Yesterday I finished reading an old Canadian novel in which a rapist abducts a woman who gives birth to a baby who later becomes a feral child, or infant, when the mother is murdered. Today, June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court in the United States overturned Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 law that recognized women’s right to control their own bodies and reproductive systems. The striking parallel lit the proverbial fire under me and brought me back here to my blog.
Raised in the French (Canadian) Roman Catholic tradition, I understand one of the core reasons that the pro-life movement campaigned for half a century against Roe vs. Wade. I do believe that at some point in gestation a fetus is alive—the point that is called viability—and that we should protect life when we can. But, at least until that point, the fetus is inseparable from the mother and can be considered a part of the mother, and for this reason the mother should have the right to decide what happens to her own body and its parts. I don't take this view lightly; I don't feel settled on a position, but this is where I'm at now.
(I also believe that there is more than a little hypocrisy involved, because in much of the world not all lives are valued equally—not only human lives but also the many companion species and non-human animals who have at least a degree of personhood in many human families and cultures. So to insist on the rights of the unborn child in America seems disingenuous if the provocative case can be made that many Americans don’t value life, given their tolerance of mass shootings and pandemic death rates—and death penalties. But I digress….)
In the novel I finished yesterday, John Richardson’s Westbrook the Outlaw, or, The Avenging Wolf: An American Border Tale (1851), a young woman named Emily falls in love with her tutor, who abdicates his religious role as a lay brother to marry her. (Richardson is much better known for his 1832 novel Wacousta.) The evil Westbrook, jealous, murders him and carries Emily away to his cabin in the woods, where he sexually assaults her repeatedly over the course of many months. Skipping ahead rapidly, the novel reveals that she is pregnant. The readers are led to believe that the father of the child is Emily’s husband, but it seems just as likely that the rapist is the father.
When a sergeant in the British army (it’s before 1867 in Canada) brings a troop to rescue her when Westbrook is out, Westbrook shoots her from a distance, and she dies too. Little do the soldiers realize that she had given birth, but they later track Westbrook to another lair where he has abandoned the baby, who—as readers learn in the final pages—is being raised by a wolf. In the end, the wolf kills Westbrook but is also killed in the struggle, and the baby is left without human or canine parental figures (unless one of the soldiers later steps up; more likely, the child would be raised in a religious orphanage, which history has shown to be a questionably safe space). It’s a bleak conclusion, one that implies that an unwanted child (unwanted by Westbrook, at least) will struggle to survive in the world. As much as I wish we all had guardian wolves and that we could see and respect relationships between humans and other animals, I don’t think that’s what Richardson was trying to suggest.
In the context of Roe vs. Wade, the novel reminded me that, ten or fifteen years ago, I read a book on the societal influence of economics--Freakonomics (2005)—that proposed that Roe vs. Wade was partly responsible for lowering the crime rate in the 1990s and early 2000s. In theory—and it was a wild theory but one that seemed to have some merit—unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, and if they are never born then there’s one less factor in crime. The theory seems to overemphasize correlation (and Wikipedia surveys various more specific-to-stats problems in its entry on the book), but, still, I expect that there will be consequences in about a generation when unwanted children brought into an uncaring world are old enough to act of their own accord. I can only hope that they are nurtured and supported so that they have the advantages that planned families often enjoy.
One of the only rays of sunshine in the last chapter of Westbrook the Outlaw is that the American captain of the troop that he had joined is relieved that such a terrible man was not American. (Those dastardly Canadians—or almost-Canadians!) Considering that the novel is set during the War of 1812 between the Americans and the not-yet-Canadian Britons, Richardson is taking a remarkably amicable position. He had recently moved to New York, hoping that America would give him a late-life boost to his literary career, but Westbrook the Outlaw, his final novel, didn't help at all. Stylistically, Westbrook the Outlaw is a terrible book by today’s standards, with torturous syntax, uneven timing, flat characters, and a scarcely believable plot without a compensatory fantasy.
In fact, a genre such as fantasy—but specifically the Western—was the reason I read the book. With my own new book, The American Western in Canadian Literature nearly ready for the printing press, I came across the title Westbrook the Outlaw and its subtitle about the American Border Tale. I blanched, thinking that I had missed an early Canadian Western (at least one) in my survey of the genre. Luckily for me, I think that Richardson’s choice of title was misleading and that his book is less a Western and more a tragic romance (truly occupied, as it is, by a doomed love story). One might even say that it’s partly a rape fantasy, given the problematic, extended descriptions of Emily’s highly sexualized body.
But it’s probably not a Western even in the looser terms of the middle of the nineteenth century when the genre was not fully defined. It doesn’t really have a cowboy or sheriff (or Mountie), though it has an outlaw and a soldier; it barely has “Indians,” and it barely has wilderness or a frontier (and is set in what is now southern Ontario, not really far enough west). Natural justice (the wolf) rather than frontier justice wins the day. It’s not a war novel either.
Nevertheless, finding Westbrook the Outlaw was a reckoning: a reminder that I will probably have made some mistakes in my book. I hope they are few. I hope the critics in my own country are merciful. And I hope that any American readers can treat me with Richardson’s friendliness to them, even as I read the American news and wonder where our neighbours and their country will be in twenty years.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Westbrook the Outlaw and Roe vs. Wade." Publicly Interested, 24 June 2022, www.publiclyinterested.ca.
