Saturday, December 31, 2016

What is "Real Food"? The Case of Vegan Mac & Cheese

Maureen and I ate at an excellent vegan restaurant in Victoria yesterday (Be Love); their cashew/coconut cream macaroni rivals that of The Sneaky Pickle in New Orleans for the finest macaroni dish I’ve ever had—far, far tastier, to my mind, than the macaroni and cheese dishes I used to love for so many years. Be Love calls this dish Mac & Cheeze (similarly, they call their delicious cashew-cream-based dessert Cheezecake). Such dishes are often referred to (including by those of us who are vegan or vegan-friendly) as “fake mac & cheese.” When we use a phrase like that, we are of course acknowledging that, however much they may differ from (and be an improvement on!) the macaroni and cheese we enjoyed as children, such dishes are created with reference to (or in memory of) “real” macaroni and cheese. But we don’t for a moment think that there’s anything fake about them in any broader sense.

Sad to say, not everyone thinks of “fake” and “real” in this way. A case in point is Alexandra Gill’s snarky review of two new vegan restaurants in Vancouver in today’s Globe and Mail, which concludes in this way:
I get it. It’s not really cheese. And for some people, these processed reproductions are a godsend. But if you can’t fake it, why even bother trying to make it? There is so much better to be found in its natural form.
Let’s leave to one side Gill’s extraordinary incomprehension (“why even bother…?”) of the many reasons other than taste for people to want to eat a plant-based, whole food diet (far better health, infinitely less damage to the environment, eliminating the appalling cruelty that farmed animals are routinely subjected to); I’ll keep the focus in this post on the nexus of real, fake, natural, and processed.

To begin with, Gill evidently assumes vegan dishes that reference familiar cheese-based or meat-based dishes to always be designed with the intent of slavishly coping the features of those dishes. That may be the case with some such vegan dishes, but a good vegan “mac & cheese” is no more a copy of a traditional mac & cheese than Manet’s Olympia is a copy of Titian’s Venus of Urbino—or Shakespeare’s King Lear is a copy of the anonymous play King Leir that he drew on for much of his source material. In such cases the later works resemble the earlier, but it would be entirely wrong-headed to call the later work a copy of the “original.”

But Gill doesn’t just assume that all vegan “inspired by” dishes represent attempts to copy slavishly; she also assumes that such dishes are less “real” in other senses. Here she is writing about the vegan mac 'n cheese served at Meet in Gastown:*
The mac ’n cheese does a better job of faking it [than do the restaurant’s vegan burger offerings]. The yellow cashew sauce is thick and melty, and the nutritional yeast sprinkled over top adds crumbly, gratin-like texture. But honestly, the green side salad is the most satisfying part of the meal because it’s real food.
So which is more real—traditional mac & cheese or vegan mac & cheese? To Gill, the latter is a “processed reproduction” of the real thing. But let’s give the matter of processing a moment’s thought. Cashew cream—the main ingredient in the sauce of most vegan “mac & cheese” recipes, is minimally processed; all you do is grind the cashews until they become smooth and creamy. What about cheese—which is of course the main ingredient in the sauce of traditional mac & cheese? Because humans have been making it for so many centuries, we tend to regard cheese as natural, and as unprocessed. You may well be unshakeable in your belief that it’s “natural” for one species to take the milk of another (and take the babies of that other species away from their mothers in order to do so). But you can hardly maintain that cheese is not a highly processed food: from the heating and fermentation of the cow’s milk through the manipulation of lactic acid levels, the addition of enzymes produced in the stomachs of ruminants, and the separation into curds and whey, to the inducing of mold and the complex aging and curing process—it’s all highly complex. The twentieth-century creation of industrial products known as processed cheese—which of course are even more highly processed—has no doubt helped foster the sense that “natural” cheese is an unprocessed food. In fact it is by far a more processed food than the cashew cream that’s the basis for vegan “cheese” sauces—and a less natural one too, if it comes to that.

What’s more real, then? Traditional mac & cheese or vegan mac & cheese? What’s more natural? Perhaps it’s better simply to ask this: what’s better? Alexandra Gill and I will no doubt differ as to what tastes better, while she chooses to simply ignore issues such as what’s better for the environment, what’s better for human health, and what’s better for non human animals. For many of the rest of us, though, such “side issues” matter a lot more than does the matter of taste. It’s simply a wonderful bonus when dishes such as vegan mac & cheese also offer better taste—as is the case these days in many, many restaurants, as well as in many recipes that you can google and easily make for yourself at home.

