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Book Review as Character Assassination: The Unpacking of Pankaj Mishra’s Critique of Jordan Peterson

The essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra publishes in The New York Review of Books a book review of 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical and teaching psychologist at the University of Toronto in Canada. Mishra titles his book review, “Jordan Peterson & Fascist Mysticism”. The title hints at how divisive the public figure of Jordan Peterson has become. During the course of the last two years, the far Left has vilified Peterson as a bigot and racist, while the far Right has raised him to an almost messianic figure. In any event, Peterson is an intellectual celebrity of both social media and mainstream media. The book review certainly rallies the social justice intellectuals and wannabes into a frenzied delight that finally someone has given Peterson a taste of his own medicine. Mishra name-drops the often-heard names of intellectual giants from the past whose works just as often remain unread by the public. Peterson’s fans rise to his defense in equal if not more frenzied passion of righteousness when their messiah becomes so enraged that he offers to slap Pankaj Mishra on the face if they were to meet.

I think it worth the time and effort to review the book review of Pankaj Mishra and examine how it is in fact a character assassination of the beloved and just as equally hated Jordan Peterson.

A kindly karate instructor once told me that the best sparring contestant he once saw was a low-level karate white-belt who mastered two basic moves: a downward front block and counter-punch. The young man, I was told, won every match in a tournament with just these two basic moves. This was not that this kid got lucky but that he has thoroughly mastered the basics and the acquired skill paid huge dividends in him winning his tournament. Mastery of the fundamentals before proceeding with the showy stuff is key to anything, I believe, was the moral of the story.

In his critique of Jordan Peterson’s recent bestseller, Mishra likewise uses a very simple three-prong move repeatedly with devastating effect in painting Peterson as a Fascist Mystic. Although Mishra does not explicitly call Peterson a Fascist Mystic, his skillful gathering and presentation of historical personalities as the inspiration of Peterson’s alleged ideology of fascist mysticism leaves little doubt in the reader’s mind that Peterson must be a Fascist Mystic but only if the premises of Mishra’s allegations are not challenged.

Mishra uses a simple rhetorical device, the false syllogism, repeatedly throughout his essay on Peterson. Nothing boring about it as Mishra is indeed more than competent in his handling of the English language, especially with a wink and a nod to his fan base, left leaning progressives, while at the same time poke fun at Peterson’s fans, many alleged to be white supremacists or misogynists, even neo-Nazis.

The false syllogism goes something like this in three steps.

Fascists eat food.

Johnny eats food.

Johnny is a fascist.

You may replace “Johnny” with any name of someone in the world and eventually you will find someone who is not a fascist but who eats. Obviously, the ability to eat is not a necessary and sufficient condition for being a fascist. Such sleight of hand proliferates Pankaj Mishra’s personal attack on Jordan Peterson under the guise of a book review of Peterson’s new book 12 Rules for Life.

Let us look at how Mishra make Peterson appear as a fascist. Mishra’s first move is to recall from the past a historical figure who at best seem partial to fascist ideology. Next move is to show Peterson behaves in a manner like that of the historical figure. Mishra then plants these two images in the reader’s head by mere juxtaposition. The reader, by virtue of just reading Mishra’s juxtaposed texts in some prestigious newspaper, comes to his own conclusion that this proximity–dead historical fascist and Peterson–suggests Peterson is also a fascist. Mishra uses this same rhetorical sleight of hand to accuse Peterson of being a quack or intellectual charlatan too.

For example, Mishra presents Carl G. Jung as both a quack and a fascist. Mishra merely insinuates this as fact. To the gullible reader, Mishra is taken at face value on his insinuations about Jung’s use of myth as a substitute for empirical science. Next, the image of Jung as a fascist, or at best a lover of fascism obsessed with the study of myths, is then juxtaposed with the well known teachings of Peterson that reveals his admiration of Jung and the use of myth as a teaching motif. Readers are then left to conclude one of three things. Some will conclude that Peterson must be also a fascist. (That is, the conclusion of a false syllogism.) Others will conclude that Peterson is definitely not a fascist but may be bewildered with all the “evidence” Mishra has flashed in front of the reader. Of course, there is a third group of readers who simply do not know whether Peterson is a fascist or not, because they do not have sufficient evidence to come to any conclusion.

The proper response to the Mishra book review is to call out Mishra on his choice of who is rightfully considered a fascist or quack from the past. Look into the story behind each of those historical figures he presumes to have something similar with Peterson’s alleged ideology of hate and bigotry. The historical figure that Mishra wishes to insinuate as a fascist or a quack in order to highlight a connection to Peterson as also being a fascist or a quack may turn out to be neither. Sometimes his chosen historical figure is simply a complex man lending himself to controversy. Limiting his selection of historical persons who had delved deeply into myth or mysticism to the late 19th or 20th century, there is a good probability these persons may have crossed paths with a fascist movement such as Nazism. It is easy for us today to play armchair quarterbacks and recognize a movement such as Nazism for the evil that it is. As a European living in the early 20th century, a young man may see the Nationalist Socialist party as just another political party offering a way out of the social and economic decay after the first Great War. Most of those historical figures that Mishra discusses eventually became disillusioned with fascist movements and renounced them. Others may simply had no factual basis in the first place to support Mishra’s accusation of them being either a fascist or a quack. Take the example of Jung again. Was he indeed a fascist and a quack?

Carl Jung as with other geniuses in the vein of Leonardo da Vinci or Sir Isaac Newton was a renaissance man. Their genius was not limited to their own field of expertise. Often their interest of study ranged far and wide. Da Vinci was a scientist, artist and inventor. Newton gave us the modern world of physics and mathematics but also wrote something like 20 volumes on theology. “His [Jung’s] work has been influential not only in psychiatry but also in anthropology, archaeology, literature, philosophy, and religious studies.”

The reader must be extra careful in reading the works of such geniuses or their biographies. An eye must be kept open for fine nuances in their words and ideas. Some of their ideas are indeed speculative. Most speculations end in dead ends. As the atomic scientist, Linus Pauling once said that he might come up with a thousand bad ideas before encountering an idea that works. Mishra is disingenuous when he suggests that just because Jung’s speculations have been mostly rejected in our time means that all his work can be dismissed.

Confusion surrounds much of Jung’s public persona as much as that about his work. Sonu Shamdasani, professor of the history of psychology, writes in Jung and the Making of Modern Psychology:

Occultist, Scientist, Prophet, Charlatan, Philosopher, Racist, Guru, Anti-Semite, Liberator of Women, Misogynist, Freudian Apostate, Gnostic, Post-Modernist, Polygamist, Healer, Poet, Con-Artist, Psychiatrist and Anti-Psychiatrist — what has C.G. Jung not been called? Mention him to someone, and you are likely to receive one of these images. For Jung is someone that people — informed or not – have opinions about. The swift reaction time indicates that people respond to Jung’s life and work as if they are sufficiently known. Yet the very proliferation of ‘Jungs’ leads one to question whether everyone could possibly be talking about the same figure.

Disingenuously, Mishra declares triumphantly, “Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited.” Mishra then skewers Peterson as a follower of Jung’s speculations on “eternal truths”. Speculations are just that, speculations, until they are empirically shown to be true or false. Although he studied and speculated on the fantastical element of myths and religion, Jung was at heart an empirical scientist. He did delve into Eastern thought and religion, but with a scientific eye. Howard Coward writes in Jung and Eastern Thought, “Jung admits that he has been influenced by Eastern thought…. But as one who follows modern Western scientific method, Jung finds it necessary to draw the line before accepting many of the yoga claims.”

Jung’s own words contradict Mishra’s accusation that Jung merely obsessed with speculations on eternal truths:

My point of view is naturally a psychological one, and moreover that of a practising psychologist whose task it is to find the quickest road through the chaotic muddle of complicated states. This view must needs be very different from that of the psychologist who can study an isolated psychic process at his leisure, in the quiet of his laboratory. The difference is roughly that between a surgeon and an histologist. I also differ from the metaphysician, who feels he has to say how things are ‘in themselves,’ and whether they are absolute or not. My subject lies wholly within the bounds of experience. (The Portable Jung, 1971)

Jung clearly had set up a firewall between his speculations on “eternal truths” and his empirical findings. Mishra is clearly the one who muddles speculative “eternal truths” and empirical facts, and ascribes the muddle-headedness to Jung, one of the greatest psychiatrists in the twentieth century, second perhaps only to Sigmund Freud.

Even though new research may have superseded Jungian ideas or theories. That alone does not qualify him as a quack or charlatan. The scientific method demands change or revision of an idea, whenever new evidence contradicts it. When Galileo Galilei showed by experiment that all objects fall at the same speed regardless of their weights, it does not make Aristotle a quack or charlatan just because Aristotle erroneously thought that the heavier object falls faster the lighter one. Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity has supplanted Newtonian physics, but that does not diminish the usefulness of Newton’s theory. On a practical level, Newtonian physics is still applicable in most matters, including the launch of satellites. The same may be true of Jung whose concepts such as extraversion and introversion, psychological complexes, or individuation are still useful concepts.

Jordan Peterson use Jungian ideas in explaining the workings of psychology to today’s students or audience. Does this make Peterson an intellectual quack? Mishra appears to think so. The breadth of Jung’s studies and research is so vast that one cannot accurately make all encompassing statements such as Mishra’s: “Jung’s speculations have been largely discredited.” I suspect many of the speculations of Jung indeed are discredited, but a number of his ideas also continue to make an impact on modern psychology. As with Newton, Jung is continued to be taught in universities to this very day despite newer and more accurate theories having replaced his original theories. They still have value in presenting a foundation for subsequent theories. Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity have replaced Newton’s physics but budding physicists are still taught Newtonian physics as a starting point to Einstein’s theories. Jung’s ideas of extroversion/introversion and individuation are also still taught despite the advancement of modern psychology. Jung maybe labelled a quack by some, but his contributions to modern psychology are enormous and rightly acknowledged.

Mishra pushes hard to make a connection between Peterson and earlier quacks. He names three alleged to be such intellectual quacks, the German philosopher Ludwig Klages, the Russian painter Nicholas Roerich and Indian activist Aurobindo Ghosh. He makes this connection by claiming they assembled similar collages that matches Peterson’s aesthetics.

Quacks assemble collages.

Peterson assembles collages.

Therefore, according to Mishra’s false syllogism, Peterson is an intellectual quack. Taken to its logical conclusion, every artist who employs collages are also quacks. That is pure nonsense. How many readers, mesmerized with the elite status of the New York Review of Books and with Mishra’s literary credentials, ignore this sleight of hand?

