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Private policy

Editorial by Bruce Wark


As you thumb through our “Back to School” guide, here’s food for thought from Marshall McLuhan: “School is the advertising agency,” McLuhan wrote, “which makes you believe you need the society as it is.” Yes, prison-like high schools equipped with surveillance cams and ruled by fascist vice-principals make perfect sense as ad agencies for our regimented, techno-demented society. And colleges and universities that have junked higher learning in favour of vocational training for the military-industrial-media-marketing complex make even more perfect sense. Sounds grim, but do not despair. There’s a funny side. Hidden in the staid political science department at Dalhousie, for example, there’s an academic comedy team that gets a third of its budget from the Canadian military. Fear not, however. Dal’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies is definitely not a propaganda arm of the Department of National Defence. It’s only posing as one. The joke is on the stiff generals and humourless bureaucrats who funnelled just over $267 thousand in tax money last year to the merry policy wonks and retired navy skippers at the CFPS. (Eleven similar centres at other Canadian universities also receive military handouts from Ottawa.)

Like all great comic artists, the jokesters at Dal’s Centre for Foreign Policy Studies and their academic colleagues across Canada turn reality inside out. Here’s how. First, they issue turgid treatises larded with academic gobbledegook so they sound like ‘experts.’ Then, when the news media call, they spout snappy one-liners. In 2005, for example, Canada’s military budget was the 12th largest in the world and the sixth largest in NATO, yet academic jokesters in the CFPS and other military-funded university centres had been claiming for years that Canada needed to spend even more. Every time I heard this inspired nonsense I split my sides laughing. But dumb Steve Harper, like Paul Martin before him, fell for the gag. Now taxpayers are coughing up another $15 billion for ships, planes, choppers and trucks plus $5.3 billion in new military spending over the next five years.

By far the zaniest of the comedians at CFPS is Dal political science prof Frank Harvey. His academic papers warn of the inevitability of more “high impact” terrorist attacks on the United States. Just a matter of time, writes Harvey, even though the average American is less likely to die in a terrorist attack than from cancer caused by toxins in food, air, water and consumer products. But terrorist warnings generate hysteria—always knee-slappingly funny. And then Harvey spouts another zinger about how Canada needs to keep a fearful Uncle Sam happy by spilling our blood in the unwinnable war in Afghanistan and signing up for that hare-brained US missile defence system.

In October 2002, Harvey and I shared the stage at a panel discussion organized by CFPS. Back then, I still hadn’t caught on that he was only fooling, so I made the mistake of taking Harvey seriously as he argued that invading Iraq made strategic sense for the US. “What about the thousands of Iraqis who would die?” I asked. “This is a moral question, not just a strategic one.” After the invasion, I finally got the joke when Harvey penned a paper claiming the US had acted in self-defence. Yes, tens of thousands of Iraqis die as the US defends itself. Very funny, Frank. Just hilarious.

The funniest joke the CFPS tells is that militarism makes us safer. Like spending billions on the kind of obscene high-tech killing machines that will be on display next week at the Halifax Air Show. The merry pranksters at CFPS surely know the opposite is true, that no one is safe in a world armed to the teeth. (World military spending now tops $1 trillion every year, a 34 percent increase in the last decade.) But true to form, the CFPS comedians continue to spout nonsensical one-liners as they collect those big Defence Department cheques, winking and laughing all the way to the bank.

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