A Winter of Discontent: The Broadsheets vs The Tabloids

One may infer a few things about my writing career from the first publication – a poem entitled ‘Winter,’ which appeared in the Toronto Sun on 17 October 1976. I quote it in full.

I hate winter as you might know
I hate the wind, I hate the snow
You stand out there and you’ll be freezing
You’ll catch a cold, and you’ll start sneezing
I think the winter isn’t fun
It isn’t warm, there is no sun
You have to wear all of those clothes
But still you get a runny nose
You can’t go swimming in a pool
But still you have to go to school
You can’t go riding on a bike
And that’s what I think winter’s like.

A good bad poem, that. I’ll put aside the fact that Alexander Pope was writing Greek Pastorals at the same age, and concentrate on this poem’s chief merits – that it is clear, that it rhymes, that is has rhythm, and that it lacks artistic pretension. Isn’t that more than can be said of much contemporary poetry?

Now that I am older, I look back and see glimpses of my adult self in this work. I continue to dislike winter, and I am still a bad poet. There is more. Something of the curmudgeon is here, for I could have written a poem called ‘I Love Summer,’ but no, I just had to get my digs in against Winter. It’s a list of grievances, really, cleverly arranged to bring delight but still grumpy and discontented. Today’s Sun editorialists would no doubt label this the beginnings of a ‘liberal’ outlook. Isn’t that what Liberalism is? An endless list of grievances? My god, lighten up! Vote Tory!

This poem was written before I’d learned how to make my point with irony and humour. The ironist in me today is amused by the fact that it was the Toronto Sun which introduced me to the public. The truth is, I think the Sun is goofy. It is a daily trotting-out of murders, car accidents, child molestation and other perversities, fires, freaks, and mayhem. In other words, it is TV. (Christie Blatchford, who was a Sun columnist for 16 years, sketched the paper’s character nicely in an October 29, 1998 National Post article: “…the [Sun] loves, in no particular order, Tory government, breasts, more folks in jail, better controls on immigration, lower taxes, less red tape, fewer civil servants, a return to basics in education, and breasts.”) Then there are the advertisements, full page after full page of them. Even for a commercial newspaper, the Sun is excessive in its use of advertising. The sports coverage is passable and certainly better than what you’ll find at the Globe and Mail. Also, the Sun’s tabloid format is to be preferred to the cumbersome superabundance of the Toronto Star. (Really, do we need two Wheels sections?) Unlike the Star, the Sun can be read from end to end in an evening; it has a user-friendly Coles-Notes approach to daily events. There are other strengths of the paper, the chief being that it knows its audience well and never fails, pardon the pun, to deliver. Nonetheless, it is tabloid journalism, and unpretentiously so.

But to return to the subjective: the really goofy thing about the Sun, in my opinion, is its coverage of public affairs. Here is a description of the Sun I read the day I began this essay, 19 October 1998. On the cover the headline reads ‘It’s Flutie Day in Buffalo,’ below which there is a colour photograph of the quarterback and a small column, to the right, describing the Buffalo fans’ reaction to a 17-16 upset over Jacksonville. In the bottom right-hand corner one finds the words, ‘Pet pitbull savages owner, Page 4’ (the font is approximately 26 points). On the obverse, i.e. page two, there is an ad for the Sunday Sun featuring a model in a haute couture hourglass bathing suit – her curvaceous sides are nicely exposed from shoulder to hip – partly over which the words ‘Paris Fashion’ are imposed. The remaining upper-half of the page is given to an article describing Mike Harris’s plan to attract women voters in the upcoming provincial election. He is quoted as saying, “We do have a gender gap. We are not communicating clearly and directly with women.” A bit further on in the article, Social Services Minister Janet Ecker adds, “We need to do more. Women are pretty skeptical voters. It is important for women to understand what we are doing.” The ‘gender gap’ sounds like a Darwinian missing-link, and the assumption that women aren’t swarming to the Tories only because they don’t understand what the Tories are doing is conventional patronizing, but never mind. Another article, occupying the frame of the aforementioned, is headlined ‘The PC party, party, party!’ and compares the bashes of Conservative Members of Parliament and other various candidates. In case you’re interested, “The most popular parties were hosted by Management Board Chairman Chris Hodgson and federal Tory leadership candidate Brian Pallister.” The rest of the page is advertisements.

Page three features, of course, the Sunshine Girl: always nubile, always enjoys music, dancing, roller-blading, and volleyball, always has as her aspiration college and afterward bucketsfull of money. The Sunshine Girl is a generally tasteful and welcoming statement, an implicit manifesto; it says, ‘Relax, there are no liberals here. Help yourself to a can of beer.’ And once you’re comfortable in your armchair, contentedly drinking your beer, what is it you want? These, of course: ‘Pitbull rips owner’s throat,’ ‘2 teen girls rob, assault victim,’ ‘Hard-core TV freebie shocks mom,’ ‘How did granny die?’ and ‘Peek into you neighbour’s bedroom.’ Thus begins the News section, on pages 4 and 5.

I could go on, but what would be the point? The Toronto Sun is a niche paper, quite harmless really. According to the 1998 Canadian Global Almanac, it’s got the fourth largest daily newspaper circulation in Canada, after the Star, the Globe, and Le Journal de Montréal. It’s preaching to the converted, but I doubt it has converted them. The last recession, or tax hikes, or falling wages, or the Star, or a 1972 mugging, did that. No one I suspect is buying the Sun for in-depth analysis of the latest provincial budget, or of anything else. (They could, however, have read a recent article about Tory Finance Minister Ernie Eves’s new hairdo.) They’re buying it for the Sunshine Girl. They’re buying it so they can read something that doesn’t require them to think. Or they’re buying it for the reasons social democrats buy This Magazine and Canadian Forum: confirmation of their beliefs, further evidence that the enemy is evil, and reassurance that their side can win. Perhaps also they’re buying it for the sports coverage. The Sun needless to say is an openly right-wing publication, but its appeal cannot be boiled-down simply to ideology. It is the newspaper that – nudge nudge, wink wink – isn’t just news as usual. One may compare the appeal of the Sun to the 1995 appeal of its beloved Mr. Harris, who (nudge nudge) wasn’t just politics as usual.

News as usual, unfortunately, is a tiresome affair. Even the highbrow Newshour with Jim Lehrer is at bottom silly. Every night a suited, career Republican is trotted out to volley the issues with an apposite suited, career Democrat. The result is a moribund parody of democratic debate and a reminder of what Gore Vidal had in mind when he spoke of ‘the chattering classes.’ Alas, from here things only degenerate, or get better, depending upon your point of view. News, in the minds of many, means ‘gobs of vague irritating talk about something we can’t change in some place we’ve never heard of.’ What’s to be done? Well, if that’s how it’s got to be, let’s at least make the talk juicy, nudge nudge, know what I mean.

Conservatives in the 1970s began launching newspapers and other various media to reintroduce their values and ideas into the public domain. Even Sun columnists admit they were on the lunatic fringe in the beginning. Now some on the left, who’ve noticed the fringe beneath their feet, have begun saying it would be nice to have a national social-democratic – note the lower cases – answer to papers like the Sun. The feeling is that if newspapers are going to be enhanced political pamphlets, which apparently they now are, let’s at least broaden the spectrum beyond David Frum vs. Andrew Coyne. Let’s have a national left-wing newspaper. At this point however I’m mindful of something George Orwell wrote in a 1939 essay entitled ‘Boys Weeklies.’ Noting that boys’ magazines tend to have a conservative slant (something about militarism and the cult of the powerful leader), he asks, ‘Why is there no such thing as a boys’ left-wing paper?’ Orwell, a socialist, provides an answer which I think continues to be relevant:

At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’
A. ‘No, Comrade.’
Q. ‘Why, Comrade?’
A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression,’ etc. etc.

Orwell goes on to suggest that a left-wing paper would probably be something like the passage above, and that “no normal boy would ever look at it.” I expect that in the case of a left-wing Canadian newspaper, something similar could be claimed: most Canadians would never read it. What incentive would there be? It would likely feature all the characteristics that make the political left mawkish to a majority of Canadians: humourless, preachy, self-righteous, jingoist, predictable, self-absorbed. The left is famous as the folks who take it upon themselves to tell you what’s wrong with everything you think, everything you do, and everything you want. Imagine a publication staffed by We-Know-Best school-marms, and you’ve got it.

Perhaps it’s useless to argue that a social-democratic newspaper could be interesting, entertaining, and best of all, a thumping good read. In theory, anything can happen; in reality, the political left is today a handful of ageing activists tenured at the CCPA Monitor. It is in many regards a secret society, labouring in obscurity to produce arcane works known only to the initiated. Probably more people read my bad 1976 poem in the Young Sun than have read, say, the most recent issue of Canadian Dimension – which advertises itself as ‘a magazine for people who want to change the world.’ Change the world? Here even the faithful are inclined to feel vague embarrassment. Anyway, it sounds awfully ponderous to most contemporary ears, rather like an invitation to help out with calculus homework. Even the NDP has given up on the 1960s and is busily repackaging itself as Nice Capitalism in time for the election. Whether the emphasis falls on the nice, or on the capitalism, is a moot point. Either way, the traditional list of socialist grievances has been shred, and the Open for Business sign is out being lacquered. The question for the left is, What’s left?

The short answer is Not Much. I’m tempted to argue that social democrats need not just a newspaper but a Sunshine Girl of their own as well, by which I mean an indication of some sort that, Yes, progressivism comes in styles other than Shrill and Reactive. The high ground doesn’t necessarily lead to the mountaintop; it can run through the market too. In any case, the market is where the action is. Nor does the high ground mean holier-than-thou. Part of the appeal of the ‘progressive newspaper’ is that it could offer the public an alternative to the prevailing murder-and-mayhem, anything-for-a-buck manner of presentation. Folks of all political persuasions tell me the current state of our airwaves and newspapers dismays them and that they would gladly welcome something different. Of course, there is a good measure of ordinary human hypocrisy in this, and it remains to be seen how many really do deplore the gutter. My point is that there’s always room in the culture for pukka journalism, ‘pukka’ being defined by Chambers 20th Century Dictionary as “out-and-out-good: thorough: complete: solidly built: settled: durable,” and so on. I’m not implying that there’s no good journalism at present in Canada, but only that there’s room for innovation. Conrad Black, who for decades has committed himself to the idea of a high-profile national conservative newspaper, realized his dream this week with the publication of the National Post. Today (29 October 1998) the third issue has come out. I have read all three, and I find there is a good deal in them to commend. Conrad Black, I’m sure, will have his critics – but give him credit. He has offered his alternative on behalf of conservatism. And to his critics he has always said: If you don’t like my newspapers, you are free to start your own. [-October 1998]

Old Things

In an age when many of the analogue technologies are considered obsolete, I am still wedded to the idea of vinyl records, pocket watches, vacuum tubes, and typewriters. I have written the first draft of this essay with a 1967 Parker 45 fountain pen.

What does an attachment to old things say about my temperament? The immediate supposition may be that I am victim to nostalgia, but many of the objects in my environs – for instance aerometric pen converters, flip-number clocks, Zippo lighters, and valve radios – were not part of my personal past. The more appropriate general principle underlying my choices seems to me to be a rejection of mere efficiency. For efficiency and economy are the chief advantages of, say, a dollar-store stick ballpoint pen over a fountain pen.

Beyond this is the subjective, but no less important, matter of aesthetics. I am well aware that the surfaces of things matter a good deal to me: the feel of paper, the cut of a serif font, the material heft of a pen, the smell of old books, the crackle of a record, the clicks of a typewriter. These things matter to me because they are tactile in a way I would describe as “human.” Bound up in old objects is the way in which I apprehend them through my animal senses.

It isn’t the case that objects made today lack appeal. However, in the age of planned obsolescence it is difficult fully to trick the human senses on the point of material construction. Things made to last only until the next scheduled technical improvement as a matter of course bear the impression of this choice. The cheaply-made, compromised goods give themselves away. They may dissemble up to a point, but rarely is the seduction fully accomplished.

