A Historical Intellectual Frame

In September, Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths: A History of the United States, will come out as a Norton publication. Yesterday, I heard the last of her three Priestley lectures at the University of Toronto respectively on Facts, Numbers and Data, the core material that went into that book. The lecture yesterday was on data. The volume offers an account of the history of the United States in terms of shifts in what counts as the key evidence for establishing what we can believe in successive eras – the Era of Truth, the Era of Numbers and the Era of Data. It is a bold neo-Hegelian thesis, and, in that very mode, runs counter to what is accepted as history by most historians.

The book, and the lectures, argue that societies change as the technologies change as the concepts embedded in those technologies change and offer new ways through which to view the world. Thomas Jefferson called “these truths” upon which the U.S. republic was founded political equality, natural rights and the sovereignty of the people. I will map onto her lectures the development of these truths, each as the primary core of the three eras she discusses and to which she only alluded in the lectures. I will not offer the political, economic and social dimensions of society arbitrarily. Instead, I will superimpose on her intellectual framework the core thesis of a French philosopher and intellectual historian, Marcel Gauchet, another rare neo-Hegelian. His ideas were put forth in his four volume, Avènement de la démocratie (The Advent of Democracy) published between 2007 and 2017, the same ten years in which Lepore developed her thesis.

If that is not complicated enough, I will superimpose my own institutional history of the university on that intellectual framework and use the Lepore and Gauchet frames to elaborate on the emergence of successive ideas of the university over the same period. As any Hegelian will do, Lepore writes of a nation that begins in contradiction and the fight over the meaning of history informed by the central preoccupation of the United States with race that brings about the special anxieties and anguish that trouble America. Given Gauchet’s work and my own, my thesis will be broader in one sense but narrower in another since my prime reference will be the emergence and development of the university worldwide but primarily by reference to that institution as it develops in Canada.

To make matters more difficult, I will first work backwards by initially discussing the third of her Priestley lectures on data that she gave yesterday and then move backwards to discuss numbers and facts. In that context, I will put forth the core idea of the university as a Social Service Station (SSS) first and then go back to discuss the idea of the University as a Sanctuary of Method and, previous to that, as a Sanctuary of Truth. Before I offer that intellectual guide map, I will present a triptych of Lepore’s, Gauchet’s and my framework in a static mode of simple succession. Only then will I go back and move forward to depict the dynamic progression of contradictions that plague each era and help yield the next stage. I will include the final stage of the university as a supermarket of ideas and a post-truth world in a separate discussion at the end of the series.

Jill Lepore is the David Woods Kemper ’41 Professor of American history at Harvard. She is also a staff writer for The New Yorker and I may have referred to those writings on such varied subjects as barbie dolls and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in previous blogs. Relatively speaking, Lepore is a rising bright star in the intellectual heavens having received her BA in English in 1987 from Tufts, her MA in American culture in 1990 at the University of Michigan in 1990 and her PhD at Yale in 1995. In just over two decades, this sprightly and down to earth historian of popular culture has cut a swath through academe. The triptych presented below, without the additions of Gauchet and my own conceptions, is what she presented in her Priestley lectures as the character of three very different ages of determining what we know, how we know it and why we know to explain the character of these shifts.

Stages (what?) Facts Numbers Data
Themes
Modes (how?) Discernment Measurement Patterns
Goals (why?) Truth Power Prediction
Rough dates 1800’s 1900-1960 1960-2020
Primacy People Science Progress
Realms Civil Society Economics Neo-liberalism
University Sanctuary of Truth Sanctuary of Method Social Service Station

In one sense, the above depicts the stages of the birth and development of historical consciousness in modernity. For modernity itself since the development of the nation-state in the sixteenth and seventeenth century has prioritized change over stasis, a vision of dynamic transformation over pre-existing truths. In the mediaeval period, the dominant idea of the polity was of the King’s Two Bodies that provided the essential characterization of the politics of a society built on the divine right of kings, the very conception that gave rise to the notion of a ‘body politic.’ (Cf. Ernst H. Kantorowicz The King’s Two Bodies: A Study of Mediaeval Political Theology; the book was first published in 1957 and was one of the seminal works that informed my own thinking – a revised edition, which I have not read, was published recently by Princeton University Press) The core thesis, which I quote, is the following:

The king’s natural body has physical attributes, suffers, and dies, naturally, as do all humans; but the king’s other body, the spiritual body, transcends the earthly and serves as a symbol of his office as majesty with the divine right to rule. The notion of the two bodies allowed for the continuity of monarchy even when the monarch died, as summed up in the formulation “The king is dead. Long live the king.”

As in the contemporary era, the university went through four stages in the mediaeval period with its own version of a Sanctuary of Truth, A Sanctuary of Method, a Social Service Station and a Supermarket of Knowledge. (See Howard Adelman, The Holiversity) In that period, there were two radically different realms, the eternal one above that ruled over the changing one below, the realm of eternal and the realm of transience.

Gauchet dubs it the state of heteronomy in contrast to modernity governed by the concept of autonomy, the capacity for self-determination and the ability to make one’s own laws and self-legislate. According to Gauchet, in the period of modernity, democracy emerged as the prime political system and the nation-state the prime political unit to express this idea. In my view, not elaborated in this series, what we find is the rediscovery of the ancient Israelite conception of the nation-state via the Dutch thinkers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries now wedded to a revised version of the Greek concept of democracy.

In Gauchet’s version, modernity begins the process of leaving religion behind in the dustbin of history. Gauchet is an avowed French secularist. In my own view, in modernity the divine re-enters history as a process of self-revelation rather than the view of an unchanging deity ruling from a transcendent perch on its wayward and contentious empire below. On the surface, and on the surface only, modernity gives the appearance of leaving religion behind but really re-incorporates religious notions in a sense of spiritual revelation over time. The religion left behind is that of the totem of hunter-gatherer societies in which fate lies in the hands of the supernatural Other, either embedded in a world of natural spirits or disembodied from the natural world first by nomads who are not hunter-gatherers but move their domesticated flocks alongside them.

To jump to the present, we have entered a period in which democracy is in crisis, in which the university is in crisis and in which a sense of powerlessness has become the defining notion in radical contrast to the original vision of autonomy and self-determination. The symptoms include an obsession with an apocalyptic outcome and destruction of the natural world that lies at the core of environmentalism and the predominant mode of the new fiction and sci-fi movies. Instead of individual self-determination, politics has become for us liberals identity politics. Instead of politics as a collective enterprise of communal self-realization, it has become the realm in which personal fulfillment is the dominant mode. As a consequence, the core of a democracy, has been sucked from the plum to leave behind a dried and wrinkled prune. As privacy disappears, so ironically does the sense of the public.

One final note on Hegel and neo-Hegelian thought. Hegel has been radically misinterpreted through a Marxist lens and my own scholarship on Hegel focused on a reinterpretation to unpack the central religious themes of Hegel. While the dominant populist intellectual belief was that Hegel was convinced that history led to a terminus, to a final point of unity. I, and the rest of the Toronto Hegelian school, contended that history was not about the absolute as the end of history, for the absolute was always with us from the start. At each stage of historical self-revelation, the absolute takes on a new chimera and projects a new illusion of unity that will soon be fractured by its internal contradictions. Rather than coming to the end of history, rather than Hegel pronouncing on the character of that end, he wrote that, “The Owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

Contrary of the current character of the world of data preoccupied with its positivist emphasis on prediction, in history, we can only understand it backwards. That is the perpetual tragedy of history. As soon as we recognize the contradictions of an era we have moved on to a different age with its own internal contradiction. Hence, not a new unity but new forms of fragmentation and forces of dissolution.

I will begin next week with describing the age of data, the process of its emergence and the forces within it of dissolution with a focus on the dissolution of the Social Service Station that is in the process of being transformed into a supermarket of knowledge. Let me try to be clear. Each stage is not a discrete unit separate from the previous stage. It emerges out of the contradictions of that early stage out of elements of technology, of communication and of a mind-set emerging in that earlier stage. In this alliance of convenience of two successive stages, the defined enemy is always, not the previous stage, but the stage prior to that. It is a way of covering up current contradictions while displacing blame on that which has already been cast into the dustbin of history.

