Sunday, June 9, 2024

A New "Wild Mountain Thyme" / "Will You Go, Lassie Go?"

Maureen takes singing lessons, and this week she and her teacher decided that the next song they would work on would be the fine, Celtic folk song variously known as “Wild Mountain Thyme” and “Will You Go, Lassie, Go?” Like so many traditional folk songs, it has somewhat tangled roots, with links to at least two Scottish folk songs from the late eighteenth century. The song we know today was composed in the 1950s by an Irishman, Francis McPeake 1st (1885 – 1971), of a long line of musical McPeakes; he is described in the Dictionary of Irish Biography as a “piper and tram conductor.” The chorus of his best-known song is a musical marvel, the lyrics perfectly weighted (both in stress and in quantity), and the melody endlessly stirring. But when Maureen and I listened to different recordings of it last night, we both agreed that it’s not all it could be in one respect: it lacks a story. The stanzas are bare bones, and there aren’t many of them:
https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-d&q=wild+mountain+thyme+-+lyrics
As Maureen observed, the most interesting thing about them may well be the note of optimism that the singer expresses when facing the possibility of lost love: "If my true love will not have me, / I will surely find another." But the note has no follow up; there really is no story developed in the song’s few stanzas.

Why not another version, then? Last night and this morning I worked on a version of “Wild Mountain Thyme” that has a story to it. Here it is:



Oh, the summertime had come

All the young birds had their feathers,

And the wild mountain thyme

Grew around the blooming heather.



It was long and far we’d roam,

It was hand in hand together

And as two we built a home—

And all around the blooming heather.

Will you go, lassie, go?

And we'll all go together

To pull wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather

Will you go, lassie go?


Then the dazzle days flew past

As dazzle days will ever,

And my lassie bore a lass,

While all around was blooming heather.

Will you go, lassie, go?

And we'll all go together

To pull wild mountain thyme

And all around the blooming heather.

Will you go, lassie, go?

We both swore that we’d be true,

Then my true love found another,

I grieved my heart with weeping,

Wee lass and me together.

Will you go, lassie go?

As we’d all go together,

To pull wild mountain thyme,

And all around the blooming heather

Will you go, lassie, go?

Now the spring has come again

And the warm, wonder weather,

This is now and that was then,

Like my love, I’ll find another.

Are you gone, lassie, gone?

Are we both gone, together?

Past the wild mountain thyme

And all around the blooming heather

That’s all gone, lassie, gone.

But we’ll both be ever true

All through any love whatever,

To our lassie, ever new,

And all around the blooming heather.

Will you go, lassie, go?

And we'll all go together,

To pull wild mountain thyme

All around the blooming heather

Will you go, lassie, go?

Friday, May 24, 2024

America, Where the Rivers Meet

In one of the linked stories in my next book (Leaving Pittsburgh), there’s a family reunion, and on one sunny morning everyone heads down to the Point Park in Pittsburgh, where the rivers meet; the Allegheny and the Monongahela flow together to form the Ohio. It’s a place with a lot of history—history that reflects both the best and the worst of America. In the story, two people provide accounts of two very different American lives. I had at first included in Leaving Pittsburgh versions of those accounts that were too long and too formal to suit the tone of a work of fiction; thanks to my partner Maureen’s good advice, those are now edited out of Leaving Pittsburgh; I’ll include them here in case they may be of interest.

The first is the story of William Trent Junior, who was the commander at Fort Pitt during Pontiac’s Rebellion. Like George Washington, he was a land speculator, amassing vast tracts of land west of the Alleghenies at a time when white people weren’t allowed to do that—it was land that was supposed to be only for the Shawnee and the Lenape and the Huron and various other Indian nations. And when the Shawnee and the Lenape and the Huron and the others had had enough of their lands being illegally taken from them, they fought back—that was Pontiac’s Rebellion. Trent's attempt to destroy them using deadly disease is one of the most notorious episodes in American history:
William Trent grew up in a wealthy slaveholding family in New Jersey. When he grew up, he started to acquire land west of the Alleghenies, paying as little as he could get away with to the Indians who had occupied the land—all this when settlers or would-be settlers were not allowed to occupy or to buy land west of the Alleghenies. The British colonial authorities had spelled that out in the Treaty of Easton in 1758 (and it would be spelled out again in the Proclamation of 1763). But the settlers and the land speculators had other ideas. George Washington put his view of the situation bluntly in a letter to a friend: he said he looked on the Proclamation as nothing more than “a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians.” Eventually, in Washington's view, the Indians would have to consent to the settlers occupying those lands. Of course Washington asked his friend to keep those views secret—this was still years before the American Revolution, and it wouldn’t do to be seen or heard to openly defy the colonial authorities.

William Trent Jr. had been a colleague of Washington’s in the British army, and like Washington he had become a land speculator as well as a soldier. The plan was simple: buy or acquire through whatever means you could as much land west of the Alleghenies as you could. Join the growing chorus of American colonists insisting that the westward march of colonial settlement must not be held back. Be prepared to fight the Indians as necessary.

And of course it was necessary. Pontiac and the others did not give up land that was rightfully theirs without a fight. In 1763 they laid siege to Fort Pitt, where Willam Trent Junior was commanding the militia. During a truce, Trent made an infamous gift to a Lenape [Delaware] group who had promised to remain friendly with the militia. “Out of our regard for them,” he wrote afterwards, “we gave them two blankets and a handkerchief out of the smallpox hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.” Trent and the settlers would have quashed Pontiac's Rebellion even without resorting to atrocity. But clearly he had no qualms at having done so.

The other account has to it a very different tone:
Look at an 1880s map of the first ward in Pittsburgh—the ward that included what’s now the Point Park. None of what's now parkland was open land back then; Fort Duquesne and Fort Pitt were long gone, but there were houses and factories all the way west to the point. The Pennsylvania Railway had a big freight terminal, running between Liberty and Penn. All through the blocks between the Allegheny and the railway—First Street, Second Street, Third Street—there were sawmills, planing mills, foundries, lumber yards, boiler works. There were houses too—cramped little working-class houses, with privies out the back. Some of them fronted on the streets, and some of them fronted on little alleys—like Greentree Alley, that ran between Duquesne Way and Penn St. just east of third Street. The McQuywan and Douglass planing mill and boiler works ran for the whole block on one side of the alley, and on the other side there was another planing mill at Duquesne Way. But there were a handful of houses tucked in there too; David Leo Lawrence was born in one of those houses. He was the last of the four children born to Charles and Kate Lawrence—Kate Conwell, she had been. Both parents came from Belfast families (the whole neighborhood was overwhelmingly Irish—Point Irish, it was called); his father worked in a warehouse and later became a road supervisor; his mother eventually became prominent in a maternity hospital for unwed mothers. When the children were young, though, the family was very poor. It’s an interesting detail that Greentree Alley was originally called Green Alley; the name was changed a few years before Lawrence was born, in order to prevent any confusion with Green Street in the Hill District. “Born on Green Street” would have been the perfect beginning for the greenest mayor that Pittsburgh—and maybe America—has ever seen.

It was right after the war that Dave Lawrence became mayor—1946. Pittsburgh was the dirtiest city in America; it might have been the dirtiest anywhere in the world. There were ordinances on the books that should have been improving things, but they’d never been enforced. Lawrence made sure they were enforced, and he added new ones. He didn’t eliminate the smoke in his twelve years as mayor—“smoke” was still a regular part of Pittsburgh weather reports into the 1960s. But with help from the state and federal governments, he reduced it by 90 percent. He started to address pollution in the waterways as well. He worked to increase the amount of available low-cost housing—and he often acted as a mediator when there were strikes, trying to arrange settlements that would provide decent wages for workers, and help them afford the new housing that was being built. And Point Irish, where he’d grown up? It had been devastated by a fire as well as by industrial blight and decades of neglect of the housing stock. Lawrence was responsible for turning it into a park — what is now Point State Park. He fought with the steel industry, but he would often work with other businesses, and (as Governor as well as when he was mayor) he would work with Republicans as well as Democrats. He wouldn’t have been able to get done all that he did if he hadn’t tried to find common ground with a lot of people he didn’t have much in common with.
So, in Dave Lawrence, some of the best of Pittsburgh and some of the best of America. And in William Trent Jr., some of the worst.

It’s a sad commentary on America today that many on both sides of the great ideological divide would be comfortable in hearing only one of these stories. On the political left, many are uncomfortable with any sort of story that seems to celebrate American achievements—particularly if they are achievements by a mainstream figure who tried to build bipartisan consensus.

On the political right, many are far less tolerant than that. Numerous state governments have been revising educational curricula, making every effort to banish topics that show America in anything other than a positive light. Those efforts have gathered steam recently, but they are not new. In 2008, for example, the Arizona Legislature declared that the state's public schools would not be allowed to "include within the program of instruction any courses, classes, or school-sponsored activities that promote [or] assert as truth ... any political, religious, ideological or cultural beliefs or values that denigrate, disparage, or overtly encourage dissent from the values of American democracy and Western civilization."

The sad fact is, of course, that while "the values of Western civilization" have often been expressive of admirable ideals, they have often also been expressive of conquest and oppression; such was clearly the case during Pontiac's Rebellion.

