Today I learned that Gord Downie, frontman of the Canadian band the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
2015/2016 has been, and clearly, continues to be, a banner year for the Reaper. As many have pointed out, this is little more than a product of statistics – so many of the celebrities, musicians, actors and artists we idolise are, as with the rest of the boomers/x’ers, getting up to their dying days.
A few of the bigger name deaths, Bowie’s in particular, hit me harder than I had anticipated – I’m not really one to go whole-hog on celebrity veneration; more often than not I oppose it on principle – but none is quite so close to home as this one.
I’m no rabid fan of the Hip, I don’t have an exhaustive collection of their albums, I’ve not even seen them live, but they still feel like a piece of my life, in a way that Chris Squire, Lemmy, or Robin Williams, do not. I grew up listening to the Edge, a local radio station out of Toronto, when it was still playing properly alternative music. The Hip were on heavy rotation. I didn’t really need to own every album (though I’ve a fair few), as I was hearing them multiple times a week already.
More than that, though, they are of a generation with my parents – my Dad has stories of him and his friends seeing them, before they had made it, playing the college bars in Kingston in the 80’s. So, there’s a direct connection there that would be impossible with some foreign megastar. Just one of those things in the background, one you’d thought would always be around.
And maybe that’s part of it, too – the Hip, and Downie, have become cornerstones of Canadiana over the last three decades. Losing them feels like losing a part of that cultural identity. They embody some of the best elements of modern-day Canadian culture – irreverent, honest, straightforward without being simple, articulate. They’re not just a quality rock group – they, more than anyone other than Gordon Lightfoot, maybe, have made their work about the geography, the history, the people of Canada.
I recall interviews with Downie, listened to late at night in the dark of my room, radio turned down low, where he would describe those early days, the college bar days – they’d headed out on tour, out west, somewhere on the Prairies, and just totally blew the crowds out of the water. These, of course, were the days of synth pop, of new wave groups like Martha and the Muffins and the Spoons in Canada, all glossy, heavily stylised and heavily produced, and here come the Hip, with their long hair, their denim, their aggression – couldn’t have been more out of fashion – the locals didn’t know what to make of it. And yet, they’re the ones who’ve stood the test of time.
Later, it must have been in the early oughties, with their success cemented, they were safe, they had laurels to rest on – I remember an interview with Downie where he was asked to do some anti-drug PSA or something to that effect. He just looked askance at the camera, raised an eyebrow and said “Me, tell kids not do drugs? Yeah right!” Every reason to play it safe, to toss them a platitude, but he couldn’t be other than himself.
Canadians, as a general rule, don’t really approve of stardom, and gross success sits uneasy with us. Fitting the stereotype of the self-deprecating nice guys, we’re much more likely to belittle our celebrities, paring them down to size, certainly more out of embarrassment than any sort of jealousy. The Hip, mainstays on the scene now for my whole life, never took on the airs of entitlement – too busy being their weird, idiosyncratic selves. They get a pass, they’re ours, they’re us.
It’s difficult to quantify and explain the effect that art, music, that these things have on people. It’s a rare individual who makes no connection with music, that doesn’t begin to associate periods of their lives or things of importance with art works. As we’ve experienced recently, and will no doubt continue to, sorting out our feelings in the wake of treasured artists’ passing becomes all the more complicated when they are themselves less-than-stellar exemplars of humanity. How do you face up to the way you feel, the investment you have, in someone’s work and their absence, when you know they’ve done terrible things? No one is perfect, and it is unfortunate that many are further to the other end of the spectrum than could be hoped.
This won’t be one of those instances. A genuinely good person, a campaigner for the environment, for the Indigenous, is dying – and our country will be the worse for it.
Downie’s not done yet, though, and the band is still going – they’ve just announced a tour, and I’m going to see about correcting errors of omission. I recommend you do the same while we still can.
Wrote this up for submission last year – unfortunately, and I did see this coming, it didn’t really jive with the atmosphere they were after. Nothing ventured, nothing gained!
Below the Mountain
What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me
Turn around quick, and start to run
Find out I’m the chosen one
“Would you please turn that crap off? I’m trying to get through this before lecture,” the young man said, casting an angry glare over his shoulder.
“Ah, take off, man, Sabbath’s a classic!” his colleague called back, not bothering to turn away from the laptop. A tinny guitar riff pushed the speakers to the limit, more buzz than distortion.
“Philistine…” the first man mumbled, returning to the sheaf of paper on his desk.
“Ah, good, I was hoping you two would be here – it’ll save me having to write up an email,” said a third man, middle-aged, who entered the cluttered office looking down at a clip-board.
“I’ve been asked to spend a few weeks up in Auyuittuq. Apparently this mining company, Bleiercom, has discovered something weird near Mount Thor – they were using some new imaging technology and it gave them some unexpected read-outs,” he looked up from the sheet he’d been examining. “You’ll have heard the Tories a couple of years back – ‘Canada’s North is open for business’ – well, I guess this is what it looks like. Hopefully, with us there, we can at least soften some of the damage they’ll do.” He shifted a few of the sheets, flipping the board so that they hung loosely over the top.
“I hope you boys didn’t have any Christmas plans, as we’ll be headed up there Tuesday next week and it’ll run through the holidays, most likely. Rush tickets, but the company have, thankfully, said they’d provide everything. We’ll go and see what this is all about, and then maybe get an early start on the dig we wanted to do out in Tanfield, as we’ll be up there already. I’ll let you sort out someone to cover your classes.” He left the office as abruptly as he had come, calling the last sentence as he walked down the hall.
“Maron’, Schuler, don’t you hate it when Frore does this to us? We’re grad students, not god-damn slaves!” said the metal-head, running a hand through greasy hair and looking flustered. “Now I’m gonna have to cancel that flight back to Montreal, and I didn’t buy insurance for it or nothing, and I’m gonna lose the money, and my ma is gonna be pissed…” he turned back to his computer, opening a number of tabs angrily. “Vanabola! I don’t even like the cold! What am I doing a degree in Arctic Archaeology for? Maybe pa is right, maybe I am just a scustumad’!” The soliloquy was peppered with wild hand gestures, as Carbone, which was the young man’s surname, battled with his imagined interlocutor. The first man, Schuler, merely watched his frenetic companion. This was nothing new, this sort of tantrum. A strange, calculating look had settled in his blue eyes, though – a look that had taken hold at the first mention of Mount Thor.