I will go back to trace the series of crisis that develop out of the contradictions in each stage to try to provide the background of why, when we have accumulated not only more knowledge than at any previous time, but the means to access even much more while, at the same time, we perhaps have never felt so impotent accompanied by the feeling that society has careened out of control. What happened to the idea of autonomy and self-determination. In the film Annihilation that I wrote about in the last blog, the central conceit hidden behind the martial mission film genre and the horror film genre was a conception of alien forces, not only taking possession of our selves and our brains in the world of big data, but of the very DNA of life in the whole of the living natural realm by becoming the ultimate body snatcher and controlling the central messaging system of our DNA to create new monsters, hybrids and mutations.

It is the roots of this dystopia of impending doom and its emergence that we need to come to understand. Just when we seem to have become the masters of our destiny, society is more than ever pervaded by a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in spite of the bursts of volcanic energy from high school students in America and women in America. Is it possible and how can we recover the original bold claim that we are masters of our destiny?

One last caveat. After Lepore’s lecture, which one of my grandsons attended with me, we went out to dinner together. He expressed an unbridled confidence in the wonders and indeed miracles that reside in the new realm of data. In my account, I will have to explain this overwhelmingly utopian vision in juxtaposition to the dystopic one that I sketched above.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Sunday: Facts, Numbers, Data: The Social Service Station

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

 

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Populism

Yesterday was very busy. I attended the lunch hour talk at Massey College by Cliff Orwin on “Populism.” I then went to my dentist and heard the disappointing news that my implants were not yet fused solidly enough to my jaw bones to put on crowns; I would have to wait another two months. I then returned to the University of Toronto and attended the J.F. Priestley lecture delivered by Jill Lepore on “Facts.” Today and tomorrow I will attend the second and third of these lectures by Jill Lepore on “Numbers.” And “Data” respectively. The three-part series is called, “The End of Knowledge.” In the evening I returned to Massey College to listen to a panel discussion on “Religion and Conflict.” I will report on each in turn in this and subsequent blogs as a way of gaining an understanding of the university as a Social Service Station.

Cliff is a brilliant scholar who was educated at Cornell University under the aegis of Allan Bloom and at Harvard in the sixties and then, like many American academics, migrated north. He is a professor of political philosophy renowned for his work on Thucydides (The Humanity of Thucydides), but is also engaged with modern, contemporary and Jewish thought. In his own bio, he writes that his main current concerns are compassion and the emergence of justice or righteousness in the Torah. Coincidentally, at the panel on “Religion and Conflict,” Rabbi Yael Splansky, one of the panelists, handed out a drash (an interpretation of religious text) from the Talmud, Bereishit Rabbah 8:5, that dwelt on the interplay of kindness or compassion, truth, justice and peace. As is customary, it is written in the form of “on the one hand” and then “on the other hand” in an argument among the angels over whether God should create humans. Because humans will be bestowed with compassion and justice – Cliff’s two current topics – in the angel’s eyes, this argues for human creation. However, humans will also be characterized by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and with the propensity for conflict and dissension rather than peace, the arguments offered for not creating humans.

These will be the four themes that run through the next series of blogs – the expression of compassion and the quest for justice offset by the propensity to lie rather than seek the truth and the propensity for dissension or conflict rather than peace. What does God do after listening to the debate amongst his angels? He “took truth and flung him to the ground. Thus it is written: ‘You will cast truth to the ground.’ (Daniel 8:12)” “Why did you do that?” asked an angel. Why would you despise your seal of truth since truth must rise from the ground? “Truth will grow from the earth.” (Psalms 85:12)

Two historians of the past and a rabbinic scholar on the same day are really all mesmerized by the issue of truth in juxtaposition with developments in the external world. The scholarship of the two professors is used to offer different reasons for the current passion to denigrate “truth” and to explain why this is so. They are not addressing abstract topics, but issues we now confront daily. They may be political philosophers or scholars in modern intellectual history or preoccupied with the Talmud, but the issue before them all is explaining the current widespread disdain for truth and assessing the significance of this turn of events. They are esteemed thinkers, two of them working in a university still characterized as a Social Service Station focused on and guided by the current problems of the day which they use their scholarship to address. In addition to their scholarship, Orwin, Lefore and Splansky are all prolific contributors of op-eds.

Populism is certainly on the rise. In the past ten days we witnessed Doug Ford, a local populist, being elected to lead the Conservative Party of Ontario, an event reported by Foreign Affairs in its coverage of the noteworthy issues around the world. In the Italian elections on 4 March, populist parties emerged triumphant, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League (Lega Nord), the far-right Brothers of Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), Luigi di Maio’s Five Star Movement (MoVimento 5 Stelle or M5S) and Silvio Berlusconi’s Forward Italy (Forza Italia), the latter now portrayed more as a traditional centre-right party than a populist one. Together, they won a majority of the seats in Parliament with M5S winning a much greater proportion of the votes than expected. Then, of course, there was the latest flood of news from the strongest label in the populist arena, Donald Trump himself and his shenanigans.

Trump’s initiative to meet with North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, first unconditionally, then conditionally, then quasi-conditionally, that is, unconditionally with some conditions, his firing of Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State via a tweet, his protectionist trade policies and imposition of duties on imported steel and aluminum, at the same time as he was embroiled in the suit be Stormy Daniels, the porn star with whom he allegedly had an affair and to whom he indirectly paid $130,000 to shut her up just before the elections. Yesterday, Trump reviewed the design prototypes in San Diego of his long-promised wall along the Mexican border, one of the main planks of his populist program that won him the presidency. The cup of populism runneth over.

What did Thucydides have to say about populism? As Cliff noted, the pattern of lying is not unique to populism. Look at the big lie of the George Bush presidency about nuclear weapons in Iraq that justified the American invasion. As Thucydides wrote (Book VI of The Peloponnesian Wars), the Athenians based their invasion of Sicily, ignorant of the deep divisions within that population, on advancing their imperial and pecuniary interests, but based on misinformation and downright lies as revealed by Nicias who had been appointed general against his will. Nicias thought that the decision to go to war was based “upon slight and specious grounds.” Nicias warned of the many existing enemies that would arise from such an expedition and the new ones that would emerge from within Sicily.

One populist response to these lies and historic consequences was a rejection of global overreach and a propensity towards neo-isolationist policies. The imperial elites that populists subsequently rejected in the name of self-determination and the opposition to bringing more foreigners to Athens because the needs of Athens’s own population were being neglected, were the same problems pointed to by liberals. Neo-cons were the enemies of both liberals and populists as were the mandarins who supported those imperialist adventurers.

The populists simply marked all bureaucrats with the same brush. The populists were correct in at least one sense – liberals had lost touch with the people. And Cliff is driven by a need to reconnect intellectual elites with the people in the pattern of his hero, Thucydides, who he claims always displayed a sympathy for the victims of power. Trump went further along another path and insisted, “Let us have no more allies such as ours have often been to whom we are expected to render aid when they are in misfortune, but from whom we ourselves get no help when we need it.” (Thucydides, Book VI)

Further, as with Athens, America is an innovative state that has always been dedicated to imperial expansion and glory in pursuit of its own interests at the expense of others. Populists simply insist, contrary to fact, that it is the U.S. that has been suckered. Further, the populism of Athens, and any other city-state in the ancient Greek world, preferred safety even at the cost of justice. So wherein comes justice, wherein comes compassion, in a world torn between imperial passions and defensive self-concern? Even Sparta, rooted in conservatism, moderation and the old-fashioned virtue of justice, was motivated by fear, fear of the helots on whose labour the city-state depended. States are caught between imperial overreach (such as that of the neo-cons) that expresses a willingness to sacrifice for a larger cause, and an obsession with safety of self characterized by populism. Liberals must manage the two diverse and rival passions of glory versus safety, ambition versus self-determination, and must do so by a reverence for candor and truth.

Cliff made the same point that Thucydides did – the need to make liberalism more populist. In order to reinvigorate a democracy that had abandoned its roots, its foundations in self-determination and in democracy. The problem, of course, is that populism and liberalism, whatever their overlaps, are very different. Populism embraces a politics of resentment, of negativity rather than offering a positive program based on a canonical text outlining core beliefs. Further, populism is anti-elitist where the elites are NOT defined by their wealth, but by their failure to identify with the problems of ordinary people. The elites are journalists, academic intellectuals and mandarins who speak what to them is a foreign language and who substantively appear to be hypocrites in their ostensible concern for resolving social problems while neglecting the decline in jobs, the decline in hopes and the general distress of a working class displaced by globalism.

