Category Archives: Personal Essay

Non-fictional writing of a personal nature.

Capitalism: For and Against

You’ve heard often and perhaps recently that socialism is defeated and that capitalism is therefore triumphant, as if economic history were a basketball match. Yet socialism, by which one today generally means Soviet Communism, fell for internal reasons. The anti-Communists predictably have taken the credit, in the manner of all chauvinists, but this raises certain questions: what about capitalism? – is it really triumphant? Should it be?

First we ought to clarify what is meant by capitalism. Capitalism here designates exclusive private ownership of productive property, such as factories and telecommunications infrastructure. Property may be thought of as the tools by which wealth is created, and private property as a form of ownership which places economic power and benefits in the hands of the individual as opposed to the state. This, of course, is the main distinction to be made between capitalism and socialism, both of which may be industrial and statist. Capitalism is the ideology of capital; it puts wealth, and not the demos or even the president, in charge.

Wealth as such does not have power. When the capitalist extols the rights of property, it is the rights of those who own the property he has in mind. At the bottom of capitalism you find the proposition, rarely stated, that the rich are specially suited to run things. The argument is almost never put so baldly because capitalists (of the American variety at least) tend to affect a democratic outlook. ‘Meritocracy,’ meaning the rule of the Best and Brightest, expresses the capitalist’s fond belief that America is a level playing field. The best and the brightest, after all, had to work their way up to the top. So the idea that the rich should run things is tempered by the observation that their wealth was fairly amassed, through their effort and according to the rules of the game. Bootstrap democracy distinguishes American ruling-class apology from its aristocratic relations.

Political ideologies are all based upon self-justifying fictions. Democracy flatters the common man, and capitalism flatters those with capital. In the end, someone must rule and someone must be ruled. The fictions qualify prevailing arrangements; rarely do they lead to them. It’s the arrangements themselves that concern us here and not the ideologies. Of the latter we need only note that rarely is one so good as his PR asserts, nor so wicked as claim his adversaries. In this instance, what is true of the capitalist is also true of capitalism. It produces, as does any economic and social system, mixed results. But though the results are mixed, they are not arbitrary. Capitalism establishes certain relationships and trends. The apologists recognise this when they attribute all successes to the Free Market. Their boasts would be meaningless if capitalism didn’t in fact produce a certain predictable kind of outcome.

What, then, is the outcome? Capitalism produces a society which is dynamic and varied. You will find the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. You will also find extraordinary energy and productive capacity, both of which are organised around effective demand rather than human need. The difference between the two tells us something essential about capitalism. Mere hunger is a human need, but a hungry person with money and the intention to spend it constitutes effective demand. Capitalism will satisfy hunger as demand while ignoring hunger as need. In other words, human needs as such are external to the capitalist system. It is the effective demand that is all-important. What matters are the production and distribution of effective demand-fulfilling consumer goods, and to this end the social, economic, and political systems of capitalist countries tend to be organised. I stress ‘tend’ because in most capitalist countries, including Canada and the US, capitalism competes with other ideologies like democracy. It is thereby limited. A pure-capitalist country (such a thing has never existed, but some so-called developing nations come close) would be indifferent to human need, need being an extra-economic matter.

This is an extraordinary fact of capitalism and thereby deserves careful qualification. I’m not suggesting that capitalism is actively cruel. The point is it is active only as capitalism, active only when it is engaged in exchanges of value and the accumulation of capital. Remove money from capitalism and capitalism is no more. The system collapses; it cannot feed the hungry or clothe the naked or put the unemployed to work. In a well-functioning capitalist economy need is translated into effective demand by paid work or credit. Even in the best of times, however, capitalism is unable to lift millions of people out of poverty; something else inevitably must do the job, and that is socialist democracy.

