In the news again today, Senators are arguing about a controversial bill to change the national anthem, but the politicians and others who say that there is a grammatical problem with the proposed revision are wrong.
I don’t have any objections to the proposed revision. It would be different if the government were trying to revise one of the objectional poems by Irving Layton. The anthem is official and meant to be sung together to encourage citizens to feel that they are part of an imagined community, so inclusive lyrics are a good idea. The proposed revision, in fact, is still too martial and religious for my taste, but that's a topic for a different post. This post is about grammar and controversy, that old pair.
Here is the start of the anthem—objectionable to someone in every line, I know, but culminating in the one under debate today:
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
I can explain the first two lines, but that’s probably not what you want right now.* You want the debate about the third one: “True patriot love in all thy sons command.” To be gender-neutral, Bill C-201 proposes this revision: “True patriot love in all of us command.” According to Senator Michael MacDonald in the CBC News story linked above and below, various people, supposedly including English and linguistics professors, have agreed with MacDonald, who protests that the revision is grammatically incorrect.
It’s not. It’s a complete sentence, albeit in archaic syntax: an example of the re-ordering of words that is sometimes necessary to position rhymes at the end of lines, as with “land” and “command.” Adjusting the syntax but keeping all the same words, the line is still a grammatically correct sentence of the imperative type: “Command true patriot love in all of us.” The song begins by addressing Canada as if the country were a person (in a technique called apostrophe: "O Canada!"), and that person carries over to the third line as someone who could command someone else.
It’s correct (if not politically) in the official lyrics, too: “Command true patriot love in all thy sons.” When Senator Michael MacDonald says, “The proper and only acceptable pronoun substitution for the phrase ‘All thy sons command’ is ‘All of our command,’” he is neglecting another “proper” reading: that Canada is the commander.
His interpretation is fine, more or less, and we can discern it by adjusting the syntax again: “All thy sons command true patriot love.” In this case, we can interpret the line to mean that our boys are growing into authority by telling others, or inspiring others, to care for them nationalistically. Another interpretation is that we are in control of our own love.
Also in this case, however, the preposition “in” mysteriously disappears. In my view, MacDonald has to explain the use of that preposition (or why it can just vanish) before he claims that his reading is the “only” one.
* The song begins with what’s called an apostrophe—not the punctuation mark, but an address to someone or something. It’s part of a tradition of addressing sublime things, sometimes including the nation, especially if the nation is ruled by a king and the King is close to God, who (you might say) commands sublimity. It’s sometimes called the “apostrophic O,” as in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind." Here at home, the addressee is Canada, and the first line of the song is an incomplete sentence only if we neglect other types of sentences. The second line is the same: technically a fragment (no subject or verb) but excusable because of its exhortative, exclamatory role. If someone bumps into you at the grocery store and he’s the one to yell “Hey!”, you can’t say it’s not a grammatically correct response.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Grammar of the National Anthem in Canada." Publicly Interested, 4 April 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
“Let’s have some decorum,” President Richard Pryor says in a White House press conference just before he jumps into the crowd to attack a journalist for asking a racist rhetorical question about his mother. In this 1977 sketch from the short-lived Richard Pryor Show, Pryor could well have been commenting on recent news about the relationship between the president and the media in the time of Donald Trump.* In the sketch, Pryor imagines himself as the 40th president of the United States—a position that went in fact to Trump’s touchstone, Ronald Reagan, whose so-called Reaganomics started a trend in exacerbating the American racial-economic inequalities that Pryor cited so often in his comedy routines.
When President Pryor channels generic political spin and defends the neutron bomb as “a neo-pacifist weapon,” I still hear Trump, though Trump would never use the Grecian prefix. Trump is less audible (almost an impossibility today) when Pryor’s critique of race emerges. Responding to a question about funding for the space program, Pryor says, “I feel it’s time that black people went to space. White people have been going to space for years, and spacing out on us as you might say. And I feel with the projects that we have in mind we’re going to send explorer ships to other galaxies, and no longer will they have the same type of music, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky. Now they’ll have the Miles Davis, Charlie Parker....”
If only Pryor were still alive to comment on Trump’s thinly superficial (and faint) praise for the long-dead nineteenth-century abolitionist Fredrick Douglass: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.”
I bring up Richard Pryor and Donald Trump because we watched the 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions last weekend, or perhaps the previous weekend (a blur in busy times), continuing a series of viewings focused on Reaganomic movies, and I’m compelled by the resonance that this movie has with the current politics of the United States.
Can anyone be elected in the United States—regardless of sex, gender, race, class, age? Americans are not alone among people willing to elect the seemingly unsuitable and unqualified, but the election of Trump is nonetheless remarkable. Brewster’s Millions asks a more specific question: Would Americans elect a black millionaire who is otherwise unqualified for public office?
Brewster’s Millions is only one of many adaptations of a turn of the twentieth century novel by George Barr McCutcheon, which became a play and a series of films before Walter Hill adapted it and found Pryor and John Candy to play the leads. At least in this version, the story involves a black small-time baseball player, Montgomery Brewster (Pryor), whose elderly white relative (surprise!) dies and bequeaths him $300 million—but only if he can spend $30 million in 30 days without accumulating assets, giving more than 5% to charity, or destroying things that are “inherently valuable” such as works of art.
(This unlikely plot recalls Steve Martin’s 1979 movie, The Jerk, when Martin plays a white man who thought he was black, realizes he’s white, becomes a millionaire who squanders his money, and then re-integrates with his adoptive—but now rich—black family.)
The lesson is supposed to teach Brewster to hate spending and become frugal. It’s ironic, of course: the premise that conspicuous consumption might lead away from excess to moderation. Brewster sets to work hiring people—valuing the labour of typically under-paid people, with the exception of a few ritzy interior designers, lawyers, and money managers—but also has two inspired moments of how to spend money without gaining anything material. First, he buys the most expensive collector’s stamp in the world, then uses it as postage on a postcard. Second, and this one is special, he decides that the best way to waste other people’s money is to run for office.
His campaign for mayor is really a campaign against the establishment, so his slogan is “None of the Above,” a far cry from “Make America Great Again.” But in other ways his campaign is a lot like Trump’s was. Spin off your stardom from tabloids / Reality TV to municipal / federal politics. Buy votes shamelessly. Be the third way (as ironic as it is to say that in Canada where the third way is to the left). Have little respect for office and be honest about it, or seem to. Announcing his candidacy for mayor, Brewster says, “What I’m saying is, only an idiot would vote for me!” His follow-up, what he calls “the bottom line,” is that “I’m here to buy your votes.”
Later, at a big rally full of supporters, he declares that he is there “to see to it that neither of my opponents, nor me, win the election! I want to ask the question: Who’s buying the booze? ... And who’s trying to buy your vote? And who are you going to vote for?” The rallying cry is “None of the Above!” But the crowd really means him, and he later drops out of the race to prevent his actual winning. So Americans would elect a black millionaire! At least as mayor. And if he's funny enough.
A few of my friends now have said they plan to weather the Trumpnado by sitting back to be entertained while waiting for him to lose an election. But that's exactly what Trump wants us to do. He hates being criticized, but he loves to entertain.
Pryor’s critique of star politicians and their fans is that the masses don’t really care about the message as long as they are entertained, e.g., with “the booze.” It’s a classic—and class-based, Marxist—view of the public, one to which I will return in a moment when I ask whether the film itself undermine’s Pryor’s critique. First, consider that, because Brewster is entertaining, his public ignores his message of not supporting the establishment. Not supporting the establishment was perhaps the key premise of Trump’s campaign against the much better qualified Hillary Clinton. Pryor's satire here reveals that rich people like Trump are the establishment, just as much as political lineages such as the Clintons, the Bushes, and the Kennedys are. The people who vote for Brewster or Trump are the “idiot[s],” Pryor claims.
Could any idiot be elected in the United States? I reserve judgment on whether Trump would qualify; my point is that any millionaire could be elected. Brewster’s Millions shows us a world in which Americans vote for the money, possibly without realizing how it is the driving force of the corrupted politics that they want to oppose.