I might well argue that somewhere, someone is possibly using my 1934 Royal typewriter, and that nothing made today could boast of such longevity. The Smith Corona I now own is fifty-seven years old, but my cell phone is three years old and already suggesting the manners in which it will succumb. According to the argument thusly delineated, to choose the archaic is to choose objects with a greater likelihood of being with you in the years ahead. If this is nostalgia, it is a nostalgia with a bright future.

There is no use in arguing categorically that nothing made today is made to last, counter examples to this position being readily had. Looking critically at my own tendency toward anachronism, I discern the following preferences as concerns objects: that they may be made with minimal effort fully to disclose their constituent parts, that they appeal to the senses, that they show a concern with the principles of design, and that their operations can be understood by a person of at least average or slightly above average intelligence.

For example: a point-to-point hand-soldered guitar amplifier is a physical thing of evident solidity, fixable by a human being. A modern guitar amp with a mechanically-manufactured circuit board is not. Or take a typewriter, whose operations are readily manifest. Compare this to the mysterious workings of the personal computer. Even if you were to bother taking one apart, it would probably do you no good — at least some (if not all) of its inner workings being mysterious and in any case unmodifiable.

The question which arises is as follows. Does a predilection for the objects and aesthetics of the past indicate an ideological commitment? What might be the psychological and political character linked to such a disposition? Consider, for example, the Steampunk movement, which integrates Victorian aesthetics and craft with contemporary technologies. Such a movement seems to me implicitly a rejection of planned obsolecence and the alienation of technology from human scale and intervention. In other words, a rejection of technology that is produced not by human beings (craftpersons) but rather by other technologies, such as assembly-line robots. Steampunk appears to me related to the broader movement in favour of “organic” products.

The irony of course is that any technology involves a manipulation of and departure from nature. Typewriters do not grow on trees. Technological development is a matter of degree. A quill pen is less “technological” in this sense than is a ballpoint, and since the fountain pen alludes to the feather it falls in-between. Or such seems to be the intuitive kernel of the matter. Technology is analogue in the sense that it is analagous to something in nature, at least until the point at which we have gotten so far along that we are no longer able to say quite what, in nature, “it” is “like.”

Today we live in a world of objects whose primary claim to relevance is that they are new. Ceaseless novelty: such is the promise which attracts the masses. They follow with little interest in bringing the old world along. Their reward is the always-heightened anticipation of what they have never had, never having known about it prior to the moment at which they learned to desire it. The ideological character of this is innovation for its own sake, or “innovationism,” against which we may place the anachronist and the progressive-conservative, both of whom look sceptically on the idea of change simply for the sake of changing.

The integration of old and new can be conducted in great earnestness or in the ironic mode known as kitsch. Indeed, Steampunk is only one expression of this integrationist enterprise, others being postmodernism, retro, and posthistoricism, to cite only a few of the examples. These share in common an awareness that the notions of “era” and “period” are themselves historically relative – the constructs of an age which seems almost to have left the rails of history.

It is impossible however to say for certain what the accelerating pace of change means, especially as this concerns the world of objects. Those of us who endeavour to integrate the old and the new perhaps constitute a small and dying race. But at least we have the advantages of a challenge, as well as of irony, on our side.

The Bullies

As I look back across the years and over the landscape of my childhood, one egregious figure visible on the distant field is the school bully. We all know this character well, don’t we, and have our own particularized recollections of the species. Nor do bullies pertain only to our childhoods. If only that were so. And yet there was a time in my life I had thought myself past the age at which considerations of the bully were necessary. I would soon realize I was wrong.

As a young adult, I hadn’t yet grasped that the bully was an organizing principle in my intellectual and moral development. It isn’t the case that my childhood was unpleasant — quite the contrary. I had a rich imaginative life and was materially well-off. I had a good degree of freedom, and grew up in a time when today’s multiple parenting nightmares, from food allergies to abduction, had not yet been dreamt. I would say I was happy. But I also knew a few things about bullies — what they looked like and what they looked for, how they behaved, what they were after, and what they were willing to do to get it. Not that bullies are all the same in all details. Some merely seek out an opportunity to dominate others. But some bullies of the Aaron McKinney sort seek out the pleasure of witnessing the suffering and torment of others, rendered even more delicious by the awareness that they themselves have brought it about. (If you require evidence of the furthest depths to which such bullying depravity can plumb, consider a description here of a vicious example provided by Saddam Hussein in the form of a videotaped epidsode of his extreme sadism.) Through this poisoned root, the bully takes his nourishment.

It happens now and then that there is a public event which takes you by the throat and thereby compels you to pay attention. It’s as if everything else recedes into a fog and you are confronted by this One Inexplicable Thing. A something that you cannot digest in the guts of your mental life. For me such a list would include the February 1989 fatwa (or death threat) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, the December 1989 École Polytechnique massacre, and the September 2001 attacks. There are many other horrible events you may feel belong in this list, among them the 1994 “Hutu Power” Rwandan and the 1995 Srebrenica genocides, the Columbine high school massacre, the Taliban takeover and terrorization of Afghanistan, and the Darfur genocide. However, this is a personal list which reflects events that I would say had the most profound effect on my inner mental and moral life.

I was a University student two days from my twenty-fourth birthday when I heard about the École Polytechnique shootings on December 6, 1989. I won’t rehearse the details of that night, which in any case may be easily acquired elsewhere. The first reflective question which occurred to me, shortly after the initial shock of the news, was What would I have done if I had been there? I thought about that question at great length (and still think about it) and came to understand it would be dishonest even to suggest I could give an answer. Perhaps the better question, at which I arrived later, is: If it comes to that, what do I hope I will do? At least this is a question which acknowledges the usual gap between what one thinks or hopes and what is.

It may have occurred to many other men to have asked that question. You’ll recall in the ensuing months after the murders of fourteen women there was some discussion of the inaction of men on that night. Why did no one “stop” Marc Lépine? René Jalbert seemed to have recognized that while something perhaps could have been done — a distraction or engagement, which presumably one of the men could have brokered — such an expectation required a rare act of heroism. Some tried to make of the general lack of male resistance an illustrative point, suggesting that masculinity itself had been exposed and found deficient. Nathalie Provost did not agree with this interpretation, and addressed the very important matter of guilt by stating in effect that nothing could have been done to prevent the killing. It’s not my present concern even to try and sort this question out. Or rather, it is to consider the matter of responsibility in a more personal way.

As he prepared for his imminent execution (for the crimes of ἀσέβεια [ungodliness] and corrupting the youth), Socrates was asked about fear of death. He suggested that he had overcome this fear by fearing something else even more, which was to have realized that he had lived his life wrongly. I first read this some years ago, and it has stayed with me ever since as a vital principle. Would I prefer to live at any cost — as a coward, a spineless person of no principle, a nebbish? Or would living become unpleasant, even hateful, knowing I had stood for nothing except my corporeal perpetuation? Of course, life may never require of us to stand as Socrates stood, on principle and at the cost thereby of one’s life. But, to repeat the question posed earlier by the Montreal Massacre, what if it so happens that it does … ?

My greatest fear is to arrive at that moment and be discovered a coward. That’s not quite overcoming fear of death, but it does give me a bit of weight with which to bias the bowl. I hope always to steer myself toward principles, the foremost among them being the principle of standing up to bullies, in whatever form I apprehend them. This is a visceral thing with me, rooted in my childhood experiences. Eventually I did apply the Socratic method of overcoming a fear and stood up to bullies. In the intervening years I’ve never had occasion to think this a mistake, although I’m mindful of the line dividing courage and recklessness. (Or to put it another way: Do you know who you’re messing with? Likely a poser, but one is never sure at the time.) And so I stand now, in my small way, against today’s adult bullies.

On this principle, and with researched and often deliberated arguments, I have supported or support the following: recognition of the Armenian genocide, the disposal of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist dictatorship and the establishment of the autonomous federal entity of Iraqi Kurdistan, the war in Afghanistan and the liberation of Kabul from the Taliban (and resistance and opposition generally to Islamic fascism), defence of the Bosnian Muslims against Serbian fascists, interventions in Darfur and Rwanda and East Timor and Tibet, sanctions against the current Iranian regime (including military intervention if necessary), defence of the Palestinians against the dirty ideology of Eretz Israel, and of course defence of the rights of my own group, the Haudenosaunee, whose struggles I see reflected in the struggles of oppressed and displaced peoples worldwide.

Really? you say. A life of war? Yes, quite possibly so. But note that I place the charge for endless war to the account of the bullies. It is not my choice to make wars: it is theirs. And note that they intend to bring them to your doorstep. The alternative to standing up to the bully today is to stand by and watch the slaughter, which in many cases will not prevent deaths (as the “anti-war” advocates seem to believe) but to ensure their occurrences in greater numbers. And afterward the survivors will bear the crushing fact, generation upon generation, that the “international community” witnessed the horror and saw it fit to do nothing whatsoever.

If only we had no General Ratko Mladić, no Kim Jong-il, no Osama bin Laden. But we do have them, and they will not go quietly into the night. Or if they do, it will only be because we had allowed them to superannuate, having been given a lifetime’s free hand to make certain that many others, against their will, have gone before them.

Downsizing and The Dollar Store

The dollar store is a good example of that creature commonly termed a phenomenon, something of apparent and great import which cries out for explanation. In every city they are popping-up almost like roadside weeds, taking advantage of meagre soil. You may pass them by without regard, but take a careful look and you’ll discover a good deal about the niche they exploit as well as their own remarkable qualities.

I can’t go into a dollar store without being impressed by the sheer productive capacity of industrialism. It’s impossible to overstate the ability of machines to make stuff, stuff of very low price and astonishing variety. Not only this, but there is almost an effortlessness implicit in the cheapness and abundance. Whereas scarcity of goods is the classical economic problem, here there appears to be a casual glut. The goods roll out by the millions in hundreds of factories and are shipped to thousands upon thousands of dollar stores. The numbers! And yet this feat occurs unremarked. The Socialist of an earlier era wrote hymns of praise to the awesome power of machines, but today we are supposed to forget about this power and instead dwell upon the ancient fact of scarcity: not enough jobs for workers, not enough money for social programs, not enough labour productivity to justify wage increases, not enough food to feed the children, etc. Austerity, based on diminishing expectations, is the order of the day. In contrast, the dollar store reminds us that at some point in our history (when?) we attained a technological level sufficient to solve the basic human problem of scarcity. It became possible, for the first time, to lift all people out of a condition of deprivation. There was no longer a technical reason for people to live without food, clothing, and shelter. Utopia, defined as a generalized state of physical well-being, was at this point not only thinkable but practical. There is so much wealth about, in fact, that it’s possible now to dedicate considerable resources to the manufacture of baubles. That, in a sentence, explains the phenomenon of the dollar store.

We’ve established then what a marvellous and unparalleled thing industrial-based capitalism is, so far as productive power is concerned. It’s fashionable to lament the destructive effects of the machine, but really, would you prefer to return to the simple days before penicillin and electricity? Neither would I. There is too much to give up to make giving up a viable option, and anyway we should admit also that we enjoy our mass-produced trinkets as much as the essentials, if not more. Even the notion of essentials has been changed by mass-production. You could hardly extricate yourself from the industrial system, but suppose you could. Historical evidence suggests you’d enjoy pollution-free food and drink – and die at 42, as a result of complications from a common cold. Industrialism, we should remember, was compelling because it emerged amidst the conditions of near-universal poverty and misery.

Needless to say poverty and misery are widespread even today. I’ve praised industrial capitalism’s quantity of production, but what about the quality of distribution? For instance, most of the goods come from China, a low-wage country. William Greider has coined the phrase “job arbitrage,” which means moving jobs from a high wage market to a low wage market, not to eradicate global poverty but indeed to take advantage of it. In the dollar-store universe, North America is significant only as a point of consumption, which is another feature of distribution. We’re told the market arrives at the best of all possible conditions, so don’t worry. But look at those conditions: the market has shuffled things with the result that the North American worker is becoming obsolete and the impoverished ‘developing-nation’ worker is exploited. That much has long been known and discussed, but what about the North American consumer? Will the market render this creature obsolete also? The dollar store is only representative of a universal trend – exportation of capital, goods, jobs, and indeed every other domestic function. Consumption is the only job we’re given in many industries. And you’re replaceable, you know. When the Chinese market is more fully developed, it may turn out to be cheaper and more profitable to sell the goods there as well. If workers can compete so too can consumers. The dollar store at least lowers the standard to the point at which the game becomes possible.

