Society

How the Internet Ruined Fandom

Being a cult follower once tested your mettle. Now it’s all too easy

by
• 1,417 words

Screenshot from The Third Man
The Third Man / CC BY-SA 2.0 Orson Welles in The Third Man (1949).

Orson Welles’s Chimes at Midnight (1965) is an ingenious mash-up of several of Shakespeare’s history plays. It’s considered by many to be Welles’s best work—even better than Citizen Kane. Later this summer, the Criterion Collection will bring out a new, long-awaited edition of the film.

But for years, Chimes at Midnight was nearly impossible to find. As legal disputes prevented a proper release, Torontonians interested in acquiring a VHS recording, pre-Internet, had to make their way to abbeys like Vintage Video. The store was usually empty, the product expensive, and the owner charmingly prickly. He supplied discernment and—less valued these days—a sense of authority. He took especially grim pleasure in confirming your worst fears about the unavailability of this or that movie. It was heaven. Today, of course, you simply Google “chimes at midnight” to find your DVD import on Amazon—and at least ninety-three well-meaning customer reviews. (Vintage Video is still with us, but the block it’s a part of appears to be slated for condos.)

If it’s the perfect time to be an obscure work of art, it’s also end-times for the cult enthusiast.

Is it precious to mourn the passing of a time when you couldn’t easily access a community of like-minded super fans, armed with ninety-three instant opinions? When the contents of your record collection weren’t determined by Apple, which now overwrites carefully curated songs with the versions it deems acceptable? Perhaps what’s worth mourning is the feeling of being tasked with treasuring a particular artist because no one else did.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, a great civilization of Jewish wits occupied Vienna’s coffeehouses. Some, like the journalist Alfred Polgar, achieved renown; others, like the romantically unproductive Peter Altenberg, cult status. An anti-Semitic quota system prevented many of these writers from becoming university faculty; they were forced to thrive amid clinking cups and noisy conversation. (Altenberg even had his mail directed to his preferred haunt, Café Central.) The coming of the Second World War, however, eventually emptied the coffeehouses. Vienna’s Jewish writers were dispersed and, in some cases, forgotten.

One of the great fans of these now-obscure writers is the Australian critic Clive James, who absorbed much of his enthusiasm for the coffeehouse wits from the pianist Alfred Brendel. As James tells it,

Brendel carries on his person their best sayings, individually typed out on slips of paper. Away from the piano, Brendel’s fingertips are usually wrapped in strips of Elastoplast. (So would mine be, if they were worth ten million dollars each.) When you see those bits of paper being hauled from his pockets by his plastered fingers, you realize you are in the presence of a true enthusiast.

It’s a memorable anecdote, in part because of Brendel’s commitment to remembering, in part because of his monk-like faith in print media. Nowadays, an enthusiast talking up his heroes to an innocent would probably produce a smartphone.

The Internet certainly gives the illusion of being a great enabler of fandom. There’s no lack of links to email to nonbelievers, no shortage of fan sites or chat rooms in which those who share a very specific fetish can organize. All manner of button lets you share or retweet at will. (No slips of paper need change hands.) Platforms like YouTube permit lay-archivists to post grey literature that would otherwise be inaccessible, like the reclusive Canadian singer Mary Margaret O’Hara’s lone Christmas original.

But if it’s the perfect time to be an obscure work of art, it’s also end-times for Brendel’s breed of cult enthusiast; our information-deluged era has rendered his ascetic devotion obsolete. It’s not just that the champions of the obscure have been spoiled by the ease with which they can express their fandom, it’s that their most important function, keeping a torch lit for the lesser known, has been taken over by the Web.

Not so long ago, the obsessive fan had no easy way to instantly preserve and share the obscure object of her enthusiasm. The writer with a pet interest pitched it to editors and hoped it landed. The amateur, in possession of no editors’ ears, founded fan clubs and mimeographed fanzines. The music aficionado haunted record stores, the bibliophile, estate sales. Bins were combed through, library stacks dragged. Fandom demanded physical effort, and effort ran on passion.

Fandom also required memory—the analogue kind you keep between your ears. The obsessive fan of yesteryear couldn’t count on an archive of linked computers, coupled to a search algorithm as intelligent as the one devised by Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Maverick reputations like Weldon Kees (poet), Monte Hellman (filmmaker), Karen Dalton (folky), and Nick Drake (ditto) survived because they were internalized by devotees—as opposed to externalized on YouTube or personal blogs.

For example, the late musician Dennis Wilson was long coveted by an elect group who knew that he was so much more than simply the Beach Boys’ reckless, also-ran drummer. He wrote raw, impressionistic tone poems that Beach Boys albums couldn’t quite metabolize, and also made solo recordings, which went out of print for years. Some of the best weren’t even released. “I heard [the instrumental track] ‘Holy Man’ only once when we did a rough mix of it in March of 1976,” recalls one of Wilson’s sound engineers, John Hanlon. “Then it sat in my head for thirty-one years. I couldn’t hear it anywhere else. They hadn’t done any vocals, but it was such a magical melody that I would’ve done anything just to hear the track one more time.”