At Pearson, there was someone from Bleiercom waiting for them – mid-level management, complete with cheap suit and a subordinate with a sign. Schuler noted that there were a few other names on the list, and figured that the small group clustered around must be them. Suspicions confirmed when the suited man called out
“Professor Frore? Professor Frore, over here! Cutting it a bit close aren’t we?” the man said, looking at his watch exaggeratedly. “Name’s Johnson, Andy Johnson. HR Head, Toronto office. And this must be…” he looked at the sign, “Joe Carbone and…Caspar Schuler? Swell. You’re the last we were waiting for. Have you got the tickets, Barnes?” he said to his lackey. “C’mon, c’mon, the tickets!” The other man struggled to both hold the sign and dig out the tickets from his brief case. “Here, I’ll do it!” said Johnson, wrenching the case from the other man’s hands. Within a few minutes, the others milling about awkwardly, Johnson had distributed the tickets to their appropriate owners. “Now, daily reports, Barnes, I want daily reports!” he shouted over his shoulder as he ushered the others towards the gate. Barnes breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of him. He couldn’t imagine a better holiday, even if -he- still had to go to work.
The rush through the check-in didn’t leave much time for introductions, but Schuler took a moment to look at his co-travellers. Himself, Carbone and the Professor, as well as HR Johnson and a few other equally ill-suited individuals, and a girl. He took another look – she must have been closer to 20, though quite small. She caught him looking at her as she manhandled her baggage onto the conveyor, and smiled. It wasn’t until they’d made it to the terminal and won a few minutes respite that she came up to him and said
“Hi! I’m Anna – Casper, right? Like the ghost?” Her smile deflated the insult, or at least tried to. He looked at her blankly as Carbone came up.
“Hey babe, nice threads!” he said, shifting his hair out of his face. “I’m Joe!”
“Uh, thanks?” she said, looking him over and frowning at both before she walked away.
“What’d I say?” Carbone asked, looking at Schuler.
Unclasping the tray from the seat ahead, he took out his notebook and opened it at random. The pages were covered in ink, dense, but directed. No scribbles or rushed thoughts here. A crash cut in from the seat next to him – he looked over and saw that, though he was already sleeping, Carbone had switched on one of the in-flight movies. Some forgettable blockbuster, complete with over-the-top explosions that could be heard from the other man’s cheap head-phones. Schuler looked at him a moment, noticed with disgust the dandruff that dusted the man’s ears and greasy hair, the week’s growth of beard that curled tightly over the pock-marked skin. Sighing through his frown, he turned back to his bag and fished out his own head-phones. Nothing for it, no sense in fighting with him over the film. He thumbed his iPod to life, and the Palestrina filled his ears. The interplay of the voicing, the counterpoint as each played off the other to build something greater than the sum of its parts, put him at ease. He looked over at Carbone again, this time his hot disdain transmuted by the music to a remote disappointment. How could they both, Palestrina and Carbone, share an Ancestry? The other man shifted in his seat, burrowing further, and rubbing a plump, short-fingered hand across his thick-lipped mouth. How could, achieving the heights evident in their work, the people of Europe fall so far? He included all of Europe, as it wasn’t as if his own Teutonic brethren were any better off. And here they all came, to the New World, and devolved together. A final sigh, rueful, and Schuler turned back to his book.
Despite the pacifying, focusing nature of the motets, he found himself unable to concentrate on the neatly arrayed symbols. Here was all this data, he thought, flipping through more of the pages, all these theories and conjectures, reaching back into the dark days of Man, of his Childhood, but where was the evidence? What made any of this, this crazy web of connections, any more likely than conspiracies about the Illuminati or the like? Sure, there were all those things that happened down in New England a hundred years ago, but that wasn’t much more than rumour. What did he really have to go on here? How could he be sure that this wasn’t just another silly fiction cooked up by some low-life pot head, and thrown on to the Internet? He couldn’t.
And yet. He could feel that this was somehow right. It’s true, the connections, the cycles, they didn’t match up to a standard calendar, not to the modern one – but, if this was something older than Rome or the Catholic Church, why would it? He’d run the calculations, here was the hard data, flipping to a print-out stapled into the notebook – there was some thread that connected it all, and that couldn’t be faked. Every cycle, something big happened, something that shifted all the consciousness of the world. Last time, following on from whatever it may have been that happened in Massachusetts, great wars and the deaths of Empires. The time before that, the over-throw of the old aristocracy and the birth of new dreams, soon soured. And so on, all the way back to the start of recorded history. Every major event, every epochal shift, the links were there. Nothing so easy as the same symbols or words, though they were present often enough. No, it was deeper than that, something about the sense of it all, the patterns of it – something you wouldn’t see unless you had access to all the raw data, an emergent element from the background fuzz. If that kept happening, every time, surely that pointed to something, right?
Everything indicated that the cycle was about to turn over again, that it might already be starting. And that it had something, something very specific, to do with the Polar Regions, with Baffin Island. Maybe, thought Schuler, he’d be able to find his concrete evidence there. Settled, he thumbed to the end of the written pages, about two thirds of the way through the book. Diagrams, runes, scrawled lines in 17 different languages flashed by. Finally, he focused on what was in front of him – photographs of ancient pottery he’d pulled off the British Museum’s site last week, a stolen moment between tutorials and last minute prep.
After a quarter of an hour comparing these photos with another set, sourced from the Smithsonian, he noticed that Anna was watching him. Openly looking, not bothering to hide her interest. It was the first time he had looked at her, really, since they met in the terminal. From this close, he could see the roots of her hair where it was parted – blonde underneath that ridiculous black, almost the same tint as his own. He hadn’t really settled in to the work yet, there was something that left him restless, uneasy. He figured he might as well distract himself a moment.
“What?” he said, pulling a head-phone out of his ear just as Palestrina gave way to Mussorgsky.
“I’m bored. The movie selection sucks. Whatcha working on?” the girl, the young woman, asked.
Schuler thought a minute before answering, noncommittally, “Thesis stuff,” and turned back to his notes.
Anna pulled a face, wrinkling her nose at his offhand tone and rolling her eyes. She looked away, down the aisle. A few seconds later, though,
“Well, what is it, exactly? You’re some Social science-type, right? What’s that you’re looking at, Sumerian?”
Schuler abruptly twisted his head towards her, raising an eyebrow. “Comparative Religion, technically. How did you know that this is Sumerian?” he asked, more coolly than he felt.
“Pfft, don’t give me that look, man. You don’t have a monopoly on schooling, you know,” she said, her disdain meeting his condescension. “Comparative religion, eh? How’d you get stuck with ol’ Professor Polar Excess over there?”
Schuler looked across the aisle to where Frore sprawled in his chair, shirt rumpled and sandals askew, and had to admit to himself that the pun was apt.
“Cross-disciplinary work. Frore, on top of arctic arch, does cultural work too. Our research interests overlap enough that I do some of my studies with him.”
“K – but then what do the Sumerians have to do with anything in Northern Canada? And what’s that other stuff you’ve got – I don’t recognise it?”
“I did say I did -Comparative- Religion, didn’t I? You do have to look at -different– things to -compare- them, you know.” Childish response, but it fit the question, he felt. “This second set, it’s from the Anasazi culture down in the States, the Pueblo’s.” He must have been more distracted than he thought, to be encouraging the conversation.
