Playing the Indian Card

Monday, June 21, 2021

Cold Distant Victorian Fathers


Cold and distant, perhaps, but not a patriarch

Friend Xerxes grudgingly allows that fathers are wrongly devalued in our current culture. Nevertheless, he is concerned about the greater danger of going back to “A cold, distant, Victorian father-knows-best who dispenses periodic packages of moral instruction.”

I wonder if that model of fathering ever existed, or whether it is purely an invention of modern feminism.

My suspicion is initially raised by the “Victorian” reference. Nobody now living is likely to have any experience of a Victorian father. I am in my late sixties; even my grandparents came of age in the Roaring 20’s, in open revolt against anything “Victorian.”

“Victorian” becomes just long enough ago to offer a conveniently blank slate, onto which we can project our prejudices.

But notice the name of that era. One woman, and her social opinions, set the tone then for the English-speaking world, and to a large extent for the world as a whole, for over 60 years. Victorian sentimentality, Victorian romanticism, Victorian aestheticism, could be argued to be distinctly feminine values. Strict rules of etiquette were promoted; again, most often a feminine concern. No room for a “patriarchy” there. The British Empire was literally a matriarchy.

Perhaps there was a patriarchy before 1837? Perhaps; or perhaps male and female roles were balanced for overall equality over the course of the millennia, and the long possession of the throne by a woman upset that balance.

Xerxes’s second example of oppressive patriarchy seems to be a TV show from the 1950s, which he mentions several times iin his original piece: “Father Knows Best.” The title might superficially suggest that, but it was somewhat ironic. The father in that show, played by Robert Young, was, in the words of Wikipedia, a “Caspar Milquetoast” character. Although sensible, even wise, he was generally not listened to by his children; certainly no disciplinarian. The wife and mother, again in the words of Wikipedia, was the “voice of reason.” 

So did this stern, powerful, “cold distant Victorian father-knows-best” ever exist as a social norm? Can you think of an example from literature—that is, in which such a character is cited with approval? I cannot. You might argue for the Biblical patriarchs, but that is not just very far back in time. While they exert great power over their family, it is questionable whether the Bible considers this power a good thing, or condemns it. Every Biblical patriarch, in their treatment of their own family, is portrayed as deeply flawed. 

I wonder too where Xerxes gets the idea that the father’s essential role in the family as spiritual guide and mentor, one which was indeed filled by the father in “Father Knows Best,” implies being “cold” or “distant.”

The obvious model of a spiritual guide and mentor for any Christian is Jesus Christ. Can one describe him in the Gospels as cold or distant? That seems the opposite of the entire point of the incarnation. Would you, for that matter, describe John the Baptist in such terms? St. Paul? St. Peter? Catholic saints in general? Not the descriptors I would use.

What about other religions. Krishna? Rumi? Shams-e Tabrizi? Socrates? The Baal Shem Tov?

What about literary figures? Obi-Wan Kenobi? Yoda? Gandalf? Cold and distant?

Where is that “cold, distant” image coming from—other than, perhaps, feminist anti-male prejudice?

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Nathan Cohen


Nathan Cohen

Another lyrical clue that all was not well between Leonard Cohen and his father, from the song "Everybody Knows":

Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died

That always struck me as an inapt parallel--surely a father dying is a more significant event than a dog dying. But maybe that is the point; maybe Cohen is calling his father a dog, and no more. After all, given his own life experience, this cannot be a casual mistake. He knows exactly what it feels like to lose a father, for his father died when he was nine.

His father may also be meant by "the captain." 

More lyrics from the same song seem to criticize the fashion industry, Cohen pere's business:

Everybody knows the deal is rotten
Old Black Joe's still pickin' cotton
For your ribbons and bows
And everybody knows.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

A Quickie CanLit Canon


A Kiwi friend has asked me what the essential canon of Canadian literature is, for the sake of teaching a Chinese high schooler.

These are the pillars of Canadian literature, which are the foundation for everything else. 

1. Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables. The character of Anne reappears constantly in Canadian literature. And this book established children’s literature as the most Canadian genre.

2. Stephen Leacock, Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. This established humour as the essential Canadian tone. And, with Anne, the small town as the essential Canadian setting.

