by Allan R. Gregg
September 5, 2012
Notes for Remarks to Carleton University
“Those who can make you believe
absurdities can make you commit atrocities”
In his novel
1984, George Orwell paints a
portrait of a nightmarish future where rights that we now take for granted -
the freedom of assembly, speech and to trial - have all been suspended.
Acceptance of this totalitarian state is
justified by the interests of stability and order, and by the needs a
perpetual war. But what makes 1984 endure where other dystopian novels have
been forgotten is that Orwell removed one more right that is even more
unimaginable in a modern context - the right to think.
Instead of reason and rational discourse, Oceania is ruled by doublethink:
“to know and not to know. To be conscious of
complete truthfulness, while telling carefully construed lies… to use
logic against logic: to repudiate morality while laying claim to it”.
As Orwell summarizes…
“In Oceania the heresy of heresy was common
Emblematic of the regime is Big Brother’s
slogan, repeated constantly as a means of thought control…
War is Peace
Freedom is Slavery
Ignorance is Strength
Even by the standards of the time in which he
was writing, the juxtaposition of these concepts is so ludicrous, many
believe that Orwell was using satire to wage his war against
authoritarianism and the assault on reason.
Anyone who has been to war knows it is anything
but peaceful. Anyone who has been enslaved is more than aware that they are
not free. But what about those who are ignorant? Do they feel weak... or
Throughout history there has been a need to explain the unexplained. And for
the greatest part of history, the bulwark against not-knowing has been
superstition, dogma and orthodoxy.
Can’t explain droughts? Blame God’s wrath. Why
are we suffering from mysterious diseases? Witchcraft. And of course,
economic downturns could be blamed on ethnic minorities. The response to
these beliefs has been human sacrifices, burning at the stake and ethnic
This is the linkage that Voltaire made
when he wrote…
“those who can make you believe in
absurdities can make you commit atrocities”.
Understanding the world or explaining phenomena
through superstition, dogma and orthodoxy - instead of facts and reason -
invariably leads to some very ugly and uncivilized behavior.
The reason for this is fairly straightforward -
namely, beliefs that are rooted in superstition, dogma and orthodoxy are not
sustainable... sooner or later their veracity will be tested by facts and
evidence. Those who need these beliefs to sustain their interests and power
therefore must enforce at the point of a sword or remove those who might
prove them to be untrue.
Orwell’s claim that “Ignorance is Strength” might have been the clever
writing of a satirist at the height of his talents but it was also much more
than that. It is his most dire warning.
Abolitionist and newspaper publisher Fredrick
Douglas said that it was illiteracy more than the lash that gave
slaveholders power over black men and women.
Orwell was making a similar point… the
suppression of knowledge and reason is the tyrant’s most powerful tool… and
the greatest threat to freedom.
“Orthodoxy,” he said, “means not thinking -
not needing to think. Orthodoxy is unconsciousness”.
Of course, the opposite is also true. The
greater the knowledge and education of a population, the more difficult it
is to oppress them.
As Steven Pinker notes in his new book “The
Better Angels of our Nature”...
“The subversive power of the flow of
information and people has never been lost on political and religious
tyrants. This is why they suppress speech, writing and associations and
why democracies protect these channels in their bills of rights”.
In fact, in a triumph of his own research and
command of reason, Pinker makes a compelling case that the hallmark of
modern history has been a progressive decline in violence, accompanied by a
steady upward trajectory of civilized, humane and peaceful behavior.
More than anything else, it has been the
embracing of reason and enlightened thinking that has moved civilization
In his 2007 best seller, “The
Assault on Reason”, Nobel Prize winner and former Vice- President
Al Gore made his own case for the
protection of reason as the foundation of democracy.
The basis of his argument is that the
marketplace of ideas is open to all and the fate of those ideas is based on
their merit (rather than birthright or finance). In this sense, reason
reinforces equality. Moreover, when we engage in public debate, armed with
reason, by definition, we are prepared to compromise and find common ground
with those who might otherwise be our opponents. In this way, conflicts
between individuals are resolved through words and ideas rather than the
barrel of a gun.
In the same way, it was only when ordinary
citizens began to govern themselves using common sense, logic, and the best
available evidence, that governments began to change and evolve without
resorting to raw power and violence.
So it is important to remind ourselves why we value reason and why we should
be very concerned when it comes under assault.
Pinker, like others, notes that democracies rarely, if ever, declare war on
one another anymore and that the idea of one nation invading another to
control sovereign territory has virtually become an anachronism.