*I've not eaten at the new Meet in Gastown, but (thanks to my daughter Naomi) I have eaten more than once at its sister restaurant, Meet on Main, which shares the same menu; I highly recommend it.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Margaret Wente on the Radical Left "taking over our universities"

In her Globe and Mail column this past Saturday, Margaret Wente tries to argue that, in Canada and indeed North America, "radicals have taken over” our universities. It's worth a closer look.

Perhaps her most striking piece of evidence concerns the percentage of self-described Marxists who supposedly inhabit today's universities. In her column, Wente uses the present tense in asserting that, according to “studies of US universities, 18 percent of social science professors say they’re Marxists.” But check out the study in which the 18% figure appears; “The Social and Political Views of American Professors,” by Neil Gross of Harvard University and Solon Simmons of George Mason University is readily available online.

It's clearly a carefully researched (and well-written) study. But it turns out that the study was conducted in 2006; it's a bit of a stretch for Wente to present it as evidence of current trends.

Secondly, the study consisted of a questionnaire that was filled out by roughly half of those to whom it was sent. The authors themselves write that the results were likely somewhat skewed, under-representing conservatives and over-representing those on the political left; a series of follow-up phone calls by the authors indicated that, for whatever reason, those on the left seemed to have been more likely to fill out and return the questionnaire than those on the right. It would seem, then, that even in 2006 it would have been misleading to conclude that 17.6 percent (the exact figure in the Gross and Simmons study) of academics in the social sciences in North American universities were self-described Marxists.

But what of the overall trends? Wente's column suggests that there's been a huge growth in the radical left presence on North American universities in recent years. Is she right? What did the "18 percent" study have to say about overall trends? As it turns out, Gross and Simmons were very far from concluding that professors were becoming more radical. On the contrary, they said, “the number of moderates in academe appears to be growing.” (p. 40) Radicalism was then a somewhat common (though still very much a minority) stance among professors who had “come of age in the 1960s,” but the researchers found that it was far, far less common among younger professors.*

In Wente’s hands, in other words, Gross and Simmons’ evidence is twisted to suggest exactly the reverse of what they said.

It should readily be granted that Wente is not alone in distorting the results of this study; you can find the 18% figure on a variety of right-wing websites, cited without qualification as if it represented today's reality. But in a supposedly "post truth" world, surely we should expect more from our major, mainstream media.

*For what it's worth, my own experience in calling at a great many North American universities from 1975 onwards absolutely supports the conclusion that Marxists are far, far less common on campuses today than they were 10 years ago--and less common still than they were 30 or 40 years ago. It also supports Gross and Simmons' 2006 conclusion that the group that has been growing most is political moderates. Center and center-left political views seem prevalent in social sciences and humanities faculties, center and center right political views in business and engineering faculties.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Cats and Humans, Eating Birds

Margaret Atwood is perhaps the highest profile figure in what has become a widespread North American campaign to restrict cats to the indoors. In "The Case Against Cats" in the December issue of The Atlantic, Britt Peterson reviews Peter Marra and Chris Santella's Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer, and asserts that cats are "bad for us, and for our planet." Reviewing the same book in a piece this fall in The New York Review of Books ("The Killer Cats Are Winning," September 29), Natalie Angier insists that it's a no-brainer that all cats should be forced to stay indoors, so that they will not be able to kill birds:
This is a ridiculous point to waffle on: pet cats should no more be allowed to roam around at will than should pet dogs, horses, pythons, or pot bellied pigs.
The reason is that domestic cats are alleged to be responsible for the deaths of "up to 4 billion birds" annually in the US.

That figure comes from a 2013 Smithsonian Biology Institute study, conducted under the direction of Marra. Previous estimates had been in the range of 500 million birds; Marra's study put the range at "between 1.3 billion and 4.0 billion." Marra is clearly not impartial on this issue, and so far as I'm aware, neither the 1.3 billion nor the 4.0 billion figure has subsequently been given credence by other scientific studies. But let's say that his numbers are accurate--and then let's ask where our efforts to save birds and other animals should be concentrated.

On the one hand we have a species--the domestic cat--that is by nature carnivorous. The digestive systems of cats, biologists tell us, are such that these animals cannot choose not to eat the flesh of dead animals. If a domestic cat does not catch and kill its own meat, then it must be fed meat from animals that we humans have caused to have killed. One way or another, it must be a carnivore.

On the other hand we have a species that can choose to abstain from eating other animals (and that will be perfectly healthy if it does so--indeed, much more healthy than if it consumes animal products). Yet most members of this species choose a diet that involves the wholesale killing of members of other species. Moreover, in order to minimize their own expenditure, they confine the animals whose flesh and milk they will consume, keeping them in horrific conditions throughout their lives.

The species that must eat meat is said to be responsible for killing between 1.3 and 4 billion birds in the United States annually.