To supplement memory, the obsessive fan of yesteryear was forced to covet used editions, bootlegs, fanzines, grainy video, hearsay, rumor, word of mouth, brittle clippings, Brendel’s slips of paper, cassette tape, and other ephemera. But “forced” suggests his poverty was a bad thing. In fact, lack of content correlates to deeper commitment. The obsessive fan slaked his thirst with droplets of data, spaced across months, even years. Yes, I know: I sound like a wartime propagandist. But lack of content—an intolerable proposition nowadays, when one post displaces the next by flick of thumb—taught frugality and toughened consumers of culture into cacti. They would’ve been scandalized by this essay’s geyser of hyperlinks.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s lovely to type a name into a search bar and call up content about some little-known figure you care about. Certainly a deserving artist or work shouldn’t be the preserve of a few. But the dedicated, discerning obsessive understood the irreplaceable value of physical effort. If you took Richard Teleky’s creative writing classes in the ’90s, you would’ve felt obliged to look up many neglected but deserving books, including Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters (1970). A slim, perfectly executed novel that takes place over the course of a weekend, it concerns a Brooklyn couple trying to find a cat. (The wife is bitten at the start of the novel and spends the length of it worried about rabies.)

The book disappeared for years, but then Jonathan Franzen, Fox’s most famous fan, campaigned to get it brought back into print. (Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love did something similar in 1993, using newly acquired power to persuade Geffen Records to reissue albums by the neglected English band The Raincoats.)

Anyway, during the dark age of Desperate Characters, Teleky did his part; he bought up used copies whenever he could, and made them gifts. That was how, in a chilly vacuum without AbeBooks, he attended to his torch-work.

Yes, I know: I’m a pair of binoculars away from birding with Franzen. And yes: it’s hopelessly passé to invoke an “Internet,” as though a singular thing, in a think-piece. But there’s something to lament in the obsolete figure of the obsessive fan, who made the best of his barbarian epoch.

Of course, we should be happy to see the works of neglected but deserving artists made widely available. (There’s no going back.) But we should mourn the monk-like devotees of Wilson, Fox, and others, who carried the fragile reputations of their charges this far—far enough to see them uploaded forever.

Jason Guriel (@JasonGuriel) has written for The Atlantic, Flavorwire, and The New Republic. He wrote The Pigheaded Soul: Essays and Reviews on Poetry and Culture.


Flash Fiction

Mr. Penny’s Dream

How would you like to go to a Paul McCartney concert?

by
• 2,758 words

Illustration by Rolli

When Mr. Penny woke up that morning, his head felt like a vitamin bottle (plugged with cotton). “Nothing helps a plugged head except strong tea and a long walk.” Was it Mrs. Mickleson who’d told him that? Regardless, it was worth a try. After his third cup, he stepped out the door.

He made his way to the Central Library, one of his favorite places. The doors there opened automatically. There was an escalator. Mr. Penny admired escalators but didn’t like them much. He’d heard—this might not even be true—that an escalator had sucked a girl’s shoelaces up, once, and ripped her legs off. Rumor or not, he’d never trusted an escalator since.

Someone had told him (Mrs. Mickleson again?) that the sameness of a library’s odor is one of the few things in life one can depend on. It was true. The Central Library smelled . . . well, it was pasty and electrical. Dirty carpets—that was important. It didn’t particularly smell like books, though that had to be a part of it somewhere.

First, he looked at the magazines. That never took him long. There aren’t many magazines worth flipping through.

He tried reading a book after that, only the place was so noisy—it’s hard enough concentrating these days at the best of times—that he ended up putting it back on the shelf. Too bad.

After he drank from the water fountain and used the toilet, Mr. Penny couldn’t think of anything else to do. So he left. The librarian smiled at him on the way out.

Right across from the library was Victrola Park. It wasn’t a big park like (the name escaped him). There was a slide and a sandbox in the middle of Victrola, but never any children—just a lot of men walking by themselves and looking sideways at one another. Mr. Penny wasn’t sure about these men. If he looked at their eyes he could see the ideas swimming around in them, and they were never pleasant ones.

His favorite bench was the one in front of the war monument. He’d only just sat down, when—

“Hey bud,” said an older man with sparkling eyes, appearing.

“Hi,” said Mr. Penny.

“Can you give me a dollar, bud?”

Mr. Penny examined the man. His beard was white for the most part, but yellow around his lips. His teeth (there weren’t many of them) were yellow as well.

“No,” Mr. Penny decided—because he didn’t have a dollar.

“I want to go to the Paul McCartney concert,” said the man.

Mr. Penny had heard the name, he was sure. It didn’t ring the bell all the way, though.

