Kingwell: We are all students of The Plague

Kingwell on reading the plague during COVID:

Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague has enjoyed renewed success during the 2020 pandemic, to the point where it is no longer easy to get a hold of a copy in person or by mail. When I set it as the first text in a small seminar I’m teaching this fall, Ethics and Literature, I knew it would prove both timely and provocative.

The syllabus for this course was fixed some months ago, but since then two significant facts have been added to the resonance of the novel. The first is that this class, a limited-enrolment course for first-year undergraduates, is happening entirely online. The second is that, owing to a visit to the United States to help with my in-laws’ acute but non-COVID-19 medical care, I’m in quarantine right now.

This isn’t onerous. During initial lockdown and even over the more liberated summer months, I spent most of every day at home, with books and screens for company. My spouse and I would meet in the evening to cook dinner and drink some wine. We might go for a walk, or sometimes meet someone in the park nearby. No ballgames, plays, restaurants, or travel.

But a grim truth of Camus’s story is how much it matters whether you are homebound by choice or by decree. Likewise, the routine boredom of his setting, the sleepy town of Oran, becomes a fearsome restlessness under cordon conditions. The denizens, lacking long-distance communication – even the mail is halted for fear of infection – fall back upon themselves in attitudes that run from religious mania and suicidal tendencies to resolute fortitude and various degrees of self-delusion.

There are also many instances of bureaucratic incompetence and heartlessness, of just the sort we have come to expect from authorities in our own plague days. Attempting to cross into the U.S., I was challenged to justify my existence in a manner as stonily ruthless as anything in Kafka. “What do you need him for?” my American spouse was asked incredulously. (To her credit, her first response was, “Well, he’s my husband.”) I managed to say nothing during this hostile exchange, even though I really wanted to point out that, barring family duty, I had no desire to visit the insane, disease-riddled, conspiracist-authoritarian wasteland that used to be America.

The most unsettling period was between this first “interview” and the second stage of inspection, which we endured in a parking lot without our passports. Like many Canadians, I take for granted the magical niceness of the Canadian passport, which usually opens doors without a pause. At that moment, I felt the tiniest twinge of stateless anxiety, the feeling that you are nothing absent highly contingent credentials. We got across, finally, and spent the next 10 days dealing with hospitals, caregivers, medical supply companies and big-box stores that sell everything from baby monitors and special pillows to probiotics and painkillers.

One of the students in my seminar is in quarantine, too. Another is in Delhi, attending the class late at night. The rest are scattered around Toronto and distant parts of Canada and the U.S. There is no such thing as a perfect technology, but our online meetings have been upbeat and fun considering how depressing the subject matter is. A shared story creates community. The students are especially fond of the chat function on our video platform, adding a running commentary to the main conversation that I find funny and they find engaging. So far so good.

In their weekly papers and comments during class, though, a darker mood emerged. Camus’s novel offers many obvious parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic, not least the initial refusal of citizens and authorities alike to take it seriously. Then, as the pestilence takes hold more firmly, comes a creeping sense that life may never be the same again.

One of my students wrote, “I’m constantly questioning whether it’s possible for us to go back to the way things were, or if the pandemic will ever end at all.” Another said: “Before the plague, the people of Oran are imprisoned by their habits but, during the plague, they are prisoners to their city and furthermore imprisoned within themselves. … [T]he irony of the situation is that they yearn to go back to being prisoners of their habits, almost as though suffering from Stockholm syndrome.”

This is Camus on the larger point: “[N]ow they had abruptly become aware that they were undergoing a sort of incarceration under that blue dome of sky, already beginning to sizzle in the fires of summer, they had a vague sensation that their whole lives were threatened by the present turn of events.” A plague is many things, sometimes only incidentally a potentially fatal disease. It is above all a social condition and a challenge to self – and maybe an opportunity for reflection. One needn’t be an absurdist to appreciate how Camus demonstrates the lurking meaninglessness of ordinary life when it is unmoored from familiar lines, habits and experiences of time.

Consider perhaps the most interesting character in the novel, the loner Jean Tarrou. In one of his notebooks we find this query: “How contrive not to waste one’s time? Answer: By being fully aware of it all the while. Ways in which this can be done: By spending one’s days on an uneasy chair in a dentist’s waiting-room; by remaining on one’s balcony all a Sunday afternoon; by listening to lectures in a language one doesn’t know; by traveling by the longest and least-convenient train routes, and of course standing all the way; by lining up at the box-office of theaters and then not buying a seat; and so forth.”

Later, speaking of his choice to affirm life over death, he says this: “[O]n this earth there are pestilences and there are victims, and it’s up to us, so far as possible, not to join forces with the pestilences.” Not all plagues are physical, after all. Unwasted time is a form of resistance, especially when the hours drag. Lively minds in action, struggling with new realities and old books, my seminarians remind us all how to cope when life feels stalled and out of joint. The cardinal virtues are patience, humility and compassion – because, in philosophy class or out, we’re all plague students now.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-we-are-all-students-of-the-plague/

Kingwell: The science of denial

Good commentary on ignorance and denial, the importance of expertise over ignorance, and that free speech should not give license or credibility to “Hate speech, plagiarism, pseudoscience, cynical falsehood, and self-serving nonsense:”

Peter denied his association with Jesus three times before the cock crowed, at least as Luke tells it, but nowadays denials are a lot easier. Just one will do, and you can make it at any time of day on Twitter or Facebook, or some other dependency-creating interface. Deny science, deny experts, deny social and legal norms, and above all deny responsibility for any ethics scandals, cronyism or accusations of bad governance.