Yesterday on Twitter, my friend and colleague Jeremy Citrome was shamed for having published a review (so far only on a listserv) that criticized a book for having almost entirely ignored his own highly related research. His book, The Surgeon in Medieval English Literature (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), came out more than a decade before Julie Orlemanski's Symptomatic Subjects (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019). In the day since Orlemanski went public on Twitter with her response to Citrome and The Medieval Review, her friends and colleagues in academia have joined her on social media to impugn his credibility. They have raised the stakes of the review by interpreting Citrome's claim of their books' "uncomfortably close parallels" (in his final paragraph) as an allegation of plagiarism.
To me, one of the most "uncomfortable" situations here is the situation of these professors and the cultural capital that they can leverage from their respective sites of power. Orlemanski is an Associate Professor in the English Department of the University of Chicago, a position of significant privilege and prestige. Citrome is a contractual faculty member in the Department of English at Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland, almost by definition a marginal position. Orlemanski's cursory acknowledgement of Citrome's book can be interpreted as a choice, conscious or unconscious, to make the smallest possible investment in an object that has little cultural capital, notwithstanding the good reputation of Palgrave Macmillan, his publisher. Orlemanski's politics seem to be above reproach; she stated on Twitter that she sympathized with the "largely junior and under-supported" (1 Dec. 2021) staff at the journal that published Citrome's review, but even that statement can seem to be a condescension and a deflection squarely into the hands of the person with the least power in the equation.
Two assistant professors, Jean-Thomas Tremblay and Jamie L. Jones, chimed in on Twitter with a reassurance of "solidarity" (1 Dec. 2021) with Orlemanski. As professors without tenure (yet), they actually have reason to be in solidarity with Citrome instead, because his precariousness in the academy is far more real than Orlemanski's. Citrome's review will probably not harm Orlemanski's career, but a judgment against a contractual faculty member in the court of public opinion could harm one's chances of contract renewal. Rather than wait to publish a rebuttal in the journal and possibly create a productive dialogue with Citrome himself, Orlemanski appears to be counting on social networks to cast stones. The Fordham University professor Jordan Alexander Stein's response to Orlemanski on Twitter—that Citrome is being "a shitty colleague" (1 Dec. 2021)—is simply mean, however witty he thought he was being. It's also simply ad hominem, which isn't a flaw of Citrome's own review. Even if you read it as primarily a charge of plagiarism, which it is not, the issue it raises is mainly in the publication and not the person.
Nevertheless, Orlemanski's colleague at Chicago, John Muse, spoke up on Twitter to call Citrome's review "maddeningly solipsistic" (1 Dec. 2021). Why should it not be, if indeed the framework for understanding this dynamic is a negotiation for cultural capital? In fact, I don't think the review is especially solipsistic. It devotes eight paragraphs exclusively to Orlemanski's book compared to four that consider her book in the context of his own, a ratio of 2:1. That's not solipsism. Solipsism is writing an entire book and giving barely a footnote to the pre-existing book with the most overlap. Citrome's review is rather generous; he calls Orlemanski's explanations "brilliant," "touching," and "positive." His review does not accuse Orlemanski of plagiarism, though that is predictably how the Twitterverse reframed the dispute. Leaping to similar conclusions, Stephanie DeGooyer assumes that Citrome was "volunteering to 'review' books" (1 Dec. 2021), but in fact the journal asked him to review it because of his expertise in the subject matter—expertise that is nuanced and authoritative, as the review itself suggests to me as a non-expert.
A few years ago, I published an essay that I later shared with a respected senior colleague at a more prestigious university who heard me mention it at a conference. Recently, that same senior colleague published an essay on many of the same keywords, if not exactly the same substance, and awarded my essay a single insubstantial footnote. I felt snubbed. When I see how Citrome is being publicly treated for his review, I can understand a little of how he might feel: much worse. Orlemanski's friends and colleagues are standing together behind a class line, making personal attacks in public to protect one of their own from legitimate scrutiny of her work. That's the shame.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Solidarity and Solipsism." Publicly Interested, 2 Dec. 2021, www.publiclyinterested.ca.
An almost identical version of this post was sent to the editors of The Star Phoenix today, which is why this post is in the "open letters" category, among others. In the process of re-reading, I noticed that many of my recent posts have involved the environment in some way, so I've added "environment" as a category.
The opinion piece by retired TC Energy executive Dennis McConaghy (Star Phoenix, 2 Dec. 2020, p. A8, and here at the Calgary Herald) appears to misunderstand the concept behind Bill C-12 and its stated goal of achieving “net-zero emissions” by the year 2050. Quite possibly it is less a misunderstanding and more an example of industrial misinformation meant to hamper the efforts to deal with climate change until a less responsive government is elected.
McConaghy implies that “net-zero” means, as he puts it, the “elimination of fossil fuels.” Elimination means “the complete removal or destruction of something,” according to my dictionary. That is not what “net-zero emissions” means. “Net” is an adjective that means what is “remaining after the deduction… or other contributions.” “Gross” means the “total” or the “complete” amount. The federal government’s plan is not to reach “gross-zero emissions.”
The plan is to factor in offsets to the burning of fossil fuels, such as the planting of trees, which act as carbon sinks and sequester carbon in forests and, quite often, building materials. No one seriously expects energy-intensive jet airplanes, transport trucks, and construction or farming equipment to work without the raw power of fossil fuels immediately, though that might eventually happen.
