Tuesday, April 10, 2007

students of IDS

In a few days I will finalize my end of year marks, and my first academic year teaching IDS in Canada will come to an end. It has been quite a year: student numbers of immensely greater magnitude than when I taught in Europe in a post-graduate school, being taught at a level that was, by definition, not as demanding of that found in a post-graduate school. However, what is interesting about my first year is the way in which the students that I have taught have made the year. They have been far more engaged, far more challenging of my views, and far more provocative than perhaps any other batch of students I have taught these past 20 or so years. They have made the year.

My students can basically be divided into 3 groups. The first group are those that are coasting through a university education because--well, that is what you do if you get the marks: it is the way in which you get away from home. Some of these students are in sports, but most are just--coasting, and this is seen in their results. The second group are those that are taking IDS courses, but as options, and who will not have, at the end of the day, an IDS degree--it will be in environmental studies (a very popular option), or women's studies, or in politics or sociology. Some of these students can be very good indeed. Finally, there are those that are opting for an IDS degree.

How is it that an 18 year old Canadian high school student in 2007 decides to do IDS from the first year of their degree (I have had several of these this year) ? Some do have international experience. Some want to do the Trent year-abroad programs, which are an unparalleled opportunity to live outside Canada. Some have a religious or politically-engaged angle to their thinking. What is striking, though, about these students is just how committed they are to international development. They have, through some process, arrived at quite an anti-globalization, anti-capitalist perspective--and this is what has brought them to Trent University. It is quite remarkable. Students will challenge you repeatedly as to how your own work has been too compromised with the powers that be, too accepting of the status quo. At the same time, though, they really appreciate the experience that the IDS staff have of 'real development'. They enjoy the ability to bring ideas down to earth, to show the importance of ideas to people's lives and livelihoods, around the world. They are hungry--hungry!--to learn more. It is quite something to see.

The students that I have taught this year, whether they are graduating or not, are going off to do interesting things. Some, of course, are doing the year-abroad programs, and are getting ready to go to Ghana or to Ecuador for almost a year. Others are going to Vietnam or South Korea or Japan to work. Some are going on to graduate schools. One is going to live in Havana--that will be an eye-opener for them, to the realities of 'real development', I am sure.

What is memorable about these students is how they are not standing still, how they are moving forward, how they are trying to live out their 'alternative' life. For many, if not most, it will be messy, and involve compromises. That is the nature of life. Yet these students, with their passion and energy empower me in a way that I had not thought possible, because they still believe in life, and all its possibilities, as well as the potential for change. It is refreshing.

Anyone who tells you that young people today are not like they were 'in my time' is right: they are better. I feel more confidence in our collective future than I have in some time.

Monday, April 9, 2007

from Vimy to Afghanistan

On the television, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is speaking of the glory of the battle of Vimy Ridge, on the day when, 90 years ago, what is now the Canadian Forces fought for the first time as a single unit in a battle that, some historians now apparently tell us, served as a crucible within which Canada emerged onto the world stage as a nation. Yesterday, in southern Afghanistan, six Canadian soldiers were killed when their vehicle was hit by an explosive device. There too, we are told, Canadian soldiers are 'doing their duty' in 'fighting terrorism' and preventing the re-emergence of the Taliban. What links that day 90 years ago with the atrocity yesterday is that both were senseless.

The 'Great War', as the First World War was known until the Second World War, was, without doubt, one in which soldiers fought with great bravery in a cause that many of them thought to be just. Nonetheless, the Great War was not a war between 'barbarism' and 'civilization', as it was painted at the time: it was a war between an emerging capitalist power, Germany, and a set of established capitalist powers, the United Kingdom and France, and was principally about having the political ability to dictate the terms and conditions governing the world order. It is, in this light, of no little significance that the terms and conditions that the victors imposed on the world order in the light of the German surrender in 1918 led directly to the Second World War. The 3,598 Canadians that died at Vimy Ridge were not battling barbarism; they were battling the soldiers of a capitalist competitor. Moreover, those who fought often faced horrific choices from the commissioned officers, many of whom were English, that acted as their overlords. Thus, as Pierre Berton recounted in his book Vimy, one soldier tried to help a wounded friend and comrade in a crater, only to have a gun pointed to his head by an officer that was forcing him to continue. His friend died. Individual acts of heroism--and barbarism--should not let us forget the basic, fundamental senseless of the Great War, as millions on both sides marched off to the 'war to end all wars', to be used as fodder for cannon, artillery, for the elites who were the victors of the war.

Canada has been involved in Afghanistan now since the Americans toppled the Taliban. What needs to be focused upon in this ongoing conflict is the extent to which we--the West, that is--is engaged in fighting our own creation, and in so doing are creating enemies that were not previously against us. We are, in this sense, the creators of terrorism. The US, the British, and the wider members of NATO supported the mujahaddin when they fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, providing them with arms, including, famously, Stinger missiles, while, in many cases, turning a blind eye to the drugs that paid for much of the conflict. The mujahaddin were open about their use of drugs to fund their 'holy war'--I saw it, with my own eyes. In this conflict grew, of course, the legend of Osama bin Laden. Later, the Soviets withdrew, leaving a weak PDPA government and a set of competing, conflict-ridden guerilla armies intent on running the country (and, in some instances, controlling the drug trade). When the Soviets withdrew, because the PDPA held on to control of the cities, they received no assistance from the West, and continued to face the mujahaddin in an ongoing series of lesser and greater battles. Into this cauldron stepped the Taliban. Financed by the Pakistani security services, the ISI, who had been, in turn, financed by the West during the Afghan resistance, in effect the Taliban arose because of the extension of Western support for the anti-Soviet resistance into Pakistan and the Pakistani state itself. The Taliban represented the very antithesis of enlightenment values, but no matter: they were against the PDPA. When Kabul collapsed, and Najibullah was hung from a crane in Kabul, we were witnessing the victory of a movement that we had, at least indirectly, sponsored, and who now moved to impose a crude version of Islam across the country.

Cut to 2007. The Taliban were defeated, but are resurgent. Osama bin Laden has not been captured. In the process of this war, which is now approaching its 6th anniversary, it is worth asking why, if this war was to bring civilisation to barbarism, is it that 6 Canadian soldiers died senselessly yesterday. The answer is simple: force protection, the mantra of armies throughout the world, and rightly so, is not development assistance. Afghan peasants have had bad crop yields, faced water shortages, are struggling to construct a livelihood in the most difficult of circumstances, and in exchange for this effort, are being, still, killed for nothing by NATO forces. Bombs drop into wedding parades; no one in Berlin knows. Soldiers destroy some homes in a village; no one in London knows. House to house searches in Kandahar kills innocents; people in Toronto have forgotten. The manner by which the war in Afghanistan is being conducted are de-basing a people that have endured more than 30 years of the most brutal war, and who only want, ultimately, to be left alone by all these conflicting forces.

Was the Great War worth it? The Holocaust was a direct consequence. Is the war in Afghanistan worth it? 'Terrorists' are being created by its consequences. We in the West are creating our own insecurity, even as global elites continue, much as they ever have, to undertake actions which are designed not to benefit us, but to benefit them.