Category Archives: maunderings

On Arriving at the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

I’m forty-two years old today. Forty-two doesn’t have the quality of such milestone ages as nineteen, twenty-five, thirty, forty, or so on … but as a number in and of itself, forty-two has always had something of a talismanic quality for me, for reasons I wasn’t aware of until I started to give it some thought.

It all goes back to the multiplication tables, really. The four central numbers there are thirty-six (six by six), forty-nine (seven by seven) and forty-two twice (six by seven and vice versa). Forty-two has always been a comforting number, in its centrality and in the fact that I always liked the equation 6×7. I never had to reach for the answer, or ask myself what numbers multiplied to make forty-two, unlike such products as fifty-four, sixty-three, and fifty-six. Why those numbers always required (and still require) a moment’s thought to remember their combinations, I couldn’t say—other than to speculate that there’s a lot of reasons why I am an English professor and not, say, and engineer or accountant.


I also like the individual numbers six and seven. Seven has the obvious talismanic quality of luck, of prime numberhood, and the fact that it just looks cool. 7. Six seems like a friendlier number, hobbit-like in its cheerful rotundity and evenness. 6. Together they seem like a fun pair.

There is also, of course, the fact of galactic philosophical history as chronicled in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Tasked with coming up with the answer to life, the universe, and everything, the uber-computer Deep Thought calculated for several million years, until finally presenting its answer:

“Alright,” said the computer and settled into silence again. The two men fidgeted. The tension was unbearable.
“You’re really not going to like it,” observed Deep Thought.
“Tell us!”
“Alright,” said Deep Thought. “The Answer to the Great Question …”
“Yes …!”
“Of Life, the Universe and Everything …” said Deep Thought.
“Yes …!”
“Is …” said Deep Thought, and paused.
“Yes …!”
“Is …”
“Yes … !!! … ?”
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.

I await enlightenment. Hopefully it is not mathematical in nature.

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Ich bin ein Narnian

jfk-assassination-1.pngYesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of JFK’s assassination. Given that I wrote my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American literature and popular culture, it seemed appropriate that I should make some comment—I did, after all, devote a good many pages to discussing the key themes and tropes at work in various imaginative treatments of the assassination, especially Don DeLillo’s marvelous novel Libra and Oliver Stone’s less-than-marvelous film JFK (and a whole host of wackiness in between).

The more I thought about what I might write, however, the more it seemed like a futile endeavour—there is little or nothing I could say that would be enlightening about Kennedy at this point, and frankly, I think I’ve got conspiracy fatigue. Not just because I spent five years writing a three-hundred page thesis on the topic, but because of everything that has happened since. When I first conceived of the project, it was still the late 90s (1999, to be precise), a decade that, after some investigation, appeared to comprise a critical mass of conspiracism, from television and film (The X-Files, Enemy of the State, The Matrix) to rather terrifying real-world examples like Timothy McVeigh and the paramilitaries that spawned him. There were very few scholarly studies of conspiracy and paranoia when I sat down to work on my thesis; but as I struggled through it, more and more surfaced, until I began to dread scanning the lists of recently published scholarly books. I never published my thesis as a book, for several reasons: one was that I had the great good fortune to get hired at Memorial about eight months after defending my thesis, which took a lot of the pressure to get it published off; another was that I suffered from that common post-dissertation malaise, in which returning to the scene of the crime (as it were) and revising what you have just devoted (in my case) five years of your life to writing is not unlike probing the nerve of a tooth.

But there was a third factor (or a fourth, if we’re also including my congenital laziness), which was that by the time I defended in September 2004, conspiracism was at once everywhere and nowhere. Everywhere, because 9/11 had given us a brand new morass of paranoid thought (trutherism), and nowhere because the Bush administration—especially in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney—was so shameless in its prosecution of the War on Terror and the Iraq War, wearing the Patriot Act on its sleeve, that the entire concept of “conspiracy” came to seem somewhat trite. Surveillance? Of course. Torture? You bet your ass. Blatant misdirection? Well, as one unnamed Bush aide (whom we all assume to be Karl Rove) told a reporter, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” It was enough to make one nostalgic for the acknowledgement of transgression that the act of covering up covert operations like Watergate or Iran-Contra implied. The prospect of an enormous conspiracy behind JFK’s assassination is positively comforting by comparison.

I remember an important moment in the evolution of my thinking on conspiracy and paranoia: while going over a chapter in which JFK figured highly, my second reader said, “So tell me something. If someone were to produce absolute, ironclad proof about the truth of Kennedy’s assassination … would it matter?” I’m sure there have been many, many times in my life when I’ve gaped in consternation, and mercifully, I don’t remember most of them. I remember that time. Because of course, the answer is: No, in thunder. The sheer glut of details and information, much of it incongruous and conflicting, has made for a tar-pit that doesn’t just blunt Occam’s Razor but dissolves it to nothing. Don DeLillo captures this critical mass beautifully in Libra in the figure of Nicholas Branch, a CIA researcher tasked with writing the official “secret history” of the Kennedy assassination. After years of work, he has produced next to nothing: “He has extensive and overlapping notes—notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of actual finished prose, there is precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data.” The Warren Report itself, Branch speculates, is “the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.” Included in its twenty-six volumes are

Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, cancelled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Perhaps I’m wrong about this, but it seems to me that the center of gravity of JFK theories has been slowly shifting toward grudging acceptance of the single-shooter theory … or perhaps I only think that because that’s where my mind has gone. Once upon a time, I assumed that the chaos of seemingly conflicting detail, with whole hosts of elements unaccounted for, pointed to a conspiracy; now, I tend to think the opposite. Now, I tend to think that everyday life is a muddle of random crap, most of which we forget when we construct the memory of a given time. If any of us had the misfortune of having a twelve-hour slice of our life, one in which only some of the details were available, pored over by thousands upon thousands of observers and analysts, all of them attempting to determine logical causation, how much of our behaviour wouldn’t add up? How many caprices of impulse, forgetfulness, irritation, weariness, euphoria, to say nothing of such caprices in the lives of all the people we interact with, would conspiratorially-minded observers have to deal with? Narrative is how we make meaning of events, but narrative involves leaving out far more than it leaves in, and when every detail becomes meaningful, everything becomes meaningless. And often the most baffling observations can be made comprehensible with the introduction of the smallest of details (you can skip to 2:56 for an alternative to the “magic bullet” theory):

I’m not naïve: I have no doubt that there will be Kennedy conspiracists until the end of time, in the same way there will be those who deny the moon landing. And there will probably always be truthers and birthers. So it goes.

