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Light of Burning Towers

Light of Burning Towers

Poems, New and Selected
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Damned Nations

Damned Nations

Greed, Guns, Armies, and Aid
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When war returned to Bukavu, in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo along the Rwandan border, I dismissed the gunfire as nothing more than a minor skirmish. A peace accord had been signed eighteen months earlier by most of the fractured parties to this hellish conflict. Had no one read it? Maybe, I reasoned, it was just a group of boys not quite satisfied with the terms of their severance from one of the ever-shifting rebel groups. This isn’t serious. It will pass. During my previous mission to the region a few months earlier, there had been hushed chatter among aid workers of a “third revolution,” but war zones are full of such stories – of final chapters in battle not yet written. And, by all accounts, the rumours predated the peace process, so there was no need for concern. There were 10,000 United Nations peacekeepers in the region, and I was confident it wouldn’t take them long to identify the problem and contain it.
I was travelling with a documentary crew, gathering footage for an hour-long feature on the Congo’s devastating war. Our team was set to leave the next day, so I returned to my room at the Orchid Hotel – a Belgian-run auberge on the sluggish shores of Lake Kivu – and continued packing. Half of our crew, which included my husband, Eric Hoskins, had not yet returned from filming. I did not expect to hear these words at my door: “Sam, Eric’s been detained. Security officials are holding him and the rest of the team at the police station, and have confiscated their passports and equipment. They want to see our footage.” Eric was negotiating for the others to be released after they were stopped for filming in the streets, and was offering himself up as collateral until the officials obtained what they wanted. We had UN permission to film, and this kind of brazen harassment of independent witnesses with camera gear is too often the prelude to atrocity. It was only then that I realized the gunfire we were hearing was a call to arms.
I made a list of discrete tasks: grab a few tapes of footage unlikely to be deemed sensitive and whatever cash we had left; call our contacts at the UN; and, quickly, find someone at the hotel who could take me to the police station. The roads in front of the Orchid were rapidly degrading into battle lines. It was no longer just the crackle of automatic fire I heard; there was the pitched whistling of bullets as well. They’re getting closer. It was a resurgence of violence that no one was expecting or could explain. Even hotel guests from the American embassy in Kinshasa, who presumably had access to sophisticated intelligence reports, were caught off guard and could provide little information.
I was on the third task, about to climb into the back of a wheezing old Peugeot, when Eric came running towards me from another vehicle. “Get behind a wall!” he shouted. “There are soldiers everywhere. They’ve started shooting.” Eric had lived through a violent coup in Sudan, and his instincts were unquestionably better than mine. As relieved as I was to see him, it was not the time to tell him.
We ran between two buildings. I was unfocused, rushing through different scenarios in my mind, none of them useful and all of them compounding my mounting anxiety. I’d faced several close calls in war zones before this one – attempted car ambushes, the sudden appearance of menacing men in berets and mirrored sunglasses – but never one in which I’d had time to think. And it’s only when you have time to think, unarmed in the midst of a fierce gunfight, that you understand how utterly and hopelessly fucked you really are.
During a lull in the shooting, Eric and I scrambled to the hotel lobby to find the other members of our team, none of whom had any war experience. It was then that I learned he and the others had escaped after convincing the security officials to follow them to the hotel to view the footage. Once confronted by the violence in the streets, their captors fled in the other direction. The team’s vehicle pressed on, fearing it would be more dangerous to remain separated from the rest of us.
After a torturous night of uninterrupted gunfire and sporadic shelling, a few more details emerged. The Congolese military had arrested a couple of Rwandan soldiers at the border crossing a short distance from our hotel, reigniting the conflict (it wasn’t clear which armed group they were associated with). Residents in the area were now trapped between these warring factions as they took shots at one another, and the only thing we could do was take cover and wait.