Instead, the idea is to limit fossil-fuel use to the essentials, and shift less-essential uses to greener energy. Most of us drive cars or small trucks that can easily be switched to electricity, and we can generate that electricity with solar-power installations, wind power, geothermal energy, even the more hotly debated nuclear energy. Near oceans, wave power is in development too.
People everywhere and in all walks of life, young and old, liberal and conservative, are more and more concerned about climate change. Even energy companies such as Shell are hoping for net-zero by 2050.
The title of McConaghy’s piece demands “justification for [the] PM’s net-zero plan,” as if it were not obvious to anyone reading and watching credible news these days. The justification is climate change or, if you prefer, climate crisis and climate emergency. What McConaghy actually questions, as the piece later makes clear, is the legitimacy of the plan, because he thinks that a net-zero plan should be accepted “only… after a federal election” serving as a “referendum.”
Demanding a referendum is a stalling tactic. Many Canadians are ready for a dramatic shift in energy. That’s one reason why we didn’t elect a government that had no plan for the environment. McConaghy’s piece is potentially deceptive, with the potential result of delaying a shift that must be taken seriously now, not after another federal government gets another term of doing too little.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "'Net-Zero Emissions' and Industrial Misinformation." Publicly Interested, 2 Dec. 2020, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
I was hoping for an opportune moment to write more about the environment and economy of this island of Newfoundland, but just like with my last post we are—yes, yet again—in a State of Emergency. So I want to address one problem related to the SOE caused by the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic. The problem is how we treat other animals, and one solution is to change what we eat.
Mark Gollom, writing for the CBC, cites public health experts who are concerned that future pandemics will be caused again by human exploitation of animals through wildlife markets (a.k.a., wet markets) in China and elsewhere. The theory about the current pandemic is that the novel coronavirus spread between species at such a market, eventually to humans. The markets are deservedly criticized by animal-rights activists such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Although factory farms are a more regulated method for bringing animal products to market, they too are a risk because of instances of unsanitary conditions and overcrowding of non-human animals that come into contact with humans.
Partly in response, Derek Beres at Big Think entertains the idea that one solution to the problem is vegetarianism and veganism. Beres adds: "I'm wary of recent vegan arguments that humans were not designed to eat meat. You can't rewrite history—humans are humans thanks in part to our consumption of meat, as thinkers such as Daniel Lieberman and Richard Wrangham have pointed out. We can—and should—argue about the future, but let us at least understand where we come from."
I agree in principle about what to argue, but I would shift the emphasis. Even if humans became humans at the top of the food chain as a result of traditionally hunting and then traditionally farming other animals (a premise that seems insufficient for defining "humans"), we now have the knowledge, resources, and products to enable most people in most parts of developed countries to eat very well without meat. It might not be compatible with traditional Indigenous practises in the Far North, for example, where agriculture is almost impossible, but it is possible throughout most of the world. We can make a choice.
Incidentally, it would drastically improve our environments, too. Damian Carrington in The Guardian explains: "Avoiding meat and dairy products is the single biggest way to reduce your environmental impact on the planet, according to the scientists behind the most comprehensive analysis to date of the damage farming does to the planet. The new research shows that without meat and dairy consumption, global farmland use could be reduced by more than 75% – an area equivalent to the US, China, European Union and Australia combined – and still feed the world. Loss of wild areas to agriculture is the leading cause of the current mass extinction of wildlife." Even if most of us ate meat half as often, the benefits would be huge.
I have a French gourmet vegetarian cookbook from the 1970s (the decade of my birth) that shows that some of us have been thinking about this informed decision for a while now (relative to my age, at least). The choice is about treating other animals ethically, and this means not killing them or destroying their habitats when we have alternatives. Rather than produce "byproducts" such as viral pandemics, we can reduce sickness and death of humans and of other animals, while still eating well.
Now that is food for thought!
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Meat Eating and the Coronavirus and COVID-19 Pandemic." Publicly Interested, 14 Apr. 2020, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Update 3/2/2020: I have been thinking for a while about missing part of the point in this entry, and today some news helped me to expand my thinking a little. As reported by the CBC, the news was of another mass-mediated attack on Greta Thunberg, this time in the form of a sexually suggestive and aggressive decal from an "energy services company" in Alberta called X-Site Energy Services, a name now loaded with innuendo in the context of the decal's use of sexual imagery.
Here where I live we are in an official State of Emergency because of the biggest single-day blizzard in recorded history. (Another update: In fact, even though it is now weeks after the storm, we have had another, milder one that closed the university again today, March 2nd—a seemingly necessary condition of this blog!) The city has been remarkably quiet, with no traffic allowed while the snow plowing is under way, and with snow banks of two to three meters, even up to four, dampening sound. The power grid also failed for thousands of residents, in some cases for more than a day.
If you have been out and about, with your senses heightened by the quiet and the dark, you will smell woodsmoke. Traditional wood-burning stoves and wood- or even coal-burning fireplaces are still legal here. They definitely seem to be more in use these days. Many of us probably even feel nostalgic when we experience this combination of these scents and the snow, but this feeling is a problem for at least a couple of reasons.
Partly because of burning fuel in our own homes rather than in power stations, my province of Newfoundland and Labrador has the worst energy efficiency of all the provinces. When most of our energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, as it is here so far, it contributes to climate change and climate crisis.
We made a big effort to reduce our fossil-fuel consumption across the power grid by constructing a large hydroelectricity station at Muskrat Falls, but it is widely regarded as a major failure of politics, management, economics, engineering, and ethics. We are likely to become more dependent on oil than ever—at least according to the president of the offshore oil regulator, our former premier Roger Grimes.