“That’s my dream in life,” said the man. “Ever since I was a kid. To see a Paul McCartney concert.”

The man smelled like cigarettes and something else. It was unpleasant.

“This is probably the last time he’s gonna tour, you know? Or I could be dead soon. I take antipsychotics. I get . . . $350 a month and my rent is $350. If I don’t get to that concert, I’ll—oh man, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m lucid right now and I want to enjoy it.”

He looked so old and sad, this strange man. Mr. Penny guessed that he was eighty.

“Pop used to take great care of me, but he’s dead. He was a good man. He loved the Beatles. That’s where I got my love of the Beatles from. Hey, you know the song ‘Blackbird’?”

Mr. Penny contemplated. No, he didn’t.

A woman walked by with a shopping bag. The man turned to her.

“Say, do you have a dollar?”

The woman didn’t. Neither did the next one.

The man sighed.

“I’m not a lot different than other people. I have dreams. Fuck it, I have dreams. If I can’t get to this thing . . . Fuck. I might as well be dead.”

Mr. Penny nodded—though he wasn’t really listening. He was thinking. A dream. What had Mrs. Mickleson told him? “A dream keeps your blood running.” Something like that. “If you stop dreaming,” she’d said another time, “you might as well stop breathing.”

Hmm.

Had there been something like that in the past, something that kept his blood running? At thirty-five years of age, something must’ve kept him going for that long. It hadn’t been an easy life that he could recollect (he couldn’t very well), not by a long shot. There had to be something.

Hmm.

*

The next morning, Mr. Penny didn’t get out of bed till 11:00. He didn’t go outside all day, either. He just didn’t feel like it. He did his usual inside things (ate toast, listened to the radio) then looked out the window for a bit.

After lunch, he went across the hall to Mrs. Mickleson’s. When he sat in the blue armchair, he sank right down into it. It swallowed him up. A good armchair is always hungry.

In a minute, Mrs. Mickleson came into the room with the tea tray. She poured Mr. Penny some tea and added three lumps but no cream.

Mrs. Mickleson was the landlady. She was a nice woman, though she talked too much. As she went on about something, some sick relation, Mr. Penny imagined a fox peeping in the window at him, sticking its tongue out. That always made him laugh. Not this time.

Mrs. Mickleson was staring at him, now. Had she asked him a question?

“Something troubling you, Mr. Penny?”

“What?”

“You don’t seem like yourself today.”

“Do you know who Paul McCartney is?”

Mrs. Mickleson jumped up—and disappeared. She reappeared a minute later with a big stack of LPs.

“I love the Beatles,” she said, dropping the LPs on the coffee table.

“Who?” said Mr. Penny.

Mrs. Mickleson dropped her jaw, this time.

“But . . . of course you’ve heard of the Beatles?”

Her tenant shook his head.

“Don’t be silly.” She held up one of the albums. “Meet the Beatles?”

Mr. Penny looked at her quizzically.

Abbey Road? You’ve listened to Abbey Road, I’m sure. Or heard something from it?”

He didn’t think so, no.

Let it Be?”

Mr. Penny shook his head.

“You’ve never heard” (she held out a brightly-colored album) “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band?”

A Hard Day’s Night?”

Yellow Submarine?”

Mr. Penny paused. That one looked familiar. He might’ve seen that somewhere. Or had he?

“I saw the Beatles play Shea Stadium in ’65. That’s how I lost this tooth.” Mrs. Mickleson pointed to a gap on her bottom row of teeth. Mr. Penny had never noticed it before.

She held up another LP. There was something scribbled on it.

“Look—signed. By their manager. He killed himself.”

Mrs. Mickleson leaned forward. She whispered:

“He’s coming, you know.”

Mr. Penny shivered.

“Who?” he whispered back.

Paul McCartney!” she cried, slapping him on the leg. “On the twenty-third. Just a couple more weeks. Of course I’ve got my ticket and—”

Mrs. Mickleson bit her lip. She grinned. She lay a hand on Mr. Penny’s.

“How would you like to go to a Paul McCartney concert?”

Mr. Penny thought about it. Paul Mcartney wasn’t his dream, he didn’t think. “Everyone deserves a chance,” though, as people were fond of telling him.

He shrugged.

“Alright,” he said.

Mrs. Mickleson’s eyes sparkled.

*

Mr. Penny dreamed, that night.

He was walking down the street, holding a briefcase. He was himself—but he wasn’t. He was someone like himself. A twin, or something. He was a successful man, a working man, with a spring in his step. He counted the smiles people gave him (ten). Mr. Penny hadn’t felt that happy since . . . He couldn’t remember ever being that happy.

When things can’t get any better, they like to get worse.

As he waved to a man in a blue car, his briefcase popped open and papers flew everywhere. Mr. Penny chased them down the sidewalk and into the street.

Tires squealed.

“Look out!” yelled someone.