But what made me sit down to write (a day late) my thoughts on the fiftieth anniversary of November 22, 1963, was the discovery yesterday of something I never knew: on the day of Kennedy’s death, C.S. Lewis died. There is something to be written about this serendipity, something about the resonance between two rather different utopian visions—Kennedy’s New Frontier versus Lewis’ pastoral Narnia, the faith in the possibilities of an American future versus the nostalgia for the romance of an English past—but the thoughts are too inchoate in my mind for me to attempt it at this moment. There is also the possibility of a new swarm of satirical conspiracy theories (is Kennedy sitting on one of the thrones at Cair Paravel? Was the White Witch behind the grassy knoll?), but again, same thing.

TheLionWitchWardrobe(1stEd)In an entirely other, and entirely self-absorbed fashion, however, it is weirdly appropriate that I should only discover this intersection now … given that conspiracy theory was my entre to academia, and I’m currently researching fantasy. C.S. Lewis might not be one of the authors on whom I am focusing, but he is a massive influence—both on them, and on me. My graduate seminar recently looked at The Magicians by Lev Grossman, a novel that is deeply indebted to the Narnia chronicles in a variety of ways—and one of my students did a presentation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe apropos of that fact. (For Grossman’s fifty-year tribute to Lewis, which doesn’t mention JFK at all, go here).

I have no real point to this post, unless it is this: something to do with the increasing comfort with life’s messiness and complexity that age bestows. If there is a single point of contact with Narnia and Camelot, it is the investment in reductive mythology. Conspiracism, for all its apparent fascination with vast and myriad seas of information and data, is dedicated to the creation of narratives whose ostensible complexities are really just a smokescreen for their simplistic natures. They are just as mythological in nature as either the hagiographies of Kennedy or the stories of his criminal malfeasance. I was thinking yesterday of the film Thirteen Days, a reasonably good dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis—and the fact that in it, Kennedy displays none of his less palatable qualities. There are no quickies with any of his many mistresses, none of the arrogance or cruelty we now know marked many of his interactions with others … Bruce Greenwood does an excellent job of portraying the president as conflicted and beset (though as much as I like Greenwood, fine upstanding Canadian that he is, Stephen Culp’s RFK steals the film), but there is little in the way of nuance. Perhaps even more than Oliver Stone’s JFK, this film settles into the category of Kennedy hagiography. All of which made me wonder: does the sheer scope of JFK’s complexities as a man make him impossible to depict?

TheMagiciansThe Magicians pretty much split my grad class down the middle in terms of students’ reactions: half loved it, half hated it, and for pretty much the same reasons: that it gives us a version of Harry Potter and Narnia that introduces the elements of ordinary angst, emotional caprice, and thoughtless cruelty on the part of characters who are also protagonists. Fantasy as a genre carries the connotations of unequivocal good and evil: Aslan versus the White Witch, Gandalf versus Sauron, Harry Potter versus Voldemort, and so on. What I love about a lot of recent works by George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, and Richard Morgan is that we’re leaving that simplistic mythos behind and finding a more nuanced narrative.

Now, if someone could do that with JFK …

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I blame Mike Harris for Rob Ford. No, really.

I hadn’t planned to write anything about the ongoing Rob Ford debacle. It doesn’t really fall under the scope of this blog, for one thing, but I also didn’t really feel I had anything to say that wouldn’t just add to the noise. It has been fun to take shots on Facebook and laugh at the savaging he’s been receiving on The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, but I didn’t really think it was worthwhile to add to the growing chorus of concern and condemnation, even as a native Torontonian who has been absolutely appalled by the tragicomedy. Schadenfreude (or “schadenford,” as the new term goes) can be fun, but there are limits. I keep thinking of Sideshow Bob stepping on rakes: after a while, the gag becomes vaguely uncomfortable, even as you’re fascinated by the prospect of just how much longer this can go on.

Every day, it seems Rob Ford steps on a new rake. To say he’s become a sideshow isn’t entirely accurate, as it suggests he hasn’t always been a sideshow—something to which I suspect anyone familiar with his antics as a councillor would attest. At this point he is train-wreck theatre, with his brother Doug in the dual role of stage manager and co-star. It mesmerizes the audience and provides fat Stewart/Colbert bait as everyone wonders what he’ll do or say next, what will be revealed next, and just how long he’ll soldier on. Ford himself is a sideshow in something resembling the literal sense of the word, but one so fascinating that we mistake him for the main stage. When all is said and done he will be a textbook case of delusion and dishonesty as inextricable elements of addiction, and little more.

What worries me, and what made me sit down to write this, is the possibility (or probability) that Rob Ford the man will distract from the more vital questions arising from Rob Ford the phenomenon. First and foremost is the steadfast support he continues to enjoy in the face of his myriad transgressions. As the allegations mount and the full, shocking scope of his illegal behaviour and associations becomes know, one starts to wonder exactly what it would take for his base to turn on him. It has happened among many of his erstwhile supporters, from his former allies on Council to conservative columnists like Margaret Wente—but these are people who fall a little too neatly into the category of “elites,” whom the brothers Ford have defined themselves against.

