Canadians are clearly among the world’s most fortunate people. Compared to the majority of peoples around the globe, we enjoy a leisurely and indolent existence. True, we have our delicate sufficiency of social problems: aboriginals who insist on favored treatment and hold the government to ransom with hunger strikes, land claim protests and violent occupation of entire communities, Muslims engaged in stealth jihad and sporadic terror, high taxation levels, so-called human rights tribunals that act as kangaroo courts, and a modest degree of unemployment. But running down the alphabet from Algeria to Zanzibar, it is plausible to suggest that we live in halcyon climes, and indeed, Canada is one of only three countries — Norway and Israel are the other two — that managed to ride out the recent economic meltdown and emerge in a comparatively robust posture.
This may explain why Canadians are naturally prone to grow ludicrously exercised by relatively inconsequential issues, which can fairly be described as tempests in a peepot. The most recent such trivial controversy to raise our pro forma ire has to do with David Gilmour, the Canadian fiction writer and part-time lecturer at the University of Toronto. Now it should be noted that Gilmour boasts a pretty decent reputation among our literary elite, having won the coveted Governor General’s Award for a thoroughly undistinguished novel, one among many. (His new novel, Extraordinary, is about assisted suicide and the relation between siblings.)
Gilmour is a stock Canadian writer: overhyped, almost unfailingly dull, and eminently forgettable absent media inflation. But he has recently leaped into prominence by being guilty of an unforgivable breach of political — and literary — correctness. In an interview with Random House’s Hazlitt magazine, Gilmour said:
I’m not interested in teaching books by women. I’ve never found — Virginia Woolf is the only writer that interests me as a woman writer, so I do teach one short story from Virginia Woolf. But once again, when I was given this job I said I would teach only the people that I truly, truly love. And, unfortunately, none of those happen to be Chinese, or women…usually at the beginning of the semester someone asks why there aren’t any women writers in the course. I say I don’t love women writers enough to teach them, if you want women writers go down the hall. What I’m good at is guys….very serious heterosexual guys. Elmore Leonard, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Chekhov, Tolstoy. Real guy guys…Henry Miller. Uh. Philip Roth.
In uttering so insensitive and inexpiable a preference, he drew down upon his weary, tousled head the unrelenting fire of the professoriate, administrators and students, both women and men, the former the shrieking viragos of Canlit and the latter those blenny-mouthed pram-pushers terrified of violating the feminist and multicultural bromides of the day. For it is not only a frenzied band of women who are primed to join the bacchanal and tear Gilmour limb from limb, the Pentheus of Victoria College — feminists like Gillian Jerome, chair of Canadian Women in the Literary Arts (CWILA), for whom Gilmour is proof that “we live in a deeply sexist and racist culture”; Angela Esterhammer, president of Victoria College, who regrets Gilmour’s having “expressed his views about teaching in a careless and offensive manner”; student activist Miriam Novick, who declared “we want to make sure the rest of the university community and the public at large knows that Gilmour is not representative of our institution or of the academy, and to encourage Victoria College to seriously reconsider his continued employment”; and author Anne Thériault who, according to the report in the Toronto Star, won’t be letting pass “this kind of blatant sexism.”
Gilmour’s U of T male colleagues are equally busy justifying their feminist and multiculti credentials at his expense. For example, Paul Stevens, head of the English Department, is “appalled and deeply upset,” poor fellow, and “will be pursuing the matter further today.” Nick Mount, the associate chair of the Department of English, deplores what he sees as false advertising in Gilmour’s syllabus, since it features only “dead white guys.” (Pace Philip Roth.) Professor Holger Syme, for his part, lets it be known that Gilmour is short of empathy and “does not talk or think like a professor of literature.” He continues in his blog posting: “So that’s all a curdled mess of intellectual mediocrity. … He sounds staggeringly narrow-minded and parochial to me. … Gilmour is not a professor of literature. He’s someone who teaches a couple of courses on an odd assemblage of texts. … David Gilmour is not my colleague.”
What was Gilmour thinking? Did he not realize he had bedded down in a nest of vipers? According to National Post columnist Barbara Kay, he was likely just being mischievous, indulging a “need to épater la bourgeoisie.” Perhaps. Or perhaps he was merely caught in an off-guard moment, insouciantly unaware that he was about to usher in the Rapture. He should have known better.
Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente justly points out, “As anyone who’s set foot on campus in the past 30 years ought to know, courses in guy-guy writers are vastly outnumbered by courses in women writers, queer writers, black writers, colonial writers, postcolonial writers, Canadian writers, indigenous writers, Caribbean, African, Asian and South Asian writers, and various sub-and sub-subsets of the above. But if you’re interested in Hemingway, good luck. No wonder male students are all but extinct in the humanities.” She concludes: “Only in the hothouse atmosphere of the academy would such opinions be regarded as incendiary, or even controversial.”
In the same vein, Freedom Press editor Janice Fiamengo mourns the “vastly diminished moral and mental stature” of our current crop of academics, “fussing in chorus about ‘diversity’…and exhibiting in their own remarks no significant diversity at all.” If the multicultural agenda were true to its lights, one might think, it would permit the occasional exemplar of the patriarchy to be included in the curriculum. And one would be tempted to applaud Gilmour for his courage and his resistance to the prevailing orthodoxy, however unreflected his remarks may have been.
Such, alas, is not the case. Gilmour is a typical Canadian and as much a part of the ideological consensus as his sanctimonious detractors, judging from his response to the barrage of regimental pieties to which he was subject. For the Canlit icon cum aspiring academic is in full apology mode:
I understand what it’s like to be offended when you read something, and to those people I’m absolutely sorry…I have one specialty that I’m quite good at and that’s teaching men writers. And that’s all I mean. … To suggest for a second that women writers are in any way inferior, or French writers are, is just lunacy and I never would have dreamt of saying that.
Gilmour resembles those American politicians caught in extramarital affairs who don’t have the cojones to stand by their freely chosen misdemeanors. Tearful confessions of wrongdoing, orgies of self-flagellation, and saccharine promises to reform are neither as believable nor commendable as an impenitent sticking to one’s guns or a Gallic Je m’en fous. Gilmour should have shown himself to be as much a “guy guy” as the writers he professes to teach, rebuffing the puritan rectitude and unctuous gloating of his inquisitors. I can’t see Hemingway or Tolstoy prostrating themselves before a furious klatch of harridans and their male janissaries. Surely no upstanding member of the testosterone patriarchy, so to speak, would backtrack, genuflect and go limp before a howling pack of pseudo-maenads and their indignant but sheepish praetorians trailing along in obsequious conformity.
Don’t apologize, dude. Be a guy guy. But then, admittedly, it takes chutzpah, genuine conviction, and intellectual muscle to be a guy guy in a domain ruled by self-righteous prigs and pathetic fellow-travelers of either gender.