The species that can choose not to eat meat or other animal products is quite certainly responsible for killing more than 18 billion birds annually in the United States--plus hundreds of millions of cows, and pigs, and other animals. And virtually all of those 20 billion or so animals are subjected to horribly cruel treatment through their lives before the humans have them killed.

Is there a priority here? Of these two species, which should we focus on if we are trying to reduce suffering for other species?

The issue of cats killing and eating birds is not trivial. But it pales beside the much, much larger issue of humans killing and eating birds and other animals. Before we blame humans who choose to keep cats who will sometimes kill and eat birds, let's put the larger share of blame where it belongs--on humans who choose to kill and eat birds themselves, and to kill and eat other animals, all of it cruelly, and all of it utterly, utterly unnecessary.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

New Canada Food Guide - Input Needed

For the first time in many years the Canadian government is revising the advice it offers to Canadians on what we should eat. In the current food guide, two of the four food group categories are consumed by animal products. Mercy for Animals and other organizations working to improve the lives of animals (human and otherwise), and to improve the life of the planet, are asking us all to go the the Health Canada website and provide our input. They have provided one template for answering some of the key questions. I'll provide another below in the hope that it may be useful. But please act now; the website questionnaire is open only until December 8.

To find the questionnaire, google Canada Health Guide Questionnaire.

You'll find the following among the questions:

Would healthy eating recommendations based on the level of processing of foods be helpful to you?


Why do you say that?

There is now a huge amount of evidence that a whole foods, plant-based diet is the best way to go. The "plant-based" part is vitally important; as the scientific evidence which and pother sites are continually presenting and analyzing clearly indicates, eating animal products is bad for our health in myriad ways (increased risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and on and on). But the "whole foods" part is important too; processed foods tend to be less nutritious in many ways.

To what extent are the current food groupings (vegetables and fruits, grain products, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives) useful to you?

Not at all

Why do you say that?

The current categories are absurdly weighted in favor of foods that are bad for our health, bad for the environment, and horrendously bad for our fellow creatures. Two of the four categories foreground eating the flesh or the milk of non-human animals--the consumption of which has been conclusively shown to be associated with increased risk of myriad health problems, from cancer and diabetes to heart disease. (Plus, the factory farming methods that produce today's meat and dairy products are horrible for the environment and endlessly cruel to cows, pigs, birds, and so on.)

If animal products are to be included at all, they should be included in a single category of foods that may provide some nutritional benefits but that have huge health risks and other negatives associated with them.

The recommended categories should be as follows:

vegetables (possibly sub-divided into leafy and root vegetables); legumes (or pulses); fruits; nuts and seeds; grains

Rather than including things such as soy milk as "alternatives to milk" or such things as tofu as "alternatives to meat," they should be presented in a category of healthy foods that is separate from any category of animal product.

What else can Health Canada do to help improve the uptake and use of its healthy eating recommendations?

Don't presume that it would be "too extreme" to tell Canadians the truth about the damage we are doing to ourselves by eating animal products, when we'd be so much healthier if we didn't.

Help to make being vegan a mainstream concept, so that (to pick just one example) restaurants would start to be embarrassed if they didn't offer vegan options.

Vitamin information should be included: Anyone over 50 should take a B12 supplement; anyone in Canada should take a Vitamin D supplement; anyone over 50 should either eat plenty of goji berries or take a multi vitamin that includes lutein and xeaxanthan to help prevent macular degeneration; those who eat little or no citrus fruit know should know that vitamin C supplements are not a sufficient substitute; vegans should take Vitamin B12 supplements, etc., etc.

[Much as I was tempted, I did not suggest including beer as a separate, recommended food group. It's under the grains, I guess.]

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Reading Animals and Eating Animals:A Micro-Study of the Capacity of Literature to Spark Change

Many thanks to those who responded to the questionnaire posted on this blog a few months ago. The results are reported in the paper below (the full version of which, including footnotes and appendices, has been posted on SSRN as well).

Reading Animals and Eating Animals:A Micro-Study of the Capacity of Literature to Spark Change (Paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Northeast Modern Language Association Conference, Hartford, March 18, 2016)
Don LePan, with Maureen Okun, (Vancouver Island University)
To what degree is the experience of reading literature capable of affecting humans in ways that have ethical implications? A very substantial body of research in this area (by both literary scholars and psychologists) has focused on empathy; does reading a work of fiction tend to enhance our ability to relate emotionally to the lives of others? Some studies suggest it may well do so in certain circumstances—but some studies have also suggested that any such effect may be transient.

