Spin control: Mark Bourrie’s new book on muzzling scientists, manipulating media, and stamping out dissent in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa

March 4, 2015 by · 3 Comments 

Kill_the_Messengers_Mark_BourrieFor anyone interested in the federal Conservatives’ preferred method of getting unpopular legislation through the court of public opinion, Bill C-13 is instructive. The Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act received Royal Assent on December 9, 2014, though its passage was not without hiccups. Sparked by uproar over the heinous cyberbullying that led to the deaths of teenagers Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd, the bill sought to stiffen penalties for crimes such as non-consensual distribution of sexually explicit images, child pornography, and so-called revenge porn.

Fair enough.

But, bundled in with those laudable goals were a whole raft of other changes to the Criminal Code that will, in aggregate, have the effect of eroding citizens’ privacy by, in part, allowing police to request that internet service providers voluntarily hand over user information without having to secure a warrant or any kind of judicial approval.

Some of the opposition to the bill was predictable. University of Ottawa professor Michael Geist appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs last November; Geist pointed out that the Supreme Court’s Spencer decision had likely already rendered parts of Bill C-13 unconstitutional even before it had become law. Secondly, Geist suggested that the provision for voluntary disclosure of user data has dangerous implications for privacy and the expansion of state surveillance powers: “The provision unquestionably increases the likelihood of voluntary disclosures at the very time that Canadians and the courts are increasingly concerned with such activity. Moreover, it does so with no reporting requirements, oversight, or transparency.”

Resistance, however, also came from less obvious sources. Sheldon Clare, president of the National Firearms Association – a group that could reasonably be counted among the Conservatives’ support base – was quoted by the CBC as saying that Bill C-13 comprises “the most draconian step towards police interference in people’s lives since George Orwell revealed the potential for it when he wrote 1984.”

Perhaps most surprisingly, Carol Todd, Amanda’s mother, appeared before a House of Commons committee to voice significant criticism. Though she applauded efforts to protect victims of online abuse, she stopped short of endorsing the new sweeping powers of surveillance and warrantless spying:

I don’t want to see our children victimized again by losing privacy rights. I am troubled by some of these provisions condoning the sharing of the privacy information of Canadians without proper legal process. We are Canadians with strong civil rights and values. A warrant should be required before any Canadian’s personal information is turned over to anyone, including government authorities. We should also be holding our telecommunications companies and Internet providers responsible for mishandling our private and personal information. We should not have to choose between our privacy and our safety.

If someone like Carol Todd – who has every right to be fully supportive of enhanced tough-on-crime legislation – is willing to voice such criticism of a proposed crime bill, people should listen.

Todd’s testimony is quoted in Mark Bourrie’s new book, Kill the Messengers: Stephen Harper’s Assault on Your Right to Know, a blistering, lacerating account of the Conservative government’s attempts to solidify power in Ottawa and to eradicate criticism or opposition to the sweeping changes it has been imposing upon the country. Bourrie systematically lays out the various ways in which Harper has centralized power around the Prime Minister’s Office in an attempt to control the government’s message and reduce criticism. These include (but are certainly not limited to) the imposition of a taxpayer funded government propaganda machine, which spent in excess of $100 million on ads promoting the Tories’ Economic Action Plan between 2009 and 2014 and saw the launch of a YouTube channel, 24 Seven, run by the government and intended to “replace the mainstream media with words and images that are under the complete control of the prime minister and his staff”; the revision of history by focusing assiduously on Canada’s martial experience as a warrior nation (what author Noah Richler has termed “the Vimy Myth”) and slashing budgets at Library and Archives Canada; the assault on evidence-based decision making, in part by dispensing with the mandatory long-form census; and the attack on scientists – even those in the government’s employ – who contradict the party’s core message.


Author Mark Bourrie

This last area has become extremely important to the Harper Tories, especially given one of their core constituencies: the oil companies working to mine Alberta’s bitumen-rich tar sands. In her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein writes, “It has become routine … for the federal government to prevent senior environmental and climate scientists from speaking to journalists about any environmentally sensitive subject.” Bourrie provides specific examples of this phenomenon in action, including the infuriating case of David Tarasick, a researcher with Environment Canada, who published an article in the esteemed journal Nature detailing his discovery of “one of the largest ozone holes ever discovered above the Arctic.” “Media handlers in Tarasick’s own department gagged him for two weeks,” Bourrie writes. “When a Canadian reporter asked for an interview, Tarasick wrote back in an email: ‘I’m available when Media Relations says I’m available.'”

Perhaps even more infuriating, though the government’s media relations department was unwilling to provide access to Tarasick himself, they were more than happy to supply the media with sanctioned talking points, which they then indicated could be ascribed to the scientist. “The department, it seems, wanted to interpret the scientist’s findings and write them into its own words, then put those words into Tarasick’s mouth.”

Bourrie also details the ways the Harper Tories manipulate the rules and regulations of parliament to ensure compliance with their agenda, repeatedly proroguing the House – including once, in 2009, when the minority Conservatives were all but assured of a non-confidence vote as the result of a threatened coalition between the Dion Liberals and the Layton NDP – and invoking closure to limit debate “on almost every important piece of legislation.” The list of bills subject to closure that Bourrie provides is chilling, particularly given that the Conservatives employed this tactic again around Bill C-51, the government’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation. NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has called the act “sweeping, dangerously vague, and ineffective,” and, in a staggering show of unity, no fewer than four former prime ministers have come together in opposition to the bill as written.

All of this, Bourrie convincingly argues, constitutes nothing less than an assault on the democratic principles this country was founded upon. To his credit, Bourrie, an historian by training, does not ignore the fact that other governments have acted in similar ways, citing in particular the federal Liberals under Jean Chrétien and Mike Harris’s conservative provincial government in Ontario. However, Harper’s Conservatives and their counterparts around the world are taking this style of governance to a new and dangerous level.

The problem, as Bourrie suggests in the opening pages of Kill the Messengers, is that once these systems of governance become entrenched, they will be practically impossible to dismantle easily. If citizens care about continued access to the mechanisms of a healthy democracy, the time to act is now, in a federal election year. Otherwise, we can resign ourselves to continued erosion of our freedoms and decreased availability of the kind of unbiased, impartial information required to make informed decisions about our future and its leadership.

Absent that, we can expect more propaganda disguised as news, increased corporate influence on public policy, and fewer and fewer democratic freedoms. And as Bourrie implies, it isn’t as if the Harper Tories don’t fully understand what they are up to. Communications Security Establishment Canada, the government agency tasked with cyberspying, has a budget of $300 million annually and last year was the beneficiary of a new 72,000-square-metre headquarters in Ottawa.

The CSEC mailing address, Bourrie points out with a straight face, is Box 1984, Station B, Ottawa.