At the conclusion of Brewster’s Millions, Brewster does claim to be sick of spending money, but he does everything he can to get the $300 million—raising my question about the coherence of this movie’s satire. It ends with Brewster a millionaire without rules on how to spend his millions. In that sense, it promotes unregulated capitalism of the type that Trump supports. It does not promote the legitimacy of black men and women as entrepreneurs or in politics.
Further, this unregulated capitalism does have one apparent rule: that white men govern the black men’s money. The 1985 version of Brewster’s Millions can be seen as a pedantic, racially condescending film, because the white man has to train the black man in how to handle money. Worse, the film shows only the training, a frantic montage of conspicuous consumption akin to later hip hop videos, afore the bling became satirical too. Brewster’s claim to be sick of spending money is such a passing gesture, such an ambiguity. Is the mereness of the gesture a sign that Brewster has not learned the white man’s lesson, perhaps deliberately? If he had truly learned the lesson, would he have been so desperate in the final minutes to get the $300 million?
It’s a double bind. Either he plays by the rules of a white capitalist economy, or he remains an unemployed baseball player who has humiliated himself as entertainment before the masses. But maybe this is what Prior intended: to show, not only in the film but in its structural relationship with the economy of the culture industry, that black men in the United States are still not taken seriously, even when they are making the most serious of jokes.
* I’ve decided not to call it “the era of Donald Trump,” preferring to allude instead to the title of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Presidents Pryor, Trump, and None of the Above." Publicly Interested, 19 February 2017, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
This morning, after yesterday’s American presidential election of the businessman Donald Trump, I went looking for perspective. I wanted to help myself understand more fully why many Americans voted for him. I found a somewhat unexpected explanation through the mathematician and philosopher David Schweickart. In the title of an essay, he claims that “Yes Virginia, There Is an Alternative” to the global capitalism represented by rich elites such as Trump. Coincidentally, my very first post on this blog was an open letter to Justin Trudeau, one that alluded to the child’s letter to Santa Claus that received the famous response from the Republican outlet the New York Sun, “Yes, Virginia… [there is a Santa Claus].” I don't believe in Santa Claus, and I don't believe in Trump, and I don't like Schweickart's newly minted socialism, which—the day after the election—feels just too close to one of Trump's very few ideas, even though it's not. And so today’s post returns to the rosy nostalgia of the Sun’s letter in the context of Trump’s blatant mischaracterization of Hillary Clinton as the rich elite and himself as the outsider to the system.
Trump himself said, and I paraphrase, that America needs not a politician but a businessman—as if there was never a politician who was a businessman first. Many voters echoed this rationale for electing Trump: that government is corrupt and that the United States needs a leader who “isn’t owned by anybody,” and someone who will fire his underlings and thereby increase accountability. But this idealized “boss not politician” identity reveals an disheartening confusion of economy and government: the mistaken idea that capitalism is somehow more democratic than elected government. (This confusion is partly what led to the popularization of the term "neoliberalism" to describe ubiquitous capitalism, i.e., capitalism that is now inseparable from democratic governments, following I think from Margaret Thatcher’s claim that capitalism has no alternative.) Even if it were true that capitalism allows any new competitor into the market and hence provides renewal of its leadership, it would not be true that capitalism is accountable to anyone. (Exceptions are few and far between, especially among transnational capitalists. I don't have a problem with most small businesses, though they be capitalist.) If you disagree with the beliefs and actions of the chief executive officer of the biggest business in the country, you cannot vote that person out. If you think that businesses are somehow better at managing their finances than governments are with theirs, look at the huge number of businesses, including some of Trump’s, that have bankrupted themselves, with negative repercussions on investment and employment.
Americans are not entirely irrational to appreciate corporations and mistrust a government that is associated with police brutality; illegal, immoral, and costly wars; and surveillance, torture, and murder. The president is ultimately responsible for these problems, but the police, the military, and the spy agencies are not exactly “government.” I’d like us to remember the term “civil servant” when we think of government. The connotation of civility shouldn’t be forgotten, and servitude, though not a word that describes most workers in government, can at least connote a devotion to a cause. If we, anywhere, are serious about upholding democracy, good government has to be a cause, and we need to consider whether the fat cats are in government as much as in big business. Few of us today are devoted to our corporate employers, because corporations demonstrate little fidelity to employees and often benefit from precarious (yes, sometimes unpaid) employment.
Schweickart addresses this comparison in his essay, remarking that among the top 25 incomes in the United States in 2009 was that of a hedge fund manager: $900 million. To tax his income so that it would be equal to that of the president of the country, his tax rate would have to be between 99.95% and 99.99% (Schweickart 174), depending on equalizing before or after the president pays his taxes. (It’s always his. The United States just missed its first opportunity to elect a woman and to realize, at least for another moment, equality of opportunity.) But Schweickart’s essay is weirdly neoliberal in that it accepts, completely, that capitalism should be a part of government. Or that democracy should be a part of capitalism, which is probably the more accurate way of describing Schweickart's suggestions. In his aforementioned essay and his book After Capitalism, Schweickart conceptualizes a form of corporate government called “economic democracy,” which he calls “our new socialism” (183). The innovation, Schweickart claims, would be to replace labour and capital markets (183) with capitalism by the people and for the people (i.e., profit sharing or “worker self-management of firms”) and “social control of investment” (184). As a result, his economic democracy “is also far more compatible with ecological sanity than is capitalism… Capitalist firms tend to maximize total profits. Democratic firms tend to maximize profit-per-worker” (187) and therefore would not expand unsustainably. I like most aspects of these ideas, but not the conflation of government and economy implied in "economic democracy," and anyway these ideas will not be realized at a transformative scale without the regulatory insistence of government, notwithstanding the successes of the Mondragon Corporation, a cooperative. I used to work both for Canadian Tire and the Royal Bank of Canada, both of which engaged in limited profit sharing, but they were hardly democratic institutions willing to change according to the results of a vote. Trump would never do it. When political allies vote for, or work toward, a politician who wants less government and more leadership by corporate fiat, they are forgetting how democratic government serves and protects them with a much higher priority than how corporations do.
This ignorance or selective memory has various historical dimensions that can best be explained through Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again.” This imperative assertion is an order, in fact, that both reifies his authority and delegates accountability—a big problem with corporate governance. It suggests that now, the end of the Obama administration, is a time when American is not great. Greatness is the past—perhaps the so-called Golden Age of capitalism in the two or three decades after the Second World War. (Trump might well prefer a revolutionary era.) Trump’s echo of Ronald Reagan’s slogan ("Let's Make America Great Again") suggests that he can remember only as far back as the late 1970s and into the 1980s, around when a potentially sustainable capitalism (Schweickart 177-178; Featherstone and Miles 126) veered off the cliffs of insanity. Trump’s remarkably short memory is a sign that we live in a time that Mark Featherstone and Malcolm Miles describe as “a permanent present” (125) on the pretense (not theirs) that no alternative to capitalism means no change and thus no future. It is also evidence of Trump’s nostalgic desire, as Svetlana Boym might describe it, “to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology” (xv). Voters buy Trump’s economic rationale because it encourages them to romanticize the past rather than believe, as Hillary Clinton asserted, that America’s best days are ahead of it (maybe four years ahead). And, in this case, it’s easy to forget. It requires no work at all.
The New York Sun advised Virginia not to think so much about questionable characters like Santa Claus, and its message—though seemingly winsome—is far too close to the anti-intellectual message of Trump and his most manipulative and manipulated followers. The editors in 1897 encouraged young Virginia, eight years old, to concentrate on “faith, poetry, love, romance” rather than wonder about the truth and even begin, in her innocent way, to do some research. How sad that she put her faith in the Sun! How ironic that Trump pointed fingers so often at the liberal bias of the media when this historical example is so aptly contrary. How hilarious to imagine Trump expressing a thought or feeling even remotely poetic. We in (North) America cannot trust “the” government when “the” means Trump and his corporate agenda, one premised at least in the popular imagination on the end of the separation of government and economy. And I am simply heartbroken that so many Americans could trust someone so unwilling to allow his deals to be scrutinized for their legality. And someone so evidently racist, in his plans to ban Muslims and build a wall against Mexico.* And sexist, in his admitted sexual harassment and his repeated misogynistic slurs against one of the most accomplished diplomats in the world.