A closer examination of the background of these men would show they were not quacks at all. Ludwig Klages was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1936, the year of his first nomination for the Nobel Prize, Nazi authorities attacked him for his lack of support for the Nazis. During World War II, German newspapers denounced him in 1942. I would say it is a good thing that Peterson share the same aesthetics of an anti-Nazi intellectual. The other two men whom Mishra calls quacks were also nominees for the Nobel Prize. Roerich was nominated four times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Aurobindo Ghosh was not only an activist but also a literary figure who was nominated for the Nobel Prize in two different fields. The Nobel Prize Committee nominated him for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1943 and for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950. Sure, these three men might be neo-Romantics as Mishra suggests, but they were not quacks any more than Aristotle was a quack when Galileo Galilei’s experiments supplanted Aristotle’s theories of motion.

Just because Peterson shares the same aesthetics in collages as these three Nobel Prize nominees, whom Mishra accuses as being neo-Romantics, that does not make Peterson a neo-Romantic. We see Peterson’s disdain for the neo-Romantic in his lectures. There is nothing in nature that shows the Noble Savage can be better than civilized man as far as Peterson is concerned. He refutes the ideal of the Nobel Savage in his Tweets where he references an essay written by William Buckner entitled “Romanticizing the Hunter-Gatherer” which makes the case that the life of the “Noble Savage” is not so noble as the Romantics claim. In his lectures, Peterson refutes the founder of the Romantic Movement Jean Jacque Rousseau’s notion of the Noble Savage. Yet in his book review, Mishra accuses “Peterson may seem the latest in a long line of eggheads pretentiously but harmlessly romancing the noble savage.” Mishra clearly misrepresents Peterson as being enamoured with the ideal of the Noble Savage. On his web site, Peterson presented a meticulous critique of J.J. Rousseau and the ideal of the Noble Savage in which he trashes both the foundation of the Romantics and the ideal of the Noble Savage.

Peterson makes clear in 12 Rules for Life that he disagrees with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his ideal of the Noble Savage. Peterson criticizes Rousseau when he writes on pages 119-120:

The belief that children have an intrinsically unsullied spirit, damaged only by culture and society, is derived in no small part from the eighteenth-century Genevan French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau was a fervent believer in the corrupting influence of human society and private ownership alike. He claimed that nothing was so gentle and wonderful as man in his pre-civilized state. At precisely the same time, noting his inability as a father, he abandoned five of his children to the tender and fatal mercies of the orphanages of the time.

Peterson explains that he sees reality in much harsher tones than the fantasy that is portrayed in the ideal of the Noble Savage:

The noble savage Rousseau described, however, was an ideal–an abstraction, archetypal and religious–and not the flesh-and-blood reality he supposed…. But human beings are evil, as well as good, and the darkness that dwells forever in our souls is also there in no small part in our younger selves. (12 Rules for Life, 120)

Has Mishra even read 12 Rules for Life and read what it says about the Noble Savage? Is his essay in the New Yorker Book Review, even a book review? Or is it a thinly veiled character assassination? Mishra denigrating Peterson’s personal friendship with a Canadian First Nations person as romancing the Noble Savage is nothing short of vile.

Except for biblical references, there is little discussion in Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life on myth even though, elsewhere, Peterson does discuss at length myth and archetypes in his many lectures, interviews and his previously published book Maps of Meaning. In the book being reviewed by Mishra, Peterson uses myth/archetypes only as a teaching aid in explaining other concepts. Then, the mythological sources are from classical Greek or even Chinese literature and the Vedic texts of Hinduism, and nothing from fascist mythologies of the late 19th or 20th centuries Europe. Again, I question whether or not Mishra gave a careful reading of Peterson’s book itself, but instead, he appears to have gathered the usual biased memes and tidbits found all over the Internet posted by the far Left and self-described progressives who have mostly mislabelled Peterson with labels such as “Alt Right” or “neo-Nazi”. For whatever reason, Mishra needs to make a big splash in alleging the study of myth as an obsession of fascists of the 19th and 20th centuries. Here, Mishra goes off in a tangent and passionately tries to connect Peterson with fascism and Nazism by way of mutual interests in myth. Mishra applies the false syllogism here:

Fascists (Nazis) love to study myth.

Jordan Peterson loves to study myth.

Peterson is a Fascist.

Mishra points out correctly that Peterson has a deep interest with the idea of myth, which proliferates throughout his many lectures. Mishra strays into innuendo when he implies that a preoccupation with myth is unhealthy and not good. Two reasons he gives that this is so. First, the study of myth is unsuitable for the modern man. Myths have well passed their shelf life in the modern age. They are fine for our tribal ancestors but modern man has outgrown the use of myths. The second reason why a preoccupation with myths is bad is its dire consequences for a modern person to be consumed with the study of myths. He suggests an unhealthy preoccupation with myth is a symptom of a person becoming a fascist.

It seems Mishra does not have a problem with a study of ancient myths per se, I suppose, as in a study of religion or ancient histories. It is the modern preoccupation with myth, which disturbs Mishra. He suggests it ought to disturb his readers. A deep interest in myth during modern times is a symptom of far right sensibilities in Mishra’s opinion. Mishra makes this clear early on in the sixth paragraph: “Closer examination, however, reveals Peterson’s ageless insights as a typical, if not archetypal, product of our own times: right-wing pieties seductively mythologized for our current lost generations.” Modern interpreters of myth in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are folks who have white supremacist or fascist tendencies, Mishra insinuates. It is clear that Mishra has only skimmed Peterson’s enormous output of material, including many videos of Peterson’s lectures. Had he only looked deeper, he would find Peterson’s preoccupation with the study of myth goes much further back than the 19th century. Peterson has an entire lecture series on the Bible alone. In his 12 Rules for Life, there is no evidence of an obsession with fascist myth making. There, he references occasionally classical Greek mythology as well as the Vedic texts of Hinduism and ancient Chinese texts in addition to frequent biblical references.

Nevertheless, Mishra continues to hoodwink the reader by linking Peterson with anti-Semitic or fascist academics of more recent times. Most notable is Joseph Campbell, a professor who died in the 1980s shortly after completing a TV series for PBS with Bill Moyers. The series was an instant success. Campbell’s object of study was myth as with Peterson’s. Mishra in all likelihood chose Campbell because of a posthumous controversy that involved a friend and colleague who hinted that private and personal conversations with Campbell revealed an anti-Semitic streak in Campbell. Other than that, it is not conclusive how deep Campbell’s anti-Semitism ran, if there was any at all. Even if a person is a racist or bigot, does that automatically nullify everything he has written or said in academia? If a mathematician is anti-Semitic, does that nullify everything he has written or spoke of in mathematics? One plus one still equals two, regardless of who speaks the equation.

Should we trash the usefulness of an idea or a teaching if its proponent turns out to be a racist or anti-Semitic bigot? Certainly, the creator of the popular movie series Star Wars, George Lucas admits that he has been inspired by Campbell’s teachings on archetypes of the hero. So, are we to dismiss George Lucas for adopting the teachings of an alleged anti-Semitic professor? Should we denounce George Lucas for being a fascist mystic too?

Perhaps, the best testimony that Peterson is not an anti-Semite is that of Dr. Norman Doidge, a Jewish psychiatrist and a direct descendent of Holocaust survivors. He is best known for his writings on neuroplasticity of the human brain. Here is an excerpt in Dr. Doidge’s own words from the foreword in 12 Rules for Life:

To understand ideology, Jordan read extensively about not only the Soviet gulag, but also the Holocaust and the rise of Nazism. I had never before met a person, born Christian and of my generation, who was so utterly tormented by what happened in Europe to the Jews, and who had worked so hard to understand how it could have occurred. I too had studied this in depth. My own father survived Auschwitz. My grandmother was middle-aged when she stood face to face with Dr. Josef Mengele, the Nazi physician who conducted unspeakably cruel experiments on his victims, and she survived Auschwitz by disobeying his order to join the line with the elderly, the grey and the weak, and instead slipping into a line with younger people. She avoided the gas chambers a second time by trading food for hair dye so she wouldn’t be murdered for looking too old. My grandfather, her husband, survived the Mauthausen concentration camp, but choked to death on the first piece of solid food he was given just before liberation day. I relate this, because years after we became friends, when Jordan would take a classical liberal stand for free speech, he would be accused by left-wing extremists as being a right-wing bigot.
Let me say, with all the moderation I can summon: at best, those accusers have simply not done their due diligence. I have; with a family history such as mine, one develops not only radar, but underwater sonar for right-wing bigotry; but even more important, one learns to recognize the kind of person with the comprehension, tools, good will and courage to combat it, and Jordan Peterson is that person. (12 Rules for Life, xv)

Perhaps Mishra can be forgiven for not reading the foreword in 12 Rules for Life for his book review. Most folks, I suspect, do not read the foreword in a book.

A tactic of Christians used in their petty arguments among themselves is to discredit the preacher when attempting to discredit his teachings on matters of theology or Church government. Very early in Church history, a group later came to be known as Donatists rejected following priests who lapsed in their faith during the Diocletian persecution. Mishra in his book review does something similar with Peterson and his allies. Like a good Marxist, Mishra accuses them of being intellectual entrepreneurs, a slight twist on “capitalism bad, socialism good” mantra. It is here where Mishra makes the strongest link with between Jordan Peterson and the late Joseph Campbell’s ability to cash in mass media merchandizing. Mishra alleges that both Peterson and Campbell were in it—their interest in myth and psychology—for the money. Their lectures and broadcasts are purely attempts at making a big buck, Mishra alleges. To the social justice crowd, this is the closest thing to evil—making big money.

First, Peterson did not set out to become a media sensation and turn his academic training into a profit generator to satisfy ego and greed. In the preface (Overture) to 12 Rules for Life, he describes his first postings on the Quora web site beginning in 2012 and later YouTube uploads of videos of his lectures beginning in 2013. The YouTube video lectures reached a million views by April 2016. It reached exponential proportions over the next two years, hitting up to eighteen million views, in part because of the controversy thrust upon him by the far Left. A literary agent later tracked him down after listening to a 2012 CBC interview of him, and saw the need for a guidebook on how to live life well. The result is the book 12 Rules for Life. Peterson’s rise to intellectual celebrity status is serendipitous, not the execution of a well thought out plan of an egotistical and greedy university professor as Mishra insinuates.