He explains the line between democracy and peace
in this way...
“Democratic government is designed to
resolve conflict through consensual rule of law and so democracies ..
externalize this ethic in dealing with other states.
Also, every democracy knows the way the
other democracies work, since they are all constructed on the same
rational foundation rather than growing out of a cult of personality or
messianic creed or chauvinistic mission”.
This mutual trust between democratic nations
therefore mitigates against the need for any pre-emptive strike against one
And as important as peace and democracy are, reason also leads to a series
of other beliefs and behaviors we now associate with our prosperity and
Reason has taught us that it is cheaper and more efficient to enter into a
commercial arrangement with our neighbors than to invade, plunder or
colonize them. Trade of goods and services between nations, in turn,
inflates and widens our empathy beyond kin and tribe and encourages
immigration and pluralism.
Beyond empathy, science has revealed that all races and peoples share common
traits and therefore deserve to be treated equally.
This humanism and the placement of the rights of
the individual on an even plane, above the rights of states, draws us
inevitably towards concepts such as the responsibility to protect.
While the scriptures might tell us we are all
each other’s keepers, it is reason that compels us to behave in this way. In
fact, our entire notion of progress has reason at its core.
As Ronald Wright reminds us in his
brilliant lecture series, “A
Short History of Progress”, this is a relatively modern concept.
For most of civilization, people believed their
station in life would be pretty much the same when they died as when they
were born. And they believed this because it was true - mortality, health
and wealth improved little for most of human history. It was only when we
began to imagine that man and society was, if not perfectible, certainly
improvable, that optimism and scientific endeavor sought to propel mankind
And more than anything else, societal progress has been advanced by
enlightened public policy that marshals our collective resources towards a
larger public good. Once again it has been reason and scientific evidence
that has delineated effective from ineffective policy. We have discovered
that effective solutions can only be generated when they correspond to an
accurate understanding of the problems they are designed to solve.
Evidence, facts and reason therefore form the
sine qua non of not only good policy, but good government.
I have spent my entire professional life as a researcher, dedicated to
understanding the relationship between cause and effect. And I have to tell
you, I’ve begun to see some troubling trends. It seems as though our
government’s use of evidence and facts as the bases of policy is declining,
and in their place, dogma, whim and political expediency are on the rise.
And even more troubling... Canadians seem to be
My concern was first piqued in July 2010, when the federal cabinet announced
its decision to cut the mandatory long form census and replace it with a
voluntary one. The rationale for this curious decision was that asking
citizens for information about things like how many bathrooms were in their
homes was a needless intrusion on their privacy and liberty.
One might reasonably wonder how knowledge about
the number of toilets you have could enable the government to invade your
privacy, but that aside, it became clear that virtually no toilet owners had
ever voiced concerns that the long form census, and its toilet questions,
posed this kind of threat.
Again, as someone who had used the census - both as a commercial researcher
and when I worked on Parliament Hill - I knew how important these data were
in identifying not just toilet counts, but shifting population trends and
the changes in the quality and quantity of life of Canadians.
How could you determine how many units of
affordable housing were needed unless you knew the change in the number of
people who qualified for affordable housing?
How could you assess the
appropriate costs of affordable housing unless you knew the change in the
amount of disposal income available to eligible recipients?
And even creepier,
Why would anyone forsake these valuable insights - and
the chance to make good public policy - under the pretence that rights were
violated when no one ever voiced the concern that this was happening?
this a one-off move, however misguided?
Or, the canary in the mineshaft?
Then came the Long Gun Registry.
The federal government made good on their
promise to dismantle it regardless of the fact that virtually every police
chief in Canada said it was important to their work. Being true to their
election promises? Or was there something else driving this decision?
Then, came the promise of a massive penitentiary construction spree which
flew directly in the face of a mountain of evidence indicating that crime
was on the decline. This struck me as a costly, unnecessary move, but
knowing this government’s penchant to define itself as “tough-on-crime”, one
could see - at least ideologically - why they did it.
But, does that make it right?
Then came the post-stimulus federal budget of 2012 which I eagerly awaited
to see if there would be something more here than mere political
It was common knowledge that this government had little stomach for the
deficit spending that followed the finance crisis of the previous years. And
knowing that the public supported a return to balance budgets, it was a
foregone conclusion that we were going to be presented with a fairly austere
That the government intended to cut 19,000 civil
servant jobs - roughly 6% of the total federal workforce - might have seemed
a little draconian, but knowing what we knew, not that shocking.
