Prelude and Fugue

I remember the night that my father came home from work with a copy of the Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields’ recording of Bach’s The Art of Fugue. It was a double-LP boxed-set (recorded music came on black vinyl discs in those days) with extensive booklet of liner notes. My father let me read the notes, but insisted that we would only listen to the records when we had time to sit through all four sides without interruption. My next few days were filled with curiosity and anticipation. Today, on Bach’s 332nd birthday, I recognize that this was one of the great formative moments of my life.

My father called me into the living room on the following Sunday for what he called “a concert.” It was a bright winter afternoon of the type that we used to get in early January in Montreal. The sun flooded through the big picture window, reflecting off the snow drifts in our front yard. I was eleven or twelve years old, and had spent the morning skating and playing shinny on a patch of ice cleared on Lac St-Louis behind the Town Hall. We had had the traditional Friedman weekend lunch of bagels, lox, and tomato soup.

Placing the first disk on the stereo turntable, my father promised that I was “in for a real treat.” The tone arm moved, the stylus dropped to the groove on the record… And my life was changed forever.

I am sure that many of us have had moments of artistic revelation – even many of them – that moment when a book, a poem, a painting, a film or a work of music opens up a whole new aesthetic vista. I was no stranger to music. My father had an enormous (for the time) collection of records, ranging from the Deutsche Grammophon bicentennial collection of Beethoven’s complete symphonies, concertos and overtures to jazz and boxed sets from the Newport Folk Festivals. We listened to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts together with the kind of devotion that more religious Jews attended schul, and we regularly attended concerts by l’Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and the McGill Chamber Orchestra.

My mother played the baby grand piano in our living room brilliantly. In retrospect, I believe that she loved the experience of producing music with the graceful, balletic motions of her hands – music that would fill the house from glassy piano to thunderous forte – more than the music itself. She inclined toward Mozart and Chopin, and would often pull scores from the bench pretty much at random, mixing it up with Scott Joplin and arrangements of songs from Fiddler on the Roof. Her performances were full of delicacy and passion, and I would often imagine her looking through the score to some distant point as she inhabited the sounds.

I had the benefit of a thorough, if unconventional, childhood education in music. My grade school music teacher Andreas Gutmanis imparted musical knowledge with a combination of urgency and enthusiasm. He put my classmates and me through the paces of the Orff Method – tee-tee tee-tee tah-tah on the school’s xylophones and glockenspiels – without great success. His real interest was in getting us to listen to music, however, and he would frequently draw the curtains and have us listen attentively and respectfully to everything from Mozart to Morton Subotnick’s electronic masterpiece Silver Apples of the Moon. In that he was immensely successful, and I am astonished at how many of his students became musicians.

Mr. Gutmanis taught me the violin. I loved the instrument, even though I hated practicing. My first concert performance was in a third-grade recital of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in all of the Suzuki variations. My father introduced me to conductor and pedagogue Brock McElheran when I was five. Dr. McElheran presented me with a baton and a copy of his book Conducting Techniques for Beginners and Professionals and gave me a series of private – though informal – lessons. (I still have both the baton and the book.) I later studied the piano and the flute and, though I never displayed any great talent, I learned to read music and to appreciate its beauty at a very profound level.

The vaults of the Thomaskirche, Leipzig.

The Art of Fugue, however, was an epiphany. It isn’t that this recording was or is the best music that I had ever heard. Make no mistake, however, it is an extraordinary piece of music, and the performance Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields is outstanding. Rather, the experience of listening to this music for the first time, in that time and place utterly transformed me. It was the first time that I heard music from the inside – and saw it too, for this was a profoundly synesthetic experience. The counterpoint rose above and around me like the vaults of a gothic cathedral. Years later, I saw a photo of the nave of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, where Bach was cantor and Director of Music for more than half of his career, and said out loud “yes, yes, that’s what I saw!”

Although the beauty of The Art of Fugue is highly architectural, the fugal lines of Bach’s masterpiece are never static. They move, and sweep and dance in ribbons of melody. The music is always serious and contemplative, a product of the Enlightenment, yet it is full of dark depths, ecstatic highs and restrained passions evoking both the religious foundations of Bach’s work and the chromatic future. It is both a palimpsest and a prophecy, and it ends abruptly 239 bars into the last, immense, four-voice, triple fugue – apocryphally at Bach’s death.

If I was to identify the moment when the starting point of trajectory that led me to become a music historian, that would be it. It is the ursprung of my own intellectual and professional genealogy. The process certainly was not quite that simple or predetermined, and I have drifted and dodged in any number of professional and scholarly directions in the decades since. But listening to The Art of Fugue on that afternoon, and every time since, I find myself connected to a nexus of history, art, culture and the genius of an artist whom I never met but somehow know intimately.

That is why music is important. Several years ago, when I sat down with my dissertation advisor to pitch the project that would consume my life and presumably define my academic career, I described those moments – beginning with The Art of Fugue, and following innumerable times thereafter – when listening to music connected me to those networks of meaning, history and feeling. Music is important because through it we can hear both the abstract and the concrete: the composer’s imagination, the performers’ skill and training, the resonance of the luthier’s craftsmanship, the boundaries of culture and knowledge, the expectations and prejudices that obtain at is moment of production and at every subsequent moment of reception. We cannot touch it, but we can feel it. We cannot see the notes as they are transmitted through the air, but we can read them.

The great unfinished final fugue from J.S. Bach’s The Art of Fugue, performed by Pierre-Laurent AImard.

