My Father’s Gifts

Joe and Nancy Friedman

My father, Joe Friedman and my mother, Nancy Salter, in the summer of 2005.

My father died on Thursday morning.

I comforted myself by listening to Gabriel Fauré and reading Jacques Derrida. On the surface, that might seem like an odd choice, but music and philosophy have always been where I find the most comfort. The gentleness of Fauré’s Requiem – which simultaneously evokes the finality of death and the beauty of life – and the wisdom of the laughing rabbi helped to reconcile me with the world.

Derrida wrote extensively about mourning, about how we choose to mourn, how we mourn successfully and ethically. Our first impulse is to deny death in mourning by interiorizing the deceased; making his “spectre” part of ourselves, and saying that he will always live on within us. There is comfort in that, of course. It endows the deceased with immortality and seems to cheat death by denying its finality.

But Derrida writes it is neither a successful nor an ethical way to mourn, for this denial of death is a denial of the otherness, the uniqueness, the specificity and singularity of the deceased. We can only mourn for the loss of another, not for ourselves. Rather, to mourn successfully, we must recognize and embrace the other’s mortality and accept the signification of his absence.

To do otherwise is to repudiate the conversation that we had and to deny all that passed between us. And this, Derrida writes, is why we mourn: To recognize that the conversation is at an end, and that nothing more will pass between us.

I find comfort in this because it forces me to reflect on everything that passed between my father and me; all of the things that were not part of him, but were gifts from him. When I was very young, I auditioned for the lead role in the Jan Kadar film Lies My Father Told Me. I didn’t get the part, of course, and that is just as well because my father told me no lies. He told me stories and he told me truths.

My father gave me history. He was a voracious reader, and I grew up surrounded by the books he acquired as a student and throughout his life. They were the works of the Grand Narrative – George Macaulay Trevelyan’s History of England, Bernard Pares’s History of Russia and Herbert Fisher’s Napoleon. My father had a soft spot for the French emperor, and chose to overlook his more tyrannical impulses to see him as a modernizing reformer who legally emancipated Europe’s Jews.

My father believed that to be a Jew was to be part of history. He told me this on the evening of my Bar Mitzvah as a way of calming my 13-year-old nerves. “In reading the Torah,” he told me, “your Torah portion, you are linking yourself to our history.” Needless to say, it did not have the desired effect, and I stepped up to the bimah in a state of abject terror that I was going to somehow let down four thousand years of Jewish history.

I also grew up seeing the photographs of my father cutting a dashing figure in his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform during the Second World War. He didn’t talk much about his experiences during my childhood – only that he had been very young, that he joined up seeking adventure and that he had been shot down and held as a prisoner of war by the Germans during the last months of the war. I had to fill in the rest from the journals he kept as a POW, obsessed with food – because they had so little – and dreaming about returning home to Park Avenue, his family… and to the coconut cream pie at Laurier Barbecue.

Only later, when he and I participated on a CBC radio broadcast marking the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, did I learn the details: How his mother refused to sign the consent form for her 17-year-old son’s enlistment until he threatened to join the Merchant Navy; how he very nearly bailed out at 20,000 feet without a parachute before he had the presence of mind to go back into the burning Lancaster bomber to retrieve it; how on that day he lost very close friends, Mark Goldwater, a schoolmate from the neighbourhood, and the skipper Taite Roth, the “old man,” who was only 22.

In his photos, and in his memories, I learned something very important from my father: History is embodied in people. The Grand Narratives are all well and good, but at the end of the day history, real history, was embodied in a terrified teenager from Montreal, bleeding from shrapnel wounds, standing at an escape hatch, surrounded by a blazing inferno, about to leap into the unknown.

My father gave me music. If he loved anything more than his books, it was music. It is a curious fact, however that he never learned to play an instrument. The only times I heard him do anything musical was when he would quietly sing along with the cantor at schul in his untrained but resonant baritone. Once, when I was taking violin lessons as a child, he confided, “if I could play any instrument, it would be the violin.” But “I could never be as good as Jascha Heifetz or Itzhak Perlman, so what’s the point?” That is the same reason why I eventually gave up the violin.

He listened to music and, despite a lack of formal training, he was one of the most knowledgeable music scholars I have ever known. He carefully explained counterpoint to me while we listened to Bach’s Art of Fugue and made clear the transition from classical to romantic styles using his bicentennial edition boxed set of Beethoven’s symphonies.

