Thursday, 12 February 2015

On Censorship: Raziel Reid, Steven Galloway, and the Teachable Moment (Part One)

Before you go accusing people of censorship, you should know what it means. And when someone admits, after the fact, that he actually doesn't know the definition of the word--and he is acting director of one of the country’s most prominent creative writing programs—perhaps he should consider a new line of work.

The kerfuffle over the latest $25,000 Governor General Literary Award winner for children’s (text), When Everything Feels Like the Movies by Raziel Reid, illustrates a serious deficiency among Canada’s literati: despite the recent lessons of Charlie Hebdo, they apparently do not understand the definition of censorship. And perhaps even what “strong anti-gay sentiment” is. 

With its boatload of vulgar words, deeds, and images—a crack pipe doubles as an anal dildo, masturbation by crucifix, immortal lines like “His thick eyelashes were so dark that it looked like he bought them at the drugstore…I fantasized about gluing them on his eyes and then ripping them off when he climaxed,” or juicy lips that look “like she had just sucked on a tampon”--not to mention its pervasive cynicism and hopelessness--there’s little doubt Reid set out to ignite a minor Mapplethorpian sensation.

Well, he got it. It started with an article by Barbara Kay, the Montreal-based National Post opinion writer of a certain age; the headline says it all: “Wasted tax dollars on a values-void novel”.

After that came criticism by Kathy Clark, an Ontario children’s writer who objected to the book’s vulgarity. A petition to the Canada Council to rescind the prize was created, with Clark the first signatory.

I am a strong supporter of the freedom of speech and the petition does not suggest censoring the book,” Clark said. “It states that this is not quality literature and should not be rewarded as such. Raziel Reid is free to write what he wants, and I actually commend him for his intentions…in writing the book. It is the manner in which those intentions are carried out and expressed for a young audience that is at issue here.”
Reaction was swift and scathing. Vancouver writer and international bestseller Steven Galloway (The Cellist of Sarajevo, The Confabulist) attacked Clark on social media, calling her position

“disgusting…If you don’t value free speech . . . then you don’t deserve to call yourself a writer…I am ashamed of you and ashamed to share a profession with you.” 

The statement has over 400 Facebook “likes.”

Incredible: Galloway, acting head of UBC’s creative writing program—and 400 of his like-minded, ostensibly freedom loving comrades--consider a petition to be censorship, an attack on freedom of speech.

Sorry, but NOT.

Here is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (2004) on the subject (they define the noun, not the adverb):

Censor. noun. 1. an official authorized to examine printed matter, films, news, etc., before public release, and to suppress any parts on the grounds of obscenity, threats to security, etc. 2. Rom. hist. [means Roman History?] either of two annual magistrates responsible for holding censuses and empowered to supervise public morals. 3. Psych. an impulse which is said to prevent certain ideas and memories from emerging into consciousness.

So there you have it: censorship takes place when authorities—ie. those with real power-- issue fatwas, demand a book be withdrawn, remove it from schools/libraries, burn or otherwise prevent people from reading it. It would be censorship if Mr. Harper's Minister of literature turned around and said, “Take that sucker off the shelves. No one's gonna read about tampon lollipops on my watch!”  

No matter how hard Galloway et al. twists it, a petition to the Canada Council to reconsider an award just doesn’t qualifies as censorship in the real world. Just to be clear, despite his many other failings, Mr. Harper, of course does not have a Minister of literature.

In these “Je suis Charlie” times, how can Galloway possibly consider a petition censorship? In a long discussion cum argument on my Facebook page over the past 10 days—where he finally admitted that dissenters to a decision have the right of appeal (ie. that the petition is part of our right to free speech and dissent), Galloway wrote this (among other ageist and insulting comments) to Barbara Kay:

You have a newspaper column. I or any one of a number of other people I will see this week could also have such a thing with one phone call. We wouldn't even need our son to be on the editorial board…Asking the Canada Council to rescind a prize for the first time in its history because it has sexual content that you and others find distasteful is so retrograde it almost baffles the mind. You don't think it's harmful, but you're approaching this from the position of an entitled, privileged white woman who has a platform to have a voice in the world…When I suggested that we would collectively like to extract your head from your rectum, it was because you are resolutely unwilling to see the world from any perspective other than your own privileged position…. I feel sorry for you, and occasionally a slight bit ashamed at myself for speaking harshly to an elderly woman.
Apparently, individual white women are not entitled to their world view. What is it called when someone is considered part of a race/class of persons, and not an individual?