But what of literature’s capacity to bring about social change? To what extent can fiction change hearts and minds about real world issues? And can the effects be long-lasting? It has often been said that novels such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Jungle caused significant changes in many readers’ attitudes—and in many readers’ behavior. But there is surprisingly little hard evidence that this is so. There can be no doubt that such works helped to bring change, but studies of their impact sometimes suggest that they did so not so much by directly changing attitudes as by providing encouragement to the already committed, and by heightening the level of controversy.

One recent novel written with the explicit purpose of helping to bring about social change is my own Animals: A Novel (Véhicule Press edition 2009, Soft Skull/Counterpoint edition 2010); that book aims to engage readers imaginatively over the issue of cruelty in factory farming. In the seven years since the book was published, dozens of people have reported in conversation that they found the experience of reading the book quite powerful; several have reported in writing that the experience helped to change their attitudes, their behavior, or both.

The present study seeks to broaden the range of respondents, and also to go beyond the anecdotal. I contacted as many readers of Animals as possible, and asked them to complete a survey concerning the effect the experience of reading the book has had on their behavior, and on their attitudes. All responses were provided anonymously. The hope was that the survey results would quantify in a somewhat more scientific fashion than the anecdotal responses had done the degree to which the experience of reading this literary work has contributed to specific changes in attitudes (and/or behavior) on the part of readers—and also the extent to which any changes have been lasting.

Let me turn first to what the respondents say on the question of attitudes—the eighth and last question on the survey. Here the results seem unequivocal: 65% of those answering this question (and 59% of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed either “to a considerable degree” (35%) or “at least to some slight degree” (30%) to an increase in their level of concern for the welfare of non-human animals.

Attitudes are one thing; behavior is quite another. One may come more and more strongly in one’s belief system to be in favor, for example, of ending slavery while still—until the day that happens—remaining a slave-owner oneself. And one may be in favor of ending the cruelties of factory farming while continuing to consume the products of that cruelty every day. But it would seem from the answers to questions 5 and 6 that the experience of reading Animals had just as much of an effect on behavior as on attitudes: 70% of those answering Question 5 (and 64% of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed either “to a considerable degree” (15%) or “to at least some degree” (55%) to this change. Moreover, 65% of those answering Question 6 (and 59 % of all respondents) indicated that the experience of reading the book had contributed to a lasting effect on their behavior.

“Lasting for how long?” one may fairly ask. Here too the survey results provide a fairly clear answer. The vast majority of respondents were people who had read the novel at least three years before responding; fully 90% of respondents read the book either when it first appeared in 2009-2010 (73%) or in the years 2011-2012 (18%). The survey is thus able to provide useful information as to how lasting the effect may have been—as would not have been the case if, for example, 90% of respondents had read the novel less than six months before responding.

Questions 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7 are designed to explore with more precision first, the question of how long lasting any effect on behavior may be; and second, the question of the degree to which respondents’ behavior has actually changed. Questions 2, 3, and 4 ask the same set of questions for different times: before reading the novel, six months to a year after reading the novel, and today (which, for 90% of respondents, is at least three years after reading the novel).

What is perhaps most striking in the answers to these questions, given the high percentages of respondents who reported changed behavior, is how little actual change in behavior is reported. Particularly given that the sample responding to the survey is almost certainly skewed towards readers who were strongly influenced by the book, one might have expected there to be a more dramatic shift. The shifts indicated here are relatively modest. In percentage terms, the reduction in those describing themselves as in one of the two categories least concerned about animal welfare may be striking—the number drops in half—but when the absolute numbers are from 6 respondents to 3 respondents, it’s hard to portray the change as earth-shattering. Nor is the change at the other end particularly dramatic—the number reporting themselves to be either vegetarian or vegan increasing from 7 to 9, or from 31.82 to 40.91 per cent of the total. Those in the middle—omnivores who “to a considerable degree” limit their consumption of animal products “for reasons relating to the treatment of non-human animals” continue to constitute the largest block. The composition of that block has presumably shifted over time, with some of those who have moved out of the lowest two groups entering this larger middle group, as those who become vegetarians or vegans leave it. But there is also, of course, a good deal of space for movement within the large, middle group. One may move from eating free-range meat frequently to eating meat only if it is free range (and from a farmer one trusts to treat the animals well before they are killed), and still stay within that broad, middle category. One may move from very occasionally choosing dairy products that one knows are from organic farms where the cows are treated well to consuming dairy products only if those conditions are met—and again, stay entirely in that broad middle category. One respondent emailed me after she had completed the survey to comment on this sort of nuanced point:
The survey is lacking some possibilities, as you probably know. For instance, I experimented with vegan products, but I couldn't develop a taste for some of them. Nevertheless, I try to make more vegan choices in my diet, and buy only organic products (particularly milk) approved by Natural Grocers. … [I]t was not solely reading your book that caused these changes, though it is very powerful.
The answers to Questions 2, 3, and 4, then, are consistent with the responses given to Question 7. The reported changes in behavior are not always large, and the degree to which the experience of reading Animals contributed to those changes is not always great. But for most respondents there was a change, and for most respondents the experience of reading the novel did contribute to that change.

