Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Blond Matter: Immaturity as Virtue

Yesterday this appeared in the Post (my emphasis):

The parents of an 11-year-old Mississauga student are charging that school officials violated their son's right to freedom of speech after the boy was prohibited from reading aloud a dissertation about classroom boredom.

Frank and Donna Trimboli say they were upset when their youngest son, Gianmarco, returned home from St. Sebastian Catholic School about two weeks ago with news that his speech was "unacceptable and derogatory." The teacher and principal asked him to produce another for his Grade 6 class, Mr. Trimboli said. [...]

There was a time--the prematurely old coot in me wants to point out--when situations such as this were considered no-brainers. (Prematurely old coot, I say, because it couldn't have been more than 20 years ago that this was the case, and is much more like 10.) A time when, apart from anything else, most parents could be relied upon to recognize the absurdity of braying to the newspapers about a boy's "right to freedom of speech" when, at the age of 11, he hasn't even the right to drive or to vote. (Or, dare I mention it, to die for his country.)

Alas, those days are gone. And hear the idiot hosannahs that hail their passing:
Three cheers for 11-year-old Gianmarco Trimboli and his parents. It is, however, disconcerting to see how little our school system has changed in the last 40 years. I'll never forget the day in Grade 5 when our teacher assigned a letter of the alphabet to each student and randomly called on several of us to give a three-minute speech about a topic beginning with their letter. When asked, I began a speech I called "N is for noise," about how the noise kids made in class was a reflection of boredom, rather than an intrinsic desire to misbehave [It's unclear whether these were her exact, ten-year-old's words --ed.]. I was interrupted in the middle of my speech by the irate teacher who sent me to the principal's office, where I was suspended from school until I could be assessed by a psychologist and begin "appropriate treatment."

A child psychologist I was referred to informed the principal that there was nothing wrong with me but that the teacher herself might benefit from some counselling.

Today, I still pride myself on thinking outside the box and on challenging authority when appropriate. Questioning the status quo has made me a successful researcher, and my willingness to advocate on behalf of my patients has made me a better physician. And when my medical students look bored, I know I have to try that much harder.
This from one Dr. Ellen Warner (Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Toronto); who--I can't help thinking--mayn't have been in need of psychological attention at the age of 10, but could very well use a bit now, what with this insane and vociferous obsession of hers with an elementary school teacher she had 40 years ago ... Indeed, you get the impression from her letter that, far from giving a sweet goddamn about "smiley and outspoken" Gianmarco Trimboli--whom she only mentions the once--she's just trying to get that one blot finally off her elementary school copybook. The thing that's been keeping her from tenure all these years.

But what is most notable about Dr. Warner's letter is her assertion that students who "look bored" inspire her "to try that much harder." She doesn't, you'll notice, bother to tell us whether or not she actually succeeds in her efforts ... And I'd bet you dollars to donuts that even if she is one of that extremely rare breed of teacher that is truly and consistently effective as such, you'd be hard pressed to find a single student of hers who could say that she wasn't, at least on occasion, a little bit boring.

And there's the rub.

No matter how good a teacher is--no matter how mature the student--boredom, at some point or many, with any and all subject matters, is inevitable. In-ev-it-a-ble! Encouraging a student to spend his class time moaning about being bored is, then, about as conducive to his education as encouraging him to complain that he always feels sleepy after having been up for seventeen hours.

But the real problem with all of this is that even if you could find enough intelligent, charming, talented, and boundlessly energetic people to man every school in the nation--thereby keeping the level of boredom down to a bare minimum--I defy you to get even a tenth of them to take so much as a step across the classroom threshold knowing that they will be held to account for Charter violations, and even made the subjects of nationwide media scrutiny, if they dare to suggest that anything a child of 11 says is inappropriate.

... Up until very recently I would have said that it was unlikely that someone like Dr. Walker could ever come to grasp this, given that the students in her classes have actually chosen to be there and are, obviously, much more mature than your average sixth grader. But in light of certain trends observed in the attitude of your average university student these days, I begin to wonder.

