Friday, December 2, 2022

The Sonnet at Salford: A Case Study in the Spread of Falsehood

How does misinformation germinate in today’s charged political climate, and how does it grow? A controversy that blew up in May of 2022 over the teaching of sonnets at the University of Salford in Britain provides an interesting case study. Here is some of what Rex Murphy (a columnist for Canada’s National Post newspaper) had to say on the topic as the manufactured controversy spread around the world:
Within the strict and limited form of the literary sonnet may be found some of the most exquisite and artistic creations of the poetic mind. They are the exhalations of literary genius. … To take these triumphs of the creative poetic mind out of consideration, and to lay on them the brand that they are “products of white western culture” and as such need to be “decolonized” (whatever that murk of a verb can possibly mean) is to commit a sacrilege against poetry and art. But such are elements in the idiot days we live in, that there is a university—at least that’s what it’s called, but names mean nothing in many cases—Salford, in England, where Shakespeare flourished and where Milton birthed his imperishable genius, which is doing just that.
Murphy’s 21 May column bears a combative headline (“How ridiculous is it for universities to sideline sonnets? Let me count the ways,”—and the subheading is even more ideologically charged: “In its wokeness, Salford University is pushing young minds away from some of the greatest artistic expressions the world has to offer.”

Murphy was one of several commentators who deplored this supposed “sacrilege against poetry and art.” The problem with these commentators’ claims? They were deploring something that had not in fact occurred.

What had in fact happened? Those in charge of a single course at the University of Salford—a second-year course in creative writing entitled Writing Poetry in the Twenty-First Century, not a survey of English literature—had decided to place less emphasis on the sonnet. Yes, this single course had indeed noted that such forms “tend to be the products of white western culture” (as they surely do indeed tend to be). But the sonnet had not been banished—not even from this one course. Previously, students enrolled in the course had been required to compose sonnets as part of both of the course’s two assessments (the work on the basis of which they were graded). After the change in the curriculum, they would still be required to compose sonnets (as well as sestinas and tankas), and one of the two assessments would still require students to submit both a sonnet and a tanka for assessment (with students having the option of submitting a third poem in a form of their own design). As Scott Thurston of the English and Creative Writing Department made clear, the only difference was that there would be slightly less emphasis in the assessments on the sonnet and especially on the sestina—though even in the case of the sestina students would still be required to compose in that form as part of their exercises. This was merely, then, a slight change in the way students would be assessed when it came to calculating grades for a single Creative Writing course. Far from taking the sonnet “out of consideration” across the entire university, Salford had not even banished it from this single creative-writing course.

How is it possible that such a thorough distortion of the facts could become so widespread? Part of the problem can be attributed to news media headlines, which are often written by a headline writer, not by the author or editor of each article. The first piece on the matter seems to be have been a 14 May 2022 report in the Daily Telegraph (often described as among the more respectable of Britain’s right-wing newspapers). The Telegraph piece was wrong or misleading in several respects, but it was far less misleading than the headline it was given: “University Sidelines Sonnets as ‘Products of White Western Culture.’”

Similarly, the article that followed a few days later in the Daily Mail (often described as among the less respectable of Britain’s right-wing newspapers) was correct—if misleadingly incomplete—when it quoted “Dr Scott Thurston, leader of the creative writing course at Salford,” as having said that “students would still be required to undertake exercises in composing sonnets.” You wouldn’t guess any of that from the Daily Mail headline, which blared out a more extreme story: “University of Salford Cancels Sonnets from Writing Course because they are Products of White Western Culture.”

When Google picked up the Daily Mail headline, it adopted it in an edited form. What you see first with respect to that Daily Mail article if you Google “Scott Thurston course – Salford” (as of 30 November 2022) is not the full headline but rather this shortened version: “University Cancels Sonnets over Concerns They Are “Products of White Western Culture.” The omission in the Google version of the phrase “from Writing Course” clearly suggests that the policy change was university-wide. Presumably the Google headline is more likely to have been crafted by Google software than by any human headline writer employed by Alphabet Inc.; either way, the result is pernicious.

But neither the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail headline writers nor the Google headline software should shoulder the bulk of the blame. The most egregious acts of irresponsibility here are surely those of writers such as Murphy themselves. Could it be that the writers who followed up on the original Telegraph piece with their own articles deploring the University of Salford’s supposed change of policy did not actually read much more than the headline? Such carelessness is surely within the realm of possibility; many people have plausibly suggested that there’s more and more skimming and less and less actual reading in today’s digital world.

It’s hard not to conclude, though, that ideology often dovetails with carelessness in such cases. Take, for example, the coverage accorded the incident by Maggie Kelly in an online publication called The College Fix—a publication that appears to be very largely dedicated to the fight against “political correctness.” Kelly begins her article with a sentence that references the Telegraph report and that, though somewhat misleading, is at least limited in its claims: “The University of Salford, a public university in Greater Manchester, England, removed sonnets and other “pre-established literary forms” from a creative writing course assessment, The Telegraph has reported.” Again, the headline above goes much further: “University drops sonnets because they are ‘products of white western culture.’” Could The College Fix be a publication large enough to have a staffer dedicated to headline writing? It hardly seems likely. Kelly is identified not only as the author of the article but as the “assistant editor” of the publication, which leads one to believe that at the very least she would have had to approve the publication of such a grievously untruthful headline. Evidently The College Fix is so concerned with attacking alleged political correctness that they can’t be bothered with the old-fashioned sort of correctness—the sort that regards it as important to gets one’s facts right.

