Glimpsing beauty

"Stephanie in the city" (Ian Garrick Mason, 2015)
“Stephanie in the city” (Ian Garrick Mason, 2015)

Last weekend my friend Stephanie and I went out for evening drinks, before which we did a forty-five minute twilight shoot on the sidewalks of Toronto’s Esplanade and in the alleys leading off it. Perched on a concrete outdoor staircase as I took pictures of her, Stephanie at one point looked at me curiously and asked what my “vision” as a photographer was. This essay is an extended and more thoughtful version of the answer I had to construct for her on the spot.

In fact, there’s not always a single answer to a question like that. Photography has many possible purposes, and a photographer may have a separate vision for each of his or her purposes – or even a vision for each particular shoot. But for the sake of brevity and conceptual clarity, I’ll focus only on my vision – or at least my underlying intuition – regarding the style of photography that Stephanie and I happened to be shooting at that moment: something which I might call “urban faux candid”.

My intuition concerns the meanings we assign to the sight of another human. In the world of villages and small towns where almost everyone knows each other or at least recognizes each other, a sighting is full of background knowledge: the person you see is so-and-so’s daughter; she goes to your church; she is two grades ahead of you in school. If she sees you too, a wave and a hello is mandatory and natural. Our glimpses of each other are embedded in a pre-existing, invisible bedrock of actual relationships and known history.

Not so in a big city. The randomness of a metropolis should not be overstated, mind you – after all, commuters pass through a limited set of locations on a daily basis, and it is typical to see faces repeated over weeks and months as one makes one’s way to work and back. But familiarity is not meaning. A second glimpse of a beautiful woman that one may have seen once before does not make her any better known to you. However much you may attempt to deduce from her clothing, her age, her hair, her way of standing, the presence or absence of polish on her nails, indeed whatever observations you may have captured from that glance and then filtered through your almost certainly inaccurate mental model of demographics, neighbourhoods, and character types… after all that, you don’t really know anything.

And then the subway doors open and she disappears into the crowd on the platform.

The wonder of that moment lies in both its impermanence and its indifference. She was there, and now she is gone. You may never catch sight of her again. For a few seconds afterwards you may even feel a small, instinctive ache in your heart – but your heart is worldly-wise and moves on quickly, letting your busy mind distract it from its focus of a moment before. The moment’s indifference touches you next, as you realize that it was subjectively yours – you felt it, fully, and no one else did – and at the same time, objectively, it had nothing whatsoever to do with you. The woman didn’t notice you, didn’t realize you’d noticed her, and wouldn’t have cared that you did, if she had. All through that moment (of yours) she remained concerned, naturally enough, only with her own purposes and her own thoughts.

Somewhere in this combination of the fleeting and the self-purposed, I think, is an echo of the old aesthetic concept of the sublime: the perception of beauty as an aspect of something that transcends us as individuals. The nineteenth-century Romantics saw the sublime in stormy oceans, and in sunlit mountain peaks. To them, the natural world was awesome and beautiful at the same time, and it didn’t care whether we observed it or not. It had its own purposes, its own mechanisms. Someone afforded a glimpse of the sublime was simply lucky; their personal merit had nothing to do with it. And luck has a magical feel to it that is close to grace.

It’s not really about sunlit peaks, of course; if it was, I’d shoot those. But I am attracted to this style of photography in large part because the final image doesn’t seem to assume its subject has been placed in front of a camera solely for the viewer’s pleasure. Urban faux candid (the faux is what separates it from traditional street photography, in that my subject is knowingly participating in a photosession) seeks to create an aesthetic in which beauty is apparent or discoverable – glimpsed – but not prioritized as the point of the picture. The subject is in the midst of getting things done. She (or he) has a life, and her own plans. You’re lucky to have seen her – and no, she doesn’t care that you did.

Ian Garrick Mason’s portrait, editorial, and architectural photography can be seen at

Portraiture and time

“Lisa” (Ian Garrick Mason, 2015)

It took me a long time to come to portraiture as an art form.

