Thursday, February 28, 2008

Elevating Confusion from a Transitional Stage into an End Goal

"I hope today to complicate our notion of cahiers — grievances — and the role they played in the States-General of 1789." The professors and graduate students at the symposium nod appreciatively. They have heard or read similar justifications untold times before. The author explains that he or she will "complicate" our understanding of some event or phenomenon. "In this article," writes an ethnic-studies professor, "I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of the 'modular' state by examining four forms of indigenous political space." Everyone seems pleased by this approach. Why? The world is complicated, but how did "complication" turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn't scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?

The refashioning of "complicate" derives from many sources. One recipe calls for adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism. Mix thoroughly. Bake. Season with Freudian, Hegelian, and post-Marxist thought. Serve at room temperature. The invitees will savor the meal and will begin to chat in a new academic tongue. They will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to "problematize," "contextualize," "relativize," "particularize," and "complexify." They will denounce anything that appears "binary." They will see "multiplicities" everywhere. They will add "s" to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like "pluralistic," "heterogenous," "elastic," and "hybridities." A call for "coherence" will arrest the discussion. Isn't that "reductionist"?


The new devotion to complexity gives carte blanche to even the most trivial scholarly enterprise. Any factoid can "complicate" our interpretation. The fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be "problematized." We rejoice in discarding "binary" approaches. We applaud ourselves for recognizing — once again — that everything varies by circumstances. We revel in complexity. To be sure, few claim that the truth is simple or singular, but we have moved far from believing that truth can be set out at all with any caution and clarity. We seem to believe that truth and falsehood is a discredited binary opposite. It varies according to time and place. "It depends," answer my students to virtually every question I ask. That notion permeates campus life.


Of course, to defend simplifications always and everywhere is not only anti-intellectual, but dangerous. Already in the 19th century, the historian Jacob Burckhardt feared that "terribles simplificateurs" would descend upon "poor old Europe." They did descend — upon the rest of the world as well — with facile ideas about nation and religion. We should indeed distrust them, but not by rote. Complexity for its own sake is no virtue. More turrets are not necessarily better than fewer. Perhaps it is time to return to Ockham's principle of parsimony, his so-called razor: "Plurality is not to be posited without necessity." Instead we have gone in the opposite direction. The cult of complication has led — to alter a phrase of Hegel's — to a fog in which all cows are gray.

Russell Jacoby, "Not to Complicate Matters, but ..."

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Factoid Finding Mission

A tidy way to get back into the rhythm of things after my week in the Dominican--I've been tagged by Jay Currie and Alice the Camel re. sharing six non-important things/habits/quirks about myself.


1. I take snuff. It is for this reason that you'll find me blowing my nose--and often--into large, burgundy handkerchiefs (which, incidentally, I sewed myself).

2. In spite of my love of Islay Scotches, my favourite spirit by far is the rather less masculine Calvados. (A moot detail in the end, as I can afford neither. My default tipple is Bourbon.)

3. The middle toe of my right foot is slightly longer than the big toe. Not so with my left.

4. I have a deep and abiding respect for Alan Thicke. Uncertain as to why.

5. I have never liked any of the music of Bruce Springsteen.

6. I keep a horse chestnut in my jacket pocket at all times.

Now I guess I'm supposed to tag some other people, is it? Always a little embarrassing given the limited selection of bloggers I know, but here goes:

Mapmaster at The London Fog
Kevin Grace at The Ambler (even though Jay has already done so)
My new friend Scott Gilbreath of the outstanding Magic Statistics
Chris Selley at Tart Cider
My fellow Libeskind despiser, Eric at Diogenes Borealis

I figure five is basically six, so ...

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Adios Muchachos (y Muchachas)!

This space will be idle for the next week and a bit, as I'm off to the Dominican Republic with the Mrs. and the in-laws.

I promise to think of you all as I sit on the beach--reading, smoking titanic Dominican cigars, drinking cervezas, and evening out my sunburn--and I shall try not to allow those thoughts to turn to pity ... A task so formidable, I think you'll agree, that really it is you who should be pitying me.

