Totem and Taboo: A Movie Review


Christopher Nolan (2010) Inception

Warren Beatty (2016) Rules Don’t Apply

What do these two films have to do with the series of blogs on the nature of the university? More particularly, what do they have to do with the transformation of the university from a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method? The overall theme of the essays on the university focuses on power, influence and authority. In my last blog, I used the material from Rabbi Jonathan Sacks to explicate his thesis of power, influence and authority when offering a structural analysis of the Book of Exodus.

In his account, Sacks made reference to Sigmund Freud’s Totem and Taboo to insist that in the chiasmic pattern linking the design of the sanctuary with the construction of the sanctuary in Exodus, the story of the Golden Calf was the pivot point. Most importantly, the story of the Golden Calf was not about idolatry, but about the longing for an absent father and, out of this longing, giving one’s allegiance to a tyrant as a substitute. As the reader will see, on this subject, I take a traditionalist stance and argue that the story of the Golden Calf is indeed about idolatry, is about taking a material valuable entity as a substitute for a spiritual entity.

Are the two interpretations mutually exclusive? I will return to answer that question, but I first want to show the link to the two films. I did not choose to watch these films specifically on Saturday night. Inception was just what was on TV when I entered the den. Rules Don’t Apply followed, so I stayed to watch that film as well. As it happens, a dominant plot element in each was about an absent father. A key prop in Inception was explicitly a totem. It is a wonder how serendipity can play a part in the understanding and explication of a position.

In Freud, a totem is a primeval prohibition as well as a protection. In contrast to Inception, a totem for Freud is not self-generated, but is chosen by another or adopted by a whole tribe. The source is characterized as an authentic authority. The totem protects the individual from his or her most powerful longings, but the desire to violate persists in the subconscious. Thus, the totem is both a prohibition against surrendering to temptation and committing a transgression, and a protector that provides boundary conditions.

In both films, at the centre of the plot is a key character who suffers considerably from his relationship with his father. In Inception, he is the son of a very rich man who recently died; the young man is in the process of inheriting the old man’s extensive corporate holdings. This is a psychological heist movie in which a usual heist team, each member with complementary skills, gets together, this time not to rob a physical safe, but a psychological one. The team plans to invade the subconscious of the young heir and influence him to believe that, on his own, he must dismantle his father’s holdings. That will serve the interests of a rival tycoon who hired the heist team because they have developed the techniques for getting inside the safe of memories of an individual in order to manipulate those memories and, thereby, control his mind.

In Rules Don’t Apply, Warren Beatty plays Howard Hughes who is obsessed, not with rosebud (Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941), but with his father, with ensuring the Hughes name is preserved on his father’s company which he inherited, just as bankers and shareholders of TCA close in on him as an eccentric incapable of managing a huge company. A subsequent psychological post-mortem argued that he was not so much driven to his madness by that obsession, but that his anxiety and retreat into isolation were yhe result of a very over-protective mother obsessed with the cleanliness of her child and protecting him from polio. The father is gone. Inception picks up the same theme. Powerful fathers who are absent from the films nevertheless play dominating roles.

Neither plot worked to support Jonathan Sack’s thesis about choosing tyrants to rule over you as a substitute for the longed-for father. In Inception, the son remains under the thumb of his father. The whole effort to “capture his mind” was to plant an idea that will hopefully dominate his conscious life that he needs to free himself from his father at the same time as he remains true to his father. This is to be accomplished by implanting the idea that the father was not disappointed in his son for failing to emerge as a strong leader in the mold of his father, but for failing to emerge as an independent thinker and doer who would not be under the thumb of anyone. With such a new mindset, instead of clinging to the assets he inherited as a way to cling to his father who showed him no affection as a child, he would dissolve the corporate assets to free himself and become an independent man.

Cutting across this theme is another father-child story, that of the role of the leader of the heist team, Cobb, who has mastered the art of penetrating a third level of depth to the unconscious. However, Cobb, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is the absent father. He has been cut off from contact with his children as part of his mind remains stuck in the underworld of the unconscious attached and obsessed with his wife and mother of his children whom he used as an experiment to explore the very great depth of the subconscious, but in the experiment was unable to return to earth. Guilt submerges him. The only route back to his children is by going back, both to regain access to the United States, the government of which suspects that he killed his wife, and his children.

According to that narrative, guilt can operate in multiple dimensions and in different directions just as time and experience can. The key always to preserving one’s sanity is by possession of a totem, in this case, a dreidl, a spinning top, that can be grasped and used to prevent being sucked totally into the vortex of the subconscious and to test whether you are in the real world or a world of dreams. In “primitive” societies, a totem defines the perimeter of the tribe and identification with it ensures the protection of the member. In Nolan’s film, the threat is not simply another tribe, but an extinguishing of any spatial and temporal reference points altogether. The totem becomes the the protective marker of a boundary which guards the spirit of the tribe, this time, of the whole human species.

In Beatty’s film, the totem is not explicit, but it is Howard Hughes who serves as the substitute father figure for both Maria Mabrey, a devour Baptist aspiring starlet played by Lily Collins, and her unconsummated knight, Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich, another repressed Protestant type. Both are in thrall to Harold Hughes. He dictates that there is to be no sexual involvement of his employees. Both are tied to Hughes as the god who will deliver them into stardom or magnificent wealth as an entrepreneur. They reveal themselves to be both consecrated by Hughes but also dangerously passionate about one another. Hughes in the end is right. He does not simply have an obsession with cleanliness and a fear of being defiled. Pollution lurks everywhere.

Both films are about power and the use of wealth, of material influence, to affect the behaviour of others. Power as creative energy, as enterprise and innovation, is expressed through the heist team and particularly the DiCaprio character, who in scene after scene must fight off the apparitions of Cobb’s subconscious who are determined to kill the members of the heist team. Coercive power is used as a defence, but the core tool of the offence is influence, to gain control over the mind, not through drugs, but by entering the subconscious of the other. This is not influence via information, analysis and education. But neither is it simply about tyrannical coercive power, though that is a necessary ingredient in the mix.

The Golden Calf as both a real phenomenon and an idol that dominates the imagination and character identity to promise freedom to and deliver someone from bondage and slavery to a subconscious tyrant, in this case, a father, who controls behaviour even from the grave and reduces the heir to a puppet rather than an independent autonomous being. Warren Beatty’s Citizen Kane as Howard Hughes never achieves that freedom, even though his life appeared to be that of a star lighting up the heavens as it crossed the sky and burnt itself up in the quest for free expression.

The casting couch is not portrayed in Rules Don’t Apply as a fly trap but as a prison of the woman’s own imagination – in this case, a star-struck deeply Christian young lady – driven subconsciously by her own desires to be a star in the firmament.  And for her forlorn lover and satrap of Howard Hughes, it is much more clearly a dream of becoming the author of his own initiatives in wealth accumulation. Tyranny in the case of both films is more a problem of self-identity than one of external coercion, but the desire, the longing, is not narrowly cast as a pursuit simply for a substitute father. The problem in Inception is about cognitive dissonance, is about what is real and what is a product of one’s own imagination, is about what others should be held accountable for and what is your own responsibility. As in Exodus, freedom is only attained when you actually break free and construct your own sanctuary.

In both films, God is a visible absence. There is no source of divine authority, no source of authentic being, except, and in both films, the love of a parent for a child. That is the ultimate source of authenticity. This is the repeated pattern of the tale told in Genesis about the family rather than the making of nation in Exodus. The error in Inception is that DiCaprio left his children behind, not to climb to the peak of a mountain, but to get to the valley of the third level of the subconscious on the ocean floor. The route to freedom in this film is about self-making and freeing oneself from irrational ties – father, mother, wife – in order to bond with a child. It is a Rousseau fantasy. The issue is not so much freeing oneself from a father-figure who protects, guides and supports, as becoming a father figure who protects, guides and supports.

Becoming a settled nation with boundaries, with recognized authorities and rules, requires leaving behind the nomadic life, whether that roaming takes place in the heavens above, as in the case of Howard Hughes as a pilot, or in the subconsciousness of other lives. And that means accepting responsibility for accumulating wealth without succumbing to the worship of it. In the pastoral world, yearning and desire offer fatal attractions that lead to war and violence. The object is to construct an alternative settled world in which roaming will take place in the imagination and in intellectual inquiry rather than in a quest for riches.

The job of the university is to help facilitate that process. So why must it change all the time, change the idea behind it so that the idea itself creeps in to control the mind and prevent precisely what its purpose was intended to fulfil? Why must humans return to converting a rich and flowering institution into the fatal attraction of the nomad for the consolation of a desert? What lies behind the compulsion for self-destruction and all in the name of re-creation and renewal? How and why do the horizon-struck dreamers, whether in the arts or Hollywood, whether into the unconscious or nature, end up turning the rich life of a jungle into an arid place for both the mind and body?  Where and how does the parting of the waters lead to the construction of a Golden Calf, a treasured inert object without an ounce of spiritual creativity?

In the Torah, how do the Israelites overcome the heroic world of pastoral nomads to seek an oasis in a city of stone like Jerusalem (or Amman)? How did the Israelites, transformed by forty years of desert life from slaves into alert warriors with the endurance of camels, with wells of courage, loyalty, and openness both to strangers and to new ideas at the same time, become a nation that builds walls of stone within which they find a sanctuary? What role did the portable sanctuary of the desert play in that transition?

That is the key question. The university reinvents itself as a sanctuary, transforms itself from one type of sanctuary into another, only to eventually destroy its own walls. Why? And how? Why was it necessary for the university to leave faith behind so that both faculty and students are left bereft, feel it, but largely do not recognize what they feel? Is civilization necessarily intertwined with discontent and can salvation only come from an escape from hidebound institutions and well-defined roles to return to the clean air of the desert with waters lapping on an unseen shore?

Certainly, many of the prophets believed that corruption came with civilization and all effort must be made to engage in intellectual and imaginative nomadism where rules do not apply and the power of fire guides one towards the promised land which, when reached, has already revealed itself as a betrayal of its vision of clean air and an austere landscape guided on its path by a pillar of fire to an austere desert. Has the university waxed fat and gone a whoring as Hosea declared?

Settlers are governed by rules and laws as are universities that prepare people to live in a civilized culture. But the latest rebellion is all around. The people want to worship at the feet of a Golden Calf, even those strongly rooted in a religious tradition and, perhaps even more so, for they want to return to a world of faith rather than one grounded in scepticism, forgetting that the desert world is a place of discord and feuds rather than an imaginary place of magnificent calm at one with the peace of God.


To be continued: From the Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

Power, Influence and Authority in the Torah


I have been writing a series of papers on the contemporary university which I will continue now that I am back in Toronto. I went to Torah study upon my return yesterday morning. We were at the end of the Book of Exodus reading Ki Tissa. Rabbi Splansky wanted to place the discussion within a larger compass and pull back rather than focus on any minute detail After reading two short excerpts about Shabbat, we turned to reading the final chapter from Jonathan Sacks’ 2010 book Covenant & Conversation – Exodus: The Book of Redemption called “Exodus: The Narrative Structure” (329-337) Sacks is the brilliant ex-Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth and a prolific author. The book itself justly won a National Book Award.

He claims, with much justification, that Exodus is the transitional volume in transforming a family into a nation. Though he focuses on the theme of moral courage in a time of crisis, on the emphasis on “the power of individuals, driven by justice or compassion, to defy tyrants and change the course of history,” I want to cut across his discussion of politics and morality to unpack his conceptions of power, influence and authority embedded in his thesis.

Before I do, I begin with where Rabbi Splansky began, with a reading of 31: 13-15

יג  וְאַתָּה דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵאמֹר, אַךְ אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי, תִּשְׁמֹרוּ:  כִּי אוֹת הִוא בֵּינִי וּבֵינֵיכֶם, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם–לָדַעַת, כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.
13 ‘Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying: Verily ye shall keep My sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that ye may know that I am the LORD who sanctify you.