Grimes sees oil and gas as the future, whereas anyone calling them “fossil fuels” is implying the opposite. And he has concluded that, because they are the future, he needs to convince his allies to work to change the minds of the young people who will be in charge in the future. Naming the teenage environmental activist Greta Thunberg as a risk, Grimes said recently, “Unless the message has been tempered and developed and moderated and everybody understands there can be balance [between fossil fuels and greener energy], then there's a real fear of losing the battle to it [environmental activism].” As a teacher, I would prefer a less warlike and propagandistic approach to educating younger people. (See my previous post, “The Classroom as Prison Cell with Armed Guards.”) It's not a "battle" but a different kind of challenge.
The problem with the generation gap that Grimes sees here is that it assumes that young people and older people have inseparably different interests that have to be harmonized, when in fact the climate crisis caused largely by fossil fuels is an existential threat to all demographics (not equally but more so for poor people in northern and coastal regions). His statement has other problems, too, such as the assumption that the extractive industries are seeking “moderation” or “balance,” when they are seeking to remain dominant. The fact is that greener energy is a small fraction of energy production and consumption in Canada and industrialized countries in the world. A lack of balance is hardly the fault of green energy producers or environmental activists, especially when the extractive industries get somewhere between $7.7 and $15 billion in subsidies. Since 1990, the rate of burning fossil fuels has increased four times more quickly than the rise in greener energy, so we won’t achieve balance unless fossil fuel usage drops dramatically while greener energy surges.
Thunberg does not seem like a radical to me. She is responding to a near-consensus among scientists around the world whose thousands of studies have been condensed into reports by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Thunberg said after meeting our prime minister, Justin Trudeau, that her “message to all the politicians around the world is the same: just listen and act on the current, best available united science.” This appeal to climate science is entirely respectable. Her appeal, and that of the great many activists and concerned citizens who support her and her work, is a gesture that demonstrates how young people can learn to evaluate information and make informed decisions about their future and their future adulthood. It is deeply ironic that Thunberg's elders are infantilizing her.
(Update: Most troubling is how the X-Site corporation has also sexualized her, implying a child-pornographic gaze. The story from CBC News in Edmonton describes the X-Site decal as "a black-and-white drawing of a female figure's bare back with hands pulling on her braided pigtails," pigtails being a feature of Thunberg's style. To be more obvious, the decal also seems to include Thunberg's name as if it were a "tramp stamp." I would add that the point of view of the decal is that of the same person who has hands on her braids, implying that someone is having sex with her, possibly violently. Intended or not, one interpretation of the decal is that the company, with its own sexually "exciting" name, is promoting sexual aggression against Thunberg. This interpretation speaks volumes about the limited recourses of an industry that has strong anti-intellectual elements, given its downplaying, deferral, or denial of climate-change science, and that has difficulty imagining its own future relevance.)
Grimes joins the American president Donald Trump and others in patronizing, condescending to, or insulting Thunberg—in Trump's case, as if name-calling is an argument or explanation. (It is not. It's bullying.) At the Davos economic summit, Thunberg presented counter-arguments to Trump that belie the notion that young people will grow up to fix the future, in the future, with imaginary or nascent technologies. One of the major flaws in this reasoning is that it exempts members of the current establishment of responsibility for a crisis that they have perpetuated. Grimes and Trump style themselves as guardians of the good old days before scientists and young people hurt business by noisily reframing the narratives about how we (but not all of us) came to enjoy prosperity.
The nostalgia here is what Svetlana Boym, in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, calls “restorative nostalgia.” It means that we use the feeling to inspire us to try to recreate or regenerate certain conditions of our happiness, like relying on oil and gas for cheap energy and plastics, even if they are problematic—even if they are threatening for our future. Not to imply that there is no such thing as emotional intelligence, but the feeling overrides our thinking. That’s what Grimes and Trump are doing by hearkening back to the yesteryears of industrial growth and glory.
Although I have a practical solution for one of our local energy efficiency problems that I will try to write about soon in my next entry on this blog, I also have my own message for young people. I won’t tell them not to listen to their elders, but I will say that they should listen to elders who have mainly the future at heart, not the past, unless the past is treated with much more critical reflection.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Greta Thunberg's Young Intellectual Appeal to Climate Science." Publicly Interested, 22 Jan. 2020, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Language matters more than anything other than bodily experience in how we understand the world. As someone a little too grammarian at times, I have to admit that language changes, even for the better, and along with it our understanding. We’re starting to accept, after years of seeing the term “climate crisis” in environmental literature, that it’s a more accurate term than the more neutral “climate change.” And we might even be on the verge of a change of political climate too, where recognizing the climate crisis is happening at the same time as recognizing the ongoing crisis of Indigenous peoples in Canada.
A couple of weeks ago, the historic report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls started to generate story after story in the news, mainly in response to the report’s claim that Canada is responsible for genocide against Indigenous peoples. It’s this language, “genocide,” that I’ve been thinking about as a professor of English lately. But I’ll avoid the usual etymology of “geno” and “cide” and skip right to the debate.
Some argue that genocide is unique—uniquely the worst human behaviour, the murder of great numbers in a short time—and so the use of the term needs to be carefully controlled. Former general Romeo Dallaire, who served the United Nations during the genocide in Rwanda, and the respected Liberal politician Irwin Cotler, who has in mind the Holocaust, are both reluctant to expand the use of the word. After all, Indigenous peoples in Canada were not systematically and rapidly murdered in the millions. Conservative leader Andrew Sheer agreed, calling the situation of Indigenous peoples in Canada “its own thing.”
