The Week's Conversations: Selling Carbon Pricing, Giving Female Authors their Due, Leitch Trumps, the Boyden Controversy

A weekly conversation between friends.

Note from the Editors

We went out for dinner this week — perhaps the only time we’ll all be together for at least a year. Predictably, it was a three hour free-for-all that touched on things like that subpar article on the clitoris in the Globe, the merits of Fauda, and the philosophical roots of Glen Coulthard’s Red Skin, White Masks (look for a longer piece on this soon). Also, why my opinion on that new Dirty Projectors song (“so-so”) was biased by the fact that I have been watching Lemonade on repeat for the last 3 days. I admit, I might have liked the song more had the video featured a woman smashing a car (like the new Metronomy… though I’d still prefer a baller mustard-coloured dress to the jean jacket).

But the conversation we keep coming back to surrounds our fascination with American news. Why do we keep sharing American think-pieces on racism and populism? Where are the quality Canadian commentators on these types of political issues? Why do big name Canadian writers seem more interested in provoking controversy than articulating well-founded positions? Why are we inundated with the likes of Jonathan Kay* and Andrew Coyne, but don’t seem to have a David Remnick (Doug Saunders and Marsha Lederman may be the closest we have)? How do we read and share Canadian news in a way that sparks the same nuanced conversations that we get out of a standard New Yorker article?

In some ways, it comes back to what we wanted out of The Harper Decade project: partisan-free conversation on important issues. No arguing just for the sake of it or giving time to bullshit issues of purely political significance. So, we’re working on how we might play a role in creating or sharing more of that content.

Mostly, we’re here, like all the other newsletters about these days, to earnestly share our obsessions; another small, quirky life raft in the sea of dead blogs and faltering platforms (good luck, Medium!). Thanks for joining.

*WTF was that Walrus piece on men’s rights activists? And Kay’s failure to remember his mother was on the board of one of the groups profiled? Spare yourself, and don’t read it.


Selling Carbon Pricing

On January 1, 2017, carbon pricing policies to reduce greenhouse emissions officially came into effect in both Alberta and Ontario. Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan includes an economy-wide carbon tax, while Ontario opted for a cap-and-trade system that integrates the province better with similarly situated jurisdictions.

The differences don’t end there. The two provinces also diverge significantly when it comes to the way in which they are selling their respective policies to residents.

In Alberta, Rachel Notley’s messaging focuses on how her plan provides economic benefits to the province during a period of transition, and outlines a path to continued jurisdiction over this area. It’s about household rebates, rewards for retrofitting, diversifying the economy, corporate tax cuts, and reaching new markets for Alberta oil. It’s direct and unemotional.  

While Kathleen Wynne’s government also mentions financial rewards, its focus is on selling the plan through a much more persuasive marketing campaign that will be sure to reach wider audiences. From the moral argument to act, to preserving aspects of Ontario that may be compromised by climate change, these advertisements mix seriousness with humour, and are translated into a number of different languages.

Alberta can learn from Ontario on how to effectively sell its climate change plan. Alberta should reconsider the decision to avoid touching on the moral or emotional arguments around reducing emissions through carbon pricing. Attaching this significance to carbon emissions is the best way to solidify support and undercut the rhetoric around the financial cost to act. At the very least, it should throw in some humour.

(h/t to Dave Cournoyer and his blog post on Alberta’s carbon tax for inspiring this piece.)


Who's Afraid of Female Authors?

By Zak Black

As we enter 2017, it's something of a relief to see that discussions of the best books of 2016 are replete with works by women. Zadie Smith's Swing Time, Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, Ann Patchett's Commonwealth, and Annie Proulx's Barkskins all appear in many of the most prominent conversations about the best fiction of 2016. The last of these is also refreshing for how emphatically it puts the lie to an old trope about women writers: that they lack the ambition and scope of a Melville or a Pynchon. Barkskins comes in at just over 700 pages and follows its protagonists and their descendants from the seventeenth century to the present, and from New France to New Zealand. (Read a review here.)

While there is a ton of great fiction being written by women right now, a bracing essay from the Harper's archives serves as a useful reminder that female authors have rarely received the same kind of attention as their male counterparts. Francine Prose, the author of the piece, shows persuasively that by both quantitative measures (number of pieces published by men and women in the New Yorker and Harper's; number of female and male recipients of major American literary awards; etc.) and qualitative ones (descriptors of female fiction like "sentimental," "fey," "trivial," etc.), women suffer from a gender bias in literary criticism. Though Prose was writing in 1998, her analysis remains pertinent, as a more recent study of literary criticism in Britain and the US, and another in Australia, show. Men continue to be overrepresented as both reviewer and reviewed. 