Mr. Penny lifted his head off the pillow. It was morning.

*

A man of habit, Mr. Penny looked forward more to the things he’d done a hundred times than to any fresh venture. He’d never been to a rock concert, not that he could remember. That’s not to say it wouldn’t be enjoyable, not necessarily. It would be different, that’s for sure. He was almost looking forward to it.

On the day of the concert, he took a hot bath. Then he picked out his best suit (he only had the two) and slipped into it. It was baggy, but that didn’t matter.

There was a tall mirror in Mr. Penny’s bedroom that Mrs. Mickleson had given him. “It’s no trouble,” she’d said. “I was going to throw it out.” It was a perfectly good mirror, only something was the matter with it. It had gotten warped somehow and—well, when Mr. Penny stood in front of it, he seemed thinner than he felt and his head looked as small as a donut. It was amusing.

Mr. Penny tied his tie around his skinny little neck and buttoned up his jacket. He turned sideways—and laughed. His head actually vanished!

There wasn’t time for tea that afternoon (Mrs. Mickleson had to get ready), so Mr. Penny waited in the blue armchair for what seemed like three hours. Finally, she stepped out of the bathroom.

Mr. Penny’s eyes widened.

Mrs. Mickleson was wearing a grey suit, a man’s suit, and had on—it was a shaggy kind of black wig. He almost hadn’t recognized her. She looked like a man.

“You’ll understand when we get there,” she said. Then she grabbed her purse with one hand, and Mr. Penny with the other.

They drove forever. The city was bigger than Mr. Penny would’ve ever guessed. They parked at an enormous building, a stadium. Mr. Penny had felt just fine inside the car, but when he stepped out—well, it was like stepping into a river. There were so many eyeballs and people pressed together like fish. Mr. Penny thought of the aquarium at the zoo. He’d only ever been on the outside, before.

There was a kind of gate, and as he slid through it a large woman rubbed his pockets. He wanted to wait for Mrs. Mickleson, who was lagging, but he couldn’t’ve slowed down or stopped if he’d wanted to.

Once they found their seats, things calmed down a bit. They were an hour early, which gave Mrs. Mickleson plenty of time to tell Mr. Penny about her nephew’s leg and her sister’s emphysema.

Her tenant was about to nod off when he thought—he was sure of it—he could smell a skunk. He sat up straight. A skunk (this was years and years ago) had sprayed his uncle in the face and burned his eyes so badly he needed glasses after that. They were comical glasses that made him look like a Great Horned Owl, which was just as well: a Great Horned Owl is the only thing on Earth that will eat a skunk.

“She already has arthritis, the poor dear, so the goiter won’t do her a bit of good.”

Mr. Penny was about to nod off again when a scream jolted him awake. Now everyone was screaming and jumping to their feet. Mr. Penny jumped, too.

But it wasn’t a skunk they were wound up about. It was Paul McCartney.

He was an older man with a British accent. The skin on his neck dangled down. When he sang, he wobbled his head from side to side, like a bird. The neck skin wobbled, too. It was difficult to hear his singing, the music was so loud.

When the first song finished and a man behind him screamed “Play ‘Yesterday!’” Mr. Penny nearly died.

“Play ‘Yesterday,’” screamed Mrs. Mickleson, next to him.

By the end of the first hour, Mr. Penny’s legs were getting stiff. He wasn’t used to standing for so long. It bothered the one leg especially, the one with the scars. He had to stand, though, because everyone else was standing and he didn’t want to sit there staring at someone’s behind.

“Play ‘Blackbird’!” yelled the man behind him.

Paul McCartney must’ve done just that, as the man was so pleased when the next song started that he grabbed Mr. Penny by the shoulders and shook him like a terrier shaking a rat.

The whole crowd roared.

Mrs. Mickleson screamed.

Mr. Penny decided that his dream was not Paul McCartney.

A few hours later, as they made their way out of the stadium—he’d never seen so many people—Mr. Penny checked for familiar faces. Lately, people seemed to know him and would wave to him or approach him even though he never had the slightest idea who they were. It was the strangest thing.

On their way home, they cut through Victrola park. There was an old man on the bench, with a yellowed beard. Mr. Penny recognized him. He would’ve said hello to him—only the man was crying.

*

That night, Mr. Penny had the briefcase dream. As always, he was sauntering down the street, himself but someone else, swinging a briefcase and feeling not like Mr. Penny but like Mr. Millions.

Whenever a pretty girl walked by—there seemed to be no end of them—he smiled.

One especially pretty girl stopped and talked to him. No matter what Mr. Penny said, she laughed and laughed.

The girl took his free hand. She leaned closer . . .

Of course the briefcase had to pop open and Mr. Penny to go bounding around like a rabbit after the papers. The last one blew right into the middle of the street. When he bent over to pick it up—

“Play ‘Yesterday!’” screamed the pretty girl, behind him.

He woke up.

