Monday, January 29, 2007

The objectivity asymptote

So, as I said yesterday, Semi Chellas's article "Good to Go"* got me thinking. The article is about embedding journalists in Afghanistan (or, more accurately, about a course Chellas took part in for journalists who will be embedded).

The question/concern for Chellas (and, of course, for many journalists and observers of the war) is that embedding journalists will detract from the ideal of objective reporting. Living side-by-side with the soldiers on "your" side of the battle, depending on them for your life, as well as livelihood, will undoubtedly create bonds of camaraderie that will bring bias into the reporting.

Here's my question: when aren't reporters living side-by-side with the military? I mean yes, there are a few brave or foolish souls who go it entirely alone, but whether in an official or unofficial capacity, aren't most journalists required by the circumstances to avail themselves of the protection of their home-state's deployed forces? Even the first war correspondent did so, although in an unofficial capacity. Another example: Peter Arnett, who has been highly critical of US war strategies and foreign policy, was in fact fired in 2003 for expressing that opinion, has also travelled with troops. So to did Dickey Chapelle, and Ernest Hemingway. And does anyone remember Nora Dunn's character in Three Kings? Yeah. I can think of a few reasons why, too...
  • The risk of being shot at while reporting amongst the locals ("friendly" fire)**
  • The risk of being shot at by the locals**
  • Language barriers
  • Transportation
  • Access

There are also positive benefits to forging a bond with the troops, as they are more likely to trust you and be open with you.

The bottom line, for me, is that most journalists are, in one sense or another, "embedded". The ideal of objectivity is just that, an ideal, and while it is something to strive for, to emulate, I do not believe it can be perfectly achieved by any person, let alone the multi-faceted leviathan that is the world, the modern media reporting it, and the audience of billions. Reality is the asymptote, always approaching but never touching the axis of objectivity.

Relativist? I think it's simply realistic. A cognitive bias is a powerful thing. Postmodern/cognitive psychology analysis is helpful here: the human brain is designed to think in heuristics and categories, to value the in-group, et cetera. These aren't just random errors, but rather "shortcuts" the human brain has evolved to make, because it lacks the computational power to make detailed objective decisions about every stimulus to which it is exposed. The point is not to pretend the biases are not inevitable, that they do not exist, but rather, to acknowledge the fundamental slant in our thinking.

Knowing that we cannot be 100% objective, we are obligated:
(a) to publicize that caveat (for instance, embedding reporters, but make openly acknowledge that the reporters are embedded), and
(b) to seek corroboration from other sources and from empirical data whenever possible.

* The article is for registered readers only (odd...) but you don't need to read it to get the idea. Here is the Wikipedia primer. Here is the article on war correspondents.

** The Committee to Protect Journalists reports 93 journalists and 37 media support workers killed in Iraq since 2003.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Two more reasons THE WALRUS is my Bible

The Walrus is the only magazine--with the possible an humorous exception of Blender--that I read cover-to-cover. Sometimes I pounce on it and devour it back-to-front with such speed that I am left with a sense of regret that I have not savoured it. Usually I am able to pace myself, to ration out an article or two with breakfast or before bed, the better to last until the next month. As is probably obvious, I am also evangelical about it, thrusting URLs and photocopies of articles upon friends and co-workers and profs. I do not always agree with the writers (indeed, what fun would that be?) but I always see their point and enjoy their argument.

Two articles I read this morning drove home the point (to the extent that I am now blogging them instead of getting ready for work). The first, "Once Upon A Country" by Don Gillmore, is such an astute deconstruction of the current state of Federal politics in Canada that it should be required reading for...well, everyone. On top of that, it is such a delectable piece of writing that the logophile in me actually got shivers at some turns of phrase. As above, the article is available on The Walrus's site, but to illustrate my point:

On Gerard Kennedy:

"Kennedy came as a potential king-maker and as conciliator, mending rifts in the party he hoped to inherit, a diplomat who was treading carefully toward a New Liberalism. Hanging back, he let [Stephane] Dion and Bob Rae tear at front-runner Michael Ignatieff. While campaigning, Kennedy had gone to Ryerson University in Toronto to talk to business students, celebrating his relative youth among the future managers, moguls, and hustlers, who on that day were slouched in low-cut jeans, Tibetan symbols tattooed on their lower backs, checking their BlackBerries and observing Kennedy with a sense of discovery. ...Kennedy was of the West, where money and power were shifting. As he reminded delegates, it was time to stop spotting the Conservatives eighty seats west of Kenora every election."

