It may be the most overworked expression of existential crisis in the language, a phrase quoted so often it has become little more than a flippant cliché, and yet, to be or not to be: that really is the question at the heart of A Serious Man. The latest Coen brothers film opened recently to predominantly good reviews, and it certainly went over well with the crowd I was in the other night. But, in spite of all the laughs it got, it’s hard to say just how much irony is implied in the title. A lot of the laughter I heard rippling around me had a bemused, nervous undercurrent, the kind of chuckle you give when you aren’t sure if laughter is the expected response but still wish to signal you’re in on any joke that may have been intended.
Like much of Joel and Ethan Coen’s best work, A Serious Man mingles pathos and levity, not in order that the one should undercut or relieve the other, but to reveal just how fine is the razor’s edge between the two. Incongruous humour is one of the brothers’ favourite devices for keeping an audience off balance, and when the pretense of straight comedy is suddenly dropped, the viewer is bracingly made to see how brutal outrages and genuine pathos are sometimes born of unlikely beginnings. You might call this the reductio ad absurdum school of black comedy, where the dangerous potential of an amusing premise doesn’t fully reveal itself until after you’ve taken the hook. Such abrupt shifts in tone can register like a sucker punch to the solar plexus. If they don’t morally implicate you for finding humour in what may turn out to be no laughing matter, then they at least make you wonder what you found so damn funny in the first place.
This is part of what’s going on in A Serious Man. It doesn’t make sense to describe the movie in terms of plot, since that would imply a cause-and-effect chain of events set in motion by characters acting deliberately. Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a middle-aged suburban Jew who teaches physics at a local college in the ’60s, is the quasi protagonist of the film, if not of his own destiny. Gopnik is an emasculated, ineffectual milquetoast, a spear-carrier in the ugly melodrama of his own life, and yet a man more to be pitied than scorned. His failure to intervene in the events of his life — a crumbling marriage, a household off its axis, a controversy that threatens his job — is not merely the result of a deficit of will, for of what use is free will in a universe ruled by chance? How can our actions be meaningful if we have limited or no control over their consequences — if they have no consequences at all? (Early in the film, a student attempts to bribe Gopnik for a passing grade. “Actions have consequences” is the professor’s rebuke. “Yes. Often,” says the student in clipped monotone. “Always! Actions always have consequences!” Gopnik insists, pounding his desk as if to persuade himself as much as the student seated opposite.) And what if — to echo one of the movie’s repeated refrains — we’ve done nothing at all and yet find ourselves squarely in the path of the tornado? What if action and inaction lead to precisely the same outcome: who’s to say this or that is the better course?
In many ways this is familiar terrain for the Coens. Time and again in their films, blind chance intrudes into the lives of characters and capsizes the notion of a world in which everything happens for a reason. As Anton Chigurh, the coin-flipping mercenary of No Country for Old Men, observes from behind the barrels of his shotgun: “If the rule you followed brought you to this, of what use was the rule?” Of what use is any rule, for that matter, when we are just a coin toss away from a confrontation with the forces of random chance that a character like Chigurh represents?
Larry Gopnik is very much the plaything of such dark powers, and the Coens surely mean for us to see our own smallness in him. Gopnik is so preoccupied with the “uncertainty principle” that he dreams of chalking up an acre of blackboard with a complex proof of the theorem. (“It proves we can’t ever really know what’s going on. So it shouldn’t bother you. Not being able to figure anything out.”) And yet, the obscure mathematical notation closely resembles his simpleton brother’s nonsense scribblings in the so-called “Mentaculus,” a small journal which the latter describes as a “probability map — of the universe.” It’s not altogether clear how seriously we should take Gopnik’s embrace of (or capitulation to) the principle of uncertainty: it seems equally a craven refusal of responsibility and a philosophic acceptance of the absurd. Gopnik has allowed himself to be written to the margins of his own life, but though he has done nothing either to deserve or avoid what he gets, what should one do if the consequences are unpredictable? What does the universe owe us apart from whatever luck happens to be our portion? As one of the rabbis who Gopnik consults points out, “Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.”
With his life unravelling in his hands, Gopnik seeks stability in his Jewish heritage, but its rituals and traditions are presented as arid, cryptic, or mindlessly rote. Yet his search for meaning is never completely ironized, and often quite poignant. In the Coens’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, the protagonist attempts to take control of his destiny with disastrous consequences; Gopnik submits to circumstances and ultimately recovers some semblance of his old life — for what it’s worth. But, as the last shot of the film makes clear, there’s still no getting out of the path of the tornado. It would seem the Coens have answered Hamlet’s question as sensibly as possible. To be or not to be? More like damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So what are you laughing at?
