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Neil Cameron

Neil Cameron is a Montreal writer and historian. He served as a member of Quebec's National Assembly from 1989 to 1994.

Liberal Nationalism and Demographic Realism

Doug Saunders and David K. Foot Globe & Mail international affairs journalist Doug Saunders has just published a book intended to influence public policy, Maximum Canada: Why 35 Million Canadians is Not Enough (Knopf, 2017). Having already written a not entirely convincing refutation of the Europe-focused alarmism of writers like Mark Steyn about the impact of mass Muslim migration, Saunders this time concentrates on Canada, more on is its reception of new people of all backgrounds than about their composition. It presently looks fairly likely that Canada may slowly acquire several tens of millions of additional population over the coming century, just plugging along with roughly present immigration practices and domestic birth rates, but Saunders wants to see a more rapid and consistent growth policy, moving the country to 100 million as rapidly as possible. He offers empirical and theoretical arguments in support. Most of the pros and cons of adapting such a course could be made in a few pages, but Saunders expands on the pros with two themes. The first is a selective history of the 'failing' quality of government policies from the 19th to the mid-20th century, nearly all years marked by large emigration, sometimes as substantial as the scale of new arrivals, with slow net domestic growth. The second is to portray even the more recent rapidly growing populations of the three or four largest Canadian cities as actually insufficient to provide the internal markets and domestic tax bases to maintain adequate services, thus making it very difficult, for example, for these cities to introduce much of the high-tech rapid public transport found in many large cities elsewhere. Saunders is a much better writer than his enthusiastic policy wonk supporter Irvin Studin, whose G&M review of Maximum Canada is a model of fatuous reasoning and bad… Read More

War and Remembrance Over a Lifetime

Almost half a century ago, I was spending three years in England, studying the politics of the British scientific elite in the interwar and World War II years. The great events of those years still haunted the country as a whole, but the interest of historians had also newly spiked from 1970, as the government had just decided, rather than continuing the past procedure of opening official archives year by year, thirty years after the files had been created, to release almost all those of the Second World War at once. This also led to new availability of previously restricted private papers of important figures, and to a flood of new memoirs and scholarly monographs.. Coming from McGill, I found myself in a very different intellectual atmosphere. Montreal university campuses were overwhelmingly preoccupied locally with the rise of Quebec political nationalism, internationally with the long Vietnam War. These concerns, combined with the huge expansion of student numbers as successive waves of baby boomers arrived, had been having great impact on the McGill history department; Concordia's moreso. The youthful mood was frequently ahistorical, or anti-historical, diverting attention even from the two World Wars. Campus turmoil was also common in Britain, and the lively London newspapers were also soon giving lavish coverage to the Watergate uproar in Washington. But for the British in general, the two big wars retained a profound social meaning little seen in Canada outside Remembrance Day. Throughout the time I was there, not just in interviewing elderly Nobel Prize winners or taking notes from documents, but in conversations in pubs, I was repeatedly reminded of the 1930s, not as the time of the Great Depression, but as the years dominated by the rise of Hitler. by the failure of the League of Nations, by Chamberlain's failed Munich agreement,… Read More

Kahn, Russell, and Rethinking the Unthinkable

Herman Kahn (left) and Bertrand Russell (right)   To better understand the dangers of the present confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. , it is worth re-examining the first years in which thermonuclear ICBMs became available to the U.S. and the Soviet Union, climaxing in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, and how the arrival of these weapons in the 1950-1970 Cold War years was treated by two influential thinkers of the era. One was the rotund, jovial American strategic analyst, Herman Kahn (1922-83); the other, the British aristocratic philosopher and popular agitator, Bertrand Russell (1872-1965).   Kahn, reputed to have 'the highest IQ ever recorded', was one of a small group of strategists of a new kind coming out of WW II, civilians and quasi-academics. rather than military professionals. Although dropping out of his mathematics Ph.D. program at Cal Tech, he never let that get in his way. Shortly after the end of WW II, he joined the U.S. Air Force's new RAND ('Research and Development') thinktank, and also soon participated in thermonuclear ('hydrogen') bomb research at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He was soon on equal footing with his older brilliant colleagues, many of them European e'migre's who had worked on the wartime Manhattan Project. Both they and the younger native-born strategic theorists like Kahn and Thomas Schelling had their main backgrounds in mathematics, physics, and economics. Kahn found an especially kindred spirit in the expatriate Hungarian, John von Neumann (1903-57), like him a cheery and sybaritic polymath with a stratospheric IQ. Both were not only interested in nuclear weapons, but in developing computers. They drew on equally new and more general 'systems theory', using computerized mathematics, and also on the theory of games, with its imaginative thought experiments seeking outcomes of alternative 'scenarios'.   Eisenhower was not fond… Read More

