Yesterday, my union went on strike, and I went with it. The strike touches on a core purpose of this blog, which I started several years ago for a graduate seminar on public intellectuals in Canada. That purpose is to reflect on publics and the public interest. I'm not a political scientist, so I have not researched different conceptions of the public interest, but for me it is basically synonymous with the common good. It is a democratic and egalitarian concept that helps to rationalize benefits for large numbers of people: societal benefits. It is related to rights, like the right to organize, bargain together, and withhold labour.
In the case of this nascent strike, the administration at Memorial University remains committed to clawing back pension benefits. The proposal is to leave benefits as they are for existing faculty members but to reduce them for new members in the future. In recent communications, the administration has given a rationale: other unions have been persuaded to accept the structural inequality that the proposal would create, so we should too.
The rationale implies that we should be fair to other unions and accept the same worsening conditions that they now face. Another way to look at it is that we would be introducing new iniquities into our own union. Perhaps the administration even hopes for that outcome, because the union's solidarity would be undermined—actually, further undermined, because it already has different classes of employees, such as tenured and tenure-track members who enjoy benefits that are not shared with contractual members.
The administration has another rationale: we're a publicly funded university in a province that is defunding the university seemingly on the assumption that we cannot afford it, given our public debt, which skyrocketed as the budget for the Muskrat Falls hydroelectric power station ballooned out of control. The competing assumption, or contention, is that the university is an economic powerhouse and creator of knowledge and cultural products; as a site of critique, it can also help our society to avoid mistakes that will entail unsustainably huge long-term costs, such as continuing to invest in fossil fuels.
I prefer the competing assumption, but I still have difficulty in campaigning for higher salaries, even when recent inflation has dramatically decreased my buying power, and even when the delay in getting a new contract (ours having expired in 2020) means years of no improvements in working conditions. But why should our working conditions improve? We're fat cats, right?
I do have a squarely middle-class income; I'm not poor, but I probably cannot afford a house big enough for my growing family, certainly not without a lot of help from the extended family. Many professors earn far more than me, especially in other departments and faculties such as Business, Medicine, and Engineering. And the building that houses my office, the Arts and Administration Building, has a multitude of large holes in the walls, covered up many years ago with plastic and fabric tape; bathroom facilities with constantly out-of-service toilets, broken stalls, missing tile, and holes in the ceiling; and drinking fountains that are either out of service or suspected of providing water with too much lead in it. Granted, these are matters of capital and infrastructure, not salaries and benefits, but they are signs of where the money is going on campus, and where it is not. (Cross the highway away from Arts and toward Core Science and Engineering, and it seems clear.) Bringing visiting professors and job candidates to campus is embarrassing when the facilities are in such disrepair. I do not need to be "above" the middle class; I'm not asking for a palace, but I'm a self-respecting person who wants to feel good about not only my work but also my workplace.
When employees go on strike, it is not only because of a contract, but because of the environmental conditions that suggest that the management of the university, including the government that funds it, is either ineffective or unconcerned for equal treatment. The president of the university gets a base salary of $450,000 plus bonuses, and has continued the trend of expanding the "upper" administration with other well-paid positions, and yet they have not succeeded (yet, anyway) in advocating convincingly for us.
When will it happen? Today on the picket line we were joking with the old union call-and-response: "What do we want?" "A fair deal!" "When do we want it?" "Three years ago when our contract was up!"
I acknowledge the logistical challenges of an administration that has to bargain with multiple unions while watching and waiting for the results of bargaining in other parts of the public sector. Nevertheless, I can also deduce that there is a financial incentive to delaying new contracts, especially when inflation is rising not only for employees but also for the university as a whole. In this context, my willingness to make sacrifices for the university would get a significant boost from timely and responsive administrative efforts to renew contracts.
Cynically, I suspect that the administration's schedule is now driven primarily by the math. It's a cost-benefit analysis. The university's finances improve as long as it doesn't have to pay professors, but eventually it will have to refund a lot of tuition. Another factor is the administration's interest in drawing out the strike to empty the union's coffers so that we will not be able to afford to strike again in four (or six or eight) years if bargaining goes badly for us.
Maybe one of my colleagues has found the information to do this analysis, but I doubt it, because the university also has an opacity problem. We want a definition of "collegial governance" in our contract that would improve our sousveillance of budgeting, hiring, and other procedures. We think that a strongly supported mandate of collegial governance would help to convince the government to include a faculty member and a student on the Board of Regents, thereby increasing transparency. As the only university in Canada that has no such representation on its Board, Memorial University is at risk of corruption.