(Photo courtesy of Wilson Webb/Focus Features)
Happy Halloween, once again, one and all! This year I ask that we consider some choice old horror anthologies, in whose pages lurk all sorts of scares and shocks. The horror tradition in comics has long been dominated by a model developed by the EC comics company in the 1950s, whose titles like Tales from the Crypt featured cornball “hosts” (the Cryptkeeper and his ilk), pun-filled narration, surprise twist endings (the werewolf was his brother!), wide-eyed bigfoot cartooning, and endless! exclamation! points! I admire EC and its murderer’s row of artists as much as the next comics reader, but our attentions now turn to those collections that worry the boundaries of the EC-style anthology, or pounce outside of them altogether.
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In 1962, late in his career, kiddie comics master John Stanley briefly turned his hand to the horror genre. The indispensable Stanley Stories blog has lately been posting his strips from Ghost Stories and Tales from the Tomb in their entirety. The typically incisive commentary over there covers much of what I would want to say about these, frankly, kind-of-insane comics, so I urge you to click through.
I’d like to emphasize, though, just how much Stanley got away with, thanks to working under the aegis of Dell Comics, the innocuous, kids-only publisher of titles like Donald Duck, Little Lulu, and Fairy Tale Parade — atypical fare for the gore-and-guts set. Dell’s spotless G-rated record allowed it to publish beyond the censorial eye of the Comics Code Authority, who in the mid-’50s had neutered or foreclosed upon bloodthirsty troublemakers like EC and its imitators. Stanley’s first stabs at horror were allowed to revel in threats of dismemberment, ghastly suicide, child-killing monsters, parents devoured by malevolent forces, and a scissors-wielding grandma who wants to knit you.
These ghost stories are another order of spooky altogether, the kind that confounds expectation, logic, and often comprehension. Stanley’s uncredited collaborators stiffly delineate these dreamlike tales, and though the results are sometimes crude, they are always very far from inept. Underlying every panel and every page is Stanley’s visual sophistication, which grants even the most wooden or unpracticed renditions the stark and primal quality of nightmare.
When we break through the muddle of the story to those final, gigantic panels, the effect is authentically startling, if absurd. We come forcibly out of the tale as though we’re waking up in a cold sweat, breathless, puzzled as to what our fevered brains have conjured up. Like, the psychiatrist’s head is a quilt?
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Six issues of Skull appeared between 1970 and 1972. Gary Arlington, proprietor of the renowned San Francisco Comic Book Company, came up with the bare bones idea for a horror anthology in the EC tradition; artist Greg Irons fleshed it out, and underground comics had another addition to its onslaught of horror books. Most of Skull featured the grim crosshatching grotesquerie of Irons and Jack Jackson, as well as the first UG work from the smooth and heavy metal-friendly pen of Richard Corben, among others. Some less out-and-out examples of the genre formed part of the scene, too, though I’m less familiar with them, having only caught the barest glimpses of Slow Death, or Insect Fear or, most tantalisingly, the gruesome cute brut of Rory Hayes’s Bogeyman (send in your unwanted copies c/o The Walrus).
Skull is worth singling out if only because it distinguished itself, late in the series, by taking EC’s literary aspirations and turning them inside out. So where EC’s go-to pulp auteur was the square and kind of respectable Ray Bradbury, the Skull crew gave over two entire issues to groovy, eldritch H.P. Lovecraft adaptations. True, the influence of Lovecraft and his Cthulhu Mythos in literary horror has been as pervasive and maybe pernicious as EC’s in comics. At the time of the undergrounds, though, horror comics had as yet been been unmolested by the man’s tentacles, so an infusion of the Old Ones into the genre could at least boast the virtue of novelty. And at best, transposing Lovecraft to this setting helped connect with the UG’s flair for depicting goings-on in extremis (hence Michael Smith’s flesh-melting psychedelic freak-out in “Cool Air”). The gleeful, de trop stylings of many of the artists match well with Lovecraft’s squelching purple prose (“a nightmare caked and clotted with bloody shreds of alien flesh and hair, embraced by a malignant retinue of sleeping bats”).
In Skull‘s final issue, the full-length “A Gothic Tale,” Irons and Corben — the twin poles of slick and dirty UG professionalism — took turns illustrating writer Tom Veitch’s centuries-spanning Lovecraftian story of mad science, gross monstrosity, and weird old religion. It’s a fine capstone to an interesting series, one of those fully conceived, self-contained little packages of which the underground was sometimes impressively capable.
