Diary: March, 2019

Feb 25. From Anna Karenina: “he did not like to be contradicted, especially when he was met with arguments that incessantly shifted their ground, introducing new considerations without sequence so that it was difficult to know which of them to answer first.”

Feb 27. One of those historical events I’d like to take the time to learn more about: the Spanish Civil War. I’m reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and have got sucked into all the details and the “denominations” of left- and right-wing parties of that time. I had forgotten what “falangists” were.

March 1. Well, that February cold I had turned into some sort of March stomach virus. And it took me a full week to recover. I can’t remember another time as an adult when I was sick back-to-back quite like that.

March 9. While I have been aware of it, I haven’t given the fact that I’m turning 40 soon too much thought. Many people have asked me how it feels. I haven’t really had an answer. Most of the time when I hear the question it makes me think about when I was younger, about what I thought older people (around 40) were like. To my younger self they seemed older than I feel now. But perhaps that’s typical. Though I suspect part of the difference I feel may be due to the fact that attitudes towards aging have changed in the past 20 years.

March 17. Three books with overlapping subjects and perspectives that I’ve read in the past year or so, and which would make for an interesting discussion if talked about at once: E. M. Forster, A Passage to India (1924); George Orwell, Burmese Days (1934), Amitav Gosh, The Glass Palace (2000).

March 18. J’ai commencé un cours de français il y a deux semaines. Et je peux écrire ces phrases sans trop d’aide. (I started a French course two weeks ago. And I can write those sentences without too much help.) Obviously, when it comes to learning a language, much of it is about practice—repeat, repeat, repeat. It helps, then, that the course I’m taking runs five days a week, four hours a day. Though it is tiring. (I did turn 40 after all.) I haven’t been able to read or write as much as usual, which has been a little frustrating. While I can understand everything that the teacher says—my comprehension is ok—it requires a high level of concentration. She never speaks English, which is of course a good thing. Since the school placed me in a level based on a conversational interview, I am in an intermediate course. But my writing abilities and my grammar skills are probably not on par with that. Other students in the class with me, who have taken the previous levels, have a better grasp of basic grammar than I do. It has been too long since I studied French regularly—writing, grammar, listening for comprehension. At the same time, even though it’s only been two weeks, it seems I’ve already made some noticeable progress.

March 21. Today in the French course we had a somewhat intense conversation. The teacher began by asking something simple: is French a difficult language to learn? Pronunciation and grammar seemed to be the sticking points for most people. Of course English is anything but easy to pronounce, and its grammatical rules can be tricky too. The next question took up the remaining 30 minutes. It was: do you think we will ever live in a world where there will be equality between men and women? I was the only man in class today, in a group of about 12. The age of the other people in class would seem to range from those in their late 20s to me. I’m probably the oldest there. The discussion was as you might expect, especially given that it was taking place in Montréal. But it was also inflected by some interesting comments from people who are new to Canada—at least six of the women are from another continent, having arrived in the last year or so, and their first language is something other than English. I didn’t want to say much. I was content to listen. But, since I was the only man, and because everyone was supposed to practice speaking in French, I was asked my answer. J’ai dit que je voulais l’égalité entre les hommes et les femmes, mais, parce que des inégalités dans le monde en général et de l’inégalité au pouvoir, je n’ai pas beacoup d’espoir. I said that I want equality between men and women, but, because of inequality in the world in general, and because of a corresponding inequality of power, I don’t have great hope—I mentioned the gross inequality between the richest 10 people on our planet and the bottom half of the world’s population. I also said that those who have power very often seem to behave in ways that, consciously or not, reinforce that power, thus preventing greater equality.

March 26. So Candace and I are finally moving out of the Plateau. Moving means stress: all of the things to arrange, all of the places to notify, all of the valuables to move, all of the unknowns to try and anticipate. And it never quite works out the way you want. This time we’ve found an apartment we like. It’s not perfect, as such things rarely are. We could still use a little more space overall, for instance. But it will certainly do for a few years. Now the hard part. We have to find someone to take over the lease to our apartment. In posting it for rent online, within less than one day I had nearly 30 people contact me. We were a little nervous about whether or not we’d be able to find someone. But so far the response has been reassuring. I have shown over 10 people the apartment today alone, and at least one person has already applied to rent it. Fingers crossed.

March 27. A few times in the last few weeks I have been part of conversations about how to understand the Bible, and about how to understand the relationship between Christianity and its history. Obviously these are complex questions, requiring subtle answers. And, given my own professional training, I’m inclined to answer from a particular perspective, one informed by a historical-philosophical anthropology. Anyone who has spent much time with me discussing philosophical, historical, or religious matters, probably knows this. That’s why, for better or worse, Candace can easily name several of the thinkers whose arguments I have thought about a lot: Charles Taylor, Paul Ricoeur, J. G. A. Pocock, Quentin Skinner, Wendy Doniger, etc. Over a decade or more of reading, writing, and thinking, I’ve settled into what I hope is an open-minded, but grounded, way of approaching significant questions. Generally speaking, I find that the scope of the arguments made by people like those I’ve just listed tends to far outweigh the kinds of things I ever hear said in conversation. So, somewhat like the Levin quote I wrote down earlier this month, for me there’s a disjunction between everyday conversations, even with people who have relatively informed opinions, and the comprehensive arguments of writers such as Doniger. For these kinds of thinkers offer robust, rhetorically sophisticated, wide-ranging, and scholarly approaches to major questions. Which isn’t to say that those norms shouldn’t be constantly interrogated. However, I don’t have patience for unreflective personal anecdotes as illustrative of wider sociological or political claims when stated on their own, unconnected from comprehensive arguments backed by detailed and rigorous research. It’s not that anecdotes are useless. Far from it. But taken on the terms that people often state them in everyday situations? Those require qualification. Consider the current issue of the French-language magazine Philosophie. In several articles a scholarly/reflective attempt is made to understand the personal experience of those in France belonging to the “giletes jaunes” movement. This is just one small example of situating a social phenomenon (widespread popular anger at socio-political change) within a particular horizon in order to make sense of it. Regardless of how well or badly it is executed, such accounts represent a second-order attempt to understand and explain something better. Obviously not everyone will be persuaded that this form of reasoning and argumentation is superior. But to me the critical standard is of such a quality as to far surpass its rivals.

March 30. Reading Talal Asad’s essay “Multiculturalism and British Identity” this morning. The following quotes made me think of the present political moment here—i.e. La loi sur laïcité du Coalition avenir Québec.

“To recapitulate briefly: The political mobilization of Muslim immigrants in Britain to get The Satanic Verses banned produced an emotional reaction on the part of the liberal elite which was out of all proportion to what actually happened. It also produced an unprecedented statement from a government minister about British identity that was directed at the Muslim minority, a statement that was warmly welcomed as representative of liberal elite opinion.”

“In my view, the fear aroused in the Rushdie affair (…) has to do with a perceived threat to authority, not to power: more precisely, the fear is generated by the fact that people who do not accept the secular liberal values of the governing classes are nevertheless able to use the liberal language of equal rights in rational argument against the secular British elite, and to avail themselves of liberal law for instituting their own strongly held religions traditions. In that context, what is crucial for government is not homogeneity versus difference as such but its authority to define crucial homogeneities and differences.”

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