By David Law
These are gloomy times. The White House appears to be occupied by a drunken bear hypnotized by his Russian ringmaster, Canada’s Prime Minister changes costumes more often than Lady Gaga and the daily news is filled with fresh disasters. Yet Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker is having none of the dire outlook propagated by the news media. He has been to the mountaintop, and he’s brought PowerPoint slides back down with him to show you. Armed with those slides, a sunny disposition and the findings from his new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress, Pinker brought the good news to Ottawa’s Southminster United Church. A standing room-only crowd cheered his thought-provoking lecture.
An award-winning graduate of Dawson College, McGill University and Harvard, Pinker is an experimental psychologist with a prodigious knowledge of the Western tradition. Pinker has a fierce commitment to reason over passion, as well as an appetite for contrarian positions. Married to wit, these ingredients have rocketed Pinker into popular esteem. Pinker is after more than popularity, though: he is a man on a mission. Nothing less than a widespread revival of confidence in reason, science, humanism and progress will satisfy his public yearnings. Why? So that we can all continue to “enhance human flourishing.” A weighty goal perhaps, but if you tie enough balloons to an anvil, eventually it will fly.
Beginning with a stockholders’ meeting-style slide show where all the bad arrows (such as hunger, poverty, and war) trend downwards, while all the good ones (like democracy, literacy and life expectancy) point up, Pinker demonstrated why widespread despair is simply unfounded. According to the statistics, today’s world is safer, fairer, more generous, less violent, better fed, and better read than it was fifty years ago. Pinker’s presentation was a persuasive tonic for an audience thirsty for good news.
In puncturing the gloom, Pinker did more than lift the spirits of the assembled crowd. Indeed, his true purpose was to demonstrate his thesis at work: facts are better than beliefs. And it is religious, political and cultural beliefs which can make us blind to the truth. Following Pinker’s brief talk, interviewer Adrian Harewood of the CBC took the professor for a walk amongst the sacred cows of contemporary culture. It was a fun hunt, especially in a church sanctuary. Yet Pinker was after fresher game than weary Christianity or rabid Islamism. His sharpest harpoons sunk into the hides of more modern shibboleths:
Harewood didn’t let Pinker off the hook easily. “But what about indigenous beliefs?” Harewood asked, nudging Pinker towards the third rail of our politics. “Is indigenous knowledge wrong?” Tiptoeing carefully on this thinnest of Canadian ice, Pinker said indigenous culture “deserves respect” but – if it contradicts science – sure, it is wrong. Another victim of Pinker’s assault on popular values was the praise lavished on well-known saintly figures like Mother Teresa. You might think Mother Teresa was a great person, Pinker said, “but how many lives did she save? None.” Better for us to admire someone like scientist Norman Borlaug, whose dwarf wheat plants have averted famines and saved a billion lives since 1965. “But is it just about numbers?” Harewood asked, flailing a bit. No, Pinker countered nimbly, but “if you don’t look at the numbers, you don’t know what you’re talking about. . . A number has a moral value.”
In keeping with his general disdain for popular sentimentality, Pinker finished the evening with a sharp dig at political militancy. “The global market economy is a far more powerful force for progress than political protest” he said. “After all, smallpox wasn’t cured by student protestors, but by people working in a laboratory.” Reason over passion, indeed.
In her opening lines, the host of Monday evening's closing event, Carleton University's Susan Birkwood interpreted the title "Just between us" as suggestive of intimacy, confidentiality, and exclusivity. In a way, she was right for mulling over the themes of identity, selfhood, and belonging is inherently a very personal, intimate affair. Nevertheless, the atmosphere the three exceptional authors thoughtfully guided by Susan created for their attentive audience was one of openness, inclusion, and curiosity.
Prefaced by authors' readings of their respective novels, the pensive discussion that ensued left me wondering: Who am I? Am I truly one of a kind? These are fundamental questions that, to a certain extent, each of the three books' main protagonists are grappling with. Inevitably, family bonds and the relationship we have with those closest to us shape and define who we become and what kind of a relationship we build with ourselves. By offering us a sneak peak into their most recent literary works, Terry, Eliza, and Michael showed us that twins, whether real or imaginary, could irreversibly disrupt the status quo of our state of mind.