Localism, anti-mandarinism, neo-isolationism in both trade and foreign affairs, mark them off from liberals. In Europe, populist parties have tended to don a liberal dress to attract a wider appeal. In North America, they market themselves as anti-liberal. In both cases, populists regard the position of these academic elites as consisting entirely of lies and responsible for the dissension in society because they do not attend to “the core values” that once purportedly characterized the nation. To top it off, these liberals lacked compassion towards their own and a determination to deliver on the promise of justice. Barack Obama bailed out the banks but not the people who were underwater because of the history of the banks disregard of the impact of their policies on small homeowners.

But the central characteristic that I take to be typical of populism is a total disregard of the truth that they project onto elites. It is they who sell out their heads for what they feel. It is they who base policy on sentiment in response to a deep need for compassion and justice directed toward themselves. In The New Yorker (5 March 2018), there is an investigative report by Mike Spies on the famous or infamous gun lobbyist in Florida, Marion Hammer who earns US$316,000 a year for her efforts. Florida witnessed the second-deadliest mass shooting by a single shooter in the attack of a killer with assault weapons on a largely Latino gay nightclub in Orlando on 12 June 2016. 49 were killed and 58 others were injured, a fatality toll only surpassed by the attack in Las Vegas a year later. But the killer was Omar Mateen, a follower of radical Islam.

This was not the case in Las Vegas. This was not the case of the 17 killed most recently at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. A majority of Americans may support increased gun control, but a populist-rooted NRA and its lobbyists have been behind a series of efforts to expand the access to weapons by Americans, including the unique privilege of carrying firearms by the ordinary public, bills that punish officials who even attempt to establish gun registries, the right to carry concealed weapons and, more fundamentally, for overturning 100 years of American judicial interpretations of the second amendment of the American constitution that protects the rights of states to arm militias and converting it to a policy that insists on the natural-born right of every individual in America to bear arms. Not only to bear them, but to use them if they have a reasonable belief that they are acting to defend themselves. “Subjective feelings of fear were grounds to shoot someone even if there were other options available.” (p. 28)

Law and order displaces the rule of law and a respect for due process. It is no surprise that subsequent to the passage of such legislation, “the number of homicides ruled legally justifiable had increased in Florida by seventy-five percent.” “Such killers need provide zero evidence of self-defence to avoid not only being convicted but being prosecuted at all.” (p. 31) On 26 February 2012, George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida killed an unarmed black man, Trayvon Martin, and was found innocent. Since the law took effect, seventy percent of those who invoked it (the belief in a justified fear of danger) as a defense had gone free.” (p. 28)

Behind it all is not a politics of informed debate, but a politics of lies and threats, of coercion and manipulation. The NRA has 300,000 members in Florida. It is Marion Hammer, a non-elected lobbyist, who writes bills and oversees their passage and who prevents ANY and ALL legislation that would limit access to and the use of guns to even come up for vote. She controls a politically very active voting bloc that she manipulates with provocative language, paints even her most loyal legislative supporters as traitors if they deviate one iota from the line she establishes. Their miniscule attempts at deviation are marked as “unforgiveable betrayals.”

The basic position is that she is not just defending the right to both bear and use weapons, but a way of life under attack defended by a large “number of fanatical supporters who will take her word for almost anything and can be deployed at will.” (p. 26) She sends out 2-3 million e-mails on an issue and there are 4.6 million registered Republicans in the state. Hammer refused to be interviewed for Mike Spies’s story and in response to queries insisted that, “facts are being misrepresented and false stuff is being presented as fact.” But she offers no proof. She offers no rebuttals. As a complete fabrication based on no offered or available data, Hammer contended that “before the law (the one allowing the use of a weapon if you had a reasonable belief that you were in danger) was enacted, innocent people were being arrested, prosecuted and punished for exercising self-defence that was lawful under the Constitution.“ (p. 28) Ask for even one example and the answer is, “Not relevant.”

Mandarins who supply objective and disinterested “facts” are called liars propelled by the political intent to kill the legislation she supports. Anyone who does not support the positions she advocates, no matter what their past activity and support had been, become enemies. “(I)f you cross me once, even if the issue doesn’t involve the Second Amendment, I will take you out.” In defence of a Hobbesian state of nature in opposition to responsible government, any lie is permissible, any libel justified.

Though truth is thrust on the ground and covered with dirt and filth, truth will still grow from that earth, but it will take courage, commitment and compassion to protect those tender shoots against the assaults of populism. The duty of academics in a Social Service Station is to launch a full-scale attack on behalf of truth against these purveyors of lies and manipulators of voters. The dilemma, as Cliff points out in his book on Thucydides, is that reason and truth are weak in dealing with fears; hypocrisy must be employed to win support. Both liberalism and democracy need to be reclaimed by ensuring that truth can grow and thrive and that compassion rather than coercion, justice rather than injustice, can prevail. But it won’t come without costs.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Tomorrow: Jill Lepore on Facts

 

From a Sanctuary of Truth to a Sanctuary of Method

The film Inception that took one on a wild ride through the architecture of the mind grossed over $820 million worldwide and continues to earn money on the secondary circuit of TV and Cable. The movie was nominated for eight Oscars and won four – for Best Cinematography, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing and Best Visual Effects, that is, for its tremendously brilliant pyrotechnics rather than its script, direction or acting. The visual dazzle and thematic ambition marked an almost equally successful follow-up of nomadic exploration, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar. That film really took us on a very different nomadic journey into the desert of space and a pristine environment. This is relevant because a university is created as a sanctuary, as an anti-nomadic movement, as a place where individuals from all over can come together in one place and study.

One mission of that university is to teach us how to distinguish a real oasis from a mirage, objectivity from subjectivity. But that initially took second position to the development of character. To leap forward, how did the Sanctuary of Truth dedicated to instilling values and character and creating a culture that would not succumb to the attractions of the Golden Calf, and its modern successor, the Sanctuary of Method committed to rules and professionalism, become transformed into a core institution that defines objectivity in terms of subjectivity? Does the explanation reside in the incompatibility of the two very different types of sanctuary that necessitated the emergence of a third idea of the university and then a fourth?

The university as a Sanctuary of Method was dedicated to unpacking authentic memories rather than the heroic ones that characterized the Sanctuary of Truth.  The university as a Sanctuary of Method was created as a vehicle for escaping the myth of an absolute and binding moral code into a realm of rules to ensure discovery on the intellectual frontiers of knowledge. Truth was no longer an inherited given. Just as the university in Canada entered fully into that maturity of a Sanctuary of Method a century later from its roots in Berlin in 1810, the existence of a spacetime continuum was proclaimed as a four-dimensional frame of reference rather than a three-dimensional one of space only. In Einstein’s turn of the century (1905) theory of relativity, distances and times varied depending on the initial reference frame.

Both time and space were relativized with respect to one another. Further, instead of fostering character and virtues, the university turned into a place to explore one’s identity for there was no boundary to any pursuit, including the pursuit of the inner self. In other words, the university as a Sanctuary of Method undermined the core ideas and ideals of a Sanctuary of Truth, but in the process made discoveries that undermined its own essential idea of providing at least an absolute methodological frame.

Is there a cognitive dissonance when the university is in fact a place of intellectual and epistemological thrills in the search for certainty only to discover the uncertainty principle and that certainty itself is a chimera? Is this a world akin to Nolan’s labyrinths where the only end is the revelation of an illusion and Truth remains forever out of reach? For if we believe in the foundation of the Sanctuary of Method, then we have escaped the world of divine revelation and faith into a belief system in which all explanations are constructed solely in reference to physical processes. However, if the physical processes themselves have no constancy, not even the constancy of a reference in space, the framework for the university as a steady state providing a solid reference for society dissolves.

Hence the entry of corruption and the paranoia about conspiracies that creep into this Sanctuary. However, we need not go abroad to reveal the tensions. A close study of Canadian intellectual giants like Harold Innis more often than not revealed this contradiction. Innis, though he became an agnostic, never lost the strict set of values and missionary zeal instilled in him by his Baptist upbringing. However, when studying for his PhD at the University of Chicago, he fell under the sway of George Herbert Mead and absorbed the idea that communications did not just entail the transfer of information but were both broader (including railways, the subject of his thesis) and deeper since the form of communications was critical in shaping the frame by which you understood the world.