יד  וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם, אֶת-הַשַּׁבָּת, כִּי קֹדֶשׁ הִוא, לָכֶם; מְחַלְלֶיהָ, מוֹת יוּמָת–כִּי כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בָהּ מְלָאכָה, וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִקֶּרֶב עַמֶּיהָ.
14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore, for it is holy unto you; everyone that profaneth it shall surely be put to death; for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
טו  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, יֵעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן קֹדֶשׁ, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה מְלָאכָה בְּיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת, מוֹת יוּמָת. 15 Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

and 35:1-3

א  וַיַּקְהֵל מֹשֶׁה, אֶת-כָּל-עֲדַת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל–וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם:  אֵלֶּה, הַדְּבָרִים, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה, לַעֲשֹׂת אֹתָם. 1 And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them: ‘These are the words which the LORD hath commanded, that ye should do them.
ב  שֵׁשֶׁת יָמִים, תֵּעָשֶׂה מְלָאכָה, וּבַיּוֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִי יִהְיֶה לָכֶם קֹדֶשׁ שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן, לַיהוָה; כָּל-הָעֹשֶׂה בוֹ מְלָאכָה, יוּמָת. 2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of solemn rest to the LORD; whosoever doeth any work therein shall be put to death.
ג  לֹא-תְבַעֲרוּ אֵשׁ, בְּכֹל מֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם, בְּיוֹם, הַשַּׁבָּת.  {פ} 3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.’ {P}

Does this identification of fire with work have anything to do with God first appearing to Moses as a burning bush (Rubus sanctus) on Mount Horeb in which the flames burned brightly, but the bush itself did not burn? All of Sinai is summed up as seneh, Hebrew for that particular bush.

In the first extract, one is commanded to keep Shabbat as a sign between God and the Israelites throughout the generations in order to recognize one’s nation as a consecrated or sanctified nation. And, of course, you cannot work or you will be put to death. In the second extract, nothing is said about consecration of the nation but the work which is forbidden is depicted as that which is connected with kindling fire. I will return to these extracts in tomorrow’s blog after explicating Sacks on power, influence and authority.

Sacks first introduces the theme of power when he argues that the major theme of Exodus is a narrative moving from slavery to freedom as a result of God’s intervention in history to challenge any tyrant who seeks “to dominate others by the use of power,” (my italics, what I have previously called coercive power) and a matching theme running in the opposite direction of transferring power to the people in the form of humans assuming responsibility for their own destinies. In this theme, God is an educator working through influence rather than countervailing power in order to displace coercive power with creative power. In this counter current, the text is “less about divine power than about divine empowerment.” Note that the transfer works through influence, through education.

Within this intellectual frame, that thus far has not included any reference to authority, Sacks then moves to unpack the structure of the text according to a chiastic or mirror image. The dominant chiastic pattern is a b c b a OR abcdedcba in which there is a pivot in the centre. Rabbi Splansky dismissed the ABBA structure as not chiastic, but it is, just a different version without a pivot. Different chiastic structures can be located in Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as in the Torah. Thus, the story of the flood narrative has a pivot between two wings each with 10 elements:

A: Noah and his sons (Gen 6:10)

B: All life on earth (6:13:a)

C: Curse on earth (6:13:b)

D: Flood announced (6:7)

E: Ark (6:14-16)

F: All living creatures (6:17–20)

G: Food (6:21)

H: Animals in man’s hands (7:2–3)

I: Entering the Ark (7:13–16)

J: Waters increase (7:17–20)

PIVOT: X: God remembers Noah (8:1)

J: Waters decrease (8:13–14)

I’: Exiting the Ark (8:15–19)

H’: Animals (9:2,3)

G’: Food (9:3,4)

F’: All living creatures (9:10a)

E’: Ark (9:10b)

D’: No flood in future (9:11)

C’: Blessing on earth (9:12–17)

B’: All life on earth (9:16)

A: Noah and his sons (9:18,19a)

Exodus, according to Sacks, has two overarching arches reflecting one another:

Unjust society (1-6)

Liberation (ten plagues) (7-13)

Division of the Reed Sea (14-18)

Liberty: ten commandments (19-20)

Just society (21-24)

In the tale, Israel was instructed to become an anti-Egypt “predicated not on power but on respect for human freedom and dignity.” (331) Yet Sacks also insists that the “most powerful force tending in this direction [the move from slavery to freedom] was the Sabbath.” (331) The Israelites moved from a hierarchical society of pyramids and the focus on a central ruler to a flat desert “in which nothing intervened between man and God.” (331)

Why is the parting of the Reed Sea the pivot point in this first arch, the link between Moses when he stands alone with God and confronts burning bush and the second in which God appears “like a devouring flame”? One individual, Moses, with God working through him, changes history by means of “the inner dialogue between a single soul and the God of freedom and dignity.” (332) This is a tease rather than a fulfilling answer, but I will expand and explicate it further in tomorrow’s blog.

Sacks then puts forth a second arch, a second chiastic pattern, “less about politics than about spirituality, and the place of God in society. Its symbol is the sanctuary. The chiastic pattern follows:

Tabernacle: instruction (25-31:11)

Sabbath (31:12-18)

Golden calf (32-34)

Sabbath (35:1-3)

Tabernacle: construction (35:4-40)

The pivot point is not the division of the Reed Sea, but the making and worship of a Golden Calf. It is here that Sacks diverts into some questionable Freudian interpretation, that the Golden Calf represents not so much idolatry, but the fear of absence, for when the father is absent, the child feels a mixture of guilt and fear and needs to construct a substitute father as the core mechanism to explain the origins of religion. The Freudian references are Totem and Taboo (1913), The Future of an illusion (1927) and Civilization and Its Discontents (1930). The Golden Calf is “a substitute for an invisible God and the missing leader and father figure.” (333) Of course, for Sacks, the theory is not a stage in the historical evolution of beliefs, but the eternal recurrence of a repeated pattern thus justifying the continuing role of religion.

In this exposition, Sacks ignores all the anthropologists, such as Franz Boas, Alfred Kroeber and Claude Lévi-Strauss who have heaped scorn on Freud’s theory for ignoring culturally-determined influences in favour of macroscopic universal frames weak in evidence as well as subsequent developments in psychoanalytic theory which rejected the application of individual psychological dramas and tensions to superimpose them on history. Géza Róheim, a psychoanalyst and anthropologist, did not, at least initially. However, Róheim eventually accepted Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as discredited, but continued to respect Freud’s theory as a classic.

Finally, quite aside from whether Freud’s idea is about a fear of absence, quite aside from the legitimacy of Freud’s idea, whatever it is, there are so many other differences between what Sacks is explicating and Freud, that the interposition of Freud comes off as ludicrous. To give just a few examples:

Totem and Taboo

Sacks Freud
Transition from family into a nation Treating a tribe as if it were a family
Power of individuals to defy tyranny Individual impotence to defy authority
Totem = a time – Shabbat Totem = an animal spirit in space
Why – God consecrates Source of consecration unknown
How – banning work (use of fire) How – banning contact (incest)

There are other differences, but I want to move on to the core exposition of Sacks’ views on power, authority and influence. I will eventually circle back to totem and taboo, especially when linking Sacks’ theories to the psychological and social structures embedded in two movies that I saw last evening, Warren Beatty’s 2016 romantic ‘comedy’ Rules Don’t Apply about Howard Hughes, and Christopher Nolan’s 2010 movie Inception, a heist sci-fi movie focused on stealing and shifting an individual’s unconscious. In the meanwhile, I will bracket Sacks’ simplistic assertion that Freud is about the longing for and resentment of father figures that explains our political craving for strong leaders. For Sacks, the pivot point is the Golden Calf, not because it is an idol, but because it signifies the disintegration of a nation unready for freedom because of its obsession for a strong leader.

For Sacks, the Sanctuary serves two purposes. It is a visible symbol of the presence of God in the midst of a people to assure them that God was among them and they need not fear His absence. Secondly, in actually constructing the Sanctuary, what we do supplants what is done for us. The whole community builds the Sanctuary. Allowing the Israelites to express themselves as “free and creative human beings,” what I had heretofore referred to as creative rather than coercive power, provides an apprenticeship in liberty. The fire of God was now with the people daily. Further, the building of the Sanctuary marked a turning point from a reliance on prophets for a specific time and place to a reliance on Priests, on individuals solely with authentic authority to those who also had positions of formal authority and, therefore, could offer institutional continuity.

The central thesis: society in general, and Jews in particular, need the presence of God in their midst to avoid repression and corruption. God is the sovereign authority, the ultimate authentic authority for a nation living under God to circumscribe all human power, to ensure that might is subordinate to right. If one forgets to worship God, one opens oneself to tyranny. This second interposition – the first was the reference to Freud’s totem and taboo – is Sacks’ political theory on the roots of tyranny and the method of offering insurance against it.

Sacks went on to paint another chiasma, the use of that pattern to place the social and political within a cosmological context by comparing the pattern in Genesis with that of Exodus. But I will skip the effort at cosmology to sum up Sacks’ theories of power, influence and authority while bracketing the Freudian theory, bracketing the explanation of the roots of tyranny and the mode of insurance against it, and his cosmological exercise.

coercive versus creative, and the energy and labour of the people must be used to consecrate freedom, to embed freedom to create and ensure freedom from the rule of tyrants
Non this issue, Sacks is weak because he only focuses on intellectual inFfluence, on the transfer of thoughts and ideas to a whole community and ignores the role of material influence which is really symbolized by the Golden Calf rather than a substitute for a missing father. (I will expand on this theme when I analyze the two films I saw last evening.)
both authentic (God or God’s voice through prophets) and formal through boundary conditions – the main one, not working on Shabbat, not playing with fire on Shabbat – and exercised through the formal religious structure of priests and a formal political structure of kings and/or parliaments or presidents.

After the expansion of these themes through reference to the two films and critiquing both Sacks’ interpretation and interposition of Freud’s theory of totem and taboo as well as his thesis on the origins of tyranny, I will return to the exposition of the development of universities as the central institutions responsible for cultivating influence rather than authority in a society.

To be continued.

Birds of a Feather

Yesterday, we went out to dinner with two friends. They had been out that day with a guide trekking through the jungle looking at the flora and fauna. I had been invited to go along, but I declined. In my terrible black humour, I said that I was allergic to getting too close to nature. That, of course, was not the real reason. After all, I had walked up, not once, but twice – not accurate, one of those times I walked down – through the jungle on the side of a mountain.

I think the real reason is that, whereas others see the beauty and bounty of nature, ever since I was educated by one of my sons about the environment, I see what is missing. In my walks through the jungle, I did not see a single bird. They did, but it was a flower, a bird of paradise. They showed me the picture they had taken. When I asked whether there were fewer birds here than when they first came to San Pancho, they indicated that the reverse was true. There seemed to them to be more.

I was sceptical. When I woke up this morning, I looked up on the internet to find whether the bird population in Nayarit, Mexico was declining or rising. I could not find an answer. There were too many sites advertising the wonders of bird watching in this area. The San Pancho Bird Observatory conducts tours for birders. However, the site also briefly mentioned another objective – to protect the population of birds, both in types and quantity. They needed protection. They needed sanctuaries. I suspect, like elsewhere, one can over a period witness the tragedy of the few and the thinning of nature. After all, I have not seen a single butterfly since I have been here and this is the area where butterflies from Canada winter.