In much of America, there has never been much appetite for telling the truth about the land speculations of the likes of George Washington and William Trent Jr. or the atrocities committed by the likes of Trent. And a great many textbooks, encyclopedias, and institutional websites, in discussing the causes of Pontiac's Rebellion, tend even today to omit any mention of the fundamental underlying dynamic - Indigenous peoples rising in protest against settler colonialists taking their land. Here is how the Battlefield Trust website presents things:
Influenced by the unwillingness of the British to establish alliances, the preaching of a Delaware holy man, Neolin, ignited the struggle between the various Native American tribes and the new power in North America...
Here is how Wikipedia summarizes the causes of the war:
Pontiac's War (also known as Pontiac's Conspiracy or Pontiac's Rebellion) was launched in 1763 by a loose confederation of Native Americans who were dissatisfied with British rule in the Great Lakes region following the French and Indian War (1754–1763). Warriors from numerous nations joined in an effort to drive British soldiers and settlers out of the region. ... The war began in May 1763 when Native Americans, alarmed by policies imposed by British General Jeffrey Amherst, attacked a number of British forts and settlements.
No mention there of white settlers having taken over large tracts of land that the colonial authorities had agreed would remain Indian land. Eric Foner, arguably America's most distinguished living historian, tells a different story, making clear that the Indians took up arms with the aim of driving the settlers from the Indian lands that the settlers had intruded onto:
[Neolin's message was] that his people must reject European technology, free themselves from commercial ties with whites and dependence on alcohol,... and drive the British from their territory.... In the spring and summer of 1763, Ottawas, Hurons and other Indians ...seized forts and killed hundreds of white settlers who had intruded onto Indian lands.
Now, in not a few jurisdictions, it’s becoming illegal to try to teach the sorts of truths that Foner recounts in his Give Me Liberty: An American History (which has become the most widely used university survey textbook on American history).

We can only hope that one fine day all of America will be willing to learn about all of its history.

Saturday, May 18, 2024

Imagining Cleaners’ Work, and Cleaners’ Lives

If you’re looking to enter imaginatively into the life of someone who works as a cleaner or as a house-servant, what do you focus on? Their social status? Their economic circumstances? The physical reality of their daily life? Their emotions and their personal life? To even contemplate such questions is of course to have come a long way from the world of Jane Austen, where the very existence of servants is barely acknowledged, and where those whose existence is touched on usually remain nameless. That’s the starting point of Jo Baker’s marvelous 2013 novel Longbourn, which goes over much of the same ground as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice but is told from the point of view of Sarah, the Bennet’s housemaid. Extraordinarily engaging and often quite moving, Longbourn is utterly persuasive in its presentation of the realities of a life largely spent in cleaning other people’s dishes and other people’s clothes—the intellectual and emotional realities of such a life quite as much as the physical and economic ones.

A more recent example, Nita Prose’s The Maid, sets its sights much lower. The protagonist, Molly, is a good-hearted, enormously conscientious, neurodivergent employee of the luxurious Regency Hotel. Molly inadvertently becomes deeply involved with a criminal network operating within the hotel, and is herself accused of the murder. The story line works well enough, and Molly is an engaging character; in short, it’s a breezy read of a murder mystery, so one should not expect too much. But (as a former cleaner myself, albeit for only a brief time), I couldn’t help but feel the novel to be rather disappointing as a portrayal of this sort of working life. There is a good deal of description of the sorts of work that Molly and her fellow workers do, but almost nothing about the toll such work inevitably takes on the human body. In reading of Sarah’s life at Longbourn, one is frequently told of such things as “the calluses on her hands, or the swellings that pained her legs.” In The Maid, one is reminded again and again of Molly’s determination to return each hotel room “to a state of perfection,” but told little of the physical toll that must take. Nor, it seems to me, are the economic realities confronted as they deserve to be. Prose effectively conveys the financial hardship Molly suffers after her grandmother (a cleaner of houses, who Molly has shared an apartment with) dies, leaving Molly both grieving and falling behind on the rent. But Prose never connects the dots in any way that might suggest a systemic or collective problem rather than an individual financial predicament.

Toward the end of the novel, when Molly is promoted to head maid at the hotel, she receives a raise, and at about the same time she begins again to live in shared accommodation. Even then her circumstances allow her to save at only the most minimal level—“just a few hundred dollars” to start with, though it is described as enough that she can dream of one day being able to enroll in the hospitality program at the local community college. And then she receives an unexpected windfall—a $10,000 gift from a wealthy friend. “Life has a way of sorting itself out,” we are told at the book’s conclusion—one of the nuggets of wisdom that Molly’s grandmother once dispensed. “Everything will be okay in the end. And if it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” But it is the end of the book, and, much as things may have turned out okay for Molly, in the broader world that the book touches on, things are very far from okay. There is no suggestion that the other maids have received raises when Molly is promoted. Though we understand that their lives will be improved by having Molly as head maid rather than the hated Cheryl (who used to steal the tips meant for others on the housekeeping staff), presumably the ordinary cleaners are still not making a living wage.

A much more rounded portrayal of what life as a cleaner is really like can be found in the 4,000 words of Sherman Alexie’s* superb short story “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” (originally published in the 29 May 2017 issue of The New Yorker), the story of Marie, who works for decades as part of the housekeeping staff at a motel. Here is part of the description of what the work does to Marie physically:
Marie’s knees and ankles hurt because she had so often squatted and kneeled to clean the floors.

Her feet hurt because she stood for most of the day. And she’d never owned a good pair of work shoes. She’d always promised herself that she would buy a better pair of shoes with the next paycheck.

But “with the next paycheck” was like saying “Dear Big Bang.”

Her lower back hurt because of all the times she had carried the vacuum and heavy bags of clean and dirty towels, and had thrown garbage and recycling and compost into the dumpsters in the alley behind the motel.

One day, she’d twisted her back so severely that she’d collapsed in pain on the sidewalk.

At the free clinic, she learned that “back spasms” was the fancy way to say “torn muscles.”

Once or twice a year since then, she’d torn her back again. But she’d missed only a few days of work because of her bad back. She’d spend one day in bed, recovering, and then she’d force herself back to cleaning, because she’d read that an injured back heals best during activity.…

Her hands hurt.

Arthritis.

Carpal-tunnel syndrome.

And the recurring rashes caused by the soaps and disinfectants and window cleaners.

Her skin itched and burned.

She tried wearing gloves at work, but that only made her rashes migrate from her hands to her wrists, forearms, and elbows. Some mornings, she woke with hands so stiff that she could not make fists. She could not hold her coffee cup or toothbrush. She’d submerge her hands in hot water and flex and flex and flex until her fingers worked properly again.

“It’s hard work,” she’d said to Father James. “But it’s not like working in a coal mine."

“Maybe it is,” he’d said.

Alexie’s “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” is clear-eyed too on the economic front. There is no $10,000 windfall for Marie; her gift on her last day of work is that she is paid for a full day while being asked to clean only a single room. Then, her retirement send-off:
The owner gave Marie her last paycheck in cash. Two weeks’ worth of money. Six hundred dollars.

Then she got into her car. It started on the fourth try.

She drove home to her husband. He was sitting on their couch watching the midday news. He’d retired from his job at the hardware store a few months earlier.

With Social Security and Medicaid and Medicare and good luck, Marie and her husband would survive.

It would be difficult in a 4,000-word story to say much of the collective issues relating to the sort of work that Alexie describes—the urgent need for better wages and benefits for all workers in such jobs-though something of their importance can I think be inferred from a careful reading of "Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest." As Tony Keller pointed out in yesterday’s Globe and Mail, the reality today is that those “with the least bargaining power—in low-education and low-wage jobs, with limited benefits or job security—tend to have the fewest protections. If anyone needs some old-fashioned union representation, it’s them.” It is of course extraordinarily difficult for such workers to unionize, not least of all because unpleasant, low-paying jobs will almost inevitably have an extremely high turnover rate (another reality that is brought home vividly to readers of “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest”). But a high turnover rate is not the only obstacle; in many jurisdictions, governments have since the 1980s made it far more difficult for workers to act collectively.

It's interesting that the best portrayals of effective collective action over the past several decades have been in films rather than in books. Norma Rae and Made in Dagenham are well known examples; less well known but at least as good is Bread and Roses (directed by Ken Loach, and starring Adrien Brody, Elpidia Carrillo, and Pilar Padilla), a brilliant 2000 film based on a true story of the successful struggle of Los Angeles janitorial workers to unionize. I can’t think of any finer example of a work of art that gives an equally powerful and equally moving sense of individual lives and of the collective reality of life for a group of oppressed workers.

In very different ways, both The Maid and Bread and Roses are heartwarming stories of working-class heroes. I recommend them both to anyone, without reservation. But I have to wonder if the very different levels of success they have met with might say anything about twenty-first century society. The Maid (which will soon also be a movie), a perfectly pleasant portrayal of an individual life that in no way challenges the socio-economic status quo, has been a number one bestseller both in Canada and in the United States. Bread and Roses, a deeply moving individual story that is also a profound exploration of a broader socio-economic reality, earned only $533,479 at the box office, and is not always easy to find today, either on streaming services or as a DVD. It’s worth the search!
*Anyone nowadays who praises any aspect of the work of Sherman Alexie has to accept that some readers may respond with surprise and with disapproval. Given that background, I should make clear that praising “Clean, Cleaner, Cleanest” as an extraordinarily accomplished and richly evocative work of fiction should in no way be construed as a defence of its author against the series of accusations of sexual harassment that surfaced in 2018—any more than praising Le Morte Darthur should be construed as a defence of Sir Thomas Malory against accusations of rape, or than praising Four Quartets should be construed as a defence of T.S. Eliot against charges of misogyny and antisemitism.

