Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading– World War Z

As I work through my reading for my pandemic fiction class, I’ll share my thoughts here as I go. I’m starting with World War Z because I recently heard its author Max Brooks interviewed on Fresh Air by Terry Gross, so it’s in the forefront of my mind. And because of the way my mind works, these thoughts led to another post on The Walking Dead, which I’ll put up tomorrow. So it’s going to be zombietown here for a few days.

Max Brooks, incidentally, is the son of Mel Brooks, with whom he made a PSA about self-isolation and social distancing.

World_War_Z_book_coverWorld War Z came out in 2006; I picked it up on a whim when I was at a Chapters in Toronto a little over ten years ago, and I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that the novel was not just a gripping read, but quite well written, and exhaustively researched. It is unusual compared with more typical exemplars of the zombie genre for being global in its scope. Its subtitle is “An Oral History of the Zombie War,” and comprises a series of testimonials from people interviewed ten years after the end of “hostilities.” What further sets World War Z apart from the genre is that it is preoccupied far less with the outbreak and subsequent collapse of society, than with the aftermath and the process of rebuilding. More and more, especially in the last ten years, post-apocalyptic narratives have come to focus on life in the aftermath of catastrophe, with the catastrophe itself functioning as a distant, albeit traumatic memory. Novels like World War Z and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006) were in the vanguard, and anticipated the likes of Zone One (2011) by Colson Whitehead and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel (and in my next post I’ll be talking about how The Walking Dead has shifted focus in this regard). But in the early years of the aughts, the shock of 9/11 inspired a host of zombie and zombie-adjacent films like 28 Days Later (2002) and Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004), films primarily concerned with the spectacle of outbreak and the abject failure of societal institutions—government, police, military, health care—to deal with the threat and keep people safe.

That is emphatically not Max Brooks’ style.

Before picking up World War Z, I was vaguely familiar with Brooks’ earlier work, The Zombie Survival Guide (2003), which I always saw in humour sections. After reading World War Z, I picked up the Guide, and realized that it had been mis-categorized—it’s not a serious text in the sense of warning of an imminent zombie apocalypse, but it is also obviously not written as either satire or parody. Rather, it is what World War Z would ultimately be, writ small—i.e. a thought experiment in disaster preparedness, or the lack thereof, and a variety of responses.

One topic I’ll be interested to explore in both my pandemic fiction class and the class on utopias and dystopias I’m slated to teach in the winter is the odd and indeed counter-intuitive persistence of nostalgia as a trope in dystopias and post-apocalyptic narrative. I’ll have more to say about that in a future post (especially with regards to Zone One, Station Eleven, and Ling Ma’s novel Severance [2018]); Brooks’ novel, as I stated, is essentially an exhaustive thought experiment working through the linked questions of (a) what a global zombie pandemic might look like and how it might unfold, and (b) how might the nations of the world as constituted in the early 21st century respond? Though the novel is impressively global in scope, it is saturated with nostalgia for a particular idea of America, and that idea is indeed what comprises the novel’s narrative spine. World War Z tracks the global movement through outbreak, panic, consolidation, and response, but the model for America’s ultimate victory over the living dead is that of the Great Depression and World War Two.

In other interviews I’ve seen, Brooks talks at length about how he inherited an ingrained sense of preparedness from his father Mel and mother Anne Bancroft, both of whom lived through the Depression and the war (Mel Brooks served in an engineering division responsible for clearing land mines in the European Theater), and passed onto their son the sensibilities of people who knew privation and danger. It is thus perhaps unsurprising that the nostalgic dimension of World War Z hearkens back to the fortitude and collective sacrifice of the Greatest Generation. This nostalgia is, in the novel, most clearly and specifically communicated by the character of Arthur Sinclair, the Secretary of the Department of Strategic Resources (a cabinet position designed specifically for the zombie war). Sinclair, prior to his appointment to this new cabinet post, was an ardent capitalist and Wall Streeter, largely because he was the child of Roosevelt-era New Dealers:

Those first months, I can’t tell you how much information I had to cram into this withered old cortex … I needed every idea, every word, every ounce of knowledge and wisdom to help me fuse a fractured landscape into the modern American war machine. If my father had been alive, he probably would have laughed at my frustration. He’d been a staunch New Dealer, working closely with FDR as comptroller of New York State. He used methods that were almost Marxist in nature, the kind of collectivism that would make Ayn Rand leap from her grave and join the ranks of the living dead. I’d always rejected the lessons he’d tried to impart, running as far away as Wall Street to shut them out. Now I was wracking my brains to remember them. One thing those New Dealers did better than any generation in American history was find and harvest the right tools and talent.

[Quick aside, for those who haven’t read the novel, and, really, for those who have: you should consider getting the audiobook. The novel is written as a series of interviews; in the audiobook, each character is voiced by someone of note. Carl and Rob Reiner take parts, as do notable SF figures like Mark Hamill, Denise Crosby, Jeri Ryan, Nathan Fillion, and Bruce Boxleitner; also featured are John Turturro, Common, Kal Penn, Jurgen Prochnow, Alfred Molina, and F. Murray Abraham. Among others. And the dude voicing Arthur Sinclair? Alan Alda! To paraphrase Mel Brooks from Robin Hood: Men In Tights, sometimes it’s good to be the son of the king.]

The broader subject of Brooks’ Fresh Air interview, as you might imagine, was the current pandemic, and the variety of responses to it. Since the success of World War Z, Brooks has become something of a professional disaster-response expert, and, in addition to consulting with the U.S. military on a variety of issues, is also a non-resident lecturer at the Modern War Institute at West Point. One of the points he made in the interview is that societies living with a siege mentality tend to be better equipped to respond quickly to a crisis, and he cited the admirable responses of South Korea and Taiwan to the conoravirus. This is a theme running through World War Z, in which Israel and post-apartheid South Africa are depicted as having quicker and more thorough responses. The United States, however, as he observed in the interview, tends to always be caught flat-footed. The Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, Sputnik, September 11th, the meltdown of 2008—and now, the coronavirus. However stunned the U.S. is by a given catastrophe, however—and herein lies the pervasive nostalgia of World War Z—its capacity to gear up and respond is unmatched.

Or, well, it should be. There is a contemptuous distaste for postmodern society of the “get off my lawn!” variety running through the novel, which is reflected in the way suburban and middle-class Americans are depicted as apathetic and preoccupied with trivialities. For example, a stereotypical suburban mom responds to the question of whether she was worried by the first news items about the zombie outbreak:

Oh, yeah. I was worried. I was worried about my car payments and Tim’s business loan. I was worried about that widening crack in the pool and the new nonchlorinated filter that still left an algae film. I was worried about our portfolio, even though my e-broker assured me this was just first-time investment jitters and that it was much more profitable than a standard 401(k). Aiden needed a math tutor, Jenna needed just the right Jamie-Lynn Spears cleats for soccer camp. Tim’s parents were thinking about coming to stay with us for Christmas. My brother was back in rehab. Finley had worms, one of the fish had some kind of fungus growing out of its left eye. These were just some of my worries. I had more than enough to keep my busy.

There is another account, narrated by an ex-military-turned-mercenary private security professional, of an entertainment billionaire who fortifies his Long Island mansion to ride out the apocalypse with several dozen of his best celebrity friends. The house is rigged with cameras in order to broadcast, reality-TV style, so people can watch the rich and famous watch the world burn, an obscene vanity project cut short when the house is attacked and taken over by ordinary people, and the celebrities’ entourages turn on them. Another account is told by a ruthless venture capitalist who made billions peddling false cures for the zombie virus, and in the novel’s present moment evades prosecution by holing up in an Antarctic compound á là Adrian Veidt in Watchmen.

The TL;DR is that pre-catastrophe America is lazy, greedy, and obsessed with trivialities, and thus gets taken completely off-guard by the pandemic; it is through the rediscovery of the values of community, sacrifice, and selflessness, as well as the values of true work that Brooks’ imagined U.S.A. gets over itself, and—as it did in the Second World War—become a world leader again.

The nostalgic quality of World War Z is in this respect specific and tangible, something of a paean to his Brooks’ parents’ generation; but it also shares the more nebulous—and more invidious—form of nostalgia that isn’t focused on a specific time, place, or era, but a vague sensibility that inflects the genre. Fantasy as a genre embodies this kind of nostalgia; zombie apocalypse, with its return to an essentially premodern existence shorn of the trivialities and distractions of the postmodern condition, shares that same desire for a simpler, more authentic, more visceral life, with no shades of grey. In a more typical offering, it is usually as simple as what I like to term the “survivalist fantasy”—the idea that one would, in such circumstances, prove to have the toughness, talent, and capacity for (completely justified) violence needed to survive the undead-infested world.

Brooks provides a somewhat more nuanced consideration of violence and sacrifice, but evinces the same nostalgic gesture for authenticity. His American characters pass through their traumatic trials, as do his international characters, but emerging out the other side with a more plainly expressed appreciation for what truly matters. Arthur Sinclair talks about how, in the early days of consolidation when the U.S. had carved out a safe zone west of the Rockies, one of his biggest trials was retraining a population that had forgotten how to do things for itself, which largely entailed inverting the social pyramid so people with blue-collar skills became the drivers of the American recovery, and the tutors for the ad executives and script consultants who were no obliged to sweep factory floors. In the end, however, Sinclair says, the early resentments gave way to satisfaction in their work:

I met one gentleman on a coastal ferry from Portland to Seattle. He had worked in the licensing department of an advertising agency, specifically in charge of procuring the rights to classic rock songs for television commercials. Now he was a chimney sweep. Given that most homes in Seattle had lost their central heat and the winters were now longer and colder, he was seldom idle. “I keep my neighbours warm,” he said proudly. I know that sounds a little too Normal Rockwell, but I hear stories like that all the time. “You see those shoes, I made them,” “That sweater, that’s my sheep’s wool,” “Like the corn? My garden.” That was the upshot of the more localised system. It gave people the opportunity to see the fruits of their labour. It gave them a sense of individual pride to know they were making a clear, concrete contribution to victory.

Perhaps it’s not so much Rockwell as Marx, as what Sinclair describes is the reversal of workers’ alienation from their labour.