“Oh, cool! That’s one of those Lost Civilisations, isn’t it? Neat!” Anna responded excitedly.
“Ha, not exactly,” Schuler said, “some of the latest information to come, climactic models, points to a pretty severe drought in North and Central America, just when it looks like the Pueblo abandoned their settlements. Chances are, it got too dry and they left for greener pastures. No more romantic than that. These pictograms,” he said, passing her the photos, and fishing another set from his bag, “are, as near as we can tell, from right before then.”
“But still, didn’t they, like, disappear or move or whatever only a couple hundred years ago? The Sumerians, they’re ancient. Like, Dawn of Civilisation, ancient. What’s to be compared there?”
“Because, it looks like the same thing may have happened to them,” he answered, distantly. After having some sort of internal struggle, he continued “Look, this isn’t technically stuff for my PhD, it’s a bit of a side-project. I’d appreciate you not mentioning it to Frore, we’ve had it out a few times over where and how I spend my time.” He tried his best to look winning, contorting his patrician face.
“Sure, whatever,” Anna responded. “No big deal to me. What do you mean, though, ‘the same thing’? They were totally different, weren’t they? Different times, different places.”
“You’re not wrong, but I’ve been seeing this come up a lot, almost like a, a thread that weaves through all human cultures. You get these big, strong empires, and then something shifts, and, within a generation, or a few, they’ve completely gone. Now, with the Sumerians, the accepted version is that they were conquered and absorbed by the Akkadians, to the north, and eventually became Babylonia, right?” Anna nodded. “But, this passage here,” Schuler said, indicating with a long finger the photos, “talks about a new religion, a kind of cult, gaining power in the South-East, near the ocean, and spreading before the eventual take-over. And then, they just disappear.”
“They can’t have just disappeared – surely it’s just that we don’t have the artefacts. This was thousands of years ago, how can we be sure we’ve even got the right translation, never mind the full story?” Anna said, doubtful. Schuler smiled – despite himself, he was taking a liking to her. He didn’t usually like people.
“I would agree with you, you’re right to be sceptical, but it just keeps happening – these pictographs, and this, this is a Navajo myth, about the Anasazi,” he said, flipping the notebook back a few pages, “they talk about a cult, a cannibalistic cult, that shows up right before our best estimation of the abandonment of that area. It’s not necessarily widely accepted, and the translation is second-hand, but, look, see that pictograph? Best anyone can tell, that means water. And see? See how it shows up throughout in connection to this other figure, the stylised-man one? That would seem to indicate a water-man, a man-from-the-sea. Again, we have a new group, associated with the sea, right before a collapse.”
Anna looked at him, doubtful. “That’s pretty thin evidence to go on…” she started.
Schuler realised he’d been leaning forward, over-excited in his explanation. He sat back, looking at the grey and blue patterned chair ahead of him.
“That’s fair,” he said. “In this instance. We’ve pretty conclusive evidence that it did happen, though, to the Egyptians. We can read their ancient texts, as well as anything, and they clearly make reference to ‘peoples of the Sea.’ Ramses II fought them several times, and eventually they wore down both the Egyptians and the Hittites. But,” he went on, “they then disappear. Altogether. No more mention anywhere. At least, not under that name…”
“Pretty fanciful stuff there, boychik. If you’ve got all these crazy theories about the sea and the desert civilisations and all the rest, what’re you doing on a flight to Iqaluit?”
“Well, the Sea Peoples, they had to come from somewhere, right?” Schuler offered, cagey.
Anna looked at him, unbelieving. “You’re kidding, right? Have you met these people? They could barely get to the mainland before Europeans rocked up. The Eskimo aren’t your Sea People, no way.”
“No, of course not,” Schuler said, amused at the distress she showed, and noting her prejudiced attitude. “No, I don’t think the Inuit are the Sea People. I do, however, think there is something weird going on up there, and I’m willing to chase what leads I have. Anyways,” he said, changing the subject, “why are you on this mad trip of ours? Helluva way to spend Christmas.”
“Oh, they didn’t tell you? My last name’s Bleier, as in, of Bleiercom. I’m supposed to be spending the holidays with Dad – alternating between the rentals since they split back when I was a kid, just kept on with it, even though I guess I don’t really have to now. Dad’s going to be up at this dig or whatever all Christmas, so I’m headed up with you lot. I kinda feel like I owe him, what with the whole Ivy League education he’s bought me and all. Still, sometimes it’d just be nice to spend time with him, y’know? I’ve been all over the world with him or mom on holiday, but I never really get to see them, like?”
“My parents died when I was quite young,” Schuler said. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh! Um, sorry?” Anna offered weakly.
As the group shuffled into the room, a woman looked up from the duffle bag she was packing. A wide grin split her face, showing strong, white teeth.
“Hiya,” she said “name’s Tukkuyummavungga Aglukar – don’t worry,” she smiled at the blank to quizzical faces in front of her, “you can call me Tukku, everyone else does. I’m your lead chopper pilot – Asuilaak over there’ll fly the second one,” she motioned towards a window, where a bundled figure could be seen examining the tail rotor on one of the MD 500’s.
After the assorted introductions, she continued “Everyone ready? K, let’s get goin. Forecast this morning was good, but weather turns around quick this time of year. It’ll be an hour or so to base camp. Mr. Bleier got in two days ago, he’s already waiting for you all out there.”
Mount Thor thrust into vision from far out, kilometres out. As the two helicopters sped towards it, Schuler reflected on what Tukku had relayed over the chopper’s on-board radio – that Mount Thor, the whole valley, was considered a place of ill-omen by her ancestors. Somewhere to be avoided. She didn’t seem distressed herself, but then it was difficult to tell over the static-y two-way. As they approached, the scale of it – Earth’s largest vertical cliff – became apparent. Coming at it from the west, they could see the full extent of its kilometre-and-a-quarter sheer drop. It was easy to understand why someone would feel uneasy, even nauseated, with that mass of rock hanging above them. Inhuman proportions, enough to trouble the mind of the beholder. And it was just where they were headed. Schuler could see now, at the base of the mountain, a collection of retro-fitted shipping containers and tents, lights blazing against the Arctic winter’s early darkness.
“Ah, glad you could make it, Professor!” the ruddy faced man said as they entered the room. He strode forward, taking Frore by the hand. “Bleier, Alex Bleier. Sorry we couldn’t meet in person earlier, but I’ve come direct from one of our sites in South Africa. I trust your travels ran smoothly enough?” he said, looking at the others. A robust man, wearing a bomber jacket despite the heat lamps glowing away, he looked more like a professional adventurer than a mining magnate. “I was just going over some of the latest readouts, not that I can understand much of them myself – that’s what I pay these egg-heads for!” he said with a laugh, indicating with a sweep of his arm the technicians behind him. “Mighty queer business we’ve got here, like nothing I’ve seen before – and I’ve seen my fair share of oddities, I can tell you!” The force of the man, his vitality, completely over-shadowed the dour professor.
