Intimate Power

This is a short essay published in Prairie Fire Magazine (Vol. 37, No. 1), Spring 2016.

Back in 1915 when Premier Sir Rodmond Roblin asserted that he would deny even “propertied” white women the vote because “Woman suffrage … will break up the home,” he evoked his mother. The premier’s mother was “queen of the home,” he said. Not like the hyenas in petticoats who would make married life and by extension life itself so much more difficult for men. Sir Roblin suffered the fate of being right. Women’s political action did change marriage. It changed men. Men and women change each other. We do.

It’s inspiring to search “enfranchisement in Manitoba” on the internet to find well-written histories of droll, steady-minded women in velvet hats who ridiculed those particular men who clung so pompously to the exclusivity of power they were just about to lose. It’s fascinating to read the strange history of female emancipation as it dovetailed with property and militarism, with race and class, and as it joined forces with the temperance movement.

In January 1916 some of the women living in Manitoba were permitted to cast a ballot in a provincial election. “Propertied women” who were not “alien born” gained permission from the men to vote provincially in 1916, and federally in 1918, in large part because the women supported the war. That is: they “served.”

In establishing women’s suffrage, the vote did not extend to “servant girls” and it didn’t extend to women who were “alien born.”

It didn’t extend to Aboriginal women and men until 1960.

Enfranchisement in the early twentieth century was tied to race, money, and international war.

So where are we at? After the Liberal Party’s victory in last year’s fall election, Justin Trudeau created the first-ever Cabinet with an equal number of women and men (and with many members who are not of the “old stock” British Empire).

Prime Minister Trudeau demonstrates a marked tendency to believe in the performative power of language. A good example of a performative utterance is baptism, when an infant is named and initiated in one swift gesture. Another example is the marriage vow wherein “I do” means you are. There are many performative utterances in history: take for example the declaration of war, or in many respects “free trade” agreements.

Trudeau’s rationale for appointing women to 50% of his cabinet came in the form of magic words: “Because it’s 2015.” The simplicity, the youthful frustration in his expression, vivified the faith that time cures all. As if we live in an age of enlightenment, when gender, like race, is no longer an excuse for repression, no longer a mask for the denial of human rights. As if full social equality in all its changefulness might become true because we say it is so.

Women, in peace and war, have a gender-specific susceptibility to the performative utterance. Have you ever been called a “bitch” or worse? It sticks. Have you ever been called “beautiful”? Then you are. The intimate nature of gendered attacks makes them powerful.

Power is most effective when it’s intimate. And it is always intimate. Any woman who has experienced a man’s hands around her throat knows this well. The effects of power in the hands of more distant forces – for example, the recent connections between the federal government under Stephen Harper and the oil industry – are evidently intimate in the current high costs of providing food for our families since the collapse of the commodities markets. It’s funny that a national economy based on commodities belongs to the nineteenth century, to Sir Rodmond Roblin’s century (he lost power in August 1916). We have all, male and female, experienced power that negates or wounds crucial aspects of ourselves.

I remember a t-shirt slogan when I was young and when power, I’m sorry to admit, meant freedom. The t-shirt slogan accompanied a young woman with obvious super-powers and a fabulous bra: Use Your Power for Good!” 

Power withholds or gives according to the prerogatives of the powerful. Do we want to wield power at home or at work? It interferes badly with communication, which at its best freely circulates and enriches.

From a student, I recently learned a new word: sigils. A magic symbol of power. Magic, fantasy, supernatural powers are all the rage these days. Even dinosaurs have power, according to my grandsons, despite the Triceratops having been dead even longer than Sir Rodmond Roblin.

If I could cast a spell on a world that would make women and men thrive together, I would wish away power. I dread and loathe that fantastically kitsch doily Frozen for this reason. Power is lonely. But freedom? Freedom would be like swimming, only better. Freedom would even be better than flying because it’s something a human can do. We could do freedom. We could be.


Sex and Violence in Canadian History

This essay is the fourth in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section. It is critical of the potential takeover of 158 Canadian newspapers by a consortium controlled by an American hedge fund. The Post didn’t run this one. Not sure why…

This is a really odd country. People used to say that we don’t have history; we have weather. But of course we have a history. It’s often been suppressed or distorted by those in power. And it’s world-class violent.

Those who are drawn to write fiction are often compelled to write about crossroads in our histories – personal and national. My novel The Players is set way back in 1670, when English Canada is created in compressed novelistic time, on a voyage to Hudson Bay funded by a Company of Adventurers, international slavers, powerful pirates who’d given up the sea to stay in London and do the banking. Our birch bark canoe and plaid shirt English Canada was born out of the 1660s: vicious, furiously sexual, the men dressed in lace and high heels, wearing shoulder-length wigs. The 1660s is a familiar place. It was a lot like the 1960s: sex and drugs and chamber music.