Thursday, April 4, 2024

Cruise Ship Folly

Of all the mistaken notions about tourism and the economic health of communities, the most egregious are surely those relating to cruise ships. It’s now widely recognized that the cruise ship hordes descending on Venice and other tourist magnets have had considerable adverse effects. Cruise ship tourists usually eat as well as sleep on their cruise ships. They stay in the city being visited for only very brief periods and tend to spend little—and when they do spend, it tends to be on cheap souvenirs, not on anything that supports a healthy and sustainable economy. That’s why Venice finally started to say no to cruise ships a few years ago—and why a growing number of North American cities (including Monterrey California and Charleston, South Carolina) are doing the same. But some cities that haven’t yet suffered from cruise ship hordes continue to spend substantial amounts trying to attract just those sorts of tourists.

A case in point is Nanaimo, a much smaller center than nearby Vancouver and Victoria, with far fewer of the sorts of attractions that are likely to attract cruise ship tourists. Nanaimo has a charming, historic downtown core that has for years been struggling. It badly needs to have more resources devoted to making the downtown more inviting—by addressing the issues of homelessness and drug use, by increasing the residential population of the city core, but also by supporting downtown businesses and creating more by way of permanent attractions to entice both locals and visitors (business visitors as well as tourists who may stay several days rather than just a few hours) to spend more time and more dollars in downtown Nanaimo. The city lacks a downtown movie theatre, and it lacks any distinctive attraction; it would be a perfect location, for example, for a Marine Museum that would showcase historic ships (much as Squamish has managed to attract visitors with its Mining Museum). But instead of supporting those sorts of initiatives, the city has stuck with a failed strategy of trying to lure cruise ships to its harbor. In the early years of this century it persuaded the federal government to spend $20 million on a cruise ship terminal. The terminal has never attracted more than a handful of cruise ships a year, and it has attracted none at all since 2019. Nanaimo Cruise Development Manager Andrea Thomas recently trumpeted the news that two small cruise ships would visit Nanaimo in 2024 (https://www.nanaimobulletin.com/local-news/two-cruise-ships-will-set-course-for-nanaimo-this-year-7333193). “We’re starting over again, really,” she said, “and it’s a great opportunity to show what Nanaimo is and what we can do and who we are and why we’re great and why we have a unique product offering in terms of, not specifically the port, but the city itself and the excursion opportunities” to sites such as Cathedral Grove and Vancouver Island wineries. But none of that makes any sense. First of all, no city should, as late as 2024, be “starting over again” after the pandemic. According to today’s Globe and Mail, the city of Vancouver hosted “a record number of cruise ships in the summer of 2023.” The first cruise ship to visit Vancouver after the pandemic did so in early April, 2022. In other words, Vancouver “started over” more than two years ago. And the “excursion opportunities”? The cruise ship tourists visit for a few hours, not for several days; winery tours or trips to Cathedral Grove are not an option.

How much money does Nanaimo now spend in trying to attract cruise ships and on providing services for the very, very few cruise ships that have visited? I would love to see the numbers—but however much is being spent, it’s hard not to think that the money could be better spent in other ways. Mayor Leonard Krog and the current city council have taken some important steps in recent years to make the city in general and the city core in particular more attractive to locals and visitors alike. To pick just three examples, they’ve helped to bring a baseball team to the city (and revitalize the stadium); they’ve facilitated the start-up of a successful foot ferry between downtown Nanaimo and downtown Vancouver (as it turns out, a much better use for the harbor terminal than the hoped-for cruise ships); and they have successfully encouraged more residential construction in the city core. But much more is needed—and spending money on trying to attract cruise ships is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Sunday, March 31, 2024

Letter to the Globe - Let's Not Forget Sudan

I sent this letter to the Globe a week ago; at this point it seems unlikely they will publish it. Nor have they published other letters on the crisis in Sudan--and nor have many letters on this topic appeared in the New York Times (another newspaper that's been doing a good job of covering the crisis). Sadly, it seems that Gaza and Ukraine may have crowded out what seems likely to be at least as great a tragedy. Just to give some idea of the scale, it's been credibly reported that the RSF (the total nasties who are fighting the somewhat-less-nasty Sudanese official government) massacred 15,000 people in a single urban center a few months ago--https://www.reuters.com/world/africa/ethnic-killings-one-sudan-city-left-up-15000-dead-un-report-2024-01-19/. Not only should our governments be doing much more; we should be doing much more as individuals (or, at least, those of us who can afford it), donating to the UN World Food Agency, Medicins Sans Frontiers, Unicef, or to any other of the aid agencies that desperately need more funds to help them help those who need help.
Re ”Response to plea for Sudan aid falls short” (March 22): Credit goes to Geoffrey York and the Globe for providing incisive coverage of a conflict that so much of the media is ignoring. Vitally important though the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine are, we should not let them overshadow what may well be an even greater catastrophe in Sudan, with “tens of thousands of civilians killed,” as well as “8½ million forced to flee their homes” and “18 million facing acute food insecurity.” To date, Canada has committed over $100 million to Gaza aid. We should surely be providing at least as much to help the millions who are homeless and starving in Sudan; so far we’ve pledged well under half that amount.

Saturday, March 9, 2024

The Best Films of 2023: Barbie and Simple Comme Sylvain/The Nature of Love

It seems likely at this point that the 2023 Academy Awards will have a good deal in common with the 1939 Academy Awards and the 1959 Academy Awards; one of the funniest and most original comedies of all time will lose to a bloated historical drama with impressive special effects. In 1939 it was The Philadelphia Story losing out to Gone with the Wind. In 1959 it was Some Like It Hot (not even nominated) losing out to Ben Hur. And this year it will of course be Barbie losing out to Oppenheimer.

The case that Barbie (and Greta Gerwig) deserve to win the Best Picture Oscar has been very well made elsewhere (see, for example, Ann Lee’s “Why Barbie Should Win the Best Picture Oscar” in the March 5 issue of The Guardian); it doesn't need a boost from me. The great comedy by a woman director that does need more of a boost (in the English-speaking world, at least) is arguably Monia Chokri’s Simple Comme Sylvain (entitled The Nature of Love in its English-language subtitled release). It tells the story of how the happy-enough but largely sexless marriage of Sophia and Xavier is disrupted when Sophia and Sylvain (who has been hired to renovate Sophia and Xavier’s chalet) enter into a passionate affair. There are no villains and no heroes in the piece; we sympathize with all the characters. The dialogue is quite often excruciating at the same time as it is excruciatingly funny (“I think I might have met someone,” is how Sophia begins to break the news of the affair to her loving husband.) The difference in social class between the two lovers (and between their families) is the source of much of the film’s comedy—and also of considerable sadness. It’s a film that makes viewers think too—about love, about sexual attraction, and about social class. As Konrad Yakabuski reported in the March 2 Globe and Mail, Simple Comme Sylvain beat out Oppenheimer for the Best Foreign Film award at France’s César Awards. My partner Maureen and I watched the film after seeing Yakabuski’s column—and we both agreed that the French are right in thinking Simple Comme Sylvain a better film than the overly long, pretentious, and badly organized Oppenheimer. You can rent Simple Comme Sylvain/The Nature of Love online through several sites; it’s worth it!
(I also wrote about Oppenheimer in a Jan. 14 post, "Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer—and Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer"--see below.)

Friday, January 26, 2024

Letter to the Globe - China's Economy (and Japan's, and Canada's)

The Globe published a version of this letter early this week, but they trimmed it significantly (leaving out Ibbitson, and leaving out Canada). Here is the full text:
Re “China’s looming decline could be a threat to the world” (Jan. 19): According to John Ibbitson, University of Wisconsin demographer Yi Fuxian may well be right in arguing that “China’s current economic downturn is not cyclical, but structural and irreversible.” But what is this supposed “current economic downturn”? On Jan. 16 the Globe reported that China’s economy grew by 5.2% in 2023, up from 3% in 2022. Admittedly, those are rates of growth much lower than China registered a few years ago—but they are still rates of growth well above those in Europe and North America.

In the late 1960s the Japanese economy boasted growth rates similar to those of China in the 1990s and early 2000s—sometimes reaching 10% or 12% annually. Then its population began to shrink; Japan has had a declining population for many years now. But its economy has still held up reasonably well; it typically now grows by about 1% annually—which, on a per capita basis, means growth of about 1.5% annually (considerably better than Canada’s current rate). There’s no reason why China can’t do the same.
I don't want to end a post on an anti-Ibbitson note. I'm currently reading (and very much enjoying) Ibbitson's The Duel: Diefenbaker, Pearson, and the Making of Modern Canada; it's wonderfully informative about all sorts of little things, and Ibbitson has a very interesting new perspective on the big things, arguing that in terms of policy, there is much more continuity between the Diefenbaker and Pearson governments than has generally been realized. (Ibbitson's book Empty Planet from a few years back is first-rate too.)

Sunday, January 14, 2024

Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer—and Heinar Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer

My partner and I watched Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer this past week (we decided to take it in three one-hour segments—it is a very long movie!). Maureen and I both thought it a fairly good film, and an interesting one—but we find it hard to understand why it would be so enthusiastically touted as the best film of 2023.

Oppenheimer is not only too long (at least 30 minutes could easily be cut); it’s also much too loosely organized. The film is constantly jumping about between the wartime story of the atomic bomb being developed; the 1954 Atomic Energy Commission hearings as to whether or not Oppenheimer’s security clearance should be revoked (because of his leftist political sympathies and his lack of enthusiasm for developing the hydrogen bomb); and the 1959 hearings as to whether or not Lewis Strauss should be confirmed as Commerce Secretary. A good deal of it is not easy to follow, and in its final 45 minutes or so, as Nolan focuses more and more on the 1959 Lewis Strauss hearings, the film veers off oddly in a largely new direction. Strauss (who had persuaded Oppenheimer to become the director of Princeton’s Advanced Study Institute in 1947, but had subsequently turned against him over the H-bomb controversies) lost the 1959 cabinet confirmation vote in the US Senate, in part because various scientists testified that he had persecuted Oppenheimer through the 1954 hearings. All that is unquestionably interesting, but with the film’s focus towards the end more and more on Strauss’s personal viciousness and vindictiveness towards Oppenheimer, the larger issues start to fade into the background. Was it right to develop the atomic bomb? Was it right to develop the hydrogen bomb? How should society deal with the inevitable tension between the need for security and the democratic principles of openness and tolerance? The film has something to say about all of these, but the film’s structure dilutes what it has to say.

