Letters

February 2007

Mind Shaft
Although biological considerations may be very helpful in understanding age-related differences, I was concerned about how much was explained by biology in Nora Underwood’s recent story on “The Teenage Brain” (November). Important social issues are being swept under the carpet when “sitting on the couch playing violent video games or sitting on the couch and pounding alcohol” are presented as the natural culmination of the biologically determined need for a “high thrill payoff” and “reduced effort requirements.”

When adults talk with teens about having unprotected sex, they may well hear stories about how it is more thrilling. However, they may also hear young women explain that accessing birth control in advance suggests that they are sluts rather than respectable girls. Acting spontaneously out of feelings of love sustains an identity acceptable to themselves, their peer group, and potentially the adults who favour this cultural storyline. As young people try to make sense of their reactions to the world around them (and mris may indeed offer one kind of evidence of those reactions), they choose from a variety of cultural meanings to define who they are and how they are positioned vis-àvis peers, parents, and society.

Underwood’s suggestion that the social world is structured in a way that is out of tune with young people’s need for sleep is a good example of how observations about age-related biological changes and observations about the social world can be combined to offer a more complex understanding. There is much to be learned from research that explores the impact of socio-economic conditions, cultural values, gendered experiences, and social interactions on development. Such research requires us to turn the gaze on ourselves in ways that motivate us to change public policy, educational systems, family patterns of communication, and so forth. Improving our relationships with young people will take much more than the patience inspired by conclusions about their biology.
Mirjam Knapik
Calgary, Alberta

What Man’s Burden?
Like Gerald Caplan (“The Conspiracy Against Africa,” November), I’ve lived and worked in Africa on and off since 1964. Sadly, I’ve come to all the same conclusions with respect to the corruption of African politics, the phony “development” projects of Western governments, and the marauding capitalism of Canadian and other privatesector corporations (which Paul Martin was and still is promoting as legitimate agents of development). Our so-called development efforts in Africa have been, for the most part, disasters for Africans. If we want to start being sincere, we will have to think in terms of recompense. Of course, there is no hope for this kind of change with the current political and bureaucratic leadership at the Canadian International Development Agency (cida) and not much more from the corporatist civilsociety organizations who have been forced to compete with each other and with business for access to cida’s limited funds. It amazes me how the more we realize that every aspect of our lives is intertwined with the rest of the world (globalization, climate change, etc.), the more parochial the priority concerns of most Canadians become. Personally, I’m placing my hope in my grandchildren to take up the torch.
Paul Puritt
Ottawa, Ontario

Gerald Caplan notes that too often Westerners regard Africans as a passive, dependent people who need the West to save them from themselves. He rightly objects to this view as self-serving and racist. The West is not the solution to Africa’s problems but is in fact the cause of Africa’s problems, or at least many of them. According to Caplan, it was Europeans, for example, who “unleashed guns and ships” against Africa during the era of the slave trade. Like Walter Rodney, who made similar arguments in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, Caplan portrays European exploitation as the root cause of contemporary Africa’s misery.

If only it were so simple and so morally clear-cut. As many contemporary historians of Africa have pointed out (for instance, John Thornton in his book Africa and Africans in the Making of the Atlantic World, 1400–1800), Europeans may have had guns and ships but they hardly “unleashed” them against Africa. The African empires of the European Renaissance period were, as Caplan points out, strong both economically and militarily. Europeans didn’t impose slavery on Africa, they came to Africa and found it already flourishing there. Europeans meekly begged leave to trade with them, and permission was granted. Certainly, millions of Africans left Africa during the slave trade, but that was because other Africans captured them and sold them away. All the Europeans brought to the table was the insatiable demand of the New World plantations.

Caplan’s motive in underplaying this history is understandable. Like Walter Rodney, he’s reacting to a racist tradition that makes Africans out to be inferior and incapable. When I taught the history of the slave trade, I found that it was to this ground that Canadian undergraduates, instinctively liberal and multicultural, immediately gravitated. I made it my job to warn them that while it’s tempting to argue that Africa’s wounds were inflicted from outside, to do so is to tell the same racist story, just flipped on its head. Instead of the Africans being the bad guys and the Europeans good, the Europeans are bad guys and Africans good. But it’s still the same story: Africans are still passive and dependent, standing inertly by as Europeans despoil them and their continent. Once again, Africans become spear carriers in a European story.

The truth about slavery, and about the last five centuries of African history, is that the bloody tragedies Africans have endured were a collaboration between Africa and the West. To say this is in no way to lend support to the position that we contemporary Europeans and North Americans have no responsibility to improve Africans’ lot. It is to suggest that, ultimately, Europeans, North Americans, and Africans are moral beings, neither wholly victim nor victimizer. It is to recognize that we all are equally human.
Andrew Miller
Mississauga, Ontario

All In
I read Andrew Nikiforuk’s article on Raymond Reshke (“Alberta’s Gamble with Gambling,” November) with great interest. The spread of video lottery terminals (vlts) in Australia roughly parallels the experience in Canada. In the state of Victoria, for example, 84 percent of problem gamblers cite gaming machines as their favourite form of play. The reason so many of those who use vlts become problem gamblers is that they address the needs of two types of gamblers.

Action gamblers play for the excitement of winning; they use the machines as an upper, like cocaine. Some vlts are especially dangerous for action gamblers because they have unbalanced reels, in which each of the first three reels is starved of one symbol. This hidden “crookedness” produces randomized near-misses that make the machine very exciting for the unaware player.