Here I have suddenly abandoned the term ‘socialism.’ That is because I wish to make a case for social democracy, by which I mean public ownership of public goods and the organisation of human activity around human need. This, I admit, is a weak definition, but it is not inane. We should get over the propagandist’s conception of all socialisms, including social democracy, as Big Brother, and so on. Of course, pure socialism (i.e. abolition of private property) has lead to Big Brother, and it is consequently quite impossible today to discuss statist socialism without considering some very unpleasant facts, such as that it has never worked well for ordinary people. And yet social democracy (as practiced in Norway, for instance) has not fallen, or collapsed, or whatever term you prefer. Indeed, it works quite well. As for Big Brother, let’s consider the capitalists’ fearful prate about ‘managed economies’ and how evil they are, then ask ourselves whether General Motors is not a huge bureaucracy with a centralised, vertically integrated, economy. No, socialist democracy is above all else the temperance of capitalist social relations. Temperance is necessary because the corporate form of governance gets us no closer to economic democracy than does Stalinism. It does however greatly facilitate the mobilisation of capital, which was one of its historic purposes. Nor was the corporation originally designed to suit capital, but rather social needs. Here we encounter both the strength and the Achilles’ heel of modern-contemporary capitalism, the corporation.

The corporation was in the beginning a restricted legal entity, granted specific rights and privileges by state governments. The earliest corporations were constituted to achieve specific public goals requiring extraordinary amounts of capital, such as canal or road construction. Once the project was completed, the corporation was dissolved. Incorporation enabled governments to amass large amounts of capital while protecting individual investors from any losses that may occur. In other words, the public corporation was a useful and necessary instrument for achieving public goals.

Gradually the corporation moved away from its traditional, public function. Investors began to use the corporation to deepen and extend their economic power. Ironically, the demise of the public corporation was hastened by the Jacksonian Democrats, who discerned in the corporation, perhaps correctly, the beginnings of excessive and tyrannical state power. Joined by groups representing wealthy private investors, the Jacksonians successfully advocated the retreat of the corporation from public activities. Corporations were gradually granted new private rights at the same time that they were relieved of public responsibilities. This trend culminated in the early-20th-century decision to grant corporations the rights of persons, specifically freedom of speech and of expression. Unlike persons, however, the corporation would be able to exist eternally, accumulating wealth and power generation after generation. Once a temporary institution with limited powers and a specific public mandate, the corporation became an eternal person with extraordinary economic power and a private mandate to maximise profits.

To date, this arrangement has been tolerated by the public. The increasing influence and even dominance of transnational corporations over the economic and social affairs of the world’s nation-states is nonetheless repugnant to many millions of people. The demos will not long allow corporate capital to practice laissez-faire cannibalism. At some point in the future, citizens will insist that economic arrangements bear a meaningful relation to basic human needs; in other words, they will rediscover economic and social democracy. If the term socialist democracy disturbs you, by all means call it something else. It will be impossible for the plutocrats to resist democracy indefinitely, though goodness knows they will as always try mightily. Once again, a bargain will be struck between capital and the people – but in all likelihood not until a painful, protracted historical lesson is yet again learned, that capitalism on its own does not work. [-August 1998]

The Secret Life of Work

Here are some general observations of the work that goes on in a modern city. To begin, everyone is in a hurry. Most people I’m guessing are engaged in some sort of bureaucratic enterprise, and the rest are downtown to serve them coffee. In the morning a pack of buses hurries about, now and then disgorging itself of suits and umbrellas and PDAs. Regarding the work itself I have the following thoughts.

One used to think of major industries when it came to jobs. For example, in small towns work meant the steel or auto plant. Is this still the case? Ottawa was known as Silicon Valley north and Nortel was a major employer. However, Government was a larger employer, even during the boom. So there are still only a few truly dominant employers, with one being undeniably at the front. The one-industry town is not completely obsolete.

Most of the folks running about at 8 am in Ottawa are white-collar workers. If you ask them what they do you will likely get a vague answer. It seems to me to come down to this: they move around bits of information.

In a nasty mood, when I am most doubtful concerning the busy-ness, I may draw certain conclusions. The first is that most of the middle class-people who earn over $30,000 a year-are economically superfluous. They are necessary as consumers but survive only through a combination of inertia, tenacity, political clout, and good fortune. I sometimes think that everything done by the professional classes will become automated, sooner than we suspect. The question I am addressing is What do people do?