I began taking photographs systematically only five years ago or so; equipped with a Blackberry provided by the consulting firm that employed me, I began snapping pictures of interesting things that happened to be on my way between the office and my commuter train. These things were entirely inanimate: buildings, alleyways, clouds, trees, windows. Little by little – and smartphone by smartphone – I followed my growing interest in the physical environment, and in the aspects that fascinated me most. I began to look at textures differently, at materials, at patterns; I began to see how buildings related to each other, and to the natural world they rested within; I began to notice infrastructure and its interlocking parts. There is beauty in rust and concrete, and in the unexpected discoveries waiting to be found in structures built to someone’s rational plan, long ago. Indeed, in the aging of buildings I came to feel a kinship with them. Their barnacles made them fellows to me, all of us travellers in time, all of us heading slowly towards our various ends.

Throughout this development I photographed only a few human faces, and these just casually. I didn’t come to portraiture as a natural next step in my photographic journey; rather, we met obliquely, the idea of it swinging in from a separate direction entirely. Or, perhaps, two directions.

The first, an artistic one – although even this one arising from a non-artistic impulse. Roughly in the same period that I began photographing objects, I decided to teach myself to draw. I had reached 40 (again, I say roughly), and my life so far had been dominated by symbols and symbolic logic: reading, writing, editing, researching, strategic thinking, business analytics, speaking. I am good at these things, so I decided to try something I was not good at: drawing – which seemed to me, in its total refusal to be symbolic about anything, the perfect and attractive opposite to all I had done before.

In my drawing practice – which primarily involved working through downloaded instructional books by mid-century illustrator Andrew Loomis – I found that faces were the things that interested me almost completely. Bodies were important, and rather thrilling when drawing them went well, but they also felt like a bit of a chore to a beginner: all those relative proportions to remember, and, usually, to get frustratingly wrong. But faces were different. They demanded attention to proportion too, but when they came together properly an entire person emerged: a character, a personality, a rogue with a hard glint in his eye, a beautiful woman with gentleness in hers. This felt like creation itself.

The second direction was professional and personal at the same time. As a consultant, it had always been a large part of my job to meet a range of new people, both client employees and fellow consultants from my own office or from other cities, and to quickly learn how to work with them. In time I had to sell work to new clients, and so business development (the modern word for “sales”) became part of my daily life – which meant regular networking over coffees and at events. Eventually I took on roles as a recruiter and mentor too. Meeting people – finding them, talking with them, understanding them, becoming friends with the ones who clicked – became a large source of pleasure in my life, as well as a professional imperative.

Portraiture, for me, emerges from the confluence of these two forces: from my fascination with the human face and its power to convey personality and uniqueness, and from my pleasure in getting to know people in real life. And as these forces merged with my interest in built-environment photography – a merger which, I think, partly accounted for my shift from drawn portraiture to photographed portraiture – they picked up some of its attributes, including an attentiveness to structure over cladding, to the relationship of elements to each other, and to the subtle, beautiful details of texture and colour and shape.

Perhaps it’s about mortality too. We all drift through time on a river we have no choice but to travel down. A portrait captures one moment in this journey. In its realness, it connects us to each other though we’re in separate vessels. In its stillness and permanence, it gives us – for as long as we hang onto it and as many times as we wish to look at it – a glimpse of forever.

The Moving Finger writes; and having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Ian Garrick Mason’s portraits and architectural photography can be seen here

Tidiness, the state, and us

"Loading Bay (VII)" by Ian Garrick Mason (2015)
“Loading Bay (VII)” by Ian Garrick Mason (2015)

They pushed the vendors out of Ramses Square this year. Out of other places too, notes The Guardian in an article on street trading in Cairo – a commercial mode that bloomed after the 2011 uprising that overthrew the regime of Hosni Mubarak, but which is now actively being suppressed by president (and former field marshal) Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s counter-revolutionary government. Squares once full of stalls and carts are homes to new landscaping now, and to traffic.

While the article admits that there’s an element of image-making about all this, it also sees a more direct, if unexpressed, political motive. “You can call it ‘revolution-free’ downtown. Street vendors are only one side,” an urban planner tells the newspaper. “There’s another layer, hangouts for activists and artists and journalists, all these kind of troublemakers who are viewed by the establishment as partially the instigators of the chaos that took place.”

Perhaps this is true – although pushing activists and journalists out of areas where they are known to congregate and can be easily observed surely seems counter-productive from a state security perspective – but even so, we shouldn’t underplay the importance of image-making. Great psychological (and thus political) power issues from the simple act of clearing away messiness and disorder – however defined and perceived – from a city.