It was striking, though, on re-reading this passage to think of the current moment in which people whose labour has tended to be devalued—store cashiers, shelf-stockers, food delivery people and those who prepare the food for delivery, and of course health care workers—are the ones making it possible for the rest of us to self-isolate. The scale of our current crisis isn’t remotely close to what Brooks imagines—which is good, because I’d almost certainly be shambling and moaning about the streets looking for someone alive to snack on—but I can only hope we take away a comparable lesson.

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Isolated Thoughts: Pandemic Reading

I’d been wracking my brain trying to figure out how to theme the fourth-year contemporary American literature seminar I’m teaching in the Fall, when I realized the obvious topic was right in front of me: Pandemic Fiction! Having taught a course a few years ago on post-apocalyptic narratives, I already had a handful of titles under my belt. A quick internet search yielded an embarrassment of riches, and I put in an online order for some that seemed likely candidates.

pandemic reading

(Possibilities not pictured: Katherine Ann Porter’s 1938 novella about the Spanish Flu, Pale Horse, Pale Rider; Jack London’s weird post-plague dystopia The Scarlet Plague [1912]; and Philip  Roth’s last novel, Nemesis [2010], about a polio outbreak in 1945 New Jersey).

When I mentioned on Facebook that I’d decided on pandemic fiction for my course, the response was pretty uniformly enthusiastic. Some people asked me to post the reading list when I’d finalized it; a few others, some of them former students, wistfully said that would be a course they’d love to take. And more than one person said it would likely be a course that would draw in a lot of students.

I think it will, but I also think there will be a not-insignificant number of students who will, as I commented back, “avoid it like the plague.” (The bad joke was unintentional, but apt). For everyone who might welcome the perspective a course on pandemic fiction might offer on our current moment, I’m sure are those who would much rather not either revisit the coronavirus experience or deal with such fictionalizations during an ongoing crisis (fingers crossed pretty damn hard for the first eventuality).

It’s an odd quirk of human idiosyncrasies that some of us lean into fictional figurations of crisis in response to the experience of a real one, while others most emphatically do not. It makes me think of the way in which, after September 11th, Clear Channel distributed a memo to all its radio stations listing the songs they were to avoid playing because they might evoke thoughts of the attack (including some truly bizarre choices, like “We Gotta Get Out of this Place,” or risible ones, like “Walk Like An Egyptian”), and movie studios froze production or postponed release of films depicting terrorism or large-scale destruction; meanwhile, video stores (remember those?) reported that movies like Armageddon and Independence Day were constantly being rented. In the present moment, one of the highest-trending offerings on Netflix has consistently been Contagion, Stephen Soderbergh’s 2010 film about a pandemic. I have seen a significant number of discussions of this sort of thing on social media, i.e. people soliciting pandemic/apocalypse/dystopian themed isolation viewing, as well as people voicing incredulity that anyone would want to watch or read such stuff in the present moment.

I suppose it doesn’t come as a great galloping shock that I fall into the former category, and not just because I need to read a bunch of titles and make final reading list decisions before the call comes from the English Department to submit our book orders for the Fall (usually, that happens early-mid May). Speaking personally, it’s not the fictional representations of pandemic that bother my soul, but the daily news that makes me afraid for my blood pressure. As I mentioned in my initial “isolated thoughts” post, what narrative tends to offer is catharsis; it is, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson (my copy of The Political Unconscious is currently in my campus office and thus inaccessible), the symbolic resolution of irreconcilable real-world contradictions … even when that resolution entails something putatively negative, like a pair of sclerotic old men in a Beckett play, or the wholesale destruction of society in a zombie apocalypse.

In the latter, at least you might get to use a crossbow.

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Isolated Thoughts: What’s Next?

THE WEST WING, clockwise from top left: Janel Moloney, Stockard Channing, John Spencer, Dule Hill, B

I find myself missing The West Wing. I don’t miss it because I can’t watch it (Netflix might have dropped it, but I have the first four seasons on DVD); I miss it because I can’t watch it in the way I did when it first aired, or when it was comfort food TV to rewatch over the years, or when I turned to it as solace in the aftermath of Trump’s victory. The series is, of course, fantasy—liberal utopianism of the highest order that is (or was during the Sorkin seasons) unapologetically earnest and invested in the ideals of intellect, expertise, and good governance. Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s television series, it depicted extremely smart people who are extremely good at their jobs, and who place high value on the work they do. And for all of the unrealistic, soaring rhetoric spoken in perfect paragraphs, it always foregrounded the conviction that democracy functions best when forged by smart, committed people arguing with each other in good faith. At its worst, the show could be pedantic, implying that all wrong-headed people needed was one more lecture to bring them around; at its best, it embodied a credo voiced by Robert Guillame’s character on Sports Night, Sorkin’s first series: “It’s taken me a lot of years, but I’ve come around to this: If you’re dumb, surround yourself with smart people. And if you’re smart, surround yourself with smart people who disagree with you.”

Honestly, can you imagine anything that would be more anathema to Donald Trump? Any more than you can imagine Trump employing President Jed Bartlett (Martin Sheen)’s oft-iterated prompt, “What’s next?”

One thing The West Wing gets right that many former White House aides and staffers have pointed to is the hectic, breakneck pace the contemporary presidency; this is something perhaps best exemplified by the series’ oftparodied but directorially bravura “walk and talk” sequences, in which meetings happen on the fly at breakneck speed through the West Wing. “What’s next?” became Bartlett’s catch phrase indicating the completion of one item of business and the imperative to move on (consonant with “what’s next?” was the admonition “break’s over!”).

I have a hat, which I purchased from the podcast The West Wing Weekly’s online merch store, that asks “What’s Next?” However, given that I bought it about two years into Trump’s presidency, the sentiment is now less about wanting to move on to the next thing on the agenda, than it is something of an expression of existential dread. The unspoken words in the middle are “what could possibly be next?” and the tone one of baffled incredulity, as the cumulative effect of the Trump presidency piles up more detritus at the feet of Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.

what's next?

What’s next? The other day I vented on Facebook about Donald Trump’s new custom of holding two-hour press conferences, in which he shares the latest “news” about the pandemic and the response to it; and while he periodically gives over the lectern to experts, business leaders, and Mike Pence, these briefings are really just The Trump Show, something to substitute for his rallies, which are, along with Twitter, his preferred method of communication. He obviously relishes having a captive audience, and frequently boasts of his ratings; but he just as obviously misses the adulation of his rally crowds, and gets sulky and resentful of the fact that the handful of carefully spaced reporters won’t congratulate him on doing an amazing job and indeed have the audacity to challenge his assertions and pose “nasty questions.”

What led to my Facebook rant was the sudden realization that Trump is giving over two hours out of his day, every day, to conduct his infomercials (a recent one of which literally included a campaign-style montage of Trump looking decisive and the media looking dishonest). What surprised me about the realization was that it hadn’t happened sooner, that I hadn’t really thought “this isn’t normal” from the moment Trump started running the coronavirus task force briefings. Well, I suppose I did think that, but it was such a relatively minor blip in the overwhelming noise of the Trump Experience, that it did not register as significant. But on reflection, it serves to exemplify so much about the discordance of this moment in time.

Put simply, taking two hours out of the day to address the press is not something presidents do—that’s why they have a large staff of people, including communications directors and press secretaries, and the small armies of experts from across the executive branch and the military, whose job it is to keep the public informed. The president only emerges on occasion, to make announcements of significance; previous presidents might make themselves available at a press conference once or twice every few weeks, and they rarely talk for long, for the simple reason that they have shit to do. The American presidency, John Dickerson writes in The Atlantic is “The Hardest Job in the World,” perhaps untenably so, which is why it is typical to watch presidents age in real-time, emerging at the end of their term(s) with grey hair and wan, lined faces.

We are by now however quite familiar with Trump’s lack of interest in the job and his utter incuriosity with anything that does not flatter him: chafing at any briefing lasting more than a few minutes; aides instructed to reduce the their notes to a single page of bullet points, and to include colourful pictures and charts, and press clippings that mention Trump favourably; his contempt for expertise and his unfounded confidence in his own instincts; his lack of preparation with any scripted remarks, obviously reading them for the first time as they scroll up the teleprompter; and above all his monumental laziness, with hours of his day given over to “executive time,” which numerous anonymous sources have confirmed as essentially Trump watching cable news, about which he live-tweets.

I suppose if there will have been any benefit to the Trump saga in the aftermath of this debacle, it could well be the definitive demolition of certain myths and illusions that have sustained the status quo for so long, not the least of which is the false premise of The West Wing that the key players within a democratic system might disagree, but operate on a basis of rationality and good faith. It’s a nice thought, but Trump disproves it—not so much through his own behaviour as by the simple fact of his election, and the rise of his army of opportunists, sycophants, enablers, and cultish adherents, whose only concerns are the arrogation of more power to them and their donors, basking in the reflected orange glow of their god-king, and owning the libs.

Trump should not be possible. The fact that he was, and is, makes it difficult to find comfort in Sorkin’s idealism, not least because it exposes to me my own oblivious privilege. After Trump won, white liberals like me were stunned and caught flat-footed. You know who wasn’t surprised that a critical mass of white people would pull the lever for Trump? Everyone else—people of colour, undocumented immigrants, queer folk, women, the working poor … anyone for whom the illusion of people in power arguing in good faith has always been obviously an illusion.

 

“What’s next?” is now the most important question. What does a post-coronavirus and (oh gods, please) a post-Trump world look like? We need to resist formulation of “getting back to normal.” Normal gave us Trump.

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Isolated Thoughts: A Wartime President

I have little doubt that Donald Trump’s declaration that he is a “wartime president” emerged from either his media-addled brain or the sycophancy of a staffer—a romantic bit of self-fashioning that appealed to his fascination with military might and his own image of himself as a tough guy. And I’m just as sure he likes it because it makes him feel special—after all, wartime presidents are a select group, right?

Well, not so much. Unfortunately for Trump, he already was a wartime president. Indeed, one of his many unfilled campaign promises was that he was going to end America’s ongoing wars. To be fair, I’m sure he didn’t feel like a wartime president, even when he got to order a missile strike against Syria or the targeted assassination of Qasem Soleimani. A wartime president in the popular imagination—which, let’s face is, is the only imagination Trump has—is someone who visibly leads the nation through fire, like Lincoln in the Civil War or FDR in WWII, or George W. Bush (up until the point when it became obvious that Iraq was an unwinnable quagmire). And when you think about it, we don’t tend to think of Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon as wartime presidents because, well, America lost in Vietnam. The War of 1812 had an ambiguous ending, so James Madison doesn’t get equal billing with George Washington. Winning is important. But even unequivocal victory doesn’t necessarily make the cut: George H.W. Bush is remembered more for “Read my lips!” and losing the presidency after one term than for winning the first Gulf War. (Precisely why this is the case is something I’ll discuss below).