Mishra begs to differ where it concerns Peterson’s motives, and chants a litany of similar scholars or artists whom he deems to have been sellout intellectuals for comparison: Vivekananda, D.T. Suzuki, Arthur Waley, W.B. Yeats and C.G. Jung. He even threw in Julius Evola for good measure, proclaiming that Evola is a favorite philosopher of ultra conservative Steve Bannon, former advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump. Peterson does share some overlaps in philosophy with Evola. Both believe that there is chaos in Western societies and belief in the healing powers of knowing and rekindling a love of things traditional. However, Peterson would not claim rape as a privilege of men in contrast to Evola who advocated men’s right to rape women. It is simply vile to insinuate that Peterson advocates rape merely because he shares a value for traditionalism with Evola. The other names in Mishra’s litany of the intellectual entrepreneurs were scholars and poet foremost. That they stumbled onto a huge following because their work spoke to the masses did not make them greedy capitalists. Why W.B. Yeats ended up on Mishra’s hit list is a bit of a puzzle, I must admit. The Irish Nobel Prize winner for Literature, Yeats gained a huge following in the English-speaking world and had an interest in Indian philosophy, but that did not make him a profit hungry entrepreneur. If so, we can dismiss the Beatles as frauds too.

When we follow up and look closely into Mishra’s references to fascists or quacks, we discover most of them are not fascists or quacks. Mishra’s book review relies on the reader being ignorant of the historical facts or being too lazy to look into the sources of his allegations of Peterson being a fascist or quack. Such readers are then mesmerized by names that they have likely heard of but whose works they have never read. Mishra’s literary tool kit appeals to ignorant / lazy readers to become enthralled in falsehoods:

Carl G. Jung is a mystic and fascist.

Jordan B. Peterson loves to study Jung.

Jordan Peterson is a mystic and fascist.

The above false syllogism is at the heart of Mishra’s insinuations of Jordan Peterson being a fascist mystic. Although Mishra has never even dealt with the topic of mysticism in his book review, he leaves it to the reader to make the leap that all the talk about myth is enough to make the label “mysticism” stick to Peterson. Mysticism has to do with apprehending, accessing or absorption into the Deity or the divine through non-rational means. Myth has to do with the collective narratives of a people rooted mostly in their early history when miracles and the supernatural seem possible. These are two different topics, although there are overlaps. Here it seems Mishra merely wants a catchy title after he finished juxtaposing Peterson with the biographies of alleged quacks and fascists.

Mishra’s allegations are “straw men”. Jung had an interest in myth as far as it is a study in psychology, and even if he is proven a mystic at heart, that alone does not make him bad or evil. An in depth study of the biographies of Jung reveals nothing to condemn him as a fascist or a sympathizer to Nazism, although he did find the Nationalist Socialist movement attractive at first but later became disenchanted with it. Richard Noll did such a study in The Aryan Christ: The Secret Life of Carl Jung.

An interest in the study of Jung or even of Nazism itself does not make one a Nazi. The main reason why Peterson takes an enormous interest in studying Nazism is to understand how totalitarian societies arise. Remember that age-old admonishment? We must understand the past in order not to repeat its evils.

Despite Pankaj Mishra’s literary prowess, he deserves an F for his book review of Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life, because the book review is less a review of the book but more of a character assassination of the author.


Larry David, a Prophet or Schlemiel?

What I admire most about the Jewish people is their capacity for self-examination. I believe this is one of the reasons why Jews generally are a vibrant, intelligent and progressive people. Christendom has benefited from this Jewish trait for self-examination. Christianity whether of the Protestant ilk or the Catholic persuasion has adopted stringent self-examination in practice and in some sects have formalized it in sacrament. The figure who embodies this trait for self-examination is the Jewish prophet. The modern popular notion of the prophet’s function is his capacity to foretell certain future events. This is only partly accurate. The office of the prophet is to act as the conscience of the Jewish people. Last November, in his comedy monologue on dating in concentration camps during the Holocaust, the comedian and TV producer Larry David is functioning in the role of a Jewish prophet.

The history of self-examination may be traced back to the prophetic history as depicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, especially the books of the prophets. These Hebrew writings eventually became part of the Christian Bible. One of the greatest heroes celebrated in the Bible is King David, an ancestor of Jesus who is the head of the Christian Church. What is remarkable about the story of King David is that his human flaws are recorded in detail in the Bible. David was King of Israel and a mighty warrior celebrated by his people, yet he was also an adulterer who arranged to have the husband of his lover Bathsheba killed on the battle front lines, an act which also made David a murderer. The God of David then sent a prophet Nathan to tell David a story of a rich man stealing from a poor man that aroused in David righteous indignation against the rich man in Nathan’s story. Then Nathan turned to David and said, “Thou art the man.” When David realized that the tyrannical rich man was himself, he underwent a spiritual conversion for the better.

In recent times, a Jewish linguistic professor Noam Chomsky ruffles feathers when he defends the right to free speech of Robert Faurisson, a French professor who has denied the Holocaust ever happened in history. It is not a viewpoint approved by the political orthodoxy nor by Chomsky, but he supported Faurisson’s right to free expression, especially in academic circles. For this, the mainstream media vilifies Chomsky as psychologically unstable, even accusing him, a gentle soft-spoken man, of being a brutal alpha-male. He is also often critical of the Israeli government, even accusing it of committing crimes of the state, and for this, both Jews and non-Jews in America alike condemn him for not towing the pro-Israel line. Because he speaks out against political orthodoxy that is pro-Israel, he has been accused of being a self-hating Jew or even an anti-Semitic. Chomsky is merely speaking consistently for fundamental rights in a democracy and speaking out against the powerful over the weak, even if the immoral behaviour happened to be committed by other Jews. Speaking out against the wickedness of kings (governments) and defending the poor is a recurring theme of the Jewish prophet. The flow over time of numerous other similar stories remind a Jew of the need for self-examination.

I have personally encountered Jewish people who demonstrated acute awareness of their own personal shortcomings. Waiting in line outside the famous delicatessen Schwartz’s in Montreal, two Jewish middle-aged couples stood next to me. One of the ladies asked me what I did for a living. Embarrassed I was not employed, I grew awkward at the question, but after some hemming and hawing, I gave in and confessed that I was not employed. Her husband quickly interjected and shared the story of how his cousin screwed him in a business enterprise. Sounded like he lost everything. Not sure how his story and my story are related but it was as though we were sharing our economic failures. I was brave enough to share my real story and he responded in kind. The sharing of personal failures seemed natural for this Jew and he welcomed me into his world albeit briefly.

This propensity for self-examination seemed to have stalled lately as evidenced in the Jewish response to the comedian and Seinfeld producer Larry David who is Jewish. He pushed the envelope a tad too far when he did a stand-up routine on Saturday Night Live (November 4, 2017) about dating in a concentration camp during the times of the Holocaust. Reactions on the Internet ran the gamut from moral outrage with vows never to watch anything of Larry David ever again to a few brave souls who welcomed his stand-up routine as a stroke of comedic genius. The vast number of the responses on the Internet though leaned heavily in the negative against Larry David. The erudite blog Schlemiel Theory by Menachem Feuer took a middle ground in which he writes of the schlemiel persona that Larry David put on in comedy routines or roles and how this schlemiel has entered a region where no man or woman has ever travelled before David’s Saturday Night Live routine. (To read Menachem Feuer’s blog or see video links to the above-mentioned episode of SNL, go to Schlemiel Theory blog.)

Perhaps, comedy and the Holocaust will never go together, much as water and oil can never mix. Feuer’s blog on Larry David has hinted at that impossibility. He notes that Larry David has a history of attempts at squeezing in Holocaust humour throughout his comedic works. Feuer first examines the sexual schlemiel figure in an attempt find some redeeming feature in the Larry David schlemiel. He quotes from David Biale’s Eros and the Jews: “Yes, David’s entire act is predicated on projecting discomfort in his audience, forcing them to watch characters disgraced beyond redemption.” This is in reference to David’s alter ego George Costanza in his hugely successful TV show Seinfeld. Whether it is with regard to the George Costanza schlemiel, the Wood Allen schlemiel or the Philip Roth’s narrator in Portnoy’s Complaint, Feuer finds the redemptive nature of such sexual schlemiels as very tentative and elusive.

The majority of the commentaries, following the airing of the controversial Larry David routine of dating in concentration camps, were highly critical and negative toward his comedy monologue. Jeremy Dauber, author of Jewish Comedy: A Serious History poses a common question about the Larry David episode: Is the Shoah (Holocaust) ever appropriate to joke about it? In his article in The Atlantic, he offers a wide perspective, examining which jokes of Larry David are appropriate in their use of the Holocaust. Larry David’s use of the Holocaust is groundbreaking, starting in 1999 in an HBO special, continuing through his production of the Seinfeld TV series. Dauber claims David is responsible for the word “Nazi” entering into mainstream casual usage. The brand of Larry David’s comedy is his ability to make you laugh at uncomfortable situations. The Holocaust is merely the extreme backdrop used to make an audience uncomfortable.

Dauber examines how well an audience receives a Holocaust joke. He does so by looking at the ethical stance of the joke. He cites the episode from Curb Your Enthusiasm in which David continues to hire a foul-mouthed chef because David mistook the chef’s tattoo of lottery numbers for a concentration camp survivor’s identification number. Dauber also refers to “a dinner scene where a Holocaust survivor faces off against a contestant from the reality competition show Survivor”. He notes that Larry David is relatively prolific in his use of the Holocaust throughout his comedy career. When not inventing afresh his own brand of Holocaust humour, Larry David takes on projects involving a Holocaust theme, such as a stage role in Mel Brooks’s The Producers. In comparing Larry David with Mel Brooks’s use of the Holocaust in humour, Dauber asserts the moral objective of Brooks’s method, which in the case of The Producers, is to show that an audience can laugh at and even enjoy a stage musical about Hitler if the object is mockery of the Third Reich. He makes this clear: “Nonetheless, the original Producers movie is at its core all about the issue of whether or not an audience would accept a work like The Producers and the kind of comedy it offered.”

In contrast to Mel Brooks’s usage of the Holocaust in comedy, Larry David’s trademark humor is at heart amoral. Dauber notes: “But a part of the reaction to David’s concentration camp joke, perhaps, comes from one of the wellsprings of his uncomfortable comedy: its amorality.” In the following, Dauber is onto something:

In this sense, David’s SNL joke is not precisely about the Holocaust; rather, it is the ne plus ultra of the sort of humor his alter egos embody: What is the most inappropriate and extreme situation in which this sort of thing could occur? But because the joke is using concentration camps as a throwaway—rather than thinking or feeling deeply about it, or using it for other arguably principled purposes—it’s easy for viewers to think, You’re invoking this? Just to get a laugh for that? [Italics Dauber’s]

The key takeaway from Jeremy Dauber’s Atlantic article is that usage of the Holocaust in comedy is amoral and a mere prop to evoke the most uncomfortableness in the audience. But I say that to evoke the most uncomfortableness in an audience is precisely one of Larry David’s goals. If his past record is any indication, David wants to make you squirm in your seat. That his dating in concentration camps monologue is also funny is the conundrum. There is even a moral thrust to it as well.