*

As Mr. Penny stared at his toast, there was a knock on the door. He looked out the peephole.

It was Mrs. Mickleson. Holding a blue briefcase. When he let her in, she set it on the kitchen table.

“Go ahead,” she said, smiling.

Mr. Penny brightened, a little. “Even an empty container is full of potential.” Who’d told him that? As he tried to remember, he popped open the briefcase and—

LPs. It was full of LPs. Beatles LPs.

“I was going to leave them to my daughter but she doesn’t even like the Beatles.

Can you imagine that?”

Mr. Penny watched the fox curl up in the briefcase while Mrs. Mickleson told him all about her daughter’s financial problems.

“Anyhow, they’re better off by far in your hands, in the hands of a fan.”

Mr. Penny’s hands started to shake. He put them behind his back.

“I only hope they make you half as happy as they’ve made me,” she said, kissing him on the cheek.

The second Mrs. Mickleson closed the door behind her, Mr. Penny, breathing hard, dumped the LPs onto the floor. He took the briefcase to his bedroom and flung it on the bed.

He changed into his good suit—it took a while, he was shaking so badly—and dug his dress shoes out of the closet. Then he picked up the briefcase and stood in front of the mirror.

He looked like the man. The man from his dream. He looked skinnier, of course—there really was something the matter with this mirror—and his legs were like zigzags. Still . . .

Mr. Penny turned. In profile, he looked handsome. Like a million dollars. Even if he’d lost his head.

Mr. Penny laughed. He hadn’t felt so good in . . . It must’ve been forever.

He dug some papers and pens out of a drawer, stuffed them into the briefcase and snapped it shut.

He opened the door . . .

And off he went.

Rolli (rollistuff.com; @rolliwrites) is a writer and cartoonist from Regina. His most recent story collection, I Am Currently Working On a Novel, was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and short-listed for the High Plains Book Award. Rolli’s cartoons appear regularly in the Wall Street Journal, Reader’s Digest, Adbusters, and other popular outlets.


Politics

Sophie: #Elbowgate's Collateral Damage

Much ado about Justin’s elbow—while forgetting his overworked spouse

by
• 1,330 words

Photograph by Robert J. Galbraith
Robert J. Galbraith / CC BY-ND 2.0 Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

NDP MP Niki Ashton called Justin Trudeau’s elbowing of her caucus mate Ruth Ellen Brosseau on Wednesday the “furthest thing from a feminist act.” Conservative MP Lisa Raitt went further—indirectly comparing Trudeau’s actions to those of Jian Ghomeshi. Left and right apparently are now in agreement that female Canadian parliamentarians need protection from our prime minister.

One sad irony of this outburst of politically weaponized feminism: the country has completely dropped an important issue of real, practical significance to the prime minister’s own wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

After the federal election last October, Grégoire-Trudeau found herself the spouse of a world leader—a position that, in Canada, comes with no clearly defined responsibilities. Her predecessor, Laureen Harper, had taken a low-key approach, maintaining a relatively modest public profile while focusing on select interests, such as animal welfare. But in the case of Grégoire-Trudeau, the people of Canada, the Liberal party—and, to some degree, the rest of the free world—have come to expect much more.

Without some officially designated position, prime ministerial spouses will always be vulnerable to petty political attacks.

She has obliged, but the effort apparently has taken its toll. There are few Canadian women who could sit for Vogue, and act as spokesperson for various philanthropic organizations promoting health care, the environment, education and the arts, all the while serving the many protocol functions associated with her husband’s role in public life, without a little bit of professional assistance. With just one dedicated staff member, Grégoire-Trudeau found herself in the awkward position of crying out for more help last week during an interview with Quebec City’s Le Soleil newspaper.

If Grégoire-Trudeau had found herself running a new branch of a growing company within the private sector, this staffing issue would be straightforward. The HR department might hire a consultant to perform an analysis of comparable positions, identifying an industry-standard support structure for the job in question—all based on the incumbent’s deliverables and work experience. So consider that Michelle Obama has a staff reported to be as large as forty-three. Among Duchess Catherine Middleton’s and Prince William’s permanent staff of eight is one full-time nanny (a sometime contentious issue in regard to the Trudeau household).

Last week, Niki Ashton—the same NDP MP who is concerned that Justin’s elbow has set back the cause of feminism—accused Grégoire-Trudeau of being insensitive to “the feeling that Canadian women face on a daily basis of being overwhelmed.” But one of feminism’s founding precepts, surely, is that “Canadian women” must be judged on their qualifications. Grégoire-Trudeau—bilingual, telegenic, a trained media personality, and working mother—is arguably the most qualified “first consort” in Canadian history. Indeed, she would stack up well against international competitors. By comparison, consider how much value America might get out of, say, Donald Trump’s wife Melania, a former model whose primary interests, broadcast on social media, were summarized by the New York Times as “beauty rituals, private jet rides and [her own] bikini body.”

