Talk for Freedom to Read Week PEN Benefit: The Bookshelf, February 25, 1996

This text was written as a short introduction to a reading from Lunar Perspectives: Field Notes from The Culture Wars, at a fundraising event for PEN Canada held in The Bookshelf (41 Quebec Street, Guelph, Ontario) on February 25th, 1996, as part of Freedom to Read Week. Readings were also given by Judy Rebick, co-host of Face Off and former president of NAC; by T. Sher Singh, lawyer and Toronto Star columnist; by Yan Li, author of Daughters of the Red Land; by the poet Karen Houle; and by Thomas King, author of Medicine River and Green Grass Running Water. Run for decades by Barb and Doug Minette, The Bookshelf is a one-stop civilization: it includes under one roof an excellent bookstore, a rep cinema, a restaurant, and a bar.

I want to begin with a little anecdote that has some bearing on the relevance, here and now, of Freedom to Read Week. I've brought with me a copy, wrapped as you see in brown paper, of a book I ordered a little over a year ago through The Bookshelf (that's where the serious ordering of books is done in this city). Don't be misled by the brown paper cover: it's something I do to prevent the books I use in teaching from wearing out too quickly.

This book is one that some of my colleagues and I have used in recent years in a graduate course in literary theory that we've team-taught at the University of Guelph. Feminisms: an anthology of literary theory and criticism: published by Rutgers University Press, it's interesting in several respects. Nice cover under that brown paper, though torn and bruised, as you can see. The book contains fifty-eight well-chosen literary essays written since about 1975 by feminist theorists and critics. And for some reason, just before the last academic year, Canada Customs chose to hold up the shipment of this book between New Jersey and Guelph for almost a month. The book is over 1,100 pages long: perhaps it took all those literary theorists at Canada Customs that long to puzzle their way through it.

Who knows what they were looking for? Leather and chains, perhaps? Wild single-sex sado-masochistic pornography? Or some other form of evidence that feminism, as American televangelist, antisemitic conspiracy theorist and former presidential candidate Pat Robertson has informed us, is “a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians”?

Whatever the Customs officials were looking for, they didn't find it. Hardly surprising, if you pause to reflect for just a moment on the sobering kind of thing that university presses habitually publish. But our books arrived in Guelph almost a month late—and looking, as Doug Minette remarked to me, as though a pretty energetic gang of people had been playing football with them.

So what's the moral of the story? The Bookshelf sold the damaged books to my students at a substantially reduced price, taking a loss of several hundred dollars on the consignment. Since it would be folly to take legal action over such a sum, and since our government shows no signs of wanting to rein in the zealous censors at Canada Customs, these officials have the pleasure of knowing that whenever they disapprove of a foreign book, they can with impunity inconvenience its would-be readers and financially harm the bookseller who imports it. They can also punish stores like The Bookshelf for having engaged in solidarity and fund-raising work in support of the campaign to help Little Sisters bookstore in Vancouver in its ongoing struggle against government harassment.

In a country whose Prime Minister has trouble reading his own speeches, it doesn't make a lot of sense to tax literacy by applying the GST to books. But here we have a second tax on books—and one that is applied, not evenly, but with careful and foolish discrimination, by censors, mountebanks, and misogynists. I don't see why we put up with it.

This little story is related, in a sidelong way, to the book from which I'm going to read you a couple of short excerpts. I wrote Lunar Perspectives (as I said in its preface) “in response to a widespread perception of crisis in North American education—a perception stemming largely from the outcries over 'political correctness' in American and Canadian universities that began in the late 1980s and peaked about a year ago, leaving behind a widespread distrust of scholars in the humanities.” I was prompted as well by a sense “that the PC furore and a longer-term withdrawal of public support from institutions of higher learning are together aspects of a larger cultural and political crisis—the most notable signs of which include an ever more overwhelming dominance of narrowly economic, utilitarian and instrumentalist habits of mind, and a correspondingly steady shrinkage of the public space within which genuinely critical analysis of the present state of affairs is possible.”

That public space or public sphere is threatened when customs officials are encouraged by their political masters to harass and persecute bookstores like Little Sisters which cater to minority communities, and feel sufficiently emboldened by their success that they turn to harassing other bookstores like our own Bookshelf. The public sphere within which it is possible to participate actively in a thriving and humane culture, to imagine a truly democratic social order, and to take part in processes of transformation and renewal designed to sustain and enhance that culture and that democracy, is currently endangered in other ways as well.

It is threatened when, for example, an Education Minister like John Snobelen declares his government's intention to “bankrupt the actions and activities that aren't consistent with the future we're committed to,” and to do so by “creating” or “invent[ing] a crisis”—which means, in more direct language, manipulating the public through misrepresentations and outright lies into accepting panic solutions to false problems. Snobelen and the Harris government threaten our freedom to read because they are committed to a corporatist agenda of massive public disinvestment and privatizing that focusses with particular intensity on higher education, and that will have the direct effect of excluding all but the well-to-do from this sector of our public sphere.