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In the 1980s, having helped redefine monster comics as part of the all-star Swamp Thing team (who, if you’re wondering, had nothing to do with the film), artist Steve Bissette had yet further services to perform in his favoured genre. Determined to continue setting an example for seriousness in horror comics, rather than uphold the cheesy old punch-pulling norm, Bissette cofounded and edited a series called Taboo. The books were thick tomes rather than floppy pamphlets, whose bold conception was on occasion actually matched by the capabilities of their contributors. Taboo‘s publication history is fascinating and convoluted and depressing, tied as it is to the various industry implosions of the time. The result of this tortuous past is that the series is a record of projects interrupted, delayed, or left unfinished. Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s Jack the Ripper saga From Hell concluded elsewhere, for instance, as did both the Moore-written porno epic Lost Girls and Jeff Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails, a sort of anti-Dilbert.
But the real one that got away was Throat Sprockets, an amalgam of not-quite-vampires and not-quite-snuff-films from Video Watchdog mastermind Tim Lucas. He completed the tale in prose novel form, but it’s forever to be regretted that his working relationship with initial artist Mike Hoffman fell through. Hoffman’s angular photorealism evinced a real feel for the sharpness and seediness of well-worn film prints, and Lucas proved remarkably adept at splicing and manipulating the language of comics.
Beyond this impressive array of halting serials, an above-average number of Taboo‘s highlights arrived in isolated contributions. There were some very pretty stand-alone stories from neo-pre-Raphaelite Michael Zulli, including a jaw-dropper written by Neil Gaiman’s then-five-year-old daughter (Gaiman and Zulli’s take on Sweeney Todd is another Taboo-fostered project that screeched to a skidding stop). Chester Brown wrung an unsettling amount of pathos out of funny animals falling prey to the food chain. Al Columbia, standard-bearer of modern-day horror comics, contributed some vivid, frenzied outpourings. What continues to haunt me, though, are a handful of candidates for career-best work from underground legend S. Clay Wilson: his graphic and sweaty and desperate “This is Dynamite” in particular strikes me as truly taboo, so relentlessly did his penlines scratch away at deep human ugliness.
We could’ve used another couple dozen volumes of horror comics under Bissette’s stewardship, especially as the years have worn on and the talent pool has gotten deeper and darker, allowing for an easier skimming off of the dross. Imagine a thick regular instalment of something like Taboo, where Renee French‘s soft-penciled parables of death and deformity, or Josh Simmons’s claustrophobic wrongness, or Columbia’s cartoon apocalypses, all rub scabby shoulders. Ah well, such dreams are for Halloweens yet to come.
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Finally, in subject matter worlds away from this post: Saturday’s spate of IFOA XXX events includes my interview with Seth, whom I’ve gone on about before, and R.O. Blechman, whose far-reaching career making perfect little drawings should provide much to talk about. Details are here. Toronto readers, I’ll see you at noon in Harbourfront’s Brigantine Room.
On October 2, the CBC and National Post announced a surprising new content-sharing agreement. The deal, effective immediately, grants the public broadcaster access to the Post’s financial stories for its website, while the CanWest-owned Post will publish the public broadcaster’s sports coverage online and occasionally in print. (Although unable to disclose the terms of the deal, CBC head of media relations Jeff Keay made clear in a telephone conversation that the agreement was modeled on revenue-sharing rather than licensing.) Although such story-swapping seems like a fairly innocuous announcement, it reflects an overwhelming trend in news media towards homogeneous journalism and the monopolization of the press.
“They make strange bedfellows ideologically,” observes Andrew Coyne, national editor at Maclean’s and former National Post columnist. He has a point—the CBC has long been accused of left-leaning bias, while the Post is known for its conservative editorial stance. Their divergent politics have led them to publicly lock horns on more than one occasion. From 2003–2004, the Post ran “CBC Watch,” a recurring op-ed feature that provided a forum for readers to lambaste the Ceeb’s supposedly liberal agenda, while numerous articles in the Post and other CanWest-owned dailies have called for the CBC’s privatization, a sentiment echoed by CanWest founder Israel Asper in 2002.
The CBC hasn’t kept silent, either. In a 2004 letter to the Post‘s editor, then editor-in-chief of CBC News Tony Burman wrote, “The CBC does not need the Post to assure its journalistic accountability to Canadians. Unlike the Post, the CBC has a comprehensive and publicly available set of journalistic standards and practices which are unmatched in their rigour.”