* See the It's All Narrative blog for a convincing explanation of the relationship between economics and racism in Trump's electoral victory.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Trump’s Appalling Economic Democracy.” Publicly Interested, 9 November 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Recently, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, helped to cause a minor scandal when he refused to use gender-neutral or accommodating pronouns with students who self-identify as other than “he” or “she.” The university remonstrated him—and then Rex Murphy came to his defence a week ago in The National Post. Yesterday, the professor had a major news outlet, The Toronto Sun, to publish his own essay. That Peterson is gaining publicity for a right-wing perspective should be obvious from the stated dislike of Marxism in his essay and his nigh inexplicable claim that people who want to change pronoun usage have “an intense resentment of anyone who has become successful for any reason whatsoever.” As a more-or-less leftist liberal with only a little nostalgia for the bygone conservatism of the Red Tories, I want to use my own admittedly (and helpfully) jumbled politics, and my position as a professor of English, to ask a simple question. How can we set aside the us-and-them politics of this debate?
Before I go too far, I want to say that if a student ever came to me and said, “I prefer the pronoun 'per'" or any other pronoun, I would use it, or, if I couldn’t remember it among all the options, I’d use the person’s name. Having some control over the words people use to define you is meaningful to your sense of identity and belonging. Here is one of my favourite poets, the insistently or at least consistently lower-case bill bissett, offering a similar opinion:
. . . . . . . . . . can b myself he
she thinks thn thats the feer
that th punishment will cum
fr sure if he she cant leev her
call her him n start packing
Here bissett is also radically objecting to the authority of standard English, while offering the he/she option that many people today would change to “they.” Who would have thought that bissett’s writing would ever be old-fashioned in the eyes of other radicals? But rather than do any research right now to answer this question, I also want to say that I note as “incorrect” the grammar of most students who use “they” when referring to singular nouns and names. When a student’s writing is already excellent, I try not to count “they” as a technical error.
Most students, however, are not using "they" for political reasons. Rather, they don’t know which parts of the sentence benefit from agreement with each other. They need a lot of reminders about how parts of sentences fit together to generate and express coherent, consistent thoughts. Asking for agreement in writing is usually not as political as many students and critics think.
It's obviously political in the case of Peterson, however, with various parties attempting to convince or cow each other. In my opinion, confrontational assertiveness is no help, and a third way out of the double bind is needed. I can respect someone’s stated preference for a set of pronouns, but, if the word “they” comes from standard English and is plural in standard English, I’d also like people to respect my preference. It’s a part of my sense of identity and belonging as someone who loves language and has fostered that love against various stigmas that persistently degrade art and the humanities. Rather than err with “they,” I’d rather see writers use neologisms such as “per,” “pers,” and “perself,” which Marge Piercy coined in her 1979 novel Woman at the Edge of Time. (I like these ones because they remind us of the English word “person,” so they’re not only affirmative but also easy to remember and say.) To butt heads on “they” as plural or singular is to perform a script produced by a binary opposition whose politics is equally binary and thus potentially antagonistic. (“Politics is” can be correct when “politics” is used as a synonym for other singular nouns such as, in this case, “ideology.”). The third way is the neologism, which should be less contestable, in theory but not in Murphy’s or Peterson’s case.
Murphy’s conservatism reacts partly against the perception of these pronouns as “a set of freshly made up words,” or, in other words, what he calls “neologisms.” Notably, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "neologism" itself dates to 1772, which is closer to “new” than “old” in the history of the English language. If Murphy reflected on this relativity, he would soon realize that the English language is constantly changing to reflect new realities, partly by gaining new words. I would remind Mr. Murphy of George Orwell’s coinage of “doublethink,” which I suspect Murphy himself has been glad to have in his verbal toolbox. I love Murphy’s subjunctive and his vocabulary of “imprimatur” and, perhaps ironically, “obscurantists”—but, Mr. Murphy, to use “midwife” as a verb would surely have bothered some English professor somewhere. Maybe even me.
Yes, I have been—am—a prescriptivist much of the time. In trying to improve a student’s writing, we’re trying to improve the student’s thinking. Many of us need to improve our thinking by learning how to think beyond binaries, or black and white. This lesson comes partly out of the debate over pronouns, and many of the advocates of gender-neutral pronouns identify as “non-binary.” But, still, knowing how words agree with each other is really helpful: it helps writers to be aware of how sentences work and how their readers might experience their sentences. There’s nothing wrong with this purpose.
So I was stung when I first saw how the website Motivated Grammar attacks professors like me for prescriptivism. I’m amazed at how someone could write against prescriptivism and sound like such a bully! Check it out:
The only problem with this view [of grammatical rules as helpful] is that all
you’ve managed to learn about English is how to get your brain to release
some satisfying endorphins every time you blindly regurgitate some
authority figure’s unjustified assertion. You’re not helping; you’re just
getting someone to pretend to agree with you long enough to shut you
up. Or worse, you’re scaring people into submission to a point where they
feel compelled to preface their speech with apologies for any unknown
violence their words are committing against the presumed propriety
of the language. (par. 4)
Notably, Peterson believes that his university and his provincial government are trying to do just that: “[scare] people into submission.” He worries that the government will dramatically expand hate speech laws to punish people who misuse pronouns which, I agree, would be scary. I know that a pronoun can be used hatefully, but there are all kinds of other words that are much worse; "hate" is a very serious word. What if you could be punished if someone overheard you misidentifying a genderfluid person who identified as “she” when you knew her, and who later flowed into “he”? Gender is too complex to regulate with such imagined laws, and one would hope that the tone of the discourse surrounding it could be less brutish.
Laws can be too rigid, and other forms of power can be more flexible. I like the power of contextualization, of putting things in perspective. Motivated Grammar states that many well-respected writers throughout history have used the singular “they.” If great writers break the rules, why can’t we all? Using a claim to authority (the great writers) to deconstruct a claim to authority (grammar) is fine, but it can be interpreted as just another power play, one power against another. Recently, I heard Alan Doyle of Great Big Sea hosting his program on CBC Radio, and he said of a song he had just played, “I love it—loves it!” He corrected himself into using the grammatically incorrect but culturally appreciated error of subject-verb agreement in Newfoundland. This example of self-policing demonstrates to me that the “grammar police” and the related discipline are not only functions of a dominant language or culture. (Read DA Miller’s The Novel and the Police or Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for more on police and self-policing.) Dialects and subcultures have their own gatekeepers, often cultural figures such as Doyle or Murphy.
I like their respective styles of writing, but let me give my own example of a great writer. Not too long ago, I was reading Tim Ingold’s wonderful book Being Alive, specifically its chapter on landscape and weather. The blurb from Stuart McLean (not the Stuart Mclean of The Vinyl Café) on the back cover claims that his prose “is exactingly lucid and charged with poetic eloquence.” Indeed, he is a writer who can use the subjunctive perfectly: “Are pebbles, then ‘objects on the earth’? [James] Gibson would say so, and so would we, were each of us to stop to pick one up and, having examined it, to replace it where it lay” (131). But I found this sentence: “For formerly blind persons whose sight has been restored by a surgical operation, and doubtless for the newborn opening their eyes for the first time, the delirium [of seeing the world appear to be formed in the moment] can be overwhelming” (128). Here, a writer many would call “great” switches from the plural “persons” to the singular “newborn” for no apparent reason, thereafter linking “newborn” with “their” when “newborns” would agree better. Why not write “newborns”? (It’s so easy to fix these minor errors, so why not?) Did Ingold intend to refer back past “newborn” to “blind persons”? Not likely. (That’s a sentence fragment, of course, and I’ve started some sentences with conjunctions, too.) But what harm is done by agreement? And why doesn’t this usage cast doubt on the writer?
