Here’s a snapshot of my life, taken when my stroke-afflicted mother lived with me. I’d returned from errands and was just shutting the front door when I saw her in her wheelchair. The back of it was pitched forward at a steep angle and when she shifted slightly, I knew what was coming. I ran toward her, fell to my knees, and caught her just as she started sliding down…
Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir written by young American lawyer, J.D. Vance. Through it he tells the story of hillbillies, impoverished immigrants who came from Scotland and Ireland in the eighteenth century to settle in the American south. It’s also an apologia of sorts, one that may explain why Donald Trump, that inveterate carnival barker, has achieved political prominence.
Scrolling through the entirety of the judgement, in the Mandi Gray rape trial, is depressing. That’s because what we see is not a Jamesian Portrait of a Lady—an Isabel Archer who learns hard lessons about love—but a troubled woman playing the role of villain, like that of Isabel’s husband, a manipulator who uses deceit to control others.
Citing James in this context is apt: he was a novelist who specialized in the tyranny of the weak, a theme that if one looks closely enough, links the various Toronto trials. I refer here to the trials of Gregory Alan Elliott, Jian Ghomeshi and Mustafa Ururyar. All three were accused of committing sexist crimes against women. Both Elliott and Ghomeshi won their cases; the case against Ururyar, who is accused of raping Gray, is on appeal.
From a distance, it seems there is a cadre of young Toronto feminists who, like a proverbial tail, are trying to wag the dog, the dog in this case being women in the ROC, or the rest of the country. This is an elite squad who are out to heighten our perception of male wrongdoing and are using a succession of legal challenges to do so. That they are failing is good news; it points to the truth that Canadians are eminently fair, sensible and disinclined to rule out provocation.
And it’s the provocation aspect of the Gray case that I’d like to examine.
The sheer amount of verbiage Judge Zuker included in his judgement has created a subtext clearly at odds with his decision. In it, Gray’s tale is fulsome, so much so that she betrays her true intention with Ururyar that night—to elicit affection from him–and spends much of her testimony behaving as though she is on a therapist’s couch and not in a courtroom. Her story is heavy on feeling (“He had destroyed any self-esteem I had”) and light on fact (“I don’t remember taking off my pants”). Moreover, her professed intoxication often pops up when her version of events is challenged. In the end, the judgement reads like an exhausting conversation with someone in denial, the kind where saying, “He’s just not into you,” seems the painful but necessary solution.
Ururyar’s frustration with Gray’s behaviour is also evident. His version of events is that by the night of the alleged rape, he and Gray had been involved in a brief, casual affair: Gray had accepted the fact that Ururyar was in an open relationship and she was present, at the end of that night of drinking, when he invited yet another woman to come home with him. When the woman refused and hopped into a cab, Gray says Ururyar became abusive. She went home with him regardless, stating that she had little choice, given that the transit service had stopped and taking a cab was out of the question for two reasons: she had spent all her money and she felt too “vulnerable.”
In response, Ururyar says that earlier in the evening Gray had been inappropriately sexual with him in public–he’d asked her, twice, to stop massaging his inner thigh. Interestingly, Ururyar’s request was confirmed by Gray. However, her argument is that it came out of the blue and was apropos of nothing she’d said or done. She couldn’t remember massaging him, for example, and asserts she had no plans to have sex with him that evening. This contradicts a text she’d sent him earlier, one inviting him out and mentioning “hot sex” afterwards.
Perhaps it’s my literary background, but as I read through the judgement, a clear theme emerged: Ururyar’s anger towards Gray is comprehensible and knowable, even if the actual events of the evening are not.
I feel sympathy for him because I too had a casual partner while in university, one who was good at manipulating events in his favour. Our relationship started unravelling one night after I returned from an evening out with friends. He called and asked to come over. Given the lateness of the hour, I said no, but a half hour later he showed up anyway. When I told him to leave, he pleaded and started cuddling with me in the foyer of the house I shared with other students.
Although I was insistent, it soon became clear a prolonged discussion was in the offing—one that might wake up my roommates—and so I relented, a choice I felt manipulated into making. Of course his persistence continued in my bedroom. The next morning, a Sunday, I shooed him out early, lying by telling him I was spending the day with my parents. After all but pushing him out the front door, I went back to bed fuming.