It is not as if I had not seen many birds. You only have to walk along the beach to see egrets and ducks, herons, gulls and ibises – especially near the estuary at the south end of the long beach. But I do not have to walk along the beach to see birds. The prehistorical-looking chachalacas shriek and scream just as the sun rises every morning as they fly around playing follow the leader. Watching black hawks soar and rise on the updrafts without a flap of their wings is to truly watch grace in motion. I have also seen what look like turkey vultures and even one falcon. If I was a birdwatcher, I surely would be able to distinguish the various types of sparrows, orioles, warblers – I recognize them from their songs – finches and rushes, terns and wrens that perch on the edge of the swimming pool, taking a swig of water and resting before flying off.

I did recognize several of the birds. One was a Killdeer. I know that bird because I once reviewed a play by the Canadian poet, E.J. Pratt, called after that bird. It has two alternating white and black bands around its neck and a white patch above its very streamlined beak Another bird that returned to the edge of the pool several times was small and yellow with black and white almost striated wings and a very short and stubby beak. Another much larger bird had similar wings, but a red top and golden cheeks. I even once saw a green parrot – and one woodpecker, several times. It was red at the top and had a banded neck.

However, instead of taking great joy in the bounty of nature that is there, I mourn the genocide of birds and animals by the human species. And I believe I know the deep rather than immediate cause. It has to do partially with the university as an institution about which I have been writing.

From feedback that I have received, I clearly have not been clear enough. I will retrace my steps, depicting the university as a Sanctuary of Truth and then its transition to the Sanctuary of Method that I referred to in my last blog and then the transformation of that type of university into a Social Service Station. Finally, I will describe the type of university that is currently emerging, the university as a consumer’s supermarket.

The mediaeval university went into serious decline with the onset of modernity during the Reformation and the Enlightenment. In the final stages of its estimable evolution in that period, what had become a home for aristocrats to play and sew their wild oats was taken over by the court in its battle with the country to ensure that noblemen acquired modern technical skills in contrast to the general disdain of the landed aristocracy for higher learning. Ranks were distributed based on one’s educational achievement. However, what was being measured was not the acquisition of knowledge or critical skills, but the ethos and ability to conduct oneself according to the standards of the court. In contrast, the landed aristocracy, rooted in one form of pietism, defended their faith as a source of their countervailing values.

Though Eric Hobsbawm and Hugh Trevor-Roper differed in their explanations for the crisis that afflicted the seventeenth century and to some degree its characterization, both concurred that the seventeen-hundreds were years marked by unprecedented turmoil. There has been a general agreement that during that mini-ice age and a severe decline in population levels, societies were riven with shifts in the political order and the well-being of society. A central component was, in my mind, a crisis of faith and it pervaded the whole world in that early expression of globalization. The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 brought William of Orange into the possession of the British crown. The Thirty Years’ War, the revolts against the Spanish Crown from Holland to Naples, the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and of the Shogun in Japan – one can go on and on to document the crisis of the seventeenth century.

And Mexico played a central role as gold, but especially silver, from this area flooded the world economy bringing about significant inflation. In this fraught atmosphere, society was pulled apart. A powerful and centralizing bureaucracy under the crown fought a locally-focused and land-based aristocracy rooted in deep-seated religious beliefs. The university was caught up as an instrument and representative of the battle between what has been called Crown and Country. The University of Königsberg in East Prussia, founded in the middle of the sixteenth century, was no exception. One reader sent me a message about Mark Twain’s portrait of the University of Heidelberg where the children of aristocrats spent their time duelling and frittering away parental wealth as they sought degrees guaranteeing them a place in the new state bureaucracies. It was just a typical example of the malaise that overhung universities.

As this tension moved into the eighteenth century, great scholars began to appear in the interstices of these decrepit institutions, at least decrepit from the perspective of any dedication to the preservation, creation and transmission of knowledge through the education of students. Immanuel Kant was born in 1724 in that city as a child of artisans (harness makers) rather than of the landed aristocracy. His family’s pietism celebrated religious emotion and the divine authority of the Lutheran Church. But Kant, in spite of his enormous regard for his parents, was influenced by the Scottish Enlightenment and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France. He struggled and wrote, earned money as a tutor and lectured students for pay until he finally received an appointment at the University of Königsberg. Only then did he articulate his revolutionary philosophical principles in the 1780s that breached the divide between rationalism and empiricism, science and morality, the inner world of thought and the outer world of experience.

Humans achieved certainty because there were laws such as causation etched in our brains that were necessary conditions of any knowledge. In ethics, imperatives were also there as preconditions of any morality whatsoever. And beneath the whole edifice was the autonomous thinking self that gave us both our freedom to think and act. But, as we shall see in my next blog, no sooner had a new basis for certainty been forged as a substitute for faith than it all fell apart and the Sanctuary of Truth evolved into the Sanctuary of Method initially at the beginning of the nineteenth century at the University of Berlin.

However, I am getting ahead of myself. At the end of the eighteenth century, it was very widely believed that Kant had resurrected and saved the idea of final causes, of a teleology of reason that gave the world a purpose. But there was an inherent contradiction. As Kant opted for reason in place of emotional piety, as he chose the autonomy of thought over the dependency on grace, he tried to preserve a lofty place for his parents in the noumenal world of faith that lay beyond sensibility and reason as he inherited and imbibed their artisan attention to hard work, discipline and rigid order. He had linked the sentimental thinking of the Scottish philosophers – David Hume and Adam Smith – with Newtonian science and Leibnizian mathematics. But he did so by surrendering and submitting to the authority of the Crown and relegated the Country to a backwater of faith which he respected and put on a pedestal. Otherwise, country was ignored. His justification: faith was beyond reason and used reason to demarcate that sacred space and leave it alone.

So whence the corruption? Aristocrats may now have attended such a university to earn a status that allowed them to serve the state rather than to pursue and advance knowledge, but the core of the university, though only a core, had been resurrected as a place for the pursuit of truth. To make a long story very short, I will jump to the 1930s and 1940s when the Sanctuary of Method was leaving behind the Sanctuary of Truth as a respected and admired backwater, but no longer the centre for the advancement of knowledge. I jump to Oxford and Cambridge and the breeding of spies who betrayed rather than served the crown. I refer to the well-known story of Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess, of Kim Philby and Donald Maclean.

They were all scions of the aristocracy, sometimes the lower aristocracy, but the aristocracy nonetheless. Born into privilege, they were children of the Country being trained in Cambridge to serve the Crown. They had been raised at Eton with a grand sense of entitlement and of hierarchy, perhaps even more rigid, though not as explicitly depicted as in Prussia. That made it even more powerful in being understood rather than articulated, thereby instilling a deeper sense of disappointment if one failed to grab the brass ring of status rather than of money.

But why through an adherence to communism and, in particular, Stalin’s Russia? Because communism did not represent for them any identity with the working class, but resentment and revenge on the aristocracy in which they did not achieve the highest honours and recognition to which they felt was their due. Brilliance, wit, an ability to mimic the foibles and follies of one’s class, were all prerequisites. But insufficient. And if one failed, one was left with a set of tools with possibly no real outlet.

John Maynard Keynes in his intellectual brilliance and as a member of the Apostles – not quite the highest order in the hierarchy – or E. M. Forster, who would write Passage to India, one of the greatest novels of English literature, may have both belonged to the secret fellowship of Apostles that revered cleverness and wit, idiosyncratic rituals and a special jargon, but their intelligence and creativity offered them a positive outlet for their class resentment. Guy Burgess and Walter Maclean, Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby all chose to become moles rather than attempt to soar as birds to the heights to which they believed they were destined.

They betrayed a decaying empire to serve a rising one, not the working class, but a fresh – and ruthless new imperial order. They belonged to the swamp of London in service to Moscow. Instead of free thought they chose a closed system so they could express themselves in actions untrammeled by the norms of their society. They were rebels with a cause, but the cause was driven by the psychology of resentment rather than any concern for the suffering and the deprived. Further, the crisis of both capitalism and liberalism as it faced the rise of fascism offered a ready excuse. They could ostensibly be high-minded even if they failed to achieve the highest status.

They had the perfect cover. They belonged, even as in their idiosyncratic beliefs and decadent behaviour merely served to reassure their acceptance as members in a privileged order. There were no real security clearances. They were all trusted as “good old boys”. They had been brought up to be irresponsible and they would prove that they had absorbed those values to the nth degree. Devoted to opulence rather than frugality, to cynicism rather than faith, to hypocrisy rather than a reverence for the truth, and to superficial display rather than deep thought, they had become members of a higher order than even the Apostles, an even more secret order.

As birds of a feather, one by one they went into exile together in that idyllic imaginary centre of a utopian higher order. The secret and exclusive order of M15 and M16 were merely waystations. Defensive snobbery and anxiety about slipping into the bourgeoisie combined to propel them to risk their own turf for a different hierarchy of privilege and crony network into which not one of them was really accepted as they lived out their lives in exile as ex-pats in Moscow.

Let me end by returning to the eighteenth century and the glory of the Sanctuary of Truth in a period when birds did not have to be protected by living in sanctuaries. Carl Linnaeus, the famous eighteenth century Swedish botanist and zoologist, was educated and ended up lecturing at the University of Uppsala in Sweden. He was one of the greatest scientists of the century famed for his binomial nomenclature for naming organisms as he became the godfather of modern biology. He had already done for nature what Kant would accomplish for consciousness. But both were still rooted in an ahistorical conviction about both nature and the mind which was only set aside when the classifications and characterizations of both of these very original thinkers were reconfigured as part of a developmental and historically emergent system where classes and rules became convenient conventions for understanding, grasping and using the external world.

Instead of a fixed hierarchy of the social world, Linnaeus developed the concept of a nested hierarchy of kingdoms (later also phyla), classes, orders (later also families), genera, species and taxa (varieties in botany and subspecies in zoology). These were not hierarchies of power and coercion or of formal authority, but simply ways of comprehending the world. Instead of class being used to establish hierarchies, hierarchies were used to establish a method of classification. Similarities counted more than differences, observations counted rather than prejudices.

Further, as in Cambridge, Linnaeus had his Apostles at Uppsala, but they shared a kinship with the apostles who surrounded Jesus rather than those who gathered together in Cambridge. There were seventeen rather than twelve. Many of them sacrificed their lives as they went on dangerous expeditions around the world to gather specimens of plants, animals and minerals. There would have been no Darwin without an earlier Linnaeus and the methods he instilled in his charges for preserving and classifying plants and animals.

When my friends went on their walk in the jungle yesterday, they were paying homage to Linnaeus and the best that the Sanctuary of Truth had to offer even though the university at that time played a critical role between competing forces in society and even though most students attended to obtain, not knowledge, but credentials to enter into unnatural hierarchies.

To be continued.

Power and Influence in Universities

One Sample Feedback on the Previous Blog

  1. Right on, brother Howard. Where and how did the U lose its soul re such matters as tenure, etc., and plagiarism. It is as if those who secretly do not believe in intellectual integrity have grabbed control on the spurious grounds that making judgments of quality and/or honesty are oppressive. Every plagiarism case I brought — 2 in 40 yrs. of teaching — was thwarted by ad hominem accusations of being “harsh” (sic) and mean to these poor students. It was as if having called out the Emperor for nakedness had been the crime, not the student’s brazen behavior!!


Universities are not supposed to be about power. But they are most definitely; primarily one kind of power – creative energy. They are not supposed to be about power as coercion.

Let me approach the issue from a very angular take. As some know, in my youth I was a playwright and drama critic. The play I wrote as an undergraduate, Root Out of Dry Ground, was scheduled for a professional production when the last and only professional theatre in Toronto folded just before my play was to go on stage. Instead, the play was produced and directed by Robert Gill at Hart House, the University of Toronto theatre. It was the first original play put on in that theatre ever. The drama was also put on the English courses in faculties such as medicine, dentistry and engineering. I was an ersatz playwright.