God speed you, friends!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Quod Erat Demonstrandum

Warren Kinsella finally gets what everybody has been trying to tell him about the necessity of free speech (my emphasis):
So keep the threats and bile coming. Knock yourself out. In your words, and in your imagery, you damn yourselves better than I ever could.

And, in so doing, you make clear that you are all about hate, and not at all about debate.

I've gotta say: it takes a big man to admit when he is wrong, Warren. Well done! ... Well, everything but admit anyway. So you're not a big man then exactly, but a big something. (I think Dan Gardner must get some credit for this for his outstanding piece in yesterday's Citizen.)

Friday, February 15, 2008

From: Snook (The Elder) at Home

Of the Apparent Emptiness of Open Minds

A young friend of mine discovered last week that he is to be a father in eight or so months. I saw him Monday night, congratulated him, and pressed him as to names. He said that he and his wife had decided on (I think it was) Anna, if a girl, and Conrad if a boy. (Conrad after Joseph Conrad--because he is my friend's favourite author.)

"You approve?" he asked.

"I do," I replied, nodding sagely.

"You recognize," he continued, "that if the man's name was Ichabod you should find me cooing paternally over the little baby Ichabod in eight months' time ... Conrad, as a name, I can take or leave, but the man who wrote Heart of Darkness I cannot."

"I quite understand," I said. "Even if his name were Zedekiah, you mean."

"Yes. Hell, I almost prefer Zedekiah."

"Wojtek then."

"Exactly! So you see how fond I am of the man?"

"Clear as the lime in your gin and acid rain!"

"Well then wrap your noodle around this one, fella."

I braced myself with a sip of beer.

"A friend of the wife's came over the other day and, having heard the good news, asked us what we'd name the little squirt if it turned out to be a boy. We told her Conrad, and a long, rather uncomfortable pause followed. What? we asked finally. Well, she said, Conrad is a lovely name, but it's a shame that it is associated with that racist Joseph Conrad."

Here my friend paused so that I could goggle at him, my eyes protruding in the manner popularized by snails. "What on earth does she have against Joseph Conrad?" I asked.

"Well, that's the best part!" said my friend, gleefully rubbing his hands together. "It turns out that she has never read a word of him! Indeed, she swears blind that nothing on Dog's green earth could ever compel her to do so."

"She what?!"

"Not one jot or one tittle has she seen of his work!"

"Then how could she have formed so strong an opinion of the man? I suppose she heard that he wrote a book called The Nigger of the Narcissus and that was that."

"Well, no doubt that factored into it, but it's rather better than that."

Here he paused again, grinning.

"What, man! What!" I cried.

"Her thesis adviser told her not to."


"Her thesis adviser, having read someone called Chinua Achebe, told her that Joseph Conrad was a racist, and that she shouldn't read him--"

"No, but-- What do you mean thesis adviser?"

"I mean thesis adviser. As in: the person who advises you on your thesis."

"She's a student?! A Ph.D student?! In what?"

"Why, in English lit of course. My wife's friend is a student of literature. Soon to be an authority."

I gave him the snail look again. "And she refuses to read Joseph Conrad--widely considered to be one of the greatest writers of the last two centuries--because a third party called him the magic word."

"Racist. Correct."

"And she can't be persuaded to make that judgement for herself."

"Apparently not."

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Elizabeth and EMG, by the Grace of God

A very small step backward from the republican abyss Canadians have been shrugging themselves towards for the last however many decades--but I couldn't help feeling a little tremor of emotion when I read this.

It remains to be a great mystery to me (someone who believes in progress, as quite distinct from this other thing called progressiveness) why a society should think it inevitable and right that it dispose, not of the tyranny of the divine right of kings (our ancestors, far better and brighter men than us apparently, already accomplished that), but of the reformed last refuge of free men and women: our constitutional monarchy.