By late morning, the shelling had begun to intensify. Bullets ricocheted through the hotel kitchen window. Along with everyone else, Eric and I made frantic calls to UN authorities, trying to assess the security of our location and wondering whether we should risk moving. Unbelievably, the Internet in the business office was still working, and I managed to send a couple of emails to my mother in Toronto: “Everything okay. Departure slightly delayed. Back in a couple of days.” We have an unstated arrangement when I’m in the field: I don’t tell her where I’m going and she doesn’t ask, so long as I send her regular emails letting her know I’m alive. The advice we received from United Nations and Canadian government contacts over the phone was consistent: “Stay where you are, keep your heads down, and stand by for further instructions.” Two guests from the hotel came running up from the garden area saying they’d come under fire by the water’s edge. No one was injured, but it was an ominous warning: it meant we were in the militias’ crosshairs.
Shortly afterwards, it sounded as if the rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) were landing dangerously close – so close that I immediately dropped to the floor, prompting an unflinching Congolese man in the lobby, who’d obviously endured much worse, to jokingly say, “I see you do not enjoy the beautiful music we play here in the Congo.” It is still one of the most reassuring things anyone has ever said to me in the midst of a crisis. A few of the hotel staff had access to a small but impressively reinforced “panic room,” while the rest of us huddled together in what we deemed to be the safest area: a cramped guest room on the lowest level of the hotel, built into the side of a hilly ridge and protected on three sides. Of course, if an errant RPG were to have landed in the hotel lobby above our heads, the entire building would have collapsed upon us. Despite reassurances from UN officials that we were “not the targets” and therefore not likely to take a direct hit, a significant proportion of the roving armed groups were drunk and stoned teenage boys whose weapons training would have been limited to “Pull here.” Whether we were targets or not, the boys’ spectacularly bad aim was worth heeding.
At first, we casually mingled in the room, introducing ourselves to the other thirty or so people who’d taken refuge along with our team – local hotel staff, guests, and others who happened to be visiting when the shooting started and the roads became impassable. UN helicopters beat overhead and for hours it sounded as if the front line had landed right on top of us. During a momentary reprieve we filed out of the room, only to be forced back in by a sudden and dramatic escalation of explosions.
Eric and I crouched with the other members of our team at the back of the room, pressed against an armoire. People huddled together in the bathroom and under furniture, staying low to the floor. Mortars were landing on the hotel grounds. With each forceful bang, fine fragments of plaster showered down on us. But the worst was about to happen: the sound of running above our heads. Urgent, confused steps were heard between the eruptions of gunfire. Doors were repeatedly opened, then slammed – whoever it was, however many there were, they appeared to be searching for something, or someone.
No one dared speak. A man by the window reached above his head and gently pulled the curtain closed. Eric and I looked at one another, and I could tell by the pained expression on his face that we were having the same thought: “They’re in the building.” There was one other woman in the room – an American embassy employee. I knew it wouldn’t be long before she and I would be dragged outside and raped. And what would happen to the men? Some would be mercilessly killed as a statement about who’s really in charge of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Others would be shot so that an itinerant group of pubescent boys might feel the rush of holding absolute power over life and death. After what had been a decade together, I knew that under no circumstances would Eric submit to the violence and degradation making its way towards us. More than anything, I wanted to tell him that he needn’t be brave, that brave meant certain death, and survival was all that mattered. Then, another bone-shattering bang, after which the footsteps could be heard directly outside our window. I couldn’t breathe.
Fear, in war, is absolute.