Catching a moment to interject, Frore said
“You know this is meant to be Natural Parkland, right, Mr. Bleier? And sacred land to the Inuit on top of that? I hope you’re not considering too sizeable an operation here.” The other man stopped laughing, in fact, the joviality drained from his face. One could see the steel that had won this man an empire, still present under the padding of years.
“So, that’s the score, is it, Professor? Well, best to have it out in the open from the start. I thought the Prime Minister’s Office made it pretty clear – we’re ushering in the future here, economic development. Or would you prefer to leave this place a wasteland?” Reflecting on the striking landscape bare inches of metal away from them, this struck Schuler as a bit off, but the delivery carried it. “I assure you, Professor, everything we’ve planned is legal. To the letter. Now – you have an hour or so to unpack and get settled – Siluk can show you you’re allotted quarters,” he indicated an unsmiling Inuit man behind him, “but then meet back here. There’s something I want you to see.”
The ice fell away at the hacking of the axe, the two men making short work of the half-foot or so covering. Underneath, still solidly frozen in place, the wall of stacked, unworked rock emerged.
“Clearly artificial,” the professor said to no one in particular. Shooing the others out of the way, he examined the exposed rock, exasperation at the whole affair evident in his motions. “No way any rock-slide or avalanche could have set these so orderly, nor with such precision. This was done purposefully by someone.”
“I can see that, Professor. What I want to know is, why? And what is behind it?” Bleier cut in abruptly. “The scans say that, a few feet through this wall here, there’s open space. I’ve not seen them wrong before. How do we best get through?”
Frore turned abruptly. “Get through! Are you crazy? This is a huge find! This kind of work is totally unprecedented on Baffin Island – who knows what damage you’ve already done to it smashing away with those ice axes? You go through this, you’ll have hell to pay – the NTI are going to sue you as is, the Heritage Department’ll get in on the action when they realise what’s at stake–”
“When you dig as deep as Bleicom does, Professor, you get used to dealing with the devil. Now,” Bleier looked up the face of the cliff, undeterred by the wave of vertigo, “no space to get a sizeable machine in here, yet, and I doubt a CAT could manage it. Siluk, you think we could dynamite it? Doesn’t look like we’ll bring anything down on our heads.”
Shifting the ice-axe to his shoulder, the man cast his own eyes vertical, thought for a moment, and grunted his agreement.
“Jesus, what am I even here for?” Frore said, looking from one man to the other in amazement. “Why’d you even ask me to come, to get involved with this, when the first thing you find you decide to literally blow up? This is ridiculous!” He threw up his hands in vexation.
“You’re here, Professor, to advise. You have advised. I have taken your advice into account. If you don’t like it, you can get yourself back to your university. In the mean time, we’ve got work to do.”
“Oh great, what does that asshole want?”
The two younger men turned to see what Frore was talking about, just as Bleier shut the door to the dining cabin.
“Look here Frore,” he said, turning to address them. “The charges are set. I mean to sort out what’s going on here with or without your approval. I’ve the go-ahead from the Feds – you’re not the only one with friends in Ottawa – and I don’t see any reason to hold back. Now, you can leave if you want – like I said, the next trip out to Iqaluit’ll be in a few days’ time. Or – you can stay.” He moved over to the drip pot, pouring himself a cup of coffee. “And do what I’m paying you, very handsomely, for. I brought you up here, you specifically, because this is some Native mumbo-jumbo bullshit, and you’re the best in the country for it. I don’t need you to clear it with them – God knows, I employ enough of ‘em to have at least some on my side – but I need you here for the optics, see? I can get someone else, in time, but time is something I have very little of. Season’s about to turn ugly. You and I both know that you want to be around for whatever else we might find.” Frore sat, silently, frowning up at the man.
A twinkle in his eye, Bleier continued “Look at is this way – if we do find anything, and if we decide to blow it up, you can add it to the list of my malfeasances.” A glare from Frore.
“Pad your case out against me.” He had the Professor hooked now, and he knew it.
“Charges go off in an hour.” Without waiting for a response, the man left. A blast of arctic air blew into the room, chilling his untouched cup of coffee.
Siluk looked to Bleier, who gave a brief nod. The Inuit man’s staid face creased in a deeper frown, and he pressed the largest button of the remote. They could all hear the explosion from where they sheltered, followed closely by the clatter of rocks and then…nothing. Nothing but the wind, keening through the valley as it had since time immemorial.
“Right!” said Bleier, addressing the assembled. “Professor, shall we go and take a look at what’s become of your wall?” which drew a sigh of resignation from Frore.
“We might as well go and see what dog’s breakfast you’ve made of it…”
“Splendid! I see no reason why we ought to wait to explore what’s behind it, either. Everyone more or less ready? Got the equipment?”
“I’m coming too!” Anna said from the back of the shelter. Bleier’s face creased in a grimace, jaw set. “No way I’ve come all this way, to this frozen waste, to not even see what the whole point is!” Crossing her arms, she stared her father down. Looking between the two of them, the familial resemblance was plain. As was the equality of will.
“Fine, c’mon then!” relented Bleier, giving in to his desire to set this all to rest.
They crossed the short distance to the mountain base. Stones were scattered for metres, evidencing the violence of the blast. A ragged hole had been revealed, sloping gently into the darkness. Smiling to the group, Bleier turned on his flashlight and abruptly descended into the cavern.
“Wait!” called Frore “We don’t even know if the air is breathable in there! Ah – whatever,” he said, relenting. “Just don’t touch anything!” and followed him down.
The opening did slope down, for about 100 metres, with a single, long curve that blocked out the wind’s scream surprisingly well. Levelling off, it opened to a wider antechamber, squarish. As Johnson, the last of the designated group, made the room, a dull boom was heard from behind, followed by several more.
“The blast! It must have set off rocks above!” shouted Frore over the mounting noise. “You idiot Bleier! I told you we should’ve waited!” People began to scatter each way.
“Too far to get back to the surface! Deeper, run deeper!” someone shouted, and the milling focused on a single direction just as the first rocks began to fall.
Impossibly stretched shadows twisted off the irregular rock faces as the group ran, their flashlights casting in every direction. They turned a corner, finding themselves in a much wider chamber – Carbone, the first to enter, was caught short by the sudden change.
“Hey, whatchit!” he said, tumbling over as he was hit from behind.
“The hell did you stop for –oh!” Schuler said, directing his flashlight around him. Stepping around his prone colleague, he moved deeper into the cave. “It must go up for storeys!” he said, as even the industrial grade flashlight died before revealing the ceiling.
“God! We’re all going to die down here! Trapped, like rats!” screamed Johnson, eyes bright with panic.
“Jesus, someone get him under control!” barked Bleier.
