Monday, July 06, 2020

Independence/in dependence

When I was a five-year-old I wished our family was American.

I told my father. He said: “We are American — we’re North American!”

Hogwash. America had a beautiful flag. Ours was weird. The Maple Leaf? What was that supposed to mean to a kid parked in the butt-end of Manitoba? The only Maple we had was Manitoba Maple — a weed more than a tree, really.

America had a great national anthem. Canada’s paled in comparison. “With glowing hearts we see thee rise” — those words didn’t make a lick of sense to a five-year-old. “But the rocket’s red glare/The bombs bursting in air” — that was more like it!

Five-year-olds in 1970 were well aware that America had all the good television. Before we got to the spectacular razzle-dazzle of Sesame Street we had to sit though Chez Hélène, The Friendly Giant, Mr. Dressup. Canadian five-year-olds didn’t have to take a nap in the afternoon — we’d been snoozing all morning.

Even sliced bread was more interesting in America than Canada. They had Snoopy on the bag!
Now, more than ever.
And although I did not understand precisely how this could be the case, I knew the reason why America was so snazzy in contrast to pallid Canada — they’d declared independence from Britain. Canada hadn’t. In fact, it wasn’t clear just what Canada’s relationship to Britain was. Except it was weird. In a boring way.

In 1970 the Kindergarten half-day began with us singing “O Canada” and concluded with us singing “God Save The Queen.”

“Mom, why does the Queen need saving? Is she sick in the hospital?”

“Well, that’s not really what ‘save’ means in this context . . .”

“Is it dangerous for her to live in Canada?”

“The Queen doesn’t live in Canada. She lives in London, England.”

“Then how is she the Queen of Canada?”

“She’s not the Queen of Canada, she’s . . . it’s complicated. You’ll understand when you get older. Say, isn’t it almost time for Mr. Dressup?”

Complicated? Actually, it was just plain weird. That was Canada, all the way around — weird, in a boring way.

Fifty years later our nation’s relationship with “Mother England” is still weird, but the history of it makes damnable sense. In 1870 my forebears understood the British were the ones making Canadian soil available to them for our families and farms. When they sang “God Save The Queen” they meant it. But Mennonites also have a long history of being driven off land that’s suddenly valuable to people with armies. 150 years later we’re coming round to the realization that perhaps Britain’s claims on our behalf and benefit were just a touch presumptive.

Americans gained independence. That’s clear thinking. I envied that.

But what are we ever, finally, independent of? What does manifest independence even look like, except an open grave? To be alive at all is to be in dependence of a dynamic network vastly beyond our capacity to ever fully apprehend.

“The digital age is built on the backs of runaway systems” — Jazzman Ted Gioia reflects on the wisdom of Gregory Bateson, extoller of the feedback loop.

Thursday, July 02, 2020

Rattling in my brain pan

  • Emasculated: The problem of men writing about sex by Luke Brown (at TLS, here) has me mulling. 
  • “It is precisely because of my attachment to the power of data collection that I’m unconvinced video footage can solely, or even primarily, lead to meaningful change.” I am also mulling over Mimi Onuoha’s When Proof Is Not Enough: Throughout history, evidence of racism has failed to effect change at FiveThirtyEight, over here. I was struck by the phrase “meaningful change.” Hardly the first time I’ve encountered it, but it has me speculating just where meaning is to be found, or best cultivated, in these matters.
  • Shifts in consumer behavior have been gnawing away at the classic enclosed suburban mall format for many years; then the pandemic completely upended in-person shopping. Converting commercial real estate to housing may be the best use of land in such an over-retailed country. Big shopping centers tend to be centrally located and connected to transit.” The Dying Mall’s New Lease On Life: Apartments is Patrick Sisson’s proposal, at Bloomberg CityLab, here. Hey, maybe we can repurpose a few empty churches that way too?