Kristallnacht is Coming

Toppled headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. (Photo courtesy of KTTN News)

Toppled headstones at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in University City, Mo. (Photo courtesy of KTTN News)

Antisemitism. The bomb threats to Jewish Community Centers, and the vandalism to a Jewish cemetery in Missouri this week are just the latest manifestation of our dark, persistent social neurosis.

If you’re Jewish, you kind of expect this sort of thing. It’s depressing, disappointing, distressing – but it’s part of the background noise of daily life. What’s different now is how frequent and numerous these more public, directed incidents have become. This is a step beyond the usual casual antisemitism and, although coincidence is not causation, it’s hard not to see the connection between the political climate and these incidents. What worries me is that these things will inevitably get worse.

I have met, and spoken to antisemites of the most virulent type. They are mostly timid, fearful creatures who get strength by testing boundaries, and seeing how well they can push through them. They will start with small attempts to outrage, and gaining skill and strength, they will inevitably escalate to larger outrages. They conceive of themselves as the dispossessed, the “forgotten men,” and see Jews as both a great monolithic power that stands between them and their birthright, and a tiny minority community they can dominate and, yes, destroy.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, Jews like Walter Rathenau were among the most prominent people in the country, but Jews made up about 0.8% of the total population. Today, in the United States, Jews like Jared Kushner, Bernie Sanders, Wolff Blitzer, and many others, are among the most prominent people in the country, and Jews make up about 1.4% of the population. The proportion is larger, and Jews are close to the centre of White Nationalist power, but that makes us both more threatening, and more vulnerable. To the antisemite, Ivanka Trump is not reassuring; she is a race-traitor, and an emblem of the awesome danger of infection and defilement posed by “the Jew.”

And that last category is important, because it is not a category controlled by Jews, liberal gentiles, or any rational people. As Sartre noted, “the Jew” is a creation of the fevered mind and dark imaginings of the antisemite – just as, it should be noted, “the Muslim” is a product of the Islamophobe’s mind.

So things will get bad. Very bad – and very soon. Just as the archetypal serial killer escalates from torturing pets, to butchering neighbourhood animals, to hunting humans, seeking greater gratification with every boundary crossed, so will the antisemite progress from a nuisance, to a problem, to a danger, to a vandal– to a murderer.

This is the reality: Kristallnacht is Coming.

Short Memories: Thoughts on Complicity

We have short memories.

They are selective. One of the running jokes in my family is my mother’s ability to recall how she dressed me on a certain fall day twenty-nine years ago, but not what we discussed five minutes ago. It is funny, then – innocuous things remembered, or simply gone. We would worry about incipient Alzheimer’s, except that she has been this way as long as I’ve known her.

Family memory works similarly. There’s an old story about how we ended up here, in the US, in an indefinite exile that turned into a permanent one. My great-grandfather’s cousin, or brother, or friend, depending on the rendition, had revolutionary sympathies. He may or may not have been part of a pro-independence organization once known for its terroristic tactics.

He was a kid.

He was pushed up against a wall and shot by authorities trying to protect the population from itself. The rest of the family got on a boat. We have not forgotten being marked, by our religion and accent, name and complexion. The injustice of it all colored my youth. For nearly a century after my ancestral homeland achieved independence, I avoided visiting the former colonial power, convinced that it would be unpleasant for people like me, and shocked when it was quite the opposite.

We remember the wrong of 1900. We remember what it was like to be marked as Other, and killed for the difference. Then we act like it only happened to us. We remember being perversely special, exceptional in our oppression. We forget in an instant that our Otherness was passed to other groups. We gave it to them, gleefully, when we walked into City Halls and police forces, and then we held the difference that we bestowed over the heads of the perversely special. We can’t let it go.

We have short memories.

My father was one of too many children. He was poor. His father was an abusive alcoholic. His mother was a saint. My father remembers being spat upon as a child, because he was destitute, and because he was the wrong ethnicity. His particular family misery was never individual. Too many kids, too much drink, too much abuse, too much foreign.

My mother’s mother had children out of wedlock. Everyone knew it. At school, my mother had to “confess” why she and her siblings needed a turkey from a religious benevolent organization. Her father, in one of her fuzzy memories of him, told her that she was a mongrel. She lived in a public housing project whose brutalities nobody escaped. She worried about making us look respectable, moved us to an all-white neighborhood, and cried when I took a Black boy to my first school dance. When my sisters and I were teenagers, she was always convinced that we might be pregnant – that we would be marked, again, by our origins.

My father almost never drinks. He moved us to a neighborhood where the white people are his white people, so he wouldn’t be the only one. By then, though, they all identified us with the racially-mixed place I’d grown up, and with its people of color – so the kids would hiss “Blackawanna” when I walked past.

My mother frowns at women who have children with different fathers. She shops at the second-fanciest grocery store in town, to appear afloat but not pretentious. She volunteers, like a proper middle-class white lady from the suburbs. When told her that I had found information about her muddy family history, she was overjoyed. When I told her what it was, she pretended not to hear me. When the pastor of the Baptist church where her great-great grandfather had preached told her – gently – that the congregation and its preachers had always been Black, she smiled. “No, we’re white.”

They have short memories. Or long ones. I’m never sure.

I was home for Christmas. My mother was talking about one of the women at the shelter where she works – a Black woman pregnant with her ninth child. My father shook his head. “Those people would be much better off if they’d stop having so many children.” I stared. I called him out. His mother had been one of “those people,” a generation ago. He conceded, that time. But he still doesn’t see it – how we got to be white. How we yanked the ladder up behind us.

