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A Land without Trump

Why hardcore blowhards never make it in Canadian politics

Politics
Web Exclusives •  976 words 
Published July 28, 2015

When John F. Kennedy, Jr. co-founded George twenty summers ago, the inaugural cover featured Cindy Crawford done up as a sexy George Washington. The image symbolized the magazine’s then-novel theme: the cultural continuum between politics and entertainment. “I think that when JFK Jr. first observed President Clinton on national TV playing sax or revealing his underwear choice, he was onto something,” media critic David Carr told CNN when George ceased publishing in 2001. Celebrity and politics were merging.

Since then, the trend has continued, in large part thanks to the popularity of cable news channels, which long ago learned to boost ratings by presenting politics as rollerball for retirees. When I visit my in-laws in Del Boca Vista, the TV usually is tuned to MSNBC—not so they can learn actual news, which they get early in the morning from the New York Times, but so they can laugh when Rachel Maddow skewers some Republican congressman who thinks Earth is 6,000 years old.

This month brought another landmark in the merger between politics and celebrity gossip, with the Huffington Post announcing that news about GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump will henceforth appear on its “entertainment” sub-site. “Our reason is simple,” wrote HuffPo’s editorial director and Washington bureau chief. “Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”

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It’s a defensible move: Many of Trump’s pronouncements are so bizarre that they truly do lie outside the world of rational political discourse. For the same reason, I applaud the Glenn Beck Program (not usually the voice of reason in the US news media) for banning any mention of Trump. (“I’m sick of it, so we’re moving on,” said a host. “I just can’t do another show about it.”)

But once you go down this road, where does it end? Last week, Rand Paul—a supposedly “serious” contender for president, and a Republican senator to boot—released a video in which he sets fire to a copy of the US tax code, then puts another copy into a wood chipper, and then finishes off a third with a chainsaw. (If a high school student were caught doing this, we’d send him to the school psychiatrist.) Earlier this year, Republican senator James Inhofe, who considers himself to be an expert on the “hoax” of global warming, brought a snowball to the Senate floor and threw it at a page—to prove, uh, something. In April, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee led a bunch of journalists around an NRA “Leadership Forum” so they could watch him fondle guns, one of which he bought as a birthday present for his wife. (Mrs. Huckabee already owns plenty of firearms, her husband reassured reporters, but “some of the models we have are a little bulky for concealed carry.”) And last weekend, Huckabee topped that by accusing Barack Obama of using the Iran deal to set the table for a second holocaust. (“He will take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven.”) If one were to prune away all of these surreal stunts from American political coverage, on many days all you’d be left with are congressional sub-committee hearings.

For all the talk we’ve heard in recent years about Canada’s slide into supposedly “American-style” gutter politics, the sort of garish gestures described above are completely unknown north of the border. The Canadian version of a controversial “stunt” involves Stephen Harper sitting down at a piano and playing a pop song. And when Elizabeth May embarrassed herself with her Welcome Back Kotter shtick, most observers responded to this brief spasm of theatricality with stunned mortification and pity.

I suppose the closest thing that the federal Tories have to a controversial populist is Minister of Employment and Social Development Pierre Poilievre, who shocked the Canadian pundit class by, wait for it, conducting a ministerial press conference wearing a golf shirt emblazoned with the Conservative Party logo. His party is so obsessed with milking partisan advantage from their expanded Universal Child Care Benefit that Poilievre actually travelled to a Winnipeg production facility so he could pose for pictures with the freshly printed cheques. The stunt was fantastically grubby. But the least that can be said for it was that the UCCB is an actual component of government policy. Better a printing press, I suppose, than a snowball, a chainsaw, a flame-thrower, or a gun.

As Canadians, we’d like to think that Donald Trumps don’t infect our politics because we are smarter and saner than Americans. But the real reason is structural. Republicans and Democrats elect their presidential candidates through the grass roots, which means that populists do occasionally hijack the process. In our parliamentary system, on the other hand, the major parties are heavily whipped entities obsessed with brand preservation. And the party leaders who go on to become premier or prime minister are selected at convention proceedings closely supervised by risk-averse party grandees. The result is a menagerie of bland, polished, disciplined wonks and career politicians such as Stephen Harper, Christy Clark, Rachel Notley, and Kathleen Wynne. (It’s no coincidence that the most interesting and thoroughly disgraced politician in modern Canadian history, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford, existed completely outside the party system.)

Most Republicans are appalled by Donald Trump, and rightly so: His comments about Mexico’s supposed criminal hordes only encourage the GOP’s reputation as a party for ageing white nativists. But his fifteen minutes of fame highlight the degree to which Americans trust ordinary yahoos to pick the person to run their country. It’s a right that our own yahoos will never ever have.


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E. L. Doctorow, 1931–2015

The fox in the tree leaves

Books
Web Exclusives •  1,351 words 
Published July 27, 2015

Abrilliant star in the twentieth century firmament of American letters, E. L. Doctorow, is dead, age eighty-four. Hearing the news, I recalled meeting him in the early 1990s at Montreal’s Jewish Public Library, when he was the keynote speaker for that year’s Jewish Book Month. I was tasked with introducing him. I was quite nervous, because it wasn’t mere admiration I wanted to convey. I had recently read Doctorow’s crowning masterpiece, Billy Bathgate. It was one of the great reading experiences of my life, which should have inspired me to eloquence, but instead tongue-tied me.