The Bright Countenance and the Obscuring Clouds

Beholding the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies --Poet John Milton (pictured, left) (1608 – 1674); inscribed on McGill's Redpath Library. ...There is no reason now for listening, but rather for judging, pronouncing, deciding. There is no question concerning public life, in which [mass man] does not intervene, blind and deaf as he is, imposing his"opinions." ..Whoever wishes to have ideas must first prepare himself to desire truth and to accept the rules of the game imposed by it. --Philosopher, Ortega y Gasset (pictured, right) (1883–1955). in Revolt of the Masses (1930). ...In today's climate, it's all -too-easy to allow your views and outlook to be shaped by dominant opinion on your campus or in the broader academic culture....Think for yourself. --From an open letter of advice addressed to incoming university students everywhere, by a group of liberal professors teaching at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, August 29, 2017. __________________________________________________ Milton formulated his pleasant description of scholarly activity a few years before he wrote Paradise Lost. It was a visionary ideal, not an empirical account; in the actual colleges of the early 1600s, there was bitter conflict between supporters of the absolutist Stuart monarchy and the champions of Parliament, culminating in civil war. There was also plenty of more general riotous behaviour, much of it drunken. Francis Bacon claimed that students were made violent 'for want of sufficient maintenance', a little like the debt problem of students today. Nonetheless, it was widely understood that the pursuit of truth was the university's fundamental concern, however temporarily wayward the paths to it. For almost three hundred years after Milton's death, 'the bright countenance' in his mind's eye remained the central justification of university life. But by the late 19th century, the very idea of truth itself began to be undermined… Read More

Atomic Bombs: The Real and the Might-Have-Beens

The history of the Second World War continues to be written and rewritten, with continuing present relevance. New perspectives from the present aside, the war studies have highlighted two larger themes in all history. The first is that important 'now it can be told' revelations in documentary sources have kept on appearing. The second and often related one is the emergence of fresh 'counterfactual', 'what if?' speculations about how the war evolved and ended. The best of all examples have come in re-examining the conception, design, and development of atomic bombs in the major powers from 1939 to 1945. Niall Ferguson once edited a whole anthology of historians writing counterfactual essays about great historical events, but his enthusiasm is not universally shared. Richard Evans, another famous British historian and a leading authority on Nazi Germany, regards these ventures contemptuously, as no more than a mildly amusing game. However, all great wars, with their big winning and losing gambles, have always produced 'for want of a horse' speculations. Tales of the Bomb, both real and imagined, combining elements of geopolitics, European scientific genius, American engineering ingenuity and scale, espionage, and war both hot and cold, have inevitably been irresistible. Above all, the possibility of Hitler's Germany coming first with the Bomb (a fear driving on the Manhattan Project scientists themselves) has been mulled from 1945 to the present. Two notable examples are Heisenberg's War (1997), by Thomas Powers, on the top German nuclear physicist, and The Winter Fortress (2016), by Neil Bascomb, about the successful British and Norwegian sabotage of the indispensable German heavy water plant in Norway. But an equally fascinating 'what if?' has been the conceivable possibility that Churchill's Britain, which unlike Nazi Germany, was actually well ahead of the U. S. in atomic research in the first two… Read More
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