Diary: April, 2019

1er avril. Mort. Et les années, ils passent.

April 2. Tonight I attended a panel put on by the Muslim Students Association of the Law Faculty at McGill University. The topic was the recently introduced law on laïcité put forward by the Coalition Avenir Québec, which focuses on the wearing of religious symbols by representatives of the state (including teachers). The panel included the philosopher Charles Taylor, a lawyer named Catherine McKenzie, and a teacher named Nadia Naqvi (who wears a hijab). It was rather uneven. Taylor gave a brief talk in which he summarized some of his longstanding observations about secularism and contemporary life in liberal democracies, more or less in keeping with the report he co-authored with Gérard Bouchard. He said the proposed law was discriminatory and came out forcefully against it. McKenzie didn’t talk about the legal challenge to the law too much, but instead made an appeal to the need for personal stories that would help fight the case against the proposed law in court. Such a story was supplied by the teacher, Ms. Naqvi, who gave a warm and touching account of her own work as exemplary: yes she wears a hijab, she said, but she has performed her role as a teacher to the highest standards. In the end only Taylor offered much by way of what I would call reflective analysis. So perhaps it isn’t all that surprising that the q & a time didn’t really have many questions. Instead those gathered wished to express their frustration with the law, to say that this was not reflective of the Quebec they knew. It strikes me now that the session was probably a lot like those conducted by the original Bouchard-Taylor commission nearly 10 years ago.

April 8. Last night I watched Ellen’s special on Netflix called “Relatable.” Perhaps because I was reading Terry Eagleton’s Ideology, I started to think about what was left out or implied during her show. I don’t mean to single Ellen out necessarily, since I merely happened to watch her performance out of a bit of boredom. One could just as well talk about other comics, such as Stephen Colbert or John Oliver. What I ended up paying attention to were the moments in the routine when the crowd was cheering rather than laughing. In the guise of sharp criticism, comedies can sometimes function to deflect or diffuse more radical questioning. So, when you watch Ellen or Russell Brand, say, consider those brief moments when the crowd claps. As often as not, something important is happening there.

In her Netflix special Ellen doesn’t offer too many plainly-stated moral commonplaces. She keeps things fairly light. Her jokes aren’t terribly risky. In fact, if I were asked to describe the routine, a word my mom used comes to mind: “wholesome.” The setup for the routine centres around Ellen being so rich as to be out-of-touch. (Hence the title, “Relatable.”) During the show I found myself wondering if it was more or less a tonic for an increasingly divided, sharply unequal world. The unstated premise seems to be that we should treat people fairly no matter what their socioeconomic background. If we’re all kind to one another we’ll find out that more often than not we can “relate.” These strike me as those kinds of statements that may be true when put bluntly, but may be false depending on the way in which they are used. For how they work in the context of a speech may be more or less ideological, deflecting attention away from critical scrutiny of that about which it speaks. Obviously it isn’t too often that a comedy routine risks straightforward questions about power, wealth, and freedom. But I think it would be fair to say that Ellen’s routine reinforces the sense in which the way we treat people can be detached from the fact that people are, in important and substantial ways, living expressions of their socioeconomic and cultural “place.” Ellen forges a link with her audience by saying that the important thing in life isn’t how much wealth you have, but how we treat one other.

One of the many things I think Marx got right was his insistence that we should always be suspicious of the claim politics and economics are naturally independent spheres. Could a holistic account of human action today pass over wealth in silence? Obviously I think the answer to that question is no. At one point in her show Ellen says something to the effect that everyone must “live their truth,” that a better world, where we are kinder to one another, will be one in which each individual is free to live in accordance with how they wish to express themselves. These types of sentiments seem obvious to many of us. There may be very good reasons for embracing such views. But precisely because they are obvious, exactly because we feel they should be taken as givens, they are simultaneously ripe candidates for reflection. Now, I’m aware that not very many people would come out against kindness. But to say this is to insist that we come to terms with the fact that there are deep disagreements about moral life. For kindness does not exist in a vacuum any more than humans do. To me it is fatuous to talk about treating one another with dignity—in the sense of each person deserving equal regard—if at the same time you ignore the structures of social and cultural and political inequality. Yes, the world can almost always use more kindness. No, a comedy routine isn’t an essay in political philosophy. Nonetheless, one can read a comedy routine such as Ellen’s for what is says about the society in which it “works.” To read a comedy routine ideologically, to consider everything in light of politics, is not to say that everything is political in the same way. It is to make a specific claim. At least part of what comedy does is allow a society to blow off steam, to restore equilibrium through a sort of distancing or self-reflection. At the same time it frequently offers a form of reconciliation with the social order. While this is almost certainly a necessary or unavoidable social process, it would be a mistake to stop there. Restoration of order, reconciliation, and the management of social anxieties may lead in several directions—both towards and away from justice.