In this climate of hypersensitivity, many people would consider this rape. It wasn’t, but I did experience it as an annoying and off-putting level of persistence. However, my response wasn’t about having unwanted sex–that was a detail–I was angry over the man’s controlling behaviour. It made me realize two things: that I didn’t really care for him and that he often contrived to get his way, this despite an outwardly breezy temperament. That memory surfaced as I was reading, probably because I recognized what Ururyar’s reticence toward Gray actually meant, her jungle of rationalizing language notwithstanding.
So here’s my argument: if feminists can understand my anger at Mr. Persistent, they should understand Ururyar’s anger at Gray too. That’s because Gray acted in a way that led her, inexorably, to Ururyar’s bedroom that night. She invited him to meet her, mentioned sex and asked to sleep over. During the evening, she was inappropriately sexual with him twice and agreed to share a bed with him even after his apparent interest in another woman was made clear. She was also free to leave the bar at any time and she’d had, at one point, enough money for a taxi. When asked about her “vulnerability” with regard to using one, an undisclosed story about an incident Gray had had with a taxi was offered as an explanation. However, since many women consider taxis a final line of defence for dates that go badly, I do wonder what happened and why Gray felt she couldn’t call one. I ask because her reluctance fits in with a pattern of recurring rationalizations, rationalizations that rule out the possibility of another, safer course of events happening that night.
Let’s turn the tables. You are a young woman deeply involved in your university’s student union. You’ve had a couple of intimate nights with a man for whom you do not have strong feelings. Even though you’ve made your intentions clear, he sends you a sexy text, inviting you to meet at a bar where several other union people are drinking. You go, thinking that since others are there, you won’t be in for an intimate evening with your erstwhile lover.
Then he tries some surreptitious fondling and you ask him to stop. He tries again and again you ask him to stop. At the end of the night you leave with the group, including him and a new man you are more interested in. You ask the new man back for a drink. He senses an atmosphere and says no. After he leaves, your lover wants to talk about what’s going on. You don’t because you’re nettled over the other man’s rejection. Your lover insists on coming home with you anyway, even though your mood is stormy. (“But I don’t have cab fare and the buses have stopped running!”) It’s no surprise when things go badly in the bedroom, but you’re relieved the pretense is over and you’re off the hook when it comes to seeing him again.
There’s no doubt that this erstwhile lover, were Gray to describe him to her friends, would be labelled a creep who doesn’t understand the word no. It’s a perception endemic to the kind of feminism touted by many academic women and yet it’s never held up to the mirror. That women are equally capable of harassing men in the same manner simply doesn’t figure into this world view; that men can feel equally and deeply provoked by it doesn’t either.
Judge Zuker’s judgement has come under fire, even from other judges. That’s because in an ill-advised show of partisanship, he included many references to controversial feminist theories, theories that many of his colleagues at OISE, where he teaches part-time, embrace fully and disseminate freely. But if there’s one reality feminist theorists often avoid, it’s that today, women in the western world are free to choose most things. Gray was free to leave a bad situation at any time, unlike previous generations of women, and James’ heroines, who, when they made bad choices and bad marriages, were forced to stay and suffer.
When Ururyar’s lawyer asked Gray why she didn’t walk away, especially once Ururyar became abusive, she replied that she would be asking herself that question for the rest of her life. It’s a non-answer in terms of her testimony, but a good start in terms of her mental health. In fact it’s the kind of questioning we should all do on occasion, if only to remind ourselves how unpleasant disrespecting ourselves can be.
The verdict was guilty, but now high powered lawyer Marie Henein is fighting to have it overturned.
When I wrote On Trial for Rape last year, I took readers inside the courtroom to see what a regular, non-headline-making sexual assault trial looks like. Now, I want to take you back to court for another very different trial, which raises still more questions about how our legal system deals with sexual assault. This is a very hot topic nowadays, and I want to give you facts and reporting so that you can be the judge.
I’ve taken a summer hiatus but will be writing on the Mandi Gray rape trial soon. In the meantime, I’m posting two excellent sources of information. The first is a video by Diana Davison, where she covers some of the more troubling aspects of the case taken directly from court transcripts.