But it gets worse.

In a recent Guardian interview, author Raziel Reid, Governor General Award winner for the young adult novel When Everything Feels Like the Movies, characterized the tittle of negative reaction to his book as evidence of Canada’s “strong anti-gay sentiment.”
But Canada doesn’t have a “strong anti-gay sentiment.” In fact, it’s among the most gay-friendly places extant.

In 1967 (two years before Stonewall), then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau famously opined, “There's no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” right before he initiated an update of the laws on abortion, divorce, and homosexuality. In 2004, Canada became the fourth nation in the world (after the Netherlands, Belgium, and Spain) to legalize same sex marriage. These days, Lonely Planet says our home and native land is “hands down the most advanced and progressive nation in the Americas for the gay community.” They single out Toronto, third on their list of “most gay friendly places on the planet…a beacon for the LGBTQ traveller in North America.”

So does a petition against the awarding of a prize to this book mean we’ve turned into a country of gay-bashers? Get a grip...

[Also on]

Friday, 23 January 2015

Eugenie Bouchard's twirl should make us all mad

(Published in The Toronto Star, January 26th and The Montreal Gazette January 27th)

During a post-match interview a couple of days ago at the Australian Open, Eugenie Bouchard was asked by an interviewer working for the tourney, Ian Cohen, to “give us a twirl” to show off her outfit. In the clip I saw, Ms. Bouchard looks surprised and reluctant but, at the urging of Cohen and the crowd, performs her pirouette. Then she buries her face in her hand.

Ms. Bouchard is ranked 7th in the world in her sport. Do they make these kinds of requests of male top seeds? We all know the answer to that one.

Apparently, CBC Sports’ called the incident, “very unexpected.” Other media types called it “strange” and “odd.” Egregious is more like it. Why don’t men get how awful this was?

Let me connect the dots between the disrespect shown world-class athlete Bouchard and offenses like those alleged of Jian Ghomeshi. What does the Eugenie Twirl have to do with Ghomeshi? Plenty: both events cut to the heart of our society’s unequal treatment of the sexes and of the way females are socialized in our society. We’re trained to be nice and agreeable, to “go along to get along,” rather than to be autonomous individuals with the (at times prickly) human right to draw lines in the sand, demur, and even retaliate when reasonable boundaries are crossed.

I don't condone violence, but maybe feminists have been going about the quest for equality the wrong way. Perhaps it’s time to give women the physical skills that will empower us to use a little negative reinforcement, if necessary. Knowing we’re capable of cleaning their clocks might make a big difference to the way we are treated, not to mention what we’ll put up with.

Consider the case of Jim Hounslow, according to The Toronto Star, an e-learning specialist at the Winnipeg’s Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg. He was the guy who alleged his gonads were grabbed by Ghomeshi way back when Hounslow worked for Ghomeshi while they were both studying at York University:

“With no warning, he just reached over and grabbed my genitals (through Hounslow’s jeans) and started fondling them. I was completely shocked and I reacted,” Hounslow said.

Hounslow, who is roughly the same height and build as Ghomeshi (“I am built like a cyclist and I am a cyclist”), said he grabbed Ghomeshi’s arm, pulled it behind his back and then pushed Ghomeshi hard against the elevator doors.

“I told him, ‘You are never to do that again,’” Hounslow recalls.

Contrast that to Lucy DeCoutere’s account to CBC of her alleged 2003 assault:

They started kissing consensually, but, she said, Ghomeshi soon became violent.

“He did take me by the throat and press me against the wall and choke me,” DeCoutere said. “And he did slap me across the face a couple of times.”… She left within an hour and saw Ghomeshi two more times that weekend, but they did not discuss the incident, and no further violent incidents occurred.

My point is that we (as a society) still aren’t doing enough to ensure girls and women have personal autonomy. Instead of grooming them to be strong, we groom them to be nice, by-the-rule players. Compliant, agreeable, and decorative.

