Blind Man with a Pistol

Apology Accepted
24 March 2009, 12:53 pm
Filed under: Imperialism, Media | Tags: , , , , ,

Peter McKay got the apology he demanded from Fox News after the late-night show Red Eye mocked the Canadian military on the day four more soldiers lost their lives in Afghanistan. I find it incredible that a senior Canadian politician would even comment about what four idiots on an American sideshow Fox have to say about Canadian foreign policy, let alone demand an apology.

The public response (or ‘outrage’ to use the common parlance) too has been massive: letters to the editor, you tube comments, the mandatory facebook groups. I’ve never heard of Red Eye before, but after watching the clip, I would wager this latest horrorshow doesn’t make the top ten of offensive things ‘discussed’ on the show. Why, then, has this clip so engaged the Canadian public imagination?

If Canada had a principled armed forces that obeyed international consensus and the tenets of social justice; if it didn’t engage in fantasies of colonialist occupation as a lapdog sidekick for a bullying fading superpower; if Canada had a defence strategy that was actually based on defence rather than attack, we could stick to our convictions and rightly dismiss these Fox News hacks as so much detritus from a fading regime.

Instead, Canada has found that when they join a game they cannot play, a game that is obnoxious, odious and criminal, they are roughly treated by the very gang of obnoxious and odious criminals that invited them in. And so we respond cravenly, slavishly, shocked that these thugs do not lavish us with purple praise for obediently heeding America’s call. Why else would we care what this bunch of jokers think? Because it is the respect and acknowledgement of precisely these jokers and their lot that we crave. Instead, they call us as we are: a warmonger with no army, a conqueror with no horse. This mocking is righteous and deserved. It is the weed our governments, who desperately covet a place on the world stage, have sown, and now it has gone to seed.

Thank you for your apology, Mr. Fox. Now back to work.

Liberals Can’t Read

I don’t usually deal with party politics on this site, but in this case I will make an exception. As many of you probably don’t know, in the last budget, the Conservative government tried to ideologically hack research funding for the social sciences and the humanities by stipulating that money given to support doctorate research through the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) be ‘focused on business-related degrees’.  You see, when Stephen Harper was roughly chastised for his Arts-hating policies last year, culminating with his statement that ‘ordinary folks don’t care about the Arts’, he didn’t give up. As Peter McKay would say, (Conservative) Canadians don’t cut and run. Instead, he took out his overnight bag and put some lipstick on that pig. Postgrads? No one cares about those entitled, clueless (and non-voting) kids. Postgrads in the humanities? Well, you don’t need to have read Jacques Derrida to deconstruct that move.

Hundreds of PhD students put down their mochaccinos and took notice. Unwilling to ditch Jane Austen for Ayn Rand, or Islam for Scientology, graduate students did pretty much everything that accounts for student activism these days: they started a facebook group.

It got some attention. Aside from the above Globe and Mail article (better late than never, I suppose), NDP MP and post-secondary education critic Niki Ashton started a petition against the funding change and has promised to fight it in the House. Chad Gaffield, President of SSHRC, responded with some mealy-mouthed interpretation that claimed SSHRC had always valued business-related degrees, but neglected to explain if SSHRC would now focus exclusively on them. Frankly, things were not looking good.

But, we graduate students had an ace in the hole: Michael Ignatieff. Iggy. Rhodes Scholar and Harvard academic. A man who knows the true value of a postgraduate education in the humanities. I knew if I wrote to the eminent leader of our opposition, he would hear me. He would understand. And he would lift us up from where Harper had brought us low. Yesterday, he finally wrote me back (he must have been busy). Here’s what he had to say:

Thank you for your letter regarding the federal funding of research in Canada.

The Liberal Party of Canada has always recognized the importance of supporting research in science and technology. Former Liberal governments have created powerful tools to reinvigorate public research: the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the Canada Research Chairs Program, Genome Canada and the Indirect Costs Program for Canada’s colleges and universities.

Er, ok. Maybe this is a form letter, and he’ll get to us English students later. That’s okay! I support research in science too!