Peter Hitchens, speaking of the anti-monarchist element in Great Britain, puts it this way:
I am always baffled by British republicans who seem to assume that getting rid of the Crown will automatically make us more free. They should pay more attention ... In Britain, I can be loyal to crown and country and still despise my government. In fact, it's often my duty. More important, so can soldiers, police officers and civil servants.

Get rid of the Monarchy and you will get rid of a guardian of liberty.

So it is, as I say, a mystery that people should stand idly by while this deplorable eventuality stares them all in the face. But, it is a mystery that might in some part be explained by the fact that, I think, it is just as much of a mystery to them too--if that makes any sense.

I wonder what it is that these people fancy they see when they look at our head of state. A tyrant, is it? (Now largely eviscerated, thank Go--er, Dog.) The last obstacle standing between them and true liberty? The relic of an unenlightened and unjust age, to be buried deep--by you and me, who know better (and, of course, are better)--in the sands of history?

They would do well to look again and closer.

I defer to the redoubtable Samuel Marchbanks to explain what it is exactly that we are so keen on dropping from the national conscience:
Royalty ... is the single check left in a democratic state against factions and gangs and the puppets they call their leaders. When, in my anguish as an overburdened citizen, I fling myself at the foot of the Throne, I am appealing to the one person in the realm whose destiny, like my own, is determined by a power no government can reach. I am Marchbanks, by the Grace of God.
It is, perhaps, too subtle a concept to register in the 21st century mind as it vacillates schizophrenically between modernist and postmodernist utopian schemes. Too much to ask that people recognize that their Queen does not rule so much as she represents. Represents the aspirations of all free men and women--not to the degree of her material wealth (because that is impossible, not to mention objectively undesirable)--but to the full outward and visible expression of their dignity as free citizens.

We assume, I think, that by gradually doing away with the Crown, we are doing away with entitlements. (The opposite, of course, is really the case, as we do not so much wish to get rid of entitlements as acquire them for ourselves. But I digress ...) However this, as I have already mentioned, was accomplished in 1688. Since then, the Crown has not been an entitlement so much as a trust. The Monarch (not to speak of the outstanding woman who currently fills that role) is ours. Not the other way around.

So if we are really that keen on doing away with the last check available to us as free citizens in an (always tenuously) democratic state, let us at least have the intelligence, and--if you can manage it--the courtesy to recognize that it is not we who would be thus liberated, but the Queen herself.

But I would wish this on no one. Not even for her sake.

h/t Dust My Broom

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Problem of Pain

Fashionable thinkers, I perceive, still have the temerity to dismiss God, out of hand, for the reason that there is so much suffering in the world.

What a soppy bunch these fashionable thinkers are!

Observe that it is the characteristic feature of such types that they are unlikely to have experienced anything like real suffering in their own lives. Observe, too, that the heft of the world's faithful find themselves in the Third World.

No doubt, there is something to the sociologists' claim that ignorance, hunger and pain make a person more than reasonably susceptible to Insubstantial Hopes, to ethereal promises. But one can't help noticing too how insubstantial this analysis is, coming as it does from full bellies, often tranquilized nerves, and (I say with irony) inordinate education.

We have no trouble recognizing that, say, a man must suffer for his art. We see that a Good, that can be shared with our fellow men--and for which we are often strangely grateful--comes as a consequence of suffering. Did we think individual human lives so worthless that they were not more, by far, than our fumbling little attempts at authorship?

Benedicamus Domino!