Now, after years of animosity, it seems the former adversaries have banded together in the hopes that content-sharing might generate profit-sharing. Both news giants are struggling financially—last week, CanWest filed for bankruptcy protection, and in 2009, the CBC was forced to cut around 800 jobs to make up for a $171 million budget shortfall. In this unyielding economy, the CBC and the Post have gone from enemies to frenemies.
“We approached each other,” explains Jonathan Harris, vice president of digital media for the National Post. “We both saw a good synergy there.” When asked about the one-time animosity between the Post and the CBC, both Harris and Jeff Keay seem unconcerned. “We draw a distinction between news content and opinion content,” Keay says. Harris dismisses the tension as ancient history. “It was quite a few years ago,” he remarks. “We’re in an age of partnership.”
We certainly are. Although the unexpected announcement raised a lot of issues—the nature of privately versus publicly funded news sources, the dwarfing of print by web-based media, and the internet as a grey area between regulated broadcasting and unregulated press, to name a few—what is most compelling are the implications of what Harris calls the “age of partnership.” The growth of concentrated media ownership, also known as corporate journalism, describes the control of the news media by only a handful of conglomerate chains—in short, a monopoly of ideas.
Not a new development by any means, the corporatization of Canadian journalism gained speed in the 1950s and ’60s, and was first seriously identified as a point of concern in 1970 by the Special Senate Committee on Mass Media, spearheaded by senator Keith Davey. The Committee’s report succinctly summarized the argument against corporate media ownership, stating, “This country should no longer tolerate a situation where the public interest in so vital a field as information [is] dependent on the greed or goodwill of an extremely privileged group of businessmen.” The report recommended the development of a review board to approve all mergers and acquisitions of print media, a proposal that was largely ignored by the provincial and federal governments.
Throughout the ’70s, the media continued to funnel into fewer and fewer hands. In 1981, former journalist Tom Kent was assigned to lead a new commission into the state of Canadian newspapers. He and his commissioners saw the situation as dire and advocated legislation to limit the number of newspapers any one chain could own. The Kent Commission’s findings provoked livid reactions from both the public and the journalistic community. Both groups feared that empowering the government to pull the strings of the Fourth Estate would be even more catastrophic than allowing it to remaining under corporate control. As a result, the proposal was tabled.
The flatlined efforts of these two endeavours effectively gave corporations a free pass to continue merging without regulation. Over the past few decades, companies like CanWest, Torstar, CTVglobemedia, and Quebecor have been steadily gaining control over the majority of independent Canadian news sources. The results are alarming; since 1990, the number of independently owned newspapers reportedly plummeted from 17.3 percent to less than 1 percent, and by 2007, over 70 percent of daily newspaper circulation in Canada was under the thumb of four corporations.
In the short term, the appeal of corporate journalism is irresistible to executives. When a company like CanWest or Torstar controls a website, broadcasting network, and several daily newspapers, content can be generously shared among all levels of that corporation’s holdings. A story that runs in the National Post can be reproduced in the Vancouver Sun or Ottawa Citizen on the cheap, while also being broadcast on Global TV and/or streamed on Canada.com. Like magic, the corporation is able to reach an enormous audience and collect more revenues with fewer expenditures.
But the monopolization of Canadian news by corporate chains sounds a death knell for the industry on an ideological level. Ideally, news reportage is a discourse. Audiences benefit from a wide spectrum of editorial positions and journalistic voices unfettered by the commercial interests of a larger conglomerate. The current state of affairs is silencing these independent voices in favour of homogeneous content, leaving many journalists and editors out of work and thinning the industry’s talent pool.
Many of those remaining feel that their work must conform to the political and ideological persuasions of the controlling conglomerates. As a result, fewer divergent perspectives are voiced. For example, after resigning, former Post staffer (and recent Walrus contributor) Patricia Pearson wrote openly about having to censor her own liberal sympathies under the oppressive control of the Asper family. Although wire services such as The Canadian Press and Reuters also disperse homogeneous content, they are slightly less problematic. Like most news agencies, which supply news services rather than publish to a readership, both tend to be fact-based with little editorializing. In addition, Reuters enforces a strict objectivity policy, while CP is a not-for-profit cooperative, which nullifies the corporate influence held over most other media outlets.
In concentrating the media under a few corporate umbrellas, journalistic democracy is compromised, and the disconnect between the needs of the public and the word of the news product grows wider with every new acquisition. Content-sharing between the CBC and National Post is symptomatic of this trend, and draws the publicly funded CBC into the privatized media machine.