The short answer is that we trust Ingold’s writing because of who he is (however questionable such authority might be) and, more important for my argument, because most of his writing really is above reproach. Readers in the academy, however, are trained (perhaps a distortion of our education) to be critical of everything, including each other. One of the recent peer reviews of one of my essays returned the feedback that my writing is too “conversational”; I had used a single contraction in 6,500 words. (The essay has since been published.) My former supervisor, in contrast, reacted to my attempt to minimize metaphor (read my book if you wonder why) by telling me my writing had become almost unbearably “stark.” Professors tend to approach everyone’s writing with a critical eye. Students, especially, are usually in the early phases of establishing credibility as thinkers and writers. If my professors over the years hadn’t noted the myriad ways in which my essays were difficult to understand, I might have improved simply by reading a lot more, but I might have needed twenty years instead of—I won’t say how many.
In the end, I wish Peterson would relent and eschew his overly conservative ways, but I also wish that the more ardent prescriptivists and political correctors would calm down a little so that we can talk about writing and gender without polarizing our debates.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “The Confessions of a Sisyphean Prescriptivist and bill bissett Fan." Publicly Interested, 4 November 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
We often talk about how privacy is “shrinking.” Consider these pieces in The New York Times (on tiny office spaces), The Harvard Business Review (on shareable data such as body metrics), and Slate (on the secrets of corporate "people") as examples. We use this metaphor of space, one that can shrink or grow, to conceptualize privacy, but we rarely talk about “growing” it.
How do you grow privacy?
“How do you grow a prairie town?” Robert Kroetsch once asked in a poem. His simplest answer was that “the gopher was the model,” because it could pop up and just as soon vanish. And if privacy is necessarily spatial, like a town, then, yes, I suppose it can come and go quite easily—or you come and go, and it stays wherever it is, sometimes where you might not find it again. If you’re one of the many teenagers who finally get their own room, you might lose it as soon as your parents have another baby. How do you shrink a private space? Easy: grow more people. And because space is finite and we can’t “grow” the space, not exactly (perhaps with the exception of a few built islands), you need to arrange for fewer people or for people who can’t claim it—thus war, colonialism, slavery, and real-estate bubbles or unaffordable housing. To oversimplify.
But is privacy necessarily spatial?
Two recent essays in The Walrus have been prompting me to think about this. One, by my friend Naben Ruthnum, is about thrillers and detective fiction and how these genres “reassure us that secrets are still possible,” even in the age of social media “when we can discover the unedited, intimate contents of millions of lives online” (70). The other, by Jonathan Kay, claims: “While pop culture continues to push the narrative that privacy is disappearing, the reality is very much the opposite: privacy protection has become a huge element of both engineering design and corporate branding in the technology industry” (26). According to Kay, our privacy is much better protected than we think, because multinational corporations such as Facebook and Microsoft are convinced that their businesses will grow faster if they have robust security protocols and privacy policies that let us believe we’re in good hands. For Kay, in the real world our secrets are safe, and only in the world of fiction do we really have to worry about private detectives, spies, and cat burglars rummaging through our underwear. But in both pieces, privacy is not so much a space as a feeling of security (this being the sense of privacy articulated after slavery in Dionne Brand’s answer to One Hundred Years of Solitude, At the Full and Change of the Moon) or a right to secrecy.
While I was reading and re-reading The Walrus, I also happened to be reading the wonderfully bizarre At Swim-Two-Birds, a 1939 novel by Irish author Flann O’Brien that raises some of these questions about privacy. It’s one of the tallest of tales—a whopper you might say—in which an undergraduate writer composes a novel that involves Irish legends mingling into a cowboys-and-Indians narrative that crosses the path of a devil and a fairy. Said writer often escapes from his bullying uncle into his imagination, and his writing—as escapism—is really for him an escape into privacy. This is the opening sentence: “Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.” This line is followed by many other similar “retirements.” I’m fascinated by how physical and temporal it is; he’s chewing, and it’s for “three minutes.” It’s physical, but it’s also beyond “sensual perception,” as if it were meditation, as if he were a yogi. His mind might be a conceptual space (as it is in Phyllis Webb’s metaphor of the “glass castle” or Simonides of Ceos’s “memory palace” and his "method of loci"), but it is also out of space and time. In theory, then, your privacy can be as big as you can imagine it.
Escapism is a management of the intrusions of the social world, the social world that is supposedly the real world in contrast with the world of fiction, illusion, or fantasy—whichever you prefer in this case. I don’t believe in this illusion vs. reality dichotomy. Our “real world” is absolutely full of illusion, fantasy, falsehood, deception, and error, and these make the world go round. Sometimes the only assurance is when you escape it into the mind, as when Descartes says, “I think, therefore I am.” Escapism is actually quite important, maybe more so than ever. It helps us minimize the social world, and it enables us to be a little more conscious and in control of the blend of fantasies in our lives—those of others (e.g., entertainment corporations, political parties, the “echo chambers” of social media) and our own. The social media networks offer privacy only so they can monetize your secrets for themselves. It’s your privacy but their property. Escapism can be a way out of this capitalism—if it’s not through more private property, or publishing, or buying video games or Game of Thrones seasons or any of a million other entertainments, activities, acquisitions, and options in general.
Ruthnum’s essay suggests that fiction alleviates real-world anxieties (such as homophobia surrounding the trial of Oscar Wilde, alleviated by horror stories of his time) (70). It doesn’t only create an anxiety for the reader’s enjoyment of suspense, and then relieve it by resolving the tensions of the plot. It doesn’t only pose a fictional problem and offer the fictional solution. Ruthnum’s most compelling observation is that many thrillers today are in fact “near-techless thrillers” (69). They are set before the Internet, or people don’t have their smartphones, or their equipment is broken. The “tech” is basically a spoiler; it stops a tense plot from developing.
What if that’s the problem with our real world? The inverse of Ruthnum’s observation is that, in our tech-full lives—despite true threats such as cyberbullying—we are usually contending with our own banality. Although plenty of escapism is banal (e.g., most television, even today in its “golden age”), the thrillers that Ruthnum reads are not. The writer’s imagination in At Swim-Two-Birds is not. They are fictional solutions to real problems.
A banal world is a small world, whether real or illusory, social or private. Growing our privacy might be simple: shrink the banality—the sheer boredom, the predictable behaviours, the conformism of body and mind. Set aside the phones and their clocks. Be unplugged and alone more often, but not by shrinking the world of real people. Don't covet your neighbour's house. Sometimes I feel that there is nothing more banal than a mortgage.
Now if I could only stop binging on Game of Thrones...
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “How Do You Grow Privacy?” Publicly Interested, 17 August 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com.
Right now I want to help a bigger public than usual to understand literature, rather than try to add to what other professors know about William Shakespeare, symbol, and metaphor. For you high school and college and undergraduate students finding this blog, the easy way to cite this post and avoid plagiarism is right here:
If you say, "Bullshit, I'm not curious," you're using a metaphor to call a statement excrement. If you say, "It's too complicated, so I'll probably never get it," you're using one too: the metaphor that knowledge is something you can "get," as if it were some new shoes. And you probably shouldn't believe either of these quotations, because they don't give you much credit, and metaphor is never literally true.
My specific interest today is how metaphor interacts with symbol. You know what a symbol is, but I'm going to explain a little more about it, starting with Shakespeare's character Macbeth when he says (or when Patrick Stewart says it, playing Macbeth),
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more… (V.v.24-26)
The first line here is a metaphor: life is a walking shadow. It’s an explicit metaphor because it spells out the basic formula for metaphor, A = B (life = walking shadow), which I learned from Trevor Whittock in his book Metaphor and Film. (There’s no harm in saying where you learned something.) Shakespeare follows up with an implicit metaphor: life = an actor (the "player... upon the stage"). It’s implicit because he doesn’t say “is” in that metaphor. Why does he need two metaphors to explain life?