How difficult might it be for anyone who is interested in this matter to establish the facts? As is often the case with such outbreaks of disinformation, getting at the truth of the matter simply by Googling is not that easy. It’s far, far easier to find the misinformation repeated* than it is to find at least partial information about the second year Creative Writing module where it is posted on the University of Salford’s English and Creative Writing website. Even if you have the patience to go four or five pages down when you’re googling “Salford – sonnet controversy,” you’re not likely to find online the information that gives the lie to the screaming headlines of the right-wing publications.

Fortunately, the Internet isn't the only source of information. The University of Salford is a public institution, Scott Thurston’s email address is easy to find, and, as I discovered myself, Dr. Thurston responds politely and helpfully to inquiries. But it's surely something of a grim commentary on the state of the media today that it can be almost impossible to access anything like the full truth about certain news items without going directly to the source.

*The following were among the sites that were spreading the false information as of 30 November 2022: the Best American Poetry blog; the Classical website; the Redstate news website; the headline website; flipboard; the European; MSN (the Microcoft news portal); and Res ipsa loquitur (the blog of Jonathan Turley).

Friday, October 21, 2022

Why We Call Other People -phobic—and Why We Shouldn’t

Why do we use the terms that we do to describe different forms of dislike, or prejudice, or hatred? The most straightforward are terms that use the Latin prefix anti-, meaning against. Beginning in the seventeenth century (with the term anti-Catholic), making use of the Latin prefix anti- in this way was the standard English-language approach to describing speech or behavior expressing prejudice against a specific group. By the nineteenth century, as discussion of prejudice grew, the language correspondingly expanded; anti-Jewish, antisemitic, anti-Negro, anti-black, anti-German, anti-Muslim—these and other such terms were all coined in the nineteenth century.

In the twentieth century, a new trend arose—the practice of employing in such contexts words with -phobia or -phobic embedded within them. We began, in other words, to use words meaning irrationally fearful of to denote language or behavior that is expressive of hatred towards. Particularly since 9/11, a common term for those engaging in anti-Muslim speech or behavior has been Islamophobic. In similar fashion, homophobic has (according to Google Ngram) come to be used roughly twice as often as anti-gay as a term used to describe those engaging in anti-gay speech or behavior. And transphobic is used roughly ten times more frequently than is anti-trans.

With the exception of xenophobic, words using the -phobic suffix did not take root until the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first known appearance of the word homophobic in print was on 5 May 1969—just a few weeks before the Stonewall uprising. As the New York Times has reported it, Dr. George Weinberg (who has claimed to have thought of the term some years earlier) was in touch “with the gay activists Jack Nichols and Lige Clarke, who used the new term in a column they wrote for Screw magazine, … discussing the fear felt by straight men that they might be gay.” By the end of the year the word had appeared in Time magazine as well, in a feature article entitled “The Homosexual in America,” and by the early 1970s these ideas were being widely discussed both in psychological circles and in the broader community. Everyone was suddenly aware of the degree to which the most virulent forms of anti-gay speech and behavior could often be found among men who had repressed or denied within themselves a powerful desire for sex with other men; their hatred for men who did express such desires was plausibly said to be rooted in a fear of having to confront the full nature of their own sexuality (this in an age when same-sex desire remained largely taboo). Before long the term homophobic had come to be widely used not just of men who were conflicted about their own sexuality but of anyone who expressed anti-gay feelings—and that remains the case today.

The rise of Islamophobic is similarly understandable. Until the late 1990s (again, according to Google Ngram) Islamophobic was a word almost never used; anti-Muslim was used more than a hundred times more frequently. Starting in 1994 (just after the first attack on the World Trade Center) Islamophobic began to be used with increased frequency, and usage began to soar following 9/11. By 2020 Islamophobic had still not overtaken anti-Muslim, but it seemed well on the way to doing so. Once again, hatred was plausibly linked to fear—in this case, fear not of suppressed desires lurking within, but of external threats. Much as the voices of reason pointed out again and again that the terrorist acts were the work of a tiny minority, and should in no way be taken to reflect on all Muslims, fear of terrorism came to be linked in many minds with negative feelings towards all of Islam, and all Muslims.

It’s easy to understand, then, why we have come to use words such as homophobic and Islamophobic so frequently to describe hate-fueled language and behavior. But should we? Are they in fact better terms to use than are anti-gay, anti-Muslim, and so on? Or are they—as they seem to me to be—deeply problematic?

It’s on two grounds that they seem to me to be the wrong words to use as umbrella terms describing deep feelings directed against a particular group. The first is accuracy. The suffixes -phobic and -phobia in words such as homophobic and homophobia are, like so many words relating to medical or psychological conditions, borrowed from ancient Greek—in this case, the ancient Greek word for fear. But a phobia, as the word has taken root in English, is not just a fear; it’s an irrational or unjustified fear. Someone who reacts with extreme fear when they see a large spider is not considered to suffer from a phobia if they live in an area in which tarantulas or other deadly spiders are common; it’s if they exhibit such fear when spiders pose no danger to them that they are considered to suffer from arachnophobia. And, it may well be added, a good many people who do not fear spiders nevertheless act towards them in an unnecessarily cruel fashion, killing them upon encountering them inside their homes when they could as easily (and almost as quickly) shoo them outside. Where spiders are concerned, then, the negative attitudes and behaviors that humans so often display toward them are not always linked to fear.