Corruption can be reduced through equally shared power, which would also lead to more equitable distribution of resources. The administration would gain so much good will from the union if it immediately dropped its demand to claw back pension benefits and made progress on collegial governance and (which I haven't yet mentioned) the "conversion language" that would turn some of the contractual positions into tenure-track positions. We know the world is not a fair place, but we think that universities can be models of fairer, safer, more sustainable places. That's what I voted for, though I'd prefer to be in class and at work.
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.
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.
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.
On Tuesday (coincidentally the title of one of my favourite songs by the Men Without Hats on their gorgeous synth-pop album Pop Goes the World), I was invited to The Ship pub to give a talk for the Department of Philosophy’s Public Lecture Series. The 40-minute talk was on the philosophical concept of moral luck as seen in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry films. This entry of the blog is a highly compressed version of the talk, which was in itself a shortened version of an essay published earlier this year in the open-access, peer-reviewed journal Film-Philosophy.
At its simplest, moral luck is a factor when we judge people “responsible for events that are not entirely within their control” (Gregory par. 25). The philosopher Bernard Williams coined the term “moral luck” at Cambridge University in the very late 1970s, and he thought it would seem like an oxymoron or a contradiction at the time (251), but he and others have since shown that—yes—luck does matter morally.
One of the classic examples is of two drivers: one passes a stop sign without stopping and nothing happens, and another also passes a stop sign without stopping—but hits and kills a pedestrian walking through the crosswalk (Nagel 25). Although the collision is bad luck, we want to judge the driver who killed the pedestrian, not the luck, because luck has no moral agency by itself, right? But luck seems to have made the difference. We also want to judge the driver who killed the pedestrian as worse than the driver who didn’t.
Williams and Thomas Nagel were writing about moral luck around the same time, but neither mentions Dirty Harry—but the first Dirty Harry film in 1971 happens to use one of the examples that they would use later in the 1970s and early 1980s. The main character, Harry Callahan, explains that his wife died when struck by a drunk driver. He rationalizes her death with these words: “There was no reason for it, really.” From this, I assume that the death of his wife helped to create the Callahan we know by adapting him to the unpredictability of others. He is highly tolerant of luck.
I think that he believes that the morality of the luck depends on others, which is why he is often casually willing to allow other men to decide whether to escalate violence. I’m going to try to explain moral luck through a few movies in the series that many of you will have seen: the five Dirty Harry movies, starring Clint Eastwood.
Because most of us probably haven’t seen Dirty Harry in a while, I’m going to remind everyone about how it goes as we start thinking about moral luck and how we know who we are, and which invites a trio of big words: epistemology, which is the study of how we know something; ontology, the study of being, of who and what we are; and existentialism, which is a belief in being defined by our free will and responsibility. I won’t dwell on these concepts; my purpose right now is to show that the first Dirty Harry film is unexpectedly ambiguous and full of subtle hints about philosophical concepts of who we are, and how we know what we are.
This ambiguity can be interpreted not as a hidden ideological message but as respect for the intelligence of the viewer. Maybe at other times I’d be less generous, but I think that Dirty Harry has, in a sense, a both conservative and liberal respect for our own free will, as in classical liberalism, our ability to think and interpret for ourselves. Unlike so much of today’s media, the Dirty Harry films seem like they’re in dialogue with a variety of political views.
In Dirty Harry, Callahan wants to bring criminals to justice without interference from what he perceives as an overly liberal police department and government. He seems conservative, today, but the film itself, with his name on it, seems liberal in preferring the attitudes and actions of African American criminals over those of white criminals. I’ll return to this deliberate contrast at the end of this entry, but first let me describe the most iconic scene. At the start of the film, Eastwood’s character defeats a series of bank robbers of African descent. The first man to shoot at Callahan (mildly hurting his leg) and to be shot by Callahan is about to retrieve his shotgun when he is targeted again, at close range. Eastwood then delivers the famous lines that I mentioned earlier: “I know what you’re thinking. Did he fire six shots or only five? Well, to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you’ve got to ask yourself one question: Do I feel lucky? Well, do you, punk?” Satisfied that all is under control, Callahan begins to walk away, but the robber calls after him, “Hey! I got to know.” Notice that both the robber and Callahan say “I know” or “I got to know,” signalling epistemology or how we know. Callahan returns, aims at the man, and pulls the trigger—but the gun has no more bullets. By seeming to involve chance in the moral work of stopping a criminal, Callahan invokes moral luck, and the question of who is responsible.
