Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Grading A Weak Op-Ed: Strawpeople Arguments Missing the Point

 I have been wondering whether I should write about Michel Maisonneuve's op-ed, which is entirely about ... me.  As I have long admitted to being a narcissist, I am, of course, flattered by the attention.  But as a professor, when I see bad reading comprehension, ad hominen attacks, and wild analogies, I have a hard time refraining from commenting. 

To set this up, last fall, Michel Maisonneuve used his Vimy Gala award speech to rant about a variety of things that upset him--including a woke media and a government that apologizes too much. I wrote about it, which got much attention.  This seemed to lead to Maisonneuve, who complained about cancel culture, getting a regular column or its equivalent at the National Post, and the attention of the Conservative Party of Canada.  They then chose him to have a big platform at their convention. I suggested this was a bad idea in an op-ed as it would be putting the military into partisan fire (and I am not alone) not unlike how platforming Michael Flynn and John Allen in 2016 did so in the US, and it is that op-ed to which Maisonneuve is responding.

With that out of the way, let's go through this piece and consider what kind of grade it should get.

  • Before getting into the text, we should note that the picture that comes with the piece has MM with a chest full of medals.  This belies any assertion that he is not trying to parlay his military credentials into influence. Yes, he has the right to wear them, but to use this picture is not random, it is about wrapping himself in the CAF. 
  • I would give good marks to a student who so clearly identifies the target of his essay at the start, but then grade down for random references.  Why does he note that I am a dual citizen? That I am not Canadian enough to assess his abetting of the politicization of the CAF? Am I so foreign that my opinion should be devalued? A hint of xenophobia here.
  • "Saideman was a non-paying guest."  True (it suggests he read my blog post way back when and it tasks him).  But why mention it?  I was the guest of an embassy. And?  Maybe it is for him to identify with me since he didn't pay for his ticket that night either? I would be putting a red line though this if I were grading him (and if I were, say, an editor of an op-ed page)
  • I "didn't possess the courage to speak" to him after the speech? To be honest, I didn't think of approaching him because I was too busy sharing my shock and confusion with a great group of super sharp women who found his speech to be most problematic.  But calling someone a coward is often a good strategy for evading responsibility.  Tis, of course, an ad hominen attack, not really something that buttresses his argument, so points off.  Again, I do have to ask: who is editing the stuff over at the National Post?  So, again, he loses some points on his grade.
  • He says that I missed him speaking not just as a former member of the CAF but as a Canadian. Is this trying to defend himself against how "Americanized" his argument is?  I don't know, but I never denied he is a Canadian.  
  • MM then writes about his wife who also spoke with him at the convention.  How does this fit into an argument about why he has the right to speak?  She has spoken out about MeToo going too far and has written a letter to Macleans basically telling those who faced harassment to trust in a military justice system that retired Supreme Court justices have found to be quite problematic. Other than that and that she was MM's subordinate, I really don't know much about her. Again, a red pen would strike this out for dubious relevance.
  • The invocation of his wife then goes into a paragraph about decades of service to protect free speech. This is where his argument really missed the mark--I never said he didn't have a right to speak.  My piece was about responsibility--that the Conservatives should not provide MM with a platform because that would be politicizing the CAF.  Of course, the implication of my op-ed is that MM himself should responsibly refrain from being part of a partisan event.
    • One of the problems with the contemporary right wing is that they conflate any suggestion of responsibility that comes along with freedoms as restraints or censorship.  Much of the free speech stuff today is not about the government restricting people from speaking but people wanting to speak without any consequences. They want to say offensive stuff and then not get called out for being offensive. 
    • Mrs. MM in her speech I linked to above expresses umbrage at people being called racist for being critical.  Well, that can happen if one says racist stuff or it can happen because people are using racist as an epithet.  When one speaks on a stage with multiple totem poles after an Indigenous dance group performed after a summer of discoveries of unmarked graves at residential schools and says that we shouldn't be apologizing for stuff, then one should expect to be considered insensitive on Indigenous issues and even a racist.  So, no, this essay here should not be about MM's freedom of speech, which was never in question, but should be about speaking responsibly. This by itself means that this essay could not get more than a B since it misses the target.
  • MM insists that he is not politicizing the military as he is no longer in active service, that he has been out of uniform for ten years.  Technically true that he is no longer a member of the military. But since he worked at a military school for quite some time, he is probably well aware of the dynamic where the retired senior officers are seen as speaking for those still in uniform who cannot engage in partisan speech. Plus there is the whole picture he chose to give to the NP with a chest full of medals. That is no accident. 
    • And, no, for my picture for the G&M op-ed, I didn't choose to wear my graduation chapeau (I have no idea what they are called) nor did I choose to have a bunch of framed degrees behind me nor did I choose to have a pile of the books I have authored in my lap.  This is where MM wants to have it both ways: he wants to be seen as a representative of the silent and oppressed military but does not want to be criticized for dragging the CAF into partisan conflict. There is a distinction between criticizing the military and the government (which I do all the time) and doing so at a national convention of a political party using one's title.  