More and more I am coming to believe that political entities of a certain size reach a tipping point at which they become unwieldy, increasingly prone to dysfunction, and ultimately unmanageable. I started pondering this question while watching U.S. politics: wondering whether the sheer size of that country obviates federal solutions when the social, cultural, economic, and ideological faultlines run so deeply. When you have a not-insignificant minority and their elected representatives irrevocably convinced that government is the source of all their ills, it should surprise no one that those elected representatives are going to do everything in their power to sabotage the workings of government. Whatever the validity of their beliefs, when a critical mass of anti-government activists get into government, and do whatever is in their power to gum up the works, the assertion that government is incompetent becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The current crisis in Toronto, though on a much smaller scale, proceeds from much the same problem. Rob Ford would fit in well with the Tea Party, at least in terms of their anti-tax fundamentalism (some of the social conservatives might take issue with drug use and the acknowledgment of the existence of cunnilingus). Certainly, when reading the words written by those in support of Ford, the most common theme is “I don’t care what he does, so long as he keeps my taxes low.” While I can certainly sympathize with taxation frustration, this particular expression of it strikes me as a pernicious form of NIMBYism, given that Ford is no longer simply an anti-tax crusader, but is actively damaging Toronto. He has made the city a laughing-stock and deeply hurt its reputation, and his stubborn refusal to step down or even temporarily step away is a huge monkey wrench in the Council’s ability to actually govern the city.

What is even more troubling, however, Is the increasing certainty of Ford’s connection to the world of drug crime. Back in May when the crack video was still just an allegation, I commented to a friend of mine that, ultimately, substance abuse was the least problem in the firmament of Rob Ford’s shortcomings. My friend vehemently disagreed, saying he would be less bothered if crack use was all there was to it, but that if the allegations about the video were true—as we now know they were—then in hanging out with the dealers, Ford proved himself unfit to be mayor. The picture of him standing with drug dealers is a picture of him standing with the enemies of the city. Doing drugs while proclaiming oneself a paragon of law and order is egregiously hypocritical, to be certain—but then, addiction follows its own twisted logic and we should be sympathetic to anyone so afflicted. But as that picture showed, and as more evidence that has surfaced shows, Ford is more than an affluent drug user shielded from the origins of his illicit substances by money and privilege. He is, rather, entirely imbricated with the very criminal element for whom he declares to have “zero tolerance.”

It is this crucial element that makes the lower-taxes-at-all-costs constituency so patently selfish. Never mind the fact that Ford’s claims about just how much money he has saved the city are dubious at best; surely, even if he was the relentless cost-and-tax-cutter he portrays himself as, the spectacle of a mayor actively involved with the drug underworld must give everyone pause.

Except apparently not. Which brings me back to my question of size and tipping points: if nothing else good comes of this ongoing fiasco, hopefully it will inspire a certain amount of measured thought and consideration about how we arrived at this impasse, and how, precisely, Rob Ford could ever have been elected. As Emmett McFarlane recently observed in a Globe and Mail op-ed, the current situation highlights the flaws in Toronto’s policies and procedures (not least of which being the absence of an impeachment option). But it also has served to highlight the deep divides at work in a city that became much too large about twenty years ago.

I find it eminently appropriate to blame Ford’s election on that other great Ontario conservative blowhard, Mike Harris. The amalgamation of Toronto with its neighbouring municipalities is what made Mayor Ford possible. The creation of the “megacity” also proceeded from the kind of deep antipathy to Toronto that animates Rob Ford. Aside from the simple logistical fact that amalgamation meant an Etobicoke councillor could run for mayor of Toronto, it also provided the constituency that elected him and which continues to be vocal in its support.


How Toronto voted in 2010. (credit:


A slightly more nuanced map showing the same thing. (credit: Prof. Zack Taylor, UTSC)

One of the most pernicious aspects of amalgamation is the degree to which it facilitates precisely the NIMBYism of Ford’s base, insofar as it makes the city large enough to establish literal and figurative distance between the suburbs and Toronto proper. “Toronto” as an identifier is a catch-all, but in truth people from Scarborough or Etobicoke often identify more closely to those former municipal entities. Certainly, Rob Ford’s tenure so far has served to highlight this division, as his entire mayoralty (and indeed his entire tenure as a city councillor before that) has been about ginning up resentment against the “elites” of downtown, who get depicted as latte-drinking intellectuals and bohemians who think themselves entitled to use your tax dollars howsoever they please. That he succeeded in getting elected and continues to enjoy a significant amount of (very vocal) support speaks to the success of this strategy, which in turn speaks to the very real resentments (how much these resentments are justified is beyond my expertise to comment upon) fracturing the GTA’s civic psyche.

I really have to wonder: if amalgamation had never happened, and Rob Ford had become mayor of Etobicoke, would his constituents be quite so sanguine about his behaviour? If it actually was happening in their backyards, would they still be so steadfast in their support? Of course, much of what has happened was quite literally happening in their backyards, but that is what I mean about figurative distance: Ford might be the champion of suburbia, but as Mayor of Toronto, all of the symbolic fallout from his transgressions is associated with Toronto. He has become the physical embodiment of his political rhetoric, a thumb in the eye of smug downtown Toronto. In a perverse way, the damage he has done and continues to do to the city is perfectly of a piece with his entire political philosophy, which has been driven by hatred for the very city of which he has become mayor.

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Wente on Gilmour (because none of us saw that coming)


For the record, Toni Morrison could totally kick Hemingway’s ass.

Once the scope and scale of the reaction to David Gilmour’s comments became clear, is was also clear that the chances Margaret Wente would not put in her two cents in her weekly column were slim to none. Huge surprise: she’s pro-Gilmour, anti-feminist, and if you weren’t certain what her response would be, her opening sentences put that uncertainty to rest: “How does an obscure Canadian author become an international sensation overnight?” she asks, and answers: “Easy. Just insult some feminists!”

