I trust that our online paths have crossed often enough for you to know that I generally enjoy your work and I think you produce essays which stand on their own merits. I was not kept abreast of the Facebook “shitstorm,” as you put it, because I am never on Facebook except when I’m shamelessly promoting a blog post such as this, but I did think the vitriol of some of the comments on your “How to save the Canadian Theatre” piece seemed outbalanced and unfair.
All that being allowed, I have to say that your latest column in the Toronto Sun, in which you offer a stumbling defence of Jordan Peterson, is an unfortunate work; as a piece of argumentation it is ill-informed, lazy, and well beneath the standard which I’ve become accustomed to enjoying from you.
You remarked lately on Twitter that you’re a “disillusioned liberal gone left,” and indeed, you seem to be undergoing some effort to let everyone know it; well, to borrow a potentially spurious tag about a certain Teamsters representative: being a leftist is a bit like being ladylike; if you have to say that you are, you probably ain’t. No matter how many times you repeat your claim to “leftist” bona fides, you can’t simply affirm what has to be proven. It’s not that I doubt you; it’s just that I sort of wish you wouldn’t keep saying it all the time.
Jordan Peterson has lately appointed himself a critic of the federal Liberal government’s proposed Bill C-16, a brief amendment to the Canadian Criminal Code and Human Rights Act. The amendment consists in adding “gender identity” and “gender expression” – previously non-enumerated by the Charter – to those sections of the relevant legislation that prohibit discrimination and “hate speech” towards identifiable groups. The thrust of Peterson’s advocacy, echoed and enthusiastically embraced by you, is that this constitutes a “serious restriction of freedom of speech”. You write that it is “necessary,” therefore, to defend Jordan Peterson. Plainly, such a thing is “necessary” if and only if the following conditions can be satisfied:
- his factual claims (premises) are true;
- his assumptions are reasonable;
- his conclusions are justifiable.
This being the case, let us turn now to a more careful study of what it is we’re meant to be “defending.”
(This letter is written in direct response to Daniel Karasik’s semi-satirical(?) post about the CPC’s arts policy. Which was in turn a response to Fannina Waubert de Puiseau’s open letter to the CPC.)
Thank you for your missive of September the 10th, re: the Unofficial, Unauthorized Conservative Party of Canada’s Policy Position on the Arts. It was an absorbing read, and, typical of the CPC’s remarks on such issues more generally, rather dazzling in the sheer volume of misremembered facts and obfuscated issues. In this, your party is truly Canada’s leader.
This is not to say that there is nothing of value or truth in the letter; far from it. I myself have long complained of artists’ general complacency in terms of advocacy or activism. It is certainly true that the artistic community at large has alienated itself from the political process for a long time. We have not made our case to the Canadian population with anywhere near the necessary urgency or verve. We do not pay attention to the key elections that can have the most meaningful long-term influence on the Canadian art scene – school trusteeship. In fact, the absence of artists who run for school board trustee positions is doubly glaring; it’s a well-paid, part-time job, after all, and who would say there’s abundance of those?
I concede that general point. It isn’t a small concession on my part. Nevertheless, the ensuing bouts of free-association in the, say, latter 3/4 of your statement require my attention as a Canadian citizen. Though I did not vote for your party, I feel an unfamiliar – if not unwelcome – stirring of patriotism in my gut, and believe it is my Canadianly duty to correct you on certain points with respect to the existing facts. My hope is that this will improve your governance overall.
Coach House Books
Too late in Theatre of the Unimpressed does its author offer a defense of his thesis against the charge of hipsterism. By the time it arrives on page 123 of this 149-page essay in a chapter entitled “Beckett’s Children,” we’ve been treated to countless anecdotes of admittedly interesting-sounding performances few of its readers will have had the opportunity (to say nothing of the funds) to see, parties in obscure, Kensington Market bars, and even a few personal tales of sexual adventure. We’ve heard Mr. Tannahill (I’ve met Jordan once, but don’t really know him and doubt he’d recognize or remember me; having staged a show at Videofag, I know his ex-partner, William Ellis, a little better – anyway, I’d prefer in this space to distinguish between “Mr. Tannahill,” the author, and “Jordan,” the very talented and by-all-accounts lovely guy) effuse over the magic of actors who don’t know their lines, and devote several paragraphs to deconstructing what, exactly, makes Driving Miss Daisy a bad play – as if we needed to be told. His chosen title isn’t doing him any favors – “unimpressed” strikes me as definitional synecdoche for the affect of my (and Tannahill’s) generation. I found myself feeling throughout the book that it was not about a theatre of the unimpressed, but rather a theatre for it.
Mr. Tannahill’s protest against the charge is compelling:
I’m not interested in, nor am I articulating, a stylistic trend of the cynical or ironic, which for me defines the hipster caricature. To the contrary, I find believe the Theatre of Failure is a profoundly optimistic and human proposal, one that reconstitutes failure as a hopeful iconoclasm. (p. 123)
There is a semantic issue to parse here – while “hispterism” as Tannahill chooses to define it does not at all map onto the idea of a “profoundly optimistic and human proposal,” certainly the neo-hipsterism (post-hipsterism?) of McSweeney’s or “New Sincerity” fits the bill. After all, the aesthetic of All Our Happy Days are Stupid had much in common with the light-as-air superficiality of, say, a Wes Anderson movie, complete with the earnest indie-pop songs by an artist too cool for you to have heard of.