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What’s so hard about Senate reform?

The Supreme Court of Canada has announced it will rule next Friday on the Prime Minister’s various questions regarding the constitutionality of Senate reform. Regardless of how they rule —  and I don’t think it’s going to be much of a surprise  —  the decision will be one of the most important in Canadian political history, as it will finally provide closure to the age-old question of whether our horrible Senate is something we can “do anything” about, or merely something we’re, for all practical purposes, stuck with forever.

The democratic reform minister submitted six questions to the Supreme Court of Canada in early 2013. Question 4 isn’t very interesting; it relates to the archaic provision that Canadian senators must be property-owners. The other five are what matters; they have to do with establishing clear ground rules regarding how the Senate can or can’t be elected or abolished.

The amending provision of the constitution of Canada, known as “Part V” of the Constitution Act, 1982, is badly-written, like most of the constitution of Canada. Basically, it says that some parts of the Canadian political system are arbitrarily more important than others, and amendments changing the important parts should be harder to pass as a result.

To pass an amendment affecting one of the “unimportant” things requires the assent of the House, the Senate, and the governments of two-thirds of the provinces representing at least 50% of the national population. This is sometimes called the “7/50″ formula (since two-thirds of 10 provinces is seven) and it is outlined in section 38(1) of Part V.

To pass an amendment affecting one of the “important” things requires the assent of the House, the Senate, and the governments of every single province — in other words, “unanimous consent.” This is outlined in section 41.

The “unimportant things” (the easier-to-change things) are listed in section 42. They are:

(a) the principle of proportionate representation of the provinces in the House of Commons prescribed by the Constitution of Canada;

(b) the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators;

(c) the number of members by which a province is entitled to be represented in the Senate and the residence qualifications of Senators;

(d) subject to paragraph 41(d), the Supreme Court of Canada;

(e) the extension of existing provinces into the territories; and

(f) notwithstanding any other law or practice, the establishment of new provinces.

The “important things” (that require unanimous consent to change) are stated in section 41. They are:

(a) the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province;

(b) the right of a province to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of Senators by which the province is entitled to be represented at the time this Part comes into force;

(c) subject to section 43, the use of the English or the French language;

(d) the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada; and

(e) an amendment to this Part.

Most Canadians are probably vaguely aware of these two-tiers of amendments. Less well-known is a third tier, found in section 44 concerning what we might call the “super unimportant things.” It is perhaps the worst, most confusingly-worded part of Section V, and states, in full:

“Subject to sections 41 and 42, Parliament may exclusively make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons.”

The Harper administration wants the following:

  • term limits for senators (question 1)
  • Senate elections, either run by the federal government (question 2) or the provincial governments (question 3)

These three questions to the Supreme Court operate on the hope that Senate reform of this sort falls under the category of a “super unimportant thing” covered section 44 — which is to say, a change “in relation to… the Senate” that can be made by ordinary statute, without any provincial governments getting involved.

The government also wants closure on whether abolishing the Senate would count as an unimportant thing under section 38 (question 5), or an important thing under section 41 (question six).

That’s a lot of complex background, but it’s only necessary, again, because the Constitution is extraordinarily badly-written and thus extremely unclear about something that should really be quite obvious. As is not uncommon with Supreme Court cases, the answers to the Harper questions will ultimately be little more than political opinions delivered under the thin disguise of subjective language analysis.

Here’s my attempt to isolate the subjective language in question:

  • the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators” (an “unimportant thing” under section 42)
  • in relation to… the Senate” (a “very unimportant thing” under section 44)
  • an amendment to this Part” (an “important thing” under section 41)

Let’s do language analysis together one statement at a time.

“the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators”

The “powers of the Senate” obviously refers to the power of the Senate to pass or veto legislation. Abolishing the Senate would affect its power, which appears to makes abolishing the Senate clearly an “unimportant thing” requiring the easy amending formula.

The current “method of selecting Senators” entails the Governor General picking someone. The Governor General picks who the Prime Minister tells him to pick, which is of course the understood practice of our constitutional monarchy system, and not something anyone contests the legality of. Indeed, this is actually a rare advantage of the constitutional monarchy system; if the only hard rule in law is that the figurehead has to have the final, symbolic say over something, it’s quite easy to make up new processes in which to “advise” his decision without having to open up the constitution. Canada’s current process of appointing Supreme Court judges has recently become a convoluted, multi-step, ad-hoc process, for example, but because the governor general still has final sign-off — the only thing the Constitution requires for judicial appointments — no one contests the constitutionality of that convoluted appointment process.

Even if Senate elections were held, the governor general could still formally “approve” Senators-elect after they won the vote. This was explicitly provided in the Harper government’s go-nowhere Senate Reform Act of 2006 (helpfully cited alongside the Supreme Court questions), which only described Senators-elect as being the “preferences” of voters, and thus still subject to the polite fiction that the GG has final say.

It is not difficult to argue that electing senators (so long as the polite fiction of the governor general’s power is maintained) does not require a constitutional amendment.

Term limits are a stickier wicket. As we’ve learned from the whole Senator Duffy-Harb-Brazeau-Wallin brouhaha, senators are not easily removed from the chamber. The constitution says a senator shall “hold his place in the Senate until he attains the age of seventy-five” which doesn’t leave a lot of ambiguity. Unlike an “advisory” Senate election, there is no way to square “until he attains the age of seventy-five” with “until he finishes a term of X years.” A common-sense reading therefore suggests term limits would alter the “method of selecting Senators” and thus should require an “easy” style constitutional amendment under section 42.

“in relation to… the Senate”

This appears to indicate that the Parliament of Canada does indeed have the power to regulate certain things about the Senate. Those who take the maximally obstructionist perspective on Senate reform — that any change to anything requires a constitutional amendment — should ask why this provision is present in our constitution, and what it could possibly cover. I would argue it provides a legal mandate for Ottawa to conduct “advisory” Senate elections, or outsource that responsibility to the provinces.

“an amendment to this Part” 

This line worries me, because it’s ambiguous enough to give the Supreme Court grounds to rule all non-amendment Senate reform unconstitutional and all constitutional Senate amendments “important things” requiring climbing the hill of unanimous provincial consent.