3. Robert W. Service, Songs of a Sourdough. Especially the two poems “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The essential Canadian experience of the north, and the theme of survival in the face of an overwhelming climate and geography. And a focus on ordinary working people and their problems. Canadian culture is a folk culture, not “high art.” 

4. John McCrae, “In Flanders Fields.” The First World War was Canada’s coming of age.

5. Roch Carrier, “The Hockey Sweater,” aka “The Sweater.” Although more recent than other selections, a universally beloved, lighthearted analysis of Canada’s culturally binary nature.

Not that much to read, and not hard reading, but this is what anyone needs to understand Canadian literature.

Other important books worth considering, if and when you get through these:

Al Purdy, “The Country North of Belleville.” That one contains a lot of the Canadian experience.

Mordecai Richler, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Richler’s short story “The Street” would be a good shorter alternative. The essential Canadian immigrant experience.

Gabrielle Roy, The Tin Flute.

W.O. Mitchell, Who Has Seen the Wind?

Brian Moore, The Luck of Ginger Coffey.

Alice Munro is a good choice too. First Canadian to win the Nobel for Literature, and her “small town gothic” is a deep expression of the Canadian soul.

Saturday, June 19, 2021

Everybody's Wounded


 Well, it's Father's Day, and everybody's wounded

First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.

These are the final words of Leonard Cohen’s song/poem “First We Take Manhattan.” In it, he is clearly equating the fashion industry with Nazism. His father was in the fashion business. 

I don’t like your fashion business, mister

I don’t like those drugs that keep you thin

I don’t like what happened to my sister

First, we take Manhattan

Then we take Berlin.

These are the first words of Leonard Cohen’s song/poem “The Story of Isaac,” in which he speaks as Isaac, about to be ritually slaughtered by his father Abraham.

The door, it opened slowly

My father, he came in

I was nine years old.

His father died when Cohen was nine.

Something was going on between Cohen and his father, that he is not speaking openly about.

When it all comes down to dust

I will kill you if I must

I will help you if I can

When it all comes down to dust

I will help you if I must

I will kill you if I can

Perhaps something was also going on between Bob Dylan and his father. Dylan alludes to the same Biblical story of Abraham and Isaac in “Highway 61 Revisited.” The song is important enough in his mind that it also gives its name to the album.

Oh God said to Abraham, "Kill me a son"

Abe says, "Man, you must be puttin' me on"

God say, "No." Abe say, "What?"

God say, "You can do what you want Abe, but

The next time you see me comin' you better run"

Well Abe says, "Where do you want this killin' done?"

God says, "Out on Highway 61."

It might be significant that Dylan’s father’s name was Abraham. Highway 61 passed by his childhood home.

Happy Father’s Day. Everybody’s’ wounded.

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Father's Day


St. Joseph's Oratory, Montreal

For Father’s Day, tomorrow, friend Xerxes remembers his mother praising his own father for being “consistent.” He considers this a case of being damned with faint praise. He thinks “devoted” would have been better.

I think he is quite wrong. To be consistent is exactly the father’s job. “Level-headed” and “even-tempered” are almost as good. The mother is free to fuss over and pamper a child. The father must not. The father’s job is to teach morals and good judgement. Including not thinking too much of yourself.

Put another way, the mother looks after the child’s physical and animal needs. The father looks after the child’s spiritual needs. This is why we conceive of God as Father, not as mother, and of nature as Mother, not as father.

The gospels trace Jesus’s ancestry through Joseph as well as Mary, even though Joseph is not Jesus’s biological father. Because the father represents a spiritual and moral inheritance, at least as important as the genetic or biological, and which is passed on just as surely. For good or ill.

In dysfunctional families, it is for ill. The essential and most damaging characteristic of what we call the narcissistic father will be their inconsistency. Just as the most damaging characteristic of a bad mother is emotional coldness.

Our current tendency to devalue the father’s role, and towards fatherless families, is a recipe for moral chaos and collapse. Fatherless backgrounds can be directly correlated with higher rates of mental illness, higher rates of imprisonment, poorer results in education, more pregnancy out of wedlock, difficulty in finding marriage partners, and so on.

It is also functionally impossible, unfortunately, for one parent to perform both roles.

Friday, June 18, 2021

Canadian Election This Fall


It seems clear from Justin Trudeau’s press conference today that the Liberal government is going to force or call an election for early this fall.