Whereas the first lady of the United States has an official position (complete with her own officially designated mandate and budget), the traditional role of the Canadian prime minister’s spouse has varied with time, political party, and individual personality. The records show that we, and they, have always complained. “After morning service, I dressed for my ‘day’ & belonged to the Public until six o’clock,” wrote Lady Agnes Macdonald in February 1868. Mila Mulroney—perhaps most comparable to Grégoire-Trudeau in terms of her public and philanthropic profile—had to defend her use of the public purse. In 1983, she told the Globe and Mail‘s Stevie Cameron that she received 500 letters per month. “After her son Nicholas was born on Sept. 4, 1985, she received more than 6,000 letters and answered all of them.” Her staff numbered three—two secretaries, and one personal assistant. On loan from the PMO, they floated when not required; in response to the media storm following Grégoire-Trudeau’s statement last week, the PMO issued a release to the effect that a similar policy is in place.

The problem is not necessarily a lack of bodies; it is a lack of mandate. Without some officially designated position, prime ministerial spouses will always be vulnerable to petty political attacks when they try to assemble the resources necessary to apply their skills and stature in a meaningful way.

What should be the role of the prime minister’s wife in 2016? A look around the world yields some common factors: philanthropy, public appearances, support for their husband’s causes. But unfortunately, many of the primary duties are increasingly image-based. Upon Kate Middleton’s marriage to Prince William in 2011 she emerged as a kind of sample size model for a job that she continues to play to perfection. Carla Bruni’s marriage to former French president Nicolas Sarkozy also helped to glamourize the profession, if we may call it that. Even Michelle Obama (who has arguably done more to professionalize the role of the first lady than anyone in recent history) is not immune. At the state dinner in March, where the Obamas welcomed the Trudeaus to Washington, she and her daughters wore embroidered designer gowns that made headlines, as much for their $10,000 price tags as for their fashion cred. Thanks to what might be called the democratization of celebrity culture, female political spouses are expected to act as you-go-girl role models for a nation’s entire female tribe—providing visibility to locally produced designer labels.

The elephant in the room here is gender. When did the world paparazzi last catch Prince Phillip attending the opening of a nursery school or a tea party without the queen? On the Obamas’ April visit to London, he did drive them 400 meters to lunch. (Bizarrely, both men sat in the front of the vehicle, per bourgeois convention, while the women—one of whom happens to be her husband’s sovereign leader—sat in back.) More typically, what we ask of a female political spouse is to be something of a diplomatic Barbie—smiling and perfectly coiffed (which in itself takes a lot of time—more than most men think—and more hands). British prime minister David Cameron’s wife, Samantha, has a “special advisor” whose duties include wardrobe styling.

Dolling yourself up for newscasts in the high-definition age requires professional help. Ask anyone who rises at 5:00 a.m. for hair and makeup before morning TV, followed by a full day of activities that includes everything from a ribbon cutting to an evening dinner, whether it “takes a village.” If that is the function we see a woman such as Grégoire-Trudeau playing—effectively, the star of a seven-day-a-week reality show representing the best of contemporary Canadian life—then surely she deserves the infrastructure necessary to pull it off in a competitive and professional way.

But more wisely, what we could all do is allow her to write her own job description. As was noted in the Toronto Star, “Grégoire Trudeau is not asking for another employee to lessen her workload, but to increase it.” The Trudeaus have taken abuse for being (as some in the foreign press have called them) the “world’s hottest couple.” But many of us, if we are being honest, will admit pride in this country being seen as we have always wanted to be seen: dynamic, modern, conscientious (though perhaps temporarily less so after #Elbowgate), and, yes, glamorous.

Some may call Grégoire-Trudeau a tall poppy. But if so, she is perfectly on brand for the Canada of 2016. Perhaps once we have all finished talking about the husband’s elbow, we can address the wife’s workload.

Jessica Johnson (@thegoodshopper) is a National Magazine Award-winning writer and a former books editor of Saturday Night and the National Post.


Environment

Heavy Weather

Fort McMurray is a humanitarian disaster, not a climate change talking point

by
• 2,206 words

Courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey
NASA Landsat 7 satellite image of the Fort McMurray fire on May 4, 2016.

One afternoon last June, I witnessed a distinctive ritual in the parking lot of a suburban Fort McMurray high school. It was a Friday during Ramadan, and the city’s devout Muslims were streaming into the school’s gymnasium for midday prayers. They arrived in twos and threes and in extended families of eight and twelve. They came wearing hijabs and taqiyahs, embroidered salwar kameez and immaculate white dishdashas and stained work overalls and clunking steel-toed boots. They were Sunni, Shia, Ismaili. They were Nigerian, Sudanese, Jordanian, Syrian, Pakistani, and Indian. More than 2,000 people came—the downtown mosque is far too small for Friday prayers during Ramadan—and they were a time-lapse photo of the last quarter century of Canadian immigration.