In contrast, the Conservative governments’ recent budget demonstrates its failure to grasp the importance of scientific research for creating the jobs of tomorrow. Three national research granting councils, which play essential roles in funding the scientists who conduct the research, will be subjected to “efficiency and focusing” cuts over the next three years. Equally disturbing, the budget failed to provide Genome Canada with new funding, obstructing the multi-year process of engaging talented Canadian scientists and private-sector partners in the next research cycle.

Be assured that the Liberal Party will work relentlessly to push this government into making long-term commitments to science, research and innovation. We will raise this issue in the House of Commons, pressuring the government to send a clear message that our country is in this for the long haul.

By allowing our scientists to make long term plans government sends the signal that it really does believe in what they are doing, and, more importantly, that it understand the nature of their work. Long term, predictable support provides our scientists with the tools they need to do their work. It also communicates that we want our scientists to stay in Canada, and, moreover, that we want scientists from the rest of the world to come here to work.

I have to say, at this point, I was getting a little worried. I didn’t get the impression that ‘social scientists’ were included in Iggy’s noun. But, my patience was finally awarded and my serious concerns addressed:

This support must extend to all forms of research – engineering and natural sciences, medicine and life sciences, the humanities and social sciences.

Yesss! There I am!

It is not appropriate for government to impose constraints on which forms of research are more likely to be funded. Such a policy – valuing applied science over fundamental science that has less obvious commercial value – is shortsighted and wrong.

Okay, I’m not sure why he went back to applied science vs. fundamental (??) science, although there does seem to be a disapproving gesture towards business-related degrees. Kind of.

Thank you again for sharing your views on this important matter.

The Office of the Leader of the Opposition

It’s like I always say. Sometimes, unfortunately, there’s just nothing outside the text.

Title taken from skdadl at Bread n’ Roses.

ETA: it seems that Mr. Ignatieff’s letter is in response to the recent revelation that Stephen Harper’s Science Minister doesn’t belive in Science. While I suppose it is good that our opposition is fighting the ignorance entrenched in our government, I wonder why Iggy thought my letter about funding in the humanities deserved to be included in his response. Worse, I wonder if I would have received a response at all if Harper’s Laurel and Hardy show hadn’t decided to premier its latest act. Actually, scratch that, I don’t wonder.

Sunset Song

The Scottish government has abandoned its plans to lease up to 25 % of its crown forests to private companies. Perhaps they’ve learned something after all. Lewis Grassic Gibbon, the great socialist author of the trilogy A Scots Quair (1932, 1933, 1934) had something to say the last time Scotland tried to mortgage its future for the present.

Chae went round all Kinraddie on his leave that time and found changes enough to open his eyes, maybe he was fell wearied with the front, folk thought, there was nothing on there but their pleitering and fighting. And the first change he saw the first morning, did Chae, lying down on his bed for the pleasure of it and Kirsty at the making of his breakfast. And Chae sat up in his bed to reach for his pipe when he looked from the window and he gave a great roar; and he louped from his bed in his sark so that Kirsty came running and crying What is’t? Is’t a wound?

But she found Chae standing by the window then, cursing himself black in the face he was, and he asked how long had this been going? So Mistress Strachan looked out the way he looked and she saw it was only the long bit wood that ran by the Peesie’s Knapp that vexed him, it was nearly down the whole stretch of it, now. It made a gey difference to the look-out faith! but fine for Kinraddie the woodmen had been, they’d lodged at the Knapp and paid high for their board. But Chae cried out To hell with their board, the bastards, they’re ruining my land, do you hear! And he pulled on his trousers and boots and would fair have run over the park and been at them; but Kirsty caught at his sark and held him back and cried Have you fair gone mad with the killing of Germans?

And he asked her hadn’t she got eyes in her head, the fool, not telling him before that the wood was cut? It would lay the whole Knapp open to the north-east now, and was fair the end of a living here. And Mistress Strachan answered up that she wasn’t a fool, and they’d be no worse than the other folk, would they? all the woods in Kinraddie were due to come down. Chae shouted What, others? and went out to look; and when he came back he didn’t shout at all, he said he’d often minded of them out there in France, the woods, so bonny they were, and thick and grave, fine shelter and lithe for the cattle. Nor more than that would he say, it seemed then to Kirsty that he quietened down, and was quiet and queer all his leave, it was daft to let a bit wood go vex him like that.