More than two hundred people were killed during the outbreak of armed conflict in Bukavu that cornered our team in late May 2004. To my shock and surprise (and enduring gratitude), it was not a group of rebel soldiers behind the door but a Canadian volunteer peacekeeper, Chuck Pelletier, armed only with a short wooden baton, the price tag still conspicuously attached. He’d been staying at the hotel on temporary assignment and was in regular communication with MONUC (the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo) operatives. When it became clear that the risk had escalated, the UN peacekeeping force deployed armoured personnel carriers (APCs) through the crossfire to collect everyone trapped at the Orchid. They had already moved many residents from our street, as combatants had attacked homes a few doors away from the hotel, raping and shooting civilians. Chuck organized us into numbered teams, then, in groups of seven, we ran single file to the APCs as the volleys continued. At MONUC headquarters, we joined hundreds of others fleeing the violence. The UN made no distinction or special accommodations for internationals, who were mostly Belgians, Americans, and Canadians, which is as it should always be in such circumstances. Congolese and foreigners trapped in insecure areas, including the Orchid, were evacuated together and treated with equal consideration at all times.
As the sun began to set, UN personnel announced there would be a distribution of mats to women only. The covered areas were overflowing with evacuees, and the only available space was outside on the lawn beside an exhausted contingent of South African peacekeepers. Under normal circumstances, I would have protested the decision to give mats just to women. And as the only woman on our team, I didn’t want the guilt of reclining comfortably on my spoils in front of my stiff-upper-lipped compatriots. But once I realized the temperature was dropping, I was wearing a useless T-shirt, and the grass we’d be sleeping on was wet, I got over myself. “We’ll share it!” I announced to the others as I sheepishly trundled off, elbows up. (True to my word, we took turns throughout the night.)
The next day the UN began to move people to the other side of town in buses under armed escort. Areas of Bukavu through to the airport were reasonably secure, and MONUC wanted to avoid turning their compound into a displaced people’s camp. During a briefing by a MONUC representative after boarding the bus, in which we were told to rest our heads on our knees and our hands over our faces in the event of bullets flying through windows, he declared that we were “not to panic,” but he would be making the journey with us “lying face down on the floor.”
This, he explained, was so that, in the “unlikely event that our driver is shot, I may resume driving.” Our bus driver didn’t say a word, but he flashed his boss a look that read, “Here’s a better idea, asshole: I’ll lie on the floor and you go first.”
To say I am lucky to be alive doesn’t fully capture the extent to which I recognize this to be true, for as long as I can claim it to be. And hopefully, I’m not nearly done yet. Most of us come into this world amidst a frenzy of pain and emotion and unpredictability, and too many of us leave in the same way. If between the two certitudes of birth and death lies a generous period of love, family, and friendships, free from the shackles of violence and poverty, it is a life to be coveted. War, and the pursuit of war, destroys us. It turns teenagers into killers, neighbours into génocidaires, and politicians into executioners. War is humanity at its most primitive, despite our attempts to dress it up, distance ourselves from it through technology, and frame it in acceptable terms – a battle for good in the face of tyranny or despotism or fanaticism. In the end, all wars are only one thing: people killing people. This is not to suggest that there cannot be justifiable reasons for responding militarily to acts of aggression that destroy civilian lives. But war in and of itself is ruinous to civilians and must always remain a measure of last resort. It ought to be difficult and complex and governed by frustrating processes for achieving global consensus.
The last decade has witnessed an extraordinary if not devastating political appetite for war, made possible by a prevailing belief in its primacy in solving international threats. The rhetoric of “killing scumbags” in Afghanistan and elsewhere has perpetuated a kind of nationalistic fervour in which there is little room for thoughtful dissent, even as the human and financial costs of waging war reach levels that are wholly unsustainable. Annual military spending is now at the highest point since World War II (higher than during the Cold War), with the United States footing half the bill. During his first year in office, President Barack Obama authorized more attacks against suspected terrorists (habeas corpus notwithstanding) by unmanned drones flying over Pakistan than George W. Bush did in his entire presidency. In the process of hitting its targets of armed militants, the Attack of the Drones has also killed civilians, at a ratio of fifty to one. Names and locations of targets are also proposed by the mercurial government of Pakistan – a military serfdom under whose auspices Osama Bin Laden “hid” for years. No doubt there is some kind of process of intelligence-gathering in place to verify submissions for extrajudicial execution. But “military intelligence,” as Groucho Marx once cracked (before Bush rendered it prophecy), “is a contradiction in terms.”

