World War One and the Lessons of Pernicious Nationalism

canadian ww1 soldiers

Canadian soldiers on the Western Front.

On this day, the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending the First World War—then called, optimistically, the War to End all Wars—it behooves us to remember that it was an avoidable, unnecessary catastrophe fought for no clear, moral, or even straightforward political reason. And while it is right and proper to commemorate the fallen, we need to avoid the platitude that the soldiers who died in the trenches and in no-man’s land did so for the sake of our “freedom.” Canada faced no existential threat from Germany and Austria-Hungary, and indeed, Canadians fought along with other Commonwealth forces on behalf of a monarchical, imperial power—which was itself not facing an existential threat, and which fought other monarchical, imperial powers.

WWI was a war fought between imperial nation-states over long-held nationalist prejudices, for pride of place in a factious Europe, and for control of imperial holdings around the world.

These facts do not denude the sacrifice of the soldiers killed and maimed, who fought less for the abstraction of king and country than for the men on either side of them. But it demeans their memory when we sentimentalize and mythologize their loss.

In the present moment, we should also keep in mind precisely why the First World War was so catastrophic: namely, it was a 20th-century war fought with 19th-century tactics over 19th-century politics. When Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz said in On War that “war is the continuation of politics by other means,” he articulated what was basically an ancient premise: that when regular politics failed, nations used the application of violent force in pursuit of political ends. For centuries, realities of weapons technology, manpower, and logistics, meant that lengthy, sustained wars were untenable and undesirable, and even such arguable exceptions as the Peninsular War still hewed to von Clausewitz’s notorious dictum.

In hindsight, the apocalyptic experience of the Western Front was predictable from such precursors as the American Civil War, which began as a familiar 19th-century conflict and ended with the Union prevailing because of its ultimate massive advantage in industry and logistics; or the Franco-Prussian War, in which the crushing Prussian victory showcased new generations of weaponry that anticipated the horrors of the trenches.

The collective trauma WWI visited on Europe shook people’s faith in technological progress as an inevitable good, as well as related conceptions of social and cultural progress. For some more astute observers, however, it also troubled assumptions about the sovereign nation-state as an ideal political entity. Such voices were unfortunately few and far between, as the failure of the League of Nations attested. And indeed, the two decades between the wars instead saw the emergence and entrenchment of inward-looking nationalism and political isolationism. There is a broad tendency to think of Nazism as born in a crucible of expansionist dreams of conquest, but as Benjamin Carter Hett observes in his recent book The Death of Democracy, which examines the collapse of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Hitler, the dream of the extreme right of Germany in the early 1930s was autarky—that is, the creation of an economically and racially self-contained and self-sustaining nation, answerable to none. Conquest and expansionism—Hitler’s notorious need for “elbow room”—came later, at least in part as a pragmatic realization of the need for resources Germany alone could not supply.

I recite this history here because we all know what happened from this point on. And if we’re to look at the Second World War as the “good war,” fought genuinely in the name of freedom from tyranny (though even that is something of a myth, as I argued a few years ago), we also have to acknowledge that the seeds of that conflict were planted by WWI. But at least WWII accomplished something the Great War did not, in the acknowledgement of a global and interconnected world: the United Nations, the enshrining of international law, the International Court of Justice, the early political moves that would eventually give rise to the European Union, NATO, as well as the dissolution of European empires.

All of this, I hasten to add, is and has been deeply flawed: globalism has been hijacked by massive corporations with the willing assistance of western nations, and in many senses one form of empire has been supplanted by another, something made painfully evident by then global effects of the economic meltdown of 2008. The return of populism as a political force and the distressing resurgence of nationalism are not unpredictable, but on this day of all days we should see the latter for the existential threat it genuinely is. Today at the Paris for Armistice ceremony, French president Emmanuel Macron—with Donald Trump sitting stony-faced nearby—called nationalism a betrayal: “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism … By pursuing our own interests first, with no regard to others’, we erase the very thing that a nation holds most precious, that which gives it life and makes it great: its moral values.”

What Macron did not say (so far as I know), and what I am saying here, is that nationalism is untenable in the 21st-century; and more than untenable, it is potentially cataclysmic. The kind of politics espoused by Steve Bannon and his ilk enjoins us to wall ourselves off into impermeable sovereign states based on difference, rather than overlapping communities based on common good. Bannon waves away the kind of racist and misogynist extremism his populism inspires, telling Joshua Green in Devil’s Bargain that “that sort of thing always burns itself out over time,” a claim that is either deeply dishonest or dangerously disingenuous: if the past two years of American politics has shown anything, it is that nationalist populism falls open to racial, ethnic, and gender biases like a book with a cracked spine.

The First World War, to reiterate my earlier point, was catastrophic because it waged politics made obsolete by terrible new weapons. That fact was exacerbated by a magnitude in the Second World War, which ended with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Cold War, even at its various nadirs, recognized the need for a global consciousness lest we visit our own extinction upon ourselves. And even more dangerous than nuclear warheads in the present moment is the spectre of climate change, an existential threat that cannot be solved by insular, nationalist nation-states.