Had any anthrax threats from any of your lower achievers yet, Dr. Walker?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Life of Al

Overheard outside Convocation Hall, February 21st 2007.
Reg: They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers, and from our fathers' fathers.
Loretta: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.
Reg: Yeah.
Loretta: And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.
Reg: Yeah. All right, Stan. Don't labour the point. And what have they ever given us in return?!
Xerxes: The aqueduct?
Reg: What?
Xerxes: The aqueduct.
Reg: Oh. Yeah, yeah. They did give us that. Uh, that's true. Yeah.
Commando 3: And sanitation.
Loretta: Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like.
Reg: Yeah. All right. I'll grant you the aqueduct and the sanitation are two things that the Romans have done.
Matthias: And the roads!
Reg: Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct, and the roads--
Commando: Irrigation.
Xerxes: Medicine.
Commandos: Huh? Heh? Huh...
Commando 2: Education.
Commandos: Ohh...
Reg: Yeah, yeah. All right. Fair enough.
Commando 1: And the wine.
Commandos: Oh, yes. Yeah...
Francis: Yeah. Yeah, that's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Huh.
Commando: Public baths.
Loretta: And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.
Francis: Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it. They're the only ones who could in a place like this!
Commandos: Hehh, heh. Heh heh heh heh heh heh heh.
Reg: But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace?
Reg: Oh, pea-- Shut up!

Well ... It sounded a bit more like this. Nearly as good in spots.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

And you, sir, are worse than Hitler!

I think it must be a bit of a disappointment to some of my readers that I don't make smoking the focus of more of my discussions here. Certainly my sidebar-bio-thing is suggestive of strong feelings on the matter. And, indeed, I'll confess to you now that not only do I smoke (pipe, cigar and cigarette), I consider smoking to be probably my definitive passion; when first I set cigarette to lips it was with me, as James Barrie observed of the introduction of tobacco to England, that I "woke up from a long sleep ... The glory of existence became a thing to speak of."

And so perhaps you'll understand why I am loath to talk about it very often: much more than being just baffled by the transparently irrational treatment given smoking and smokers by the powers that be and (increasingly) by popular opinion, I am bloody enraged by it. The anti-smoking movement is not just an affront to my intelligence, it is an attack on me personally.

The real kicker, though, is that even if I didn't feel so strongly about smoking (and I'd be a fool to think that I wasn't in a fairly small minority of people who do--even amongst smokers), the fact remains that no amount of dispassionate and neutrally reasoned argument could do my poor benighted habit any good anyway. Even by taking thought, as it were, neither I--nor anyone else for that matter--can add to Smoking's stature even one cubit. For while good arguments (with science sufficient to support them) exist in abundance to cast a reasonable doubt on this business of outlawing tobacco in all but name, they are helpless in the face of a rhetoric that has finally achieved the status of a fully religious and, indeed, transcendental dogma.

Tobacco companies that tempt cigarette addicts with advertisements are no better than preacher Jim Jones, who induced 900 followers to drink a cyanide-laced Flavor Aid in the infamous 1978 massacre, says a B.C. government brief to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Now never mind--if I can persuade you to do so (and I completely understand if you refuse)--the suggestion that 20% of the Canadian population is as incredibly, mind-numbingly stupid as the infamously, incredibly, mind-numbingly stupid Jonestown wackjobs who toasted their own futile and imminent ends with a glass of Cyanide-Aid. Never mind that. What do you make of this "cigarette addicts" business?

Since when have smokers ever been called "cigarette addicts"?!

This is what I'm talking about! ... I mean: where on God's toasty globe does one begin?

It is, of course, true that cigarettes are addictive; that smokers, as a rule, are addicted to nicotine. But to call them "cigarette addicts" seems to me to be slathering the bitter sauce on a bit thick, what? Absurdly thick, really. Caffeine is addictive, after all (and it contains carcinogens too) but do we ever speak in terms of "coffee addicts"? Or how about "food addicts"?

And why stop at ingestible consumables? If addiction is broadly defined as the "persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be physically, psychologically, or socially harmful" can we not--as KMG pointed out to me yesterday--talk about "gasoline addicts" then?


Yo, bud!

Heard you were trying to give up smoking.