  • To be clear, he says he and his wife were apolitical when they were in the military and are only now getting involved "by helping to develop policies and by electing representatives who will listen to Canadians ..."  The big question then is: what policies?  To roll back the efforts to change the military's culture?  That will come up again. The argument here is that the Conservatives are a pro-military party, and that the Liberals are anti-military. Which is an argument one can make unless one is trying to represent the military.  Then it is politicizing the military.
  • "My wife and I have never criticized the men and women in uniform." This is false as he mocks those in the military who "wear nail polish and man-buns," so I have to grade him down for being internally inconsistent.  Moreover, my focus is not on his criticism of the military, but on the Conservatives weaponizing his criticism.
  • "Has the current government politicized the military?" He then lists a bunch of stuff, some of which are decent criticisms, such as replacing Anita Anand as Minister of National Defence, dithering on buying the F-35, being slow to complete the defence review.  But none of these are politicizing the military--that is, making the military to be a partisan actor. Everything involving the military is, of course, political, as I noted in my original piece (and he calls boilerplate), but politicizing refers to involving the military in the domestic political competition of parties.
  • MM then applies this politicizing stuff reference to the sexual misconduct and abuse of power crisis, referring to the mistreatment of senior leaders after they were found not guilty or not charged. There is an irony here as the former Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan argued before Parliament that he didn't follow up on accusations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power levied against former Chief of the Defence Staff Jonathan Vance because that would be politicizing the issue.
    • The irony is not that one of my more noteworthy op-eds where I called for the Liberal defense minister to be fired, but that both Sajjan and MM have a crappy understanding of what is and what is not politicizing. Maybe something former military officers share? Of course, one key problem for MM's argument is that Vance pled guilty to obstruction of justice, and what justice was Vance obstructing? An investigation into his affair with a subordinate that he conducted over many years.
    • MM might be referring to the case of Art McDonald, who lost his role as CDS because of credible accusations that he engaged in sexual assault as a commodore of a NATO exercise. McDonald claimed to be exonerated when the military investigators essentially said that all the witnesses were too drunk to testify. Again, we have multiple Supreme Court justices finding significant problems with the military justice system, so a lack of charges may not be evidence of senior officers being treated poorly. 
    • MM might have a better claim when it comes to Danny Fortin, who had the misfortune of having his case come to light after Vance and McDonald, as Fortin was tried in civilian court and acquitted.  
    • This view about the sexual misconduct and abuse of power crisis does suggest that MM's preferred policy options are to reverse the culture change effort, but more on that below.
  • MM then discusses the recent announcement of budget cuts--something that I also oppose.  But it is not clear how this fits into his argument that he deserves to be heard at a national party convention.
  • The really fun move is for MM to identify himself with Kennedy, Eisenhower, Churchill and Pearson as they were veterans who served higher office. I'd refer him to Michael Flynn and a bunch of other folks who brought shame to the uniform in their post-military public service. Again, my point was not that he could not run for office, but that standing on a national party convention stage to blast the government of the day would be politicizing the military.  So, his analogy is a bad one, as he is no Jack Kennedy. Nor is he Eisenhower, who proved to be an incredibly talented diplomat who had to manage the competing egos of Montgomery, Patton, and De Gaulle.  Churchill? Which part of Churchill's legacy is MM embracing? 
  • MM then addresses my concern that if one politicizes the military, it would exacerbate the existing personnel crisis.  He then says: "by the statistics I have seen, allowing members to wear nail polish and man-buns, or to choose their pronouns, has had zero effect on increasing the numbers joining." He is referring to efforts to make the military more inclusive, and his disdain here is a combination of misogyn, racism, anti-Sikh-ism, and transphobia. And, as I mentioned above, he is mocking people who are currently in the CAF. Since these people are almost lower in rank than MM's former rank as LGen, this is also punching down. Of course, the academic violation here is that he does not cite his sources for these stats, so again, reduced marks. 
  • MM is right that more needs to be done to improve recruitment. I would point to fixing the larger culture of abuse of power and entitlement that drives out good people who see toxic leaders who prey upon their subordinates getting promoted to the highest levels.
  • MM is right that the personnel crisis needs more money, but I don't think we need to bring the "Armed Forces back from the dead." This hyperbole undermines the argument here by denigrating the CAF as it exists now--things are not great, but they are not as dire as he suggests, in part because it has much better leadership than when MM was in uniform.
  • His penultimate paragraph should start to sum up his argument, but instead we get a slight based on academics being nerds who just rely on books. It is kind of like the insults I see online about whether the academics like myself have served in the military.  This is part of an arrogance that has festered in many modern militaries--that they think the only expertise that one can develop is via experience.  While that is one form of expertise, one can also understand something through extensive, rigorous study.  Oh, and how have I studied civil-military relations?  By systematic comparison via talking with folks in and out of uniform, learning from their experiences. Again, this attempt at an insult does not really help his argument here.
  • MM's conclusion is, of course, vague.  He says the public has to change their views about the CAF and national security.  To what? He says that the government should follow the public's lead. So far, the public has not voted out politicians for underspending on the military unless one counts Harper in 2015, and that would be a stretch.
  • His last lines are that I need to recognize that veterans care about the CAF and they are not politicizing it by doing so.  Maybe some veterans, but not these veterans--not MM and his wife.  

