“The Walrus” at Sea

The December edition of Canada’s only magazine of ideas, The Walrus, is disappointing for its multiple examples of ‘masculine blindness’. This month editor-in-chief Jonathan Kay is glad his privilege allows him to eschew introspection for video game playing, journalist Russell Wangersky laments the “24/7 drip, drip, drip of a thousand different toxins flowing continually  into my newspaper’s well of ideas” from online anonymous commentators without once acknowledging that women get far more, far worse than men. It was his comment that he was once threatened with a rock through his window that got me. Does he not know that women with public voices get daily onslaughts of rape and death threats?

Then there were the memoirs, two of them. I love memoir. It’s my favourite form of literature and I’ve studied it in all forms and permutations. Memoir, as others have said before me, is open to the charge of self-involvement and narcissism. Who, after all, thinks their own life is interesting and important enough to write about? The best thing about memoir is the way it overcomes this. The single most important quality of memoir is the introspection of the author-as- narrator. It’s through that introspection, the self-questioning, that readers can glimpse into the heart and mind of another human being. The details of memoir can be foreign to many readers, but the quest for meaning that occupies the introspecting narrator is universal.

In this case, both memoirs were written by men, white men. Privileged male voices occupy too many of The Walrus’s pages. But there is a difference in degree when the subject is the self, rather than some aspect of life outside the self.

In The Roughneck Diaries, Don Gillmor recounts his experiences as a young man when he divided his time between studying literature at university and working as a roughneck on the oil patch. He tells several anecdotes about the hardship of life as a roughneck and eventually decides the dangers are too great. That’s it. End of story. So what? How can I relate to this? How can a young immigrant, a woman, a disabled person, relate? We can’t relate to the details. What we can relate to is the meaning the author/narrator makes of it. Gillmor doesn’t go there.

Where he does go, though, is into portraits of prairie oil patch workers and support staff. He describes the driller who was “mean as a snake” and enjoyed destroying farm crops for the sheer perversity of it. There is a doctor who was “cinematically drunk” and whose medical care should have been grounds for lawsuit. There are all the workers who get drunk before they start their shifts and drunker when they finish. There is not a decent, thoughtful human being anywhere in sight.

Gillmor makes no attempt to understand these men, who are stuck in their lives of backbreaking physical labour without access to ‘the finer things’ that the author cherishes and will return to. His lack of empathy is most evident in his description of the woman who fell asleep at the wheel, sending both of them to hospital. The narrator wasn’t badly hurt, but the female co-worker spent a week in hospital. Gillmor expresses no compassion whatsoever.

I can’t imagine that Albertans reading this article feel anything but resentment at being so callously denigrated. As for me, I consider longingly how much the author could have said about masculinity at that time in his life when he stood between two modes of masculinity, sampling each. And what he could have said about privilege, when he was surrounded by men without it. And what he could have said about the erosion of humanity in the lives of men without options.

Without any of that, this memoir emits the sour perfume of entitlement and superiority.

But I’ve left the worst memoir for last. I don’t actually believe that Richard Kelly Kemick’s Playing God is memoir. I think it’s fiction. The premise is too good. I can just imagine a creative writing teacher giving the prompt – think of the weirdest thing that a man could collect and make up a story about a man who collects it.

This is not sufficient reason, of course, to call the author a liar.What makes the case more compelling is that the author-as-narrator is a poseur. Throughout the story, the narrator postures. This is the antithesis of memoir, where the honesty that comes from self-questioning is essential.

I don’t like the narrator. He verges on the sociopathic. I wouldn’t want to meet him. And nowhere does he give a reader any reason to care about him.

What I especially don’t like about him is his total lack of empathy for anyone, his self-involvement and his striking misogyny. All three are evident in his admission that he’s been selling his wife’s clothing to pay for his hobby, collecting figures for his Christmas village. An honest narrator might confess to feelings of guilt, but Kemick is gleeful that he got “a whole $23 dollars” for one of her tops.

No introspection there.

His misogyny forces itself onto readers most bluntly when he says of his relationship with his wife, “it had been just one month since I’d stopped getting the milk for free”. Is this meant to be a joke? Are we supposed to laugh? It’s been a few decades since people have found misogynistic jokes about ‘the wife’ funny, hasn’t it?

Before this comment, Kemick has treated us to his view of his mother. He thinks she likes his Christmas village, in part because “the woman is insufferably supportive of everything I do”. Well, I guess we need to excuse her for caring about him. And “the woman”? Who refers to their mother as “the woman”? It turns out though that the narrator suspects his mother of taking over his village for herself, and believes she completely misunderstands him. He was forced to listen to her “confuse my post office and library, gloss over my recreation area, and completely fuck up my all-embracing vision”. Poor thing, his mother doesn’t understand him.