In actual fact if not popular imagining, “wartime president” is hardly a distinction, as there are precious few presidents (if any) from George Washington onwards who did not preside over one war or another. Some, perhaps, like Reagan and Grenada or Clinton and Kosovo, hardly seem more than skirmishes; but the fact of the matter is that it’s hard to find presidents who didn’t engage in at least a little bit of military adventurism.

That being said, Trump’s claim to be a wartime president has at least a modicum of resonance, if for no other reason than that we do genuinely understand this moment to be one of immediate crisis, and its effects are being felt by everybody. People like myself who hold Trump in contempt scoff at his assumption of the “wartime” mantle, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t somehow apt on a gut level—just that we can’t imagine someone as venal and incompetent as Trump actually, you know, leading.

Precisely why “wartime president” has resonance now is more my concern here, however, than Trump’s dismal performance (I will, no doubt, have much to say about that in future posts). It goes back to what I observed above: that George H.W. Bush doesn’t get that title in spite of the fact that he presided over the only unequivocal U.S. military victory since V-J Day. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case: he never really rose above the “wimp” moniker or Dana Carvey’s impression of him; he was a one-term president who lost to the libertine Bill Clinton; victory was way too easy; he could never emerge from Ronald Reagan’s shadow; and there was the fact that, in many people’s minds, he left the true business of the Gulf War—i.e. ousting Saddam Hussein—unfinished, to be completed by his more rugged and warlike scion.

What I would argue, however, is that, in the words of Jean Baudrillard, “the Gulf War did not take place.” When Baudrillard first composed that notorious sentence, it was—unsurprisingly—controversial. He was pelted with accusations of callousness towards those Coalition soldiers who had been killed or wounded, and by those who assumed it was a conspiracy theory that the Gulf War had been a simulation akin to what would be depicted several years later in the film Wag the Dog. (Baudrillard’s most influential book, after all, is the slim tome entitled Simulations). I’m sure everyone will be shocked to learn that Baudrillard was arguing a somewhat different, albeit related, point: the Gulf War did not take “place,” he said, in the sense that it was not real for its spectators. For all of the media coverage, of which there was countless hours—let’s remember, it was the coverage of the Gulf War that demonstrated the viability of CNN’s business model as a 24/7 news network—none of it had the visceral substance of the reporting on Vietnam. Which was, indeed, by design: received wisdom stated that it was in allowing reporters to show dead and wounded soldiers and images of combat, that the U.S. government lost the war of popular opinion, and therefore the moral authority to wage war in Vietnam as they saw fit. Hence, news of the Gulf War was carefully vetted and funneled through government and military officials, often through press conferences showing off video footage of “smart” weaponry surgically obliterating targets.

Is it any wonder it was dubbed “the video game war”? Baudrillard’s larger point was that the Gulf War lacked affect for people at home, and thus did not take place in any meaningful sense. It was not a felt war, but an imaginary one, in the sense that anyone who was not there or was close to someone who was did not have their lives impacted beyond the barrage of media images.

This dynamic was recapitulated with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. The destruction of the World Trade Center was certainly a felt experience, as it upended people’s understanding of reality and possibility. And George W. Bush certainly assumed the mantle of a wartime president with cinematic flair. But it is important to remember that, framed within his celebration of the American spirit and platitudes about fortitude, was the more crucial exhortation to keep shopping. If the economy tanks, the sentiment went, the terrorists win. Keep on as normal—keep consuming, and thus vindicate the capitalist ethos.

On one hand, it was sensible advice: the best way to defeat terrorism, after all, is to refuse to be terrorized. On the other hand, however, it was message of political expediency that reflected an aversion to asking people to sacrifice. Does that sound at all familiar? Trump might want to call himself a wartime president, but doesn’t seem inclined to fight much, and has only very reluctantly allowed for the fact that social distancing and isolation is beneficial. His obvious inclination is to echo Bush’s harangue and tell people to start shopping again, already.

Trump is a wartime president because people are feeling it in their lives, more so than any time since WWII. WWII was a felt war because it impacted people’s lives with rationing, social upheaval, and the draft, which meant that there were few people living stateside who didn’t know someone in combat. Vietnam was a felt war also because of the draft, and because of the nightly news showing scenes of horror, all of which made for cultural divisiveness on a scale not seen since the Civil War.

The U.S. learned those lessons for the first Gulf War, and refined them post-9/11. To my mind, the most eloquent expression of the cognitive dissonance between combat and civilian life is a brief scene in the film The Hurt Locker. Jeremy Renner plays a bomb disposal expert who spends his tour defusing IEDs. When he comes home, he is grocery shopping with his wife, and she asks him to grab some cereal. Standing in the cereal aisle, he has option paralysis: a seemingly infinite stretch of shelves, all of them offering minute variations of sugar-coated processed grains.

It is a far cry from WWII-era rationing.

Just to be clear, I don’t want to denude the pain and trauma of those who serve in combat units in the military, or their friends and families, or those civilians living in war zones caught in the crossfire. Their experience is quite real, quite felt, and utterly not imaginary. But war has always had its front lines and its home fronts. It has been quite some time in the privileged West since the home front has had to make sacrifices. Right now, if we accept the war metaphor—which, in spite of everything I’ve just said, I don’t know that I do—the home front is the front line.

Which, sadly, makes Donald Trump a wartime president.

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Isolated Thoughts

I had my first real bout of pandemic-related depression the other day. I woke up from a bad dream whose details I could not recall, but which was coronavirus-related, and the lingering sense of sadness and dread dogged me for the better part of the day as I looked out my office window at the grey and miserable weather that frequently passes as spring in Newfoundland.

It actually took me a few hours to put my finger on why I was feeling down, and it came, weirdly, as something of a surprise. Right. Things are kind of fucked up right now. I had by this point been party to any number of expressions of sadness, depression, anger, frustration, and a host of vagaries of brown study inspired by isolation, anxiety, and worry for the future, all of them communicated over social media. I read every day news stories, think pieces, and op-eds from the seat of my own isolation, connected to the world but separated from it. I go for long walks every day; my grocery shopping is an infrequent but excruciatingly long process as I buy mountains of food and necessities so I don’t have to do it again any time soon, all the while getting annoyed at people who don’t seem to grasp the basics of social distancing or the point of the arrows spaced six feet apart on the store floor. I return home and subject myself to a Silkwood-style scrubbing, and sit again in front of my portal to the world after putting the groceries away.

In a number of ways, this pandemic is the apotheosis of what we once called the postmodern condition, one aspect of which was neatly characterized by Fredric Jameson as the paradox of collectivity experienced in isolation by way of mass media. As traumatic as the assassination of John F. Kennedy was, Jameson writes, it offered a “utopian glimpse” of shared experience, but an experience shared by an atomized population watching television. September 11th, 2001 offered a similar experience, but one rendered uncanny by its familiarity. As Slavoj Zizek pointed out, the true shock of 9/11 wasn’t its novelty, but the haunting sense of “where have I seen this before?” Popular culture had been imagining apocalyptic destruction for years; contra what innumerable pundits were saying in the aftermath, said Zizek, “It wasn’t that reality entered to shatter the illusion, illusion entered to shatter the reality.”

And now we sit in self-isolation watching a pandemic unfold after having imagined it in literally hundreds if not thousands of movies, TV shows, novels, and video games. It is with no small sense of serendipity that I spend part of my days working on a series of articles that have been in the works for some time on post-apocalyptic imaginings: one on zombie apocalypse as an expression of ambivalence to mass culture, one on apocalyptic figurations as an expression of “hopeful nihilism” (the flip side to Lauren Berlant’s formulation of “cruel optimism”), and one on the humanist nostalgia of Emily St. John Mandel’s novel Station Eleven, a novel about the persistence of art in a post-pandemic world. One character in Station Eleven remarks ironically, “It could be worse. There could be zombies.”

apocalypse outfit

It could be worse. One of the more amusing memes circulating on social media is the contrast between how one imagined what their post-apocalypse outfit would look like versus what it actually is—the former being something badass with a lot of leather and guns, and the latter being sweatpants and a housecoat. But what art and narrative offer that real life tends to lack is catharsis. Killing zombies with a crossbow or blasting across the alkaline flats in a souped-up semi with Imperia Furiosa would be harrowing but thrilling; sitting (as I am right now) in flannel pyjama bottoms and a hoodie with a dozen tabs open to different stories in my browser, is, to say the least, a counter-intuitive way to endure a pandemic, and not one that should lend itself to anxiety and depression.

But of course it does. The surprising thing, on reflection, was not that I was depressed the other day, but that it took that long for it to happen. I am, by my count, twenty-two days into self isolation, the first fourteen of which were actual quarantine. My partner Stephanie and I were in Barbados on vacation when the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic and Justin Trudeau strongly encouraged all Canadians abroad to come home. We cut short our time in Barbados, and the relief we felt on making it home after the headache of rebooking flights was palpable; it was good to get home, and we also had the glow of time spent in the Caribbean lingering. And I have been on a half-sabbatical since the start of January, so I’ve more or less been self-isolating and social distancing before I was aware that either expression was a thing. I am, I’m almost a little embarrassed to admit, perfectly well situated to endure the lockdown with minimal issues.

And so I try to keep in the front of my mind the fact that whatever anxiety, frustration, and depression I experience is being experienced tenfold, a hundredfold, by many others. I think of how much worse this would be if it had happened when I was a graduate student living alone in a small apartment on a pittance, and I think of my students, current and former, enduring that now themselves.

My biggest fear is not that the world will be different when all this is over, but that it won’t be—that we won’t have learned the lessons about the fragility of our political and economic system, that those most vital to society aren’t the wealthy but those who get shit done every day, whether they’re stocking shelves or caring for the ill.