Saturday, June 27, 2020

Jay Scott’s Vietnam

Re-reading Jay Scott nearly 30 years after his death in 1993, it is striking to see how forcefully he grappled with the Vietnam experience he saw depicted in the movies. It was, he acknowledged, invariably the American experience in Vietnam — and he sounded the alarm, again and again, on this reflexive solipsism, even as he recognized and applauded the necessity of its expression.

From my 2020 vantage point — as a man whose life now exceeds my role model’s by 11 years and counting — the intensity of Scott’s focus on these movies reads as the painstaking formation of a moral core, one which will not absolve Scott or his readers of guilt, but which nevertheless insists on an informed sense of mercy as well.

I currently do not see any of the remaining big critics writing at this level of ambition, with this degree of acknowledged shared humanity — though I am happy to be directed and corrected in this proclamation.

The text from the above photo:
To judge The Deer Hunter solely as a movie is to judge it an honourable failure with redemptive sequences of great power. But to judge it as part of a cultural process is quite another matter. 
As I watched the “God Bless America” conclusion, feeling slightly sickened by Cimino’s avoidance of a moral statement, I remembered a high school friend who left home the same time I did. I went to college. He went to Vietnam. We were friends, but we had argued — I enthusiastically, he reluctantly — about the war. I came home at Christmas in a jet. He came home in a shoe box. Hank was serious in his support of what we called the U.S. involvement. He has been dead for ten years. Now, a movie is weeping for him and for the thousands like him. It weeps in a way he, and they, would understand. One does not have to agree with The Deer Hunter to sympathize. One does not have to like it to recognize its value.  
February 17, 1979 

Friday, June 26, 2020

“When they said ‘repent’/I wonder what they meant?”

“I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder.”
Paul gives consideration to a change of concerns, as he has experienced it, and casually flips-off the Gray Lady by conclusion.

I read it several times. Before I went to bed, I wrote down, “Jay Scott was the first celebrity death to hit me hard.”
What can I say? I'm a sucker for smoking jackets and turquoise jewelry.
When I got up this morning I expanded on that for a few pages. By the time I turned on the computer I realized one reason why Paul and I seem to be talking at cross-purposes is I am more reflexively prone to sentimentality, which might not be very helpful.

But let’s get it out and see what happens.

Thirty years ago Jay Scott was the chief reason I bought The Globe & Mail on Fridays and Saturdays. The chief reason, but hardly the sole reason. The Arts & Books section also ran weekly columns by Stan Persky, Robert Fulford, John Bentley Mays. Those are just the names I immediately recall. It frequently ran pieces by Margaret Atwood, Carol Shields, John Irving, Timothy Findley — etc. The kids in short pants included Russell Smith, Lynn Crosbie, Mark Kingwell, Leah McLaren.

Scott stood out as a sensualist with a piercing intellect — a near perfect balance for a film critic. I wanted to write like Scott did, and not just about film — about everything.

Anyway, here we are. I won’t comment on my own writing except to say the stuff I’m proudest of feels to me like it attains something of what Scott was about.

This won’t be that. But I miss settling into my IKEA Eames knock-off, fresh coffee in one hand, newspaper in the other, positioning myself in the morning sunlight and perusing every single page of the Globe & Mail’s other sections before unfurling Arts & Books at the very end. All the other pages in the newspaper felt like a warm-up run for the main event.

I still have an Eames knock-off. Coffee is still a habit, and the Saturday Globe & Mail still has a section devoted to arts and books and tchotchkes and shit. They call it “Distractions” or something like that. Needless to say, it’s an emaciated version of what used to be.

If it were to fold, would I miss the Globe? Well ... kinda. My wife likes the crossword puzzle, and I enjoy pulling the page out of the newspaper for her, just before I bin the rest of it. But otherwise, no. Reading it just depresses me, and not only because it’s a shadow of its former self. I can tell where its writers are going within just a few sentences. The element of surprise is long gone, the potential of revelation rare to the point of near-extinction.

The truth is I already miss the Globe.

And I’m increasingly missing the New York Times.