I am not trying to glorify the Working Man, but I consider it a fact that the most low-paid, dirty, and unpleasant work is the most necessary. You must have food, sewers, buses, roads, toilets, clothing, and heat. Someone must kill your dinner and clean up afterward, and that someone is generally a person of the lower classes. They are hidden away from professional view, high up in the air, or deep in the belly of the earth. They are getting filthy to keep things nice. Nor have the working classes disappeared as technology advances. There are more technocrats than ever in a place like Ottawa, and I’ve noticed they like to eat, which means also they shit. So there is a person, probably a woman, who cleans the toilets at minimum wage. If she does not show up for work, it means things get rather unpleasant. But what happens when the $60,000-a-year professional does not show up? Something does not get photocopied and filed. For much of a professional’s time at work consists of throwing words and numbers into the bureaucracy’s maw and afterward writing reports about it, that is, producing more words and numbers. All of this takes time and effort; it is work.

I am aware that this is a jaundiced, probably unfair view. We need information and clerical services. However, the recent love affair with information needs some critical examination. The 2000s encouraged us to believe that information would be the commodity of the future. I am not trying to work up pity for the poor working folk at the expense of professionals. I am merely suggesting this was a superstitious notion. For what it is worth, I have noticed that the higher up one goes in the pay scale, the more one encounters the intangible and mysterious. No one at $80,000-a-year, or even $40,000, can say ‘I make buns’ or ‘I scrub the shit off toilets.’ Rather, they are ‘supervisors’ of ‘processes.’ They direct implementation of long-term strategic co-ordination. This sort of language is a bit like being given a Hubble Space Telescope snapshot in response to the question Where do you live? Look at the professional job description and you will see hardly any concrete nouns. Just as paintings came to look less and less like worldly objects as painters consciously liberated themselves from the work of representation (better done with the newly-invented camera), so too résumés lose reference to the physical world as professionals liberate themselves from the vulgar matter of physical labour. Abstraction is a perk of the educated. Only at $20,000 must you toil in the concrete, and in the porcelain too. [- July 1999, updated February 2010]

The Confessions of a University Drop-Out

During the years 1992-1998 I was a full-time Ph.D. student at Queen’s University at Kingston Ontario. It happened something like this. I had completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Brock University and a M.A. at Queen’s. The deepest recession since the 1930s, or so I was told, was setting in, and I was faced with bleak prospects. Like many of my contemporaries, I decided to drift further into graduate school. Call it laziness or inertia if you like. At the time it was the best option available, for reasons I’ll show later. And after all, I’d been told since age 4 that an education is the key to success, whatever that means.

I had graduated from high school during the recession of the 1980s, so the territory was familiar. I worked as a bartender, and had even less talent for this than I’d shown as a student. I would have been fired were it not for the fact my employers were kind and generous friends. Eventually I figured out I was going nowhere, and school represented itself as a strategy for improving my fortunes. In 1984 I returned to my education, applied myself for the first time, and completed grade 13. Had you asked me ‘What is the purpose of an education?’ when I was a high school graduate and a simpleton, I would have replied, ‘To get a Job!’ I didn’t care for school until my university sophomore year, when I came to realize that I believed learning for its own sake is a noble endeavour. I admit it is a selfish endeavour also, but then my purpose here is not self-glorification. My point is, I still believe that education is a noble endeavour. I suspect this is a minority opinion, and that most who go to university would find it a bit quaint. They are there for the job training, which is not the same thing, in my opinion, as an education.

You are doubtless eager to chastise me at this point. You suppose I am going to issue the commonplace laments about the University: that it does not educate, that it does not lead to a job, that it is ‘outdated,’ etc., etc. And you want to tell me, as if I’ve never heard it before, that I ought to have studied something useful. ‘Computers. Now there’s a degree! They’re dying for people who know about that.’ True, the market demand for English majors is relatively low, and yet I’ve never doubted that I have a useful degree. I also feel that I got an education, so there will be no laments forthcoming.