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Black Code

Black Code

Inside the Battle for Cyberspace
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Diplomacy in the Digital Age

Diplomacy in the Digital Age

Essays in Honour of Ambassador Allan Gotlieb
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tagged : diplomacy, essays
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Diplomacy functions best where it appraises and advises power, and does not attempt to substitute itself for the very real world of politics.
Like authority, sin, Christmas, and winter, secrecy isn’t what it used to be. Secrecy has lost its sanctity.
The diplomatic pouch has been torn asunder by the digital age, which is characterized by immediacy, transparency, profligacy, and universality. . . . In the digital age – building on the industrial age – we move from the some to the many, from the stately to the frenetic, from command to influence, from deception to candour, and from interests to issues.
Open diplomacy and open policy development – building vast global networks to harness ideas and nurture support everywhere, all the time – are the hallmarks of modern diplomacy.
A remarkable group of scholars, essayists, and practitioners have come together in this volume to celebrate Allan Gotlieb’s revolutionary contribution to the theory and practice of diplomacy in the last three decades of the twentieth century. They have come together to celebrate an outstanding intellect as well as a brilliant practitioner, a man who thinks lucidly and writes elegantly about diplomacy.
The contributors to this volume are also interested, as is Allan Gotlieb, in thinking forward about the future of diplomacy at yet another moment of significant change. Diplomacy is now being practised in the digital age. What does it mean to be a diplomat in a digitized world? What does a diplomat do differently in an age in which the information cycle spins continuously and hundreds of millions of people provide upto- date information and engage in discussion through interactive social media? We asked our contributors to look back at Allan Gotlieb’s seminal contribution in order to better understand the future.
This volume went to press in the aftermath of WikiLeaks and the beginning of the Arab Spring. WikiLeaks stunned the diplomatic community when it made public some of the more than a quarter million cables that it now has in its possession. Professionals worried actively about compromising sources, the threat to confidentiality, and the likely refusal of people to confide in diplomats now that there was no assurance that their identity would be protected. Secrecy, as Andrew Cohen puts it in his chapter, has lost its sanctity. How, diplomats worried, can they do their jobs, communicate confidential and valuable information, protect their sources, and provide the kind of analysis their governments need?
The public reaction to the leaked cables was quite different. Diplomats, people said with some surprise, are smart. “I didn’t get much new information,” one well-informed journalist told me, his voice tinged with envy and some uncertainty, “but, my God, diplomats write well.” Seasoned observers were certainly titillated by the occasional surprising morsel of gossip and entertained by some of the fripperies. Overwhelmingly, however, they were engaged and impressed by the analyses that they read. Even within the skeptical and occasionally snooty academy, colleagues grudgingly acknowledged that “these diplomats” really do provide thoughtful and incisive analyses.
Diplomats, in short, are not valuable because of the information they provide, but because of their authoritative knowledge and the quality of their analyses. Especially in a digital age awash in information, indeed drowning in information, knowledge and elegant analysis matter. They may matter even more than they did in the age of print, where editors traditionally assured the quality of what people read.