The scorched earth society: The Everything Store by Brad Stone

September 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment 

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Brad Stone; $20.00 paper 978-0-316-21928-0, 394 pp., Back Bay Books

The_Everything_StoreTry this: open a new window in your browser, and type in the URL Relentless.com. Note the website you are redirected to.

Relentless was one of the working names Jeff Bezos was toying with for what eventually became Amazon.com. Another potential name for the site was MakeItSo.com, a reference to the catch-phrase of Captain Jean-Luc Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation. These two monikers are typical of the polarity that exists within the Amazon CEO, at least as he is portrayed in Brad Stone’s book about the internet giant’s “origin story.” Reading The Everything Store, the impression one gets of Bezos is one part cutthroat businessman, one part technogeek futurist.

Both aspects of Bezos’ personality have been important to Amazon’s survival, though it is the ruthlessness that cuts through Stone’s portrait most persistently. Bezos recognized earlier than most people the significance of the internet, and its potential as a disruptive force across a broad spectrum of industries. He chose books as a launching pad because books are “pure commodities,” though Stone points out that Amazon soon diversified, moving first into music and DVDs, then later into toys, jewellery, and other areas, each time with the same aggressive, take-no-prisoners approach to doing business.

During the 1999 Christmas shopping season, for example, one Amazon buyer discovered that stock of a particular Pokémon product, which was especially popular that year, had been depleted in the company’s warehouse; she sent employees out to buy up stock from their competitors, going so far as to avail themselves of the online Toys R Us free shipping offer. “Because they were so new to the e-commerce space,” Stone quotes the Amazon buyer as saying, “they really did not have the tools to alert them to us wiping out their inventory until it was too late.”

Years later, in an attempt to outbid Walmart in the sale of an internet company that owned the lucrative website Diapers.com, Amazon artificially drove down the price of diapers online, engaging in what Stone refers to as a “Khrushchev-like willingness to take the e-commerce equivalent of the thermonuclear option in the diaper price war.”

And when Bezos decided to dive into the choppy waters of e-reading by developing the first Kindle, he told the executive in charge to “proceed as if your goal is to put everyone selling physical books out of a job.”

That single-minded determination, coupled with an absolute refusal to countenance fools or naysayers, is responsible for much of Amazon’s success, including its ability to weather the financial storm created when the dot-com bubble burst in 2000. “They have an absolute willingness to torch the landscape around them to emerge the winner,” says one anonymous commenter quoted by Stone. Elsewhere, Rick Dalzell, one of Bezos’ key collaborators for much of Amazon’s history, says of the CEO, “What is amazing to me is that he is bound only by the laws of physics. He can’t change those. Everything else he views as open to discussion.”

Stone provides a remarkably even-handed overview of Amazon and its CEO, though he pulls no punches in describing a corporate culture that is frequently as remorseless with its own workers as with the industries it targets. Its owner, who Stone makes clear is inseparable from the ethos of the company he oversees, is so frugal that he famously posted ambulances outside his warehouses in the stiflingly oppressive heat of summer rather than pony up for air-conditioning. Stone describes the vein that pops out in Bezos’ forehead when he is about to launch into one of his volcanic rages (which Amazon employees have come to term “nutters”), and provides a list of “greatest hits” – the savage public putdowns he inflicts on his subordinates. (These include gems such as “If I hear that idea again, I’m gonna have to kill myself,” and “Are you a lazy or just incompetent?”)

People employed in book publishing – an industry Bezos takes great glee in disrupting (“eviscerating” might be a more accurate word) – will no doubt feel a large measure of satisfaction in reading Stone’s account, which depicts a company that is at best amoral, and callous about the collateral damage left in its wake, though this satisfaction should be tempered, at least somewhat, by a recognition of how slow they were to wake up to the existential threat Amazon posed to them.

Their willingness to jump on the digitization bandwagon by scrambling to meet Bezos’ blithely unrealistic demands for ebooks with which to stock his new Kindle store was predicated upon the notion that digital books would be the saviour of an industry that was feeling pinched by low profit margins and the steady erosion of sales from brick-and-mortar bookstores (due, in no small part, to the steep discounts negotiated by Amazon). They were astounded when Bezos then turned around and announced that he would be pricing digital new releases and bestsellers at a flat rate of $9.99.

A strong storyteller, Stone takes his readers through this material, and its fallout – the accusations of collusion on the part of the Big Six U.S. publishers; the American Department of Justice antitrust suit against those publishers and Apple – in a manner that reads more like a thriller than an economics text.

But there is also the inescapable reality that this story is still evolving, and Stone’s book ends just at the point when the narrative may be changing. Amazon’s recent contretemps with Hachette Book Group, putatively over ebook prices (once again), has resulted in pushback in the form of an open letter objecting to Amazon’s policies and practices. That letter, signed by more than 900 authors (including such brand names as Stephen King, John Grisham, James Patterson, Donna Tartt, and Nora Roberts), has proven troublesome for the company that built its reputation on the backs of those very authors.

One of the key ironies arising out of a reading of Stone’s book involves an early section describing a long-shot bet made by Bezos in the early days of the company. The brazen CEO decided to discount the fourth volume of J.K. Rowling’s massively popular Harry Potter series by 40 percent and to offer expedited delivery. The gamble paid off, and Amazon was rewarded with hefty media coverage and a slew of newly loyal customers. In the current farrago with Hachette, which involves heavy-handed tactics such as delaying shipping on the publisher’s titles and removing pre-order buttons in certain cases, one of the books affected is the new mystery by Robert Galbraith. Galbraith, you may recall, is the pseudonym of J.K. Rowling.

Worrisome design flaws: Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control

November 7, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Eric Schlosser; $38.00 cloth 978-1-59420-227-8, 632 pp., The Penguin Press

Command_and_ControlEric Schlosser wants to scare the hell out of you. And in his massively detailed new book, he does a very good job of it.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1999, followed by the final dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, the Cold War officially came to an end. Many thought this also signalled the end of the Nuclear Era, when schoolchildren regularly practised duck-and-cover routines, the Emergency Broadcast System was still in place, and memories of the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world as close to state-sanctioned nuclear war as it has ever come, were at the forefront of people’s consciousness.

Although the threat of nuclear war sparked by an international geopolitical conflict was indeed significant, what Schlosser makes clear in his exhaustive and sobering new book is that the United States in particular (though also other countries around the world with stores of nuclear weapons and lax safety systems to secure them) is equally apt (if not much, much more so) to fall victim to a nuclear catastrophe triggered by human error or a simple accident.

The central leitmotif in Schlosser’s book involves an incident that took place on September 18, 1980, at a nuclear silo located in the otherwise unremarkable countryside outside of Damascus, Arkansas. The silo held a Titan II missile, one of the most powerful weapons of mass destruction in the U.S. arsenal. It was capped with a nine-megaton nuclear warhead, which Schlosser points out had “about three times the explosive force of all the bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic bombs.” On the night of September 18, one of the mechanics working in the silo dropped a socket from a wrench, which pierced the side of the missile, causing the weapon’s noxious oxidizer to leak. This began a chain reaction that resulted in several casualties and could, if not stopped in time, have culminated in the detonation of a nine-megaton nuclear warhead in the heart of the United States.