Humanity has a thing about untidiness, you see. At a personal level, this may well stem from childhood, a time when messiness was the one thing that brought constant – if not always severe – disapproval from one’s parents. The act of growing up is marked, in part, by an individual’s ability and willingness to clean up after themselves and to keep their personal space tidy. For most of us, untidiness thus brings with it a sting of half-remembered guilt, and a vague feeling that one has to some extent lost control over one’s destiny. The anxious realization, in other words, that your “shit” is not “together”.

There’s a societal memory operating here too. We bury our waste far from our urban centres, rightly fearing the diseases that may come from rotting food, from excrement, from rats, from flies. The Black Plague is a lodestone in our collective memory, a continent-spanning, virus-borne 9/11 that won’t let us forget. Even the closeness of other people brings disease to mind: the flu transmitted through a crowded aircraft’s ventilation system, Ebola coursing through slums. The one hundred tales of Boccaccio’s Decameron were told by characters who had reacted to the plague in Florence by fleeing the city and their fellow citizens. In this light, tidiness is a kind of quarantine, a deliberately-ordered series of compartments built to prevent a leak from sinking the whole ship. A lot in a well-maintained suburb with the car that accompanies it is not simply a declaration of ownership, of status, or of privacy – it’s also a living space and transportation system without common elements: without germ-ridden elevator buttons, handrails, or bus seats. It’s a transmission barrier.

Humanity’s negative relationship with untidiness is also an expression of our general unhappiness with uncertainty (Child: I can’t find my toy in here – did my mother throw it away? Did I lose it? Will I ever get another one? What is happening to the world!?). Considered mathematically or philosophically, uncertainty is simply the state of not knowing a future outcome – a state that is both utterly common to (in fact, definitional to) life on Earth and a primary source of worry and stress for its inhabitants. Psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman demonstrated that “loss aversion” is a powerful force in our decision-making: that most of us, in other words, would be significantly happier to avoid losing $100 than to win $100. Though economists see this as irrational, there may be a deeper logic to it: for a rich investor, $100 is neither here nor there; but for a financially-strapped householder, $100 may be half of this week’s groceries – so $100 lost can have a far greater and much more immediate impact than $100 gained. Our aversion to risk – and to uncertainty in general — may thus be the natural legacy of a remembered, still-feared general state of poverty.

Our language underlines our ambivalence. We continually associate concepts like “order” and “chaos” (the older brother of untidiness) with positive and negative companion ideas – not in a uni-directional association (e.g. order -> good) but in a multi-directional one. If I say “order”, you may think “repression” – or you may think “efficiency” or “safety” or “harmony”, depending both on the context and on your own personality and beliefs. Likewise, if I say “chaos”, you may think “creativity” or “freedom” – or you may think “anarchy” or “waste” or “danger”. Thus to a Western reporter with no personal stake in the outcome, the Egyptian revolution of 2011 may have looked like a glorious chaos, a momentary anarchy leading to the birth of political freedom. To a Cairo merchant, by contrast, whose still-modest family wealth was tied up in his business, the revolution may have been deeply worrying – a burst of uncertainty that could lead to intangible gains in political freedom, yes, but also potentially to disastrous losses of money and threats to his children’s safety.

This dichotomy in how uncertainty can be perceived by different classes and different individuals is important to recognize, for it has always presented profound dangers for liberal democracy – a form of political organization that we moderns both adore and misunderstand in equal measure. In a rich democracy threatened by terrorism, we are surprised (but shouldn’t be) by the number of people – a majority, only a handful of years ago – who are willing to tolerate outrages like torture and assassination in order to reduce their sense of insecurity. In a poor and fragile democracy like post-revolutionary Egypt, the same mechanism operates, though it is starker and more broadly applied. The promise of a political strongman like al-Sisi is the promise to reduce the majority’s sense of risk by focusing that risk instead on a minority, transforming it both in intensity and in character; boiled down, it’s a promise to oppress the few rather than worry the many. So to the extent that the cacophony of street vendors is a sign that uncertainty remains at large, it is wholly unsurprising that the Egyptian state would sooner or later move to sweep them away.

Humanity has a thing about untidiness.