On Bob Rae:

"In political terms, Rae was reminiscent of Jimmy Carter, a good man who magnified the complexities of governing an ungovernable country and who aged visibly under the burden, frightening Americans, who quickly retreated to the calming void of Ronald Reagan."

On Stephen Harper as a narrator and a narrative:

"His narrative is tightly controlled; he chooses the story and the way to tell it, and to whom it is told. And what of the narrator? Harper is a putative Westerner, his ideas and adult self formed there, though he doesn’t fit the mould of the Western politician, lacking the polished frontier presence of Peter Lougheed certainly or Don Getty’s rugged athleticism or the extended happy hour of Ralph Klein. No, Harper looks distinctly Central Canadian. He looks like the planned community of Don Mills: meticulous, efficient, and sterile. ...He has kept a tight lid on information coming out of his caucus and limited access to the national press, a relationship still marked by pettiness and an air of regency. His story comes out in Barthesian semiotics, a Western story of stolid morality, the new sheriff riding in to clean up the town."

On the Liberals' underestimating of Harper and his party:

"The Liberals are still hoping that Harper’s natural petulance will irk voters, that his fragile alliance will fray, that his evangelical roots will frighten, or that Maurice Vellacott will fall down on the floor of the House of Commons and speak in tongues. But Harper has developed the necessary cynicism to hold onto federal power. Perhaps his decisions have had Shakespearean consequences, the soul tortured by the actions of the man. Maybe Harper has spent nights rereading the Book of Matthew ('For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?') and weeping tears of apostasy. But he is the equal of Jean Chrétien as a street fighter, which makes him dangerous and, on occasion, fascinating."

On Chrétien himself:

"...the purest politician the country has produced in three decades, an instinctive fighter who had delivered three majorities and who looked, in the unflattering, changeable light of the convention room, darkly reptilian, his limbic self revealed as he watched his creation onstage. He had plucked Dion from academia to use him as an attack dog for unity. Dion was not a natural politician, and ten years later he still isn’t. He is the antithesis of Chrétien, a shy, rigorous thinker. A reporter asked Chrétien what a good leader was. 'A good leader,' answered the pragmatist, 'is one who wins elections.'"

On Conservative environmental policy:

"Harper has cancelled Kyoto Protocol initiatives and cut funding to climate-change programs by 80 percent. Alberta, Harper’s political base, is the country’s largest producer of hydrocarbons, and the oil sands are one of the most concentrated sources of global pollution. It was left to Environment Minister Rona Ambrose to explain the government’s isolationist position, and she stayed on message with the tenacity of the early Ronald Reagan; she was vilified by the left for incompetence and by the Liberals for idiocy. In the House, and in tentative trips abroad, she had an air of the sacrificial, like the first to go in a horror film."

Again--vividly--on Chrétien:

"To watch Chrétien is to see the essence of Liberalism, that mixture of voodoo and instinct and machinery that carried them for more than a decade. Consider his gifts: linguistically eclectic, intellectually indifferent, politically astute, a mixture of the sinister and the avuncular. Yet when he spoke, he roused his people. 'Harper was watching earlier. Maybe he is still watching. Stephen, Stephen—can I call you Steve, like George W.?' His appeal is difficult to define. Perhaps voters accepted his sweet, fraudulent mythology, le p’tit gar de Shawinigan, or maybe it was the grudging respect accorded survivors. Or the unknowable alchemy that is the successful politician."