We should ask this, then: do people whose behavior is expressive of hatred towards Muslims always behave in that way out of fear of Muslims? Do people whose behavior is expressive of hatred towards gay people always behave in that way out of fear of gay people or gay sexuality? That some people act in such ways largely or primarily out of fear is unquestionable. It may indeed be that fear is at the root of such behavior most of the time, for most of the people who act in such ways. But for all of the people who act in such ways? And for all of the time when they act in such ways? We know that there can be various other motivating forces for such behavior. Disgust, for one; the deep-rooted disgust among many humans towards practices that entail coming into contact with excrement has surely been to at least some degree connected to anti-gay feeling. The teachings of a variety of Christian denominations, for another: over the course of many centuries Christians of many stripes were taught that God disapproved of the sexual acts that gay men practiced, and that God would send the heathen Muslims straight to Hell. To be clear: prejudice based on disgust or on the wrong-headed teachings of certain religions is no more defensible than is prejudice based on fear. I raise these examples merely to show that it is inaccurate to use terminology that suggests that fear is at the root of all such prejudicial behavior, all of the time.

But even if it were the case that all such behavior were motivated by fear all of the time, using terms that imply hatred to be based always in fear seems to me to be unwise, simply because it seems likely to be counterproductive. Our aim should surely be to reduce anti-gay sentiment and behavior, anti-Muslim sentiment and behavior, and so on—to persuade those who hold such views and who act in such ways that they are mistaken in doing so. But if the terms we use to name such behavior carry within them a presumption as to its motivation, that is surely likely to make persuasion more difficult. Those who are accused of Islamophobia rather than of anti-Muslim behavior might, not unreasonably, ask How can you presume to know my psyche? And they might go on to ask, not unreasonably, Isn’t that typical of the arrogance of the university-educated liberal elite—presuming to know what motivates the beliefs and actions of anyone who does not hold the same set of beliefs that they do?

As a test case, it is worth considering a situation in which strongly negative feelings towards a particular group are clearly appropriate. Let’s take the feelings that our parents or grandparents held towards Nazis, and that most of us today hold towards the members of neo-Nazi groups. In holding such feelings and in speaking out against or taking action against such groups, we are expressing anti-Nazi feelings and behavior. How appropriate would we feel it to be if we were described as Nazi-phobic for acting in these ways? Surely we would feel it to be highly inappropriate. It might well be that our parents or grandparents did fear that Hitler’s Nazi regime would succeed in taking over much of the world. And it might well be that people today in France or Italy or America do fear that neo-Nazi movements may take power in those nations. But however much our opposition to Nazism or neo-Nazism may be accompanied by fear, our fear is not the reason for our opposing them. If we were termed Nazi-phobic instead of anti-Nazi, our response would surely be, Fear is not the point! I’m not against Nazi movements because I fear them; I’m against them because I believe what they do to be wrong.

The substance of anti-gay feeling and anti-Islam and anti-trans feeling is of course very different from the substance of anti-Nazi feeling. But there can be no question that many who speak and act against gay and Muslim and trans people do so because they believe it is right to do so—just as we feel that it is right to speak out against Nazism and anti-Nazism. If we are to have any hope of persuading them that they are wrong—and, to be clear, I believe we should try our utmost to do so—we are unlikely to further our cause by using terminology that focuses not on their words and actions in themselves, but on our presumption as to the underlying psychological state that motivates them.

Some who have argued in favor of using terms such as homophobia and Islamophobic have suggested that we should choose homophobic over anti-gay because the use of the latter represents a misguided effort to find a neutral term to describe something hateful. But we can make it clear in myriad ways that we find certain sorts of speech or behavior repugnant and immoral. When we use a neutral descriptive term such as violence in a phrase such as violence against women, it surely does not imply that we are taking a neutral stance in response to such violence. No more so can it be taken to imply that we are taking a “neutral” stance in response to anti-gay language or behavior if we condemn anti-gay slurs and anti-gay violence. We do not have to label it homophobic to make it abundantly clear that we oppose anti-gay speech and anti-gay behavior.

Others have suggested that to use any other terms than homophobia and Islamophobia is to deny that such things are largely rooted in fear. It is no such thing; to use anti-gay instead of homophobic (and anti-Muslim or anti-Islam instead of Islamophobic, and anti-trans instead of transphobic) is not to deny that these things are very often based in irrational fear; it is rather to acknowledge that they are not always rooted in such fear. And—perhaps most importantly—it is also to acknowledge that using terms such as homophobic and Islamophobic can be counterproductive. The practice of using language that associates all hatred with fear tends inevitably to infuriate and alienate those we say we want to persuade (or to “educate”). If we say we want to foster greater understanding and tolerance, we should strive to use terms that do not work against our declared aims—terms, for example, such as anti-gay and anti-Muslim, which presume nothing about psychological motivations. Using such terms may not do anything to make us feel more righteous, but it will be more accurate—and it will have the practical effect of breeding less hatred, not more.

Sunday, August 21, 2022

Night Owls at the Ballpark

Friday, August 5, I was one of almost a thousand fans at Serauxmen Stadium to see the Night Owls win big over Post Angeles; the sun was out, a nice breeze was blowing, the beer was cold, the sausages and veggie dogs and tacos were perfectly cooked (and the food and beer line-ups not too long), Hawaii’s Tobey Jackson cranked a towering home run over the Green Monster for the Owls and B.C.’s own Seth Gurr pitched six shutout innings as the entire team played well, and it was in every way a glorious night at the ballpark.