Unknowingly, I had joined the school of angry young male playwrights. I blamed institutions. I blamed bureaucracies. They had failed humanity. As one character puts it in David Mamet’s play, Glengarry Glen Ross,  “I swear…it’s not a world of men…it’s not a world of men, Machine…it’s a world of clock watchers, bureaucrats, officeholders…what it is, it’s a fucked-up world…there’s no adventure to it.”

David Mamet is a real playwright known perhaps best for his plays and movie scripts such as the one above and Speed the Plow. They are written as poetic prose extracted from everyday speech in the best of the Irish dramatic tradition – like Seán O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars. Glengarry Glen Ross opens in a booth in a Chinese restaurant with Shelly Levene breathlessly, in defensive stuttering, talking to John Williamson.


John…John…John.  Okay.  John.

John.  Look:


The Glengarry Highland’s leads,

you’re sending Roma out.  Fine.

He’s a good man.  We know what he

  1. He’s fine.  All I’m saying,

you look at the board, he’s

throwing…wait, wait, wait, he’s

throwing them away, he’s throwing

the leads away.  All that I’m

saying, that you’re wasting leads.

I don’t want to tell you your job.

All that I’m saying, things get

set, I know they do, you get a

certain mindset… A guy gets a

reputation.  We know how this…all

I’m saying, put a closer on the job.

There’s more than one man for the…

Put a…wait a second, put a proven

man out…and you watch, now wait a

second–and you watch your dollar

volumes…You start closing them

for fifty ‘stead of twenty-

five…you put a closer on the…

All I am saying is that what Williams had accused him of is true – that he is throwing his leads away and developing a reputation for not living up to his potential as a more contemporary Death of a Salesman. Mamet’s black noir movie scripts, such as Heist, are similarly more cold than cool, cruel to the point that compassion has been pushed over a cliff. In his plays and scripts about distress and disquiet, turmoil and trouble, confrontation and contestation, words are used as weapons to conduct verbal warfare. When words become armaments, we are in the realm of coercion, of corrupting power rather than the creative power that propels words used to influence. When language is used to sell rather than persuade, we are into spin and propaganda rather than education.

The currency then becomes money rather than ideas; material influence supersedes intellectual influence. As Williamson puts it in the play:

Money. A fortune. Money lying on the ground. Murray? When was the last time he went out on a sit? Sales contest? It’s laughable. It’s cold out there now, John. It’s tight. Money is tight.

In 2010, Mamet published an iconoclastic treatise on drama called Theatre precisely because he had come to believe that it is theatricality that counts and not something esoteric like “drama.” A theatre is a marketplace where a play is sold to an audience – nothing less and, more importantly, nothing more. His treatise was decidedly anti-authority and anti-theory – of acting, of directing, of writing. In the following year, he published another volume, The Secret Knowledge: On the Dismantling of American Culture that was decidedly anti-authentic as well as anti-formal authority. The themes, though not yet given the clear light of day or a searchlight focus, were adumbrated in one of his most famous plays written two decades earlier, Oleanna, about political correctness and a college professor falsely accused of sexual harassment in the context of a war of students against faculty, administrators against scholars, and, most of all, the war of the sexes. Then he laid out the sides of the battle.

Twenty years later, he overtly took sides – with Donald Trump and Harvey Weinstein, with those who use power to reduce rather than seduce women and, perhaps, even worse, portray them as willing accomplices in a male unilateral exertion of power. In Mamet’s eyes, the real victims are not the men of power nor those who play along in the game of sexual warfare. The victims are the once prominent authentic and formal authority figures, now hapless and careworn, a scholar with an international reputation and a chair of his department or even a dean, now reduced to a piece of flotsam tossed around by the competing powers of the zeitgeist – a populist uprising in the name of either self-rule or rule by a figure of ostensible coercive power.

Both institutional formal authority and authentic scholarly authority are discarded into the garbage heap of history as the Donald Trumps and the Vladimir Putins, the Recep Tayyip Erdoğans and the Xi Jinpings, the Viktor Orbáns and Mateusz Morawieckis, purge mandarins and verbally assault civil society opponents (some do much more) in the battle to re-assert male authority in a threatening egalitarian world. The scepticism at the heart of academia has been turned against itself to deny the value of climate change or democracy, the rule of law or the rule of wisdom. In this larger story of the competition to grasp the brass ring of power, the university is shunted aside as irrelevant to the course of history. Instead of doctors of philosophy advising political leaders, their place is taken by spin doctors. Instead of a search for peace and prosperity, both are easily sacrificed to the need for either a circus to preoccupy the mind or a war as the ultimate technique of distraction to avert one’s attention from domestic scandals.

How did we enter this age of male paranoia? How did the university contribute to its own increasing irrelevance? How did the values of a steady hand and wise foresight become displaced by vacillation and volatility, self-evident contradiction and chaos, malaise and unrest? How did emotion displace reason, impulse displace reflection and consideration, and ego displace the responsibility o government for the sake of welfare and wellbeing of society?

The seeds were sewn when the university was at its zenith as a Sanctuary of Method, as an institution dedicated to providing disciplined professionals in a number of fields that could serve as social leaders – whether developing an expertise and mastery of a body of English literature and the techniques for dissecting and understanding that body of creative work, or in professions such as medicine and law. The university was no longer a place for amateurs, a place to cultivate and instill the values and norms of a ruling class, but an elite of expertise that could serve to guide the world. The university as a Sanctuary of Truth in defence of a faith had been displaced by the university as a Sanctuary of Method.

The process began when philosophers, beginning with René Descartes in the context of the emergence of the modern nation-state as a revival of the ancient Hebrew nation during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, sought to ground knowledge in certainty rather than faith. The beginning of the end came three hundred years later with the publication of Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Proof and Alfred Tarski’s indefinability theory in the 1930s during the zenith of the Sanctuary of Method. What began to end with Gödel and Tarski initially started with Descartes.

Descartes, the father of a coordinate system so critical to statistical analysis, of analytic geometry and infinitesimal calculus, all incidentally developed from his original interest in advancing his early profession as a military engineer, of the first principle of philosophy that doubt itself established the certainty of existence and thought since if one doubted, there had to be an individual doing the doubting and the doubting was itself an act of thinking. Instead of placing Aristotelian final causes on a pedestal, he smashed the quest as idolatrous and adopted the conviction of absolute freedom to allow reason to draw its own conclusions.

The history of that quest with its many manifestations came to a full stop with Kurt Gödel. No system of thought with its axioms and proofs could demonstrate its own consistency. This was the first half of his incompleteness theorem. From a system of axioms one can develop theorems expressed as effective procedures or algorithms so crucial to the modern information age (which I will deal with in a separate blog). However, no system could be complete in itself. Many academics became convinced that the only value of a theoretical system was its use value since the goal of establishing a solid theoretical foundation for certainty that was both complete and consistent was impossible. Nor, as Alfred Tarski subsequently determined, could any system be based on any effort to define truth since truth was proven to be undefinable. Lacking any fundamental foundation in consistency, coherence, completeness and clarity, the walls around the elite leadership in society eroded and, by the 1960s, virtually everywhere the university as a Sanctuary of Method was displaced by a university as a Social Service Station dedicated to a social problem-solving agenda rather than a self-contained collective of systems dedicated to setting standards for society.

But how did we get from a Sanctuary of Method and a Social Service Station view of the university to our current model? And what is that model? And what happened to authority, power and influence in the process?


To be continued.

Turf and Surf

I am sitting at the kitchen table in our rented casa, writing and listening to the surf roll in and out. For me, the sound is so soothing. But for Karen Bentley Pollick, a brilliant violinist who played with Don Slepian on keyboard in an extraordinary combination of classical and American mountain music that I had never heard at the San Pancho Music Festival, the rolling in-and-out of surf is unnerving to her highly sensitive ears. Some of us listen to the same thing but hear it in opposite ways.

Amongst many terrific performances, the duo stood out – way out. In between each crash of the waves, I hear the music grow fainter and fainter. Except, the waves clash more than crash. They war against the wall of rock protecting the shoreline. The rocks are resolute. They refuse to give, refuse to bend, refuse to submit. Wave after wave they come. But the resistance is powerful. It will take aeons of these clashes for that persistence to wear away the stonewalling of that rock wall.

The waves clash and crash but do not really roar. Nor do they just rumble, even though they tumble onto the beach. The latter sound is drowned out when the waves hit the rocky promontory just a few degrees north of the sand. There is a very slow long buildup until you hear what is just a splash of a wave hitting the rock and then a rapid crescendo. However, that does not do the rhythm justice. For I listen again and the next wave comes in with stealth. Then the next in a short staccato. And then the next in a roll. I cannot find a pattern. Perhaps that is what unnerves Karen. I, on the other hand, love the variety and unpredictability. Or is it just the low-pitched growl of my hungry stomach projected out to sea?

Perhaps what I really hear is the silences, the quiet between the clashes, the whispers between the ripples. Not the beats of a percussion instrument, but the rhythm units created by the quiet, the sound of silence without a metronome. Whatever the correct way to capture what I hear, as if there is a correct way, the sound of surf has always been a puzzle. Not just its irregularity. It does not make sense. For surf is a derivative of susurrus which is a whispering or rustling sound and what I hear sounds nothing like that.

The paradox is just like that of the word ‘turf’. Last Wednesday, we went out to eat. Just for a change from the usual fish – most often mahi-mahi – I ordered a steak. Evidently not the regular steak, but the special, one with two enormous grilled prawns stuck into the slab of meat and forming a giant arch. And the whole dinner all for the equivalent of the enormous sum of $15. So I had surf and turf for the first time. And that is the other puzzle.

What connection is there between such a meal, or the steak in such a meal, and a square slab of earth with a dense growth of grass, such as a section of sod we put down after we have neglected our lawn for too long? If the shape is the connection, why not call the dish surf and slab. Because that would not be very appetizing? But why “turf”? I think I know the answer. Turf is home. Grilled steak is home. I have been away too long.

A little while ago, I wrote a blog about the gangs of Toronto after WWII, each with its very boundaried turf which it guarded and defended. In a gang mentality, turf is not so much a home as a castle with a moat and drawbridge to keep out or “turf” out the unwanted rather than welcome the stranger. However, for me turf is home and I now know the reason I chose the title for this blog even though I had no idea when I began. For I was determined to write about the university and somehow ended up on surf and turf. My holiday is approaching its end and I have been away too long.

The university was my bailiwick for fifty-eight years. Not just the territory in which I worked, did my research, taught and helped with the administration. It was my mental home as well. The first two books I wrote were called The Beds of Academe, about the close connection between student residences and the founding and development of the university, and The Holiversity, about the changes in the development of the idea of the university since 1185.  But the university was my bailiwick in a more literal sense, for it was a place of increasing impotence but decreasing authority and influence.

I had written and published a scholarly article on power, influence and authority. There are two varieties of each. An individual has genuine authority as an expert in a particular field. One of the purposes of the university has been to develop a cadre of experts with just such authority. And the best universities have succeeded marvellously in that task. But a university is also a place, not only for the exercise of authentic authority, but to inculcate its sense of formal authority in a breed who would lead the businesses and governance of the corporations and the polity. Turf is a bailiwick, a bureaucracy concerned with tenure and promotion, hiring but rarely firing in my home university, budgets and pensions. I had played my part in all these areas as a department chair, as an associate and acting dean, as a senator and even as a chair of Senate.

My record was mixed. One of the first committees on which I sat was “Tenure and Promotions.” I lasted a year and never sat on such a committee ever again. I never applied to such a committee for my own promotions and tenure, but my colleagues were generous and far-sighted. They gave me tenure because they thought that I needed protection for being so outspoken. They also awarded me promotions though I never requested one. However, I was vain enough to be pleased, at least inwardly, when the promotions came. I do not believe I ever thanked my fellow academics for what they did.

