Category Archives: wingnuttery

Paranoia’s White Privilege

At this point in my life, I can safely say that I’ve got conspiracy theory fatigue. Part of that is self-inflicted, as I spent five years writing my doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory and paranoia in postwar American fiction and film; and having staked out that scholarly turf, I’ve kept myself apprised of the currents of paranoid wingnuttery in the eleven years since, from Trutherism to Birtherism and beyond. After a time it all becomes extremely repetitive: the pronouncements of those whom Richard Hofstadter dubbed “paranoid spokesmen” are about as formulaic and predictable as pornography.

I offer this preamble by way of saying that I very, very rarely feel compelled to write about this sort of thing any more.

What twigged my interest over the last few days is a report that a group of Texan Tea Partiers have raised concerns over a series of joint military exercises that will take place partially in the state, code-named Jade Helm 15. Now, concern over a large military exercise taking place in your backyard is understandable, but of course the conspiracists are proclaiming loudly that this is a “false flag” operation designed to provide cover for the invasion of Texas and establishment of martial law. Those making this claim point to the fact that several Wal-Marts have closed unexpectedly, and have suggested that the empty stores will be used as detention camps for anyone resisting the ensuing occupation.


There’s more, involving dark claims that tunnels have been built between the Wal-Marts and other points to better facilitate the invasion, but I think you get the idea. Yet another installment in the wingnut chronicles, right? Except that this time the conspiracy theory has received political endorsement: Governor Greg Abbott has responded to the wingnuts by mobilizing the Texas National Guard and ordering them to “monitor” the operations to make certain they don’t overstep their bounds. “It is important that Texans,” he said, “know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed upon.” And if that wasn’t enough, Senator Ted Cruz has promised his constituents that he will get answers from the Pentagon because “when the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration, the natural consequence is that many citizens don’t trust what it is saying.” Though if Jade Helm 15 is in fact a false flag operation designed to turn Texas into Obama’s tinpot dictatorship, I’m not certain why Cruz seems to think the Pentagon would tell him that.

But then, wacko-bird is as wacko-bird does.

Senator Ted Cruz - Lynchburg, VA

Even here, with elected officials getting in on the paranoia, I can hardly colour myself surprised. Considering the accusations and charges thrown at Obama from the highest levels of the GOP, the invasion of Texas seems like small beer.

No, what’s gotten under my skin in reading this most recent conspiracist argle-bargle is the realization that this kind of paranoia proceeds from a position of privilege. “Paranoia,” let’s not forget, is a psychological designation and entails, among other things, a high degree of delusion and fantasy. Paranoia is by definition contingent upon context. To put it another way: a 1950s housewife living in Topeka who becomes convinced that the government has her under intense surveillance and will soon send the secret police to arrest her is almost certainly paranoid; by contrast, a mid-ranking member of Stalin’s Politburo in the 1930s who believes this is just exercising common sense.

In his excellent book Empire of Conspiracy, Timothy Melley marks out conspiracy-theory based paranoia from more pedestrian manifestations by identifying it with what he calls “agency panic.” The term is a deft little double entendre referring to the fear on one hand of “agencies” like the ATF, CIA, FBI, and so forth (or more classically, the Illuminati or the Freemasons); and on the other hand, the fear of losing one’s individual agency at the hands of a conspiratorial group or organization.

But let’s return to the Texas conspiracy and run down a checklist of fears it expresses that are common to most such conspiracy theories:

  • Agency panic
  • Military occupation and martial law
  • Constitutional abuses
  • Mass incarceration

As I said above, I don’t willingly return to my dissertation topic without significant motivation. But what inspired me to sit down with this topic was my sudden anger at just how obscene this kind of conspiracy theory is after a year that has seen the events of Ferguson and the current unrest in Baltimore, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and the increasingly unavoidable fact that police forces across the U.S. are implacably and systemically set against urban black populations. I don’t mean this in the sense of “how dare you float a conspiracy theory when there’s racism you should be paying attention to,” but rather that all of those elements that comprise conspiracists’ paranoid fantasies are quotidian realities for African-Americans. Agency panic? Black agency has been systematically denuded by agencies from HUD to local police forces. Military occupation and martial law? From a strict legal perspective, no; but from any practical estimation, urban blacks are constantly subjected to a militarized police force, something that was on terrifying display in Ferguson last summer (as I wrote about in a blog post then). Randy Balko’s book Rise of the Warrior Cop is as damning an indictment of this fact as any I have encountered. Constitutional abuses? The War on Drugs, which has disproportionally hurt African-Americans, has all but dispensed with the Fourth Amendment. Mass incarceration? I don’t feel this one needs any explanation, as the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, again disproportionately affecting black Americans.

