Duelling was once regarded as an entirely appropriate way for two gentlemen to resolve a dispute.
Today, a gentleman challenging another to a duel would be regarded as peculiar. Duels have become obsolete in the civilized world.
Could war also become an outdated method of conflict resolution – particularly as we enter an era of intensified global conflict over dwindling resources?
This compelling question lies behind an international grassroots movement that got a boost last week when NDP MP Bill Siksay and Liberal MP Jim Karygiannis introduced a private member's bill in Parliament calling for the creation of a federal Department of Peace, with a seat at the cabinet table.
Of course, private member's bills rarely pass, especially when, like this one, they challenge the orthodoxy of the military-industrial-academic establishment.
A Department of Peace may sound mushy and soft-hearted, but it's actually a deeply, subtly revolutionary idea, in that it threatens to undermine the war-oriented mindset that dominates our culture.
The goal of making war obsolete doesn't rely on any dewy-eyed notions about the possibilities of human improvement. Gentlemen no longer duel – not because men today are more kindly or sensitive than men were in the past, but because duelling has become socially unacceptable.
The same is true of slavery. Once a widely accepted practice, slavery now lacks legitimacy throughout the civilized world. With the rise of a strong abolitionist movement, a practice that had been regarded for centuries as a natural form of human behaviour came to be seen as uncivilized, immoral and repugnant.
We're taught to believe that war is different, however, that it's inevitable, given the human tendency for aggression. But war isn't just an expression of human aggression. It's also an institution that requires social approval and support.
Western Europe is a striking example of what happens when that social approval is withdrawn. After centuries of constant war against each other, the people of western Europe were profoundly changed by the bloodbath of World War II, which left them no longer willing to tolerate war as a means of resolving their differences.
Today, a politician in Germany, France or Britain advocating war against another western European nation would be regarded as unsophisticated, unbalanced – even ridiculous.
Canada could sorely use a Department of Peace.
In recent years, we've deviated sharply from our strong peacekeeping tradition; our troop contributions to UN missions now rank below those of tiny nations like Benin, Togo and Fiji. Stephen Harper's Conservatives have instead cultivated a culture of war, projecting a hyper-muscular image abroad while committing a massive $490 billion to military spending over the next 20 years – even though we're already the sixth biggest military spender in NATO.
Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff suffers from the same warlike mentality. In an April 2004 TV interview, while he was a professor of "human rights" at Harvard, Ignatieff endorsed targeted assassinations. He also keenly supported George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq – a position he now regrets, but only because that war turned out badly.
Both Harper and Ignatieff could be said to belong to the "warrior class" – the political, corporate and military elite that is closely tied to the highly profitable industry of war.
No one expects them to abandon their pro-war stance – at least not until a profound change in public attitudes leaves them looking as foolish as two investment bankers counting their paces before shooting it out on Bay Street.