Every year around this time, some self-loathing beneficiary of the great Canadian public university system who has gone on to be a paid flatterer of corporate and political power produces a piece for a major “news” outlet that seeks to ridicule and discredit Canadian academia. They do it by cherry-picking a few titles that they think the non-specialist public will find outlandish from the programme of the Congress of the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Not surprisingly, the Globe and Mail’s resident bigot, Margaret Wente is this year’s mouthpiece for the furtherance of reactionary ignorance (“Adventures in Academia: The Stuff of Fiction,” Globe and Mail, 1 June, 2015).
Once known as the Learneds — for “learned societies”, a term coined by the white male academic establishment of yesteryear, who Wente and her ilk rightly admire (for all the wrong reasons) – what is now dubbed “Congress” sees about 70 relatively small Canadian specialist associations meet under the Federation banner on the campus of a Canadian university for their annual conference. I said I would return to a few final reflections on the relationship between Congress (the larger affair), and this year’s joint conference of the Canadian Society for the History of Medicine and the Canadian Association for the History of Nursing. And while I love poking fun at some of the craziness of Congress as much as the next person, the superb quality of our societies’ joint conference combined with this fresh outbreak in the on-going pandemic of media stupidity has made me decide to write this reflection as a response to Wente’s column.
I will not fall into calling Wente a fascist, and certainly not a Stalinist. It is well worth pointing out, however, that this strategy of vicious ridicule was an intrinsic part of the propaganda and security wing of both the Nazi German and Soviet Russian one-party states as they consolidated their totalitarian hold on power and eradicated those who wished to sustain democratic life and culture, or who were in any way different from what was officially sanctioned as normal in their race, ideas or sexuality.
In Germany, the Nazi’s famously staged a “Degenerate Art Exhibition” in 1937, a massive coming together of systematic artist-bating, driven by deep anti-semitism and hatred for alternative ways of seeing and thinking, that had been going on since the party’s founding. Some 650 works of art, most made during the democratic years of the Weimar republic, were exhibited for ridicule, framed and hung in a way that would put them in the worst possible light, and denounced as being an insult to “German feeling” and for destroying and confusing “natural form”. And of course between 1920 and 1940 the Stalinist regime systematically removed intellectuals and scientists from public life (to put it mildly), often after show trials where they were mocked and humiliated, if they or their work were considered deviant from official state ideology.
In other words, Wente’s is an old technique for discrediting new and different thinking because those who have established themselves in power feel threatened by it. And so they should, because such cultural and intellectual activity is a very important part of a healthy democracy, and healthy democracies have a tendency to challenge established power, check its worst excesses and speak out on behalf of those who are being hurt by it.
We are lucky that this type of “opinion” — which still seems to sell despite its hackneyed clichés, mental laziness and dubious motives — is not yet ruling the decisions of those who govern our academic life. They are probably aware that, if more people had acted on such a poor understanding of the intellectual history of humanity, we would have laughed out of commission an eccentric like Albert Einstein who proposed that something hilariously called “atomic particles”, which were so invisible as to be theoretical, could be “split”. I’m sure a good living could have been made, and probably was (though probably not nearly as well paid as Wente’s today), ridiculing this oddball in the press. And had such ridicule been successful in preventing original thinking like Einstein’s, those like Wente would now be writing their medieval Hogtown anti-intellectual propaganda by candlelight because, of course, Ontario has rather come to rely on nuclear power.
It’s hard to know which ideas are going to prove useful or even indispensable, and that’s why we need a lot of them. Because the world changes, we need a lot of new ones. Typical of Wente, who never actually goes to events or talks to people involved in them before writing her small-minded columns, she did not attend the Congress before denouncing its content as self-indulgent, pretentious, jargon-laden “rubbish”. Instead, she browsed the programme from the comfort of her Toronto office. It is Wente who lives in an ivory tower, disconnected from the realities of Canadian life, endlessly reiterating a sad little batch of eternal truths about the virtues of the established order.
Those of us who live an academic life don’t just read each other’s titles and abstracts, or even content ourselves with reading the full work and considering its arguments and evidence with an open mind. We actually get together every so often with our specialist societies, as scientific thinkers do, to hear what others have to say, understand why they’ve decided to use particular words and concepts that might sound strange or silly to us, and engage in an open conversation and debate. We also get to know them as human beings and fellow citizens, and this leads to a lot of other good things and new collaborations, inside and outside the academy.
Canada’s geography makes it a good idea for us to get together en masse at Congress, benefiting from intellectual and fiscal economies of scale to think more effectively about the entire spectrum of Canadian public discourse and action in the humanities and social sciences (including journalism). This is a very good thing for a country that has been enduring some pretty serious cutbacks to democracy in recent years.
It was special that Congress took place in Canada’s capital city this election year, at our great bilingual University of Ottawa/Université d’Ottawa, and coincided with the Truth and Reconciliation march of people trying to come to terms with the horrors done to aboriginal communities by the state-organized residential school system. The meeting place underlined and made poignant the relationship between Congress and a healthy Canadian democracy. Notably, the flowering of First Nations studies evident at Congress is one of the things stressed by Wente in her declaration that the meeting of university-based and independent researchers is a ridiculous waste of time and that everyone should be devoting themselves to “business, [applied] science, pharmacy, accounting, and other practical studies” (I’m not making this up, I swear).
But the boil on the underarm of Canada’s body politic that is Wente’s Globe and Mail column only festers as a symptom of something more deeply unhealthy in our country. The Canadian establishment is apparently convincing itself that it has to reduce, hierarchize, and increasingly privatize the greatest public university system ever built in the world. Worse, they want to do it without knowing what it is – and without the Canadian public understanding it. And pieces like Wente’s are designed to foster that ignorance of the real role of universities in Canadian public life – of why they are so valuable for democracy, for regional and class equity, for social mobility and the true incorporation into Canadian life of newcomers and minorities, for greater and more diverse economic innovation and prosperity, and for the maintenance and growth of a wide variety of communities, urban and rural.
Following in the footsteps of dubious ancestors, Wente is making good coin heaping scorn on people who have honestly devoted themselves to coming up with and teaching new ways of understanding the world, many of them graduate students making huge sacrifices to do so. That such ridicule should come from a self-confessed plagiarist like Margaret Wente is really difficult to stomach. That Wente is herself the very “child of the haute bourgeoisie” who she wrongly claims make up most Congress-goers, with a Bachelor of Arts from a great US public university (the University of Michigan), and a Master’s degree in English from the University of Toronto that was properly and generously subsidized by the Canadian people, makes this gross misuse of her privilege and education inexcusable.
Really, Wente should resign or the Globe and Mail should finally fire her, or at least re-assign her to a beat where her willful ignorance won’t do so much damage, and put us out of her misery so that Canadians can get on with an intelligent, informed, respectful and long-overdue discussion about the future of the public university in our democratic life.