Denial does feel life-affirming. It places me against the man, or the mob, or the whoever. But it is also the first of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages for dealing with grief. You have some work to do. Denial ain’t just a river, as Mark Twain probably did not say.

Sure, you can always adopt some Trump-era version of “never apologize, never explain,” and thus secure your membership in the current version of the 19th century know nothing party. Insincere performative apology is another attractive option.

Lots of people know nothing. Some of them know that they know nothing, and make that a guiding principle in life. This is the good kind of ignorance.

The record indicates that Socrates, directed to the Oracle at Delphi, was told that his fate was to be the wisest of Athenians. Since he, a simple soldier and cobbler, knew that he was ignorant, it seemed clear that wisdom might reside in knowing that he knew nothing. Michel de Montaigne struck a medal with the sceptical slogan: Que sais-je?—what do I know?  In philosophy class, we sometimes call this de doctrina ignorantia. We start from a lack of knowledge, but with lots of questions, especially for those who claim to know.

Things get tricky when knowledge becomes increasingly complex, however, demanding individuals who devote their lives to one special subfield in order to advance it. Non-experts in turn resent and fear these individuals, who sometimes tell them what to do or correct their errors. So people refuse to wear masks even months now into a global pandemic; they won’t take a state-sponsored vaccine even when it becomes available, because it may be infected with government software; and they are led by a president who says he “disagrees” with Anthony Fauci, a doctor who actually knows what he’s talking about. Trump disagrees, from his vast knowledge of medicine?

Sure, why not. I disagree when my doctor tells me I should stop smoking cigars and ordering Manhattans, but I also believe he is correct. That’s on me.

Denial is a deeply human act, hardwired into our feeble brains, and actually not a function of ignorance. Fauci was recently chided by one writer for neglecting, as a scientist, the science that illustrates how prevalent denial is in the species. This seems, at the least, extremely unfair. Fauci’s specialty is epidemiology. He’s not a social psychologist. And even if denial is common in us, does that make it okay? Hate is rampant in human affairs, and violence, and torture, and irrational prejudice of all kinds, and host of other behaviours that are “natural” yet abhorrent. We don’t, at least in our better moments, simply give them a free pass.

But the criticism does highlight two salient features of current COVID-dominated political culture. The first is that expertise, always a fragile property, has become suspect. The old saying has it that an expert is a person who has read one book; these days, you don’t even have to do that much work. A few hours on websites and you are surely the smartest person in the roomeven if the room is just your basement office.

The second is that calling people stupid is not the best way to make them act smart. You don’t rehabilitate an addict by calling him or her names. You need structure and therapy and support; also nudges, incentive schemes and social scaffolding. And more information will mostly not help.

Trust in experts has been eroded for good reasons and bad. There good include fake science journals, institutional arrogance and aggressive scientism wielded as moron-bashing ideology (yes, I mean Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and their fellow “Brights”). But reflexive and comprehensive suspicion of elites, East Coast elites, Laurentian elites, or whatever is the going version right now, is just doubling down on dumb. That denial tactic may workit may even get you elected to high officebut it is harmful, immoral, and sells short the stocks on the human-potential market.

In the best case, expertise represents a preponderance of evidence and accumulated scholarship, rather than simply flashing credentials or invoking institutional heft. That’s good scientific method: this is the universal truth, the best explanation so far. Sane people can work with that. But other people will still deny because of confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, fear of cognitive dissonance, the pleasures of solidarity, sheer contrarianism, and maybe a misplaced, harmful belief in “individual freedom” over community safety.

So then what? Well, how about large doses humility, more education and a great deal of open discourse? John Stuart Mill was rightin the marketplace of ideas, good ones can eventually drive out bad, but this is painful, costly and bloody. It’s not me or you or some other person with an M.D. or a Ph.D. who matters, it’s good arguments that should prevail. This is creative destruction. If science teaches us anything, it’s that previous thinking never lasts. Philosopher of science Karl Popper influentially argued that every scientific proposition must be falsifiable—not wrong, rather open to being shown wrong on its own terms. Otherwise it is faith, ideology or madness.

Falsifiability is a baseline standard of all good discourse, yet it’s often misunderstood or distorted by media positioning and political posturing. For example, take note, in this political moment, that determining the meaning of “free speech” has become its own species of luxury good. A lot of hefty, credentialed, big-platform people (most of them experts in nothing except sounding off) are squawking about cancel culture and ideological targeting, not really on principle but because their special privileges feel threatened. But using “freedom of speech” as a conceptual cudgel in your ideological battles against “mobs” is not classical liberal thinking. It’s just a dog whistle in the culture wars. Denial is as denial does.

