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Sunday, 7 August 2016

DONALD TRUMP, COLUMBINE, AND THE WHOLE MESS OF THE MODERN WORLD


I’ve been thinking about Donald Trump lately.  It’s been hard not to, what with the avalanche of commentary about his run for the presidency.  And the avalanche has mostly flowed one way: Trump is horrible, Trump is awful, a menace, a Mussolini, a Hitler.  The extremism of it all gets me going a bit.  I don’t like avalanches, though I know it’s dangerous to get in the way of one.

Not that I like Donald Trump.  He seems like a blustery buffoon, a bully, a nasty guy.  I worry even about writing that: maybe he’ll come after me; maybe he’ll say, You’re fired!  He’s not my type of person at all.  I also don’t like guns, AK-47’s, or whatever the type of gun the kids at Columbine used.  You know, the ones who shot up their school and killed I don’t know how many classmates because they’d suffered bullying there.

I was revolted by the killing, as was everyone, I’m sure, and yet now, looking back, I think: bullied kids.  What bullied kid doesn’t dream of revenge?  I was a bullied kid and I remember fantasizing about being a high judge presiding over a trial of the bulliers.  In the fantasy, perhaps oddly, I pardoned the bullies.  Not before they grovelled and apologized, but that was all I needed: go and sin no more, I said, channelling my inner Jesus or something.  An angry Jesus, but a forgiving one.

All of which is to say I can understand the impulse of the bullied to respond to their bullying.  Which brings me back to Donald Trump.  How does he fit into the scenario of bullies, the bullied, and AK-47’s?  Well, frankly, I think he’s the AK-47, the vehicle of revenge, the weapon.

Then who are the bullies and the bullied?  This the media has gone into a bit, trying to trace out the roots of Trump’s appeal.  The roots seem similar to the ones that produced the Brexit revolt in England: there’s an animus there, an anger against the ruling establishment and its support for the European Union and for the policies of political correctness, policies which some fear will threaten their livelihoods or their way of life. The roots lead us to ordinary working people, usually older, the ones who remember past days with nostalgia and view the present with trepidation.

Their opponents call them poor white trash or stupid old bigots or other unflattering terms.  And the interesting thing about who their opponents are is that they mostly seem to come from the Left.  Progressives.  The people who in the last century championed the People, the Working Class, the Proletariat.

That was often an odd alliance while it lasted: well-educated radicals calling themselves the vanguard of the proletariat when in practice the working class wanted no part of radicalism.  The true nature of things was laid out long ago in the sitcom All in the Family, which portrayed a backward working stiff (Archie Bunker) doing battle with his radical son-in-law (Meathead), who was a sort of 60’s-era hippie and certainly not a regular working guy.

I can remember the Left agonizing over this sort of thing in the past, saying the workers were suffering from “false consciousness,” and if only they recognized their true interests, they’d support liberal-left policies on everything ranging from immigration to environmentalism.  But is an environmental movement that threatens to shut down the industry you work in really in your interests?  I wonder.

So what has happened more recently is that the Left has given up all pretence of speaking for the working class.  The Left has indeed become derisive about the working class (I exaggerate, of course; I’m sure there are exceptions; there are still people who call themselves socialists; Bernie Sanders called himself a socialist – but did he focus much on working-class issues or was he talking about climate change and free university education?).

So the working class, never drawn to the Left in the first place (at least not in North America), looks elsewhere to find someone who will represent them, and they settle on … Donald Trump, who says all the things no one is allowed to say anymore and comes across as a racist and a dedicated enemy of political correctness.