Outrage In Missouri Town After Police Shooting Of 18-Yr-Old Man

The paranoid fantasies emerging from the right wing of the American political spectrum have always had a disturbingly racist character, and while organizations like the John Birch Society are Exhibit A, the Birchers are by no means sui generis. If I have to point to the highest-profile paranoia on the American right, the NRA unavoidably takes the top spot, with Wayne LaPierre playing the mouth-frothing role of their paranoid spokesman. Everything in his many, many screeds is framed in terms of governmental intrusion and overreach—the slightest hint of a suggestion of a longer waiting period or a restriction on magazine capacity gets characterized as a plot to disarm Americans in order to pave the way for a totalitarian socialist government. Whether LaPierre actually believes his conspiracist bloviation or is just cynically playing on the credulity of his organization’s membership, it nevertheless feeds an insatiable appetite. When I earlier compared conspiracism to pornography, this was what I was thinking of.

But as any even casual observer of NRA rhetoric knows, second amendment fundamentalism is a whites-only club. When Cliven Bundy defied federal agents who wanted him to stop illegally grazing his cattle on government land, and was supported by heavily-armed “patriots,” he was the darling of Fox News in general and Sean Hannity in particular. When Bundy let his mouth run and revealed he was an unreconstructed racist, watching Hannity backpedal was amusing; but really, if he was being honest, he shouldn’t have. Everything about Bundy’s standoff, from Fox’s initial valorization of his bold defiance of government agents, to the fact that said agents responded peacefully when faced with armed citizens, screams white privilege. A counterfactual floated by any number of people at the time wondered how the situation would have been different if Bundy and his supporters had been black.


It would take a particularly torturous and disingenuous argument to suggest it would be no different. Fox News and Bundy’s other boosters in the right-wing media would have condemned it as armed revolt; the fact that Bundy was breaking the law in grazing his cattle on government land would have been repeated ad nauseam; and the “patriots” in the scenario would have been the agents of law enforcement. And had Bundy et al been black, it is highly doubtful the government agents would have backed down.

All of this is by way of saying that right-wing paranoia about government is just that—paranoia. The Cliven Bundy fiasco was not in itself a manifestation of conspiracism, it just shared its DNA—the Fox News crowd was quick to jump on board because it perfectly encapsulated the kernel of the conspiracist narrative, i.e. a dictatorial government seeking to run roughshod over a good old boy’s rights (rights which, in this case, he didn’t actually have—but whatever). The touchstone moments of right-wing conspiracism, most notably the catastrophe at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, are not cumulative indicators of systematic government aggression but examples of massive cock-ups. Meanwhile, the actual grist for the paranoiac mill, such as the NSA’s massive, and massively unprecedented, surveillance of digital communication does not seem to figure into the right-wing paranoid mentality. No one in those corners seems inclined to claim Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning as martyrs to the cause.


Meanwhile, what this past year has continually showed us is that precisely the kind of governmental behavior that animates conspiracist fantasy has been deployed for decades against actual people. A right-wing website, apropos of Jade Helm 15, poses the hypothetical “What would happen if martial law was declared in America?” If actual martial law were declared, that would be shocking, and would go a certain distance to vindicating the paranoia of a vocal minority. But what is not shocking, or at least doesn’t make the news unless there’s a police killing and/or riot, is that a certain segment of America lives under de facto martial law, their rights of privacy and personal autonomy constantly contravened; and in every confrontation with law enforcement, whether it’s for a broken taillight or loitering, black Americans know they are under threat of deadly violence. That’s not paranoia: that’s everyday reality.

To be genuinely paranoid, you have to have the freedom to concoct imaginary enemies.

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Some thoughts on the Hugo Awards and Puppies who are Sad

hugoI’ve been reading a lot over the past few days about the ongoing controversy about this year’s slate of Hugo Awards nominations. For those unfamiliar with the Hugos and what’s currently going on right now, here’s the thumbnail sketch: the Hugos are one of the most prestigious awards for science fiction and fantasy (SF/F); the nominations and awards are voted on by the membership of Worldcon; last year was considered a banner year by many because of the number of women and writers of colour represented among the nominations; this year is experiencing a Gamergate-like backlash, in which a group of very vocal writers and fans successfully lobbied the Worldcon membership to nominate their slate of choices; they did so, in the words of one of their more vociferous agitators, to strike back “against the left-wing control freaks who have subjected science fiction to ideological control for two decades and are now attempting to do the same thing in the game industry.”