The Globe, the Times — in the 90s it felt like I’d left the Sunday School classroom and arrived in another chamber where I could more freely explore what it felt like, and what it meant, to be alive at that particular moment. That earlier list of names — obviously the preponderance is largely male and entirely pasty-skinned. But it is also remarkably Queer, and seems at least pointed in a promising direction.

In this moment, to be alive is to feel the inexorable pull not to the Sunday School classroom, but someplace considerably less forgiving. And maybe that is where humanity is required to be at this particular moment. Our home and host has an astonishing capacity to forgive our transgressions against it, one we have long taken criminal advantage of. And this doesn’t begin to address people we have held in similar contempt. Humility, contrition and repentance are unfashionable words, but they seem to be what is called for.

Reading the newspaper pages, or social media blurts, I am not at all confident we have the foggiest idea what humility, contrition and repentance even look like. Never mind forgiveness. Or atonement — one of Madeleine L’Engle’s favourite words. At-one-ment,” she would stress, again and again.

Atonement. Maybe it looks like this?

Monday, June 22, 2020

Re: consideration of The Liberal Imagination

Bowman has nudged me to apply a little more rigour to the question of “Wither (sic) Liberalism?” To that end I’ve opened Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination with pen in hand, and begun filling the margins with all manner of 21st Century yap-back. I hope to post short, less yappy, considerations of Trilling’s critiques.
Lionel, amidst the detritus of neoliberalism
But let’s start with Louis Menand’s 2008 introduction to Trilling’s book (The Liberal Imagination was originally published in 1950). Menand makes note of Trilling’s intellectual dodge — Trilling never defines “liberal” or “liberalism” in any of the essays collected here. Menand reaches for Isaiah Berlin:
There are, as a matter of political theory, radically different types of liberals. There is, in Isaiah Berlin’s famous distinction, the liberal who believes in negative liberty, “freedom from,” and the liberal who believes in positive liberty, “freedom for.” There is the liberalism of markets and individualism, and there is the liberalism of planning and the collective.
Interesting to note how quickly Menand skates straight to the thin ice in that last sentence. When he wrote it, the '08 market crash had not yet happened — in fact NYRB’s reissue of The Liberal Imagination preceded the crash by exactly one week. Not a moment too soon. It’s 12 years later and “neoliberalism is DEAD!” is common parlance in the broadsheets. Personally, I’ve long had a firmer grasp of the “neo” than I ever did of the “liberalism” it commandeered and stripped for parts.

So the hat-tip to Berlin is helpful — the “freedom from”/“freedom for” dialectic still frames well, in my own experience, as you can see in my meandering conversation with Paul, both here and here.

Knee-jerk thought: Kids These Days, particularly the ones taking over the dying newspapers — to what degree are they conscious of this dialectic, if at all?

More anon. But if you’re the impatient sort, or if you’d rather pass on my artless treading of water and head straight to synchronized swimming, check out The Christian Humanist’s exploration of Trilling’s 1961 essay, “On The Teaching Of Modern Literature.”

Friday, June 19, 2020

Post-post-Bloom-script

June 19, Post-post-Bloom-script: now that I’ve read the three posts and followed most of the links included, I’m quite a bit cooler toward the project. Bloom’s audience and the ground they presumably share are somewhat at a remove with regards to my own concerns re: critical theory, etc. Still, my posture is why be choosy about the help you receive, if it is, in any way, actually helpful? I'll keep an eye on “Ay-Jay” and meditate further — maybe publicly! — on this piece.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Alan Bloom vs. Que Sera Sera

Further to my fretting over the health of the North American Liberal Tradition:
“You ever ask yourself, 'Just what is the freakin' point"??”
Alan Bloom is helpful.

“Critical Theory” is a dog-whistle that tends to get my fur up — as I was finishing up my undergrad I was made to understand this would increasingly be my focus were I to proceed any further. Buh-bye. I’ve subsequently blamed the academy’s failing health on its blind adherence to a po-mo hash of CT dogma.

Bloom’s consideration of CT and the problem with such generalizations dispels much of my long-held prejudice toward it.