As a writer, I am no friend of political correctness.  There are too many things you’re not allowed to say these days.  I know the creative spirit that inspires writing gets strangled when the rational brain says, You can’t say that.  I hear that comedians are unhappy these days for the same reason.  Which is not to say there aren’t nasty things which shouldn’t be said.  But still …

Trump taps into that, into the discontent against the forces that would turn us into careful lovers of the environment and the First Nations and minorities and women.  Feminism, aboriginal rights, climate change, the Palestinians – these are the watchwords of the Left, and more than the Left, these days, and you oppose them at your peril.  No, what you are supposed to oppose are Big Business, America, men’s rights groups, and Israel.  Oh, and of course, climate change “deniers.”  There is a ruling ideology –  some associate it with globalization –  and if you don’t join in, you can get ostracized.

But some don’t want to join in.  Some are so angry about it that they want to revolt.  And so they say no to Brexit and yes to Donald Trump.  Just like those bullied kids who pulled out guns at Columbine and started shooting – well, not exactly, of course.  I don’t meant to make an exact equation.

My point, though, is that there can be legitimate grievances and bad ways to voice them.  I hesitate to go down the path followed by those who see terrorism and say, Well, of course we can’t condone their means, but you can sympathize with their goals, with their frustrations.  Let’s explore the root causes: American foreign policy or poverty or whatever.  I’m not a big fan of that way of thinking, and besides, we’ve learned that poverty has not in fact been where most of the terrorists have come from.

People fear terrorism these days and look to their leaders to protect them or do something about the problem.  Some of the support for Trump comes from those who think the current leadership doesn’t take terrorism seriously enough, thinks climate change is more important or making sure we don’t wrongly smear a whole group for the actions of a few.

Now of course we shouldn’t do that (smear the many for the few), but when that sort of worry becomes more important than defending ourselves: well, I don’t know how we would have won World War II with that sort of emphasis.  Of course, we shouldn’t have interned Japanese-Canadians, and maybe we shouldn’t have dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but we did have to defeat Hirohito’s Japan.  Are our leaders really committed to defeating ISIS?  It’s the fear that they’re not that’s led to support for Trump’s crazy ideas about banning all Muslims.

As to where we go from here, well, clearly there are a lot of disaffected people out there.  I’ve heard their problems analyzed, when they’re not being dismissed, but is there anything that can be done to address them?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps we can’t stop schoolyard bullying either, and then we rightfully are horrified when the bullies’ victims go ballistic.


So we’re horrified with Donald Trump, but perhaps it’s time to look at some of the issues that fuelled his campaign, that have energized his supporters.  Perhaps it’s time to stop denigrating those supporters and the 52% of the British voters who supported Brexit.  Perhaps it’s time to do something for them.  And perhaps it’s time to move beyond political correctness.

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Yoga, Shlepping, and Cultural Appropriation



My first reaction to the “yoga as cultural appropriation” story out of the University of Ottawa was to say this is ridiculous. Political correctness gone mad. Not that I'm a big fan of political correctness even when it's sane. Let everyone appropriate, I thought. Let's all borrow from each other, cross-fertilize, be creative.

 But then I listened to a M├ętis woman on a CBC podcast denounce this sort of thing as oppressive, colonial, insensitive, etc. That didn't convince me. Her political framework is so different from mine that we speak two different languages that don't even connect. However, something else she said did give me pause, making me think, ironically, that she was appropriating my culture.

Early on in the podcast the CBC interviewer was asking some introductory questions just to set the background and introduce us to the speaker, who casually remarked that she'd spent the day “shlepping” around town.

Shlepping?” I thought. How dare she use the word shlepping? That's a Jewish word, my people's word.

Of course, this brought me up short, caught in an internal bind of cognitive dissonance. Here I was in theory celebrating cultural sharing and opposing the notion of cultural appropriation, thinking let's all share each other's cultures, but then when someone not of my culture suddenly used something I thought of as mine, watch out.

Isn't that hypocritical, my non-Jewish girl-friend asked me? Well, yes, I said, I suppose it is, except of course I don't like to think of myself as hypocritical, which would suggest I was violating my own principles. But maybe the principle here is simply don't take my stuff. If other people are borrowing each other's stuff, I shrug and say, Whatever. But if you take my stuff, or my people's stuff, well, that's different.