But the last night of his leave he climbed to Blawearie and he said there was nothing but the woods and their fate that could draw his eyes. For over by the Mains he’d come on the woodmen, teams and teams of them hard at work on the long bit forest that ran up the high brae, sparing nothing they were but the yews of the Manse. And up above Upperhill they had cut down the larch, and the wood was down that lay back of old Pooty’s.

Folk had told him the trustees had sold it well, they got awful high prices, the trustees did, it was wanted for aeroplanes and such-like things. And over at the office he had found the factor and the creature had peeked at Chae through his horn-rimmed glasses and said that the Government would replant all the trees when the War was won. And Chae had said that would console him a bloody lot, sure, if he’d the chance of living two hundred years and seeing the woods grow up as some shelter for beast and man: but he doubted he’d not last so long. Then the factor said they must all do their bit at a sacrifice, and Chae asked And what sacrifices have you made, tell me, you scrawny wee mucker?…

Early in the year, about May that was, the rain came down and it seemed it never would end, there was nothing to be done out of doors, the rain came down from the north-east across Kinraddie and Chris wasn’t the only one that noted its difference from other years. In Peesie’s Knapp there was Mistress Strachan vexing herself in trying to make out the change; and then she minded what Chae had said would happen when the woods came down, once the place had been sheltered and lithe, it poised now upon the brae in whatever storm might come. The woodmen had all finished by then, they’d left a country that looked as though it had been shelled by a German army. Looking out on those storms that May Chris could hardly believe that this was the place she and Will had watched from the window that first morning they came to Blawearie.

— Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Sunset Song (1932)

Laura Palmer, RIP
25 February 2009, 1:46 pm
Filed under: Television | Tags: , , , , ,

On February 24, 1989, Pete Martell, Dr. Will Hayward and Sheriff Harry S. Truman found Laura Palmer washed up on the beach, and were moved to bring in the greatest criminal investigator ever seen on film or television, Special Agent Dale Cooper. To celebrate, I’m going to have a cup of coffee, black as midnight on a moonless night, and two eggs, over hard. (I know, don’t tell me; it’s hard on the arteries, but old habits die hard — just about as hard as I want those eggs. Bacon, super-crispy. Almost burned. Cremated. That’s great. And, I’ll have the grapefruit juice, just as long as those grapefruits…are freshly squeezed). And to finish up, I’ll probably have a piece of cherry pie for dessert, in the place where pies go when they die.

When we found out our beloved Laura was dead, we were never the same again.

Ragged Jamal

“I think we can afford to leave Mott Street now,” he continued.
“This house isn’t as neat as it might be, and I shall like to live
in a nicer quarter of the city.”

“All right,” said Dick. “We’ll hunt up a new room to-morrow. I shall
have plenty of time, having retired from business. I’ll try to get
my reg’lar customers to take Johnny Nolan in my place. That boy
hasn’t any enterprise. He needs some body to look out for him.”

“You might give him your box and brush, too, Dick.”

“No,” said Dick; “I’ll give him some new ones, but mine I want
to keep, to remind me of the hard times I’ve had, when I was an
ignorant boot-black, and never expected to be anything better.”

“When, in short, you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name,
and think of yourself now as”–

“Richard Hunter, Esq.,” said our hero, smiling.

“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.

— Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks (1868)

Boy we love that rags to riches song. And so does the Academy, with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) picking up a trunk-full of Oscars Sunday night. I thought the movie was fun, and my initial response was that considering the minefield of potential exploitation such a project portends, director Danny Boyle did rather well. He even hired an Indian co-director, Lovleen Tandan, to give the film that added oomph of authenticity. I forgot, of course, that I don’t know anything about India, Mumbai or the slumdogs. Boyle caught me, like the American tourist johns in his film, staring at my own navel and liking what I saw.

Of course, Slumdog‘s Mumbai bares little resemblance to the real one. As Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University writes in a wonderful anti-colonialist tonic in the Star,

Most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast and crew regard (and are promoting) it not as a cinematically spectacular and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.

Nothing could be more worrying. Slumdog, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor, which undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice….

If anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.

However, the real problem with Slumdog is not its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty. Its real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it claims to speak for. It is no secret that large chunks of Slumdog are meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film’s depiction of the legendary area, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion.