One hundred years ago today, the Great War ended. Over sixty thousand Canadian youths died in the slaughter, sacrificed on a pyre of nationhood. We love to say how Canada was forged in the fires of that war; we honour their memory best by committing ourselves to an idea of Canada that rejects nationalism.

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part two): A Tale of Two West Wing Episodes

Since Trump’s election, one of the ways I’ve tried to escape daily reality is by rewatching episodes of The West Wing. This is not, from what I have gleaned, an uncommon strategy. I have also rewatched Aaron Sorkin’s proto-West Wing film The American President at least three times, and watched President Andrew Shepherd’s (Michael Douglas) climactic speech more times than I can count.

Since the announcement of Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination, I’ve been wanting to rewatch what I think is easily the best post-Sorkin episode of The West Wing: season five’s “The Supremes.” Unfortunately, Netflix no longer carries The West Wing, and I only own the first four seasons on DVD (first world problems). But after last Thursday’s testimonial drama, I bought the single episode on iTunes and watched it.

The premise and the resolution is classic West Wing, to the point where it made me wonder when I first watched it if it was an episode Sorkin had written before his exit from the show (it wasn’t). Justice Owen Brady, a young(ish) conservative firebrand, dies suddenly, and so the Bartlett White House is given the gift of replacing a conservative judge with someone more in their wheelhouse. Of course, given the Republican control of Congress, anyone too liberal—or really, liberal at all—is out of the question. But in a bit of theatre to scare conservatives and make their ultimate nomination more palatable, the senior staff make a show of interviewing some liberal firebrands—most specifically, Evelyn Baker Lang (Glenn Close), whose judicial history defending women’s reproductive rights has made her a bête noir of the right. Meanwhile, as her presence in the West Wing causes conservatives to shake in their space boots, the president and senior staff set their sights on moderate Brad Shelton (Robert Picardo), who is pretty much guaranteed not to rock any ideological boats:

supremes - robert picardo

BARTLETT: Affirmative action is going to be back in the next few years. Let’s start there.
SHELTON: What do I know about it?
BARTLETT: What do you think about it?
SHELTON: I don’t know. [pause] Not the answer you were looking for?
BARTLETT: Not really.
SHELTON: Unnerving, isn’t it?
BARTLETT: Is there another topic you’d be more comfortable with?
SHELTON: Nothing comes to mind.
BARTLETT: Perhaps you should make something up.
SHELTON: I’m not trying to be cagey, but I don’t position myself on issues and I don’t know what I think about a case until I hear it. There are moderates who are called that because they are not activists. And there are moderates who are called that because sometimes they wind up on the left and sometimes on the right.

I’ll come back to this passage momentarily, but meanwhile, long story short: the episode is an indictment of moderation, depicting the need to find milquetoast candidates for SCOTUS as a failure of the higher ideals of debate and argument between fiercely opposed but honest camps. A compromise is brokered: Chief Justice Roy Ashland (Milo O’Shea), a brilliant liberal lion suffering from dementia, will step down and be replaced by Evelyn Baker Lang. In exchange, the Republicans get to replace the dead Brady with conservative firebrand Christopher Mulready (William Fichtner), who earlier in the episode articulated the value of having ideologues on the Court.

MULREADY: Who’s at the top of the list? [pause] If I leaked it would they believe me?
BARTLETT: Brad Shelton.
MULREADY: Really?
BARTLETT: You don’t like him?
MULREADY: He’s a fine jurist. And in the event that Charmine, Lafayette, Hoyt, Clarke and Brandagen all drop dead this summer, the center will still be well tended.
BARTLETT: [laughs] You want another Brady?
MULREADY: Sure, just like you’d like another Ashland—who wouldn’t? The court was at its best when Brady was fighting Ashland.
BARTLETT: Plenty of good law written by the voice of moderation.
MULREADY: Who writes the extraordinary dissent? The one man minority opinion whose time hasn’t come, but 20 years later some circuit court clerk digs it up at three in the morning.

This tune wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin, but sounds like a pretty accomplished Sorkin cover band. The attractive mythos of his work is that all people in the wrong need is one persuasive argument to come around; that, and the depiction of workplaces staffed by intelligent, dedicated, honestly devoted people. My favourite line from his first series Sports Night is when Isaac Jaffe (Robert Guillame) says, “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.” It’s sentiments like this that make The West Wing and other Sorkin products feel like safe harbour in the present moment of rampant bad faith, hypocrisy, and mendacity.

BUT.

Perhaps you’ve already figured out where I’m going here.

I rewatched “The Supremes,” but it was unsatisfying … even as fantasy. Its principal centerpiece was when Evelyn Baker Lang runs into Christopher Mulready in the West Wing, and the two proceed to have an animated argument about various points of law—ideological enemies who obviously enjoy each other’s company, and enjoy even more the cut and thrust of legal debate.

supremes - close & fichtner

Which, for what it’s worth, I have no doubt happens in the actual SCOTUS. Both Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan have expressed affection for the late Antonin Scalia, someone whose opinions and personality you would think would be anathema to them. But the fact remains that the Court has become almost absolutely polarized in the past few decades; the fact that Anthony Kennedy voted with the liberals on abortion and gay rights made him the sole justice whose vote wasn’t a foregone conclusion. The prospect of a court filled with Brad Sheltons, who might honestly consider cases on their individual merits and whose votes would not be predictable, seems vaguely utopian in the present moment. I suppose that in the imaginary SCOTUS of this West Wing episode, in which, apparently, five out of the nine justices are centrists, a couple of extreme voices would be good for the sake of debate; but that has not been the nature of the Supreme Court for a very long time, if indeed it ever was.