My brother, who is affable, works in a prison. He looks like a cop. He believes that the people in his jail put themselves there. He feels bad for them, but he thinks that the justice system works. I want to ask him about our great-great-grand-uncle, and if the system worked when he was shot against a wall because of his religion, and his accent, and his complexion, but I know that he wouldn’t see the connection.

We have long memories, but they only work backwards.

We have short memories. We walk through the streets unmolested, because we know that nobody will shoot us like they shot great-great-grand-uncle. We remember our ancestral injustice and carry it like a banner of protection. It isn’t a very roomy cloak, but we’ll be grateful for it when we see the ones without it being shot in the streets, or strangled. We remember our roots, then get too entangled in them to see out. We forget that our root ball connects to a tree, or a water source, or even the soil. It’s just us, underground, blind to what we’re perpetuating.

Beersick for Home

The recovery drink of champions!

The recovery drink of champions!

I’ve been drinking a bit more beer than usual, lately. I blame the hot, humid, Hudson Valley weather, I guess, but also that, since my partner finally came out as an occasional beer drinker, I’ve been picking up the odd six-pack to keep in the fridge – Allagash, Shipyard… that kind of thing. Now that she’s travelling abroad for a few weeks, I have the beer all to myself and, not incidentally, more inclination to imbible. If you’ve ever been in love, you understand the truth of the old adage, “absence makes the heart grow thirstier.”

Hell, I had three – count ’em – beers yesterday alone! If you know anything about me, you’ll know that that’s a lot more alcohol than I usually drink in one 24-hour period, considering that it usually takes me no more than two beers, two glasses of wine, or two cocktails to get me blind-stinking drunk. Yeah… I’m a cheap date.

All of this boozing has had me thinking about the beers of my hometown, Montréal, especially since today is the Fête de la Saint-Jean, the national holiday of Québec (and although I am a Tête Carré, I am un vrai bloke Québécois de souche!). I really miss the beers of home.



I miss the crispness of a frotsy Belle Gueulle Pilsner on a hot summer night. I miss the hoppy-yeasty-ness of a Boréale Rousse. I miss seeing the bear label in windows of Brasseries advertising Boréale within. I even miss the way the ship on the Molson (Export) label looks like an Armadillo when you see it sideways (for example, with your head on a beer-soaked tabletop).

Some of my real favourites are brewed by the McAuslan brewery down on St-Ambroise street in the St-Henri district in the West End of Montréal. (Yeah… I’m an Anglo. The West End is my little patch of home.) The brewery is just to the right of Courcelle street, when you fly down the hill from NDG and Westmount to the Lachine Canal bike path. So many times I’d be riding back with my buddies Marlene, Henry, Gustavo and Tim from a metric, or a century or some other long hot ride to Rigaud, Hudson or wherever, and we’d pass the brewery and I’d want a beer. ‘Stavo would invariably opine that “beer is a great recovery drink.” And there would be a Saint Ambroise Pale Ale or Griffon Rousse in my immediate future.

When I organized a cyclo-cross team at Martin Swiss Cycles in 2001 (the Martin Swiss Cyclo-cross Experience), McAuslan was one of our main sponsors. They didn’t give us money — they paid their sponsorship fee in beer. That was fine with us. There is a long and storied relationship between cyclo-cross and beer, and since we would probably have spent a fair bit of the money on beer anyway (the shop’s Friday night closing time in the pit… with beer…), it was a fair bargain.

We did a few races in the US, where we arrived with our sponsor’s product, and afterward, many of our rivals would ooh-and-ahh over the cases of IPA and McAuslan’s absolutely brilliant oatmeal stout. (I will go on record here and say that it is far, far superior even to Guinness.) If we had distributed the beer before the races, we might have had a better record.

As it turns out, one of the hardest things about living in exile (“un Canadien errant…”) is missing all of the comforting flavours of home, whether it’s Montreal bagels, poutine, those nasty maple-sugar cones that you can buy at Atwater market in springtime, or Montreal beer. There are sources for Montreal bagels in New York, and we have explored some in Brooklyn. We have even located a source for cheese curds – Beecher’s – at the corner of 20th and Broadway, allowing us to improvise some pretty credible (and creditable) poutine with instant vegetarian gravy. (Incidentally, most authentic Montréal poutine is actually made with instant mushroom gravy.)

But the beer thing is a problem. We (Canadians) all know just how bad American beer can be. Bud, Miller, Pabst… these are all well known among us as “sex in a canoe” (fucking near water). Even at their worst – whach can be pretty bad – the commercial offerings from Labatt and Molson at least have some flavour.

Chamberlain Pale Ale

Chamberlain Pale Ale

Having said that, there are good beers from small brewers, like Harpoon, Stone, Allagash and pseudo-small brewers like Sam Adams, of course. A tour of the Shipyard Brewery in Portland, ME, last summer was an eye-opener. Monkey Fist was a bit too hoppy for me (it’s an American IPA, after all), the Chamberlain Pale Ale, with the likeness of Civil War hero Joshua Chamberlain on the label, was (as my father would say) the stuff. My partner was charmed by Pumpkin Head and, in season, Apple Head. Clearly, the canoe has beached.

Like any ex-pat, however, I do miss the libations of my homeland. I’m not talking about Molson, or Labatt Blue, or any of that other foreign-owned, homogenized, industrial swill. As an old drinking buddy once affirmed – Labatt is fine for your third beer, when you can’t taste it anymore, and the point is to get shteezed. (Suffice it to say, I rarely get to the point when Labatt 50 becomes acceptable.)