Is the dollar store, then, the cutting edge of an unintended consumer-force downsizing? Surely it trivializes the social roles which attend industrialism. Put the 99-cent Virgin Mary nightlights beside the Utopian-Socialist conception of human potential and you’ve got something which approaches contempt. The dollar store implies you aren’t really worth very much, even as a consumer. ‘Just spend your damn loonie and get out already’: this is what these places convey to me. You’re so close to being not worth the bother, 50-or-so cents away from lumpenprole. One suspects secretly that the store is a diversion to keep us from noticing the entire economy has at last been shipped-off somewhere else. All that remains are the beads and trinkets which have always attended such dealings. [-June 1998.]

The Laundromat

Nothing is quite like a laundromat for the peculiar combination of arrogant bullying and pathetic illiteracy that they display. Printed and deployed for your attention, the signs bark out Orwellian messages like

SMILE: its fun to do laundry at ——

The signs are visually much as above, all bold and majuscule, full of unidiomatic cajoling and blunders.

DO NOT PUT DIE INTO WASHERS!

PUT YOUR GARBAGES IN CAN’S PROVIDED

Customer is responsible to clean up after themselves…

… from which the sociologist may conclude that laundromats have a boss-worker character, ‘the management’ (as the signs themselves proclaim) always presuming the customer to be an infant, a boob, a criminal, or merely insane.

For their part, the customers (or some of them) fight back with graffiti. This is especially true in unsupervised laundromats. And so the list of unacceptable dryer contents, posted in the local Chinatown laundromat, is now expanded by graffiti to include – besides wool and synthetic fabrics – “rubber nipples, shitty diapers, sexual devices, and nude pictures of your mother.”

There you have summed up the taboo subjects: the female body, feces, sex, and incest (implied). On public display as a sort of verbal raspberry, they are directed in defiance ultimately of the authority figure, the Laundromat Management. [- September 2000]

Native in Niagara

I have been asked by the editor of a local magazine to prepare an essay “that deals with the issues of being Native in Niagara, or of growing up Native in this region.” It took me a good deal of time to arrive at a response to these topics, and even in retrospect I’m unsure whether or not the response is a good one. By good I mean only worth the time and trouble of the reader. I do not mean ‘a good representation of Being Native,’ whatever that is. What follows is a candid attempt to respond to a direct request.

Experience has taught me that to be Native is to be asked a good deal about being Native. I’ve noticed the same is true of other human curiosities; civilians want to know what it’s like to fight in a war, and the non-autistic are fascinated by autism. I’ve wondered how my life would have differed so far had I lived it as a woman, though I don’t recall ever seeking out women for comment. I suspect the question would baffle them. Where does one begin her answer to the question, What is it like to be a woman? Doubtless with the observation People ask the darndest questions.

And yet surely it matters whether one is a woman, a soldier, or a Native. There are answers even to the darndest questions. If you’ve heard of sexism, violence, and racism you won’t be surprised by the replies. Or perhaps you will, because women are not exclusively defined by the category Woman, soldiers are not merely soldiers, and Native people are not reducible to the term Native. Although this observation may sound like so much nit-picking, it isn’t. Native people are always asked to account for themselves as Natives, despite the fact that their lives are not lived necessarily and only under that rubric. You may ask, What is it like to be poor, or rich? What is it like to be a single mother, or an adopted son? What is it like to grow up middle-class in Niagara? Native people do these things and others every day. It matters that they are Native, but it matters too that they occupy other identities. Native people are subject to the same intersecting conditions of class, geography, history, gender, etc. as everyone else. Native women, for example, have more in common with non-Native women than with Native men when it comes to their experiences in the workplace. This is but one example of the nuanced character of human identity, and there are many more. Native people contend with the same social and cultural conditions with which non-Natives contend. Such is Native life, in Niagara and elsewhere.

There is a paradox at the heart of the fascination with Native life, of which I suspect every Native person is well aware. Native people grow up in a media culture obsessed with Otherness yet stubbornly ethnocentric. When Native actors appear on TV, for instance, they usually do so as The Indian. ‘Ordinary’ Native lives are ordinarily invisible around Niagara, but The Indians are all over the place. Natives are studied to death by Royal Commissions and assiduously kept (as much as possible) beyond public consciousness. Every minute detail about reserve life is unearthed and catalogued, and few non-Aboriginal people ever step foot on a reserve. Why should they? Everything is known about Indians, isn’t it. By age 5, a child can draw a picture or tell a story about them. The reports and studies and autobiographies of Native people abound, and yet so do the crude assumptions of the 5-year-old. Complex information about Native people which doesn’t accord to the simple stereotypes tends not to stick. As a result, Native people themselves cast an ironic glance upon the media hunger for ‘Native issues.’

It may be that what I’ve described so far is the stuff of which Native issues are made. But as I see the matter, the local Native concerns are as follows: education, employment, and social programs. Those who live on the reserve (putting aside the fact that the Six Nations reserve isn’t quite in Niagara) may concern themselves also with local economic development. They would like to have, and most do have, a reasonable measure of control over their circumstances. As for the many Native people who do not and perhaps have never lived on a reserve, their concerns are again familiar ones: jobs, money, health, quality of life. Concerns over the preservation of indigenous traditions pose an especial, but by no means insurmountable, challenge. Furthermore, it’s a fact of Native lives that some Native people are less interested in traditional ways than are others. Some are uninterested altogether. Beyond these statements, generalization about Native life in Niagara is a difficult affair. Nor does a consideration of the issues help much, for reasons I shall now consider.

Think about the phrase ‘Native issues’ for a moment. What does it convey to you? For many Canadians, it means above all else militarism and road blocks. A road block of course is an obstacle; it serves no active purpose and merely hinders progress. As such it is the perfect symbol of futile and obstinate resistance, which is how the Indian has historically been regarded by officialdom. The Oka occupation fascinated the media because it conformed so well to their conventions. It is doubtful whether much attention would have been given to the Mohawks’ concerns otherwise.

Furthermore, the political context for any future discussion of Native issues will likely be hostile. Constrained by a manufactured scarcity of public resources, public discourse has become a nasty affair. Its principal theme appears to be Who Should Get What, or rather, more to the point, Who Shouldn’t. I imagine that soon we’ll hear a good deal about Native people as a special interest group. Perhaps you regard them this way already. And yet if I am correct in what I’ve said thus far, it is not the ‘interests’ of Native people which are special but rather their legal-historical relation to the Canadian state. The current orthodoxy, articulated by Mr Harris and others in the Calgary Declaration, has got matters backward. The result is that citizens have been pitted one against another over their ‘special interests.’ In the case of Native peoples how could it be otherwise? They are still portrayed as a species apart, as a people defined by a peculiar set of ‘issues.’

I believe that a complex, difficultly-digested statement about Native life in Niagara is the only kind worth writing or worth reading. I am not saying that the issues ought to be disregarded, but only that they should come with thoughtful qualifications. And so I have tried to complicate things as much as possible in 1,200 words rather than simplify. I do not know which is the more difficult challenge, but I believe complexity is healthier so far as Canada, Niagara, and the representation of Native lives are concerned. [August 1998.]

Society and the Individual: Liberals vs Conservatives in North America

If you ask me, What is today the fundamental difference between a liberal and a conservative?, I would suggest that the liberal and conservative differ over the individual’s relation to society. This is an old distinction, and no doubt you’ve heard it before. Still, it’s useful to regard a lesson long ago learned.

Let’s begin with the contemporary or neoconservative position, from which we shall depart to consider historical and geographical variations. You’ll recall Margaret Thatcher’s assertion that there is no such thing as society; there are only individuals. At its simplest, this assertion tells us society is an abstraction. There is no concrete object to which a person may point and say, There is society. To speak of society, in other words, is to speak of something that exists only in the mind. Society is a mental construct. Thatcher however was not interested in philosophical matters. Her statement reflects a fundamental and practical current conservative principle, that the basis of the good society is the good behaviour of the individual. I shall define ‘good’ presently. For the conservative, society is the word we apply to aggregated individuals. From this follows certain conclusions. The acts of government ought to be limited in such a manner that the individual is free. For the conservative wants to promote the free, responsible, and productive citizen. To achieve this end certain preconditions are necessary. There must be stability and order, so that the individual is protected from the harmful actions of others; this calls forth the rule of law. The rule of law, set forth and enforced by the state, must be as extensive as is necessary for order, and as limited as necessary for responsible individual freedom. Law-bound individual freedom and responsibility constitute the basis of conservative society. The end of conservative political philosophy is the free but responsible individual.

Conservatives have tended to approach the public good through the back door of pessimism. The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, in his political treatise Leviathan, put the conservative case for the rule of law nicely. He argued that people are by nature selfish and acquisitive and that unless law constrains them they will engage in “a war of all against all,” each person struggling against all others for personal advantage. His chief concern was that acquisitiveness would lead, in a lawless society, to theft of private property. And indeed, for both liberal and conservative one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. But for now we should note that the basic fact of life for Hobbes was that it is, in its natural state, “nasty, brutish and short.” The good society, which for many conservatives means above all else a lawful and orderly one, must overcome human nature with force or the threat of force. Conservatives, in other words, have a rather pessimistic view of human nature and the potential of human beings to evolve. Thus, the conservative does not speak so much of ‘social problems’ as of individual crimes and failures of character. The conservative may prefer to treat homelessness as a criminal matter and urge the passing of laws to clean the streets of the Undesirable. Poverty may be seen as a failure of the individual, in which case the solution is to provide incentives and disincentives to the poor. The good society comes about when the individual obeys the law, acts responsibly, and takes advantage of the system’s incentives. Conservative government is limited in its scope to securing the optimal conditions for individual advancement, and the individual is limited only by the rule of law and by economic incentives and disincentives. Conservatism is the philosophy of conservation in the sense that it regards the natural world as static: human nature does not change, and so neither do the basic laws of society and economics. This does not constitute a denial of the need for reform; rather, reform is seen as a gradual accommodation of changing social conditions to fundamental economic laws. The best of all possible worlds will come about not because of reform, per se, but because individuals act freely within the channels established by law and convention.

Some of what I have said needs clarification, for the conservatism I am describing is an abstraction. We may distinguish between many particular kinds of conservatism, for instances, contemporary American or classical British conservatism. There are variations both of geography and history, and even within a specific time and place we should expect a diversity of thought. The Progressive Conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli and the Social Darwinism of Charles Sumner are both placed under the heading Conservative, yet in many ways these philosophies are at odds. Furthermore, classical British conservatism is closer in many ways to modern American liberalism than it is to British neoconservatism. Classical British conservatism tended toward a collectivist view of society and perceived individualism as a challenge to the ‘social contract.’ In general however conservatism is the ideology of natural law, and its prescription for the public good is the strong interventionist state, at least where individual moral conduct is concerned.

Classical British and American liberals, unlike their modern counterparts, were the advocates of “laissez-faire”, that is, the theory that individuals ought to be left alone in their market dealings. This is usually thought of today as a conservative position, but it was not originally so. Classical liberalism and laissez-faire were based upon a profound mistrust of the state, for liberals felt the state if unchecked would lead to autocracy. The British liberals who established the United States of America opposed the absolute powers of the Monarch as well as the exploitative arrangements of mercantilism. Liberals sought in its place constitutional government and limited democratic representation. We should note that not all classical liberals were democrats, and that none of them proposed universal suffrage. Representational democracy at most meant that owners of property (that is, the white, male bourgeoisie) and not the nobility should be in charge. In some limited ways, liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the question of state intervention, and this exchange tells us important things about the respective ideologies. ‘Laissez-faire’ meant something other to the market anarchist Adam Smith than it does to the contemporary corporate CEO who calls for wholesale deregulation. Unfortunately, our technical terms have not kept up with historical changes. I shall return to the matter of these changes a bit later. Right now, I shall try to articulate the liberal principles which have obtained over time.