Other than the children (the “slumdogs”), no one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to The Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay, of a raw, chaotic tribalism.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi’s small businesses is between $50 and $100 million (U.S.).

Dharavi’s lanes are lined with cellphone retailers and cyber cafés and, according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum’s residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.

In a somewhat more cantankerous tone, Salman Rushdie echoes Sengupta’s analysis and states that Boyle’s film ‘piles impossibility upon impossibility’, citing the geographical difficulty of travelling 1000 miles to the Taj Mahal between scenes and the significant improbability that the Malik brothers could procure a handgun in India.

Indeed, when we compare Slumdog to Boyle’s masterpiece, Trainspotting (1996), the fulsome laminate of the former begins to peel. While Renton, Spud and Sick Boy evince a startling grit and humanity in the tenements of Glasgow, there is no consonant authenticity to the flat protagonists of Slumdog. Indeed, when we examine the source material of both scripts, the dissonance between them is severe. Consider Irvine Welsh’s disjointed and vernacular novel set (unlike the film) in Leith where Welsh was born and raised, and the author of Q & A (2005), Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who writes in English. Surely, too, Boyle, with his working-class Irish roots, is closer to the source material of Trainspotting than he is to the hearsay evidence from which he created his vision of the Dharavi slums.

I admit that discussions of ‘authenticity’ get us nowhere, but it is important to point out the scale of this illusion when it comes to films like Slumdog Millionaire. Not because we shouldn’t enjoy such films, of course we do—after all, Horatio Alger made a career out of feelgood picaresque tales of the poverty stricken achieving bougeois comfort through the power of their courage and generosity over a hundred years ago, and he was hardly the first. But because when movies like this begin to seem like more than they are (I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the nauseating Oscar-winning Paul Haggis film Crash [2005]) we need to inject a bit of perspective into the whole operation. Slumdog Millionaire was not an ‘extraordinary journey’; it does not prove that if you have ‘passion and…belief… if you have those two things, truly anything is possible’. It proves no more than that we like the taste of popcorn; that we like to believe that the poor of the world are so cursed because of their cold hearts and moral failings, and that true spirits can persevere if their will is strong; it proves, finally, that as long as we can paint our own imaginative versions of the Other, we need not confront her ourselves.

18 February 2009, 2:17 pm
Filed under: Personal | Tags: ,


Blind Man with a Pistol is one year old today!


The Worst Holocaust Movie Ever Made

No, not Jakob the Liar (1999), whose twin crimes consist of 1) enlisting the holocaust to effect unearned pathos and 2) employing Robin Williams. According to Ron Rosenbaum, this unfortunate distinction goes to Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader (2008). Disclosure: I have not seen the film yet, but I have read Schlink’s novel. And while I understand there are key differences between the film and novel, some of which Rosenbaum addresses in his review, Rosenbaum’s chief criticism stems from his interpretation of the novel’s conceit: namely, that Hanna, played by Kate Winslet, a concentration camp guard on trial for war crimes, is less guilty because she turns out to be illiterate. Indeed, Rosenbaum believes that the film pretends redemption because Hanna learns to read while serving her prison sentence (that she could have avoided had she admitted her illiteracy):

that’s what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: “After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator [‘Michael Berg’] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.”

Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder!

Leaving aside the fact that Rosenbaum apparently gleans his plot glosses from promotional copy rather than actually reading the novel, I think, underneath Rosenbaum’s justified anger at Barnes & Noble’s reduction, the book giant inadvertently makes an important point: does shame, truly, bear any relation to the objective gravity of a crime? Indeed, is a healthy dose of shame really what we want from those who commit the most inhuman of crimes? The fact that Hanna is illiterate does not vindicate her crime, but it does demonstrate how vulnerability, no matter how it is expressed, renders the human subject susceptible to the worst demands of fascism. In fact, we know this is how fascism works: brought low through the excesses and oppression of the elite, the poor, the disenfranchised, the uneducated seek solace in the solution and affirmation of racism and violence. But to explain is not to excuse: it is such simplistic logic that the far-right employ to smear supporters of social democracy.