What is most unnerving about Schlosser’s account is that the Damascus accident was by no means a one-off. In the central part of the book, the author rhymes off a truncated list of near-misses in which vast swathes of the U.S. could easily have been obliterated due to nothing more than chance. One example will suffice. In 1961, a B-52 bomber carrying two Mark 39 thermonuclear weapons hit a tailspin caused by a fuel leak during an airborne alert. (At the heart of the Cold War, a certain portion of America’s air force was in flight at all times, prepared to respond to any surprise nuclear strike initiated by the Soviets.) As the plane spun out of control, a lanyard in the cockpit was tossed around by centrifugal force; the lanyard snagged the locking pins that held one of the weapons in place, jettisoning the bomb. The weapon crashed into the ground, but did not go off. “Every safety mechanism had failed,” Schlosser writes, “except one: the ready/safe switch in the cockpit. The switch was in the SAFE position when the bomb dropped. Had the switch been set to GROUND or AIR, the X-unit would’ve charged, the detonators would’ve triggered, and a thermonuclear weapon would have exploded in a field near Faro, North Carolina.”

The fallout from the potential blast would have resulted in the evacuation of Washington, D.C. With breathtaking understatement that is typical of the author’s approach in the book, Schlosser suggests the “spirit of youthful optimism” that characterized John F. Kennedy’s inauguration speech, delivered just three days previously, “… would have been dimmed by the detonation of a hydrogen bomb in North Carolina and an evacuation of the nation’s capital.” In the same  ironic tone, Schlosser elsewhere points to three separate incidents in the 1950s in which “the bridgeware detonators of nuclear weapons were set off by mistake during tests of their electrical systems,” calling the mechanisms that allowed for these inadvertent close calls “a worrisome design flaw.”

In the historical parts of the book, Schlosser traces America’s development of its nuclear arsenal, beginning with the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, and continuing through the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the Reagan administration’s fixation on its Strategic Defense Initiative (commonly known as the “Star Wars” program). Throughout, he details efforts at ensuring a responsible and responsive command and control regime, defined as “the system of rules and procedures that guided … men, the network of radars and sensors and communications lines that allowed information to travel back and forth between headquarters and the field, the mechanisms that prevented accidental detonations and permitted deliberate ones, all of it designed to make sure that orders could be properly given, received, and carried out.” The problems with U.S. and international command-and-control systems are legion, ranging from jurisdictional rivalries to technological bugs and mechanical deficiencies to simple human error.

Schlosser crams a huge amount of material into his book, and it is for the most part fascinating, if baldly terrifying. Surprisingly, the least effective sections are those devoted to a narrative recreation of the Damascus accident and the response to it. These sections dispense with the technical jargon and backroom politicking and focus on the individual human beings involved in trying to contain the disaster. Yet these parts of the book, which are meant to read as a pulse-pounding thriller, come off as somewhat flat.

Elsewhere, however, Schlosser maintains his detached tone, and relates his litany of horrors (many arising out of documents that have only recently been declassified) in a matter-of-fact way that serves only to emphasize their appalling nature. In his epilogue, Schlosser points out that it is foolish to remain complacent simply because humanity has avoided an unintended nuclear catastrophe to this point. (He also remains sensitive to the fact that citizens of Japan may take a much different view than Americans, who have so far been lucky in escaping the destruction wrought by nuclear weapons.) “Had a single weapon been stolen or detonated,” Schlosser writes, “America’s command-and-control system would still have attained a success rate of 99.99857 percent. But nuclear weapons are the most dangerous technology ever invented. Anything less than 100 percent control of them, anything less than perfect safety and security, would be unacceptable. And if this book has any message to preach, it is that human beings are imperfect.”

Human imperfection and nuclear weapons are a highly dangerous combination. Schlosser does an admirable job of highlighting the problems associated with trying to secure an arsenal of weapons capable of causing massive destruction – weapons invented by human ingenuity that still sit in silos and compounds around the world, subject to thievery by rogue terrorist elements or detonation as a result of an accident caused by carelessness or mechanical failure. The fact that no such incident has occurred to date is due more to luck than foresight or proper planning, and should give us no comfort.

“I am fine with being marginal”: Poet and essayist Catherine Owen

January 10, 2013 by · 2 Comments 

Catherine OwenVancouver poet and musician Catherine Owen is the author of nine books of poetry. She has also published numerous chapbooks, and her work has appeared in various publications and anthologies. She has been nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award, the B.C. Book Prize, and the ReLit Award, among others. She has also played bass in the metal bands Inhuman and Helgrind, and, currently, Medea.

In 2012, Owen published two books. Trobairitz (Anvil Press) is a collection of linked poems focusing on the confluence of the medieval troubadours and their female counterparts, the trobairitz, and 21st-century metal music. Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse (Wolsak and Wynn) is a collection of essays that explores Owen’s artistic inspirations (including two pieces on the genesis of Trobairitz), as well as travel essays, reviews, and criticism.

The following e-mail interview was conducted over the holidays at the close of 2012.


Where did your interest in the culture of troubadours and trobairitz come from? What made you decide to structure an entire suite of poems around this 12th-century genre?

I must say first that the word “decide” is interesting here. I think it was more a convergence of forces that overwhelmed me utterly and compelled the eventual book: meeting a man who had the power to imaginatively replicate a medieval troubadour and who was also concurrently a metalhead, and encountering the trobairitz in 2006’s In Fine Form, a poetry anthology edited by Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve, within a footnote for the villanelle form, which was created by the troubadour Arnaut Daniel.

I had been playing in the metal scene from 2001 and yet had felt incapable of writing poetry about its complex mélange of energies. Once I began researching trobairitzes I began to see parallels between both the rebellious impetus behind many troubadour forms/modes (those opposing organized religion, for instance) and metal culture, and between the way women and men construct and deconstruct themselves on gendered terms within these scenes and eras.

Poems continued to flow throughout the period where I read everything I could find on the medieval world, courted the muse-man, played local clubs, and went to the south of France in a futile yet stirring quest for traces of these itinerant and ephemeral poet-singers. Gradually, over six or more years, Trobairitz manifested its weird blend of musics.

TrobairitzOne aspect that both the medieval context and the metal genre share in common is a fairly evident sexism. In the former, women had to battle to find a place (and voice) of their own, and in the latter, as you point out in Trobairitz, women are often forced into a role as erotic objects for men. (This tension is particularly evident in the poem “Tenso: Between the Comtessa de Dia and Senhal Fohlia, circa 1186,” a dialogue that has been played out in one version or another in many discussions of CanLit circa 2012–13.) How entrenched do these gender roles remain today, in both writing and metal? Have you noticed signs of cultural change that would better allow women artists to be accepted for their art on a level playing field with men, or does their presence continue to amount to mere tokenism?