The maximalist logic goes like this:

To pass any sort of constitutional amendment in Canada requires a vote of approval from the House of Commons, the Senate, and some assortment of provincial legislatures. If the Senate is altered in some consequential fashion, it could be argued the new Senate is no longer the same Senate the amending formulas talk about, and therefore the process of constitutional amendments has been compromised, and therefore Senate reform must require unanimous provincial consent, since altering the amendment process is one of those “important things” that requires it.

A slightly less maximalist argument would hold, at the very least, that abolishing the Senate counts as affecting the amending formula, since it would have the same practical consequence as saying today that the Senate shouldn’t play any role whatsoever in constitutional amendments, which would clearly would affect the amending process.

The core question in both cases is basically whether altering some other part of the constitution that ends up affecting the amending process is the same as deliberately affecting the amending process. That’s very subjective.

To summarize, in my mind, a reasonable reading would hold that:

  • Senate elections can be instituted by ordinary statute
  • Term limits require an “easy” constitutional amendment
  • Abolishing the Senate requires a constitutional amendment, probably an “easy” one unless you want to be very fussy about it

Predicting the Future

Despite this, I predict the Supreme Court will rule that any sort of Senate reform cannot be done without unanimous provincial consent.

I predict they will offer a very maximalist, literal reading of the powers of the governor general, and argue that even “advising” him to do something through a “preference” election undermines his independence and sovereignty, and thus infringes on the powers of his office, which as we may recall from many paragraphs earlier, is one of the “important things” that requires a hard-style amendment to alter. I predict they will hold that term limits are a similar infringement of his power.

I believe they will then supplement this conclusion with the sort of maximalist reading of how altering the Senate affects the sanctity of the constitutional amendment process that I outlined above.

I predict this because our current Supreme Court seems to mostly issue rulings that are in sync with the conventional wisdom of the Canadian establishment, and establishment opinion has long held that Senate reform is super super difficult which is why it’s never been done. Establishment opinion also tends to take the governor general much more seriously than his office deserves to be, which is why I suspect they will be ultra-sensitive to anything that reeks of infringing on his perrogatives.

I hope I am wrong, but I suspect I won’t be. If they rule in the way I expect, the Canadian political system will have truly passed a hopeless point of no return.

Roy Peterson (1936-2013)

I just learned the sad news that Roy Peterson, one of my greatest artistic role models (and a great British Columbian) passed away yesterday.

Peterson was the editorial cartoonist of the Vancouver Sun for nearly 50 years, from his hiring as a young man in 1962 to his unglamorous layoff in 2009 for cost-cutting reasons. During that time, he was one of Canada’s most recognizable and celebrated cartooning talents, racking up enormous piles of awards and earning praise from coast to coast. His cartoons, which combined breathtaking technical skill with a unique, old-timey whimsy, were instantly recognizable for their beauty, humor, and charm. Roy was a cartoonist of the old school who found his greatest pleasure in pointing out the across-the-board absurdities of politics, rather than carrying water for any particular faction, and his comics were neither “cruel” or “soft,” but observational, teasing, and aloof in a way you don’t often see today.

I met Roy only once, at an informal gathering of Vancouver cartoonists. He was an old man by that point, but seemed perfectly suited for the role; soft-spoken and gentle with a wry and winking grandfatherly sense of humor. He was one of my great heroes long before I ever got a chance to meet him in person, and I will be thankful for the rest of my life that I was privileged enough to have the opportunity.

I’ve often felt that I’d like to write more about Roy’s amazing career someday, or maybe even make a fan site about him, since his body of work is so large and impressive, but not particularly well-documented. Roy only released two collections of his own work (The World According to Roy Peterson, about global politics in the 1970s, and Drawn & Quartered, about Pierre Trudeau in the 1980s), but for the last 50 years his drawings could be found all over the place in countless different venues; on book covers, in magazines, in “best of Canada” cartoon collections, even the occasional children’s book. It says something about the humble nature of the man that he never put any great effort into making his entire oeuvre well-known, or even broadly accessible to the general public, but now that he’s passed, I do hope memories of his marvellous legacy to Canadian art do not die with him.

Here are some cartoons of Peterson’s I’ve always been particularly fond of, to give the unfamiliar a taste of his style. For an incomplete archive of some of his Sun work, check out this searchable archive from Simon Fraser University.

Rest in Peace.

Roy Peterson cartoon

Roy Peterson cartoon

Roy Peterson cartoon

Roy Peterson cartoon

Roy Peterson cartoon

Roy Peterson cartoon

Roy Peterson cartoon

Guest Strip Ahoy!

While we all patiently wait for a regular update, I thought you guys might be amused to see this recent guest strip I did for my good friend Angela over at “Wasted Talent”.

Some background: Angela’s strip is basically an auto-bio comic about her life in Vancouver, and it’s very clever and beautiful, much like Angela herself. But I also like teasing her about how domestic and Cathy-like Wasted Talent can sometimes be, and my guest strip is basically an attempt to take this running joke between us to it’s most grotesque, caricatured extreme. But I kid cause I love!

At a time when I’m thinking more and more about leaving Vancouver, Angela’s strip is always a fun reminder of the charms and quirks of life in the Canadian west coast.

Interview with Sean Holman about Canadian party discipline

In my Guide to Canada’s chapter on the Canadian Parliamentary system, I note:

So-called “party discipline” is one of the most defining characteristics of the Canadian system of government — indeed, it’s very hard to understand the system at all unless you grasp this concept. Essentially, party discipline means that all MPs of a particular political party are all expected to vote the same way, all of the time. So if there’s a bill introduced in the House on say, gun control, all the members of the Conservative Party will either vote unanimously for it, or unanimously against it. 

That’s not hyperbole. The Globe and Mail did a depressing study a while ago and revealed that the single most “rebellious” member of the federal parliament, Conservative MP James Bezan, still “votes with his party nearly 99 per cent of the time.”

Yet in my experience, a lot of Canadians don’t know this simple fact. They proudly “vote for the person, not the party” during elections and write letters and send petitions to their MPs in an effort to affect their votes in the House. It’s sad, because reform will never come as long as so many remain in denial of the problem.