What're you down to?

Including the drive to work?


Two thousand three hundred and fifty nine a day.

Sweet, man. Without?



You see: the problem with applying this hefty term "addict" to smokers is that it presumes a general softening of the meaning and use of the term that has not actually occurred, or (if it has) been commonly accepted. And there's a reason for this: if we are going to talk about "cigarette addicts" than we have to (have to!) talk about people who drink coffee habitually as "caffeine addicts", people who are at all overweight as "food addicts", and people who use a vehicle as an alternative to public transportation as "gasoline addicts". And dare I mention--in this commitedly Dionysian age--that we should also have to talk of anyone who imbibes on a routine basis as an "alcohol addict" ... But we don't do this--or we don't yet (but I would suggest that drinkers, fatties, and drivers have much to fear on the road anti-smoking zealots are taking us all down)--because this would be to risk confusing differences of kind with differences of degree. A person who drinks moderately, after all, is so far from being an alcoholic that his drinking can't even be said to factor into it.

Now, what really gets my goat in all this is that while we don't, then, make a habit of talking about "alcohol addicts" for fear of blurring the considerable line dividing them from alcoholics, while we don't talk about "food addicts" for fear of downplaying the seriousness of gross obesity, we have no trouble talking about "cigarette addicts" when there is no such distinction (between moderate and abuser) even to be made. Which, I guess, on the surface might appear to support this ludicrous contention that all smokers, without exception, are "addicts". There are no moderate heroin users after all (exempting William Burroughs and Keith Richards obviously), there are only heroin addicts--and it is in the particular character of that drug that use is de facto abuse. But considered properly, considered according to the full context provided us by the examples of abuse by the only other people who have earned this title "addict", it becomes extremely clear that the only way to apply it to smokers is by hollowing the term out of all but its crudest meaning. Yes, smokers smoke. Every day and repeatedly. They also manage to lead sedentary lives, hold down jobs, raise kids. Indeed they manage to do these and a great deal else besides with powerfully little trouble for 10, 20, 30, 40, sometimes 50 years of smoking ... Suggest to someone in the throes of heroin addiction that he and a smoker have anything whatsoever in common and, I strongly suspect, he wouldn't be as likely to laugh in your face as to strike it.

But the term remains and, likely, will increase ad nauseum in popularity. How? Well, we're back to the whole "why" vs. "why not" thing that Selley was on about in the matter of mandatory helmets for tobogganers. It is far easier to ask the question "Why not call smokers 'cigarette addicts' given that they are, in fact, addicted to cigarettes?" then to ask "Why call smokers 'cigarette addicts' when the term 'addict' is only ever applied to persons whose livelihoods have been severely and immediately compromised, and often destroyed, by their addiction?"

... And the whole death thing only makes the "why not" question so much the easier course. Given that--and I wouldn't dream of trying to deny it--smoking (particularly heavy smoking, if I might be allowed to make such a qualification) causes death. But, again, I think a certain amount of reasonable perspective is lost when the context of these deaths is omitted.

The above cited Globe and Mail article describes cigarette smoking as a form of "mass suicide". (Actually, it suggests--as per the B.C. government's impending case against so-called "Big Tobacco"--that cigarette advertising (adverfuckingtising, for God's sake!) leads to a form of mass suicide ... But we'll leave that, if you don't mind.) Quoting the brief, it goes further:
Each cigarette smoked is an inherently harmful event, a fresh and legally recognized personal injury. It may be only one laceration in what will likely be death by ten thousand cuts, but it is a cut nonetheless.
Now, recognizing that this "death by ten thousand cuts" business was meant figuratively, it still provides an admirable spring board to illustrate my point about the importance of context:

While it may be that cigarette smoking causes death, that every cigarette smoked represents a fraction of what is to be an inevitably fatal collective blow, it needs to be borne in mind that this is still one of the slowest deaths imaginable. Indeed, I can't help thinking that "cigarette smoking" could come second only to "a long and healthy life" in any list of Least Expedient Forms of Suicide. The B.C. court brief talks about one of ten thousand cuts--which seems like a really small fraction too, doesn't it?--but when compared with the reality, the figure is revealed to be, in fact, quite large and ungainly. Grossly obese, even. To wit: the one person I know who died of lung cancer did so at the age of 60. She had been a two pack a day smoker since she was, roughly, 20. A fairly representative case, I think most would agree. So let's see here: at 50 cigarettes a day for 40 years that makes every cigarette she smoked one proverbial cut in the total 730,000 that it took to kill her. 730,000! (To be sure: at the one in 10,000 figure your average pack-a-day man would be dead in just over a year.)