Second is an essay written by Karin Litzcke. She focuses on judicial independence, a problem in the Gray trial, and puts it into the larger context of presiding Judge Zuker’s work relationship with OISE and OISE’s agendas of progressivism and militant feminism. Litzcke’s essay is long, but is clearly written and makes a persuasive argument for genuine egalitarianism. She’s a refreshing voice.
The Ururyar decision issued July 21st by Ontario Justice Marvin Zuker happens to create a bit of a convergence for me. I don’t particularly want to write about individual decisions here, but there is a judicial independence issue involved that is peculiar to my field of expertise, public schooling.
First, I should say from the outset that Zuker is more than a name to me because he is an education law expert, and has written a book from which I’ve used a passage or two. I actually didn’t know he was a judge, but once I did, I was inclined to regard him positively.
In a way that was entirely predictable, those in the UK who voted to leave in the Brexit referendum are being characterized as idiots. Equally predictable was the petty foot-stomping that greeted Nigel Farage at the EU immediately after the vote. President Jean-Claude Juncker, in a memorably juvenile moment, churlishly asked, “You voted to leave. Why are you here?”
The division most pertinent to Brexit is that between the big city and the hinterlands. It’s no surprise that many Londoners voted to stay. Much of the wealth in England resides there and the spirit of globalization—succinctly expressed as the “freedom to roam”—informs the consciousness of young Londoners with big ambitions. There’s a forward-lookingness to this attitude, the flipside of which is a shrug at the concerns of the working classes, a dismissal of the role they play in running the country. Progress might not be halted if all the city’s shoe-shiners walked off the job tomorrow, but what about shop assistants, wait staff and frontline transit workers? If there’s no Eurostar to hop on, where would all that bustling ambition go?
Current globalization has been hailed as a boon for ailing economies, but its underside—the decimation of rural communities—has largely gone unheeded by those leading the charge. Moreover, there’s plenty of proof that the prosperity it promises is an illusion, one that sells itself on the basis that it’s attainable by all. Barometers abound when it comes to measuring globalization’s failures, the American mortgage crisis of 2008 being just one. That disaster, surely, shows what happens when the creation of a succession of middlemen turns pathological. One platform in the Leave campaign addressed this precisely: it asserted that the directives coming from Brussels were too remote from the lives of ordinary Brits.
Another barometer, oddly enough, can be found in the history of meth use in the US. Nick Reding’s Methland is a book that tells this story. However, Methland is really about economics, especially the hollowed-out variety. Oelwein, Iowa, is where Reding spent three years examining the epidemic in the midwest. The opening demographics are telling:
Every year, Oelwein’s population dwindles. The senior class at the high school shrinks, on average, by five students each fall. In 2004 alone, Oelwein lost $147,000 in tax revenues. It cannot absorb the social and financial cost of malady…
Local physician Clay Hallburg had a front row seat to Oelwein’s decline: “How ’bout the first people to leave are of course the smart ones, and the people with the money to get out.” This supports the work of Craig Reinarman, a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz, who asserts that the meth epidemic, unlike other drug epidemics, illustrates sociological fault lines most clearly. These lines are much like those made obvious by Brexit: meth users in the States typically come from the rural areas populated by the working poor. Why they are meth’s biggest customers is a point I’ll return to later.
It’s certain that Oelwein has sister-cities in the UK, where similarly hollowed-out economies foster higher levels of drug addiction and their attendant miseries. If we are to understand the vote, we must understand globalization in its entirety; to do this, we must listen to what the working poor among us have to say about their own suffering. What we’ll hear is that their lives follow a sociological pattern common to developed countries: when the economic hearts of small communities leave, the social costs to those left behind is staggering.
But these costs appear only in the rear-view mirrors of those dazzled by the potential of globalization, those who think the freedom to roam is the singular answer to economic instability. This is only one blind spot of many: thinking that moving can solve everything excludes those whose jobs and hearts are tied to specific locales. A university degree isn’t necessary to understand that fishermen, miners and farmers aren’t likely to switch jobs and land IT positions down by the Canary Wharf. Nor is it difficult to understand why a 52 year-old fisheries worker, with children and grandchildren living nearby, might not want to follow his employer to another coastal region where the company’s prospects are better. But these dilemmas are being treated as so much noise by Remainers whose educations should make them more than less aware of the consequences of economic hardship.
