What France Owes Haiti

We have just passed the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. The following was written January 28, 2010, and a version of it printed as a letter to The Globe and Mail. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”) • To the editors of The Globe and Mail. You highlighted, on your front page, the call from the World Bank for creditor nations to forgive Haiti’s debt. You chose to single out Venezuela as one of those creditor nations. You will be happy to know that Venezuela has complied with your wishes, and cancelled the debt Haiti owes Venezuela for oil purchases (link provided below)[1]. There is now no longer any need to single out Venezuela.

You might, rather, shift the spotlight to France. The debt owed by France to the people of Haiti is approximately $21,685,135,571.48 (link provided below)[2], a figure some 2,000 per cent greater than all the money owed by Haiti to all external creditors. The debt in question, as you of course know, was incurred when France extorted from the then 20-year old independent Republic, a completely bogus “compensation” for lost property. Given that this “lost property” was comprised of freed slaves, the French claim was, of course, indefensible.

The people of Haiti could use that $21 billion more than ever. I look forward to your front-page treatment of this important issue.

(c) 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] “Chavez Writes Off Haiti’s Oil Debt to Venezuela,” Latin American Herald Tribune, January 2010.
[2] “Aristide pushes for restitution from France,” The Miami Herald, December 18, 2003.

Is there space for peace?

Letter to host of “Q,” submitted to CBC, Dec. 24, 2008 • You opened your Christmas Eve show with a flashback to 1968, the Apollo 8 flight, and the astronauts reading selections from Genesis, the first book of the Bible, while floating in space. “Peace on earth” you speculate could be brought a wee bit closer if we told the Apollo 8 story every Christmas, helping us to see our earth in green and blue perspective.

Many of us remember that flight like it was yesterday. Many of us, as children, were enthralled by the space program, by NASA, and by its celebrities – chief among them, Wernher von Braun.

As adults, many of us learned the truth. Von Braun was a veteran of Hitler’s Germany, scooped up along with dozens of other Nazi-era scientists, a prize catch for the United States.[1] The Apollo program was the direct descendant of von Braun’s Nazi-era rocket research, designed to deliver payloads of death and horror to civilian populations in Britain. We know now that he used slave labour in these activities.[2]

And NASA? The furious pace of its progress in the 1960s was not motivated by the desire to put astronauts in space to read the Bible. That was just window-dressing. The whole program was completely embedded in the arms race. Rocket technology is not about romance and religion, but about mass murder and war – a technology necessary for the delivery of nuclear warheads to whomever might threaten U.S. hegemony.

The Apollo space flights are a poor vehicle with which to bring peace on earth, their roots deeply planted in slave labour, fascism, and the desperate search for the construction of weapons of mass destruction. If the Apollo astronauts had wanted to quote the Bible for peace, they should have stayed away from Genesis and chosen Isaiah instead. To get peace on earth we will have to “beat our swords into ploughshares,” so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation.”[3] Among the biggest swords to be re-engineered are the rockets of the U.S. space program.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] A fact known for years – see Tom Lehrer’s bitter spoof, available on youtube.
[2] Tony Paterson, “Germans at last learn truth about von Braun’s ‘space research’ base,” The Telegraph, June 14, 2001
[3] Isaiah 2: 4

How not to remember World War I

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Guardian, Nov. 16, 2008 • Some wars are controversial. There is a huge debate, for instance, about World War II – which may have been the most destructive war in history, but is nonetheless justified by many as a “necessary evil” – the war to stop the Nazis. That is a debate that should be had. But about World War I there is little debate. It was a senseless slaughter, poor boys dying for the greed of the rich, fighting over the imperialist carve-up of what today we call the “Global South”.

Apparently not. British academic Gary Sheffield was given the honour of kicking off a week-long retrospective on World War I, by the usually “progressive” editors of The Guardian.[1] Sheffield – a professor of war studies at the University of Birmingham – tells us that “this war was no accident.” But to make his case, he throws the study of the “Great War” back several generations – returning to the oldest argument in the book – that it was a war by the civilized democracies against expansionist Germany.

