Letters

April 2007

Our Story Begins . . .
I greatly enjoyed Don Gillmor’s piece on the Liberal convention (“Once Upon a Country,” February). The writing quality and narrative sweep were both tremendous. They reminded me of the best work of Christina McCall and Ron Graham, whose perspectives on Canadian national politics probably did more than anything to attract me to working as a strategist. If, in twenty-five years, some backroomer says, “I got into this when I read a piece about the Liberals’ 2006 convention,” blame Don Gillmor.

Your cover and subhead “Have the Liberals found their Captain Canuck? ” invoked Richard Comely’s short-lived, independently released Captain Canuck comic book, first published in 1975. If I recall correctly, Captain Canuck was set in 1993, amid an opec-embargo-style oil crisis that has made resource-rich Canada a kind of superpower. Now, this all sounds somewhat like Stephen Harper’s current “energy superpower” narrative, which Gillmor followed up on assiduously throughout the piece. Yet The Walrus’s Captain Canuck cover visual was never linked to Gillmor’s musings about Harper’s energy vision. Was this a thread that Gillmor chased but got edited out of the piece? Or am I alone here, conflating my preadolescent memories with later ones fuelled by McCall, Graham, et al.?

Most importantly, did Stephen Harper read Captain Canuck when he was a kid in Etobicoke?

John Duffy
Toronto, Ontario

Ken Alexander responds:
While I’m not privy to the details of Stephen Harper’s childhood reading habits, it wouldn’t surprise me if his vision of Canada as a global energy superpower was inspired by
Captain Canuck. After all, his ideological bedfellow, Mike Harris, has been influenced by some rather peculiar graphic reading material (e.g., Mr. Silly). As for the Captain Canuck cover image, that was a choice made by the magazine alone. It played no part in Don Gillmor’s trip through “the streets of the Liberal imagination.” Rather, it is the accompanying art inside and its reference to the existential Canadian “everyman” that elucidates the narrative.

Back to the Drawing Board
Larry Krotz (“Separate and Unequal,” February) paints an unflattering portrait of the native-run reserve-school system, suggesting that “without a change of course, there will be no real resolution to the problems faced by aboriginal people in this country.” With thirty-nine years of experience in aboriginal communities across Canada, allow me to present a case study at least as compelling as the school at Peepeekisis in Saskatchewan where, Krotz says, “underneath optimistic impulses . . . there is unease.”

Eel Ground School is a national leader in incorporating technology into education. We are one of the first schools in Canada to have computerized whiteboards in all of our classrooms. Our students have been trained in web design, Photoshop, and Flash. Among the school’s extracurricular activities are a media club, currently working with Apple’s GarageBand; a radio club, which broadcasts weekly on the Miramichi radio station cfan; and a podcasting club.

When we were named one of Canada’s most innovative schools by Allan Rock, the former industry minister, in 2003, elders expressed concern that phasing technology into the schools would undermine traditional aboriginal culture. It has been our mission to prevent this from happening. Last year, we brought an elder into the school for a month to talk to students about the importance of legends. The videos the children created to depict different legends are posted on our website and have been broadcast on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. It is perhaps also worth mentioning that seven of our ten teachers and two of three teaching assistants are First Nation. We are proud of our Mi’kmaq culture and promote it as much as possible.

Through the combined efforts of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, Atlantic Canada’s First Nation Help Desk, Chief George Ginnish, former chief Roger Augustine, and our school’s administrators and educators, we have tripled our enrolment since the school opened in 1979. If aboriginal schools were to be eliminated, which is what Krotz seems to be proposing, we could lose many of those people whose vision and hard work have set the stage for the success our children are experiencing.

Peter MacDonald
Principal, Eel Ground School
Eel Ground, New Brunswick

Sleep Tight
As a former soldier, long-time war correspondent, and survivor of a hostagetaking in Iraq, I was intrigued to read about the Canadian Forces’ attempts to prepare journalists for an embedded experience (“Good To Go,” February). It would seem from Semi Chellas’s description that the four-day training exercise is mainly intended to frighten would-be correspondents into submission. Case in point: course leader Warrant Officer Mark Cushman tells his students, “If the Taliban get you, there’s no negotiating. You’ll probably just end up on Al Jazeera.”

Such fearmongering runs counter to the fact that the vast majority of Western journalists taken hostage in both Afghanistan and Iraq have been released alive after successful negotiations. And yet, instead of advising the students to study the local culture and language beforehand through research and the development of personal relationships with the Afghan-Canadian community, the military simply presents unembedded journalism as untenable.

I’m reassured that at least one reporter, during a lesson on how to avoid Stockholm Syndrome (the affinity that hostages can begin to feel for their captors), noted the potential for a similar phenomenon to develop between journalists and their military hosts. Thankfully, military-sponsored courses are not yet mandatory for journalists who want to cover war zones.

Scott Taylor
Publisher,
Esprit de Corps
Ottawa, Ontario

ids and Egos
“The Other Side of Darkness” (February) is John Bentley Mays’s passionate call for progressive architecture, and who can argue with that? Praising feats of architectural gymnastics, however, comes at the expense of identifying other criteria for truly progressive building design.

In a poignant essay published in the New Yorker days after 9/11, Susan Sontag condemned the Bush administration and the media’s “campaign to infantilize the public” by propagating rhetoric asserting that “the [country’s] spirit is unbroken.” “Let’s by all means grieve together. But let’s not be stupid together,” she concluded. When Mays writes that the Innovative Design Study (ids) designs for the World Trade Center site reflect “the outstanding determination of New York and the United States to rebound,” he seems to be promoting such mind-numbing rhetoric as a basis upon which to evaluate post-wtc proposals. In fact, this kind of statement represents the blinding bravado that precipitated 9/11. It is antithetical to any serious discussion about progressive architecture.