Einstein’s theories were offered a complementary economic and political frame. Innis would spend his career warring against “static economics.” At the same time, he put forth the thesis that technology itself framed the Canadian mind as the railway became a mode of spreading European civilization westward. Further, the content on which that technology focused, the “staples,” fur, fish, lumber, wheat, mining metals, potash, and extracting fossil fuels, shaped the political and economic history and culture of Canada.

If communications are, as Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan argued, that through which a culture is brought into existence, sustained over time and concretized through institutions, then Canada in its development had a unique culture, one antithetical to that of its southern imperial neighbour. Until the emergence of the Sanctuary of Method, history, that had been a tale of heroic adventurers as told by “scholars” in the Sanctuary of Truth, became an interplay of geography, technology and economics in consolidating a culture. Innis was a pioneer of Canadian intellectual nationalism. But then how do you reconcile this fixity with the propulsion towards alteration driven by technology and new forms of communication, ideas now accepted as standard in explicating change? For Harold Innis himself was central to consolidating the Sanctuary of Method as the ideal model for a university as a substitute for the Sanctuary of Truth, but emerged later in his career as an advocate of the university as a Social Service Station.

How were those cultural roots set down? Through the cultural routes used by Canadian nomads as they traversed the continent. However, the intersection of cultures, of European users of beaver pelts for hats, of Canadian traders and of First Nations trappers, itself wreaked havoc on the traditions and patterns of native peoples and eventually undermined the very institutions and values so basic to their cultures. What Innis did not see is that the same process was at work in undermining the character of the university which had become his intellectual domicile. His own pioneering studies of the cultural industry and the mode by which knowledge is developed and spread and which gave some groups the authority and the power they had, was itself being undermined in the changes wrought over the two decades of the forties and the fifties.

The crisis came in the sixties and out of that maelstrom emerged a new type of university for Canada, a Social Service Station, one pioneered in America about a century earlier. The university itself was not a sanctuary ensuring stability but was itself subject to the forces of change, by the technology by which knowledge was revealed and communicated. Harold Innis had been correct. There was an interplay between power and knowledge, between economic and cultural values and, more fundamentally, between primarily time-oriented cultures and ones that leaned more heavily on space in the spacetime continuum.

Let me illustrate with a story. In first year premedical studies, I took Ed Carpenter’s anthropology class. Carpenter was a close collaborator of Marshal McLuhan. In that course, he introduced me to the ideas of Clyde Kluckhohn and his studies of the different conceptions of time in each of the five cultures that constituted the mosaic of a part of Texas. I was inspired when I attended his lecture in Convocation Hall and his analysis of the different cultures of adjacent communities of Southwest Zuni, Navajo, Mormons, Mexican-Americans and Texas homesteaders, each with its own conception of time.

Based on my experience as a carnie in the summer, I submitted an essay comparing the understanding of time and space by the nomads who lived and thrived in a carnival. When they told stories, they interlaced tales of the riots in Windsor with those of a fight with gangs when playing Scarborough. In their oral tradition of narrative, disparate events were melded into a single story with no differentiation along a time line to distinguish various incidents. The unity was not provided by reference to time and place, but by the subjective experiences common to different incidents. Any effort to correct those tales by pointing out geographical and calendar reference points that differed, fell on deaf ears.

Carpenter gave me my first A++ for that essay. It had deeper roots than I understood at the time. I had been brought up in a strong time-binding culture, a culture of clay tablets and the dedication to preservation instantiated by that culture. That was why Moses’ shattering of the two tablets when he confronted his fellow tribesmen worshipping the Golden Calf was so traumatic. Even as I threw off the heritage of a Jewish orthodox upbringing, the quest for a durable foundation remained inherited from a nomadic culture in search of and involved in creating a sanctuary dedicated to Torah, dedicated to study. However, my nomadic carnies lived in what was primarily a space-oriented culture, a culture in which events are fleeting and ephemeral, a space more in tune with media which constantly stresses “breaking news” while telling the same old stories but with new twists.

It did not matter whether the communications media were radio, mass circulations newspapers, television or the internet, as they morphed into one another, they made irrelevant the possibility of a sanctuary as a source of stability altogether.  For Innis, entrenched mass communication monopolies undermined the “elements of permanence essential to cultural activity” that today might account for the widespread rise of populism and troglodyte philistines into positions of power. At the saMe time, Innis was a progenitor of that development as he proposed a shift in the university mission from a Sanctuary of Method to a Social Service Station dedicated to research on public problems.

The university as a Sanctuary of Method could not survive such an onslaught and it was itself formally transformed in Toronto in the seventies into a Social Service Station in which the problems and norms of society shaped the university rather than the norms and rules of a university shaping society. In the ancient world, in Greece and in Jerusalem, writing had displaced the oral traditions and reified them in a script. Rome had married that mode of inscription with power to forge an empire. The innovation of the printing press in Europe created another volcanic eruption that buried the mediaeval university in quaint practices, obsolete modes and social irrelevance except as a playground for the aristocratic class. Was this an adumbration of the destiny of the modern university? Is that what is happening to the university as a Social Service Station as it mutates once again from a Social Service Station to an intellectual supermarket for consumers rather than producers of knowledge?

It is the imaginative world that Nolan spent his whole career constructing. Instead of a set and established field, we find the material to be in flux and ever-changing. Instead of one standard set of tools guided by common principles, we find a realm of clashing ideologies so that the university undermines its own self-defined role as a guiding star for society.

In Nolan’s Inception, the characters do not escape time, but are entrapped in it, in a world of technical virtuosity. Without eternal verities, they are thrust into a search for the delusion of eternity, that time is not passing and content themselves with a multiplicity of simultaneous offerings rather than living within a singular and wholesome whole. It should not be a surprise that the university as a Sanctuary of Method will in turn be experienced as ether. The institution had been thrust into a conviction that its direction must be defined externally, thereby undermining the very notion of the autonomy of the university.

Thus, universities in escaping the repressive environment of religiously imposed rules for the world, one governed, not by an omnipotent spirit or a totemic animal, but a world in which thought and intention, became omnipotent and altered the world. But the universities existed in that world and they themselves were changed. The Sanctuary of Method was transformed into a Social Service Station.

 

To be continued: The Social Service Station

I, We or All: A Review Essay on Refugees Part V: Conclusion

Mike Molloy’s book, co-authored with Peter Duschinsky, Kurt F. Jensen and Robert J. Shalka, may be a captivating read, especially surprising for a volume on the working of a bureaucracy, but, also surprising since it is the best and most accurate record of what actually took place such that it will serve as a source book for many subsequent historians. However, there is too much repetition, indicative of a book with multiple authors that was inadequately edited. There are also a very small number of errors. Happily, not one of them detracts from the main theme and the unfolding narrative.

As one example, there is the story of how the record of the past can influence the present and how the scholarship of two Canadian academics – Irving Abella and Harold Troper – actually influenced Ron Atkey, the Minister of Immigration, to take the bold initiatives that he did. Relying on memory is a dangerous historical (or legal) device. That becomes clear when Molloy cites Ron Atkey who purportedly recalled that Jack Manion, the Deputy Minister, sent him the manuscript of None Is Too Many: Canada and the Jews of Europe 1933-1948by Irving Abella and Harold Troper (a book that won the National Jewish Book Award in the Holocaust category, the Canadian Historical Association John A. Macdonald Prize, and that was featured in The Literary Review of Canada as one of Canada’s 100 Most Important Books).

The volume depicts the callous Canadian government response to Jewish refugees fleeing Europe. In the Preface to the 2012 edition published by The University of Toronto Press, the source cited of this information is the review of the 1982 edition by Roger Robin that appeared in The Literary Review of Canada. What could be more authoritative than the Preface of the book? Further, this version has been repeated many times. The last I read before Molloy’s was by Sean Fine in an article on the Indochinese 1
refugees published in 2015.