Yes. Some feminists. Because the range of responses was limited to a narrow, shrill band of men-haters who haunt Wente’s imagination and, presumably, the imaginations of her devoted readers. And for the record, it is this latter group that makes me inclined to say something more on this topic: however often I promise myself I’m just going to ignore her—to avoid feeding the troll, as the saying goes these days—I can’t help but remember that there are people out there who take her words as unalloyed truth and imagine that she is a brave and besieged voice of reason in the midst of leftist hate, as opposed to a lazy, sinecured columnist who writes the same argument over and over, and even then sometimes can’t be bothered to use her own words and ideas.

Or perhaps the horde of Wente admirers is just what haunts my imagination.

Nevertheless, no matter how much I know she’s just poking us with a stick to goad a response, I can’t help pointing out where she’s being misleading, mendacious, or simply wrong. Take for example this seemingly mild defense of Gilmour, which is actually just an excuse to reiterate her biggest complaint about current English curricula:

Frankly, I was surprised and glad to learn that there remains one small testosterone-safe zone at U of T (although I guess it’s not safe any more). As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub- and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.

If by “testosterone-safe zone,” she means courses devoted exclusively to male writers, you don’t actually have to look too hard to find them—you just have to look early, as in chronologically, to find numerous courses on the U of T 2013-2014 undergraduate schedule dedicated entirely to dudes. That their names are Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spenser, and Milton doesn’t exactly obviate their gender. After that? Well, the women start to creep in. They’re sneaky that way. But what Wente doesn’t say (as I’m sure it never occurred to her) is that the presence of names like Austen, Gaskell, Eliot, and the Brontës on nineteenth-century literature courses isn’t some feminist conspiracy to eclipse the dudes, but an honest and scrupulous attempt to construct curricula that offer a representative range of authors well-regarded and widely-read in their own times (even if George Eliot and the Brontë sisters did have to assume male pseudonyms). Ditto for the twentieth century.

Her suggestion that people wishing to study Hemingway at university are shit out of luck comes as rather a surprise, as I just wrapped up a unit on A Farewell to Arms. Before that? The Great Gatsby, another Gilmour-approved novel. And on Tuesday, we start The Sound and the Fury … and while Gilmour had nothing to say about Faulkner, I have to imagine he wouldn’t complain about that one. But here’s the thing: having devoted the first half of my C20 American Fiction course to a holy trinity of the American fiction canon, I was compelled to offer some balance, and the second half will be Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, and Julia Alvarez. Not out of some politically-correct, milquetoast liberal guilt, but because I owe it to my students to offer some sort of representative balance. Filling out a survey course is always a mug’s game, especially when you have thirteen weeks to cover an entire century. So you do the best you can, and in the end there is always room to teach your passion.But it’s not about what the professor loves, it’s about how best to give your students a wide range of ideas, styles, voices, experiences, personalities, worldviews, and vocabularies. That, ultimately, is why the humanities are so crucial: they offer the opportunity, to paraphrase critic Denis Donaghue, to encounter lives more richly imagined than our own. And, I would add, lives we would not otherwise encounter unless we devote our own to traveling all over the world.

But to return to Wente’s harrumph, re: Hemingway. As I said, I just taught one of his novels. But I suspect she’s using Papa metonymically here, having him stand in for the broad range of proud literary masculinity currently getting the short shrift. Is what she says true, my own class notwithstanding? Are these white hetero men, as Patrick Buchanan suggested in another context, an endangered species? Let’s check out the current undergraduate course offerings for U of T English’s 2013-2014 school year.

Well, OK … I don’t see any listings for “Testosterone 101” or “Guy-Guy Lit.” And yes, many of these courses include women authors. Well, not the first-year course “The English Literary Tradition.” Nary a woman to be seen on that list. Or how about “Literature in Our Time”? Seven authors listed, but only two women, Virginia Woolf (whom we’ll call an honourary guy-guy, as she is Gilmour-approved) and Sylvia Plath. Moving on to second-year classes, “The Novel” gets a little more estrogen-heavy with five women (Anne Radcliffe, Jane Austen, Emily Bronte, Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison) elbowing onto the course with seven men. Then we come to three sections of  the course “American Literature,” whose C20 readings do not, in fact, include Hemingway but do feature William Faulkner, Richard Brautigan, Cormac McCarthy, and such Gilmour-approved guy-guys as Fitzgerald and Philip Roth. Moving on to third-year courses, “Modern Fiction to 1960” gives us yet more Faulkner, as well as Malcolm Lowry, whom I suspect is a guy-guy. (Just so it’s clear, I’m not mentioning every hetero male on these courses, just the ones I imagine Gilmour would approve of. Nor, for that matter, am I mentioning most of the actual courses offered). In “Twentieth Century American Literature,” hey—Hemingway! As well as even more Faulkner (wow, U of T loves it some Faulkner), more Richard Brautigan, more Philip Roth, as well as Thomas Pynchon, Ishmael Reed, and Raymond Carver. “Contemporary American Fiction” features more Roth, more Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo. Fourth year course offerings, admittedly, seem to feature fewer guy-guys, except for the fact that there is one course devoted exclusively to Ezra Pound, who was perhaps the ultimate stereotype of the guy-guy (once comparing the pen to the penis and ink to semen. Ick).

All of which is by way of pointing out that Margaret Wente, once again, really needs to do a little research before she honks off. Does the U of T undergraduate English curriculum—as well as most in the country—make a point of offering women’s literature? Yes. Does it attempt to balance canonical, male writers with women, with authors or colour, and with other traditionally marginal groups? Yes. Does it do so to the utter exclusion of the aforementioned canonical male writers?

No. No, in thunder. And if people like Margaret Wente would spend the five minutes it would take to actually peruse course offerings rather than screaming in outrage the moment they saw courses with titles like “Gynocentric Approaches to Modern Literature,” (not actually a course) they would know that.


One more thing (he said, putting on his Columbo voice).