Perhaps it was the jarring distinction I initially experienced in the difference between being a woman writer and being a female metal musician that provoked Trobairitz. I was raised in a fairly androgynous fashion – at least until adolescent hormones kidnapped me – and as a writer/intellectual I had never actually felt any particular sexism.

The metal scene however is a different beast. The genre is still mostly shaped by mid- to lower-class males who tend to draw their inspiration from certain sources of aggression. Some of these derive from the economic system, some from imagery in video games/horror films and some, yes, from their resistance to the female gender, whether in the abstract or specific.

Many women don’t seem to need this outlet of fast, intense, ear-ripping-off music, whether due to conditioning or hormones. Thus, I don’t think that women will ever achieve gender parity with men in the metal scene. The numbers can’t really be equivalent.

However, more and more women are creating and performing metal, and though a lot continue to be defined by their sexualized image, many have transcended this superficiality (which still persists in being an aesthetic aspect of the genre for both male and female musicians, as does youth).

With any liminalized group though, the “club” mode tends to predominate and if the overtly rich, women, non-Caucasian, or homosexuals became too visible a part of the scene, there would be an outcry, undoubtedly. It’s a fierce, unyielding kind of music that can be picky about whom it admits/acknowledges. So why did it call to me at twelve years old? I can only reveal that it must have been a fusion of my Catholic upbringing, my classical violin training, and my innate desire to be other.

CatalystsIn Catalysts, you identify three specific muses who have influenced your writing: the Viennese painter Egon Schiele, the poet Robinson Jeffers, and an ex-partner who committed suicide. How important were these figures in shaping your artistic vision?

Crucial. Egon Schiele was my first real muse. He lunged at me from the shelf of a Burnaby library in the mid-1990s, in the form of his book of Impressionist poems/paintings called I, Eternal Child,  and I was smitten. The path was laid out: research madly, become absorbed completely, and write endlessly.

Robinson Jeffers I found through the vast reading I undertook on environmental theorists for my book on extinct species, The Wrecks of Eden, which was published in 2002. I became obsessed by his lyrics, then life, then eventually, his epic poems set on the Carmel coastline, pieces imbued with his philosophy of Inhumanism. I even wrote a thesis on him.

Frank, the muse of Cusp/detritus, ran his eyes into mine in the summer of 2000 and, long after he died in 2003, gave me poems through the mind of schizophrenia, ineffable love, and music.

There have been other muses – the pioneer photographer, Mattie Gunterman, for instance, and, currently, the Fraser River – but these three represent the first five years of realizing art would be pretty much everything to me. They were dark, moving, troubled, engaged, ruptured, and powerful figures who let me in. Then let me in again.

Elsewhere in Catalysts, you write: “Too many poems are currently being written and published that emerge from an idea, a narrative impulse, a character-driven structure and little else. In other words, poems shaped by the primary considerations of prose, not poetry. Part of the diminishment of poetry’s literary and cultural viability is in this widespread adoption of prosaic modes and in the concomitant neglect of diction, linguistic musicality and form.” But you also point out that many of the short cuts poets take these days result from the distractibility of an audience in thrall to multiple screens, channels of advertising, and consumption. Is a return to a focus on diction, musicality, and form sufficient to counter the other cultural forces that seem to be conspiring to further marginalize poetry in our culture?

I don’t think poetry has to counter or compete with these cultural forces. The solution is certainly not to try to be like any one of them, turn all our poems into videos or games, say, never mind prose-texts.

I do believe that a combination on one side of an academic takeover in which the “teachable” poem becomes the poem that is written, and on the other side the pseudo-popularization of so-called poetry within avenues like the slam is responsible in part for the diminished power of true and diverse poetry. And there are too many writers and not enough readers, certainly not sufficient book buyers.

Further, the publishing scene is glutted by MFA products who seem to use their book publication as merely another addition to their CV, caring little whether it is sold, lacking interest in touring it, and being indifferent to much but cachet. It’s frankly incredibly boring.

In terms of my hopes for resurgence – not of poetry getting to the masses, but of poetry thoroughly becoming a vocation again for the few (as it always is) – they would be related to the composition of poems that attend to the means by which we work with heightened language: obsession with words, intensity of approach to form, and a prioritizing of what sings in the blood and thus is memorable.

Orality within the textual.

I am fine with being marginal. But I am not happy with poets themselves writing with numb ears and seeming content to let their makings descend into an abyss of the banal. Sure, I can be grandiose. But it keeps me waking up – the poem, the chance magic of it.

New reviews online: Spencer Gordon, Carol Shaben Terence Dickinson, and Cary Fagan

January 3, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Kicking off 2013, I’ve got a quartet of new Quill & Quire reviews online, including a fabulously rare review of a novel for children.

First up is a stellar debut story collection from Spencer Gordon. If you haven’t already checked this one out, I’d strongly urge you to do so.

Cosmo, Spencer Gordon

Gordon demonstrates a refreshing willingness to test the plasticity of language and structure. “Frankie + Hilary + Romeo + Abigail + Helen: An Intermission,” which reads like a mash-up of David Foster Wallace and American Psycho–vintage Bret Easton Ellis, is an interrogation of boredom in the context of a society that has become so enthralled by the notion of celebrity that a mere litany of irrelevant facts about people in the public eye can be thought to carry some kind of deeper meaning.

This is not to suggest Gordon is incapable of being straightforward when it suits him. Two of the most emotionally affecting stories in the collection – “Wide and Blue and Empty,” about a mother’s attempt to connect with her grown son, and “Last Words,” about a man in his sixties trying to come to terms with the squandered potential of his life in the wake of a cancer diagnosis – are perfectly traditional short stories, rendered all the more potent for their lack of stylistic pyrotechnics.

Next is a Jon Krakauer-esque non-fiction book about the 1984 plane crash that killed the leader of the provincial opposition in Alberta, and the four men who survived.

Into the Abyss

On the night of Oct. 19, 1984, Wapiti 402, a 10-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain twin-engine aircraft bound for the town of Grande Prairie, crashed in the wilderness of Northern Alberta, killing six passengers, including Grant Notley, the leader of the provincial opposition NDP. Four people survived: Erik Vogel, the pilot; RCMP constable Scott Deschamps; Paul Archambault, the prisoner Deschamps was escorting from Kamloops to Grande Prairie on an outstanding warrant; and Larry Shaben, minister for housing and utilities in the Alberta provincial government. The four men spent a harrowing night fighting the elements and struggling to stay alive while waiting to be rescued.