That is to put everything in the past tense. We should look too at the responses to Question 7: might the experience of reading Animals contribute to some future change in behavior for readers? Very interestingly, 6 people—some 30% of the total number of respondents—thought it quite possible that the experience of reading Animals would contribute to some future change in their behavior—and a further 7 did not rule out the possibility entirely. In total, then, some 65% of respondents did not rule out the possibility that the experience of reading a book could influence their behavior in the future. If we recall here the results of Question 1, we realize that of those 13 respondents, at least 11must have read the book in 2012 or earlier—at least three years before completing this survey. And a number of those people had clearly been altering their behavior already, in part at least as a result of the experience of reading this text. Even three, four, or five years after reading a book, in other words, many think it still possible for the experience of reading a novel to exert a further effect on their behavior.

This may seem implausible—I would have thought it implausible myself many years ago. But in fact it accords entirely with my own experience—with both fiction and non-fiction. It was I think in 1991 that I read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation. This was my introduction to the atrocities of factory farming; I was shocked, and I am sure deeply influenced. But to what extent did I change my behavior? At first, not at all. And when changes in my behavior did come, they were very gradual; beginning in the late 1990s, I began to eat free-range meat and free-range eggs when I could, and dairy milk from cows who I believed to have been relatively well treated. In the early years of this century I became more and more passionate about the evils of factory farming. In 2005 the outline of a story that could dramatize those evils came to me, and I began working on Animals. When the novel was published in 2009 I still believed that the novel’s essential argument was against factory farming—not against eating animal products. A number of readers suggested that in fact the afterword I had written went against the grain of the story—that Animals constituted an argument not just against the evils of factory farming, but against the human practice of consuming other animals. Over the years since then, I have come to agree with them. (When the next edition of Animals is published, it will carry a very different afterword—or no afterword at all.) Both with my experience of reading Animal Liberation, then, and with my experience of writing Animals, I found that experiencing a book could continue to affect my behavior many years afterwards. * * * For most of the past two centuries the tide in literary criticism and theory—indeed, in literary circles of all sorts—has run heavily against didacticism. Interestingly, even those who have endorsed the notion that all literature is political have been carried with the tide; if a book is described as a powerful political statement, that may safely be taken to mean simply that the book embraces a world view broadly critical of establishment values—not that the book aims to prompt us quite specifically to change our behavior (to devote more time and money than we have been to helping the homeless, for example, or the poor in the developing world, or young women who are being denied an education, or gays and lesbians who in so much of the world are still denied any rights whatsoever).

Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, on the other hand, or Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, or Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, are political in a very different sense; like Animals, they were written with the intention of changing readers’ attitudes–and behavior—in quite specific ways. They are examples of literature that is not just political, but didactic. There are some signs that the tide in literary circles is beginning to turn. Black Beauty and The Jungle now appear frequently on university courses—as works of aesthetic as well as historical interest. And some of the leading lights of literary criticism and theory have begun to openly acknowledge the possibility that didactic literature can also be good literature. Here, for example, is Terry Eagleton, writing in 2012:
That even a touch of didacticism is distasteful is as received a judgement for the literary establishment as is the suggestion that Shakespeare wrote some pretty impressive stuff. But it is surely not the case [that didacticism should be regarded as inherently distasteful]. “Didactic” simply means a matter of teaching and there is no reason why all teaching should be hectoring or doctrinaire. Brecht’s Lehrstücke, Lancelot Andrewe’s sermons, and William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell are didactic works which are also potent pieces of art. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an embarrassingly second-rate novel because it has a specific moral purpose—so does Swift’s “A Modest Proposal,” Tolstoy’s Resurrection, and Orwell’s Animal Farm—but because of the way it executes it. (The Event of Literature, 68-69)
Yet Uncle Tom’s Cabin is widely assumed to have succeeded in its didactic purpose at least as well as did any of these other works. Is Eagleton wrong about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Is it, as some others have suggested in recent years, a far better novel aesthetically than the twentieth century took it to be? Or, if Eagleton is right, does bad literature work best when it comes to doing good? Those are some of the larger questions that seem to me to be worthy of discussion. But to do so in an informed way, it seems to me that we should try to find out more about what literature can actually do by way of changing human attitudes—and human behavior. This paper represents a very small step in that direction.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Student Protests and the Media: Why Have Trigger Warnings Trumped Tuition Fees?