Not that I even speak Yiddish. Not that I even use “shlep” myself, or “oy vey,” or any of the expressions I heard older generations use. I grew up in a much more assimilated generation, speaking English, not Yinglish. Still, it bothers me for some reason when non-Jews say “oy vey” or “shlep.”

Some words bother me less, I think, like “shtik” or “kibitz”; maybe because they've become English. But then for the woman on that podcast, maybe “shlep” just seemed like an English word too. “Oy vey” seems a bit different. If a non-Jew uses it, I sense mockery, which may be quite unfair, but there you go.

Of course, if someone is indulging in mockery, if their intent is to ridicule in an anti-Semitic way, then that's obviously bad. But the woman on the podcast had no such intent, and yet her use of “shlep” still bothered me, even though in theory it shouldn't bother me at all if I'm being true to what I thought I believed: that we should all just share our cultures.

So where does that leave us? I don't know. I am left pondering. I checked online. People do talk about this sort of thing, I mean whether using Jewish words or wearing the Star of David is “appropriative” or appreciative. (And I guess the third possibility is offhand, without even thinking about it.) People debate it; some say non-Jews shouldn't do or say these things.

I don't like telling people not to do or say things. I'm against censorship, I'm not with the recent campaign against so-called micro-aggressions. As a writer, I find that a very dangerous path, leading to the shutdown of creativity.


And yet as the member of a group, however assimilated, I feel unsettled when someone outside the group uses the group's terminology or symbols. Perhaps it's even because I am so far from my Yiddish-speaking ancestors that I hold onto this last little distinction or marker. Perhaps. Who knows? It troubles me.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Sheldon and the Mormons

So the other day I was sitting on a bench minding my own business reading a book when two pleasant young women came up to me and the following dialogue ensued.

Pleasant Young Woman 1 (PYW 1): You look very studious.

Sheldon (looking up): Yes ...  How can I help you?

PYW 2: And even taking notes.

Sheldon: Yes.  What can I do for you?

PYW 1 and PYW 2 (in unison): We're missionaries.

"Oh," I said.  "What church?"

PYW 2: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

"Oh, the Mormons," I said.

"Yes," said one of them.  "Do you know about the Mormons?"

"There was that musical."

"Did you see it?"

"No.  The Mormons also play a central role in the first Sherlock Holmes story."

PYW 1: Really?

"Yes.  Have you read any Sherlock Holmes stories?"

PYW 1: Yes, but obviously not the first one.

Sheldon: A Study in Scarlet.

PYW 1: Is it any good?

"Oh, very good," I said, though I suddenly thought, Perhaps it doesn't portray Mormons in a very favourable light.  They won't like that.  Still, at least I was able to tell these Mormons something about themselves that they didn't know before.  Performing an act of service, you might call it.

Anyway, at this point I got up to leave, saying cheerily (I'd been cheery throughout) that I had to be on my way.

PYW 1 seemed to accept this, perhaps picking up the signals that I was not good fodder for recruitment despite my cheeriness.  PYW 2, however, persisted.

"Would you like to visit our church?" she said.  "It's right nearby."

"Thanks," I said, "but I have to be on my way."

And that was Sheldon's encounter with the Mormons.

Friday, 22 May 2015

At the Book Launch


The other evening I attended the book launch for the last book of poetry published by Elise Partridge, who died earlier this year.

Elise, with her husband Steve, was a friend of mine, and so I went, though I hardly knew anyone there, and the ones I knew I didn't really know; they were presences when I was in the English Department twenty years before, so I more knew of them than knew them firsthand, so to speak. Sometimes this was because they were profs whose courses I hadn't taken; in fact, whether I'd taken their courses or not wouldn't really matter because, well, I didn't socialize with the professors when I was a grad student.