It’s a bit ironic to think that one of my standard riffs in my lectures on the nature of power is to get my students to imagine how long my authority as a professor would last into a zombie apocalypse. Think about it, I say: you’ve all paid tuition to sit in this class; I am granted authority both tacit and explicit as someone with a doctorate in this subject to run this class and evaluate your work. The very room is arranged with that power dynamic in mind. But if the zombie apocalypse happens while we’re in here, it’s quite likely that my usefulness will be reduced to being shoved out into the hallway to see if the coast is clear.

I can’t help feeling like we’re sort of in a moment like that now. It’s vital that when we come out the other side of this, we remember who kept things running, who put themselves in harm’s way for minimum wage, and who deserves the greatest consideration when we rethink everything. The biggest problem with our fascination with apocalyptic narratives, as has been observed by Jameson and Zizek and others, is that they comprise a failure of imagination—that it’s easier to imagine the wholesale destruction of capitalism than any sort of functional alternative. This failure, in a nutshell, is what I mean by “hopeful nihilism”—the idea that burning it all down will somehow make way for something better, without any clear idea of what “better” entails. It should go without saying that this kind of thinking was at least partially responsible for the election of Donald Trump (one of my more glib titles for the hopeful nihilism essay is “Were the Zombies Trying to Warn Us About Trump?”).

One sentiment that made the rounds on social media that made me laugh was someone who, commenting on the fact that quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies, said “I can’t sing opera, so I plan to conduct a PowerPoint presentation from my balcony this evening.” I laughed at that, thinking that my equivalent would be to deliver a rambling lecture on postmodernism from my balcony.

As it happens, I don’t have a balcony. So stay tuned for more isolated thoughts.

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Three reflections on the occasion of Remembrance Day

Don’t mention the war!

Last week in my fourth-year seminar, we covered Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried—a not-quite-a-novel, not-quite-a-memoir about his experiences as a combat soldier in the Vietnam War. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that I recommend to everyone. I prefaced our discussion as I always do whenever I teach a text about war, with an anecdote about James Joyce living in Zurich during the First World War: when asked why his current project (which was to be an obscure little novel titled Ulysses) wasn’t an explicitly anti-war novel—Joyce was, after all, living in the middle of a community of vociferously anti-war artists who had come to Zurich specifically to avoid military service—Joyce responded that the best way to write an anti-war novel was simply “don’t write a novel about war.”

I have always been struck by the simultaneous wisdom and inadequacy of this zen-like assertion. On one hand, Joyce identifies the principal problem of depicting warfare, which is that in aestheticizing it you risk celebrating it. To illustrate this point, I showed my class the notorious helicopter attack scene in Apocalypse Now, in which Robert Duvall’s sociopathic Colonel Kilgore swoops in with his air cavalry on a Vietnamese village to the strains of “The Ride of the Valkyries,” a mission he’d rejected until one of his soldiers told him the beach there was perfect for surfing. The scene is part and parcel with the film as a whole, a commentary on the absurdities and psychopathies of warfare; in and of itself, however, it is one of the most thrilling depictions of combat ever put on celluloid, a point made strikingly in the film adaptation of Anthony Swofford’s memoir of the first Gulf War, Jarhead. When Swofford’s Marine unit is given its orders to ship out to the Middle East, they get the men’s bloodlust up by showing them Apocalypse Now:

Possibly the most famous line from the film—and one of the most famous lines in cinema—is Kilgore saying “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” just after a flight of jet fighters rain fire down on a treeline.

 

napalm

The moment is iconic: the shirtless Kilgore, wearing a traditional cavalry hat, crouches down beside Captain Willard (Martin Sheen), who, with a handful of other soldiers, lies prone as bullets snap and whiz about them; Kilgore, heedless or perhaps oblivious of the danger, regretfully tells Willard, “This war’s gonna end one day.” Then he stands and walks off.

kilgore

As I said, the moment is iconic, but almost certainly for all the wrong reasons. We’re not meant to identify with Kilgore, but with the soldiers cowering on the ground. Between Francis Ford Coppola’s direction and Duvall’s performance, however, Kilgore has become a compelling symbol of badassery, and his iconic line a celebration of warfare.

 

I’m here today because my grandfather was good at math

My maternal grandfather, Norman Brown, was one of the kindest, gentlest, and most intelligent people I’ve ever known. He never went to university because he had to work as soon as he was done school to help support his family, which was something of a minor tragedy—if there was ever anyone who would have loved academe and flourished within its ivied walls, it was my grandfather. Even without postsecondary education, however, he showed his acumen, winning an award in mathematics. When World War Two began, he volunteered for the Royal Canadian Air Force, and became a navigator on Lancaster bombers.

lancaster

A Lancaster-class bomber

I remember him showing me the various ways in which he would figure out the location of his bomber. He’d pull out pads of graph paper and draw lines with a pencil and ruler, writing numbers in the margin, and show me how to calculate one’s position. All that was lost on me, and would almost certainly be lost on me today, but I loved him so much, and loved listening to his stories, that my grasp of his words was beside the point.

I was a devoted reader of WWII history from an early age, and would have loved even more to hear stories about his bombing missions over France and Germany. But he had none to tell. He never shipped overseas. He was so good and so precise in his navigation that he was kept in Canada to teach others. (My grandfather, modest to a fault, never said as much; it was my grandmother who told me, recounting how, upon receiving his letter with the news, she wept with relief).

The fact that my grandfather had no actual war stories to share was, to my young self, the sole element lacking in those discussions. It would only be much later, after he had passed, that I fully appreciated the substance of my grandmother’s relief. Bomber crews sustained one of the highest rates of attrition of any combat units of the war. Some forty-five percent of bomber crews were killed in the skies over Europe. That’s a number that gives me what I can only characterize as existential vertigo. Had my grandfather been just decent at math as opposed to extraordinary, there’s close to a fifty-fifty chance I would not be sitting here writing this post.

And as I write this, another eventuality presents itself to me: had he gone overseas and survived, would he have been the same man I loved and idolized? After suffering the trauma and terrors of night-time bombing, seeing crewmates chewed by flak, looking death in the face, seeing the bombers on his wing explode in flame, would that gentleness of spirit have survived?

“Thank you for your service” is the emptiest of sentiments if we’re not going to acknowledge that sometimes the greatest sacrifice is surviving.

 

Seriously, can Don Cherry just retire already?

Almost eighteen years ago, I went to a bar in London, Ontario with a good friend to watch Team Canada play Finland the Salt Lake City Olympic hockey quarterfinals. Canada won, and went on to take the gold. That evening sticks in my memory because there were two things that struck my friend and I as the quintessence of Canada.

First was a young Sikh man in a turban and a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey jersey; where the player name would be, it said THE HIP. He was with a group of racially and ethnically diverse friends, all cheering exuberantly for Team Canada.

Second was a moment between periods featuring Don Cherry declaiming in his usual strident tones about the game thus far. He was rinkside; a group of Canadians who had made their way to Salt Lake City started cheering and chanting his name, loudly enough that they were drowning him out. Annoyed, Cherry turned and pointed at them and said “Shut up!” And they did. Everyone in the bar burst out laughing, because of course Canadians, however excited to be watching their team hand Finland its ass, would be polite enough to be chagrined to have their rambunctious behaviour called out.

It has been quite awhile since I thought of that evening, but it came to mind today when I read and then watched Don Cherry’s asinine suggestion that what he perceived as a dearth of Remembrance Day poppies on the streets of Mississauga and Toronto was attributable to a surfeit of immigrants disrespecting Canadian traditions and history:

You people love – they come here, whatever it is, you love our way of life, you love our milk and honey, at least you could pay a couple of bucks for a poppy or something like that. These guys pay for your way of life that you enjoy in Canada, these guys paid the biggest price.

Don Cherry might be a Canadian institution, but he has been descending into the nativist know-nothing reactionary well for some time now—or, more likely, has always been there and finds the present moment amenable to voicing his antipathy to anyone he perceives as not being a “real” Canadian.

I don’t know that his anti-immigrant comments regarding wearing the poppy are the worst thing he’s said in recent years, but they do serve to exemplify the kind of pernicious nativist thinking that has consumed contemporary conservatism. On the day we put aside to solemnly observe the sacrifice of our nation’s soldiers, it’s worth considering just why Cherry’s rant was not merely asinine and bigoted, but also displayed precisely the kind of ignorance and disrespect of history of which he accuses immigrants.

To start with, I’ve written at some length on this blog about how the assertion that Canadian soldiers fought and died “for our freedoms” irks me. Click the links to read my thoughts in full, but here’s the TL;DR: Canada has never faced existential threat from a foreign foe, whether from the Central Powers or the Axis or North Korea or Saddam Hussein or the Taliban; we have fought for the freedoms of others, which should be celebrated and memorialized, but that is not the same thing; and to unthinkingly celebrate our soldiers’ sacrifice and our veterans’ service without understanding its context and complexity is to do it a disservice.

That is why I wear the poppy, while some on my section of the ideological spectrum consider it an endorsement of war and aggression. I understand that argument while respectfully disagreeing; as I outlined in the first section of this post, the depiction of war is a fraught affair—so too is its commemoration, not least because while November 11th invites us to remember all who have fought for and served Canada, the day specifically honours the First World War.

Given that I’m a third-generation Canadian of predominantly British heritage (with just enough Irish mixed in to sharpen my Catholic guilt), the legacy of WWI resonates with me quite strongly. But I can’t blame people whose families emigrated from formerly colonial nations if they’re ambivalent about commemorating a war that was fought by imperial powers over imperial holdings. There was a host of reasons for the tensions in Europe leading up to the outbreak of war, but a major factor was Germany’s imperial expansion, encroaching as it did on French and British interests in Africa and Southeast Asia. WWI was, as I’ve argued here before, an entirely unnecessary conflagration contested by imperial and generally nondemocratic powers in the name of keeping possession of their colonial interests.

Which is not, I hasten to add, a reason for not commemorating the horrific sacrifice made by soldiers fighting for what poet Wilfred Owen called “the old lie: / Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori” (translation: “It is a proper and beautiful thing to die for one’s country”). And the particular idiocy of Don Cherry and his ilk omits how many of “you people’s” forebears fought for and alongside the imperial powers: by conservative estimates, “well over four million non-white men were mobilised into the European and American armies during the First World War, in combatant and non-combatant roles.” (Just going out on a limb here that the “you people” Cherry’s targeting aren’t Swedish immigrants). To say nothing of the significant number of indigenous Canadians who fought in both world wars, to no great benefit to their communities.