Genocide as “Sanity and Cultural Health”: National Review on India

I’m working on an article about Dinesh D’Souza, during which I came across an old article from National Review that I thought are worth quoting. Here are some excerpts from Jeffrey Hart’s review of Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of Saints, from National Review, September 26, 1975:

In this novel Raspail brings his reader to the surprising conclusion that killing a million or so starving refugees from India would be a supreme act of individual sanity and cultural health. Raspail is to genocide what [D.H. Lawrence] was to sex. His plot is both simple and brilliant. The time is the not-so-distant future, and the long-anticipated has come to pass. The so-called Third World is an overpopulated, disease ridden outdoor slum. In Calcutta, as if seized by a last spasm, a million starving Indians take over whatever ships are at the docks and launch forth on the high seas. It is a wretched amorphous mass, a hundred dilapidated vessels inching around the Cape at ten knots, the mob cooking rice on briquettes of human feces, copulating in all possible combinations like a Hindu frieze come to life, stinking and undlfferentiated. Gradually it becomes clear that the destination of the armada is Europe, France in fact, the Cote d’Azur. It is a “floating slum,” the “vanguard of an anti-world bent on coming in the flesh to knock, at long last, at the gates of abundance.” Other such armadas are being prepared in Asia and Africa, awaiting the French response.


But what is racism? Most people do not now and have not in the past subscribed to esoteric theories regarding the superiority of this or that race. Most people, however, are able to perceive that the “other group” looks rather different and lives rather differently from their own. Such ‘racist” or “ethnocentric” feelings are undoubtedly healthy, and involve merely a preference for one’s own culture and kind. Indeed — and Raspail hammers away at this point throughout his novel—no group can long survive unless it does “prefer itself.” One further point is implicit. The liberal rote anathema on “racism” is in effect a poisonous assault upon Western self-preference.


That Ganges anti-world slowly approaches by sea, like some viper sliding toward a bemused rodent, but the antiworld has long been at work in the bloodstream of the West. Raspail is a tremendous rhetorician, his disdain boiling from the page in a torrent reminiscent of Celine.


Two despised reactionary outposts close their gates to the Ganges horde. Australia tersely notes that the Immigration Act will be enforced. South Africa continues deflant: Q: “Are you suggesting, Mr. President, that you won’t hesitate to open fire on defenseless women and children?” A: “1 expected that question. No, of course we won’t hesitate. We’ll shoot without giving it a second thought. In this highminded raciai war, all the rage these days, nonviolence is the weapon of the masses. Violence is all the attacked minority has to flght back with. Yes, we’ll defend ourselves. And yes, we’ll use violence.” But, in Provence, only a few resist. Beau Geste-like, as the Ganges horde swarms up the beaches and takes over southern France.


The New Republic & Gender: Some notes

I keep hoping someone (ideally a woman) will write an essay on the New Republic and gender. These notes might be useful for that writer and are offered as a spur to thought:

1. On March 1, 1983 Arthur and Cynthia Koestler, a married couple, killed themselves. Beyond the usual ethical questions of suicide, the self-extinction of the Koestlers raised a specifically feminist quandary. Arthur Koestler was 76 when the suicide occurred and facing the onset of Parkinson’s Disease. Suicide was a way of escaping the vulnerability and pain of old age and sickness. His wife was 55 years old and in the bloom of health. Moreover, Arthur, a world-famous novelist, was known to dominate over his meek wife, who served as his secretary. Did Arthur Koestler coerce his wife into suicide? And if so, what ethical judgments do we make of that?

The following year, the New Republic (TNR) commissioned a book review on the writings of Arthur and Cynthia Koestler by Lionel Abel, the literary critic known for his writings on drama. Abel also had a track record of sexism and homophobia. He had earlier written that the ideal theatre critic should be a heterosexual man: “I want a man to go [to the theatre], first of all, not a woman (I do have some prejudices), and I want the man to be stoutly uneffeminate (still more prejudice).” (Although to be fair, “stoutly uneffiminate” could perhaps include butch gay men).

Abel used a literary device to frame his judgement of Arthur Koestler. Abel pretended to be the judges of Hell (“we of Hell”), trying to determine which punishment Koestler deserves. The vast majority of his review is taken up with judging Arthur Koestler on his activities as a communist and anti-communist. But at the beginning Abel makes clear that he (or “we of Hell”) does not hold Koestler responsible for his treatment of Cynthia or any other woman. About Cynthia, Abel writes: “Can you [Arthur Koestler] be condemned for having made life appear so much worth living for Cynthia Koestler that without you her one desire was to die? No, for this you cannot and shall not be blamed  by us.”