As part of this package, it was also announced that environmental
assessments were to be “streamlined” and that the final arbitration power of
independent regulators was to be curtailed and possibly overridden by
so-called “accountable” elected officials.
Again, given the priority this government places
on economic, and especially resource development, this was not necessarily
But when then the specific cuts started to roll out, an alarming trend began
to take shape.
First up were those toilet counting,
privacy violators at Stats Canada - ½ (not 6%, but 50%) of employees
were warned that their jobs were at risk.
20% of the workforce at the Library and
Archives of Canada were put on notice.
CBC was told that it could live with a
10% reduction in their budgetary allocation.
In what was described as the
“lobotomization of the parks system” (G &M - May 21, 2012), 30% of
the operating budget of Parks Canada was cut, eliminating 638
positions; 70% of whom would be scientists and social scientists.
The National Roundtable on the
Environment, the First Nations Statistical Institute, the National
Council on Welfare and the Canadian Foundation for Climate and
Atmospheric Science were, in Orwell’s parlance, “vaporized”; saving
a grand total of $7.5 million.
The Experimental Lakes Area, a research
station that produced critical evidence that helped stop acid rain 3
decades ago and has been responsible for some of our most
groundbreaking research on water quality was to be shut down.
Savings? $2 million. The northernmost lab in Eureka, Nunavut awaits
the same fate.
The unit in charge of monitoring
emissions from power plants, furnaces, boiler and other sources is
to be abolished in order to save $600,000.
And against the advice of 625 fisheries
scientists and four former federal Fisheries Ministers - saying it
is scientifically impossible to do — regulatory oversight of the
fisheries was limited to stock that are of “human value”.
To add insult to injury, these
amendments was bundled in with 68 other laws into one Budget Bill,
so that - using the power of majority government - no single item
could be opposed or revoked.
On the other side of the ledger however,
the Canada Revenue Agency received an $8 million increase in its
budget so that it had more resources available to investigate the
political activity of not-for-profit and charitable organizations.
Ok, so now the facts were beginning to tell a
This was no random act of downsizing, but a
deliberate attempt to obliterate certain activities that were previously
viewed as a legitimate part of government decision-making - namely, using
research, science and evidence as the basis to make policy decisions.
It also amounted to an attempt to eliminate
anyone who might use science, facts and evidence to challenge government
And while few in the popular press at home belled the cat quite this
squarely, the pattern did not go unnoticed in other quarters. The editorial
in the March issue of Nature criticized the Harper Government for muzzling
and tightening the media protocols applied to federal scientists.
Two weeks earlier, the Canadian Science
Writers Association, The World Federation of Science Journalists
and others send an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on him stop
suppressing scientific findings and let them be freely shared, in keeping
with the best practices of the discipline.
And in July, in an unprecedented demonstration,
lab-coated scientists marched on Parliament Hill to protest what they viewed
as a systematic attack on evidence-based research by this Government.
In 1984, the abandonment of reason is twinned not simply with unthinking
orthodoxy but also by the willful dissemination of misinformation. Orwell
makes this point in part by using ironic names for various government
departments: the Ministry of Love is responsible for war.
The Ministry of Plenty is tasked with parsing
Again if this is satire, I can pretty much guarantee that Orwell’s intent
was savage. Written in the shadow of the war, Orwell had seen this kind of
misdirection used to mask evil intents, in real time and in real life. When
Hitler circumvented the German Parliament and seized power in 1933,
he did so under legislation named “The Law to Remedy the Distress of the
When the horrors of the holocaust were revealed,
they were accompanied by the unforgettable image of the gate into Auschwitz
with its Orwellian slogan,
“Work Will Set You Free”.
And today, more and more, we see this same kind
of misdirection and news speak in the behavior of our legislators.
A quick review of the some of the Bills passed or on the order paper of this
session of Parliament gives you the sense that this government might have
studied under Orwell.
Bill C-5 is entitled “The
Continuing Air Service for Passengers Act”. Substantively, it offers
no such guarantee but unilaterally extended the contract of the
National Automobile, Aerospace, Transport and General Workers Union
of Canada and removed any prospect of a lockout or strike.
Bill C-10 is “An Act to Enact the
Justice for Victims of Terrorism” and sub-titled “The Safe Streets
and Communities Act”. Again forgetting for a moment that there are
more victims of swimming pool drowning than terrorism, this is an
Omnibus Bill which, among other things, stiffens penalties for
possession of pot and builds more prisons.
