to nothing. Yet on campus — on campus of all places! — we are up to our necks in people who have made up their own minds but don't think that you and I should be allowed to.

In the Areopagitica, Milton wrote that "though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play on the earth" truth and falsehood must ever be permitted to "grapple", for who, he asked, "ever knew truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?" So how extraordinary it is to find people who claim to know that they are right, but who are nonetheless afraid to expose themselves to contrary opinions. Perhaps they lack confidence in their own arguments? Certainly they hold the intellect of the women for whom they claim to speak in total contempt - why else would they conclude that other women cannot be permitted to see or hear or read a diversity of opinions? Why else conclude that they need to be protected from anything that might offend them?

And that is what is really at stake here, for the right to freedom expression contains an immutable corollary: the right of others to listen. It is above all this right that those who tabled the ban would deny - at least within the compass of their self-professed authority to do so. Tremble, readers, to think of such people in positions of real authority, deciding for you what opinions you're not allowed to say or read or hear.

I think that the chances of such a ban occurring at my alma mater are very small. But if a similar decision is made by any powers-that-be that reside therein, I hereby pledge to do the following: I will put on a pro-choice t-shirt, pick a spot on campus, and spend the afternoon politely distributing anti-abortion literature to anyone who bloody well wants to read it.