Year after year, my father took me to the concerts by the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the McGill Chamber Orchestra and recitals by soloists like Lynn Harrell, Jean-Pierre Rampal and Vladimir Ashkenazy. We would always go out for a nosh after the concert to discuss the music. He took me to these concerts because I was always so eager to go, but also because it gave him the excuse to go himself. My mother found concerts boring; my siblings couldn’t have cared less about music. But with me – eager to listen and learn – my father could justify the expense of a season subscription.

We didn’t always agree, of course, but that wasn’t the point. My father dearly loved the beauty and perfection of Mozart, particularly his late symphonies and piano concertos, while early on I began to cleave increasingly to the abstract and the atonal. But we agreed on Bach and Beethoven.

My father gave me social justice. I brought my partner home to meet my family for the first time two summers ago. As we sat in the sun in the back yard, my father leaned close to Molly and said in a conspiratorial tone, “we’re socialists, you know.” I’m not sure exactly what he meant, whether the “we” was Canadians, or the Friedmans or just he and I. What I do know is that he had a longstanding commitment to a vey personal brand of socialism firmly based on the old dictum of “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs.”

Many years ago my father gave a talk about community activism to a group of CITs (counselors in training) at Camp Wooden Acres, a Jewish community camp that he directed at the time. “And we all know,” he gravely intoned, “that poverty is the root of all evil.” I was a precocious six-year-old, and I was aghast that he had gotten the quote wrong. Even then, I knew that everyone knew that it was the love of money that was the root of all evil! How could he get it so wrong?

I silently carried the embarrassment with me for years. But over time, I realized that he hadn’t got the quote wrong. On that evening so long ago, he imparted an important wisdom – and something that he deeply believed – that far transcended the creaky old aphorism. Poverty, deprivation, economic inequality: these were the causes of evil, causes that could be, and should be eliminated.

My father was passionate about human dignity. I first heard the name Nelson Mandela from his lips, when I told him that I had been assigned South Africa for a grade school United Nations day. “You have the power to do the right thing, will you?” I have an early memory of demonstrating with my father outside the Soviet mission in Montreal in support of refuseniks in 1973. “Any government that denies basic human rights has no right to call itself ‘socialist,'” he said.

We disagreed on a great many things, of course. I don’t think he ever approved of my early flirtation with Québécois nationalism despite his own deep respect for René Lévesque (he had read Option Québec in its first printing!). His socialism always tended more toward reformist social democracy and mine inclines to the anti-authoritarian and revolutionary.

Our arguments on Zionism and Israeli government policy were truly epic. Molly witnessed just such an argument the summer that she met my father for the first time. There was no yelling, just a lot of gesticulating and passionate debate. It ended with my father offering to take us out to his favourite Thai restaurant. “After an argument like that, in my family, you wouldn’t speak to each other for years!” I explained that that’s just how we were: we had our own positions, but we respected each other enough to have some fine political-intellectual sport with them.

When I visited my father in the hospital last month, I told him about Molly’s comment and asked him if he ever wished I would back down in an argument. “Don’t be crazy,” he said. “You should never give in on what you believe in. I didn’t raise you to do that!”

The pain and grief that I feel at my father’s death is both incalculable and inexpressible. He is gone. He doesn’t “live on” in memories, places or artifacts. The conversation is over, and I will never listen to music or argue about politics with him ever again. There is a stark finality to that.

But there is also comfort, for so much passed between us over the decades of that conversation. I no longer have my father, but I will always have his gifts to me.

Sarko’s Elysian Dreams

I was on my way to the Petit Palais today, when I walked unwittingly into a pro-Sarkozy rally at Place de la Concorde. With the presidential election one week away, each had their supporters out in full force in different corners of the city. I didn’t have the good fortune to happen upon the others – Mélenchon’s took place earlier, at the Bastille, and Hollande held his in Vincennes, near his working-class constituency.

When I was learning French in Besançon ten years ago, my professors liked to use a discussion of the national flag to demonstrate what they viewed as fundamental political differences between Europe and the United States. French people were uncomfortable, they insisted, with Americans’ propensity toward patriotic display; the tricolor might designate government buildings, but it would never fly outside of the average French home. Flying the flag in a domestic space would recall a Fascist past when defining national belonging ended tragically for those deemed outsiders.