There were quite a few of those in late July and early August, as the team was winning their share, the weather was perfect, and the crowds were growing. It was so great to see, after such a terrible run of bad luck earlier in the season—injuries to key players, a tough schedule, and, worst of all, a seemingly endless run of bad weather—cool and wet weather followed eventually by unbearable heat. Only near season's end did we start to get a full taste of just how great it can be to have West Coast League baseball in Nanaimo.

It can’t have been easy for the players—and it can’t have been easy for management, either. It’s worth remembering that the coming of West Coast League baseball had been completely disrupted by the pandemic and hugely complicated by myriad issues with upgrading historic Serauxmen Stadium. Full credit should be given to Jim Swanson and the ownership group, to the rest of the management team, to the players, to the local citizens who have been acting as hosts for the players, and, not least of all, to the City of Nanaimo; Mayor Krog and City Council had the good sense to approve the relatively modest expenditures required to upgrade the stadium, and City Manager Richard Harding and his staff worked efficiently with all the parties involved to make everything happen.

Here's hoping that Nanaimo’s business sector as well as individual fans will buy season tickets for next year—apparently they are already available. Let’s all do what we can to bring many more summers of glorious nights at the ballpark to Nanaimo!

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Change for the Better

“Everyone always pays with plastic now”—you hear it constantly. But of course it’s not true. For one thing, there are still a good many Luddite oldsters like me who still use cash for the odd purchase. But there are also a lot of people who don’t carry plastic—people who are very poor, people who are homeless, people who don’t even have a bank account. It’s largely for that reason that we should make a point of always carrying some cash—all of us, that is, who don’t always say no to those asking for “spare change,” or to those who entertain us by busking on our streets. Imagine New Orleans or Nashville without street musicians; that vision could well become a reality if we give up carrying cash.

But it’s not just homeless people and street musicians who need us to be able to offer them small amounts of cash; it’s also a great many people who have traditionally depended on tips for a significant part of their income. Our tendency has long been to think of tips mainly in connection with dining out—and especially, in connection with dining out in sit-down restaurants. Over the course of the pandemic that perception shifted somewhat, as take-out and home delivery from restaurants became more and more popular. We grew much more used to adding 10% or 15% or 20% as a tip to the bill when paying with plastic in those situations. But there’s often no option to add a percentage when we buy fast food; the only way to tip those low-paid workers is usually with cash. And the same is true of the low-paid workers who clean your hotel room, or who do a range of other low-paid jobs. In an ideal world those people would simply be paid a living wage, and tips wouldn’t be needed. Sadly, we’re a long way from that sort of transformation; without the few dollars left with a hastily scrawled “thank you” on the bedside table for the hotel housekeeping worker, and without the fifty cents or dollar thrown in the tip jar for the fast-food worker who just served us, those people will struggle even more.

Let’s make their lives a little easier instead of a little harder. And let’s save street music in our cities. Let’s always keep a few coins in our pockets, and a few small bills in our wallets and purses. Change for the better.

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Protagonist of My Novel Is a Young-ish Working-Class Mother; I’m not. Is that OK?

One of the first questions people may ask about Lucy and Bonbon is this: as a matter of ethical principle, should someone such as me be writing such a book? The leading character, Lucinda Gerson, is a woman; I’m not. Lucy is working class; I’m not. She’s thirty-ish, and I am a very long way from that.

Another significant character, Ashley Rouleau, is a woman in her early twenties, from an economically privileged background. I come from an economically privileged background, though not quite as economically privileged as Ashley’s. But I am even farther away in age from Ashley than I am from Lucy. And one other thing; she’s black, I’m white.

Is it OK to write about people who are in numerous respects so different from the author? Or should writers, as the expression goes, “stay in their lane,” and write about people like them?

In a special category is Lucy and Bonbon’s second title character. Is it Ok for someone such as me to write in the voice of someone who is half human and half of another great ape species? That is of course an absurd question. Imagine the alternatives: it would be as ridiculous to say let’s leave it to the hybrids to tell their own stories as it would be to say Mary Shelley should have left it to the creature to tell his own story. But it’s not absurd to ask such questions where characters such as Lucy and Ashley are concerned. Working-class thirty-ish mothers and young women from economically privileged Toronto backgrounds exist in abundance in real life and are quite able to write their own stories, or stories about people like themselves. They certainly don’t need a sixty-eight-year-old white guy to try to do it for them.

So what’s my justification for writing characters of that sort into Lucy and Bonbon?

To answer that question, it may be helpful to try to disentangle the issue of “staying in one’s lane” from two related issues. One is the issue of representation in publishers’ lists. When I was young, the people whose fiction was published in North America (and in much of the rest of the world too) were overwhelmingly white—and disproportionately male. Thankfully, that has changed dramatically. There is surely still room for further change in some areas.* Overall, though, there can be no question that women, people of color, and people from minority backgrounds of almost every sort are far better represented on publishers’ lists than they were when I was young. Conversely, there are fewer “spots available” on publishers’ lists for people like me. It’s much harder than it used to be for a privileged, straight, white, aging male to get published—and that is a change entirely to be welcomed!

But that’s a separate issue from the question of who it should be considered OK to write about.

So too is the issue of appropriation of story material a separate question. When I was young it was often seen as entirely unproblematic if a white author “borrowed” an Indigenous myth or story as raw material for fiction—and there was rarely or ever any thought given to consulting anyone from the relevant Indigenous group. Thankfully, those days are long gone!