I agree too that the genocides of Rwanda and the Holocaust are special—absolutely horrific and desperately to be avoided and stopped whenever possible. But genocide is related to murder, and, on a smaller scale, we already seem comfortable in using the word “murder” to describe various acts. Although Wikipedia informs me that manslaughter is not technically murder, it is a willingness to harm someone that unintentionally becomes fatal, so it is a homicide. More strictly, Canada separates murder into second-degree murder (where the intent was to kill and developed rapidly in the heat of the moment) and first-degree murder (where the murder was planned in cold blood). We also regularly use the term “mass murder” to describe first-degree murders of many people at once. So, why can’t we use the word “genocide” with the same nuance as with “murder,” simply by qualifying it by degree?
In the case of the Indigenous peoples in North America, the colonists and their imperial governments have enacted genocide all along the spectrum. The Indian Wars in the United States were at times wars of eradication, and various massacres and other deadly tactics were perpetrated to kill large numbers of people.
Newfoundland’s Beothuk people were driven to starvation and were sometimes murdered by colonists, its last surviving person, Shawnadithit, dying in 1829 in St. John’s—though Mi’kmaq oral tradition and some scientific studies suggest that the Beothuk might have integrated into other Indigenous societies from the mainland. But the fact is that there is no self-identifying Beothuk community left anywhere, as a direct result of two centuries of colonization (at the time) and the attendant desire for land and resources. That seems to be genocide.
Sometimes, the idea of “killing” was symbolic, but it was hardly any better. The doctrine of “killing the Indian in the child,” which is sometimes attributed to Canadian residential-school planner Duncan Campbell Scott but may have started as a phrase from an American military officer, is a doctrine of destroying a cultural identity. And, in fact, some criteria of genocide according to the United Nations are dependent not only on one’s body but also on one’s cultural identity.
According to the UN’s definition, Canada did cause genocide. Although the first two are so general that they need more details of intention and scope, here are the UN’s criteria as reported recently, with examples from Canadian history:
But the effects were more than symbolic. In residential schools, at least 7,000 children, and probably many more, died prematurely. And then there was the Sixties Scoop, a related policy of using social workers to separate Indigenous children from their parents or guardians because of the harm being done to the children. However well-intentioned you think these social workers and schoolteachers were, these policies were a huge blind spot, because they masked the colonial ideology of killing the Indian in the child—of destroying a cultural identity.
If the end result of such a system is such despair that Indigenous youth don’t even want to live, as suggested by the disproportionately high rate of suicide in Indigenous communities, then the UN’s definition applies yet again. At the very least, it can be qualified as a cultural genocide, with the effects of a “real” genocide.
What we have to understand here is that, for many people, culture is life.
And we have a lot to learn from them about this fact—and, maybe not coincidentally, about stopping the climate crisis too.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "The Word 'Genocide' in Canada." Publicly Interested, 18 June 2019, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
A brief history of concepts of self-deception would have to include concepts such as false consciousness, bad faith, and cognitive dissonance, but if these sound too complicated, try bullshit. What worries me is that bullshitting has gone viral, in a sense—becoming an diarrheal epidemic that can’t be stopped by any political wall, such as the walls around the right or the left. I’m worried that the bullshit is seeping through. I’m worried about what social work professor Brené Brown calls “the bullshit-incivility cycle,” like when someone spouts total nonsense and, exasperated, we respond with anger if we respond at all.
An alternative that I’ve been discussing lately comes from the poet and novelist Sina Queyras, who once wrote, “I don’t argue any more, I just take up space.” If the right/wrong structure of an argument or debate isn’t appropriate, then you might be able to avoid the argument—not to be evasive but to create a positive alternative.
(I worry sometimes that a blog is an attention-seeker that "take[s] up space" in the sense of squeezing out other voices that should be listened to more than mine is, but this "space" on the internet is theoretically infinite, and I know from the analytics of my modest site traffic that I'm not, at present, at risk of stealing a spotlight.)
Queyras goes on to criticize an us/them binary, and elsewhere Brown criticizes an all guns/no guns binary, and so I have to admit that I’ve started with a binary, right and left, an idea of something divided by a wall—but it’s not how I’ll conclude. I think bullshit damages binaries but has a dangerously totalizing effect nonetheless.
Jeet Heer’s most recent article in The New Republic turns attention back to the philosopher Harry Frankfurt’s 2005 book, On Bullshit, which Heer uses to understand the American president Donald Trump and the destabilization of truth.
(Brown has been reading Frankfurt’s book, too, which has become an unexpected touchstone for understanding the Trump era. I bought On Bullshit for my dad on his 60th birthday in the year it came out, and we were thinking of the American president George W. Bush, whose misunderstandings seem so quaint now. Heer reports that the fact-checkers at PolitiFact calculate that 70% of Trump’s assertions are false, mostly false, or total “pants on fire” lies.)
I am more interested in thinking about bullshit in the context of the #MeToo and #IBelieve movement, one that has supported women in the difficult work of making an allegation of sexual harassment or assault against men in powerful positions. This work is difficult partly because, in the legal system, very few of the accused men are convicted despite the likelihood and widespread belief that they have committed the alleged act; and because, in the court of public opinion, the backlash has included death threats and public ridicule amounting sometimes to defamation.