Today, however, I found myself in a sea of red, white, and blue, with a strong wind whipping the drapeaux in the hands of nearly every one of the rally’s participants. Ninety nine percent of them were what I like to call “Nos ancêtres les Gaulois”-French – middle-class whites whose origins lie in the hexagon. The entire event was carefully orchestrated to legitimize Nicolas Sarkozy’s by placing him among the symbols of French sovereignty.

Speaking from a white tent in the center of the Place de la Concorde, where Revolutionary France brought its former nobility to the guillotine, Sarkozy stood in the shadow of the Luxor obelisk brought from Egypt in 1833, a gift from Mehmet Ali to thank France for its support of his revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Rectangular banners lined the circle, each one of them suggesting the column at the center. One side read “La France Forte,” the other, “NS 2012.” Giant video screens repeated the slogans on either side of the candidate, the blue and white colors drawn from the national flag, but noticeably banishing the third color. Red is the color of communist internationalism and is used by both of Sarko’s left-leaning rivals (Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Front de Gauche and François Hollande’s Socialists).

Every sightline reinforced a narrative of national supremacy – the Louvre behind the candidate, simultaneously evoking monarchical power and cultural patrimony; the Eglise de la Madeline to his right, attesting to France’s Christian heritage; the National Assembly and the Ecole Militaire, containing Napoleon’s tomb, to his left. As Mr. Sarkozy looked out over the crowd, he would have had a clear view of the Champs Elysées, all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, erected by Napoleon to celebrate his victory at Austerlitz in 1805. Behind it the Avenue de la Grande Armée and the Esplanade de General de Gaulle stretch all the way to the Grande Arche de La Défense, which celebrates modern French technological development. The Eiffel Tower, in the distance, hovered over it all.

The symbolic weight of the event could hardly have been coincidental. Sarkozy has spent his presidency attempting to recreate France in a nationalist mold. From strong-arming the European Union under the guise of leadership, to deporting Roma migrants, to calling for restrictions on immigration, he has sought to position himself as a new Napoleon, strengthening France internationally and internally. The placement of the initials NS on his campaign posters attests to that – it is the latest installment of a series of inscriptions bearing imperial initial “N,” on the Louvre, on the Pont Neuf, and on all the trappings of royal power.

Yet Sarkozy’s campaign rests upon reviving a France that never was. Supporting Mehmet Ali in the 1830s left France isolated and fearful of decline as the British empire expanded. Catholic France was always contested, from the Wars of Religion in the seventeenth century, revolutionary deism in the eighteenth, secularist movements in the nineteenth, and general religious apathy today. The Monarchy lost it head – literally – and Napoleon lost his empire. His descendants, temporarily returned to power, were stripped of it in the nineteenth century, and humiliated internationally.

Holding his rally among the symbols of French sovereignty, Sarkozy stood with his back to the ghost of the Tuileries palace. He had forgotten that he spoke among the ruins of another France, the one invaded by the Prussian Army and burned down by Communards in 1871, overrun by Nazi tanks in 1940, and occupied by students in 1968. Sarkozy’s slogan of “La France Forte” is supposed to imply strength; instead, it suggests a France under siege, from immigrants, from Europe, and from the less glorious aspects of its past. Burying these elements doesn’t make them any less a part of France’s national history, and Sarko has unknowingly built his fortress upon their foundations.

Virtuous Circles, Vicious Cycles

My work is predicated on complexity. As a scholar of French colonialism, I advocate moving away from simplistic binaries of colonizer and colonized. I insist that we must rethink these categories and unpack the range of interactions and the spectrum of subjective agencies in the processes of empire and colony. Nothing, after all, is ever simple.

Then, I read this. Commenting on an article on India’s lifting of the Raj-era bans on “buggery,” as it was then known, a young Briton wrote:

“Ultimately… if not us then who? It’s not like India (which didn’t really exist as a political entity until we created it) would have been left to muddle along on its own. Another power would have imposed itself and I’m pretty confident they’d have been worse than us. The British Empire in my opinion was probably better than any likely alternative, a net benefit to India and the least damaging in Africa.”

It makes me want to scream from the rooftops: “COLONIALISM WAS NOT A POSITIVE FORCE, STUPID!!!”