But that sort of appropriation is also a separate issue from the question of whether or not it should be considered OK to write about people other than those in the group(s) to which an author belongs.

So why is it these days widely considered to be a highly dubious practice to write “outside your lane”? I think the explanation is in part tied in with the way in which the issue of representation of authors from different backgrounds on publishers’ lists has been approached. As publishers have signed more and more fiction writers from minority backgrounds, publishers (and readers) have tended to develop expectations that these authors will be “telling their stories”—writing thinly veiled autobiography or, more broadly, telling stories about people from their own communities. And from that has developed a broader expectation that literature itself is fundamentally rooted in humans telling their own stories.

There is of course nothing wrong with people telling their own stories through fiction; many of the finest works of fiction unquestionably fall into that category. But a great many others do not. Most writers of fiction have considered one important function of literature to be imagining the lives of others—trying to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, and trying in doing so to craft characters and plots that will excite the sympathetic imagination of readers. So it is that our literary heritage includes characters such as Shakespeare’s Othello and Austen’s Mr. Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy and Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein and Eliot’s Edward Casaubon and Tertius Lydgate and Wharton’s Newland Archer. So it is that the literary descriptions of war that have been most highly praised as realistic include works such as Tolstoy’s War and Peace and Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage—both written by novelists who never themselves saw a battlefield. So it is that the most moving fictional depictions of poverty include works such as Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell—who was herself always comfortably middle class. So it is that the character whose thoughts and actions portray the workings of racial prejudice among white people perhaps more persuasively than any other—Dr. Melville in Paul Dunbar’s “The Lynching of Jube Benson”—is the imaginative creation of a black writer. So it is that one of the most moving portrayals of a woman in an abusive heterosexual relationship, Roddy Doyle’s The Woman Who Walked into Doors, is by a man. So it is that the most memorable fictional representative of the tragic stuffiness of mid-twentieth-century British notions of one’s proper place in society—the butler Stevens, in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day—is the creation not of an author raised in the stuffiness of mid-century British class consciousness but of one raised first in Japan and then in a Japanese family in the UK.

Those are all classics of previous centuries. It’s in the twenty-first century that the “stay in your lane” ethos has truly taken root in literary communities in the Western world, but even in this century some of the most impressive works have been by authors who have been following whatever path their imagination blazed rather than staying in their lane and writing about people such as themselves. I can’t think of two finer twenty-first century novels than Jo Baker’s Longbourn and Andre Alexis’s Fifteen Dogs. Baker—a university-educated woman who grew up in comfortable circumstances in the late twentieth century—has given us an extraordinarily persuasive fictional depiction of nineteenth-century servant life. Alexis—a black novelist whose family immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago when he was four—has given us an extraordinarily persuasive fictional depiction of non-human animals and their relationship to humans of any color (which along the way manages to provide wonderfully illuminating non-canine perspectives on life, love, and death). Authors such as these are emphatically not telling their own stories and “staying in their lane”; they are, above all, imagining the lives of others.**

Among twenty-first century dramatists, I can’t think of any writer more accomplished than Lynn Nottage; a black woman raised in comfortable middle-class circumstances, she has vividly brought to life the lives of working-class people—white as well as black, male at least as often as female.

In citing these examples, I don’t for a moment want to suggest that imagining worlds different from those one knows best is innately superior to bringing imaginative life to the world one does know best. A great deal of outstanding twenty-first century fiction writing is unquestionably by writers who have given imaginative life to characters from backgrounds similar to their own. (Examples that come immediately to mind include NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, David Chariandy’s Soucouyant and Brother, Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, and Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones.) In no way do I want to disparage great writing of that sort; my aim is merely to point out that a great deal of fine writing has also come from writers who have not “stayed in their lane.” In the end, authors should surely be judged not on whether or not they have “stayed in their lane” and written about people like themselves, but on whether or not they have succeeded in creating an imaginative world (whether a realistic imaginative world or a fanciful one)—an imaginative world in which the characters feel believable, an imaginative world that engages readers’ attention, an imaginative world that leads readers to think, and to feel. Often that will be a world very like the one the author inhabits, but often it will be quite different.

I should make clear that, in writing Lucy and Bonbon, I did not set out to write a piece of fiction about a working-class mother and a privileged young black woman. I set out to write a novel about a child who is half human and half of another great ape species—and to explore what the life of such a person might say about how humans relate to other animals. My imagination then took me to a place where the characters Lucy and Ashley took shape. Looking back on it now, it seems natural that I would have been led, in writing about the prejudice Bonbon is subjected to on the basis of his biological background, to create characters who are subjected to other sorts of prejudice (whether it be on the grounds of class or race or gender). I hope that my imagination has been able to bring Lucy and Ashley to life successfully, just as I hope my imagination has been able to bring Bonbon successfully to life. And I think there’s a good chance that may indeed be the case—as I know it would certainly not have been the case had I tried to do the same when I was young, and had far less experience than I do now of a wide range of people and their circumstances. But that’s just me. Some authors are able even when young to write brilliantly and persuasively across gaps of gender and age and class and race and culture. Some are comfortable at any age only in writing about people like themselves, and do that brilliantly—whereas I can only imagine what a hash of it I would make if I tried to write an autobiographical novel. We’re all different, in short—and that’s a good thing.