Hate speech, plagiarism, pseudoscience, cynical falsehood, and self-serving nonsense are not free speech. They are toxins to be eliminated by the clean air and sunshine of reason. At the same time, a lot of what is called censorship these days is actually vigorous disagreement, calling out bulls–t, and speaking truth to power. (We have to leave room for self-serving nonsense, since without it there would be mostly silence.)

There will always be deniers, of anything and everything, just like there are conspiracists, demagogues and witch-hunters in every historical moment. They can’t be eliminated, they can only be made outliers. Maybe at some point, like all responsible people, they will admit that they were wrong. The willingness to acknowledge error is, rather than our top-of-the-food-chain smarts, what makes us homo sapiens.

I might be wrong about that, or dishing up some self-serving nonsense. What do I know? I’m sure lots of smart people will now tell me.

Source: The science of denial

Reflections on the Trudeau brown face/black face photos

Observing the media frenzy over the past few days over the Trudeau photos, a number of thoughts came to mind:

  • The focus on what was viewed as hypocrisy, understandably so, given Trudeau’s inclusion and diversity mantra and the Liberal party’s war room tactics in “outing” Conservative candidates for homophobic or racist remarks;
  • The overall shallowness of the reporting, focussed almost exclusively on the possible political impact, rather than more substantive issues involving racism;
  • The contrast between media and pundit outrage and more balanced reaction by many visible minority Canadians in talk shows and other reactions; and,
  • The lack of assessment of the Trudeau government’s record where, as I have analyzed before, is strong with respect to increased diversity (Taking stock of Ottawa’s diversity promises) and its renewal of the Multiculturalism Program including additional funds for data collection and anti-Black racism initiatives.

As noted by many, Trudeau’s apology was in many ways, his first real apology. One can only wonder whether he had adapted a similar approach to the various ethnical lapses (Aga Khan Island holiday, particularly SNC Lavalin) whether the government would be facing the same electoral challenge.

And most pundits, at least at the time of writing, have not done any meaningful comparison between the Trudeau apology for these photos and Scheer’s non-apology for his 2005 speech in Parliament against same sex marriage.

My quick take:

  • Trudeau responded quickly, with a second and more comprehensive response within 24 hours;
  • Scheer waited for the better part of a week before responding;
  • Trudeau recognized what the photos communicated, recognized their impact, expressed regret and indicated his personal views and behaviour have evolved, and made a strong statement against racism;
  • Scheer spoke in impersonal and legalistic terms that a Conservative government would not reopen same sex marriage but did not indicate his personal views and behaviour had changed;
  • Both were in their mid-to-late 20s and thus were adults.

Fundamentally, Trudeau’s insensitivity and obliviousness towards these images is balanced by not by his disavowal but more important by the actions the government he leads.

In contrast, Scheer continues to give the impression that personally, he stands by his 2005 speech but accepts the reality that same sex marriage is the law of the land. His absence in Pride events tends to confirm that.

Two media articles that drew my attention:

First, Samana Siddiqui’s Responding to Justin Trudeau’s Brownface: Memories of a Brown-Skinned Canadian:

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is just a few years older than I am, and he grew up in the same Montreal I did in the 1980s. Which is why I can understand the roots of his “brownface” stunt.

For the record, blackface and brownface are wrong. Dressing up and mimicking another race or culture via costume is nothing less than a modern-day minstrel show. It’s not about humor, but about power and arrogance, intentional or not. The mimicked group is rarely the one in control of the accepted narrative about themselves or others.

My elementary school in Montreal was very racially and ethnically diverse. Most of the kids were like me, second-generation Canadians, the children of immigrants to Canada from all over the world. While we had our fights and disagreements, most of the time, epithets and insults based on race, ethnicity, or religion were rarely, if ever, uttered.

That changed once I reached seventh grade in a new school, in another Montreal neighborhood. There, most of the kids were also second-generation Canadians, with one caveat – their roots hailed from a specific European country (I’ll decline to name it). I was now, literally, a brown face in a sea of white. That was the first time I was called a “Paki” in school.

My response to the insult (which had been imported from Britain to Canada to describe brown-skinned South Asian people) was fairly simple. I responded by insulting the name-caller’s ethnic group. It worked. He never insulted me again.

And life moved on.

Did it scar me? Not really. But it made me wonder what had made him call me a “Paki” when a. I was at my locker minding my own business at the time and b. I had never before insulted his ethnic group?

Part of it was because teenage boys can be exceedingly immature. The other part though reflected something deeper.

It was the understanding that such words and mockery were accepted culturally – even if they weren’t officially. Had I gone to my teacher or principal, I have no doubt that the offender would have been forced to apologize. But that didn’t take into account the fact that “Pakis” like me were unknown to my classmate. We were rarely encountered in person, or in the cultural landscape via movies or on television. And when we were, our brown faces, “smelly” food, “funny” clothes, and our parents’ “accents” were a source of derision.

It was a reminder that we can all talk about multiculturalism until we’re blue in the face in Canada – but in the end, the only acceptable setting is white.

The more interesting part of this whole fiasco though is that it was Trudeau’s father, the late Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who pushed for greater multiculturalism, opening up Canada legally and culturally to diversity when he was Prime Minister.