The paragraph where Abel (“We of Hell”) exonerates Koestler for his treatment of women is worth quoting at in full:

Nor are we concerned about your practices, inveterate, and often regretted infidelities to the women with who you were involved. You were not the master of your appetite for sex, or even for romance. You hurt a lot of women, many of whom had not hurt you. Such are the facts, and in the first two revealing and entrancing volumes of your autobiography, The Invisible Writing and Arrow in the Blue, you admit to this quite candidly. But we of Hell are no feminists, nor are we egalitarian. We think it best for humans if at least half of them are happy, and we do not see why the more joyful ones should not be male.

What do we make of this curious essay, so dismissive of the problem of men who hurt women? A review where there is an implicit connection between men being “more joyful” and hurting women? It shocking to me when I first read it in the October 8, 1984 issue of the New Republic (when I was 17 years old, and hardly a feminist, indeed no more aware of gender justice than most boys my age). It becomes more shocking in retrospect because we know that Koestler’s habit of hurting women extended to assault and rape (there have been several plausible posthumous accusations).

Yet to survey the life of Arthur Koestler, a man already known in 1984 for having troubled relations with women, the New Republic (in the person, I suspect, of literary editor Leon Wieseltier) commissioned  a review from a writer known for his neanderthal gender politics.

The whole question of the New Republic and gender is a fraught one, but this review illustrates the problems the magazine often had especially in the three decades after Martin Peretz assumed ownership in 1974.It should be stated first of all that that under the most recent editor, Franklin Foer, who left the magazine last week, greatly improved the magazine’s handling of gender issues, hiring many superb female writers and editors, including the excellent Rebecca Traister, who is a regular columnist.

Yet from the 1970s and to the beginning of the 21st century, TNR had a terrible record on gender issues. It was partially a matter of hirings and assignments. In an article titled “Partisans Reviewed” from the November 1988 issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott noted that TNR featured far fewer female bylines than even conservative magazines like National Review or Commentary (which had writers like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Linda Chavez, and others in its stable).  Some of those Commentary writers would show up in the New Republic but only occasionally. But beyond not featuring very many women writers and hiring very many women editors, there was a larger question of perspective. Testosterone heavy as it was, the New Republic in the Peretz era was nominally feminist but consistently shunted feminist concerns aside.

2. For a sense of the numbers at work, it’s worth looking at VIDA, a website that usefully tracks bylines by gender. VIDA’s New Republic analysis can be found here. One striking detail: of 59 book reviewers in 2013, only 4 were women. By contrast, the Nation in the same period featured 72 reviewers (53 men, 19 women). The Nation figures aren’t that great but still nearly five times better than the New Republic.

3. “Why pick on the New Republic?” some will ask. “Doesn’t the media as a whole have a gender problem?” Two answers: the New Republic identifies itself as a liberal magazine and since the 1960s (if not before) feminism has been integral to liberalism. But beyond that: the New Republic is a gateway employer. Many of its interns and staffers go on to have jobs at the Washington Post, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and elsewhere. If the media has a gender problem, then the New Republic doesn’t just reflect that problem, it is a causal agent in creating that problem.


4. One paradox is that in the 1980s and 1990s when the New Republic did feature women, they were often very conservative and anti-feminist: Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Camille Paglia being prime examples. It’s as if the only way a woman could gain entrance to the boy’s club was by denigrating her own sex. Paglia actually wrote perhaps the most vilely sexist piece ever to run in the New Republic, a free-floating exegesis of Hillary Clinton as an “Ice Queen, Drag Queen.” (New Republic, March 2, 1996)

5. Did the New Republic publish exceptional women writers? Sure: Katha Pollitt, Cynthia Ozick, Martha Nussbaum, Margaret
Talbot, Ruth Franklin, and others. That should be acknowledged, even though such names, particularly in the 1980s and 1990s stood out against a masthead and table of contents that looked like a baseball team’s roster.