Then there was the book launch itself, a series of readings of poems from the book, some of them very interesting, but the most interesting moment (not counting the moment when a street person tried to crash the party and steal the donations money) – the most interesting moment or reading for me was of an excerpt from something from the Museum of Natural History about how only 10% of species are even discovered before they become extinct. (I wonder how we know that, but the point is, this resonated with me, along with my feeling of knowing and not-knowing, and along with hearing Elise's poetry, so that eventually I wrote a poem of my own, and here it is:

At the Book Launch

Meeting people I used to not know
Hello, how are you, who are you again?
What are you up to now?
Not that I knew then.
In between
Where did it go?
90% of species exist without ever being known
And then they're gone.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

New Poems

Eight poems inspired by A.A. Milne:

If I were married to the Queen
I think that I would make a scene
I'd say this isn't how it's been
My enemies are all unclean
But after that I'd want to sing
If I were married to the Queen.

-----

If I had a little boy
I think I'd give to him a toy
Not a little pretty doll
That wouldn't suit him, not at all
But a toy that spins and flies around
Though it never leaves the ground
That I think would be quite sound
That indeed would be quite sound

-----

If I were a spider
And sat down beside her
Hoping perhaps I could play
I'd be quite disheartened
And not really smartened
If she were quite frightened away

-----

I wish I had an elephant and rode him to the square
I wish there were some people who said, What have you there?
I do not have an elephant, a tiger, or a drake
I only have a tiny little mouse upon a lake.

-----

A rabbit came a-wandering along a country lane
He held two gloves within his paws and wandered back again
O rabbit, I said to him, rabbit my dear,
Can you explain to us all
Why there's a fool in a stove top hat
Waiting for me in the hall?

-----

It would be nice to have some spice
Though it sadly tickles my nose
And yet I would try it once or twice
Just to see how it goes

-----

You can hear the sea if you stand quite still*
You can listen and know upon a hill
There's all of the world wrapped up in the sea
And maybe there's more of the world to see
Or maybe the world is waiting to be.

*An actual line from "Come Out with Me."
A single line of plagiary.

-----

A poet shouldn't explain his poems
For one thing it might get very long
And worse than that, he might be wrong
And anyway if he tells them through
There isn't much for others to do.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Transformational Grammar

Well, actually I know nothing about transformational grammar, except that it has something to do with Noam Chomsky, and I don't think it has anything to do with what I want to talk about, which is the transformation I have noticed in recent years in the way educated people, or at least young educated people, speak.

I work for the student society at the University of British Columbia. I don't hang out with the students, but I interact with them a fair bit. Also, my colleagues tend to be of a younger demographic, and it was one of these colleagues who first shocked me back in the late 90's when he talked about some meeting he was going to, saying: “Her and I will talk about tuition tomorrow.”

Actually, I don't remember what he said they would talk about; what I do remember is his use of “her and I.” Now, I was brought up to learn a certain sort of grammar in which subjective case was distinguished from objective case. The pronouns I, he, she, they were to be used when they were the subject of a sentence; me, him, her, them was for when these pronouns were used as objects.

Everyone still follows that distinction when there's only one subject or one object, I think. I don't think I've heard people say, “Her will talk to us about tuition tomorrow” or “Me want to go fishing.” (Well, maybe infant would-be fishermen say the latter.)

The change has happened with compound subjects and objects. I would have said, “She and I will meet about tuition” or “John and I will talk about tuition.” But now people will say “Her and I.” I confess that I hear that phrase so much that “She and I” has come to sound a tad precious to my ears, a little stuffy, like something out of a book or out of another century (which of course it is, just like me).

I think I have heard “Me and John will talk about tuition”; I hesitate I suppose because I can't believe that's what people say now, but I'm in fact pretty sure that's what university students and the others I encounter at the student society do say.