I’m talking about the small brewery beers. The ones with a griffon, bear, or buraq (look it up) on the label. You can get the Chambly beers here – La Maudite, Fin du Monde, etc. – but they’re from Chambly! Besides, I never really cared for them, anyway (too strong… too sweet… too self-consciously Trappist). But that’s it. For some reason, no other small, Canadian and Québecois brewers have penetrated the American market. It is a measure of my unrealistic expectations that I walk into almost every beer-retailer I pass at least once, hoping to find what I need to quench my homesick thirst. All I see are La Maudite and Fin du Monde – good in a pinch, I guess – but they’re not my beers. They are not the ones that make me think of Balconville and bonfires in June and the Jazz Festival and rides across the Estacade.

Bonne Fête1

Bonne Fête!

So here I am, on Saint Jean, missing beer. I am as beersick on this holiday as I am homesick. As a great Canadian singer once noted, “you don’t know what you’ve got ’till it’s gone.” So, my Montréalais(e) friends — tonight, please raise a glass of one of our beers to salute the holiday. Think of me, and every other exiled Montréaler. Sing a song in French and toast our eventual returns.

Bonne Fête, mes amis. Je vous souviens!

On Shaming Seven-Year-Old Fame-Sluts: A Rant on Rape Culture, Revisited

I don’t know what kind of a person Woody Allen is. Actually, I don’t even believe in “kinds” of people – you know, racists, sexists, rapists, good, bad, ugly. I have seen people I otherwise like engage in awful behavior, and people I find difficult have impressed me with unexpected acts of kindness. So let me rephrase it like this: I don’t know what Woody Allen has done, aside from his work in cinema. I find some of it compelling, and some of it boring, and some of it self-indulgent.

Allen’s talent was initially a large part of what some internet commentators are disingenuously calling a “controversy” over his daughter Dylan Farrow’s accusations of sexual abuse. (If you are somehow unaware of this, come out from under your rock and do a quick Google search.)

At first, the issue was whether one can appreciate the films of a sexual predator. (We’ve been here before, with Roman Polanski and similarly ambiguous conclusions). We were asked to contemplate whether Woody Allen deserved his Lifetime Achievement award at the Golden Globes, following tweets from two members of the Farrow clan excoriating the decision to honor him. The world seemed focused on the moral conundrum of praising a flawed genius, or supporting the work of a likely criminal, who was investigated but never charged. It was about the man and his actions. For some, it was an assault on his character, whether it was merited or not.

Then, after Dylan Farrow wrote an open letter to the New York Times, the dialogue turned from Allen-shaming to slut-shaming. The problem is, one can’t easily slut-shame a seven-year-old, even when she becomes a grown woman. So it is open season on her memory, and her maternal family’s visibility.

Attacks on the Fallacious Farrows have been most pointed at the Guardian, where Suzanne Moore writes off the social-media discussion of the case as little more than an ill-informed “kangaroo court.” Michael Wolff suggests that entire situation was manufactured by the Farrow family to improve their profile and return them to the ranks of Real Celebrity. Even Dylan’s first-person account, Wolff argues, is carefully crafted to appeal to famous young women who will provide public (read: impersonal) moral support in return for some undefined increase in their own popularity. He says that Dylan’s story has resurfaced at a convenient moment for the careers of her mother and brother, and that her allies are swayed by emotion rather than “outside facts” – whatever those would look like.

Neither journalist is accusing her of lying; they’re just telling her that her story only matters in its ability to make and break public lives.

All of these might well be valid philosophical points, and the extreme culturalist in me wants to acknowledge them. All the while, the extreme feminist in me is trying to scream louder than the cacophony of Allen defenders and Farrow detractors. BULLSHIT. BULL FUCKING SHIT, and please don’t pardon my language.

It is the same routine we see nearly every time anyone comes forward with their story of sexual assault. I haven’t yet heard anyone questioning Dylan’s own morals, but that is a small victory. Instead, they are calling out her mother’s family history, mental health, and public profile. They are finding fault in her brother’s recent ascent to the fishbowl. They can’t very well say that a seven-year-old child was drunk at the frat party, or call her a slut, so they use other words so often used to dismiss women’s complaints to undercut those around her. Crazy. Manipulative. Fame-obsessed. Desperate.

It is another way to silence people we find inconvenient. When we insist that the voices in question are coming from people who are mentally unstable (in itself, another rant for another day), who have another agenda, or who are vindictive, their complaints can’t be legitimate, and we don’t have to listen to them. Telling the Farrows not to mar a supposedly brilliant director’s career because they are barmy third-rate celebrities – or, as it seems now, telling the Farrows that they are lying because barmy third-rate celebrities couldn’t possibly have real grievances against a supposedly brilliant director – is part of an old refrain. Don’t talk back to Holy Father. Don’t ruin the young man’s life. Don’t destroy his football (lacrosse, soccer, hockey, accounting) career. Don’t hurt your mother. Don’t you know what kind of pain this would bring upon your family? Don’t tell anyone, and if you do, nobody will believe you anyway.

It takes a good deal of courage to speak up. I imagine that it takes even more to do so knowing that every word will be subject to media scrutiny, amplified by Facebook and Twitter.