The elder Trudeau declared in 1971, the year of Justin Trudeau’s birth, that Canada would adopt a multicultural policy. Under his leadership, he emphasized that the Government of Canada would recognize and respect diversity in languages, customs, religions, and so on. In 1982, when he was still in power, multiculturalism was recognized by section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But laws are one thing. Cultural change takes longer. It takes generations.

I’m grateful that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologized. I have no doubt that this sudden revelation is also partly political calculation on the part of his opponents in a heated election campaign. In addition, we should keep in mind Trudeau’s overall record as a leader on issues of diversity when understanding this incident.

We can move on from here. But it has to be with the understanding that this is not about face paint or costumes. It’s about power. And if Canada, or any other country for that matter, wants to establish itself as a society committed to justice, equity, and strength through diversity, it cannot do that by creating an imbalance of cultural power – through insulting practices like brownface, blackface, or any other mockery.

Source: Responding to Justin Trudeau’s Brownface: Memories of a Brown-Skinned Canadian.

Secondly, Mark Kingwell’s Memo to Justin: Who you are today is who you were yesterday. His point on Aristotle “what you do is who you are” applies to Trudeau’s persistent instinct to defend, deny and obfuscate but not, I would argue to his political evolution.

After all, the views of most of us do evolve, both individually and collectively as we have seen with respect to gender equality, diversity, same sex marriage and the like:

So this is what we are forced to imagine. You have been invited to a party. There is a stated theme, or maybe it’s just a general fancy-dress affair. You go to the mirror, look at your handsome face and think: Hey, brown makeup! Or you look at your somewhat less handsome face and think: Hey, Nazi uniform!

Is there any species of dumb that’s dumber than donning a racist or fascist costume under cover of a party? Justin Trudeau, once our “It Boy” Prime Minister, is reeling from revelations that he dressed in brownface for an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001. Some may remember Prince Harry’s equally ill-judged decision to favour a brown shirt and swastika for a swanky birthday party back in 2005. What is it about parties? In both cases, you have to wonder: What were these guys thinking? I mean, really – brownface and brown shirt? I’m older than both of them, but even at their respective ages I think I would have known that these were bad, perhaps despicable, choices. Brownface? Brown shirt? Red flags, guys, red flags.

“I take responsibility for my decision to do that,” the PM said this week on the campaign trail. “I should have known better.” He added: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry.” Things got even worse when it was revealed that, in high school, the youthful Justin performed Harry Belafonte’s hit song Day-O while wearing “makeup.”

Let’s be clear. We are not talking, here, about the nasty N-word dialogue in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) or the casual disregard shown for black people in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn (1884). In both those cases, and many similar ones, there is an argument that the quoted characters are not identical with the author. Even T.S. Eliot’s avowed anti-Semitism or Enid Blyton’s racism might be contextualized, if never excused, based on the passage of time. But Mr. Trudeau: 2001. Prince Harry: 2005.

We are forced to recall, in the Prime Minister’s case, his justification, faced with accusations of unwanted groping, that “someone else might have experienced that differently and this is part of the reflections that we have to go through.” Memo to Justin: Some of us do our ethical reflections before the fact, not after.

The issues go beyond parties, japes and half-baked apologies. Recently, comedian Shane Gillis had his upcoming contract with Saturday Night Livecancelled because of racist and homophobic jokes he made, all captured on social media. This ignited an enraged counterattack from mostly white, mostly middle-aged comedians who saw it as an example of “cancel culture” – the new right-wing code for what used to be called political correctness.

Never mind that SNL, and especially executive producer Lorne Michaels, can boast no clean sheet when it comes to racist, homophobic and politically craven humour (the show’s kiss-ups to Donald Trump are especially egregious, though maybe balanced by some other gags). When Bill Burr, Jim Jefferies, Rob Schneider and others lamented this contractual decision as “cancelling,” they were just wrong. Wrong, period. There are consequences to actions, whether or not you consider yourself an “edgy” comedian or a handsome fellow with a fine social pedigree.

Some people, lamenting the new vigilance over what public figures say and do, wonder if there is no statute of limitations on bad behaviour. “Sheesh, guys, it was 2001! I was a kid!” In 2001, Justin Trudeau was 29 years old. Shane Gillis was 30 when he recorded the now-infamous podcast. “But I’m a comedian who takes risks.” Again, no. It’s not being overly sensitive or too social-justice warrior or “millennial” to respond: “Sorry, no free pass on that one, now or ever.”

Personally, I’m with Aristotle. The Greek philosopher taught us that your actions are your character. What you do is who you are. There is no escape hatch from that, just a deep and never-ending responsibility. Who you are today is who you were yesterday. We may forgive, but we never forget. Saying you “take responsibility” does not alter the record.

Have you done bad things in your life? Of course you have. So have I. Let’s hope we all exercised better judgment than even contemplating donning dark facial makeup or a swastika – or finessing a charge of sexual harassment. For the rest, the world must decide. Welcome to ethical life, friends.