Saturday, February 09, 2008

The Heaven and Hell Cotillion

Great moments in cinematic smoking:

And one of the finest musical sequences of any film ever (apart from the opening bit--which, apparently, neither YouTube nor Google Video have):

Levantsteyn's Monster

"Sober analysis" from someone who understands that the phrase is best not used rhetorically (as it is here):
It is ironic that a devotee [i.e. Ezra Levant] of one brand of speech chill should portray himself as champion against another. But that doesn't make him wrong about the human rights commissions. What are we, in high school? This isn't about personalities, it's not about political team sports, and it doesn't necessarily even have to be about free speech absolutism. For now, it can and should be about simply this: should Canada's human rights commissions accept complaints about the published word, and, given that they do, what effect does that have on free speech as a general concept in Canada?
As ever, an even-handed, clear-headed, well-reasoned piece from Chris Selley. It is notable, also, for its assertion that Warren Kinsella is "a talentless, preening bore." (So, really, we should say: even-handed, clear-headed, well-reasoned, penetratingly insightful.)

Selley cuts to the heart of the matter:
Consider Levant's justification for running the cartoons: "We're not publishing them for their editorial merits. They're boring cartoons, they're bland. We're not running them because we share their views," he told the CBC (between jabs at the national broadcaster). "We're running them because they're the central fact that caused radical Muslims around the world to riot." Not that he should have had to justify it to anyone, but to me, that's absolutely unimpeachable.
Indeed it is. And precisely the reasoning Warren Kinsella used when he posted a photograph he took in a boy's toilet depicting two swastikas and the slogan "White Power."

Friday, February 08, 2008

From the Banality of Evil to the Excruciating Fatuity of Decadence

It's with genuine reluctance that I weigh into this business of (Richmond Hill Deputy Mayor) Brenda Hogg's righteous indig- nation at not having had her hand shaken by Orthodox Rabbis at a Hanukkah celebration late last year, and at the failure of male participants at an Eid celebration to make eye contact with her somewhere around the same time ... The matter is so far beneath anyone's dignity that I blush to mention even this.

But, and bear with me here, in light of the hysteria-inducing conclusions drawn by a recent study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health--wherein it was found that (hold on to your bowels!) "almost half of female high school students are subjected to sexual comments or gestures, and one-third are touched, grabbed or pinched in a sexual way"--in light, I say, of this bizarrely naive, it-could-only-have-been-written-by-someone- born-yesterday study, I cannot resist pointing the following out:

Imagine, if you will, what kind of reaction Brenda Hogg would have to this news that, apparently, "sexual comments or gestures" (alternatively called "sexual assault" and "sexual violence" in the above-cited article) are on the rise in Ontario high schools. I'm seeing in my mind's eye a lot of tongue-clicking, a lot of head shaking, a lot of tortured expressions. A lot of trembling of her lower lip, her voice cracking with emotion as she bemoans the world into which so many innocent children have been brought.

Yes? Yes.

Now balance that with what, apparently, qualifies as sexual assault/violence in this study: "sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks."

"Looks" you notice. Looking at a woman now qualifies as sexual harassment in this society. In addition, needless to say, to touching.

So what is Donna Hogg complaining about again? The wrong sort of not-looking and not-touching is it?

... But don't get me wrong, I find her fellow councillor, David Cohen's reaction equally brainless. Not to speak of its spinelessness.

Who ever let these ghastly drabs into positions of influence?

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Of Bleeding Hearts Worn on Sleeves

If, as Edward Said wrote, the old history books were covertly ideological, the current ones tend to be overtly ideological, as each new generation of scholars rides in to rescue supposedly worthy peoples who were wronged by earlier scholarship and, in their time, by axe-wielding conquerors. But all these peoples, or all the ones in Lewis’s book, were conquerors. If the Christians took Spain from the Muslims, the Muslims had taken it from the Visigoths, who had appropriated it from the Romans, who had seized it from the Carthaginians, who had thrown out the Phoenicians. Lewis does not pretend that the Muslims were not conquerors; he simply justifies their conquest on the ground of their belief in convivencia, a pressing matter today. I can foresee a time when another matter important to us, the threat of ecological catastrophe, will prompt a historian to write a book in praise of the early Europeans whom Lewis finds so inferior to the Muslims. The Franks lived in uncleared forests, while the Muslims built fine cities, with palaces and aqueducts? All the better for the earth. The Franks were fond of incest? Endogamy keeps societies small, prevents the growth of rapacious nation-states. The same goes for the Franks’ largely barter economy. Trade such as the Muslims practiced—far-flung and transacted with money—leads to consolidation. That’s how we got global corporations.