Sheffield discusses the “world policy” of the Kaiser of Germany, his Weltpolitik which “was an attempt to gain colonies and expand German power and economic influence.” Well, that is true. Germany was trying to gain colonies. But the “civilized powers” – Britain and France – didn’t have the same imperative. They already had their colonies. Sheffield glosses over this detail.

Sheffield warns us that the Kaiser was “mentally unstable.” Perhaps that is true. But why no mention of the interestingly limited mental capacities of the Czar of Russia – key ally to Britain and France? Or perhaps a long discourse on Rasputin the very interestingly unstable “adivsor” to the Czar’s wife Alexandra. Not a whisper.

The war professor tells us that the German parliament was “largely toothless” – to make the point that this was a war of democracies (England and France) against autocracies. But what teeth did the Russian Duma (parliament) have? About this not a word.

The method is an old one – the use of selective information to reinforce an idée fixe. This was a war of democracies against autocracy. So we will ignore the fact that the biggest army on the side of the democracies was that of the autocratic Russian Czar. This is a war of good against evil, so we will emphasize the instability of the German Kaiser, and stay mute on the capacities of the Russian Czar and one of his principal advisors.

“Britain entered the war because it, too, could not afford to see Germany triumphant.” That is true. It couldn’t bear another imperialist power encroaching on its territory in Africa and Asia. The world was already divided up – Germany was not allowed into the party.

Most outrageously, Sheffield tells us that “the drafters of the Versailles treaty had it broadly right after all” when it stated that “ ‘the aggression of Germany and her allies’ was responsible for the war.” So as well as showing us that the war was necessary, he is rehabilitating a treaty that many analysts see as laying the basis for World War II – a treaty so punitive toward the German people in the war reparations demanded, that it created fuel for the racist nationalism that would lead to the creation of the Nazis.

This is no way to remember the ten million who died in the horrible slaughter of the “Great War” – including 65,000 Canadians. Their deaths should remind us of why we need to build an anti-war movement. Their deaths are dishonoured when used for articles that amount to pro-war apologetics. For a more balanced account, Sheffield and others should study Marc Ferro’s sobering and authoritative The Great War 1914-1918.[2]

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] “First World War,” insert in The Guardian, November 8, 2008
[2] Marc Ferro, The Great War 1914-1918 (Routledge, 2002)

The case for deep writing

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Atlantic July 2, 2008 • Nicholas Carr says that Google is making us stupid.[1] The ubiquity of the Internet, he argues, is leading to a change in the habits of information acquisition, a change in the norms of information processing, and an accompanying change in the very structure of our way of thinking. The very strong implication of the article is that this is a “bad thing,” leading to the demise of what he calls “deep reading”. But deep reading requires its complement, deep writing – deep writing requires facts, and the article has, well, none. The handful of anecdotes at the beginning of the article do not so qualify. Neither does the cute story about Nietzsche and the typewriter. They make good journalism, good copy, but they do not make good research. And without facts, deep writing is close to impossible.

There is one part of the article that does, I think, provide an interesting “open door” to such deep writing. “The Internet” Carr writes is “becoming our map and our clock, our printing press and our typewriter, our calculator and our telephone, and our radio and our TV.”[2] Think about the latter for a minute. Carr throughout is presuming a causal relationship between an increase in Internet reading and a decline in “deep reading” (the focused immersion in long articles, books, etc.). Perhaps, however, this is a false, very false, equation. Perhaps the Internet is not a step down from “deep reading” but a step up from channel surfing? That might be a very good thing, as there are many studies about that older medium – television – warning about its baneful effects on literacy.[3]

I go to the Internet, stopwatch in hand (an homage to the reference to Taylor in the article). Two minutes gone. I have a 2002 study by Norman H. Nie and Lutz Erbring (both at the time at Stanford University). “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report” is worth some deep reading. It indicates that Internet use is cutting into time spent with friends and family, a shift that worries them. But it also concludes that “time on the Internet is coming out of time spent viewing television.”[4] Seen from this standpoint, the spread of the Internet might be seen as a quite positive development – the evolution, if you will, from “Happy Days” and “Rockford Files” to Google, Facebook and Email.