This is not to say that Rosenbaum’s criticism is without merit. He is right when he says ‘Hollywood seems to believe that if it’s a “Holocaust film,” it must be worthy of approbation, end of story’. When Steven Spielberg attempts to impart the gravity of genocide through a flash of colour from a little girl’s red dress on otherwise black and white photography, the result, when fully considered, is cartoonish if not grotesque. But Rosenbaum’s isolation of The Reader for particular opprobrium is curious. In a Slate article published three months before his request to deny The Reader an Oscar, Rosenbaum names the film as an example of an increasing obsession with the sex life of Nazis. Oddly, Rosenbaum condemns all of Germany, the only nation in the world, incidentally, ever to engage publicly with its homegrown fascism, for elevating Schlink’s novel to best-seller status; suggesting, in the process, that Germany is especially receptive to ‘Nazi porn’ or holocaust revisionism.

But Germany is unique in its journey to reconcile a fascist past with contemporary understanding. I wonder if Rosenbaum would condemn Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s similar attempts, or indeed Peter Eisenman’s postmodern Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As Professor Julian Dodd wrote in the letter pages of the Guardian, Hanna’s guilt is never ‘mitigated’. It haunts the text like the 300 victims of her complicity and equivocalness:

The affair between Hannah and Michael is not “glorious”; though sexually fulfilling, it is troubled and hints at disaster from the off. When Hannah silences the judge with “What would you have done?”, the judge is not silenced by her moral honesty, but is rendered speechless by horror. (Hannah’s question ends cross-examination in which she fails to see she had a moral responsibility to save 300 people locked inside a burning church.) Finally, it was, indeed, toe-curling to see Michael attempt to carry out Hannah’s wish that her money be given to Ilana, one of her victims. But this was precisely the effect that this scene was designed to elicit: to the very end Hannah has failed to appreciate the nature of her crime and Michael, in fulfilling what he takes to be his duty to her, has failed to see this too.

Perhaps this irony is not as evident in the film as it is in the book, but I suspect Rosenbaum is uninterested in making a distinction. Besides, he condemns Schlink’s novel and David Hare’s screenplay equally. Rosenbaum’s goal remains to judge the inhabitants of 1940s Germany and their descendants unequivocally. Aside from the crude Manichean logic such a crusade necessitates, it is also supremely arrogant.  Hare composed a withering response to critics like Rosenbaum (and, specifically, to Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian),

it turns out that a few broadsheet film critics in Britain do indeed belong to a category of people who would have resisted Hitler when he came to power. So the great shame is, clearly film critics should have been running Austria at the time, because Hitler would have represented no problem to them at all. [The Guardian’s] Peter Bradshaw would have known exactly what to do, and he would not have been remotely fallible to any Nazi who threatened his life. No, he would have died in heroic acts of individual resistance. So it’s a privilege to live among people who enjoy such moral certainty.

The question Hanna asks the judge, ‘What would you have done?’ is posed, naturally, for us too. It conceals a bottomless horror: a knowledge of evil without the concomitant knowledge of righteousness. It echoes both in known history and unknown contingencies. The Reader captures this echo, in its horror, its irony and its desire. Preventing genocide and fascism, something, criminally, this century has yet to accomplish, is not about deciding at which doorstep to lay the blame of past sins, but to seek the understanding, caution and fear that will keep such inhumanity at bay.

Ah Rancourt! Ah Humanity!

In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay.

In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.”

I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume. But in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.”

Herman Melville, ‘Bartleby the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street’ (1853)

Denis Rancourt, the embattled activist physics and environmental science professor who looks to lose his job at the University of Ottawa because of his unorthodox and subversive pedagogical philosophy, is becoming an international nuisance to his soon-to-be former employers. Rancourt (who, it should be said, has previously courted controversy by minimalizing global warming as an imminent threat and labelling it the concern of solitarily the ‘First World white middle class’) is under fire for ‘squatting’ a first-year Physics course, ignoring the department syllabus in authoring the course, dispensing with conventional grading (everyone was to recieve an ‘A+’) and focussing on ‘student-driven learning’. Claiming insubordination as an academic right, Rancourt found little sympathy from the university administration, who arrested him on campus and led him away in handcuffs. His plight has raised myriad questions about academic freedom and dissent.