This movement, for reasons I haven’t discerned (nor do I care to), has labeled itself “Sad Puppies,” the architects of which are writers Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia. The group has spawned a more vitriolic spinoff called (of course) “Rabid Puppies,” led by Gamergate doyen and general aresehole Theodore Beale, aka Vox Day (a sad excuse for a human who believes in repealing women’s suffrage and who referred to the talented N.K. Jemisin as a “half-savage”).

Apparently this is the third year that Sad Puppies has attempted this; from what I gather, this year they were successful to a large extent because they gained momentum off Gamergate. Normally I don’t pay much attention to the Hugo Awards, or really to any literary awards. I haven’t read any of the novels or stories being pushed by the various puppy-related groups, and so can’t pronounce on their quality or lack thereof. But in my reading about this controversy, I came across a rationale written by Brad Torgersen for why the puppy-ization of this year’s awards is necessary, and it so perfectly summarizes the kind of narrow, reactionary thinking that was on full display during the Gamergate idiocy that it is worth parsing.

Basically, what Torgersen seems to be lamenting is a sort of false advertising: SF/F no longer delivers to fans what they expect, and what its packaging would appear to promise. To make his point, he offers an analogy so torturously obtuse that I really just need to quote in its entirety:

Imagine for a moment that you go to the local grocery to buy a box of cereal. You are an avid enthusiast for Nutty Nuggets. You will happily eat Nutty Nuggets until you die. Nutty Nuggets have always come in the same kind of box with the same logo and the same lettering. You could find the Nutty Nuggets even in the dark, with a blindfold over your eyes. That’s how much you love them.

Then, one day, you get home from the store, pour a big bowl of Nutty Nuggets . . . and discover that these aren’t really Nutty Nuggets. They came in the same box with the same lettering and the same logo, but they are something else. Still cereal, sure. But not Nutty Nuggets. Not wanting to waste money, you eat the different cereal anyway. You find the experience is not what you remembered it should be, when you ate actual Nutty Nuggets. You walk away from the experience somewhat disappointed. What the hell happened to Nutty Nuggets? Did the factory change the formula or the manufacturing process? Maybe you just got a bad box.

So you go back to the store again, to buy another box of good old delicious and reliable Nutty Nuggets!

Again, you discover (upon returning home) that the contents of your Nutty Nuggets box are not Nutty Nuggets. The contents are something different. Maybe similar to Nutty Nuggets, but not Nutty Nuggets. Nor are the contents like they were, with the prior box. You dutifully chomp them down, but even adding a spoonful of sugar doesn’t make the experience better. In fact, this time, the taste is that much worse.

Two bad boxes in a row? Must have been a bad shipment!

Return to the store. Buy another box. Bam. It’s not Nutty Nuggets.

This time, you add bananas, sugar, and berries. This only makes up for the deficit a little bit.

Return to the store again for yet another box. Yup. It says NUTTY NUGGETS proudly on the packaging. You are sure in your heart that you love and adore Nutty Nuggets! And yet, the magic is gone. This is not the cereal you first fell in love with. The box may say NUTTY NUGGETS but you won’t be fooled any longer. Nutty Nuggets are dead. Or at least they are no longer of any interest to you.

So, you reluctantly turn to another brand. Maybe Freaky Flakes or Crunchy Bits? You give up on Nutty Nuggets, and you let some other cereal woo your taste buds. A cereal that is reliably what it claims to be on the outside of the box.

That’s what’s happened to Science Fiction & Fantasy literature. A few decades ago, if you saw a lovely spaceship on a book cover, with a gorgeous planet in the background, you could be pretty sure you were going to get a rousing space adventure featuring starships and distant, amazing worlds. If you saw a barbarian swinging an axe? You were going to get a rousing fantasy epic with broad-chested heroes who slay monsters, and run off with beautiful women. Battle-armored interstellar jump troops shooting up alien invaders? Yup. A gritty military SF war story, where the humans defeat the odds and save the Earth. And so on, and so forth.

These days, you can’t be sure.

The book has a spaceship on the cover, but is it really going to be a story about space exploration and pioneering derring-do? Or is the story merely about racial prejudice and exploitation, with interplanetary or interstellar trappings?

There’s a sword-swinger on the cover, but is it really about knights battling dragons? Or are the dragons suddenly the good guys, and the sword-swingers are the oppressive colonizers of Dragon Land?

A planet, framed by a galactic backdrop. Could it be an actual bona fide space opera? Heroes and princesses and laser blasters? No, wait. It’s about sexism and the oppression of women.