The New Yorker‘s A.J. Leibling once famously quipped, “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” Fewer owners, then, translates to a greatly diminished free press. But let’s not drum up the funeral march just yet. For one, CanWest’s recent announcement that it will be restructuring under credit protection signals the prospect of one of the biggest media sales in Canadian history. Although rumours persist that National Post CEO Paul Godfrey has secured backers for a buyout of the chain, there is still a chance that the sale could eventually lead to the purchase of the papers by a variety of owners, increasing the number of controlling parties.
According to Andrew Coyne, another possible saving grace could be the government relaxing restrictions on foreign ownership of media. Canadian law currently prohibits foreign control of our cultural industries. Dismantling this legislation might encourage competition and a broader range of influence. “I think we’ve artificially encouraged monopoly in this country because of the ban on foreign ownership,” said Coyne. “We’re content with cozy duopolies and monopolies when we should be opening up the market and making [the corporations] compete.”
Intriguing, yes, but Coyne’s suggestion could be dangerous—rather than diversifying our media voices, opening up Canadian journalism to foreign ownership could very well throw the industry to the proverbial wolves. In theory, foreign ownership might be a step towards opening up the system, but the possibility of the Rupert Murdochs and Sam Zells of the world grasping Canadian media properties in their clutches seems too frightening to risk.
It’s difficult to predict whether the de-corporatization of journalism is possible, or whether the current ebb in independent news voices will become permanent. In the meantime, the death of journalism has been greatly exaggerated. Sure, the industry is changeable, controversial, and constantly in flux. But news itself hasn’t gone anywhere, and if it ever does, you can bet someone will be there to write about it. While deals such as the CBC/Post alliance may seem like harbingers of doom, hope still springs eternal in the human press.
(Photo by Thomas S. Denison)
Since at least 2002, when astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave it a name, photographers in New York City have observed the passing of Manhattanhenge, which happens when the rising or setting sun perfectly aligns with east-west streets that follow the island’s 1811 planning grid. The phenomenon occurs in every metropolis with a similar plan, and is coming soon to Canada’s city of skyscrapers. According to The Photographer’s Ephemeris, a free application developed by landscape photographer Stephen Trainor, the next Torontohenge is due to illuminate T.O.’s downtown thoroughfares on the evenings of October 24–25.
The Walrus invites local photographers to send us your best photos of Saturday and Sunday’s Torontohenge effect. Bree Seeley, our picture editor, will choose her favourite images for a gallery to be published on walrusmagazine.com. The overall winner will receive a gift bag from Drawn and Quarterly; two runners-up will each receive a pair of tickets to The Walrus events at the International Festival of Authors. All three winners will also receive a complimentary one-year subscription to The Walrus.
Submit images as JPGs (minimum 640×480 pixels) to firstname.lastname@example.org before 12:00 pm EST, Tuesday, October 27. Friends and family of Walrus employees are welcome to enter… but will not win prizes.
P.S. Watch this space for coming editions of Calgaryhenge, Montréalhenge, Ottawahenge, Vancouverhenge, etc.
(Photo of Bloor Street by Mike Hoye)
What do Jack Layton and David Byrne have in common? Sure, Layton’s Twitter account tells us he’ll be busking on the Danforth this Saturday, but at press time, the range of his musical talent remains untested. No, it’s a shared interest in the future of cycling that unites the current NDP leader and former Talking Head, who will participate in an October 24 panel discussion at the International Festival of Authors. Along with Toronto Cyclists Union executive director Yvonne Bambrick and urban designer Ken Greenberg, Layton and Byrne will discuss the potential of urban planning — specifically, bike lanes — to improve the political climate of cycling in Toronto and around the world.
Walk a block in Toronto’s downtown core on any weekday afternoon, and you’ll see the strain of cyclist-motorist relations from the belly of the beast. Drivers roll their eyes and drum their fingers, and many cyclists ignore red lights and stop signs as traffic allows. At its worst, the drama plays out with fatal consequences, as it did in late August, when a downtown road altercation involving former Ontario attorney general Michael Bryant, who was driving a convertible car, caused the death of bicycle courier Darcy Allan Sheppard. Toronto cyclists rallied for bike lanes in the wake of the incident, insisting that separate roadways guarantee safer transit, especially in regions where traffic is busiest. Drivers and business owners, however, have been less willing to accept bike lanes as the solution, citing slow commutes and limited street parking, respectively, as evidence that city roadways have already been compromised enough. So with cyclists getting killed and drivers getting angry, what’s a judicious citizen to believe? Can’t we all just get along?