We begin with the classical liberal view, which remains to this day, that human nature is contextual and that it may and does evolve over time. The liberal may not even believe in a human nature as such, but rather may argue that people will behave differently in differing contexts. In short, human nature is culture; it is a social creation. This explains the liberal interest in social reform. Liberals often see crime, for instance, as social in nature, by which they mean to say that the individual is not the sole cause of his or her behaviour. The root of crime is felt to be the prevailing social conditions, and social reform is typically the proposed solution. Imprison all the criminals you wish, the liberal will say, and you will still have crime and criminals as long as the social conditions obtain. Indeed, the penal system shall only make crime worse (prison is simply another culture informing, or misinforming, the indivdual). The source of the crime is external to the individual. The liberal would likely regard Hobbes’s description of savage nature, and the theory of the state to which it leads, as inappropriate to the modern society. Classical liberals and conservatives disagreed not only generally about the use of state power, but specifically over the punitive functions of the state. Capital punishment was seen as especially repugnant by liberals because it gave to the state the ultimate right: to intervene into a human life itself. The liberal view of capital punishment was based upon a mistrust of the state in combination with an optimistic approach to the good society, which claimed that social reform can better lead to harmony than can punishment or threats of punishment.

You’ll recall that I have set two matters aside for later comment. The first was the observation that conservatives (and often liberals) argue that one of the chief purposes of the state is to protect the rights of those with property against those who do not have property. The second was the observation that ‘in some limited ways,’ liberals and conservatives have exchanged positions on the matter of intervention. I claimed that this exchange – which I shall substantiate – tells us important things about the respective ideologies. I shall now say what I mean by all this.

The rights of private property are thought to be important for a number of reasons. Plunder is not consistent with the good society. There must be some means by which to prevent or at least discourage robbery and other forms of injustice. In the absence of such means, we would likely see the war of all against all described by Hobbes. Without state protection of private property, the economic system would be sustained only by the private use of force. This was indeed the case before the emergence of the constitutional state. The rich hired private armies to protect their economic privileges. Later, the owners of private property (who came to be called capitalists) found it advantageous to exchange their private armies for state armies. They lost private control of their soldiers but gained also, for the costs of maintaining an army were passed to the state. The result was that the costs of protecting private property could be broadly distributed among the social classes; they would no longer be confined to the capitalist class. Security of private property rights gave investors the confidence they needed to conduct business activity. Again, without state-supported private property rights, either private provisions for these rights must be made or else the capitalist economic system must collapse. From this fact emerged the capitalist state.

The preceding paragraph establishes the terrain on which liberals and conservatives have both agreed and fought many battles. Some classical British conservatives argued that private property carried with it not only privileges but responsibilities. Their ideology was rooted in the fact of the Monarchy and in the “organic” conception of society, the view that society was an organism in which all parts depended upon one another for their survival. This view balanced (at least in theory) privileges and responsibilities. Classical British conservatism was paternalistic, by which I mean it regarded individuals as bound to one another in the manner of a family. Corporeal metaphors were also common; hence, the nation was like a body and the king was like the head of that body. As a result of a mixing of metaphors, we today speak of the head of a family. Classical conservatives did not challenge the authority of the Family Head, but neither did they believe that the strong could use their strength in any manner whatsoever. Classical conservatism was profoundly moral, profoundly rooted in the idea of a natural moral law. We may note in passing that contemporary conservatives tend to have kept the classical notion of a natural moral order while discarding or underemphasizing the classical belief in the organic society; in other words, they have privatized natural law. Classical liberals, as we have seen, rejected not only natural law – they believed law is rational and created by ‘Man’ – but the paternal model of social relations as well. Their hatred of the Monarchy led them to reject the ‘strong state.’ The paternalistic state seemed to the classical liberal synonymous with tyranny. The conflict between classical liberals and classical conservatives was thus over the nature and responsibilities of the state, at the heart of which stood the individual. Both argued in a specific manner for limited government, and yet there was disagreement over the character of the ideal state. Although it is a gross simplification to say that liberals feared tyranny and conservatives lawlessness, nonetheless debates regarding the role of government tended to concern these and related themes.

I now return to historical change. The social and economic influence of the modern industrial corporation had been anticipated both by classical liberals and conservatives, yet it is largely this development which led to the modernization of these ideologies. Liberals had always argued that government must be kept as limited as possible to leave larger scope for the individual. Conservatives however felt that the state had a responsibility to keep human nature in check, especially when it threatened the propertied minority. Even today conservatives call for less government and more state power, that is, more police, more military expenditure, more and tougher laws, more prisons. In other words, classical conservatives were the supporters of the activist state and classical liberals were opponents of big, tyrannical government. (By the middle of the 20th century this had reversed somewhat, as liberals called for an interventionist foreign policy and conservatives argued the isolationist position.) Gradually, however, the capitalist economic system produced considerable concentrations of private wealth and economic power. This was defended by the Social Darwinists, who saw wealth as an expression of moral and biological superiority. For classical liberals, however, the notion of unimpeded individuals meeting face to face in the free market to compete with one another as buyers and as sellers was becoming outmoded. Classical liberals such as Thomas Jefferson had been deeply suspicious of the moneyed incorporations (what we today would call corporations) and believed they would distort the economic system and make a mockery of democracy. Jefferson considered the private business corporation as an aristocratic instrument, a way of establishing and extending private privilege at public expense. The economic man of classical theory was now forced to contend with the economic corporation of modern reality, both as a buyer of goods and as a seller of labour. In this exchange, the corporation could exercise many unfair advantages. The transformation took many decades, but by the middle of the 20th century many liberals had abandoned laissez-faire in favour of a limited activist state. They reasoned that since the conditions of the economy had changed, the conditions of government must change also. The New Deal was essentially a conservative impulse, being an attempt to keep the capitalist economic system from collapse. Government was called upon to restore balance and health to the economy. Notice however that the state has also been used by liberals to protect the individual from the potentially tyrannical power of the private corporation.

Conservatives took a differing course during the development of the private corporation. Generally, they were supportive of the judicial decisions which constituted private corporations as legal persons. Three strains of conservative thought informed this support. The first was the conservative faith in the rule of law, the second was the idea that especial responsibilities are conferred upon the powerful, and the third was that the economy is grounded in the law-abiding individual. Conservatives advocated the entrenchment of property rights in law as a necessary precondition to economic development, and they furthermore assumed that from these rights would follow responsibility. The same laws which constrained the citizen would constrain the investor. ‘Corporate’ laws were unnecessary since the corporation, like society, did not exist; the corporation was only an abstracted manner of speaking about individuals engaged together in a co-ordinated business effort. The incentives and disincentives necessary to guide the corporation were already in place at the level of the individual economic agent. This was enough assurance for most conservatives.

Liberals may agree that ‘society’ is a fiction, a thing invented, without conceding the conservative position that it does not exist. The point for them is that it is a practical fiction. Consider public investment. An individual citizen cannot alone cause a highway to be built, but a society can. Government is the instrument by which individual contributions are mobilized in the service of social ends. While it is true that society is an abstraction, it is not the case that it is merely the sum of its parts. We shall discover the same if we regard the private corporation. Here also we find an institution designed to mobilize resources toward a collective end. Not only is the private corporation not the sum of its parts, it is designed not to be and derives its utilities precisely from this fact. The corporation is an autonomous instrument in the sense that it supersedes its constituent individuals; it is a legal fiction endowed with certain rights and privileges, among them being immortality. Indeed, the corporation came into being as a way to obviate the legal, economic, and social limitations faced by the individual investor. In this sense a corporation does for capital what a union does for labour. Both would be quite pointless inventions if they were only a collection of individuals and not a legal fiction endowed with special properties. And the same, liberals argue, is true of social institutions and the society which it serves. Society is more than the sum of the individuals from which it is abstracted, and only with the broad view that the concept of society offers can grand projects in the public interest be launched.

Well, a conservative may say, that’s precisely the problem with society. Modern liberalism is based on the false assumption that things can be made better with a little manipulation at the top, that is, at the level of big government. Conservatives prefer to let individuals manage reform themselves, by creating the conditions in which they can exercise their law-bound freedom. In practice, this means state intervention in order to present the individual with incentives and disincentives. Conservatives do not accept the proposition that society (or racism, sexism, exploitation, structural poverty, and so on) is to blame for dysfunctional behaviour. They admit certain disadvantages, such as physical and mental disability. Beyond this they regard the individual as alone responsible for his or her fate. Liberals, conservatives may argue, are wrong on a number of points, but these especially: they are wrong about ‘victims of society,’ they are wrong about human nature, and because of this they are wrong about reform.

As always there is today disagreement about the role and nature of the government. Liberals insist that government is too much involved in helping the rich, and conservatives insist that government is (in the words of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution website) “a captive to big special interests,” meaning people on welfare, the homeless, feminists, and unions. It is interesting to note that both sides are engaged in a battle on behalf of social and economic justice. For one side justice means advancing the rights of people of colour, for the other it means income tax cuts. We should note that both sides feel the injustice deeply; neither is, I think, insincere. And contemporary government is complex enough that both sides can support their case. For when we talk about ‘the government’ we are talking about a motley collection of interrelated but also contesting arrangements. One part of government saves the taxpayer money by firing staff or causing others to, and another promptly spends that taxpayer money helping these folks find jobs elsewhere. One part of government indeed serves the rich, and others serve the so-called special interests. Then there are the many other parts of government serving other ends and getting in the way too. In a diverse society with many competing interests, we should expect just such an arrangement. The behaviour of modern democratic governments reflects the complexity and conflicts of the modern world. This does not mean that a particular government cannot lean either in the direction of liberalism or of conservatism. The point is, government is heterogeneous, and there will always be contradictory efforts within a representative democratic government itself. Even within a single ministry, you will find that public policy often discloses the apparent illogic of contradictory mandates. Once we understand the heterogeneous nature of representative democratic government, we are better able to explain the endurance of the debate between conservatives and liberals. Each group describes an aspect of political reality. And that reality as a whole is diverse and complex enough to render each perspective compelling.

Does this mean that liberalism and conservatism are both equally correct? This is a difficult question to answer. Consider the competing views of human nature. The conservative has little patience for the liberal view that criminal behaviour should be regarded as a symptom of a deeper social problem. The liberal tends to believe that criminal behaviour can be prevented, or at least lessened, with an improvement in social conditions. Even the notion of crime puts the liberal ill-at-ease, for much of what is criminalized by the conservative – poverty, homelessness, unemployment – is felt by the liberal to be no fault of the individual. The conservative usually doubts that crime is produced by ‘the system’ or by society; instead, crime is seen as a matter of individual character. Who is correct? The liberal can reasonably argue that in a perfect society, one without social inequality and injustice, there would be no crime. But of course this is a circular argument, for a perfect society presupposes the absence of crime. In any case, there is no empirical basis for the liberal claim because there is no perfect society for us to observe. The conservative can reasonably argue that crime is a failure of character, for one’s character is always one’s character, whether it was shaped by individual will or by social conditions, or more likely, by both. The conservative social and economic systems are based upon the Hobbessian belief that individuals are selfish and acquisitive; since the systems are designed to reward these traits, they tend to produce them. Is Economic Man thus an expression of human nature, or is he a self-fulfilled prophecy? The world as it is does not allow us to test theories of human nature under the controlled conditions of a laboratory. All we have is the messiness of the world as it is. Human nature and human culture are integrated one into another. Perhaps no political philosophy has adequately represented the complexity of this integration, and perhaps no political philosophy ever will. It is precisely the limitations of political ideologies that has ensured their survival as ideologies, that is, as systems of ideas. The limited nature of our political ideologies is not likely soon to change. [-January 1999]

The Grassroots Always Look Greener

In the 90s, the word grassroots was used a great deal by Newt Gingrich to explain the success of his colleagues, the victorious 104th Republican congress, who were elected by the American People — that is, the 15-or-so percent of the public who had voted for one of them.

Gingrich’s enthusiasm over the triumph of the American People over Washington was, I think, sincere. It was not based in fact, by which I mean voter turn-out, but enthusiasm rarely if ever is. The idea that The People have been independently working toward a better society while Washington was employed elsewhere is a reassuring fiction, or at least a gross exaggeration of what is indeed happening in the world. The purpose of this essay is not to dismiss the prospect of a so-called grassroots campaign, but to populate that prospect with some really-existing folk. For I have seen the grassroots up close.