Did anyone else notice Wente’s little bit of implicit racism in the passage I quoted above? To repeat, (italics mine) she says that courses in “guy-guy” writers are “vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers.” Catch it? Apparently “guy-guy” also means emphatically white and, weirdly, non-Canadian. There are no macho, straight-up hetero black authors? (paging Richard Wright). Caribbean authors? (V.S. Naipaul would be surprised by that one). African, Asian, South Asian, or Canadian authors? (Because on this last one, I can think of at least one Governor-General award-winner who would protest). To “testosterone-safe zone” I suppose we must also append the sign “whites only.”

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Some thoughts on that whole David Gilmour thing

I’m not interested in teaching books by women. Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one of her short stories. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would only teach the people that I truly, truly love. Unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women. Except for Virginia Woolf. And when I tried to teach Virginia Woolf, she’s too sophisticated, even for a third-year class. Usually at the beginning of the semester a hand shoots up and someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I teach is guys. Serious heterosexual guys. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy-guys. Henry Miller. Philip Roth.

—David Gilmour


My own favourite guy’s guy.

I should begin by saying that I don’t think David Gilmour should be fired or otherwise shouldered out of his U of T job. If professors were banned from teaching for being arseholes, there wouldn’t be many of us. And for what it’s worth, I don’t think a course that teaches his brand of literary machismo is necessarily a bad thing; in and of itself, which is to say, taken in isolation from other courses, reading lists, and approaches, it is a manifestly terrible thing, but your average English degree and English department (especially one as huge as U of T’s) is capacious enough to take all kinds. I would go further and say that if, in the course of an English degree, you don’t have at least one class with a hoary old unreconstructed literary curmudgeon who doesn’t believe that anything worthwhile was written after 1922 (or 1622), you’re missing a key English Lit experience.

The point is that there is room in the pedagogical firmament for the David Gilmours of the world, more so now that they find themselves in the minority. Which isn’t to say that I agree with, endorse, or otherwise tolerate his particularly arrogant brand of literary chauvinism—just that sometimes such characters (I’m looking at you too, Harold Bloom) can be inadvertent catalysts for fruitful and beneficial argument and discussion.

Case in point: though I am writing this the morning after Gilmour’s ill-conceived assertions in Hazlitt, and his even more ill-conceived follow-ups in The National Post, I am coming very late to the party, so much so that I wasn’t sure there was any point to actually putting in my two cents. So far I have read three blog posts taking issue with his comments, and one very funny parodic biography of a Chinese Virginia Woolf by “David Gilmour” (to say nothing of the many, many articles popping up on various news sites). These pieces do a lovely job of showing just how simple-minded and indeed closed-minded Gilmour’s comments are, so I won’t waste my energy or your time rehashing them, other than to say that Lucia Lorenza’s comments (the second blog post I link to) are particularly worth reading, and are a wonderfully elegant discussion of just why Gilmour’s pedagogical approach is unbelievably myopic.

The copia of response over social media, from outrage to snark to tentative defenses of Gilmour, is to my mind an example of when social media works to intellectual and social advantage—the speed and critical mass of the responses, the ongoing arguments, and the overall attention being paid to the otherwise innocuous question of the contents of English syllabi, all of this puts certain crucial questions and issues that are always-ongoing in literary study front and center, and gives it an immediacy that otherwise does not exist, that otherwise would not be possible.

As has been pointed out by several people, Gilmour is free to choose what he teaches. Academic freedom is, among other things, the right of the professoriate to organize readings and classes without interference. Academic freedom does not, however, guarantee one against criticism, mockery, and/or derision when one loudly and arrogantly trumpets one’s opinions in the public square. As I said, I don’t think he should lose his job over this, but I am heartened by the response to his words. From what he says in the original article and the follow-up interview, I suspect he is not nearly as good a teacher as he imagines—but he has certainly provided us all with a very teachable moment.


OK, I lied … I said I wasn’t going to rehash the arguments against Gilmour’s idiocy, and I won’t—not much—but I do have one thought I feel compelled to voice.

When all is said and done, what I find most appalling about Gilmour’s statements isn’t his insult to his colleagues “down the hall,” who, he implies, obviously do not teach worthy texts; it isn’t his blinkered suggestion that the number of texts worth studying can be counted on one hand; it isn’t the breathtaking arrogance of a second-tier novelist dismissing the need to read outside one’s comfort zone; it isn’t even his overt misogyny. No, what appalls me is his smug assertion of his excellence as a teacher, when everything he says provides evidence to the contrary.

Whatever my theoretical defense of Gilmour’s class, I feel sorry for his students and hope they learn, through a broader exposure to various conceptions of literature and various approaches to its study, just how narrow and impoverished Gilmour’s approach is. Which isn’t to say I don’t think we should study the writers he celebrates—there is no one on his list (with the exception of Proust—I’m ashamed to say, I have never made that attempt) that I do not endorse as worthy of study. But I really have to wonder: he says “I teach only the best,” which I suppose is fair enough. But what qualifies as “the best”? He does not say. I hope he explicates that in his classes, though from his comments I’m not hopeful on that front. Apparently, it’s standard at the start of his courses for some student to ask why there are no women on the course, and he responds that “I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall.” I think it’s safe to say that much of the outrage that has proliferated in the last day is rooted in the unbelievably dismissive arrogance of this comment. Gilmour goes on at length about what an awesome teacher he is, how “impeccable” he is in the classroom, and how much passion he has for it. And yet in sneeringly suggesting that his students “go down the hall,” he gives the lie to these pretensions, for he makes it obvious that he has no interest at all in actually teaching. You want to teach macho hetero dead white men? That is entirely your prerogative (see above, freedom, comma, academic). But if you have serious, genuine academic and intellectual reasons for doing so, that question you get—if you’re lucky enough to get it!—is a gift. “Why no women? Let me tell you …” Honestly, I have difficulty imagining an explanation that won’t enrage me and all the other people currently bashing Gilmour on Facebook, but for the love of literature, have a better reason than “I don’t like women authors.” Presumably there is some reason for this antipathy … presumably, you have a well-thought-out rationale for such exclusive reading lists.