The reason I opted out of the tenure and promotion system, at least in being a responsible participant, was because in that year when I was on the committee considering a tenure application as a very junior professor, I thought one applicant, given his abuse of his teaching responsibilities, did not deserve tenure. He was given tenure over my objections. However, one case does not make a pattern. I investigated. In my early career I could not find one candidate who had been rejected for tenure. Sitting on such a committee at my university I decided was a waste of time.

This was definitely not true of all committees. After I had been at the university awhile, I learned that a woman colleague who was retiring would get a smaller pension that a male retiree with the same years of experience and a similar level of accomplishments. I was flabbergasted. I investigated. I was given the following rationale. Women on average lived longer than men. So they were receiving the same pension, but spread over a longer period. I could not believe what I had heard.

I campaigned and easily was elected to the pension committee. It was small – only five members, including the Vice-President Administration. At the very first meeting I asked to put an item on the agenda in the form of a motion. I was allowed to introduce my motion. I moved that black members of the faculty should receive higher pensions than white members. Needless to say, the members of the committee were uniformly startled. They asked why I was moving such a motion. I said that I would discuss that if my motion had a seconder because those were the rules of procedure. The VP, a man of extraordinary reasonableness and fairness who had once been my first wife’s high school teacher in her boarding school in West China, agreed to second the motion.

I then explained my motion. According to statistics at the time, blacks lived shorter lives than whites. If women were given equal pensions, but just spread over a longer period, then blacks too should receive equal pensions but spread over a shorter period. The actuary from the company managing our pensions was dumbfounded by such reasoning. “But,” he blustered, “that would mean that whites would have to get smaller pension payments each year.” He actually said that, not as a racist, but as an actuary steeped in the hidebound categories of his calling at the time.

It took two years of commissioned studies and a great deal of debate to change what was simply a category mistake. Humans can be diced and spliced into a myriad of categories. Which ones we choose for administrative tasks have an implicit ethical and social judgement embedded in them. It was a fundamental principle in my mind that women faculty members who retired needed the same amount of funds as their male colleagues each year without regard to life expectancy. If one class statistically had shorter life spans – as disabled professors had even more than black ones – on that reasoning, they should receive higher pensions.

The correction to the York University pension system had either direct or  indirect repercussions on parallel struggles throughout Ontario. Within five years the whole idea of paying women retirees less per year because on average they lived longer was seen to be the absurdity it was. That was a productive committee.

But the overall trend drifted in the opposite direction. Committees multiplied and flourished at the expense of efforts that should have been devoted to teaching and research. Often their efforts were counter-productive in themselves. I offer one other example. When I was a young faculty member, if a student was caught plagiarizing, a teacher had four options. The faculty member, generally if the plagiarizing was incidental and/or the student was unaware of the precept, could ask the student to rewrite. Or the faculty member could award a zero for that assignment. The faculty member could also allow the student to withdraw from the course, but the charge of plagiarism would remain on his or her record. Finally, the professor could take the issue up to a higher level and ask the faculty to expel the student or suspend that student for a year or two. The latter was a remedy rarely used.

Near the end of my career in response to principles of fairness, the right to be heard, the right to have legal representation and other claimed rights, and before computers became so acute in spotting plagiarism, in a case of alleged plagiarism, as of decades earlier, the student was called in for an interview. But now a second faculty member had to be present to assure there was no intimidation. That faculty member had to read the assigned work as well. Usually, this process took several meetings as the students, having been advised of the process, would often ask for time to arrange for representation.

If the original charge was sustained, the student had several opportunities to appeal – to a faculty committee, to the dean and then to a senate committee. Each time, the faculty member making the original charge would have to be present. It should be no surprise that the number of charges of plagiarism declined precipitously. Not, I believe, because there was less plagiarism. With the onset of the internet, I believe there was probably more. However, faculty members did not want to invest their time in such a drawn-out process where often enough the charge was often rejected on a technicality. They made quiet arrangements with the student offering him or her the opportunity to withdraw from the course, even with a late withdrawal, but without any entry on their record of a charge of plagiarism.

Everyone knows about the proliferation of the mechanisms for ensuring transparency and protecting rights of students. Everyone is aware of the vast increase in university expenditures on student counselling. However, it is not clear when and whether these innovations have proven to serve student interests overall, and, more importantly perhaps, whether they have enhanced their education. These innovations have evidently sustained the lives of many students who might have fallen by the wayside or dropped out under the pressure of a tertiary education.

This is clearly a superficial examination of my personal historic turf. I have barely skimmed or surfed the surface. However, I want to introduce the other two concepts I mentioned above before I delve into the future with any greater depth.

Tomorrow: Power and Influence in the university


I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees Part V: Conclusion

Mike Molloy’s book, co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, may be a captivating read, especially surprising for a volume on the working of a bureaucracy, but, also surprising since it is the best and most accurate record of what actually took place such that it will serve as a source book for many subsequent historians. However, there is too much repetition, indicative of a book with multiple authors that was inadequately edited. There are also a very small number of errors. Happily, not one of them detracts from the main theme and the unfolding narrative.

As one example, there is the story of how the record of the past can influence the present and how the scholarship of two Canadian academics – Irving Abella and Harold Troper – actually influenced Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration, to take the bold initiatives that he did. Relying on memory is a dangerous historical (or legal) device. That becomes clear when Molloy cites Ron Atkey who purportedly recalled that Jack Manion, the Deputy Minister, sent him the manuscript of None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948by Irving Abella and Harold Troper (a book that won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category, the Canadian Historical Association John A. Macdonald Prize, and that was featured in The Literary Review of Canada as one of Canada’s 100 Most Important Books).

The volume depicts the callous Canadian government response to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. In the Preface to the 2012 edition published by The University of Toronto Press, the source cited of this information is the review of the 1982 edition by Roger Robin that appeared in The Literary Review of Canada. What could be more authoritative than the Preface of the book? Further, this version has been repeated many times. The last I read before Molloy’s was by Sean Fine in an article on the Indochinese 1
refugees published in 2015.

The core story is accurate, but since the book was not published until 1982, then by Lester and Orpen Dennys, it was highly unlikely a manuscript could have been circulated. I was told at the time, by Ron Atkey no less, that he had read an academic article that he circulated to his top staff with a note saying that he did not want them (or him) to go down in history like Frederick Blair, the then Director of the immigration branch, who did his utmost to exclude Jews from entering Canada. Blair, or some other unnamed official, was the originator of the phrase “None Is Too Many”.

Blair was not alone. Most of the elite in Canada did not utter a peep to oppose such a position. Canadian politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and Church officials openly and actively rejected proposals to allow Jewish refugees entry into Canada. The article that Atkey cited was: “‘The line must be drawn somewhere’: Canada and Jewish Refugees 1938-1939,” Irving Abella and Harold Troper, The Canadian Historical Review, 60:2, June 1979, (178-209). As Atkey told it to me, it was he who had Manion distribute the article. But then, on this, my memory could be faulty as well.

Molloy notes the chance confluence of detailed administrative preparedness and the new trend towards a revival of the social activism and engagement of the sixties. Molloy claims the two groups united around an idea. (81) But it was not “idea” as a sense of purpose, but “idea” as a suggestion as to a possible course of action. Instruments are not ideals in the sense of goals. The legislation, the preparations and the activism of the civil service “gave Canadians the means to convert their concern for the refugees into direct action.” (81)

The December 1978 story of the people on the Hai Hong (2,500) escaping Vietnam and paying gold bars to do so turned into a narrative of suffering and rejection in the media. The Mennonites, as indicated in an earlier blog, had set a precedent. But the lengthy preparations and actions of the civil servants were now matched by continuing and heart-wrenching tales of the exodus in the media. The latter motivated a group to come together in my living room on 24 June 1979 to write a letter to our Minister of Immigration, Ron Atkey, who also happened to be our member of parliament and a former academic colleague of mine at York University.

The meeting was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon after church services were out. Molloy does not tell the story of how Atkey heard about the meeting. When I had asked him, Atkey said he did not remember. But he did send two immigration officers, André Pilon and Bob Parkes, on a Sunday no less, to my house. They arrived at the door and requested permission to attend the meeting. It was they who suggested that instead of writing a letter, we initiate some sponsorships. We soon readily agreed that witnessing would be preferable to advocacy.

Serendipity then took primacy of place. A graduate student of mine had attended the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, he was a stringer for The Globe and Mail, billed as Canada’s national newspaper. He fed the story to Dick Beddoes, a columnist, who the next morning dubbed our “movement” Operation Lifeline. Within eight days, our constituency had organized fifty sponsorship groups. Within two weeks, there were sixty chapters of Operation Lifeline across Canada. (117) However, though the will to act had been built up and then facilitated by the media, little would have actually happened if legislation and regulations had not been in place and politicians and mandarins also in place to both communicate and implement commitments.

However, public relations and the role of the media were critical, as Molloy’s book makes clear. Sometimes, the inept handling of a conundrum can have very detrimental effects. This was the case in the face of the oversubscription of private sponsorships from the number targeted (by about ten thousand, one-third higher than the original target of 21,000). A new policy announcement was also a result of the Cambodian refugee humanitarian crisis overseas. Flora MacDonald, the Foreign Minister, carried away by the need, pledged $15 million instead of the $5 million authorized by Cabinet for the Geneva pledging conference. Atkey concurred. But it was the Foreign Minister who announced the cancellation the matching formula. Money saved by the government for government-sponsored refugees would be used to make up the shortfall in monies available for the Cambodian crisis overseas.

This action fed into the trope of many churches and organizations that the matching formula all along had been created as a device to dump government responsibilities onto the private sector. The private sector was up in arms. But Flora did not have to cancel the matching formula. Among the options presented to her by the civil service, she could have simply announced that, given the large number of private sponsors, they would take priority over government-sponsored refugees so sponsors would not be frustrated by having to wait. Excess numbers to fulfill the matching pledge would be shifted to 1981 given the already heavy burden on civil servants. When she was awarded an honorary doctorate at York University, and I was then the chair of Senate responsible as her escort, Flora told me that, in her rush from her constituency office in Kingston to get to Ottawa, she had failed to read the civil service brief. Instead of putting the decision positively as a way of fulfilling the matching formula, she mistakenly announced its cancellation.

Media relations are also crucial in combatting a backlash. Molloy documents how both Ron Atkey and the private sector responded to and undercut that backlash. Supporters of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), the voice of that backlash, were enlisted to threaten the withdrawal of their financial support if the NCC continued its negative campaign against the Indochinese refugees. The NCC campaign stopped.

Molloy stressed another reason for the decision to cancel the matching formula – the fear of a backlash by the Conservative government if the total numbers exceeded 50,000. The NCC anti-refugee campaign had left its scar, especially among those wary of the 50,000 target in the first place. They believed the backlash would mostly come from Conservative supporters. They had no faith that their anti-racist wealthy supporters would take action let alone be effective in silencing the NCC. Perhaps they did not even know that Operation Intellectual Kneecapping, the name of the effort to stop the NCC campaign, had taken place and had succeeded.

What is the final take? With respect to refugees, books can focus on the plight and experiences of the refugees. Others with possible solutions such as settlement in first countries of arrival or repatriation. (The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights, and Repatriation, Katy Long (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)). Miliband claimed that, “Those who do not qualify for asylum (in Europe), because they are not judged to face a well-founded fear of persecution if they are returned home, need to be safely and humanely returned to their country of origin, as a vital measure for the integrity and acceptability of the asylum process.” (115)

However, the actual reception of about a million refugees in Germany indicated that the asylum process could not be and was not the main route to entry and that another route posed no threat to Convention refugee determination. Further, my own book written with Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation (Columbia University Press, 2011) argued that most refugees are members of minorities. Unless their side wins, the vast majority will not be able to be repatriated.