However, the majority of problem gamblers are escape gamblers, who play to kill pain, for a morphine-like anaesthetization. Of particular danger to these players are the New Age-themed machines with panels like church windows. These machines combine the transcendence of religion with the salve of dissociation. Losses translate into sacrifice, further enhancing spiritual transcendence. For escape gamblers, gaming venues are mechanized, commercialized religious cults.
Tim Falkiner
Former Commercial/Legal Officer,
Victorian Casino and
Gaming Authority
Melbourne, Australia

Commandment Number Nine
In a vitriolic slur against a large portion of Canadian society, Ken Alexander writes, “The International aids Conference in Toronto was partially upstaged by Stephen Harper’s non-attendance, a likely sop to Christian evangelicals who want little to do with homosexuals, premarital copulation (with condoms or without), or, for that matter, Africa’s real needs” (“Chillax, Pops,” November).

Although his first two points are misleading, the last point is so completely false as to be ludicrous. Thousands of Canadian Christians are spilling their blood, sweat, and tears on African soil in the fight against aids, malaria, and other killers. Hundreds of thousands are active here on the home front, donating millions of dollars, lobbying the government, and setting up charities to address issues like education, the environment, and health in a land upon which they will never set foot.

cbc’s Brian Stewart, one of Canada’s most prominent foreign correspondents, railed against the grievous myth promoted in Alexander’s editorial in his 2004 convocation address at Knox College in Toronto: “For many years, I’ve been struck by the rather blithe notion, spread in many circles including the media and taken up by a large section of our younger population, that organized, mainstream Christianity has been reduced to a musty, dimly lit backwater of contemporary life . . . . From what I’ve seen in my ringside seat at events over the decades, there is nothing further from the truth . . . . I’ve never reached a war zone, famine, or crisis anywhere that some church organization was not at long before me.”
Jodi Martens
Surrey, BC

Cooking with Gas Christian Parenti’s review of five recent books on climate change (“The Bad Future,” November) provided a clear summary of what may become the defining social and political issue of our time. Unfortunately, most Canadians do not understand the relatively simple principles underlying climate change and they underestimate how truly difficult it will be to significantly reduce greenhouse- gas emissions.

There is a direct analogy between the use of carbon-based fossil fuels by our civilization and metabolism in the human body. An increase in the number of humans or their physical activity by necessity results in an increase in the consumption of food (also carbon- based) and a consequent increase in the production of CO2 and H2O through respiration. Physical fitness can partially mitigate this increase but only to a limited extent.

Similarly, increases in economic growth or activity by necessity require an increase in the input of energy, and, given that carbon-based fossil fuels are our primary source, there will be an inevitable increase in the emission of CO2 and H2O. Of course, some increases in efficiency are possible, but the laws of thermodynamics dictate that economic growth and decreasing energy consumption are likely to be incompatible. Our experience to date certainly confirms this. We have had continuous economic growth for most of the past two centuries and concomitant increases in energy consumption.

The challenge we face is how to maintain the wonderful strengths of our liberal democracy, which has brought so much freedom and prosperity to the majority of the Canadian population, while learning to live within the constraints defined by our need to reduce fossil-fuel consumption and lessen our impact on the global climate.
St. J. Dixon-Warren
Ottawa, Ontario

Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan respond to a letter about their article “Bombs Over Cambodia” (October):
J. K. Halligan suggests that the new US Air Force data we presented on the bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War, which revealed the total payload to have been far greater than previously believed, would not necessarily have translated into higher casualty figures for Cambodians. Halligan also casts doubt on our thesis that the bombing drove survivors to support the fledgling Khmer Rouge insurgency.

While it’s true that “vast areas” of rural Cambodia and the Ho Chi Minh Trail are indeed “sparsely inhabited,” those were not the only targets of the US carpet bombardments from 1969 to 1973. Our extensive maps show that the Air Force heavily targeted most of the populated lowlands of Cambodia. Matching detailed topographic base maps with the Pentagon’s bombing data shows hundreds of Cambodian villages included in B-52 target “boxes.”

Of course, the Khmer Rouge also profited from their alliance with Prince Sihanouk and from aid they received from China and Vietnamese Communists, but the role of the US bombardment in helping bring this genocidal regime to power is undeniable. There is no reason to ask the former Khmer Rouge head of state to confirm the fact; it is well documented in contemporary US official reporting and by numerous peasant witnesses. To take one example, the following response to our Walrus article was posted on my website, taylorowen.com:

I could not agree with you more based on my experiences during the bombing in Takeo around 1972. The bombings were [spreading] further into towns and villages. My parents’ house was hit by the bombs, and we had to move to the opposite side of the country. We had known [that] almost the entire village that survived from the bombings had joined forces with the Khmer Rouge.

Kissinger and Nixon did not plan this, but they likely knew it was happening. The same May 1973 cia report we quote in our article as stating that the Khmer Rouge were using the bombing as propaganda also confirmed that the propaganda campaign had been effective. And yet, the US bombing campaign continued until Congress prohibited it.

After the Khmer Rouge victory in April 1975, the burgeoning US-China alliance led Washington to quietly support the Pol Pot regime. Kissinger told Thailand’s foreign minister on November 26, 1975, “You should also tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won’t let that stand in our way.”

Tusk, Tusk
In “The Bad Future”(“Christian Parenti,” November), George Monbiot is erroneously cited as advocating an upper limit for atmospheric carbon stabilization of 400 to 450 parts per billion. The correct unit of measurement for the stated figure is parts per million. The Walrus regrets the error.