Some time ago I was canvassing on behalf of a local Catholic hospital which had been ordered to close by an agency of the Ontario government. (This was during a period of provincial and municipal restructuring.) My job was to go out among the grassroots and gather the signatures of ordinary folk who, presumably, were opposed to the order. I was sent out with a lapel button, a clipboard, and printed hospital propaganda into an area of Kingston known as the Fruitbelt, a mixed region of low-income manual labourers, welfare recipients, poor retirees, middle-class shop owners, and hospital employees. The houses were all rather modest, but were distributed across the class spectrum more broadly than you will find in most Kingston neighbourhoods. Community volunteer work allows you the privilege of seeing something that is unknown to most politicians: the way people actually live. Many people do not see into the houses of other social and economic classes, or even into the houses of their own neighbours, a fact which is probably debilitating to democratic politics. Here is an example of what I mean. Some of the houses I went into had a smell or appearance I felt to be repulsive; some others felt instantly welcoming. Each house projected a social class I couldn’t help but instantly recognize, by the power of acquired intuition. At some point my ‘progressive views’ had to admit houses and people that I find instinctively repulsive, otherwise those views would be so much chatter. Well, this fact rarely enters into the discussions of democracy and grassroots campaigns, which are always presented as a matter of jolly folks getting together to fight Big Brother. That they will have to get together in the queer livingrooms of people they find smelly, and who anyway are not one of their kind, is conveniently ignored. So it was in the hospital campaign.

I recall an elderly woman who lived in a tiny, hot bungalow. Her walls were covered with religious paraphernalia, photos of the Pope and so on. A sure ally, I decided. I explained why I was in her house and offered the clipboard for her signature. With a knowing shrug she offered her support and told me the hospital was being closed because, as she put it, “the Jews want their land back.” At another house an eager defendant of the Free Market didn’t care much for the Canadian health care system. Another person was a Seventh-Day Adventist who “didn’t believe in doctors or medicine” and who consequently saw no reason to support a hospital with his taxes. Others reasoned that, since the people in charge thought the closure was a good idea, it must be. In the end, there was no common theme, no general view, no shared aspiration which I could infer as the public interest. Why should there have been? These people had never considered the matter among themselves, and likely never would. Probably a majority signed my petition in the end, some perhaps in ignorance of the issues, some just to be polite. From a statistical point of view The People had spoken. Only, in private very few said what the hospital management wanted to hear.

I don’t conclude from my experiences of grassroots politics that public consensus is impossible. It is at several steps’ remove from impossible, somewhere in the vicinity of Bloody Hard. It must be negotiated face-to-face, and inevitably divisive matters will get in the way: resentment, racism, class- and gender-based hostility, fear, anti-semitism, complacency. As I’ve suggested however, the debate is usually precluded by the lack of a physical place in which to get things going. Democracy needs wood and concrete at least as much as it needs ‘information.’ There is no shortage of shopping malls, but shopping malls probably won’t do. Neither will going door to door to collect signatures, which results in nothing more than an opinion poll. I hear a good deal of well-meant but idle talk about ‘public debate,’ again without any reference to the actual conditions under which it must necessarily take place. In any case, debate reminds me of church attendance – decent and wholesome, but avoided whenever possible. In my experience, both are typically a burdensome affair whose chief accomplishment is to drive away honest, thoughtful people.

It is possible that democracy is one of those ideas that work admirably so long as they are never practiced. Think of democracy, for a moment, not as a system but as a lifestyle. To live the democratic life you would be required not only to vote once every few years but to keep yourself well-informed in the meantime and to show up regularly for public meetings. You would be required to maintain social relations with a diversity of persons and to perform certain duties in the public interest. You would be required to get involved when something goes wrong, which it often does. In short, your life would be less your own. It takes little reflection to realize this is precisely the sort of arrangement many of us labour to avoid. As many others, my family long ago withdrew from the burden of church attendance. It seems to me that membership in all sorts of civic organizations is declining. Public life today means going to the movies, which folks do less than in previous years because the VCR has privatized the theatre. ‘Home entertainment’ is almost redundant these days. And be honest: don’t you generally prefer it that way? Every one of us complains about the politicians, but at least they are doing the dirty work we prefer not to do. Democratic participation, whatever its philosophical merits, is a pain.

Social interaction is becoming unnecessary for an increasing number of tasks. Computers will soon replace most (perhaps all) of the human beings with whom you would have dealt in the past, by which I mean not your friends and family, but bank tellers and ticket sellers and salespeople and so on. Most of the things you need to do in person will soon be available ‘on-line’ from your house, if this is not the case already. I am not suggesting that social interaction will disappear, but only that it will be less necessary for certain purposes. Nor is this evidence of the inevitable direction of affairs. Public life will not disappear because there is less need for human bank tellers. A life with a smaller public aspect will however be possible, if you prefer. Deal with other human beings, or not; it’s your choice. Social interaction is becoming less a matter of necessity and more a matter of consumer choice. Although we tend not to think of politics as a matter of lifestyle, consumerism plays its role here as well. When is the last time you voted for an inconvenience?

Grassroots work has shown me how rational and functional contemporary democratic politics really is. There is no reward and much disappointment for the progressive individual who is informed and politically active. Many uninformed (or ill-informed) and inactive citizens may do democracy a disservice, but they have no compelling reason to behave otherwise. A detachment from civic life and electoral politics makes a good deal of sense to those who choose such a course. Do I conclude that politics is useless? No, but I understand the reasoning of those who do. The pursuit of the public good at private expense is perhaps after all a sucker’s game, whatever its supposed virtues. There is a further point to be inferred from my experiences: only among the grassroots does one discern that we in fact have the Government we want, regardless of complaints about particular governments. The system runs nicely without the necessity of public effort, and if things get intolerable enough there are public polls to convey our discontent. Government has evolved toward a state of technocratic efficiency as has everything else. Here ‘efficiency’ means ‘with minimal public intervention.’ Our reward for accepting the system is that most of the time we are left alone. This is often true also of what politicians designate a grassroots campaign. The Contract with America, after all, was delivered to the people via the couch potato’s bible, TV Guide. A place more ill-suited to negotiating a social contract could not be imagined, but the irony went mostly unnoticed. Perhaps that’s because there was no irony: it was Government as usual, conveniently arranged for the citizen who prefers to stay home. [April 1999.]

Encounter with the State

Being new to a city, you have got to grasp certain things quickly to get along. A good example are city by-laws. Every city has them – some seem to have them in endless number – and they can be a source of great annoyance.

Here is a case of what I mean. Already I have had a run-in with the authorities. About a week ago I was leaving the Baseline bus at Lincoln Fields. To get where I was going it was necessary to cross the Parkway, which is a rather busy road running east-west along the Ottawa river. It happened that a police officer (who, on further inspection, turned out to be an OC Transpo officer) was nearby. And so I was abruptly cut off by a car, out of which leapt a constipated-looking woman, as I reached the curb. She was small and wiry and had a pinched, solemn face, almost of the sort you have come to expect from a Victorian family portrait. Without wasting any time, she launched into her set routine: Could I read signs? she said, pointing to the sign in question, which announced a $55 fine for crossing the road.

Anyone who has had the misfortune to deal with the police, and who hasn’t?, knows the situation well. There you stand, a grown-up, being lectured at and abused with idiotic barbs: Do you like getting tickets? Can you read? Do you think you’re going to get away with breaking the law, sir? They always call you Sir, always to ironic effect — for you are being talked down to. These questions are all rhetorical (Yes, I love to pay fines!) and are designed only to make you feel appropriately stupid and infantile. That is the essence of authority, to put you in your humble place and never let you forget you are there. A 34 year-old must be helped by the State to cross the street, and so she pointed out the overpass where I was commanded to cross, and let me off with a lecture and a warning things would be different next time (yet another cliché). Perhaps this was because I explained I was new to the city and had truly never seen the sign, which indeed were the case. She repeated her lecture, twice I think, and I was dismissed. This turned out to be a great stroke of luck, for I was a week from my pay and had only enough money for bus tickets. A fine would have been inconvenient.

Here is what I have taken from this encounter. First, it’s useless to say the scene I’ve just described is silly. Perhaps it seems so on the face of it, but the facts of the modern state make the fore-mentioned affair almost inevitable. The character of authority is probably obvious and not in need of further attention. Suffice it to say that in a city, where people are unknown to one another, you must have a paternalistic approach to law and order. Maybe you are a dunce; who knows? The efficient approach is to assume you are, and so treat you accordingly. Anonymous social relations are by necessity not only paternalistic, as concerns the state, but also bureaucratic, from which certain results follow. If the government does not tell us ‘Do not cross the street,’ or ‘Put on your seatbelt,’ eventually a fool will get hurt and will launch a lawsuit, claiming he ought to have been protected from his own lack of judgment. ‘How was I supposed to know the salt they put in shoeboxes is bad for you?’ That is the sort of claim from which the corporate entities and the state must today shield themselves. And so life in the modern world is subject to forever deepening regulation (this process never operates in reverse), mostly for the protection of government, and not of persons.

Another observation is that one can hardly have these experiences without a cynical and even reactionary attitude creeping behind. It is rather disappointing to contemplate the fact that we are all complicit in the arrangements I have described. Not only that, but I have paid the officer to harass me. The Nanny State! Here is what I get for my hard-earned money — to be treated like a petty criminal. One’s political views are a sort of Coles Notes organisation of such events into a manageable narrative. The whole, complex affair in its uncondensed condition however appears to suggest that modern life tends toward such absurdities. It is hard to imagine a practical alternative. [- November 1999]

Reading Chekhov’s Stories

THE RUSSIAN WRITER Anton Chekhov was born in 1860, the son of a poor grocer. He studied medicine, supported himself and his family by writing, and eventually worked his way up to the profession of doctor. He travelled, lived five years on a country estate, and died in Yalta in 1904. He is today regarded as one of the finest writers of the short story. In short, he was a specimen of a Russian rarity, the upwardly-mobile peasant literary genius.

The above sketch is clearly skeletal, but it suggests already the themes with which Chekhov was concerned: rural life, the relation of the classes, and self-improvement through education. Most Chekhov stories involve something like the following. A Russian goes on a rural trip in harsh weather. He is brought by circumstance into the company of a differing social class. Someone brings out the samovar, or tea-urn, and conversation ensues, but the classes do not communicate. There is usually a long passage in which the protagonist dwells upon the absurdity of it all. This one, for example:

Why are there doctors and medical orderlies, he wondered, why are there merchants, clerks and peasants in this world? Why aren’t there just free men? The birds and beasts are free, aren’t they? So is Merik. They fear no one, they need no one. Now, whose idea was it – who says we have to get up in the morning, have a meal at midday and go to bed at night? That a doctor is senior to an orderly? That one must live in a room and love no one but one’s wife? Why shouldn’t things be the other way round – lunch at night and sleep by day? Oh, to leap on a horse, not asking whose it is, and race the wind down fields, woods and dales like some fiend out of hell! Oh, to make love to girls, to laugh at everyone!

There is a good deal to be said about this quotation and the attitudes it suggests. But before we come to the analysis, I should like to explain why I’ve chosen this particular passage. For I could as easily have produced a dozen other on the same theme, all of them making the same point. I chose this one because I have thought exactly these very thoughts. ‘Who decided we must eat breakfast in the morning? sleep at night? work from dawn to dusk for a wage? dedicate our lives to consumption? look forward to the weekend and retirement? etc. etc.’ One can hardly live in an organized society without feeling the subtle and not so subtle external compulsions that determine so much of her behaviour. Are we free? Most of the time we think so, but then come those moments when we know we are living according to a script. It interests me that those moments involve things like breakfast and sleep. After all, war is obviously absurd, but breakfast? Precisely what feels natural, precisely this is being questioned. Beneath the careful crafting of a Chekhov story, one discovers the question, Could the world be otherwise than it is?