Countries of first refuge are usually overwhelmed and also usually least able to cope with the influx economically. Burden sharing through resettlement is critical to helping refugees. That will not be accomplished through determining the rights of those refugees through a Refugee Convention process.

Miliband claims that, “by upholding their rights…you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (119) If one had insisted that “rights” had to be the foundation for helping refugees, a very much smaller percentage of the Indochinese refugees would have gained entry into Canada. Rights cannot be and should not be the benchmark for sharing problems. Nor duty. For some may see it as their duty to keep refugees out. The ability and willingness to help is and should be the measure. Further, as Molloy documents, “integration is (NOT) up to all of us.” (Miliband 118) Making it a universal obligation undercuts the effectiveness of integration. It is sufficient if a minority make it its task and the government facilitates such activity.

I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Part IV of V: Foreign Policy as a Motive for Accepting Refugees

Miliband offered four other reasons for accepting refugees having more to do with international relations than domestic reasons. The development of new international institutions and instruments for sanctioning and delivering global responsibilities beginning with the Atlantic Charter during WWII was one. On this Miliband seemed to be on firmer ground and it accords with Molloy’s tale of the postwar development of Canadian refugee policy. I will come back to the fourth reason in a moment, but the fifth and sixth reasons, the search for security in an interconnected world where refugees were viewed as a source of instability and the strategic interest in winning friends by sharing the burden of first receiving countries least able to support a large refugee influx, both seem a propos and in accordance with the narrative of Mike Molloy and his co-authors, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka.

What about the fourth reason, that a state accepted refugees when they were the result of foreign policy mistakes of the state taking in the refugees? “Among the reasons for giving them (the Vietnamese boat people) refuge was the United States’ role in the Vietnam War.” (Miliband 55) But why was Canada so forthcoming? It had stayed out of that war. Most Canadians were critical of the whole war effort. In fact, I used to believe, until I read Molloy’s book, that from 1975-77, Canada offered only token support for resettling the refugees to appease our partners more than out of any concern for the refugees. Canada only became involved in 1978 when government officials became convinced that the refugees were not fleeing because they had worked for or allied themselves with the Americans, but because of the intolerance of the government. That proved not to be the explanation for the Canadian initiatives.

When Canada evacuated its embassy in April 1975, the mission was small, lacked any security arrangements to deal with the huge mobs seeking to escape and would or could not waive the requirement that Vietnamese wishing to leave with them would have to have a passport and exit permit. Canadian officials claimed that the South Vietnamese government enforced these requirements at gun point until the very last minute. But the American evidence and other accounts indicate that money (and one’s own guns) could determine a different outcome. Canadian officials were not in a position to use either device to get the exit permit requirement waived. However, the Canadian behavior contributed to the widespread belief that Canada wanted to completely dissociate itself from Vietnam and the Vietnamese refugee problem.

One exception was the Canadian baby lift of 120 (of the 2,547 orphans taken abroad) that came to Canada, many of mixed race abandoned at orphanages. The Canadian contingent, however, consisted mainly of Cambodian orphans as well as some of the Vietnamese orphans who survived the crash of the US Air Force C-5A that killed 135 of the orphans and escorts on board.
The very high percentage of Cambodians also reinforced the image of Canadian detachment from Vietnamese refugees. But if this was the case, why did Canada admit nearly 7,000 refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam in 1975-76? One answer was that 4,200 were sponsored relatives of Canadian citizens. 2,300 were considered to be genuine Convention refugees. Further, as Molloy pointed out, “The general feeling of Canadian commentators was that the war in Indochina was the United States’ war and that it was up to the Americans to deal with the results of war’s lost.” (43)

That was my understanding – tokenism, minimalism, legalism – not compassion and commitment. Molloy’s book shifted my perspective. The make-up and work of the immigration processing teams tell a very different story. Nick Kyriakides, a Canadian Health and Welfare doctor, died from dengue fever contracted in the Guam processing centre. To grossly understate them, the working conditions were challenging. What pushed those officers? Duty? A moral imperative? Certainly a high sense of responsibility to get the job done in as efficacious and professional a manner as possible. But more than any or all of these was “the sense of adventure, comradeship, and teamwork.” (46) They were having a good time doing good work, good in its accomplishments and good in its implementation in ensuring every chartered flight was full, even though simple tasks like counting were very difficult under the circumstances. In every single location in which they worked, they seemed to be able to combine hard work and joy. Instead of 7 files a day as the norm, the immigration officers processed 80. The 1976 new legislation delegated to those officers discretion and flexibility based on that pilot demonstration.

The real challenges to the nascent program came out of left field. Lieutenant General Dăng Van Quăng, who had a very questionable reputation, had been admitted. One unsavory character did more to blacken the prospect of any increased intake than any single cause. With innovation come risks – “there was little appetite, public or political, for serious engagement.”

What changed between 1976 and 1978? Canadian foreign service and immigration officers delivered intelligence. Small boats filled with refugees continued to arrive. The receiving countries were not only not integrating the refugees, they were voicing growing reluctance to even allow the refugees entry. The numbers had grown enormously, placing an unsustainable burden on the economies and capacities of those states. Politicians (Jake Epp and Doug Roche) and the Indochinese ethnic associations in Canada kept up the pressure. UNHCR added to that pressure. And a wise and perspicacious Deputy Minister, Allan Gotlieb, offered the analysis and the sympathy to make the first tentative steps towards a new Canadian initiative. These refugees were not fleeing because of the American involvement in the Vietnam War but because of the harsh and discriminatory rule of the new regimes now in power, regimes that now were at war with one another.

As indicated in Part III, the biggest difference resulted from the new 1976 Immigration Act promulgated in 1978. Legislative foundations matter, especially when “the new act created, for the first time, a legislative and regulatory framework for Canada’s refugee resettlement programs.” (62) Canada had previously admitted refugees who were technically not Convention refugees. Now grounds were provided to make that part of Canada’s mission as the means were provided to carry it out. Humanitarianism directed at refugees had now been ensconced as a “tradition” within Canadian law. This is who we were as Canadians. In addition to the Political Prisoner and Oppressed Persons Designated Class (Chileans and Argentinians) and the Self-Exiled Person Designated Class (Jews and others from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe), the Canadian government named the Indochinese as a Designated Class, as refugees who could be admitted without determining whether they met the criterion of the Refugee Convention.

Even before the legislation was promulgated, Immigration Department officers began to gear up in 1977 in anticipation of an inevitable new and large resettlement effort. The requisite regulations were drafted in the spring of 1978 and the Indochinese Designated Class came into effect in December 1978.

Ideals were at work. So were interests. But government civil service experience and professionalism, legislation and regulations, the necessary tools for a large-scale refugee resettlement program, were indispensable. However, I had previously believed that the most significant innovation was due more to serendipity than anything else – the creation of the Private Refugee Sponsorship Program. I had thought that this initially minor change in the legislation was made to satisfy the Jewish community which wanted to sponsor one or two hundred Soviet Jews. Molloy documents, as indicated in Part III, that this initiative was very deliberate. It was introduced to assuage critics from the left about Canada’s handling of the Chilean refugees. The program for the Soviet Jews was not the impetus; rather, the latter established the operational principles: efficiency, no cost to the taxpayers, local groups responsible for resettlement, sponsoring organizations guaranteeing the local group commitment, and defining the package of services to be provided.

Chance without a push to take advantage of that opportunity might prove irrelevant. Far-sighted civil servants saw that opportunity. In the spring of 1978, they initiated a public relations program to educate the public and to bring the churches on board to apply the program to help the anticipated influx of Indochinese refugees. It was an opportunity for Canada. (Gerald E. Dirks, Canada’s Refugee Policy: Indifference or Opportunism? Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1977) As well, politicians and civil servants had created a mechanism to act. One year later, the effort yielded its first results when the Mennonite Central Committee of Canada came on board and signed a master agreement. The Christian Reformed Churches of Canada followed suit a month later.

Molloy does not raise the question why it took many of the mainline churches – Anglicans, the United Church, Catholic dioceses – until the summer of 1979 to join the private sponsorship movement. This is one of the few weaknesses of the book. However, Molloy is not writing critical history; he provides a detailed chronicle, one shaped by his diplomatic background. He probably saw no benefit in investigating this question closely, especially since his focus was on the role of mandarins in the program. But it was widely known at the time that the mainline churches were wary, some believing that the private sponsorship program was a conspiracy to dump the responsibility for resettlement of the refugees on the private sector. Further, there was a degree of racism among some of the congregants of one at least of those churches. By chapter 5, the text makes clear that there was “opposition from refugee advocates in a couple of mainline churches.” (91)

The book narrates how the government overcame religious institutional wariness, fears of a large intake given rising levels of unemployment and suspicion that the refugees were just rich immigrants buying their way out and their passage to Canada. Further, even a left-of-centre newspaper like the Toronto Star initially opined that Canada was not a suitable environment for resettling Indochinese refugees.

To be continued with a final section…

I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Part III of V: Convention and Humanitarian Refugees

If one reads Molloy’s book co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, one might be convinced that national laws are the source of rights and obligations and not the other way around; laws protecting refugees are not rooted in universal rights even when states offer that justification. Even in the case of Convention refugees, the latter are only protected as a matter of right if a state subscribes to the international norm and makes it integral to its own laws as Molloy documents. Why then do nation-states accept the responsibility for accepting refugees who have landed on their doorstep and can prove that they have been persecuted? More significantly, why do states subscribe to and recognize a norm, allegedly based on fundamental human rights that purportedly inheres in the individual, even when that international norm had not been integrated into the laws of a state? Neither Miliband nor Molloy even attempt to answer that question.

Molloy does offer a clue. In the section on “The Convention Refugee Cornerstone” (64-65), he describes why Canadian officials decided to make the Convention Refugee Seeking Resettlement Class the key frame for protecting and offering resettlement to refugees. That class was to be defined as those individuals who met the Convention definition but did not have a settlement option or durable solution. In other words, they were purportedly Convention refugees who could neither be repatriated to the country from which they had fled nor settled within the country where they initially found refuge. However, as the criteria for acceptance were filled, it became obvious that the vast majority of those fleeing Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were not Convention refugees in any normal sense.

First, they never had to prove that they had a well-founded fear of persecution. Second, the class was defined collectively in terms of the ethnicity of the group fleeing war and violence rather than persecution – Syrians, Rohingya, Vietnamese (rather than Sino-Vietnamese who were persecuted). Thirdly, if they truly had a right to be protected, why did Canada add the requirement that the immigration officer making the determination use the criterion that, “they could become successfully established in Canada.” If they had a right to Canadian protection, the prospect of successful economic and social integration is irrelevant.

Fourth, those who met the Convention definition but were not on Canadian territory did not have the right to Canadian protection. That right kicked in when they hit the Canadian frontier or landed at a Canadian airport. Canada did not project that right abroad. If the intention of officials and legislators was to define a class for those who met the definition and could be targeted for resettlement, as long as they had not found a solution in another country, why were the immigration officers not provided with specific criteria to ensure that refugee applicants accepted abroad were Convention refugees?  Molloy insists that officers were instructed to search for refugees who met the definition and would not become dependent on the public purse were accepted.

Given the rate of acceptance, given the time taken to interview the refugees, there was no way in which an officer could determine with any degree of probability that the applicant was a Convention refugee. The decision formally, and by legislative definition, said they were Convention refugees, but practice made clear that this was a formal justification rather than a substantive one, a cover for accepting refugees for resettlement into Canada whether or not Canadian immigration officers, or anyone else, could justify that they were Convention refugees. Formal requirements are one thing; substantive requirements are another. Conferring an authority to someone to determine who was a Convention refugee and giving that “refugee” the same effective protection as if they were determined to be a Convention refugee, did not make them Convention refugees except in a purely formal sense. As I interpret what took place, the legislative reference to the Convention was merely a cover.