No wonder we so often end up beaten and raped. I believe many people, men and even  women, scoffed at reports that half of all Canadian women have been physically or sexually assaulted. But the virality of #beenrapedneverreported demonstrates that police charges truly are the tip of the iceberg.

Would the risk of being beaten up have deterred the activities of Dalhousie dental student “gentlemen’s club”?

What I want is a world where a small, cute woman is treated with as much respect as The Rock. I want a small, cute woman to be treated with respect because everyone deserves respect. But I'll take being treated with respect because of fear of a punch in the nose if that's all I (we) can get.

Women need to become more powerful as well as more empowered, and part of that means changing our approach to physical fitness, starting with youngsters. We need a revolution, the equivalent of the USA’s Title IX, here in Canada. Among other things, Title IX required American schools receiving federal funds to provide equal funds to both male and female athletic programs. We need self-defence courses, boxing, you name it. Whatever it takes to make us physically more powerful. Because the ability to write strongly worded letters clearly isn’t enough.

Most women understand why Ms. Bouchard pirouetted. Even Lucy DeCoutere’s behaviour is comprehensible, given Ghomeshi’s rainmaker status in the entertainment industry. But I think we can do more as a society to help women just say no to sexism and abuse.

Training women to be physically powerful—and aggressive as necessary—will hopefully create benefits beyond greater health and wellbeing. Done right, it will give women the confidence to say no—to the sexist treatment Ms. Bouchard experienced this week (though she, persists in calling it “funny”), to the attacks of abusers. Just say no to weak women. It’s time to go beyond slogans, and make sure our girls and women have the muscle that will make men think twice before mistreating us.

Friday, 9 January 2015

What a difference an (almost) decade makes: PEN Canada on Charlie Hebdo & the Danish cartoons

I'm glad to see that PEN Canada has finally decided to stop speaking out of both sides of its mouth with respect to editorial/satirical cartoons. Contrast this excerpt from their January 2015 statement to the one below on the 2005 so-called Danish cartoon controversy.

Freedom of expression is now "a fundamental human right," and presumably remains such even when it is actually exercised:

Maybe PEN should recall the words of that noted french writer Voltaire:

"I do not agree with what you 
have to say, but I'll defend to 
the death your right to say it."

What he actually said was, "What a fuss about an omelette!" But you can see why that didn't exactly catch on...

Well, PEN Canada, all I can say is better late than never.
From 2006: "PEN Canada supports the right of a free press to publish these cartoons, but also believes that a wise consideration of the principle of “voluntary restraint” would have led to better decisions."

Meaning, perhaps, "I'll defend your right to say anything you want, but hope to god you'll never exercise it..."

The 2006 PEN Canada statement, in its breathtaking Canadian niceness, is reproduced below.


Thursday, 8 January 2015

When cartoons aren't funny (from the archives)

Originally published in Toronto's now-defunct The Jewish Magazine, March 2006, at the time of the  Danish cartoon controversy.  I re-run it here in memory of those killed in Paris yesterday.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Review of Tim Johnston's new novel DESCENT: a page-turner!


I received this as an ARC via Librarything.

A well written but strange book. A sort of PG-13 version of the long-term abduction/rape of a young woman...

I've been doing a lot of reading about serial killers the past year or so (don't ask. Okay, it's because of Russell Williams. But that's another story) and I can tell Tim Johnston has read the same Ted Bundy books I have.

For what it is--a thriller with literary aspirations--it is well done. A bit slow moving in spots, oodles of suspense in the last third or so. But I can't escape the glossing over of the horror of two years in the life of a kidnapped 18 year-old woman...for those who couldn't handle the depths of depravity, don't worry: you won't find that in these pages. And I do understand why Mr. Johnston chooses to wrap his story around the daughter about to leave for university (it's on their final vacation as a family that the abduction takes place). It's the same reason that the princess must be rescued in every old video game and movie: the young virginal woman is worth more than rubies (except to Hobbits, maybe).

Still, this sanitized horror uses the pornography of sexual violence to pull our strings.

That being said, I hope he does well with it.