In the wake of WikiLeaks came the Arab Spring, one in a series of significant revolutionary waves in the digital age. Social media were important in helping demonstrators to organize, in feeding video to the world’s media, and in giving a platform to the protestors as they struggled against governments who were desperately trying to close off global access to disturbing pictures and stories. Al Jazeera, the Arabic television station based in Qatar, provided saturation coverage of the protest movements, but often its journalists were denied access or expelled as contestation deepened. It too relied on social media for the critical content that it needed. Diplomats, at times removed from the pitched battles in the streets, were well behind the flow of information. They were not behind, however, in the analysis their governments needed as they struggled to craft responses to rapid developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, and Syria.
In a Paris hotel room late in the evening of March 17, 2011, the top U.S. diplomat struggled to coordinate the international response to the advance of Colonel Moammar Gadhafi’s forces and the threat they posed to civilians in Benghazi, Libya. Initially opposed to any kind of military intervention, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton changed her mind after listening to some of her senior diplomatic advisers. She worked closely with the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, who had been urging a use of force to protect civilians from the vengeance of Gadhafi’s loyalists.
Rice worked the halls of the United Nations with classic diplomatic skills and promised the Secretary that she would get at least ten affirmative votes for a resolution that was far stronger than simply a no-fly zone. From Paris, Clinton worked to secure the support of Arab governments for the resolution that would be approved by the United Nations forty-eight hours later. It was this capacity to garner support for a strong resolution in New York at un headquarters, as well as Arab engagement that persuaded President Obama to move ahead.
It was very much old-school, classical diplomacy – hands-on, informal, private conversations that put together the coalition in favour of intervention in Libya. Skilled diplomats worked the phones, called in favours, and kept their political leaders informed of which country was where on what issue. They built the coalition and drafted political leaders to make the important high-level calls that were necessary to cement the deal. In the midst of a revolution that got its oxygen from social media, the protestors in Benghazi depended on the skills of professional diplomats to survive.
These two vignettes bookend the themes of this book. When Allan Gotlieb was sent to Washington as Canada’s ambassador three decades ago, he recognized immediately that the prevailing model of diplomacy would not be enough. Gotlieb continued to do what previous ambassadors had done, but also, as Marc Lortie tells us, vastly more. He reached out beyond the White House and the State Department to the Senate and the House of Representatives, to journalists and columnists and opinion makers, to the broad swath of people who influenced the open policy process with its many points of access in Washington. Sondra Gotlieb played a crucial part in this diplomatic transformation, becoming a Washington celebrity in her own right through her widely read column in the Washington Post and her talk-of-the-town parties.
How to manage the Canada-U.S. relationship remains a central question, perhaps even more complicated in the digital age than it was when the Gotliebs were in Washington. Colin Robertson looks at how the principles of Gotlieb’s diplomacy travel forward into the future. Brian Bow, Jeremy Kinsman, and David Malone engage in a lively and vigorous debate about restructuring Canada’s diplomacy as the world rebalances to include the newly rising powers of Asia and Latin America. How should Canada’s diplomats continue to pay the United States the attention it deserves but stretch to make space for Asia, Africa, and Latin America? Does the digital age enable new kinds of Canadian initiatives in parts of the world where historically Canada has not been a significant presence? Can digital platforms compensate for scarce resources? Or is Canada simply too late to a worldwide party that is well under way?