If you have a vagina, or your parts don’t conform to your soul, or you are brown, or you act in any way that the herd finds difficult, you probably know what I am talking about. (I am not saying that normative white men can’t understand this, because I know many normative white men who are compassionate, caring, and capable of great empathy… but they also tend to be aware that they’re playing with a stacked deck.) I am sure every person reading this has experienced a moment in which your words were taken with a heaping tablespoon of salt because you were  _________ (insert adjective describing other-ness here). Those with vaginas and melanin and non-normative gender identities don’t get a free pass here, though, because we vagina-wearers and non-normative folks are often as guilty as anyone else of slut-shaming, crazy-calling, and manipulation-card-waving.

This is not about determining whether Woody Allen raped his daughter. There were two people in that room. There are no other witnesses. There are no “outside facts.” This is about allowing people to recount their stories of victimization (which is not the same as victimhood) AND TAKING THEM SERIOUSLY.

We could have a long academic conversation about memory and celebrity, or the relationship between narrative and political investment. We could interrogate the idea of consent. But today those things make me feel like we’re running around the problem and allowing its perpetuation. When we question Dylan Farrow’s narrative, we’re not just circling the wagons around the perpetrator. We’re telling another generation of women (and many men) to sit down, shut up, and hide their pain. Don’t ruin a beloved person’s life. Be a good girl and take it.

We can’t know what happened in that room. We don’t know what happened in a billion other rooms on a billion other days to billions of other people. But we can at least try to create a safe space for telling, because while silence is painful, pushing back against the crushing, relentless public doubt that greets a broken silence is much, much worse.

The White Poppy

poppyNovember 11 is a day of great significance for me, one full of reflection, sorrow and gratitude. At the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day of the eleventh month every year, I will stop whatever I am doing and mark two minutes of silence. If I am able, I will do this while I watch the Remembrance Day commemoration at the Cenotaph in Ottawa on the CBC.

I do this, in part, for deeply personal reasons. My late father served in the Royal Canadian Air Force, along with his sister and two brothers, during World War II. My maternal grandfather had been a groom – a soldier who cared for and managed the horses in a Guards regiment – in the Great War of 1914-1918. At that moment of silence every year, I feel connected to them, and to their friends and comrades – so many of whom never returned – across the years. I think of their pain, their loss and, yes, their courage.

Yet I also do this for profoundly social reasons. Remembrance Day, for me and for many Canadians, provides an opportunity to share a moment of communal memory. This was reinforced throughout my childhood and youth by the Remembrance Day assemblies every year. In primary and secondary school, my classmates and I would quietly file into the gymnasium for a somber service of remembrance. There principal would say a few words; there would be two minutes of fidgeting silence. Sometimes a bugler from the local cadets company would play the Last Post and the Rouse. Someone would read the Act of Remembrance:

They shall grow not old,
as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them,
nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun
and in the morning
We will remember them.

John McCrae, 1914

John McCrae, 1914

More often than not, a fellow student with a gift for public speaking would solemnly recite “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, a Canadian Army surgeon who died at Boulogne-sur-Mer in the last year of the Great War.

 In Flanders fields the poppies blow
      Between the crosses, row on row,
   That mark our place; and in the sky
   The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
   Loved and were loved, and now we lie
         In Flanders fields.

 Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.

We all wore red poppies pinned to our coats in the November chill because of McCrae’s famous poem. In 1918, an American educator and Red Cross volunteer named Moina Michael published a poem responding to McCrae’s exhortation to keep the faith:

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,
Sleep sweet – to rise anew!
We caught the torch you threw
And holding high, we keep the Faith
With all who died.

We cherish, too, the poppy red
That grows on fields where valor led;
It seems to signal to the skies
That blood of heroes never dies,
But lends a lustre to the red
Of the flower that blooms above the dead
In Flanders Fields.

And now the Torch and Poppy Red
We wear in honor of our dead.
Fear not that ye have died for naught;
We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought
In Flanders Fields.
In Flanders Fields we fought

The American Legion adopted the red poppy as its official symbol of remembrance two years later. The Royal Canadian Legion followed in 1921, turning it into a badge to be worn on the left lapel, next to one’s heart. Within two years, the gesture had spread to Great Britain and the rest of the Commonwealth.

The red poppy took root, as it were, amid the horror and the grief of the years following 1918. As historian Jay Winter notes in Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning, the personal grief of those who lost comrades, friends, lovers, sons and parents in the war became externalized in a common experience of bereavement through public mourning that defined and reinforced the postwar community. And everyone had lost someone; France lost 1.4 million soldiers to the war, Britain almost 900,000. Canada, with a population of 7 million, left the bodies of 67,000 young men in the fields of France and Flanders.

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

The Cenotaph in Ottawa

Everyone mourned and, Winter writes, the “bonds shared by those in mourning, by widows, ex-servicemen, the disabled, the young and the old alike, were expressed openly in ceremonies of collective memory.” Canadians, Americans, French and Britons met every year at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, at war memorials and cenotaphs – the “empty tombs” that mark the collective memory of war throughout the Commonwealth – to remember, and to honour the promise that we will not break faith with the fallen.