They are being aided in their insensitivity by the likes of Richard Branson, who, once the vote was in, announced, “We were about to do a very big deal and we cancelled that deal that would have involved 3,000 jobs and that’s happening all over the country.” Given that Branson has considerable stature in the business world, and does not answer to shareholders, his wording is especially interesting: unlike the business leader he is, he throws the responsibility for this decision at the Leave voters when in fact it was his and his partner’s to make. In that sense his statement seems an exaggeration; a company as profitable as Virgin can manage a short-term over-expenditure far easier than most households in Britain.
Branson also said that “Some people think that by voting Leave they will somehow punish the ruling class.” He may be right about the desire to punish, but wouldn’t looking at the causes be more fruitful? I wonder, too, how critical he would be of the strategies used by the companies described in Methland. In 1987, a Cargill food plant close to Oelwein cut its wages from $18 an hour to $5.60 with no benefits. By 1999, when Cargill became Cargill-Excel, managers at the same plant were placing newspaper ads in the Mexican border towns of Juárez and Tijuana, offering two months free rent to workers who could make it Iowa. As Reding notes:
For Cargill and the rest of the packing conglomerates, employing illegals would appear to have been the best of all possible situations, for the simple reason that these employees, lacking legal identification, didn’t technically exist and therefore had no rights. Nor were they apt to argue with the harsh conditions of an industry that continues today to have the highest rate of employee injury in the United States.
It’s no surprise then that during the long years of the midwest’s economic downturn, between the late 80s and early aughts, many whites in Iowa resented Mexicans for working for so little money. While this resentment likely fostered some racism, honestly addressing the underlying reasons for it, like the shrinking manufacturing base caused by NAFTA, would have been more realistic and more helpful. For example, if we were to import this situation into the present, I wonder how many Remainers could take a total loss of benefits and a 68% wage cut without feeling some enmity towards those displacing them.
This is hypothetical, of course, since the situation in Iowa was extreme by most standards and is not being replicated in the UK. But the pattern of job losses and the withdrawal of resources communities depend on, like fishing waters, can be devastating nonetheless. I suspect it’s this pattern of loss that informed much of the voting against the EU and not the immigration issue per se. However, many Remainers focus on anti-immigration sentiments, using the belligerance of UKIPers as proof. That’s a bit like blaming Iowans for disliking the Mexicans who helped lower their wages. I suppose it’s satisfying to call out the racism of others, but doing so misses the economic point entirely.
What made the book Methland possible was that the manufacture of meth actually filled the space left by vanishing job opportunities in Iowa: the drug became one of the state’s biggest industries. That said, the epidemic was important for another reason. As Reding notes,
Throughout its hundred-year history, meth has been perhaps the only example of a widely consumed illegal narcotic that might be called vocational, as opposed to recreational. The market for meth in America is nearly as old as industrialization. Poor and working-class Americans had been consuming the drug since the 1930s, whether it was marketed as Benzedrine, Methedrine or Obedrin, for the simple reason that meth makes you feel good and permits you to work hard.
And the ability to work long and hard became a necessity for those living in and around Oelwein. At $5.60 an hour, most breadwinners needed more than one job and meth helped them manage. And while the good news is that meth’s popularity has diminished in recent years–those viral before and after photos of addicts likely did the trick–the dispatches I get from friends driving through the midwest tell me it hasn’t disappeared entirely. Sightings of telltale rotten teeth, in employees of businesses along interstate highways, are common. As Reding’s analysis makes clear, these are not users taking meth for the fun of it.
A government’s job is to govern and Brits who felt unheard in Brussels made their wishes known by voting to leave. While increasing government spending in hard hit areas is an option favoured by the political left, there is a vivid cautionary tale unfolding in Venezuela right now, thanks to its socialist economic policies. The drop of oil prices, along with a weak domestic economy–local businesses couldn’t compete with price-fixed imports–has sent the country into economic free fall. Store shelves are empty and a group of angry women made news last week when they stormed the border to go shopping for staples in Colombia.
This tells us that letting the markets do their own thing, by allowing them to prosper with less and not more intervention, is desirable. However, the point of the EU and of globalization was to facilitate trade agreements that raised all boats equally, bringing about an increase in living standards across the board. That that promise has failed to materialize is clear: third world work forces are commonly used to undermine those in the first and the only real change has been a new distribution of misery. Patterns of drug abuse tell that story: meth’s biggest markets serve those living in impoverished areas of the US and Asia, where the costs of labour have diminished.