In the case of Terry Fallis' newest book, One Brother Shy, unexpected reunification with an estranged twin brother pushes Alex MacAskill further outside of his comfort zone than he'd ever imagined and awakens in him a whole new world of possibilities, a side of his identity he had never knew existed. The idea of twinning is prevalent, albeit more metaphorically, in Eliza Robertson's Demi Gods, which explores a complex and mystery-infused relationship between a stepbrother, Patrick, and stepsister, Willa, mirrored against their two other siblings. Michael Redhill in Bellevue Square creates a masterfully crafted female character, Jean, whose sense of self and personal sovereignty are questioned and threatened when she is alerted to the prospect of sharing the world with a doppelgänger.
The past is ever present; it remains engraved in our personality's coat of arms; what's more, it is a red dot that flickers like a lighthouse in the night, alerting us to that which has remained unresolved and misunderstood. Ultimately, it accentuates the three protagonists' present difficulties as they confront their other I's. Alex MacAskill is haunted by the memories of a vicious bullying incident; Jean must learn to live with post partum depression; and Patrick has a dark, controlling, manipulative streak that affects his behaviour towards Willa.
Visibility is both helpful and oppressive at the same time. Surveillance is watching the other, observing oneself, and defining the self. In the end, it is up to us how much of ourselves we let on, what we choose to reveal to the outside world. Or is it? For there are instances, such as those in which Alex, Patrick, Willa, and Jean find themselves that have the power to crack through the thick surface of our identities and transform our worlds, our status quos.
Monday evening's exceptionally well-curated and free-flowing conversation between three Canadian authors who are as eloquent in person as they are on paper took us on an exploratory literary journey of the deep and complex self, interwoven with moments of genuine humour and authenticity. The latter is a simple equation consisting of just the right amount of details and corkiness (T. Fallis) and little examples from your everyday life, including habits, quirks, or pet peeves (E.R.). After all, it rings true that being authentic is being yourself.
“Maximum Canada” isn’t a phrase usually associated with our nation of frequent apologies and cold weather. Yet, as Doug Sanders asserts, Canada has sometimes undermarketed itself to the world and its own citizens. In a lively conversation with the CBC’s Adrian Harewood, Saunders outlined the unexpected costs paid by all who live in this lightly-populated land. A vigorous public question-and-answer session followed the presentation, and Saunders successfully defended his thesis. We are indeed a nation limited by a certain lack of critical mass, not in land or natural resources, but in population. Canada simply lacks the mass of artists and architects, laborers, venture capitalists who make a country a viable independent whole. As a result, we are a nation of small cities, a place in which 10% of the population can be found abroad at any one time.
Saunders began his presentation by outlining the challenges faced by his Ontario ancestors, outlining a world in which devotion to the Loyalist cause, as well as fear of annexation by the United States, blinded many to the actual needs of a developing urban industrial economy. Canada, of course, is not alone in viewing itself through a distorted mirror. Many nations have idealized rural visions of their culture and economy long after the land ceased to be a practical means of support for their populations. Sadly, Canada is far from alone in resisting immigration, nor its brutal repression of native populations. But Canada is alone, Saunders counters, in its continued underestimation of the number of people required to sustain a viable, independent nation into the 22 nd century.
Population density limits Canada’s future in several unexpected arenas. In addition to lacking the people to fill specific empty jobs, for example, the nation suffers from the lack of the solid infrastructure a larger population could fund via a more prosperous tax base. Denser cities could foster a more vital environment for small businesses and start-ups. Such places would certainly provide the ridership for more sustainable mass transit options. A similar lack of base population limits the creation and provision of culture: smaller potential audiences mean fewer successful playwrights, musicians and performers.
Saunders’ ideas are shaped by the time he spent in the US and UK developing his own skills as a journalist; he asserts that time abroad is all but mandatory in many career fields. The private sector also suffers from its small size. Fewer venture capitalists and a nationwide aversion to experimental investment means that such profitable everyday items as the telephone and Kraft’s “American” cheese were invented and marketed by Canadians working south of the border. Indeed, Canadian demographers have noted that Canadian outmigration has exceeded in-migration in almost every year since Confederation. Human population is not static, and as Saunders reminds us, this peaceful nation of the North will have to work hard to attract and retain people to live here if it wants to remain either its global influence or its domestic comforts.
Payam Akhavan, the accomplished Iranian-born law professor and practitioner of international criminal justice, is perhaps an unlikely candidate to guide the Canadian public in transcending apathy and materialism towards a more emphatic existence. Yet that is precisely what he has achieved through his surprisingly personal Massey Lecture, In Search of a Better World.
