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Feb 18 , 2018


Duelling rhetoric in the age of offence

by Guy Pothier
Duelling rhetoric in the age of offence
Tu quoque. No, this column will not be in Latin. The phrase means you also. It is the name for the rhetorical strategy of responding to criticism of your own side by claiming your opponents are just as bad, if not worse. The most common recent example is for critics of Islamophobia after 9/11 to compare Jihadi violence with the Spanish Inquisition 500 years ago or the Crusades 1,000 years ago.
Recently, some people have tried, if not exactly to justify or defend Edward Cornwallis, to at least try to redress the balance. His scalping bounty has been weighed against the campaigns of the French priest Jean Louis Le Loutre and his Mi’kmaq strike force against Anglo settlers. A religious fanatic, his nearest 20th century equivalent may be the Slovak priest Josef Tiso, who led the collaborationist Slovak government during the Second World War, and who was executed by the Czechoslovak government in 1947.
So claims about outrage and counter outrage; atrocity and counter atrocity; provocation and counter provocation can continue endlessly with the Cornwallis wars. Historical debates can
come to parallel the conflict on the ground that continued in the Maritime region for at least 70 years, from around 1690 to 1760.
During those decades, there were at least four formal states of war between Britain and France. To the people on the ground, the peace treaties that terminated formal war were temporary truces, not a final settlement.
In the Maritimes, all the combatants were primed for the next round of conflict. These were decades of what today we would call low intensity, asymmetrical, irregular, guerilla (or counter guerilla), insurgency (or counter insurgency) war. These are just the kinds of wars that pit regular armies out of their element against local, often irregular, forces fighting for and on their local turf. This can often create the conditions for atrocities. Like Vietnam where, exactly 50 years ago, one side committed a major atrocity at My Lai and the other at Hue.
And add to this an underlying clash between Catholicism and Protestantism — a religious, ideological war that would have caused some to see killing your opponents as something of a religious obligation. There were New Englanders in particular who would have seen the Church of Rome as the Whore of Babylon. So reduced is the influence of organized religion in the West that it is hard for us to appreciate today how both Britain and America, until almost within living memory, defined themselves as Protestant civilizations or societies.
Mid-18th century Britain saw itself as standing for civilization against savagery, i.e. aboriginal peoples; and the Whore of Babylon, i.e. the Church of Rome. Peoples deemed to be at a lower level of civilization or development would eventually have to submit. Cornwallis seems to have been almost personally offended by Acadian pretentions that they could life outside the  hegemony of major empires. Which implicitly would seem to concede Acadian claims to neutrality at the time.
The thought occurs, if Britain in the middle of the 18th century represented the summit of civilization, as its leadership class, including Edward Cornwallis would have assumed, should they not be held up to a higher standard of morality in war? Acadians and Mi’kmaq did not have a Judge Advocates General function.
Standing against the British hegemonic power were societies that saw themselves as being  deeply rooted in the land for more than a century, with Acadians; and for millennia, for the Mi’kmaq.
The Acadians were developing and the Mi’kmaq had long ago evolved kinds of consensual governments that do not easily translate into western notions of constitutional governance and separation of powers. So, a civilizational clash, on top of all the other differences and rivalries in play. 
And we cannot assume that the interests of the British and French governments were always in line with the interests or the aspirations of Acadians, or the American colonists, or the First  Peoples.
The situation on the ground in the Maritimes in the first half of the 18th century was inherently unstable. It could only subsist while the attention of the imperial powers was directed elsewhere. Once the British determined to exercise de facto control of the Nova Scotia peninsula using Halifax as its bridgehead (like Kamh Ram Bay or Khe Sanh during the Vietnam War?), a final round in a century-long struggle was inevitable.
It is far easier to see how the struggle ended than how it began.
For Acadians, it meant that the uniquely egalitarian society that they had created on the shores of the Bay of Fundy and the Northumberland Strait was totally swept away. This made us, as I pointed out here before, a diaspora in our own homeland.
For the Mi’kmaq, the final victory of the British over the French empires meant the loss of the bargaining power and room for manoeuvre that they had enjoyed while the imperial struggle was in progress. The fall of French Canada left them helpless against overwhelming colonial power.
The British might appear to have been the clear victors. Except that the policy of relative religious tolerance that they showed to Quebec after the conquest enraged many of their American colonies. It was a more important motive than many Americans would like to acknowledge for the revolution, or war of national liberation, that created the U.S. of A. 20 years
after the conquest of Quebec.
True, Britain recovered enough to create what historians have come to call a second British empire, based largely around India in the 19th century and after. But in time America would displace Britain as the world’s hegemonic power. So their initial good deed regarding Quebec would come back in the end to haunt them. Oh, the ironies of history.
Dean Acheson, one of the titans of the American foreign policy establishment, was truly arrogant — and had much to be arrogant about. Visiting Britain in the early ’60s, he gave great offense when he said that Britain had lost an empire but not found a role. True then. Even truer now,
given the shambolic (a really appropriate Brit word here) state of British politics after Brexit. I remember thinking at the time that Acheson was right. Therefore, I should get over any resentment I might feel towards Brits over the expulsion of my ancestors. I am still trying to get over it.
And a parting shot. I have spent an inordinate amount of space in these columns dealing with Donald Trump and Edward Cornwallis. Trump is the U.S. president, so attention must be paid. Cornwallis was just well connected and privileged enough to stand in as a cultural icon for whatever significance or meaning people choose to attach to his image or stereotype.
The most charitable thing that I can possibly say about either Trump or Cornwallis is that each of them is conspicuously mediocre.

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