Source: Memo to Justin: Who you are today is who you were yesterday

ICYMI: Why we shouldn’t boycott Michael Jackson’s music

Agree (even if not a great fan):

The vivid revelations of sexual abuse by pop star Michael Jackson – unproven in court, but hauntingly recounted by survivors in a recent documentary and an Oprah Winfrey special – have raised once again that thorny question: Can you still enjoy the art or wisdom of someone who is alleged to have done evil?

Mr. Jackson’s family vehemently denies any wrongdoing at his objectively creepy Neverland estate, complete with its youth-chasing Peter Pan themes. The estate is vilifying the young men who have come forward with their stories of seduction, grooming and worse, which go back to 1993. We may never know exactly what happened on those 2,800 acres near Los Olivos, Calif., and Dan Reed’s documentary Leaving Neverland reprises old rumours, but cannot definitively prove them beyond the first-person accounts.

Three major Quebec radio stations, the BBC, Norwegian radio and at least one Dutch outlet have now boycotted MJ’s music in the wake of this recent publicity. Others are sure to follow. Many former fans are likewise sickened and censorious, and indisputably, the King of Pop has had his crown knocked down. It wasn’t so long ago, of course, that Mr. Jackson held his infant son over a balcony in Berlin, apparently one step away from dropping Prince Michael II onto the pavement below. But the pressing question now is whether Mr. Jackson’s work is irredeemably tainted – and whether we can ever listen to his music innocently again.

Everyone must make their own calls on this. Personally, I find it easy to separate the man from his music. I will go to my grave loving the Motown-era Jackson Five versions of I Want You Back and ABC, with Little Michael in angel-voiced glory. And the 1983 Motown Special performance riveted my world with a new Michael, complete with the game-changing moonwalk.

Still, that doesn’t settle the basic question. For many decades, we have been confronted by artists whose views and actions seem to undermine their best achievements, and there are even websites devoted to rating their misdeeds, because of course there are. There is a rogues’ gallery of racists and anti-Semites in the Western arts and culture canon: Ezra Pound, Virginia Woolf, Patricia Highsmith, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, H.P. Lovecraft, Dr. Seuss (!). There are misogynists and alleged wife-murderers: William S. Burroughs, Norman Mailer, Louis Althusser. There are actual charged murderers: Caravaggio and Phil Spector, for example. And there are, of course, many very bad husbands and wives: Charles Dickens, Pablo Picasso, Woolf again, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald (a drunk as well) and so on. And there is the going concern of Woody Allen, who continues to work despite the allegations of sexual abuse against him.

As critic Charles McGrath said, “Genet was a thief, Rimbaud was a smuggler, Byron committed incest, Flaubert paid for sex with boys.” So are you going to give up reading them all because of moral censure? That would, at the very least, limit your literary range. Explaining away racism, anti-Semitism or misogyny as a “feature of the time” is little better, a mealy-mouthed apology.

So the best way forward is just to bite the bullet on bad behaviour. In philosophy, the special case is Martin Heidegger, the phenomenologist who revolutionized German philosophy in the 1920s with his monumental bookBeing and Time, and continued to influence the discourse after the Second World War with dense essays on art, poetry and technology. The problem is that, from the 1930s on, Heidegger aligned himself solidly and publicly with the Nazi Party. His 1933 Rector’s Speech at the University of Freiburg is an uncommonly clear defence of the authoritarian status of Adolf Hitler, and of the subservient role universities must assume under a Nazi regime. It is an indefensible, shameful performance: craven, arrogant, pretentious, and slick all at once. Heidegger worked to destroy his Jewish former mentor, Edmund Husserl, and maltreated his secret Jewish lover, Hannah Arendt.

What a world-class creep! And still I recommend that my students read Heidegger. Why? Because the man is the instrument, not the hand. I assign his work in almost every class I teach, because his insight is indisputable. I never play down the Nazi proclivities, or how they are joined to deeper thoughts about Earth and world, beauty and truth. He was a terrible man, but a great philosopher.

That is how it rolls here on planet Earth. Human beings are flawed, sometimes terrible creatures. And yet they can, under the right circumstances, commune with the sublime. I don’t know how that is possible, but it is. Don’t turn off the music, friends: Just turn on the awareness.

Is Canada a nation or a notion? Kingwell

As always, Kingwell both amusing and serious ruminations on Canadian identity (“nation as conversation”), with some worthy suggestions on how to strengthen it:

Those of a certain age may recall the first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, aired on the BBC in October of 1969. It was called “Whither Canada?” Canada doesn’t actually figure in the episode, naturally. That interrogative, seminar-style phrase was also among the finalists for the legendary comedy troupe’s name. Why? Well, you have to imagine that the question was so inherently hilarious that it seemed appropriate for a gang of clever English absurdists in their 20s.

I think that’s funny, but not everyone does. And we’re still whithering on. You go to bed one night thinking that the existence of Canada is a more or less a settled issue, or at least one of those things, like Donald Trump’s hair, that are no longer open questions. And then you wake the next morning to headlines about cross-border beer disputes reaching the Supreme Court, and fuel-pipeline arguments that threaten to overturn the confederation. Hands are suddenly wringing. Canada: nation or notion? Provinces: evil or just standing up for themselves? How many best-selling Québécois authors can you name? How far north have you ventured?