National Magazine Award winner Carol Shaben – Larry’s daughter – reconstructs the events leading up to the crash, the night on the mountain, and the way the survivors’ lives were changed as a result.

Third is a gorgeously illustrated book of photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, accompanied by fascinating text about the various celestial bodies and galaxies.

Hubble's Universe

Terence Dickinson, the editor of SkyNews magazine and author of NightWatch: A Practical Guide to Viewing the Universe, has compiled a visually breathtaking array of Hubble’s images in an extraordinary new volume.

Accessible but never condescending, Dickinson’s text describes the makeup of celestial objects from brown dwarfs to blue supergiants, and cogently explains Hubble’s major breakthroughs (such as allowing scientists to determine with greater accuracy the rate at which the universe is expanding).

And finally, the first book in a new series for young readers, written by the indefatigable Cary Fagan.

The Boy in the Box, Cary Fagan

There are no clear-cut villains in this novel: the school bully reveals unexpected dimensions, as does the young magician, Franklin, whose resistance to accepting Sullivan as a member of the group turns out to be born of jealousy. Even Mistress Melville, the most frankly malevolent of the troupe, helps Sullivan find a hook for his juggling act (albeit out of selfish motives).

Nor is Fagan content to restrict himself to a single register. Young readers may giggle at the two police officers named Spoonitch and Forka, but will likely miss the joke in the fact that Mintz father and son are named Gilbert and Sullivan.

Laughter in the dark

January 2, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

Dead Funny: Telling Jokes in Hitler’s Germany. Rudolph Herzog, Jefferson Chase, trans.; $16.95 paper 978-1-61219-130-0, 250 pp., Melville House Publishing

Dead Funny“A guy goes to the dentist, who says, ‘Open your mouth, please.’ The guy answers, ‘No way. I don’t even know you.'”

It is difficult to imagine how dangerous it was to tell that joke – so seemingly innocuous from a 2013 perspective – to a German audience during the years the Third Reich held power. The cabaret performer responsible for the quip, Werner Finck, had every reason to be wary of the Nazis’ “cultural inspectors,” having already spent six weeks in the Esterwegen concentration camp as a result of his public performances. Following his release, the popular German comedian and actor found work at the Cabaret of Comedians in Berlin, an establishment run by a man “known for toeing the party line,” but was forced to temper his act to ensure that his political humour was not overly explicit; his audiences became adept at reading between the lines of Finck’s comedy, and the performer himself referred to working at “half throttle.”

By 1939, the relatively liberal attitude the Nazis adopted toward critical humour during their early years in power (at least prior to the Reichstag fire in February of 1933) had disappeared, and Joseph Goebbels, who headed the Ministry of Propaganda, was on the verge of cracking down hard on transgressors. As Rudolph Herzog writes in his intriguing book: “Goebbels, determined not to be flouted again by his rival Göring, was preparing a renewed attack on Finck within the General Staff. ‘Political jokes will be eradicated, ripped out by the very roots,’ Goebbels noted in his diary.”

Humour, of course, has various registers and uses: it can be harmless or cutting; it can be employed to let off steam or to underscore hypocrisy and cupidity. It did not help matters that the Nazis’ response to humour they found too critical or subversive was applied so arbitrarily: punishment ran the gamut from imprisonment in Dachau to – in extreme cases – execution. Finck was lucky as a result of his fame and the timely intercession of an actress who was also an erstwhile consort of Hermann Göring. Others did not fare so well. Erich Ohser, who was responsible for satirical political cartoons depicting, among other things, “a man out for a walk in the snow urinating in the form of a swastika,” was arrested for making seditious remarks to a friend; Ohser committed suicide, and his friend was sentenced to death.

Herzog, the son of noted documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog, details the diverse ways various levels of society employed humour in the Third Reich, from professional cabaret performers to ordinary citizens to the government itself, with its officially sanctioned propaganda cinema that served, in part, to foment anti-Jewish sentiment. The Nazi campaign against the Jews, Herzog argues, was aided by the kind of anti-Semitic banter that was allowed to spread like wildfire throughout German society: “There were even jokes that laughed at anti-Jewish violence, and these were told not just by hardcore Nazi party supporters, but also by hordes of willing opportunists and March violets.”

On the other side of the coin, Herzog points out that persecuted Jewish Europeans also engaged in humour – although of an understandably darker, more mordant variety – as a coping mechanism. The author records a scathing joke about unequal food rations under the Nazis: “Our occupiers know a lot about nutrition. They’ve scientifically determined that Germans need 2,500 calories a day to survive, while Poles require only 600 and Jews just 150.”

The final section of Herzog’s book addresses what is arguably the most distressing question in the context of humour and the Nazis: is it ever permissible to laugh about the Holocaust? Guilt over Nazi atrocities is pervasive in German society even today, but Herzog points out that anti-Semitism persisted even after the war was over. He quotes the three “unwritten rules” about depictions of the Holocaust attributed to American scholar Terrence Des Pres:

  1. The Holocaust shall be represented, in its totality, as a unique event, as a special case and kingdom of its own, above or below or apart from history.
  2. Representations of the Holocaust shall be as accurate and faithful as possible to the facts and conditions of the event, without change or manipulation for any reason – artistic reasons included.
  3. The Holocaust shall be approached as a solemn or even sacred event with seriousness admitting no response that might obscure its enormity or dishonor its dead.

“But by the end of the 1960s,” Herzog writes, “the American comedian-director Mel Brooks would break all the rules – written and unwritten – of historical piety.” It is possible that Brooks managed to get away with his 1968 farce, The Producers, complete with its comedic centrepiece, the fictional Broadway musical Springtime for Hitler, because the director was himself Jewish. Elsewhere in his book, Herzog points to movies shot outside Germany during the Third Reich – Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be – as comedic works that successfully satirized Nazi fascism and its attendant persecution of European Jews, and he is complimentary toward the Oscar-winning 1997 Roberto Benigni film La Vita e Bella. Interestingly, he ignores any mention of the notorious unreleased Jerry Lewis vehicle The Day the Clown Cried.

In sum, Dead Funny is a fascinating examination of an aspect of German history that is often overlooked. Herzog debunks the myth that humour was absent altogether under the Third Reich, and in so doing also explodes the notion that the German people were ignorant of the crimes being committed by Hitler and his cronies. For cultural enthusiasts and students of the Second World War, the book provides a disturbing glimpse into life under the Nazi regime, and the bitter comedy that simultaneously helped foster and sabotage it.