Progressive architecture is more than nifty aesthetics. It involves sophisticated engineering, material experimentation, and the negotiation of myriad social relationships. The World Trade Center, for example, wasn’t attacked because of how it looked, but because it was the ultimate social, political, and economic icon of America. Imagine applying Mays’s florid descriptions of the wtc site proposals (“a diaphanous wisp of architectural fabric,” “fin-de-siècle delicacy,” “romantically eccentric,” “intellectually aristocratic,” “exuberant” ) to the wtc itself. Sort of misses the point, doesn’t it? One way to assess the progressiveness of architecture is in terms of its “performance,” — that is, its ability to serve intended functions (or to adapt) over time, its novel use of material resources and inhabited spaces, its role within urban infrastructure, and its ability to transform space in a meaningful way. Performance emerges from original, intelligent responses to realworld challenges.

Mays’s claim notwithstanding, a “Manhattan street grid . . . lifted from where it lies into vertical position” doesn’t constitute a “mindful response” to its site. It might be an example of the tendency of “American skyscrapers . . . to exhibit ever-greater democratic openness at the base” (a generalization that bewilders me, since Mussolini also commissioned many open, glassy buildings, and, closer to home, there are restrictions on almost everything at street level), but that doesn’t necessarily make it progressive. Greenery on a wide median with a bench and lots of natural light could be more mindful, democratic, and progressive than a deluxe skyscraper; it just depends.

As a practising architect, I crave creative licence, but not at the expense of responsible, humane values. It’s misleading and dangerous to suggest that an evaluation of architecture should begin with “. . . and how cool is this?”

Paul duBellet Kariouk
Ottawa, Ontario

Cut on the Bias
Marni Jackson’s “Veils for Western Women” (February) is a masterful exposé of what could go wrong if certain floodgates were forced open under pressure from decadent freethinkers in virtual unreality. However, instead of trying to adapt to the dictates of designer- degenerates who excel only at creating one-legged pantsuits for equestriennes, aquanettes, astronettes, and other fashionistas at sky’s-the-limit prices, may I suggest some less expensive alternatives?

For the woman who wishes to present herself as a surprise birthday package without exposing any skin, the drag-along-a-ruggabugga is available from any discount carpet store. She can roll herself up in it and be shipped anywhere in the country for pennies a kilogram per kilometre, plus tax. If the thought of going to the mall to purchase basic necessities sends shivers up and down her spine, she can be secure in the knowledge that no one north of the American border pays the slightest bit of attention to a moving carpet, no matter how fast it’s going.

The woman who has no desire to leave the kitchen unless overwhelmed by the powerful urge to purchase chocolate- covered dates stuffed with honey-roasted almonds (and there are plenty of those) can always dip herself in a bag of flour, then a dozen whipped eggs, and lastly a tub of buttered bread crumbs, until all traces of her humanity have been erased. And if $15 is not in the budget, or if that’s just too messy, she can always dive under the stack of used tires piled up in the corner of the garage and wear them coiled around every inch of her body. Believe me, someone dressed up like the Michelin Man simply does not stand out in a crowd, especially in Toronto.

There is more than one way to skin a cat.

Irene Hodgson
Toronto, Ontario

The Pleasure Principle
Christine Sismondo’s “The Virtue In Vice” (January) discusses several books that “challenge our current, overly simplistic notions of virtue and vice.” Unfortunately, Sismondo makes careless use of overly simplistic notions of Aristotle’s ethics of virtue in the construction of her argument.

First, when she remarks that Aristotle’s “doctrine of the golden mean will come as a surprise to those who preach abstinence to teenagers,” she incorrectly assumes that every human activity is characterized by a “golden mean” between “excess” and “defect.” In Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that some actions “have names that already imply badness, e.g., spite, shamelessness, envy, and in the case of actions adultery, theft, murder; for all of these and suchlike things imply by their names that they are themselves bad, and not the excesses or deficiencies of them.” Aristotle could not have been clearer in saying that, with respect to certain activities, abstinence — and only abstinence — aligns with virtue.

In her later discussion of Theodore Dalrymple’s Romancing Opiates, Sismondo seems to support the author’s portrayal of heroin addiction as something almost to be admired because it “requires a sustained effort.” Sismondo assumes — again, incorrectly — that every habit-forming activity cultivates a kind of virtue. While Aristotle teaches that cultivation of moral excellence requires habitual action (i.e., habitually choosing the right actions for the right reasons in a variety of circumstances), it does not follow that all habit-forming activities cultivate virtue. Aristotle would have us ask whether that activity promotes the capacity to choose one’s actions in accord with reason. It seems plausible that heroin addiction would, over time, undermine the addict’s ability to make reasonable choices.

Finally, Sismondo describes Dalrymple and other reviewed authors as “men who would defend the notion that pleasure for its own sake is, as Aristotle would say, a worthy end in and of itself.” In fact, Aristotle points out (once again in Nichomachean Ethics) that pleasure itself cannot serve as a criterion for choosing actions that cultivate virtue: “It is on account of the pleasure that we do bad things, and on account of the pain that we abstain from noble ones.” The cultivation of moral excellence requires that we learn to take pleasure and pain in the appropriate activities.

Darrin W. Snyder Belousek
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Philosophy
Bethel College
Mishawaka, Indiana

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