So you see what I mean.

But, as I say, this argument, any argument, is worthless in the face of a widespread conviction that if we can just cut out smoking we will not only live longer lives but, likely, will live everlastingly ... Would only that I had something like a woman's right to choose to smoke; would that I could argue that my smoking was just one long bout of a jolly old therapeutic abortion.


NOTE: I should say--in case I gave a wrong impression--that this is not the first time I have discussed the whole smoking thing. I can think of three other times that I've written about it (though there might be others). They can be found here, here and here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

From: Conversations with Snook (The Younger)

Unpacking the New Anti-Semitism

People are so fuckin' stupid! You know the ones I'm talking about? The guys that are always blabbering on about how we've gotta be vigilant or we'll have another Adolf Hitler on our hands? You know these guys?

I mean, don't get me wrong. The threat's real--I know that. Probally better than the average person. Thing is, most people think the next Hitler is gonna be exactly the same as the last one. Little moustache, jack boots, swastika arm band, serious hate-on for Jews. You know.

'Spretty naive if you ask me.

If anything he's gonna be the opposite. Big moustache, Birkenstocks, a regular flag, loves Jews. Probally even is one.

That's how these sick bastards get into power. They sneak up on you--knowing how stupid everybody is, expecting Hitler himself to suddenly reappear out of a time machine or something.

Hey, and don't think it isn't happening already, guy ... You see that movie starring Al Gore? A Convenient Truth or whatever? Pretty fucked up, eh? That's what I'm talking about. Those climate change skeptics? They're our Nazis!

Take it from me, dude: anti-semitism isn't anti-semitism anymore. Skepticism is.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Ere Babylon was dust ...

Hey, I've sussed it!

After so many obsequiously solemn declarations of solidarity with women; the endless, heart-wrenching (but somehow not even remotely convincing--or ever, you get the impression, much understood) invocations of grown-up horrors like "histories of exclusion"; indeed, just the general, painful, painful comedy of his every appearance in print ... After all this, compounded of the uncanniness of resemblance in evidence below, I've finally figured out from whom it was that Warren Kinsella was separated at birth.

David Brent.

Blood is thicker than sitcoms too, apparently.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

From: Snook (The Elder) at Home

Wherein Snook distinguishes between Theatrics and the Theatre.

I took in a preview performance of The Threepenny Opera last week, and must admit to having been left a bit cold by it.

The production itself didn't want for too much; it wasn't stellar, but it did contain some impressive individual performances. And even the ones that weren't so impressive managed anyway ... Against considerable odds in some cases. (Take my treatment of Albert Schultz. I don't know what it is specifically about this fellow--I have no particular quarrel with him either as an actor or as a man--but I simply can't help the feeling every time I see him that he's a fat, smug, son-of-a-bitch. That being so, and the unfortunate coincidence of his playing the lead role also being so, I spent a large part of the performance craning my head over the railings of my balcony seat and hissing "Schultz! You're a hack!" every time he came within earshot of me ... Never fazed him.) And the instrumental accompaniment to the action seemed more than fine, though I'm no judge of such things.

In the end, I can't help thinking that the reasons for my disenchantment lie with the libretto--or, that is to say, with the librettist; with Bertolt Brecht himself ... The man was just too impressed with human squalor. Which I don't entirely begrudge him. Such stuff, after all, can be very grand and compelling, and is almost as likely as pornography or gun play to put bums on seats. But as theatre--as art that is--filth, hunger, the impulse in men to do harm to their fellow man, all these presented as the sine qua non of human existence strikes me as a little bit--well--weak, what? Lacking a bit in the old imagination department.