And lastly, when an elderly woman buys a piece that he can’t afford, he says “I say a small prayer for the elderly woman: I ask that the distillery turn her village into Sodom and Gomorrah and that her smiling citizens, hopped up on liquor and lust, eat one another.” Right, nice guy, eh?

The narrator then goes into a litany of all the horrible village gifts he’s received over the years, from people who wish to give him thoughtful gifts, of course, pieces for his obsession. They’re all wrong. This is not a man who ever says ‘it’s the thought that counts’. This is a man who says “village gifts are kind gestures offered by those who have no fucking clue.” Kemick is a child-man who offers nothing of himself to others and then complains that they don’t understand him.

At a couple of points I thought the memoir might transcend the narrator’s whining. He says of his flawed village “Mine is a city that understands the true weight of mortality – its fleeting and fragile nature – and has grown accustomed to closed-casket funerals. Mine is a city that embraces the true spirit of Christmas only because its citizens so desperately need a holiday from the lifelong process of dying.” That’s good! Unfortunately the narrator doesn’t actually display any compassion for real people.

His entrapment in isolation is most revealed in his final comments. He and his wife are thinking of having a child, and he’s afraid that he’ll be “heartbroken when Litia loves this new thing more than she loves me.” The only insight he has into himself is that he will observe his wife and child from the trap of his own fears. Okay. He has revealed his core vulnerability.

But he ends the story by backtracking away from that insight, that honesty. He plugs the whole village in and “Here I am, surrounded by my city and its inhabitants, feeling like a god. And I bless them, every one.”

Judgmentalism and blame don’t belong in memoir. What we love about memoir is that we can see someone overcome the wrongs done to them by others, or the harm done by circumstance. This involves taking personal responsibility, not for the harm that has been done, but for the healing that must follow.

That The Walrus has included one memoir without the qualities of introspection, honesty and personal responsibility could be a mistake. That is has included two in one edition points to editorial blindness.

The Walrus was started to bring something like Harper’s and The Atlantic  to Canada. In fact the original idea was a partnership with Harper’s. Look at what has happened to that magazine in the last 12 years. One has only to look at “Easy Chair” to see the single biggest difference between a world-class magazine of ideas and The Walrus. Rebecca Solnit.

“The Time has come to speak of many things,” says the walrus. Yes, but  men need to stop speaking all the time and listen. The masculine view, by itself, is just too limited.

Pop Goes the Bomb Vest

Kill a Shia, kill a Sunni
Kill a human being
Kill a Muslim, kill a Christian
Kill a human being
Kill a Hindu, kill a Jew
It’s still a human being
Kill a Sikh, then kill a Buddhist
POP(1) likes it when we kill each other
POP likes it when we blow ourselves to bits.

Kill a gay boy, kill a dyke
Kill a human being
Kill a white girl, kill a black boy
It’s still a human being
POP likes it when we kill each other
POP likes it when we blow ourselves to bits.
POP says it’s POP-IN-THE-SKY(2)
POP-IN-THE-SKY
POP-IN-THE-SKY
Who wants us all to die.

It’s money folks,
The rest is a shell game
POP wins it all
When we blow ourselves to bits.

1 POP refers to People-of-Power: usually men, but sometimes women, who are at the top of the patriarchal power poles, globally and regionally. I’ve written more about them here.
2 POP-IN-THE-SKY refers to a patriarchal conception of a masculine all-powerful deity who very much resembles POP. “He” craves power and control. POP invokes POP-IN-THE-SKY to justify his grabs for power, wealth and control (and concubines of course).

Meanderings in response to “Nonzero: the logic of human destiny”

This blog is meant to be a place for me to speculate and hypothesize. I’m trying, as I have for most of my life, to figure out the meaning of life. I do not necessarily assume that there is one. Science has not yet determined whether life is meaningful by any criteria, so speculation – by anyone — seems perfectly reasonable.

I’ve been reading a lot of history in the last few years in an attempt to find answers, or at least to find the context for what it is to be human here and now. I continually run into a problem. Many history books give the impression that whole countries were populated exclusively by men for hundreds of years. I’ve read books of five hundred pages with not a mention of woman. Really, I’m not kidding.

Writing about humanity without mentioning women seems to me to be like examining bipedal motion by studying only the left foot, photographing or videotaping only the left foot. Your idea of human motion would be completely skewed, wouldn’t it?

So I’ve become more and more frustrated by history texts. Yes, history is written by the winners, but there never was any battle between men and women, women weren’t excised from the historical record; women are ghosts, invisible for the most part, silent all the time. We seem to have no more relevance to whatever historians consider important than the pigs or cows penned behind the houses of the men.

So I was really excited when I came across Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. The blurbs on the inside cover approached hyperbole. It promised to give me a complete overview of the totality of human history. Oh joy.