If recent history is any indication, the answer is no. And there’s more trouble coming: the newest version of the Toronto Public Works and Infrastructure Committee’s official Bike Plan — a strategic proposal with a mission to introduce cyclist-friendly policies and programs — details measures to advance bike culture in six major areas. First up? Launching a public bicycle system by spring 2010.
Toronto’s updated plan, modeled after Montreal’s two-year old BIXI and the 20,000–strong Vélib “shared bicycle” program in Paris, proposes a start-up service area bounded by High Park in the west, Broadview Avenue in the east, Bloor Street in the north and Lake Ontario to the south. The projected system — roughly 300 rental stations with an initial capacity of 1,000 bicycles, to be increased to 10,000 over the next decade — will inevitably place a greater number of commuters on some of the city’s busiest roads. As a public transportation venture, a bicycle system presents a unique safety imperative. But are bike lanes the solution? Beyond their formidable logistic and financial considerations, would separate lanes ease the competing interests of cyclists and motorists?
I call city councillor Adrian Heaps, chair of the Toronto Cycling Advisory Committee. Beyond novelty users at the program’s inception, he expects that a public bicycle system will appeal to three distinct categories of riders: those who typically use taxis to travel short distances, those who currently use car-share services for shopping trips, and, in non-winter months, tourists. Ultimately, the councillor says, the TCAC’s goal is to reduce car traffic in the downtown core, not to convert drivers outright. Ideally, cyclists and drivers would learn to share without incident. Heaps, though, is skeptical about the partitioning of bike lanes on existing roads as an easy remedy. “Putting a bucket of paint on the road doesn’t make a safer bike corridor,” he says. “It comes down to mutual respect.”
Still curious, I contact Christopher Sumpton, co-producer of Pedal Power, a documentary recently commissioned by the CBC to examine the shifting tides of bike culture around the world. What would happen, I ask, if 10,000 public bicycles descended upon Toronto tomorrow? “I think it would work very well,” he answers. “Toronto is a city of cyclists.” Sumpton makes repeated references to cities like Paris, where the Vélib program generated 120,000 trips a day in its first year of operation. He says the “dramatic immediate effect” of a public bicycle system will be a societal awareness of cycling, a “push to the process of mental change that bikes are a serious part of the transit system.” Moreover, he says, more bicycles and less cars in the downtown core will improve the quality of street life; Torontonians will experience “more human interaction, with people able to stop at shops and cafés instead of going by in a bus or car.”
Still, Sumpton says any higher-order change to the city’s transportation system requires the support and acceptance of most its citizens, not just those who cycle. “That’s where it gets messy right now,” he allows. “When you unleash a greater number of cyclists on the roads, you have to have some sort of provision for them.” In the shadow of the Sheppard-Bryant affair, and with the debut of Toronto’s public bicycle system on the horizon, Sumpton believes the bike lane debate is a study in prevarication. “Sure, a public bike system really ups the ante for safe cycling. Ultimately, that means providing bike lanes. But bike lanes are shorthand for a lot of things: rational traffic systems, advanced stop lines. A lot of imagination has to be brought to bear,” he says.
Next, I call Richard Poplak, who has written about bike culture for Toronto Life magazine and is currently at work on a graphic novel about bicycle hoarder Igor Kenk, the “Fagin of Queen Street.” As an authority on sharing the roadway, Poplak’s credentials certainly pass muster — he estimates that between commuting and training as a UCI–licensed racer, he spends twenty-five hours every week on a bicycle. Poplak is doubtful that the riders who use Toronto’s new public system will amount to a meaningful increase in the number of regular bike commuters, or a meaningful decrease in the number of cars downtown. In the meantime, he calls for improved road infrastructure (“so that bicycles can safely traverse the streets without having to dodge lake-sized potholes”) and a large-scale safety campaign targeting cyclists and drivers alike. I ask whether Toronto’s public bicycle system should underwrite an expanded network of bike lanes, and can almost hear him shaking his head from the other end of the telephone line. “What bike lanes don’t do is enshrine cycling as a right,” he says. “What they do do, is enshrine the primacy of the car.” Like Heaps, Poplak believes cyclists should simply obey the rules of the road: no more rolling through red lights as they see fit. As well, motorists should recognize cyclists’ right to share their roadways. “Cyclists have the right to be everywhere except the 401 [highway] and the Don Valley Parkway. End of story,” he says. “We have rules — all we need to do is enforce them.”
