Ethical fallacies left and right

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      There aren’t many heroes in Canada quite like Alan Borovoy. As the public face of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association for almost 40 years, Borovoy, 74, is an old general in the great struggles for social justice and human rights in this country. He’s also a legal scholar of consistent courage, intellectual integrity, and humility. When he walks into a room, people tend to stand up.

      So it’s a pity that insufficient notice has been paid to his just-published Categorically Incorrect: Ethical Fallacies in Canada’s War on Terror (Dundurn, $24.99). The first sentence alone should be enough to make people pay attention: “This book is dedicated to the memory of North America’s tough-minded democratic Left.”

      The “left” shouldn’t be expected to be altogether happy with this book, but neither should the “right”. Hence the book’s low profile. Not that Borovoy is complaining; he’s not the type. “I’m trying to expose fallacies of thought on both sides of the ledger,” Borovoy told me on the telephone from Toronto the other day, “because there’s something that started to fascinate me. It’s that in so many ways, these fallacies are mirror images of one another.”

      Borovoy’s thesis is that on the nominally left-wing, progressive, “anti??war” side of the ledger there is a wholly unwarranted respect for an international rule of law that doesn’t really exist. This runs together with an ethical fallacy that Borovoy calls “equivalence-mongering”, which disregards the differences between democracies and dictatorships.

      Its mirror image is a cavalier, self-defeating disregard for the rule of law that plainly does exist within democracies. Adopting overly sweeping domestic measures in the “war on terror” has resulted in a trampling of precisely the rights and freedoms that terrorist fanatics most keenly despise about secular democracy.

      Partisans on each side of the ledger duke it out in Parliament, in the editorial pages of the dailies, in the courtrooms, and elsewhere, but Borovoy is not content to just take sides or declare a conscientious objection. Categorically Incorrect explicitly counsels a return to the rigorous intellectual discipline necessary to the defence of democracy and universal human rights, which the liberal left once championed.

      By staking out his critical perspective at a safe distance from current fashions in left-wing thinking, Borovoy sees many more draconian elements in terror-threat responses than have been generally noticed. Typical of the rare insight that Borovoy’s view allows is the identification of a glaring contradiction in Canada’s anti?terror law, which casts a wide net around any contribution to violent, anti-government activity, at home or abroad.

      “This prohibition is formulated in such broad terms that it could now be a crime for Canadians to donate money to an armed indigenous insurrection against the governments of China, Iran or North Korea,” Borovoy writes, disapprovingly. “After all, certain repressive dictatorships are not likely to be removed without some amount of violence.”

      Similarly, Canadian authorities are absurdly obliged to turn away asylum seekers who are legitimate freedom fighters from totalitarian regimes.

      But by purposely avoiding the ethical fallacies that tend to wildly distort debates about such controversies, Borovoy sees an eminently reasonable remedy to an ongoing civil-rights dilemma that has been especially clouded by activist hyperventilation.

      Security certificates authorize the deportation of would-be immigrants regarded as threats to national security. But they’ve resulted in a kind of detention without trial for individuals who choose to fight deportation. A key problem is the reluctance of intelligence agencies to fully reveal the evidence that triggered the certificate. Borovoy proposes a system of security?-cleared lawyers, fully informed of the evidence, who can then fairly and effectively argue their clients’ case.

      It’s not that Categorically Incorrect attempts to offer a full range of resolutions to the great debates that have arisen since September 11, 2001. That’s not what the book is for, and Borovoy doesn’t claim possession of some crystal ball unavailable to Canada’s Toronto?-centric liberal-left commentariat.

      Borovoy’s advantage is not just his training in the disciplines of logic and reason. It’s his courage to recognize democracy’s enemies on the left as well as on the right.

      He firmly rejects fuzzy appeals for the accommodation of global Islamist reaction because he knows appeasement when he sees it. But when a delegation of gay-rights activists at the Alberta legislature were dismissed by now–federal Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day, then a Red Deer MLA, as “an offence against the Lord”, Borovoy sees a greater evil than merely a foul insult to a minority group. He sees an egregious betrayal of democracy in its existential struggle with God-summoning autocrats.

      Borovoy has kept a different kind of covenant, the secular, democratic-left covenant of his heroes: the Canadian labour leaders Dennis McDermott, Eamon Park, and Terry Meagher, and the American civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin and his contemporary, the socialist Norman Thomas.

      Borovoy, too, is a hero. At least he’s one of mine.