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Could It Happen Here? By Michael Adams

Title: Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit
Author: Michael Adams
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Canada
Format: Hardcover
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got a copy: S&S sent me a free copy in exchange for a review

When Justin Trudeau was sworn in as Prime Minister, I watched the ceremony via livestream on my computer at work. I saw the cabinet ministers take their oaths, and I heard the two Inuit girls do throat singing. I saw the Metis dance at the end, and felt a swell of good things. Pride that Trudeau was a charismatic change. Relief that Harper was out.

When the Brexit referendum happened, I was surprised because I didn’t think it was a huge issue. The idea of the UK leaving the EU seemed so outlandish to me that it was low on my radar. I spent my commute that morning feeling unmoored, adrift. I eventually felt better when I had the opportunity to help two women find the right platform they needed at Union Station. Helping someone do something small but important – something immediate and unambiguous – did a lot to improve my state of mind.

When the US election happened and Trump won, I fell off a cliff for the next few months.

I don’t think I’m alone in having felt that spectrum of emotion: hope to disbelief to despair. And, as a Canadian, I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether that tide of unbelievability and surprise and chaos that Trump and his nationalist ilk represent will start spilling over into Canada.

Could It Happen Here? Canada in the Age of Trump and Brexit, by Michael Adams, attempts to answer that question. Adams, a prominent Canadian pollster and market researcher, uses this book to examine how opinions on political topics have converged and diverged between Canada and the US, focusing on such issues as immigration, Islamophobia, and income inequality.

By necessity, this book is short. Adams needed to make it as up-to-the-minute as possible, and the book references extremely recent events within 2017, like the snap election in the UK this summer that caused a majority government to lose seats.

However, the answer that Adams presents, over and over, to the question of “could it happen here” is even shorter: it probably won’t.

Canadians, he says, consistently show a more open, tolerant, and progressive attitude towards several political issues than Americans do. Immigration? Overall, we’re okay with it, he says. Should the father be the “master” of the household? In general, he says, Canadians believe this far less often than Americans do. In his words, we may have our flirtations with nationalist, xenophobic thinking, but sooner or later we eventually “muddle to the middle”.

In other words, his research seems to justify a sense of Canadian exceptionalism. Isn’t that comforting?

Never mind that Alexandre Bissonnette, the man who shot 6 congregants at a mosque in Quebec City in January, hasn’t actually been charged with committing terrorism. Never mind that a conservative protester interrupted Jagmeet Singh during a speech and said that he was going to “bring Sharia law to Canada.” Never mind that Canada has shown itself perfectly capable of electing politicians who destroy archives of scientific research and have ties with alt-right media outlets.

Canada, Adams says, is resilient enough to recover from that sort of thing. But didn’t that optimism lead to the complacency that resulted in Trump and Brexit in the first place?

While he does address things like how Canada has a relative lack of gerrymandering compared to the US, he doesn’t examine the way that our first-past-the-post voting system gives disproportionate power to swing voters. Both Harper and Justin Trudeau won majorities despite getting only around 40% of the popular vote. If people consider it a travesty that Clinton lost despite winning the popular vote, how is this fact of Canadian politics any less disconcerting?

It doesn’t help that his prose is anodyne, filled with mealy-mouthed caveats and generalizations like this:

Similarly, the high level of support among Canadians for ethnocultural diversity doesn’t necessarily mean that some people won’t look askance at new neighbours whose religious customs are unfamiliar, or cast votes for traditionalist politicians who hint at bringing in more socially conservative policies if elected. The question is whether shared public services offer a suitably weighty counterbalance to the socioeconomic and racial sorting that is redrawing the geographies of our largest urban regions. Does the taxi driver with the PhD who can’t find suitable work become radicalized in his marginalization? Does his anger trigger a backlash among affluent urbanites, who lose confidence in immigration if low-income newcomers become more dependent on social services instead of becoming culturally integrated citizens contributing to the country’s economic growth?

The answer is that there seems to be a constellation of other factors and shared values that have prevented this kind of downwards spiral – some combination of policies that do produce upwards mobility, plus, crucially, a public discourse that emphasizes the benefits of a tolerant and welcoming society as opposed to a closed and hostile one.

It also doesn’t help that Adams treats Brexit and the 2016 election as purely democratic phenomena when there is significant speculation that voting machines were hacked in the US and that Russian organizations had notable ties to both the Trump and Brexit campaigns. Canadian people may be more tolerant, but that doesn’t preclude outside actors from trying to exert undue influence.