Commemoration and memorializing are important, but even more important is having a nuanced appreciation of history. When we boil it down to the mere presence or absence of a flag pin or a poppy on one’s lapel, it is profoundly disrespectful to the very people we’re ostensibly remembering.

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Revolutionary Thoughts

76 vs. 89

I had an odd thought yesterday morning, apropos of what I’m about to write about in this post, but I thought it was funny enough in the weird connection it makes to lead off with it.

The musicals Hamilton and Rent don’t have very much in common besides being huge Broadway hits and featuring generally attractive, youthful casts. But they do both focus on ensembles of people who fancy themselves revolutionaries: in the first case, the ardent young men who become the United States’ founding fathers; in the second, a ragtag group of bohemian would-be artists who rebel against the suffocating strictures of mainstream culture. The title song of Rent signals their first act of resistance upon receiving an eviction notice. The song agonizes over how they’re “gonna pay last year’s rent,” but by the end resolves:

When they act tough—you call their bluff
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
We’re not gonna pay
Last year’s rent
This year’s rent
Next year’s rent
Rent rent rent rent rent
We’re not gonna pay rent

Whenever I think of Rent or hear its music, it always puts me in mind of the late great David Rakoff’s eviscerating critique of the musical (which you can listen to here), in which he points out that none of the play’s would-be artists seem ever to want to do the work of being artists. But his key bone of contention is: “Well … why won’t you pay your rent?” At the very end of his essay, he recounts, of his agonistic 20s:

There were days when it hardly seemed worth it to live in a horrible part of town just so that I could go daily to a stupid, soul-crushing, low-paying job, especially since, as deeply as I yearned to be creative, for years and years I was too scared to even try. So I did nothing. But here’s something that I did do. I paid my fucking rent.

It occurs to me, perhaps uncharitably, that the Revolutionary War part of Hamilton is basically the founding fathers chanting “We’re not gonna pay rent!—albeit with better songs and a somewhat more nuanced rationale for why they’re not gonna pay rent than their bohemian counterparts.

***

I had this weird thought after reading a column by Bret Stephens, one of the New York Times representative conservatives, titled “Robespierre’s America.” Happily, the TL;DR is in the subtitle: “We need to reclaim the spirit of 1776, not the certitudes of 1789.”

If you’re at all familiar with Stephens’ columns, you probably know what’s coming: an invective against the woke sanctimony of the politically correct left, compared unfavourably with the reason and rationality of the Enlightenment principles on which the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were based. He enumerates a series of excesses—starting with his own victimization at the hands of a Twitter mob for calling Reza Aslan stupid—mostly recounted in the abstract, referring to professors afraid to offend students and publishers dropping books at the first whiff of controversy, comparing the ideological rigidity of the woke left to that of the Jacobins:

“Armed with the ‘truth,’ Jacobins could brand any individuals who dared to disagree with them traitors or fanatics,” historian Susan Dunn wrote of the French Revolution. “Any distinction between their own political adversaries and the people’s ‘enemies’ was obliterated.”

Leaving aside the egregious comparison of Twitter warriors with people who literally decapitated thousands, let’s address the implicit comparison Stephens makes between the American Revolution and the French—implicit, because he never explains what he means by the “spirit of 1776.” One assumes he’s citing the tacit understanding of America’s founding as rooted in and emerging from Enlightenment principles of reason, rationality, and spirited public debate—the very understanding, indeed, that made it possible for Lin-Manuel Miranda to write compelling rap battles about the creation of a national bank and the wisdom of carrying a national debt. Certainly, that’s the implied contrast with the ideological fanaticism of Robespierre and his murderous Jacobin thugs.

Normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t bother me overmuch—I find Bret Stephens’ columns annoying, but predictable and forgettable—but given that yesterday was the Fourth of July, I found myself in a headspace to think about 1776 and the American Revolution, so to me the most glaring aspect of “Robespierre’s America” is the way it so perfectly recapitulates—albeit implicitly—certain fallacies not just about the American Revolution, but revolutions generally.

I tend to be leery of revolutions, given that history teaches us that, the more extreme they are, the more they tend to turn into versions of their own worst selves. Hence, the French Revolution devolves into the Terror; the Russian Revolution turns into Stalinism. The fact that the American Revolution did not transform into something equally pernicious has been cited as evidence of American Exceptionalism, which is at least partially true; but I would argue that the principal reason the American Revolution had a relatively placid aftermath (yes, a lot of Loyalists were persecuted, often egregiously, but that hardly compares to 1790s Paris) is that nothing really changed. The radicalism of 1776 wasn’t that of material effect, but of promise—not what actually changed on the ground, but what could possibly change in the future.

For all intents and purposes, there were no upheavals in American life after the Declaration of Independence (well, aside from the war itself), by which I mean that the people in charge stayed in charge, and the power structures of the new United States were not appreciably different from the power structures of the Colonies. The King was not beheaded; the King was not even dethroned. George III basically had his status as absentee landlord revoked.

Hence my thought about Hamilton and Rent: the Boston Tea Party was basically a defiant gesture saying “We’re not gonna pay rent! Rent rent rent rent rent!”, as was the conflict that followed, and that defiant gesture is celebrated today as it was then. But after turfing the Brits, you bloody well better believe you’re paying your rent to the new owners.

By contrast, the French Revolution was about the radical overthrow of extant power, power so rooted in history, religion, and tradition that it went by the name of the ancien regime. And because of the weight of that history, it took decades to stabilize, something exacerbated by the fact that the rest of Europe was undergoing similar political upheavals. Is it any wonder that, mere years after guillotining the king, France had an Emperor?

(All of this is very broad strokes and probably has my historian friends pulling their hair out.)

As I said above, the true radicalism of 1776 wasn’t about the founding fathers’ present moment, but about the future—about what the principles of the Constitution and Bill of Rights could and can do when they become uncomfortably unavoidable. I’d argue that the true American Revolution—which is to say, the truly revolutionary moment in American history—wasn’t 1776 and the aftermath, but the Civil War. The confederates might have been the rebels, but Lincoln was the revolutionary, insofar as that the abolition of slavery overturned a foundational basis of American society. No such upending occurred in 1776, and the principle of revolutions turning into their worst selves has been painfully present in the U.S. since Andrew Johnson reversed all of the provisions made for newly freed slaves during Reconstruction, and white people in the South embarked on a sustained campaign of terror against them.

(To say nothing of everything that has happened since then, which I can’t do justice to here. If you haven’t already, read Ta-Nehisi Coates landmark essay “The Case for Reparations”).

Stephens’ opposition of “the spirit of 1776” to “the certitudes of 1789” completely glosses the material circumstances of both. The Revolutionary era of America comprises one of the most astounding argumentative ferments of history, with the debates over democracy, individual rights, proper governance, the best ways to defy and prevent tyranny, and myriad other considerations, taking place in taverns, drawing-rooms, the streets, and, most importantly, in print, with pamphlets and newspapers flying back and forth in paper fusillades. It was a period that evinced precisely the kind of civic engagement to which we should aspire, but always with one crucial caveat in mind: it was the provenance of what we today call privilege, and it has largely remained so ever since. The irony of Stephens’ longing for the “spirit of 1776” as inspired by having been savaged on Twitter, is that had the spirit of that era been as inclusive in practice as it was in principle, we might not be experiencing quite the same polarization today. Stephens’ Twitter Jacobins aren’t analogous to Robespierre, but to the citizens who stormed the Bastille: people finding a voice, voice which had previously been denied to them, through newly available means.

Speaking of revolutions that turn into their worst selves: the tech and digital revolution, specifically the rise of the internet, was heralded by many in the early-mid 1990s as a utopian shift in human connection and collective knowledge; quarter of a century later, we can see clearly how, even where some aspects of that dream have been realized, the benefits are ambivalent at best. But one key element of digital culture is that it has eroded the prominence of traditional gatekeepers of public discourse in print and visual media, allowing for a host of other platforms online or in social media. These platforms give voice to people who long went unheard, and it should not come as a huge shock that a lot of these voices are angry. It is difficult to try and make the case for “the spirit of 1776” to groups of people for whom, historically, that place within spirited public debate was never an option.

I have to believe, however, that that particular spirit isn’t dead, and if the Bret Stephens of the world would pay closer attention to the nuanced and thoughtful arguments unfolding both in “legacy” media and the new, insurgent spaces (and less attention to Twitter), they might be less convinced that there’s a tumbrel waiting for them. Of course, that’s likely a futile suggestion: more likely, it is precisely the growing presence of previously marginalized voices that threatens them and gives rise to the spectre of a guillotine with their name on it.

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Ranking the Democratic Candidates. Also, What Job They Should Have.

I cannot watch political debates without playing out in my mind what I would have said. Long before the first debates between the painfully swollen field of Democrats, I’d composed a line in my head that went something like this: “I want to say for the record that everyone here on this stage with me is extraordinary, and it gives me great hope for our future that so many talented, intelligent people are vying for the nomination. And if I may add, I make a promise here: if I am so fortunate as to earn the nomination for the presidency, you can bet that everyone on this stage with me will have a role in my administration.”

Of course, there’s a certain amount of bullshit packed into that platitude: I would be deeply suspicious of anybody, for example, who employed Marianne Williamson. But in broad strokes, I think that sentiment works. What I’ve listed here is my ranking of the Democratic candidates, in order of my preference, but also with the jobs I think they should have going forward.

debate

1. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris: President.

Yup, these two are in a dead heat for me. Prior to the first debates, I was totally Team Warren. I still mostly am, but watching Kamala Harris vivisect Joe Biden was a good reminder of her intellect and, perhaps more importantly, her killer instinct. I’m now of the mindset that, even if Harris doesn’t get the nomination, she should still debate Trump: because that is something we all need to see.

I love Elizabeth Warren and have loved her since the first moment I saw her interviewed. She makes billionaires’ bowels turn to water, and in the present moment, that’s a great thing. She’s fearless, she’s brilliant, and she loves a good fight. I think the most endearing moment for me of Hilary Clinton’s campaign was when Hilary got excited over a question posed during one of the debates, and gave a delighted smile and a little shoulder wiggle. That few seconds is Elizabeth Warren ALL THE TIME. She’s basically Hermione Granger as a presidential candidate.