Bill C-18 is called the “Marketing
Freedom for Grain Farmers Act”. It dismantled the Canadian Wheat
Bill C-26 boasts that it is “The
Citizens Arrest and Self-Defense Act” and it is the closest we come
in Canada to replicating Florida’s odious Stand Your Ground
The purpose of
Bill C-30 is stated to be “The
Protect Children from Internet Predators Act” and it, among other
things, forces ISPs to hand over their user names to police without
a warrant. When opponents protested this deliberate obfuscation,
Safety Minister Vic Toews famously countered that “you are either
with us or the child pornographers”.
The thing that is disconcerting and unsettling
about all this is not just the substance of these Bills, but why a
government would want to disguise that substance.
Maybe dismantling the Wheat Board; or pre-emptively
squashing collective bargaining; or sending more potheads to jail is a good
thing. But before we make those decisions, let’s look at all the facts; have
a fulsome and rational debate; and make a reasoned decision of what is in
the best interests of all the parties involved.
For voters to determine whether these are
measures they support or oppose requires that they know what is at stake and
what the government is actually doing. Moreover, for the rule of law to
work, the public must have respect for the law.
By obfuscating the true purpose of laws under
the gobbledy-gook of double speak, governments are admitting that their
intentions probably lack both support and respect.
Again, the lesson here is Orwellian... in the
same way that reason requires consciousness, tyranny demands ignorance.
Raising this is not a question of right versus left. It is rather- in the
words of Al Gore - a question of right versus wrong. And also make no
mistake that this is not simply an attack on, or a claim that the sole
practitioner of masking intent is The Harper Government.
Jean Charest, introduced
Bill 78 as,
“An Act to Enable Students to Receive
Instruction from the Post Secondary Education They Attend”.
Under some fairly benign circumstances, it
basically bans the freedom of assembly.
And under the pretext of another perpetual war -
the so-called War on Terrorism - the President of the United States not only
routinely orders the execution of foreign nationals, on foreign soil,
without any semblance of due process whatsoever, but boasts that this as one
of the greatest accomplishments of his Presidency.
And the American media routinely applauds him
for it. Now I know it’s not comfortable to offer suspected terrorists due
process, but isn’t this exactly the kind of behavior Orwell was warning us
Having conceded this, I DO believe that this particular government is
pursuing a not-so-hidden agenda. It starts with the premise that the
Canadian political pendulum has over swung in the direction of liberalism -
that the political agenda and discourse of this country, for too long, has
been hijacked by urban elites who do not represent the voice of hard working
men and women who live in the burbs, shop at Canadian Tire and take their
kids to the hockey rink every week.
And I DO believe that
Stephen Harper and his colleagues have
set out to systematically right what they see as this wrong.
This view holds that parks are for tourism and campers, not for the flora
and fauna that must be protected by scientists. Policy should be based on
conviction and not bloodless statistics. Governments should be guided by
what is morally right and not by reason and rational compromise. From this
view, science, statistics, reason and rational compromise are not tools of
enlightened public policy, but barriers to the pursuit of swing that
The problem is, notwithstanding a fairly widespread consensus around the
orthodoxies of balance budgets, market economies and open trade, Canadians,
by and large, still believe in tolerance, compromise, egalitarianism.
We tend to see ourselves as each other’s keeper
with a responsibility for those who are less fortunate. So to realize this
agenda, it becomes necessary to pursue it by stealth and circumvention
rather than through transparency and directness. This too explains the
apparent obsession with secrecy, message control and misdirection.
But even if you accept this thesis, it still begs another question... if
Canadians are essentially enlightened liberals, and are not prepared to
offer wholesale buy-in to this vision of politics and the nation, why do we
not hear a hue and cry in protest over the direction we are being led?
At root, I think a big part of the problem is cultural. For decades
following the Second World War, a progress ethos dominated North American
The next car was going to be faster, the next
pay-cheque fatter and the next house bigger. This notion that progress was
both normal and limitless, generated a series of beliefs that were
Anyone of my generation will remember being
“You my child, deserve more than I had when
I was growing up”…
“If you work hard and put your mind to it, you can
be anything you want”...
and “A good education is the key to success”.
This value system - and an experience that
closely corresponded to it - created not only a sense of well-being but also
a sense of good will.
If the prospects of progress and success were
limitless, then whatever success you enjoyed in no way threatened the amount
of success that might be available to me.