One answer, a short one, is that life’s not easy to understand. Another is that an actor walking in the spotlight on stage will cast a walking shadow, so Shakespeare is not so much adding a metaphor as he is extending the first metaphor.
Let's return, then, to "life = walking shadow," A = B. Another way of explaining the formula for metaphor is to say, “this is that” (Frye 11) which I learned (as you already saw in the parenthesis) from Northrop Frye. The equal sign from above is equivalent to “is,” and that’s why we understand metaphor as an expression of shared identity instead of similarity. You probably heard that metaphor is a comparison that doesn’t use like or as. This explanation isn’t bad, but it’s not good, because comparison is what similes assert. Metaphors assert identity: that two things are the same thing. The verbs “to be” and “is” refer to being, and being is essential to identity.
The verbs and the equal sign also suggest how specific metaphor is, compared to symbols, which usually have a bigger variety of meanings.
But there's also a difference between a symbol and the category of symbolism (things that stand for something else). The category includes metaphor (because the A stands for B). Symbolism includes symbol itself. If you wonder how a category can contain itself, think of your parents. They are symbolism, and you are their child, symbol. But you also have a cousin called metaphor, and another called synecdoche, and another called metonymy. They’re all in the same family and can often be mistaken for each other, but they’re all different.
So, the first line I quoted is a metaphor that contains a symbol: the shadow. How you could ever be the child of your cousin is way beyond my understanding of biology, so this is probably where metaphor breaks down—where, if you push it far enough, it doesn't make sense any more. But up to that point, metaphors can make sense.
Let’s just focus on the symbol of the shadow. According to an often consulted book called A Glossary of Literary Terms, symbols can be traditional (also known as public or conventional, among other synonyms) or personal (or private or invented) (“symbol” 358), and as a traditional symbol the shadow is easily understood. It means death, transience, guilt—usually negative things.
Here's Shakespeare's twist on it. No one interpreting a shadow is likely to say it means “life,” but Shakespeare does—"Life's but a walking shadow"—and metaphor is the device that enables him to be so creative with a symbol. He also makes it walk, which animates the reference to death so that the symbol is not so gloomy (unless, of course, it's the Grim Reaper).
You might argue with me here, pointing out that the soliloquy is really depressing by the end, when Macbeth says that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing” (V.v.26-27). Agreed: that’s dark. But, guess what? Shakespeare is dead, but lots of actors have cast a shadow on the stage or movie screen since he died, and many of them are saying his lines. That’s life! And when you notice how deft Shakespeare is with symbol and metaphor, you’ll probably agree that his words are signifying something, not nothing.
Still, why would he use the word “idiot” to describe actors? He implies here that not only actors but also the people who write their lines are not only stupid but also wordy. (Wordy like the preceding sentence!) He is basically criticizing himself; it’s self-deprecation. But, funnily, not many of us think that of Shakespeare. He was very smart, and he knew it. Interpreted with this self-deprecation in mind, Macbeth’s gloomy speech can also be understood as a joke. Tragedy and comedy combined!
Like that idea? Here are two final, slightly more advanced, ways of thinking about it.
First, the joke in this metaphor is also what could be called self-reflexive metaphor or theatrical metaphor; he wrote it about himself and his experience in theatre. I mention it because Shakespeare popularized a whole tradition of how we understand the self (the actor on the stage) through theatrical metaphors.
Second, think about liking. Think about all the “likes” on websites and social media that are there because a corporation wants to track our desires and simplify our expressions and interactions. Liking is about desire and about connection; fundamentally, it is the expression of a felt similarity between you and what you like: you like panda cubs because you value cuteness. This way of thinking is what similes are for.
Metaphors are for when you are so obsessed with pandas that you feel as if you share an identity with them. You want to go live in a forest in China with them and protect them from hunters; your empathy is that powerful. Shakespeare wrote so often about actors and pretending to be other people that he was probably obsessed with them and, of course, acting was part of his career. Often, we relate to others through metaphor because we identify with them, as I learned from Diana Fuss in Identification Papers, a book my friend Mike Lee recommended.
When you think of it, metaphor is probably more meaningful than any of us expected. It's about life, your identity, and how you relate to others on the "stage" of the world, which you can affect through your performances, just like your favourite actors and musicians affect the world. And when you know more about metaphor, it reveals hidden or extra meanings about writers and their literature and culture, including their language, which might also be your language.
If you're curious now, check out a book called Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. You'll be surprised by how much of what we think is metaphor at work in our minds, without our knowing it.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Shakespeare’s Symbol within Metaphor.” Publicly Interested, 14 July 2016, www.publiclyinterested.weebly.com. (This post is the first in which I've switched from previous MLA formatting guidelines to those in the 8th edition, which is, sadly, going to make me reformat this whole site.)
Mainly because of the recent provincial budget in Newfoundland, where literacy rates are the lowest among all provinces in the country, around half of the public libraries are slated to close to save money. On the show Because News, Rick Mercer called the closures “an attack on literacy.” I don’t like military metaphors, but I agree in the sense that the closures are, like most wars, stupid. They seem highly unlikely to improve our collective intelligence. Maybe, as the library board's chairperson reportedly said, we once had even more libraries but unsatisfactory literacy nonetheless. I can accept that libraries are not magical except to those who already love to read, but I would add that they are only part of the story of literacy, just as literacy is only part of the story of libraries.
On the same show as Mercer, Aisha Alfa said that we might not really need libraries anymore, because we can get a lot of books in other ways: e-readers, radio, the Internet. But Tom Henighan explains that, unlike music playing on the radio or streaming on the Internet, "it’s impossible to put a book in the background and turn it on" (qtd. in Mackey 10). Although I agree that literacy now requires competence in multimedia, Alfa's suggestion doesn’t account for enough of the details. Yes, we can get a lot of books on the Internet, but the libraries under consideration (or lack of consideration) tend to be in rural and often remote areas where people tend to have less money and less Internet access—except in public places such as libraries.
Another rejoinder is that reading online or on screen and reading a book are not the same. When you look at people read on a computer (e-readers being an exception), you probably don’t see it as reading. They are just “on the Internet.” In Literacies across Media, Margaret Mackey writes that, in any situation, we can't look at readers and "see what is going on inside" these reading minds (6). (I was drawn to Mackey's work on the weekend because she was speaking at the Newfoundland and Labrador Book History Symposium organized by my colleagues, an event at which the library closures were often discussed.) In the case of online reading, they could be looking at anything—an online book, yes, but also the image of a chair to buy or a music video or, most likely, the mosaic of distractions that is the typical webpage.
The problem with literacy here and probably anywhere is that, unaware of the pleasure of concentration, too many children don’t care to read, and, obviously, it’s not much fun if you can’t do it and haven't seen others enjoy it. The conventional wisdom now is that having books in the home and reading to your kids are big boosts to literacy. Mackey explains: "We learn how to read in and through the company of other readers" (6). I also read an essay by Daniel Coleman recently, “Beyond the Book: Reading as Public Intellectual Activity,” that prompted me to realize that reading a book shows people an intellectual activity and promotes it by familiarity. We should read books to our kids, and we should read them around our kids.
Yesterday, my partner and I borrowed a car and drove up to Pouch Cove, where we sat in the park across from the library, ate a snack, and admired the amazing view of the ocean and a massive strip of fog hiding the horizon. On some concrete wedges serving as a fence just below the view, some kids had painted images of the cove, including the same kind of fog. Inside, although the library was closed (just at that time of day), we peeked through the window and saw a long set of shelves filled with children’s books. The library also had a large health and wellness shelf, plus a big fiction section that included not only Danielle Steele but also local authors such as Elisabeth de Mariaffi. There was a desk in the centre of the room where a librarian could welcome people and help them find books and information, and—crucially—probably also serve a liaison role with the community centre upstairs.