(Find me on Goodreads here)

Friday, 21 November 2014

Guest post: Jonathan Goldbloom, candidate for the Liberal nomination, Mount Royal Riding

Le français suit l’anglais


I prepared the text below in response to a request from the Canadian Jewish News to Anthony Housefather and me to submit brief articles on our respective candidacies. The newspaper is not going ahead with the initiative. I have, therefore, decided to share my contribution with you. 

My commitment is to be a strong voice in Ottawa for the Jewish community while being an effective representative of all residents of the riding. 

Shabbat Shalom.


Mount Royal: A Special Riding
An Article submitted to the Canadian Jewish News

Mount Royal is the federal riding with the largest Jewish population in Quebec.

This brings with it a special responsibility – one that has been admirably fulfilled by Irwin Cotler to be a strong voice on issues of importance to the community, from support for Israel to social justice and human rights.

As your Member of Parliament my commitment will be to build on Mr. Cotler’s work and my own track record to be an effective voice for the Jewish community in the Liberal Party and in Ottawa.
As a member of the Board of Directors of The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs and its predecessor, and as a communications strategist, I have worked with our community on key issues including the fight against government efforts to close Jewish daycares and the maintenance of kashrut in health care institutions. I provided strategic advice and support to the Jewish community in the battle against Pauline Marois’ Charter of Values and have helped garner support for Israel in Quebec City and Ottawa. I also played key roles in restoring civility to the Concordia campus in the aftermath of the cancellation of Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech and in reaction to the launch of Israel Apartheid Week.

Representing Mount Royal also brings with it a responsibility to build bridges of understanding with other communities. With over 80 cultural communities Mount Royal is one of the most diverse constituencies in the province. As I have crisscrossed the riding over the past months I have been struck by what we have in common, rather than by our differences.
The economic resurgence of Montreal is at the top of the list for all of us. We all want our children and grandchildren to have attractive opportunities and compelling reasons to stay in Quebec. We have a rare window of opportunity to ensure Montreal regains its vitality. But for that to happen the federal government has to come to the table, investing, for example, in research and innovation and infrastructure. Making this happen will be a priority for me.

Health care is another issue that resonates with everyone across the riding. The Harper government approach is to provide the provinces with a blank cheque. It refuses to establish national priorities and to work to foster collaboration between jurisdictions. Voters are looking to Ottawa for leadership and direction on a wide range of issues from support for our aging population and developing a national cancer strategy to responding to the alarming number of children with autism spectrum disorders. These are areas that I am very familiar with.
I entered this race for many reasons. I care deeply about Israel and the well-being of the Jewish community and will work tirelessly on your behalf. Secondly, I want to build bridges between all communities so together we can tackle the economic, social and environmental issues our city, our province and our country faces. Working together is how we can build a Canada that reflects all of our dreams and aspirations.

My father Victor taught me about the importance of public service. He entered public life because he wanted to serve the community, and I want to carry on that tradition. On November 30th my hope is that Mount Royal Liberals will put me one step closer to serving the Jewish community as well as all the residents of the riding in the House of Commons.


Chères amies, chers amis,

J’ai préparé le texte ci-dessous en réponse à une demande du Canadian Jewish News qui nous a priés, Anthony Housefather et moi, de soumettre un bref article au sujet de nos candidatures respectives. Comme le journal n’ira pas de l’avant avec cette initiative, j’ai pris la décision de vous faire part de ma contribution.

Shabbat Shalom.


Mont-Royal: une circonscription spéciale
Un article soumis au Canadian Jewish News

Mont-Royal est la circonscription fédérale dont la population juive est la plus importante au Québec.
Cela comporte une responsabilité toute spéciale – une responsabilité que Irwin Cotler a admirablement assumée afin d’être une voix forte sur des enjeux cruciaux pour la collectivité, qu’il s’agisse de soutenir Israël, de défendre la justice sociale ou de faire respecter les droits humains.

Si je deviens votre membre au Parlement, je m’engage à prendre appui sur le travail de M. Cotler et sur mes propres antécédents afin de représenter efficacement la collectivité juive au sein du Parti libéral et à Ottawa.