A much tighter—and, I would argue, a much better—work on the same topic is Heinar Kipphardt’s play from the 1960s, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Kipphardt was a practitioner of the Theater of Fact, a movement that incorporated material from real-life documents into drama. Much of his play is drawn directly from testimony given at the 1954 AEC hearings—and, unlike Nolan, he does a first-rate job of structuring that material into a tightly focused drama. Here the questions that tend too much in Nolan’s film to recede into the background are kept front and center—with one large question that Nolan pays scant attention to brought to the fore in Kipphardt’s drama: in what circumstances should scientists (should any of us, for that matter) place loyalty to our country and our government ahead of loyalty to humanity?

In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer is a play of ideas—Oppenheimer’s wife is not brought into it, and nor is Lewis Strauss—but the main characters are nevertheless vividly drawn, and the conflict between Oppenheimer and Edward Teller over whether or not to develop the hydrogen bomb creates real dramatic tension. (The text of the play is not entirely cut-and-pasted from the 1954 hearings; Kipphardt added several monologues, and they are a real help in stitching the story together and bringing the characters to life.)

Kipphardt’s play (which I first read thirty or more years ago—I pulled the old British Methuen edition off the shelf recently to re-read it) seems to be largely forgotten nowadays in the English-speaking world. An off-Broadway production was mounted at New York’s Connelly Theater in 2006, but the play seems to have been very infrequently performed since then. The book remains in print, but has only 15 ratings and 3 reviews on Amazon.com. It deserves to be far better known!

Monday, January 1, 2024

An Update on The Grammar Wars

Anyone familiar with “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state,…” must be aware of how interesting—and how important—an awareness of the principles of grammar, usage and punctuation can be. And anyone who reflects for a moment or two on a phrase such as “large barge inspector” can surely sense that the study of grammar, usage, and punctuation can be fun as well as interesting.

For publishers with a strong line of course texts in this area, though, it has in recent years been a deflating experience to try to talk of grammar and of books about grammar with writing instructors in North American universities . Using course texts as part of the teaching experience in first-year writing courses has long been going out of favor, but until a decade or so ago, even those instructors who spent little time teaching from textbooks would typically assign a reference guide to grammar and usage for their students.

Not in recent years.

In some departments in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 academic years, there were more than 50 instructors teaching the department’s introductory writing class, with no more than one or two of them assigning any book on writing. If you asked them specifically about grammar and usage, and whether they might at least consider assigning a reference guide, you were likely to hear some variant of these four standard answers:
No, we don’t teach the minutiae in this department; what we focus on is the big picture—and the process of writing.

No, we don’t teach that type of thing; they should have learned all that in high school.

No, I wouldn’t assign a book like that. If students need a resource of that sort, I send them online to one of the free sites—Purdue Owl, usually.*

No, we don’t teach grammar here. Research has shown that trying to teach grammar to students is likely to actually harm their writing.
That is indeed what the research showed in the 1960s—or seemed to show. Teaching writing in the 1950s had been widely felt to involve far too many robotic grammar drills that were hated by students and that seemed to be doing little to improve their writing. When the National Council of Teachers of English appointed a committee to investigate the practice of teaching composition in the US, the committee (headed by Richard Braddock) reached a conclusion that it asserted could “be stated in strong and unqualified terms: the teaching of formal grammar has a negligible, or because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”

This conclusion of Braddock et al.’s 1963 Report into Research in Written Composition was based largely on a University of London doctoral dissertation from the previous year, in which R.J. Harris had studied the grammar performance of a selection of 12-14 year-old children in five London secondary schools. Though Braddock et al. did not think the Harris study was without its flaws, they nevertheless endorsed its conclusions. Indeed, as Martha Kolin notes (in a 1996 article, “Rhetorical Grammar: A Modification Lesson”), they went even further than had Harris. Where Harris had concluded that it seemed “safe to infer that the study of English grammatical terminology had a negligible or even a relatively harmful effect upon the correctness of children's writing in the early part of the five Secondary Schools,” the Braddock report broadened “upon the correctness of children’s writing” to “on the improvement of writing.”** (They also, it may be observed, broadened Harris’s “the study of English grammatical terminology” to “the teaching of formal grammar.”)

Influential though the Braddock Report was, it’s likely that only a minority of writing instructors today are familiar with it. Many more are likely familiar with Patrick Harwell’s oft-anthologized article arguing against traditional classroom grammar instruction, “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” (College English, 1985).*** And more still are likely aware of Peter Elbow’s Writing with Power (1981, 2/e 1998) which exerted an enormous influence on late twentieth and early twenty-first teachers of writing. Famously, Elbow had this to say about grammar:
Learning grammar is a formidable task that takes crucial energy away from working on your writing, and worse yet, the process of learning grammar interferes with writing; it heightens your preoccupation with mistakes as you write out each word and phrase, and makes it almost impossible to achieve that undistracted attention to your thoughts and experiences as you write that is crucial for strong writing (and sanity). For most people, nothing helps their writing so much as learning to ignore grammar as they write.
That passage is often quoted, both by supporters and opponents of downgrading or eliminating the teaching of grammar in writing classes. Interestingly, it’s sometimes quoted with the last three words omitted (see, for example, Edward C. Hanganu’s 2015 article, “Teaching Grammar in College”). But those last three words are of vital importance; Elbow never in fact suggested that writers should ignore grammar or that the details of grammar were mere “minutiae.”

Elbow, who focused on the writing process (recommending an initial freewriting stage, followed by several stages of revision), held the entirely reasonable view that one should not be concerned with issues such as how to make one’s writing grammatical when one is working on a first draft; that’s when freewriting is appropriate. In Elbow’s view, even the second and third drafts are not normally good times to focus on the mechanics of grammar, usage, and punctuation. Grammar, he felt, should be focused on only at the very final stage of revision. But that did not mean that he thought it unimportant. On the contrary, he wrote at some length on “the desirability of learning grammar if you don’t know it,” devoting a full chapter of Writing with Power to the topic, and recommending that individuals do their best to acquire a good knowledge of grammar:
Happily, it’s not hard to find good instruction in grammar. There are lots of courses for people of all ages and lots of … textbooks from which you can learn it yourself in six months of diligent slogging. … But a class is probably the best method for ensuring you keep going. If you take a class, try to shop around to see if you can find a teacher who suits you. …
For some unknown reason, Elbow seems to seem to assume that whatever grammar classes one might seek out will be outside the academy. He seems to assume too that, since learning grammar may involve “diligent slogging,” in the short term one is likely to have to fall back on other methods of revising so as to make one what writes grammatical:
[In the short term] I know of no other way than to get the help of a proofreader or two for any piece of writing that you want taken seriously. It is best, of course, if you can find someone who is good at finding mistakes. But if none of your close friends has that skill, you can use acquaintances or even find a competent person you don’t know.
There are all sorts of practical problems with applying Elbow’s approach universally—not the least of which is the matter of how undergraduate students might go about finding “someone who is good at finding mistakes” in grammar, when all their friends and classmates are likely to be equally in the dark. (Issues of class and of inequlaity are of course also relevant here; if it might not always be easy even for students from privileged backgrounds at Ivy League institutions to get reliable grammar advice from their friends, it is sure to be far more difficult for students from impovershed backgrounds at inner-city community colleges to do so.) It seems to me to be problematic too that Elbow appears to regard grammar as something entirely unconnected from the structure of ideas in a piece of writing, rather than something that can often be integral to the structuring of ideas into sentences. But the key point here is that even the writing expert who is often thought to be the most influential opponent of teaching grammar was very much of the view that anyone who wants their writing to be taken seriously should learn the conventions of grammar, usage, and punctuation.