Leaning to the right of the false binary that I set up earlier, we have pundit Christie Blatchford cautioning against the over-extension of #MeToo and #IBelieve, though I can’t see how we could (except in rare cases) do too much to resist sexism and patriarchy when both seem so clear and present and problematic. With customary snark directed at bleeding-heart liberals, Blatchford writes: “one of the guiding principles of #MeToo and #IBelieve is that every person who makes such an allegation is a noble truth-teller, and that what matters most is how the self-proclaimed victim feels.” The language here is absolutist: “every person,” “what matters most.” In reality, the nuance “matters” too, but here the language implies or idealizes a simple distinction between truth and falsehood: a binary.
Leaning left, writer Erika Thorkelson objects to Margaret Atwood’s support for the accused (if I may borrow the legal term even though the case is not a criminal one), and she criticizes Atwood’s insistence in using her reputation to shape the discourse around #MeToo: “Really listening requires… you to soften and let go of the fear, the urge to argue, and the instinct to control the narrative. It takes a comfort with silence and a willingness to accept that your turn to talk may never come, that what’s happening might not be about you at all.” In other words, some people have to shut up (Margaret Atwood). But those other words are my words, possibly in the voice of Blatchford, not one I really want to imitate, and Thorkelson's desire for better listeners is one that I share deeply; it's an ideal of teaching and learning.
Still, these examples from the loosely defined right and left share a lack of faith in people with different opinions. Blatchford implies that the “noble truth-teller” may well be a liar, and Thorkelson suggests that others have no “turn,” no valid opinion, no credibility— really, no reason to be believed.
And so, we believe what we want. The Economist, hardly a neutral magazine, nevertheless respects a difference between fact and fiction here: "In 1986 Ronald Reagan insisted that his administration did not trade weapons for hostages with Iran, before having to admit a few months later that: ‘My heart and my best intentions still tell me that’s true, but the facts and evidence tell me it is not.’”
Reagan wasn't bullshitting; he was admitting to a lie but spinning it as a moral lie, a lie told for the right reasons, the reasons in his "heart." Because I’ve been studying the genre of the Western, and because Reagan was “the Cowboy President” (having acted in so many Westerns before he went into politics), I’ve been thinking of how we normally think of the Western as a politically conservative genre, and how the usual plot of a Western culminates in a moment of cathartic violence when the hero makes a snap judgment—supposedly a moment of moral clarity—to confirm that the bad guy is so bad that he should die.
Reagan might have won over some Democrats with his admission about Iran, but Heer claims that “Trump’s bullshitting is integral to his success in fomenting tribalism and polarization." I agree, and I would add that Trump’s twittering is encouraging this “polarization.” I’ve read suggestions that social media today have a conservative bias because short forms such as the tweet encourage snap judgments and discourage reflection.
What if, if we’re all so confident that no one can be right, and if we’re all willing to make the snap judgment and the quick draw of moral assessment, then we’re all on the right?
Although bullshit has, in a way, damaged the binary of right and left, along with the binary of truth and falsehood, in another way it hypes up the binary or wall more and more. Shouting down others, for example, can foment radicalism while, as journalist Neil Macdonald pointed out yesterday, generating celebrity for reprehensible people and their ideas.
But the way we often talk or shout means in theory that the wall between left and right doesn’t even exist; it’s simply snap judgment after snap judgment, because it’s easier and less exhausting, less driving toward burn-out. The challenge we have to meet when dealing with bullshit or a political opponent is always going to be patience (but also determined work), even if it is not fair to ask for patience from people who deserve justice now and 150+ years ago.
Blatchford refers to “the current super-heated temperature of the culture.” Indeed, I want to yell—at least half ironically—like Señor Mister Love Daddy in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing: “Y’all take a chill. You need to cool that shit out”!
There are lots of good reasons to scream, but being the hot shit isn't one of them.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "Bullshit, Belief, and Binaries." Publicly Interested, 21 Mar. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Yesterday and today, the American president, Donald Trump, suggested that weapons-trained teachers should carry concealed firearms to keep the peace in schools. His proposal comes after yet another school shooting in the United States, one of a regular series of mass murders that is, or should be, a shameful embarrassment for politicians and the gun lobby in that country.
Today, Trump insisted in a tweet that “ATTACKS WOULD END” if teachers were armed, but, as I implied in a recent essay in Film-Philosophy, this is a case of insisting on a hypothesis when other countries have a proven alternative that dramatically reduces gun violence. It’s simple: far fewer available guns, especially automatic weapons of war sold to the general public. Few convenient weapons of carnage, few mass murders. Amanda Holpuch’s story in The Guardian today includes various other reasons why Trump’s plan is far-fetched, including the unlikelihood that a teacher would shoot accurately under pressure (not to mention with a pistol against a machine gun or a rifle easily modified to shoot automatically).
Partly because ridding the country of most of its publicly available automatic weapons is inconceivable to its president and to many others, we hear “solutions” such as arming teachers, but what does this solution imply about Trump’s vision of education?
Although I think it presentist and ageist to disbelieve an idea simply because it is old or shared by someone old, in this case Trump's vision should be dismissed partly because it is out of date. In my previous post, I quoted Marshall McLuhan, who wrote about the classroom as “an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon.” How true, when you consider Trump’s proposal, which is in effect to reinforce the idea that schools are jails presided over by armed guards. I mean, teachers.