Here I will pause for an aside. A quick perusal in the Twitter sphere or a few inquiries among sophisticated middle class folks will reveal that many people will likely say Larry David’s take on romance in concentration camps is not worthy for even a snicker or words to that effect. They may even be quick to question how anyone can make fun of the worst event in human history. I must confess I laughed when I first saw the SNL episode in question. Even now, I cannot shake the image of Larry David casually delivering his lines:

“I’ve always been obsessed with women, and I’ve always wondered, if I’d grown up in Poland when Hitler came to power and was sent to a concentration camp, would I still be checking out women in the camp? I think I would,” joked David in his monologue.

“Of course, the problem is there are no good opening lines in a concentration camp. ‘How’s it going? They treating you OK? You know, if we ever get out of here, I’d love to take you out for some latkes. You like latkes? What, what is it? Me, or the whole thing?’” (Jack Shepherd, Independent, November 6, 2017)

I must also confess I am no anti-Semite, but why did I laugh at Larry David’s joke about dating in the Holocaust concentration camp? As I already mentioned, he was so casual, relaxed in his delivery. He reminds me of an uncle of mine. They belong to a time when men could strike a cool pose in late fifties or early sixties America (or Canada), one hand in a pocket and the other raised to make a point. He raises his chin slightly, “How’s it going? They treating you OK?” I just burst my guts at that point. Sure, it is the juxtaposition of the evil backdrop of the Holocaust behind the lonely male figure sweating out of nervousness, trying to be cool while asking a girl to go out with him. The scene of a nervous young man standing alone before a pretty, young woman is universal. It is the same I am sure with my uncle in China or Hong Kong courting a young woman, until my grandparents arranged a marriage for him. It is the same for every Jewish boy in the presence of some pretty girl. This scene of a man in the presence of a woman that Larry David set up in his “sick” joke is a picture of our humanity. I think that is why his monologue is so powerful and at the same time funny, because 85% of our humanity will feel the pain when the young woman rejects her suitor. Worst, she does not give him the time of day. David simply paints us a picture of life, and life is wonderful between a man and a woman despite the pitfalls of courting. The humour is magnified because this normal picture of boy meets girl is transported to a scene in a concentration camp. I believe that to find humour in a schlemiel failing to get the girl’s phone number in an evil setting is a snub to evil itself. The Nazi’s attempt to dehumanize the Jews has failed here. A Jewish boy still falls in love no matter where he finds the pretty girl. That like the 85% of us men that Jewish boy will likely fail for whatever the reason, but it is a story we men can tell our children after we finally find that right one meant for us.

I have found Menachem Feuer’s analysis of the schlemiel’s role in Jewish literature and film often enlightening and in this case of the Larry David monologue on courting in concentration camps especially helpful in appreciating Larry David’s unique schlemiel, although I think Feuer’s commentary falls short of the true nature of Larry David’s monologue on Saturday Night Live.

Strictly speaking, the schlemiel is “an inept clumsy person; a bungler; a dolt”. Menachem Feuer, a professor of Jewish Studies at York University, Toronto, researches and writes about the schlemiel character in Jewish culture, both real life schlemiels and fictional ones from film and literature. The schlemiel figure, as I learn from reading Feuer’s blogs on the subject, appears to have a sort of moral underpinning despite the schlemiel routinely causing unfortunate things to happen. It is a redemptive figure. In his November 6, 2017 blog entitled “Larry David, the Schlemiel, and Holocaust Humor“, Feuer describes Larry David’s schlemiel figure at times as the classic schlemiel as in his portrayal of Bernie Sanders. The York University professor notes that at other times, “Larry David’s schlemiel is different form [sic] anything we have ever seen in the Jewish tradition”. Citing Ruth Wisse and Varda Spiegel, Feuer points out that David’s schlemiel character is no longer winsome or charming, and that perhaps his attempt at self-deprecation is a failure that invites the anti-Semites’ derisive laughter and causes distress in Holocaust survivors.

Although not explicit, Feuer appears exasperated at Larry David’s schlemiel, because it doesn’t fit into the traditional mold of the schlemiel as the morally upright person who inadvertently causes bad things to happen to him, that the traditional end result of “laughter through tears” does not happen in the case of Larry David’s routine on courting in concentration camps.

I believe Feuer misses the mark by insisting on the use of the schlemiel figure as a metric on Larry David’s comedy performance on Saturday Night Live. While citing Thane Rosenbaum, Feuer claims that Larry David’s schlemiel persona is disgraced beyond redemption. Here I disagree with Feuer. The value of the image of the Holocaust is shock. Yet Larry David manages to make the Holocaust work for comedy when he juxtaposed it with another evil deed, namely rape. The literary figure or character that can evoke such a miracle as making use of the Holocaust in comedy is not the schlemiel but the prophet. And for the prophet, shock is his main tool and sometimes comedy is added for good measure.

We all can agree that the character in Larry David’s stand-up routine on the SNL episode last year is not the traditional schlemiel. Feuer ends his blog by making the claim, “Since we are witnessing so much judgment these days, I’m going to with-hold my judgment with this word perhaps. I’ll let you decide. All I can say is that Larry David is more like a schlemiel, a schlimazel, and a nudnik – altogether, at the same time. And that’s simultaneously funny, sad, and offensive.”

Dante may offer in his The Divine Comedy a possible resolution to how comedy may use the Holocaust. How does Dante reconcile comedy with Hell? As I have not read The Divine Comedy in its entirety and no expert in Dante, I defer to those better equipped to comment, but many of those who studied the topic have concluded Dante’s work is indeed comedy. If the Italians managed to make a comedy out of Hell, then why cannot the Jews do the same with the Holocaust? Of course, some may say we are comparing apples to oranges. The Holocaust is real life and Hell a fiction. (Some folks though in some circles do believe Hell is real.) I only bring up the comparison to Dante as a meager piece of evidence that it might just be possible that comedy may arise out of the ashes of the Holocaust. I give below a few more reasons why this is possible.

I believe Prof. Feuer and others try too hard to discover if there is any value in the Larry David schlemiel’s use of the Holocaust in comedy, much like serious cultural critics might analyze a sex scene to determine if there is any merit for it in a work of art such as a film or novel. I agree with the professor that the schlemiel and the Holocaust do not harmonize well together. There is another literary figure from the Jewish canon that works better with the Holocaust as background. I believe the literary figure that can make good use of the Holocaust imagery is the Hebrew prophet. The prophet of the Hebrew Bible uses strong language to warn his people of the consequences of their ways. He calls Israel a whore when its leaders revel in the women from peoples who worship the lesser gods than their Lord God. The Jewish prophet uses pornographic and derisive language to describe his own people in order to lead them away from immoral behaviour and back to God. Here is a sample from the prophet Ezekiel (16:36) directed at the people in Jerusalem: “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thy filthiness was poured out, and thy nakedness discovered through thy whoredoms with thy lovers, and with all the idols of thy abominations, and by the blood of thy children, which thou didst give unto them.”

At the start of his monologue, Larry David aimed his Saturday Night Live routine at his Jewish cohorts in the entertainment industry. They very likely include Harvey Weinstein, Brett Ratner, Dustin Hoffman and others. In the three, we have examples of extremely talented and gifted men: a producer, a director and an actor whose successes encompass both critical acclaim and box office hits. These men were born in the Baby Boomer generation–although Ratner maybe more like early GenX–which gave birth to the sexual revolution, euphemistically referred to as free love. They were one time the rebels that shook the establishment free of any remnants its 1950s prudish inhibitions. The consequences though of the sexual revolution may not be entirely good. The sexual revolution gave the illusion of unfettered freedom. The reality is quite the opposite of freedom. Ironically, a plethora of sexual predators arose in the movie and TV industries that created the illusion of freedom via free love. I would argue that the preciousness of the sex act itself has been devalued in the eyes of mainstream America over the decades since the days of hippies and free love. Sex has lost its sanctity, its spiritual nature in the mind of the public. Rape in the popular mindset is reduced to a cold, clinical phrase, “sexual assault”. Guilt is reduced to “did she say no” criterion, a binary flip of the switch. The words “traumatic” or “abused” are modern words the contemporary public use to express the damage done in rape, but honestly, such words just do not convey enough horror of what women really feel during and after a rape. What Larry David did in his comic routine was to dig up the most horrible event in human history and apply it as an analogy to the rape of a woman. Rape is Holocaust. Whether Larry David was conscious of this or not, I do not know, but that was what happened on SNL on that fateful Saturday night in early November last year. Can we equate the rape of a woman to the Holocaust of an entire race? As it stands now, without filter or alteration, according to Larry David’s comedic monologue on SNL, the answer is a resounding “Yes”.

The late author Iris Chang would agree that the atrocities committed in a genocide is the equivalent to a rape of a woman. The title of her book The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II, the 1997 best seller, suggest as much. The book recounts the Japanese Imperial Army`s massacre and atrocities committed against the Chinese from 1937–1938. Like a hydrogen fusion bomb, Larry David brings together two images, one of rape colliding with another of the naked atrocities of the Holocaust. He juxtaposes the image of the fumbling schlemiel courting a pretty girl in a concentration camp with that of the men of power, the “Harvey Weinsteins,” committing rape in clean, plush hotel rooms during times of peace. This comparison shocks our sensibilities, underscoring the evil and repugnancy of the act of rape. As with Larry David, Iris Chang saw the equivalency. Rape is Holocaust. Holocaust is Rape.

With his Saturday Night Live monologue on courting in concentration camps, Larry David restores us to an earlier sensibility before we all became jaded with the hippie notion of “free love” and its evil rationalization on the casting couches or in the hotel rooms of movie and network TV producers and mega-celebrities. The traditional sensibility that is passed down to us through the generations, I believe, is the right one. That is, men should protect their women folk, their sisters and daughters, from those men who cannot be trusted to be alone with the fairer sex. As the trending “MeToo” meme proclaims the ugliness and the evil that is the act of rape, we need a guiding light to make sense of all this. The Jewish people have a long tradition of prophets rising up at the right moment to direct us and give us hope from the Hebrew prophets Nathan to Isaiah to Jesus, from Philip Roth to Noam Chomsky. On that note, Larry David is a Jewish prophet.