Everything is aligned perfectly for them. The vaccines are flooding in, and soon the pandemic should be over. People are likely to be feeling elated over that. A late summer-early fall election is generally considered favourable for the ruling party, as people feel happy at that time of year, after the summer. The Green Party is in disarray, and one of their members has defected to the Liberals. The latter may have realistic hopes of pulling in some votes from that quarter. The Conservatives under Erin O’Toole seem to be making no waves in the polls.

And, of course, as a minority government, the Liberals are bound to jump if they see a chance for a majority.

But I do see a chance for an upset.

To begin with, if the Conservatives start looking weak, there is less incentive on the left to rally around the Liberals to prevent a Tory win. The NDP might siphon off votes. Quebec is always volatile, and might swing Conservative during the campaign. The provincial government is small-c conservative, and this suggests the electorate is tired of decades of “progressive” government. Inflation could become an issue, thanks to government spending.

It could go either way.

What Might Have Been


Canada is now expecting enough vaccines by the end of July to vaccinate every Canadian twice.

What a pity that the CNE has been cancelled for this summer. Coming in the third week of August, it would be timed perfectly to celebrate full vaccination and an end to the pandemic. At a minimum, adults could be asked for proof of vaccination in order to enter, and it might have served as that last push to get stragglers vaccinated. Indeed, why not a government-funded free day pass to the CNE for those vaccinated? It would be the perfect way to celebrate the end of the pandemic, just before everyone had to get back to school and batten down hatches for another winter. And a way to help the CNE recover from the financial damage of having to stay closed last summer.

Such an opportunity missed…

Wednesday, June 16, 2021



Michael Chong

I have a strong feeling that none of the current party leaders in Canada, with the exception of Maxime Bernier, have gravitas. None are actually leaders. Justin Trudeau looks like an amateur actor poorly playing a role. Jagmeet Singh looks and sounds like a candidate for student council president. Erin O’Toole is a suit and a smile. Annamie Paul cannot seem to inspire allegiance in a three-person caucus.

I wondered if this might be an old man problem—that at my age, everyone is starting to look wet behind the ears. But I do think I can come up with a respectable list of living Canadian politicians who really do seem to me to have the royal air:

Maxime Bernier

Michael Chong

Tom Mulcair

John Tory

Dominic LeBlanc

Jean Charest

The strange thing is that most of them have been rejected for leadership by their own party.

The same thing seems to happen in the States. Andrew Yang and Tulsi Gabbard were the two natural leaders in the latest Democratic primaries. Both frozen out by the party.

I suspect that leaders only get elected when they are badly needed, during times of trouble. Most times, people prefer a nice safe Neville Chamberlain over a Winston Churchill, who might trouble them to do something unpleasant.

Besides, real leaders are so unpredictable. They won't do what you tell them.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Unpacking Postmodern Morality


An analysis of a longer passage by my friend Xerxes, elaborating on his claim that “No one does something knowing that it’s wrong.” It is important, because it sums up postmodern morality, and postmodern morality seems to be taking over even mainstream Christianity.

First, his position:

“You assume that the perp will recognize that something is wrong, because the rest of us think it's wrong. Conscience has nothing to do with it. The Mafia will murder because that's the way they settle things. For them, it's right. The Ponzi scheme organizer doesn't believe he's doing wrong -- his job is to make money, and the effect on others is immaterial. You yourself refer to the narcissist killing because other people are happy; if it makes him feel better, he will think it's right. You shouldn't assume that because YOU know it's wrong, someone else will also hold that belief.”

It is a little unclear to me whether he is advocating the full-on postmodernist view that there is no right and wrong, but truth is negotiated into being, “constructed,” by groups and society; or that groups can indeed be morally right or wrong, there is such a thing as objective morality, but individuals can never know what it is—their thinking is entirely conditioned by their social group.

The problem with the latter position is, of course, that he must be equally unable to know right from wrong.

But let’s look at each of his sentences in turn, and try to puzzle it out.

“Conscience has nothing to do with it.” “It” seems to mean “our actions.” So he does seem to be denying there is such a thing as conscience, no innate knowledge of right and wrong.  Notions of right and wrong seem to come from doing what those around you do—the Mafia example. But then, not necessarily. The lone individual also has the right to declare whatever “makes him feel better” an absolute moral good.