The red poppy is an important part of the ritual; for many people it is the act of remembrance. When I was young, the old soldiers of the Royal Canadian Legion, many of whom were patients at the Veterans’ Hospital in nearby Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue, and some of whom had even served in the trenches of 1914-1918, distributed  them at a kiosk at the local grocery store in exchange for donations to support veterans and their families. I remember well the feeling of walking up to the table with my father and dropping a quarter in the can with a combination of gratitude and pride. Most of those veterans, including my father, are gone now but the poppies remain.

red poppyI have worn a red poppy every year that I can remember. That became difficult when I moved to the United States in 2005, where the remembrance poppy is much less common. So each year, I have asked friends back home to acquire one for me from an old soldier. Each year, I pinned the poppy to my lapel a week before Remembrance Day, conscious that the symbol is unintelligible to most of the people I pass on the New York subway or the PATH Train, but satisfied that, in a small way, I have been able to maintain a connection to Canada and the historical memory of the wars of the 20th century. I have not broken faith.

Yet, at the back if my mind, I have always felt a little uncomfortable about the red poppy’s symbolism. I can still hear “In Flanders Fields” recited in my grandfather’s booming voice. I can see the poppies in my imagination, blowing gently in the wind at Boulogne-sur-Mer, Soissons, and Vimy, between thousands of crosses marking thousands of shattered corpses. And then, in my grandfather’s voice, the dead enjoin me to “Take up our quarrel with the foe.” They pass the torch to my hands and warn “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

Even as a child, the vengeful tone of those lines gave me pause. I felt a frisson of doubt as my grandfather’s voice turned stern and demanding. What if I do not wish to take up the quarrel, to continue the war – this cycle of violence and death? Will I have really broken faith with the fallen? Does the red poppy on my lapel signify not only my remembrance of the fallen, but an embrace of their mission, the war that destroyed them?

According to the Royal Canadian Legion, the red poppy is a “symbol of unity for those who recognize the sacrifices that were made for their freedom.” I do recognize those sacrifices – the sacrifices of my grandfather, my father, their comrades and friends – but I feel uncomfortable marking that memory alone. What of the foe? What of the young German, Austrian, Italian and Japanese men? I condemn their leaders and generals – the starched shirts and ribbon merchants who sent millions of young men to their deaths in two world wars – but not the men themselves. Whether they were patriotic volunteers like my father who answered their countries’ call or, more likely, conscripts compelled to take up arms by their governments, they fell just the same.

And what of the civilians? Indeed, if the history of 20th century is war is about anything, it is about how it spilled over from the battlefield to every corner of human life. Throughout the last century, the “front line,” as the location of the fighting and dying was once called, ceased to exist. The swath of death began to fall everywhere, with little regard for whether or not its victims wore uniforms or carried arms.

Almost 60 percent of the 17 million dead of the First World War were soldiers, sailors and airmen. They were volunteers and conscripts, hardened professional soldiers and inexperienced, idealistic young men whose bodies littered the landscape of Europe from the Somme to Passchendale, to Tannenberg Forest and the mountain passes at Caporetto. Yet 10 million dead soldiers, and 20 million survivors whose bodies had been shattered by bullets, artillery shells and poison gas were only part of the horror. The war left 7 million noncombatants dead as long range guns launched high explosive shells 80 miles behind the lines, as aircraft dropped bombs on city streets… and as famine and disease stalked the “home front” in London, Paris, St. Petersburg and Berlin.

When the killing resumed in 1939, after an exhausted world spent two decades licking its wounds and produced a new generation of young men to die in sufficient numbers, new practices and technologies of killing had erased the line that separated the front from the home front. Conservative estimates put the butcher’s bill of the Second World War at 60 million dead, but it may have been much higher. And of those dead, the majority – 38 million – were civilians. They died starving on the streets of Leningrad, in the rubble of Dresden and the London Blitz. Ten million died in Nazi concentration camps. Perhaps 100,000 died in an instant in Hiroshima.

The trend has only accelerated since 1945. Wars are no longer fought between armies, but by armies against civilians. Even in our “clean” wars and “surgical strikes,” the “collateral damage” of civilian casualties always outnumber the combatant casualties. What was the “collateral damage” of the Vietnam War? Perhaps five million Vietnamese, Lao and Cambodian civilians – a ratio of five noncombatants to every military death – after you tally up the corpses in the killing fields and bomb craters. How many civilians are dying today in an unending war as American robotic killing machines fire missiles at targets in Pakistan, Yemen and Afghanistan?

The dead are no longer the young men – our young men, or their young men, it doesn’t really matter – who exhort us to take up their cause, but everyone. How do we mark their meimories. How do we keep faith?

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

Flying Officer Joe Friedman in 1945

One of the lessons I learned from my father is that violence is always a failure of humanity and that war is wrong. My father was proud of his service in the RCAF. He had every right to be. I am proud of my father, of his courage, his strength and his sacrifice. He was a brave man who did his duty when called… Yet he was troubled by the memory of what he had been called upon to do.

He first intimated this to me in 1992, as we discussed the controversy surrounding the airing of Brian McKenna’s documentary series The Valour and the Horror. McKenna had come under a firestorm of criticism from veterans’ groups – including the Royal Canadian Legion – for his depiction of the RAF/RCAF bombing campaign over Nazi Germany as a bloody combination of homicidal mania and incompetence. Yet, after my father had watched it, he grimly noted that the documentary had captured “what it really was like… for me.”

I always made a point of calling my father on Remembrance Day. On our last Remembrance Day we talked about what it was like to come home as the sole survivor from his Lancaster bomber crew. “That pains me,” he said, remembering his boyhood friend Mark Goldwater and skipper Robert Roth. “We were all so close. It didn’t really strike me until I got home after the war. There was so much death.” After a short pause, he continued, “I always have to remind myself that I was part of that, too. I was there to help drop bombs on people,” he said. “They told us that we were bombing a munitions factory, but we were bombing people. That’s something I always have to remember.”