Fortunately, The West Wing boasts more than one episode devoted to nominating a Supreme Court justice. Well … one other episode, from season one, which is actually far more germane to our present situation for a variety of reasons. In “The Short List,” the senior staff plan to nominate a justice who is, to use one of Donald Trump’s favourite expressions, right out of central casting. His name is:

JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
DONNA: Yes.
JOSH: Peyton Cabot Harrison III. He sounds like he should be a Supreme Court justice.
DONNA: It’s a good name.
JOSH: Phillips Exeter, Princeton, Rhodes scholar, Harvard Law Review, for which he was, oh yeah, the editor. Did I mention that he was dean of Harvard Law School? Did I mention that his father was attorney general to Eisenhower?
DONNA: Peyton Cabot Harrison III.
JOSH: That’s right.
DONNA: Jewish fellow?
JOSH: You’re not gonna ruin this moment for me, Donna.

(There’s a “Merrick Garland” joke to be made here, but I’m just going to ignore it).

When the President later meets with Justice Joseph Crouch (Mason Adams), whose retirement is opening the seat, the justice takes Bartlet to task for not living up to the promise of his campaign:

CROUCH: You ran great guns in the campaign. It was an insurgency, boy, a sight to see. And then you drove to the middle of the road the moment after you took the oath. Just the middle of the road. Nothing but a long line painted yellow.
BARTLET: Excuse me, sir…
CROUCH: I wanted to retire five years ago. But I waited for a Democrat. I wanted a Democrat. Hmm! And instead I got you.

He also upbraids Bartlet for making such an obvious choice for his replacement, and begs him to reconsider nominating someone else:

CROUCH: You’ve decided on Harrison.
BARTLET: I haven’t made a decision yet, Joseph.
CROUCH: You’ve made the call. [beat] Did you even consider Mendoza?
BARTLET: Mendoza was on the short list.
CROUCH: Mendoza was on the short list so you can show you had an Hispanic on the short list.
BARTLET: That’s not true, Joseph.

Long story short: Bartlet has second thoughts, enough to make him ask his staff to put together some information for him on Mendoza—“I just want to be able to know something. There’s gonna be a lot of questions. I don’t want it to be ‘we had a Hispanic on the short list’”—but not enough to make him change his mind. That is, until Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe) uncovers an old article of Judge Harrison’s making the argument that there is no constitutional protection for privacy. Long story even shorter, they throw Harrison out of the boat and bring in Judge Roberto Mendoza (Edward James Olmos) for an interview.

(Full disclosure: I love Edward James Olmos, and would happily watch anything he’s in. He’s one of those actors who brings such immense gravitas to everything he does, and his sole two appearances on The West Wing are no exception).

weat wing - olmos and sheen

Some people in the West Wing are not overly pleased with the change in game plan, however:

MANDY: I’m the one who has to sell this. And he is not exactly America’s idea of Supreme Court justice.
JOSH: Mandy, I don’t…
MANDY: Let’s do a side-by-side comparison. [reads from piece of paper] Harrison went to Walnut Park Country Day, Phillips Exeter, and Princeton undergrad, and Harvard Law. Mendoza attended P.S. 138 in Brooklyn, City University of New York, and the New York Police Department. Harrison clerked for Warren Berger. Mendoza…
JOSH: [off of the top of his head] New York City Police Department ’65 to ’76, Assistant District Attorney Brooklyn ’76 to ’80, Assistant U.S. Attorney Eastern District, Federal District Judge, Eastern District. Let me tell you something, Mendoza went to Law School the hard way. He got shot in the leg, and when they offered him a hundred percent dispensation, he took a desk job instead and went to law school at night. He’s brilliant, decisive, compassionate, and experienced. And if you don’t think that he’s America’s idea of a jurist, then you don’t have enough faith in Americans.

OK—this is where this episode resonates with me in the present moment. My next post in this series will be about the pernicious myth of meritocracy, something present, I’m sorry to say, in almost every other piece of Sorkin property. Generally, The West Wing is obsessed with credentials: Sam’s secret service code name is “Princeton,” C.J. has a Masters from Berkley, Josh was a Fulbright scholar and went to Harvard Law, and the President is a graduate of Notre Dame, has a doctorate from the London School of Economics, and was awarded a Nobel Prize in economics. I’ll talk more about this in my next post, but Brett Kavanaugh’s repeated, plaintive mantra of “I went to Yale!” made me think of this moment in the episode, especially the point at which Peyton Cabot Harrison III, under intense questioning from Sam Seaborn, says

HARRISON: This sideshow is over. With all due respect, Mr. President, I find this kind of questioning very rude.
SAM: Well then, you’re really gonna enjoy meeting the U.S. Senate.
HARRISON: Be that as it may, it’s disgusting. We all know you need me as much as I need you. I read the same polling information you do. Seven to ten point bump, 90 votes, unanimous out of committee, I was courted. Now, you have me taken to school by some kid.