We have been on this cultural merry-go-round so many times before that this semi-hysterical discourse about Canadian identity might in fact be what constitutes Canadian identity. In polite Canadian fashion, I acknowledge that this meta-level argument is not original to me. I also note, reputation aside, that Canadians are often more passive-aggressive than polite.

And so the grab-bag of clichés and stereotypes opens, with everyone taking a hockey slash at everyone else’s list. Poutine, hockey, canoes, toques, Ski-Doos (not snowmobiles), distance in klicks, the Hip, couches (not sofas), garbage (not trash), beer, maple syrup, hating Americans, hating Americans hating us, hockey again, maybe some duck-confit poutine this time, snowshoes, anything winter really, eh, oot-and-aboot (in fact, more like oat-and-aboat) and the Mounties always get their man. He shoots, he scores.

You can now add a couple of other parlour games of identity-insecurity. Famous Canadian who succeeded elsewhere! Bieber, Jepson, Rogen, Mitchell, Young; Trebek, Nielsen, Carrey, Meyers, Sutherland, The Shat and all those people who run New York magazines. For the olds, Hume Cronyn, Raymond Massey and Mary Pickford. Spot fictional Canadian characters – Rex Mottram in Brideshead Revisited, Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, Frances in The Sun Also Rises. Keep a chart!

Next, map your national travel. As a brat of the Air Force and a blessed adult traveller, I’ve been lucky to go from St. John’s to Tofino and lots of places in between. As a teenager, I was a guest of the Bloodvein First Nation in central Manitoba, which felt a lot farther north, at 51 degrees, than Edmonton does at 53, or Lake Waskesiu at just under 54, two other stops I’ve made. Sadly, I was only ever north of 60 in Reykjavik – hipster north. This game is what Glenn Gould called “northmanship,” one of those competitions that you can’t win for losing. I’m pretty sure that my neighbours in Toronto’s Regent Park won’t feel they ever need to play it, for example. The local basketball team, meanwhile, claiming the motto “We the North,” is actually situated farther south than two of its American competitors. Canada, where north is a state of mind.

Nation-states may be defined many ways, from textbook-version ideas such as a distinct land mass defensible at the borders and an identifiable citizenry. Or shared bloodline, ethnicity, history and culture. Or an enforceable monopoly on the legal use of force. Or maybe the set of laws themselves which govern a populace. Or even, at a minimum, a scheme of swapping taxes for services in a more or less reliable way.

As a loose confederation of regions and jurisdictions, assembled over a period of more than 80 years, Canada is an unlikely country, yet not an impossible one. The optimists among us find it impressive that such a place exists at all, let alone with sustaining vitality. Like so many other Western states, it was founded on force, money and colonial bigotry. There are deep wounds in our body politic, but so far they fall short of fatal ones. There is no monoculture here, as we all know, nor even a myth of one when vast differences become obvious, marked in red and blue.

This vaporous quality of the country has led many people to label Canada a postmodern, or postnational, or postpatriotic country. We might debate the possible meaning of those terms forever. I prefer to think that Canada survives as a collective act of suspended disbelief, a feat of constant reinvention. Call it the discursive state, or the nation as conversation – not always polite conversation, indeed, yet civil in the sense of confronting disagreement without violence.

Even the current pipeline dispute is subject to the judgment of the courts, after all, and while a decision there could leave nobody happy, that’s how liberal justice works. Parties to dispute accept the authority of an outcome because that is what a just regime demands. Equalization payments and national pensions enrage some citizens, just as threats of secession have done and may well do again. Even secession could not be achieved by provincial fiat, however. We came together through deal-making and discussion, and so far the deal continues.

A country can’t be all talk, though. What would bolster the national consciousness practically? Well, there should be compulsory national service for young people, as in Austria, Switzerland and other countries. Those not willing to serve in the military can opt for national parks, tree planting or community assistance. Guaranteed basic income is likewise essential, even if flawed. Wealth inequality is a much more divisive force in Canada than provincial haggling will ever be – not that the two aren’t sometimes related.

Although education is a provincial file, college and university tuition should be equalized from coast to coast. Likewise – sorry Alberta – we need a consistent sales tax, not just GST. A civics and history curriculum must be standardized for every high school in the land. National debating and youth-parliament programs, which already exist, should be funded lavishly. Subsidies should be available for all students to visit Ottawa.

The list could go on, and some are dreams destined for failure. But no practical measure will matter unless there is decisive leadership in Ottawa and respect for the rule of law everywhere else.

The current Prime Minister’s father was much criticized for his staunch nationalism. Cranky Westerners can still be coaxed into apoplexy with mention of the National Energy Program, official bilingualism or progressive immigration policies. (Not just Westerners.) What we should remember is that Pierre Trudeau’s vision of the Just Society was a powerful vision of equity without leveling differences or diminishing opportunity. It was an idea to connect the country in a manner more concrete than the airwaves of the CBC ever could – and can still less now.

Justice is long and hard work, never-ending, the work of citizens. In our increasingly networked and decentralized lives, we may only rarely consider citizenship the most important fact about us. Metaphysically speaking, it’s probably not. “Canadian” is not an identity; it’s a relationship.