Sean Holman is a journalism professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. In April of this year he released a documentary called Whipped: The Secret World of Party Discipline that exposes just how pervasive the practice of voting-as-you’re-told is in Canadian politics, using the provincial legislature of British Columbia as his case study. This summer the video was finally put online, and can now be watched in its entirety on the website of the Canadian Public Affairs Channel.

It’s a wonderful and powerful film, and I wanted to ask the guy responsible for making it a couple questions.

What’s the reception to your film been like so far?

The response to Whipped has been very positive. I think many Canadians feel they aren’t being listened to by their elected representatives. Canadians may suspect that has something to do with party discipline. But what makes this documentary special is that Canadians can now see and hear specific examples of how that discipline forces their representatives to vote the party line — even if it means ignoring the wishes of constituents.

What would you say is the wrong lesson to learn from your film? I’m sure you must occasionally hear from people who reached a conclusion after watching that wasn’t what you were going for at all.

That’s a very interesting question.

I think it would be a mistake to pass quick judgement against party discipline after watching Whipped. Such judgements are easy when an elected representative toes a party line you disagree with. But what happens when that representative breaks ranks to vote against a tax cut or gay rights? What happens when a loosening of party discipline means a governing party can’t fight climate change or the deficit? What happens when freedom and democracy compromise other principles you believe in?

I suspect I know the answer to that question. That’s why I hope this documentary instead causes Canadians to think about what their political values are, what those values say about us as a country and whether we want to change them.

You obviously focus on British Columbia in this film. Do you have any sense of any of the other provinces being better or worse, in terms of the strictness of party discipline? How about the federal parliament in Ottawa? 

My sense is party discipline is prevalent to a greater or lesser extent in most other Canadian legislatures — and certainly that’s true in Ottawa.

For example, just 0.7 percent of the votes cast in the House of Commons between October 2004 and May 2013 broke party ranks. That suggests an astonishing homogeneity of opinion or an astonishing degree of discipline. And, in any case, as one of the MLAs I interviewed put it, “there’s got to be times, random chance if nothing else” that some of those politicians disagree with what they are voting on.

Were there any particularly lurid anecdotes that didn’t make their way into the final cut? 

There were a number of anecdotes — and even entire interviews — that didn’t make the final cut of the documentary. All were interesting, although none were lurid.

For the most part, those clips weren’t used because of the time and narrative constraints of the documentary format. For example, former cabinet minister John Van Dongen spoke with me about party discipline soon after quitting the BC Liberals to become a BC Conservative. But what he said, unfortunately, got left on the cutting room floor. So I’m considering posting some of that content online in the future.

You make some analogies to Britain in the film, and suggest theirs is a system in which individual legislators are permitted to vote against their party from time to time. Which seems to somewhat dispel the idea that party discipline is integral part of the so-called “Westminster system.”

Do you have any sense of when or why Canada moved so sharply in the direction of ultra-disciplined legislatures? Your film doesn’t get into too much history, but is there any specific time period or event we can blame for entrenching this practice?

Party discipline is often said to have been looser during the early years of Confederation. But, by the twenties, such independence was being described as a rarity. And, by the seventies, that rigidity had become the subject of public debate.

As for the reasons behind such discipline, I think the best answer is “it’s complicated.”

There are, of course, structural explanations. Party leaders, for example, have the power to reward and punish their MPs, And, since we have 308 MPs rather than the United Kingdom’s 650, the chances of receiving one of those rewards — such as a cabinet or prominent critic appointment — are greater. As such, there’s an increased incentive in this country to toe the party line — especially in provincial legislatures, where the number of elected representatives is even smaller. But this system only exists because those representatives permit it to.

In a collective, MPs have the power to resist or even reform this system and yet – with a few exceptions — they haven’t. That’s why I suspect Canada’s rigid party discipline has just as much to do with our culture. Ours is not a country whose politics and government was birthed by rebellion. Nor are our economic and societal cleavages as pronounced as those in, for example, the United States and the United Kingdom. That means there has been less reason to practice rebelling — and more reason to defer to the majority or authority. Such deference doesn’t appear to be punished by the electorate, cheapening the inconsistent rewards of being rebellious or independent. All of this advantages Canada’s political leaders, who have expanded their power at the expense of our legislators — many of whom are now seen as little more than “trained seals.”

I think that perception keeps many Canadians who would otherwise run for provincial or federal office out of formal politics. And since those Canadians would be the ones most likely to break ranks, party discipline is reinforced.

I suspect the culture I’m describing isn’t dominant among all of this country’s demographic groups. Indeed, that culture may be changing — especially among young Canadians. And that makes me wonder about the sustainability of party discipline.

What about the idea of “confidence voting,” this idea that if the governing party doesn’t enjoy the support of all its members that entails a loss of confidence and the government should fall. Did you find fear over that sort of thing often being cited as a justification for keeping legislators in line?

Interestingly, none of the legislators I interviewed — both on and off-the-record — brought that up as a reason for not rebelling.

But, that being said, I believe the confidence convention is in need of reform – something the group Your Canada, Your Constitution and Independent MP Bruce Hyer have both proposed.

Is there any particular reason you didn’t discuss the US in your film? I feel like they provide an even stronger counter-example than Britain, in terms of how far it’s possible to take legislator independence. 

My original plan for the documentary actually would have involved comparing the experiences of state lawmakers in the United States to MPs in British Columbia. I felt that comparison would be interesting because there’s less party discipline south of the border. I even signed up two lawmakers from Montana and Washington State to participate in the documentary. Unfortunately, costs got in the way.
And, in any case, the comparison to the United Kingdom may be more appropriate since we operate under the same system of government. After all, the United States has a very different system.
If, say, all rules of party discipline were somehow removed tomorrow, how different do you think day to day Canadian politics would actually be? What would be the biggest thing people would notice?
It’s tough to say because party discipline isn’t just a product of our political institutions and their conventions. It’s also enforced by a range of factors, including Canada’s political culture, the media’s coverage of those institutions and our national culture. That complexity makes party discipline difficult to loosen, as well as predict what the result of such a loosening would be.
But it also means Canadians shouldn’t pay too much attention to alarmists and traditionalists who warn that less discipline would mean legislative chaos.
Just because that’s arguably been the result in some other jurisdictions doesn’t mean that would be the result here. Moreover, there’re many gradients on the spectrum between freedom and stability in an elected legislature.
The question is whether we have the right balance in this country.
What are you working on now?
Since releasing the documentary and stepping away from daily political reporting, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of country we live in. In many ways, I believe we live in a nation of the governed rather than the self-governed. I think that culture is reflected in the weakness of the mechanisms we have to enforce accountability and transparency at public and private sector institutions. So I’m going to be writing more about these issues in the coming year.