Officials in Canada wanted to offer groups protection through resettlement in Canada. They had been doing so since the Hungarian refugee movement of 1956-7. The process continued with Czechs, Ugandan Asians and Chileans through ad hoc practices. Officials wanted to formalize in law what Canada was already doing. This was hardly an effort to root refugee protection in universal rights.

Canada had ratified the Convention and Protocol in 1969. In 1970, Canada legislated the framework for implementation. That would have sufficed to ensure Canada conformed to its international institutional obligations. The Convention says nothing about resettlement. Including that provision went far beyond anything required by the Convention. Cabinet agreed to use the Convention to identify people for resettlement from abroad no longer confined to Europe. An “oppressed minority policy” enabled cabinet to direct its officials to select oppressed people who were not Convention refugees because they were still in their own country. In reality, the oppressed minority policy proved to be a very handy tool used extensively in Uganda, Chile and Argentina. The 1976 act formally offered the possibility of using the designated class for the oppressed and persecuted under the cover of the Convention definition, even when the refugee was not even outside his or her own country. Hence, a Latin American designated class, later renamed the political prisoners and oppressed persons designated class.

Similarly, the cover of the Convention was used to include Jews fleeing the Soviet Union who wanted to migrate but were neither outside their own country nor could prove they were individually targeted for persecution. After all, no Soviet citizen had the right to emigrate. In any case, these “refugees” hated being designated as refugees. Raph Girard, the Canadian immigration officer in charge in Rome managing the flow of these “refugees,” invented the designated class regulation to facilitate the selection and processing of Eastern European escapees that the officers encountered rather than what the Convention defined a refugee to be. The self-exiled designated class focused, not on persecution, but on the reality that the Soviets and their allies stripped such people of their citizenship, making them conform to what Hannah Arendt called humans without rights rather than Convention refugees. Formally in law and by regulation, all the other parts of the legislation that conferred   practical benefits on Convention refugees were extended to the designated class.

In early 1978, Canadian immigration mandarins, long before the public and the media were interested in and taken up by the plight of the Indochinese refugees, began working on the use of the designated class to apply to the Indochinese since Canadian officials recognized that the people escaping in boats were going to have to be resettled expeditiously, regardless of their motivation for running away. Speed of determination would be essential otherwise first countries of “asylum” would not permit them to land. With only 45 minutes at most to determine whether anyone was a Convention refugee, officials recognized that, given the large resettlement operation anticipated, which turned out to be even larger than expected, there was no time to consider whether the individual had a well-founded fear of persecution. Instead, they were simply given the same settlement package as Convention refugees as if they were actually determined to be Convention refugees. Officials rarely looked at these refugees through a “protection” lens but rather through a commitment to a practical solution.

What about the second reason Miliband offered for giving what came to be called the Designated Class, namely that empathy and compassion were built into our DNA, if even in only a metaphorical sense? That is more readily dismissed as a fiction. That would make the xenophobic supporters of Trump in America, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, not to count those who voted for Brexit in Great Britain and who supported Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, or Geert Wilders’s party in the Netherlands, members of a different species with a fundamentally different nature or DNA. Even in Canada with the overwhelming effort of the private sponsorship program, there were only 7,600 sponsorships of the 32,281 privately sponsored Indochinese refugees who arrived in Canada in 1979-80. Though viewed as extremely large at the time and since, even if the size of each sponsorship group was calculated on the basis of ten Canadian members rather than the minimum of five, that would mean that only 76,000 Canadians were involved in the direct sponsorship of refugees, approximately .3% of the population at the time.

Even when we look at the numbers who supported the decision to admit Indochinese refugees in 1979 (Molloy 155-6), they do not indicate that most Canadians supported the government initiatives:

Month Commitment Too High Too Low Just Right
February 5,000 52% 7% 37%
July 50,000 38% 13% 49%
Aug.-Oct. 50,000 52% 11% 37%

Only when media and elite support was at its peak in July of 1979 did a majority support the intake of the refugees. More commonly, a majority almost consistently thought the figure was too high, even when it totaled only 5,000. If empathy and compassion are built into our DNA, then those who share that trait as a dominant gene number under 1%. 48% may have the DNA as a recessive gene. About 52% seem to lack that gene altogether.
The support for the intake of a designated class of refugees, in this case, the Indochinese, was never really rooted in universal rights or in our biology. Even those who helped Miliband’s family escape Nazi Europe never claimed a universal moral precept for their actions. Not “everyone” must, but “on doit” (Miliband 46), one must, or, as those interviewed in 1979-80 indicated, they personally had to act. The compulsion was inner, not an external universal obligation or duty and not because all had to act.

Even Christians who sponsored refugees, such as the Mennonite Central Committee which led the pack of Christian organizations in signing Master Agreements that guaranteed the private sponsorships of their members, did not cite even their Christian beliefs as the prime motive for sponsoring refugees. As Bill Janzen explained (Molloy 78), they were motivated by the following factors, possibly in their order of importance: 1) they themselves had been refugees; 2) they had successfully partnered with the Canadian government previously; 3) their church ethos dictated acting for good in society; 4) they had extensive experience in working with Vietnamese overseas; 5) they lacked a cynical belief – held by many on the left – that the matching formula was a ploy to dump government responsibilities onto the private sector; 6) there was also an absence of a skeptical belief – again from the left – that government favoured taking in refugees from Communist countries rather than those fleeing a right-wing dictatorship. This strongly suggests that experience rather than universal norms served as the main propellant behind the initiative to sponsor.

To be continued…

Part II of V: I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – Xenophobia, Idealism and Pragmatic

Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 19, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka 75-1980, 

Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.



In 1807, the German philosopher Johann-Gottlieb Fichte addressed the German nation in Berlin that was then occupied by the French. For him, and for many others, the state is the expression of and the instrument for reifying and protecting the values of the nation, of the “people”. However, as Tillich wrote in The Courage to Be, “There is a moment in which the self-affirmation of the average man becomes neurotic ….  If this happens—and it often happens in critical periods of history—the self-affirmation becomes pathological. The dangers connected with the change, the unknown character of the things to come, the darkness of the future make the average man a fanatical defender of the established order. He defends it as compulsively as the neurotic defends the castle of his imaginary world…This is the explanation of the mass neuroses which usually appear at the end of an era.” (69-70)

Whether it was Fichte in Germany, the historian Lionel Groulx or the National Citizens Coalition in Canada during the Indochinese Refugee Movement, or Donald Trump and his followers today, these are the enemies of both Miliband and Molloy. But the two authors view the problem from very different perspectives. Miliband focuses on the mind-set of governments and citizens who share in a globalized vision of global rules upheld by global norms and funded by global humanitarian efforts. Molloy documents a bottom-up enterprise in one nation, Canada, in which civil servants formed the fulcrum between political leaders and citizen activists; hearts and minds combined and were prompted by and fed into a unique Canadian political ethos.

Miliband wrote that it is easy for the government, caught up in developing and implementing policy “to allow the story of its purpose and values to be lost.” Molloy has documented how those purposes and values were expressed in the very fact and the manner in which policy was developed and implemented. The irony, however, is that Miliband considers that he was better at government than politics whereas his “approach was to rally people affected by the issues around big goals,” a political rather than a governing function. Molloy writes primarily about the detailed functioning of government in dealing with a refugee crisis in order to achieve big goals.

Thus, though united in their opposition and in their support for refugees, they differ quite radically in the value assumptions underlying both their activities and their analyses. Miliband argues that welcoming vulnerable and vetted refugees is about rights and is about doing what is right, is about defining a national character as well as serving national interests (65-66). Molloy’s depiction suggests it is a much more mundane task of preparing the legislative and regulatory framework, developing the professionalism and élan among staff, and working in tandem with civil society and the media. National character is not so much a prerequisite of such action but what is developed from that action. The treatment of refugees is not a weather vane of values (Miliband 115) but a mode which allows for expression and expansion of one set of values.

“This is a fight for international cooperation over unilateral grandstanding, for the benefits of pluralism over the tyranny of groupthink, and for the enduring importance of universal values over the slicing and dicing of populations and religions in a fake and faulty clash of civilizations. It is a fight for values, insights and institutions that imperfectly uphold the best of human nature in the face of the impulses and arguments that humour the worst.” (Miliband 119) Though Molloy too endorses pluralism, ethnic diversity and multiculturalism, his emphasis is on good governance to hold it all together.

David Petrasek in a 2 February 2018 article, “Liberals’ Vague ‘Values’ Talk Undermines Rights Promotion,” puts the difference in stark relief as he allies with Miliband and rakes the current Trudeau government over the coals. The issue is not over the universality of human rights, but over the grounding and defence of policies in support of human rights. Do we do so because it is the decent thing to do, an expression of virtue, because of international laws and instruments that make rights binding on all states, and the utility of rights in preventing armed conflict, supporting democracy and good governance? Molloy would not dispute any of these claims, simply their relevance in tackling the bulk of the refugee problem. That required rooting the response in terms of expressing a specific set of Canadian values that both Conservative and Liberal governments in Canada at the time believed in.

As Molloy noted in his volume co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, in 1937 Prime Minister Mackenzie King insisted on rejecting Jewish refugees because of “the unchanging, fixed nature of a Canada based on British values.” (449) Molloy, and Prime Minister Trudeau currently, based their positive response to refugees on developing rather than reifying Canadian values.

As Canada’s current Foreign Minister, Chrystia Freeland, opined, Canada should promote its values – diversity, pluralism, multiculturalism, the rule of law – but not impose those values, not insist that the values must be adopted by all states. Witnessing was the order of the day, not insisting that everyone act on the basis of a universal set of principles or rights. This is the central difference between Miliband and Molloy. The latter also includes positioning Canada on the world stage while acknowledging the crucial role of the media and an involved citizenry.

“Look after the most vulnerable, by upholding their rights, and you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (Miliband 119) The reality, however, is that if Canada had based its intake of refugees on the basis of refugee rights established in the Refugee Convention, the country would only have been able to admit a very small fraction of the large number that it did admit.

For Miliband, the most important lesson he obtained from government service was the need and importance of being self-critical, of standing outside “your own mind-set and recognize its flaws as well as strengths.” This cognitive exercise is indeed crucial. Miliband notes that Canada stood second to the United States in the most refugees resettled the previous year – 47,000. President Trump cut by more than half the Obama administration’s FY 2017 admissions ceiling from 110,000 to 50,000. Trump also suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days, and limited admissions of refugees from Chad, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela, and Yemen. The administration set the refugee ceiling at its lowest level ever – 45,000 for FY 2018; only 53,716 were resettled in 2017 compared to 84,994 in 2016; only 37% were principals. Of those 53,716, almost two-thirds were spouses and dependent children brought over through sponsorship rather than through the family reunification program.

In other words, Canada with only 10% of the population of the U.S. and an even smaller percentage of its GDP, now admits almost as many refugees as the U.S. Miliband refers to the unique Canadian private sponsorship program that makes Canada such an outstanding leader in refugee settlement, but does not examine that model or attempt to learn whether lessons learned could be applicable elsewhere. Perhaps it is not enough to look inside oneself; it may be even more important to examine in detail the experience of high-performing countries.

Miliband asks why we should help refugees. This is a very different question than why we do or how we can help refugees. Miliband answers, as many have before him, we are enjoined (by the Bible, the Qur’an, etc.) to love the stranger and help avoid the globalization of indifference. He quotes Rabbi Jonathan Sack’s injunction to identify as strangers, as if the two obligations to love and to identify with, were the same. But one injunction says that we love because we regard the other as ourselves. The other, also echoed in the Qur’an, says that we help the strangers because we regard or have experienced ourselves as strangers.