I was accepted at Brock University and began my English degree in the fall of 1985. Why did I choose an English major? I don’t recall my thinking, but I imagine I’d figured out by then that I had a knack for literature and an interest in writing. Indeed, I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of 8. My other principal interests were, and still are, biology, general science, and music. But English Literature it was. I chose my courses, bought my textbooks, and went off to class. Of those early years my memories are few but pleasant. I recall the pungent lectures of Michael Hornyansky and, incongruously, the Brock pub, Alphies Trough. The years went quickly, or so it seems in retrospect, and by 1988 I had decided I would pursue a graduate degree. Here I recall my reasons with clarity. I was a good student and loved nothing more than loitering in the company of history’s great and infamous minds.

I applied to Guelph University and Queen’s, and chose the latter after visiting Kingston in the winter of 1989. The trip I remember well because it was viciously cold and because I scored an apartment for the next fall at a house party my first night there. I saw little of the city, but fell in love with it because it was everything St. Catharines was not: intimate, communal, convenient. The students I met all lived within a few minutes’ walk of one another and within blocks of the university. I would discover later that this cliquish intimacy had its dangers, but at the time it felt marvellous – and I have to say that nostalgia for this college-dorm life is doubtless behind the success of Friends, Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and other such Peter-Pan let’s-never-grow-up TV shows.

I moved to 379 Alfred Street in Kingston on 24 August 1990 – I remember it well – and began my M.A. in September. It was a gruelling year, academically speaking, and personally difficult, but productive and rewarding. As I look back to 1985, when my education began in earnest, the markers of my life’s significant events and discoveries include entries like: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Penguin Classics, Either/Or volume I, Ulysses, Paul Fussell’s Bad, George Orwell’s essays, H.L. Mencken, and so on and so on. Every year brought with it a new set of discoveries, new vistas, a bigger imaginative world. I feel about these what others feel about Ebbetts Field, the moon landing, or the death of John F. Kennedy. You see, I can’t imagine my life without them. Beyond that, it seems almost pointless to try to put the matter into words. Either one understands, in which case the explanation is unnecessary, or one does not, in which case the explanation won’t help.

My involvement with the Ph.D. program began, ironically I now find, with money. One is required during his or her M.A. studies to apply to several funding agencies for Ph.D. assistance, even if there’s no certain intention to become a doctoral candidate. I therefore wrote a thesis proposal, filled out the forms, assembled a team (advisor, second reader, etc.), and posted the paperwork – a tedious task, and one which I expected to end up nowhere. To my surprise, I ended up with grants from every agency to which I’d applied. Imagine living on perhaps $400 or $500 a month (perhaps you don’t need to) and then suddenly being offered grants totalling about $30,000 a year to do something you find difficult but also rewarding and noble. Well, are you interested? Perhaps now you see why this was the best option.

I completed my required first year of courses, my second year of comprehensive and specialist examinations, and one of my languages (Latin). I still had one language examination to complete (French), and of course the thesis itself. The actual thesis, a scholarly argument of 200-400 pages, isn’t begun until year three, after the first year of courses and the second year of exams. In years three and four I read dozens and dozens of books and articles, hundreds I suppose, and made notes which filled several yellow 1½” ring binders. The actual writing, which began in year four, was protracted and felt often disgusting. There were days, many of them, I did anything to avoid my computer. The problem was I never quite knew what it was I wanted to say, or even why I should say it. My title page read “Autobiographical representations of the Indian, and the making of the self, in Eleanor Brass’s I Walk in Two Worlds, Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, and James Tyman’s Inside Out, by Wayne K. Spear, A thesis submitted to the Department of English Literature in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.” The argument, in a nutshell, was that our conception of ourselves is shaped by narrative conventions, social institutions, and cultural beliefs working in a complex and dynamic interrelation. I came up with some clever insights and a few marvellous paragraphs, but it occurred to me I could say everything I wanted in plain, ordinary English – in about 100 pages. Too bad for me the scholarly mode of writing is tortuous prose by the pound. I had another problem also, which is that my profound skepticism over my project kept creeping into the discussion. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of my Introduction: “There is a refrain among Native peoples with which I would like to begin this study. I have heard it spoken at academic conferences, and in that context it serves as a suitably dark suggestion both of the limitations and the effects of research and of knowledge. That refrain goes something as follows: ‘Indians have been studied to death.’” I may as well have added, from Ecclesiastes, ‘of book making there is no end, and great study is a weariness of the soul.’ This quotation is from memory and may be garbled, but no matter; it’s precisely how I felt about the work I was doing.