Another critique of Anita Sarkeesian’s ongoing Tropes Vs. Women video series, with focus now being placed on the third “Damsels in Distress” episode

A while ago I wrote a long rebuttal to the first episode of Tropes Vs. Women, Anita Sarkeesian’s amazingly successful, Kickstarter-funded YouTube video series that aims to document and denounce harmful instances of sexism in video games.

Episode One was kind of terrible, I felt. Sarkeesian looked at various popular video games of the late 1980s and early 1990s and found lots of instances of female characters being demeaned, humiliated, and infantilized, which proved her thesis that video games are yet another intolerant purveyor of misogynist messages in broader American culture. Brazenly ignored, however, was the fact that almost all of her examples were pulled from imported games made in Japan — an enormously significant piece of the story given the two nations’ vastly different attitudes towards female equality.

If Sarkeesian’s analysis had been a bit more culturally savvy, I wrote, she would have observed the mountains of evidence indicating that far from being uncritically tolerant of Japanese sexism, American video game localizers of the time were in fact tremendously sensitive to it. They actively sought to tone down imported misogyny for US audiences, either through outright censorship of the games themselves, or by creating “expanded universe” supplementary materials, such as comic strips and TV shows, featuring empowered and inspiring female characters.

My article got a lot of shares and support, though many critics argued I should “wait for the rest” of the series to arrive before sweeping too broadly in my condemnation. And fair enough. Tropes Vs. Women is actually structured as several serieses-within-a-series, and my criticism was exclusively directed to the first video in the first sub-series; a three part look at gaming’s pervasive “Damsels in Distress” trope. In contrast to the first, the second “Damsels” video focused on more modern games, and the third — released last week — pondered the viability of “subverting” the damsel trope through humor and irony.

Having now watched all three of the “Damsels” videos, I can say that Tropes Vs. Women does, in fact, get better. If my original complaint was that Sarkeesian was unjustly using Japanese games to inform a critique about American society, the subsequent two “Damsels” videos — which focus on games produced in the 2000s — largely avoid this problem due to the simple fact that America largely eclipsed Japan as the world’s foremost producer of video games during the previous decade. And Sarkeesian finds no shortage of examples of demeaning, infantile, or humiliated depictions of female characters in games from the US epoch.

That being said, I don’t really play video games myself much these days, so I can’t offer a lot of insight beyond that. Whether Sarkeesian gives a fair shake to the modern games she profiles in her latter two videos, or whether her arguments about gender depictions in general are fair or honest I will leave to a critic with more firsthand knowledge.

Sarkeesian still has a lot more videos to get through, however, and it’s worth noting that she still shows no sign of appreciating the importance of national origin when critiquing entertainment. Again, if her arguments about the effects of gaming on American gender culture are getting better, it’s simply because it’s impossible to discuss modern gaming without considering a lot of American titles. She’s getting better mostly by accident, and it’s very likely all upcoming Tropes Vs. Women explorations will repeat the same flawed cycle.

Future sub-series of Tropes promise to explore other re-occurring stock characters — “Sexy Villainess,” “Tribal Sorceress” etc — and, assuming these videos follow the same pattern as the “Damsels in Distress” ones (beginning with the retro/Japanese age before moving into the modern/American era) odds are high that Sarkeesian, in early videos at least, will continue to lump the games of both nations into a single category and lazily analyze them as a collective blob from her own prefered perspective: a 21st century white American feminist. This is a bit like taking a few Bollywood productions from the 1960s, some Andrew Lloyd Webster plays from the 1980s, a couple avant garde lesbian community theatre shows from the early 2000s, and asking a strict Irish Catholic to draw some sweeping conclusions about how “musicals,” deal with, say, homosexuality. The findings would be worthless without acknowledging the vastly different cultural contexts of the case studies, as well that that of the critic.

A good example of the sheer incoherence of this sort of cultural blindness can be found in Sarkeesian’s most recent “Damsels” video, where she contemplates the existence of a few video games featuring empowered female leads, some of which are Japanese (Balloon KidRhapsody: A Musical Adventure), others American (Drakan: Order of the Flame), others French (Beyond Good and Evil, Kya: Dark Lineage).

“It’s probably not a coincidence that the majority of these titles were produced and released during the run of the popular TV show Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” Sarkeesian concludes, “which led the ‘girl power’ trend in mass media entertainment that briefly took hold in the late 1990s and early 2000s.”

“You might remember,” she continues, “Charmed, Sabrina the Teenage Witch or the British pop sensation the Spice Girls, who, in many ways, exemplified the phenomenon.”

In other words, multiple American sitcoms, a British rock band, and several French and Japanese video games all arose out of a single pop culture “trend,” which was apparently a global fad unbound to any nation or culture, but did happen to involve Anita’s favorite director.

Or consider Sarkeesian’s pointlessly judgemental review of Super Princess Peach as a case study of useless and offensive female heroines. Virtually every American reviewer found this Japanese game — in which the Princess fights bad guys using her cartoonishly exaggerated feminine mood swings — offensive and strange (“The power of PMS in the palm of your hand,” snarked GameRevolution). Indeed, Nintendo of America – in their typically nervous fashion — even attempted to subvert the game’s sexist overtones with an irreverent marketing campaign portraying girly Princesses as macho bootcamp soldiers (Sarkeesian includes one of these ads in her video, though she doesn’t seem to appreciate its purpose).