So I sought inspiration from another literary supernova to cover my inadequacy. I found what I was looking for in the novel, Possession, by English writer A. S. Byatt: “Now and then there are readings which make the hairs on the neck, the non-existent pelt, stand on end and tremble, when every word burns and shines hard and clear and infinite and exact, like stones of fire . . . ”

I am not the kind of reader for whom horripilation is a familiar occurrence. When it happens, the scene being described sears itself into permanent memory. Anyone who by habit or training tends to read fiction critically will understand what a rare pleasure it is when the real world falls away and the monitoring intellect is simply cauterized with the emergence of an all-engrossing fictional world that is beyond criticism or judgment.

For me, Billy Bathgate was that novel. The book reconstructs the waning years of mobster Dutch Schultz’s frantic reign of terror in Depression-era New York. Doctorow said the idea for the novel came to him with an image of men in tuxedos on a tugboat. That image turned into the scene that became my stone of fire.

The scene on the tugboat records the ritual killing of Bo Weinberg, Dutch’s hapless partner. It opens with the mobster’s apprentice, Billy, a poor Bronx boy from a dysfunctional home, impulsively jumping aboard the tugboat where the execution is to take place (“nobody told me not to”) as, leaving behind the bright lights of society and conscience, it chugs into the night. What Billy will witness is his crossing of a moral Rubicon.

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Untroubled by what he sees—worse, intrigued by the craftsmanship with which the deed is executed—Billy narrates the scene with precise, unhurried detail. He describes Bo being fitted for his cement shoes. He admires the deft precision with which Irving, Dutch’s hit man, neatly rolls up Bo’s pants to keep them dry, also noting how dexterously the man binds and knots the ropes which lock Bo into his chair. Billy describes Bo’s blonde moll, shivering and whimpering in her thin evening dress. Bo rants in fury at Dutch, then as the cement sucks at his feet in the basin, he cries out in anguish, “Mama! ” (my non-existent pelt is rising at the memory) and finally begs Irving for a quick end. All this Billy recounts as though watching a pastry chef concoct a croquembouche cake.

Billy, “a boy alive in the suspension of childhood” is an American type: an orphan (real or virtual), wet behind the ears but endowed with a mind quick to grasp along which route his main chance lies. Billy exploits his gifts, such as they are, for advancement—Billy’s skill is the ability to juggle objects of uneven size and weight (Doctorow’s metaphors are never obscure)—and is dependent on a father figure for the acquisition of principles to accept or rebel against. Huckleberry Finn, Horatio Alger, Jay Gatsby, Holden Caulfield, Augie March—like Billy, these are all intensely American figures, bundles of competencies waiting for the call to action. Their (at best) morally ambiguous adventures, provoked by circumstances and an absence of cultural anchorage they can call their own, tell us a great deal about their creators’ sense of the national moment they are framing.

Some of Doctorow’s other books deal with big national issues like the obsession with communism (The Book of Daniel) and the melting pot (Ragtime). But criminality as a fellow traveller of the American dream is a recurrent motif in Doctorow’s oeuvre, and the sub-universe Doctorow recreates in which it thrives—a world I would be terrified actually to enter—the fiction that most interests me. Billy Bathgate is a safe voyage into the banality of evil, with real life’s baggage of revulsion stowed out of sight. Don’t we all want a legitimate break from the burden of moral judgment?

Billy Bathgate is about gangsterism, and therefore primarily about the flow of money illicitly gained (capitalism reversed), a perversion of the American dream, with Billy—Dutch’s “lap dog terrible”—as the anti-Horatio Alger. Always, as in the legitimate capitalistic world, it is the “flow of money” thrumming away under the surface action that is the prime mover of life. At one point Billy ruminates on his life in feudal service to Dutch:

I had counted off my time with Mr. Schultz by the killings, the gun shots and sobs and cracking skulls resounded in my memory like tolling bells, but something else had been going on all that while, which was the movement of money, it had come in and it had gone out all that time, as uninterrupted as a tide in the incoming and outgoing, as steady and unceasing as the quiet celestial system of the churning earth.

The evils proliferate and still we do not judge; instead we marvel along with Billy’s excitement at “living in the very pulsebeat of the tabloids . . .and hidden like the fox in the tree leaves on the puzzle page except that I was right in the middle of the centrally important news of our time.” He admires Dutch not for the evil in him, but for his capability: the directness and freedom from the crippling fetters of conscience with which he takes what he wants. And is that not what so many millions of American viewers found so captivating in Tony Soprano, another man whose “high audacity” might fascinate a young American boy? (Although, it isn’t Doctorow’s Dutch, a sociopath through and through, who reminds us of Tony. It is Billy, that “capable boy,” who could have been one of life’s positive contenders but who chooses evil, and from whom we have not recoiled—on the contrary, we want him to “succeed”—who should trouble our conscience, but doesn’t.)