Finally, a book with a painting of a person wearing a mechanized suit of armor! Holding a rifle! War story ahoy! Nope, wait. It’s actually about gay and transgender issues.

Or it could be about the evils of capitalism and the despotism of the wealthy.

Do you see what I am trying to say here?

I’m pretty sure I don’t need to point out the most obvious flaw in this analogy, but I’m going to anyway: you don’t consume stories and poop them out as you do with breakfast cereal. If your favourite packaged food product changes its ingredients, you’re pretty much shit out of luck. But your beloved space operas and bare-chested barbarians haven’t disappeared: there they are on your bookshelf, or at the library, waiting for you to read them again.

I’d love to be able to say that Torgersen’s jeremiad is disingenuous, but it feels way too earnest. Given that he is himself a SF/F author of some note, one might expect him to be not so … well, ignorant. Lamenting the fact that SF/F is different today than in previous decades, in part because it incorporates new voices and preoccupations, is like complaining that we haven’t had any good new Elizabethan plays lately. Literature reflects its historical moment, but it also reflects the way in which its authors engage with their literary milieu. Torgersen writes: “SF/F literature seems almost permanently stuck on the subversive switcheroo. If we’re going to do a Tolkien-type fantasy, this time we’ll make the Orcs the heroes, and Gondor will be the bad guys.” To which I say: why not? What’s wrong with that? The Lord of the Rings will always be there for you to read. It spawned a huge number of imitations, which ranged from artful homage to derivative dreck, but at a certain point writers of talent are going to transform the genre because they don’t see the point in simply recapitulating the formulae of the writers who influenced them. Neil Gaiman is fond of saying that he became a writer because he wanted to write The Lord of the Rings and was always annoyed that Tolkien beat him to it. So he wrote Sandman and American Gods instead, and we’re the richer for it because he did not simply give us a new variation on Middle-Earth. When Time magazine called George R.R. Martin “the American Tolkien,” they were correct in the spirit of the compliment and utterly wrong in terms of the substance of A Song of Ice and Fire, a series that has done as much to change the parameters of fantasy as The Lord of the Rings did to establish them.

He goes on to list other representative “subversive switcheroos”:

Space opera? Our plucky underdogs will be transgender socialists trying to fight the evil galactic corporations. War? The troops are fighting for evil, not good, and only realize it at the end. Planetary colonization? The humans are the invaders and the native aliens are the righteous victims. Yadda yadda yadda.

Which is not to say you can’t make a good SF/F book about racism, or sexism, or gender issues, or sex, or whatever other close-to-home topic you want. But for Pete’s sake, why did we think it was a good idea to put these things so much on permanent display, that the stuff which originally made the field attractive in the first place — To Boldly Go Where No One Has Gone Before! — is pushed to the side? Or even absent altogether?

A few points here. First, a fatal contradiction: the adventuresome spirit of SF/F Torgersen ostensibly celebrates here is utterly absent from his argument. His entire rationale is really about advocating Boldly Going Where We’ve Totally Gone Before.

Second, when he claims that these themes are on “permanent display,” I think of that West Wing episode when the president, having listened to a series of impassioned arguments in favour of an anti-flag burning amendment, is compelled to ask, “Is there an epidemic of flag burning I’m unaware of?” Perhaps I just don’t read widely enough, but I have seen no such “permanent display.”

Third, and most important, is the canard that animated the Gamergate idiocy: namely, that the introduction of new voices and new perspectives, some of which you find not to your taste, entails the wholesale destruction of what you love, whether it be gaming or SF/F. Anita Sarkeesian produced a handful of video essays critiquing the representation of women in video games. As such critiques go, they were pretty mild—mainly just taking images from a slew of games and letting them speak for themselves. Given the vitriol with which her videos were met, you’d be forgiven for thinking she’d advocated dictatorial censorship of the gaming industry, incarceration of the game creators, and fines to be levied on those who played them. But of course she didn’t—she just suggested that we be aware of the often unsubtle misogyny of many video games, that perhaps this was something that should be curtailed in the future, and further that the gaming industry would do well to produce more games that female gamers—an ever-growing demographic—would find amenable.

The canard underwriting the kind of hostility Sarkeesian experienced is the idea that this is all somehow a zero-sum game. The gaming industry is vast, and SF/F boasts an ever-growing readership, but the gamergaters and Brad Torgersens of the world seem to believe that for every new novel featuring a transgender hero, or every new game lacking half-naked female victims, that they somehow lose something—that their world shrinks. Torgersen seems to believe this will contribute, ultimately, to the “unraveling” of SF/F:

We’ve been burning our audience (more and more) since the late 1990s. Too many people kept getting box after box of Nutty Nuggets, and walking away disappointed. Because the Nutty Nuggets they grew to love in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, were not the same Nutty Nuggets being proffered in the 2000s, and beyond.