Most Canadian cities took fifty years to reconfigure themselves into some of the world’s most brazenly multicultural metropolises. And now here was a small frontier city that had undergone the whole process in barely a decade, producing a polyglot Muslim congregation unlike any in Canada.

That high school parking lot scene was what I thought of first, when the frantic reports started rolling in the day the wildfire forced the evacuation of the whole city. Perhaps it was because the sight was the most unexpected thing I encountered on repeated visits to Fort McMurray over the last eighteen months while researching a book on Canada’s oilsands. Even as a Calgarian, with more direct connections than many to the place, I’d absorbed enough of the distorted myth of Fort McMurray—the brawling frontier boom town, the outsized work camp, the fast-money capital of “dirty oil”—that its real face was a surprise.

The people of Fort McMurray are long past done being the symbolic weapons in someone else’s rhetorical war.

It’s been heartening, amid the still unfolding horror of a fire locals have come to call the “Beast,” to see much of the reporting on Fort McMurray present that human face to the rest of the country and the world. The powerful stories of courage and compassion have been too numerous to track. School bus drivers on fifteen-hour salvation journeys, the tireless stoicism of the firefighters battling the blaze, a teenager riding her beloved horse out of town ahead of the flames. And on and on.

It’s sadly ironic that the city had to empty out in an emergency for the rest of Canada to come to properly understand it. But we are trying now, at least. And the one-dimensional myth surely can’t survive the brash humanity revealed daily by the disaster. That myth is the one thing I’m glad to see devoured by the flames.

But there has been another track to the media’s coverage of the wildfire. It grows more pronounced the further you travel away from Fort McMurray, and its persistence is worth examining, because it speaks so clearly to how using the city as a symbol erases its human face. And here I mean the burgeoning discussion of the fire’s root causes—in particular, the role played by climate change.

On the surface of it, this conversation is reasonable, even necessary. Climate change was undoubtedly a factor feeding the Beast to some extent; climate change, in any case, promises many more disasters like this one in our future. As Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in The New Yorker, this discussion of root causes might seem insensitive while the fire still burns, but “to fail to acknowledge the connection is to risk another kind of offense”—a failure to take proper responsibility for our role. “We’ve all contributed to the latest inferno,” she notes. Emphasis on all implied, if not explicitly stated.

Kolbert’s analysis was mostly measured and careful. Many others, which I’ll come to in a moment, have been much less so. But even she insists on making reference early on to “a Florida-sized formation known as the tar sands,” which points at the difficulty with this approach to the wildfire coverage.

In my research, I’ve encountered dozens of stories about Fort McMurray that traffic freely in boom town myths, and not one neglects to note the overall size of the total bitumen deposit in northern Alberta—often described as “the size of England,” though Florida will do—nor fails to differentiate between the total deposit and the scale of current operations. There is an implicit point being scored here: imagine the images you’ve surely seen of tailings ponds and open-pit mines. Now imagine all of Florida, all of England. By contrast, the “oil sands mineable area cleared or disturbed,” as the Alberta government refers to it, covers an area the size of Tampa and St. Petersburg. Urban area, not metro.

These boom town dispatches also tend to studiously avoid the term “oilsands,” even though that is the more common term locally and in the industry (and the preferred one in the Canadian Press style guide), and it has been used interchangeably with “tar sands” since long before the first major mining operation established itself under the moniker “Great Canadian Oil Sands” in the 1960s. Another implicit point scored: the writer will not be caught doing what is presumed to be Big Oil’s bidding by using a term that might make the industry seem less intrinsically dirty, helping to spin-doctor the tar out of the sands. (You see less concern, when discussing cookery, about using “rapeseed oil” to avoid the taint of Big Canola.)

Many other quick takes on the Fort McMurray wildfire and climate change have been, as I said, nowhere near as careful as Kolbert’s. On the day the fire first roared into the city, my Twitter feed started to fill with breathless updates and retweets—first from locals and Alberta-based journalists, but soon after from climate advocacy types far distant from the province. This is a section of Twitter in which I’d only ever seen Fort McMurray mentioned as the root of all climate evil. And that resonance, whether intended or not, matters.

Within days, frequent climate change commetators soon filled international media outlets with reasons why we simply must discuss the link between climate change and Fort McMurray’s peril—immediately, explicitly, repeatedly, ad nauseum. At Slate, Eric Holthaus wrote about the fire twice in the first four days of the disaster. “This is Climate Change,” read the first headline. “We need to talk about climate change,” read the second. Holthaus appeared mainly to be addressing an intransigent U.S. audience – rather than try to figure out what Alberta’s political culture might actually look like, for example, he simply made passing reference to “petrostate politics” with a link to a Slate story about President Obama. But his story joined a growing viral flow of contentious online posts and comments insistent on turning the fire into climate action agitprop before it was even contained.