This, of course, is hardly the spittle-flecked rage exhibited by Kavanaugh, but it is a dramatization of the same sense of entitlement. A few moments later, Harrison says, “I am an extremely well credentialed man, Mr. President, and I’m unaccustomed to this sort of questioning.” Again, resonance with the present moment: the anger Kavanaugh exhibited last week was this sort of sentiment cranked up to eleven: anger at the effrontery that you might be denied what you feel you deserve. “The Supremes” is a great episode, and one that articulates an idealized vision of good-faith debate; “The Short List” articulates something more immediate and crucial to our present moment, which I’ll get into in my next post: namely, that diversity isn’t just about race and gender, but also about thought and background. As I said in my previous post, the fulminations from Lindsey Graham et al that these accusations levelled at Kavanaugh will “ruin his life” are just so much horseshit. Kavanaugh’s suggestion that his admission to Yale was due entirely to his own hard work is more of the same.

That said, it’s not hard to understand why he might consider his educational background a defense. Looking at the current SCOTUS, every single justice went to either Harvard or Yale law school; the only sort-of exception is Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who transferred to Columbia from Harvard.

I’m not saying an Ivy League education is a bad thing. What I am saying is that I will address this question in my next post.

To be continued.

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, television, The Trump Era

Thoughts on the Kavanaugh Thing (part one)

BK LOSING IT

I spent much of this past weekend watching highlights (and lowlights) of the testimony delivered last Thursday by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Judge Brett Kavanaugh, I think it’s safe to say I have a lot of thoughts about this situation, and after several very long walks and a lot of yelling at my laptop screen, they’re starting to sort themselves into something coherent. So this will be the first of several posts I make on the topic. Hopefully I can contribute something useful to the discussion, but really, after several days of stewing and mulling, the key point here for me is to vent.

Hopefully it’s helpful venting.

The thing I’ve had to remind myself of since Trump’s election is “if you (i.e. me) are so angry and outraged and feel so helpless and afraid, just imagine how people more directly affected by all this feel.” Which is to say: I am white, male, cis, straight, tenured, and not only live in Canada, but have an ocean between myself and Trump’s America. All of which might suggest I don’t have a dog in this hunt and shouldn’t exhaust myself shouting at the TV.

The problem with that is that where I refer above to “all this,” I’m not just referring to Trump and his administration, but to the broader cultural currents that made his election possible; I’m referring also to the license Trump has given for people to indulge racist, sexist, and all other forms of hateful tendencies; I’m referring also to the election of Doug Ford in Ontario, the rise of Rebel Media, and the fact that someone who proved too white supremacist for even the Rebel is running for mayor of Toronto; I’m referring also to the fact that all of the above is fuelled by white male resentment.

And anyone who couldn’t see that white male resentment in Kavanaugh’s testimony on Thursday is either literally or willfully blind.

Watching Dr. Blasey Ford’s testimony brought me to tears at several points, and again, I thought how much worse must the experience be for women, especially those who themselves are survivors or harassment, abuse, assault, and worse. And indeed my Facebook feed was full of rage: women with whom I am friends, many of whom are close and dear friends, expressing admiration for Dr. Blasey Ford and anger that her poignant, credible, emotional testimony will almost certainly be for naught. And through it all ran a palpable sense of exhaustion. My girlfriend Stephanie expressed it to me this morning: “I feel like I’ve reached peak anger,” she said. “What else can we do? Where else do we go, emotionally?”

I wish I had an answer to that.

***

Going for a walk this morning, mulling all of this over, it occurred to me that the testimony on Thursday was like the pendulum swing from Obama to Trump writ small.

It was telling just how taken aback Republicans and their media mouthpieces were by the effectiveness of her testimony (even Trump, apparently, berating his staff for not having had any advance sense of how well she’d do). That surprise on their part shouldn’t really be a surprise, however, given the nature of the particular tightrope she had to walk. Any more emotional, and she’d have been dismissed as hysterical; any less emotional, and she’d not have been considered credible, and likely been accused of being a Democratic operative. She combined poise and fragility, humour and gravitas, and could speak to the specifics of memory and trauma from a professional perspective. And of course she is white, and comes from the same sort of privileged background as the man she accused, which made the Republicans on the committee doubly loath to be seen attacking her character.

Barack Obama needed to thread a not dissimilar needle: to be the first Black president, he couldn’t be too Black, or too redolent of Black American culture; he had to have superlative credentials—not just a graduate of Columbia Law School, but the first Black editor of the Harvard Law Review. He had to be the most pristine family man to occupy the White House possibly ever, and could not have had even a whiff of personal scandal attach to him. And on such occasions as the Jeremiah Wright affair, he had to have preternatural oratorical skill to ford those rapids. In his famous 2004 DNC speech, he uttered a line that would become a trope of his later campaign and presidency: “in no other country on Earth is my story even possible.” In other words, he had to be not just a forceful and eloquent proponent of American Exceptionalism, he had to be its living embodiment.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates pointed out at length in The Atlantic, Donald Trump stands as the epitome of white privilege: “It is insufficient to state the obvious of Donald Trump,” he begins, “that he is a white man who would not be president were it not for this fact.” He is in every respect the antithesis of Obama: ignorant, incurious, adulterous, venal, cruel, narcissistic, incoherent. Any one of these qualities attached to Obama would have tanked his presidential chances before leaving the gate. And yet Trump was elected, not least because he told white Americans that they were the victims of history.