Akhavan has been on the front lines of efforts to end impunity for perpetrators of crimes against humanity since his time as a Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor’s Office of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague. He has witnessed the raw materials of mass atrocity -- the Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines radio station serving as the mouthpiece of the Rwandan genocide -- and understands that grave breaches of international humanitarian law are usually preceded by public campaigns of hate. For the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers, but rather with words -- as Canada’s Supreme Court has affirmed. As such, the current environment of rising polarization gives pause to someone like Akhavan who has witnessed the terrifying manifestations of intolerance left unchecked.
I have not yet had the chance to read Akhavan’s work, so will not attempt a review -- suffice it to say that it calls for transformation in two spheres, firstly at the level of the individual as we learn to find empathy with another’s suffering, and secondly through an “injection of social justice” within the system of global integration, which is facing unprecedented pressure to demonstrate its vitality.
At its core, Akhavan is expanding upon a mantra of his mentor and fellow McGill Faculty of Law colleague, Irwin Cotler, who repeats the teaching of his mother that “if you want to pursue justice, you have to feel the injustice about you.” We are eager to cloak ourselves in righteousness but not to take to action. There are important lessons here for journalists, who often leave people feeling powerless in the face of evil; and politicians, who have been known to compete over capacity to express remorse rather than capacity to act (he points to a partisan debate in the Canadian House of Commons about the plight of Yazidis as a particularly egregious example of mud-throwing).
Akhavan discovered empathy for human suffering as a teenager -- already quite comfortable in his new Canadian life -- while reading of the brutal murder of Mona, a Baha’i girl his own age from Shiraz. Mona was arrested and executed for the mere act of writing an essay on the persecution of her people and systematic violations of their freedom of conscience. Mona’s death “changed everything” and launched a quest to understand how evil takes shape. It was not long before Akhavan was working on the Yugoslavia tribunal, where he confronted peace advocates who feared international criminal justice would erode their efforts towards stability -- yet Akhavan continued to find evidence that post-conflict peace cannot be achieved without justice and ending impunity for the perpetrators of heinous crimes.
In recent days, Akhavan’s thoughts have drifted away from sites of acute terror and towards the current status in Kim Kardashian’s North America. He identifies deep despair among American intellectuals in the age of “the orange man in the White House” and is disdainful of the ‘Davos man’ who is so eager to join celebrities at panel discussions on global challenges, but not to “connect with the reality of human suffering” and feel the injustice inherent in the shocking socioeconomic inequality that Oxfam recently documented. He suggests the following antidote to despair: help others and, in doing so, retrieve one’s own authenticity. Later he added that being “spiritually reflective” is a crucial tool for maximizing our contributions in society.
Speaking of authenticity, what made Akhavan’s presentation so engaging was his ability to weave in glimpses of his integration into -- and embrace of -- Canada. He described his astonishment that Canadian shopkeepers were unwilling to haggle over prices and admitted that he would play house music at family gatherings, his elderly relatives singing along to the course language without understanding a word.
Akhavan’s call to action is resonating with Canadians from coast to coast, and Ottawa -- despite being excluded from the Massey Lectures tour -- was no exception, with Writersfest organizers having to add extra chairs in an already packed room. The Question and Answer period revealed a thoughtful and compassionate audience. The raw materials for a more empathic society are certainly present in our community, and they stand ready to be harnessed on an urgent basis -- not necessarily through the sort of grand campaigns for justice that have formed the bulk of Akhavan’s career, but also through Mother Theresa’s “small acts with great love.”
A pub crawl.
In the aftermath of our Canada 150 celebrations, what better way to keep the spirit alive than a pub crawl with friends?
I’ll tell you one better way.
Do it with friends from Newfoundland.
That is what happened on the nights of July the 4
and 5th on Elgin Street in Ottawa, where 6 Newfoundland authors had converged to celebrate the most loveable elements of Newfoundland life, as portrayed in their stories.
First stop: The Lieutenant’s Pump.
Deep in the interior of an establishment laid out in odd but conjunctive corners, we gathered to hear Eva Crocker, author of
As a young person born into the lee side of the millennium, Eva was able to present a view of life from a youthful perspective, with all the challenges and advantages that come with it.
She read, with a sweeping poetic lilt, words that she had authored with a depth and intelligence beyond her years, but from a reservoir not unlike that of her mother’s, as we'd find out later.