Let me give the last word to Henry Louis Gates, whose fine short essay on this topic (based on an address he gave at a PEN America gathering) appeared last October in The New York Times Magazine: “Whenever we treat an identity as something to be fenced off from those of another identity, we sell short the human imagination. … Social identities can connect us in multiple and overlapping ways; they are not protected but betrayed when we turn them into silos with sentries.”

*This seems to me to be particularly the case when it comes to representing working class points of view. There are precious few working-class fiction writers being published—indeed, there may be fewer being published today than there were in the mid-twentieth century, when issues of class were on more editors’ radar screens than were issues of race or gender or sexual orientation.)
**It is so often expected that novels by black authors will focus largely on race that I feel I should perhaps provide a gloss here; in asserting that Fifteen Dogs is not an example of an author telling his own story, I do not mean to suggest that there is nothing in the book to do with race. Interestingly, race is not a significant issue with the human characters in the novel; we are never even told the skin color of Nira, Miguel, or other humans. (Worth mentioning, however, are asides such as the interesting reference to skin color in this description of a bathroom, as observed by Benjy, one of the dogs:
And then there was the room where the humans bathed and applied chemicals to themselves. The bathroom was fascinating, it being astonishing to watch the already pale beings applying creams to make themselves paler still. Was there something about white that bought status? If so, what was the point of drawing black circles around their eyes or red ones around their mouths?)
It is with the dogs themselves that serious issues of color briefly arise in the story, as Alpha dog Atticus declares that “the black dog” is “not one of us,” and his ally Max opines that, in that case, “it would be better to kill him.”

Open Book Interview about Lucy and Bonbon

It's been too long since I posted on this blog; with Lucy and Bonbon soon to be published, I'll try to post several times over the coming weeks.

I was interviewed about the novel recently by Open Book. That interview is posted online at Why did I dedicate Lucy and Bonbon to a parrot? It's all in the Open Book interview.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

The Case for Individual Reparations: The Privileged Need to Do More than “Stand in Solidarity”

What should those of us who are privileged do about the unfairnesses of the world?

At a minimum, we can and should offer political support to those who are trying through political means to improve things; we can do that through voting, and we can ourselves devote time and donate money to political causes. We can write letters to the editor, we can join demonstrations, we can speak up on social media.

But political action may or may not ever bring results. (Some of us have been arguing for a guaranteed annual income--aka basic annual income, universal income--for fifty years, and there’s no end in sight.) Time and money can also be spent in ways that don’t depend for their success on one’s cause being taken on by a party in power, or coming out on top in a referendum. Can and should we act in other ways to help bring about change?

Yes, is the short answer. We can give both our time and our money. Perhaps we can volunteer as a primary school teacher in a remote Indigenous community, for example, as one friend of mine did for several years. Or volunteer many hours in order to help a disadvantaged youth through difficult times--as my son Dominic did for a number of years. Or volunteer as a nurse in an out-of-the-way sub-Saharan community, in a hospital where there are so few beds that the patients often have to sleep outside, as my daughter Naomi did for several months not long ago. I did something of the sort myself for three years when I was young (volunteering through an aid agency to teach at a high school in rural Zimbabwe), but at this point in my life doing anything of that sort again probably isn’t realistic. To volunteer for a few hours a week as I start to approach retirement, on the other hand (whether at a nearby farm sanctuary, at our local food bank, at a local homeless shelter, at our local literacy center--there are so many good candidates!) certainly is realistic—and certainly it’s realistic for someone in my position (with an income of over $70,000 a year, and no mortgage or other debt load) to commit to donating somewhere between 5% and 10% of my annual income to appropriate charities.

I want as well to suggest one other form of giving that seems to me to be appropriate—wealth-related individual reparations payments.

What is the case for making reparations payments? For going beyond ordinary charitable giving? To understand that case, we privileged folk need to understand the ways in which North America’s legacy of racism and oppression has conferred benefits on us. It behooves us to learn the broad strokes of history—and it behooves us as well to ask questions about the histories of our own families. If the stories my mother told me are correct, one ancestral connection of ours acquired the beginnings of his fortune by acquiring “unowned” land on the Canadian prairie—land that he knew would be in the path of a trans-continental railroad. When he sold that land to the railroad he profited immensely and directly, in other words, by taking land that had been occupied by the Indigenous peoples of the plains. His wife was an aunt of my mother’s, and eventually my grandmother benefitted considerably from the largesse of his son. Further back in time, that side of the family also benefitted directly from slavery; some of my ancestors are recorded as having been owners of enslaved people in New York State in the early nineteenth century (slavery was not abolished in the state until 1827). On my father’s side, my great grandfather, emigrating from Ireland, is said to have spent the 1840s in New Orleans before he moved to Canada; though he may not have himself been an enslaver, it is unimaginable that a white person in that city at that time would not have benefitted directly during that decade from the labor of enslaved people.

None of this resulted in my family becoming fabulously rich—but there can be no question that the degree to which I’m now modestly well-off results at least in part from a direct legacy of oppression. And, quite aside from the degree to which I’m able to trace direct personal connections of this sort, of course, I have inevitably benefitted substantially from our society’s collective theft of the continent’s land from its Indigenous peoples, as well as from numerous other forms of collective oppression (oppression of Black people; oppression of Chinese, Japanese, and other Asian people; for many generations oppression of Quebecois and other French Canadians—the list goes on). We privileged whites whose families came generations ago from Europe have all benefitted from such collective theft and oppression—and many who have arrived more recently to join the privileged classes (not all white, by any means) have also benefitted from it to a considerable extent.