I do not, however, see them sharing a ticket. I think that if it ends up being President Harris, Elizabeth Warren needs to be either Treasury or Commerce secretary—ideally with the Consumer Protection Bureau once again under her aegis. If it’s President Warren, then Kamala Harris needs to be Attorney General. That’s just science.

2.Pete Buttigieg: Vice President, or, conversely, Governor of Indiana.

Mayor Pete has been a breakout candidate, largely due to the fact that he’s hellishly impressive. He’s also a wee bit callow and unseasoned, and needs time in an office not oval-shaped to grow into his potential. At the age of thirty-seven, he has an awful lot of years to do so. Practically speaking, I’d like to see him parlay his newfound visibility into a gubernatorial run, which would benefit the Democrats more than almost anything else he could do. On the other hand, the prospect of watching him debate Mike Pence almost overrules practical concerns for me.

3. Cory Booker: Attorney General? I guess? Or possibly VP?

Cory Booker’s an odd figure, for me … I always want to be more impressed with him than I am. He’s a compelling person with an inspiring message, but he lapses too often into vague appeals to love. It’s not that I don’t find that inspiring, it just makes me wonder what’s going on behind the curtains. Early on, I thought of him as Barack Obama’s heir apparent—a telegenic African-American man with a general message of positivity, but he lacks Obama’s gravitas, and Obama’s obvious grasp of the more granular aspects of policy and history.

4. Amy Klobuchar: stay in the Senate.

Before his ignominy, I listened to Al Franken’s book Giant of the Senate on audiobook, and one of the key take-aways was just how impressive Klobuchar is. This was well before she was bandied about as a presidential possibility—indeed, at the time Franken was considered a more likely candidate—so when she rose to prominence during the Bret Kavanaugh hearings, I already felt like I had a good sense of who she was. The picture painted in Franken’s book is of a frighteningly competent legislator. I would not object to her nomination as candidate, but my general sense is that she does enormous good where she is (reported temper tantrums with he staff excepted).

5. Julian Castro: Secretary of Homeland Security.

Julian had a good debate night, and I quite like him. I don’t think he has any traction for the big job, but he’s obviously talented, ambitious, and very smart. I’d be happy to see him run for Senate or take on the task of repairing all the damage Ben Carson’s done at his old post as HUD secretary, but his powerful words on immigration during the debate make me think he might be just the right person to fix all the shit perpetrated by the current administration, starting with the radical reformation or outright abolition of ICE.

6. Bernie Sanders: take one for the team and retire.

Left-wing American politics owes a massive debt to Bernie Sanders: his insurgent challenge to Hilary Clinton in 2016 did more to move the center of political gravity leftwards than anything since FDR. Let’s keep in mind that nothing Bernie proposes is genuinely “radical” or even technically socialist, but tends to conform to the status quo of most of the democratic world. He recently outlined the ways in which his self-applied label of “socialist” applies, but ultimately what he described makes it clear he’s really a New Deal liberal. Which is not of course a problem, except that it highlights the degree to which he relishes his outsider status and relies upon a combativeness that he substitutes for policy substance.

He’s a brilliant rabble-rouser, but would make a terrible president.

7. Kirsten Gillibrand: stay in the Senate.

I have always been underwhelmed by Gillibrand, and continue to be. I think her most useful role is to stay right where she is.

8. Joe Biden: respectfully: please just go away. I love you. But seriously.

I was once at the gym, listening to a podcast that replayed, in its entirety, a speech that Biden delivered to an audience of military families who had had relatives killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He went off-script in the first few minutes, sharing with the people there his own story of grief, of how his wife and child were killed in a car crash just after he had been elected to the Senate. Come on, people, he said, his voice getting husky, commiserating with them how useless and impotent others’ expressions of grief—however well-meaning—are in the face of such enormous loss.

As I said, I was at the gym as I listened to this, and had to stop what I was doing and face a wall to hide the fact that tears were streaming down my cheeks. And I thought to myself: this is a politician? I had not understood Obama’s decision to go with Biden until that moment, and I have had an abiding love for the man ever since.

But. He might have been a useful and possibly necessary balance to Obama’s cool, but everything Obama brought to the office (i.e. the main reason Biden is still leading the polls), Biden lacks. Even leaving aside his legislative baggage and lack of message discipline, the very premise of his candidacy—that Trump is an aberration and he can return comity to Congress—is, or should be, disqualifying. For one thing, it suggests he wasn’t paying attention during his eight years as Obama’s VP, when congressional Republicans turned themselves into unrepentant obstructionists. His problematic callbacks to halcyon days of cooperation are bizarrely amnesiac.

His choice to make his campaign all about Trump is similarly obtuse. The biggest threat liberals and leftists face—in terms of their own thinking—is to imagine that any one person is the problem, whether it be Trump in the U.S. or Doug Ford in Ontario. Simply removing Trump from office doesn’t return us to a prelapsarian state of bliss and balance. Anyone who doesn’t grasp the fact that Trump is the symptom and not the disease needs to take a powder.

9. Jay Inslee: Secretary of Climate.

So far there has been distressingly little discussion of the climate crisis among the Democratic candidates. If we’re being charitable, we can chalk that up to the fact that there’s probably a consensus that it is a crisis and requires significant governmental action, and hence the candidates understandably choose to put their focus elsewhere. If we’re being uncharitable—which I think is the wiser choice—they’re avoiding the issue because practical solutions lose traction with voters the moment they understand what the cost will be. People want action on climate in the abstract, but become far more reluctant when it means paying more at the pump.

I like that Jay Inslee is in the race as a single-issue candidate. My sense is that he knows he has no chance, but he’s determined to make everyone pay attention to his issue. Good on him. I hope he sticks it out as long as he can, and forces the front-runners to speak to his issue. Hopefully one upshot is the creation of a new cabinet position: a secretary dedicated to climate solutions.

10. Andrew Yang: Secretary of Tech.

Climate is one issue that deserves its own cabinet enclave; the tech industry is another.

One of the things that has become painfully obvious in the past few years is that the tech industry has completely outstripped government’s capacity to understand it. Some of the most cringe-inducing moments of political theatre in recent memory involved septuagenarian lawmakers asking inane questions of people like Mark Zuckerberg. The key part of the problem is how few people—both within government and without—genuinely understand the nuances of Silicon Valley. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to break up such monoliths as Facebook and Amazon is a pretty good start, but I’d say it’s past time there was a part of government solely dedicated to the tech industry, staffed with people who actually understand its ins and outs, but also—and this is a crucial thing—aren’t acolytes of its utopian promises.

Is Andrew Yang that person? Quite possibly. Whenever I see him interviewed, I find myself nodding along to a lot of what he says, while also thinking to myself that he would be a catastrophic president. Like Jay Inslee, he’s too much of a single-issue guy, but has obviously thought long and in great depth on that issue. He’s a tech dude who’s obviously developed a healthy skepticism about tech, which is the kind of thing the world badly needs.

11. Beto O’Rourke: honestly? I don’t care.

This bit is actually an edit, as I forgot about Beto on my first go-around. I think he’s more impressive than most of the field of bland white guys, but at this point? Not by much. He did a great job campaigning against Ted Cruz, and mobilizing a moribund progressive electorate in Texas, but he hasn’t shown much substance since throwing his hat in the presidential ring.

12. Tulsi Gabbard: Secretary of Defense

Hear me out on this one: she’s a veteran, and made her anti-war sentiments quite plain during the debates. Possibly someone who could shake up the Pentagon in ways it dearly needs. She wouldn’t be my first choice for SecDef, but it would be far preferable to have here there than in the Oval.

13. Miscellaneous white men (Tim Ryan, Bill De Blasio, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Michael Bennet, Eric Swalwell, Joe Sestak, Steve Bullock, Seth Moulton, Wayne Messam): RUN FOR SOMETHING OTHER THAN PRESIDENT.

I don’t like lumping all of these guys into a single undifferentiated category, as it’s obvious many of them have talents and intelligence not so obviously on display in such a crowded field, but SERIOUSLY. Democrats have been living the nightmare of having focused so specifically on presidential races for too long. Who’s in the Oval Office matters less and less depending on how many senators, House representatives, and governors—to say nothing of the composition of state legislatures—are the opposing party.

 

14. Marianne Williamson: You’re perfect where you are, don’t change.

Honestly, people: can we in all good conscience allow such a sensitive soul to inhabit the punishing office of the presidency?

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Jordan Peterson’s “Identity” Fallacies

pride-flag

Happy Pride Month, everybody! And what better way to celebrate Pride than with a screed by Jordan Peterson in the National Post?

Ugh. Sorry. Bad joke. But still, he has resurfaced and written a column so chock-a-block with Petersonian fallacies that I really couldn’t do anything else than write a post about it.

What ostensibly inspired Peterson to write this was a piece of reporting by Barbara Kay about a case involving a six-year-old girl whose teacher apparently taught a series of classes on gender fluidity and gender identity, and caused the girl distress when she asserted that there was no such thing as gender, no such thing as boys or girls.

Honestly, I don’t know what to make of that story, except that it feels a little hinky, and I habitually take anything Barbara Kay says or writes with a grain of salt. Leaving aside for a moment the question of its substance, it’s safe to say Jordan Peterson knew precisely what to make of the story. What his column basically says is this is what I’ve been telling you, people!, i.e. that postmodern neo-Marxist gender theory is dangerous and will lead to psychological distress in society at large.

He ends up writing what we might call a reverse-Wente. Where Margaret Wente’s modus operandi is to cherry-pick a story that reflects badly on leftists and extrapolate out from some isolated incident to bemoan the general idiocy and moral bankruptcy of liberalism, what Peterson does in his column is save the story of the distressed little girl to the end, after he reiterates his arguments against the inclusion of “gender identity” and “gender expression” in legislation pertaining to discrimination laws and hate speech.

You all of course remember that time! September, 2016—Brexit had happened, but Trump wasn’t yet president, and a U of T psychology professor was vaulted from relative obscurity to alt-right superstardom by railing against Bill C-16 and refusing, loudly and often, to refer to his students by their preferred pronouns.

How innocent we were back then.

But about his reverse-Wente: Peterson spends the first two-thirds of his column reiterating what by now is essentially boilerplate for him, and comes to the Kay piece as a vindication for his earlier extrapolation.