This is an incredibly sheltered way to argue, and reflects poorly on the modern culture of both Internet commentators and gamers, who often pretend that they, and the things they like, exist in the neutral universe of Pop Culture World, as opposed to real countries and cultures. This sort of globalist neutralism is embraced, I’m sure, to avoid seeming racist or nationalistic — it’s bad to separate people and things into boxes and whatnot — but as every first-year anthropology student learns, letting your own unconscious biases define what’s “neutral” or “good” is itself a form of small-minded bigotry.

When Sarkeesian critiques the sexism of American games, she’s on solid ground because she’s a witness to the culture from which such things emerge, and can therefore grasp the motive and consequence. She doesn’t actually talk about this kind of high-minded stuff, mind you — her videos are more concerned with raising problems than discussing how these problems might (or, ideally) have, impacted American society in measurable, provable ways — but there’s nothing wrong in calling attention to pop culture’s problematic patterns just the same.

It is deeply disingenuous however, to pad something like Tropes Vs. Women, which is undeniably an American production criticising American society made with American sensibilities for American audiences, with a bunch of damning Japanese case studies. Japanese games emerge from Japanese culture, which is the product of a society considerably more sexist than the United States. Japanese games will therefore always provide far more lurid examples of crass female stereotyping than anything originating from America, and deserve to be considered separately, or at least explicitly identified for their distinctions. No one would take seriously a video professing to document anti-semitism in popular culture if it failed to distinguish between stuff produced in say, Britain, from that of the Arab world.

Does all this disqualify every argument Sarkeesian makes in her series? Obviously not. But it is enough to disqualify her work from consideration as a serious work of scholarship, which might be just as bad.

The Way of Men – a review

Of all the striking, contrarian sentiments I encountered while reading Androphilia (2007), an insightful and important book on reclaiming masculinized homosexuality from gay alt-right author Jack Donovan, the notion that lingered longest may also have been one of the most innocuous.

At some point, Donovan encourages young “homos” (called with affection, of course) to assemble a list of their top five masculine role models in order to focus the mind on the positive male traits they represent. The idea is that by consciously idolizing famous men for their explicitly male characteristics — something gays are almost never encouraged to do — homosexuals can gain a greater appreciation of the need to reclaim what they’ve lost in the pursuit of what Donovan views as a weak, phoney, pre-packaged, feminized “gay” identity.

Homo stuff aside, it stuck me as a provocative and challenging suggestion primarily because of its unorthodox novelty. I don’t think many men of my generation — at least within the socioeconomic class likely to read books positing grand theories of homosexuality — are used to singling out the positive traits of their heroes in such explicitly gendered terms. Sure, in some broad sense we all want to be “good men,” but in what meaningful way does that differ from being good at being a man?

Such is the question Jack’s latest book, The Way of Men, aims to answer, in a new work that largely abandons the author’s greatest gimmick — self-confident, conservative homosexuality that rejects traditional liberal language and narratives — in favour of a more generalized look at masculinity itself. The result is a book that’s ultimately less provocative, and thus important, than his first title, yet an equally powerful volume just the same. It’s a collection of against-the-grain arguments about gender and identity whose provocative, traditionalist conclusions demand serious consideration.

Living as we do in the era of steroids and creatine, a world of professional sport dominated by impossibly buff, Amazonian women, it can be easy to forget the degree to which the fundamental core of male biological difference is rooted in the inelegant fact of unequal muscular strength. Men have bigger muscles than women, and bigger muscles, in turn, beget higher levels of testosterone, which begets more aggression and a greater propensity towards violence. To recite such facts in a modern context, however, is to usually acknowledge a cruel bias of nature that’s best undermined  — let us tame our men and build up our women — but the Donovan thesis holds that on some level it’s both stupid and wrong to attempt to subvert this “most prominent, historically consequential, and consistently measurable” difference the sexes.

Male physical strength and aggression is the cornerstone of who we are, he writes, but it also must be “exercised and demonstrated” regularly to be of any use. As modern society becomes more tame and stable, however, those opportunities for use become increasingly restrained and limited by the authorities of organized civilization, who (rightly) conclude that male physical power is a threatening force of social disruption. The result is an exile of men to venues of aggression that are “stimulated, then mostly vicarious, then mostly intellectualized,” and then ultimately eliminated altogether — along with masculinity itself.

Two particularly beloved interests of this site’s readers — politics and video games — provide an excellent case study. Lacking outlets for true aggression in the real world, we turn to increasingly violent and vicious Xbox titles to provide some semblance of the same thrill. Lacking true conflicts of interests and power, we rely on self-constructed tribal identities of “left” and “right” to provide feelings of tension and conflict with other men.

And at one time there was a general societal agreement that these were reasonably safe, appropriate outlets for male energy. Assertive, combative men ran our governments, and video games offered players a chance to live out violent power fantasies. But it was a short-lived consensus, and today even these highly abstract manifestations of male warriorship are under assault by state, media, and academia. Video games, we are told, need to be less bloody and much more feminist; politics, less chauvinistic and polarized. This is the true “crisis of masculinity,” Donovan writes, the “ever-changing struggle to find an acceptable compromise between the primal gang masculinity that men have been selected for over the course of human evolutionary history, and the level of restraint required of men to maintain a desirable level of order in a given civilization.”

“Order,” in this sense, is a highly problematic demand because it’s constantly being redefined. When society (or at least its elite) demands not only the elimination of true masculine dangers like rape, murder, and assault, but also an ever-more specious list of activities, ideas, and hobbies deemed too similar, too.. “patriarchal” in motive or symbolism, the danger for men is that there will be eventually nothing left. Donovan draws an extended metaphor between modern American males and bonobo chimps, a highly neutered species of pigmy apes who don’t fight, hunt, or aggressively court females, but merely eat, sleep, and masturbate.