So, looking over this asssessment, I can't say that Maisonneuve would pass a class on civil-military relations--he loses a lot of points for unsupported claims, for ad hominen arguments, for tangents.  Most importantly, it is a strawman argument since I did not argue that he didn't have a right to speak.  I argued that he should not be platformed.  That is a distinction with a difference.  

The essay does not reflect an adequate understanding of the situation in which he has placed himself--that Maisonneuve is putting himself out there to be Canada's Michael Flynn.* He didn't shout lock him up at the convention, to be fair. Finally, he also never articulates what policy he really wants to advocate besides more money for the military (again, something with which I agree).  I could guess that he wants to return the military to some vaunted past where the senior officers were not held accountable for preying upon their subordinates, but he does not make his argument clear. Even though I am a generous grader (must be my American background), I don't think I could give more than a C- for Maisonneuve's op-ed before factoring in the aforementioned misogyny, transphobia, racism, and anti-Sikhism.

* I am not referring to Flynn serving as a foreign agent while National Security Advisor.  While MM and I see things differently, I would not accuse him of being disloyal to Canada.




Anonymous said...

He's improperly dressed with his medals as well - one does not wear one around your neck and the same one (or a lower level of the same one) on your lapel at the same time.

Anonymous said...

I rank this Saideman's article a D-. His ignorance of the breath and depth of the debate is stunning. His constant waving of his PhD as superior to MM medals is equally ignorant. I have a PhD in History, a publishing record, and I am employed as NATO's Chief Historian. I also just happen to have 12 medals after a 40 year career. The PhD is worth but one of those medals. This professor needs to be reminded of what he really is - a master of the theoretical, just.

Steve Saideman said...

If this is really Ian Hope, I have to say I am disappointed. I really wish we could have talked back in the day about your experience in Afghanistan. I talked with almost everyone else who served in the chain of command for most of the mission (I missed Hope, Menard was difficult to reach, and Seminaw turned me down). That is how I try to see if my theories actually play in reality--by getting a broad set of views, engage in comparative analysis, and figure out which of the theories applies.

In terms of the MM stuff, an historian should consider MM's history and then use that to evaluate his stance on things, not the number of medals on his chest. I was playing with the whole grading concept since MM's op-ed was so abysmal, but that is really beside the point.

Anonymous said...

Medals that accidentally fell on his chest is what you said and that is both childish and ignorant.