So, while I applaud an open and generous social inclusivity, the more important question isn’t so much whether or not to be kind to another person, but how, politically, we work out our disagreements and conflicts. To me it’s naive to think that in telling each person to “be themselves” and to be kind to one another that there won’t be deep and abiding conflicts, even within the same society. Plus there seems to be a lack of critical self-awareness here. Characterizing human life in terms of individual expression (“live your truth”) is far from a universally accepted picture of meaningfulness, resting as it does upon a particular historical-cultural context. However pleasant and needed a sentiment as kindness is, it cannot reckon with deep social and cultural diversity all on its own. Nor can it create the conditions for a better, fairer world.

April 9. Reading The Gay Science I’m reminded of the fact that, for all his genius, for all his combative insight, at times Nietzsche makes some pretty wild, almost laughable generalizations. Of course his views underwent some fairly significant change over the course of his life, so perhaps that is to be expected. However, I’m still tempted to ask: do we take his frequently rebarbarative arguments as an artistic statement, as an aesthetic revaluation of values expressed through a strong will, or do we reject his terms and, without sidelining his aesthetic project completely, try to consider the scope of interpretation more comprehensively?

April 10. Watching Radio Canada’s YouTube channel regularly, mostly as a means to immerse myself in French, I recently came across a lengthy video (screenshot above) in which Gérard Bouchard was interviewed about the CAQ’s proposed law on laïcité. The video was somewhat amusing since Bouchard expresses his views in a forthright manner, repeatedly insisting that while the separation of church and state is undoubtedly important, it is not clear how the proposed law strengthens this separation. He repeatedly states that there isn’t any evidence that wearing religious symbols leads to any compromise of the separation of church and state in practical terms. That, surely, is one of the sticking points in this political debate. I have been reading as widely as possible in the French newspapers and magazines on this topic. The level of acceptance of the argument Bouchard is pitting himself against is surprisingly wide.

April 15. When I started reading The Thing with Feathers (by Noah Stricker) I knew that I should be prepared to be annoyed. It’s a book about the scientific study of birds that aims to tell us what those feathery creatures reveal about being human. Yet what the book really does is make a great many assumptions about the relationship between natural science and philosophy. That was my suspicion beforehand, given the book’s title. And I was more or less right. Under the guise of popular science it smuggles in a particular and not uncontentious philosophical perspective without every really alerting the reader to this fact. That philosophical perspective is a mixture of empiricism and utilitarianism. Though, I would add, the book frequently stays on a very introductory level when making philosophical claims, drawing heavily on the aura of science to bolster its case. Regardless of this rhetorical ploy—after all, who would be so foolish as to disregard “science”?—every major statement made about the implications of bird behaviour for humanity in this book could be easily challenged. One particularly glaring example of this is found in the chapter that attempts to summarize research on bird behaviour (bowerbirds in particular) and what this might tell us about human art-making. The impression one would get from reading The Thing with Feathers alone is that the only major debates about art these days are those that derive from how to explain it on evolutionary terms. That is in interesting question, surely, and one well worth pursuing; but it is hardly the only major question about art, let alone the one most artists or philosophers of art are pursuing (simply scan a recent issue of Art Forum). Particularly galling is this chapter’s attempt to summarize how to understand art in a mere two or three pages. Yes, I understand that this is a book written for a popular audience, and that there are limitations of space and detail. However, if you are going to make bold and sweeping claims, and you want those claims to be taken seriously, not only is much more going to be needed, but sharply stated criticisms are to be expected. This chapter, like the book in general, can be described in its attempt to tackle complex philosophical questions in the light of scientific research with one word: shallow. That said, if you want to learn interesting things about birds based on scientific research (as I most certainly did), read this book. For at the end of the day most of its space is given over to birds, and on that it is quite interesting indeed.

April 18. Jason Kenney has been elected premiere in Alberta. Because I moved around a lot for post-secondary school, and my official residence remained Alberta for much of that time, I still feel a strong attachment to Alberta as “home.” When I voted provincially and federally, for a long time my vote was that of an Albertan. Mais, maintenant, je suis une Quebecoise. J’habite ici depuis 2012. Et j’ai voté ici à plusieurs fois, aux niveaux fédéral et provincial. En outre, il y a plus de chances que le parti et le programme politique que je préfère soient adoptés ici. Since my vote never “counted” when I voted in Alberta, since I always backed a losing cause, it’s been nice to have a different outcome here in Montreal. But when I see the nonsense spouted by Kenney and the classic political power-games being played, particularly his talk of Alberta being “open for business” and its blatant disregard for the future of our planet, there are moments when that still feels like a personal affront.

April 30. Reading a recent LRB (18th April, vol. 48 n. 8) article on bitcoin, a thought occurred to me. To repeat what I’ve written earlier, I am convinced that Marx was right to be suspicious of those who advocate a view of the world in which economics is depicted as a naturally existing sphere separate from politics. Apparently the original creator(s) of bitcoin projected it in libertarian terms, as something that would help humanity because it operated outside the political realm. But the article puts it bluntly: “politics saturates bitcoin.” Even cryptocurrency can’t hide its connection to and manifestation of sociopolitical wealth-power.

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