When Brett Kavanaugh came out swinging, cranked to eleven in a veritable tantrum of resentful accusation, my initial thought was “He’s done.” But of course I should have known better: whatever good Dr. Blasey Ford had done was, like Obama’s presidency, all but obviated by the bilious rage of a petulant and entitled white man, whose sense of affront that he might have to account for his past behaviour gave license to his peers to harmonize with his aria of wounded privilege.

Since the first moments when it became clear that Dr. Blasey-Ford’s accusations were likely credible and stories of Kavanaugh’s teenage drinking emerged, I’ve wondered why he didn’t nip the thing in the bud with a simple expression of contrition: “I’m deeply ashamed of my behaviour in my youth. I have no memory of the event described by Christine Blasey Ford, but I am horrified at the thought that, in a drunken stupor, I might have done anything that could be construed as assault. I have in the years since those days worked hard to become worthy of my country, my family, and my own conscience.” Even after his initial denials, he could have course-corrected at any time: “I apologize for not being forthcoming before, but you must understand how ashamed I am of my behaviour in those days.”

Of course, this suggestion is entirely disingenuous: what has become clear, especially since his testimony Thursday, is that making such a statement would never occur to him. Bad behaviour, excessive drinking, and a sense of entitlement to the bodies of the girls he knew was a privilege afforded youths like him—it was his birthright, and it is obvious from his testimony that, far from feeling any remorse, he nostalgizes those days, unfolding his memories to the Judiciary Committee like an early 80s frat movie with the sex scenes redacted. The “boys will be boys” attitude of his supporters, along with the sentiment that “why should he be punished for something that happened so long ago?” is consonant with the latitude given the male children of the elite. As Lindsey Graham and others suggest that these accusations have “ruined” Kavanaugh’s life, we really need to remember that even if he doesn’t win the SCOTUS seat, he goes back to a lifetime appointment on the second highest court in the U.S. It’s not as if he’ll be selling cigarettes under a bridge.

We should also keep in mind that, had Kavanaugh and Mark Judge been Black youths attempting to rape a white girl, they’d likely still be in prison today. “Tried as an adult” isn’t really an expression that gets applied to teenagers at Georgetown Prep.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under politics, The Trump Era

Wente, again.

dalhousie-sign

Anyone who has followed my blog over the years knows the contempt in which I generally hold the Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente, not least because it seems that, whenever she’s at a loss for something to carp about in her column, she reverts to her favourite target: the contemporary university, especially humanities programs, and even more especially English departments.

Reader, she’s at it again.

I’d gotten pretty good at ignoring Wente, something made easier by the Globe’s general decline—given that I no longer read the paper as a matter of course, that has tended to relieve me of the occasional temptation to click on her invariably cickbaity columns, and I’ve been of much sounder mind for it. But in her most recent screed, she’s taken aim at the Dalhousie University English Department, and I can’t help but take that a little personally: I know a significant number of the professors in that department, people whose devotion to teaching and research and to generally making the world a better place is unimpeachable.

Well, unimpeachable if you’re not a lazy, sinecured columnist with little actual idea of what she’s talking about.

Let’s start with her title: “Universities preach the new religion of anti-racism and anti-oppression.” I could go on for a long while about the reactionary right’s antipathy to “social justice,” but I’ll try to be succinct: who, precisely, is pro-racism and –oppression? Aside from the obvious, I mean; Wente isn’t stupid enough (not yet, anyway) to come out and declare that racism and oppression are net positives, but it’s emblematic of our current cultural moment that the Wentes of the world are comfortable slagging people actively engaged in opposing racism and pursuing social justice. The usual argument tends to say that racism and sexism are bad and all, but the puritanical PC left (or, in Jordan Peterson’s framing, postmodern neo-marxists) have morphed into the equivalent of Orwellian thought police, silencing all who dissent.

Because, yeah … hardly a peep to be heard. It’s not as if Canada’s newspaper of record would employ such dissenting voices.

I suppose this argument is now so frequently made that Wente doesn’t really feel the need to rehearse it; she spends the first half of her column sneering at Dal’s attempts to address the fact that their founder (George Ramsay, Earl of Dalhousie) was, well, hella racist, a fact made more problematic by the city of Halifax’s troubling past of racial injustice. She similarly sneers at the university’s attempts to promote diversity among its faculty and student population, writing:

Why is diversity so important? “Diversity is a powerful agent of change,” insists Dalhousie. “Indeed, diversity is an imperative that must be embraced if colleges and universities are to be successful in a pluralistic and interconnected world.”

Actually, I thought that colleges and universities got to be successful through excellent scholarship and teaching. But I guess that’s old-fashioned thinking.