Whether enforcing the rules will neutralize the discord remains to be seen. What is certain, though, is that no one, whether they travel by car or by bicycle, has the prerogative to ignore where and how their fellow commuters take to the road. Just before he signed off, filmmaker Christopher Sumpton put it to me this way: “It’s like the weather. Everyone has to deal with transportation.” Poplak was more frank in the last email he sent me: “No matter how much you may loathe cyclists, you’d have to agree that something has to be done, and pretty fucking quickly. Painting white lines on the road and/or handing out bikes isn’t the solution. Making sure we all understand the rules of the game, however, is.”
Full disclosure: for roughly four years in high school, I played in a band called Scare Tactic with Jonah “Guinea Beat/Mr. Jo” Falco, drummer for Canada’s best hard-core punk band, Fucked Up. Long before they won 2009’s Polaris Music Prize, for Canadian album of the year, the Toronto sextet recorded one of their earliest demos in my basement.
There are a lot of good bands out there, but a rare few have It, that intangible quality that one can sense only once they’ve taken the stage. When It happens, you don’t care about your job, you don’t care about your girlfriend — nothing else matters. I recently saw hard rock supergroup Them Crooked Vultures blow out the back wall of Toronto’s Sound Academy. They had It.
Scare Tactic ended amicably, so I was very interested to discover a posting on Fucked Up’s blog announcing a secret concert somewhere in T.O. this week. A phonecall to Falco landed me on the guest list at Lee’s Palace, where the band jumped onto a Wednesday night bill headlined by the U.K.’s The Horrors. The Polaris winners opened their set with a hypnotic four guitar and bass intro. Singer Damian “Pink Eyes” Abraham strode on stage wearing a red baseball hat, white basketball shorts and a blue T-shirt with the pro-dog slogan “Pugs Not Drugs.” The hat held firm for most of the show, but the shirt lasted less than two songs. As is his customary style, Pink Eyes let his gut fly free. (Thankfully, his shorts stayed on.) More impressively, he took command of the crowd in a way that only an experienced front man can. He glared at the crowd, stalked the stage, and climbed onto speakers; he finished the set by prowling around the audience, screaming in people’s faces and standing on top of tables. The band, made up of Falco (drums/guitar), Mike “10,000 Marbles” Haliechuk (guitar), Josh “Gulag” Zucker (guitar), Ben “Young Governor” Cook (guitar) and Sandy “Mustard Gas” Miranda (bass), played with tightness forged by countless tours. Fucked Up made excellent use of their multiple guitar assault. Each guitar added something different to every song, rather than just doubling or tripling specific parts. Despite Damian’s repeated insistence that this was just a warm-up show with a “half-assed,” thirty-minute set, the experience was far better than that.
I left the punk scene shortly after my six years with various incarnations of Scare Tactic. My tastes have since shifted toward metal and rock ’n’ roll. I don’t listen to much hard-core nowadays, but have no doubt why Fucked Up beat out such indie luminaries as Metric for this year’s Polaris. Simply put, it’s because they deserved it. The Chemistry of Common Life, Fucked Up’s winning disc, is a hell of an album. Forget the offensive name (chosen, Falco has told me, because the band was never meant to last); Fucked Up is the real deal, a great band that will undoubtedly enjoy more hard-earned success. They have It.
It is the lot of public intellectuals to be simultaneously admired and loathed, and few evoke either feeling as intensely as British biologist Richard Dawkins. The pugnacious professor established his reputation in 1976 with the release of his first book, The Selfish Gene, a modern classic that, like all the best popular science writing, relates complex ideas in nuanced terms comprehensible to any educated layperson. Dawkins has written nine other books since then, including 2006’s best-selling atheist polemic The God Delusion. His latest effort, The Greatest Show on Earth, is his first substantial attempt to catalogue the evidence for Darwinian evolution. It expertly combines his talent for scientific explication with his disdain for religious fundamentalism. I spoke with Dawkins last week as he began a North American tour to promote the book, which is a riveting, humbling, and stunningly informative read.
Who is the audience for this book?
I don’t think it’s going to change the minds of dedicated creationists, but there are lots and lots of people who have never been exposed to the evidence of evolution before. They may be sufficiently gripped by the book. I’m hoping to not exactly change people’s minds, but to draw people off the fence — people who haven’t really thought about it much before.
What is the greatest misconception about evolution not among creationists, but among people who believe in Darwinism?
