Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Yes They Can: Naomi Alderman's The Power

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large, is reproduced on this site because the novel explores whether or not women, now endowed with special powers, do sometimes cross a line.



The 2017 publication of Women & Power: A Manifesto by the eminent classical scholar, Mary Beard offers a witty and caustic literary and historical overview of how women have been ridiculed, demeaned and silenced. She begins with the moment that Telemachus in The Odyssey told his mother Penelope to "shut up," go to her room and resume her own work leaving public speech to men. Eventually, Beard spotlights the moment over two millennium later when Senator Elizabeth Warren was silenced for quoting from a letter by Coretta Scott King (the widow of Martin Luther King), while others, like Bernie Sanders, were not. Beard is a particularly apt scholar to pen this manifesto considering the inflammatory vitriol that has been hurled at her for her publicly speaking about controversial issues. Beard's manifesto could be read in conjunction with Naomi Alderman's speculative-fiction novel, The Power (Little, Brown and Company, 2017) since she speculates what would happen if men were removed from their perches of power, demeaned, violated and silenced?

The Power is couched as "A historical novel" written by Neil Adam Armon. It is framed by an exchange of letters thousands of years into the future between Neil, who pleads for patronage from an address at "The Men Writers Association" and a woman called Naomi. He explains to her that he has written a novelized history after his academic studies have been ignored. Naomi’s responses, especially in the backend, are flecked with ridicule, charged with sexual innuendos, and downright condescending. Even before we read the novel within the novel, this literary conceit signals that we are entering into a vastly changed reality: the traditional schematics of sex and power are reversed with women exercising the real power while men are the disrespected other.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

We Migrants: Mohsin Hamid's Exit West

This review, originally posted in Critics at Large is reproduced here because the novel assessed is about crossing boundaries from a war zone to the West but without the moral connotations that this site  usually focuses upon.

Author Mohsin Hamid. (Photo: Ed Kashi)

Mohsin Hamid's most recent and timely novel Exit West (Riverdale Books, 2017) is set in a nameless, besieged country likely in the Middle East where Saeed and Nadia, the book’s protagonists ( and the only two characters named), meet in an evening class and embark on a courtship. Initially, they reside in "a city swollen by refugees but still mostly at peace, or at least not yet openly at war." That is soon to change as their tentative, gentle relationship contrasts with their country teetering on the lip of a precipice as it disintegrates into war.

In the first half of this remarkable novel, Hamid charts their growing relationship amid the backdrop of a city spiralling out of control, requiring the young lovers to leave. Although the graphic details he provides feel authentic, Exit West is not a "realistic" novel à la Jenny Erpenbeck's Go, Went, Gone. There is an abstract quality about the vagueness of its setting, its characters, and its narrative that Hamid renders in exquisite prose with occasionally longish, orotund sentences. He is primarily focused on highlighting the universality of societies at war with themselves and how civilians respond to the chaos closing in on them.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

Delectable Samples: A 2017 Arts Roundup

This review, originally appeared in Critics at Large, and is reproduced on this site because although some of the following material is not about crossing a line, some of it is.

Robert Lepage in 887.

Since I rarely write about the arts, I welcome the opportunity to briefly comment upon what I enjoyed most this year, even though several of the pieces below have been reviewed by colleagues at Critics At Large. Apart from, perhaps, television, my sampling from the arts scene is relatively small yet I did experience some wonderful aesthetic moments. – Bob Douglas

Two theatre productions I attended this year were outstanding. Auteur Robert Lepage’s one-man bravura performance in 887 unspools the interplay between the fragmented recollections of his family life and the perils of collective Quebec memory from the 1960s to the present. 887 was the number of the apartment building on Murray Avenue in Quebec City where Lepage spent his formative years. The staging is jaw-dropping: a revolving set showing the interior of his current apartment and the exterior of his childhood home that reveals a doll’s-house replica of that apartment complex, toy cars, puppets and hand shadows. The catalyst for these reveries occurred in 2010 when the organizers of a cultural anniversary invited Lepage to recite by heart a 1968 poem, “Speak White.” He found that he could not learn the lines until he had explored his family history, particularly his relationship with his absent father, and how the personal dynamics intersected with the larger world of nationalist politics. 

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A Marriage of Drama and History: The Crown

The following television review originally appeared in Critics at Large and is reproduced on this site because some of the material  does explore the consequences of crossing the line both in historical and aesthetic terms.

Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II with Matt Smith as Prince Philip in The Crown.