This is why reading Wente is bad for my blood pressure. First, a proven plagiarist has no standing to opine on “excellent scholarship.” But more importantly, the canard here is the suggestion that diversity, and excellence in scholarship and teaching, are somehow mutually exclusive. Wente’s columns on the sorry state of university curricula today almost invariably nostalgize the halcyon days when the canon was ascendant and only Great Books by Great (Male) Authors were considered worthwhile of study. (I wrote a post eerily similar to this one five years ago on this very topic). So rather than continue to harp on Dalhousie’s social justice preoccupations, she turns to their English department offerings, and needless to say,

I was shocked. I knew the field had fallen on hard times, but little did I realize how marginal it has become. Judging by the meagre offerings, would-be English Lit majors have fled to the greener fields of Social Justice Studies.

Gone are many of the staples of my youth, when I was an English Lit major at a different university. Now on offer is less taxing fare, seemingly designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books: a heavy sprinkling of courses on pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism. I did find one lonely little course on Shakespeare – but it’s not required. One thing you can say for it, though the English curriculum is certainly diverse.

(Excuse me while I take some blood pressure medication).

The second most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is how easily refuted it is. Check it out for yourself: the courses ostensibly “designed for people who are ambivalent about reading books” are crowded out by such “traditional” fare as Chaucer, Renaissance poetry and drama, medieval literature, as well as a course devoted entirely to the Brontes.

The most galling thing about this characterization of Dal’s course offerings is that I felt obliged to write the two previous sentences. What the actual fuck is wrong with offering courses on “pulp fiction, popular culture, mystery and detective fiction, science fiction, fan culture, and afrofuturism”? None of which, I feel compelled to add, suggest that students will not have to read. All of those topics Wente apparently disdains are embedded in the contemporary cultural moment: if an English degree is at least partly about developing critical reading and writing skills, it doesn’t hurt to be able to deploy those skills with regard to the various discourses in which we live.

***

While I was writing this post, my friend Jason, who is chair of Dal’s English Department, wrote a wonderful response to Wente’s idiocy. He begins by imploring people not to read Wente’s column and thus reward her trolling with ad revenue for the Globe (which is why I just removed my own link to the column—if you must read it, by all means do so, but I won’t facilitate it).

I’ll end here by quoting Jason:

We don’t need to defend ourselves against Wente’s spurious claims; we need to double down on what we do. Nothing would make me personally happier than to have a program that makes Margaret Wente shudderingly, inconsolably uncomfortable, simply because that would mean it more fully and accurately reflects the growing and ever diversifying field of English Studies as new and previously silenced authors, texts, approaches, and contexts, past and present, make themselves heard.

Let’s walk past the braying calls for a bounded and bordered ignorance and into an open space resounding with an ever more complex cacophony of voices. Let’s commit curiosity.

Amen.

1 Comment

Filed under thrice-yearly responses to Margaret Wente's columns, wingnuttery

Bert and Ernie, Dumbledore, and Lady Macbeth’s children

In 2013 when the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act and thereby legalized same-sex unions, The New Yorker ran a cover that, if I’m perfectly honest, made me a little weepy.

newyorker_bert_ernie.jpg.CROP.article568-large

Speculation on whether or not Bert and Ernie were more than just good friends and roommates has attached to them for years. Most recently, Mark Saltzman, who won  numerous Emmies for his writing on Sesame Street between 1985-1998, said in an interview that “I always felt that without a huge agenda, when I was writing Bert & Ernie, they were [lovers]. I didn’t have any other way to contextualize them.” Saltzman’s comment caused The Sesame Workshop, producers of the show, to issue a statement saying that they are just good friends and, furthermore, that as puppets they have no sexual orientation.

Leaving aside for the moment the obvious refutation about puppet sexuality (i.e. Kermit and Miss Piggy’s longstanding relationship, to say nothing of Gonzo’s veritable harem of chickens), Saltzman’s comments and the responses they evoked are just the most recent in a fairly long history of arguments about the true nature of Bert and Ernie’s relationship, something helpfully detailed in a great rundown by Aja Romano at Vox here. As Romano points out, though “Bert and Ernie seem to have been clearly modeled off Neil Simon’s famous Odd Couple, Oscar and Felix,” they “were loaded with queer subtext from the very beginning” (which seems to suggest that there was no queer subtext in The Odd Couple, but that’s another fox hunt altogether). Whether that subtext was present or not is at least partially besides the point: the lovely thing about Bert and Ernie is not that they have presented an either/or proposition—queer or not?—but that they’ve always been both/and. When they first appeared as original characters on Sesame Street fifty years ago (egad), that ambiguity meant that LGBTQ people who grew up watching the show could see an ordinary, loving same-sex couple fully integrated in their community. Or, conversely, children could see an example of two men who, for all of their differences, had genuine affection and love for one another.

Bert-ERnie2-670x451

This last point is why I’m of two minds on the question: while I’d be totally down with Bert and Ernie coming out and getting married and introducing into what is probably the most influential children’s show in the western world a long-standing gay relationship, one of the blights of toxic masculinity in the present moment is the social prohibitions on heterosexual male love and affection. The reflexive need of some men to cry “no homo!” after a hug, or the way in which sentimental expression is characterized as effeminate or gay, implicitly and explicitly, in popular culture, reminds us that patriarchy hurts men, too. The very idea that love and affection is necessarily sexual poisons assumptions informing the relationships we form.