Apparently not, though. Such a response suggests a complete and utter lack of intellectual content to these choices, to say nothing of a reactionary refusal to defend them. But what is worst is the way in which such a response functions as a figurative slap in the face to whoever is brave enough to ask the question. A student asking you a question deserves the respect of a real answer, especially when it is one as fundamental as asking about reading selection. At one point in the original Hazlitt piece, Gilmour says “I’m a natural teacher, I was trained in television for many years. I know how to talk to a camera, therefore I know how to talk to a room of students.” The “therefore” in the second sentence here is dumbfounding and yet entirely enlightening. Never mind the fact that some of the best professors I have had hemmed and hawed and digressed and stuttered and otherwise would have made utterly useless TV personalities—the idea that students are like a camera is rather appalling. That’s not teaching—that’s self-congratulatory, masturbatory performance.

And really, that’s all I have to say on the matter.


Filed under maunderings, wingnuttery

Two Discussions about Orson Scott Card

Apologies for this blog’s inadvertent hiatus. I actually have an awful lot of things in the hopper, and once classes start I’ll be posting more frequently, with regard to what we’re reading. I’ve got a Breaking Bad post in the works, as well as the long-promised follow-ups to my initial post on fantasy and cruelty. What can I say? It’s summer.

But for today, it’s all about everyone’s favourite SF homophobe, Orson Scott Card.

Why I’ll Go See Ender’s Game

enderThis past winter I taught Orson Scott Card’s novel Ender’s Game for the first time in my science fiction class (which I was also teaching for the first time). I put it on the course list without thinking, by which I mean its inclusion was something of a no-brainer for me. I’d first read the novel about twelve years before and reread it several times since, and I looked forward to the chance to discuss it in a classroom setting. I knew, vaguely, that Orson Scott Card (OSC from here on in) was something of a religious conservative, but as there was no suggestion of that in the novel it never bothered me.

The true scope of OSC’s political and religious conservatism came glaringly to light after I’d put in my book orders for the term, when a number of articles he’d written advocating, among other things, armed revolt against the “gay agenda” and for the recriminalization of homosexuality, received a storm of publicity. Between the buzz about the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in progress and the series of court decisions in favor of gay marriage, OSC’s anti-gay opinions became impossible to ignore, as did his political crusading.

It raised an interesting but fraught problem, one which we addressed at length in class: how do we approach a novel that, in itself, has a great deal of merit, when its author not only holds opinions we find vile and reprehensible, but actively uses his not-inconsiderable wealth and fame to try and marginalize and disenfranchise a certain segment of the population? The opinions themselves are not so much the issue—if we eliminated from our reading and viewing all the work of artists we thought were assholes, we wouldn’t be left with much. But the inescapable fact about OSC is that purchasing his books contributes to his bottom line, both rewarding him financially and augmenting his influence.

There has been a great deal of discussion and argument about this question online—Alyssa Rosenberg, as usual, has some excellent thoughts here and here—with some people advocating for a boycott of the film of Ender’s Game. Though I’ve gone back and forth on the question, I know I will myself go see the film. I’m reluctant to put money in OSC’s pocket, but the past few months have convinced me that all of the publicity isn’t actually doing OSC any favours. Gay marriage, as the expression goes, is an idea whose time has come—and OSC’s very vocal opposition has raised his profile in a way that is starting to impact him negatively. While SF and fantasy fandom is hardly a hotbed of pro-gay activism, it does possess a significant and vocal constituency in that respect, which managed to scuttle a Superman story arc that DC Comics had hired him to write. And Summit Entertainment is being very conspicuous in keeping OSC inconspicuous in the lead-up to the release of Ender’s Game, leaving him off the publicity slate. He has actually become quite toxic, a fact he can’t be unaware of, especially in light of the current popular disgust with Russia’s anti-gay laws and the IOC’s timidity. It makes me wonder how an unreconstructed American religious conservative feels, knowing he’s making common cause with Vladimir Putin?

(He recently resigned from the board of directors of the National Organization of Marriage. It’s nice to imagine that this storm of bad publicity led to this resignation, and that he’s retreating from being so vocal in his homophobia, but I suspect not.)

One of the arguments for boycotting Ender’s Game, besides the fact that it will enrich a bigot, is that if the film is a great success, it will validate OSC. I’m far more sympathetic to the first position; far from validating OSC and his opinions, the potential popularity of Ender’s Game will, I suspect, create a cognitive dissonance between that story’s basic humanity and its author’s hateful politics. I say this with a certain amount of confidence, as I know that already happens with the novel—in my SF class, many of my students expressed shock that the person who created Ender Wiggin and craft such a compelling story could also be so paranoid and irrational. There is always the possibility that some people are or will be so taken with Ender’s Game that they’ll give his anti-gay rants (and his particular species of paranoid batshit generally—see below) some credence. But I have hope that OSC’s raised profile, coupled with an idea whose time has come, will do him and his opinions more harm than good.

Unlikely Events that will Totally Happen

As Dave Weigel observed recently in Slate, OSC’s attempt to keep a lower profile has led the furor over his anti-gay writings to subside somewhat. But, Weigel maintains, this is good, for “the gay marriage foofarah was a distraction from Card’s much more fascinating political paranoia.” He points to a blog post OSC wrote in May titled “Unlikely Events” in which he promises in the first sentence to predict “how American democracy ends.”

Except not really. “No, no,” he protests in his next sentence, “it’s just a silly thought experiment! I’m not serious about this! Nobody can predict the future! It’s just a game. The game of Unlikely Events.” What follows is a lengthy prevarication about the differences between fiction and history. Fiction, he says, depends on plausibility, and the task of the fiction writer is to make a causal series of events not just likely but inevitable. Historians, conversely, require evidence, and the reason prognostication almost invariably ends up being wrong is because history does not have fiction’s convenient form of causation.