What’s interesting to me is not the Kay piece, but Peterson’s boilerplate. I have, for a variety of reasons (self-loathing and masochism not least among them), read an awful lot of Peterson’s work—12 Rules For Life and (gods help me) large swaths of Maps of Meaning—and watched about as much of his YouTube lectures as I can stomach. So when I read his column, it was not at all unlike reading a Sparks Notes summary of his, well, everything.

I’m not going to link to his column, but I do reproduce most of its text below. I go through bit by bit, parsing what he says and offering my own perspective. It’s my Pride gift to everyone: I read and respond so you don’t have to.

Peterson opens by reminding us of Bill C-16 and his initial response to it, and then asserts that the most basic problem with the contemporary conception of identity, ostensibly articulated in C-16, is “that ‘identity’ is something solely determined by the individual in question (whatever that identity might be).” This is a dangerous notion, he says darkly, one that not even sociologists agree with, as they know that “identity is a social role, which means that it is by necessity socially negotiated.”

OK, so before we get into it, it’s important to emphasize the distinction he’s making, because everything that follows is more or less predicated on it. First, actual identity is a socially negotiated thing, whereas the delusional conception of identity as apparently promulgated by C-16 and “the tenth-rate academic dogmas driving the entire charade” emerges entirely as the sole product of an individual’s whim.

Here’s the thing, and I say this as a paid-up member of the postmodern neo-Marxist club: Huh? Did I miss that section of reading on my comprehensive exams? Because I’m pretty sure that all the theorists and philosophers of note who comprise the pantheon of Peterson’s hated postmodernists are all pretty much in agreement that individual identity is a product of negotiation, of power relationships, of performance, or, to use the term coined by Louis Althusser (who, now that I think about it, might actually have been a postmodern neo-Marxist), “interpellation”—i.e. the process through which the individual is “hailed” by various ideological state apparatuses (e.g. school, family, church, etc.) and forms an identity through these interactions.

The other thing to keep in mind going forward is how slippery Peterson’s prose is. Basically, this column is a repetition of his anti-transgender sentiments. He doesn’t of course say as much, but that’s what forms the substance of his complaint: people who have the selfish temerity to identify as a gender they weren’t born with, or to reject a gender distinction at all.

All set? Let’s dive in.

Your identity is not the clothes you wear, or the fashionable sexual preference or behaviour you adopt and flaunt, or the causes driving your activism, or your moral outrage at ideas that differ from yours: properly understood, it’s a set of complex compromises between the individual and society as to how the former and the latter might mutually support one another in a sustainable, long-term manner.

OK, first of all: can it be more obvious that Peterson is writing this screed during Pride Month? Referring to “fashionable sexual preference” and “behaviour you adopt and flaunt” is really just a more elevated way of castigating the very deliberate and glorious excesses of Pride—another way of phrasing the old complaint “do you have to shove your sexuality in our faces?” Also, let’s parse this for its most telling words: “fashionable” and “adopt,” both of which suggest that queer identity has more to do with individual whim than anything emerging from personal struggle and pain.

That being said, I wonder if Peterson is aware of just how postmodern this formulation is? (Spoiler alert: probably not). The thing is, I have to imagine that he thinks the first part of what he’s saying here is entirely representative of postmodern thought. But really, nobody—at least, nobody with any intellectual credibility—is arguing that identity resides absolutely within a solipsistic conception of self. What he then goes on about—identity as a negotiation between self and society—is actually a central component of what gets blandished as “identity politics,” the central premise of which (insofar as it has a central premise) is not that identity is wholly subjective, but that it is not determined by any absolute or extrinsic principles.

By contrast, Peterson’s own unreconstructed Jungian psychomythic conception of identity, as outlined in Maps of Meaning and 12 Rules For Life, specifically suggests a sense of immutable identity, mostly rooted in gender. Although we (like the noble lobster) might interact with our culture and society and forge identity by way of pitting whom we want to be against whom we are by way of whatever unpleasant or uncomfortable realities we might face, all we’re really doing in these agonistic sagas is playing out the timeless conflict between order and chaos. Peterson’s antagonism to questions of transgender identity specifically and feminism more generally becomes more comprehensible once one grasps this basic premise, which Peterson argues through an odd grafting of myth-criticism and biology.

He then goes on to say:

It’s nothing to alter lightly, as such compromise is very difficult to attain, constituting as it does the essence of civilization itself, which took eons to establish, and understanding, as we should, that the alternative to the adoption of socially-acceptable roles is conflict — plain, simple and continual, as well as simultaneously psychological and social.

We start getting into typical Petersonian verbiage here, so let’s start with the first assertion: “It’s nothing to alter lightly.” The “it” of this statement is one’s identity, which in the broader context of his column refers most specifically to one’s gender identity. And if I may say: I agree with Peterson completely on this point. I will hazard a guess that everyone who has struggled with this issue would also agree. There’s an awful lot in this column with which to take issue, but one of the most galling things is the casual suggestion running through it—which runs though most of his arguments on transgender identity—that people who come to identify as a gender other than their birth assignation, or who identify as gender non-binary, do so “lightly.” That it is akin to a “fashionable sexual preference” which one “adopts” for trivial or selfish reasons.

This is always where Peterson and his ilk lose me. (To be certain, they lose me much earlier, but it’s on this point that I can no longer see the taillights of the car and all I’m left with is blessed silence and the stars). I think there are reasonable arguments to be made about speech codes and the excesses of political correctness, but what we’re on about here is basic empathy and compassion. “It’s nothing to alter lightly”? No fucking shit. Show me, please show me, the person who comes out as transgender who hasn’t gone through the emotional and psychological wringer to arrive at the point where they declare to the world who they actually are. That person in your classroom asking you to refer to them by their preferred pronoun didn’t arrive at that request on a whim.

But to move on to the rest of the quoted passage: this is all so very characteristic of Peterson’s prose. Which is to say, it is convoluted and vague, and rooted in a mythic-historical sensibility that makes sweeping pronouncements on the nature of humanity and civilization, and which tends to crumble under scrutiny. If you’re not familiar with Peterson’s pseudo-scholarly schtick (which, make no mistake, totally informs his public persona schtick), he’s basically, as I say above, an unreconstructed Jungian—a myth-critic in the mold of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade. What he says here in his confused, run-on sentence, is typical of his worldview. To break it down:

  • the “essence of civilization itself” resides in the stability of male and female identity
  • this stability? dude, it took EONS, hence has the authority of ANCIENT HISTORY
  • also, this “stability” comprises “socially acceptable roles,” i.e. men and women knowing their place
  • the “alternative” to these “socially acceptable roles” is conflict; which is to say, when men and women forget their roles (but, really, it’s mostly women), society devolves into chaos

(Let’s be clear on something: this is my reading of Peterson’s words based on my reading of his many, many other words, but there’s a method to the madness of his prose. His vagueness and indeed obscurantist writing invariably contains a rhetorical trap door. “You completely misunderstood me!” is his most common riposte when anyone tries to pin him down on anything he says or writes. “‘It’s nothing to alter lightly’ has nothing to do with trans identity,” I can easily hear him complaining, “I was merely referring to the broader currents of postmodernist neo-Marxist thought in society!” Imprecision is this man’s greatest friend).

To the degree that identity is not biological (and much, but not all of it is), then it’s a drama enacted in the world of other people. An identity provides rules for social interactions that everyone understands; it provides generic but vitally necessary direction and purpose in life. If you’re a child, and you’re playing a pretend game with your friends, you negotiate your identity, so the game can be properly played. You do the same in the real world, whether you are a child, an adolescent, or an adult. To refuse to engage in the social aspect of identity negotiation — to insist that what you say you are is what everyone must accept — is simply to confuse yourself and everyone else (as no one at all understands the rules of your game, not least because they have not yet been formulated).

Oh, my … so if identity is a “drama enacted in the world of other people,” does that then make it—oh, what’s the word—PERFORMATIVE? Is Peterson about to invoke Judith Butler?

Just kidding. Of course not—the point isn’t the drama, but the rules of the game. See how he switches the analogy up in the middle there? In order to play a game, we must agree upon the rules, yes; you can’t play a proper game of chess when your opponent decides to randomly change the moves the pieces can make, but that’s not what Peterson’s example evokes. Rather, the kind of “pretend game” he mentions is improvisational, and if the game is ruined because one player can’t stick to the provisional rules, it is also ruined when you have a bossy player who sucks the joy out of the game by refusing to allow any degree of improvisation and flexibility.

That’s where the aspect of negotiation comes in, a term whose meaning seems to have passed Peterson by. The suggestion being made in this analogy is that someone identifying as transgender or non-binary is being perverse in refusing to play by the rules, and instead play only by their own private rules, which Peterson then dismisses as being nonexistent anyway. What seems lost on him is the fact that someone saying “this is who I am” is precisely engaging with “the social aspect of identity negotiation.” It is, in fact, an act inviting a re-negotiation of the “rules.” The problem with what Peterson argues here isn’t the idea that social negotiation of identity is a matter of give and take, it’s that ultimately Peterson refuses to give. He’s the kid taking his ball and going home because he’s upset the gang decided to let a girl play.

Peterson then goes on to list four increasingly dire consequences of individuals asserting identities at odds with normative “rules.” We’ll break those down one at a time, but first we need to address his prefacing assertion: “The continually expanded plethora of ‘identities’,” he writes, “recently constructed and provided with legal status thus consist of empty terms.” Again, imprecision is a hallmark of Peterson’s writing: one is left wondering what “the continually expanded plethora of identities” is, because he never specifies. One assumes he’s referring to the spectrum of LGBTQ+, but he doesn’t say. If, as seems borne out by the substance of the column, his preoccupation is with transgender and gender-fluid identities, then it’s hardly a “plethora”—it’s male, female, and non-binary. I suppose that, theoretically, these three create a spectrum with an infinitude of points between its poles, each representing a possible unique identity, but then we get into a variation on Xeno’s Paradox. Just as the hare will always catch the tortoise, so we know, commonsensically, that people are people.

Also, pay attention to the weasely “thus” thrown in there: based on what he has said so far, this “plethora” of identities “thus consist of empty terms.” I have to imagine he feels he has proven his point and earned his “thus,” but I beg to differ.

At any rate, he then enumerates the problems including this putative proliferation of identities in C-16 will cause.

(1) [They] do not provide those who claim them with any real social role or direction.