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In Other Worlds

In Other Worlds

SF and the Human Imagination
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I’m a fifty-three-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer.

In Other Worlds is not a catalogue of science fiction, a grand theory about it, or a literary history of it. It is not a treatise, it is not definitive, it is not exhaustive, it is not canonical. It is not the work of a practising academic or an official guardian of a body of knowledge. Rather it is an exploration of my own lifelong relationship with a literary form, or forms, or subforms, both as reader and as writer.
I say “lifelong,” for among the first things I wrote as a child might well merit the initials SF. Like a great many children before and since, I was an inventor of other worlds. Mine were rudimentary, as such worlds are when you’re six or seven or eight, but they were emphatically not of this here- and- now Earth, which seems to be one of the salient features of SF. I wasn’t much interested in Dick and Jane: the creepily ultra- normal characters did not convince me. Saturn was more my speed, and other realms even more outlandish. Several- headed man- eating marine life seemed more likely to me, somehow, than Spot and Puff.
Our earliest loves, like revenants, have a way of coming back in other forms; or, to paraphrase Wordsworth, the child is mother to the woman. To date— as what I am pleased to think of as an adult— I have written three full- length fictions that nobody would ever class as sociological realism: The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. Are these books “science fiction”? I am often asked. Though sometimes I am not asked, but told: I am a silly nit or a snob or a genre traitor for dodging the term because these books are as much “science fiction” as Nineteen Eighty- Four is, whatever I might say. But is Nineteen Eighty- Four as much “science fiction” as The Martian Chronicles? I might reply. I would answer not, and therein lies the distinction.
Much depends on your nomenclatural allegiances, or else on your system of literary taxonomy. Back in 2008, I was talking to a much younger person about “science fiction.” I’d been asked by the magazine New Scientist to answer the question “Is science fiction going out of date?” But then I realized that I couldn’t make a stab at the answer because I didn’t really grasp what the term science fiction meant anymore. Is this term a corral with real fences that separate what is clearly “science fiction” from what is not, or is it merely a shelving aid, there to help workers in bookstores place the book in a semi- accurate or at least lucrative way? If you put skin- tight black or silver clothing on a book cover along with some jetlike flames and/or colourful planets, does that make the work “science fiction”? What about dragons and manticores, or backgrounds that contain volcanoes or atomic clouds, or plants with tentacles, or landscapes reminiscent of Hieronymus Bosch? Does there have to be any actual science in such a book, or is the skin- tight clothing enough? These seemed to me to be open questions.
This much younger person— let’s call him Randy, which was in fact his name— did not have a hard and fast definition of “science fiction,” but he knew it when he saw it, kind of. As I told New Scientist, “For Randy— and I think he’s representative— sci- fi does include other planets, which may or may not have dragons on them. It includes the wildly paranormal— not your aunt table- tilting or things going creak, but shape- shifters and people with red eyeballs and no pupils, and Things taking over your body.” Here I myself would include such items as Body Snatchers— if of extraterrestrial rather than folkloric provenance— and Pod People, and heads growing out of your armpits, though I’d exclude common and garden- variety devils, and demonic possession, and also vampires and werewolves, which have literary ancestries and categories all their own.
As I reported in my New Scientist article, for Randy sci- fi includes, as a matter of course, spaceships, and Mad Scientists, and Experiments Gone Awfully Wrong. Plain ordinary horror doesn’t count— chainsaw murderers and such. Randy and I agreed that you might meet one of those walking along the street. It’s what you definitely would not meet walking along the street that makes the grade. Randy judged such books in part by the space- scapes and leathery or silvery outfits on their covers, which means that my speculations about jacket images are not entirely irrelevant. As one friend’s child put it: “Looks like milk, tastes like milk— it IS milk!” Thus: looks like science fiction, has the tastes of science fiction— it IS science fiction!
Or more or less. Or kind of. For covers can be misleading. The earliest mass- market paperbacks of my first two novels, The Edible Woman and Surfacing, had pink covers with gold scrollwork designs on them and oval frames with a man’s head and a woman’s head silhouetted inside, just like valentines. How many readers picked these books up, hoping to find a Harlequin Romance or reasonable facsimile, only to throw them down in tears because there are no weddings at the ends?
Then there was the case of the former Soviet Union. No sooner did the Wall come down in 1989 than pornography flooded across the one- time divide. Porn had hitherto been excluded in favour of endless editions of the classics and other supposed- to- be- good- for- you works, but forbidden fruit excites desire, and everyone had already read Tolstoy, a lot. Suddenly the publishers of serious literature were hard- pressed. Thus it was that The Robber Bride appeared in a number of Soviet- bloc countries with covers that might be described as— at best— deceptive and— at worst— as a Eurotrash slutfest in flagrante. How many men in raincoats purchased the Robber Bride edition sporting a black- satin- sheathed Zenia with colossal tits, hoping for a warm one- handed time in a back corner, only to heave it into the bin with a strangled Foiled Again! curse? For the Zenia in my book performs what we can only assume is her sexual witchery offstage.
Having thus misled readers twice— inadvertently— by dint of book covers and the genre categories implied by them, I would rather not do it again. I would like to have space creatures inside the books on offer at my word- wares booth, and I would if I could: they were, after all, my first childhood love. But, being unable to produce them, I don’t want to lead the reader on, thus generating a frantic search within the pages— Where are the Lizard Men of Xenor?— that can only end in disappointment.
My desire to explore my relationship with the SF world, or worlds, has a proximate cause. In 2009, I published The Year of the Flood, the second work of fiction in a series exploring another kind of “other world”— our own planet in a future. (I carefully say a future rather than the future because the future is an unknown: from the moment now, an infinite number of roads lead away to “the future,” each heading in a different direction.)

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