I have a PhD student, from Whitehorse, who chaffs me for saying I’m proud to be Canadian. I see his point: Despite our habitual complacency, there are depredations and deficits of trust, systemic injustices and cultural bigotry that must be acknowledged. Also poverty and misery everywhere from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to the streets of Inuvik and the dirt roads of Nova Scotia’s South Shore.

No nation is perfect. Our job is not to make Canada perfect, only better.

via Is Canada a nation or a notion? – The Globe and Mail

Don’t bother trying to understand those on the ‘other side’ – Mark Kingwell

Kingwell on the limitations of free speech, with some trenchant and convincing arguments (e.g., “haters gonna hate”).

His best points are on what should be rules of engagement for public discourse: “no interruptions, no slogans, no talking points.” Hard, however, to see how these could be implemented given the current tenor of political and media discourse:

The recent deadly Nazi hate-fest in Charlottesville has, in addition to revealing the extreme moral vacuity of the current White House, prompted a call for more compassion and empathy when dealing with basic ideological differences.

Pundits orate on NPR about how to recognize the psychological damage of those given to right-wing rage. Classes are offered in tactics for engaging those on “the other side” of political debates. My impeccably Democratic New Hampshire in-laws set off to attend one of these sessions last week, earnest in their desire to find common ground with fellow Americans who voted Trump.

These efforts and sentiments are noble, but doomed to fail. Even a minute of exposure to the views of Richard Spencer or David Duke – let alone the Twitter feed of POTUS 45 – is enough to show that there is no rational engagement possible here. There is a moral baseline that Nazism is indefensible; we ought likewise to recognize that most people can’t actually be reasoned with.

That’s why, much as it pains me to say, as someone theoretically committed to the rule of reason, that what we need in public debate is not more understanding. The utopia of a rational public sphere is an illusion, and efforts to unearth it – in the form of core American values, Canadian tolerance or some other political chimera – fool’s errands. What we need, instead, is what social scientists call scaffolding.

In simple forms, scaffolding means things such as air-traffic control, highway roundabouts, exit signage, and queuing conventions – small mechanisms that allow humans to co-ordinate action when their individual interests might otherwise generate chaos. In more subtle cases, we constrain our own desires in the form of, say, computer apps that time-out social-media access (the Enabler-in-Chief could use one of these). Or else we impose limits on freedom in those suffering harmful addictions. Addicts can always try therapy or self-control, but we know that denying access to the drug or even inflicting benign behavioural modification is far more effective.

Why don’t we acknowledge that political belief is also an aspect of human behaviour in need of external control? Let’s call it conviction addiction. Sure, some people can, like social drinkers, moderate their views and stay clear-headed over the course of the day. Others fall into a pattern of abusive behaviour and acting out. They can’t help themselves.

The gateway drug is interrupting, raising your voice and deliberately misunderstanding interlocutors – all standard moves of a CNN segment. Conviction-addicts then move on to ranting at hidden forces, demonizing ethnic groups, and sounding dog-whistles – all standard moves of Rebel Media or Sean Hannity. Finally, if unchecked, they order the flashy haircut, don the white polo shirt and fire up a tiki torch. The fact that a slogan like “Jews will not replace us” literally makes no sense is, at this point, not a defect but a mark in its favour.

Classical liberals argue that bad speech should be met with more and better speech, that the marketplace of ideas will short bad stocks and return investment on good ones. Alas, not so. The mental market is far more irrational than the one governing wealth, which veers from high to low based on rumour, wisps of policy change and random tweets.

Thus the need for market regulation, antitrust legislation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. These are hard-floor scaffolds on trading, meant to combat excesses at the margins. Consider, then, that individual consciousness is considerably less sane than even the most rapacious corporation. Mere existence is sufficient for each of us to form a limited company in the world of thought. That’s frightening! There is no dialectic possible here. Haters gonna hate.

Let’s recognize the conviction-addictive quality in all of us, and stop imagining that free public discourse will bend toward reason. Curbs on speech and strict rules of engagement – no interruptions, no slogans, no talking points – may be the right answer here. We already, in this country, ban hateful speech. Let’s go farther and insist on discourse rules, limits on public outrage and aggressively regulated social media. We could even ban media panel discussions.

We’d still co-exist, versions of Immanuel Kant’s notional “nation of devils” ruled by uneasy self-interest. But it won’t be through talking things over, let alone hugging them out. Limit indulgence in the cup of conviction; let’s have more constraint, less conversation. That’s your path to a stable future, friends – by not trying to be friends.

Source: Don’t bother trying to understand those on the ‘other side’ – The Globe and Mail

No exceptionalism please, we’re Canadian: Mark Kingwell

Good piece against Canadian smugness:

Here’s the basic argument. Canada, unfettered by what Michael Ignatieff condemned as “ethnic nationalism,” has carved out a whole new way of being a country.

It is post-national. Its banking system is centralized and immune from wacky market fluctuation. Its health-care system is impeccably public. And above all, its immigration policy is tolerant and open-minded, making for the truly multicultural polity that provokes the world’s envy.