In his weekly op-ed in the New York Times, Professor Stanley Fish has this to say on the subject of academic freedom:

In short, academic freedom, rather than being a philosophical or moral imperative, is a piece of policy that makes practical sense in the context of the specific task academics are charged to perform. It follows that the scope of academic freedom is determined first by specifying what that task is and then by figuring out what degree of latitude those who are engaged in it require in order to do their jobs.

It’s no surprise, then, that when Professor Fish offered his own editorial in put to Rancourt’s case, he reached the following conclusion:

It is the difference between being concerned with the establishing and implementing of workplace-specific procedures and being concerned with the wholesale transformation of society. It is the difference between wanting to teach a better physics course and wanting to save the world. Given such divergent views, not only is reconciliation between the parties impossible; conversation itself is impossible. The dispute can only be resolved by an essentially political decision, and in this case the narrower concept of academic freedom has won. But only till next time.

Professor Fish does not discriminate between the University and any other workplace. Indeed, his opening gambit suggests that since Rancourt’s behaviour would get him fired from a law firm, he should expect similar treatment from his faculty. It is as if Fish adpated his views on higher education from what Charles Dickens’ Mr. Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) called ‘the one needful thing’:

“NOW, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Yet Fish seems to take this caricature as—ahem—fact. Certainly, with an increasing dependence on corporate donations and emphasis on producing so-called ’employable’ graduates, the University has parted somewhat from its historical role as an essential ally of democracy. To defend against this erosion, we can turn to no more eloquent exposition than the Catholic Victorian philosopher John Henry Newman. In his discourses on The Idea of a University (1852), Newman argues:

Education is a high word; it is the preparation for knowledge, and it is the imparting of knowledge in proportion to that preparation. We require intellectual eyes to know withal, as bodily eyes for sight. We need both objects and organs intellectual; we cannot gain them without setting about it; we cannot gain them in our sleep, or by haphazard. The best telescope does not dispense with eyes; the printing press or the lecture room will assist us greatly, but we must be true to ourselves, we must be parties in the work. A University is, according to the usual designation, an Alma  Mater, knowing her children one by one, not a foundry, or a mint, or a treadmill….

[The University] will embody a specific idea, it will represent a doctrine, it will administer a code of conduct, and it will furnish principles of thought and action. It will give birth to a living teaching, which in course of time will take the shape of a self-perpetuating tradition, or a genius loci, as it is sometimes called; which haunts the home where it has been born, and which imbues and forms, more or less, and one by one, every individual who is successively brought under its shadow. (My emphasis)

Academic freedom, then, is not a workplace-specific mandate to render research and instruction more efficient, it is grease for the engine of democracy. It is the synthesis of fact and fancy, the petrie dish of society. Academics and students have a pivotal role to play in that construction. This is why education is an inalienable and universal human right, while working in a law firm is not.

No wonder, then, that Rancourt’s dissent haunts the university like Bartleby’s obstinance haunts his former employer. It seems to me that Rancourt is doing his best to uphold the spirit of Newman’s concept of the University. Granted, he is severely insubordinate—on such a shocking and incomprehensible level that the administration of the University of Ottawa appear at a  loss on how best to handle him. Indeed, Fish’s evaluation of Rancourt’s subversion as ‘comical’ coincides with the popular opinion, if the comments to any news story touching this case are to be believed. Rancourt stares at Bartleby’s dead brick wall behind the pale screen (albeit with a bit more panache), willing it to change with a simple act of defiance, as would-be peers and allies nonchalantly transfer him to the dead letter office, prison and anonymity.

The Literary Veil

He judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling round a helpless thing…
He sees eternity in men and women, he does not see men and women as dreams or dots.

—Walt Whitman

In October, Ontario Justice Norris Weisman ordered that a Muslim woman, the complainant in a sexual assault case, must testify without the veil of her niqab in open court. Aside from the fact that the media is using this story to stoke the very popular ‘reasonable accommodation’ debate that has helped right-wing politicians stir up xenophobia  and anti-Islam sentiment in Quebec and the rest of Canada, it has also laid claims to questions of law and justice. Indeed, the headline of the cited article in the Star is: ‘Order to take off niqab pits law against religion’. Does it? And are law and religion really such polar opposites?

As Kafka knew more than anyone, the law is always before us. We are dropped into it without even realizing it. It precedes us, inhabits us and colonizes us. We wear it like a birthday suit: we don’t even know we’ve got it on.