UPDATED March 17, 2018; 4:33 PM: In the last paragraph, the sentence, “That is, men cannot be trusted to be alone with the fairer sex,” is replaced by:
“That is, men should protect their women folk, their sisters and daughters, from those men who cannot be trusted to be alone with the fairer sex.”

Love Stalks: A Novella

Like continental shifts, the changes in Canadian society may feel imperceptible to the mainstream population. Yet the consequences in the lives of individuals are seismic and may even be violent in some not so distant future. Like the bird in the coal mine shaft, a neurotic individual acts like the harbinger of an imminent catastrophe.

When I was living in Toronto I felt uneasy as Canadian society became more multicultural and more multi-ethnic. One might surmise that being Chinese, I would welcome Canada’s embracing of diversity. On the contrary, as the ideology of diversity gains prominence in Toronto during the 1980s-1990s, I felt more like an outsider in the very land of my birth–Canada. The value of diversity in society is hotly debated as it has never been before in Canada. Perhaps more effective than argument or even rational discourse is to put the other person into my shoes. I believe the novel is one of those art forms that can allow strangers to walk in my shoes in order for them to feel what I feel.

The growing sense alienation during my time in Toronto gave birth to a work of fiction that I entitled Love Stalks. It was a full novel at one point, over 260 pages, but under advisement of a wise Hebrew teacher, I cut it down in half. He remarked that something as dark as my story, lacking humour, interest in the story could best be sustained in its reduced length. I hope the current re-write recovers what I had always thought is my unique sense of humour. But yes, my teacher is right. Alienation can only be sipped in small doses. Albert Camus’ The Stranger is a good example of that.

Love Stalks begins as in many stories with a man and a girl. Except that in Love Stalks, the girl is more imagined than real. Lester Chang is the man. The girl is a blonde, usually evoked by the bank teller named Brenda. Lester wants to get laid. It has to be with a blonde, hopefully Brenda. He needs to have sex with a white woman in order to feel validated as a Canadian. His only interaction with Brenda is at the bank. This does not stop him from fantasizing a love interest in her. Less psychotic than the David Kelsey character in Patricia Highsmith’s This Sweet Sickness, but nonetheless very much echoes Kelsey in his neurosis and detachment from reality. A chance meeting with Brenda in Lester`s favorite place of sanctuary, the movie theatre, not only proves he is an inadequate romantic but his strained efforts at appearing more European in her eyes have failed miserably despite his superior knowledge of European history.

Reality is relentless coming in the form of Lester’s mother who hounds him to bring a date to his father’s seventieth birthday party. Nonchalantly, he calls up a female friend named Wilma Fung to invite to the party. He realizes that he is crazier than he first thought. His last hope for a date is some Chinese version of a Rita Hayworth lookalike named Lily he met at a church young people’s function that he attends with his cousin. His hope in Lily as a date is dashed when she reveals she is renewing a romance with an urban planner.

Lester’s usual outlet in prostitutes turns out to be a dud as the night’s prostitute does not get around to role playing BDSM. Then he wanders about Toronto in search of someone who reminds him of Brenda, the blonde bank teller. He buys bondage paraphernalia. When he encounters the brunette Maureen, a secretary from work, standing on the middle of a bridge, he offers her a ride and soon drives her home. There he faces his true identity and his lust for Maureen wells up.

Love Stalks: A Novella is now available at Amazon: Paperback or Kindle.

The Danger of Human Rights Code as Cure for Microaggressions

When a white person makes casual but hurtful expressions in front of a person of a minority group, these expressions, whether verbal or non-verbal, define the term “microaggressions”. The assumption is that the white person belongs to the majority or the group with the authority or power. It does not matter if the white person expressing a microaggression is aware of it or not. It only matters if the person receiving such expression feels hurt. In this essay, I first share some of my own personal experience with microaggressions, in order to demonstrate the accumulation of put downs, however slight, do lead to emotional pain and possible psychological damage. Of greater concern is the application of human rights legislation to curb the use of microaggression opens up a greater danger–the loss of a crucial principle of our modern civilization in the West, the loss of the freedom of speech.

First, I share my own experience with microaggression, and then discuss the current scene after the passing into law Bill C-16 and the havoc wrecked by way of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. I present two recent examples of the muzzling of free speech, one in Olympia, Washington on the US Westcoast and the second in Toronto, Ontario in the Eastern Canada.

Children wield name-calling as a vicious weapon in the schoolyard. As a Chinese born in Canada, I have experienced its sharp edge while growing up in a little town on the Canadian prairies, where I was usually the only Chinese kid in my class. Quite often, kids spewed at me invective like “Ching Chong Chinaman” or “Chink”. Grownups were somewhat politer but still thrust “foreignness” on me. “What race are you, Japanese, Chinese?” The more cosmopolitan ones might correct themselves, “Oh, I’m sorry. I meant what nationality are you?” Grownups could still be hurtful when they actually name-called, “Rice Burner!”

Blatant racist name-calling has receded over the years. Instead, a subtler and nuanced discrimination replaces blatant racism. Just this past summer, a young man, all smiles, wearing a man-bun and a vest with the words “Greenpeace”, clipboard in hand, approached me and asked, “Did anyone tell you that you look like David Suzuki?” I said, “No, I don’t like the guy”. My remarks confused the Greenpeace canvasser who then quietly turned away. Fact is, Prof. Suzuki, the environmentalist, is ethnic Japanese, and I am ethnic Chinese. Unlike the good professor, I am one of the skeptics when it comes to climate change as the harbinger of the apocalypse.

When liberals invoke inclusiveness with the line, “We’re all immigrants after all”, I silently shout for someone, preferably with long fingernails, to scratch a blackboard. Now let me say slowly, I am not an immigrant. I was born on Canadian soil, and proud of it.

Over the long run, harsh racial slurs did not bother me as much as the well-intended speech of progressives and liberals. In graduate school, the dean of students spotted me for the first time during a barbecue and readily introduced himself to me. He presented himself as very friendly, and indeed he was sincere, no doubt about it. He was soft-spoken and pleasant. Then came the question I dread. He asked me, “Are you Japanese?” You may substitute “Chinese” or “Korean” for “Japanese”, and I would still feel the same, disappointed and angry. Here we go again, another confirmation that I may never truly be Canadian despite being born on Canadian soil. I do get it that this particular graduate school marketed itself to and attracted international students, but the majority of students still were either Americans or Canadians from other parts of Anglophone North America. What bothered me was that while the good dean was a Swede born in Europe and I was born in Canada, most people would see him as the Canadian or American and I as the foreigner.

What irritates me even more is when other liberally minded folks come along and attribute such mistaken identity phenomenon to the recent flux of new immigrants from Asia. I remind them our country’s history had a significant Chinese presence before Confederation. Why the default: You are Canadian, and I am Chinese? I do not understand why. Even with the onset of the ideology of diversity, white people usually assume that I am a foreigner who they treat with greater respect than they give the average Canadian.

On the other hand, in the case of overt racism, I can tolerate a garden-variety racist. I write off this sort of blatant racism as simple ignorance. If the cause stems from pure hatred against somebody who looks different, I can endure such a racist. It is with the self-proclaimed liberal that in the course of normal every day discourse, e.g., “By the way I use chop sticks”. These casual comments remind me that I look like an immigrant receiving the graciousness of the liberal heart attuned to diversity. Puke. I just want to puke.

It gets even messier when I take a more rational perspective. You might think it is obvious that people can tell I am a Canadian by my accent. If only people listen before they jump to the wrong conclusions about my nationality, would all be well on the identity front? The fact is I do have an accent that is not mainstream Canadian. The best parallel example I can think of is the Jewish community in New York. American Jews from that area do speak with an accent descended from European Jews who very likely spoke Yiddish. Anyone listening to someone like Woody Allen, probably would conclude he speaks in the English dialect of a Jew from Brooklyn. No one listening to him speak English would assume he is a European immigrant or someone foreign to America. The automatic assumption is that Woody Allen is an American Jew. In contrast, when I slip in speech or pause longer than I should, the automatic assumption is that I speak good English for a Chinese, and Canadians would ask where I learned English. The liberal minded at this point is surely impressed with himself or herself: what magnanimity to compliment a newly arrived immigrant’s English skills. Unlike in the case of the American Jew, there is a continuation of the theme of the immigrant: “How long have you been in Canada?” “Where are you from?” “Are you Chinese?” The monotony of gentle reminders of me as foreign is ad nauseam. Some of us Canadian born Chinese do speak with an accent when we speak English but it is a Canadian accent, although it is not Peter Mansbridge or Peter Jennings’s dialect, it nonetheless is an accent peculiar to a specific group born and raised in Canada, not some foreign immigrant group.

I want my fellow Canadians to speak to me as though I am a fellow Canadian. Simply, I want recognition as Canadian, without hyphen, without qualification. In my mother’s opinion, Canadians do not see me as Canadian, plain and simple. People will always see me as Chinese first despite how strongly I want to be simply Canadian. She says I can never change people’s perception. I have yellow skin. Therefore, I am Chinese, no matter how hard I try to change that perception. In in recent years, I conclude she is right. This crisis in identity was probably one of the reasons I ended up seeing a psychiatrist and then entered group therapy for seven weeks during my sophomore year in university.

What I have described so far are my emotional reactions to casual slights alluding to me as Chinese immigrant despite my strong feelings as Canadian. To my surprise, psychiatrists and psychologists have a term for the cause of my emotional responses: “microaggressions”. Dr. Charles Pierce first coined this term in 1973 while he was professor of psychiatry at Harvard University where he noticed the effects of non-blacks making casual but disparaging remarks on blacks. Later Columbia psychology professor Dr. Derald Wing Sue picked up the term and expanded its usage: “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership“. Group membership obviously refer to minority groups. Who are the minorities? They would include but not limited to minorities by race, sexual orientation, disability and religion. More recently, the definition of a minority includes transgender people who identify themselves by how they experience gender in their personal lives and how they sense of being a female, a male, somewhere in between or something not defined in society. They do not fit neatly into the usual binary, female and male.

The transgender person is someone who identifies oneself not by biological sexual gender assigned at birth but by one’s interior experience of how the gender identity presents itself in society. For example, society may perceive a person as male biologically at birth, but this person later chooses to present as a female in society. The person may express gender in dress, activities and outward appearance such as hairstyles. This person may or may be sexually attracted to the opposite sex. Sex orientation is not always identical to gender according to theories defining gender as a social construct. The Ontario Human Rights Commission hold the above mentioned definitions of gender and transgender, despite there being no scientific consensus on biological research that may affect gender studies.