When I suggested—again, in my previous post— that we should envision the classroom as if it were the International Space Station, I tried to aim high, to the stars. Trump is aiming low, dungeon-level low.
I would add that his model of education, with its hard-to-crack security, appears to be the one that Paulo Friere described as the banking model, in which teachers simply “transfer” knowledge to students, like a bank transfer. Trump himself said today, “I want my schools protected just like I want my banks protected.” In this model, teachers have all the power, including knowledge, and they dispense it for clients who have paid their tuition, so that a diploma or degree is a commodity rather than a qualification. This model is capitalist in one of the worst senses of capitalism, the so-called neo-liberal capitalism in which even intangible "things" are monetized.
Contrary to this model, many contemporary teachers and professors believe that students need to be more in control of their educations and learn better when they are posed problems that they have to try to solve on their own, and with guidance as necessary. This alternative model puts significant authority in the hands of the students. Relatedly, some Indigenous models concentrate on shared dialogue and storytelling, and lessons are narrativized hints that have to be interpreted.
Again, the students have more power over their educations, and they are therefore more likely to take responsibility for what, how, and when they learn.
To arm a teacher is to enforce the teacher’s power and authority, but it is also to suggest that the manner of teaching should be authoritarian, not merely authoritative. This notion is a serious problem when it comes from supposedly democratic government. Democracy emerges partly out of education, which is, in some traditions, the opportunity to learn citizenship—not to be merely indoctrinated into patriotism, but to choose reasonably from varieties of government one that would represent you. Trump’s suggestion demonstrates to me that his vision of democracy is corrupted by authoritarianism.
I feel a responsibility towards my students, but I don't want so much authority over their lives that I am responsible for their lives, too. They need to learn to care for themselves and for others as much as I do, and if looking out for each other was more a part of American culture, perhaps there would be less hatred. Canadians, with our democracy, need to remember this lesson too. The classroom should be more like democracy and less like tyranny.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Classroom as Prison Cell with Armed Guards.” Publicly Interested, 22 Feb. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Not many people think about Marshall McLuhan much now, but I do. He faded from being the best-known professor in North America to something like an obscure prog band still loved by only a few, such as Can—and if you’ve never heard Can's “Vitamin C,” you really should, not only for Damo Suzuki’s poetically critical lyrics but also for the jazzy-mathy Jaki Liebezeit on drums. That’s how I think of McLuhan. Like Can today, he’s “out there.”
Phrases like “out there” are metaphors, and McLuhan loved them. He was an English prof, after all. I’ve been thinking about how his use of metaphors for media might teach us about social media and their metaphors today, e.g., their flaming, their tweets, and their trolls. McLuhan seemed to be calling for new metaphors of media when he was in his heyday in the 1960s. In Understanding Media (1966) and The Medium Is the Massage (1967), McLuhan argues that the media are “extensions” of the person’s capacities, such as hearing and sight. A tweet extends our shrillest sounds. A troll lurks and angrily surprises you.
Yes, you can tell that I am not a fan of social media! But a tweet can be manipulated to reject its own metaphoricity and produce better content, as Jeet Heer has done by popularizing "the Twitter essay," which also shows that the essay remains an essential form of knowledge creation and reflective communication.
Metaphor is inherently reflective, because it always prompts us to wonder, well, how IS a tweet like birdsong? McLuhan implies that all media should be understood through metaphors, using a metaphorical statement to claim that a medium is either a “message” or a “massage.” (A metaphor simply says, A=B, or “this” is “that,” always a statement of shared identity.) Whenever we engage in knowledge translation, e.g., by saying that the International Space Station is about the size of a football field, we are using analogy or metaphor. Scientists do it all the time to help people relate to difficult numbers, concepts, and processes.
So, McLuhan tried to find metaphors applicable to education. Fifty years ago in a book called McLuhan: Hot & Cool (1967), he suggested that education move out of the classroom: “The METROPOLIS today is a classroom; the ads are its teachers. The classroom is an obsolete detention home, a feudal dungeon.... We must invent a NEW METAPHOR” (116, his emphasis).
In the same year, in the film This Is Marshall McLuhan, he said, “In the nineteenth century, the knowledge inside the school room was higher than the knowledge outside. Today it is reversed. The child knows that in going to school he is in a sense interrupting his education.”
If only the classroom could be like the International Space Station! Much like prison for young people in North America, the classroom is punitive: a “dungeon” meant for “detention.” As a result of this belief, McLuhan thought that teachers would do better not to teach content (and, yes, the Internet can supply it just as well, in some cases) and to teach method instead—not what to think, but how.
It’s an appealing idea, and we certainly do have major problems with education as a system and what it is teaching. Today, CBC News reported that someone filling in for a professor at the University of Guelph allegedly publicly embarrassed or traumatized a student and his aide for their behaviours in their large class of 600 students. The story itself isn’t perfectly germane to this entry on my blog, but a comment from a reader is. In the comments section, someone identified as Walter Wilkins alludes to Marshall McLuhan by remarking, “The student/teacher ratio is one of the explicit features of what’s being taught and learned; the medium isn’t only the message, it’s a problem.” He doesn’t elaborate, but the “explicit feature” that he seems to suggest is that students, when there are so many of them, are just a number, and so professors might treat students insensitively or inhumanely.