This is the crux of so many public spaces: you can go there and benefit from them without having to be screened by a bureaucrat, asked prying questions, reminded of what you need that you might not be able to supply for yourself. On the weekend, we were having brunch with some friends, and our friends gave lots of examples of what libraries offer. They offer librarians (experts on how to avoid the problems of reading on the Internet, for example), warmth in winter, air conditioning in the heat of summer, safe space, public washrooms, Internet access, and books—and people from all walks of life go there, at least in my experience. When you learn at a library, you learn how to be more self-reliant with information and knowledge. You can go there with dignity, even gain dignity (e.g., a sense of pride in learning). When people rightly criticize the proposed library closures as likely to hurt poorer people more than richer people, we should all remember how it feels when our pride, self-respect—dignity—are hurt.
The individual consequences, of course, are often badly rationalized by monetary savings in the grand scheme of things. So, the proposed library closures coincide with a new tax on books, the only one in the country, so that the government can not only save, but also make, money. But Chad Pelley at The Overcast seems absolutely right in his prediction that the tax will deter book buyers and thereby raise little money through book sales—“10% of nothing is zero” (6)—while damaging the publishing, distribution, and local retail industries.
For my own part in the grand scheme of things, I fear that I am not going to enjoy my teaching as much if or when I am teaching literature to people whose literacy has suffered partly because of the new book tax and proposed library closures. But, sad consolation, I will probably not have to teach many of them; they will be less likely to meet entrance requirements, regardless of our oft-mentioned special responsibility to the people of the province. The accessibility of the university will worsen. The university will be, for people who might once have benefited from a public library, another closed door.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'The Dignity of the Library.” Publicly Interested. 10 May 2016. Web. [date of access]
If you were my downstairs neighbour and I put my stereo speakers on the floor, cones down, and pumped up “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” you could call the police and I could get a ticket.
If we were at a restaurant, together in the room but not “together,” and I was wearing too much cologne, there would be no similar recourse that I know of. Why not?
Like music, scents can invade one’s personal space. Although you might not especially want your perfume or cologne to be smelled by everyone, most scents are intensified by synthetic chemicals so that many people can smell them whether or not they are your intimates. Perfume and cologne can expand the wearer’s personal space. They are on clothes, hair, and especially skin, and suddenly the skin can often be detected anywhere in the room. By phenomenological magic, they make the wearer a giant. They are a claim on space. As with a flag planted on a hilltop, a scent says, “You will always be able to notice me.” Unlike the flag, the person wearing the scent doesn’t have to be seen to be noticed. It’s a sign that can point at (seemingly) nothing, so, in the hallways on campus or in office buildings, I can routinely smell fragrances worn by people who are no longer there. Unlike music, a fragrance can trigger asthma attacks, headaches, and dizziness (“Go” par. 7). In my view, or in my nose, it is a bad sign.
Except when used sparingly, perfumes and colognes redefine public space. You can’t look away from them. They replace the discourse of speakers and listeners with nonverbal messages, each one loud, like a cry. In an Althusserian sense, it is a hail that provokes an ideological recognition or compliance. I’m serious; like a person’s fashion and couture, a fragrance has meanings related to peer groups, cultural influences, and identity politics. One way of reading the bad sign as an ideological message is that any space is or was open to colonization (a message we descendants of settlers in the West recognize instantly, if not consciously); even the air can be commodified with a branded fragrance such as “Obsession” or “Chanel no. 5.”
Whatever the nuance of a perfume or cologne, it always says, “smell me.” But it’s very different from the scents in Michael Ondaatje’s poem “The Cinnamon Peeler.” In this poem, the intoxicating and sensual smells evoked are only in the imagination. They are erotic because you can’t touch the body in the poem. In real life, fragrances often over-deliver. I have been turned on by the occasional perfume, if it teases. But fragrances are often just constantly in your face. Even if you can’t touch the body, you can become numb to its attractions, and your other senses can be overwhelmed—especially taste, which relies so much on smell.
Last week, I was in Montreal again, and we splurged to go to my favourite restaurant, P’tit Plateau—but the experience was not what it could have been. It was not because of the food, which was excellent as always. It was not because of the company at our table, because everyone was wonderful even when I became a grump. The problem was with some of the other company at a different table, specifically a guy who came in with his girlfriend and promptly stunk up the place.
My train of thought went like this:
1. If my evil eye could kill, he’d be dead right now.
2. Relax, the scent is already gone—no, it’s back.
3. I can’t taste the celeriac. My wine is not from Cologne.
4. Maybe I could ask the waiter to talk to him.
5. Maybe I could leave with a doggy bag of food.
I stayed, but I quietly complained to my friends. Later, on the street after having chugged some more wine, I was more vocal. My friends, one who is Parisienne—the French being associated with the finest perfumes—and one who loves his cologne, objected. So did my partner. These were their reasons:
1. Your nose is sensitive. We couldn’t smell him much.
2. He might have put on too much without time to clean up.
3. We have to tolerate people’s differences in public.
I’m not certain that I recall #3 exactly, but it was a message of tolerance, and I accept that. Mostly. I do, however, believe we are justified to be intolerant of harmful behaviours. (How intolerant? Possibly more so than I was, given that I stayed and didn't say anything to the waiter or the cologne-wearer.) People who smell a little like the type of food that they eat should be tolerated, because food is necessary and nutritious (other edibles being worthy of disqualification as food, according to Michael Pollan). People who smell like gasoline because they work at a gas station should be tolerated because they need to work for a living. (My grandfather sometimes smelled of engine oil—and the tobacco that he called “snuff.”) I wouldn’t be bothered if they cleaned up before going fine dining, though.
I’ve already suggested how, in theory, wearing a scent can be harmful, but I would like to substantiate it so that I don’t appear to be sticking my nose in other people’s business for no reason. First, let’s consider the potential scope of the harm. When I talk about scents, I mean not only colognes and perfumes but also all the fragrances added to moisturizers, hairspray, aftershave, candles, anti-static sheets, soaps and detergents, deodorant (an ironic term if there ever was one), etc. They are everywhere, and that’s part of the problem.
Other people’s business. Here’s where perfumes, colognes, and other fragrances become really interesting. Yes, I admit that fragrances can be interesting on their own. Michelyn Camen of ÇaFleurBon blogged to lament the “repercussions of ‘anti-perfumism’ on our Art,” and while I hesitate to attribute the term “art” to everything, especially with a capital A, I have no doubt that some people—artisans, maybe even artists—can create remarkable and meaningful effects with fragrance. Mother nature does it too, and we can accentuate nature. I marvel at the complexity of coffee, which can be grown and cultivated to enhance its enjoyable qualities.
So, business. In Canada and the United States, if not elsewhere, fragrance is a big business. It’s pharmaceutical. As with any corporation that uses science to create proprietary formulas, fragrance manufacturers want to keep the secrets of their products. Governments have mainly allowed corporations to continue as is, despite the finding that a “typical fragrances can contain between 100 to 350 ingredients” (“Scents” par. 7). On these long lists are substances such as “carcinogenic ‘hazardous air pollutants’ (1,4-dioxane, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde, and methylene chloride), which have no safe exposure level, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” (Steinemann par. 5). The Canadian Lung Association focuses on diethyl phthalate, which is an allergen and reproductive toxin. Anne Steinemann, contributing an essay to The David Suzuki Foundation, has expressed concern about the lack of regulation (par. 6). Why, if we are concerned about interactions of prescription drugs, are we not worried about fragrances, which are like drugs in that we ingest them through our noses and skin, and they modify our body chemistry (as food does, of course, but not harmfully)?
The situation is reminiscent of the governmental relationship with the tobacco industry before the widespread restriction of smoking in public, with the exception of course that fragrances have not been linked with millions of deaths. Cigarettes are obviously much worse. I remember coming home from the bar (where I was neither a smoker nor much of a drinker, in those days; I was designated driver), and my clothes would stink up the apartment and could transfer smells to the furniture and carpet. Those days are gone, here at least, though several of my older relatives have died or are sick because of their smoking. In our newly healthier environments, Marilee Nelson calls fragrance “the new secondhand smoke.” I would not be surprised if we can one day (if not already) correlate illnesses such as cancer with low dosage interactions between high numbers of chemicals, or simply with the carcinogens already proven to be in many fragrances.