As to morality being “constructed” by the group, I refer to the Bible:

 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”

Non-Christians are free to reject the Bible, but if you accept its authority, so long as we are just doing what we see others do, we are on the road to destruction. We must make moral judgements for ourselves, not just follow the crowd, or we are objectively immoral. And I think in the end the truth of this is evident to pure reason. If you just do what others do, you are actually avoiding any moral choices.

“The Mafia will murder because that’s the way they settle things. For them, it’s right.”

Mafia types have no awareness that it is wrong to murder? That kills the premise of Godfather 3, in which Michael Corleone seeks redemption for his evil life. It also makes the Nuremberg trials illegitimate. The Nazis were just doing what they thought was right, and what was approved by their society. Indeed, as soon as you accept the phrase “for them, it’s right,” different rights for different people, there is no basis for judging any act more moral than any other. Morality is just whatever is imposed by those in power. There is no option but to bully or be bullied.

You could pull back and say: “No, morality is objective. Nevertheless, the Mafia sincerely if erroneously believed that murder, extortion, and theft were moral. So they cannot be blamed.” But if you accept even this weaker claim, now how can you know that it is them who are wrong, and you who are right? Perhaps you have it backwards.

“The Ponzi scheme organizer doesn’t believe he’s doing wrong—his job is to make money, and the effect on others is immaterial”

Surely this argues it is moral to pursue your own self-interest, and not care about others. Yet this is immoral by definition. The Golden Rule is found almost word for word in every moral tradition: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Or frame it as Augustine did: “Love, and do what you will.” Kant demonstrated that the basis of morality is self-evidently true, a categorical imperative: we must treat others as an end, not a means; we must act only in ways we could wish all others to act. If you are looking out for your own self-interest and not caring what this does to others, you cannot pretend to be acting morally.

“You yourself refer to the narcissist killing because other people are happy; if it makes him feel better, he will think it's right.”

This seems to say that whatever makes you feel good is right. If you enjoy murdering strangers or raping women, what right has anyone else to judge? 

To the contrary, one is only acting morally when acting against your own self-interest or what makes you feel good.  Otherwise, as Jesus says, “you already have your reward.” There would never be a conflict, and there would be no possibility of sin in the world.

Eve looked at the apple, saw that it was good to eat, and desirable for bestowing wisdom. How could anyone suggest she did wrong?

Abel had provoked Cain by being happy. How could anyone blame Cain?

St. Paul understands life differently:

“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” – Romans 7: 18-9.

Morality is a struggle between animal desires and raw selfishness, on the one hand, and the duty to love others.

“You shouldn't assume that because YOU know it's wrong, someone else will also hold that belief.”

This seems to assume that anything anyone believes to be true must be true. “True for them,” in the hackneyed postmodernist phrase.

If, then, someone does not believe in gravity, gravity does not apply to them. I would not try that at home.

For a thing to be sinful, the perpetrator must know it is wrong. Not to realize this is a legitimate possibility: a small child, for example, is not responsible for their actions.

But if, as noted, the core of morality is so simple as “do unto others,” there is very little scope for sincerely and with good intentions not grasping the concept. Even severely mentally retarded folks can grasp this. 

We are also morally obliged to educate ourselves and reason over our acts to avoid sin; for the same reason that “criminal negligence” is a crime, and “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” To not continually make the effort is immoral in itself.

Monday, June 14, 2021

Save the CNE!


Help preserve an important part of Canada's history, threatened by this pandemic.

Sign the petition--help save the CNE.

How Could He Possibly Have Known that Murder Was Wrong?


Adolph Eichmann on trial.

Friend Xerxes has recently come up with the striking statement that “No one does something knowing that it’s wrong.” 

Compare the Bible here:

“For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” – Romans 7: 18-9.

No doubt anyone is free to reject the authority of the Bible, as so much random chatter. Yet I think the same truth is apparent to unaided reason: if no one does anything knowing that it’s wrong, there is be no such thing as doing wrong. 

Those we associate with or are thrust among can tempt and be a bad influence or a bad example: family, circle of friends, or society at large. But we are all ultimately responsible for our own actions. This is why “I was only following orders” did not cut any mustard at Nuremberg.