Jack’s critique of gender modernity unapologetically combines the darkest tropes of both right and left alike. Conservatives will doubtlessly enjoy his blistering critique of the politically correct establishment that has worked so tireless to purge every last lingering trace of “boys-will-be-boys” apologism from our schools, workplaces, and families, while lefties will savour his equally savage takedown of late-stage capitalism, a predatory economic system peddling the idea that men should be little more than “sociopathic metrosexual super-consumers.” Both Big Business and “Big Sister” feminists have a vested interest in curbing the natural strength and aggression of men for brazenly self-interested reasons, after all; women can only establish a true matriarchal society if traditionally male-biased skills are marginalized and denounced, while the world’s corporate elite benefits equally from a society in which “men,” as a potentially unstable group, remain bereft of any identity that doesn’t involve eating, buying gadgets, or tricking women to sleep with them.

Jack probably goes a bit too far in his “solution” to this hapless state of affairs — his proposal that men begin start opting-out of mainstream society and reorganizing themselves into assertive and subversive (but legal) “gangs” reads a little too Ruby Ridge for me — but it’s equally clear that in an increasingly multi-cultural, hyphenated, victim-and-lobbyist based society, assertive male self-awareness and unapologetic fraternal organizing remains the only way to force a broader cultural re-examination of our obviously floundering status quo of gender relations and identities.

Liberal society long ago concluded that efforts to deny, demonize, or purge difference from demographic groups who clearly possess them — be they differences of biology, history, traditions, or identity — are not only impossibly bigoted goals but outright sinister ones, considering the sheer amount of heavy-handed, conformist oppression such hopeless tasks would invariably require. Yet because it’s fashionable to regard men as too inherently (or at least historically) powerful and privileged to ever experience true oppression, males have been the one slice of society’s diversity pie to escape this sort of sympathy. The Way of Men is a tale of the under-acknowledged sociological costs of humbling the powerful; outcomes far more severe, sweeping, and disturbing than merely empowering the underprivileged.

The greatest slogan of the gay-rights movement was always “get used to it” — a clarion call that there are some difficult facts of life that can’t be readily censored, subverted, or cured, much as we may wish otherwise. Masculinity is not always gentle or pretty — indeed, that’s sort of the point. But if we want a honest, healthy society that genuinely values the unique talents, skills, and perspectives offered by half its population, we have to get used to it.

 

Bert and Ernie and ruining male friendships

I just listened to a great (as usual) epsiode of the Slate Culture Gabfest which devoted a substantial amount of time to deconstructing The New Yorker‘s now-infamous post-DOMA cover, which depicted a happily cuddling Bert and Ernie.

Slate‘s high-profile lesbian columnist, June Thomas, wrote a much-shared denunciation of the cover shortly after it was released, expressing considerable frustration at the rank triteness of the old and annoying ha-ha-Bert-and-Ernie-are-gay trope. On the podcast, she expounds further on her thesis, which is basically that a lot of pop culture, and society in general, suffers from a marked “failure to appreciate the difference between friendship and lovers.”

I disliked the cover as well, and I share June’s irritation.

A strong, brotherly friendship between two men is a wonderful thing, and a unique and important source of the companionship, strength, support, and encouragement needed to make life fulfilling, fun, and productive. Even in our current glorious gender-blind utopia, there will always be a special sort of emotional bond that only two male friends can share, born from the particular circumstances of, well, being male.

It’s thus more than a little offensive when society routinely seeks to cheapen that sort of relationship by constantly joking, teasing, and implying that any prominent, long-term partnership between two men must be kinda gay. Batman and Robin? Kinda gay. Holmes and Watson? Gay. Spock and Kirk? Totally Gay. The Lone Ranger and Tonto? Super gay. Lenny and Carl? You get the picture.

Worse still is the faux-progressive suggestion that these relationships should get even gayer, that sexual tension should be ratcheted up on this-or-that show; that Bert and Ernie should actually get married on Sesame Street (as a stupid online petition a few years back demanded) — as if the existence of any non-sexualized male-male relationship was unto itself inherently oppressive and closeted.

Men shouldn’t fear being thought of as gay, but they also shouldn’t feel that being part of a close male-male friendship is an invitation for snickers and suspicion. I also worry that this whole trope of dreaming up “homoerotic overtones” everywhere contributes to a problem I notice a lot in the gay world, namely that many younger gay men are quite indifferent to forming friendship with straight males on the basis that male-male relationships are pointless or impossible without the shared gimmick of sexual orientation.

It’s a weird place we’re in as a culture right now. Being gay is cool, but also sort of subversive.

But not everything in life needs to be both.

North American pay scale

After writing this recent editorial for the Huffington Post, which looked at the inflated compensation received by politicians in Canada, I thought it might be useful to make a comprehensive reference chart of salaries received by North Americans of various rank.

INCOME OF NORTH AMERICANS


SUPER-DUPER ELITE CLASS

$131 million- yearly pay of John H. Hammergreen, CEO of the McKesson health care corporation, America’s highest paid chief executive.

$49.1 million – total annual compensation of Hunter Harrison, CEO of Canadian Pacific Railway Ltd., Canada’s top paid CEO.

$33 million – estimated income of Angelina Jolie in 2012, making her Hollywood’s highest-paid actor, according to CNN.

$17.5 million – annual salary of LeBron James, North America’s highest-paid professional athlete, according to Sports Illustrated.

$4.17 million – total annual compensation of Tim Cook, CEO of Apple.

$1.7 million – yearly salary of Tom Mitchell, president of Ontario Power Generation, Ontario’s highest paid public employee.

$1.06 million – yearly salary of Dr. Antonio Alfonso, head of surgery at State University of New York Downstate Medical Center, New York State’s highest paid public employee.

SUPER ELITE CLASS

$800,363 – yearly salary of the senior psychiatrist of correctional and rehabilitative services, at the Mental Health Department of California, California’s highest paid public employee.

$400,000annual salary of the President of the United States.

$350,000 – annual salary of Dr. Electron Kebebew, medical officer at the National Institute of health, and the highest paid employee of the United States federal government.

$387,000average annual salary of a Canadian doctor, according to the Globe and Mail.

$380,000 - minimum annual income required to be part of the American 1%.

$320,400annual salary of the Prime Minister of Canada.

$270,602annual salary of the Governor General of Canada.

$230,540 – average annual pay of a surgeon in the United States, according to Forbes magazine.

$230,000 – minimum annual income required to be part of the Canadian 1%.