More recently, in the years after WWII, as we worked hard to destroy Aboriginal culture, we inculcated a national myth that this is a “new” country. Innocent. Good – especially compared with those American bullies. This is how easy it is to create a false national identity.

For a more realistic appraisal of Canadian self-imaging, with a focus on the period leading to the truly scary Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, there’s a wonderful book by the journalist Knowlton Nash, called Kennedy and Diefenbaker: Fear and Loathing Across the Undefended Border (M&S, 1990). Knowlton Nash documents Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s debilitating envy of President Kennedy; Diefenbaker’s neurotic indecision over the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and Russia, with Canada as powerless monkey in the middle.

Our national self-image is examined in Charles Taylor’s Snow Job: Canada, the United States and Vietnam (1954 to 1973) (Anansi, 1974). Charles Taylor documents Canada’s self-mythologizing as “Helpful Fixer” through “pulpit diplomacy.” But he observes that we were complicit in the Vietnam War; we profited by it, a boom time.

Now we’re at another fog-riddled crossroads in Canadian affairs, complicit in a war initially to be perpetrated by CF-18 fighter-bombers. The injuries to our national security that we’ve sustained by the recent attacks against Canadian military while at home must not blind us to the need for accurate analysis of violence in young men. Culture-free suburbs separated by vast networks of freeways, young men with no creative expression other than violent video games: this is “terrorism.”

“Project Canada” – the code name for Postmedia’s prospective acquisition of 175 newspapers and online news sites – is financed by U.S. hedge funds: this would make our national media an American branch plant. Hedge funds buy up junk bonds, debt and bankruptcies: bottom-feeding. When I look at the photograph of the press conference announcing Postmedia’s plans, I see the ghostly presence of the Company of Adventurers of England, 1670: those old pirates (legitimized by the king), minus the wigs; the financier “Adventurers” who invented a country.

Funny. But innocent people are going to get killed for no gain in security. And we’ll never know our own true stories.

Alcoholic Misogynists

This essay is the third in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section.

I grew up reading the Hardy Boys series. This is where my gendered education began. Did you know that to “ejaculate” means to speak earnestly? “‘He must have been driving forty miles an hour!’ Frank ejaculated.” I might be misquoting.

Too early, I graduated from the Hardy Boys to James Bond, from whom I learned that a woman who has been drinking Dom Pérignon is a classier sexual conquest than a woman who has just brushed her teeth.

My most recent novel, Mr. Jones, was inspired in part by my childhood love of 1950s and 1960s fiction of Ian Fleming, and the steamy novels of John O’Hara and Robert Ruark. Surely this has happened to many others: sex education — and sexism — is acquired through novels, yes? Did this fade out in the ’80s?

I was very young when I read Robert Ruark’s novel called The Honey Badger (McGraw-Hill 1965). Here’s the copy on the dust jacket:

“[The Honey Badger’s] title is taken from [the male protagonist] Alec Barr’s own searing comment:

‘There’s a bloody brave little animal called the honey badger in Africa. It may be the meanest animal in the world. It kills for malice and for sport, and it does not go for the jugular — it goes straight for the groin. It has a hell of a lot in common with the modern American woman.’

The Honey Badger is an honest and full-bodied novel — a story whose truth no man can ignore and few women will dare acknowledge.”

Brrrrr. Bracingly masculine. Ruark, perhaps not coincidentally, drank himself to death that same year.

The Honey Badger was normal pop-literary discourse in those days, strange to say. Women were dames, untrustworthy, rotten to the heart. Women understood the world with sexual radar, making tiny beeping noises in the dark.

With all this Ruark’ian propaganda, how does a woman begin to write female characters? I don’t like “gumption” as a sole motivator. Who wants Pippi Longstocking? Even the contemporary hip versions of Pippi can make your teeth hurt. Ideology (including feminist) sucks the life out of literature. Fiction needs to be unstable, as vivid and precarious as the shadows of falling leaves thrown across the floor.

I hesitated to write a novel till I was in my thirties because I didn’t realize that often a page-turner is one long chase scene. This isn’t only a masculine imperative. Mary Shelley’s brilliant Frankenstein (written when she was 19 years old) is in large part a chase scene (as well as an allegory of the Enlightenment and many other things).

I still like Ian Fleming. Ruark? Not so much. Fleming wasn’t blind to his own sexism; he celebrated and parodied it. But there’s something downright psychotic in Ruark’s work. I leave you with this bit of him to stew in.

“‘Did you really shoot all these animals yourself?’ Penny’s voice was a little awed. ‘Like all those great big black ugly things on the other wall? Weren’t you scared to death?’”

Well, yes. I guess he was really was.

At Sea in a Sieve

This essay is the second in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section.

Fiction writers dramatize ideas with faulty, hungry characters, mysterious even to themselves. Novelists spy on their characters. Narration is a form of surveillance.

You might say that novelists, like internet providers, use “encryption” – a form of sub-textual, coded messaging that will pulse beneath the surfaces of our stories. It’s a writer’s job to create a private world for our characters, while shining a probe into their private intrigues.