The core story is accurate, but since the book was not published until 1982, then by Lester and Orpen Dennys, it was highly unlikely a manuscript could have been circulated. I was told at the time, by Ron Atkey no less, that he had read an academic article that he circulated to his top staff with a note saying that he did not want them (or him) to go down in history like Frederick Blair, the then Director of the immigration branch, who did his utmost to exclude Jews from entering Canada. Blair, or some other unnamed official, was the originator of the phrase “None Is Too Many”.

Blair was not alone. Most of the elite in Canada did not utter a peep to oppose such a position. Canadian politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen, journalists and Church officials openly and actively rejected proposals to allow Jewish refugees entry into Canada. The article that Atkey cited was: “‘The line must be drawn somewhere’: Canada and Jewish Refugees 1938-1939,” Irving Abella and Harold Troper, The Canadian Historical Review, 60:2, June 1979, (178-209). As Atkey told it to me, it was he who had Manion distribute the article. But then, on this, my memory could be faulty as well.

Molloy notes the chance confluence of detailed administrative preparedness and the new trend towards a revival of the social activism and engagement of the sixties. Molloy claims the two groups united around an idea. (81) But it was not “idea” as a sense of purpose, but “idea” as a suggestion as to a possible course of action. Instruments are not ideals in the sense of goals. The legislation, the preparations and the activism of the civil service “gave Canadians the means to convert their concern for the refugees into direct action.” (81)

The December 1978 story of the people on the Hai Hong (2,500) escaping Vietnam and paying gold bars to do so turned into a narrative of suffering and rejection in the media. The Mennonites, as indicated in an earlier blog, had set a precedent. But the lengthy preparations and actions of the civil servants were now matched by continuing and heart-wrenching tales of the exodus in the media. The latter motivated a group to come together in my living room on 24 June 1979 to write a letter to our Minister of Immigration, Ron Atkey, who also happened to be our member of parliament and a former academic colleague of mine at York University.

The meeting was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon after church services were out. Molloy does not tell the story of how Atkey heard about the meeting. When I had asked him, Atkey said he did not remember. But he did send two immigration officers, André Pilon and Bob Parkes, on a Sunday no less, to my house. They arrived at the door and requested permission to attend the meeting. It was they who suggested that instead of writing a letter, we initiate some sponsorships. We soon readily agreed that witnessing would be preferable to advocacy.

Serendipity then took primacy of place. A graduate student of mine had attended the meeting. Unbeknownst to me, he was a stringer for The Globe and Mail, billed as Canada’s national newspaper. He fed the story to Dick Beddoes, a columnist, who the next morning dubbed our “movement” Operation Lifeline. Within eight days, our constituency had organized fifty sponsorship groups. Within two weeks, there were sixty chapters of Operation Lifeline across Canada. (117) However, though the will to act had been built up and then facilitated by the media, little would have actually happened if legislation and regulations had not been in place and politicians and mandarins also in place to both communicate and implement commitments.

However, public relations and the role of the media were critical, as Molloy’s book makes clear. Sometimes, the inept handling of a conundrum can have very detrimental effects. This was the case in the face of the oversubscription of private sponsorships from the number targeted (by about ten thousand, one-third higher than the original target of 21,000). A new policy announcement was also a result of the Cambodian refugee humanitarian crisis overseas. Flora MacDonald, the Foreign Minister, carried away by the need, pledged $15 million instead of the $5 million authorized by Cabinet for the Geneva pledging conference. Atkey concurred. But it was the Foreign Minister who announced the cancellation the matching formula. Money saved by the government for government-sponsored refugees would be used to make up the shortfall in monies available for the Cambodian crisis overseas.

This action fed into the trope of many churches and organizations that the matching formula all along had been created as a device to dump government responsibilities onto the private sector. The private sector was up in arms. But Flora did not have to cancel the matching formula. Among the options presented to her by the civil service, she could have simply announced that, given the large number of private sponsors, they would take priority over government-sponsored refugees so sponsors would not be frustrated by having to wait. Excess numbers to fulfill the matching pledge would be shifted to 1981 given the already heavy burden on civil servants. When she was awarded an honorary doctorate at York University, and I was then the chair of Senate responsible as her escort, Flora told me that, in her rush from her constituency office in Kingston to get to Ottawa, she had failed to read the civil service brief. Instead of putting the decision positively as a way of fulfilling the matching formula, she mistakenly announced its cancellation.

Media relations are also crucial in combatting a backlash. Molloy documents how both Ron Atkey and the private sector responded to and undercut that backlash. Supporters of the National Citizens Coalition (NCC), the voice of that backlash, were enlisted to threaten the withdrawal of their financial support if the NCC continued its negative campaign against the Indochinese refugees. The NCC campaign stopped.

Molloy stressed another reason for the decision to cancel the matching formula – the fear of a backlash by the Conservative government if the total numbers exceeded 50,000. The NCC anti-refugee campaign had left its scar, especially among those wary of the 50,000 target in the first place. They believed the backlash would mostly come from Conservative supporters. They had no faith that their anti-racist wealthy supporters would take action let alone be effective in silencing the NCC. Perhaps they did not even know that Operation Intellectual Kneecapping, the name of the effort to stop the NCC campaign, had taken place and had succeeded.

What is the final take? With respect to refugees, books can focus on the plight and experiences of the refugees. Others with possible solutions such as settlement in first countries of arrival or repatriation. (The Point of No Return: Refugees, Rights, and Repatriation, Katy Long (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2013)). Miliband claimed that, “Those who do not qualify for asylum (in Europe), because they are not judged to face a well-founded fear of persecution if they are returned home, need to be safely and humanely returned to their country of origin, as a vital measure for the integrity and acceptability of the asylum process.” (115)

However, the actual reception of about a million refugees in Germany indicated that the asylum process could not be and was not the main route to entry and that another route posed no threat to Convention refugee determination. Further, my own book written with Elazar Barkan, No Return, No Refuge: Rites and Rights in Minority Repatriation (Columbia University Press, 2011) argued that most refugees are members of minorities. Unless their side wins, the vast majority will not be able to be repatriated.

Countries of first refuge are usually overwhelmed and also usually least able to cope with the influx economically. Burden sharing through resettlement is critical to helping refugees. That will not be accomplished through determining the rights of those refugees through a Refugee Convention process.

Miliband claims that, “by upholding their rights…you don’t just help them, you set a benchmark for the way shared problems are tackled. You establish mutual responsibility as a founding principle of international relations. And you set the stage for tackling other problems, from climate change to health risks.” (119) If one had insisted that “rights” had to be the foundation for helping refugees, a very much smaller percentage of the Indochinese refugees would have gained entry into Canada. Rights cannot be and should not be the benchmark for sharing problems. Nor duty. For some may see it as their duty to keep refugees out. The ability and willingness to help is and should be the measure. Further, as Molloy documents, “integration is (NOT) up to all of us.” (Miliband 118) Making it a universal obligation undercuts the effectiveness of integration. It is sufficient if a minority make it its task and the government facilitates such activity.

Responsa II: The Sympathizer

 

After I sent out my Responsa to my review of Nguyen’s book, I received another comment on the original review. The individual had read the book and believed that, instead of the extensive examination on Nguyen’s rhetorical comments on American culture, I should have attended to the two scenes that bracket the book, the American desertion of Vietnam at the beginning of the novel and the Communist interrogation of our hero at the end to reveal something about actual behaviour of both the US and Vietnam rather than just one character’s personal depictions of a culture. Branding America as imperialist is insufficient since that is not what the novel describes. What is depicted is America’s abandonment not its involvement in and conduct of the war. Further, the Vietnamese at the end seems far more ruthless than America ever behaved in Vietnam, so to see the worst traits of Vietnamese simply as imitations of or influences by American culture seems misplaced.

The comment is relevant; focusing on the brackets seems a good idea. Since it ties in with the war that I so unalterably opposed when I grew into my political maturity, it was even closer to me heart and mind even than the issue of refugees. But I cannot begin with America’s war in Vietnam and the abandonment of the country. This blog will zero in on the formation of my view of America even before I became an anti-Vietnam War activist in the sixties.

Let me tell you my starting point that is really my end point. Three of my six children are now American citizens. Some of my grandchildren raised in the United States do not think of themselves as dual citizens; they are Americans period. Further, I love the US – its geography, its energy, its vitality, its creativity, its p. I love the warmth, the friendliness and the generosity of Americans. But I do not love American militarism and American imperialism that Nguyen skewers so strongly in his book.