For some time in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, the majority of studies seemed to support Harris’s findings. But eventually more and more scholars began to draw attention to the flaws in these studies (see, for example, D. Tomlinson’s 1994 article, “Errors in the research into the effectiveness of grammar teaching,” English in Education, 28). And more and more research began to appear concluding that various forms of grammar instruction could in fact have many benefits: that sentence combining could improve students’ writing (see, for example, S. Graham and D. Perin, “A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students,” Journal of Educational Psychology, 99 [2007]); that students could benefit from direct and explicit instruction in grammar (as versus the “deductive” or “implicit” approach, according to which students are introduced to grammar without any explicit instruction in its terms or its principles) (see, for example, Leslie Ann Rogers and Steve Graham, “A Meta-Analysis of Single Subject Design Writing Intervention Research,” Journal of Educational Psychology [2008], C. Benitez-Correa et al., “A Comparison between Deductive and Inductive Approaches for Teaching EFL Grammar to High School Students,” International Journal of Instruction, 12 [1], [2019], and Pouya Vakili, “Give Me the Rules, I’ll Understand Grammar Better”: Exploring the Effectiveness of Usage-Based Grammar Approach through Explicit Instruction of Adverbials [doctoral thesis] [2022]); that there are many ways to teach grammar effectively without returning to a 1950s-style classroom of repetitive drilling;**** and that, overall, teaching grammar has a positive effect on students’ writing (see, for example, Susan Jones et al., “Grammar for Writing? An Investigation of the Effects of Contextualised Grammar Teaching on Students’ Writing,” Reading and Writing, 26 [2013])***** As Jimmy H.M. van Rijt and his colleagues conclude regarding the overall trend,
Since the beginning of the twenty-first century there has been a renewed interest in grammar teaching in L1 classrooms, both in research and in policy making (Hudson and Walmsley, 2005, Locke, 2010). This interest has become even more apparent in recent years, since the well-rehearsed argument emerging in the 1970s that grammar education has no impact on literacy development is starting to crumble (e.g., Andrews, 2005, Elley et al., 1975, Graham and Perin, 2007). While traditional parsing exercises generally fail to improve students’ writing, there is a growing body of empirical evidence indicating positive effects of contextualized grammar teaching on writing development (e.g., Fearn and Farnan, 2007, Fontich, 2016, Jones et al., 2013, Myhill et al., 2018, Myhill et al., 2012, Watson and Newman, 2017). (“When students tackle grammatical problems: Exploring linguistic reasoning with linguistic metaconcepts in L1 grammar education,” Linguistics and Education 52 [2019])
To be sure, the ground is still contested; not all studies agree, and in every large Rhetoric and Writing Studies Department you can find plenty of instructors who still maintain that “the research” shows that grammar instruction actually harms students’ writing. On one point at least, though, there seems to be no disagreement; no one seems to take issue with the suggestion that learning about the ways in which English is structured improves students’ analytic abilities. As Pouya Vakili and Reda Mohammed write in the conclusion of their paper on the topic,
Students can learn and benefit generally from grammar instruction, even if, for no other reason, it helps to build their scientific knowledge of the world and analytic skills…. In general, explicit grammar instruction helps students have a better understanding of syntax and grammar, … have a better perception of the descriptive quality of language …, develop critical thinking about grammar, become able to analyze sentences at the morphosyntactic level, and improve their linguistic performance. (“‘Grammar Scares Me’: An Exploration of American Students’ Perceptions of Grammar Learning,” International Journal of Linguistics, Literature and Translation, 124 [2020])
In a world in which English instructors at colleges and universities of all sorts are increasingly asked to teach critical thinking skills as well as writing skills, surely it is no bad thing to provide at least modest amounts of explicit grammar instruction.

As we approach the mid-point of the twenty-first century’s third decade, there are more and more signs that the tide has begun ever so slowly to turn. Thankfully, there is no sign of a return to 1950s-style mindless drilling. But there does seem to be some level of increased interest in how teaching grammar can be helpful. Earlier this year, we at Broadview Press conducted extensive research into the viability of three possible “spin-off” books that might be put together from material included in The Broadview Guide to Writing (a large handbook covering topics such as writing process, writing style, and academic citation as well as grammar and usage). We were surprised to find that, of the three possible spin-offs that had been suggested, the one that by some distance generated the most interest was the idea of publishing as a stand-alone volume the sections of the book that deal with grammar, usage, and punctuation. A couple of months from now we will publish The Broadview Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (a concise text that will also offer access to a wide range of online exercises, many using real-world examples, and many with interactive “explain each answer” features). I’m going to be very interested to see how it’s received.

The larger Broadview Guide has been described by They Say / I Say authors Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein as “smart, helpful, and even fun to read,” and certainly our goal (in this “spin-off” grammar and usage book as much as in the larger Guide) is to demonstrate that matters of grammar and usage can be highly interesting and highly entertaining as well as extremely useful. By way of illustration, let me return in closing to the large barge inspector; here’s the book’s entry on “ambiguity”:
ambiguity: Two broad categories of English language ambiguity are semantic ambiguity and syntactic ambiguity (also known as structural ambiguity). Semantic ambiguity occurs as a result of a word or words having two or more possible meanings. Since the word light has two unrelated meanings, a light box can refer either to a box that is not heavy or to a box with a sheet of glass on one side through which light shines. In the newspaper headline “Red tape holds up new bridge,” there are two sources of semantic ambiguity; To hold up something can mean either to keep it off the ground or to delay it, and the expression red tape has both a literal and an idiomatic meaning.

Syntactic ambiguity is a matter of grammar—of the way in which words are arranged in a sentence, and of how they are interpreted grammatically. One circumstance in which syntactical ambiguity can arise is when there is uncertainty as to whether or not a compound noun is being used. Someone who is employed to perform safety inspections of large barges might be described as a “large barge inspector”—but if his job title is barge inspector (a compound noun), then the word large in “large barge inspector” could reasonably be taken to refer to the size of the inspector rather than of the barges. Is a plastic fruit bowl necessarily made of plastic? Or can it be a bowl of any sort that happens to hold pieces of plastic fruit?

Within the broad categories there may be ambiguities of several types. For further discussions of ambiguity in these pages—sorry, that should be “for further discussions in these pages of ambiguity”—see the entries on dangling constructions, on pronouns, and on word order problems, as well as the entries below for words such as flammable.



*As I’ve written elsewhere (“The Cost of Free,” http://donlepan.blogspot.com/2023/02/the-cost-of-free.html), most of these free sites lend support to the adage “you get what you pay for.” Even Purdue Owl—which does seem to be the best of them—includes few complex or real-world examples, is cluttered with advertisements, and in some sections is riddled with inaccuracies and outright errors. It’s hard to blame instructors for taking this route; for many years there was at many universities tremendous pressure on instructors to choose low-cost or no-cost learning materials, regardless of quality. The past two or three years, though, have seen great growth in “inclusive access” systems, whereby students pay a modest surcharge per course to cover the cost of learning materials; where “inclusive access” has been adopted, there’s no longer pressure on instructors to rely on learning materials that are available at no cost, whatever their quality.

** It’s perhaps worth noting here that the Braddock Report’s language here leaves something to be desired where grammar and usage are concerned. The report draws its conclusion as to the effect that “the teaching of formal grammar” has on “the improvement of writing,” when what the authors surely mean to refer to is the effect that it has on students’ writing itself—or, if one feels that the concept of improvement must in some way be introduced explicitly, on the degree to which writing does or does not improve.

*** For a discussion of the influence of Hartwell’s article, see Becky Caouette, “On the College Front: Patrick Hartwell's ‘Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar’ and the Composition of Anthology,” Language Arts Journal of Michigan 27 [2012]. Caouette suggests that Hartwell’s may be “a dated argument that we nevertheless continue to promulgate.”

**** Much of the focus here has been on so-called “contextual teaching” of grammar, according to the principles of which grammar is taught “in context,” through discussion of grammatical points in students’ reading, and in students’ own writing, rather than as “a formal system” or “in isolation,” through exercises that too often do not replicate the structures of real-world writing. Constance Weaver, who argued persuasively in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century for the contextualized teaching of grammar (see Teaching Grammar in Context (1996), and “The Great Debate (Again): Teaching Grammar and Usage,” The English Journal, 85 [1996]), suggested that not all grammatical concepts should be given equal weight, and that it is far more important for students to grasp concepts such as subject-verb agreement and comma splices than it is for them to grasp some other concepts. She pointed to ways in which looking at real-world examples of such matters can be of great benefit to the student. But it remains not entirely clear lear how, without at least some instruction in grammar as a formal system, students will be able to “learn to punctuate sentences correctly and effectively (according to accepted conventions), judiciously violating the rules on occasion, for rhetorical effect,” as Weaver recommends.

Nor is it clear why instructors can't sensibly aim to combine a certain amount of teaching the formal systems of grammar with contextual teaching of points of grammar as they discuss various readings (or the students's own writing). ***** Though a very great many articles have been written on “the grammar wars,” there are surprisingly few rigorous studies involving first-language (“L1” in the literature) learners or involving learners at the post-secondary level, and very few indeed that try to measure the effect of teaching grammar on students’ writing performance. The 2013 study by Jones et al. is a welcome exception. Here is their summing up: “The role of grammar instruction in the teaching of writing is contested in most Anglophone countries, with several robust meta-analyses finding no evidence of any beneficial effect. However, existing research is limited in that it only considers isolated grammar instruction and offers no theorization of an instructional relationship between grammar and writing. This study, drawing on a theorized understanding of grammar as a meaning-making resource for writing development, set out to investigate the impact of contextualized grammar instruction on students’ writing performance. The study adopted a mixed-methods approach, with a randomized controlled trial and a complementary qualitative study. The statistical analyses indicate a positive effect on writing performance for the intervention group (e = 0.21; p < 0.001); but the study also indicates that the intervention impact differentially on different sub-groups, benefiting able writers more than weaker writers. The study is significant in being the first to supply rigorous, theorized evidence for the potential benefits of teaching grammar to support development in writing.”

Saturday, December 16, 2023

Letter to the Globe - Time to Stop Privileging the Interests of Oldsters Such as Me Over Those of Young Parents with Children

Here's another letter to the Globe; I sent it in a week ago, and an edited version was published in today's paper. I'll publish the unedited version here; I thought it was a shame that they cut the credit to Paul Kershaw in the published version. Also, I found it interesting that, in the final sentence, the Globe changed "There's no good reason" to "I see no good reason."
Re Attention older homeowners (December 9): Thanks to Paul Kershaw for drawing attention to the degree to which our tax system privileges older people over those raising children. Old Age Security payments to oldsters such as me (who no longer have rent or mortgage payments to make) should start to be clawed back when our incomes reach $40,000—half the current level of $80,000. And Canada Child Benefits payments to those raising children (most of whom have heavy rent or mortgage payments to make, as well as child-related expenses) should not start to be clawed back until household income exceeds $70,000—double the current level of $35,000. There’s no good reason to put the financial interests of older Canadians over those of young parents—and young children.