ELITE CLASS

$174,000 – annual salary of a member of the United States Congress (House or Senate) who holds no additional offices.

$172,200 - annual salary of Denis McDonough, the White House Chief of Staff.

$166,204 – annual salary of a two-star general in the United States Army with over 30 years experience.

$160,200 – annual salary of a member of the Canadian Parliament who holds no additional offices.

$136,438 – annual salary of the prime minister of Prince Edward Island.

$114,000 – average annual income of the average federal public servant in Canada, according to the Parliamentary Budget Officier.

$105,000 – annual salary of the Governor of Wyoming.

AVERAGE CLASS

$79,997 – median yearly income of a Canadian lawyer.

$78,467 - wage of the average federal public servant in the United States, according to the  Office of Personnel Management.

$65,500 - median yearly income for Canadian family of two or more people, according to Statistics Canada.

$62,273 – median yearly income for an American family, according to the US Census Bureau.

$26,000 – median yearly income of an unmarried Canadian, according to Statistics Canada.

LOWER CLASS

$23,050/year – poverty threshold for an American family of four, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

$19,760 – annual income of a 40-hour-a-week, minimum wage worker in Manitoba.

$18,194 – annual income of the lowest rank of private in the United States Army.

$17,160 – annual income of a 40-hour-a-week, minimum-wage worker in Illinois.

$11,170/year – poverty threshold for a single American, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.


note: Canada does not have a law disclosing the salaries of its top paid federal employees. Canada also does not have an official poverty threshold.

Boss Fight Books interview

In the past, I’ve written some critical things about the state of video game writing, and the degree to which it reflects poorly on the lofty aspirations of “games as art.”

“A truly artistic medium should inspire equally artistic criticism,” I wrote in 2010, “and there doesn’t appear to be much evidence that the ‘gamer’ subculture is producing any of that.”

I was thus quite captivated by the promise of Gabe Durham’s “Boss Fight Books” Kickstarter campaign, which promises to produce a series of non-fiction books by serious authors offering “critical, creative, historical, and personal look at a single classic video game,” in explicit contrast to the online writing that already exists.

So I asked Gabe if I could do a brief interview and learn more about his project.

My first question is simply “why?” Why do we need more words written about classic video games? The first book you’re promising, for instance, is on Earthbound. But I’d say it’s probably hard to think of a game that’s been more written about already than that one. There’s an EarthBound Wiki with over 1,300 separate articles on the game. There’s a fansite called Starmen.net that contains over 400 editorials. After all that, why do we need a book?

Well we don’t need more words about games, nor do we need games themselves. That’s one of the things that is so much for about art, right? It’s a break from the essential. We get to exercise our humanity away from all our pesky needs.

You’re so right about EarthBound — it’s been pored over endlessly. And what the series doesn’t promise is a comprehensive take on each of these games. The internet is better at comprehensive than any book could be. What we promise instead is an original take. Ken [Baumann, the EarthBound book author] is writing in his own style, weaving in his own experience as a player, brother, writer, and human. The facts will be facts, but the book’s viewpoint will be personal/subjective.

The not-so-intuitive but true thing about this kind of book is that it’s way more relevant to the Starmen.net community than an assemblage of rote facts they already know. It brings Ken’s experience to the table, and invites readers to bring their own experiences to the table as well.

So it sounds like the series is to be more literary and personal and less expository and journalistic. Would that be a fair characterization? 

Short answer: Sometimes!

Long answer: One way these books are going to be pretty different from one another is that some will lean more personal, others more journalistic. Darius Kazemi’s book on Jagged Alliance 2, for instance, is going to be largely comprised of a development history of the game based on new interviews Darius is doing with the game’s developers.

Part of the reason this is exciting to me is that (1) he’s a developer himself and can bring to the table a real understanding of how a game is made, and (2) we really don’t know a lot about the history of JA2 the way we do about Earthbound. It hasn’t been colonized in the same way.

But even these more journalistic titles are going to find ways to make the historical personal. My favorite nonfiction books tend to do it all.

Has there even been much good non-fiction writing done about games? I often feel like that’s one reason the gamer subculture seems somewhat stagnant and immature; there’s a lot of giddy journalism and a lot of snarky reviews, but very little serious, substantial, memorable writing. At least that I’m aware of.

There’s actually been a lot of great nonfiction about games. My sense is that a lot of the people who are doing the serious, substantial, memorable writing are pretty annoyed that the giddy/snarky writing has for so long been the most public face of games writing. So I think what we’ve got is not a dearth of good writers but a dearth of high-traffic venues for those good writers to get the exposure they deserve.

Briefly:
  • Tom Bissell’s writing about games is phenomenal. Especially Extra Lives.
  • Boss Fight’s own Anna Anthropy’s first book, Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, is an important book on game creation as self-expression.
  • Kill Screen Magazine is an incredibly polished journalistic look at the intersection between culture and games. Their blog too, but especially their print issues.
  • A couple of fun game histories are Jeff Ryan’s Super Mario and Jamie Russell’s Generation Xbox.
  • Others: Leigh Alexander, Jenn Frank, Liz Ryerson, Ashly & Anthony Burch, Tim Rogers, Jonathan Blow, and then of course Darius Kazemi and Jon Irwin

With your own series, what’s going to be the consistency that keeps all these different books on different games written from different perspectives by different authors unified? How will I know I’m reading a Boss Fight Book?

Well for starters, it’ll look like a Boss Fight Book: the covers, the spines, the layout, the fonts. But more than that: Even though the authors’ approaches will be so dissimilar, the books will be united by our own high standards.

For us to contract an author, we need to be excited about them as a writer and they need to be excited/curious about their topic. (This does not mean all our authors must love the games they are writing about. I think it’d be great for someone to write a meditation on a game that enrages them.)

How’d you come to select the authors you’ve got lined up so far? 

Well, Ken and I became friends this year after I moved back to Los Angeles, and he was really enthusiastic about the series when I told him my idea. He dared me to really do it and I dared him to write one of the books. Then my friend Adam told me that Michael Kimball was obsessed with Galaga, which interested me greatly, so I talked to him on the phone and he immediately had a lot of ideas and agreed to do it.

