CBC’s Fifth Estate recently presented an excellent summary of the Harper government’s approach toward basic research in Canada. “Silence of the Labs” enumerates the many ways Ottawa is conducting a war of attrition on science.
For the past five years, “more than 2000 federal government scientists and researchers have been dismissed. Programs that monitored smokestack emissions, food inspection, oil spills, water quality or climate change, were drastically cut or shut down,” notes the Fifth Estate’s Linden MacIntyre.
The CBC report found some new angles in the Harper government’s five-year long spree of knowledge-trashing. Dr. Pat Sutherland was working on a dig on Baffin Island, uncovering some of the first interactions between the inhabitants of the Old World and New. The archaeologist’s internationally-recognized work was subsidized by the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, but it fell afoul of her employer’s rebranding of Canadian history.
The museum had shifted its emphasis to Canada’s colonial past, sidelining the heritage of the continent’s first inhabitants. Sutherland’s archaeological project, no longer in tune with the new direction, was axed.
The federally-fun museum’s rebranding of history is in line with the welter of bicentennial advertisements from Ottawa that celebrated the War of 1812 – a national campaign that has cost taxpayers 28 million dollars. For the Harperites, Canadian history starts with the Redcoats who marched on the US capitol. It’s revisionism worthy of filmmaker George Lucas: call it The United Empire Royalists Strike Back.
After Dr. Sutherland’s dismissal in 2012, the Museum of Civilization entered into a creative partnership with a new sponsor: The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, “the high-profile lobby group that has been influential in reshaping science, now a partner in defining history,” in the words of MacIntyre.
As we know from history, the official politicization of academic disciplines comes bundled with the totalitarian impulse. In the early 20th century, Russian Stalinists insisted that science was political by nature, and they rejected entire fields of knowledge as bourgeois pseudo-science. A Marxist agronomist, T.D.Lysenko led the drive to remove geneticists from Russian academia. A leading Russian geneticist, Vavilov, was sentenced to death and perished in prison in 1943. Not just biology was under attack; quantum mechanics and relativity were also condemned as idealist fripperies.
The Stalinists were also masters of erasing the past. Politburo members and apparatchiks who fell out of favour with “Uncle Joe” Stalin had their faces literally airbrushed out of official photographs.
For their part, the German Nazis condemned “Jewish science,” which also included quantum mechanics and relativity theory (Einstein, seeing the writing on the wall, decided to leave Germany in 1932). Party members were parachuted into prime university positions, while the occult-crazed SS leader Heinrich Himmler launched his Ahnenerbe research institute to explore the beginnings of the Aryan race and the outer fringes of reason. Under the blessing of Hitler, the Ahnenerbe dispatched Nazi archeological expeditions in 1936 in search of The Ark of the Covenant and in 1938 to find The Holy Grail (the former theme was explored decades later in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark).
The “1000-year Reich” lasted only 12 years, in large part because the Fuhrer was not a big fan of the reality principle, which came in the form of increasingly unwelcome reports from the German High Command.
Perhaps I have encountered the print version of Godwin’s Law: “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.” Let’s just say the German leader was a historically unique lunatic who wrecked the brush moustache for everyone. That said, totalitarianism from the left or right respects no borders or eras. One of its defining signs is a contempt for factual information and a mania for reinventing the past. As George Orwell observed in his dystopian novel, 1984, ‘”He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”
The Fifth Estate episode didn’t even broach Ottawa’s recent “consolidation” of nine, world class libraries at the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, with the permanent loss of decades’ worth of scientific material. Our corporate-captured government seems determined to not let an idea get in the way of ideology, an observation in the way of an oil pipe, or a fact in the way of fracking.
The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 17 and 22