I mean, the thing about human squalor--which, of course, does exist, and is really dreadful and all that--is that any preponderant focus upon it draws us away from the real meat of mankind's frailty: his absurdity. (Indeed, even to call it absurdity gives it a weight of importance that risks undermining any true (that is, artistic) depiction thereof. Let's call it, instead, his ridiculousness. Nay, even, his buffoonery!)

And in respect of this, it seems to me that that redoubtable old sausage-grinder to the world of musical theatre, Sir W.S. Gilbert, was the greater artist by far; and that in something like H.M.S. Pinafore we are provided with a more truthful account of the mutabilities of existence, the upsets of fortune and rank, and the complexities of les affaires de coeur that have dogged mankind's steps ever since his introduction upon that other--that is: this--terrestrial stage.

Indeed, by all accounts, we might well and truly observe of Herr Brecht, Dramaturgical Innovator, fair Josephine's appraisal of Sir Joseph Porter: that "he is a truly great and good man, for he told me so himself, but to me he seems tedious, fretful, and dictatorial."

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Culture Deprived of Inheritance (Part 2)

Reck-Malleczewen On Hollow Men

At the same time these hollow men are produced in ever greater quantities, there is a stunting of the feeling for the metaphysical, a feeling nature placed in man at the beginning of time. There is no caste, either of priests or of kings any longer, nor does the lawgiver and judge any longer carry the priestly authority. There is no metaphysical focal point today, around which all the varieties of human experience can crystallize. The result is that no speculative philosophy worthy of the name exists, nor could it; The sages at the universities presently engaged in this discipline are akin to a group of highly respected night watchmen who are limited to playing an endless old-man's game of tarok with the same tired, used-up formulas.

Despite the fact that even coral strives for form, that nature abhors the amorphous as the original indecency, mankind goes steadily on sinking deeper into formlessness, hatred of all form. The ideal is now that thoroughly bovine condition in which any distinction given to rank or profession is considered ridiculous, and all is confusion: the professor looks like a sportsman, the waiter like an aristocrat, the aristocrat like a headwaiter. The businessman raises thoroughbreds, and the cavalry officer speculates in Rand mining stock. It has come to the point where streetwalkers and perhaps burglars are the only remaining groups who still have about them something like a professional distinctiveness.

It is entirely conceivable that before the storm now in preparation actually comes, that Spengler's grim vision, in which he saw the last violin lying broken on the ground, the last copy of Mozart quartets going up in flames, may be fulfilled. But what is quite impossible is that a creature derived from rationality and so overdeveloped under its sway will survive a new invasion of the nonrational or the antirational. And the endless spiritual vacuity of our times makes this invasion well-nigh automatic.

Friedrich Percyval Reck-Malleczewen Diary of a Man in Despair

The Culture Deprived of Inheritance (Part 1)

Ortega y Gasset On the Delusion of Western Decline

The whole world--nations and individuals--is demoralised. For a time this demoralisation rather amuses people, and even causes a vague illusion. The lower ranks think that a weight has been lifted off them. Decalogues retain from the time they were written on stone or bronze their character of heaviness. The etymology of command conveys the notion of putting a load into someone's hands. He who commands cannot help being a bore. Lower ranks the world over are tired of being ordered and commanded, and with holiday air take advantage of a period freed from burdensome imperatives. But the holiday does not last long. Without commandments, obliging us to live after a certain fashion, our existence is that of the "unemployed." This is the terrible spiritual situation in which the best youth of the world finds itself today. By dint of feeling itself free, exempt from restrictions, it feels itself empty. An "unemployed" existence is a worse negation of life than death itself. Because to live means to have something definite to do--a mission to fulfil--and in the measure in which we avoid setting our life to something, we make it empty. Before long there will be heard throughout the planet the formidable cry, rising like the howling of innumerable dogs to the stars, asking for someone or something to take command, to impose an occupation, a duty. This for those people who, with the thoughtlessness of children, announce that Europe is no longer in command. To command is to give people something to do, to fit them into their destiny, to prevent their wandering aimlessly about in an empty, desolate existence.

José Ortega y Gasset The Revolt of the Masses