Make mine a double (double): Dougals Hunter on Tim Hortons’ rise to coffee superstardom

December 13, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Double Double: How Tim Hortons Became a Canadian Way of Life, One Cup at a Time. Douglas Hunter; $33.99 cloth 978-1-44340-673-4, 382 pp., HarperCollins Canada

Double Double, Douglas HunterThe year 2004 is remarkable in the history of the Tim Hortons chain of coffee shops/eateries. That was the year the term “double-double,” referring to customers’ preferred method of ordering Tim’s signature blend of coffee (two creams, two sugars), first appeared in The Canadian Oxford Dictionary. At the time, Katherine Barber, the dictionary’s editor, told the CBC that the criteria for including the term in what had become the go-to reference book for the Canadian lexicon required ensuring it had penetrated the culture fairly broadly: “‘We had to determine if it was used only in Tim Hortons doughnut shops or more widely,’ Barber said. ‘We found evidence in The Globe and Mail, the National Post, the Hamilton Spectator, and the book Men with Brooms, based on the curling movie.'”

National Business Book Award winner Douglas Hunter mentions the dictionary milestone only once, in passing, in Double Double, his new volume on the history of the company that, in one sense at least, has become indelibly associated with the Canadian identity for many people. “Tim’s is routinely said to have inspired the Canadian ‘double double,'” Hunter writes, “although when the editors of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary recently tried to verify this, they couldn’t nail down an indisputable source.”

Hunter makes this observation at the beginning of a chapter titled “The 100 percent: Tim Hortons Becomes the Inclusive Canadian Experience,” in which he floats the argument that the perception of Tim Hortons as the location of choice for hardworking, average Canadians – as opposed to, say, Starbucks, which caters to effete, latte-swilling elites – is largely chimerical, at least from the perspective of corporate governance. Hunter references a York University marketing professor who contends that the Tim Hortons brand is built around the idea of inclusion, not exclusion: “[A] rich businessperson and the unemployed worker can both walk down the street carrying a Tim Hortons coffee and feel comfortable,” Hunter writes. “That’s a unique brand proposition that Tim Hortons does not want to harm. Tim Hortons has always been about the 100 percent.”

While this may be true in terms of branding tactics at head office, it is clearly less true for the politicians who seem to feel it a necessary part of a campaign to appear in a Tim Hortons outlet, holding a steaming cup of java, as a means of forging a connection with Joe and Jane Average Canadian (whom Hunter opposes to “Richard or Rachelle Pretentious Internationalist, frequenter of Starbucks and espouser of non-working-family values”). So essential has this image (or myth) become that Stephen Harper, who does not drink coffee, made a point of pausing in a 2009 address to sip from a Tim Hortons coffee cup (the cup contained hot chocolate). Michael Ignatieff, a tea drinker, also went out of his way to court the Tim Hortons vote during the federal election of 2011. When the Toronto Star‘s Susan Delacourt snapped a shot of a Starbucks coffee cup on a table in Ignatieff’s campaign bus, social media lit up. “‘The Conservative bloggers went wild,’ [Delacourt] recalled. ‘It was, “The elite, latte-drinking Iggy is revealed.”‘ She thinks the image was retweeted more than 500 times.” (The offending beverage belonged to Zsusanna Zsohar, Ignatieff’s wife.)

The process by which Tim Hortons became an iconic part of the Canadian landscape is Hunter’s focus in Double Double. He touches on many key aspects of the corporation’s development, beginning with its inception as a side project for the store’s eponymous NHL defenceman, who was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1967, the last time the team won a Stanley Cup. The major historical points are enumerated: Horton’s partnership with Ron Joyce; the (apparently alcohol-fuelled) fatal car crash in 1974; Lori Horton’s lawsuit claiming she was duped when she sold her half of the company to Joyce; the company’s IPO and attempt to break into the market south of the 49th parallel. Casting his net broadly, Hunter necessarily sacrifices depth of penetration, but there is much interesting information on offer. The chapters on branding and marketing strategy are particularly interesting, especially in addressing the way the chain positions itself in an increasingly crowded and competitive market. (Hunter contends that the Tim Hortons/Starbucks rivalry is overstated: McDonald’s is actually the larger threat to Tim’s bottom line. And the observation that Tim Hortons is seen as a coffee supplier in Canada but a doughnut purveyor in the States is a fascinating insight into the divergent psyches of the two countries.)

But the resolute focus on the corporate aspect of the story means that the other side of the story – the one involving the millions of people who daily consume the products that Tim’s offers – largely goes missing. The book’s subtitle promises to explain how “Tim Hortons became a Canadian way of life,” but Hunter does this from the viewpoint of the brand, not that of the commuter standing in line every morning to get his or her caffeine fix before heading into work. Hunter deftly explains corporate endeavours to entice customers during each discrete “day part,” and examines the company’s attempts to broaden its customer base by offering more nutritious menu fare and European-style frothy beverages, but apart from quoting a few posts on the Tim Hortons Facebook page, the voices of the people who actually consume the products being sold are never heard. As a result, we get the company’s MBA-influenced attitude toward consumer psychology, but aren’t permitted to assess that psychology first-hand.

Similarly, Hunter includes quotes and references to a plethora of CEOs, consultants, politicians, and marketing professionals, but does not allow sufficient space for the one group that could arguably provide the most unvarnished ground-level perspective of all: front-line employees in the chain’s stores – the shift workers and part-timers who actually pour the coffee and toast the bagels day in and day out. It is possible that many of these people, working within a corporate culture that maintains rigorous control over its brand image, would be reluctant to talk, or might be less than forthcoming about grievances or problems within the company, but the absence of their voices altogether renders the company portrait somewhat one-sided and incomplete.

Fear and loathing: American culture in the shadow of 9/11

December 1, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

Hijacking History: American Culture and the War on Terror. Liane Tanguay; $29.95 paper 978-0-7735-4074-3, 284 pp., McGill-Queen’s University Press

When the Twin Towers collapsed following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the 24-hour news stations appeared to show the footage on endless loops: the second plane slicing through the South Tower, the staggering fireball, the gasps of horror from the anonymous masses below. One refrain was heard over and over from people gathered around television sets watching in stunned amazement, a formulation that quickly took on the mantle of cliché: “It looks like a movie.” But not just any movie. What was unfolding on television screens around the globe looked specifically like a Hollywood movie, full of spectacle and special effects, choreographed for maximum emotional impact.

The connection is not lost on Liane Tanguay, external fellow of the York Centre for International and Security Studies at Toronto’s York University. Indeed, Tanguay points out that American popular culture had spent the decade prior to 9/11 perfecting the aestheticization of catastrophe to a degree not seen previously. Blockbuster disaster films of the 1990s, of which Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day may be the most financially successful example, presented scenes of ultra-realistic destruction that evoked Immanuel Kant’s idea of the sublime, which, in its dynamic form, “must be represented as exciting fear.”