The elements of good drama based on real people – believable three-dimensional characters, conflict, and an engrossing plot – often do not make good history. Historians and biographers must sift through documents and interviews with people who knew the subjects and fashion a portrait that adheres to the record. They may speculate, but speculations must be grounded in an evidentiary base. Screenwriters and directors have more creative freedom to imagine what might have been, to reassemble chronology, and to create dialogue and motives for their characters as long as they are plausible. Based on my viewing of two seasons of The Crown (on Netflix) that covers the 1950s and early 1960s, I would argue that a smooth synthesis of history and drama has been achieved.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Changing the Anti-democratic Dial: Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny

This review, originally published in Critics at Large is reproduced on this site because the On Tyranny offers helpful thoughts on how citizens can avoid crossing the line into darkness and becoming complicious with a president that has no clue that there is a line.

Historian Timothy Snyder speaking in 2016.

"Americans today are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism in the twentieth century. Our one advantage is that we might learn from their experience. Now is a good time to do so."

“To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle.”

“Post-truth is pre-fascism.”
 Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny.

Recently, I was fortunate to hear in Toronto a stimulating talk by distinguished Yale historian, Timothy Snyder, author of acclaimed monographs Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and StalinBlack Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning and his latest, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (Tim Duggan Books, 2017). His talk was followed by a Q&A with CBC correspondent, Susan Ormiston. It turned out that his presentation was more an expansion of the epilogue in On Tyranny that explores two paradigms leading to worldviews that founder on an insufficient knowledge of history, while the interview with Ormiston directly related to the lessons Snyder posits in that slim (a mere 126 pages) but substantive volume.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

The Grammar of Refuge: Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone

This review that originally appeared in Critics at Large is reproduced here because the author through her central protagonist  does not cross that line of darkness and descend into bigotry and xenophobia.

Author Jenny Erpenbeck.

“It is accounted a sin to turn any man away from your door.”
– Tacitus, quoted by a character in Go, Went, Gone.

As I write, German politics is on the cusp of a political crisis. Angela Merkel has provided a beacon of stability and pragmatism, if not vision and eloquence, for the last dozen years in governing the economic powerhouse of the European Community. Earlier this autumn, her centrist Christian Democrats lost sixty-five seats in the Reichstag while the extreme far-right party, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), gained ninety-four seats – with thirteen percent of the vote – primarily in the former GDR. The AfD, which chillingly speaks about the Volk that evokes a dark period in German history, capitalized on voter fear of immigrants after Merkel allowed over one million migrants in 2015-16 to enter Germany, even though the people who voted for AfD were relatively untouched by the flow of refugees. Merkel’s inability so far to forge a coalition that sidelines the AfD may result in Germans heading back to the polls – perhaps giving that xenophobic, anti-Islam party more seats.

In this dispiriting time, a tonic that I would offer is the originally fresh novels of Jenny Erpenbeck, The Visitation, End of Days and the latest in her loose trilogy, the extraordinary and timely Go, Went, Gone (New Directions, 2017, translated by Susan Bernofsky). Erpenbeck, who was born and grew up in the former East Berlin, is attuned to the turbulence of German history in the twentieth century. The Visitation narrates that history through the lives of the successive inhabitants of a grand house by a lake who end up being dislodged because the changing political environment renders their continued presence dangerously precarious, a novel reminiscent of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room. End of Days is a cleverly constructed novel that spans a century from Galicia at the turn of the twentieth century to the united Federal Republic of Germany that is perhaps refracted through the long life of one woman. I say “perhaps” because Erpenbeck repeatedly kills her off then revives her, the first time just after her birth by slightly changing the circumstances that led to her death, later as a desperate teenager who commits suicide, then as a middle-aged victim of a Stalinist purge.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Later Life Learning: Week Ten: Responses to Populism


"The greatest threat to liberal democracies does not come from immigrants and refugees but from the backlash against them by those on the inside who exploit fears of outsiders to chip away at the values and institutions that make our societies liberal."

Sasha Polakov-Suransky, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, 2017

"Populists in power tend to undermine countervailing powers which are the courts, which are the media, which are other parties."

Cas Mudde, Populism: A Very Short Introduction, 2017


"In  the CBC program The Fifth Estate in March, Trump is shown as a bellowing demagogue, a purveyor of personal insults and a panderer to his supporters by reviling Mexicans and Muslims as the racial other. The former are equated with rapists and drug dealers, and the latter are associated with terrorists. Trump's bumptious vitriol even suggests that the vast majority of American Muslims are complicit to the acts perpetrated by a tiny number when he says,"they know where the bad ones are." His simplistic solutions to these hot-button issues are bombastic promises to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, calling for a ban on Muslims entering America and rounding up and deporting eleven million undocumented immigrants. That he has retained a raucous and unthinking cohort of loyal supporters is evidence that he has tapped into an existing cache of psychosis and he’s exploiting it for political gain. Todd Gitlin has perceptively written: “the dog whistles have been superseded. What we hear now is the raw thing itself, the old-time irreligion, the rock-bottom roar of a sewage stream that always lay beneath the surface but now has erupted.” More recently, Trump has tried to equate immigration in general and free trade with fear of both homegrown terror and the new global economy. What this rank demagogue has made unambiguously clear is that he will transgress any boundary of decency or truth to win power."