The question Could the world be other than it is? tosses us into politics. Here we find what I shall call the skeptical turn of mind – that is, the calling of things into question. A writer whose characters wonder over the meaning of breakfast could hardly be expected to accept human arrangements at face value. Yet what did Chekhov think? He seems to disapprove of the abuses of the Russian class system, but what would he put in its place, if anything? That is the rub. On first reading Chekhov, I find a vague humanism and a pervasive skepticism. Life is absurd. Yes, the peasants are getting shafted, but look at what sort of folk they are! Stubborn, bigoted, suspicious, and above all, stupid. They cannot even perceive their self-interest. Chekhov is commonly portrayed, along with James Joyce, as an exemplary model of the disinterested and apolitical writer. If he is unwilling to accept flattering nonsense about the aristocracy, he is equally unwilling to romanticize, in the common manner of the social reformer, the common folk. The consensus is that he merely describes the world without rendering a judgement.

Is this correct? Consider ‘An Awkward Business,’ which examines an incident between a country doctor, Gregory Ovchinnikov, and a medical orderly, Michael Smirnovsky. Here, as elsewhere, Chekhov establishes a set of contrasts. The doctor is young, educated, and thoughtful. Furthermore, he is a professional with aspirations. Chekhov is careful to note Gregory’s “keen interest in ‘social problems,’” a phrase which seems to me deliberately fuzzy. For Gregory, in contrast to the aged, bumbling, alcoholic Michael, is profoundly at odds with something we would call the system, and yet he’s unable to put his discomfort into practical language. Gregory’s problem is this: he has punched Michael in the face for coming to work drunk. He knows this is unprofessional behaviour, and that he ought to be disciplined, and yet the norms of 19th-century Russian society make only one outcome possible. The ‘old boys’ will rally around Gregory, and as a consequence his behaviour will be pronounced just. Indeed, this is precisely what happens.

Regarding the workings of the system, Gregory comments on ‘the sheer, the crass stupidity of it all.’ Here we have the perspective of the radical, the would-be reformer who is interested in social problems. Gregory seems to me to have Chekhov’s sympathy, but the implicit lesson of the story is that, like it or not, the system works. That, after all, is its function – to keep things moving along. Michael himself understands this and begs the forgiveness of his assailant. It is only when the embarrassed doctor suggests instead a lawsuit against himself that things get complicated. The expedient course of action would be to observe social conventions and let the system do its work. Why drag impractical notions like ‘social problems’ into the matter? No answer is given for this question. The impractical notions are simply there, and as a result Chekhov’s fiction is much more complicated than I’ve made it appear. His characters are plagued by a concern with justice, but they’ve learned to get along in an unjust world. It’s worth noting that the passage quoted above (“Oh, to leap on a horse…”) ends with this: “It would be a good idea to burgle some rich man’s house at night, he reflected.” In other words, once we have decided that the status quo is so much cruel nonsense, which clearly it sometimes is, we may move in any direction. Those directions include murder, robbery, and all manner of violence. Having questioned the prevailing arrangements, Gregory learns what everyone else has known all along, that things flow most smoothly when they follow the established channels. The alternatives are, as the story’s title ironically indicates, awkward.

The Chekhov I’ve proposed thus far conforms to the conventional notion of him as a wry observer of human affairs. But this Chekhov is, I think, too much a quietist, too much a man who merely contemplates things as they are without believing one can make a difference. That Chekhov was no reformer I agree. And yet I’m not satisfied with the view I’ve advanced thus far, that he is a skeptic and nothing more. He makes observable commitments and characteristic choices. There are implicit answers to the question, Could the world be otherwise than it is? In short, there is more to be said about the world of Chekhov’s fiction.

We may note the following. Chekhov is more interested in rural Russia than he is in the cities. Whatever implicit views he has may be inferred from his fondness for the ‘backward regions.’ He is interested in peasants, but he consistently narrates his stories from the perspective of the gentleman, or, where gentlemen are lacking, figures of relative high status. The protagonists are sometimes disdainful of their social inferiors but sometimes are ‘anxious,’ which is to say they encounter the lower orders with a mixed emotion of fear and desire. In the latter case, the upper classes do not wish to be confused with the down-and-out, and yet deep down they believe that the down-and-out lead a fuller, richer, more ‘earthy’ existence than they themselves do. The result is that the lower classes assume a sinister but compelling aspect, as in this passage from ‘Thieves’:

‘Phew, that girl has spirit!’ Yergunov thought, sitting on the chest and observing the dance from there. ‘What fire! Nothing’s too good for her.’

He regretted being a medical orderly instead of an ordinary peasant. Why must he wear a coat and a watch-chain with a gilt key, and not a navy-blue shirt with a cord belt – in which case he, like Merik, could have sung boldly, danced, drunk and thrown both arms round Lyubka?

Yergunov is nearly seduced by Lyubka, and he is robbed by Merik, but the greatest danger these characters pose is the one suggested by the story’s ending, that Yergunov will betray himself and defect his class. And why not? The peasants are having a wonderful time of it, robbing and killing with apparent impunity. Here we get another glimpse, I think, of Chekhov’s ‘position’ on the question, Could things be otherwise in the world? Nowhere does Chekhov allow class defection to occur without at least the suggestion of dire consequence. One has a choice to be a peasant or a gentleman; beyond that there is mere anarchy. Furthermore, class mobility is properly a matter of sustained effort and self-transformation. His is the sensibility of a man who through his own effort has left behind poverty and achieved success, and who believes that the answer is for others to do likewise. In short, he is concerned with personal evolution, not social revolution.

This explains the features of his work, some of which I have already identified. There is no grand social-reform vision in Chekhov’s stories because he is interested in the individual. This interest informs the manner in which he both criticizes and affirms the system. The system dooms the occasional intelligent, gifted individual to be born a peasant; nonetheless, for most peasants, theirs is a proper and even necessary role. As Kuzmichov comments in ‘The Steppe,’ ‘The point is that if everyone becomes a scholar and gentleman there won’t be anyone to trade and sow crops. We all starve.’ It’s not clear to what degree Chekhov endorsed Alexander Arkhipovich’s claim (in ‘An Awkward Business’) that ‘It’s only among professional people and peasants – at the two poles of society, in other words – that one finds honest, sober, reliable workers nowadays,’ but isn’t it interesting that he chooses rural settings, precisely where he may best concentrate upon these two classes. My suspicion is that, like Kuzmichov, Chekhov accepts the practicality of the class system. Social revolution is regarded skeptically, while the system, though evidently flawed, is at least valued as a source of social stability. Those characters who do accomplish a sort of revolution, for instance the protagonist in ‘The Cobbler and the Devil,’ find the results disastrous. The cobbler sells his soul to the devil in exchange for riches, but because he has not risen to his position through his own efforts, but instead by a sort of trickery, he is unable to fill his social position credibly. Despite his riches, he is still at heart a cobbler. When he wakes to find the whole thing was a dream, he joyfully accepts his humble lot. He has learned it’s where he belongs.

The Chekhov I am inferring may today sound reactionary, but we should recall the sort of ideas which were about in the 1890s. Social Darwinism was in ascendance in America, Germany, and Russia – to cite only the most historically significant manifestations. One of Chekhov’s late stories, ‘The Duel,’ repudiates proto-fascist notions about the lower classes, i.e., that they are degenerate and must be sacrificed to the greater good. Chekhov had no kind feeling for this point of view. Here however we may introduce another characteristic of Chekhov’s fiction, that it is almost oblivious to the stirrings of what has come to be called Modernism. A rural setting allowed Chekhov to explore the Russian class system, but the exploration is devoid of what really matters, from a modern point of view. I am referring to the conditions of urban life, the urban proletariat, the aristocracy, and mass society. His fiction looks backward, or tries to ignore the march of history altogether. Considered in its historical context, Chekhov’s decision to write mostly about peasants and gentlemen is remarkable.

I should address the accusation that Chekhov cannot be judged by today’s standard. Modernism did not come along until after his death, so how can he be expected to have written about it? I believe this accusation is misplaced, because clearly Chekhov did see what was happening. He knew that something one of his characters calls the ‘in-betweeners’ was emerging between peasant and gentleman (likely a reference to the rural bourgeoisie, known also as Kulaks or miroyed), and he knew about conditions of life in the cities. The point is, these did not interest him as a writer. He must also have been aware of grievances against the tsar, of the ‘Land and Freedom’ movements, and of the growing state repression of reform efforts. Nonetheless, Russia in 1890, for Chekhov, is farm labour, violent weather, inns, and samovars. ‘Upper classes’ means country priests, doctors, and clerical workers: in other words, gentlemen who have been educated out of the peasant class. As I’ve remarked earlier, these are the only two classes of person you’ll find. Chekhov also gives us murderous criminals, madmen, and exiles, but these are people outside society. They serve as a foil to his chief interests. Nor does class as such seem to be his concern. The peasants complain of their lot, and their suffering is presented sympathetically, but with a suggestion that it is inevitable, given their ignorance. There is no hint of the political struggles that culminated in the 1917 Revolution – struggles, one should note, that had been going on for many decades. One encounters the odd peasant rant against ‘the rich,’ as in the story ‘New Villa’ for instance, but we are never encouraged to take these comments seriously. Class oppression does not seem to be the problem for Chekhov, who himself had shown you could move about in Russian society if you had talent and a bit of gumption.

I am tempted to say that Chekhov’s fiction is informed by something akin to ‘classical liberalism’ or ‘meritocracy,’ but neither term is quite appropriate. I do think nonetheless that the stories imply a rejection of social reform (especially revolution) and that they treat ‘social problems’ as a matter of the individual. The world is recognized as a cruel and harsh place, and the poor are shown to have it badly. But Chekhov suggests that nothing can be done for them which will alter the fact of their poverty; alas, there must forever be peasants. One cannot read ‘New Villa’ without getting this message rather clearly. If the odd, individual peasant has talent and education, he may become a professional. In any case, the system will sort things out and people will end up where they belong, either among the peasants or gentlemen. Note that some, like Chekhov’s cobbler, will belong at the bottom and will only be harmed by artificial arrangements that put them elsewhere. The end result of the system may be harsh – will probably be harsh – and you may not like it, but such is life. That is the apparent moral of many a Chekhov story. Chekhov believed in private philanthropy and the obligations of rank (he helped to organize famine relief), and his story ‘My Wife’ shows he found the gentry’s mere lipservice to these deplorable. But the fact of wealth and poverty does not seem to have bothered him, so long as everyone bore his social rank with dignity and treated others kindly. The people who flout this principle get Chekhov’s harshest treatment. One however should not mistake the harshness as the sentiment of a reformer. If I am correct, Chekhov’s fiction offers us a qualified and careful apology for the class system.

All of this no doubt sounds familiar. Something like the ideology I have been describing is emerging as the official political consensus in all the industrialized countries, including Canada. Already it is the dominant view in America. Put crudely, the beliefs are that social reform has been attempted and found misguided, most of the poor are the authors of their condition and aren’t helped by the state regardless, one’s social position is a matter of merit, the individual alone is responsible for his or her fate, and the best one can do is to alleviate suffering through private philanthropy. Along with the emphasis upon the individual we find renewed attention to education, crime, and the family. When the system is conceived as a mere collection of individuals, issues such as personal crime (as opposed to corporate crime), private education, and personal moral values will come to the surface. The behaviour of the individual will become the substance of reform. Class conflict, structural unemployment, systemic racism, and other such grand reformist catch-phrases will recede to the margins of public discourse. The system will be of little political concern. Reformation of the subject will be the political object.

How I Survived My Education

Writing-lines

WE ARE ALL deeply indebted to our education system, for despite it, and maybe even in rebellion against it, we have become educated persons. Education like birth is something that simply must be done, and however much you may have benefited from it, you’d hardly wish to do it all over again.

I remember peculiar details whose significance today escapes me. I was once forced to stand in the hall for something I’d done, or hadn’t done; I had to go to the bathroom but I feared interrupting the class, so I pressed my legs together and danced until the pressure was more than I could bear, and then I wet my pants. This sort of unpleasant experience is unusual only in particulars. Most of my memories of school involve the themes of crime, authority, fear, and punishment. I suspect any other student could tell comparable tales. Nothing which could be construed as a ‘lesson’ remains afterward. I remember only the punishment, and the rest might as well never have happened.