The disadvantaged are disadvantaged in many ways, but disparities in wealth are perhaps the most egregious. Whereas privileged white North Americans (and others of privilege) have more often than not been able to pass wealth on to their children, generation after generation, Black people, Indigenous people and others who have been disadvantaged have been particularly heavily disadvantaged in terms of wealth. For the most part shut out from the sorts of well-paid employment opportunities that help to build savings, they have too often also been prevented from acquiring real estate wealth; even where redlining and other discriminatory laws have not been in effect, racist covenants and unspoken understandings have often been just as effective in keeping wealth out of the hands of the disadvantaged. Privileged whites such as myself, then, who have benefitted from differential treatment through the educational system and through the law enforcement and judicial systems, have also benefitted from favorable economic treatment— higher pay, on average, but also much greater opportunities for building wealth.

That’s why it’s not enough for us to say we “stand together” with demonstrators protesting against the treatment meted out to George Floyd, or Neil Stonechild, or so many others. We have an obligation to act in tangible ways to level the playing field, and to make amends.

Until I read Ta Nahesi Coates’ now-classic 2014 article “The Case for Reparations,” I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that beneficiaries of slavery and other forms of exploitation should pay reparations to the victims and their descendants. When I read Coates’ essay I was immediately persuaded of the merits of reparations paid through governments.

Government-funded reparations seem for the moment to be politically impossible in the United States. In Britain too—where Amandla Thomas Johnson has made a persuasive case for reparations in the Guardian—government sponsored reparations are clearly for the moment politically impossible. In Canada, the government has paid several billion dollars in reparation payments to the survivors of the residential school system, but there has been little or no thought given to the possibility of paying reparations to Indigenous people in consideration of the larger history of oppression. Nor has thought been given to government-paid reparations for slavery—yes, it existed here as well. Government-funded reparations, then, seem unlikely to happen anywhere anytime soon.

But does that mean that nothing can happen right now to move reparations forward? Not at all. We can act as individuals to make a contribution. As Michael Eric Dyson and others have pointed out, individuals can keep their own “individual reparations” accounts by making appropriate donations—over and above whatever charitable donations we make ordinarily.

Given the importance of wealth-related disparities, it is perhaps especially appropriate to think of individual reparations payments in the context of wealth. Moments when we are fortunate enough to see our wealth increase are, it seems to me, appropriate moments to give particular thought to sharing that wealth.

I first put this idea into practice in 2018. Ten years earlier I had bought a small house in New Orleans, thinking I’d one day live in the little back unit for at least part of the year. I rented both units out, and the years went by. By 2017 my partner and I had become quite happy on Vancouver Island—a very long way from New Orleans. When I finally sold the New Orleans house, it had appreciated a fair bit in value. On reflection it seemed to me that about a quarter of the capital gain was an amount I felt comfortable paying in reparations; I sent that sum to a non-profit dedicated to increasing educational opportunities for African Americans.

Over the past year my investments on the stock market resulted in a substantial gain. Last Friday I sold the stocks I owned—and decided to devote roughly a quarter of the gain to a charity that focuses on improving the lives of Indigenous schoolchildren.

Is one quarter of any increase in wealth the most appropriate amount? Some might plausibly argue that a higher percentage would be more appropriate--and in the other direction some might well feel that even a quarter of such amounts would be more than they could afford to give. But regardless of the precise amount, it seems to me difficult to argue in principle against making such contributions. I certainly expect to make more payments of this sort in the future; I hope others who are similarly privileged will consider doing the same.

I should emphasize that arguments about making voluntary reparations should apply only to those with the means to do so (many people have of course never been privileged recipients of a capital gain from any source). And individual reparations shouldn't preclude reparations payments by corporations and other organizations—let alone a more general plan of reparations through government action. Far from it. But for the moment, individual reparations are much better than nothing—and privileged white folks like me who have the means to take such action shouldn't hesitate. If you’re in any doubt as to why, I urge you to read Coates’ extraordinary article.
NB Parts of the above first appeared in an earlier blogpost on this topic: "The Case for Individual Reparations," January 12, 2019 (

Friday, March 5, 2021

The Language of Genocide

The word “genocide” is a difficult case when it comes to defining and classifying. Since the term was coined in 1944, the way in which it has been most widely used is to refer (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) to “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.” The United Nations, though, adopted a more elaborate definition in its 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As a result of negotiations involving many nations, it defined “genocide” as
… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
In some respects, the UN definition seems vague and far-reaching; exactly what should the phrase “serious mental harm” be taken to refer to? (This phrase was added at the suggestion of China, which had in mind the use of narcotics to alter the mental state of large populations.) In other respects, though, the UN definition is not as far-reaching as many would have liked it to be; most notably, the UN membership decided, after much debate, not to include any mention of cultural genocide. What exactly is “cultural genocide”? The Canadian case is relatively clear. In 1879 John A. Macdonald declared that “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” Macdonald openly desired, in other words, to destroy Indigenous culture—to commit, as we have come to term it, cultural genocide. Under Justin Trudeau the Canadian government has balked at implementing many of the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls—but it has accepted the inquiry’s conclusion that the Canadian record of mistreatment of Indigenous peoples constituted a form of genocide. “This was genocide,” declared Trudeau in 2017 (thereby unwittingly making things far more difficult for himself on the China file in 2021). Many have disagreed on this point both with Trudeau and with that inquiry. They have argued that, however badly Canada has treated its Indigenous peoples—and all agree that the record has often been appalling—the country’s record is not commensurate with the practice of physical genocide (with Nazi Germany’s extermination of six million Jews, for example, or with the extermination by the Hutu majority in Rwanda of close to a million of the minority Tutsi group in 1994). The critics argue that we should acknowledge the difference between cultural and physical genocide—and that we should not use the plain term “genocide” when we are speaking of cultural genocide.