From there, I knew I needed to reach out of my immediate writer circle and approach some people who actively made and wrote about games. Anna’s book was at my local library and I tore through it and invited her on the strength of that. Darius had made a lot of stuff I liked: Twitter bots, games, and a clearheaded essay called “Fuck Videogames” that was instigated a big productive online discussion about finding the right medium for artistic ideas. And then Jon [Irwin, the Super Mario 2 book author] writes regularly for Kill Screen as a staff writer. I first read a long piece of his on arcades in Kill Screen #5, and then I went and checked out all his online stuff, and it was so consistently good and full of ideas that that I knew he’d know just what to do with one of these books.

All in all, I was very lucky. I pitched to seven people: one never wrote back, one said “I couldn’t do it until next year” and hopefully will, and five said yes almost immediately.

​What’s your background? 

I was born in Connecticut to a preacher and an eventual educational grant director. We moved to Missouri, Virginia, and eventually to Los Angeles where I spent all of high school and college. I married a Tennessean who works in film promotion.

I’ve always been a guy who likes to make stuff — music, movies, sketch comedy, radio, and especially writing. I did an MFA in fiction at the University of Massachusetts, and the best thing I wrote during that time became my first book, a short novel called FUN CAMP. Since then I’ve been writing/reading a ton of creative nonfiction–the kind of writing that simultaneously ticks a lot of those boxes I mentioned earlier: entertaining, personal, historical, political, critical. And I think it’s a love for this kind of writing as much as a love for video games that has led me to this series.

Do you see Boss Fight Books potentially being your full time job?

I’ve got a lot of work to do first, but yes, I’d love to be able to give myself over to this full-time. I mean it is full-time right now — it’s just that new business thing where you work hard and hope it pays off down the line.

But I think we’ve got a shot. The response so far has been amazing, and once we have a website in place, it’s going to open the project up to a lot of readers who are just not part of the Kickstarter community. In the meantime I’ll take more writing/editing work as it comes, teach classes at a nearby college, and continue to scheme on how to best work my way into this job.

Last question — will the books have pictures?

Nope! Nobody’s hurting for screenshots of their favorite games in 2013. We might deviate a bit in special cases, but it’s all about the words for us.

You can support Boss Fight Books by donating to their Kickstarter campaign.


Penny Arcade in trouble again

Here, let me weigh in on the latest Penny Arcade controversy.

Mike “Gabe” Krahulik, the Penny Arcade cartoonist, made some tweets a while ago that, to put it charitably, demonstrated some insensitivity to the transgender community. Actually, I think that’s probably the most accurate way to put it — I don’t think his flippant words were truly those of a man who is “transphobic,” just someone who lacks empathy in general for anything he hasn’t already decided is important. We throw around the “-phobic” label far too cavalierly these days. All sorts of offense-causing acts are motivated by feelings other than sheer fear or hatred.

I read Penny Arcade religiously when I was a teenager, and I have strong respect for what the company — for that’s what it now is — has done for webcomics and the art’s rising profile as a respectable and important player in 21st century culture and commerce. But I haven’t “liked” the comic in any serious sense for quite a while, and controversies like this are a good reminder why. There’s a vulgar, combative, cocksure attitude that motivates much of what Mike and his partner, Jerry Holkins, do, from the gross sense of humor they express in their comics, to the cruel manner they carry themselves on their reality show, to the snarky way they tweet, to the apocalyptic battles they choose to pick with anyone they believe has wronged them. I don’t find that kind of smug nastiness compelling or attractive.

“I’m very good at being a jerk. It’s sort of my superpower,” writes Mike in his sort-of apology currently posted on his site. “When it comes to Penny Arcade it has served me well but it’s not okay when I make a bunch of people who are already marginalized feel like shit.”

When you speak in a blunt, absolutist, arrogant way about everything — indeed, when you place great premium on having that “persona” — it’s more or less inevitable that eventually you’ll express some dumb opinions on a topic about which you know very little. And when you’re used to framing all your critics as nuts or enemies, it’s inevitable that it will be very difficult to even be aware when you do this, and very hard to see the need to apologize afterwards.

This is not PA’s first scandal stemming from this same cycle of flippancy-begets-public outrage-begets-hunkering down. Daniel Kaszor, in Canada’s National Post of all places, has a good summary of a similar incident in 2010 involving that great bugaboo of our time — the rape joke.

“The argument was never that they shouldn’t be allowed to make the joke,” says Kaszor, “but that the critics wished that they were the types of people who wouldn’t make the joke.” Indeed.

Likewise, Mike’s current concession to his critics, a promise that “I’ll keep my mouth shut when it comes to all the other stuff” and only talk publicly about video games and cartoons from now on — seems like exactly the wrong lesson to be learning.

I’ve never understood why so many figures in the public arena choose to shy away from openly discussing controversial, or politically-charged topics. I guess the idea is that if you say nothing, you’ll give people nothing to hate, but I just don’t think that’s a  very practical long-term strategy in the age of social media, where everyone’s constantly chattering publicly about everything all the time. Much better to just be open about where you stand, and weigh in with your opinions when appropriate, but with dignity, respect, and moderation. People might not agree with you, but if you have a bit of poise and tact, they’ll at least understand you’re coming from a thoughtful place. In the comics community, I understand the leading role model of this sort of thing is Douglas TenNaple, the creator of Earthworm Jim who’s also a Christian fundamentalist. People don’t like a lot of what he believes, but no one thinks he’s a wicked or hateful person, because he’s gone to great efforts to make it clear he isn’t, in previous writings and conversation.

The alternative is what Mike’s experiencing right now. If you conceal everything you actually believe about matters “political” or “contentious” (even if you believe only progressive, politically-correct things), people will invariably think your first thoughtless tweet on some sensitive topic is the clearest, most genuine expression of your overall attitude, simply because it’s the first noise they’ve heard. It gives the impression, to once again cite a saying I’m fond of, that the worst thing you’ve ever done is somehow the truest thing about you.

Of course, it’s also true that some people just aren’t terribly thoughtful in the first place. If you expected otherwise from Penny Arcade, it’s probably time to move on.




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