Trump's scaled back hostility to Islam means the world is somewhat less apocalyptic

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Photo: The White House/flickr

Brief relief

Trump's speech in Riyadh this week was normal foreign policy drivel, which came as a relief. It was no more preposterous than what Obama, either Clinton, or Trudeau deliver when they talk world issues. Foreign policy is a truth-free, fact-free zone. When leaders speak on domestic issues, citizens at least have points of reference to check them against. On foreign affairs they blather freely. What did the Riyadh speech blessedly avoid?

The clash of civilizations, a dim notion that has sloshed around academic and policy circles. It was generated by Samuel Huntington as a substitute for Cold War, good-evil dualism, then targeted specifically at Islam by Bernard Lewis. The clique around George W. Bush embraced it, though in democratic (versus religious) terms, to justify their crusades -- W.'s word -- in the Mideast.

Trump's version came via the sloppy mind of Steve Bannon, who claims that "We, the Judeo-Christian west," are inevitably destined for wars with both Islam and China. That's scary stuff, injected into the seats of power. When Anderson Cooper asked Trump about Islam, you could see his tiny brain pause, searching for whatever Bannon had told him, then say: "I think Islam hates us."

But Bannon, much demoted, was in Riyadh along with the rest of Trump's team, doing his silly version of the Saudi sword dance -- showing how a whiff of power can vaporize even passionately constructed worldviews. Then he was whisked back to the U.S. Trump, meanwhile, voiced no hostility to Islam, nor did he say anything enthusiastic about "spreading" democracy. His speech scaled back the menace to merely demonizing Iran and rallying fundamentalist Arab monarchies against it, and against vaguely "evil" terrorists anywhere.

Why relief? This far more modest demonization of a single country is less likely to lead to hysteria and global incineration than the scaremongering threat of entire "civilizations." Regrettably Iran, a more developed, pluralistic and democratic society than any Gulf monarchy -- despite the theocracy also rooted there -- will suffer as a result. They will, involuntarily, have to bear the burden for a somewhat less apocalyptic world. We should be duly grateful.

Let Spence teach?

I'd rather not revisit the Chris Spence debacle but he won't leave it alone. The former Toronto schools director is back with a self-justifying video. He was dismissed in 2013 for plagiarism, starting with a Star column on the Sandy Hook shootings in which he repurposed a U.S. columnist's encounter with his son. Then came cases in his own "books." (They're flimsy and air quotes are common among those who've "read" them.) Finally his PhD thesis. His license to teach was recently lifted.

His justifications are bizarre. He says he didn't write the Sandy Hook column himself, someone else did, and he's willing to name the person whose work he then took credit for, effectively plagiarizing a plagiarizer.

He says he takes "full responsibility" for "mistakes" and wants "to move on." But taking responsibility doesn't mean you get to move on as if you never did anything, with no real consequences beyond vocalizing your guilt.

He says "parts of that thesis … are reckless and careless" but he was busy, he takes on too much. Why does he think people plagiarize -- because they like the concept? They're all busy and preoccupied so they swipe stuff. He blames everyone else: the thesis committee that wanted changes, the thesis service he handed it to. It's all excuses, scant on responsibility.

"The public scrutiny that I've gone through has been unprecedented," he says, sounding like Trump announcing no politician in history has been treated worse or more unfairly. Perspective is the first casualty in plagiarism and dismissal cases. But it makes his claims about taking full responsibility baffling.

This is a notion of responsibility without consequences and it's become a minor plague. One Spence backer says, "he clearly says he's responsible" but "is he culpable … those are two different things."

No they're not. If you're responsible, you're culpable. It has the ring of PR advice: Get out in front of this thing and say you take responsibility. Then forget it and get on with life exactly as before. Neat trick if you can manage it but at the least, the rest of us might say we have doubts about someone zealously performing this kind of mental contortion, then returning to serve as a renowned "role model" for kids.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: The White House/flickr

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