Reading well—with moral acuity, with historical depth, and with contextual richness—is something that our colleges and universities pride themselves on teaching. When people are denied access, for purely economic reasons, to the mind-expanding interpretive exercise of our best humanities programs, their freedom to read is being sharply curtailed.

Our freedom to read is perhaps more directly threatened when neoconservative campaigners against “political correctness” attempt to panic us into believing that the barbarians are within the gates, that our cultural institutions, and our universities in particular, have fallen into the hands of Visigoths in tweed. The Greek poet Constantin Cavafy had something to say about this in a poem I have used as a epigraph to my preface—“Expecting the Barbarians” (in Rae Dalven's translation):

Why this sudden unrest and confusion? 
(How solemn their faces have become.) 
Why are the streets and squares clearing quickly, 
and all return to their homes, so deep in thought? 
Because night is here but the barbarians have not come. 
Some people arrived from the frontiers, 
and they said that there no longer are any barbarians. 
And now what shall become of us without any barbarians? 
Those people were a kind of solution.

The drumbeaters of neoconservatism have tried to persuade us, in particular, that leading roles among the barbarians who are obliterating Western Culture and William Shakespeare are being taken by women—and women of colour, such as Alice Walker or Rigoberta Menchú. A substantial part of my book is devoted to refuting this kind of panic attack—to showing that the charge is false and absurd, to analyzing the sleazy motives which underlie it, and (along the way) to wresting Western Culture out of the hands of such blundering would-be defenders (and censors) as Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball, and Dinesh D'Souza.

Here's a brief section in which I pay the panic-mongers back in their own coin: it's from a chapter entitled “Monster Zombies on Campus,” and follows a passage in which I analyze nuclearism, futurelessness and nightmare as part of the context that informs our readings of literature.

[The analysis of nuclearism, futurelessness and nightmare alluded to here, and its application to literary interpretation, will be found on pp. 59-66 of Lunar Perspectives; the passage I read aloud at The Bookshelf, which analyzes and mocks anti-PC panic-mongering by University of Toronto political scientist Jean Edward Smith, appears on pp. 67-71.]  

John Fekete and Moral Panic

John Fekete's Moral Panic incorporates three distinct literary genres: it is at once a jeremiad, a martyrology, and (somewhat less obviously) the testament of a strong cultural theorist fallen among neoconservatives. My own reactions to the book are no less multiple: they include respect, exasperation, and (since I remain an admirer of Fekete's previous work) a certain sadness. 

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“PC” and Privatization

This short text was my contribution to a one-day symposium, Finding Our Way: A Public Forum on Universities, Corporate Influence, and the Future of Post-Secondary Education, that was held at the University of Guelph on 22 October 1993. It has not previously been published.

I had the bad luck to be elected to the national executive of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers in the spring of 1991, at just the moment when the “Political Correctness” furore—which had been building up in the United States ever since the collapse of the Soviet empire deprived American conservatives of their favourite demonized Other—burst upon the Canadian scene. As Cathy Davidson observed at the time, academics in the humanities, whom only a few years ago it had been fashionable to dismiss “as silly and irrelevant,” were suddenly being denounced as though, “like Godzilla rising from the muck,” they “threaten[ed] the very existence of Western civilization.”

Does anyone remember the Maclean's issue of May 1991 which informed us that “A New Wave of Repression is Sweeping Through the Universities”? This was not a response to the murder of fourteen young women at the École Polytechnique de Montréal just over a year previously, or to the death threats made that same spring to the editors of feminist journals associated with Queen's University and Dalhousie: from the perspective of Maclean's magazine, those events were invisible.

The “wave of repression” consisted rather of a number of scare-mongering quotations from academic neoconservatives, and of four actual cases. One of these was the genuinely disturbing harassment of Jeanne Cannizzo, an anthropologist who curated what became a controversial Royal Ontario Museum exhibition, by anti-racist activists. Another, the case of University of Western Ontario psychologist Philippe Rushton, was scandalous in a quite different sense: the racialist pseudo-science of Rushton's publications raised the very serious question of how it was possible for a major Canadian university to provide institutional support for work of this kind. The remaining cases were incidents in which it was suggested that unnamed feminists had been rude to two great artists—to William Shakespeare, who gave no sign of having resented his treatment, and to Alex Colville, who as Chancellor of the university at which an objection was raised to the reproduction of one of his paintings on the cover of the university's Calendar can hardly be said to have been “repressed” by whatever was said.

Such a wave, as I wrote at the time, would scarcely fill a teacup. But Maclean's was not interested in reporting on any actual events within our universities. The object, rather, was to pass on to Canadians an alarming sense of the dangers posed by the politically correct “storm-troopers,” “moral vigilantes,” and “new McCarthyists” whom the American press was already vigorously denouncing.