From an essay I wrote "Through the Mirror Darkly: The Gothic Dimension of the 2016 Presidential Election

Selection from "It’s not just Trump. Authoritarian populism is rising across the West. Here’s why."

By Pippa Norris, March 11, 2016 Washington Post
We’re seeing a deep and strong a cultural backlash against changes in social values
Here’s why. Populist authoritarianism can best be explained as a cultural backlash in Western societies against long-term, ongoing social change.
Over recent decades, the World Values Survey shows that Western societies have been getting gradually more liberal on many social issues, especially among the younger generation and well-educated middle class. That includes egalitarian attitudes toward sex roles, tolerance of fluid gender identities and LGBT rights, support for same-sex marriage, tolerance of diversity, and more secular values, as well as what political scientists call emancipative values, engagement in directly assertive forms of democratic participation, and cosmopolitan support for agencies of global governance.
This long-term generational shift threatens many traditionalists’ cultural values. Less educated and older citizens fear becoming marginalized and left behind within their own countries.
In the United States, evidence from the World Values Survey perfectly illustrates the education gap in these types of cultural values. Well before Trump, a substantial and striking education gap can be observed in American approval of authoritarian leaders. The WVS asked whether Americans approved of “having a strong leader who doesn’t have to bother with congress or elections.” The figure below shows a consistent education gap and growing support for this statement since 2005.
Most remarkably, by the most recent wave in 2011, almost half — 44 percent — of U.S. non-college graduates approved of having a strong leader unchecked by elections and Congress.
This deeply disturbing finding reflects attitudes usually observed in states such as Russia.


A powerful oped in The New York Times about public ignorance 
that  explains why a large percentage of people do have the tools to distinguish truth from falsehood. 

Screenshot from Experimenter
In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted the "obedience experiments" at Yale University. The experiments observed the responses of ordinary people asked to send harmful electrical shocks to a stranger. Despite pleadings from the person they were shocking, 65 percent of subjects obeyed commands from a lab-coated authority figure to deliver potentially fatal currents. With Adolf Eichmann's trial airing in living rooms across America, Milgram's Kafkaesque results hit a nerve, and he was accused of being a deceptive, manipulative monster. EXPERIMENTER invites us inside Milgram's whirring mind, beginning with his obedience research and wending a path to uncover how inner obsessions and the times in which he lived shaped a parade of human behavior inquiries.



In Could It Happen Here?, Environics founder Michael Adams digs into this spirit of "Canadian exceptionalism." For Adams, the election of Trump and the Britain's shocking vote to leave the European Union aren't mere flukes of "xenophobic populism." Rather, they constitute a "vertiginous global reordering" unseen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. By analyzing decades of Environics public polling and research data sets, Adams sets out to investigate just how immunized Canadians really are from "the malaise affecting other Western democracies." It takes him just 67 pages.

After indexing recent instances of violent Islamophobia (such as the massacre at a Quebec City mosque in January) and the marshalling of anti-immigrant sentiment by Canadian politicians copping Trumpist rhetoric (see former Conservative leadership boogeywoman Kellie Leitch), Adams wonders if such occurrences constitute "evidence of a real shift in social values in Canada?"

"The answer," he says, "is 'no.' " And his data prove it. Generation after generation, more Canadians embrace equality and immigration. Canadians have become increasingly tolerant, not only relative to our American neighbours but to previous Canadians. Canadians statistically prefer compromise, where Americans err toward hardline partisanship. The numbers show that "Canadians and their governments have managed, over a period of decades, to prevent or mitigate the accumulation of corrosive social forces that finally surfaced angrily in the populist politics of the Trump/Brexit era."

For anyone who is complacent about  Canada's tolerance should read oped in the Globe and Mail about the election of Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi

 With shocking evidence, hilarious anecdotes, heart-wrenching personal stories, and brilliant insights into world events, Dr. Shafique Virani urges us to confront the Clash of Ignorance between the West and the Muslim World, replacing walls of misinformation with bridges of understanding. Appealing to the best in human nature, Dr. Virani presents a visionary path forward, and inspires hope for a better future.