Stubborn as I am, I lingered in the thesis-writing stage for 4 years, convincing myself I would finish my dissertation. But in the end I had no incentive, other than being done, and it was making me quite miserable. Writing a thesis is a gruelling ordeal, which would not have been quite so bad had it served a purpose. I do not mind hard work, provided it has a purpose. Certainly I was no longer in it for the money. The government grants had run out in 1996, and again I was living a careful life. I was going on sheer determination, and not even my love of learning could help me now. You see, one learns little writing a thesis; it is a solitary, pedantic, technical exercise, a hoop through which one jumps on the way to becoming a professor. I had decided however that I didn’t want to become a professor. Then why was I sticking with this massive, rambling, pointless exercise called the dissertation? Because I’d made a commitment and had been given public money to do so. I rationalized the decision by telling myself a Ph.D. would give me more ‘options,’ which I think is another way of saying I could become a university professor. It turned out all English Ph.D. roads lead to teaching.

I’d had enough experience of the teaching profession to learn I wasn’t well suited to it. For 5 years I was a teaching assistant, and I realized that most students don’t really care for what they’re doing and are just trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. In other words, they’ve already learned the cynical art of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. Some of them have figured out what they need to pass and put in the minimum effort to get there. Others, god bless them, are good, decent people who never quite get it, no matter how hard you try to help them. As a result, I marked a good many papers littered with statements like the following:

…the wife [of Bath] tries to explain that men write about women’s being unreasonable, because men do not understand who women are, and then she likens women to Venus who stands for partying and spending money.

Most people have an image in their head of a fish stuck on the hook trying desperately but vainly to escape.

The English Romantic writers very often use their works to criticize and judge the society and people in which they live.

Additionally, Byron emphasizes the important role memory serves, as it enables man to remember all the intricacies of life, and at the same time, reminds us that our memory will always be with us from the moment we remember them.

Keats lost both of his parents and a brother before the age of fifteen. He had a chance and got his training as a doctor and could have made money, but chooses to make a living as a writer. He had a love of his life, but was too poor to marry her. One likes to assume this made his writing more positive.

The fact that there is no real inclination to believe that the speaker is actually surprised at the fact that she worships him leads the reader to believe that worship is what he expects. The belief that he believes that he deserves to be worshipped is pure arrogance.

Though hidden in the weather, Browning ironically describes an arrogant person…

A man who tries to weir a women through poetry will say that they are devoted the them and only them.

Social construction for each culture is unique and built on their knowledge of self and the culture in which they live.

It is obvious that Dante [Riordan, of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] would stand behind the church no matter what the outcome and fiercely believed that sinners should be published.

There is no darkness in Heart of Darkness, yet there is no light in the Heart of Darkness…

I used to find undergraduate essays written like this frustrating, but today I find them amusing and, I admit, touching. There was a time, you see, when I wrote like that too. The above quotations are the product, not of dim-witted oafs, but of the best and the brightest of our high schools. In any case, I think fondly of my former students, most of whom were pleasant and lovely folks, and I wish them all well. This, by the way, is the attitude you’ll find among truly good professors, of which I could never be one. Good professors haven’t any self-flattering illusions about academe, yet they have a deep respect for what the university in principle represents. Somehow, through what seems to me a magical process, good professors make a profound and positive difference in the lives of their students. Besides my limitations as a teacher, the other reason I left the university is the ugliness of its bureaucracies and its complete lack of purpose, at least in the case of the humanities. I worry it will only get harder to teach well, given the current love affair with privatization, technology, ‘efficiency,’ and the free-market.