Some people would be appalled. In some moods, I'm appalled. It's the fault of the elementary schools, teaching self-esteem and creativity instead of grammar rules, they say. And maybe it is. But I'm not sure fault is the right word. The language always changes. The authors of Beowulf would have been shocked at the way we talk: you use the same word for “the” all the time? Whether it's a subject, an object, an indirect object, a plural, a masculine, or a feminine?

(Yes, Old English had masculine and feminine grammatical forms, like French. In fact, it had a neuter form too, like German, which is not that surprising, since it was German, the German dialect of those Angles and Saxons who travelled from Germany to take over Britain from King Arthur's hardy Celts. But that's another story.)

We have lost the feminine, masculine, neuter distinctions. We have lost the 16 different ways to say “the.” We have lost the distinction between subject and object for nouns; we have retained it only for pronouns (I versus me, he versus him, etc.) -- and now even that may be going.

I wonder if one day “she” will disappear, and we will only have “her.” As between “me” and “I,” that's a tougher one. Though “me” seems to be ousting “I” in “Me and John will discuss tuition,” in places where I was trained to use “me,” “I” has taken over. “That's between John and I,” people say. Or “He gave that to John and I.” There you have “I” used where traditional grammar would say you have to use the objective case (“me”).

So what do we have now (acknowledging that we may be in transition):

Traditional 20th-century grammar:
She and I will meet tomorrow.
John and I will meet tomorrow.
That's between me and John.
He gave that to me and John.

Young People's 21st-century grammar:
Her and I will meet tomorrow.
Me and John will meet tomorrow.
That's between John and I.
He gave that to John and I.

Except the last two sentences may be more common in a slightly older demographic, among people who remember being corrected for using “me” with another pronoun (“Me and John are going out to play”) and deduced that “I” is always to be used when there's another noun or pronoun.

Now I'm not sure how the younger demographic would say those last two sentences. One thing I am sure about is that pronoun cases are interchanged much more readily these days, prompting some to call for a return to the basics in the schools.

“Her and I” is not what I was taught, but I wonder if it's the way of the future, and if one day “she and I” will sound as archaic as the sixteen ways to say “the” or words like “forsooth.” The language moves in mysterious ways.



Saturday, 16 August 2014

Robin Williams and Modern Life


I made a comment on Facebook the other day about how after all of us had been feeling sad over Robin Williams, now a water bottle was trending on Downton Abbey: someone had left a modern-day water bottle in a picture for the show, and this historical inaccuracy was now the latest thing among Facebook people. It felt wrong somehow, I said.

Not that I necessarily wanted to wallow in Robin Williams stories for a week, and I especially was not interested in details of his death. His hilarious comedy routines, yes, but not how he took his life. Even that, though, I wouldn't want to go on forever. I'm not sure what I would have wanted, actually. My girl-friend said it was just the contrast that bothered me: the death of a great comic juxtaposed with an unimportant mistake on a TV show.

Perhaps. Perhaps I just wanted a little space after Robin. But space is what the modern world doesn't give us. It was bad enough in the old days, when newspapers had to fill their pages with something, anything, but now it's all the social media all the time, bringing us information, games, jokes, quizzes, whatever.

A recent book talks about how we've lost boredom. There used to be a time when people could get bored, but now there's no chance of that: now every minute is filled somehow, at work, at play, everywhere. There are emails and Tweets and Facebook posts and I don't know what.

And the thing is, I don't particularly have a solution to any of this, nor do I particularly want someone to come up with one. Another aspect of modern life, perhaps, is that we complain about it. So there it is, my complaint. Though complaint sounds too harsh a word. A sigh perhaps, just a sigh. A sigh over I don't know what. Life.

One time not so long ago, Craig Ferguson, my favourite late night talk show host (now soon to depart, alas), received an email in his email-reading segment asking about the Jonas Brothers. Whatever happened to them, the email asked? And Craig just shrugged a bit and said, “Well ...”

Time passes, things move on, the current big story gives way to the next big story (or the next trivial story), and then ... well, who knows? We are but a moment's sunshine.