He goes on to say that “there may not be enough cohesive force to keep SF/F tied together as a whole.” Seriously? Seriously. I translate this as “The SF/F that I like isn’t being written in great volumes any more, which therefore means that the genre is in its death throes.” The reductiveness of this kind of thinking is truly sad, as it implies yet another canard—that one can’t do sweeping, epic, Tolkienesque fantasy, or bombastic space opera, and introduce the elements Torgersen derides. Except that you can, and writers do, all the time. It might not precisely be Tolkien or Heinlein, but the last time I was at the bookstore (yesterday), Tolkien and Heinlein were still quite well represented on the shelves.

Yes, SF/F has changed. It is changing. It will continue to change. The generic boundaries defining it have blurred as authors and the reading audience grow more inclined toward crossing those boundaries, as more young adults cut their teeth on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, “literary” authors like Colson Whitehead, Margaret Atwood, and Kazuo Ishiguro venture into the SF/F realms, and prestige television like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones make people less prejudiced toward genres long ghettoized as “pulp.” But then, that opening up of SF/F breeds resentment among those fans who see such changes as encroachment of interlopers, and they take on the querulous tones of an old man yelling at the rest of us to get off his lawn.

sad cat

My cat is sad because he just can’t even with the Sad Puppies.



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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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Ender’s Game and Empathy


Warning: the following contains spoilers for Ender’s Game.

If I had to sum up my reaction to the film adaptation of Ender’s Game in a single, Simpsons-inspired word? Meh.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the film was underwhelming, any more than I should be surprised at how un-disappointed I was by this fact. I know there are many who, repulsed by Orson Scott Card’s homophobic rhetoric, want the film to bomb; I also suspect that there are many devoted fans of the novel who hoped (whatever their thoughts on Card’s politics) that the film would be a triumph. I myself am however quite satisfied at the fact that the film will likely pass from the public consciousness with nary a ripple, which is to my mind a more potent rebuke to Card’s anti-gay vitriol.

It is tempting to think that the novel is simply not amenable to adaptation, but there were enough high points in the film to suggest otherwise. The overarching problem is that, while generally well made and was at some points visually stunning, the whole exercise proved rather affectless. I can’t in all honesty lay that at the feet of the actors, either—there weren’t many weak points, and Asa Butterfield did as great a job as Ender as was possible, given the limited range of his material. In a cast comprised largely of children (or young adult) actors, this is no mean feat.


One of the novel’s crucial themes lies in the consideration of what makes a brilliant battle commander and, concomitantly, how to make a brilliant battle commander. Ender Wiggin, we learn at the outset, possesses the ideal genetic balance: intelligence, audacity, ruthlessness, charisma, imagination, and empathy. It is this last element that the novel teases out so brilliantly and the film completely botches—mainly because the novel demonstrates how Ender’s capacity for empathy develops, how it makes him understand his enemies, and how it brings him close to the brink of madness, in a series of well-developed sequences and encounters. The film, by contrast, chooses to elide most of those experiences in favour of having his adult keepers say repeatedly that his empathy makes him brilliant. The moment from the novel—replicated faithfully in the film—in which Ender makes this point explicit, confessing to his sister that his ability to love his enemy is what makes him so effective at destroying him, comes after a long series of protracted war games at the orbital Battle School. The film chooses to truncate those war games into a handful of scenes that are woefully inadequate in communicating Ender’s development as a commander.

ender battle room

It goes without saying that when adapting literature to film, a significant amount of the source material has to get left out. The secondary storyline in the novel about Ender’s siblings Peter and Valentine is entirely excised: Peter, so powerful a character in the novel, is reduced in the film to a few moments of screen time, enough to establish his violent and abusive tendencies. Valentine plays a larger role, though not by much—representative in the novel of Ender’s violent and empathic tendencies, they become little more than ciphers in the film. That being said, it was not this elision that marred the film, but the lack of any sense at all of Ender’s development as a commander: his adaptive abilities, his overcoming of the various stigma he’s given, earning the trust and loyalty of his soldiers, and above all the increasing isolation he suffers as his reputation and authority grows.