***

Beyond this question, however, is the more literary-critical question of text. Which is to say: we cannot definitively comment upon Bert and Ernie’s sexuality because we have never been given any substantive indications one way or another. Mark Saltzman might say he wrote them as a gay couple modelled on himself and his partner, and Frank Oz might say that, as the creator of Bert, he can definitively declare him hetero, but in the end there has never been anything to confirm either perspective. As I tell my students, all we have to go on is the text: we can talk about suggestive subtexts, metaphors, hints, allusions, and so forth, but any interpretation you essay needs to be grounded in the text.

And that often means ignoring the author. Reading the latest kerfuffle over Bert and Ernie, I was put in mind of J.K. Rowling’s post-facto “revelation” that Dumbledore was gay, and that he and Gellert Grindewald had been lovers. Predictably, this enraged a good number of homophobic Potter fans; but it also enraged a not-insignificant number of Rowling’s LGBTQ readers, who thought her authorial claim rather weak tea. The revelation of Dumbledore’s sexuality was a not insignificant gesture (at least in terms of the predictable outrage it inspired), but it came across as cowardly after the fact—how much more powerful would it have been to have had queer and out characters represented in the novels?

The point, however, is that even with Rowling’s post-facto intervention, even if we now read the novels with the awareness that “Dumbledore is gay!” in the front of our minds, there is still nothing in the text that supports the author’s assertion—even less, really, than the evidence for Bert and Ernie’s ostensible congress. It is the sort of speculation that has been typified in the question “how many children did Lady Macbeth have?” That was a seriously posed question by readers of Shakespeare for a long time: at one point, Lady Macbeth, to emphasize just how far she’ll go to win the throne, tells her husband:

I have given suck, and know
How tender ’tis to love the babe that milks me.
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have plucked my nipple from his boneless gums
And dashed the brains out, had I so sworn as you
Have done to this. (1.7: 62-67)

The suggestion here is that the ostensibly childless Macbeths once had at least one baby—which presumably died, or possibly just spends the entire play offstage in the company of a nanny (lucky kid, if that’s the case). But of course there is nothing else in the play that makes reference to Macbeth and his Lady having children. That does not, however, stop people from speculating: how many children? how many still births, crib deaths, and just where is that nanny anyway?

It might seem absurd, but this of course is the stuff of fan fiction. Well before Rowling outed Dumbledore, there were (and still are) endless online iterations, ranging from the modest to the pornographic, imagining the romances and hook-ups between Hogwarts’ usual suspects. I have to imagine there was some Dumbledore slash fiction in that mix. But the thing about fan fiction is that it is extra-textual: which is to say, it is not “canon.” What we have to work with, there, is the text itself … again, something I emphasize to my students.

One might argue that J.K. Rowling is the first and last authority on her own writing, which, if you make that argument to me, I will laugh and laugh and laugh. Since about the mid-20thcentury, literary critics and scholars have discounted authorial authority, recognizing that, to paraphrase Northrop Frye, writers are often mediocre critics of their own writing; but also that, once something is in print, there is not infrequently a desire on the part of the author for further revision. Sometimes new editions are released with changes, and then it’s in the hands of textual scholars (yet another fox hunt). It somehow seems unlikely that Rowling will issue a revised edition of all the Potter books, in which Dumbledore is out and proud.

jude-law-dumbledore

That being said, this might change, given that the Potterverse is expanding; it is possible that in the new Fantastic Beasts film, in which Jude Law plays a young Dumbledore, we might see more concrete evidence: perhaps he’ll have a boyfriend, or perhaps we’ll see unmistakable sexual tension between him and Grindewald (though given the fact that the latter is played by Johnny Depp, I really hope not).

I do rather doubt it, however. Which is unfortunate.

Leave a comment

Filed under nerd stuff

Project Brevity

I’ve been neglecting my blog all summer, and for many months before that, and for a long time before that … part of my problem, I’ve come to realize, is that I’m not so good at writing short blurbs. Every time I start a new idea for a post, it grows in the telling: this is not helped by the fact that I tend to develop grandiose ideas, like multi-part meditations on topics like expanded universes (for example). And then I write myself into corners, dissatisfied with what I’ve produced (and believe me, I’ve written somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20,000 words since April that have never seen the light of day).

So … new project: brevity. I will aim to write one or two posts a week of less than 1000 words, ideally closer to 500, on something germane to this blog’s general theme of narrative (though that has always been something of an elastic category here).

New post coming shortly, on the heels of this one.

Leave a comment

Filed under blog business

Food, Empathy, and Continuing to Mourn Anthony Bourdain

It strikes me as cruelly serendipitous that three instances of people publicly shaming significant figures of the Trump Administration in the past week took place at restaurants: Kirstjen Nielsen hounded out of a Mexican restaurant, Stephen Miller being heckled and called a fascist, also at a Mexican restaurant, and of course Sarah Huckabee Sanders being asked to leave The Red Hen, a farm-to-table establishment in Virginia. Why was this all serendipitous, and cruelly so? Because it came fairly closely on the heels of the death of Anthony Bourdain.