Whether Callahan is bluffing by saying that he “lost track” of the shots he fired is a related question. My published essay does not mention the fact that Callahan repeats this speech with a different outcome at the end of the film, but I’ll return to this repetition at the end here too. At this moment in the story, his potential bluffing can be interpreted as surprisingly epistemological and ontological, about knowing and being. It’s involved in Callahan’s moral ambiguity.
The scene of the robbery offers a rather dizzying array of potential meanings, and it requires some close attention before we hear more about how Eastwood involves luck in representations of heroism. It would appear that Callahan is ready to murder the subdued man because of an implied question: “I got to know” how bad you really are, or if your gun is still loaded.
But his desire “to know” has more to it than that. To know is not to be deceived. It’s shorthand for knowing the truth, and so the final pulling of the trigger is even surprisingly existential. The robber might be asking his question to know a truth about himself, in addition to the more obvious possibility of wanting to dare the policeman to kill him. If he’s asking about himself, it’s about whether he is a good and virtuous man despite the robbery. If Callahan is bluffing and knows that the gun is empty, his pulling of the trigger is, first, a sign of his merciless sense of humour.
Second, it’s a judgment. Yes, we can imagine Callahan thinking, you backed down, so you’re good enough not to die right now. Callahan also implies that, unlike the robber, he knows himself to be good and would not fire a loaded gun at a defenceless man. He refers to “the truth” here in a moment that is wryly confessional, especially when he says, “I kinda lost track myself,” but he could be lying about having lost track. Callahan’s attitude and his personality do suggest that he is bluffing: he exudes self-control, or at least confidence—but then there are so many times in the Dirty Harry films when his behaviour is so reckless that he could not possibly know in advance the results of all his actions. When he asks the robber if he feels lucky, for example, Callahan knows at least that he has already won, even if he does not know the extent of the damage that he might cause in winning.
What if Callahan is not bluffing? If Callahan really did lose track of the number of shots he fired, then he's playing a version of Russian roulette that does not risk the life of the person holding the gun. Notably, he does this only when asked, “I got to know.” Impulsive and irresponsible, he projects some of the responsibility for his action onto the robber, as if the robber’s guilt or innocence could be decided not by the robber’s violence, because that was already settled, but by his taunting or his curiosity, “I got to know.”
The modified Russian roulette in Dirty Harry implies that the action of killing is the responsibility not of the policeman but of the other man, or of luck. This theme suggests that in the Western and cop movies the hero acts according to the morality or immorality of others, and that his own character is not intrinsically moral or immoral, because he applies his ethics to a limit and then he refuses to assume further responsibility. In other words, he might be saying, hey, I’m not really responsible for killing a man who dared me to pull the trigger.
The potential for self-deception implied here might call to mind Jean-Paul Sartre’s concept of bad faith, which refers to self-deception or inauthenticity. If you want more on that, please read the published version of this entry. In brief, as I see it, the moral character of people with bad faith is related to their existential dilemmas of agency—and Callahan is hardly in an existential dilemma. You don’t look at him and think, here is a man who is searching his soul, wondering how to act. If he is deceiving anyone, it is another person, not himself—except that he might be mistaken about the number of bullets in his gun.
Much like the gun, moral luck—to me—is more political than some of the debaters admit. Their points seem to assume, without ever saying it, that moral luck aligns with a liberal or leftist view: that criminals, like anyone, are often the result of circumstances beyond their control that may be described as bad luck. So, when the robber in Dirty Harry seems to want to know if he’s virtuous in spite of being in a robbery, the question is political: liberals tend to see past a person’s crime toward the conditions that led to it, such as poverty, whereas conservatives tend to focus on the deed itself, and then judge accordingly. These generalizations are up for debate, of course, and we could also debate whether Callahan wants to be involved in them—but I think he does. My view here is that moral luck is not all that liberal as a concept, because it enables Dirty Harry to coerce the bad guys into a mimicry of free will and responsibility, and this coercion is not a liberal style of rehabilitating criminals.