And honestly, it would not have taken much to correct this lack. I don’t often argue for films to be longer, but they could have easily added fifteen or twenty minutes to Ender’s Game—especially considering that that extra time would have mostly been devoted to the Battle Room, a zero-G environment in which the recruits learn and practice tactics in the fighting of mock battles. Few people who have read the novel would dispute that the Battle Room is Orson Scott Card’s greatest imaginative creation—to the point where the novel has been put on a variety of military school or officer training curricula in the U.S. It is here that Ender proves his mettle, as Colonel Graff, the commandant of Battle School (played by a satisfyingly gruff Harrison Ford in the film), sends him into battle against increasingly ridiculous odds.

Rendering the Battle Room cinematically was always going to be the most challenging dimension of adapting the novel, and the filmmakers did a superb job—which makes it doubly frustrating that we don’t have much action unfold here. The cinematography captured the dizziness and vertigo that I have to imagine would afflict anyone in zero-G.

But again, we don’t get enough of Ender’s development, which I would argue is crucial to the story. Everything that follows after he leaves Battle School for Command School is rooted in the lessons he learns there, and the profound ambivalence he develops for his own talent. What makes Ender’s Game such a good novel is its refusal to glorify violence and warfare, which is not to say the battle sequences aren’t thrilling to read. Even (or perhaps especially) the mock warfare of the Battle Room, however, takes a constant toll on Ender physically, emotionally, and psychologically. At the same time, we see the machinations of the military as they manipulate Ender and his fellow recruits, changing the rules of the game on the fly, moving the goalposts, selectively isolating or tormenting (or lauding) their charges, like a huge, elaborate psychological experiment. When some of the officers have scruples, others acknowledge the monstrosity of their project—and, if they are to defeat the alien threat, its necessity. In the novel, Colonel Graff resigns himself to facing charges of war crimes … if they win the war. In the film he phrases it more bluntly, barking at his adjutant that destroying Ender psychologically will matter not at all if they’re all exterminated by the aliens.

Ender’s Game, in this respect, functions as an extended ethical debate: what cost survival? The final bait-and-switch, in which Ender destroys the aliens’ home world while under the illusion that he is playing just one more training simulation, carries so much more force in the novel precisely because we have been witness to his ambivalence and anxiety about his own monstrosity. In the end he becomes a monster in spite of his ambivalence—that he has that decision taken away from him (or that he’s encouraged to make it under false pretenses) is the final, most egregious injury dealt him by those in command. In the film however, in spite of some powerful acting by Asa Butterfield, the emotional impact of the “reveal” (to say nothing of its surprise) is fundamentally subverted.


There have been a number of reviews of the film and commentaries of the novel apropos of the film’s release puzzling over this central question of empathy. Most crucially, a lot of reviewers and critics have expressed a frustrating cognitive dissonance between a novel that celebrates Ender’s capacity for empathy with an alien species, and its author, who seems incapable of similar empathy for certain fellow humans. What do we make of that? I raised this question last winter when I taught Ender’s Game in a third-year SF class, and I also asked how we deal with a novel whose author expresses a hateful worldview and advocates criminalizing a sexual lifestyle practised between consenting adults. I’m not really any closer to answering that question now than I was then. An obvious approach would be, as a significant number of people have advocated, boycotting his works (and also this film, which obviously I did not do). It poses a knotty question: do I teach Ender’s Game again? (I had put it on my SF course’s reading list before discovering the full extent of Card’s political activism). I’m loath to put more money in his pockets, something requiring thirty-odd students to buy his novel would do. But as I hope this review has made clear, Ender’s Game is a fantastic book to teach, precisely because of its ethical dimensions.

A recent article by Jonathan Rauch made what I thought was an excellent point: that screeds like Orson Scott Card’s various fulminations against gays and the “gay agenda” might rouse the homophobic passions of a few, but more and more—as LGBT individuals become increasingly visible, vocal, and heterosexual anxiety becomes thus increasingly allayed—such intemperate assertions are recognized for what they are, paranoid and ludicrous hate. As Rauch writes:

Some of the things [Card] has said are execrable. He wrote in 2004 that when gay marriage is allowed, “society will bend all its efforts to seize upon any hint of homosexuality in our young people and encourage it.” That was not quite a flat reiteration of the ancient lie that homosexuals seduce and recruit children—the homophobic equivalent of the anti-Semitic blood libel—but it is about as close as anyone dares to come today.

Fortunately, Card’s claim is false. Better still, it is preposterous. Most fair-minded people who read his screeds will see that they are not proper arguments at all, but merely ill-tempered reflexes. When Card puts his stuff out there, he makes us look good by comparison. The more he talks, and the more we talk, the better we sound.