Given those bleak social and economic pictures, bringing the locus of power closer to those in the UK who feel its loss most keenly is not as unintuitive as it seems. Even with their supposed lack of insight, the working classes affected by the EU’s dictates can still turn on a computer and go online. And they are not so stupid that they can’t see themselves and their troubles in context. The only surprise is the unpleasant one being experienced by those with higher educations: they were clearly unaware of the native intelligence of those shoe-shiners and baristas who serve them every day. That of course raises the issue of political short-sightedness, begging the real question: “Of the working and educated classes, whose was most predictable?”
One of the worst things that ever happened to my family, happened in a Canadian hospital. My mom was deteriorating, but instead of being helped to survive, she got surreptitious “comfort care”—that euphemism for let’s help this person die. We weren’t aware because we were told a different story, one that led us to believe there was some hope.
It’s a story I expect would have been reversed once she passed away; we would solemnly be told, “We’re sorry, but she was going to die anyway.” I know this because after my mother survived, I spoke to numerous families who’d been told the same after a parent had died. It got me wondering. Had it been true each time?
After my mother left the hospital, badly maimed, I engaged in several bouts of letter-writing to various government agencies and institutions. I wanted an explanation for what had happened, but when not one responded, and my anger became unmanageable, I gave up. Given my mother’s age and the vagaries of Canadian law, no legal recourse was available for us either: the powerlessness we experienced was total.
So the class fight emerging in the wake of Brexit feels familiar to me. My mother is working-class and I suspect my absence at her admission, and for 48 hours afterwards, may have determined the course of her treatment. I am also certain that the less educated, like her, are frequently manipulated into more cheaply managed, premature deaths. It’s educated patients and their families–the kind that can intimidate doctors–that get the benefit of more life-saving procedures.
I’ve got no personal stake in Brexit, but what I do have is my ascension out of the working class and the education that helped me do it. Here are some of my thoughts:
Too many knowledge workers live in echo chambers: In Canada, the rise of Toronto mayor Rob Ford happened because working class Torontonians felt powerless. Much of it had to do with the high cost of housing and long commutes. Ford ran his campaign on two platforms: he wanted to bring subways to far-reaching neighbourhoods and he upheld his promise to make himself accessible: he returned calls to Torontonians personally, a fact many of his critics derided. What they didn’t appreciate was that Ford brought the power of city hall to people desperate to be heard. Mocking him may have been satisfying, but those doing so missed the point: members of the Ford Nation were not suffering from psychosis–as one of our pundits famously opined–they were experiencing connection.
More than 50% of healthcare workers voted to leave the E.U. Despite my disappointment with the Canadian healthcare system, I must concede that those at the bottom of its hierarchies often have staggering workloads. This is because staffing levels at many hospitals in Canada and in the U.K. have been critically low for decades. While supporters of the Brexit have been called racists and bigots, the realities of hospital life in the U.K., especially in economically depressed areas, make it clear that health care infrastructures have not kept pace with surges in population growth.
This is not to blame immigrants, but it is to blame a government, and a class largely untouched by shortages, that wants to accept newcomers without creating the requisite structures to handle them. It is also frightening to disadvantaged populations. They typically live in areas that immigrants are drawn to because of lower housing costs. This puts more stress on institutions that are already struggling. Writing in the Guardian, Nick Davies tells the story of one such hospital that turned to staffing agencies. He’s worth quoting at length:
An incident on the geriatric ward at Seacroft hospital in Leeds last year highlights the problem. The hospital contacted the agency for a nurse to work on the ward, which was short of staff. To begin with, the nurse tried to take a patient’s blood pressure, failed to get a reading but nevertheless recorded a figure on the patient’s chart. Then, as the sister in charge, Chris Smith, recorded in an official report: ‘She proceeded to spend the rest of the time preening herself in front of the mirror.’
The situation remained calm until the agency nurse announced that she needed to go to the toilet, whereupon she sat down on a patient’s bed and urinated on the bedclothes. Sister Smith recorded: ‘The patient noticed this and questioned the nurse, who ignored her.’ The nurse was seen later wandering around the ward in her petticoat while her soiled uniform dried on a radiator.