In McLuhan’s terms, as a medium, a large class may centre a lot of attention on the professor’s power, and often the large classroom or lecture theatre is designed like an amphitheatre, focusing concentrically on the speaker at the front and centre of the room. Having taught a course in a lecture theatre, I know the feeling of power, but I also know that it can feel like you have been thrown to the tigers for the amusement of a crowd that has power in numbers. During the Maple Spring in Québec, in 2012, my lecture theatre at McGill University was occupied by a group of protesters from various universities, demonstrating how easy it is to disrupt a classroom.
Arguably, the biggest disruption to the classroom today is the Internet in all its forms, but especially social media. In looking for metaphors of the Internet, I was led to Star Trek’s George Takei, who made this analogy: “Social media is like ancient Egypt: writing things on walls and worshiping cats.”
The joke about the cats (which is funny 'cause it’s true, to quote The Simpsons) cues an ironic reading of the rest of the quotation: Social media as a singular entity is not all that old, it’s not all that civilized, it’s as much like graffiti as other forms of writing, and, yes, it’s where we idolize beautiful animals, including humans, or just show off all the gross shit they’re involved in.
Takei was smart. In barely more than a dozen words, he offered a little lesson that expands even as it entertains. McLuhan would have liked it.
In contrast, the tendencies of social media to elicit instant responses and to limit the length of responses (at least in the case of the tweet) are inherently anti-intellectual. Drawing from yet another source from the 1960s, Daniel Rigney learns from Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963) the most dangerous kind of anti-intellectualism: unreflective instrumentalism, “the dominant ideology of advanced industrial societies and doubly dangerous because its technocratic assumptions are virtually invisible to the unreflective eye. The efficient pursuit of unexamined ends is now arguably the dominant form of anti-intellectualism” (447).
Point. Click. Like. It’s quick and responsive, but we need more than that. We need the classroom of our minds to be “out there” a little farther, closer to the critical distance of the International Space Station. As a classroom the size of a football field, it's big, but there aren't a lot of people up there, so they aren't only numbers. And they have lots of time to think.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Classroom as International Space Station.” Publicly Interested, 17 Jan. 2018, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Dear Premier Dwight Ball and Minister Eddie Joyce,
Partly because of China's plan to stop buying recyclables from countries such as Canada by the end of 2017, there is a new and urgent need to stop wasting so much plastic and start banning single-use plastic bags. I am writing to you today to support Municipalities NL, which is calling for a ban on plastic bags because mayors around the province do not believe that a ban is possible without your help. Plastic bags, especially for groceries and other shopping, are harming us, other species, and our environments. If we can't recycle them, we have to ban them.
We have proven that we can't recycle them effectively; 91% of plastic is never recycled. In some places, such as most of Canada, we try to recycle bags by collecting them and often by shipping them to China, but we leave a carbon footprint from the transportation and the energy needed to remake the plastics. This is one of the reasons why we haven't started a recycling program for plastic bags in Newfoundland and Labrador. And so we have to ban them.
Even when we try to divert the bags to a nearby landfill, we fail miserably. Images have been circulating of the "Plastic Bag Forest" near the scenic East Coast Trail and Robin Hood Bay—the trees acting as a filter to catch airborne plastic bags. Whales have been found dead with many plastic bags in their stomachs—in one case, 30 bags. For many species, like up to 90% of sea birds and presumably including people, ingesting plastic has become inevitable; this summer, a new plastic-ridden ocean zone as big as Mexico was discovered in the Pacific. You read that correctly: as big as Mexico. There are several other massive zones of floating plastic in the world's oceans. There is no other explanation except that humans are laying waste to land and sea.
We behave so abhorrently for a lot of reasons, but I refuse to believe that it's simple ignorance or a lack of conscience; I think we do it because it's traditional to a capitalist society to accept the idea of surplus value and thus, maybe illogically, of waste; and, more important, it's convenient. If you do propose a ban, many people will object on this reason alone. When the ban came into effect in California, I saw a man on the news who said that no one had the right to make his shopping more difficult. If we can't convince him to change his behaviour as a consumer, we need to change the behaviour of suppliers, such as grocery stores. We can all learn that it's easy to carry reusable bags and use them for most of their shopping.
Meanwhile, I am so tired of our inaction on plastic. (Bagged! In a previous open letter, I wrote to major airlines to find out why they don't recycle plastic cups on flights into Toronto, Canada's busiest airport.) Yet we have alternatives. I fold up a small recycled-plastic bag and put it in my knapsack for those times when I'm not planning on going to the grocery store but do anyway. We can leave fabric bags in our vehicles and bring them into stores with us. Now, an Australian initiative called Boomerang Bags has come to St. John's (and all over Australia, the United States, and elsewhere), and they leave recycled cotton bags to be borrowed and returned at many different stores, such as Food for Thought downtown.
I would love us to be leaders rather than followers of Australia and innovative cities like Montreal, but there is no shame in gaining confidence from someone else's good idea. With the Green Party starting to find support in the Maritimes, and with several newly elected progressives on the City Council of St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador might someday soon have more politicians who are listening to the many citizens who believe that we are failing future generations—not only people but other animals: whales, sea birds, polar bears, sea turtles, and even a lobster caught last month in New Brunswick with a Pepsi logo nearly fused into its claw.
Don't we care?
We need to act. Please write a new law that will ban plastic bags here too.
Many will gratefully support you.
PS. While we're at it, we should create local industries for recycling what we can't ban, such as glass—an easily reusable and recyclable material. Why can't we do that here?
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Bagged: It's a Big Job, but Someone Needs to Ban Plastic Bags.” Publicly Interested, 3 Dec. 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.