Comme membre du conseil d’administration du Centre consultatif des relations juives et israéliennes (et de l’organisme qui l’a précédé), et comme stratège en communications, j’ai travaillé maintes fois avec notre collectivité sur des enjeux cruciaux, y compris la lutte contre les efforts du gouvernement pour fermer les cpe juives et le maintien de la kashrout dans les établissements de soins de santé. J’ai fourni des conseils stratégiques et mon soutien à la collectivité juive dans leur lutte contre la Charte des valeurs de Pauline Marois, en plus de contribuer à obtenir des appuis pour Israël à Québec et à Ottawa. J’ai également joué un rôle crucial quand est venu le moment de restaurer un peu de civilité et de courtoisie sur la campus de Concordia dans la foulée de l’annulation du discours que devait y prononcer Benjamin Netanyahu, ainsi qu’en réaction au lancement de la Semaine contre l’apartheid israélien.

Qui dit représentation de la circonscription de Mont-Royal dit aussi responsabilité de jeter des ponts de compréhension avec les autres collectivités. Avec plus de 80 groupes culturels, Mont-Royal est certainement l’une des circonscriptions les plus diversifiées de la province. Lorsque j’ai sillonné la circonscription au cours des derniers mois, j’ai été frappé par tous les points communs qui nous unissent plutôt que par nos différences.

Nous avons tous la relance économique de Montréal comme priorité. Nous voulons tous que nos enfants et que nos petits-enfants aient des possibilités attrayantes et des motifs convaincants pour rester au Québec. Nous avons une occasion exceptionnelle de faire en sorte que Montréal retrouve son dynamisme. Par contre, pour y arriver le gouvernement fédéral doit d’abord se présenter à la table en investissant, par exemple, dans la recherche et l’innovation, ainsi que dans les infrastructures. Je m’engage à faire de cet objectif une priorité politique.

Les soins de santé constituent une autre question qui suscite l’intérêt de chaque personne dans la circonscription. La méthode du gouvernement Harper est de donner un chèque en blanc aux provinces. Il refuse d’établir des priorités nationales et de travailler pour favoriser la collaboration entre les juridictions. Les électeurs se tournent vers Ottawa pour que le gouvernement fédéral fasse preuve de leadership et de direction concernant un grand nombre de questions allant du soutien à la population vieillissante à l’établissement d’une stratégie nationale sur le cancer, en passant par le nombre grandissant et alarmant d’enfants atteints d’un trouble du spectre de l’autisme. Ce sont des domaines que je connais très bien.

De nombreuses raisons m’ont amené à me lancer dans la course. Israël et le bien-être de la collectivité juive me tiennent véritable à cœur et je travaillerai sans relâche en votre nom. D’autre part, je veux établir des ponts entre toutes les collectivités pour qu’ensemble nous puissions aborder les enjeux économiques, sociaux et environnementaux auxquels notre ville, notre province et notre pays sont confrontés. Le fait de travailler ensemble est la meilleure façon de bâtir un Canada qui sera à l’image de tous nos rêves et de toutes nos aspirations.

Mon père Victor m’a enseigné l’importance de la fonction publique. Il a lui-même fait son entrée en politique parce qu’il voulait rendre service à la collectivité, et je veux poursuivre cette tradition. Le 30 novembre, je souhaite qu’en votant pour moi les Libéraux de Mont-Royal me rapprocheront un peu plus de mon objectif qui est de servir la collectivité juive ainsi que tous les résidents de la circonscription à la Chambre des communes.

Jonathan Goldbloom

Candidat à l'investiture libérale fédérale en Mont-Royal
Candidate for Federal Liberal Nomination in Mount Royal  





Thursday, 20 November 2014

My Goodreads review of Sean Michael's Giller Prize Winner, US CONDUCTORS

(Just a brief one, not much detail or synopsis)

An extremely accomplished (first!!) novel that imagines, in exquisite detail, the lives of historical figures. Lev Termen was clearly a genius to whom we owe many diverse electronic inventions. I enjoyed this book...but:

--The choppy short sentences, especially prominent in the first half of the book, got on my nerves. Also, the detail was a bit too exquisite (50-100 pages-worth)

--Turns out I find the sound of the theremin quite repellant (though that's hardly Mr. Michael's fault)

--The story was only redeemed by Termen's suffering in the latter half of the book (aka thank goodness for the gulag). Unfortunately all too real.