The latest New Yorker carries a long article by Nathan Heller entitled “What’s Roiling the Liberal-Arts Campus.” Unlike the widely-read Atlantic article by Greg Lukanioff and Jonathan Haidt published last September (“The Coddling of the American Mind”), this one takes a largely positive view of campus unrest over a wide variety of issues, ranging from trigger warnings to college administrations’ treatment of people of color, people with disabilities, and people with sexual orientations that may not fit traditional categories. Whereas Lukanioff and Haidt, focusing largely on the trigger warnings controversy, fret in the Atlantic over whether students are too “coddled” and ask if calls for trigger warnings might spark a threat to academic freedom, Heller suggests that the “Firebrands,” as he calls today’s crop of protesters, are re-setting norms and may be “shifting the default settings of political culture.” But both articles seem to agree that what’s happening represents something fundamentally new—and something that’s becoming very widespread.

There are indeed some new and interesting things happening in many of these student protest movements (and perhaps some worrisome ones too, not least of all insofar as a seeming rise in anti-Semitism at many campuses is concerned). But how widespread are these sorts of radical protests over new sets of issues? Read these articles closely and you’ll see a very few campuses mentioned again and again. Repeatedly, it’s suggested that “America’s colleges and universities” generally (Lukanioff & Haidt) are being greatly affected by a new movement—or at the very least “the liberal-arts campus” (Heller) is undergoing something of a revolution. But the evidence provided is almost entirely anecdotal, and the same fifteen or twenty colleges—Oberlin, Amherst, Northwestern, and so on—crop up again and again in the examples. Fifteen or twenty out of well over 2,000. Maybe they are indeed representative—but where are the numbers? How widespread is all this?

Heller tells us that “when Wesleyan’s [student] newspaper published a controversial opinion piece questioning the integrity of the Black Lives Matter movement, some hundred and seventy people signed a petition that would have defunded the paper.” So there’s a number—170 students. Quite a few, perhaps, but to put it in another way, a little over 5% of Wesleyan’s student population of about 3,000.

In the previous paragraph Heller gives another number: after mentioning various controversies “in mid-November” of 2015 over racial and cultural issues at Yale, Claremont McKenna, and Ithaca College, Heller asserts that “more than a hundred other schools held rallies that week.” That number seemed surprisingly large to me. Granted, it would still be far, far smaller than the 500 or more campuses at which there were sometimes simultaneous demonstrations in the Vietnam War era. But my sense (as someone who spends a fair bit of time on a number of American campuses each term) was that, rightly or wrongly, the protests over these racial and cultural issues had been nothing like so widespread.

I googled, of course. There had indeed been that at least that many “mid-November” student protests—but the great majority of them had nothing to do with racial or cultural issues. So far as the number of protests are concerned, here’s the key November 12 news item (as phrased by the Reuters report): “Students hold demonstrations on university campuses across the United States to protest against ballooning loan debt for higher education and rally for tuition-free public colleges.” A worthy cause, I’d say, but not one that most people would automatically connect with protests about insensitive treatment of racial issues or inadequate trigger warnings—and not one that Heller focuses on in his article (though he does touch on the effects of economic hardship for some students).

One can argue, of course, that everything is connected—that every issue of class and education and race and sexual orientation and culture and the economy can be linked with every other issue, including high tuition fees and inadequate student loans. (Interestingly—and to their credit, I would say—the Million Student March of November 12 also called for an increase in wages for campus workers.) Arguably, though, explorations of the issues start to lose focus if they are trying to deal simultaneously with movements as disparate as the push for trigger warnings and Black Lives Matter. And certainly such explorations will leave a misleading impression if they reference the total number of student protests at a given time but neglect to mention that the majority of these protests were over an issue that the writer has not listed.

Heller is not alone in giving short-shrift to the issue of economic hardship for students. The New York Times carried several articles on culture-related and race-related student protests that week (including a November 15 1,600-word feature article on how a dean at Yale had been “Racked By Racial Protests” at that university), but—so far as I could see—no coverage at all of the large countrywide protests Thursday, November 12 over student loans and tuition fees. The Wall Street Journal seems not to have covered those November 12 protests either—though they too carried articles on culture and race-related student protests that week, and an op-ed feature with a predictable slant: “The Rise of the College Cry-bullies: The status of victim has been weaponized at campuses across the nation.” Elsewhere too, those November 12 protests seem to have received relatively little coverage in the media—though at least brief reports did appear in the Washington Post, USA Today, and, among others. Overall, though, it would seem that the largest cause of student unrest in America is also the one that the media is giving the least attention.