Is this a distinction without a difference? It is not. There is a radical disjunction between beginning with a universal imperative versus starting with experience. The first cognitively dictates an emotion – love; the second emotionally dictates behaviour. Molloy’s book offers evidence of the efficaciousness of the latter. Hannah Arendt argued that refugees were not in the end protected by a universal doctrine, whether of rights or a universal imperative, because the very nature of being a refugee is that you are denied “the right to have rights.” For in the nation-state system, the effort to protect refugees through a universal doctrine of rights has had only a marginal impact on the number of refugees offered protection.

If refugee assistance is at the heart of the purpose and nature of the global order according to Miliband (115), relatively little would have been done for the Indochinese refugees on the basis of rights and duties. Receiving countries had not signed onto that global order. Resettlement countries became involved, not to expand the global moral order, but simply to play a part without making a universal claim.

Molloy’s book demonstrates how a doctrine of identification as strangers by a minority of Canadians helped very large numbers of refugees who lacked individual rights, even rights under the Geneva Refugee Convention. Miliband cites his own family history to claim “that it was the decisions of individual citizen that saved the lives of my relatives eighty years ago, and that same spirit is what is needed.” However, he seems to have ignored the import of his own family history

The core issue is that, as Michael Walzer wrote, refugees lack membership in a state that will guarantee their protection. Nations have the right to determine who will become its members. The issue then is how and why and by what means will nations accept refugees who are not their members, refugees who may, on first appearance, have little culturally in common with a nation’s current population.

This raises the issue of nomenclature. There are Convention refugee claimants, asylum seekers who arrive at a country’s borders or its airports and claim refugee status because they were victims of persecution under the Convention. If their claim is recognized, they are protected by the state in which they made the claim for it was determined that they cannot safely go home. Such asylees are not to be confused with refugees fleeing war and conflict, a confusion Miliband in his compression sometimes makes. (p. 39) Refugees of the latter kind cannot by and large claim that they were targeted; they fled violence and war, not persecution. As Molloy makes clear, these were part of what was called a “designated class,” identified by membership in a group rather than an individual with a well-founded fear of persecution. They were accepted for resettlement from outside the country because the possibilities of repatriation or settlement in the first country in which they landed did not seem to be feasible. Humanitarian rather than Convention refugees make up the vast majority of the refugee population.

So why do we accept them if we do not have to do so as a matter of right and because our country has signed the Geneva Convention? Miliband offers six reasons: 1) ideals; 2) it is in our DNA to be compassionate; 3) the creation of institutions like the Atlantic Charter during WWII began to define global obligations and mutual interdependence among states; 4) refugees are our obligation as a consequence of a resettlement country’s foreign policy mistakes; 5) the need for stability in an interconnected world; and 6) for strategic reasons since, if nothing is done, there will be no stability and security for ourselves if refugees lack a national home in which they are members and can be protected.

Were these reasons valid when it came to the Canadian resettlement of Indochinese refugees?

To be continued…

I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees – I. Background

Rescue: Refugees and the Political Crisis of Our Time, David Miliband, New York: Ted Books, Simon & Schuster, 2017.

Running on Empty: Canada and the Indochinese Refugees, 1975 to 1980, Michael J. Molloy, Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.


Howard Adelman

Part I of V: Background

From 2007-2010, David Miliband was the Foreign Secretary for the UK. He ran against his own brother for leadership of the Labour Party in Britain. When he lost, he became President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a humanitarian organization based in the U.S. with 27,000 employees engaged in both overseas relief and the resettlement of refugees. The lead author of the second volume, Mike Molloy, has been a Canadian ambassador and administrator in the Canadian government; he was the senior coordinator for the Canadian Indochinese Refugee Task Force from 1979 to 1980.

The latter volume, Running on Empty, is about the performance of Canadian government officials responsible for developing the policy framework as well as the administrative tools for locating Indochinese refugees in over 70 camps spread over seven countries, identifying, documenting, screening, selecting, processing, and arranging for their transportation to Canada. Immigration officials were also responsible overall for the reception and integration of those refugees within Canada. Further, because of the unique Canadian private sponsorship program, they also took on the duty of matching over half of those refugees with sponsors (32,281 of just over 60,000 Indochinese refugees). That was accomplished with the commitment of a surprisingly very small group of dedicated officials. Molloy shares authorship with three other retired immigration officers, including Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka. For convenience, however, I will dub the second, and very much thicker, volume, Molloy’s book.

Miliband’s book is a call to humanitarian arms to deal with the current overwhelming refugee crisis. Molloy’s book, one-third history and two-thirds government officials’ recollections, offers a historical retrospective on one country, Canada, and its response forty years ago to a single historically very large refugee crisis. Miliband brings to his work his personal experience of coming from a refugee family and his professional experience as a politician dealing with major issues. Molloy brings to the historiography of the Canadian response to the Indochinese refugee crisis his background as a dedicated and very experienced Canadian civil servant.

However, although background might, in part, account for the distinction between the two volumes, a major difference remains between the two works. Miliband wants to inspire goodwill while Molloy documents that the capacities and decision-making structures of institutions are critical to the resettlement of refugees – even without majority support for the extension of goodwill towards refugees. Is it possible that, whatever goodwill exists, it is scattered and diffused and what is needed, and possibly in short supply, is a regeneration of governmental institutional memories and skills?

Both books are demonstrations of how “our lives depend on strangers.” They are both about how civil society deals with refugees. Only occasional insertions of personal anecdotes bring to life the spirit and sacrifice of the refugees themselves. For both books are written from the standpoint of the rescuers rather than those rescued. For a brilliant, and very angular, perspective from the eyes of a refugee, read the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen which I recently reviewed.

However, the Miliband and Molloy books have very different starting points. Miliband’s book addresses an ethical question: “What are the duties of the rest of the world toward the innocent victims of war?” What are our duties to strangers? Molloy’s book is a chronicle of administrative history, primarily a record of the role Canadian officials played in developing and carrying out policies and procedures of the Canadian government in attacking a large refugee crisis. One book is about what we ought to do and why. The other is about doing and behaving and the ethos that both informed and emerged from that activity. Miliband’s book is primarily about the need and importance of filling our hearts and minds with lofty ideals and principles. Molloy’s book is about how so few could do so much “running on empty.”

They did not do it alone. But they proved to be the fulcrum of the whole enterprise, for they brought together laws and norms, political leadership and administrative expertise, media relations and committed groups in civil society, that allowed any part of the whole amorphous movement to take advantage of opportunities that appeared – and undermine negative forces that also reared up. These elements formed a family. Not one of these elements was sufficient, but working together in relative harmony and in different combinations, each proved to be a necessary component for large-scale, effective and sustainable intervention to support the successful resettlement of large numbers of Indochinese refugees.

In practice, lofty moralism, in terms of universal obligations of all Canadians, seems to have played a very minor role. For the movement was not based on the universal rights of refugees nor universal obligations towards them. One can envision the possibility of the effort backfiring if leadership had stressed a universal obligation towards the refugees, for that would have meant putting what turned out to be a majority of Canadians on the defensive and, hence, possibly induce them to become more actively resistant. Instead, local efforts and witnessing seemed to be the order of the day rather than lofty moral imperatives. If this somewhat undermines the idea of “global citizenship,” so be it.

Perhaps, it is better to work up from the local towards the global without taking our feet off the ground, though keeping in mind the necessity of a large co-operative international undertaking.

Both books are set within the context of waves of refugee crises that have plagued history since WWII and the enormous existential crisis they pose to the contemporary world. Many states suffer from natural disasters, most likely, many a result of man-made climate change. The governments of those states assume responsibility for countering the disastrous effects, sometimes with help from other states – heavy rains accounted for 246 deaths in Zimbabwe, 144 in China, 150 in Peru, 156 in Afghanistan, 174 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 213 in Sri Lanka, 300 in Colombia, 600 in Sierra Leone, and 600 in India. Many homes are lost. Thousands are displaced. Hurricanes Irma and Maria in Puerto Rico caused $95B in damages, killed an estimated 500-1,000 (64 officially) and 300,000-600,000 Puerto Ricans are expected to migrate to the mainland in 2018.

However, as devastating as these catastrophes are, they do not compare in any degree to the suffering and destruction that directly results from human causes, mainly the malfeasance of governments, the terrorism of non-government opponents and civil war between different sectors of society. Citing the Norwegian Refugee Council Grid 2017: Global Report on Internal Displacement, Miliband writes: “In 2016, more than 24 million people were internally displaced due to natural disasters.” This means that, of the 40.3 million IDPs, 60% were the result of horrific natural causes, 80.6% of those “the result of weather-related hazards.” But this is very misleading. As Grid 2017noted, “A significant percentage of total new displacements in the context of sudden-onset disasters are usually related to planned or spontaneous responses … in 2016, evacuations … present only short-term displacement occurring in a relatively safe and orderly manner.” (p. 31) In contrast, IDPs as a result of intractable and recurrent armed conflicts are disorderly and prolonged, averaging ten years. For many, “there is no end to their displacement in sight.”

This is the major continuing crisis of the post WWII years – the prolonged and enormous challenge of refugees, many of them warehoused in refugee camps for long periods. Both Miliband and Molloy are committed to emptying those refugee camps. They oppose warehousing or, as Miliband phrases it, “funeral homes for dreams.” (77) It is not so clear why or how these refugees can best be helped.

The greatest humanitarian crises result from terrorism and civil conflict which produce enormous numbers of internally displaced people and refugees. As Miliband wrote, “refugees and displaced people are fleeing wars within states.” Civil conflict in the Central African Republic resulted in 600,000 IDPs and 512,000 refugees. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, 4 million have been displaced, 1.7 million in 2017 alone; 2 million children are malnourished. The recent conflict in Burundi resulted in hundreds of thousands of refugees. In Myanmar, almost 600,000 Rohingya were forced to flee to Bangladesh as a result of ethnic cleansing.

In 2017, the Afghanistan conflict resulted in 23,000 fatalities for an accumulation of at least 1,250,000 over the course of that long war. In Iraq in the same year, there have been 13,000 fatalities with an accumulation of at least a quarter million during the war. In the Mexican drug war, there have been almost 15,000 deaths, with an accumulated total of over 100,000. In Syria, almost 40,000 died in 2017 leading to an accumulated total of 400,000 in that many-sided conflict. Relative to this record of fatalities in Afghanistan, Iraq, Mexico and Syria, refugees who survived may be considered the lucky ones.

Miliband writes about the Dadaab (“rocky hard place”) and Kakuma (“nowhere”) refugee camps in Kenya. (I lived in the first for almost a month and took my Princeton students to the second for a ten-day study mission.) He insists that “displacement as a result of conflict or persecution is long term, not short term.” He is correct. But it need not be, as evidenced by the resettlement of the Indochinese refugees. It is not simply because civil wars last longer, as Miliband correctly observes, but because Western countries await a definitive outcome in hopes that the refugees can be repatriated. There is a second reason, and a horrific one to acknowledge. Western countries only acted to initiate a large scale resettlement program for the Indochinese refugees when the countries where the Boat People first landed – Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong – threatened to send the boats back to sea if the Western countries did not agree to resettle them.

In the exodus of the Boat People from Vietnam, an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 drowned or were killed by pirates or perished from thirst and disease. These humanitarian crises are heart-wrenching. However, as Miliband documents, there has been in parts of Europe and in the U.S. a backlash against bleeding hearts, an advocacy of me first, of my people foremost, of a kind of nationalism and populism that views strangers primarily as a threat rather than as a responsibility or a crisis which calls forth a positive response. Both books are written against that background, Miliband’s much more explicitly.

To be continued…