That perspective goes deep. I was indoctrinated to be anti-American in high school. Not because the US hung Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, though I unfairly judged that to be a witch trial at the time. My education of American history was slim, but I did learn about the War of 1812. The bottom line was simple. The US saw its manifest destiny as including Canada. It was the first war the Americans lost. It was the second war after the War of Independence in which America won the peace.

Britain was involved in the imperative of finishing off Napoleon, a victory that would set the foundation for the largest empire ever known. (I do not know if it really was.) So even though the Canadians with their Six Nations allies beat the Americans, in the 1814 peace deal, America set the precedent as Britain surrendered the forts it held running from Detroit to the Mississippi in return for securing the US as a trading partner. The precedent was also set for a division between British North America and the US along the 49th parallel. At the same time, Britain had sold out its First Nations allies that had been so crucial to the American defeat. At least this was the version of the War of 1812 that I was taught and that I retained. Americans were land hungry. Americans were ruthless Yankee bargainers.

Of course, this was not the “truth.” I would learn of a much more nuanced narrative when I began reading |Canadian history on my own, but it was usually at the further expense of British honour rather than Canadian glory. The general impression of Americans remained. Whatever the causes, whatever the history of the British blockade in response to Napoleon’s (the Berlin Decree) and the effort to recapture British sailors who had deserted and enlisted in the American navy, whatever the record of Britain even impressing American sailors and forcing them to serve the British navy, however the boarding of the Chesapeake by the Brits to recapture deserters that roused the nationalism and anti-British feelings across the US,  the war with Canada was initiated by President James Madison and his cohort of war hawks in Congress to seize Upper Canada and guarantee the expansion of America to the Pacific. This was undertaken even though a very large number of Americans opposed the war.

We used to ride our bikes to Fort York at the foot of Bathurst Street when we were kids. We learned that the Americans had sacked Fort York, not once but twice. However, the American invading forces had been defeated in between at Fort Detroit and again defeated at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Unfortunately, a Canadian hero, the Governor of Upper Canada, Major-General Sir Isaac |Brock, died. Americans were once again defeated at Beaver Dams, largely because of First Nations forces and because of a Canadian heroine Laura Secord, who alerted the British army, the Canadian militias and the main striking force of First Nations.

In these battles, two American armies were lost. The effort to capture Montreal also failed.

However, given the feckless support of Britain, Tecumseh’s Confederacy was defeated and one of the greatest warriors killed. Further, to the consternation of the Brits so proud of their naval power, the British navy was defeated on Lake Erie, though the story on the Atlantic was much different. Washington was burned. Maine was controlled by the British and New York was under threat, but a hapless British general lost that opportunity.

The war left a residue that set the stage for America’s rise in the nineteenth century. Britain had betrayed its First Nation allies and the defeat of the Tecumseh confederacy opened the west, at least in the northern US, to American expansion. The Treaty of Ghent restored the territories gained by the British to the Americans. Perhaps more significantly, the aftermath of the war in the Battle of Louisiana with the British secured the reputation of Andrew Jackson who would feed off populism to become president and ethnically cleanse the Eastern and Central United States of its native population.

I am now in Mexico. My eldest son, a Latin American historian at Princeton, several years ago gave me a volume by Enrique Krauze, Mexico – Biography of Power: A History of Modern Mexico 1810-1996. What I know of Mexican history I absorbed from this volume.

Mexico and Canada are currently bargaining with the U.S. over NAFTA. It is not the first time. Mexico became independent in 1821, Canada not until 1867. Britain continued to negotiate with the US through the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1845, though Britain legally shared the territory north of the Columbia River, known as the Oregon territory, with the US, Britain, with its First Nation allies, exercised de facto control. At the same time, Mexico included what is now California, Nevada Utah, Arizona New Mexico, and part of Colorado. Mexico was fighting a war in Texas with American expansionists; the American Congress had passed legislation to annex Texas in 1845. American westward expansion had been stymied behind the Arkansas River that cut through the south-west of Kansas and the southern border of Oklahoma.

President James Knox Polk was the warrior president of the United States who, through lies and manipulation, initiated the war with Mexico. But his success depended in good part on whether he could bluff and defeat Britain in peace talks. Through skillful negotiations and deceit (I am not sure whether he was as mendacious as Donald Trump, but the two belong in the same camp), he managed to separate Great Britain from Mexico. In return for peace with the US, Britain ceded the territory that is now Oregon and Washington State and abandoned Mexico to its own fate. The 49th parallel became the major dividing line between Canada and the US. The 54:40 American hawks, who dreamed of expanding the US up to the border with Russia in Alaska, thought Polk had betrayed them.

Polk had greater ambitions. With Britain out of the way, facing a dispirited, economically weak and divided Mexico with a political system that mixed “monarchical” leadership with populism, with a relatively smaller population, most of whom were Amero-Indian and resentful of |Mexico City, Polk seized the opportunity open for American expansion in the south-west. He knew that American power, backed up by its initial industrial might, its far superior armaments and its much better communications and transportation systems, could defeat a politically divided Mexico. Even its allied ruling elite were divided. General Santa Anna was a despot. Lucas Alamán, his political partner, was not. He wanted a republican state governed by the rule of law. His proposal, to cede Texas that had declared independence in 1836 to prevent a larger war that he foresaw Mexico was bound to lose, was rejected.

The Americans invaded Texas in 1947. The excoriations thrown at him by John Quincy Adams had no effect. Neither did the denunciations of the young Abe Lincoln or his demand that Polk provide evidence that Mexico had invaded the US. Mexico was blockaded at sea. Though the people of Mexico were united and rallied against the American invaders, they were no military match, though the Mexicans put up a far more spirited defence that Polk had expected. Though their sacrifices had been enormous, they eventually lost. The American flag in September of 1847 flew over the National Palace. Nine days after the peace treaty was signed in 1848, Americans struck gold in California.

Victory arrived, but not without the Mexicans resorting to guerilla warfare. The US responded, as imperialists do, with war crimes, with beating civilians wans hanging alleged insurrectionist leaders in public squares. The precedent of atrocities was multiplied in the destruction of the Comanche Empire that followed. Americans set a precedent for genocide in the nineteenth century. This does not mean that all Americans misbehaved. A number were generous to the civilians, for America is by and large constituted by a generous people. After the war, Mexicans in the territories ceded to the US were offered citizenship and freedom of worship in spite of the pervasive racism of America, particularly coming from its militaristic side. Blacks were not the only victims. First Nations were treated even worse.

America is a divided nation. It always has been from the time it expelled the United Empire Loyalists. Those who threatened the empire were evicted or forced to submit or both. The US ended the nineteenth century with the ten-week Spanish-American War, the long occupation of Cuba, the acquisition of Puerto Rico and Guam and the reduction of the Philippines to a satrap.

Responsa: The Sympathizer

I want to thank those who wrote and welcomed me back to blogging. However, I am still on holiday for another month so if I resume, I expect my blogs will be infrequent. But, who knows. Infections are very hard to get rid of.

I was asked a number of questions. The first was about why my response was so over the top. The simple answer – it was not. I checked the reviews. They were much shorter and covered the gamut of character and plot, atmosphere and style and did not focus in depth on one theme. But they were just as effusive. The novel did win a Pulitzer.

Why did I not discuss the flaws and only mentioned that they existed? My excuse – the novel was too terrific to focus on the distractions. For example, one flaw I believe was the excessive drinking in the novel, particularly among the Vietnamese characters. The novel is an alcoholic’s dream. But the characters like the crapulant major depicted as alcoholics are rarely described as drinking let alone drinking to excess, whereas the most sober characters drink like shickers.

Was the novel satirizing the Vietnamese imitation of this American trait? I do not believe the novel here was satirizing the Vietnamese community or how much the Vietnamese men had become Americanized, for this was not a trait I have observed at all in my dealings with the Vietnamese. Further, as Nguyen explained in an interview, in using the plot device of a Vietnamese man confessing to another, he was offering a conversation between and among Vietnamese to portray and satirize American culture and the extent to which the Vietnamese sometimes aped its worst traits. But, in this case, do they? Or was the novel then satirizing drinking as a fictional device? I suspect the latter, but I am afraid it did not work for me.