This has me suddenly engaged in what Carr cites (negatively) as “a form of skimming activity”[5] – to whit, wondering about the relationship between email (the Internet’s close cousin) and writing ability. This time it takes longer – three minutes – but the extra minute is worth it. I find an authority, Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who, according to a 2005 Associated Press story, “thinks frequent e-mail improves writing: ‘To become a better writer, you have to write.’”[6]

But the central issue has yet to be broached – the connection, if any, between Internet use and deep reading. Let’s try a hypothesis – that book purchases are a good proxy for deep reading, and that a decline in deep reading would be made evident in a decline in book purchases. You might know where I’m going with this. If my city is anything like your city, one of the most interesting phenomena of the end of the last century and the beginning of this century has been the explosion of big box bookstores. There is also, of course, the Amazon.com explosion. There was also the near hysteria about the release of the latest Harry Potter book, and the interesting sight of millions of young (and old) engaged in what looked quite a lot like “deep reading.”

Can this be quantified? This time the stopwatch records twenty minutes of research – the information is a little more hidden. But then I have it – the U.S. Census Bureau provides information from 1992 to 2007 on sales from bookstores in the United States.[7] The following chart is the result.

What does it tell us? First, bookstore sales in the U.S. have doubled from 1992 to 2007, from just over $8 billion to just over $16 billion. Second, that growth has now flattened in the period 2004 to 2007. What can we conclude from this? Not very much. First the growth rate while real, needs to be qualified by both population increases and inflation. Second, the “flattening” in recent years may be related to the spread of the Internet – or it may be related to the spread of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and resulting economic hardship – another matter that demands both serious deep reading and deep writing. Or perhaps the industry did expand, responding to demand, but did so too quickly – is now in a holding pattern, but will return to growth shortly. What the graph does not show, however, is a steep drop off in purchases of books in the United States. I guess we have to say, then, that the jury is still out.

Enough. This is simply a quick foray into an area opened up by Carr’s provocative article, emphasis on the word “quick.” While this response to Carr is an appeal for “deep writing,” it is certainly not an example of the art. That would require more focus, more time – and perhaps more, not less, use of the Internet.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Nicholas Carr, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?,” Atlantic, July/August 2008, pp. 56-63
[2] Carr, p. 60
[3] See for example, Sonia Livingstone and Moira Bovill, Children and Their Changing Media Environment: A European Comparative Study (Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum: 2001)
[4] Norman H. Nie, Lutz Erbring, “Internet and Society: A Preliminary Report,” IT & Society, Volume 1, Issue 1, Summer 2002, p. 280
[5] Carr, p. 58
[6] Cited in “Is email ruining the way we write?” Associated Press, December 12, 2005
[7] U.S. Census Bureau, “Service Sector Statistics: Estimates of Monthly Retail and Food Services Sales by Kind of Business,” 1992-2007

The Gutter Press and the ‘War on Terror’

Letter to the Editor submitted to The Globe and Mail June 26, 2008 • George Bush is white. Stephen Harper is white. Tony Blair is white. So, I will now write about white terrorism as a plague covering the planet, given that several hundred thousand in Iraq and Afghanistan, as a result of the military actions of these white men, are dead, maimed and/or traumatized. I will use the term “honky.” Were I to do this, of course, and submitted it as an article to the very respected The Globe and Mail, it would be rejected as being inflammatory, crude and, well, just a little too “gutter”. The language of the tavern is not appropriate for Canada’s national newspaper. However, when Christie Blatchford applies the same technique to people from Pakistan, not only is her article accepted – it is featured on the front page.[1]

But I urge you not to stop at the front page. Read the article in its entirety. She goes on to write about a man whose mother was in the World Trade Centre September 11, 2001, but who managed to survive. But the son, to Blatchford’s surprise, does not sign up to fight for the United States but is “inspired to go to Afghanistan not to fight the guys who nearly killed his mummy, but to fight the dirty kuffar, or infidels.”