When I expressed some of these concerns to the manager of health and safety at one of the universities where I worked previously, he said that he wouldn’t support a no-scents policy because fragrances don’t bioaccumulate and are therefore not harmful, and because some people like the smell. Yes, and some people like to smoke cigarettes. And, in fact, some chemicals in fragrances do bioaccumulate, according to research in the United States (re-reported by the DSF) that found that 70% of umbilical cords contain synthetic musks (“Go” par. 8) . In other words, we keep the synthetics in our bodies and can transfer them to our fetuses and children. They’re also building up in the Great Lakes and in the fish that live there.
If nature is the ultimate public space, we are marking it with scents as no other animal has ever done.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “'Smell Me': Scents and Public Space.” Publicly Interested. 29 Apr. 2016. Web. [date of access]
The day before this long weekend, musician and radio host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. When the verdict arrived, online criticism transferred visibly offline as feminist protesters converged on the Toronto courthouse to denounce the criminal justice system and express solidarity with survivors of sexual assault. Chatelaine interviewed at least 10 of the women who protested, and some of them echoed the hashtags #WeBelieveSurvivors and #BeenRapedNeverReported that started in response to Ghomeshi, affirming the credibility of those who allege they were sexually assaulted. (In Canada, sexual assault is a category that includes rape, but the charges against Ghomeshi were not of rape; he was charged with having struck and choked women in the context of kissing.) Over 20 women came forward with complaints against Ghomeshi, corroborating suspicions about Ghomeshi and raising questions about his, and their, credibility. With this entry on my blog, I want to suggest that the feminist protest is a public intellectual answer to some of these questions about credibility, but I stop short of disagreeing with the verdict or the presumption of innocence even though the protest against the criminal justice system otherwise seems quite right.
As a privileged white male writer who has never experienced sexual assault and whose father is a judge, I am easily associated with the system under question and am not an ideal commentator; however, I’m curious about these issues and how they are entangled in one area of my expertise: celebrity and popular culture. My book on celebrity led me to further questions and to the design of a university seminar on public intellectuals in the context of Canadian literary and arts cultures. In this context and that of my seminar, I want to look at the discussion of celebrity and credibility in Ghomeshi’s trial through the unexpectedly focusing lens of public intellectualism, which helps to validate some, but not all, claims of the feminist protest.
I should also admit that I once liked Ghomeshi’s band Moxy Früvous and listened appreciatively to a few of his interviews that related to my research. I’m not a fan (in the sense of someone who not only likes but also enthusiastically follows the performances of a band or celebrity), but I know that I am biased, partly because of his celebrity, whatever degree of it he had before the allegations and the related scandal. Right-leaning media such as The National Post labelled Ghomeshi “a minor celebrity,” whereas left-leaning media such as The Guardian called him a “radio star” and “one of the country’s most prominent media personalities.” Meanwhile, Matt Gurney pointed out in The National Post that Ghomeshi’s celebrity was maintained through his associations with other celebrities—the network he gained as a bandleader, interviewer, and CBC spokesperson.
In conversation with Gurney, Allan Bonner predicted that Ghomeshi’s network will stay away from him now—an increase in the separation from a decreasing number of allies. Ghomeshi’s celebrity is unquestionably significant to his case: his prominence at a public broadcaster, CBC Radio, demands public trust, and having lost the trust he will probably never get a similar job in Canada, whereas other alleged and convicted criminals are rarely well known and even more easily forgotten; they can recapture a low profile and might reintegrate. If Ghomeshi’s celebrity and his nice-guy persona protected him while he worked for CBC Radio, his celebrity did the opposite after the accusations, and he has in effect been punished without being proven guilty. His accusers and their supporters, however, would rather see him behind bars. I have read the complete legal decision and (as an amateur) think it reasonable despite its lack of imagination about why survivors might try to stay in touch with their attackers, especially if the survivor is a fan attacked by a celebrity who encouraged an appealing love interest. The decision also avoids the topics of what Su Holmes and Sean Redmond call “fame damage” (in their book Framing Celebrity) and of the fan’s desire to see the whole arc of the rise-and-fall narrative of stardom—what Anne Kingston in Maclean’s called “Jiandenfreude” in reference to Schadenfreude—that we get from so many biographies and movies: Elvis Presley, Sunset Boulevard, Marilyn Monroe, Birdman, Kurt Cobain, etc. But the decision isn’t a speculative, psychoanalytic, cultural, or celebrity study of the kind that I might write.
So, I wonder how the debates about credibility change if we think of Ghomeshi—not as a star—as a public intellectual whose situation motivates various publics to respond with varying degrees of intellectualism to concerns often ignored in the public sphere. (I write more below about feminist intellectual involvement in this public sphere.) He can be called a public intellectual because of his skill as an interviewer—a skill that involves considerable background preparation, inquisitiveness, verbal mastery, and quick thinking on air. (If these are less impressive because he had help from CBC Radio staffers, remember that many professors have research assistants, editors, and even writers too.) Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals is germane to the case. He too is a judge, and his book has been rightly criticized for its laziness and biases by Gertrude Himmelfarb and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. Nevertheless, his book is sometimes insightful. Posner argues that public intellectuals deliver a “credence good” (49), which is really a service based on applying their expertise to more general situations. That’s how they establish credibility, though in Posner’s view their celebrity can work against their intellectualism so that the associated credibility meets only a low standard, perhaps that of the so-called lowest common denominator. Ghomeshi’s credibility before the accusations was high, at least in the general public that was not yet aware of the reputation whispered into being at the CBC, and in the court of public opinion his credibility (not an issue in the actual trial) argues against the credibility of his accusers.
Without physical proof of an attack—cuts, bruises, DNA, photographic evidence—credibility might be established anyway, through interrogation of the complainant. Credibility is a major factor in any trial, which is why Ghomeshi’s lawyer focused on questioning the credibility of his accusers in the absence of evidence beyond testimony; she and he benefited from media attention that preceded the trial, including his preemptive explanation, quoted in The Globe and Mail, of his sexual preferences. (In the early 1980s, rules of evidence in the Criminal Code changed so that corroboration is no longer required to believe a complainant without evidence beyond testimony. The Code also changed so that credibility isn't scrutinized when people make complaints about events in the past, and it disallowed a complainant’s sexual history from influencing assessments of credibility, i.e., in sections 274, 275, and 276.) The judge in the trial, William B. Horkins, wrote that “the judgment of this Court depends entirely on an assessment of the credibility and the reliability of each complainant as a witness.” In Chatelaine, Lianne George reflected on “how near-impossible it is to be a credible witness.” Here are the unlikely standards of behaviour that a survivor would have to meet after an attack to be credible later: record every detail, possibly while in shock; somehow rationally imagine a future in which you need each of these details in court; and most notably “avoid contacting your abuser under any circumstances, regardless of how desperately you want to appease, understand, rewrite history or ‘normalize’ the situation.”
(The quotation marks around “normalize” refer to the word chosen by Lucy DeCoutere, Ghomeshi’s only publicly known accuser—the others anonymized by the publication ban—to describe her reason for maintaining contact with Ghomeshi after the alleged assault. Her alleged deception in not revealing her continued contact until presented with evidence of it was one of the main reasons why Horkins had to doubt her credibility in general.)
George explained that “shifting accounts, omissions, memory lapses, confusion and concealed animosity directed at the accused” could all be used against a complainant even though all of these seem to be perfectly normal. Who always tells a story in exactly the same way? Who doesn’t skip one thing one time, and something else the next? Who remembers everything, especially when strong emotions are involved? Who can’t be confused under questioning, and who wouldn’t feel “animosity” toward an attacker?