Today - in sharp contrast - we seem to be living in a zero sum society,
where the prevailing wisdom is that the rich are getting richer while the
poor or getting poorer; that whatever prosperity might be available is being
unequally shared; and for many, opportunity is actually shrinking. In the
same way that feelings of well -being can generate good will, feelings of
threat spawn envy and recrimination.
This not only explains the anger of
the Occupy Movement or the students
protesting in the streets of Montreal but also the disdain that the middle
class has for “pampered” public sector employees or the excessive obsession
the rich seem to have about the poor “ripping off the system”.
Once the population starts to segment itself into “us versus them,” anyone
with a vested interest in exacerbating the rift can easily till that soil.
And that is clearly what is happening in the
political process today. On one hand, political parties no longer see the
need to reach out and expand their base beyond their core constituency,
because their core constituency is often at odds with the voters whom they
otherwise might want to attract. To the contrary, it makes more sense to
vilify these voters, as a way to motivate your core.
A vicious cultural wheel therefore is turned by a political one. A fearful,
divided citizenry fights off uncertainty by protecting its own turf;
politicians exploit this division by choosing sides and offering simplistic
solutions to address these fears; and the population seeks solace in the
So instead of trying to bridge these differences
through consensus and finding compromise based on reason, what we see all
too often today is the politics of polarization, over-torqued partisanship
Here is how the perfect trifecta of a zero-sum society, the politics of
division and the assault on reason plays out in the real world of politics.
In his acceptance speech to the Republican
National Convention, this is the rationale that Mitt Romney offered
as the most compelling reason to vote for him instead of his opponent...
“President Obama promised to slow the rise
of the oceans and heal the planet. My promise is to help you and your
What the f**k? As if the two are mutually
exclusive? As if healing the planet means you can’t help families? Or that
helping families means ignoring the planet?
Yet this was the biggest applause line of his entire speech. I guess for
many, when you fear for your family, it is comforting to think that all you
have to do to protect them is ignore rising ocean levels and everything will
Once again, in the most perverse way, Orwell was
right... Ignorance can feel like strength.
Many - from Noam Chomsky, to Neil Postman to Al Gore - have also laid the
blame on the media. Either through sloth, sensationalism or the very
pacifying nature of the medium itself, a culture saturated in trivia has
become anesthetized to the larger needs of the world in which we live.
Indeed, as Chris Hedges asks in his
The Empire of Illusion, when we come to
believe that we are all only one audition away from celebrity, why concern
yourselves with picayune problems like the homeless, let alone some arcane
concept like the assault on reason?
Most of this analysis however has been limited
to the effect of television - the equivalent, of the ubiquitous telescreens
But instead of monitoring citizen activity,
media today portrays an outside world that often in no way reflects reality
beyond the sensational, the trivia and the pacifying.
But for whatever role television may have played in amusing ourselves to
death in the past, we now live in a digital world where there is “evidence”
for every and any view one might want to embrace. If I believe the world is
flat, the internet now puts me in touch with legions of fellow flat earthers
and reams of pseudo science to support that belief.
As importantly, if I am so inclined, I never
have to be exposed to any contrary views and can find total refuge in my
community of flat earthers.
The Internet therefore, offers me the
opportunity to have a completely closed mind and at one in the same time,
fill it full of nonsense disguised as fact. In a brand new way therefore,
the internet democratizes not just individual opinion but legitimizes
collective ignorance and spreads a bizzaro world of alternative reason.
When this occurs, prejudice and bias is
reinforced and the authority of real science and evidence is undermined or
even more likely, never presented.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. History shows us that, over time,
science’s authority always undermines dogma’s legitimacy and the persuasive
power of reason will always trump ideology’s emotion. It’s true that if you
want to follow a course based on dogma or ideology, it becomes necessary to
remove science and reason.
But the corollary also holds true - the best
defense against dogma and ideology continues to by reason and science. And
if it’s increasingly hard to find these qualities in the media or the
political process, what better place to take a stand than in a University?
This is where you come to seek intelligence; not
belittle it. Where ideas are born; questions are asked; and thoughts
collide. This is why so many have fought so long to protect academic freedom
- to ensure that reason, inquiry and science cannot be assaulted by dogma
While the circumstance in Canada 2012 is obviously nowhere near as dystopian
as what Orwell depicts in 1984, I really do think that there are some
unsettling parallels going on here that we ignore at our peril.
I also think it’s time to gather the facts… and