The grammar school I attended had a long tradition of military-style education. The principal as late as the 1950s was typically a retired sergeant, or some similar figure. ‘Stern, male, and authoritarian’ seemed to be the chief requirements of the job. The yet-surviving Victorian model of the teacher was vanishing, but examples were still plentiful enough. The awkward phrase ‘Victorian model of the teacher’ is my own, and if I had a better phrase I would use it. It designates the educated middle-age woman who, having raised her own children, is thrust upon the children of others only to keep her busy. Behind the practice were some ugly assumptions about women and children which I suspect are familiar. Even today the assumptions inform our education system, which is why tenured university professors tend to be male and grammar-school teachers female. One assumption, which applies to other professions as well, is that work done with children really isn’t important enough to command the respect and wages of work done among adults. Thus the school was a dumping ground of sorts, and though inspired and gifted teachers could be found, they were accidents. Deviation from the norm was an unfortunate condition to be beaten back, and the creative teacher faced, then as now, a host of opponents.

To appreciate the character of the education I’m describing, you’ve got to consider the sort of things one was expected to learn: spelling, penmanship, punctuality, respect for authority, and obedience. All of these involve conformity to standards, whose justification is taken as self-evident. One learned to spell ‘correctly,’ with the help of a British dictionary. The authority of the dictionary was taken for granted, as if there were only One True Dictionary. I was also taught there was a correct way to make a lower-case ‘p’ – with the vertical stroke rising above the curved, much like the Old Norse thorn, þ. Regarding punctuality, never my strong point, I was reminded that I’d never get a job if I couldn’t learn to be on-time. Here the clock was the authority, and there could be no questioning the exigencies of the schedule (correct pronunciation: ‘shed-jewel’). Regarding respect for and obedience to authority, no matter what subject was ostensibly under consideration, these were the lessons. I suspect they were ultimately all that we were meant to learn.

In my case the system failed; I somehow learned not to respect and obey, as a matter of habit, authority. School showed me that our leaders are not self-justified, and that they indeed often behave far from justly. I learned these lessons while reflecting on my experiences. As an adult I could see clearly that the function of the system was to produce moderately intelligent middle-managers and docile proles. That is what the industrial capitalist system of my childhood needed, and that is what it mostly got. The system was designed to produce people who would show up for work on time and do what they’re told, how they’re told, no matter how demeaning, pointless, or even stupid it may be. The system produced these folks the way it produced everything else: in mass quantity, according to specification. In such a world it’s inconvenient to question the structures and dictates of work, just as it’s awkward to ask why ‘fill-um’ is the correct Canadian way to say film. Such questions were discouraged. In both cases one was expected to do as one was told, period. Authority, I discovered, is often a mere matter of expedience. Education standards, for instance, may serve the interests of education bureaucrats more than they do students, and the function of the authorities may be to ensure that the standards always triumph. In my opinion, you’re not educated if you’ve never had this suspicion.

When you start to ask questions, a curious phenomenon occurs. Things begin to unravel. You learn that authority stands on shaky ground. The teacher is not all-knowing and in fact only says fill-um because she was told by someone (another authority) that it is proper to do so. Behind every authority is only another authority: the Oxford dictionary, the CBC, the Queen, and so on. Question any individual authority and there is nothing in principle stopping you from questioning authority itself. How frightening such a state must be for teachers whose insufficient training and meagre resources make them entirely dependent upon the teaching guide. Their authority is all that they have. At least the bureaucracy offers them the conditions they need to do their job. One person’s hell is another’s heaven, and I know today that mindless fill-in-the-blank work is a blessing if you’ve got the right temperament. Bureaucracy, after all, serves a useful and even civilizing function. You need only do and think as you’re told; the system will then propel you along toward your pension.

Although this may sound cynical, it describes the way most of us live. Consider the realm of opinions. Even if we don’t believe most of what we read, we at least have read most of what we believe. We couldn’t possibly have first-hand knowledge of all that goes on in the world. We have to believe something to function. I don’t mean ‘belief’ in the religious sense of ‘faith,’ as in the phrase ‘to believe in God.’ Instead I mean belief in the sense that we concede the world is pretty much what the experts say it is. Though the meanings overlap, they differ in the sense that the expert describes something you could see for yourself, like an atom, if you made the effort. Experts pretend to describe objective facts, in relation to which blind faith is not only unrequired but inappropriate. If you doubt the descriptions, you are free to examine the matter for yourself and to form your own opinion. Most of us however haven’t the time or inclination to do this, and so we acquire our opinions second-hand. This is not an argument against the media, but merely a description of the way in which opinions necessarily operate in the real world. We can only go so far in challenging conventional wisdom, if we challenge at all, because beyond conventional hearsay there is conventional heresy, and beyond that little more than regions of fire and dragons. The conventions, whatever their shortcomings, serve a function.

One of the great and overlooked paradoxes of the education system is that it is blamed for all social ills and called upon to remedy them. The possibility that it is neither the disease nor the cure offers little opportunity to the polemicist and so is rejected. Civilization has its discontents, but this is not entirely the fault of the education system. Even if we restrict the discussion to learning, the education system can be shown to have a doubtful role. Einstein’s genius did not flower as a result of his contact with the University; he was at best a mediocre student. There’s no doubt in my mind that the education system of my childhood tended toward stupefaction, but stupidity was not always the outcome. Yes, school inoculates the young against intellectual curiosity – but this is only merciful, so long as the adulthood to which the young may look forward consists mostly in mindless work, endless sitcoms, and cajoling advertisements. When’s the last time you heard an education reformer observe the obvious, that there’s almost nothing to do with intellectual curiosity except make a pest of oneself. The corporations do not want it, despite their talk of the knowledge economy; the government does not want it; the TV does not afford it; and your boss will retaliate at its first appearance. In short, intellectual curiosity is as useful to social success as bad breath. Nothing is cultivated at such cost, with such pains, only to be met by such perfect indifference. That is why the education system works the way it does. And it does work, by rooting out intellectual curiosity and replacing it with ‘workplace skills,’ lest a peaceful and gainfully-employed existence be forever precluded.

Any system will fail at least some of the time. Intellectual curiosity may survive prolonged therapy. In my case the education system was indispensable to my efforts, like the floor against which an athlete must push in order to leap. I began my life as a critical thinker when I first discerned what the education system is really designed to do – and how far this reality is from what education spokespersons claim it is designed to do. Reformers insist they want to make the education system a place of critical thought. Think about it: a generation of critical thought would pretty much put an end to the advertisement and PR industries, not to mention a good many political careers. The whole culture would have to be remade to suit the thinking and tastes of clever, skeptical people. Critical thought would pose a larger technical challenge than the Year-2000 bug. Our dullness is a national treasure. It is an industrial lubricant; without it the wheels of progress would grind to a halt. No more blockbusters, no more bad newspapers, no more trickle-down economics, and on and on. Do we really want to end civilization as we know it?

I would, but that is only because I am a pest who’s survived the education system. [-June 1998.]

Bertrand Russell on freedom of speech

Writing to the New York Times on the 20th of April 1940, Bertrand Russell reminded his audience (chiefly, the editors of the Times) of an unpleasant fact. His no-nonsense, that’s-the-way-it-is manner you will recognize as characteristic. “In a democracy,” he urged, “it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.”

The occasion of Russell’s letter was a Times editorial implicitly supporting a decision to ban Russell from teaching at the College of the City of New York. The outraged sentiments in this case belong, I presume, to the ecclesiastical authorities, politicians, citizens, and newspaper editorialists who demanded that the College Board ban Russell, and who to that end launched a bilious project of defamation. The history of that project is long, complicated, and rather ugly; a more thorough review of it can be found in the form of an Appendix to Russell’s Why I Am Not a Christian (London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1988). This account itself is derived from The Bertrand Russell Case, published in 1941 and edited by Horace Kallen and John Dewey. For the present purpose, which is to extrapolate from the above quotation, only a relatively brief sketching of events should suffice.

Russell at first was granted the appointment, by the Board of Higher Education on 26 February 1940, to teach 3 Philosophy courses: logic, foundations of mathematics, relations of pure to applied sciences and the reciprocal influence of metaphysics and scientific theories. Nineteen of the twenty-two Board members were present for the vote, and all nineteen were in support. Only when the decision was made public did trouble begin. A Protestant Episcopal Bishop by the name of Manning wrote to New York’s newspapers, denouncing “a man who is a recognised propagandist against religion and morality, and who specifically defends adultery.” Here I shall interject myself to suggest that these accusations weren’t so errant as they may appear. Russell was a propagandist against religion and, in a sense, against ‘morality’ too, morality here defined as a coercive fear-based system of control grounded in and perpetuated by the Church. Of course, Bishop Manning probably meant to imply that Russell was ‘against moral goodness,’ but that is another matter. The Bishop’s sentiments having been outraged, such quibbles went out the window. As the campaign against Russell aged, other judgements were rendered. The materialist philosopher and self-styled agnostic was called “a professor of paganism,” “a desiccated, divorced and decadent advocate of sexual promiscuity,” “an ape of genius, the devil’s minister of men” and an “anarchist and moral nihilist of Great Britain.” This last quotation openly displays the chauvinism informing these attacks; their general drift is that Russell is not one of Us, he’s one of Them, hence he must be repelled. It’s noteworthy I think that Russell’s response was to defend, not his opinions, but his democratic right to be one of Them. After all, it’s clear that’s what he indeed was.

What happened next is as follows. A member both of the Board and of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Charles H. Tuttle, altered his decision after claiming he’d been ignorant of Russell’s views. Tuttle put the appointment back on the agenda, public vilification intensified, new accusations appeared, and yet the original Board decision was sustained by a vote of 11-7. The campaign however only got nastier, if this was possible. City politicians and administrators urged the cancellation of college funding, the toughening of immigration policy to keep out “dogs” like Russell – the word was Councilman Charles E. Keegan’s – the undertaking of investigations into the education system of New York, tarring and feathering, and so on. During this controversy Russell had his defenders too, among them liberal religious leaders and publishers, academics, and politicians such as City Council Republican Stanley Isaacs, all of whom defended Russell’s appointment at great risk to their careers. Along the way Albert Einstein delivered one of his enduring observations: “Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities.”

Defeat of the Board was undertaken in a lawsuit issued by a Mrs. Jean Kay of Brooklyn and presented before Justice McGeehan. Kay filed a taxpayer’s suit in the New York Supreme Court, where her lawyer argued that Russell had not taken a competitive examination before receiving his appointment. To this, the lawyer added the charges that Russell was an alien, atheist, and an advocate of sexual immorality, all of which necessarily ought to exclude him from teaching. The Board’s lawyer attempted to restrict the case to the legal question of whether an alien could be appointed to a post in a US city college. Unfortunately for both him and Russell, McGeehan was a crusader on behalf of public morality and ruled two days later that Russell’s appointment was an “insult to the people of the City of New York.” Russell later was represented by independent counsel, but an application for permission to answer Mrs. Kay’s and her lawyer’s charges was dismissed by McGeehan on the astonishing ground that Russell had no “legal interest” in the matter. Successive requests for permission to appeal were also denied. However, McGeehan himself could not stop the Board from hiring Russell. In the end it took the combined efforts of New York Mayor LaGuardia, Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons, and several members of City Council, who banded together to ensure that Bertrand Russell would never teach in New York. Mr. Lyons introduced a resolution at the meeting of the Board of Estimate, which was made part of the terms and conditions of the budget. It read, “No funds herein appropriated shall be used for the employment of Bertrand Russell.” No funds were.

Believe it or not, this is the brief version of the story. The full version contains a good deal more twists and turns, principal players, ugliness, and also courage. The general theme of the story, if I may be allowed to use literary terms, is the Struggle for Intellectual Freedom versus the Defence of Decency. On the one hand we have Freedom of Speech, and on the other, ‘No, not if we don’t like what you’re saying.’

Here we arrive at the entrance of the Times. After a long silence, an editorial appeared on 20 April 1940 in which it was argued (among other things) that the appointment of Russell was impolitic and ought to have been declined by the recipient “as soon as its harmful results became evident.” That is to say, none of this would have happened had Russell just shut up and gone away. The Times editorialist concluded that it was all his fault.