Asking her readers to compare excerpts and guess the authors' genders, Prose reveals to us our own tendency to read gender into literature when we don't know the author, or read literature into gender when we do. Consider the example of a group of college students who, after having been corrected for supposing that "Flannery" is a man's name, claimed retroactively that they could tell all along that the writer was a woman. In the words of one student, herself a woman, O'Connor's sentences seemed "sentimental," and "not concrete like a man's." Keep in mind that this is an assessment of an author who describes vehicular homicide (Wise Blood), or the drowning-death of a mentally handicapped relative (The Violent Bear it Away), with unblinking candour.

Our tendency to interpret each other's words through the lens of gender bias should of course concern more than just literary critics. But the case of literary criticism is particularly revealing. As Prose points out, almost none of the male critics to whom she refers would acknowledge preferring male to female authors, yet they prove themselves much more willing to trust male authors over female ones (in the zany world of postmodern fiction, trust can sometimes be everything), more willing to circumscribe the realm of female authors to the 'minor' matters of the heart and hearth, and more willing to punish with charges of incompetence those women who dare to write about subjects like war or economics.

But perhaps the problem runs deeper than a basic sense of male superiority. Prose quotes Virgina Woolf on the question of why men seem so intolerant of "the hard news" when told to them by a woman: "Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size... That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism... For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished." Margaret Atwood picks up on the same problem in an interview with the Paris Review: "Men are very sniffy about how they're portrayed by women... The male amour propre is wounded."

It's a bitter irony that men prove so sheepish about seeing themselves reflected back in female authors, in the midst of a society that has long coerced women into seeing themselves through men's eyes alone. Most of us want to see ourselves—but for this we prefer kindly mirrors. We like to know the truth about ourselves—but from friends who romanticize our faults even as they acknowledge them. One of the greatest gifts a work of fiction can give is to show us what had hitherto gone unnoticed. It's a cowardly reader who refuses that gift just because the revelation is unflattering.


Leitch Goes Full Trump

Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is trying to bring the rhetoric of white nationalism to mainstream politics in Canada. Her proposal to implement a ‘value screening test’ for new immigrants may sound innocuous compared to, say, a blanket ban on Muslims entering the United States, but both are rooted in an ideology that seeks to protect and prioritize the rights and privileges of white mainstream society at the expense of already marginalized groups and communities; one that seeks to other and demonize immigrants to Canada.

This week, Leitch went ‘full Trump’, first announcing that “she would charge immigrants a fee to cover the cost of her proposed Canadian values screening test at the border.” Next, in an email sent to her supporters on Sunday, she promised to “drain” the Rideau Canal of the influence paddlers and lobbyists.

High profile Canadians, including criminal defense lawyer Marie Henein, have begun to speak out. A recent blog post summarizing a recent speech by Henein paraphrased her argument as follows:

Kellie Leitch is running for the leadership of the federal Conservative party.  If she wins and the Conservatives come back into power, which they will, Kellie Leitch will be our next prime minister. It’s time for Canadians to stop suffering fools like Ms Leitch quietly.

Will other high profile professionals speak out against Leitch’s campaign? Will other civil society leaders step up? I sure hope so.


The Joseph Boyden Controversy

Writing in The Metro, Danielle Paradis tactfully introduces a number of questions — none with easy answers — that must be addressed to understand the (complex) controversy surrounding Joseph Boyden’s identity: What exactly does indigeneity mean? How do communities define themselves, and how are they defined by others? In what ways do colonialism and racism shape the way we approach or understand these questions?


'Spaced Invaders' by Sonny Assu at the Vancouver Art Gallery

‘Spaced Invaders’ by Sonny Assu. Part of    ‘Interventions on the Imaginary,’    on now at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

‘Spaced Invaders’ by Sonny Assu. Part of ‘Interventions on the Imaginary,’ on now at the Vancouver Art Gallery.