In one sense, the novel is a satire of the spy novel itself. Making the central character a mole had to be a tribute to John le Carré who invented the term. On the other hand, among the many writers Nguyen cites as sources, specifically on the Vietnam War and on Francis Ford Coppola’s film, I did not find le Carré among them. Besides, the anti-hero, Smiley, is le Carré’s chief protagonist and he hunts moles rather than being one himself. Nguyen’s character, who has such a lofty as well as deprecating view of himself, is a counterpoint to Smiley who is modest to a fault as well as self-deprecating.

However, if Nguyen’s novel is in part a satire of the spy novel, why did I not write more about lies and betrayal that provide a central core and fascination in that genre of fiction? Because Nguyen inverts this theme. The protagonist, Man, his handler, and Bon swear fealty to one another at the age of fourteen, and though one is on the opposite side of the other two ideologically, they never betray their pledge of loyalty to one another as much as one might abuse the other in the end. In one sense, the novel is a romance about male bonding and a satire of it at the same time. There is no Kim Philby, or simulacrum to Philby, in the novel.

Why did I never explain my reason to focus on the theme of Vietnamese acculturation and American culture? Two reasons. Nguyen saw this as the major thrust of his novel. Second, as I thought I suggested, this was the issue in which I personally was most interested. But why did I not talk about fictional devices at least to illustrate how they advanced the theme instead of quoting so much? Good point. The protagonist is, after all, a Hamlet figure and the war film he helps produce is called The Hamlet, for Nguyen’s novel is about the schizophrenic character of the Vietnamese for whom divisiveness is central – into North and South, into communists and nationalists, into imitators of Americans obsessed with a woman’s cleavage, itself a reflection of division.

The main character may see both sides of an issue, but he is even more hapless than Hamlet. His assassinations are as gratuitous as the murders in a Tarantino film, but they have no finesse. His schizophrenia always sabotages his own actions.

That brings up another flaw that I found in this brilliant novel. I think that Nguyen has a keen ear for the inner voice and thought, almost keener than anyone I have read, but he has a tin ear for actual voices. Read what the characters say – you really cannot tell the characters apart. Just compare Nguyen’s novel to any of le Carré’s who is an artist of mimicry. There are some exceptions in Nguyen, such as the General’s speech or those talks of Richard Held, the prototype of the American ideologue of permanent war who makes Trotsky, the originator of permanent revolution, look like a piker. However, even in these cases, it is content that gives the character away, not the timbre or tone or inflexion. They do not have individualized voices. But Nguyen’s novel is so much more profound than those of le Carré, who is not just a terrific writer of spy thrillers, but a great novelist. But the detailed portrayal of voice and gesture, of clothes and composure, of breathing and glances, all the devices that help make the surfaces of the characters so vivid, are just not there in Nguyen, at least with any great skill. However, the probing of the inner world more than makes up for this deficiency. Far more.

The major difference, however, is that le Carré is not an artful dodger but an artful liar, someone obsessed with dissimulation both as a mechanism and a subject matter. Nguyen is too interested in truth and the spy format is simply a great device to explore his obsessions. In Nguyen, the characters, in spite of their erudition, seem clueless. In le Carré, it is M16 and the institutions sponsoring the spying that are portrayed as clueless.

From one point of view, novels are projections of a novelist’s personal obsession, in le Carré’s case, his relations with his mendacious and irresponsible father. Nguyen’s may be with an officious and uptight authority figure, but I suspect not. Nguyen has a long career ahead of him to give us time to figure that out.

Obviously, in such a rich novel, this type of conversation could go on endlessly. And should.

Thank you for writing.

American Culture and Vietnamese Refugee Integration: The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

by

Howard Adelman

The Legacy Of Ho Chi Minh: Nothing is More Precious than Independence and Freedom (cf. p. 27 of the novel)

The writing is full of biting irony. Well-paced, harrowing and comic, complex and compelling, riveting and reflective, the plot combines a capacious imagination with a great attention to detail, a dialectic of the absurd and the real, critical and satirical and full of tawdry scheming to advance the grand goals of history. Though there are many asides, they are never at the cost of the story line. Lush, decorative and extravagant language is squeezed out for penetrating original similes and metaphors in a minimalist presentation that is all the richer for it, almost too rich in circling round and round its prey.

The reflective self-consciousness characteristic of the twentieth century novel, this exploration of the marrow of memories, is at once taken upwards into the world of ideas as it explores the real meaning of hell-on-earth. Rich in treachery, the novel ignores the subtle body language of the French wink and nod, half-glance and raised eyebrow, for the succinct and direct. To live is to suffer because desire will always put life at risk and value sacrifice much more than happiness. For a very long novel, the number of scenes is quite limited, but each is as crowded and packed as the streets of Saigon were before it fell in April of 1975. The characters do not so much grow as multiply like the cancer that eats them from the inside. And the questions raised are always astute. Instead of terminating in a confrontation with one’s steely-eyed and immovable and implacable conscience, the protagonist crashes into the black depths of nothingness to finally encounter and confront his sin.

The book is simply brilliant, not flawless, but all the more powerful in spite of those flaws. A spy thriller, a refugee story of flight and integration, a tale focused on identity, on loyalty and disloyalty, a ghost story, the definitive story of the American War in Vietnam from a Vietnamese perspective but more a tale of war crimes than of war itself, a portrayal of the end of the American involvement in that war in its vivid and horrific detail, brutal and tender, an essay on filmography and representation of the first war in history where the losers wrote the history instead of the victors and Hollywood still served to launch the intercontinental ballistic missiles of Americanization “to let American ideas and values seep into the vulnerable tissue of his brain and the absorbent soil of his heart” (173), a reflective perception on American culture, an anti-utopian treatise, an exposure of the fraud of both the dialectic and linear progressive myths of history, a buddy tale of hedonism and stoicism, a story of political and social ideas and of torture and terrorism, of conflicting ideologies each of which turns into a suit that anyone can wear draped on its corpse, a narrative of Vietnamese communism suffused with Catholicism and sin where red is the colour of revolution and blood, versus good luck and fortune, a novel in the form of a bildungsroman, but really a tale of a Vietnamese adult’s (rather than formative) years of embodied re-education rather than a spiritual education, a story of truth and deception, of humanity and inhumanity, but mostly a narrative about morals and about reaching through time, through conundrums and paradoxes, into loss and pain, into a black hole.

The novel is so rich in themes that I can focus on only one of them. That allows you, the reader, to endlessly explore one of the myriad of others. I concentrate on the experience of a refugee trying to integrate into America and from the outside developing a very jaundiced but perceptive insight into American culture. Natalie Walter in her essay, “Heimat” in The New York Review of Books(23 November 2017, LXIV:18) wrote this of her refugee grandparent’s efforts to integrate into British society: “Did they ever feel British? I never asked them. I doubt they would have said yes. Jews who arrived in the UK during the war were given a leaflet by the British Board of Jewish Deputies admonishing them to abide by British customs and never to speak loudly in public.” (12)

I had the same experience, but from the other side of the table. In 1979 in Toronto, we were welcoming the first contingent of Sino-Vietnamese Boat People, the latter a name bestowed on these refugees by our media, but in the novelist’s critical reflection, “a name one might think referred to a newly discovered tribe of the Amazon River or a mysterious, extinguished prehistoric population whose only surviving grace was their watercraft.” (151) The reception for these “Boat People” was held in the Chinese Community Centre on Cecil Street, which, in its previous life was a synagogue with the Hebrew writing still embossed into the stonework, a synagogue in which my older brother had his Bar Mitzvah. The perceived VIPs offered speeches of welcome.

Without any collaboration, we all made the same speech. Our ancestors were immigrants to this country. Many were refugees. They were like you. And you are now part of us. You are just like us. Then the representatives of the National Chinese Association addressed the refugees in Chinese. A friend provided me with a simultaneous translation. Like ours, and again without collaboration, all their speeches carried the same message, but the content was the opposite. They insisted that the refugees must remember they are Chinese and they are symbols of what it is to be a Chinese person in Toronto.