Tanguay quotes Kant in order to forward the argument that the fear involved in the sublime is vicarious, cathartic, safely removed from the vicissitudes of reality –  a quality, Tanguay writes, that “no doubt accounts for part of the disaster genre’s appeal.” She goes on to suggest, “It is in part this feeling of exemption – enhanced by the sense of ‘control’ over one’s pattern of consumption, the fact that one can choose whether and when to subject oneself to such images – that comes to constitute in its endless repetition a sort of symbolic ‘mastery’ over the anxieties and fears such films elicit.” When this imagery forces itself into the real world, the veneer of “mastery” is rent and the vicarious fear bleeds into actual fear, something America, in all its millennial triumphalism, appeared unprepared for at the turn of the 21st century (and one good reason why Hollywood-style disaster films do not proliferate in the national cinema of, say, Israel or Serbia).

But equally important in the development of American pop culture during the post–Gulf War 1990s, Tanguay argues, is the tendency for what she refers to as “im/mediacy,” the positioning of the viewer as an active participant in events. Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, with its scenes of urban warfare shot at low angles using a roving camera that puts the audience in the centre of the action, is a template for a new kind of hyperactive, first-person approach, which carries over into news coverage featuring “embedded” reporters filing stories from the front lines of American war zones. “The direct involvement of the journalist in the military action pre-empts any ‘mediating’ perspective he or she could otherwise offer, while the visual effect of the first-person camera comes to implicate the viewer in a ‘video-game’ presentation of the war. The new ‘realism’ is therefore both tightly controlled and compelling to a still greater extent because of the ‘self-replications’ it affords.” (This “self-replication” would reach its apotheosis with the cell-phone videos of G20 protests in Toronto and the Vanvouver Stanley Cup riot, all of which were instantly uploaded to YouTube and Vimeo, shared widely, and subsequently co-opted by police and prosecutors in tracking down the perpetrators of violence or dissent. This observation is outside the scope of Tanguay’s analysis, but seems a logical outgrowth of her arguments.)

Placing the viewer in the “subject position,” while simultaneously promoting a culture of fear across both entertainment and network news platforms, created a post-9/11 climate that allowed the administration of George W. Bush to suggest that an open-ended and nebulous war on terror was necessary to preserve an American way of life structured around the liberal capitalist ideals that Francis Fukuyama identified as existing at “the end of history.” The irony, as Tanguay shows, is that the simplistic binary arguments of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld (“You’re either with us or with the terrorists”) helped foster a much less simplistic, more morally ambiguous cultural landscape in which films like Independence Day, with its noisy jingoism and xenophobic “us versus them” mentality, began to give way to more nuanced fare, such as Paul Haggis’s In the Valley of Elah, Brian de Palma’s Redacted, and Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker. Tanguay overstates her case somewhat here: although she admits that Bigelow’s Oscar-winning film was less successful at the box office than James Cameron’s Avatar (which Tanguay asserts can be read as a kind of subversive, anti-corporate blockbuster – a contradiction in terms if ever there was one), she largely ignores the inability of the more morally relative Iraq War–themed films to connect with domestic audiences.

Moreover, her book suffers from a too-narrow historical perspective, which precludes any illustration of how the cultural forces that allowed the war on terror to proceed unchecked have been the bedrock of the American psyche since at least the Second World War. Here, for example, is Tanguay writing about a pair of Gulf War documentaries, which she describes as though propaganda never existed prior to 1991:

Indeed, in CNN’s War in the Gulf and CBS’s Desert Triumph, images of oil-soaked seabirds – victims, allegedly, of Saddam Hussein’s ecological crimes – were invested with greater emotive value than those of dead Iraqi troops. The latter were shown as evidence of allied “victory” at the end of the ground war, while imagery of struggling wildlife was accompanied by a sentimental soundtrack designed to elicit pity and compassion. The dehumanization of the “inevitable” human victims of the allied war effort thus contributed to the sense of moral integrity on the American side while simultaneously containing the conflict within the symbolic framework of the simplest of Hollywood narratives.

None of this is inaccurate, of course, but neither is it any different from the approach taken in newsreels during the Second World War, not to mention the films of John Wayne. Propaganda predates postmodernism, whether Tanguay admits it or not. These objections notwithstanding, Tanguay’s book is a frequently energizing synthesis of political analysis and cultural critique, examining the ways in which a media-driven climate of fear combines with a consumerist imperative to create the perfect conditions for an entire society to lose sight of its core values in the pursuit of material comfort and peace of mind.

The view from here: Julian Barnes and the art of reading

November 15, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Through the Window: Seventeen Essays and a Short Story. Julian Barnes; $19.95 paper 978-0-345-81300-8, 244 pp., Vintage Canada

Julian Barnes is a deeply serious reader. This is not to say he is joyless – far from it. The seventeen essays (and one story) in his new collection testify to the vivacity with which Barnes approaches the reading act, as well as the range of his interests. However, if you’re looking for discussions of recent bestsellers or the latest popcorn fantasy series for young adults, you won’t find them here. Instead, you’ll discover a triptych of essays devoted to the high modernist Ford Madox Ford, an appreciation of the 18th century French moralist Nicolas-Sébastien Roch de Chamfort, and a short piece on Félix Fénéon, whose uncategorizable work Nouvelles en trois lignes (re-released by New York Review Books in 2007 as Novels in Three Lines) Barnes calls “the literary equivalent of a cocktail olive.”

France represents one focal point for Barnes’s sensibility as a reader, at least as evidenced by the pieces on offer here. Through the Window is roughly divided into three parts. The first deals with British writers; the second, central sequence of essays focuses on French writers; and the final part looks at a handful of Americans. These sections segue organically into one another. Kipling, the “demotic, pragmatic, self-educated celebrant of the British empire,” whose fascination with France was by no means uncomplicated, serves as the pivot between the first and second parts of the book, while a pair of American writers – Wharton and Hemingway – each of whom spent a considerable amount of time in France, form the bridge between the second and third parts.

Barnes is a classicist, and implies his disinterest in much current writing by largely ignoring it. The only living writers he deals with in this volume are Lorrie Moore, Michel Houellebecq, and Joyce Carol Oates (the last in a brief, and not altogether laudatory, consideration of her memoir A Widow’s Story). He does talk about Lydia Davis, but only in the context of her translation of Madame Bovary (a “linguistically careful version” that sometimes “takes us too far away from English, and makes us less aware of Flaubert’s prose than of Davis being aware of Flaubert’s prose”).

Collectively, the essays in the book paint a picture of Barnes as a thoughtful connoisseur, an enthusiast who never allows his enthusiasm to blind him to a work’s faults. Even at his most effusive, Barnes is rarely platitudinous. The one exception might be the opening essay on Penelope Fitzgerald, an author to whom Barnes makes no secret of being in thrall. This essay does offer some repudiation of the reputation Fitzgerald was afforded in the press, a reputation “attended by a marked level of male diminishment.” It also suggests that perhaps Fitzgerald won the Booker for the wrong work, “which would hardly be revolutionary in the history of the prize” (a truth Barnes should be intimately familiar with, one can’t help but remark).