Considering Rauch’s words, I have to wonder if the controversy over Ender’s Game isn’t perhaps something of a gift—both for the cause of forwarding gay rights, and for those of us who teach these sort of things in the classroom. The thought of putting money in Card’s pocket makes me vaguely ill, but I also cannot deny that whatever his politics, the man wrote a damn good novel … and that however much money I make for him putting it on a course (anyone know the percentage the average author gets in royalties? Times about $12 for the paperback, times, say, thirty-five students?), I have to hope that raising these issues in the classroom more than outweighs the mischief he can do with the $65 dollars or so my class would earn him.

Perhaps I’ll even show clips from the film.

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Political Dystopias and Half-Baked Hegelianism

I’m no expert on German philosophy (or any philosophy, really), but the current state of U.S. politics has come to seem to me a rather spectacular vindication of Hegel’s theory of history.

As I watch the drama of the U.S. government shutdown unfolding, I do so with a feeling of incredulity I’m certain I share with many, if not most, of my fellow Canadians. This incredulity takes a variety of forms, not least of which is the bafflement at the apocalyptic terms with which a relatively mild and definitively conservative form of health care is being described. To listen to Ted Cruz and the rest of his “suicide caucus,” you’d think that what was on the table was a proposal to replace the Pledge of Allegiance with daily readings from Das Kapital.

That’s the larger-scale incredulity. On a procedural scale, the question is, depending on the questioner, “How is this happening?” or “Why has this never happened before?” The latter question is better framed as “why has this never happened in this way or on this scale before,” as government shutdowns have occurred several times in the past, most famously when Newt Gingrich’s Republican-majority House sought to punish Bill Clinton in 1995. The House of Representatives has periodically shut down the government for various reasons at various times, and were that all that was happening now, it would not be as worrisome as it actually is. It is worrisome now in a way it has never been before, because it is emblematic of dysfunction that has been growing at an alarming rate since the Clinton presidency. The answer to the first question, “How is this happening?” is simple: it is built into the parliamentary rules of the U.S. government. The shutdown is only symptomatic: in the last five years, we have seen parliamentary procedure in the form of the filibuster being used more than in all of U.S. history combined (well, OK, not that much—but as the graph shows, it has been used a lot); and for those who have the romantic image of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, you should know that actual physical filibusters are rare—the “filibuster” now entails cloture motions, which simply use the threat of filibustering to prevent a motion from coming to a vote. (Ezra Klein explains it much better than I can here).

filibuster graph

That’s as far as I’m going to go in explaining American governmental dysfunction, because it’s been hashed out ad nauseum elsewhere, and besides, if you don’t believe me on the face of it, nothing else I’m going to say here will make sense. I will go one step further however and say that, as much as I’d love to do a “plague on both your houses” thing, I can’t. Because it’s the Republicans who are to blame—more specifically, a rump of the party that has receded so far into its epistemic closure that it has become genuinely delusional, and it has the cohort of the party that might otherwise be reasonable running scared.

And so: all of the parliamentary problems built into the U.S. constitution that have rarely, if ever, provided impediments to the functioning of government because lawmakers were too genteel to employ them? They’re now in play. All of the tacit understanding of unwritten rules that has informed executive and legislative behaviour for the balance of U.S. history has been abandoned. I’m no tipadgippergreat fan of MSNBC host Chris Matthews—I think he’s a blowhard and a bully whose political inclinations bend toward whatever president sends a thrill up his leg—but he has a new book that interests me about his time as a staffer for Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House during the Reagan years. The subtitle is “When Politics Worked,” and the overarching premise seems to be that politics “worked” back then because politicians observed those unwritten rules—that Tip O’Neill, as Joan Walsh observes, “recognized that Reagan had won a big mandate and ought to be able to enact much of his program—and then be stuck with the results if they turned out badly.” Though ideologically at odds with Reagan, O’Neill was willing to acknowledge the will of the people in electing him, and by the same token let Reagan own the consequences of his policies, good or bad. As has been repeated by many people lately: Obama won the election. The Affordable Care Act has been made law, and was effectively ratified by the Supreme Court. Perhaps, as so many Republicans are claiming, it will be utterly disastrous. But rather than letting that play out, they are doing quite literally everything in their power to kill it with fire.

Which brings us back to Hegel.