And on the relationships of the left and right:

"There is a Through the Looking Glass aspect to federal politics that goes something like this: The NDP borrows the occasional idea from the Green Party, but feels it is a marginal group (NDP Pat Martin said the Greens functioned primarily as 'big catch basin for wing nuts who would otherwise gravitate to our party' ). The Liberals poach ideas from the NDP (former NDP head David Lewis was called the best policy chairman the Liberals ever had) and feel, in the words of Martha Hall Findlay, that they 'have good ideas but are unable to implement them[...'] The Conservatives have contempt for the Liberals, but strategically Harper can be a Liberal himself...

Canada isn’t the only country where the definitions of liberalism and conservatism are being refined, colliding in a slow-motion car crash. In Spain, the Socialist Party introduced radical social legislation but also embraced freemarket economics and lowered income taxes by 6 percent. In Britain, Tony Blair used a combination of fiscal conservatism and Labour rhetoric to hold onto power for a decade, and now British Conservatives, who have learned from Blair, are championing bicycle paths and the environment. In the US, Bill Clinton was described as the best Republican president since Eisenhower. The Liberals have long been accused of campaigning from the left and governing from the right, and traditional lines continue to blur in the rush for the centre. The NDP is 'tough on crime,' the Conservatives celebrate diversity, Ignatieff favours Canada’s continued military presence in Afghanistan."

Now, how can you fail to be stirred by that? I've hardly even touched on Gillmor's substantive analysis. Go read the article!

T'other I want to talk about is "Good to Go" by Semi Chellas, but that shall have to wait until I, at least, arrive at work.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Sense of humour optional

**Disclaimer: I am an ad hoc Federal Civil Servant, so I totally get to comment on this**

So according to The Toronto Star, Conservative MP Colin Mayes (Okanagan-Shuswap) is being criticized for his toleration of an e-mailed joke that was derogatory or insensitive to Aboriginal Canadians. The joke was as follows:

An Indian walks into Tim Horton's with a shotgun in one hand pulling a male buffalo with the other.

He says to the waiter, "Want coffee." The waiter says, "Sure chief, coming right up."

He gets the Indian a tall mug of coffee. He drinks the coffee down in one gulp, turns and blasts the buffalo with the shotgun, causing parts of the animal to splatter everywhere, then just walks out.

The next morning the Indian returns. He has his shotgun in one hand another male buffalo with the other.

He walks up to the counter and says to the waiter, "Want coffee."

The waiter says, "Whoa, Tonto! We're still cleaning up your mess from yesterday. What was all that about, anyway?" The Indian smiles and proudly says: "Training for an upper management position in Canadian Government: Come in, drink coffee, shoot the bull, leave mess for others to clean up, and disappear for rest of day."

Now, a few things to note:

  • While "Tonto" is certainly a, shall we say, ignorant thing to call a Aboriginal Canadian, I have trouble seeing it as derogatory. Wikipedia has a fascinating article on the character. As the end of that article points out, Jay Silverheels, the (Canadian! Aboriginal!) TV actor famous for portraying Tonto apparently had a sense of humour, which caused him problems later in his career.
  • Maybe this is just me, but I took the use of "chief" and "Tonto" to be as much comments on the Tim's employee as the customer. You know, the trope of the slightly-culturally-insensitive-but-well-meaning-small-towner. Its a stock character, true, as much as the Aboriginal, but is also a true stock character. Hell, my grandmother is that character. She still refers to Robert Rainford as "that negro gentleman with the barbeque show" when she can't remember his name--a comment that cause both my stepfather and I choke on our food--with an absolute absence of malice or racism.
  • Most importantly: this is a joke about the Canadian Civil Service. Part of the set-up is that it looks like an uncomfortably culturally insensitive joke, but at the end, it isn't. It's just true, and vaguely hilarious.

The Star article also mentions the following:

"I find it offensive," said Liberal MP Tina Keeper (Churchill), an accomplished Cree actor. She resents the fact that some people still try to portray natives as "cartoon" characters. "How could you not get that this is offensive particularly when you are in that role?"