Let's consider for a moment the last of these terms: “new McCarthyism.” This is a brilliant rhetorical inversion. As a matter of readily ascertainable fact, the people who have been most active in claiming that North American universities have been “taken over” by humourless and authoritarian women, minority groups, and radicals themselves form part of a very interesting alliance of government agencies, corporate foundations, and the corporate news media—an alliance that bears an uncanny resemblance to the constellation of forces responsible for the original McCarthyist Red Scare of the late 1940s and early '50s. Appropriating the one term—neo-McCarthyism—which best describes their own agenda, and applying it to the objects of their attack, was a stroke of genius on the part of the Reagan-Bush cultural revolutionaries. Their story was out and accepted long before anyone could object that no U.S. Senator had stood up before the television cameras waving a list of supposed racists and sexists in the universities.

I'd like to make a couple of suggestions—one outlining a possible research agenda, and the other proposing a principle of caution.

Here's the research agenda—for anyone who remembers how hundreds of billions of dollars were looted from the U.S. treasury by American elites during the Savings and Loan scandal of the 1980s (which was directly enabled by the deregulation policies of the Reagan-Bush administration). The PC scare has a clear structural articulation, in terms of the recently burgeoning networks of right-wing think-tanks and foundations that fund political correctness polemicists and their publications. It might be interesting to see whether Savings-and-Loan loot is being recycled into ideological structures whose principal function is to close down any space from which a critique of the Reagan-Bush era might be launched. You know the proverb: “Follow the money!”

And here's the principle of caution. I tell my students to be sceptical of everything they read and hear—especially when it comes from someone who has an axe to grind (present company not excluded). One way of exercising caution is to check out whether writers say the same kind of thing when they're trying to persuade you and when they're letting their hair down among like-minded people. Here's an instructive example, from Dinesh D'Souza, author of the polemical book Illiberal Education (1991), and a young man whose whole adult life has been funded by the right-wing foundation gravy train. Writing in The Atlantic Monthly for a liberal audience, D'Souza represents himself as a troubled and scrupulous occupier of the “middle ground” who finds that “It is not always possible in such disputes for a reasonable person, in good conscience, to take any side....” Sounds decent, doesn't it? But writing at the same time and on the same subject for a corporate readership in Forbes magazine, he bares his teeth. Claiming that “the propaganda of the new barbarians” threatens “to do us in,” D'Souza urges a defunding of the universities. “Resistance on campus to the academic revolution is outgunned,” he adds, “and sorely needs outside reinforcements.” How genuine do you think his concern for academic scruples—and academic freedom—might be?

I'll conclude with some thoughts on privatization. A recent article in Taipan blamed the inadequacies of American secondary and university education upon a “rewriting of history by 'politically correct' academics” which “threatens to have a negative effect” on the “progress-oriented work ethic” of the U.S., and could even “result in the redistribution of property rather than the creation of new wealth.” The solution proposed is a continued privatizing of the educational system: “If just 15% of the government's education budget ends up in private hands by the year 2010, it will mean billions of profits for the savvy entrepreneurs who act now.”

So what's it really all about: some notion of improving 'quality,' or a simple looting by “savvy entrepreneurs” of institutions paid for by public money?

Don't make the mistake of thinking that the “PC” furore is mainly just a problem of noise from south of the border, or that “privatization” is a matter of speculative corporate buccaneers casting greedy eyes on a public system they see, from the outside, as offering possibilities for large private profits.

They're inside already, as well as outside; and the process of privatization is well underway. One of the theorists of this process, John Pannabaker, is a past CEO of the Mutual Life Assurance Company of Canada and former Chancellor of McMaster University. In a 1992 address to the Canadian Corporate-Higher Education Forum, he claimed that the government bureaucracies, the “hierarchical corporations,” and the “educational, health and social service systems” which absorbed most of the graduates of Canadian universities during what he called the “golden age” of “mass tertiary education” between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s are now visibly contracting, and argued that Canadian universities must accept the challenge of developing a “new paradigm” which will respond to current needs.

The shape of this paradigm is hinted at by his advocacy of “alternative privately-financed and customer-driven institutions,” and his scouting of “possibilities, perhaps at the moment unthinkable, but ultimately the likely way out,” which “probably involve decentralization and 'spin-offs'—even privatization of individual programmes and functions.” It would not, he thinks, be “possible to 'privatize' a major Canadian university”—but the next best thing, it seems, would be to dismember the universities as a group, putting into corporate hands those functions which are most attractive to corporate interests.

What's missing here?

Any notion of a common good, any notion that higher education might have a critical as well as instrumental function, and any recognition that the critical intellectual work carried on within institutions of higher education makes an essential contribution to the self-understanding and capacity for creative and just self-transformation of a democratic society.