Fair enough, I suppose. He goes on to point out that historical lies have a great persistence, because they almost always reinforce some people’s story they tell themselves about history. Also fair, though the trio of examples he offers are somewhat head-scratching:

Historical lies have great persistence. There are still people who think that Winston Churchill “failed” at Gallipoli; who believe that Richard III murdered his nephews, though the only person with a motive to kill them was Henry Tudor; who believe that George W. Bush lied about WMDs in Iraq.

Oh … where to begin? Right here OSC demonstrates, inadvertently, that the distinction he wants to make between history and fiction is far more nebulous than he allows. Gallipoli was an unmitigated disaster, and it was Churchill’s brainchild. I have yet to read anything claiming that the operation was actually a success, but I’m sure such arguments are out there; and while a lot has been done to recuperate the reputation of Richard III, the question of whether he murdered his nephews is far from settled—it is, indeed, the object of much debate still. (Ironically for OSC’s blithe assertion, the single most influential argument for RIII’s innocence was a novel—the wonderful Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey). In both of these cases, the “lies” OSC cites have been, and continue to be, matters of debate and discussion.

And the less said about the WMD claim, the better. Moving on.

All of this is in the service of a rather disingenuous throat-clearing—fiction is about causation, history about evidence, and anyone who predicts the future is doomed to get it wrong. BUT … that being said, of course, there is a dire end to American democracy, and OSC, SF writer extraordinaire, has seen it. Or, to quote his post,

Yet this doesn’t mean prediction is useless or meaningless. There were plenty of people who foretold the disaster that Hitler would bring to the world if he came to power in Germany, and those predictions were exactly fulfilled … The only reason people were taken by surprise was that they simply refused to believe (a) what Hitler himself said he would do, and (b) the previous related examples from history.

Hmm. Interesting example to use. Never mind the fact that Obama’s most vociferous opponents love comparing him to Hitler—what I want lock in here is the idea of people doing what they promise to do. I wish Obama had done what he promised in the 2008 campaign—or, well, more of it. But he hasn’t. And there is a huge, delusional wing of the American right—including our friend OSC—who want to find him guilty of a host of things he hasn’t done, and never promised to do. But keep the thought of promises and avowed intentions in mind, because I’ll be coming back to it.

For now, I just want to laugh with the mirth of the damned at OSC’s dystopian scenario. To quote The Princess Bride, let me explain … no, there is too much—let me sum up. Basically, Michelle Obama will be the president after Barack, and he will continue to reign through her.


Michelle Obama is going to be Barack’s Lurleen Wallace. Remember how George Wallace got around Alabama’s ban on governors serving two terms in a row? He ran his wife for the office. Everyone knew Wallace would actually be pulling the strings, even though they denied it.

Michelle Obama will be Obama’s designated “successor,” and any Democrat who seriously opposes her will be destroyed in the media the way everyone who contested Obama’s run for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was destroyed.

Of course, this is an unlikely scenario—even with the willing and slavish assistance of the mainstream media, which OSC maintains have always been in Obama’s camp—so Obama will need assistance in seeing his dictatorial vision through.

As OSC admits, unlikely. But plausible! Plausible, if you buy the canard that the mainstream media is entirely in the pocket of the Obama Administration, and that their unthinking acquiescence to his every whim translates into similar acquiescence on the part of every member of the Democratic Party (including, presumably, Hilary Clinton—but OSC seems to think that Obama completely destroyed her chances by hanging her out to dry on Benghazi). Of course, this nefarious plan runs up against the fact that there are many right-thinking Americans like OSC. However will Obama overcome their opposition?

By mobilizing inner-city (i.e. black) gangs into a national police force. Seriously:

Where will he get his “national police”? The NaPo will be recruited from “young out-of-work urban men” and it will be hailed as a cure for the economic malaise of the inner cities.

In other words, Obama will put a thin veneer of training and military structure on urban gangs, and send them out to channel their violence against Obama’s enemies.

Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people “trying to escape”—people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.

Already the thugs who serve the far left agenda of Obama’s team do systematic character assassination as a means of intimidating their opponents into silence. But physical beatings and “legal” disappearances will be even more effective—as Hitler and Putin and many other dictators have demonstrated over and over.

And thus does the Republic die. I read these lines over and get weary at the thought of pointing out the basic flaws in OSC’s scenario, so fortunately I can just like to Dave Weigel’s succinct and searing demolition  of it in Slate. I’m less interested here in how absurd it all is than with just how disingenuous OSC is in setting it up. He titles the post “Unlikely Events,” and is careful to point out the fact that prognostication is almost always wrong. BUT … as a fiction writer, etc. etc., and as a student of history—again, etc. etc.—he is peculiarly situated to offer a plausible scenario. Or to put it more succinctly: this will never happen, except that it totally will.

xtian nationI wouldn’t have thought twice about this piece of paranoid scribbling had it not been for the fact that I’d recently read the new novel Christian Nation by Frederic Rich. The premise is alternative history, positing what might have happened if John McCain had won the 2008 election and, mere months into his presidency, died of an aneurism. Under President Palin (shudder), the United States finds itself on the road to Christian theocracy, culminating in civil war in 2020 and a totalitarian evangelical government.

As a novel, Christian Nation is a miserable failure—principally because it is poorly written, with one-dimensional characters, and a hackneyed and shaky narrative. The premise is intriguing, but requires too much exposition: Rich gives us as one of his principal characters a preternaturally serene and intelligent gay Indian man named Sanjay, who plays the Cassandra role in the years leading up to and immediately following the rise of Sarah Palin to the presidency (again: shudder). I have to assume that the vast majority of people who read this novel, like me, will do so because of the premise and because they bear great antipathy to militant evangelicals. But I promise you that, however much you agree with Sanjay and however much he warnings alarm you, you will be so pissed off with him … because for the first third of the novel, everything he says starts with “But did you know …” and proceeds to enumerate yet another little-known fact about Christian fundamentalist political ambition.