Although I am a heterosexual male, I think I do know how the transgender (trans) folks feel, because I lived the experience of a marginalized racial minority during my younger years. I do feel the alienation and the slow but continual caustic effect of words have on the psyche. I believe my experience is very similar to that experienced in the LGBTQIE community [1] when it comes to language usage. Some LGBTQIE community members advocate the use of certain specific pronouns. These pronouns are in addition to the traditional binary, male and female pronouns, when describing specific members of the LGBTQIE community. That, I believe, is perfectly acceptable and I appreciate their attempt to identify themselves the way they want. I do differ though with those within the LGBTQIE community who advocate the use of certain specific pronouns by force of law. That I could be punished or labelled a criminal in the eyes of a court who interprets the Criminal Code in light of federal and provincial human rights codes for not using the approved pronoun when I address transgender people.

I would like everyone to recognize me as Canadian, but that will never consistently happen. I feel hurt, but should there be a law passed in Parliament forcing my fellow Canadians to call me Canadian? If they mistake me for Asian, should they pay a fine? Should their names go on a registry of language offenders? Maybe even do jail time? Of course, this is not an acceptable course of action. Force, whether by bare knuckles or by Parliament, cannot change a person’s heart. (Corrosive puritan aspects of the Protestant Reformation prove that morality ought not to be legislated.) The most destructive kind of censorship though is self-censorship. It gradually eats away at the soul whenever one is forced to say something but do not believe it is true. This was what happened in Stalinist Russia. Imagine parents fearing their children might report their spoken words back to some bureaucrat who ruled with an iron fist. That was Russia ruled by Stalin. The same atmosphere of fear is rising too on Canadian soil.

What evidence is there that the ghost of Stalin is making itself felt in the second largest country in the world, which is my home Canada?

Something happened in the 1990s in how white folks respond to minority groups. An example will suffice. It was in a writing class while we were commenting on each other’s manuscripts; I fell into a half daze. Do not recall why the stupor, but I was out of it. The class was commenting on the draft script of a pretty, young Spanish-English woman. Someone commented about the name of one of the female characters in her play script. There was a buzz about how the character’s name rhymed with the word “tofu”. Being half-awake, I missed most of the discussion but suddenly woke up at the word “tofu”. Someone asked the class if everybody got it. I raised my hand, thinking that asking a question is as good as participating in a class discussion. I said sincerely, “I don’t get it.” A hush descended in the classroom. There was something not quite like fear, but only a notch or two below terror, appeared in her face as she looked at me. I remarked once again that I simply did not get it. The whole class was quiet and hesitant, staring at me. This is the other side of words, the fearful pansy. Only many years later did I realize that everyone was afraid of being labelled a racist. In so avoiding the label “racist”, everybody got uptight and remained silent. This was an early warning that free speech was dying in Canada.

Within the recent past year or two, events rush ahead and catch many people by surprise, especially the older folks who still remember news coverage of Martin Luther King and the beginning of Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, California. During those heady days of the 1960s and 1970s, a Canadian newspaper in Vancouver called The Georgia Straight made headlines showing photos of naked male bodies, underscoring that free speech is fundamental to a democratic society. In contrast, today students call professors “Nazis” or “white supremacists” for open discussion on ideas and research that simply differ from the opinion of certain members of minority groups.

A professor of evolutionary biology, Bret Weinstein commented that the students went too far in their demand for all white students to be absent from an annual event called Day of Absence at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He sent comments in a polite letter to Rashida Love, the school’s Director of First Peoples Multicultural Advising Services. She had introduced a new wrinkle to the college’s Day of Absence. It is a tradition in which, until this year, minority students of colour would be absent from the college as a re-enactment based on a stage play in which black college students were absent from campus for a day in order to discuss race issues–a gesture of protest in the original event. The new wrinkle to this year’s Day of Absence is the requirement that white students, instead of the colour students, be absent from campus, and that all white professors cancel their classes. Weinstein remarked that unlike the traditional event when the black students voluntarily left campus as a gesture of protest, the request this year that white students be absent by administrative fiat are not comparable. He refused to comply with the demands of the students for him to cancel his classes. The professor argued that the students’ demand for whites to be absent, when such request is forced and coerced, is against free speech. For the exercise of his freedom of speech, students vilified and labelled him as a “white supremacist”. The irony is that he is Jewish and an advocate of leftist movements such as Occupy Wall Street.

A mob of students confronted Weinstein first in his classroom and then spread throughout the college. The college administration ordered the police to stand down and allow 200 students to harass Weinstein and staff into hiding in a section of the library and administration block. He had to continue his class off campus. The police warned Weinstein that they could not guarantee his safety. Of course, they could not because the college president had asked the police to stand down. The fear of reprisal by the student mob was so palpable that the college president George Bridges pandered to their wishes. When a student asked him to drop his hands to his side because he showed acts of microaggression in his hand movements, he meekly complied. Then the students all jeered and laughed.

Weinstein and his wife Heather Heying both eventually resigned from their faculty positions at Evergreen College. They sued the college as they feared for their physical and psychological well-being since the college administration did not ensure a safe teaching environment for them. The two parties settled for $450,000 in Weinstein and Heying’s favour plus the professors’ legal cost of $50,000.

Closer to home in Toronto, Canada, Dr. Jordan Peterson, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, became the focal point of harassment by students claiming him to be a white supremacist for a series of three videos entitled “Professor against political correctness” released on Youtube in September 2016 about his concerns of political correctness suppressing free speech. His concerns find their basis in the federal Bill C-16 (now law) introducing the new categories of gender identity and expression, along with the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s interpretation of pronoun usage, the evolution of human resources departments as enforcer of political correctness, and the new Marxism creeping into the classroom and workplace by way of post-modernist ideology.

Students reacted vehemently to Peterson’s politically incorrect videos. Trans students accused him of being a bigot or racist, and alleged him of creating an atmosphere of fear on campus. Some alleged Peterson inspired followers to threaten them. The door of his office was glued shut. A group of non-binary gender students held a protest rally. A counter rally of his supporters ensued in which a trans person was charged for assault. Some of his faculty colleagues condemned him on TV and social media. Heads from the arts and science faculty, and the department of psychology sent him letters, asking him to stop repeating his politically incorrect views and comply with human rights legislation. Unfortunately, his publicity also attracted red-blooded white supremacists and neo-Nazis, whom Peterson deplored.

His biggest controversy might very well be his refusal to use trans pronouns compelled under legislation in Ontario, as he interprets it. In a debate at a University of Toronto forum, law professor Brenda Crossman said that the standard for hate speech as a criminal act is set at so high a bar that merely refusing the use of trans pronouns would not put him against the law unless he called for genocide. He would have no grounds for fear, she said. Peterson did not buy into that interpretation and felt current laws are the thin edge of the wedge that, if not checked, would someday outlaw free speech completely. The current legislation under the Ontario Human Rights Code and their interpretation by the Human Rights Commission were on unstable grounds.[2] For example, who gets to define “hate speech”?

He did not back off from any debate, even taking on crowds outdoors on the campus grounds. Members of the LGBTQIE accused him of a being a Nazi despite decades of study on the subject and his complete repudiation of Nazi ideology. The number of his followers grew just as fast as his detractors grew. He obviously touched a raw nerve in many who viewed his videos, especially young men, who have been feeling that political correctness has gone too far. Joe Rogan, formerly host of the TV show The Fear Factor, arranged to meet him along with Dr. Bret Weinstein for a September 1, 2017 podcast to discuss the tyranny of political correctness.

A panel discussion “The Stifling of Free Speech on University Campuses” was scheduled at Ryerson University in Toronto for August 22, 2017. Speakers included Peterson. A young woman and another man created a Facebook page and rallied protesters to shut down the announced forum. Originally, the header showed an image of a crossed-out Nazi swastika, until presumably threats of legal action may have compelled her to replace the image. What intrigues me about this woman is that she does not seem well known in leftist activist circles until this event. At the time, she has a paltry number of followers on her Twitter account, less than 80. Her goal was to stop the panel discussion from happening. She managed to rally support from “her community” along with support from the student body. She drummed up clichés such “No Fascists in Our City”, or “We are here to celebrate our diversity.” She managed to have her people harass the university administration into submission via emails and phone calls. The Ryerson University administration capitulated and cancelled the panel discussion for fear of violence erupting, and free speech died at Ryerson University.

I see our society as a very fragile one, in which the hurt feelings of some imperil the freedom of speech of all. My feelings are hurt too over the years by racism, but the bigger threat is the loss of my right to speak freely.


[1] LGBTQIE stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Intersex, Asexual.

[2] On May 17, 2016, Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould sponsored Bill C-16 to amend the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Criminal Code. The bill is a short one. It inserts the single phrase “gender identity or expression” into Section 2, The Purpose and Section 3(b) the prohibited grounds of discrimination of the Human Rights Act. Similarly, this phrase is inserted in the Criminal Code in Subsection 318(4), Definition of identifiable group and Section 4, Subparagraph 718.2(a)(i) regarding what is considered evidence of a hate crime in the matter of sentencing.

On June 19, 2017, Bill C-16 received Royal Assent and became law in Canada.

The Ontario Human Rights Code was modified even earlier to include “gender identity” and “gender expression”. It can be and has been interpreted the act of refusing to use a trans pronoun when a trans person insist on the speaker to use a trans pronoun as an act of discrimination.

How we came to the current state of affairs where white people, especially white men, are afraid of speaking their minds in case they might offend the sensibility of a minority, I am at a loss for words. Dr. Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto offers a probable cause in the majority of the liberal arts professors casting postmodernist ideas into a Marxist ideological framework and pursuing an agenda of identity politics. See his postings on Youtube.

Free Speech Died in Vancouver–August 19, 2017

I am well acquainted with racism. I was born in Canada when no political correctness ruled people’s thought or behaviour. I grew up in a small prairie town where the kids called me names like “Chinky Chinaman”. Some of my classmates once ganged up on me in the schoolyard, and one of the boys pounced on me as I lay prone and stuffed dry grass into my mouth. On another occasion, a blonde, freckled face boy threatened me with a rusty jackknife near my neck. The racism of the adults was more subtle. At my first job in Toronto, after riding the elevator several times, I familiarized myself with a few new faces. One day, in the elevator I greeted the woman who worked in the arts in the office next door. She turned and stared at me. She said nothing. She just stared. Afterwards, the only times she would speak to me is when she needed me to do a favour for her, like signing for a courier package when their staff was absent from their office.