But if Canada has committed cultural genocide, has it not, by definition, committed genocide? Surely cultural genocide must be a form of genocide—just as domestic violence is a form of violence, just as religious freedom is a form of freedom. Don’t the very words make this clear?

No, is the short answer. Domestic violence is indeed a form of violence—a subset, if you will, of the broad category “violence.” But let’s look at some other examples of grammatical compounds. Is “political suicide” a form of suicide—a subset of the broad category “suicide”? Not at all; that’s a compound that involves a metaphorical use of the noun “suicide.” What about “online sex”? Is that a form of sex? People have argued both sides of that one.

The point with compounds is that the relationship between the elements that make them up does not follow a single pattern. Even if it’s agreed that Canada has committed cultural genocide, it does not automatically follow by any self-evident rules of English grammar that we have committed genocide. In a case such as this—as in many others—definition and classification turn out to be anything but straightforward.

That leaves plenty of room for discussion and disagreement over the words we use. But one point above all should not be lost sight of in such discussions—the importance of taking substantial action now both to atone for past injustices (however we name them) and to bring real improvement in the present to the lives of Indigenous peoples.I'll post on that topic shortly.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Eating for a Greener Planet

I've been very quiet on the blog the past few months--largely because a lot of my spare time has been taken up with working as part of a group trying to try to bring about change within the Green Party of Canada. I can now report that five of the nine candidates running for the party leadership (Judy Green, Meryam Haddad, Amita Kuttner, Dimitri Lascaris, and David Merner) have declared their support for a new approach to animal agriculture—phasing out subsidies to animal agriculture (and increasing support for plant-based alternatives), as well as including animal agriculture GHG emissions under the provisions of the Greenhouse Gas Pollution Pricing Act. In other words, there’s now a very good chance that we can elect a party leader who will make the Green Party of Canada the country’s first major party committed to taking seriously the harms caused by animal agriculture—and by eating animals.

Anyone who would like to make that happen can help by joining the Green Party of Canada before 11:59 pm on September 3, and taking part in the voting later that month. Membership in the Green Party of Canada costs just $10; any Canadian or permanent resident aged 14 can join.

I hope you’ll join us! I’ve just posted more information on this website:

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Rhyme of New Orleans

Maureen and I were thinking the other night that there are too few poems written that have something to them of joy. As you may have experienced recently, there's been a move in some circles to circulate poems--poems that people have found engaging and affecting, particularly in a joyous or uplifting sort of way. There is of course no shortage of engaging and affecting poetry in the world, but E.E. Cummings and a few others excepted, there has been a dirth of poets who frequently write poetry expressive of joy--whether in some pure form or admixed with other emotions.

One such poem that comes to mind is Alice Oswald's "Wedding"; another is Carol Ann Duffy's "John Barleycorn." The latter is a poem very largely composed of the names of English pubs; re-reading it the other day (before I passed it along as a reading recommendation to one of these "Poem Exchange" groups) made me think that one could perhaps do something of the same sort with the names of bars in New Orleans. The poem below is the result of my effort to do just that (drawing on some of the material I'd included a few years back in a poem for Maureen). It didn't end up with as many bar-names as I'd thought it would, and the joy is certainly admixed with a few other emotions, but joy there is. For what it's worth:

Rhyme of New Orleans

New Orleans don’t rhyme with beans, or with means

That’s what they’ll tell you, uptown or downstream:

New Orleans don’t rhyme with beans.

But Satchmo did it—you know what it means...:

When it’s music it all becomes different, it seems,

The notes and the words flow like water, like dreams—

Like the dark and the deep of the river’s wide dreams

As it curls in the sparkle of night through New Orleans.

Rhyme New Orleans. Rhyme New Orleans and the music begins,

With full rhymes, fat rhymes, light rhymes, slant rhymes,

With high notes, low notes, bank notes. Light sins.

Rhyme thick air. Rhyme black and white and good times,

Rhyme Abita and amber, and rhyme good health,

Rhyme night and stomping, rhyme black and blue,

Rhyme like the river, turned back on itself

And stretching, aching, thrusting round, surging through,

And once or twice a lifetime, swamping

The city that once was the place where they sold the enslaved,

City of graves, city of cotton,

Time stretched, time lost, but nothing forgotten,

'Cept some days let’s pretend last night never happened.

The night is warm, the beer is cool,

There’s jazz, there’s blues, there’s someone rappin,

DBA, Hi Ho, they’re passing the hat,

Vaughan’s, the Mother-in-Law, Spotted Cat,

Blue Nile, Maple Leaf, the Candlelight Lounge,

Spare a dollar? I tell ya, I just gotta scrounge

A few bucks, buy a coffee, a meal;

I can tell ya, noone here really wants to steal.

Tipitina’s, Lost Love, the Friendly Bar--

All open late, and the door’s ajar:

That’s Chris Kohl’s clarinet, smooth as a knife;

Eight to the bar, hold a note like forever. Like life.

That tune? You can’t lose it; Time? You can’t choose it.

It’s time like the always and never of music,

Of everything music, of mockingbird music,

Like the always and never of

Living, of loving. Of love.