As a historian, I spend a fair amount of my time trying to convince my senior colleagues (and sometimes even my partner) that colonial relationships were infinitely complicated. I am far from the first scholar to say this; Ann Stoler and Julia Clancy Smith blazed that trail years ago. In my field, however, too many scholars fall into easy schemas of East and West, China and Europe, Asian and European. Indeed, I’m guilty of doing it myself, for the convenience of vocabulary.

Yet, for all my efforts to differentiate among nations, classes, individuals, to argue that European power was scant, and to show how indigenous actors were always part of the process of ruling colonies, I have nothing but this visceral reaction to that comment. Every nuance I’ve ever tried to bring out collapses in my mind, back into the nasty imperialists and innocent locals that, I normally maintain, did not exist.

Because, in a way, they did.

They existed in the racist discourse that the perpetuated the expansion of empire. They existed in the laws that forbade the colonized from entering white space. They existed in campaigns to convert, to save, and to educate, in which the actors were of one kind and the acted upon, another.

They exist today, in the minds of those who can’t imagine why the colonized so despised imperial rule and who dream of extending it again by building hospitals, roads and schools in the “undeveloped world,” by telling Muslim women that they can’t be free until they accept secular restrictions on their clothing, in the fears that the brown fruit of colonization will tarnish la patrie.

There were historical exceptions, of course. They were the Khans, Shahs and Maharajas who took the waters in European spas and sent their children to boarding school, and the merchants who profited by trading opium, tea, and people. Intellectually, I can stand by my argument of complexity, because I see it in my sources. For instance, Parisian seminarians seem to have respected a learned Chinese priest, even if they dismissed his pagan countrymen. A French diplomat’s wife saw a common plight among all women, seeing the parallels between shuttered concubines and her own restricted freedom.

Nevertheless, none of these examples can erase a pervasive discourse of difference. It circulated among the nineteenth-century subjects of my research, and it circulates today. That discourse produces the difference; the category of colonial exists because colonizers created it, and placed themselves in opposition to it.

Their word was made flesh. In India, British civil servants, historians, ethnologists, and sociologists codified the caste system, turning what had been a flexible corpus of guidelines into a set of firm social divisions. In Africa, British attempts to ban genital cutting ultimately encouraged the practice; it became a mark of communal belonging and an act of defiance against colonial coercion.

The practice was far from unique to Euro-Americans empires of the 19th century. The inscription of colonial categories on the bodies of the colonized has long been one of the preeminent technologies of Empire. Look at the nationalist queue-cutting in Manchu and Republican China, forced name changes (Turks in Bulgaria, among others), ethnic cleansing, population exchanges, forced conversions (take your pick) and forced marriages (Alexander the Great, I’m looking at you).  It might be a slippery category, but the very questions, “who belongs?” and “who doesn’t?” inevitably seem to entail desperate attempts to define, separate, and “civilize” the Others.

The impulse hasn’t gone away.

In a recent joint interview, Tony Blair declined to comment on Liberian president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s support of a law criminalizing homosexuality in her nation.

I was appalled that Sirleaf discussed the law in terms of time-honored tradition. It was unsettling to realize that  colonial powers had so successfully impressed Victorian prudery that it now passes for local custom. I was deeply troubled by how such legislation would affect gay Liberians. Make no mistake: the criminalization of homosexuality is indistinguishable from the oppression of homosexuals. It is oppression, a legal pogrom against a minority. It disgusts me.

Yet I also fear that every time someone like Tony Blair (or better yet, Hilary Clinton) promotes gay rights in the Global South, the idea becomes yet another European or American imposition, another imperial demand to be resisted. By assuming a latter-day White Man’s Burden to “civilize” the “savages” the North invites the South to push back as an articulation of its independence.

So I find myself in a horrifying position: I am glad that Tony Blair kept his mouth shut.

Euro-America can’t erase its imperialist past by engaging with Africa in an imperialist manner. When domestic movements for change and liberation arise in the erstwhile colonies, local authorities can easily dismiss them as the products of outside interference, forces to be resisted lest they fall once again under the control of the part of the world that still thinks it is better… and that resistance will convince it that it is right.

Ultimately, every potential course of action seems unbearable; one legitimate demand for justice seems irreconcilable with the other. I am paralyzed.

Some days I despair for humanity.