At the Guardian, Montreal-based writer Martin Lukacs was even more strident. He placed the blame for the fire entirely on the oil industry’s “corporate arsonists,” listing six by name: ExxonMobil, BP, Shell, Total, CNRL, and Chevron. The selection is rather odd, in that it names only one Canadian company (CNRL) and skips the two biggest names in the oil sands—Suncor and Syncrude. Perhaps this is because Suncor and Syncrude are more difficult to fit into an argument predicated on the existence of a detached and uncontrollable enemy force. The two companies, who together proved the oil sands concept commercially and built the industry as we know it, were nurtured by massive public funding and public support and functioned somewhat in the same vein as Crown corporations for years. Lukacs, though, appears mostly interested in hurrying through Fort McMurray’s fire en route to linking it to the corporate deceit of ExxonMobil. The city is primarily a cluster of corporate oil logos in this narrative.

All of this is within the realm of fair comment, I suppose—a tragedy on this scale is going to invite a wide range of debate from any number of angles. But it’s deeply disingenous for commentators eager to link the fire to climate change to presume they arrive at the disaster site without their own baggage. Within a seventy-two-hour stretch, for example, climate activist Bill McKibben solicited donations for Fort McMurray’s displaced in his Twitter feed and co-authored an op-ed in the Vancouver Sun calling for a permanent moratorium on “tar sands pipelines.” To presume solidarity with the people of Fort McMurray and actively campaign against their livelihoods requires a remarkable feat of compartmentalization.

As just about anyone in Fort McMurray will readily tell you, their city long since vanished as a real place in such conversations. Once the proposed Keystone XL pipeline became the proxy for all the world’s climate destruction, Fort McMurray was reconfigured as the “carbon bomb” looming over virtually every climate change debate, the impending disaster to be avoided at all costs. And built into that rhetoric was an implication of complicity. If it was not always stated, it was self-evident nonetheless, especially to Fort McMurray residents: to make your living packing explosives into the carbon bomb was to be part of the plot to commit the worst of climate crimes. If you didn’t feel like that accurately described your job as a heavy haul truck driver or millwright or geological engineer—let alone schoolteacher or nurse or city planner—you learned to tune it out. You maybe wondered why it was still okay to be on the demand side of the oil equation but now criminally complicit to work on this particular piece of the supply side. But mostly you understood these were not people trying to engage you in an honest discussion about your hometown.

Still, it couldn’t help but grate on the locals and their allies, especially in the midst of the worst natural disaster in Alberta’s history. This is how a single imbecilic tweet about climate and karma by some long-forgotten Alberta NDP candidate came to make national news, as cranks on the right treated it as the true expression of all progressives everywhere. The cranks did themselves few favours, but the sentiment resonated nonetheless, because Fort McMurray has been so badly misconstrued for so long. It has carried such symbolic freight over the past decade, mostly against its will, that it felt necessary to say it: “Fort McMurray is a place.” This was the opening sentence of Edmonton Journal political columnist Paula Simons’ first piece on the fire. This inferno is a tragedy of human scale, house by house, block by block, before it is anything else. Long before it is anything else.

Why, in any case, would now be exactly the time to talk about Fort McMurray and wildfires and climate change’s connections to both? What point could only be made while the fires still burn? With what intent, if not to imply the complicity of the employees of “corporate arsonists” in an oil boom town? And who exactly is engaged by such a conversation, if not the same people who clucked at the last climate-connected disaster and the one before that and wondered smugly when these foolish people would ever learn? Who, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, stops to talk at length about policy? So score rhetorical points with the choir from Fort McMurray’s plight if you really must, but at least cop to it.

As I write this, the thousands of Fort McMurray residents who filed into a high school gym last summer for Friday prayers are all homeless. So are the thousands who came from Newfoundland and Nova Scotia and Ontario and British Columbia, and the thousands more who have lived in the city for a generation or more. All were drawn by the opportunity to be part of a resource town’s story of success and prosperity as old as the country itself. If that story is flawed, it is flawed the same way it is in Yellowknife or Yarmouth or any of a thousand other resource towns in this resource-rich country. The residents of Fort McMurray are no more complicit than I am or you are in the calamity that fell upon their city. (To her credit, this was Elizabeth Kolbert’s final point.)

Fort McMurray is not a work camp, and these people’s homes were not temporary. And they are long past done being the symbolic weapons in someone else’s rhetorical war. One story you hear often from longtime Fort McMurray residents is one of a hard-won existence, of the resilience and tenacity it took to carve out an industry and a community in the face of great doubt and long odds. The resource for decades unyielding in its refusal to become a commodity, the industry marginal, perpetually on the verge of abandonment, the climate unforgiving at every turn. I suspect the city’s collective response to this tragedy will fit this narrative better than those imposed on it from afar.

Chris Turner (@theturner) published How to Breathe Underwater: Field Reports from an Age of Radical Change in 2014.


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