Now, far be it for me to dispute this vision. In fact, it is so familiar that some of us have been touting it lo these many long years. Back in 1999, I wrote a book that defended Canada’s postnational advantages and suggested we should be proud of our transcendence of the tired narratives of identity based on bloodline or ideology. I wasn’t the only one: Richard Gwyn and John Ralston Saul, plus a few other familiar names, made their own versions of the argument.

Right now, the advocates are slightly younger (and cooler) Canadian intellectuals, such as Stephen Marche (in The Walrus) and Charles Foran (in The Guardian). In a country as small as this one, it can be no surprise that I count these two men as friends. It happens that I also claim friendship with Andrew Potter, a former graduate student, who mocked Mr. Foran’s Guardian article on his Twitter feed, even as he is about to convene a serious conference on the topic of exceptionalism that features still more friends.

To repeat: It’s a small country. Maybe that’s the true exceptionalism in play here? Anyway, stories about how we are unique, paired with push-back replies, feel to me like those predictable-as-the-weather Canadian weather stories, where writers deplore the inability of once-staunch Canadians to deal with cold and snow. Were we ever really so robust that -30 C temperatures and a blizzard were just, you know, a lark? I doubt it.

I likewise doubt the new tales of exceptionalism, which have the feeling of a national theodicy. You remember the idea: Theodicy is the claim that God’s will is inevitably working itself out in this world, never mind all signs to the contrary. We may confront vast stretches of misery and suffering, but that is all part of the plan! As the refrain goes, paraphrased from the philosopher Leibniz, everything is for the best in this best of all possible worlds!

After the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which devastated the city and killed thousands of innocents, Voltaire was moved to lampoon this sad, evil idea. His satire Candide (1759), a kind of proto-novel, remains one of the essential texts in the literature of enlightenment and good sense. The young protagonist, Candide, is a devotee of the new Leibnizian philosophy; his outrageous misfortunes, bravely borne, eventually force a change of mind.

Canadian exceptionalism is the new Leibnizian philosophy. The reasons for this are instructive, even if the argument itself is suspect.

We might note, first, that the term itself is tainted – another borrowing from the expansive republic to the south. U.S. exceptionalism is the covering-law theory that assumes the United States, different from all other countries, can do no wrong and brook no objection. Mr. Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” (#MAGA) is just the most recent expression of this perpetually self-renewing delusion.

Worse, though, is the self-congratulation contained in the position. Don’t get me wrong: This is a great country, and I would not choose to live anywhere else. But I don’t think we Canadians have any special purchase on justice, diversity or fellow feeling. This is not the best of all possible countries, as recent arrivals and indigenous peoples will certainly attest. We are as rife as anyone else in intolerance, bigotry and ignorance.

Unless and until we confront these facts about our political life, tales of exceptional virtue will continue to strike a sour note. Sorry, friends.

Source: No exceptionalism please, we’re Canadian – The Globe and Mail

Who has the right to say what’s correct? Mark Kingwell

Kingwell on political correctness and civility, making the important distinction between politeness and a willingness to engage in meaningful yet respectful discussion and debate:

Civility is much misunderstood. It is not politeness, the stifling of personal opinion in the service of social niceties. Politeness is a minor virtue of communal life. I might reply, when asked my opinion of a dinner, that it was “quite good.” I don’t really believe it and probably my host doesn’t either. Enough said.

Genuine civility, by contrast, marks a willingness to engage the other in the service of understanding, not competition. This is never easy. Will what I say offend someone else? Well, maybe. Is there still good reason for saying it, and saying it this way? What, finally, is the point, here?

Nobody anywhere, on campus or off, has ever had the privilege of saying anything at all without consequences. The next time you think political correctness has “gone too far,” ask yourself if maybe you are the one saying unproductive, small-minded or stupid things. Just as important, we all need to remember that nothing is ever correct until we argue the point – and usually not even then.

Source: Who has the right to say what’s correct? – The Globe and Mail

Where is the postracial society? Mark Kingwell

On identity politics and post-racialism:

Is the solution a “postracial” society, blind to colour and bogus judgments of difference? Would that it were so. Unfortunately, too many comfortable postracialists are self-appointed allies of struggle, who should remember that they don’t get to be not-white just because they have achieved personal tolerance. Demographics alone are an uncertain vehicle of change, and rainbow populations no guarantee of harmony and justice – sometimes quite the opposite.

The presumed liberal goal for diverse societies is universal equality, but identity politics seems compelled to tout essential differences. The best response to this long-standing philosophical double-bind isn’t what Mr. Rock suggested: more opportunity, especially in Hollywood’s tiny self-regarding gene pool. Opportunity is too often a rigged game, another frat mixer where you get stuck in the corner with the other squares.

Instead, we need to challenge the very idea that random differential traits – skin colour, physical beauty, penises – should generate outcomes unrelated to them, such as wealth, power and status. Racism is stupid as well as dangerous, a conceptual error frozen into intellectual sludge. The solution is not more identity but more imagination, including for differences we haven’t yet encountered.

Without that, the postracial society will remain a sci-fi dream, like crew rosters on Star Trek or the bar scenes in Star Wars. And even there – well, we like you, C-3PO, but you’re … not an organic.

Source: Where is the postracial society? – The Globe and Mail