6. Most of the New Republic‘s editors in the last 40 years would have called themselves feminists if asked — one exception is Fred Barnes, who is an anti-choice evangelical (Episcopalian) Christian (and more recently a Fox News blowhard). Yet their feminism was the most narrowly circumscribed version of liberal feminism: basically support for Roe v. Wade (although even that was often challenged in the magazine’s pages) and little else. Certainly no support for concrete policies to advance substantive equality and no interest in women’s voices (and women’s experiences) as having a valuable perspective not found in male writers.

7. The personal is, as the saying goes, political. One factor behind the New Republic’s gender problem is former owner Martin Peretz’s Harvard fetishism. Peretz used the magazine to create a kind of perpetual dorm room bull session, a place where the guys can talk about the serious issues (what’s wrong with the blacks? what’s wrong with the Palestinians? who should we be bombing now? etc.). Women, almost by definition, don’t belong in a bull session.

8. The New Republic’s gender problem intersected with its race problem. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the black mother on welfare occupied a special place in the magazine’s imagination as a prime villain, forever in need of chastisement and discipline lest her profligate ways and out of control fertility destroy the nation. That’s the meaning of this infamous cover.

9. The question of the New Republic and gender tie in with the ongoing reappraisals of the magazine’s legacy. The big claim made on behalf of the New Republic is that it is “liberalism’s central journal.” The question then should be asked, what does it mean for liberalism’s central journal to be so indifferent to feminism?

Post script:

The New Republic returned to the topic of Arthur Koestler’s abuse of women in a review by Tony Judt that ran the February 14, 2000. In that review Judt argues that Koestler’s “sideline” in assault and  rape should not effect his standing as a moral hero in the Cold War. To quote Judt:  “Reviewers of the English edition of this book have been much taken with the issue of Koestler’s sideline in rape, and have asked how far this should alter posterity’s view of him. But Koestler’s attitude towards women has never been in doubt — you have only to read his memoirs or some of the novels, notably Arrival and Departure. We now know that be raped the wife of a friend and forced his attentions on some reluctant women. This is deeply unattractive behavior. Yet Koestler was no moralist. He did not preach about human goodness or pose himself as an exemplar of anything. If it turned out that he was a closet racist, or had remained all his life a secret member of the Communist Party, or had privately financed violent terrorist organizations, then some of his publications would indeed seem very odd, and we should have to ask how far he wrote in good faith. But nothing he wrote about sex is in contradiction with his actions. And nothing he wrote about politics, or intellectuals, or the death penalty, depends for its credibility upon his sexual behavior.” About this review, all one can say is that women are human, Koestler’s moral standing comes from his writing on human rights, so the fact that he (as Judt acknowledges) raped at least one woman and forced himself on many more has some relevance in judging his status as a moral hero.

In their May 5, 2010 issue, the New Republic published a review of Michael Scammell’s Arthur Koestler biography. The reviewer, Paul Berman, The review is much taken up with the question of whether Koestler was a “hero” or not. It deals with the general abuse of women and rape allegations by not mentioning them. Berman does discuss in the last few paragraphs the double suicide. Berman notes that “domination and dependence” between Koestler and Cynthia might have been behind her joining in the suicide and concludes there was “there was something ghastly about him.”

So: three substantial review essays on Koestler in three decades, none coming to terms with the serious rape allegations and only one coming to terms with the likelihood that Koestler coerced his wife into suicide. And all concerned with Koestler’s heroism. To borrow Berman’s word, this is a ghastly record.

There is a further element of ghastliness to the Koestler business: The most serious, hard-to-refute rape allegation against Koestler was by the late Jill Craigie, who was married to the British politician Michael Foot (himself now deceased). Now, as it happens Foot was a contributor to the New Republic. So this is a rape that doesn’t exist in the abstract, it’s a rape that effected people in the magazine’s extended family. Yet it’s a rape the magazine either pretends didn’t happen or pooh-poohs as a “sideline” (to use Judt’s word).

“Smile and Move On”: Paul Godfrey on Racism


On Sunday, the Toronto Sun ran the above cartoon (by Anthony Donato) on this cartoon of Olivia Chow. Chow denounced the cartoon as “racist” and “sexist” (two characterizations I agree with). I thought it would be productive to find out what Paul Godfrey, who runs the large media outfit that is about to buy the Toronto Sun (and who ran the Sun years ago) thought about this. Our conversation from last night and today, carried out on email, is pasted below.