These days, something far more sinister than racism infuses the public spaces. It begins with people who think they are standing up for the rights of minorities in Canada–my human rights.

A group of such social-minded people congregated at the City Hall of Vancouver on August 19, 2017, a Saturday. They gathered as counter-protesters to demonstrate against a pro-white protest rally scheduled for 2:00 PM. Anti-immigration and anti-Islam groups had organized this pro-white protest rally. One of the more level headed organizers interviewed later on Global News TV was Brad Salzberg of the Cultural Action Party. In a calm demeanor, he denied any belief in white supremacy but feared the potential imposition of Islamic ideology and Sharia law on Canadian society by Islamic immigrants. He felt European and Anglo Saxon peoples were maligned in the last 40 years or so. I think he had a good point. If in Canada every non-white ethnic group can feel free to celebrate their heritage and culture, why cannot the white people also have pride in their own histories?

I decided to show up at the protest rally to eat my corned beef sandwich on rye and to witness the scheduled anti-Islam and anti-immigration speeches, and anticipate a debate between the pro-white protesters and the counter-protesters. An ad hoc group of counter-protesters calling themselves “Stand Up to Racism” arose. By the time I arrived shortly before 2:00 PM, there was a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd gathered around City Hall. Some estimated the size of the crowd to be about 4,000 attendees. Virtually everyone there were counter-protesters all united in their hatred of the white supremacist ideology. Most of the placards showed their disfavor of anyone who took a pro-white stand: “Deport the racist,” “You were once an immigrant too,” and “Diversity = Strength”. Some placards showed much creativity. One especially stuck in my mind: “Jesus was an undocumented immigrant.”

I ate my sandwich and banana, and waited for the pro-white speakers to show up. Meanwhile, a tall, lanky black man, who appeared he might be from the Show Me State of Missouri but spoke with a Caribbean accent, stood next to me. (I shall call him Sam, not his real name.) He shared with me his fears; he sensed the crowd was out for blood. We spoke in whispers while the rest of the 4,000 or so crowd around us cheered with undulated raising of fists and shout downs of the vices and evils of the far right and white supremacy. We carried on a vulnerable conversation, an exchange of ideas. Sam said in a quiet and raspy voice, “I know what Trump ought to do to turn this thing around.” Because he asked me not to expose his advice to the President, I will not repeat what he said about his Trump solution, except to say that Sam was an unequivocal Trump supporter. I said that if I were an American and had to choose between Hillary Clinton and Trump, I would choose Trump any day. It was fortunate that I too whispered, as the Southeast Asian man, one of the two men kissing in front of us, slowly turned around and looked for who just misspoke. When he saw my face, he turned away but kept his profile with an ear toward us. I kept telling myself that Canada is a land where free speech was sacrosanct, I shall not fear. Nevertheless, Sam and I were fearful. A scuffle broke out to my right as a half a dozen or so police officers surrounded a shaven-head man in black leather pants and soon escorted him to the outer perimeter. Skinhead, white supremacist, I thought, but later discovered he was a counter-protester tearing a poster away from one of the pro-white protesters.

When it was well past 2:00 PM, there was still no sign of the pro-white speakers. Local politicians took up the mantle. Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson spoke platitudes of love not violence. When it was clear that the scheduled pro-white speakers would not show up, shouts of genuine joy made its circuit around the 1936 heritage building that was the City Hall. The counter-protesters patted each other for successfully stopping the “white supremacists”. Mayor Robertson was especially beside himself with glee. He congratulated everyone for promoting love and non-violence, claiming that resulted in the no-show of the hated white supremacists. He later posted on Twitter: “Acts of hate/violence must always be met with non-violent resistance. We need to call out white supremacy/hate speech wherever it happens.” Did the Mayor realize there was no speech whatsoever from the scheduled speakers who wanted to discuss their opposition to Islam and immigration? Did he not ensure the safety of the pro-white speakers and organizers?

For the most part, the counter-protest crowd did not use violence that Saturday, but they nonetheless did scare off many of the pro-white protesters. The intimidation of a 4,000 strong mob of counter-protesters frightened away the pro-white speakers. Pro-white rally organizer Brad Salzberg admitted that he had to cancel because of the frightful size of the counter-protester crowd. The main reason for his fear stemmed from the police telling him that they could not guarantee his safety. This was the same response that the police in Charlottesville gave the White Nationalists there. Another organizer of the pro-white protest Joey DeLuca, President of the Worldwide Coalition Against Islam, echoed the fears of Salzberg. Although very upset, having travelled all the way from Alberta to speak in Vancouver, De Luca reluctantly cancelled his speech.

The intimidation tactics of the counter-protesters was evident in the case of a young man who simply held up a hand drawn picture of a green Pepe the Frog. That was enough to anger one of the counter-protesters, also a young man but dressed in black, who then ripped Pepe the Frog to shreds. Apparently, the green frog was an innocuous symbol that became a meme on the Internet, but recently counter-protesters have ascribed to the once innocuous symbol an association with white supremacists and Nazis.

An even scarier segment of the counter-protesters is Antifa (abbr. for Anti Fascists). At the City Hall rally, I saw a few clusters of the Antifa protesters dressed in black and their faces covered except for around their eyes. The Antifa gangs in Charlottesville had used violence in their counter-protest on August 12, 2017. There is now video evidence of young men clad in black and masks beating up pro white protesters who were unfortunate enough to find themselves in small groups or alone in a sea of counter-protesters. I am sure the pro-white speakers scheduled in Vancouver were aware of the violence Antifa had inflected on people they had simply labeled as Nazis or white supremacists in Charlottesville.

As I left the rally to go back downtown, I could count about five or six men, who might pass for white supremacists, milling about at the periphery of the counter-protest rally. One or two of them argued with the counter-protesters. That small number was the total number of pro-white protesters at the City Hall rally that I could see. The South China Morning Post sent a reporter Ian Young to the City Hall rally and he counted 15 persons that belonged to the “white supremacists” camp. According to Young, this group included non-whites, an Aboriginal and a Chinese Canadian. In fact, pro-white organizer Brad Salzberg is Jewish and he was too afraid to show up.

Until August 19, 2017, there was always the hope that dialogue is sufficient to win over a racist, and he could then see for himself that racism is wrong. That hope vaporized on August 19, 2017 when the majority silenced the minority. The mob ruled the day. It was not a day to celebrate, as the so-called progressive liberals would have you believe, but a day of mourning. The racist retreats into hiding to the applause of the self-righteous in Vancouver. When the city government favours the safety of one group over another in a public forum, it is abnegating its responsibility to serve and protect all equally.

Free speech died in Vancouver, Canada on August 19, 2017.

Chinese Tattoo on a White Supremacist?

Either by design or by chance, Christopher Cantwell has become the de facto spokesman and face of the white nationalists’ (i.e., supremacists’) protest against the removal of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, Virginia. As one of the organizers of the Unite the Right rally, he landed smack in the middle of the Charlottesville protest rally turned riot last weekend during which a Nazi sympathizer killed a young woman.

During an interview with Vice News correspondent Elle Reeve, the outspoken Christopher Cantwell removes his white T-shirt and reveals a Chinese character for a tattoo on his right arm. The character is 実 (pronounced shi in mandarin). Almost immediately, comments arose online, one blog suggesting it is a Japanese character. I cannot comment on the Japanese as I have never studied Japanese, but can comment on it as a Chinese character. The character 実 on Mr. Cantwell’s right arm is an ancient variant of the modern character 實 in Chinese. The character on Mr. Cantwell is a form rarely seen in modern Chinese. The modern form as a simplified character is 实 (used in mainland China) or as a traditional character 實 (used in Hong Kong or Taiwan). The most common meaning of 實 is “real,” “true” or “solid.” It is the second component of the compound word 事實 (pronounced shi shi in mandarin) meaning “fact.” Although the character 實 also has the dictionary meaning of “fruit,” I have never seen it used as such in anything I have read.

How can Mr. Cantwell be both a white supremacist and someone who has a Chinese character tattooed on his flesh? Some folks suggest white supremacists has a pecking order, ranking Asians below whites but above blacks. For example, the Dutch descendants known as Afrikaans in the previous white regimes of South Africa would deem the Japanese as honorary whites. Perhaps these white South Africans still needed to deal in commerce with the outside world. I would suggest we look past all ideologies and group sins and look at the personal life of a man (or woman) in order to understand his racism. Although I do not know Mr. Cantwell personally, his interview with folks at the Southern Poverty Law Center gives us a hint. There he confesses that his first love is a Korean girl. He almost married a black woman. He even confesses that most of the women he has dated are not white. Since Koreans today normally do not use Chinese characters but use their own version of an alphabet, I surmise that he probably has dated also Japanese or Chinese women. He took on a Chinese tattoo probably to impress a Japanese or Chinese woman. (The Japanese imported the Chinese writing system from China during the Tang Dynasty, I believe.)

In my mind, his choice of Chinese character for the tattoo points us to the core of his racism and bigotry. It has something to do with what is real in the world or what is truth. My hunch is that he shares a notion familiar to me, and I think, familiar to all men. Isn’t it love? Ultimately, despite of our machismo, every man wants love, just as every woman does. And when a man fails in finding love of a woman, only then does he look for truth, solidity in some abstract ideology, sometimes even some stupid ideology. (Here I limit my discussion to romantic love between a man and a woman, granted. I am not qualified to speak on other permutations of love.)

Sitting in the park with the blonde reporter Eve Reese, surrounded by a squad of fellow white supremacists, his true anger reveals itself. He boasts that he and his people are capable of violence, because he makes a loud point that he carries a pistol and goes to the gym all the time. The talk of violence and guns is generic not only of the white supremacists, but of many young men. I am a bit like that myself in my teen years and early twenties, and I am not even white. Mr. Cantwell’s need to point out that he goes to the gym is an attempt to impress a woman who appears to be also a smart and savvy news reporter. His frustration with not getting the pretty blonde is evident in his own words: “… in the hopes that someone more capable will come along and do that, someone like Donald Trump, who does not give his daughter to a Jew…. I don’t think that you could feel about race the way I do and watch that Kushner bastard walk around with that beautiful girl” (3:35 minutes into the clip). The key phrase is “that beautiful girl.” The essence of his frustration is not with race politics or immigration, but with the difficulties in simply getting a girlfriend, regardless of race. I suppose that in the beginning, Mr. Cantwell was not a racist nor a white supremacist at all. He simply has a problem getting a girlfriend. I believe that he was not an arrogant man in his younger years. This is borne out by the fact he was willing to date outside his race in search of love. What is a white man to do if he discovers that even non-white women rejects him?