My most recent novel, Mr. Jones, could be loosely described as a Communist spy novel. The story is set mostly in Toronto and Ottawa, in the years 1946 to 1962: just after WWII, and ending with the Cuban Missile Crisis. The eponymous Mr. Emmett Jones has been a fictional pilot with Bomber Command responsible for firebombing many thousands of German civilians. Come peacetime, he doesn’t know how to live with himself.

This moral dilemma is set in the paranoid peace of the 1950s, not long after the U.S. dropped nuclear bombs on Japan. It was the Cold War, and the McCarthy era. Justifiably paranoid: there really were Soviet spies in the Canadian government, as Igor Gouzenko revealed in 1945. And in turn, the RCMP (and the FBI) really did (and does, and will) spy on Canadian citizens.

Mr. Jones was first inspired by the tragic story of Herbert Norman, the Canadian diplomat investigated by the RCMP and the FBI until he apparently killed himself by jumping off a building in 1957, in Cairo, where he was working with Lester Pearson on the Suez Crisis. He remains an oddly suspenseful historical figure. Some people maintain that he killed himself because he was a victim of McCarthy style bullying by the American and Canadian police; others speculate that he was a homosexual (or a Communist) and so was a potential target for blackmail during a highly charged UN military police action, which would lead him either to suicide or to be murdered. Though he was a Canadian citizen, the Canadian government didn’t protect him from international surveillance.

Thanks to Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks, and since the media giant News International got busted for phone hacking and email leaking in the UK, we have come to recognize that we float like Edward Lear’s insouciant Jumblies who went to sea in a sieve, our tiny porous existence miraculously afloat in an oceanic internet consciousness.

Recently we’ve had the fiasco of Bill C-30, the absurdly named “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act,” and now we’re watching to see how Bill C-13, the “Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act,” opens our lives to surveillance. In our sorrow over two murders of our military at home in Canada, there have been immediate reactions in favour of “giving up” our privacy in the name of national security.

But remember: these are young men who needed to live a fantasy. We must never forget the power of the imagination, and the need for community, for a national culture that will foster creativity, and lead to stories that will generate life rather than psychosis and death.

Play It Again, Sam

This essay is the first in a series of four short essays that I wrote for the National Post’s Afterword section.

When I was a child, my father bought the house that his father had built and then lost during the Depression, a lovely old place on Kingsway Avenue in Winnipeg’s south end. There we had “Communists” living next door. Bourgeois Communists, I guess: the father of the house was a professor of mathematics who had been drummed out of the U.S. for his political beliefs during McCarthy’s circus, the Red Scare.

But at the time, as a kid, I knew our neighbours were Communist because they had cats, whereas we had dogs. My mother knew they were Communists because the man’s wife had a thing for my dad, and would seek any occasion to brush up against him in the back yard. After the neighbour’s wife put her hand into my father’s pant pocket purportedly looking for a finishing nail to fix the fence, my Liberal mother began to call the Communist mother “Busy Fingers.” I would associate Communism with carpentry for years thereafter.

In this way, a Canadian child comes to politics. Through sensuality, through shenanigans, through deceit, through farce. The real stuff, our neighbour’s political convictions (or the way our neighbour’s politics were construed by the FBI) that had forced him to leave his country and go into exile in pleasant Canada – this material is run through the sieve of human perception, by the hall light left on at night to alleviate what that well-known 19th century satirist Karl Marx once called “the tradition of all dead generations that [would] weigh like a nightmare” on my ten year old brain.

One of the most interesting satirical observations by Karl Marx is this: “… all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”

Farce is a comedy of exaggerated and improbable situations – such as the disingenuous Mike Duffy’s possible sabotage of the next federal election – with incomprehensible plots comprised of many twists and random events, purposefully convoluted to mask its own futility. The farcical quality of history that our friend Karl Marx so deftly identifies is tragic and relentless, a “march of folly,” as Barbara Tuchman has written. A horrible example is the current reiteration of revolutionary ISIS, with its bizarre costuming of pathological murder in the language of religion, a video game in real life.

Political rhetoric, often silly yet disturbing, comes out of Mr. Dressup’s Tickle Trunk. Human relations are wildly uncertain, as if conducted through semaphore. This makes it complicated to get along with one’s family. And it appears to make peace impossible between “civilizations.”

But fiction thrives on betrayals and secret codes, finding its nutrients in the schisms, the doubts, that private sense of fraudulence and other manifestations of self-consciousness in human beings. Fiction seeks the heat created by secrecy and thwarted desire, and it is innately, often tenderly ironic. It’s an interesting place to live, fiction. It helps us gird our loins for the real stuff, to get a handle on things.

“Go with Bob” wins

“Go with Bob,” a short story published in Prairie Fire Magazine, Winter 2012, won the Best Short Fiction “Maggie” award – a Manitoba Magazine Publishers award.