Saturday, November 25, 2023

Letter to the Globe - The Historical Roots of Prejudice

This is the third of three. It was sent November 16, so at this point I have to assume they decided not to run it.
Re “Who we are and must be, as Canadians” (Editorial, Nov. 14): It’s not enough that provinces work to combat antisemitism by expanding “education about the Holocaust.” We should also all be educated about the whole history of antisemitism, from the medieval period onwards: Christians blaming Jews collectively for the death of Jesus (a Jew); Christians closing off almost all professions except moneylending to Jews, and then condemning Jews for being nothing but moneylenders; England (like Spain, Portugal, and other European countries) expelling all Jews—the list goes on and on. We should look too at the roots of anti-Muslim feeling, going back to the Crusades. The more we understand the deep historical roots of prejudice, the better equipped we are to combat it.

Letter to the Globe - Immigration

This is the second of three. This one was published, albeit in slightly edited form; here's the full version.
Re “Ottawa caps immigration target” (Nov. 2): Your article opens with a reference to “shrinking public support for immigration”—phrasing that suggests Canadians are turning against immigration per se. But that’s simply not the case; the Nanos poll referenced in the article reported that, as of this September, 53% of surveyed Canadians want Canada to accept fewer immigrants annually than the permanent resident target for 2023, which is 465,000. Our current levels of immigration—both permanent and temporary—are, as a percentage of population, the highest in the developed world. I’m not aware of any Canadians who are “turning against immigration” per se; what Canadians are turning against is a policy of continuous increase in immigration levels in a country experiencing dire housing shortages and tremendous strains on its health care system.

Letter to the Globe - Supply Management

Today I'll post three letters that I've sent in the past while to the Globe and Mail. This one was sent October 21.
Re “A bill that will curdle future trade talks” (Oct. 20): Your editorial fairly criticizes proposed legislation that would take supply management off the table in future trade negotiations. But both the Globe and those advancing the legislation ignore the situation of those at the heart of the matter—the cows and chickens who currently endure terrible suffering (under supply management, as under the American system). Canadian animal-cruelty laws either exempt farm animals entirely or prohibit only cruelty that exceeds “generally accepted practice,” when the reality is that very considerable cruelty has long been considered acceptable. If Canada replaced supply management with a set of much higher standards for the treatment of farm animals, the prices of eggs, milk, and chicken would remain high, but at least consumers would know that cruelty had been reduced. And perhaps new export markets would open up for the higher-standard Canadian animal products.

Saturday, October 21, 2023

Excerpts from an Animals Interview

Snigdha Sunith, a doctoral student at India’s Bharathiar University, was recently in touch to ask me a number of questions about Animals, which will apparently be the focus of a good part of Sunith’s dissertation on “Vegetarianism in the Anthropocene.” I’ll share some of what I wrote in my written response.

On the background to my writing the novel:
Around 1991 a friend lent me her copy of Animal Liberation. To that point I had never given much thought to what I ate, or, indeed, to eating generally—to farm animals, to factory farming, to fertilizers and herbicides and pesticides, any of it. I was rivetted and appalled by Singer’s descriptions of the horrific realities of factory farming. I write in the “Afterword” to Animals that I was “persuaded … largely through reading Singer’s book” to start to change my eating habits. What I don’t say is that there was a long lag between the reading and the start of the change. For several years after reading Animal Liberation, I don’t think I made any change whatsoever in my diet. I guess I found ways of pushing to the back of my consciousness what I had read about (and seen—the photos in Singer’s book were very powerful too). Eventually I did start to allow my new knowledge of “farming” to start to shape my eating habits, and then incremental change just kept coming (as I touch on the “Afterword”).

But I did not think of trying to do anything to try to influence others to change their dietary habits until one Sunday morning in 2004 or 2005. As I was doing my exercises that morning, I listened to a CBC radio feature on how horrific things had become in Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. I had spent three years in the early 1980s doing volunteer work as a teacher in a rural school in Zimbabwe, and at that time the country’s future had seemed bright. I guess I thought of those volunteer years as a time in my life when (much more than at other points in my life) I really had done something, however modest, to try to help make the world a better place. And now all the work that all of us—dedicated Zimbabweans far more so than we expatriates—had done to try to build something good and lasting in that country was being destroyed by the Mugabe regime, a group of once-proud freedom fighters who had become oppressors and plunderers.

“What might I do today that might do some good?” was the question I found myself asking. Spending another few years volunteering at that point in my life was out of the question—I had started a book publishing company that I couldn’t abandon, and I had two young children. “But I could write,” was my next thought. The only novel I had at that point written was an embarrassingly bad political adventure tale that had never been published (and that I hope never will be—it really was terrible!). But I had done a good deal of other writing, and I had learned a good deal about people—as most of us do by the time we’re fifty. It stuck me that there are many ways of influencing people through the written word; a powerful recitation of facts and marshalling of arguments in a work of non-fiction such as Singer’s Animal Liberation is one, but perhaps some sort of imaginative presentation might be another effective way. And then, in something like 30 seconds, the basic story of Animals came to me—none of the details in that length of time, of course, but the outline of all three parts of the story.

On Naomi’s questioning her parents about the ethics of eating meat:

I don’t know what to say about Naomi. I gave her the name of my daughter, although at the time I wrote the book I didn’t think my daughter was very similar to the character of Naomi in the book. Quite a few people who know both, though, have told me I’m wrong about that, and that real-life Naomi is in fact quite a lot like the character.

I do think many children are wiser than their parents on these issues; parents tend much too easily to laugh off as childish naivete children’s frequently expressed reservations about (or outright opposition to) the killing and eating of other creatures.

Adults tend to dismiss the arguments of children on the grounds that children have a less developed capacity for reasoning than do adults. And too many humans, of course, feel that we're justified in killing and eating other creatures who have a less developed capacity for reasoning than we do. But there isn't any good reason to treat other creatures cruelly on the grounds that they have less reasoning capacity than we do. Humans would see this point more clearly if a civilization of alien invaders a lot brighter than we are decided to treat us cruelly on the grounds that they were justified in doing so because our reasoning capacities were less developed than theirs.

On the impact I hoped at the time Animals would have on readers, and the impact it has had on readers:
As I say in the “Afterword,” I was at the time conscious mainly of aiming to help to shift attitudes regarding factory farming in particular. But as a number of readers pointed out to me soon after publication, the novel can easily be read as an argument against eating animal food of any sort (meat, but also eggs, cow’s or goat’s milk, cheese, and so on*)—an argument for adopting an entirely plant-based diet. Looking back on it, I think the experience of writing the novel did a lot to lead me in that direction (my partner and I have been vegan since 2011). The moral here is perhaps that I should have left it up to readers to decide for themselves how the novel should be read!

There have been many people over the years who have said or written that the experience of reading Animals had a real effect on them—and, in particular, had a real effect on their eating habits. No one has said that they suddenly went vegan after reading the book—nothing so dramatic. But lots by way of small changes. I gave a presentation last week in San Diego to a large group of first-year students, and spoke afterwards with the professor who teaches the course; he has been assigning Animals now for many years, and he told me that roughly 20% of his students have reported to him that reading (and discussing) the novel has led to at least some change in their attitudes and behavior. In 2016 my partner (Maureen Okun) and I did a small study of the effect of the novel; the results can be found here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3758567


On my other works of fiction:

My third novel, Lucy and Bonbon, which was published last year, deals with some of the same themes as Animals. My next book of fiction (tentatively titled Leaving Pittsburgh), will be a collection of linked short stories about various sorts of human interaction, with nothing in it about human and non-human animals.

I seem to be alternating between works of fiction focused on human/non-human animal themes, and works of fiction in which those themes are entirely absent. My second novel, Rising Stories, was a book about childhood and the imagination and Chicago, and was in no way concerned with human and non-human animal themes. My fifth work of fiction will I think turn largely on an investigation of a factory farm near Columbus, Ohio.

*In terms of cruelty, the dairy industry may well be the worst of all. One has to start with the fundamental fact at the heart of it—we take the babies from their mothers so that we can steal the milk meant for the babies. And then we kill the babies (or at least the male ones) while they are still very young, and call it veal. Nowadays, the cruelty goes far beyond that, of course; whereas dairy cows once really did graze in fields and eat grass, now they almost always live their lives on concrete floors, chained in place.

Three Recent Books with Something to Say about What We Eat

[I submitted this book review article to the Globe and Mail a while back; they decided not to run it, so I'll post it here.]
Should humans eat other animals? The argument continues unabated, and continues to find rich expression in the world of books. Every season brings something new, from philosophical and political treatises, to cookbooks, to personal accounts of culinary experience, to cultural and anthropological studies. Together, these three recently-published books offer something of all those.

Animal Liberation Now

BY PETER SINGER, WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY YUVAL HARARI (HARPER COLLINS, 348 PAGES)

No one has done more than Peter Singer to persuade human animals to shift from eating other sentient animals to eating plants. The arguments for consuming less meat and dairy—or none at all—have only gotten stronger since the landmark first edition of Singer’s Animal Liberation appeared in 1975. Each year brings new studies showing that a plant-based diet can offer extraordinary health benefits, and is in myriad ways better for the environment. Singer’s substantially revised and updated new edition, Animal Liberation Now, may well be the twenty-first-century’s most important book on the relationship between humans and other species—just as the original was the most important late twentieth-century book on the topic. In the new edition Singer reviews recent developments in philosophy and within various institutions (notably, the Catholic Church), and he details the ways in which animal agriculture contributes hugely to climate change. He debunks many misconceptions-not least of all the notion that the Amazon is being deforested in order to grow soybeans that will be consumed as tofu, and the suggestion that switching to a plant-based diet might cause more rather than less suffering (on the grounds that plants as well as animals may be capable of feeling). As Singer points out, “77% of global soy production is fed to animals and thus converted to meat and dairy products…. It’s not tofu that is driving deforestation but the meat and dairy industries.” It follows that, if it is the case that plants can feel pain, “those who eat meat are responsible for the destruction of vastly more plants than vegans are.”