“Get your hands off me, Skimo!” Johnson shouted at Asuilaak, who had put a comforting hand on his shoulder.
“Andy! No one is going to die! Everyone is fine! We are going to make it out of here!” Bleier shouted in the man’s face, gripping his shoulders. Johnson struggled under the larger man’s hands a moment, then grew quiet.
“I think we’ve found the source of your aberrant readings, Bleier,” Frore said as he helped Carbone back to his feet. “You see how the walls sparkle when you light them up? Guaranteed there’s aluminum in that rock – this whole place is one giant Faraday Cage. It means that–”
“Skip the science lesson, Professor. I may be a business man, but my business is minerals,” Bleier cut in, striding past the pair. “I know what a Faraday cage is.”
“Then you’ll know,” said a visibly-irritated Frore, “that our radios are going to be useless in here, even if they could’ve cut through the rock. We better hope that that wasn’t the only way in, ‘cause we’re not going to be getting any help from the outside.”
Everyone took a moment to think this over, some looking at the faces nearest them, others just staring at the walls as if they could force their way through by will alone. For most, the claustrophobia they felt earlier redoubled – no way out, no chance of rescue…
Except Schuler. While the rest sat dejected, he had continued to explore the cavern. The floor was, for the most part, smooth. It was difficult to get a grasp on it without seeing the whole space, but the floor seemed almost…regular. Flat in a way that could have been by design, if such a thing wasn’t so unlikely. He continued forward some 50 meters, leaving the others in the entrance way. Anna watched him go, the cone of artificial light soon the only thing of him she could make out, bobbing along in the rhythm of his steps. He stopped, abruptly.
“Everyone,” they heard him call, a queer pitch to his voice, “you’re going to want to see this…”
Shaking themselves out of their torpor, goaded as much by the sound of urgency in Schuler’s voice as by the need to just do something, they rushed over to the young man. As they approached, they could make out what had brought him up short – in the beam of his flashlight, large enough to dwarf it, stood a pillar. An impossible pillar – carved from the rock by the looks of it, its regular, polyhedral surfaces came to a point about a metre and a half from the ground, where it met the apex of another, much shorter, column. The point of connection was in no way sufficient, not if this were made of rock, nor even if it were steel, to support so much weight. There was no way to tell how tall it was, whether it extended all the way to the ceiling or if it stood only a few metres above flashlight reach. It was immense in proportion, though, each of its four planes must have been at least 6, 7 meters in length.
A blanch-faced Asuilaak was the first to break the silence, sweat-soaked moustache pulled back from teeth. He muttered something in Inuktitut, whereupon Siluk angrily responded. Before the two could get much further in their argument, Anna called out
“Speak a language we can all understand, eh?”
“This fool is just talking nonsense, Ms. Bleier,” a still-angry Siluk responded. “Imaginary non-sense.”
“It’s not nonsense!” Asuilaak retorted. “Everyone knows, we all know, that this is a place of Algloolik, an Evil place! We should not be here!”
“Like I said,” Siluk folded his arms across his chest, “ghost stories.”
Before they could get any further, the world lit fire.
As their eyes adjusted to the new brightness, Schuler removed his hand from the pillar.
“Maaaa-ron!” swore Carbone, looking at the now-glowing pillar.
“Any bright ideas on this one, Professor?” Bleier inquired sarcastically. Frore, for his part, merely looked at the column mouth agape. The column itself did come to an end before the ceiling, which was still shrouded in darkness somewhere far above them. As they watched, other pillars, laid out in a regular sequence deeper into the cavern, lit up smoothly. Each, identical to the first, stood what must have been a third of a kilometre high, an impossible height for a structure so thin – and yet, they stood. The sides of the cavern were, like the assumed ceiling, still dark. Now that they grew accustomed to it, all recognised the oddity of the light. The pillars glowed a faint green colour, ethereal, but the light itself was a flat blue. Wordlessly, as one, they set off down the path.
Slowly, they were able to make out something in the distance ahead. At some indeterminate point, the cavern floor had changed to a tessellation of coloured stones, a motif of incredibly complexity but still as smooth as before. Continuing forward, they realised they were coming to the end of the cave, or at least this portion of it. Set against the far wall was a raised dais, three huge blocks of decreasing size stacked one atop the other. On either side, smaller than the columns that defined the path but still of an inhuman size, were two inverted cones, glowing a faint red. They illuminated a final block, what could have been an altar in some place less alien. Behind it were three large cylinders, covered over in fine etchings. The furthest to the right was smashed open on the top, as if it had been crushed by falling rock.
“I, uh, I don’t think that this is any Inuit site, Professor,” said Carbone silently. The pattern before the dais was more regular, depicting set points of brightness against a dark background.
“Stars,” muttered Schuler, an edge of the manic to his voice. “It’s a constellation!” The others just stared.
Just outside of vision came a blur of movement, then a crash and a sickening crunch echoed in the hall, and everyone turned in time to see the body of Johnson, or what was left of it, being dragged into the shadows.
Silence, save for a wet, sliding sound, and a pop.
Several of them cried out, in terror and panic.
“RUN!” shouted Carbone.
The group split, Asuilaak and several of the techs heading back to the blocked entrance, the others perpendicular to the path.
“Jesus, what was that? A bear?” someone shouted.
“When was the last time you saw a bear WITHOUT FUR?” Frore called back as they ran. The group rounded a bend, leaving them in, by the standards of the place, a small alcove.
“Dead end!” cried Siluk. He, Carbone and Schuler immediately turned and ran back the way they had come.
“Wait! Hold on a second!” Frore called after them, to no avail. Bleier slumped against the wall, a hand to his chest, wheezing. Anna held his other arm, face betraying her distress and helplessness.
“Not <huh> quite <huh> up to the sprinting anymore < huh huh>,” the man wheezed. He reached out an arm to steady himself against the wall, and collapsed.
“Dad! Your heart!” Anna cried.
“Just, <huh> just give me a moment…” he said, struggling to rise to hands and knees. With Anna’s help, he regained his feet. Frore could do little more than stand around awkwardly.
“I’m alright, I’m alright,” he said gruffly, shaking off the proffered help. They heard shouts from behind, and a cry of pain. Casting their flashlights around in a panicky motion, they noticed raised platforms, with stacks of what looked like dried kindling arranged neatly. And then they noticed the skulls.
On all the bones were irregularly spaced, straight marks.
“Cut marks,” breathed Frore.
“He said they were cannibals,” whispered Anna, tears of fear and exhaustion streaking her mascara. “Caspar said they were cannibals,” she repeated. Schuler himself hurtled into the room following this, gasping for air.
“The thing, it got Carbone. He’s dead. Siluk took off, I didn’t see where he went. C’mon, we’ve got to move!” And he hustled the rest back into the main room.
As they ran, they could hear it chasing them, claws scratching against the patterned floor. They could hear it, gaining.