Dear Mr. Godfrey,

My name is Jeet Heer. I’m a freelance writer — I’ve written for many publications including The New Yorker, The Guardian, the Globe and Mail. Many moons ago I used to work for the National Post, where I was a columnist.
I’m writing to you about a controversy over a cartoon that ran in the Toronto Sun, featuring Olivia Chow in a Mao Suit. You can see the cartoon here:
As you will see, the cartoon depicts Ms. Chow rather in the manner of a Kim Il-Jung, as a malevolent dwarf. The imagery calls to mind the depiction of Asians in “Yellow Peril” cartoons of the early 20th century.
Many people, including Chow herself, called this cartoon racist and sexist.
The Toronto Sun, which I understand you are in the process of purchasing, denies this charge. See here:
As the prospective owner of the Toronto Sun, I want to know whether you think this cartoon is, as the paper you are purchasing insists, not racist and not sexist?
Can you please answer this question. I will be happy to quote your answer (or non-answer) the article I am working on.
Best, Jeet Heer
Godfrey’s response:
Jeet, I did not see the cartoon in question so for that reason it is difficult to give you an opinion on it.
Secondly as a person who has been the the subject of jokes/ridicule etc in cartoons in many publications over the years I fully realize that newspaper cartoons poke fun at public figures surrounding serious topics. All you have to do is take a look at today’s newspapers.
I have learned from personal experience to smile and move on. The public usually do the same thing.
My response:
Dear Mr. Godfrey,

Thank you very much for your prompt and extended response. In terms of seeing the cartoon, it is widely available on the internet. I provided a link in my original email. Here is another:
Since Mr. Donato will soon be in your employ and he’s the person most closely associated in the public mind with the Sun Media (having been at the Toronto Sun since its inception in 1971), perhaps you can look at the cartoon and offer an opinion.
[Jeet Heer]
Godfrey’s response:
I have now seen Andy Donato’s cartoon. I have always thought Donato to be one of the finest cartoonist in Canada. In fact, I continually refer to him as the Franchise of the Sun chain..
Having said that I repeat what I stated in my previous email to you. Cartoons in newspapers often poke fun at serious news items and that was what he is doing here. Donato is neither racist or sexist. I know that because I worked with him for almost 16 years,  He has often poked fun at me in cartoons for years making fun of my surgically corrected jaw.
People who enter all forms of public life may from time to time not like what a cartoonist produces. I do not believe he crossed the line of good taste on this cartoon.
[Paul Godfrey]
My response:
Thank you.
[Jeet Heer]

The Problems with Patterson’s Heinlein Biography

Robert A. Heinlein
Robert A. Heinlein



I reviewed the late William Patterson’s new biography of the writer Robert Heinlein for the New Republic. Because the New Republic is a general interest magazine, I focused my review on only one of major complaints against Patterson (that he lacked critical distance from Heinlein). But I had many more problems with Patterson which I thought wouldn’t be of interest to a New Republic readership but should be noted for the record. In general, these complaints grow from the initial problem noted in the New Republic article (lack of critical distance) but are more detailed.

In no particular order, the problems with the book are:

1. Lack of curiosity about Heinlein’s ties to the far right. Heinlein wrote an article for the October 1960 issue of The American Mercury titled “’Pravada’ Means ‘Truth’”. The interesting thing about this anti-communist article is the venue: by 1960 the American Mercury, once edited by H.L. Mencken but fallen on hard times, was an anti-Semitic far right journal. People who were otherwise very conservative – notably William F. Buckley and William Rusher, both of National Review – warned their fellow right-wingers not to publish in it. In fact, National Review had a policy that anyone who published in the American Mercury could not publish in the National Review. When you consider how racist National Review was in the 1950s, the embargo on the American Mercury is astonishing.  Heinlein had a very good record on anti-Semitism, having denounced it since the 1930s and even breaking friendships with anti-Semites. So what was he doing writing for the American Mercury (which had a jibe against Jews in the very issue Heinlein published in)? Patterson doesn’t ask.