Do not let us down. Do not shame us. Most of all, if you are in close quarters with Canadians who are born here, do not cook with fish oil even though fish sauce is the universal solvent with variety, subtlety and complexity. (Nguyen 70) The Sino-Vietnamese refugees were being told to give up one of the most significant elements of their culinary culture. The refugees were being told by the Chinese-Canadians that they were different, that they were representatives of that difference, that as a minority they were not equal but would have to conform to the dominant culture. And that was right after we, in our oblivious condescending way, were denying difference, were failing to recognize the special horror they had been through, were being indifferent to the challenges and hardships they would confront in being aliens in an alien land. Instead, we drowned them once again, but this time in sweetness and sentimentality.

How could we pretend to empathize with them? How could we presume to get inside their skins, inside their pain and suffering? Nguyen’s novel is precisely about that effort, but from the perspective of a mole, of a spy, of an alien agent. A sympathizer is not simply one who sympathizes with another, but one who does so to get inside the other so that he can critically reflect on that otherness. He is engaged in spying, not empathetic re-enactment. He is a sleeper agent, (57) not because he is somnambulant and walks and talks while asleep, but because he is under a compulsion to think and talk to prevent himself from sleeping lest someone discover, including himself, who he represents. “Revolutionaries are insomniacs, too afraid of history’s nightmare to sleep.” (355) For war never dies; it is the one thing that just goes to sleep. (225)

As the novel opens, the first person narrator says: “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.” But not simply any ordinary spy for, “I am also a man of two minds…I am simply able to see any issue from both sides.” The true optical illusion was in seeing others and oneself as undivided and whole, as if being in focus was more real than being out of focus.” (374) This singular perspective is what allows an American to feed on the narcotic of optimism. However, seeing two sides is also a limitation. A superb mole can observe himself and he can identify and observe an Other, but he cannot “observe himself as someone else.” (342) He sees two sides but does not possess a way to synthesize them dialectically. Until he can, the symbiotic desire for both recognition and being remembered will not come together. More pointedly, they will tear him apart.

What were the two sides? The US imperial, colonial and militaristic state and society was suffused with delusional exceptionalism and stereotyping of the other. “(N)othing was more American than wielding a gun and committing oneself to die for freedom and independence, unless it was wielding that gun to take away someone else’s freedom and independence.” (218) And the other side? Vietnam was “the jackfruit republic that served as a franchise of the United States.” (7) Given their habit of singing as they faced death, the Vietnamese “were the Italians of Asia,” (16) but in life served as “a respectably sized, self-sufficient colony, a pimple on the buttocks of the American body politic?” (69) And in America, “most of our fellow exiles had been shrunken by their experience, or relatively, surrounded by Americans so tall they neither looked through nor looked down on these newcomers.” (94)

“All right, a loser is what I am…I’m a loser for believing in all the promises your America made to people like me. You came and said we were your friends, but what we didn’t know is that you could never trust us, much less respect us. Only losers like us couldn’t have seen what’s so obvious now, how you wouldn’t want anyone as your friend who actually wanted to be your friend. Deep down you suspect only fools and traitors could believe your promises.” (163) It was a version of the Groucho Marx story. Who would want to belong to the same club that you were willing to join?

Americans and Vietnamese were culturally at war. It revealed itself even in how young men and women came together, in romance. “Americans understood dating to be about investments and gains, short or long term, but we saw romance and courtship as being about losses. After all, the only worthwhile courtship involved persuading a woman who could not be persuaded, not a woman already predisposed to examine her calendar for her availability.” (244)
Was the clash really of civilizations or was it one between civilization and barbarism? For the American side had lost too. And who were the real barbarians, those who used the old barbaric tools of torture or those who made torture into a science, those who inflicted pain on the body or those who drilled into the mind with unending questions until they came face to face with nothing?

On reflecting on the million who died in the war and the 200,000 to 400,000 who died in trying to escape from the political regime of the victors, “they would not have believed how they died, just as we could not believe that the Americans – our friends, our benefactors, our protectors – had spurned our request to send money. And what would we have done with that money? Buy the ammunition, gas and spare parts for the weapons, planes, and tanks the same Americans had bestowed on us for free. Having given us the needles, they now perversely no longer supplied the dope.” As the General, to whom the protagonist was an aide-de-camp, said, nothing “is ever so expensive as what is offered free.” (4)

But the two cultures were also one and the same. “ ‘(C)onsistency is the hobglobin of little minds.’ Nothing Emerson wrote was ever truer of America.” (12) However, the same thing could be said of Vietnam. Yet America was very different, as exceptional as it claimed to be, but not in the way it claimed. “America, land of supermarkets and superhighways, of supersonic jets and Superman, of supercarriers and the Super Bowl. America, a country not content to give itself a name at its bloody birth, but one that insisted for the first time in history on a mysterious acronym, USA [Was Britain not referred to as the UK, though a duet rather than a triplet or a quartet, itself a revelation?], a trifecta of letters outdone later by the quartet of the USSR. Although every country thought itself superior in its own way, was there ever a country that coined so many ‘super’ terms from the federal bank of its narcissism, was not only superconfident but also truly superpowerful that would not be satisfied until it locked every nation of the world into a full nelson and made it cry Uncle Sam?” (29)

This is written as America once again works on honing its muscles and enhancing its strength at the same time as it once again seeks to withdraw from its extensive involvement in the world. America remains the same just as it is ever changing. But the change seems to be one of circling, perhaps in the form of a spiral, but circling nonetheless. However, America has not learned that it “could no longer could win wars.” (246) This contrasted with Vietnam where, “violence began at home and continued in school, parents and teachers beating children and students like Persian rugs to shake the dust of complacency and stupidity out of them.” (246)

When the protagonist returns to America in 1975 as a refugee, it has unalterably changed from the US he experienced as a foreign student. Then, whether he observed the antiwar faction or the pro-war gang among the ex-pat Vietnamese community, “Regardless of their political clique, these students gulped from the same overflowing cup of loneliness, drawing together for comfort…hoping for the body heat of fellow sufferers in an exile so chilly even the California sun could not warm their cold feet.” (93)

“By the time I returned to campus, however, the students were of a new breed, not interested in politics or the world like the previous generation. Their tender eyes were no longer exposed daily to stories and pictures of atrocity and terror for which they might have felt responsible, given that they were citizens of a democracy destroying another country in order to save it. Most important, their lives were no longer at stake because of the draft.” (61) But that was 1975. Three years later, Americans would come face-to-face with stories of suffering and dying in Indochina for which they were not directly responsible, for which the successor communist regimes bore the heavy weight of guilt. But that is when the story ends, not when it begins. But also where it begins as the full story of what it means to be a Vietnamese “sympathizer with the Left, a revolutionary fighting for peace, equality, democracy, freedom, and independence, all the noble things my people had died for and I had hid for.” (61)

But was this not the American rhetorical ideal? Was this not the America the Vietnamese general extolled as he spoke to and rallied his fellow exiles. “I am here to tell you that what you remind me of is America’s great promise! The promise of the immigrant! The promise of the American dream! The promise that the people of this country hold dear and will one day soon hold dear again, that America is a land of freedom and independence, a land of patriots who have always stood up for the little man no matter where he is in the world, a land of heroes who will never relent in the cause of helping our friends and smiting our enemies, a land that welcomes people like you, who have sacrificed so much in our common cause of democracy and liberty. One day, my friends, America will stand tall again, and it will be because of people like you.” (119) “And Vietnamese American, not Vietnamese…must claim America,” (274) for America will not give itself to you.

In that time, and once again, Donald Trump stands the American dream, but this time on its head and turned inside out into a nightmare of American boosterism at the expense of the immigrant and the refugee. Once again Americans have surrendered and are “cowed by power and stunned by celebrity.” (254)

Were the Occident and the Orient never to meet as equals at the same time on a common playing field? Or was it the case that the twain could never meet? Was Kipling’s claim, as the protagonist opines (63), an accurate diagnosis or a myth even more powerful than the one of equality and peace let alone a higher symbiosis of Occident and Orient? Was the protagonist’s trip into the heart of darkness really a trip into the depths of hell and despair, a trip taken through a diahorea of words by one who was a born listener who had mastered “the inscrutable Oriental smile, sitting there nodding and wrinkling your brow sympathetically and letting people go on, thinking you’re perfectly in agreement with everything they say, all without saying a word”? (75)

This is a book of truth and insight, of “the best kind of truth, the one that meant two things,” (121, the one that meant that nothingness, doing nothing while facing nothing, was the one thing that was more important than waging war for freedom and independence.