Each new problem in our history engenders a revision of past history. Many of today’s historians acknowledge this, and argue that their books, if politicized, are simply more honest about that than the politicized books of the past. This pessimism about the possibility of finding a stable truth may be realistic, but it seems to sanction, even encourage, special pleading—of which “God’s Crucible,” for all its virtues, is an example.

From Joan Acocella's review of D.L. Lewis' new book “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215.”

Monday, February 04, 2008

The soft racism of low editorial expectations

Sorry about all this. I'm as sick of the whole Afrocentric business as you must be, but I didn't feel I could let this one pass.

In keeping with its tradition of scraping the very funkiest gunk from the bottom of its barrel of well-meaning but illiterate fools (other examples here, here, here, and here), the Toronto Star has well and truly outdone itself for offensiveness and stupidity with today's guest columnist, Donna Bailey Nurse.

It has to be seen to be believed:
... If slavery were truthfully taught, if black students had the opportunity to learn the depths of the depravity their ancestors were subjected to – for hundreds of years – they could never feel anything but pride and gratitude, and absolute wonder, that their people even survived. The fact that black people feel shame about slavery – and white people not so much – is just one indication of how dishonestly history has been taught.
Two things here. One: if the topic of slavery is not being "truthfully" taught, then Ms. Nurse would do well to give us at least one example of the current teaching's errors. Ms. Nurse does not do this for the rather obvious (if sad) reason that she has mistakenly used the word "truthfully" when she meant to say "adequately." Even then, however, she is not absolved of the responsibility to tell us what makes the current teaching inadequate. The suggestion implicit in her argument--that it must be so (i.e. inadequate) because of the apparent lack of "pride and gratitude, and absolute wonder" of black youth for their ancestors--is itself dreadfully inadequate, as it is, alas, too too easily falsified. She forgets that this is the dilemma of all history: however much it is taught, it is rarely properly understood, and even more rarely felt.

Two: that "fact" that she mentions towards the end of the second paragraph--i.e. "the fact that black people feel shame about slavery – and white people not so much"--is not a fact at all. Indeed, I should say it's a calumnious falsehood on a very grand scale.

She goes on (my emphasis):

For me, black-focused schools are important because they will offer black children a more complete and truthful history of people of African descent – Africa being the common denominator.

This will enable them to better assess the world they live in. A truthful rendering of history explains why 40 per cent of black youth in Toronto are in danger of dropping out. A truthful rendering of history explains why one-quarter of all African American men are in jail. It explains the bloody chaos that is Africa today, and why Senator Barack Obama's candidacy means so much to so many.

A fairly simple problem here. The emphasized sentences make no damn sense! (In fact, one could even read them as saying that black youth are dropping out because of a "truthful rendering of history" ... The sort of hateful idea that has found any number of people in front of hate crimes tribunals.)

I'm not certain the truth about history will do much to enhance the cultural esteem of white students, though perhaps ultimately, that's what we need – for black people feel [sic] a little better about themselves and for white people to feel a little worse.
Well ... I ask you. What?

Friday, February 01, 2008

It Begins ...

Far be it from me to say I told you so, but ...

"It will be a stand-alone school. Whether it's stand-alone or whether it's with another program, I don't see the difference," [Board chair John] Campbell said in an interview from Toronto.

"The school is open to kids of all races and religions. It is a public school. An Africentric school is not a black school. This really is a school of choice," he said. [my emphasis]

... And I just love this idea that "McGuinty has been stepping up the pressure on the Toronto District School Board since trustees voted 11-9 Tuesday night in favour of a black-focused school to open in September 2009." ... Trustees voted on this exactly three goddamn days ago! What kind of pressure can anyone step up in 72 hours?!

The Toronto Star doing its level best not to give the appearance of privileging one John over any of the others.