Brian Rosebury at the University of Central Lancashire, who comes out of literary studies into philosophy as I do, is more worried than I am that moral luck seems to align with a liberal view. Rosebury’s concern is that “we do not choose our acts either, just because we do not choose what causes them” (508); similarly, maybe we can’t judge anyone, ever, because everyone is created “by biological luck and developed by cultural luck” (292). If this alleged moral relativism is truly a problem, and if it is politically liberal in orientation, as in Rosebury’s allusions to social constructedness, why would a figure as conservative as Callahan invite luck to determine his moral judgment or morality?
One answer comes indirectly from professor Claudia Card of the University of Wisconsin, who joins the debate in 1995 with her book called Unnatural Lottery: Character and Moral Luck. Her book openly acknowledges the political relevance of moral luck. Rather than put a Sartrean emphasis on free will, Card puts will into the context of political, social, and economic limitations—such as repressive sexual laws, sexism and racism, and poverty—that people must work against to be responsible.
Card focuses on one of Nagel’s four related kinds of luck, one I haven’t mentioned yet, that has been called “circumstantial luck.” Her first sentence, in fact, is that “[m]uch of the luck with which this book is occupied attaches to politically disadvantageous starting points or early positionings in life” (Card ix). Partly because she is not a relativist, Rosebury’s review of her book is positive. Card explains her own not-relativist-but-liberal position when she says she does not want “to let us off the hook morally by showing that fate determines who we become. I am no fatalist [says Card]. [She says,] I find luck influential but not ordinarily determining. It narrows and expands our possibilities, often through the agency of others over whom we have no control and often through the medium of social institutions” (x). For Card, and seemingly for Rosebury, luck can be accepted as an influence but not as the determiner of someone’s morality. So, through Card I might answer my own question. Perhaps Callahan invites luck to determine his morality to suggest (perhaps especially to liberals) that mitigating circumstances are not as important as they might seem and can still be strictly controlled: if there is a bullet left in his gun or not, he has demonstrated how effective a strong and punishing response to crime can be. That’s usually a conservative view.
Now, as this entry approaches a conclusion, I want to shift our attention to the men defeated by Dirty Harry, men I’m going to call, ironically, the lucky punks. There’s a pattern in how Eastwood’s characters from the late 1960s through the end of the Dirty Harry series speak with the lucky punks. They are almost always African American men who evoke American racial politics from the era of civil rights to Reaganomics.
Let me remind you that, in Coogan’s Bluff, Eastwood’s character was ready to stab a man and, when he’s asked if he would have done it, he says, “I don’t know. That was up to him,” which is the prototype of Callahan’s “Do I feel lucky?” It is also the origin of a third statement, when Callahan says, “Go ahead. Make my day,” in Sudden Impact, from 1983, the fourth of the five Dirty Harry movies.
In all three scenes, Callahan’s foe is a black man; each one commits a crime, but each one backs down, luckily for him and for Callahan. If you're not convinced by my argument about the first shootout, above, think about the pattern of these three scenes. I would go so far as to say that they're a stereotypical and wishful commentary on American race relations during the time of the black power movement. This movement was meant to address civil and socio-economic inequalities, such as systematic or systemic racism and its impoverishing effect on Americans of African descent. Coogan and Callahan project responsibility onto what they might assume is blind luck (a synonym for chance that, like the free market, is not supposed to be prejudiced), whereas the pattern of skin colour suggests that it is definitely not blind. I’m fascinated to see that Callahan is represented as poor or at least cheap throughout his first story—cheap pants, hot dogs for lunch and supper—and maybe his lack of money gives him sympathy for the black men who rob the bank. Still, Eastwood’s characters seem to be telling black men (and I’m aghast at the message), “Quit stealing—and be responsible to yourselves and to us.” Upholding the generally anti-governmental position of these films, Callahan and Coogan would probably not be willing to supply the coin to pay the cost of fairer government and justice.
Here I have to admit that Callahan uses his “Do I feel lucky” speech twice in the film, once with a black man who backs down and once with a white man who chooses to try to get his gun, and Callahan shoots him. The black criminal is a bank robber, and he is spared. The white criminal is a serial killer, kidnapper, rapist, and extortionist, a much worse criminal, and he is killed at the climax of the film because Callahan does have one more bullet in his gun the second time. We realize then that Callahan’s “Do I feel lucky” speech is a script, possibly one he has used more than once before. If he has used it more than once before, then he probably was bluffing and was in control when he stopped the bank robbers. Maybe it wasn’t moral luck, and in fact Claudia Card argues that “[t]aking responsibility [...] is likely to involve consciously developing an integrity that does not develop spontaneously” (24). I wonder, then, if making others responsible is usually going to be scripted and not “spontaneous.”