A pint and some banter, and we were across the street to climb upstairs into The Cross on Elgin to listen to Edward Riche.
Edward read from his current offering,
Today I Learned It Was You
, with an account of a nearly realized bar brawl narrowly averted by some moral intervention.
Riche’s voice flowed with that rolling Newfoundland rhythm that is so entertaining to hear.
To end the night, we sauntered northward to Woody’s Pub, where Lisa Moore, mother of Eva Crocker, took the mike.
Her story for the night was not set in a pub, but concerned a common result of any productive pub crawl, an unplanned sexual encounter.
She described the tryst in forceful, explosive language from that reservoir that I described from her daughter’s reading.
It was the perfect end to a rollicking ride, with all the saucy conversation and sordid stories that a night on the town should have.
We all went home after finishing our drinks, knowing this was just the intermission and there was a second night to come.
The next evening, we reconvened at the Lieutenant’s Pub to listen to Bridget Canning read from her novel
The Greatest Hits of Wanda Jaynes,
which is a story about an average woman facing the severance of her job only to be redeemed by an random, impulsive act of bravery.
It was amusing to listen to Wanda’s ‘hangry’ thoughts leading up to the climax, but as the action took off, not a head in the room moved, so raptly did Bridget’s voice hold our attention.
Across the street again to The Cross on Elgin, it was Robert Chafe’s turn to read. Although he was a decorated playwright, his book,
2 Man Tent
was his first work of fiction.
He read an account of a man out on the town with his girlfriend when they meet a flamboyant gay man to whom the protagonist takes an immediate and excessive dislike, although later the man is forced to face his own latent homosexual feelings.
Again, the audience was captivated by the raw emotions in the narrative and sat transfixed on Robert’s every word.
Lastly for the night, it was at Woody’s Pub again where we gathered to hear Kathleen Winter read from her book,
Freedom in American Songs.
She started with an anecdote about how she revisited shops on Bank Street here in Ottawa where she had lived as a student when she was younger, and noted how different sex shops were between here and Montreal.
Her shameless and candid story was the perfect moodsetter for her story about a farmer in Newfoundland who, usually quiet and shy, becomes much more outspoken after some drinks at an intimate get-together. Her narrative was full of everything I love about Newfoundland writing, where everyone knows everyone else, and their business, the strong sense of community woven into every paragraph like a family that one can never escape.
Tom McMillan didn’t have an easy trip to the Ottawa Writers Festival. As he took the mic to talk about his first book, Not My Party: The Rise and Fall of Canadian Tories, from Robert Stanfield to Stephen Harper, he told the audience about a series of travel hiccups that occurred on the way from Boston to Ottawa, including accidentally striking up a conversation with a person who did not share his views on the current Conservative Party of Canada.
The audience laughed, and we were off to the races for a fascinating evening.
McMillan is nothing short of an expert on the history of the Tories in Canada. His 500+ page book with very small font and almost non-existent margins (an observation made several times by the author himself) wouldn’t suggest otherwise. He explained that the Party was founded in 1850 – before Canada was even a country – and was created to found, birth, and create, this country (in essence, to make Canada possible).
While he certainly had all the facts and figures, McMillan also displayed an undeniable personal passion for conservative politics in Canada.
One of McMillan’s key points was that the 2003 merger of the Progressive Conservatives Party and the Canadian Alliance Party has stripped the current Conservative Party of its fundamental values and priorities. Political correctness was thrown out the window when he called the merger “an earthquake,” and added that the Party has been “hijacked” by a bunch of “wackos.”
His book is part memoir and part manifesto. Host John Geddes focused on the memoir aspect and asked McMillan about his family’s influence on his involvement and commitment to the Progressive-Conservative Party of Canada. McMillan spoke beautifully about his father’s belief in community service, and how one’s own salvation is tied to serving others. He extended this idea to the appeal of the Conservative Party’s historical commitment to activism and unity.
Geddes also asked McMillan about the process of writing such a detailed and dense history. He answered that he immersed himself in documents of every sort: correspondence, memos, letters, and even his own personal material. It was undeniably evident that for McMillan, writing this book had not only been a deeply fulfilling venture, but it had been a labour of love.
As the evening wrapped up with a few thoughtful questions from the audience, it occurred to me that Not My Party is not a personal memoir or Party manifesto; rather, it is a love letter to Canada. McMillan was clear that he is not pessimistic about the future. Instead, he sees our current moment as a time ripe for change, growth, and restoration.