I wanted to like Could It Happen Here? I wanted to be encouraged by it. But its insistence on saying that Canada is inherently more tolerant and more resilient than other western democracies sounds very naive.

The cover to "Fascism: A Very Short Introduction" by Kevin Passmore

Facism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore

The cover to "Fascism: A Very Short Introduction" by Kevin PassmoreTitle: Fascism: A Very Short Introduction
Author: Kevin Passmore
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5
How I got a copy: Purchased from Kobo

I know I’ve probably said this before in other Books & Tea posts, but I’ve led a pretty happy, easy life. Family who love me. Solid middle-class upbringing. Good education. Relatively few hardships, except for the sudden death of my father as a teenager.

In other words, I got dealt a pretty good hand by fate. And that’s made me complacent. I’ve been the beneficiary of a political system designed to look after my interests by virtue of my being born white, straight, able-bodied and middle-class in Canada.

With the way things are going in the world, that kind of complacency is becoming increasingly dangerous. Which is why I decided to read Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore.

I keep on reading that the Trump administration is facist. But all my life, I’ve never really understood what that word meant — it always seemed like a shorthand for something bigger. I was hoping that Passmore’s book would help me get a grasp on what it actually means, and understand the expanded version of the shorthand explanation.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get as much out of this book as I hoped I would. The entire thesis can be summed up as this: fascism is so complex and took so many different forms in the first half of the 20th century that there is no simple, easy definition we can point to.

Very helpful, Mr. Passmore! A non-answer like that, throughout the entire book, was exactly what I needed in order to begin to come to grips with the times that we find ourselves living in right now. Knowing that this term is way too complex to pin down, even though everyone around me seems to have done so handily in the public discourse without your learned exposition to guide the way, makes me feel super well informed and prepared for the times ahead!

Before I let my bitterness go any further, I should say that part of my inability to appreciate this book stems from my general lack of knowledge about the politics and history of the early 20th century. Yes, I understand the big brushstrokes — WWI, WWII, the New Deal, etc — but the finer details of political movements are not something I’m familiar with. So all of the factions and regimes and betrayals and appeasements, the names and dates and locations, washed over me without leaving much impact.

will say that I found the second half of the book, which deals with fascism’s intersection with social issues like race, class, and gender to be far more interesting and approachable than the earlier parts getting into the names and dates and details.

However, I think my problem is that I really wasn’t looking for an academic treatise when I bought Fascism: A Very Short Introduction. I wasn’t looking for a painstaking deconstruction of Weberian vs non-Weberian modes of thought.

I really just wanted a dictionary/instruction manual. What is fascism? What are its most common traits? How do fascists gain power? Most importantly, what can be done to fight it?

These are questions I’m still struggling to answer. I think I’ll have to find less academic sources of information to guide me.

My Reading Plans for 2017

the-new-youI hope that the holidays have treated you well. 2016 wasn’t a bad year for me on a personal level, but I did really fall down when it came to writing reviews regularly. I do hope to pick up the pace in 2017.

In years past I’ve pledged to read a certain number of books or certain types of books. However, I don’t know if that tactic really works for me — over time, the books that I haven’t yet read become imposing, and the fact that I’ve “promised” to read them makes them less attractive prospects. A lot of what I read depends on gut feelings and moods and recent events. So here’s a list of books that I’d like to read in 2017, as well as ones I’ve promised to review because I was given a copy by the author/publisher.

Books About Politics

  • Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit (I’m currently reading this)
  • The Canadian Constitution by Adam Dodek (Another one I’m currently pecking away at)
  • The Authoritarians by Bob Altemeyer (You can get it for free!)
  • Fascism: A Very Short Introduction by Kevin Passmore
  • The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt
  • The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William L. Shirer
  • Rhetoric for Radicals by Jason Del Gandio

Books for Myself

  • Borderline by Mishell Baker
  • Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett
  • Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
  • Trade Me by Courtney Milan
  • Arrival/Stories of Your Life by Ted Chiang
  • Company Town by Madeleine Ashby
  • The Soul of Rumi by Rumi (a collection of poems translated by Coleman Barks)
  • Take Me to Your Chief by Drew Hayden Taylor
  • Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (translated by Gregory Hays)
  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
  • House of Shattered Wings by Aliette de Bodard
  • Hild by Nicola Griffith
  • Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr
  • Girl Mans Up by M-E Girard
  • Travel Light by Naomi Mitchison
  • The Starlit Wood, edited by Navah Wolfe and Domink Parisien

Books for Which I’ve Received Review Copies

  • Invisible Influence by Jonah Lehrer
  • The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu (I still need to read The Grace of Kings first! Ack!)
  • The Kissing Booth Girl and Other Stories by A.C. Wise
  • World Atlas of Tea by Krisi Smith
  • Strangers Among Us: Tales of Underdogs and Outcasts, edited by Lucas Law

Will I read all of these books? I have no idea. Chances are that something new, or some resurfaced classic, will capture my attention in 2017. But these are the books that are taking up space in my mind at the moment.