During his one-on-one interview in the North Carolina hotel room with Eve Reeve, he displays himself as the machismo tough guy: three pistols and two rifles. Except for one rifle, he chants out the names of his weapons like a choirboy praying the litany of the saints: Kel-Tec P-3AT 380 ACPGlock 19 9mm, Ruger LC9 9mm, AK. As though to put an exclamation mark at the penultimate end of the litany, he tosses a knife onto the hotel bed. Smiling casually with knowing smirks, he tells the female reporter that he advocates violence. (19:05 minutes into the clip) I see this man as simply showing off in front of a good looking and smart woman. Tough talk about hatred and war on the races is mere bluster.

Here is a man who simply has not fared well with women. That in essence is Mr. Christopher Cantwell’s starting point on race, but I wish to assure him that that is nothing to be ashamed of when he fails in love. We live in the modern world. The chances of finding your soul mate are much less than in Jane Austen’s time and even then the chances of finding true love was already in decline. The modern woman can think for herself, make up her own mind about relationships. She is independent. Today a woman can do her job as well as any man. She can earn her own keep. She does not need a man. Unrequited love is always a risk when there is freewill. That is the bottom line. Mr. Cantwell, you and I are similar, except that you are American and I am Canadian, you are white and I am ethnically Chinese. We simply are men looking for the love of a woman.

At the End of the World, Everyone Wants to Write a Book

“Our earth is degenerate in these latter days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book; indeed the end of the world is approaching.”

–Allegedly an Assyrian inscription, 1500 BC.


I first encountered the above quote in the book Guerrilla Marketing for Writers by Jay Conrad Levinson et al. At first reading, this epigraph mesmerized me by its prophetic tone and the sense of déjà vu, as though the text is a long lost friend, familiar, and yet a mystery stretched over time. When I tried to verify the actual source of the quote, there is not enough evidence to confirm that such an inscription ever existed in ancient times. Variations of the inscription’s text appeared over the last century in various publications, but according to the Quote Investigator, Garson O’Toole, the earliest appearance in an English publication of a similar epigraph was in 1908. The authorship of these variant texts has been attributed to authors in ancient Egyptian, Babylonian as well as the above mentioned, anonymous Assyrian inscriber.

Whether or not such a text actually existed in ancient times no longer concerns me. The thing that intrigues me is whether or not a certain portion of the epigraph makes a true statement about the world we live in. My focus in this article is in the truncated paraphrase: “At the end of the world, every man wants to write a book.”

A more precise hypothesis might be something like: Is there an increased inclination of the literate population to write a book during an apparent decay of the world?

To this end, I find the American novelist Walker Percy helpful. In his view, the world is not necessarily the actual physical world, the planet earth or other such grand structure. What is of utmost importance is the world as the individual sees it. The planet could be perfectly intact, orbiting the sun, human society still alive and functioning at some level, yet a mad man might see his world melting away. Or just the opposite might be true. Our planet might be on the collision course of a gigantic asteroid. Or our civilization might be crumbling right before our eyes. Yet a sane man in these circumstances might be considered mad by his peers, because they do not see what he sees. The subtitle of Walker Percy’s novel Love in the Ruins even suggests as much: “The adventures of a bad Catholic at a time near the end of the world.” In this novel, society is breaking down, and the deeply flawed hero Dr. Thomas More invents a device called the Ontological Lapsometer which he intends to use to heal the psyche of human kind. In the wrong hands it causes more evil than good. Ironically Dr. More is a psychiatrist who himself has problems with his own psyche, and at the same time, he sees the decay of the world around him.

To use more prosaic language than poetic, we might substitute the phrase “at the decay of society” or “at the collapse of civilization” in place of “at the end of the world.” If we use the word “world” to mean the society or civilization we live in or know, whether it be locally or globally, then we can ask the question, are people really more inclined to want to write a book during the collapse of their civilization?

I have come to believe that more people do want to write a book when their civilization is in decline than when it is not. I am not aware of any quantitative study, but I believe there is anecdotal evidence (or signs) that when an empire or great civilization decays then there is an increased desire among its people to write a book. I’m not sure if there is cause and effect here, but for me, there appears to be a correlation between the end times and the desire to write a book.

An example of a society in decline while attended by an increase in the desire for authorship was when the printing press came to Europe. When typography dislodged the Catholic Church from its monopoly of the published, written word, more people then could become authors writing about topics that the Church might be found lacking. Subjects like medicine, mathematics and astronomy, as well as novels eventually found a demanding audience. The economics of the printing press made it favorable to write on topics the Church may not have been interested in, and also made anti-Church pamphlets and treaties more accessible to the general population. The promulgation of anti-cleric literature certainly hastened the decline of the Church’s influence on the people of Europe.

Protestantism that supplanted Catholicism in England and Northern Europe seems to flourish with the invention of the printing press. That branch of English Protestantism, the Non-conformists, especially the Puritans, saw a flourishing of book publication. The publication of spiritual memoirs like John Bunyan The Pilgrim’s Progress might have set a mould for the English novel form. At first glance, England does not appear to be in decline with this new found love of writing and reading of printed books. On the contrary, it remained a world power until after World War II. Still, I believe, the writing was on the wall, when a major piece of the British Empire was lost to the Americans. The irony was that the founders of the new republic were English Protestants of the Non-conformist ilk, very learned men who loved to write and read thick books. The world that was collapsed was Catholic England, and the new world was Protestant England. America became the great religious experiment of the Dissenters from Protestant England.

Another example may be seen in the corruption and decline of the Chinese civilization under the Qing Dynasty. Much has been written about the reasons for the collapse of Chinese civilization in this period (1644-1911), but mostly in social, economic or political terms. One of the prescient characteristics found in the collapsing Qing Empire, as I see it though, was that the Qing bureaucracy consisted of candidates who had passed exams in classical literature, including books of poems. Their civil service examination system focused on the literary and historical. Topics such as modern science were virtually non-existent in these civil service exams. You might say that Qing bureaucrats were a bunch of poets running the country. Although this does not prove outright that there was an increase in the writing and publishing of books during the Qing Dynasty, there was cultivated an increased impulse to write among a bloated public service. One of the ideals of the Chinese civil service examination system was that it was based on merit; so that the lower class had a chance to move up in society. A trickle-down effect, I suspect, would encourage people in the lower rungs of society to aspire, to prepare, and to compete for a cherished position in the government bureaucracy.

It is also significant that shortly before extensive contact with foreign trade, one of China’s greatest, pre-modern novel The Dream of the Read Chamber was written in this period, first published in manuscript form and then in print. The novel is about the decay of a prominent family which perhaps mirrors the decline of Qing Dynastic China itself. It became the model for modern romance novels and family sagas in China. Another influential, modern novelist, Eileen Chang (Zhang Ailing), began writing her novels during the decay of Republican China in the twentieth century. Anecdotally it appears there might have been an uptick in a desire to write poems and novels during the decline of, respectively, Qing Dynastic and Republican China.

In our own time, and Marshall McLuhan is prescient on this, the inventions of the computer and electric networks (the Internet) enable the rise of companies like Amazon that offer the chance for every literate person to publish their own books. There is no financial barrier to entry. Authors can choose to publish their book in an electronic format (ebook) or a traditional print format. The latter format may be traditional, but it is the new technology of digital printing that does not require a writer-publisher to hold a costly inventory of books for sale, but rather a single book can be printed on demand within a reasonable cost.

At the same time, corruption and ruin in the financial world as well as in the political sphere–the collapse of Lehman Brothers, GM bailouts, wars in far-off lands, Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the Senate scandal in Canada, need I say more–are signs that something is not right.

So, at a time when everyone thinks he has a book in him, when everyone encourages everyone else that he can be an author, are we in the twenty-first century then also at the end of the world?

Marshall McLuhan in a nutshell

The title of this posting suggests impossibility so the next best thing is for me to give an overall impression of my reading of Canada’s most recognized English professor, the late Marshall McLuhan (e.g., The Gutenberg Galaxy, The Mechanical Bride, and Understanding Media). Despite his famous phrase “the medium is the message” being first coined in the last title, I find this particular book dry and uninspiring, and my reading of it is spotty, skipping large chunks of it, at the time of this posting.

I see McLuhan as a twentieth century “reincarnation” of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. They both wrote to a readership that was hostile to traditional Christianity. Kierkegaard’s audience was the Lutheran Protestants in Denmark, who in the main, had become embarrassed at the supernatural claims of the Christian faith, and become spiritually dead. McLuhan’s audience was a mostly Protestant one too, as much of the English speaking world was. By the middle of the twentieth century, religion was losing its grip on mainstream society in North America, but certain evangelical Protestant groups managed to hang on. At the time of the writing of The Gutenberg Galaxy, the Roman Catholic Church remained strong in Quebec, but the demise of Catholicism would soon be ushered in by the Quiet Revolution. Although not explicit, McLuhan was taking jabs at a religion that was given birth by the printing press. His books examined the fruits of that religion’s posture of Sola Scriptura–by Scripture alone. That religion is of course Protestant Christianity.

I’ve always been puzzled by Protestants despite my own beliefs having much in common with Protestantism and being baptized in a Protestant church. The birth place of Martin Luther and Protestantism–Germany–also is the birth place of National Socialism–Nazism. The great experiment in building a republic based on principles of liberty, democracy, and freedom of religion, that is America, was conducive to the practice slavery even as its citizens claimed belief in Christ. In the nineteenth century, a Christian Britain initiated wars with China in order to uphold their privilege to sell opium to Chinese citizens. The image of missionaries unloading Bibles at one end of an ocean faring ship and gentlemen overseeing the unloading of wooden crates containing balls of opium at the other end is truly perplexing to me.

Like Kierkegaard, McLuhan took pot shots at the contradictions of an alphabetic based society that professed Christianity. One of his conclusions is that the effects of the medium has as profound an effect, perhaps even more so, on the reader as the content of the medium do. The Christian reader may profess faith in the content of the Bible, but the impact of the medium of the printed book may result in evils that seem to negate the profession of faith.

Although I do not believe there is a direct cause and effect of typographic media on the beliefs and behavior of the reader, rather I believe that the inventions of the alphabet and the printing press introduce tendencies that are magnified through time and technological innovation. McLuhan sums it up in The Gutenberg Galaxy: “Schizophrenia may be a necessary consequence of literacy.”

In the blogging…

Words have lost their meaning.