It was this problem that prompted Kant to posit a symbolic definition of ethics in his Metaphysic of Morals (1785). That is, if we cannot establish an objective, a priori principle on which to found our law, we must live according to examples of moral law, or in Jacques Derrida’s helpful gloss in Acts of Literature (1992), a ‘typology’ rather than a ‘schematic’. So Kant advises us to follow subjective principles of action that progress towards the universal principle. He famously states: ‘Act as if the maxim of thy action were to become by thy will a Universal Law of Nature‘.

The problem here, Derrida states (as he would), is that damned ‘as if’:

This ‘as if’ enables us to reconcile practical reason with an historical teleology and with the possibility of unlimited progress…it almost introduces narrativity and fiction into the very core of legal thought, at the moment when the latter begins to speak and to question the moral subject.

Or perhaps it is not a problem at all. As much as perhaps Kant himself would like to deny it, law is essentially oral history. Case law is a narrative of humanity’s struggle to define the just and the righteous. Indeed, without narration and fiction, how can we possibly determine the actions of a ‘reasonable man (sic)’ that features in so many court rulings?

In Poetic Justice: the Literary Imagination and Public Life (1995), Martha Nussbaum argues that the ‘literary imagination’ should play an important role in deciding questions of judgement.

the literary judge has good reasons for eschewing skeptical detatchment and for preferring to quasi-scientific models an evaluative humanistic form of practical reasoning; these reasons are deeply rooted in the common-law tradition. She does pursue neutrality, but in a manner…requiring, rather than forbidding, sympathetic knowledge of value-laden human facts.

What is the difference between a ‘literary judge’ and one who is simply sympathetic to mores of social justice? Like the poet or  ‘equable man’ Whitman describes above, the judge armed with a literary imagination ‘sees eternity in men and women’, placing them in their narrative juxtaposed with the stories of others—in their whole history, with a critical but compassionate eye.

So what does this say about the Muslim woman prohibited from wearing her veil as she faces the man she has accused of raping her? It means heeding her explanation for preferring to be veiled:

“It’s a respect issue, one of modesty and one of … in Islam, we call honour,” she replied. “It’s also about the religious reason is to not show your face to men that you are able to marry. … I would feel a lot more comfortable if I didn’t have to, you know, reveal my face.”

It means situating this case and Canada’s hysterical obsession with the veil within our illegal occupation and colonization of Afghanistan and the ongoing war on Islam effected by the West in general. It means understanding that religion, too, is a birthday suit, and coincident with, not opposed to the law. It means listening to progressive Muslim women like Marjane Satrapi who do not wear the hijab nonetheless defend its use by her sisters. It means understanding that a vast majority of rape cases are not reported, and those that are have a sickeningly low conviction rate (5.7% in the United Kingdom). It means that the genesis of the phrase ‘facing your accuser in open court’ should be read democratically rather than literally. It does not mean removing the right of the accused to a fair trial and competent defence, but it does mean acknowledging that the system is failing and that removing the niqab from a rape victim is emphatically the wrong direction.

It means listening to people like Thomas King when he points out, in his brilliant Massey lectures, ‘The Truth about Stories’, that listening is always a better path to understanding.

In Genesis, we begin with a perfect world, but after the Fall, while we gain knowledge, we lose the harmony and safety of the garden and are forced into a chaotic world of harsh landscapes and dangerous shadows.

In our Native story, we begin with water and mud, and, through the good offices of Charm, her twins, and the animals, move by degrees and adjustments from a formless, featureless world to a world that is rich in its diversity, a world that is complex and complete.

Finally, in Genesis, the post-garden world we inherit is decidedly martial in nature, a world at war-God vs. the Devil, humans vs. the elements. Or to put things into corporate parlance, competitive. In our Native story, the world is at peace, and the pivotal concern is not with the ascendancy of good over evil but with the issue of balance.

So here are our choices: a world in which creation is a solitary, individual act or a world in which creation is a shared activity; a world that begins in harmony and slides toward chaos or a world that begins in chaos and moves toward harmony; a world marked by competition or a world determined by co-operation.

And there’s the problem.