In retrospect, there are two things I miss about university life. The first is the feeling one has on a university campus in September. It is a feeling of optimism, renewal, and of hope. I have never felt quite so alive as I did each September when I was at university. The second thing which I miss is good seminars, which were rare and thus exquisite. Why do I miss these things? I find the answer almost too unpleasant to state. Nonetheless, this must be said. Beyond the university campus, intellectual curiosity is quite near extinction. Imagination and critical intelligence atrophy in the workplace, where only the narrowest, functional mental tasks are required. This assumes, of course, that atrophy has not occurred already in the public schools. Most of us learn to put behind us the grand philosophical ideals of ‘the good life,’ if we’ve heard of them in the first place, and focus on more practical matters like getting a job. And of course ‘popular culture’ is there to captivate us also. I am not saying this is always the case, but that it is often the case I know for a fact, having observed it. Most of us go through life passively, as spectators. Nor am I inclined to scorn, as I was when I didn’t understand the efficiency with which the ‘real world’ grinds us into conformity. As I’m certain you’ve noticed, human arrangements in America are not organized around basic human needs for creativity and participation, or for spiritual and intellectual development. But in a university they are, at least to a greater degree than in the surrounding culture. That is chiefly why I miss the university.

Never mind the maudlin social commentary and the ‘thanks for the memories,’ you are saying. What about all that wasted taxpayer money? The thousands and thousands of dollars? What about that? Well, it goes without saying I lived very well for four years at taxpayers’ expense. I am not complaining; life was good then. It is not, as one of my professors used to say, ‘politic’ of me to state this publicly, but that is the fact. I will not pretend that the money went only to high-minded and charitable things. At the time I was awarded the grants I owned 2 bookshelves, one desk, one twin bed, one area rug, a computer, and about 800 books. By the end of my Ph.D. I had accumulated furniture, dishes, appliances, a new computer, and 1,000 more books. Anyone who knew me then will tell you I had it very good. I ate decent food and drank wine with dinner at least twice a week, but then I had done so even when my annual income never exceeded $6,000 a year, which was up until age 26. I shared a house with two others, and despite being well below the so-called ‘low income cut-off line,’ we wore decent clothes and had good meals every night. Were we poor? No, not really; the children of middle-class parents never truly are, so long as the possibility of support obtains. While a middle-class Queen’s student, I discovered that perfectly good clothing is sold by the Salvation Army, that a large bag of rice lasts for months, that healthy vegetables and simple sauces are cheaper than meats, that you can make a batch of wine yourself in your house at $2 a bottle, that when all else fails S&R will let you pay for groceries with your Visa – and Visa will let you pay the debt at $24/month and 18.5% interest. But as a middle-class adult I would probably not need these lessons for long. As it happened, my research grants meant that suddenly I had become rich.

I do not know what to make of all this. I only know what generally is made. An egregious example of fraud or waste is disclosed (I assume this is how my story would be regarded), and from this a program of revenge is launched. A handful of authenticated welfare cheats is generalized into a social class, hence everyone on welfare is a cheat. A failure or crimp in the system is found, so the system must – all of it! – go. A story in the news now often yields calls for major overhaul, comprehensive reform, sweeping legislation. I suspect something like this will happen with publicly-funded education, and indeed it is happening already. Stories like the one I’ve just told invoke jealousy and rage. I don’t mean to insult you with moralizing; jealousy and rage may perhaps be appropriate responses. There is, for instance, little support for the university among the working classes, and for good reasons. The university appeals to the middle classes and derives from them its political constituency. This fact is obscured by certain rationalizations which are felt to be true only by the middle classes – for example the idea that higher education is an established ‘right’ inextricably bound to the public good. If only that were so. [-October 1998]

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.



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]

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]

How I Survived My Education


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.]