Saturday, January 05, 2008

Star Reader Misses Point of Letter

Star readers asleep in Michael Byers' dreamland

Michael Byers' recent opinion article in the Toronto Star has managed to send a few ripples across Canada's political discourse.

Following the letter, Foreign Affairs minister Maxime Bernier naturally found it necessary to respond. In a 3 January letter to the editor, he wrote:

"This article by Michael Byers is so one-sided and lacking in objectivity that I feel compelled to respond. Let me first dismiss his claims about the recent Bali conference on climate change. Canada played a constructive role in Bali that resulted in an agreement that recognizes that all major emitters, like China, India and the U.S., all need to be on-board to reduce emissions.

It's also interesting that Byers quotes Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. In Bali, Canada and Australia held the same position and agreed on the final language that was adopted.

I also found Byers' claim that our government has "picked unnecessary quarrels" with China, Russia and Iran to be particularly risible. Our government is guided by Canada's key foreign-policy values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law. I don't understand why our insistence on standing up for these values seems to make Byers so upset.

Finally, that he would see something sinister in the U.S. ambassador to Canada accompanying Defence Minister Peter MacKay to view American contributions to the UN-authorized, NATO-led mission in Afghanistan verges on the paranoid. Under the previous Liberal government, Canada's global influence declined while it diverted energy away from the important work of diplomacy and toward soft-power fantasies.
Bernier's letter is quick, concise, and covers the key points.

Yet it seems that, unsurprisingly, a few Star readers are willing -- seemingly even eager -- to swallow Byers' tripe. Such was the point of Tom McElroy's 5 January letter to the editor:

"I was amused by Foreign Affairs Minister Maxime Bernier's response to the opinion piece by Michael Byers. It is rather representative of the current government's use of rhetoric in place of logic in responding to the needs of the country. First, Bernier opens by accusing the writer of being "one-sided and lacking objectivity." This accomplishes two things in the propaganda battle. It suggests that the writer (Bernier) has the moral high ground in objectivity. It also suggests that Byers is in some way a flawed person. In fact, an opinion piece is not expected to be objective; it is supposed to express a viewpoint and promote the discussion of other options.

With respect to the Bali meeting, the comment about having an agreement with all nations on-board is one of the government's slickest pieces of rhetorical fallacy. Yes, we need everyone on-board in an agreement. But emerging nations cannot be compelled to agree to something they don't like. There must be an international agreement that everyone is prepared to live with (read compromise) and that provides a level playing field for international trade and development.

Bernier (re-)states the apparently reasonable view that "all need to be on-board" and leads the public to think that they are trying hard when, by demanding across-the-board, immediate cuts from nations with emerging economies, they are, in fact, undermining the concrete steps needed to be taken. This is a position that is immoral, unreasonable and impossible – in short, they are still rejecting the reality of climate change in favour of the economic development of the oil patch in Canada.

Canada seems to have become very flexible on where it is upholding moral principles these days. The minister is being deliberately obtuse in responding to Byers' claim that the government provoked negative reactions from China and others. Some details here are necessary to define exactly what the minister means before any credence can be granted to his statement. Finally, Bernier would do well to remember that Canadian soft power earned Lester Pearson a Nobel Prize.
First off, it's interesting that someone would accuse the government of "using rhetoric in place of logic" in defense of an article that is so wrought with factual errors, half-truths and rhetorical dead ends. And while McElroy may actually be entirely right in asserting that objectivity isn't expected of opinion articles -- the exact opposite, in fact -- McElroy declines to address why Byers' piece can't even maintain rhetorical coherence.

He then indulges himself in accusing the government of using Byers' piece as an opportunity to engage in a "propaganda war" despite the fact that Byers' article fits so neatly into Noam Chomsky's propaganda model, vis a vis historical engineering.

McElroy then actually resorts to making the government's argument for it -- that we need climate change agreements on which all countries can agree before dismissing the need for developing countries to also commit to fighting climate change as "immoral". Perhaps mr McElroy is entirely comfortable with manufacturing jobs migrating from developed countries to developing countries pumping the atmosphere full of the very same greenhouse gases the Kyoto protocol addresses, only in different countries, and to no net effect overall.

Then again, we aren't supposed to ask serious questions about Kyoto.

To top it off, McElroy insists that Bernier should conjure some details before dismissing Byers' complaints over the "negative reactions" "provoked" "from China and others". Yet Byers' article skimps on details in the first place, and with reasons that eventually became obvious -- his arguments collapsed under their own rhetorical weight once details -- or any facts whatsoever -- were added to the equation.

If Bernier's objections should be granted little credence, than it should be doubly so for Byers.

Last but not least, one would remind McElroy that the purpose of Canadian foreign policy is to represent and support Canadian interests abroad; it's not to win Nobel prizes for Prime Ministers, or make Canada seem "cool".

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