“C’mon, Dad, we’ve got to run, faster!” cried Anna.
“<huh> I can’t <huh> go much further!” the man gasped, pulled along by his daughter.
“Watch it!” shouted Schuler – dodging to a side, a blur rushed past him, and Professor Frore was propelled into the shadows. The three stopped as the creature prowled, just outside their vision. Despite looking straight at it, the image seemed to blend with the background, as if the mind refused to comprehend what it was seeing. They got hints of scaly flesh, grotesquely segmented legs, but nothing definite. The beast gathered itself, bunching its ephemeral body, and leapt –
And Asuilaak, from the side, met it in mid-air, knocking it away from the others.
As Asuilaak and the beast smashed into a gargantuan pillar, everything stopped short. The duo appeared to hang in the air several moments, and then the post behind them started to tilt. And as it began to topple, so too did the world.
Schuler kept his feet during all this, but felt, for a vertiginous moment, as if he were standing on the wall rather than the floor. There was a crash, and, looking above his head, he saw the rocks that had been blocking their escape tumble free – gaining speed as they fell towards them. They slammed into the ground at the same time the pillar did, breaking in several places. The other columns went dark.
Fissures opened in the floor, and everything was confusion. Shouts and cries of pain could be heard from where the beast and their saviour had fallen, and the others ran – Schuler ahead, Anna and her father lagging behind. Rocks, of immense size, could be heard crashing in the darkness. Without warning, the ground cleaved, a portion thrusting up over top, and falling away. The three were divided.
Schuler looked back at Anna, her face a mask of horror.
He hesitated only a moment.
Schuler ran flat out for the patch of brightness ahead, tripping on something yielding beneath him. Scrambling to his feet, he realised it was Siluk, separated since before, babbling incomprehensibly about the Algloolik or the devil or something.
“We’ve got to run, c’mon!” Schuler yelled as he ran on, but the man lay inert. Cursing himself for a fool, Schuler went back from him, pulling the man to his feet and tugging him up towards the light.
“Hurry, get in! THE WHOLE MOUNTAIN’S COMING DOWN!” shouted Tukku from one of the MD 500’s. Schuler, pulling Siluk behind him, grabbed the ladder that snapped madly in the wind. Despite the man’s disordered state, he climbed when his hands were thrust onto the rungs. “HURRY! CAN’T HOLD IT MUCH LONGER!” Tukku shouted again. Schuler scrambled up after the other man as quickly as he could, gaining the relative safety of the chopper just as a cloud of dust and rock and ice erupted from the cavern entrance. Tukku didn’t wait for Schuler or Siluk to strap in before she ripped them up and away, straining the machine nearly to breaking. Crawling against the g-forces, Schuler managed to secure Siluk, before getting himself safely seated. Looking out behind them, he was just in time to see the upper two thirds of Mount Thor pull away from its base, splintering on a diagonal line and sliding forward. “HOLD ON!” came Tukku’s shout as she redirected, desperately trying to get them out of the path of the oncoming mass.
“IT’S NOT OVER YET!” The blast of air, visible with dust and debris, expanded outwards from the peak as it smashed into the ground, gaining, gaining. It hit them, throwing them forward. And then they were falling.
After several desperate, stomach-churning, white-knuckle minutes, Tukku was able to stabilise the helicopter. The last updrafts still giving them trouble though they were at least a kilometre away. The camp had been caught in the collapse radius – all hard-copy materials, all the data readings over the last week and more, Schuler’s own notes, whomever was left down there, gone. Schuler himself leaned back. Over-top the staccato, insane ramblings of Siluk next to him, he kept thinking –
“I’ve got it – I’ve seen the connection – I KNOW it’s real now – no-one can take that away –I’ve got it!”
Siluk never calmed, always muttering. Yes, Schuler thought, he’d seen things, up-to-then unimaginable things, but what did he really know? He knew, in his heart, that he would never rest until he knew more. In fact, he thought, he owed to the others, to find out more, didn’t he?
Half-way between sleep and wakefulness, an idea drifted, driven – if there was something in the North, mightn’t there be something in the South?
White Supremacy at Western, Cultural Chauvinism at Ottawa: Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Over the past week or so, we’ve seen some frankly bizarre things coming out of Canadian Universities. I’m talking, of course, of the rash of “White Student Unions” opening en masse throughout Canada and to a much greater extent in the States, and the banning of a <free> yoga class, for students with disabilities, at the University of Ottawa. The two look dissimilar on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see that they’re sourced from the same ugly place.
The student union shenanigans came to my attention by way of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario – or as it calls itself now, “Western” (West of what, you may ask? It’s a mystery to me, situated as it is in decidedly the East of the country). It didn’t take long before the truth came to light, that this was a semi-elaborate hoax by a number of people via the more vile sections of the Internet. Initially, I didn’t think it worth writing on. With the second situation, though, it became worthwhile to at least highlight their mutual basis.
My initial reaction to news of the White Student Union – similar, I assumed, to the original example coming out of Maryland – was one of disappointment, and a bit of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a deeply racist place, and somewhere like Western, with an incredible amount of privilege in stark contrast to the city it dominates (a city that is statistically above the national average, by every metric, when it comes to poverty), breeds a very particular kind of racism. But Canada’s history, and, flowing from that, its race relations are different than the United States’. We don’t have nearly as much organised white supremacy, certainly none so forthright as the KKK or an equivalent. While we certainly have our fare share of racial animus, particularly in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, racists in Canada seem much more secure in their societally-structured superiority than their American cousins. Content to continue their oppression behind the veil of the dominant culture, they are less strident, less vitriolic. So, why, all the sudden, this decidedly American turn? What threat did they feel that drove them out into the light?
Of course, the fact that this whole thing seemed so weird showed it up for what it was – a hoax. My feelings on this are mixed. First, and mostly, I’m glad that it is a hoax, as it’s not especially good to have an organised hate group with free reign on a campus, let alone a society. Make no mistake, White Student Unions are hate groups, and it’s only a fool or provocateur that says otherwise. My second, lesser, reaction is one of regret – while, as I said, it’s not beneficial for these groups to be able to present their misinformation under the assumed imprimatur of a University, it would at least be useful to know who they are, and to have their existence underlined in the eyes of the public. It’s too easy for groups like this to remain in the background, out of sight, and for the rest of society to carry on in ignorance. If this were a legitimate front, at least it couldn’t be ignored, swept away like a bogey-man. At least then Canadian society would be forced to look in the mirror and reckon with its reflection.