The Guardian has established that the BNA continued to use this nurse and sent her out to nursing homes, where the complaints about her were not known.
When hospitals are forced to choose between unfilled shifts and mentally disturbed nurses, scandals like the one in Mid-Staffordshire, where hundreds of patients died prematurely, are bound to happen. That many nurses voted for the unknown is significant. It points to their desperation.
The rise of finely parsed identity politics reflects a repositioning of identity, not an eradication of it. The whole idea behind globalization is to create borderless countries and frictionless commerce. While those freedoms were evolving in the E.U.–tyrannical market standards notwithstanding–globalization, in a broader sense, supports the diminishment of national identities. The deficit left by this diminishment may be one reason for the surge in virulent identity politics, those found primarily on university campuses in the west.
How does this relate to the Leave side? A quieter consequence of identity politics can be seen in the rise of charter schools in the U.S. and free schools in the U.K.
Social critics view these new institutions–which receive government funding–with suspicion, especially since one implicit goal of their incorporation is to create more competition among schools and drive up the quality of education. Wary critics are probably right when they say these schools are fragmenting and divisive, especially in catchment areas that have a mix of income brackets. Despite being governed by the same rules, it’s clear that many are geared toward serving middle class families; they also operate with less oversight, allowing administrators to devise ways to exclude poorer or poorer performing students. So less advantaged students, who go to their local grammar schools, can end up sitting in classrooms where a majority of students do not speak English. It only follows that native speakers, when outnumbered, will not get the most out of their classes.
These formations are not racist so much as they are classist: some ethnic and religious groups, with firmer roots in the U.K., have started their own free schools as a reaction to the same problem.
The conflation of nationalism with jingoism is wrong and only serves to prevent meaningful conversations about problems in frontline institutions like schools and hospitals. Here’s an example from my own life. A college I once taught at wanted to improve the experience of its English second-language students. One stated goal was to determine which had received ESL instruction either from a local high school (if they’d been in Canada for some time) or from schools in their home countries (if they were newly arrived). In a brain-storming session, I suggested we could add some questions to their post-admission placement essay, an essay that was only used for streaming purposes. I said that either multiple choice or short answer questions, asking them to correctly identify terms like “present tense” and “past-perfect,” could be added to determine which students had or had not had ESL instruction.
The room went quiet and that evening I got a call from the senior teacher overseeing the project. She wondered if I wanted to create a cabal of teachers with racist leanings and then suggested that she would “hate to not have any work for you next semester.” I took the hint and toed the ridiculously impractical line she took to tackle the problem. The irony, of course, is that I am the daughter of immigrants myself and English was not my first language.
And there are other ironies. One was watching Bob Geldof, he of the saccharine charity Bandaid, blasting music to silence the fishermen who arrived as a flotilla on the Thames to express their desire to leave the E.U. His yelling at them, and flipping them the bird, captures, beautifully, the deep-seated hatred that the monied classes in England have for those who serve them. Then witness the largely unchallenged antics of Bahar Mustafa, the University of London diversity officer who started the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen. That Mustafa comes from a relatively privileged family was a fact she conveniently kept to herself.
It’s true that the politics of nationalism can turn ugly and it’s true that racism exists. But other problems exist too. Dividing voters of the Brexit according to age and class, and characterizing the Leave side as racist and stupid, does not solve the problem of poorly resourced communities, especially those in economically depressed areas. For example, the question of whether a person has lived in the U.K. their entire life or just arrived yesterday is entirely moot when a ruptured appendix happens and the local A and E can’t cope. As the daughter of immigrants, I don’t look at the Leave side and see xenophobia, but I do see struggle, indifference and abandonment. It’s easy to be complacent when your doctors work on Harley Street and there are always enough nurses to go around.
The ruling and chattering classes love the idea of diversity, but generally speaking, don’t get close enough to communities experiencing it to see the gaps in resources and the chaos they cause. Mentally, they keep immigrants at arm’s length and hope for the best, expecting the immigrants’ gratitude and their receiving communities’ acquiescence will make things work. The Leave vote was a repudiation of both those expectations.
It was also a cri de coeur, and a loud and compelling one at that.