Remember, what he’s talking about is the inclusion of gender identity and gender expression in the legal questions of discrimination and hate crimes. The legislation wasn’t about giving transgender and gender non-binary people social roles or direction, it was about protecting them from the actions of others.

(2) [They] confuse all who must deal with the narcissism of the claimant, as the only rule that can exist in the absence of painstakingly, voluntarily and mutually negotiated social role is “it’s morally wrong to say or do anything that hurts my feelings.”

“The narcissism of the claimant.” Here it is again: the premise underlying Peterson’s entire argument in this piece is that trans identity isn’t real. Therefore, anyone identifying as anything other than that signified by their genitalia at birth must be an unserious and selfish person choosing an alternate identity for reasons passing imagination, with no consideration for the confusion it causes in the innocent bystanders upon whom they inflict their petulant demands for recognition. Because they’re the real victims.

I’ve read enough of the science on this subject to accept that there are real genetic and biological underpinnings to being transgender, but really all I need to do to accept and respect somebody’s gender expression is answer a commonsensical question: considering the social stigma, the hatred, and the real danger of violence facing the transgender community, why would anyone choose to so identify for reasons other than for a deeply felt need to be true to oneself? Peterson frames his opposition of using people’s preferred pronouns as a question of free speech, but in reality it articulates a profound lack of empathy. Know that when you are faced with someone asking that you use a pronoun that seems wrong to you, that person has endured a probably traumatic struggle to arrive at the point where they can voice the request.

Also, not for nothing, but nobody who has this as his author bio should be casually accusing others of narcissism:

JP-bio

(3) [They] risk generating psychological chaos among the vast majority of individuals exposed to the doctrines that insist that identity is essentially fluid and self-generating (and here I’m primarily concerned about children and adolescents whose standard or normative identity has now merely become one personal choice among a near-infinite array of ideologically and legally defined modes of being).

Psychological chaos? Seriously? Seriously. This makes about as much sense as the old chestnut that exposing children to depictions of gay people will somehow turn them gay. Acknowledging and respecting alternative identities and challenging traditional repressive figurations of sex and gender isn’t about to destabilize “the vast majority of individuals”—except perhaps those who incorrectly see their protected status as straight white men threatened. (Considering how many of those dudes probably bought 12 Rules For Life, Peterson might not want to complain too much).

Also, let’s keep some perspective on the size of the issue. Transgender, gender-non conforming and non-binary people comprise a tiny fraction of the population, and they suffer disproportionately from violence, sexual assault, and suicide. As a white cishet man, my own quality of life and my own sense of self does not suffer from the presence or visibility of trans people. It behooves those of us with such privilege first to acknowledge it, and secondly to listen and learn. I have, to the best of my knowledge, known six people identifying as transgender. Six people—in my life. So let’s be real here: they’re hardly storming the Bastille, which you would never know from the edge of hysteria in Peterson’s warnings.

(4) [They] pose a further and unacceptably dangerous threat to the stability of the nuclear family, which consists, at minimum, of a dyad, male and female, coming together primarily for the purposes of raising children in what appears to be the minimal viable social unit (given the vast and incontrovertible body of evidence that fatherlessness, in particular, is associated with heightened risk for criminality, substance abuse, and poorly regulated sexual behaviour among children, adolescents and the adults that they eventually become).

All right. You know what, folks? I’m done. This is some Focus on the Family shit he’s now getting into. All I’ll say about this particular head-smacker is that at least it pulls the curtain briefly aside: as I observe above, Peterson frames his anti-trans and anti-feminist rhetoric as being about freedom of speech, railing against the PC left and SJWs for their ostensible attempts to impose Sovietesque speech codes on everyone. But at the heart of it all is the stern 1950s dad persona he has cultivated, and much of his popularity proceeds from nostalgia for a time when white, straight men’s centrality wasn’t questioned or characterized as “privilege.”

***

I’ll end with a message of love. To all of my queer friends: I am in awe of you. You are the embodiment of strength. I hope your month of Pride is fabulous and remains undimmed by such assholes as Peterson or the hate-mongers who disrupted the festivities in Hamilton. I am with you, and I will go with you.

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The Politics of Meanness

The word “mean” is typical of the glorious clusterfuck that is the English language, insofar as that it wears many hats. Generally speaking, our first encounter with the word was probably to sound a note of wounded complaint: someone was being mean to us. “Stop being mean!” “He’s such a meanie.” And so on. As our vocabularies grew, we developed a more nuanced quiver of words that spelled out the spectrum of what being “mean” might be, distinguishing between thoughtlessness, selfishness, cruelty, spite, or just general assholery.

But “mean” has its own subtleties as well, connoting not just cruelty but a certain kind of small-mindedness. To be a mean person can entail a sense of willful ignorance, especially ignorance of the value of the intangible or ephemeral. It can also connote a lack of generosity or compassion, the short-sightedness of NIMBYism or the inability to see value in anything that does not yield immediate benefit. To be mean is to dislike seeing others benefit. To be mean is to lack empathy.

I’m ruminating on this semantic question because it helps articulate something about our present moment, which is a moment in which the politics of meanness threatens to become the status quo.

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I lived in Ontario for the first thirty-three years of my life; I went to university and grad school there, and now work as an educator. Which means that a significant proportion of people with whom I’m friends on social media live in Ontario and work in education at all levels, from grade school through high school, at colleges and universities and in libraries. What this further means is that for the past year my news feed on Facebook has consistently featured friends’ anger, incredulity, and despair at whatever indignities Doug Ford’s government has recently inflicted on Ontario’s education system.

To many who lived through the 1990s, it feels like déjà vu, a terrible throwback to the Mike Harris years and the assault perpetrated on the educational system by his minister of education John Snobelen—a man who had no background in the field, and came into the job determined to “create a crisis in education.” I felt very keenly the effects of Snobelen’s high-handed and contemptuous treatment of teachers and schools, as my father was a grade school principal at the time. What was worst to watch was my father’s mounting bafflement as Harris and Snobelen went through the education budgets like buzzsaws, with little to no concern for the effect their cuts had on students. It was particularly hurtful for my dad because he and my mom had both voted conservative in that election, buying into the rhetoric of Harris’ “Common Sense Revolution” and the promise to right the fiscal ship after what they saw as the New Democrats’ feckless mismanagement. I’m probably cutting myself out of the will by revealing this, as the years of Harris’ regime cured them of their conservative leanings, which had at any rate always been more about financial conservatism. Their conservative party had always been that of Bill Davis and Joe Clark, the sort of avuncular Tories whose politics a left-wing type might disagree with, but whose compassion and public-spiritedness was not in doubt. What my parents didn’t grasp until it was too late—what my father learned particularly acutely—was that Harris and his ilk embodied a politics of meanness. My dad’s bafflement at John Snobelen’s evisceration of the educational system was the confusion of a dedicated educator who could not understand the rationale behind the cruelty of the cuts. It was only after months of the Harris government’s sustained assault that he came to understand that the cruelty was the point. Harris and Snobelen hated teachers, were in fact antagonistic to the very idea of education more broadly, and the “Common Sense Revolution’s” project of budget-slashing austerity was a very blunt tool for carrying out a mean-spirited revenge, and ultimately drove my father into early retirement.

Fast-forward to the present moment. Doug Ford is basically Mike Harris on steroids, but lacks even the patina of ideological veneer that informed Harris. Everything he has done since taking office has had the quality of a bully’s taunt. Like Donald Trump, he revels in being antagonistic, and his most devoted followers love nothing better than enraging liberals, leftists, and “elites”—this last term which has come to connote not social status but a kind of attitude, in which a millennial with an MFA in creative writing earning minimum wage qualifies, but not the premier who was born heir to millions and spent the better part of his professional life in the corridors of political power. Ford and his followers really might as well change his slogan from “For the People” to “NERRRRRRDS!” That would at least be more honest in terms of his policy preoccupations, to say nothing of his general disposition, personality-wise.

Whatever complaints one may have about the Liberals’ long tenure from 2003 to 2018 under Dalton McGuinty and then Kathleen Wynne, the province’s investment in education during this period saw great dividends, with high school graduation rates rising from 68% to 86.5%. That fifteen-year interval tells its own story, namely that these changes take time and diligence, and also that the greater effects are likely always going to be intangible. Speaking as a professor in the humanities, I’m all about the intangibles: getting a degree in English or languages or philosophy or history doesn’t train you for a specific job, necessarily, but there is an innate value to learning to read and write critically. There is an innate value, also, to taking drama in high school, or learning an instrument, exploring your creativity, or just opening your mind up to new ideas and stories.

empty-class

Unfortunately, it is always these programs—music, art, drama—that tend to be the first on the chopping block when budgets are slashed, as they are not seen as “useful” topics. I often ask my students how many of them, when they answer “English” to the question “what are you majoring in?” receive one of two responses: either “what kind of job are you going to get with that?” or “so … you’re going to be a teacher?” The response is pretty much always 100%. Since I first started grad school, there have been more and more articles, columns, and think-pieces by prominent businesspeople, tech moguls, and the like, all pleading with universities to stop cutting humanities programs, as these courses of study produce graduates with precisely the kind of communicative skills and creativity otherwise lacking in industry (most recently it was Mark Cuban, predicting that a degree in philosophy will soon enough be more valuable than one in computer science). And yet the predominant administrative priority, both in secondary and postsecondary education, resides in expanding STEM programs.

Which brings us back to the politics of meanness. Doug Ford and his ilk may be mean in that original sense we all learned as children when someone was cruel to us, but they have also weaponized the sense of the word as “miserly, stingy; not generous” (as denoted in the Oxford English Dictionary), both literally and spiritually. Perhaps the epitome of this sensibility was the absurd claim made by Ford’s education minister Lisa Thompson when she announced that average class sizes in Ontario would increase from 22 to 28. When asked about the deleterious effects of larger classes, Thompson suggested that it would make the students “more resilient,” as if a smaller fraction of the teacher’s attention taught toughness of spirit.

I remember quite vividly a question posed by someone during the worst depredations of Mike Harris’ government: do you remember who your MPP was when you were ten years old? Or do you remember who your teacher was? Our education system isn’t perfect—what would that even look like?—but it has a profound effect on literally everyone. Starving it of resources is, well, mean, both in the sense of being short-sighted, and being and cruel.

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