She then compares him to an elephant, likens Manhattan to “civilization,” Central Asia to “the jungle” and says that the fellow left Manhattan for “the wilds of northern Pakistan, and wanted all the more to blow civilization to smithereens.”

Rudyard Kipling would be delighted. Blatchford has “taken up the white man’s burden” complete with racializing the enemy (Kipling disgustingly called his era’s enemy “new-caught, sullen peoples, Half-devil and half-child”) all to prosecute our era’s “savage wars of peace.”[2]

It is a shame that 109 years after Kipling’s hymn to racism and imperialism, there are some who have not discovered a better hymnal. It is a shame that seven years after the launch of the “War on Terror,” Canada’s national newspaper could give pride of place to something as poorly written and racially provocative as this article by Blatchford.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Christie Blatchford, “ ‘Down with the J,’ and out of their senses,” The Globe and Mail, June 24, 2008, p. A.1.
[2] Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden,” Literature Network, Rudyard Kipling, www.online-literature.com

Let’s Not Forget Mexico

Letter to the editor printed in Queen’s Alumni Review, Review Plus, Volume 82 Number 2, May 19, 2008 • Thanks to Sara Beck for her informed, well-researched and interesting article, “A Question of Treason.”[1] The stories of Israel Halperin in the 1940s and the Security Certificate Five in the 21st century show clearly the frightening ease with which human rights can be swept away in moments of societal panic.

One small correction I would like to make. Sara calls the events of 9/11 “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” I have in front of me William H. Prescott’s classic History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru.[2] The first few hundred pages of the book amount to a dry tale of the utmost brutality carried out by the European armies of Cortés against the people of what is today Mexico, culminating with his barbaric assault on the capital.

A long siege reduced much of the population to starvation. As his armies advanced into the city: “Dead bodies lay unburied in the streets and court-yards … As the invaders entered the dwellings, a more appalling spectacle presented itself; – the floors covered with the prostrate forms of the miserable inmates, some in the agonies of death, others festering in their corruption; men, women, and children, inhaling the poisonous atmosphere, and mingled promiscuously together; mothers, with their infants in their arms perishing of hunger before their eyes, while they were unable to afford them the nourishment of nature; men crippled by their wounds, with their bodies frightfully mangled, vainly attempting to crawl away, as the enemy entered. Yet, even in this state, they scorned to ask for mercy, and glared on the invaders with the sullen ferocity of the wounded tiger, that the huntsmen have tracked to his forest cave.”[3]

And when the conquest was complete, the corpses “‘lay so thick,’ says Bernal Diaz, ‘that one could not tread except among the bodies.’ ‘A man could not set his foot down,’ says Cortés, yet more strongly, ‘unless on the corpse of an Indian!’ They were piled one upon another, the living mingled with the dead. … Death was everywhere. The city was a vast charnel-house, in which all was hastening to decay and decomposition. A poisonous steam arose from the mass of putrefaction, under the action of alternate rain and heat, which so tainted the whole atmosphere, that the Spaniards, including the general himself, in their brief visits to the quarter, were made ill by it, and it bred a pestilence that swept off even greater numbers than the famine.”[4]

Enough. The attacks of 9/11 were acts of terrible violence. But they do not qualify as “the most horrific act of violence ever on North American soil.” As someone who teaches history and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean, I feel it is important to qualify that one sentence from an otherwise excellent article. Mexico is part of North America, and we have to know that the Europeanization of North America – in Mexico, in the United States and in Canada – has at its foundation terrible acts of violence against this continent’s original inhabitants.

© 2008 Paul Kellogg


[1] Sara Beck, “A Question of Treason,” Queen’s Alumni Review, Volume 82 Number 1, February 19, 2008
[2] William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico and History of the Conquest of Peru (New York: Modern Library, 1936)
[3] Prescott, p. 592
[4] Prescott, p. 599