“The fox in the tree leaves.” That is a good description of Doctorow himself. When you think of the novels by Twain, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Bellow, Updike, Salinger, and Roth, you conjure up settings, characters, and cultures these writers knew intimately. Their protagonists are thinly disguised alter egos, whose adventures spring directly from passages and events in their creators’ lives.

But Doctorow’s characters are diverse and completely unrelated in their origins and character to himself. Doctorow did not grow up in the slums like Billy. He never consorted with gangsters. His was a bookish childhood in his parents’ Bronx apartment, “in a family where people read constantly, where reading was essential to a normal day’s life,” as he described it. And after that it was a bookish life in universities and the publishing world.

Indeed, had Doctorow been a typical academic writer of his time and place, he would have churned out postmodern fiction full of self-reflexive, open-ended, mirror-game exercises with slow-moving or negligible plots, fiction that was insensitive to the traditional values of coherence and closure. Instead, he chose real stories with characters from the real world, beautifully plotted in a way calculated to arouse his readers’ curiosity and awareness regarding their own culture. Which is what I value most in literature, and why I rank Doctorow so high in my personal pantheon of great writers. I wonder if many of his readers have ever considered what an extraordinary achievement it is to be, as a fictionalist, a fox amongst the tree leaves.


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Hung Jury

How we police hateful opinions?

Society
Web Exclusives •  820 words 
Published July 24, 2015

The LGBT community has gained a lot of ground this year. The United States legalized gay marriage nationally (ten years after Canada did it—just saying); Caitlyn Jenner, having come out as transgender, graced the cover of Vanity Fair; and even some Republican politicians have recognized that homophobia has no place in law or liturgy. While homophobia is still rampant in many parts of the world, North America has never been a better place for queers.

In fact, pro-gay views are now so widespread that homophobes have themselves become heavily stigmatized alongside racists. That doesn’t mean there aren’t people who continue to loathe our existence. The question is, can we legitimately punish someone for being hateful by taking their livelihood away from them? This is, of course, a loaded question. Clearly, if someone commits a hate crime, they should be prosecuted as a criminal. If someone denies employment to a job applicant on the grounds of sexual orientation, he or she should be brought up on human-rights charges. But what about one’s private thoughts? Should hateful opinions be policed as well?

These are the questions I’ve been asking myself since reading about Rick Coupland, a former professor of business at St. Lawrence College, in Ontario, who on Sunday posted an explicitly homophobic message on Facebook. Alongside a video showing a Florida mayor raising the rainbow flag at a Pride festival, Coupland wrote, “It’s the queers they should be hanging, not the flag.” He deleted his Facebook profile as soon as his remarks were publicized. But it was too late: on Tuesday, St. Lawrence College fired him.

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While I am horrified that a professor could harbour such unenlightened views about sexuality—let alone express them on social media—I question whether Coupland should have lost his job. Professors don’t have the right to exhibit hatred in their workplace to students or colleagues on the basis of their sexual orientation. But like everyone else, they have the right to harbour hateful thoughts. To police the contents of private social media accounts in this manner smacks of thought control.

Canadian law criminalizes anyone who advocates genocide or “incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace” (with “identifiable group” defined as “any section of the public distinguished by colour, race, religion, ethnic origin or sexual orientation”). The claim that queers should be hanging—which is to say, murdered by lynching—arguably falls under these provisions (though prosecutions in this area are extremely rare and are generally reserved for extreme cases). However, the Criminal Code also provides that the criminalization of public incitement of hatred does not extend to private conversation.

How private conversation is defined is critical in this case because it is likely that Coupland did not knowingly disseminate his comments to the broader public. Typically, only one’s friends can see Facebook posts—which is why web surfers are up in arms every time they discover that our data is being sold by Mark Zuckerberg to the highest bidder. Although our faith in web privacy has ebbed in recent years, many of us still maintain the expectation that our posts and photos are private.

If Coupland is accused of committing a hate crime or violating human-rights standards, his case should not be treated merely as a matter of “personnel,” as St. Lawrence’s director of marketing and communications put it. The authorities should have been notified—but that’s not what happened. College administrators effectively enforced their own standard of offensive speech. Except they applied it to thoughts that Coupland expressed outside his professional role, in an ostensibly private forum. Are we prepared to let private companies or public institutions create their own speech codes that govern employees (and, presumably, students and contractors) in all aspects of their personal lives?

Today, queerness in the workplace is unexceptional. But decades ago, gays often were fired because they committed private “homosexual acts.” Now that same-sex marriage is legal and homosexuality is a protected status in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we have become almost too careful in ensuring that gays are never stigmatized. And employers, eager to strike a posture of tolerance for the sake of both employees and customers, are leading this movement. In 2013, public-relations expert Justine Sacco lost her job after lighting up Twitter with an ill-advised satirical poke at white attitudes toward AIDS in Africa. Since then, anxious professionals have been censoring their social media, and even private email, to expunge anything that anyone anywhere might find offensive.

In 1952, Lillian Hellman declared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” Homophobia, thankfully, has very much fallen out of fashion. But that doesn’t mean homophobes should lose their jobs because of their privately expressed, antiquated prejudices.


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