As a careful reader, Barnes notices things many others might miss. Hemingway, Barnes is quick to point out, is often characterized as the apotheosis of machismo, when in fact he wrote more persistently and convincingly about cowardice and inaction. John Updike, “delineator of conventional, continuing America, is incessantly writing about flight.” Barnes shows himself to be an unapologetic advocate of Updike, claiming the Rabbit Angstrom quartet as “the greatest post-war American novel.” His piece on Updike (actually two pieces, published in the New York Review of Books and the Guardian shortly after the older writer’s death in 2009) also illustrates the ways in which Updike might have been one of the finest and most unsentimental literary examiners of aging and death, perhaps one reason (along with his precisely detailed, demanding prose style) he appears so off-putting to many younger readers.

Through the Window opens with a preface entitled “A Life with Books,” in which the author traces the roots of his bibliophilia and makes an impassioned case for the continuing relevance of books as objects. He quotes Updike (again), who late in life expressed despair about what he considered to be the dying art of printed literature. “I am more optimistic,” Barnes asserts, “both about reading and about books. There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art. Yet nothing can replace the exact, complicated, subtle communion between absent author and entranced, present reader.” In the essays that follow, Barnes proves himself a very good reader, indeed: one who elevates the skill to art. Taken together, his essays on writers and books he admires also illustrate a separate assertion from his preface, one that seeks to debunk a myth all too common in our modern mindset: “When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it.” Through the Window is an exuberant, intelligent plunge into life.

Drinking the cultural Kool-Aid: Dwight Macdonald and the idea of midcult

November 6, 2012 by · 1 Comment 

Recently, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Dwight Macdonald’s idea of “midcult.” In Macdonald’s conception, midcult is the “bastard” of masscult, a phenomenon that rose out of the Industrial Revolution. Masscult is characterized by a diminution of taste and a concurrent commodification of artistic output that, in its appeal to an undifferentiated mass public, merely parodies (Macdonald’s word) actual culture. In its appeal to a kind of fuzzy notion of democracy, masscult denies the utility (or in many cases, even the existence) of discrimination or artistic value judgments, conflating artistic standards into a bland relativism that allows the same worth to both Earl Stanley Gardner and Edgar Allan Poe. In Macdonald’s words:

Masscult is a dynamic, revolutionary force, breaking down the old barriers of class, tradition, and taste, dissolving all cultural distinctions. It mixes, scrambles everything together, producing what might be called homogenized culture, after another American achievement, the homogenization process that distributes the globules of cream evenly throughout the milk instead of allowing them to float separately on top. The interesting difference is that whereas the cream is still in the homogenized milk, somehow it disappears from homogenized culture. For the process destroys all values, since value-judgments require discrimination, an ugly word in liberal-democratic America. Masscult is very, very democratic; it refuses to discriminate against or between anything or anybody. All is grist to its mill and all comes out finely ground indeed.*

The essential characteristic of high culture, for Macdonald, is individuality: there must be something unique in the artist’s vision that sets his or her work against the grain. By contrast, the essential condition of masscult is a lack of individuality. In order to appeal to a broad consumer public, masscult eradicates any stamp of idiosyncrasy or unfamiliarity, and ensures that its audience is never rendered uncomfortable or uncertain. Masscult reaffirms its recipients’ prejudices and soothes their minds with platitudes.

It also denies any responsibility on the part of its audience. “As Clement Greenberg noted in ‘Avant-garde and Kitsch,'” Macdonald writes, “… the special aesthetic quality of Kitsch – a term which includes both Masscult and Midcult – is that it ‘predigests art for the spectator and spares him the effort, provides him with a shortcut to the pleasures of art that detours what is necessarily difficult in the genuine art’ because it includes the spectator’s reactions in the work itself instead of forcing him to make his own responses.” Greenberg’s assessment cannot be overstated in the context of today’s denuded literary environment: it is the precondition that separates, for instance, E.L. James’s repurposed fanfiction, Fifty Shades of Grey (a work of masscult if there ever was one), from Tamara Faith Berger’s novel Maidenhead.

For Macdonald, midcult is a more dangerous variant than masscult, because where the latter eradicates distinctions between high culture and kitsch, the former incorporates elements of high culture into products that are intended for mass consumption and are calculated to appease an undiscerning mass audience. By cloaking itself in a veneer of high culture, midcult allows its audience to pretend that what is being trafficked in is the authentic article, when in actuality it is anything but. More sophisticated than masscult, midcult is in fact little more than an elaborate confidence scam.

In these more advanced times, the danger to High Culture is not so much from Masscult as from a peculiar hybrid bred from the latter’s unnatural intercourse with the former. A whole middle culture has come into existence and it threatens to absorb both its parents. This intermediate form – let us call it Midcult – has the essential qualities of Masscult – the formula, the built-in reaction, the lack of any standard except popularity – but it decently covers them with a cultural figleaf. In Masscult the trick is plain – to please the crowd by any means. But Midcult has it both ways: it pretends to respect the standards of High Culture while in fact it waters them down and vulgarizes them.

The vast majority of what passes for great literature in our day is in fact midcult, produced and promoted by an amorphous mass incapable of telling the difference. Macdonald referred to “masscult” and “midcult” (rather than mass culture and mid culture) because he identified similarities between the way we consume cultural products and the way cults operate. In both cases, an act of brainwashing occurs, and in both cases, absolute fidelity to a set of unbending precepts is demanded. Midcult, like any other cult, demands conformity; any attempt to assert individuality will be met with repercussions (in the case of our current cultural environment, ostracism or – worse – indifference).

Macdonald recognizes the elitist nature of his arguments; he also recognizes that charges of elitism miss the point altogether. The creation of literature is essentially undemocratic because, as Martin Amis points out, the one thing that is not democratic is talent. Macdonald quotes T.S. Eliot, who demands that anyone in complete thrall to notions of egalitarianism “stop paying lip-service to culture.”

The push for easily digestible, readily accessible artistic products has, in the 21st century, reached a point of critical mass. In his essay, penned at roughly the halfway point of the previous century, Macdonald could not envision a reason why midcult “might not be stabilized as the norm of our culture.” The lack of genuine discernment and the mindless acceptance of ersatz culture for the real thing has brought us to the point where even educated, well-read people seem to prefer Jane Smiley to Jane Austen, James Patterson to James Ellroy.

“[B]ecause of the disintegrative effects of Masscult,” Macdonald writes, “… the standards are by no means generally accepted. The danger is that the values of Midcult, instead of being transitional – ‘the price of progress’ – may now themselves become a debased, permanent standard.” There is good reason to suggest they already have.

*Macdonald’s essay, “Masscult and Midcult,” which first appeared in the Partisan Review in 1960, applies itself specifically and insistently to the American cultural landscape; the U.S. has been so effective in exporting its masscult products in the intervening years that Macdonald’s arguments now seem at least as applicable north of the forty-ninth parallel.

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