Similarly the en vogue media concern with intersectionality. I could not articulate quite why I was uncomfortable with the model, aside from it placing me (as a SWM in his mid-50s) squarely in the locus of maximum culpability. Bloom notes, “The doctrine of intersectionality tends ... to focus on intersections that intensify but to ignore intersections that cancel each other out.” That is hardly the last word on intersectionality, but again — it’s helpful.

And, of course, he’s got this thing for demons. Man, that’s not a dog-whistle — that’s catnip!

More anon, I am sure...

Post-script: Bloom, being firmly in the “code or be coded” camp, constructed his very own blog template. Alas, it isn’t particularly great at archiving in sequential order. He’s got a lot on his plate, so with regards to his thoughts on critical theory I’ll go ahead and archive it myself over here: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3.

Monday, June 15, 2020

I read the news today. Oh, boy...

I read Ross Douthat on occasion, to give my liberalism a bit of a gut-check. I've never been much tempted to link to anything he's written. That changes today. The Tom Cotton Op-Ed & The Cultural Revolution: How Liberalism & The Liberal Media Are Changing Before Our Eyes is a cogent, even sensitive argument for the return of genuine liberalism to the newspaper page.

Matt Taibbi, on the other hand ... I have to reflexively check my impulse to link to just about everything he writes. Unlike Douthat, Taibbi isn't soft-shoeing around the issue. The American Press Is Destroying Itself, he says.

These two diverse voices seem to be in agreement. And I agree with them both.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

The Great Emergence, Hiding In Plain Sight?

Like many other things we have noted, the tension toward changing things externally into new forms, as opposed to reworking them internally into what should be, has been a major characteristic of each of our previous hinge times and will continue to be part of our present one. The imperative for us in the twenty-first century, therefore, is not to fear either of the two coursings, but to fear with all our hearts and minds and souls the pattern of bloodiness that in the past has characterized the separation of innovators and re-traditioners from one another. 
Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why
‘People involved in Uzbek politics are accustomed to rumour and lies. It’s common practice to assume that all information is unreliable and all sources biased, which ensures that all rumours are taken seriously. Rumour is not automatically believed, of course, so much as it is shared, parsed, and discussed — sometimes far beyond what its dubious origins might merit. The result of ubiquitous paranoia is not disbelief. It is credulity. 
‘When all information is assumed fraudulent and all sources suspect, when your worst suspicions about your government are routinely confirmed and denied, when on-line communication — itself nebulous and malleable — is your only means of interaction, what do you do? You follow your principles . . . . But in Uzbekistan, following your principles often gets you nowhere. And there’s not much you can do about it.’ 
When I wrote this passage in 2011, I did not know that eight years later, I could substitute “America” for “Uzbekistan” and it would serve as an apt summary of Trump-era politics. 
Sarah Kendzior, Hiding In Plain Sight: The Invention Of Donald Trump & The Erosion Of America
It is a curious experience reading Phyllis Tickle’s charting of Christian response and re-formation in the 21st Century in concert with Sarah Kendzior’s charting of the US decline into gangster autocracy and civil dissolution.

Tickle is, as every person of faith is required to be, an optimist — albeit with an ability to acknowledge blunt realities. Kendzior is a flinty realist who cheerfully admits she’s lost all hope.

I’m midway through both, so commenting now is foolish of me. But you don't expect wisdom from me! So here I go.

I will admit I am more easily persuaded by Kendzior’s pessimism for the future of American democracy, or any possibility of democratic reform (forget about justice), than I am by Tickle’s sense of what shape the “emergent” Christianity might take.

What if this emergent Christianity simply . . .  doesn’t? Emerge, that is.

Repeat caveat — I am only halfway through Tickle’s book. But at this point she focuses almost exclusively on the corpus of Western Christianity. Maybe she delves deeper into other embodiments later, so bear with me.

Tickle says the Christian church holds a “garage sale” every 500 years or so to get rid of the arcana holding it back from properly addressing the concerns of the present. But what if the every-half-millennium “garage sale” — which jettisons modes and conceptual memes that no longer work in correlation with our species’ relation to its technologies and natural habitat — what if the current “garage sale” being organized sorts out the superfluousness of . . .