Much of Singer’s classic work remains unchanged in the new edition. His extraordinarily insightful historical overview of the ways in which we humans have rationalized our mistreatment of other species remains substantively the same, as does his overview of the horrific realities of today’s factory farming. Gone, though, are the photographs documenting those realities that were a feature of previous editions. No doubt it is deemed more important these days to shield the sensibilities of the reader from horrific photographic evidence than it is to use images (as well as words) to draw attention to the animals’ suffering. I suspect, though, that the photographs included in previous editions played a real part in shocking readers out of their complacency; certainly they did for me when I first read Animal Liberation in the early 1990s.

Singer is often imagined by non-philosophers to be an animal rights activist. What he in fact argues is that we must recognize other sentient creatures’ capacity to feel (and to suffer), and that we are thus obligated to take their interests into account, and treat them well. “The language of rights is a convenient political shorthand that [becomes] even more valuable in the era of the eight-second soundbite,” he writes, “but it is not essential to the argument for a radical change in our attitude toward animals.” That “eight-second soundbite” phrase, incidentally, is one of Singer’s many small updates; in the previous two editions of the book, he wrote instead of “the era of thirty-second TV newsclips.”

Vegan Africa: Plant-Based Recipes from Ethiopia to Senegal

BY MARIE KACOUCHIA (THE EXPERIMENT PUBLISHING, 192 PAGES)

People often imagine that it’s mainly university-educated white people who adopt a plant-based diet; nothing could be further from the truth. In the US, for example, about 8% of African Americans are now vegan—more than double the percentage of whites. And interest in plant-based diets has been growing worldwide—as is reflected in the tremendous outpouring of cookbooks focused on vegan soul food, vegan Korean food, vegan Mexican dishes, and so on. One of the most successful recent offerings is Marie Kacouchia’s Vegan Africa: Plant-Based Recipes from Ethiopia to Senegal, which appeared late last year; it’s made it onto many “Best of” lists. Kacouchia explains in her introduction that one of her aims is “to show that moving toward a plant-based diet doesn’t have to be boring or restrictive”—and in that she surely succeeds; the dishes are wonderfully varied, even though most are easy to make with readily available ingredients.

The title is slightly misleading—it might be taken to suggest that the recipes represent only an east-west spectrum, whereas southern Africa is also well represented here. For Kacouchia (who claims two homelands herself, France and the Ivory Coast), researching and writing the book was in part a way of reconnecting with the Ivory Coast culture she had left as an eight-year-old child. In all, she draws on the culinary traditions of over a dozen nations. In some cases, the dishes are entirely traditional; in others she has adapted and combined to create original recipes. Two that my partner and I have tried and particularly recommend: creamy carrot-ginger soup and "Red Red"--Ghanian Red Stew.

Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs

BY JAMIE LOFTUS (A FORGE BOOK / TOR PUBLISHING, 302 PAGES)

Like Peter Singer's recent book, Jamie Loftus's recent book has been the subject of a feature interview on CBC Radio’s Sunday Magazine. There, though, the similarities end. Unlike Animal Liberation, Loftus’s Raw Dog is something of a muddle—interesting and entertaining at times, but disorganized and poorly argued. “Hot dogs,” Loftus writes, “are the kind of American that you know there is something deeply wrong with but still find endearing.” Readers may find the hot dog less endearing after reading Loftus’s descriptions of how hot dogs are made, how workers in the sausage factories suffer, and how the animals whose less desirable parts go into hot dogs are treated. “The choice not to eat meat is the correct one,” she concedes, but she gives little space to any reflection on that conclusion, which she does not allow to interfere with her project of sampling varieties of hot dog across America. “If you’ve got the stomach to eat it,” she writes, “then you should know who suffers for you to do so”—as if knowing the truth were somehow enough, and humans have no obligation to consider changing what they do on the basis of what they know. Strangely, Loftus seems entirely uninterested in vegetarian or vegan variants of the hot dog.

When the underpinnings of an ideological position have been knocked away, as Peter Singer writes of the rationalizations humans have traditionally advanced for using and abusing other species, sometimes “the ideological position will just hang there, defying the logical equivalent of the laws of gravity.” In the case of our “attitudes towards animals,” he suggests, that is exactly what “seems to have happened.” It would be hard to find a book that illustrates this point any better than does Loftus’s Raw Dog.

Sunday, July 9, 2023

Names, and the Pittsburgh Synagogue Shooting

For the past couple of years I’ve been working on a book of linked short stories, most of which feature one or members of a Pittsburgh family that becomes dispersed, Vince and Vera moving to Phoenix and their children, Andy and Ellie, moving respectively to Butler, Pennsylvania, and to New York. Leaving Pittsburgh will include one story focused on the 2022 collapse of the Forbes Avenue bridge in Frick Park, and also one story loosely based on the 2018 killing of eleven worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue. I was in considerable doubt as to whether or not I should take on what may well be the worst instance of antisemitic violence in North American history as a subject; the whole series of events is so troubling and so tragic, and I wasn’t sure if it would be possible to write about it in any sort of way that might be helpful. In the end I felt that the greater danger in a book about Pittsburgh in recent decades would be to leave out an episode of such central importance, but it has been one of the most difficult pieces of fiction I’ve ever attempted.

As you might expect, then, I have paid some attention to the recent sentencing trial of the defendant in the Pittsburgh trial (who was convicted in June of the killings—the matter now being considered is whether the sentence will be capital punishment or imprisonment for life without parole).

One interesting aspect of the coverage has been that some of the reporters writing on the case have chosen not to name the defendant in their articles. I am among the many people who have called for an end to the practice of naming mass murderers in the mass media (see https://donlepan.blogspot.com/2015/10/lets-refuse-to-give-mass-murderers.html). The reason is simple; it has long been clear that many mass killers are motivated, at least in part, by a desire for fame. To the extent that the media keep publishing the killers’ names, then, they are playing along with the killers’ desires—and to the extent that the media refrain from publishing the names, they are thwarting those desires. Mass killings by individuals are generally referred to by referencing the location at which they occurred rather than the names of the perpetrators; hate-motivated examples include the Montreal massacre (anti-women violence), the Pulse Orlando killings (anti-gay violence), the Charleston church killings (anti-black violence), the Quebec City mosque killings (anti-Muslim violence), and now the Pittsburgh Tree of Life killings (antisemitic violence). Yet in too many cases the perpetrators do become famous; the names of the Montreal and Charleston murderers are, sadly, all too well known—and in some cases have inspired others to attempt similar crimes.

Can we be sure that these names would not become well known if the media did not publish them? Of course not; there will inevitably be some who are determined to find out the names of mass murderers, and will succeed in doing so. But if we do not publish the names, it is surely likely that those names will at the very least become much less well known than if we do publish them. One point of comparison is the current treatment of young offenders. It is the law in many jurisdictions that the names of juvenile offenders not be made public; no doubt in some cases individuals who are determined to do so manage to find out those names, but the vast majority of us do no such thing, and the names remain unknown to us.

American journalist Garrett Haake is among those who have suggested that journalists who do not name mass killers “abdicate responsibility for asking and answering deeper questions about why an event took place, and what could have been done to stop it.” But surely media reports on crimes committed by juveniles have often inquired into deeper questions regarding why the crimes took place and what could be done to prevent their re-occurrence. Until recently there were few examples of reporters dealing with mass killings who chose not to name the killer when then was no law requiring them to refrain from doing so. One feature of the coverage of the Pittsburgh trial is that some reporters are making that choice. Notable among them is Delaney Parks, who has written numerous articles on the case for the Pittsburgh Union Progress* and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle; Parks typically uses the noun “defendant” to refer to the killer; she does not name him. And her coverage is just as thorough and just as wide-ranging as that of other journalists who do mention the killer’s name.

Even those journalists and media outlets who do sometimes mention the Pittsburgh attacker's name are in many cases making an effort to do so only infrequently. (For a discussion, see “In an unusual alliance, Jewish media and striking journalists are uniting to cover the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial,” 1 May 2023).

Of relevance: As Mark Oppenheimer reports in his excellent book, Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood, the families of the eleven people who were killed have been unanimous in their desire that the killer not be named in media coverage. (The degree to which any journalist can express the multifaceted truth about every individual involved in this sort of tragedy is necessarily limited--by the importance of respecting privacy as well as by other considerations--but Oppenheimer does an extraordinarily good job of giving the reader as full as possible an understanding of what went on—and of how the families and the neighborhood have coped in the years since.)

*The Union Progress was started by journalists from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, who went on strike in October 2022; Post-Gazette workers had been working without a contract since 2017.

Monday, May 22, 2023

Bettering Ourselves

How can we make ourselves better people? Not better in terms of our health, or our physical or mental powers, but better morally?

Aristotle argued that friendships (particularly disinterested friendships—friendships in which we are not looking to gain anything for ourselves) constitute one path through which we may become more virtuous. Others have suggested that prayer and meditation can and do make us more virtuous. In the nineteenth century proponents of certain strands of Christianity argued that cultivating our physical health helps us to cultivate virtue as well. A number of twentieth- and twenty-first century psychologists and literacy advocates have argued that reading prose fiction tends to make us more empathetic.