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Rob Ford and Gangsterism


1. A few thoughts, recycled from twitter, about Rob Ford and gangsterism. 2. This Josh Marshall post gives good summary of where things stand in Ford case: 3. Based on Josh Marshall post & Toronto Star reporting, it looks like there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that Ford unleashed Lisi. 4. Evidence is circumstantial, so it’s entirely possible that Ford won’t face criminal charges. 5. But if we look at evidence we already have, Ford is best understood as a gangster (rather than just a buffoon). 6. Ford-as-gangster helps explain not just his behavior in trying to find crack video but also his political support. 7. Think of the Godfather: his power is not just based on violence but also in providing services to local community. 8. The mafia boss is the padrone. He looks after the little people. He helps you and when the time comes you support him against his enemies 9. Mafia-style governance flourishes in marginalized (often immigrant) communities where centralized state is distrusted or distant. 10. The mafia boss both provides services (in good times) but can also threaten violence (when things get rough). 11. Ford-as-gangster explains both his style of governance (small favors for those who call), his base (in marginal communities) & loyalty he expects and gets from follower. 12. Loyalty is key to the mafia boss system: you have to stick with the padrone no matter what. 13. “You can’t teach loyalty” — Doug Ford. The Godfather would understand. 14. Rumors about “dirty cops” who did Ford’s bidding are the most troubling thing about Ford story. 15. Mafia governance flourishes where people don’t trust the state — so “dirty cops” have a double function in Ford story. 16. If we take Ford-as-gangster model seriously, then Rob Ford represents much more serious crisis in Canadian politics than people realize 17. The mafia boss stands for “family values” despite his criminality — hence Ford’s strain of social conservatism. The family is all. 17. Ford doesn’t exist in isolation. His family are part of fabric of Canadian conservatism, both provincially and nationally. 18. We have a mafia mayor whose dad was a member of the provincial parliament, whose family friend was until recently cabinet minister. 19. Are we willing to think seriously about the unanswered questions? 20. To what degree has Ford family been shielded over the decades from consequences of their criminality by family connections? 21. How many “dirty cops” does Rob Ford know, and what have they done for him? 22. To what degree has investigation into Ford been hampered by possible “dirty cops” in Toronto Police Department? 23. Will any of the elite political figures who participated in rise of Rob Ford (everyone from John Tory to Harper) be held accountable? 24. We criticize immigrant communities for “no snitching” ethos. What about “no snitching” among the Canadian elite?

Tweeting Leo Strauss: the Homosocial & the Homoerotic

Socrates and Alcibiades by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816)
Socrates and Alcibiades by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg (1816)


I did a series of tweets about Leo Strauss, homosociality and homoeroticism. Because people expressed interest in seeing them in one place, I’ve reprinted them (in slightly edited form) below:

1. Trigger warning. I’m starting a twitter-essay on the sexual politics of Leo Strauss.

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Saudi Arabia and the Canadian connection: the Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni case

Wajeha Al-Howaider
Wajeha Al-Howaider

The Saudi human rights activist Wajeha Al-Huwaider and her colleague Fawzia Al-Oyouni, who have fought for such causes as the right of women in her country to drive, have been sentenced to 10-months in prison along with a two-year travel ban forbidding them from leaving the country. Their case should be of particular interest to Canadians because their supposed offense was trying to help an Canadian woman Nathalie Morin, who has repeatedly complained about being trapped in abusive marriage in Saudi Arabia.

Katha Pollitt explains the details:

They were accused of kidnapping and trying to help Nathalie Morin, a Canadian woman married to a Saudi, flee the country in June 2011. Morin, who has said her husband locks her in the house and is abusive, has been trying for eight years to leave Saudi Arabia with her three children. (There’s a so-far-unsuccessful campaign, spearheaded by her mother, to get the Canadian government to intervene.) Al-Huwaider says they were responding to a frantic text message from Morin, who said her husband had gone away for a week and left her locked in the house without enough food or drinkable water. When they arrived at the house with groceries, they were arrested.

Both the Morin case and the Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni case are clear examples of human rights transcending national borders. The group Muslims for Progressive Values (MPV) has been doing excellent activism on these cases, pressing the Canadian government to stand up for human rights. Here is the MPV  statement on the Morin case and here is their comments on the Al-Huwaider and Al-Oyouni case. Both statements contain a helpful list of government officials to contact. The Pollitt column should also be read in full, as an extremely valuable background report. I’m writing to Thomas MacDonald, Canada’s ambassador to Saudi Arabia, about these cases, and would encourage readers of this blog to do the same.