. . . Western Christianity?

Western Christianity has moved in lockstep with — and has largely aided and abetted, wittingly or no — the materialist mercantilism that has eroded our planet’s communities and ecosystem to the point of mutual ruination and collapse. Do we even have a coherent understanding of “community” or “stewardship” we could articulate at this point in our history?

My guess is (optimistic bastard that I am) there are other forms of Christianity more likely to emerge into something fungible for humanity at large. African and Chinese Christianity, to take just two examples, are, for starters, both more robust expressions of Christian community than anything you’ll find here — due in no small part to oppression and persecution that has occurred within living memory of these communities.

Anyhoo — thoughts that occur as we collectively chart the ever-widening gyre. More anon, I hope. Be well.

Thursday, June 04, 2020

Meeting writers!

“You’re doing it anyway. Why not get a credit for it?”

This was my friend’s encouragement to go ahead and take the university’s sole Creative Writing class. The professor was Al Reimer.
1986, pretty much the way I remember him.
I had to submit an application. Our first meeting in his blue-carpeted office, Al quickly dispensed with how we were related (distantly, but definitively) then tucked into the pieces I’d dropped off. I was in.

The class took up an entire afternoon, one day a week — the longest class duration I’d experienced to that point. We needed the time, because that man was born to expound. If I approached him in his office for some between-class advice, the rest of the afternoon or morning disappeared. He’d ask a few questions about my larger family, then explain where they fit in with our village’s history. History was just a lofty name for gossip, he assured me. And boy, did he know history.

I recall the office visits with more clarity than I do his classes, to be honest. But he was adamant on one bit of instruction: introduce yourself to the Writer in Residence. Attend their readings, submit something you’re working on and book an appointment to discuss it. This wasn’t a course requirement, mind you. Just the best piece of advice we were likely to get that year.

The Writer in Res the first semester was poet Tom Wayman. My mates and I were in awe of the man before he even set foot on campus. Wayman — not merely a published poet, but an accessible one. With a sense of humour! How was this guy not a regular in the New Yorker?, etc etc.

I arrived early to Wayman’s first reading, and took a seat near the wings — close enough to observe him carefully, as if he were some exotic egret in its natural habitat, but also within range of the exit, should any need arise for either of us to flee the scene.

Al walked in a few minutes later. Before he could introduce himself to Wayman, the poet bounded over with outstretched hand, effusively praising Al’s newly published novel, My Harp Is Turned To Mourning. Al stammered a thank-you, then collected himself to return compliments for Wayman’s most recent collection. Exchange completed, Al surveyed the room, then sat beside me. “Well,” he murmured, “I was NOT expecting that!”

My eventual meeting with Wayman was a happy-enough occasion. As is the way with these things, the younger disciple approaches the master, and within a few minutes it becomes evident to both that this will not blossom into a lifelong epistolary friendship. When we settled to discuss the piece I’d dropped off, his opening statement stuck with me. “The first thing I want to say is, when I started this piece, I was in — I wanted to see where you were going, I wanted to finish it. You know what I’m saying? At no time did I ever NOT want to be reading it.

That struck me then, and still does, as remarkably high praise. This was my second year of university, and I was just beginning to discover a boatload of stuff I did not want to be reading.

When the year was over I bought Al’s novel. And at no point did I ever not want to be reading it. But I puzzled over how a guy like Wayman, a hippie-type from (to my eyes at that time) indeterminate ethno-cultural origins, could muster any interest whatsoever in a patently Mennonite novel. I finally figured, Wayman’s a savvy guy. He’s not just interested in Writing The Thing Itself, he’s keen to keep as many potential publishing doors as wide open as possible.

You never know where the next paycheque might come from, so you read, you compliment, you insinuate yourself as closely as you can to what could potentially be the next paying gig.

I was beginning to get an idea of just how much work was involved in “Being a Writer.”