In a 1942 article that has remains influential in some quarters, Simone Weil asserts that cultivating attentiveness—the sort of attentiveness that, in her view, comes from academic study undertaken with the proper attitude (“le bon usage des études scolaires”)—is an important way of cultivating virtue in ourselves. Weil was by the time she wrote the piece a fervent Christian, and her chief concern in advocating the cultivation of attentiveness is that humans do everything possible “to orient themselves towards God with the greatest possible degree of attentiveness of which the soul is capable” (“l'orientation vers Dieu de toute l'attention dont l'âme est capable”). But Weil argues as well that attentiveness tends to foster love for our neighbors as much as it does love towards God:
It's not only the love of God that has attentiveness as its substance. The love of one’s neighbor, which we know is the same love, is made of the same substance. … The capacity to pay attention to one who is suffering is a rare and difficult thing. … Almost all those who believe they have this capacity do not. Warmth of emotion, heart-felt impulsiveness, pity—these are insufficient.

[Ce n'est pas seulement l'amour de Dieu qui a pour substance l'attention. L'amour du prochain, dont nous savons que c'est le même amour, est fait de la même substance. … La capacité de faire attention à un malheureux est chose très rare, très difficile…. Presque tous ceux qui croient avoir cette capacité ne l'ont pas. La chaleur, l'élan du cœur, la pitié n'y suffisent pas.] (“Réflexions sur le bon usage des études scolaires en vue de l'amour de Dieu”)
Weil is surely right that much of the time we humans tend, even when we are expressing sympathy and warm feeling towards a fellow human being, not to truly pay attention to what they are feeling; too often we do not truly listen to what they say to us. And perhaps she is right that one way to cultivate this form of attentiveness is to cultivate attentiveness in academic study. But she does not make entirely clear through what mechanism a spirit of attentiveness to physics or geometry or grammar lessons (even a pure spirit of attentiveness that floats free of any self-oriented goals) might be readily transferrable to a spirit of attentiveness towards other people.

Are there other sorts of attentiveness that might just as plausibly—or more plausibly—possess the potential to add moral value to human life? Yes, is surely the short answer—and I would argue that some of them come from unexpected sources. More specifically, I’d argue that the pursuit of one type of work that has been reviled perhaps more than any other may offer surprising potential. I want to suggest that working in sales can help make us better people.

In the spring of 1975, when I was about to graduate with an English degree and was considering applying for jobs in book publishing, I had the good fortune to speak with two senior people in book publishing (Hugh Kane of Macmillan of Canada and Barney Sandwell of Burns and MacEachern). I had assumed—as countless English grads do—that the natural progression for someone like me would be into editorial. Both Kane and Sandwell suggested to me that the sales side was worth considering—that conversing with a variety of interesting people outside one’s company could be a good deal more interesting than poring over manuscripts all day, watching out for dangling modifiers and comma errors. They suggested too that the sales side could provide a broader and deeper understanding of the publishing business than could editorial (or Distribution, or Accounts, for that matter). They certainly did not suggest that a career in sales might have the potential to make someone a better human being. But I’m quite confident that it’s had that effect on me; that’s part of the reason why, even long after I started a new publishing company, I have continued to devote a certain amount of time to maintaining my own sales territory, and to knocking on the doors of the professors who I hope will assign our company’s books for their students.*

Discussions of sales and ethics have often focused on sleazy sales tactics—on the unethical practices that too many companies and sales representatives engage in. More than one wag has suggested that both “sales ethics” and “business ethics” are oxymoronic. If anything resembling “virtue ethics” or character formation enters the conversation, the typical assumption is that sales work tends inevitably to coarsen one’s character, encouraging one to become more competitive, more aggressive, more materialistic, and more self-interested—pumping up a variety of unattractive character traits, and doing damage to virtually all forms of higher mental activity. The image of sales as a soul-destroyer permeates twentieth-century American literature, from Arthur Miller’s The Death of a Salesman to John Updike’s Rabbit books to David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross. All are great works of literature, but all portray sales as a process of misleading or cheating one’s customers as one pursues exhausting but empty goals for oneself.** As Miller’s Biff Loman puts it,
… it's a measly manner of existence. … To devote your whole life to keeping stock, or making phone calls, or selling or buying. To suffer fifty weeks of the year for the sake of a two-week vacation…. And always to have to get ahead of the next fella. And still—that’s how you build a future.

No doubt a career in sales can have all these deleterious effects. But sales work can also affect a person’s character in ways that are almost diametrically opposed to these stereotypes—and that are almost entirely positive.

A great deal depends, of course, on what you are selling. It’s impossible to imagine that anyone’s character is going to be improved by trying to sell shoddy merchandise or dodgy mining stocks. If you’re selling something that you can truly be proud of, on the other hand, that’s one good reason to be proud of what you are doing in life.

Arguably even more depends, though, on the approach one takes to selling. When most people think of what’s involved in selling, they think of the sales representative talking rather than listening—spinning a line, using every possible power of persuasion. A better approach to selling many sorts of things—and certainly a better approach when it comes to human values—involves the sales representative doing more listening than talking. Asking questions rather than giving a spiel. And then truly listening to the answers. Being curious about what the person they are speaking to may say—and truly interested in what they do say.

If you’re not trying to sell someone something that they don’t really want, you’ll have a better chance of long-term success, purely in terms of sales. But you’ll also have a better chance of making yourself into a better person. Part of becoming a better person (and it’s a lifelong struggle for most of us) is to overcome our egos enough to be truly interested in and to truly care about other people. Not just our children and our parents and our close friends—about strangers as well. To care to some degree at least about any other human being. How can sales help us to develop those sorts of feelings? Crucially, it can help us to develop a habit of asking questions of other people—which in turn can help develop a habit of genuine curiosity about other people. And the more curious we are about other people, the more we are likely to care about them too.

If you work as a sales representative for a long time—going back to the same people, in the spring sales season, in the fall sales season, year after year—that sales season structure in itself offers a strong inducement to behave ethically. If sales is a one-time encounter, the economic incentives arguably work the other way; you may well do better if you cheat or mislead the customer. But not if you know you’re going to be coming back again and again in the future. In that case there’s a very strong incentive to “build a relationship,” as the saying goes. But it’s not just a saying. Inevitably, one develops a habit of being curious about what the people you are speaking with are thinking, about what they might think, about what they might need or want. One develops habits of being genuinely interested in the people you are interacting with. One develops habits of truly listening to what is being said to you—and making an effort to understand the situation of the person who is saying it. One develops a habit of genuinely trying to help that other person—not as a matter of making more sales revenue for the company one is with, but for its own sake. (It’s not uncommon for sales representatives to recommend to their customers products from another company when they can see that whatever they are offering that season is not a good fit—and I can attest that it’s a deeply satisfying feeling for the sales rep if such suggestions turn out to be helpful.) Inevitably too, such habits seep into the rest of life. One develops a habit of asking questions of one’s spouse or partner, of one’s relatives, of one’s friends. And I think one becomes more likely to be curious about the lives of strangers too—and more likely to care about them.

None of this is to suggest that working in sales has a unique ethical status. I imagine that for some people academic study may indeed have the capacity to build habits of attentiveness that can result in an increased tendency to care for others, much as Weil suggests. (So too, I'm sure, may a career on the editorial side of the publishing business, provided that it entails serious engagement with texts and ideas rather than merely with commas and dangling modifiers!) I’m sure that, for many, simply making a decision to help others in a practical way—to volunteer for a charity helping the poor or the homeless, for example—can result both in real benefit to those others and in building habits within oneself of being attentive and caring to others. And no doubt the habit of reading can, in some circumstances at least, increase one’s capacity for empathy—though it’s surely more likely to do so if one is reading Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (a novel offering a deeply sympathetic depiction of the life of a poor family), than it is if one is reading Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen (a novel offering a deeply sympathetic treatment of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan). And I’m sure that building habits of disinterested friendship can help to make one a better person, just as Aristotle maintained. But a career in sales—so often denigrated as being at best a path merely to “bettering oneself” materially—also deserves consideration as a path to bettering oneself in ethical terms, and in bettering the lives of others.

Yes, sales at its worst can indeed be soul destroying. It’s persuading someone to buy something that they don’t really need and don’t even really want—telling them that color looks lovely on you! when in reality it looks hideous, or appealing to their worst instincts (What I hear from everyone who’s bought this car is that they can’t believe how many admiring looks they get). But sales at its best involves making people aware of products or services that will genuinely help them, that will make their work easier or their lives better and more enjoyable, that will genuinely offer better value, that will be better for the environment or better for the planet in myriad other ways. And by leading us to think of other people and their needs and wants, sales work can indeed help to make us better people. “Attention must be paid,” the famous line from Death of a Salesman, is a plea for caring about the life of Willy Loman, whose sales career has resulted in great damage to him and his family; “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him.” But most people who work in sales are not Willy Lomans; it’s worth paying attention too to the ways in which and the degree to which attentiveness and caring on the part of those engaged in sales very often contributes to much happier outcomes, and contributes as well to making the world a better and more caring place.
*Next January I’ll turn 70; this coming fall will be my 85th and final sales season.

**It might also be observed that all are by male writers, and focus on male sales people. The ways in which sales has been gendered is not my subject here, but it’s a subject that deserves attention.


A selfie taken during my 84th sales season--this past February in New Orleans, outside Xavier University of Louisiana. For the past several years I've stayed when visiting New Orleans at Bed and Breakfast places in the Bywater neighborhood; there are no nearby car rental places, but there's a U-Haul that's both handy and reasonably priced (so long as one doesn't mind looking silly driving from university to university with "Only $19.95 a day" on your vehicle).