MP Anita Neville (Winnipeg South Centre), the Liberal native affairs critic, said Mayes should "resign immediately" from the committee post and apologize to First Nations.

I'll admit, my first reaction is: Tina Keeper's an MP? That's odd (not because she's First Nations, obviously, but because a) she's an actor, and more importantly b) I've never heard of her being involved in politics) but if she finds it offensive (really? I mean...come on...really?) then I suppose if merits an apology (not a resignation). What adds to the stupidity is MP Mayes then going on the defensive about how multi-cultural his family is. Never helpful.

This reminds me of a Savage Love column I read recently...

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Raoul Wallenberg Symposium 2007

Part I: Thursday Morning Session

Keynote Address: The Honourable Irwin Cotler

  • Danger of ignorance and apathy
  • Darfur
Legal and Judicial Perspectives on Public Security Issues
The Honourable John C. Major (Moderator)

The Honourable Dorit Beinisch, President of the Supreme Court of Israel

  • Summary of the effectiveness of the Supreme Court, and what special rules (e.g. no standing requirement, real-time decisions, court of first and last instance) have made it more effective
  • Summary of three major controversial opinions: Human Shield/Early Warning, Security Fence, and Directed Killings

The Honourable Ian Callinan, High Court of Australia

  • Terrorism will always require increased security--naive to think otherwise
  • But must ensure that the Cromwellian does not turn to the Orwellian

The Right Honourable Lord Walker of Gestingthorpe, House of Lords

  • Judges have freedom to act without continued attacks by the media
  • Must take the long view of history
  • There is and should be tension between the legislature and judiciary

Saturday, January 13, 2007

BBC NEWS | Middle East | US Iraq raid draws Iranian anger

BBC NEWS Middle East US Iraq raid draws Iranian anger

Diplomatic immunity is for wusses

So I wake up to this: Detained Iranians Had Iraq Approval , US forces carry out provocative raid on Iran’s consulate in northern Iraq (and yes, I realize it happened before today, apparently I forgot to get my Google News quota yesterday).

Now, to be fair, the precise status of the personnel and office is unclear. The Guardian UK reports it was: "a liaison office that had government approval and was in the process of being approved as a consulate." As a basic rule, once the host government has granted immunity to persons or premises, they become sacrosanct. As the UNITED STATES DIPLOMATIC AND CONSULAR STAFF IN TEHRAN (UNITED STATES OF AMERICA v. IRAN) case shows, the US is very particular when it comes to their own diplomats (as well they should be). Of course, the US is also infamous for not respecting diplomatic/consular protection* but I can't remember them ever breaching immunity before.

* E.g. in the LaGrand case and the Avena case. And for a hilariously meglomaniacal twist, see the American Servicemembers' Protection Act.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Not to say I told you so, but...I told you so

Fan-tastic. Now that Saddam Hussein is dead, they've taken him off the list of accused in the Operation Anfal case. Of course, it would have been moderately futile to try the man for crimes, but I can't see as it would have done any harm, and it might have done good. Precedent? Closure? Do these words mean anything to anyone?

In other scary-ass news, Israel might be planning an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. They claim not, but they've done it before at Osirak, and since Security Council Resolutions have never meant much to the government,* I can't see the backlash from Osirak being enough to dissuade them. Don't get me wrong, every new member of The Club scares the bejeezus out of me, but given Israel's sketchy attitude to the International Atomic Energy Agency and its non-signature of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it probably shouldn't be throwing the first stone. Why does Israel need nukes, anyway? I mean, aren't all of its enemies so geographically close that --even in the absence of retaliation--any meaningful nuke would do horrific damage to Israel's own territory?

So they've finally come up with a vaccine for cancer.** However, this vaccine (which last pretty much your whole life) is most effective if given before the girl is exposed to the virus, so it should definately be given before she becomes sexually active, and probably the younger the better. Nevertheless, some parents seem to have a problem with this. Because it might encourage the children to have sex at a younger age.