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In the first paragraph Wright states his thesis, that there is “direction in human history.” He believes in cultural evolution and so goes against the recent trend against such beliefs. Anthropologists of the early twentieth century had finally clued in to the fact that their predecessors, cultural Darwinians, were biased by virtue of being winners: “In placing western cultures atop a universal ladder of progress, they seemed merely the academic expression of an already too-common European supremacism.”

Imagine my surprise when, a few pages in, I discovered Nonzero was not a history of humanity, or a history of civilization, but a history of patriarchy (which is only one kind of civilization). Wright does with gender what Darwinians did with western culture. He speaks from the isolation of the smallest quadrant of humanity – the priviledged male.

Men can’t tell the difference between patriarchy and culture, any more than they can tell the difference between men and human, unfortunately. (Neither can a lot of women.) If you need a illustration of the difference, think about the difference between a basket of fruit and a basket of peaches. A lot of misperception occurs when people describe generalities instead of specifics, and a lot of dishonesty hides through the willful description of generality rather than specific.

Early in the book Wright makes some claims about human nature. Humans pursue status, he says, “with a certain ferocity.” We try to raise our standing by impressing peers, we suck up to people of higher status, we curry their favour. This is because “human beings evolved amid social hierarchies. ”

First of all, we have not evolved amid “social hierarchies”. We have evolved within patriarchies. Again this is a certain kind of hierarchy, the kind where status, power and wealth are given importance by the men in a society run by men.

I don’t think the ferocious quest for status would occupy such a high place in the description of humanity if women were the humans being examined. Throughout the long history of humanity a woman’s day would begin with clasping a baby to the breast, feeding multiple people according to need only, helping other humans give birth, tending to sickness and woundedness. If that’s what an anthropologist saw when looking at humans and human societies, she would first of all describe humans as deeply and ferociously cooperative.

This book is written from within the blindness of masculine conditioning. Let me jump to the back of the book to show you an example. The author refers to a study by a psychologist who “used boys in a summer camp (unbeknownst to them) to study human nature.” This sentence is written without irony, as if a) boys and humans are the same thing and b) boys are natural creatures rather than man-made creations.

This study was done decades ago, so one may wish to forgive the ignorance of the time, but Wright reproduces it in this book, published in 2000. By that year any thinking person knew that gender was conditioned, that most humans live in patriarchal societies, and thus that boys will reproduce the patriarchal teachings they’ve imbibed consciously and unconsciously. They are mirrors of their society; when they live in a phallocentric patriarchy, they will give useful information only about patriarchy and its impact on males. Boys alone can tell us nothing about human nature except its capacity for imitation.

If you want to find out something about humanity, you need to examine males by themselves, females by themselves, and both in interaction. That at least would give you a chance of finding out something. But men refuse to identify themselves as men. I’ve written about that here. They insist on identifying themselves simply as human, using words like “mankind” (which was meant to refer to the totality of humankind, but didn’t really), and later “humanity” or “humankind” (which at least acknowledges that there are humans other than men.) “Man” and “human” are not the same thing. One is a subcategory of the other. How hard is that to understand?

I’m sure men do understand it; they use the larger category in an attempt to hide their crimes. It’s human nature, they want to say, not specifically male behavior. I’ve just come across an example of this in the only intellectual magazine in Canada. And I have to say I find it devastating that any man can say what the editor-in-chief of The Walrus magazine just said. He was speaking about white male priviledge:

As a writer and public speaker living in a liberal democratic society, I absolutely take it for granted that when I speak on TV or write a column in a magazine or on a website, I speak for myself, and only myself. I don’t speak for white people. Or for men. Or for middle-aged people. Or Jews. Or lapsed conservatives. If I wake up feeling funny, or mischievous, or sanctimonious, I can be funny, or mischievous, or sanctimonious in what I say or write. For good or ill, it’s all on me, and only me.

There it is. A man thinks he speaks for himself only. For forty or more years feminist scholars of all disciplines – anthropology, sociology, gender studies, literary criticism, philosophy – have been telling men that when they speak, their discourse is steeped in their masculinity. They speak as socially-constructed men, not as individuals, not as default humans. And here he is, an educated public intellectual, who has heard none of it.

At first when I read those words, I thought he had mispoken. I thought he meant that masculine priviledge allows him to pretend that he speaks for himself only, not as a representative of masculinity. That in fact is what masculine priviledge allows. But no, Jonathan Kays actually believes he speaks as himself only and that “identity politics” (as he refers to the demands by women and people of colour that they be allowed to speak in public) plays no role at all in his speech. As if “masculinity” does not affect identity.

It’s enough to make a person give up. However, I will post more responses to Wright’s book in future posts. Stay tuned.