Ultimately, however, I can only interpret what the film offers me, and there are only two “Do I feel lucky speeches,” and the real script is the screenplay that the writers gave to Clint Eastwood—the actor not the character—and these writers probably realize that there’s an aesthetic balance in having only two “Do I feel lucky” speeches, and there’s dramatic irony because the serial killer doesn’t know that Callahan is basically comparing him with the bank robber. I doubt that Callahan’s just repeating the same script in every showdown, going throughout the city, asking, “Do I feel lucky? Do I? Do you? How about you? Scale of one to ten…”
More important, the political commentary seems to be that, on the one hand, that whiteness is associated with the worst crimes (quite a left-leaning admission in the North American context, these days); and, on the other hand, that the white criminal is not subject to luck and cannot be forced to take responsibility, but the black criminal is and can. For Eastwood’s characters, black men must be pressured to conform to expectations of non-violence and obedience. But, unlike the white criminal in the first movie, at least the black criminals have respect for their own lives and are willing to stop violence—and I want to take this detail as the film’s respect for African Americans, even though I can’t entirely.
While the filmmakers represent black men with consistent symbolism related to luck throughout the Dirty Harry movies, not all of these men are stereotyped as criminals, and I have one final example to show that moral luck is connected especially to black men in these films. There are many white criminals in these films, and many of them are also stereotyped as symptoms of liberalism, as with the murderer and his girlfriend in Coogan’s Bluff. Sudden Impact plays on our expectations of seeing threatening black men in Dirty Harry movies, but then it introduces Horace, played by Albert Popwell, as an ally to Callahan.
It’s interesting to see the sequels respond, or seem to respond, to political critiques of the earlier films, because this kind of listening suggests a style of conservatism that is still open to thoughtful debate. In Magnum Force, the second of the five, which came out in 1973, Callahan’s partner Early Smith, played by Felton Perry, is also a black man. One of their conversations suggests that Smith is aware that Callahan takes risks with people of his colour. In a scene where the two policemen are following suspects by car and beyond their jurisdiction, Callahan says that he wants to confirm a hunch and decides to antagonize the suspects—but Smith doesn’t want to be caught in the middle of a gunfight. He says, no, “I don’t want to be winning bets for anybody.” His reference to “bets” implies that he would agree with my argument that his partner uses others while depending on luck to seek justice. Callahan would disagree; he persists and says, “I’ve never been wrong yet, have I?” But later, after Callahan warns him to take care of himself, the corrupt policemen assassinate Smith because of his partnership with Callahan. Magnum Force suggests that Callahan’s hunches are never wrong, contrary to my argument about his partial uncertainty in the first Dirty Harry film, but he is unquestionably sometimes wrong: Smith dies because Callahan takes risks and cannot take responsibility for everyone; other people, including good people who are on his side, are forced to take responsibility for his actions. Because he cannot save everyone, he is not God, and if he is not God, his claims to certainty must sometimes be in error. He might be on a lucky streak, at least as far as his own survival goes.
Although I’ve entertained other points of view, I’ve argued that Callahan was being honest about his partial uncertainty in the first “Do I feel lucky” showdown—though he’s probably confident that he’d win regardless. This discrepancy is ethical and political. He and his prototype Coogan have a common mission, not only to get their men regardless of the law but also to offer a final choice to the enemy, who may be punished if he continues to be violent. Their ethical shortcoming is that their respect for the African American men who confront them is limited to these men’s potential to be coerced into responsibility.
In another way, however, the black robber is the most interesting character in the first Dirty Harry film, because he is the one whose unpredictability—and his potential to make a decision—is the truest unpredictability, and the truest potential. The robber is the one character who might want to know himself better. Callahan might want to know others but seems entirely confident in who he is, perhaps too confident. In contrast, we expect that the serial killer is going to try to kill again. He’s predictable.
Because of this expectation, moral luck is more a factor in Callahan’s and the robber’s decisions. They are the interesting characters, and moral luck can be a plot device that creates suspense through the unpredictability of these characters.
Here in sunny San Diego for the PCA-ACA 2017 conference, I reserved an evening to go see Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet (2012; here and now directed by Stafford Arima) at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park, and I discovered a fascinating study of dramatic irony as a parallel of the insidiousness of racialization. What I mean is that the play is about how race fools us.