I certainly wouldn't want to argue that protests over Black Lives Matter or gender issues or sexual orientation issues deserve any less coverage than they've been getting; all are important. But I would argue that the protests over the issue of the cost of higher education deserve more coverage. And if Hillary Clinton wants to improve her chances of getting young people out to vote and defeat Donald Trump, one would think she'd be well advised to pay a good deal of attention to this issue herself in the coming months.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Reading and Writing and Work

Last year I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to edit John Bart’s novel Middenrammers, which has now just been published. I should say at once that it required very little by way of editing—and that it was and is a very great pleasure to read.

It’s easy to forget the virtues of simplicity in the world of today’s literary fiction—a world that tends to place a premium on certain forms of literary stylishness. At a sentence-by-sentence level, striking metaphors are often disproportionately valued, as are sentences designed to impart vividness through every verb, every adverb, every adjective. We are assured that such work will repay slow and careful reading, that it is worth taking the time to reflect on the poetic qualities of what we read.

At the level of narrative structure, complexity is often disproportionately valued—flashbacks, flash-forwards, and various other devices that often force the reader to spend a good deal of time figuring out what happened when, and to whom (or perhaps I should say what happens when, for the historical present has largely taken over between the covers of literary novels). Again, we are assured that the effort invested will be repaid; at some level, we are often told, the novel we are reading is not just about the characters, or about the things novels used to be about—love and money—but “about language itself,” or “about memory itself,” and it’s worth taking the time to work all that out.

At some level, certainly, all this is work; “literary fiction” might well be defined as “fiction the reader is expected to work at appreciating.” That’s not to say that such work can’t also be a pleasure, of course; indeed, there can be few greater pleasures than reading a great literary novel. But when a literary novel is less than great—and such is the case most of the time—the reader can surely be forgiven for wondering if the work is worth it. When the sentences start to creak with the strain of all that vividness imparting, and the tangles in the narrative start to seem as pointless as they are dense, we can be forgiven for wishing we had opted instead for a book that aimed to please without making us work.

Stylistically, Middenrammers does precisely that. It tells its story straightforwardly, from beginning to middle to end—and a gripping story it is, too; a doctor and a midwife take sides against the medical establishment in a 1970 Yorkshire community where women still struggle for reproductive rights. At a sentence-by-sentence level the narrative never calls attention to its style. Descriptions—including several memorable descriptions of crises being dealt with as women give birth—are entirely matter-of-fact; metaphors are rarely employed, and even adjectives and adverbs are used sparingly. About as close as the book comes to a “poetic” passage is this nicely understated end-of-chapter description of the book’s protagonist leaving the hospital after a difficult delivery:
I was surprised to find it was evening outside. The rough grass at the edge of the path to the prefabs was wet. Perhaps it had rained. Perhaps it was just sea spray. The standard lamps along the way had a stippled halo around their bulbs. Everything looked washed and worn, and I felt the same.
If Middenrammers is straightforward so far as its style is concerned—an easy read, from that angle—its subject matter certainly does not always make for easy reading. The story is emotionally wrenching at more than one point, and it certainly carries with it an important message about medical practice. Though the style doesn’t make readers work, in other words, we may have to work a bit to come to grips with the novel’s content.

I want to make one more point about Middenrammers and work—which is simply to say that the novel concerns what happens at work far more than do most novels. (Television programs deal with the workplace a good deal—literary novels, not so much.) Most novels in any era—and certainly most novels of the past few decades—foreground personal relationships outside the workplace. Love and money are the traditional topics of the novel, not love and work. To be sure, personal relationships are part of the story of Middenrammers too—but the heart of the novel is what happens at work—in this case, at a small Yorkshire hospital.

The closest literary analogy to Middenrammers I can think of is the fiction of Nevil Shute—novels such as Landfall (about the struggle to develop better planes during WW II) and The Ruined City (about the struggle to revive a shipbuilding town that has fallen on hard times). Like Bart, Shute wrote in an utterly matter-of-fact style; like Middenrammers, these novels of his deal with personal and romantic relationships as well as business and professional ones. But in all these cases, the work developments are at least as important to the progress of the story as are the personal ones.

Like Shute’s novels too, Bart’s Middenrammers is entirely engaging—and no less well-written for being written with clarity and simplicity.