The movie poster for Arrival, an adaption of Ted Chiang's novella "Story of Your Life"

30 Days of Reviews: Arrival

The movie poster for Arrival, an adaption of Ted Chiang's novella "Story of Your Life"This isn’t a review of a book, short story, or variety of tea. And like yesterday’s post, it will be longer than 300 words. But also like yesterday, fuck it.

I saw Arrival during its opening weekend, and I have had THOUGHTS. Many of those thoughts were positive, but they commingled with my continuing fear and outrage over what’s happening in the States right now about the election, and because of that, it’s taken me a long time to feel ready to write this.

You ready? Fair warning, here be spoilers.

Remember a few days ago when I was talking about the source material, Story of Your Life, and how I wasn’t sure how exactly it would be translated to the screen? I needn’t have worried. It totally works.

Story of Your Life starts with the main character, a linguist, talking to “you”, her child, about the circumstances surrounding your birth. It starts out like a “how your parents met” story. But eventually, you, the reader, realize that this narrative makes no sense because she’s also talking about how “you” are dead. How can you be the audience if you’re not even alive?

The linguist then discusses her role in helping to make first contact with an alien species, and the difficulties posed in deciphering their written language and vocalizations. This difficulty arises from the fact that as humans, we possess mirror symmetry. Our physiology physically locks us in to seeing the world from only one fixed point, and because we as a species can see only what is in front of us, everything else about our mindset is linear – our forms of writing, our perception of time, everything.

The aliens, having radial symmetry, effectively see everything happening around them at once. And that bleeds over into their language, which isn’t linear at all, either physically or in terms of its perception of time.

The twist is this: by being exposed to the alien’s language, the linguist develops a similar non-linear perception of time, where things happen simultaneously. And thus, the heartbreak: “you”, as the audience of the story, haven’t even been born yet. The linguist, your mother, knows this when she starts talking to you, and knows that you will die, and that it will hurt her.

And yet she chooses to have “you” anyway.

The amazing thing about Arrival is that the movie is faithful to the plot, and non-linearity of the source material. It holds up!

Of course, having known what would happen, my ability to be blind-sided by Denis Villeneuve’s directorial sleight-of-hand was muted. I knew the twist. I knew that the daughter that Amy Adams’s character, Louise, was narrating to had yet to be born.

But I still felt shaken by the implications: what does it mean to have a child? Furthermore, what does it mean when you are painfully, uniquely aware that you will watch your child die, and you can’t do a damn thing about it? Is it bravery to have that child, to willingly expose yourself to the pain of their mortality in order to feel that brief flame of joy?

And so we come to my existential crisis.

I am married. I’m over 30. I have no children, yet I’m aware that both my mother and my husband would like them to arrive in the future. I’m not too old to have them yet.

When I look at the world, at the mass die-offs of animals and the climate change tipping point, I ask myself this: is having a child irresponsible? Am I doing them a disservice by bringing them into a world so close to the edge through no fault of their own? What if they grow up and hate me for having been alive now, when things were good, and for my complacency in not working hard enough to make things better for them?

In the shadow of the election of Trump, these questions have intensified. What if I have a kid, and then a huge war starts? How can I protect them?

In Arrival, the protagonist knows the awful truth about her unborn child’s impending death, yet soldiers on anyway because that pain is commingled with love. And that hope has absolutely floored me, because I wonder if I am that brave.

Update: I got the director’s name wrong. It’s Denis Villeneuve, not Jacques. Thanks to Jen C. for the catch!

30 Days of Reviews: The Handmaid’s Tale

I haven’t read The Handmaid’s Tale in a long time. But it’s not a novel anymore. It’s a book of prophecies.

Sometimes life just sucks the joy out of art and stories and reading. I have a feeling that joy will be gone for a while. I’m having a hard time seeing the point right now.

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