I still wear a red poppy on my overcoat. It’s not a new one. In fact, it is the last red poppy that I will ever have. I wear it for my father, my grandfather and their comrades and friends because the symbol was important to them. But this year, I have begun to wear the white poppy of the Peace Pledge Union on my jacket lapel as I teach and go about my day. I wear it closer to my heart. I bought a package of ten this year, and I will do this every year for the rest of my life.

There has been considerable controversy in Canada over the white poppy. The Minister of Veterans’ Affairs, Julian Fantino, has called them “offensive.” He opines that “Remembrance Day is about paying tribute to the valour and courage of those who set the very foundation of the freedoms that makes our country great.” Matt Gurney, writing in the National Post agrees. I can only assume that he has not read McCrae’s poem to the end. Either way, they both suggest that I am somehow dishonouring my father and grandfather. I take profound offense to that.

For me, the white poppy symbolizes remembrance of all wars, and all the death that those wars have produced. It does not bind me to a promise to take up any quarrel and continue the cycle of war. Indeed, it is in committing myself to peace that I do the greatest honour to the courage and sacrifice of my father, my grandfather and their comrades.

By wearing the white poppy, I remember. I remember the death and destruction visited on our young men on the battlefield, on their young men on the battlefield, and on the men, women and children on the battlefields of what was once called the “home front.” It is how I have chosen to enact a remembrance of the cost of all wars and honour the memory and hope of my father, my grandfather and their comrades that their wars would be the last war. The white poppy represents the hope for a time when we will beat our “swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Dear Madame Marois

My letterDear Madame Marois:

Allow me to begin by apologizing for writing in English. (This letter is now available in a French translation at HuffPost Québec.) I know that you speak and read English very well and though I am a fluent speaker of French, I have lost some of my fluency in the written language after spending eight years in an entirely English-speaking professional and academic environment. I write to you in English because I can best express myself on the subject of an extremely complex issue in my first language. Please feel free to respond in French.

I am un Québécois errant. I left Québec 2005 to pursue my doctorate in history, and I am now teaching at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Like Québécois scholars who have trod this path before me, such as Daniel Turp and Jacques Parizeau, I feel a constant and deep longing for ma patrie. It is my greatest desire to someday return home.

My family has deep roots in Québec. My grandfather arrived as an immigrant from Central Europe in 1912. In his early days in Montréal, he worked clearing snow from the street of Sainte-Cunegonde Ward in Saint-Henri. Later, he moved to his family to the old Jewish neighbourhood in the Plateau Mont-Royal, where he worked in the garment industry and managed a shop for many years.

My father, an idealist, social activist and, like you, a social worker grew up in the Plateau’s sea of languages and cultures. He attended Bancroft school on St-Urbain and served, along with his brothers and sister in the Royal Canadian Air Force. The journal he kept as a prisoner of war is full of his dreams of home; of Fletcher’s Field, the streetcar line that ran past his family’s flat on Ave. du Parc, and of the coconut cream pie at Laurier BBQ.

He met René Lévesque after the war, encountering him many times at the Binerie Mont-Royal. I can’t presume that they were ever friends – apart from a shared love of pâté chinois and fèves au lard, they traveled in different social circles – but my father knew M. Lévesque well enough to have developed a deep respect for the man’s humanity and genius. My father read Option Québec in its first edition; he was not a sovereignist but he was devoted to Québec and, when so many of his friends and colleagues raced along the 401 to points west in 1976, he was utterly committed to stay.

I remember the night of 15 November 1976 very well. It was my younger sister’s birthday, but all we heard on the radio and television were dire predictions of the apocalypse. My father turned the television from CFCF to a French channel – I can’t remember which – in disgust. “It’s not the end of the world,” he said. “It is the start of something new. We don’t know what that will be, but this is our home. We are Québécois. We are going to stay, whatever happens.”

I learned to love Québec through my father, from the bagel bakery on St-Viateur, to the hills of the Laurentians, to the fjords of the Saguenay, to the walls of Québec. In 1980, I pleaded with my classmates in the schoolyard – many of whom wore the “Mon non est Québécois” buttons that their parents had given them – to consider the possibility that maybe “Oui” would not be such a bad option after all.

When I left Québec eight years ago, I vowed that I would return, and that my exile would be temporary. It is a vow that I intend to keep. I cannot express how much I love ma patrie, how much I miss its rhythms, sounds, sights and smells. It is a void that my all-too-infrequent visits home can never adequately fill. Quebec is, and will always be my home, whether or not it is under the Canadian flag.

This is why I am writing to you now. I have read the news about the proposed Charte des valeurs québécoises with great dismay. I believe that you are a very reasonable, well-meaning person, Mme. Marois, and I don’t doubt that you are motivated by the best-possible intentions. The Québec that emerged from la révolution tranquille shorn of ecclesiastical domination has historically been, at its best, a society of unparalleled openness – a model of secular tolerance. I can well understand your desire to enshrine these principles in law.

Yet the means and the motive are mismatched. Others have indicated, in recent days, the deep contradictions between your stated intent and the instrument of the Charter. It has been noted that what constitutes an “‘overt and conspicuous’ religious symbol” is contingent on who displays it. A headscarf is only a hijab when it is worn by a religious Muslim woman, a yarmulke is simply a beanie on the head of a non-Jew. To prohibit people providing government services – in hospitals, schools and public agencies – from wearing them is to presume to look into their minds and souls.