As may or may not have been obvious from my last post, the past two weeks or so have really gotten to me. Based on the responses I received, I’m not alone. Mostly I use this blog as a means of thinking out loud, but every so often I manage to strike a nerve. Most posts of mine get between fifty and sixty hits; in the forty-hours after I hit the “publish” button, I received over four hundred. Which is, to be certain, exceptionally modest for online writing, but deeply gratifying nonetheless.

In hindsight, it was Bourdain’s death that was something of a tipping-point for me emotionally, and which made everything that followed that much more unbearable to think about. There is comfort to be had in knowing there are rational, humane, deeply intelligent thinkers at large in the world to whom we can reliably turn to for wisdom. Bourdain was just such a person for me, and his loss, apparently, is something I’m still working through.

I have no doubt he’d have had something to say about Nielsen and Miller’s tone-deaf choice of eating establishments, as well as Sanders’ expulsion from the Red Hen. I don’t know whether he’d have agreed with the latter, but I’m confident he would have said his piece with his usual wit and moral acumen; and what’s more, I would have been surprised if he hadn’t reminded us of how the food services industry, more than almost any other, is reliant upon undocumented labour. At the end of Kitchen Confidential, he offers advice to any young person considering a career as a chef. One of the big ones, simply, is learn to speak Spanish: almost everyone working the shit jobs in professional kitchens, from dishwashers to prep cooks, will likely be a recent immigrant from Central or South America. If Slytherin acolyte Stephen Miller could in fact wave a wand and make all eleven million undocumented immigrants disappear, the restaurant industry in America would collapse (as it would anyway, as all the food it might otherwise serve would lie rotting in farmers’ fields around the country for lack of hands to harvest it).

The point here is not so much to make the case for the practical value of undocumented immigrants and their economic contributions, as to look at these incidents as emblematic of cultural divides contrasted with cultural fusions. Bourdain’s transformation from bad-boy chef to food tourist to thoughtful, nuanced cultural critic was not actually that far a trip. French gastronomist Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s directive “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are”—perhaps most famously used as the epigraph for the original Japanese Iron Chef—articulates quite pithily the centrality of food to culture, and that was always the connection Bourdain made, whether he was eating his beloved noodles in Saigon or jig’s dinner in Newfoundland.

bourdain-obama

Remember when we had a president who didn’t tweet pictures of himself with fast food?

As Helen Rosner points out in The New Yorker, given the pervasiveness of Mexican cuisine in the U.S.—comprising an estimated nine percent of all restaurants, “more than the total number of pizzerias”—it “may have been pure statistical inevitability that caused Kirstjen Nielsen … to eat at a Mexican restaurant.” Rosner’s suggestion is made here, presumably, with her tongue in her cheek, but the larger point is more profound: namely, that U.S. culture on its most basic levels is inextricably multi-ethnic. Mexican food’s profusion is emblematic of this reality, especially considering one finds its influence everywhere, not just in Mexican restaurants. As Rosner observes,

… you can find fajitas at Chili’s, guacamole and chips at the Cheesecake Factory, churros at Disney World, quesadillas repurposed into burger buns at Applebee’s, margaritas at LongHorn Steakhouse, Baja-style fish tacos at hipster brunch spots, and nachos at every sports arena in America.

This is at once hopeful and troubling: hopeful, because it suggests a certain success of the American Idea, and thus the impossibility of the white nationalist project; troubling, because it also suggests a disconnection and appropriation. I can completely believe that Stephen Miller chose to dine at a Mexican restaurant specifically to troll people, but I can equally believe that Kirstjen Nielsen was completely oblivious to the idea that being seen at a Mexican restaurant while ICE tore children from families might be seen as being in poor taste. I can believe the latter because a lack of empathy for people can and often does go hand in hand with a callous disregard for people’s contributions to your quotidian reality. It can also tend to reduce those contributions to simplistic end empty signifiers, as when Trump tweeted a picture of himself eating a taco bowl with the caption “I love Hispanics!”—as if the act of eating Mexican-adjacent food gave the lie to his overt racism.

Indeed, it’s hard not to see in Trump’s love of fast food the distillation of many of his worst attributes: ignorance, selfish appetites and their need for instant gratification, self-destructiveness, and a profoundly incurious mind. Corporate fast food like McDonalds and KFC are an embodiment of empathy’s lack, as the entire business model is predicated on divorcing consumers from any sense of the food’s origins, both in terms of the plants and animals from which the food is made, but also its cultural origins, with companies like Taco Bell turning its products into simplistic caricatures that can be replicated quickly and efficiently with a minimum of skill for the lowest cost possible. Michael Pollan’s discussion of McDonald’s fries makes the point more eloquently than I can:

It’s thus easy to understand how the employees of The Red Hen would have found Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ presence in their establishment unbearable. Farm-to-table cuisine is philosophy as much as sustenance, rooted in an awareness of interconnectedness and community, and which advocates sustainable, humane, and organic farming practices. That kind of cuisine does not emerge without empathy and a social conscience, something that, at least in this one instance, proved incompatible with serving food to the unapologetic mouthpiece of an Administration with no empathy and no conscience.

If Nielsen, Miller, and Sanders are going to willingly work for an administration that vilifies cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, it seems only fair that they should be denied the enjoyment of the benefits of cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism.

I’m reasonably certain Anthony Bourdain would have agreed.

Leave a comment

Filed under food, politics, Trump