Dramatic irony is when the audience knows something that a character doesn’t know. In this case, the character is the historical figure Ira Aldridge, an African American actor. He was the first black man to play Othello on the London stage. In Red Velvet, he’s trying to promote the movement toward naturalistic acting but is himself the over-actor incarnate.
Albert Jones plays Aldridge to the contrary of the fictional and perhaps historical Aldridge’s preference for “domestic” or naturalistic styles of acting. Ben Brantley in The New York Times reports that Adrian Lester played the role similarly in 2014, so that the actor “exudes the scary, outsize presence of the barnstorming stardom of another time.”
Aldridge’s controversial performance in London in 1833 coincided with the final major legal milestone in ending slavery in Britain and its colonies. Until then, white actors played black characters in blackface—and so, in an ironic twist (like that of Patrick Stewart playing Othello in an otherwise all-black cast), Aldridge plays King Lear in whiteface at the conclusion of the play, speaking these colour-sensitive lines from Act V of King Lear:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . They flattered
me like a dog; and told me I had white hairs in my
beard ere the black ones were there. To say “ay”
and “no” to every thing that I said! . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Go to, they are
not men o’ their words: they told me I was every
thing; ’tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.
An ague is an illness, especially a fever, and so Lear is calling attention to various possibilities, including that he is confused—by the lies, by the “madness” (III,iv) that he worries is upon him. A mad character is probably always an instance of dramatic irony, at least in those moments when the character is not aware of the madness. In Red Velvet, I think the madness is the idea of race itself—but I’ll come back to that.
Aldridge is also calling attention to the weaknesses of his body in lines that Chakrabarti seems to be repurposing. When Lear compares “white” and “black” hairs, he means age and how it is symbolized—here, that white hair is a symbol of wisdom, I think. When Chakrabarti’s Aldridge’s Lear says these lines, however, he signifies that race, like traits such as wisdom (which Lear did not consistently have), is not essential to anyone. Race is partly a bodily performance, especially as Red Velvet dramatizes Aldridge, and partly an attribution that can be manipulated for reasons good and bad.
(Coincidentally, the San Diego Museum of Man, just steps away from the Old Globe in Balboa Park, is presently curating an exhibit called “Race: Are We So Different?”)
The crisis of Red Velvet is that Aldridge’s critics, the writers who review his play in the newspapers, echo stereotypes of black men as (often sexually) aggressive and thus a threat to white virginity and whiteness-as-property, as in the theme of inheritance suggested by the play’s ailing white father and his son. (For more on the latter, see Cheryl I. Harris’s “Whiteness as Property” essay from the Harvard Law Review.) Aldridge has already seemed to prove his critics right in advance by rehearsing and performing the strangulation of Desdemona too “realistically,” which means according to the commonly held racial stereotype and the reality presumed by the critics. He then attempts to strangle his French manager, an ally and friend, when the Frenchman finally concedes to public pressure to remove Aldridge from the role.
Unlike most of his colleagues, Aldridge is presented as an over-actor whether on stage or behind the scenes in the dressing room, and in the program Jason Sherwood, the set designer, comments that the superimposition of Aldridge’s private life (backstage) and public life (centre stage) is crucial to his character as imagined by Stafford Arima. Indeed, Aldridge is almost entirely “public”: projecting from the top of his voice, preoccupied with gesture, vying always for position and attention. One implication of Jones’s performance is that one’s persona invades one’s private life, a commonplace that informs much of my work on celebrity. As I’ve recently written in the context of racialization in The Journal of Commonwealth Literature, it is also that one’s public face can turn an “about face” on the self, allowing social norms to define a person.
So, when the stage’s rotating proscenium (yes, a prop that expensive) sends us back to the present near the end of Aldridge’s life, the play ends with his Lear’s exhortation against the “lie” of the public’s and the court’s (and his family’s) support for him, juxtaposed against the flashback to his manager’s withdrawal of support following the racist reviews of his Othello. The play thereby emphasizes the struggles in the historical Aldridge’s remarkably successful career, set against the backdrop of Britain’s very mixed, ambivalent movement toward abolition from the late 1700s to 1833 when, finally—after about a generation—Britain stopped trading in slaves. If a viewer wonders why Aldridge is presented with something less than total sympathy, it’s because the play appears to be made to dramatize the insidious effect of socialization on one’s private life.
We know something that the fictional Aldridge does not know: that he is unwittingly the exaggerated product of the racism of his critics, while he believes he is being authentic.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. "The Dramatic Irony of Race and Red Velvet." Publicly Interested, 16 April 2017.
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.