One answer would be an extraordinary intellectual—a Sherlock Holmes but not necessarily a man—whose memory, rationality, and disinterestedness would enable testimony to be beyond reproach. Most people are not so cognizant under interrogation. I wouldn’t be. Hardly anyone is an ideal witness. The link between presumed intellect and credibility is problematically strong. I would say that it gives Ghomeshi and his credence goods an advantage, except that in the actual trial his credibility was not an issue (because he did not testify) and that in the court of public opinion he seems to have lost, not that I can measure this loss except by my impression after reading comments posted by readers on mainstream websites.
So, what counteracted Ghomeshi’s credibility to the public? What makes public opinion sufficiently informed outside the courts, given that inside the courts his accusers did not meet the court’s standard of the ideal, intellectual testifier?
With an implied reference to public intellectualism, George called the trial “a massive public education” about failures of justice in the system. As reported in the news media, sexual assault is a vastly under-reported crime with low rates of conviction. These facts do not mean that all accusations are true, but in my reasoning outright and intentional lying to accuse others of sexual assault must be very rare, partly because the investigations, laying of charges, protracted trials, associated expenses, and public scrutiny all deter baseless accusations. If people simply want to hurt someone or prefer revenge over justice, there are easier ways than going to the police.
Justice differs from revenge partly because it involves public judgment—not necessarily in the court of public opinion but in a court of law that seeks fairness and demands evidence or credible testimony equal to evidence. For a survivor to accuse someone, I assume that she or he has an idea of fairness in mind, coupled with a desire to publicize a case—in other words, to inform others, possibly to protect them, and to engage in debates about facts and interpretations.
Because of this desire to inform and to engage, can we accept the accusations against Ghomeshi not only as public acts but also as acts of public intellectualism, even what might be called collective intellectualism, assuming that being informed and publicly engaged are aspects of public intellectualism? Daniel Coleman argues that public intellectualism should be conceived "as a set of activities rather than a person, activities that many people already participate in" (205). He names reading as one such activity, but I'm also thinking of activities that people in the plural tend to do more or less in sync, like protest. Mary Eagleton in the Women's History Review notes that, historically, women have been denied powers associated with masculinity, intellectualism, and public authority (206), but the number of women professors and university students who have stood up in public to contribute to the outcry against the verdict (as reported in Chatelaine) is a sign of public intellectualism working against celebrity, a situation I don’t recall that Posner anticipated. Unfortunately, appealing to the popularity of a view—such as the view that Ghomeshi must be guilty because more than 20 women came forward to report him, and many more people believe these 20 to be telling the truth—is a fallacy recognized in philosophy. That the fallacy was probably first recognized by now dead white men does not totally invalidate the concerns it raises.
And yet I want to reflect on occasions when an appeal to popularity (and to a related perception of justice) might be acceptable. Most of the public intellectual arguments about the Ghomeshi trial are not, in fact, about the case in specific but about similar personal experiences and the criminal justice system in general. It is perfectly intellectual and reasonable to compare experience with theory, especially when numerous experiences are also being compared to increase the validity of the sample. These arguments are a kind of metacommentary, a sophisticated way of arguing by contextualizing a problem as systemic. They reminded me of how, in a televised campus debate in 1989, David Suzuki hotly responded to Philippe Rushton’s seemingly meticulous but actually very slippery arguments about genetic causes of meaningful racial difference: Suzuki at first seemed less intellectual but was almost certainly strategically playing to the crowd—an appeal to popularity likely meant to influence public perception that was at risk of becoming more racist—and commenting not on Rushton’s specific science but on the scientific system in general, including the university and knowledge translation in the mass media, that allowed Rushton’s minimally believed views to gain disproportionate attention and credibility. In my view of the Ghomeshi trial, the protestors wanted to increase the credibility of views that are disproportionately ignored but usually valid, just hard to prove. In a way, climate scientists have to do the same: raise awareness of systemic problems that can be hard to prove in isolated cases that should not be considered in isolation.
Indeed, one of the problems in a society with de facto permissiveness toward sexual assault is that survivors are isolated. Possibly to counteract this isolation, two complainants against Ghomeshi wrote thousands of emails to each other before the trial. Anne Kingston in Maclean’s explained, however, that “[t]he charge of possible collusion prevented the Crown from mounting a ‘similar fact’ case, one that would use the similarities of the three situations to contend that Ghomeshi had a propensity to act in the ways described by the complainants.” His credibility was unintentionally assured partly because of the emails exchanged between complainants. I haven’t read their emails except for quotations probably selected for their enthusiastically vengeful tones, but I can imagine that they were not only collusive but, like the protests, also expressions of solidarity and encouragement. More such expressions are needed to enable survivors to come forward. The tragedy of the public interest in my view is not that justice was miscarried in this case but that we do not yet have a sufficiently supportive and protective anti-violence sexual culture. In a conversation on the day of the verdict with one of my students, I heard about Muslim women who have gained agency in private or relatively private situations from feminist encouragement in the wider public culture, and I wish for more such encouragement now.
Some commentators, such as Ashifa Kassam in The Guardian and Jesse Brown at Canadaland.com, argue that Ghomeshi’s acquittal is a terrible discouragement, but I partly disagree. No doubt the verdict will have a chilling effect on communications between complainants against the same person, but it does not seem to have had this effect on the wider public. I would point to public outcry, media attention, and increased solidarity as positive outcomes, along with the potential for collective intellectualism, though the positivity is moderated considerably by the fact that the outcomes were already achieved before the verdict. But this fact, too, is an encouragement, because it suggests that survivors have power independent of the power of the criminal justice system: it’s a power linked to academic freedom and freedoms of association, speech, and the media, and it came largely from people who not only believe, but also believe in, each other.
I’m now curious about different standards related to legal credibility: reasonable doubt, reasonable probability, and especially reasonable belief. Is it reasonable to doubt the complainants in the Ghomeshi trial based on how their actions and statements affected their credibility? I think so. Is it probable that at least one of the many women who came forward had a legitimate allegation against Ghomeshi? Yes. Is it reasonable to believe more survivors? Also, absolutely, yes.
P.S. 3/29/2016: Ghomeshi's next trial is likely to focus on sexual harassment in the workplace, and Laura Fraser observed today that the new complainant has apparently not had anything but a professional relationship with him. The changing context, from intimacy to workplace (a more public space), might provide the prosecution with witnesses and even recordings that would corroborate testimony. These potential advantages do not change the fact that the standard of reasonable doubt is easier to reach than the standard of reasonable belief (an imbalance intended to protect the presumption of innocence), but they improve the odds that a collective credibility will enable a conviction when it is warranted.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “Public Intellectualism, Credibility, and the Ghomeshi Trial.” Publicly Interested. 27 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
In a post several weeks ago, I lamented the lack of onboard recycling on Toronto-based flights, and I called upon airline executives to allow passengers (like me) to volunteer to move recyclable items off planes and into airports where recycling bins exist. A manager wrote to me to respond to my blog and placed the blame at the feet of the Canada Border Services Agency and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, both of which supposedly prohibit recycling on those flights to prevent contagion.
The more I think about it, the more I doubt this claim.
Do recyclables really spread disease? Germs do stick to plastic cups and aluminum cans, but they also stick to tray-tables, armrests, and windows (maybe even fabrics) that are probably not all disinfected between flights.
And can the recyclables possibly be a significant risk compared to, or even in addition to, human beings? We are the ones who spread disease. It's on our skin, our breath, and in our blood and bodily fluids, and we're not going through quarantine every time we pass through Toronto. (If you've heard Toronto described as a sort of quarantine or culture-free zone, it's not; it's a good city.)
The conspiracy theorist in me imagines all too easily how convenient a ban on recycling might be to airlines, the CBSA, and the CFIA. By banning recycling, they can save money on sorting used items and claim to be reducing the risk of pandemics by protecting borders and food supplies.
I'll try to find a study that might have been the basis of this highly questionable policy. In the meantime, I'll be scratching my germ-ridden head.
How to cite this blog in MLA format: Deshaye, Joel. “P.S., World Leaders at Airlines.” Publicly Interested. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. [date of access]
Joel Deshaye is a professor of English literature with an interest in publics, publicity, celebrity, mass media, and popular culture.