What the hell? Why is this argument raised whenever there's an innovation (practical or informational) that allows for safer sex? Do condoms increase the amount of sex or age at which people start having it? Diaphagms? Spermicide? Dental dams? No no no no no. Few enough women know that HPV causes cervical cancer, or genital warts, or sterility, and plenty of women don't even know they have it or have had it, because the active infection often has no symptoms. Also, it can be passed through non-intercourse sexual contact or intercourse with a condom. In short, it is the stealth-jet of venereal diseases. Personally, I'd want my kids vaccinated in utero.

* E.g. 242, 338, 446, 478
** Well, okay, it's a vaccine for human papillomavirus, but that's practically the same thing.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Siegerjustiz (victor's justice)

Ok. I'll admit it. I really didn't think they'd off Saddam Hussein--at least not so quickly. Clearly I wasn't paying sufficient attention to the transitional justice apparatus in Iraq, unlike Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. In a rather horrifically ironic twist, the execution has already lead to the death of a ten-year-old boy, and others.

What really irritates me (and most other critics) is that they executed Hussein for his part in the murder of 148 people at al-Dujail, but crippled attempts to find justice in the much larger and comparatively more heinous al-Anfal trial. Now, did he deserve to die for his part in the al-Dujail massacre? Hell yes. I'm going to come right out and say that murdering tyrants and genocidaires fit nicely into my narrow category of "people for whom the death penalty is appropriate." The overwhelming evidence is a part of that conclusion. But the most important part of bringing Hussein to trial (as with any transitional justice movement) was uncovering the truth. Even if Saddam didn't testify, even if he continued to make a ruckus in the courtroom, his presence would have increased domestic and international scrutiny, and added weight to the subsequent trials. Now the Kurds have been cheated of resolution.

One thing I have to question, however, is the dogged insistence of AI, HRW, etc., that Hussein's trial should necessesarily have taken place with massive international involvement, possibly even abroad.* Would that not detract severely from the legitimacy of the trial? I certainly think so. After all, Saddam Hussein was primarily a perpetrator of crimes against humanity, i.e. Iraqis, and only occasionally a regional criminal, i.e. against Iran and Kuwait. Despite all the post-9/11 PR, we know he wasn't really an international criminal at all. Furthermore, Iraq needs to reconcile his abuses with his success, nationalizing the oil industry just before the Energy Crisis, creating an award winning health system, and (although I would disagree this is always a good thing) rejecting Sharia law in favour of a Western-style legal system.**

The second point made by AI, HRW and others is that transitional justice must be a good example to set a precedent for the post-conflict justice system in the country. Victor's justice (and make no mistake, this was a case of victor's justice) fails to do that, thus condemning the post-conflict society to corrupt courts and an unjust legal regime. I fail to see any evidence of that. The Nuremberg Trials were obviously victor's justice, and I fail to see their negative impact on the very robust German legal system. Similarly with the Tokyo Trials. The ad hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and for Rwanda (ICTR) are likewise practicing siergerjustiz, not indicting equally culpable NATO war criminals in the former example nor members of the ruling government in the latter. While, in an abstract sense, it would be perhaps more just if they did so, it would not be feasible. Given the choice between bringing some criminals to justice on the one hand, and standing on principle only to let everyone escape justice on the other, they chose to prosecute whom they could. It's been 50 years since Nuremberg, and there hasn't been any concrete fallout.

While I obviously disagree with the timing of Saddam Hussein's execution, and while the trials in Iraq are in need of massive improvement, I do think that it is overstating the case to suggest that their flaws will undermine any potential the Iraqi justice system has to flourish. I sincerely wish the tide of criticism now aimed at Iraq was a little more tempered, perhaps leaning towards helping them to overcome the errors of the first trials, rather than castigating them for what are truly irreversible errors, especially now that Hussein is dead.

* See Amnesty report and Human Rights Watch report on the al-Dujail trial.