My crude understanding of Hegel goes precisely this far: each society at its inception has embedded within it contradictions either invisible or ignorable; but as it develops, these contradictions become more and more glaring, harder and harder to ignore, until they develop into a conflict (which might be violent but not necessarily so), the resolution of which provides a new synthesis … and this new synthesis has its own minor contradictions, which eventually become glaring, and so on. The example I give my theory students when teaching this is that famous line from the United States’ Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” And I ask: what are the two problems with this assertion? One, it leaves out women; and two, the author of this document, Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves. The great African-American novelist Ralph Ellison pointed to this when he said of the Declaration that “In the beginning was the word, and in the word was the contradiction.” Almost a century before that, Frederick Douglass wrote one of the most poignant essays in the history of American letters, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, observing that the great American narrative of revolution and independence was effectively meaningless to an indentured population. It is pretty simple to offer an Hegelian reading of American history: its founding documents contain some pretty profound contradictions, which came to a head in the Civil War; the resolution of the Civil War, with the indignities of Reconstruction and implementation of Jim Crow, was far from perfect, and brought about a new set of conflicts with the Civil Rights Movement. Each time there were improvements, moving the U.S. forward, but also the seeds of new conflicts and problems.

In this vein, it is difficult to not see the antipathy of Tea Party conservatism as the most recent manifestation of these contradictions. The election of Barack Obama was seen by many (myself included) as a moment of both historical and symbolic closure; my favourite editorial cartoon after the election was by Tom Toles, which featured Obama walking up to the White House under the Declaration’s assertion of all men being equal, with the footnote “Ratified November 4, 2008.” At the same time however, the lingering unresolved racial divide in the U.S. was exacerbated by Obama’s election—and however much Fox News and their fellow travelers howl in outrage whenever one of us lefties plays “the race card,” the particularly vicious vitriol directed at Obama has edged into race-baiting too often—and the Tea Party right is far too monochromatic—for it to not be based at least in part in unreconstructed white panic.

Obama cartoonThat being said, the implicit and explicit racism underlying the backlash against Obama is just one of the contradictions being exacerbated by the present conflict. What underwrites the current legislative showdown, as I suggested above, is the fact that the system has provided the means for a stubborn and uncompromising minority to bring the government to a screeching halt—and if the debt ceiling is breached, it won’t just be the government. Hopefully I’m not overextending the metaphor too much when I characterize this as a perfect Hegelian storm, wherein the social and cultural contradictions have managed to employ the systemic contradictions. One way or another, I find it difficult to imagine that the U.S. government is going to look the same when all is done … my lefty heart is gladdened to see that Obama et al seem to be determined to hold fast, come hell, high water, or default, having come at last (I hope) to the realization that any compromise now only leads to further hostage-taking in the future (as it were).

The problem (one of them) with Hegel however is that he has a pretty relentlessly upbeat conception of history as inevitably progressive. The “syntheses” emerging from conflict, he suggests, are invariably positive … perhaps this is my deficient understanding of his work, but I don’t think he tends to account for the possibility of devolution, or a new synthesis that resolved previous contradictions in a negative or regressive manner. Andrew Sullivan, one of my favourite political bloggers, says again and again that the current Republican party should be ashamed to call itself conservative, as they are anything but. As he says in a recent post, “[Republicans] are the real Alinskyites and Obama is the real conservative,” i.e. Republicans have become a party of radicalism and revolution, the antithesis of traditional conservatism. I agree with that to a point, but beyond that point I think the radical Republicans are quite literally ultra-conservative: they demand stasis, absolute and paralytic cultural stasis, but want it to be of a sort they imagine to have existed fifty or one hundred years ago. Or possibly even before that: the rollback of gay rights, civil rights, the New Deal, scientific advances, and general social progress they seem to desire is really nothing short of terrifying.

And who knows? The direst predictions about breaching the debt ceiling say it will precipitate a global economic meltdown; in my more cynical moments, I wonder if the suicide caucus is genuinely suicidal, desiring precisely that kind of crisis, which could blackmanpotentially dissolve the federal government’s authority and fracture the union. Perhaps I’m being overly bleak, but then, as someone steeped in dystopian fiction, my mind has some well-trodden pathways it can take. The novel that keeps popping up for me now is Richard Morgan’s Black Man, which I wrote about on my old blog, and which I taught in my SF class last winter. In his imagined future, the United States has fractured into three parts: the Union, which is closely associated with the U.N. and Europe, and which comprises the northeastern states; the Rim States, the western states on the Pacific, which have entered into a loose federation with the rest of the Pacific Rim; and the Republic, the main swathe of Middle America, what we would call “Red States.” In the novel it also goes by the derogatory name “Jesusland,” and is precisely what that name suggests: a theocracy that rejects evolution, gay rights, women’s rights, where teaching creationism is the law and abortion a felony.

At times like these, it’s hard to think of Morgan’s vision of the future without feeling a little shiver of recognition.


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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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Filed under film, maunderings, wingnuttery