Before wrapping up the first issue, I’ll turn to the second. Seemingly on grounds of cultural appropriation, a free yoga class has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa. This has come to light only in the last week or so, as it has been under discussion since September, the start of the semester. The ridiculousness of this has been picked up internationally, it’s so preposterous. It’s been a while since I read anything in-depth on Indian culture or history and I’m hesitant to tread without the requisite research, but as others have pointed out, the appropriation of Yoga in particular is a pretty absurd target for moral outrage. Yoga, as we know it today, was developed specifically for export and cultural miscegenation centuries ago. To turn around now and blame white practitioners for its uptake? It’s this kind of bleeding-heart, shoot-from-the-hip, ill-educated foolishness that deserves mockery of all and sundry.
This calls to mind the recent flare-up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where kimonos were provided during a Monet exhibition for visitor photo-ops. People, mostly uni-aged students, protested this as racist appropriation. In a turn of the surreal, a counter-demo was held, mostly comprised of elderly Japanese immigrants, in defence of the kimono use. Hilarity ensued. Once again, the group protesting was incredibly ill-informed on the subject they were inveighing over. Kimonos, much like the practice of Yoga, were and continue to the reserve of the upper echelon of their respective societies. Throughout their history, the vast majority of Japanese people were unlikely to see a kimono in their lives, let alone wear one. All those mystics and swamis that so typify the Orientalist conception of India? A slice of a strata in a horribly oppressive caste system. Find me the suicidally debt-burdened farmer in Uttar Pradesh that opens his day with a salute to the sun, and I’ll let you have your little (mis)appropriation lockout.
To wrap up, I’ll try to show how, while ostensibly distinct, the two originate from the same place. Both of these events, very clearly, come by way of Identity politics. The White Student Union in Maryland was initiated using the same rhetoric and motivations as other sectarian student groups. The difference being, rather glaringly, that the majority of American society is a White Student Union, whereas minority groups to a degree require and benefit from clear delineations of intent and representation. The recent hoax, the mushrooming of fake White Student Unions, served a dual purpose – both to stir up anger and distress within the progressive portion of society, and to disseminate the ideas of white supremacy. The yoga class debacle too comes from Identity politics, which often sees the policing of dialogue, of space, and of conduct to the point of choking all discourse. This, and the kimono case, are just single passages in an incredibly tawdry book. Racism needs to be opposed, and past wrongs redressed, but to do this by way of cultural chauvinism or dilettantish victim pageantry is a gross misstep.
Identity politics, whether employed by white racists or misguided social justice warriors, even multiculturalism itself, they are products of divisive, obscurantist ideology. Writing in the wake of Zizek’s racist remarks on the Euro migrant crisis, Sam Kriss sums up the failings of multiculturalism:
“Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism…any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory.”
As Kriss says, multiculturalism flattens out the terrain of relations. Abstracting from the realities, the complex, contradictory, nuanced facts that make up individuals, multiculturalism instead looks at people, every person, as no more than a token carrier of their larger culture, itself divined by some mystical, spurious process. It should be little wonder that Canada is split into so many little enclaves, gated communities and self-imposed ghettos following this dogma. Merkel was right – the experiment of multiculturalism has utterly failed. She was wrong about the reasons, though. It was always doomed to failure.
Adolph Reed Jr. goes further than Kriss, arguing against any of the alternate options provided above. Reed has expounded on this multiple times, arguing that Identity politics is nothing more than Neoliberalism. Picking out the hypocrises involved in the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the castigation of Rachel Dolezal, Reed writes
“…race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.”
Reed goes on to point out that the society that shifted ever so slightly, where the infamous 1% that own and direct the wealth of our world, when changed to reflect the “racial” and “gender” makeup of the greater body politic, would have to be found just by the arguments of the Identitarians. The obvious error of this underscores the failings of the position, the failure to both aim at the goals they espouse and the failure of the strategy to get them there.
At the end of it all, there are very few things that are fixed in our lives, really fundamentally stable, I mean. So much of what we are – our race, our gender, our culture, to a degree, even our sex – is socially determined. What cuts across all of those, though, is class and the power relations that determine it. All those that live and struggle under the banner of the progressive, we’re nominally on the same side. It’s time we start acting like it. We can’t let stupid, misinformed, impassioned bullshit, puerile Identitarian nonsense, continue to divide us. We have too much to lose.
If you’re actually interested in change, in winning the fight, stop and think for a minute about your tactics. Are they really aimed at victory, or are they just there to carve up your pile of the shit-heap, making you feel good in your safe corner of the midden?
The Interregnum is over! The triumphal return of Canada’s tacit Ruling Party, personified directly in his Royal Tonsorialness, Justin Trudeau (first of his name). Sad that this day should come so late, but, lest the dykes of your tears should burst with sadness, reflect on the fact that he takes up the mantle passed to him from his (nigh) Universally-Beloved father. ‘Tis true! At long last, our Ruling Party has itself, and by extension our country, its Rightful Ruling Family!
Blessedly, the people of Canada have shaken off their torpor, have returned to their senses, bringing an end to the nine years of Stygian darkness – dispelled by that shining, toothsome smile of our Sovereign Trudeau. October 19th, a day which will ring out in the history of our proud nation, when we as an Electorate put flight those nasty, scummy, scurrilous Tories! United we stood, together! All the various citizens of the Country, save for Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound. And Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry. And Banff-Airdrie and North Okanagan-Shuswap and Portage-Lisgar and Lac-Saint-Jean and…
But let us not dwell on those pockets of pestilence – time enough yet to root out the pits of moral turpitude! We shall not rest till we are all one happy, if enclave-segregated, family! Today, though, let us give thanks, thanks that the age-old enemy, the Bloc of all Dissension, has only won but ten seats. The threat of Insurrection in the Land of Poutine is as clogged as a bonhomme’s arteries. Our Unspoiled Leader will not be forced to abrogate the Constitution in defence of it, as was his storied Father. Which is not to say that our Bonny Prince Trudeau is not up to the task – oh no! He is as doughty as he is honest!
Lo! If victories come not in triplicate, feed me to feral beavers! Look, ye, how those upstart Orangeists have been laid low! Never meant to rise above tertiary, the days of their hubris are over. Returned to their rightful depths, let this be lesson to them! There is only room for one political party in the Centre, only room for one clique in the pockets of our Corporate masters, and that party, that clique, is the Liberal Party of Canada! Liberal über alles!
Just as the march of Red that swept across the lawns and fences of our proud Northern Land these last weeks conquered the poll boxes, so too will it sweep away the past deviations, the alterations conjured through dark subterfuge and misdeeds. Return, we shall, to the good old days. The days of the quiet superiority that comes from knowing that, well, we’re just so much nicer than those guys south of the border. The days of picturesque, pristine natural beauty – the kind that makes it easier to hide the poverty and immiseration of those folks who formerly owned that land. The days of a kinder, gentler austerity politics.
Cast off your radical weeds then, Canada, for they suit not the day! Better to adorn oneself in something more placid, more fitting to sanctimoniousness and self-satisfaction – like a seasonally-themed cable-knit sweater! The ballots are cast, and the fourth-year ritual is run. Your work is done now. Sink back into your apolitical apathy, for your spirit must be near-spent! As you take your bed this evening, know that you have accomplished good work this week. We have returned to a more comfortable, a more Canadian, status quo.