Rather than providing for an environment of religious neutrality, the Charter seeks to regulate belief. It says that a non-Muslim woman may wear a headscarf when she is having a bad hair day, but it prohibits an observant Muslim from wearing one at all. It insists that religious Jews in public employment go bare-headed at all times, unlike their non-Jewish colleagues, since the essence of a yarmulke is not its shape but its function.

Indeed, not all “‘overt and conspicuous’ religious symbols” are garments. The “examples” that your government has provided are only a few of the ways that people display their faith. A Chasidic Jew’s beard and payot and a Sikh man’s uncut hair are as significant and conspicuous symbols of their faith as any head covering. Though not explicitly prohibited by the Charter, they are not excluded, either. Will Jewish, Sikh and Muslim public employees be forced to visit the barber to hold onto their jobs?

In seeking to provide “religious neutrality,” your government’s proposals display ambitions to police the souls of Québec’s citizens and inscribe its power on their very bodies. This, as Hannah Arendt noted more than sixty years ago, is the essence of totalitarianism.

Indeed, it is an axiom of both the Common and Civil Law that, for a law to be just it must apply equally and without discrimination. Yet the secularism you seek to impose on Québec is fundamentally unequal and discriminatory. It is therefore unjust.

It is, in fact, a profoundly Christian secularism. I understand that you don’t see it that way, but it can be difficult to see the forest for the trees. The very values that you hope to enshrine – freedom, personal autonomy, democracy as it emerged in Christian Europe – have a history. They are embedded in a religious genealogy. Even the term laïque, which you seem to favour, was coined to describe the organization of the medieval Catholic Chuch.

I don’t believe that either you, nor the majority of your colleagues in the government of Québec, are able to recognize this. It is the conceit of colonialism that the beliefs and values of the powerful and dominant are somehow universal. It was this belief that sustained the sad legacy of the “White Man’s Burden.” White, Christian Europeans were not imposing their parochial values and practices on the people they colonized in Africa, Asia, the Americas – yes, and in Québec – or, at least that is what they told themselves. No, they were “raising them up” to enlightenment and civilization.

I am not a believer. I was raised in a secular Jewish home. Yet I have always been aware that, in both subtle and conspicuous ways, I am an outsider to secular Québec. Christianity – Roman Catholic Christianity – is inscribed in both the temporal rhythms and topology of ma patrie. It is omnipresent and unavoidable.

Even when they are available on Saturday, government services are closed on Sundays. The word “dimanche,” in fact, derives from the Latin dies Dominica – the Lord’s day. School, government and businesses officially close for the Christian holidays of Christmas, Good Friday and Easter Monday, but not for Yom Kippur or Eid. Our national holiday is celebrated on 24 June because St-Jean Baptise is the Catholic Patron Saint of the Québécois. Indeed, one cannot walk a block anywhere in any town or city in Québec without encountering a Saint-Louis, Saint-Hubert or Sainte-Catherine. The flag flying over government buildings conspicuously displays both a Christian cross and the fleur-de-lis – a symbol of the Holy Trinity and of the Christian God’s authority, as wielded by the French monarchy and its successors.

To prohibit the display of religious symbols by citizens in public employment while the government of Québec displays them on its letterhead, in the Assemblée nationale, on Sureté de Québec cruisers – the physical embodiment of state power – and our society displays it in its geography and calendar, is not to preserve neutrality but privilege.

You must know that the Charter will be challenged in the Supreme Court of Canada, and that it will likely be struck down… and as I write this I begin to wonder whether you are not, in fact, a reasonable, well-meaning person but a calculating opportunist. As I read what I have written, I find that I must conclude that you are not the heir of René Lévesque – a true Québec patriot and a man of unparalleled decency – but of Adrien Arcand and Abbé Groulx: cynical populist demagogues who mined the insecurities of what they believed was a parochial and simple-minded population in their quest for power.

My people – the people of Québec – are decent, generous, open-minded people. I have known Québécois from New Carlisle to Hull, from Chicoutimi to Rivière du Loup. They are my friends, my neighbours, my colleagues, my brothers and sisters. They recognize better than anyone that Québec is the child of many parents – Abenaki, Cree, Mohawk, Normand, Breton, Picard, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, Jewish, Arab, Indian, Vietnamese and, yes, English. They know that this, more than anything, is what makes our société distincte so distinct, so unique, so special.

We are a people of trust. We believe in each other and we trust that our leaders act for the common good. That is what defines our democracy and our political culture. That is why we vote. That is why when we see the cross and fleur-de-lis flying from a flagpole, we feel the warmth of community and a surge of pride, whatever our religious beliefs and differences. Lévesque knew this. His Québec, whether it was to be sovereign or part of Canada, was a society of inclusion. It was a culture of nous ensemble, without quibbling over who constituted nous.

I can’t help but suspect your motives, Mme. Marois. It seems that you are trying to turn nous inside-out by cynically using the trust that we have in our leaders against us. The Charter seems to be an effort to convince the majority of Québécois who do not live in Montréal or Québec, where cultural and religious diversity is the quiet background to our daily lives, that they have something to fear from those who are different. You seem to be telling them that they have special privileges and that the only way to preserve them is to deny the rights of others. It seems to be a set-up, a cheap kayfabe designed to fail in order to mobilize support for your narrow ambitions.

It appears that you believe that you can play the people of Québec like a violin; that you have so much contempt for us that you can manipulate us at the basest level. I hope I am wrong about you but, if I am not, I know that you are wrong about us.


Matthew Friedman