Cold Pastoral

Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.
— John Givings, Revolutionary Road

I saw Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) last night, which earned Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe for her performance as a postwar housewife in suburban America, who is not only caught in the suffocating tediousness of the bourgeoisie, but has lade bare the lie that sustains it for so many: the fallacy that she is ‘better’ than her neighbours and deserves to ‘break free’ more than anyone else. I was initially surprised at the press this movie was getting, or indeed, that it was made at all. Surely the recent death of John Updike reminds us that we’ve seen this before: the ‘American Pastoral’, to use Phillip Roth’s phrase—working a job you hate to support a joyless marriage in a cookie-cutter home—is a myth, and authors, filmmakers and playwrights have been telling us this for 50 years. In fact, the film’s source material, Richard Yates’s original 1961 novel, emerges in this criticism of America’s utopian promise.

So why now? Perhaps Mendes is tapping into the recent resurgence of 1950s nostalgia. Of course, wistful pining for the Cold War has popped up everywhere from the latest Indiana Jones calamity to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s excellent Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). But this nostalgia is perhaps best encapsulated in the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. As Mark Grief put it in last October’s London Review of Books:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over….

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

If Revolutionary Road has a darker subject material than Mad Men, what Grief calls the ‘Doesn’t that Look Good’ comes out in the glossy production values: the beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet simply glow in the foreground of a dreary, overcast decade. The stacattoed, pronounced acting style of the two protagonists emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the film: the tragedy of this couple might appeal to modern-day audiences, but their predicament is not our own.

Indeed, ‘suburbia’ as it exists in the social imagination, is no longer the domain of the white middle-classes. The young professionals DiCaprio and Winslet represent are increasingly eschewing the suburban lives of their parents and turning to the hip urban centres of the West.  Moreover, as this article at CBC Toronto suggests, new immigrants turn first the suburbs when looking to purchase their first Canadian home. It’s not surprising, then, that this social reality disappears in the nostalgia of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. In the first season of Mad Men, the racism of pre-civil rights America is relegated to the odd anti-Semitic joke and the voiceless black elevator operator. In Mendes’s examination of middle-class struggle—in both Revolutionary Road and his modern-day-staged Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999)—race is entirely absent.

Nevertheless, Sam Mendes is a competent filmmaker and Revolutionary Road is a well-made testament to his craft. Winslet is indeed compelling in demonstrating the boxes that crop up around us, keeping our hopes and dreams at bay. To be sure, even Winslet and DiCaprio’s antidote to America’s oppression—a move to Paris ‘where people are alive’—seems pale and ill-thought out. So what then, is the benefit of superimposing a nostalgic gloss over the emptiness of life under twentieth-century capitalism?

The answer, I think, lies in the symmetry of the narrative. As James Woods writes revisiting Yates in the New Yorker,

The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition. Just as April’s first pregnancy scuppered the original European escape (but didn’t really, because Frank never intended to go), so her third scuppers the later one (but doesn’t really, either, for the same reason). Frank’s father also worked at Knox. A play opens the novel, and a performance ends it, as the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Campbells, tell the new owners of the Wheelers’ house about the tragedy that has vacated the property. In the very last pages, Mrs. Givings, the appallingly eager real-estate agent who had sold the Wheelers their house, describes, to her husband, the new owners in the same language she once used to describe the Wheelers: “She’s very sweet and fun to talk to; he’s rather reserved. I think he must do something very brilliant in town.” Frank’s children, now motherless, will have the kind of parentless existence with their uncle that April Wheeler had as a child, and which, her husband felt, damaged her. So the horror begins all over again: these repetitions and circularities overlap to make the novel’s heavy plait of determinism.

One could say that the nostalgia inherent in Mendes’s interpretation of Yates’s novel was prefigured by the original work.  The ‘hopeless emptiness’ that infects Frank and April Wheeler infects us now, but the feeble solution held up to them—moving to Paris—yields an appealing simplicity embodied and totalized by Mendes’s revisionist 1950s that is foreclosed to us. We can appreciate and invest in the tragedy of the Wheelers because it seems somehow more manageable.  We engage with their struggle because it allows us to disavow our own; even as we see ourselves in the Wheelers, our hopeless emptiness in theirs, the veneer of nostalgia whisks us away to share the Wheeler’s pain without the complication of postindustrial economies, feminism and globalization. And so we beat on, boats against the current, etc.