This Ain’t My English
I’ve been living in England for a month shy of half a year now. It’s given me time to get my bearings, to settle in, and, finally, has allowed me to take a look around. As far as moving more or less half-way round the world goes, I’d be hard pressed to find a place closer to home. Same language, similar if not identical culture, same bloody monarch, and, if we want to dip into controversy, same phenotype. So, no big shift, really.
Though it took some doing, my paperwork is well on its way to being sorted. On the balance of averages, I probably know more, if not regional, then at least national, history than the domestic population. I’ve acquired a local pub. I can just about pass.
That is, I can just about pass – until I open my mouth. I said we have the same language, and, while it’s the same thing on paper as it is back home, the vagaries of the spoken language betray a wide gulf, wide as an ocean. It’s true that there are certain areas within Canada that are unique in their dialects, but that pales in comparison with England. There are numerous reasons for this – Canada’s population is too young to have developed beyond some rough and immediate differences, and the composition of our nation is largely immigrant based, which started the whole venture off as a bit of a melting pot. Two amongst many.
I grew up speaking what is known as the West-Central dialect, which, aside from some rather small regional quirks, is one of the geographically largest and most homogeneous dialects on the planet, stretching from the borders of Quebec through the Great Plains and on to the Pacific Ocean, paying no attention to international borders along the way. This isn’t to downplay those differences, but they are of the kind that requires some extra effort to decipher – it helps to be a native Ontarian if you’re interested in differentiating between someone from Pembroke and someone from Cochrane (mostly, well, because it’s unlikely that non-Ontarians, let alone non-Canadians, know people from either place, but I digress). Same thing goes for figuring out if what you’re hearing is a Thunder Bay accent, or that of Duluth, Minnesota. But these differences are far from as stark as those between Northampton and Gravesend, or Newcastle and Penzance, and, occur over vastly larger distances.
Thing is, though, as stark as these regional dialects may be from one another, they are known entities. English people know by ear if someone is English, whether they’re from the Lake District or from the Home Counties. And they distinctly know that I am not English. If I put the effort in, I can code switch and drop out most of my natural rhoticisms, to the point that someone thought I was an adept non-Native speaker, from some unknown corner of the Continent. I’ll allow the reader to make up their mind as to whether I consider that a compliment or not.
When not putting the effort in, I’m invariably nailed as a North American, and, due no doubt to the huge spread of West-Central, assumed to be American. I’m likely victim of my own neuroses on this point, but I can’t help but feel like people mistakenly pegging me as American comes with a whole heap of background assumptions – latter-day Imperial guilt and all the rest. Maybe not so bad amongst the English themselves, but certainly amongst expats of other countries, who have, at one time or another, been rubbed the wrong way by our bellicose cousins. I don’t need to carry that baggage – my country of birth has loaded me with enough for my liking, and, thanks to the indefatigable efforts of dear leader Harper, continues daily to heap it on.
What puts me in a bind, though, is that I’ve no interest in changing my dialect. It would be false of me to speak with a Received Pronunciation, and I have no interest in entering the fray of classism that is so inextricably wrapped up with how one speaks here, on either side. I guess that leaves me with the classic burden of all Canadians abroad – fleshing out the stereotype and politely correcting people when they mistake me for something I’m not.
For the first time in my life, aside, of course, from brief trips or holidays, I’ve been Othered, and been made to feel it. All the unheimlich of it aside, I’d highly recommend emigrating for a period, even if only for this. Difficult for us white hetero men to find it, otherwise.
Of Gendered Space and Tactics
This comes out of the wake of the ongoing brouhaha focused around the Fitness Centre at McGill University, in Montreal. In short, though this provides a bit more context, two students have made a proposal to introduce a women’s only period during each week. There is already a precedent, as the university pool already has such a program in place. Unsurprisingly, given the rather bizarre world we live in, this proposal has been met with “an uproar.” I’m so glad that we’re at a point where we can discuss these things civilly.
Though it probably doesn’t need to be said, the various MRA’s who have come out of the woodwork to criticise and smear mud are beneath contempt. Their perspective doesn’t really need to be considered, given how startlingly out of touch these people are. It’s unfortunate that, at a time when serious inroads are being made against previous gains for equality, we have these cretins and clowns squirming about, making a mockery of the whole affair.
That out of the way, the situation is, as ever, more complicated than it at first seems. I honestly don’t know which way to fall on this one, and this piece is just as much asking a question and trying to get to grips with what’s up as it is trying to draw attention to what’s going on.
It’s accidental to the issues I’m having with the situation, but it’s worth noting that the motivation for one of the students putting forward the proposal was religious – she is a Muslim, and garb is a concern for her. The niqab, the hijab and the burqa have become rather hot political topics as we continue our drive to demonise Islam and its adherents. Of course, anyone current with the situation knows that there are already legal wrinkles in Quebec with regards to these weighty bolts of cloth, due in no small part to the more openly xenophobic elements within the cultural make-up of the province. To their credit, the governing bodies haven’t cited this as reason to discard the idea out of hand, though that of course would be heavy-handed, even in these latter days of “the war of civilisations.” For myself, I’ll side with the laws of the land on this one – the country is presumably equal-opportunity when it comes to make-believe friends, so, citing religious grounds is good enough. Unless, of course, it isn’t actually a tenet of the religion per se. There is plenty of evidence, and debate, internal and external, that point to the hijab of women being not something required by Islam but rather a hold-over of Arabian culture. I’m not a Koran scholar, and to presume to declare what is and isn’t part of someone else’s religious views is not a slope I’m prepared to slide down. I think the whole bundle is sexist, but, free country, people are welcome to their Stockholm syndrome if they want it.
On the flip side, I can sympathise with women wanting to avoid the beady glance of the male gaze. Our culture is still one that promotes the objectification of women, with all the essentialist trappings that come along with it – body-shaming, whore and Madonna dichotomies, the whole package. So, I can understand the desire, particularly when performing activities that overtly focus on the body, to fight for a safe, secluded space.
My concern is that the tactic may be confused with the strategy. It’s not enough to target the symptoms of the patriarchy, we need to go after the base causes, and pull it out by the roots. My own position on this is a fairly standard Marxian one; that gender rides on class antagonism, but that’s an aside for later. More to the point, I’d hate this, in the event of its success, to become yet another example of out of sight, out of mind. I fully understand that there needs to be an immediate solution to the issue, and that the proposal, given that the cost of the execution of said solution is so small, is well-within the scope of reasonability, but I just hope that the motivation for the effort isn’t dissipated by its short-term resolution. To purposefully divide ourselves along the lines of gender and/or sex as a way of policing our problems is tantamount to burying them. Problems like these, though, don’t stay buried very long.