Meet the Indigenous Artist ‘Tagging’ Emily Carr Paintings:

“I really wanted to get back into exploring humour and having some fun and being playful with my work again,” [Sonny] Assu says. “And that’s where this series came out of as well... something fun, something playful.”
“The series was started as a response to my understanding at the time of Emily Carr’s work, influenced by Marcia Crosby’s essay ‘Construction of the Imaginary Indian,’” he says. “[I was] thinking about the misconceptions of Canada being this vast, open wilderness with very little to no inhabitants in it, and people witnessing Emily Carr’s works and thinking it was a documentation of this dying and vanishing race, and wondering how this misconception became commonplace.”

Dirty Projectors are Back

Dave Longstreth is one of indie rock’s most valuable and most versatile artists. Since the last Dirty Projectors album — the excellent Swing Lo Magellan (2012); a rewarding fusion of prog-rock, R&B, and Harvest-era Neil Young  — he’s worked with Blood Orange, Joanna Newsom, Kanye West and Rihanna, and, most recently, Solange (as a writer and producer, Longstreth was a major contributor to the critically acclaimed A Seat at the Table).

The good news: it sounds like the Dirty Projectors’ hiatus is over (though there remains no sign of Amber Coffman). The bad news: it sounds like Dave Longstreth has a seriously broken heart. “Little Bubble” is an intricate and beautifully melancholic ballad, with layered vocal melodies wrapped in warm, modulating orchestral strings. It’s unlike anything the band has released before. I’m very much looking forward to this album.


On John Berger

Reading someone’s obituary can be an odd way to learn about someone — things are a bit backwards. But that’s how I found John Berger, renowned Marxist philosopher, writer, and artist. But it's hard to box Berger in: he was a Renaissance man. What struck me in the tributes to Berger was how the simplicity in creating and observing art led to a unique style of interaction with his friends. Berger touched the lives of the people he met on a profound level.

As luck would have it, Colin MacCabe wrote an essay before his death on how Berger influenced how we see art. He writes of how Berger evolved Marxist thinking to shed itself “of belief in historical progress,” while carrying on a mission to “record the most important of social realities.” You can tell MacCabe has lost a friend and a mentor. MacCabe describes his interaction with Berger: “both the listening and the response are so charged that you feel you are in a heightened form of conversation.”

Ben Lerner writes a tribute to Berger in the New Yorker. Berger’s work tells us that “political commitment requires maintaining a position of wonder." Watching birds, people, or art all offer “an alternative to a world in which money is the only measure of value.”

Ben Lerner ends the tribute by quoting Berger’s poem:

Each pine at dusk
lodges the bird
of its voice
perpendicular and still
the forest
indifferent to history
tearless as stone
in tremulous excitement
the ancient story
of the sun going down

Tilda Swinton was another one of Berger’s admirers. She worked with Berger’s friends to create a film that pays homage to him. In the film, Swinton says “the last time I’d seen him after a long time apart, he looked at me before speaking for at least two minutes. And then told me, that my face had grown into itself.”


Links from the Week's Thread

Paula Simons debunks the misconceived, and often racist notion that Indigenous people in Alberta are all ‘exempt’ from the province’s new carbon tax: “[T]he persistent erroneous belief that “Indians” don’t pay taxes, or that Indian status somehow gives people super-duper marvellous benefits that others don’t enjoy, does corrosive damage to our social compact.

Two extremely accomplished, articulate women, Ausma Zehanat Khan and Monia Mazigh, have a conversation on feminism, Islam and civil liberties in the latest edition of the Literary Review of Canada: “Unfortunately, these initiatives to reinterpret some sensitive issues in Islam are disliked by traditionalists and judged inadequate by many feminists. So I am caught in the middle,” Mazigh explains. “No matter how insistently I call myself a feminist, I am judged otherwise, and no matter how much I call myself a religious Muslim, I am also judged otherwise.” Click here to read more about the Tunisian Truth and Dignity Commission mentioned in the conversation.

Vancouver-based journalists are raising the bar when it comes to their coverage of the city’s opioid crisis. Some recent examples include stories on the perils of cheque day, a grassroots supervised-injection tent that has finally received government funding, and on the role of street dealers in the context of the overdose crisis.

Vancouver Centre Liberal MP Hedy Fry calls out her government for failing to act on the opioid crisis because it hasn't yet spread to Ontario

Beyoncé interviews Solange.

This is the clearest article I’ve read on the white populist pull from both the left and the right in the US and Europe, to the detriment of the center (a result of placing economic/class concerns second to racial ones).

A disorienting trip into the future of driverless cars.

Amy Sanderson10/01/17