In his response, Russell acknowledged that “it would certainly have been more prudent as far as [his] personal interests are concerned” had he declined at once his teaching position. He refused however, arguing a withdrawal would give tacit assent to the proposition that “substantial groups shall be allowed to drive out of public office individuals whose opinions, race or nationality they find repugnant.” As for the controversy he had occasioned:

I do not believe that controversy is harmful on general grounds. It is not controversy and open differences that endanger democracy. On the contrary, these are its greatest safeguards. It is an essential part of democracy that substantial groups, even majorities, should extend toleration to dissentient groups, however small and however much their sentiments outraged.

And then he added, “In a democracy it is necessary that people should learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.” This seems to have been the fundamental issue for Russell, as well as for the people who came to his defence. Challenging this point of view we find the propositions that some things are better left unsaid, and that ‘the people’ have a right to ensure that they aren’t said. This we may designate the right not to endure having our sentiments outraged.

Russell’s argument is, I think, characteristically harsh. We tend to think of freedom as a bundle of personal rights. Put crudely, democracy in this view consists in my doing what I want without you getting in my way and trying to stop me. We tend less to consider the necessary complement of this formulation – that is to say, rarely do we approach democracy from the point of the view of that fellow who has a strong moral impulse to do the stopping. When we do find ourselves in that position, freedom usually ceases to be the issue. The function of Russell’s letter is to make us see the matter from this complementary perspective. We are reminded that going swimmingly about your happy business without the interference of shits isn’t the sole outcome of democracy; it’s also having to live with the daily outrage of people who insist upon going about their happy business, of which you happen not to approve. Bertrand Russell is a writer who reminds you that your civilized comforts are possible only because somewhere there is someone else suffering on your behalf. The loftiest principles have to be founded somehow, usually in the muck. Since most of us tend to see democracy from the Get Off My Cloud perspective, Russell’s habit of looking up at things from the gutter is disconcerting.

Democracy isn’t a convenient arrangement. When Our side is winning then, obviously, it’s all fair and democratic. But when it’s Their side having a day of it, democracy seems somehow to have failed. We are all susceptible to that sort of hypocrisy, aren’t we? The remarkable thing however is that some of the people who came to Russell’s defence must have been personally offended by his views. At the very least, some of his supporters did not share them. Among his voluminous writings – forty-three books by my count – you will have trouble finding one positive word about religion. Russell, especially skilled at invective, reserved his harshest attacks for the church and its representatives. I have no doubt he felt as strongly about abolishing ‘superstition’ as his opponents felt about abolishing ‘immorality.’ Russell, in his own manner, was a moral crusader. In the world toward which he laboured, there was no place for God and religion. And yet among the people who defended his right to speech as well as to teach were Rabbi Jonah B. Wise, Professor J.S. Bixler of Harvard Divinity School, the Reverend John Haynes Holmes, and the Episcopal Reverend Guy Emery Shipler, the last of this list even disputing Bishop Manning’s right to speak on behalf of the Episcopal Church. Given Russell’s opinions, the public support of these individuals was quite generous.

You may also say this support was self-interested, but that does not diminish the gesture. Democracy itself is founded on, among other things, self-interest. When certain people are no longer willing to have their sentiments outraged, and seek to alter social arrangements on that account, the freedom of all is endangered. Russell, a logician, used words with great precision. Note that he did not write, ‘In a democracy, it helps when people learn to endure having their sentiments outraged.’ His view of freedom was self-interested, but it also considered the public interest. Follow Russell’s argument to its logical conclusion (he would be gratified by this approach) and you find the proposition that in a healthy democracy one finds, not only personal liberty, but people who’ve learned to endure being pissed off. One’s self-interest in liberty is easy to identify, and yet there is an equal self-interest in tolerance of others which tends to feel less compelling when you’re hot under the collar.

I’ve been considering freedom and democracy in abstraction, removed from the messiness of real life. Almost no one would argue against freedom in principle. And yet there are cases every day where freedom seems to many an intolerable burden. What do you make, for instance, of the freedom to publish Nazi tracts, kiddie porn, and hate literature? Here is a question that invites us to draw our personal boundary around freedom, something each of us does. In my case, I almost wrote in the above sentence: “What do you make, for instance, of the ‘freedom’ to publish Nazi tracts, etc.” The quotation marks around ‘freedom’ are a dead give-away; they tell you that, deep-down, I don’t think freedom ought to be extended to the hateful acts of creeps. Thus, when it’s Their speech under question, the issue is not Freedom, but rather Combating Racism, Violence, and Hate. That’s how I feel deep-down. Somewhere presumably higher-up however I suspect that racism and violence don’t go away just because you’ve told them to. Banishing unpleasantness from the public domain was the solution (or ‘solution’) of the Times editorialist, who presumably conceived the ideal public domain as a kind of smooth elevator ride, and ideal public debate as a kind of Muzak. The Times offers us comforting illusions of an easy peace, and although most of us believe peace is what we ought to have, our experience shows us Russell is closer to the truth of things.

By peace I mean the absence of controversy and dissent. We often complain that politics is nasty, that there should be bipartisanship, that people should put aside their differences and get things done, and that the government is too inefficient. To a degree I think the complaints are well-founded. Yet I also find it curious that dissent, controversy, and inefficiency should be regarded in this case as negatives. All of these could be eliminated through the institution of a fascist dictatorship, but few if any of us want this because we cherish the freedom of speech and the right to representation. In practice however these translate roughly into dissent, partisanship, and inefficiency. The trouble-free democracy advocated by the Times editor turned out not to be democracy at all, but instead the right of the raucous to their peace and quiet. In the end they got it, too. [October 1998.]

Indian Residential Schools: a brief history of the Mush Hole


Today I received news that my mother’s application for the Common Experience Payment, or CEP, (under Canada’s 2007 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement) has run its course to a conclusion. This after two and one-half years of collecting documents, filling forms, phoning and re-phoning Government employees across the country, collecting further documents, and, having arrived at a procedural cul-de-sac, shutting things down to invoke an appeal. And, most of all, waiting.

This reference to procedural cul-de-sac concerns one of many stumbling blocks faced by former students of Indian residential schools who apply for the CEP. Often there are records in the Government’s possession showing some of the years of residence but not others. Researchers charged with assessing applications (the Government is careful to stress, by the way, the CEP is not “compensation,” but rather an acknowledgement of the common experience of being forcibly removed from family and community and placed in institutions) can not issue a payment for a year under consideration without proof of residence. If there is documentation concerning, say, 1950 and 1955 only, the intervening years can not be calculated for the purpose of the CEP. Unless the documents can be found, somehow, at some point down the road. And what a long road it can be! What is not widely known is that an applicant in this bind may request and be granted termination of the search — in effect to be deemed ineligible for a CEP in the undocumented years. This may seem like madness after a two or three year investment in a process. However, having in effect “asked” to be declined, one may proceed to an appeal process, which places the matter under the authority of persons authorized to make a judgement in the absence of records. In the hypothetical case above, the authorities may decide to issue a payment for the years 1950 to 1955, inclusive. This was the case in my mother’s appeal.

My mother is a highly confident, tenacious, assertive, and capable person — but the Sisyphean task of pushing this matter to a conclusion brought her on more than one occasion to tears. I can only guess at the number of applicants in the same situation who gave up and were, once again, humiliated and gutted by a “process” which, despite some well-meaning employees, quite shafted them. Some things really do never change.

The gaping colonial maw at the centre of this was the Mohawk Institute, an Indian residential school known more commonly as the Mush Hole. The Mush Hole had the distinction of being both the first and longest-operated Indian residential school in Canada, its construction having been begun in 1829, and its time as a federally-managed institution ending in 1969. In 1930, a one-hundred-year-later retrospective was penned by a bureaucrat at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. (You can find it here.) I’ve often wondered what Joseph Brant, who in 1822 asked the British to construct a school and church at Six Nations, would have made of the Mush Hole. Or the negotiators of the numbered treaties, who made education in exchange for territory a strategic bargaining issue in the 1870s. Perhaps it’s a pointless exercise, but it at least suggests the enormous gap between what is agreed to in principle, and what is delivered by the political machinery. We negotiated an education agreement and got residential schools. Beginning from the Haldimand Tract, we end in Ohsweken (five percent of the land in that settlement, the rest having been sold off by Canada, which then used the money for its own infrastructure). Canada’s “interpretation” of the Kaswentha (Two Row Wampum) led to an invasion of our territories and a deposing of our government, in the 1920s.

It was roughly the time my grandfather was in the Mush Hole when protests against attempts by Canada to subvert the independence of the Haudenosaunee culminated in a 1923 trip to Geneva to petition the League of Nations. Deskaheh, or Levi General as he was known in English, was a man so eloquent and forceful in articulating the multiple crimes of Canada against the Six Nations that he was forced out of the country and died on Tuscarora land, near Niagara Falls, New York. Partly I suspect as a retaliation for having been shamed in Switzerland, and partly out of a “pre-emptive” desire to make certain it never happen again, Canada sent the RCMP into Grand River Territory in October 1924, and a puppet government (the Chief and band council system, which we have to this day) was forcibly imposed. Here’s an official characterization of these events, as recorded in the 1924 Annual Report of the Department of Indian Affairs:

Until the present year the Six Nations Indians, who are located at Ohsweken, Brant county, Ontario, had from time immemorial selected their chiefs and councillors by an ancient hereditary system in which the voting power lay with the Women of the different tribes and clans. It had been for some years obvious that this obsolete system was wholly unsuited to modern conditions of life and detrimental to progress and advancement. There has unfortunately developed, moreover, during the past few years a retrogressive and obstructive agitation on the reserve which has so impeded progressive administration that it was felt that an improvement in their political system must be effected without delay. In March, 1923, the Government appointed a Royal Commission in the person of Lt.-Col. Andrew T. Thompson to investigate the affairs of the Six Nations. The commissioner in his report, among other important recommendations, strongly urged the abolition of the old tribal system of choosing the councillors. This recommendation was promptly put into effect by the department. An Order in Council, dated September 17, 1924, was passed applying the election provision of Part Two of the Indian Act to the Six Nations. The election was held on October 21, 1924. Under the new method, the Six Nations will have a measure of local autonomy largely corresponding to that of a rural municipality but subject to the supervision of the department and the Governor in Council. It is felt that the change that has been made will assuredly further the development of these Indians and hasten the time when they will become a fully responsible and self-supporting community.

Deskaheh’s final speech, which rehearses this criminal undertaking, is one of the finest pieces of oratory I’ve ever read. On the other end of that spectrum is the above quotation, in particular the robotic falderal of the closing line.

My grandfather rarely referred to his years at the Mush Hole, though he did allude to times when hunger was so acute he and other children would dig by moonlight in the school’s adjacent field to find a raw potato to eat. In later years, he could be rather difficult to be around, and never far off when in his presence was the uneasy feeling that he carried within him some sort of unresolved quarrel better left unprovoked. Bitterness doesn’t quite cover it, but there was certainly that. He would attack his family, as well as the folks he’d chance upon at Six Nations, for not knowing how to speak the Haudenosaunee languages. I heard from him many stories of Deskaheh and learned of, quite without wanting to, the sufferings and grievances of our people. It was always unpleasant as a teenager to cross the US/Canada border with him, and to sit mortified in the passenger’s seat as he spoke Mohawk to the Customs Officer (“I’m speaking American to you. If you don’t understand it’s because you are an immigrant”) and lectured them on the Jay Treaty. Ask yourself: have you ever witnessed an armed American security official rendered speechless by someone he was duty-bound to question? Well I have. My grandfather was a Mohawk nationalist and a Seventh-Day Adventist, and I can tell you that the grass on either side of his improbable fence was sharp under the feet. But we all make our point in our own manner. My grandmother resolved without fanfare to live a dignified life, thereby rebuking those who would claim we were dirty and stupid. From her I learned the importance of developing one’s mind, and from my grandfather I doubtless inherited fire.

I’m glad that, so far as the CEP is concerned, there is a conclusion at hand for my family. But I feel sad also. No money can ever change the fact that this was yet another arrangement conceived and carried out by the Canadian Government to rub everything Indian, once and for all, from the face and memory of Earth. Many children were disfigured, in many cases irreversibly, by it. These are the sort of unpleasant facts I would prefer to forget, if it weren’t also the case that I know I must never allow myself to do so.

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