Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Monday, May 07, 2007

"Puckhead politics," May 7, 2007.

The plan was that this would be the fourth and last instalment on the general theme of Kyle Snyder's military refusal, the role of secrecy and anonymity in his bizarre arrest, the loss of impartial third-party adjudication and the so-called rule of law when police are given the responsibility of investigating complaints against themselves, and institutional conflict of interest which is practically a Canadian tradition.

It's not just the police. I know from several decades as a teacher that teachers police themselves. Universities do it too—both with badly mixed results much to the detriment of their own credibility. The clergy's self-policing has recently drawn some well-deserved and expensive skepticism. Engineers police themselves. And so on.

More than once, I asked my self if this was too big a subject. I intended to bring it all to a resounding conclusion today with the suggestion that volunteering for military service does not require anyone to accept and participate in wars of aggression, atrocities against humanity, torture and war crimes.

I meant to wrap it up by noting the conflict of interest that is institutionalized in the practice of the American military according to which applications for conscientious objector status are decided by military officers who generally have no knowledge of and in most cases no interest in the philosophy, history, practice or even US Supreme Court decisions about pacifism, conscientious objection, nonviolence, and military refusal—which they tend to think are all the same thing.

Then for British Columbians the week lurched awkwardly into motion with the regular spectacle of our elected provincial representatives debating a bill which predictably proposed to raise their salaries, to reestablish their sumptuous pensions, and to increase their travel allowances.

It was an almost irresistable example of institutionalized conflict of interest. Most of the debate in the press focussed on the numbers and quickly got out of hand. Was the pay increase 19%? Some counted the travel allowance and who knows what else and got 49% or even the magically exponential 64%.

There were reports that the opposition was divided on the issue. A very gloomy consultant's report had been commissioned. The public had been asked for its input at a series of poorly-attended meetings. Some frivolous opinions based entirely on misinformation were fed into the mix. There is no other free-for-all hog wallow quite like it.

Seldom does the debate reach the point of recognizing that we are witinessing a spectacular market failure based on an obvious intitutionalized conflict of interest.

Surely MLAs themselves should be the last to decide on their own salaries. Or are they more responsible than the rest of us and better able to make the necessary judgements under such conflicted circumstances?

They are not self-employed. The market for their services has no immediate means of saying “We think your rainmaking machine is too expensive, and we intend to buy from the competition.”

No one individual is responsible—not the premier or his party or the opposition or the civil service or the public or the market. It is a fully collective breakdown as if someone put bad chemicals in the parliamentary food bowls.

Then something really strange happened. The Shane Doan incident was coming up on the outside Thursday morning, and eighteen or nineteen former NHL players were in Kandahar on a classic political mission to play some ball hockey, lift the troops' spirits, and blunt the feeling that opposition to the war was gaining ground because of the detainee issue.

It was morning of the day Anaheim eliminated the Canucks. I was in the kitchen washing dishes. I did think I heard the player's name, but it wasn't repeated that night on the National, and the video clip did not appear on the CBC website. Not that I could find. So I will just leave out the name since I can't confirm it. Suffice it to say that one of the NHL greats announced in Kandehar that “Hockey is Canada's national religion.”

Ah, why do they hate us? Let me count the ways.

I hasten to defend this nameless great's freedom of thought and speech. There is no guarantee that what free speech produces will be wise or smart or even a significant improvement on mindless gibberish. But the principle is still an important one worth defending.

It took George Bush sixteen words to lie about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and a huge, imaginary shipment of uranium from Niger. Disastrous consequences, but important information about Bush's reliability as a source of information—in case you were wondering.

This latest exercise of free speech took only five words, and it constitutes arguably the best explanation of why coalition forces are losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan since the rumours that Guantanamo interrogators were flushing the Koran down the toilet. Big stupid.

Meanwhile, the debate about whether or not Shane Doan was an appropriate choice as the captain of Team Canada was growing.
In December 2005, someone not named in recent reports accused Doan of uttering a slur against a French-Canadian referee during a National Hockey League game, and using the f. word that we don't say on air before 9 p.m.

Some people believe that the ability to acknowledge your awareness of the issues is an essential criterion of leadership. It's not necessary to acknowledge a fault, especially when there is none. It's not necessary to give an explanation. But recognizing the reality of the issues is crucial.

Yet, no one I have seen or heard quoted in the reports—including Doan himself--has expressed any awareness of the obvious, i.e. That the making of racial slurs would be inappropriate for someone representing his country as Team Canada's captain.

I'm not saying Shane Doan actually did anything objectionable. I am saying that after seeing Bob Nicholson's performance before the Official Languages Committee on TV three times, I don't think I know anything reliable about Doan's behaviour in 2005 or about the NHL's investigation into it.

Nicholson admitted that the issue makes him emotional, and it was clear from the sometimes nearly incoherent video excerpts of his testimony that this was true.

He stated clearly that someone on the ice actually did say the words of the alleged slur, but according to his investigation, the slur itself seemed less important than being able to say that Doan was not the one who uttered it.

In the video excerpts, Nicholson did not say who conducted the investigation of the 2005 incident. He did not quote from a report of the investigation.

He told the Official Languages Parliamentary Committee that Hockey Canada wanted to "protect Shane Doan."

That may be an appropriate role for Hockey Canada, but it is not an appropriate role for the agency investigating an alleged offence. Institutionalized conflict of interest in spades.

Nicholson concluded that Doan wouldn't say a word like the f. word that we don't say on air until after 9 p.m. Because he was a Christian.

While it may or may not apply to Doan, the generality of this conclusion doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Anyone who watches Hockey Night in Canada will never hear but will easily see the f. word spoken and yelled freely by players and coaches alike. Everything from and go f. yourself to the exasperation of the free-standing f. all by itself is regularly to be seen on the lips of Canada's hockey players.

God is also regularly invoked by the luminaries on Hockey Night in Canada. I guess there are more direct reverences to god and greater visible use of the f. word on Hockey Night in Canada that on any other CBC-TV program. That is just a subjective impression, but I can't think of another show that comes close. Maybe The Hour.

Then finally, during the second intermission of the Canuck-Anaheim game, of course, Ron Maclean was obliged to comment on the Doan affair. That was to be expected. But what surprised and disappointed the most was that Maclean ended the intermission concluding that indeed, “Hockey is Canada's national religion.”

I just want to take this opportunity to say that I love hockey. It's a great game, but it is not my religion.

I distinguish between enthusiasm and devotion; between admiration and reverence ; between respect and worship. I recall vividly the season cancelled over a collective agreement dispute in what many called a battle between millionaires and billionaires. In my opinion, hockey is not any religion at all.

The hockey that might have been a religion to Pindar's olympic priesthood has been debased by parental vanity, by commercialism, by political manipulation and above all by the failure to honor the Olympic tradition of enacting a truce in all wars for the duration of the Games.

Is that political? Like it or not, sport, is often political. To represent your country is a political act. Coach's Corner is packed with politics. The appearance of NHL greats in Kandahar was political. Anyone who thinks sport is separate from politics should view Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda for the 1936 Olympics. Anyone in my generation who wishes it wasn't true should have opposed the American-led boycott of the Moscow Olympics in 1980. Hockey isn't political. It is a branch of politics. That's what I think.

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