That Darwinian evolution is a theory of chance. That’s probably the largest one of all. There are many people who say, “I simply refuse to believe that anything as complicated as the human body — or any living body, for that matter — could be a result of chance.” Well, of course it’s not the result of chance. That’s the whole point.
Your book debunks many creationist myths, from the suggestion that natural selection is only a theory, to the crocoduck canard about missing links in the fossil record. What are creationists’ most pernicious mistakes about evolution, and why do they persist?
For creationists as well, the most pernicious mistake is the one about it being a theory of chance. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution doesn’t mean Darwin’s Tentative Hypothesis Concerning Evolution; it means theory in the scientific sense, which is a body of knowledge gathered together and widely accepted. The crocoduck one is a bit of a joke. There are people who misunderstand evolution so much that they think it means there should be intermediates between not just ancestors and descendants, which would be reasonable, but intermediates between any animal and any other animal, like a crocodile and a duck. Or a fronkey! “Where are your fronkeys between frogs and monkeys?” And that, of course, is a truly grotesque misunderstanding.
That’s a mistake many people make about missing links. Any species that is the halfway point between two other species is still going to be classified as one of those two species, or as a third species. Nothing is classified as mid-species.
That’s right. We’re lucky that we have fossils at all. It’s an extremely fortunate circumstance that corpses do fossilize. Even if they didn’t — if we had not a single fossil — we would still know that evolution had happened from other evidence. What’s really telling is that there’s not a single fossil in the wrong place. If there were mammal fossils from before fish evolved, for example, that would totally and utterly disprove evolution. But not a single fossil of that kind has ever been discovered in the wrong place.
The book details how easy it would be to falsify the theory of evolution. In your dealings with creationists, how do they account for the lack of such falsifying evidence?
They don’t discuss it, or they try instead to make a big deal out of gaps in the fossil record, which is only negative evidence. You expect to find gaps. What you don’t expect to find is evidence of something in the wrong place. Creationists basically ignore the fact that that hasn’t happened. Or they make [things] up. There are some fake fossils. There are allegations of human skulls in rock measured from the Carboniferous Era. There are allegations of human footprints interspersed with dinosaur footprints. I’m happy to say that most creationists have now explicitly disavowed that particular one. The leading creationists have said, “No, we can’t use that anymore, it’s too obviously wrong.”
You label creationists “history deniers,” intentionally likening them to Holocaust deniers. There’s considerable rhetorical power in this. Do you worry, however, that it might alienate some readers?
It hadn’t occurred to me that it would be alienating or seen as a strong pronouncement. Maybe it’s because I’m a scientist and I don’t latch onto the political implications of it. To me, it’s a perfectly good parallel. The historical evidence in favour of the Holocaust having happened is overwhelmingly strong, obviously, and the historical evidence in favour of evolution being a fact is also overwhelmingly strong. There are deniers of both. Why not link them as a good analogy?
The Greatest Show on Earth was only just released in Canada, but it’s been out a little longer in Britain. What sort of reaction have you gotten from creationists?
The book went straight to number one on the British, Australian, and Irish bestseller lists, and I have great hopes for the Canadian bestseller list. But I haven’t specifically heard any reaction from creationists. The kind of creationists you may be talking about are the young earth creationists, those who think the world is only 6,000 years old. I don’t think they really read books anyway, do they?
There’s at least one book that they read.
Yes, one book. And not much of it, by the way. If they read all of the Bible, they would get a nasty shock.
What is the most compelling piece of evidence for the theory of evolution?
That’s a difficult one to answer because there’s so much evidence that’s very, very compelling. The single most compelling piece probably comes from molecular genetics compared across all living creatures: all living creatures have the same genetic code. That means you can quantitatively compare the genes of any creature with any other creature… Whether you take similar animals — rats and mice, or humans and chimpanzees, or moles and hedgehogs — or you take more different animals, you find a beautiful, hierarchical pattern: a tree. The tree is, of course, a tree of life. It’s a family tree. It’s a pedigree. These animals are all cousins of one another. Every single molecule you look at produces the same tree.
Is the sense of wonder with which you write and speak about evolution a conscious strategy, or simply unavoidable when describing this material?
The material is awe inspiring. It dwarfs Genesis or any other creation myth. It is an astonishing story that on this planet — and maybe on other planets, but we don’t know about other planets — the ordinary laws of physics and chemistry could do this extraordinary thing from the arising, at some point more than three billion years ago, of a self-replicating molecule. From this everything followed. We now have the most staggering elegance, beauty, and illusion of design that, as Hume said, ravishes into admiration all men who have ever contemplated it.
(Photo by Josh Timonen)