Let me end with a thought about writing and work more generally: writing and work can go together far better than many aspiring writers assume. By “work” in this context, I mean of course work other than writing—but, more than that, work that you find truly engaging (not “day jobs” that you don't care about and work at only in order to give you time and money to write). Working at something you care about can of course provide raw material for your writing—and for most of us, it beats sitting at a desk staring at blank paper when you’re finding creative writing difficult. But arguably it can also help develop habits of caring about life in a broader variety of ways than can a more purely writer’s life. It’s surely not coincidence that both Bart and Shute, who write so well about work, did not make writing their life’s work. (Though he became a best-selling novelist later on in life, Shute worked in aviation and as an engineer for several decades; Bart has worked as a doctor for over forty years.) Young writers sometimes assume that the key to success as a writer is to find time to write—the ideal being a position in a Creative Writing Department that does not impose too heavy a teaching load. It’s certainly true that some fine writers have followed that route—and remained fine writers even after having done so. And of course many great writers—Jane Austen perhaps chief among them —never took paid employment of any sort at any time. But the body of work done by writers who worked at work other than writing is pretty impressive; among them are Geoffrey Chaucer the comptroller and diplomat, Anton Chekhov the doctor, Joseph Conrad the sea captain, George Eliot the periodical editor, T.S. Eliot the banker, Henry Green the industrialist, Thomas Hardy the architect, Philip Larkin the librarian, Wallace Stevens the insurance executive, Virginia Woolf the publisher, and Anthony Trollope the Post Office inspector. Whatever works for you, I say.

PS One related idea is simply that having some experience in the world helps when writing fiction. On that theme there was an interesting piece in the Globe recently--Want to write a novel? First Novel Awards finalists say it's better with age (April 16).

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Ownership and the Long Term: The Case for Bombardier and the C Series

If there is one thing on which every mainstream commentator on the Canadian economy and Canadian politics has agreed over the past year, it's that Bombardier’s dual share structure, which allows the Beaudoin family to control the fortunes of the company even though they hold a minority of its equity, is bad for the other shareholders, and bad for Canada. The near-universal consensus* has been that the federal government should make any investment in Bombardier’s fortunes contingent on the company abandoning its dual share structure, and treating all shares equally.

Intuitively it all makes sense. Equal has to be good, right? And Bombardier’s other shareholders probably would have benefited in the short term if the company had, for example, sold off its train division last year, or sold the C series to Airbus. (Both sorts of deals were said to be on the table.)

But what about the long term? Where would the shareholders be? Where would Canada be? Without its biggest contributor to R&D, for one thing. Bombardier’s investment in research and development totals about $2 billion a year—one sixth of all R&D spending in the entire country. Canada would also be without its only big league player in the aerospace industry. And Canada would be without a company that is making a larger contribution to greening the world economy than almost any other corporation in the country; the appeal of the C series is very largely that it uses far, far less jet fuel than the average plane today—and less than its new competitors from Airbus and Boeing and Embraer too.

For the fact is that, without the dual share structure which has enabled Bombardier to remain in family hands, Bombardier in all likelihood wouldn’t be in Canadian hands at all. When its share price kept falling and falling in 2015 until the company’s shares were selling for bargain basement prices, a Chinese company would surely have snapped up not just the rail division, but the entire company. Or Airbus or Boeing would have done so, simply to kill the competition. Or a takeover specialist such as Carl Icahn would have orchestrated a buyout.

For Bombardier shareholders like me, who are in it for the long term, it’s a very, very good thing that the company has remained in family hands, and that they have taken the long view. Have there been mistakes? Sure? Is the C series late and over-budget? Sure. Those things are true of virtually every major project that any ambitious company takes on. But the company seems to have a great management team in place now, and—most importantly—they have succeeded in developing an absolutely superb plane. Before long they will again come to be acknowledged as a company responsible for some of Canada’s greatest technology and manufacturing successes.

If Canadians really do want the country’s economy to be about more than resources, this is a company we do not want to die. And if people everywhere want air travel to be more environmentally friendly, we should be grateful that Boeing or Airbus hasn’t been able to drive Bombardier and its C series out of business.
*The only places I've seen any other views expressed have been posted a few comments on sites such as, and of course in Bombardier's own statements

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Wrong Kind of Animals

The lead-in for the CBC Radio news this morning gave advance notice of a featured story: "Snare traps in British Columbia are catching the wrong kind of animals." As the story reported, snares set on Crown land near residential areas have been catching dogs rather than the wild animals for whom they were intended. Randy McNolty's dog Almoe is pictured on the CBC site, having evidently died a cruel and painful death in the trap:

Dog snared in wildlife trap prompts call for tighter laws

As a society, do we really think there is a right kind of animal to die in this sort of way? The law allows--some would say encourages--this sort of killing of a fox or a lynx or an otter or a muskrat or a marten or a bobcat or a coyote--or any one of ten other species of animal.

Are human beings the right sort of animal to be doing this--or to be allowing this?