At the same time, as annoying as he gets, Sanjay’s screeds are why you should read the novel. Rich has done his research: the best thing I can say about Christian Nation is that it doesn’t unfold as a liberal fabulation about how we fear evangelical theocracy might happen so much as a point-by-point explication of what they want to do. Sanjay’s irritating conversational tic is the author’s way (clumsily) of communicating the fact that nothing he depicts after Palin’s ascendancy (third time: shudder) is actually out of step with what numerous Christianists from the 1960s onward have called for in books or from the pulpit.

Which brings us back to the OSC statement I highlighted, about how people were only surprised by Hitler because they hadn’t expected him to actually do the things he promised he’d do. This distinction is important, for it emphasizes (ironically) everything wrong with OSC’s post and everything right about Rich’s novel. I confess, when I read Christian Nation, I kept thinking “this is like Left Behind, just for liberals” (and, I’m sad to say, not much better written). The frustrating thing about Christian Nation, in hindsight, is that it would have worked much better as non-fiction … or as a two-part endeavour, which outlined the background of evangelical political desires, and then proceeded to say “let’s imagine …” At least that way, we could have avoided the inane characters and Sanjay’s irritating conversational gambits.

By which I mean to say, at least Rich has based his “unlikely events” in the voluminous series of marching orders evangelicals have been giving the faithful for years. OSC’s fantasy, for all his prevarications about knowing history, is just fantasy. Oh, he gives one piece of “evidence” for his prognostication, vis à vis his urban enforcers:

Obama called for a “national police force” in 2008, though he never gave a clue about why such a thing would be necessary. We have the National Guard. We have the armed forces. The FBI. The Secret Service. And all the local and state police forces.

The trouble is that all of these groups have long independent histories and none of them is reliably under Barack Obama’s personal control. He needs Brown Shirts—thugs who will do his bidding without any reference to law.

I think I’ll let Dave Weigel repudiate this:

This is a revealing bit of craziness, and one you occasionally hear from members of Congress. Obama never called for a “national police force.” In a July 2008 speech he used the words “civilian national security force” to describe how he’d “expand AmeriCorps to 250,000 slots,” “double the size of the Peace Corps,” and “grow our foreign service.” That was five years ago, and he actually failed to do it.

Not to be a snob about it, but anyone looking logically at the Obama record from then to now might notice that he hasn’t actually created a civilian strike force answerable only to him. (How its budget would exist outside of congressional appropriations I do not know).

You know what? Now that I get to the end of this discussion of OSC’s batshit wingnuttery, I’m seriously rethinking paying ten bucks to see Ender’s Game.


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Of Mixed Tapes and Deck Renovation

Mixed Tape 017

Warning to young people: this post deals with old technology, and the vaguely luddite maunderings of someone who has found reason to be nostalgic about it.

I’m currently ripping up my back deck so I can rebuild it, something that is at least two years overdue. Next door, my neighbours are having the clapboard on their house replaced and repainted. Actually, they’ve been having their clapboard redone for almost a year—their last contractor did the contractor dick move, i.e. left the job half done and never came back, except (finally) to reclaim their decrepit scaffolding. Now they have a much more conscientious bunch working on their place, which seems to be a family affair—at least three generations represented.

Seeing them work makes me remember my undergrad summers, when I worked for my uncle doing painting and reno work. And today as I worked ripping up my deck, while they did their thing painting and nailing in clapboard, I remembered that staple of summers past—my mixed tapes.

This is one of those generational things … it has occurred to me more than once to photograph my iPod Nano, which is precisely two and a half centimeters square and about five millimeters thick, beside stacks of ninety-minute tapes that would approximate the amount of music my pill-sized device contains. Which is to say that that I have more music at my fingertips—by a magnitude—than I had in my teenage record collection at its apogee. Prior to working on the deck, I attacked the jungle that my backyard tends to become in the summer with my weed whacker while listening to one of my playlists—and in the process realized that “Gagnam Style” is actually a pretty awesome song to do yard work to (a discovery I of course posted to Facebook and Twitter as soon as I took a break).While I had lunch, it occurred to me that I should make a dedicated “deck destruction playlist,” which I did … and which took me all of ten minutes to do.

Please understand: when I worked for my uncle, I had dedicated mixed tapes that I’d listen to while I painted, tapes that were specifically designed to see me though an otherwise tedious day of edging rooms or painting siding or rolling out ceilings. Each tape marked out ninety minutes of the day, and each was calibrated to a given mood. Was I mellow that day? Irritated? Hyper? Did I feel like punk, or grunge? Was it a Pogues kind of day, or U2? Of course, things could change. A day that started with me feeling angry and angsty, necessitating some Rage Against the Machine and Front 242, could change if my fellow painter was in the mood to smoke a joint on our break … at which point, Bob Marley would become the order of the day.

The point is that I was obliged to have backups in my bag. And all of those mixed tapes necessitated a certain investment of time and thought. As did all mixed tapes: even the most casual of mixes meant spending the time to sit beside the stereo stopping and starting the tape as you recorded things. And when you were making a mixed tape for someone? Well, that was another order of thought and effort entirely.

By contrast, the creation of my deck destruction mix involved plugging my iPod into my computer, scrolling through my library, and transferring songs that seemed appropriate. Then there was an added minute or two of arranging the order, and done! I had my music.

For the record: I do rather love this brave new world of technology. I’m not complaining. My iPod is my favourite device, if for no other reason than it makes running a palatable exercise. All of this would not have occurred to me today were it not for the guys working on my neighbours’ house, reminding me of my own time spent similarly occupied. But I will admit to a vague sense of loss, which I suspect I hold in common with those who watched the 8-track eclipsed, with those who watched television supersede radio, with those who saw the printing press proliferate through Europe (because the transition from mixed tape to MP3 is almost exactly the experience of the monastic scribe watching the Guttenberg revolution).

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