Inaugural Presidential Talk
Director, University of British Columbia Press
“yes I said yes I will Yes. “
That triumphal YES is, of course, the climax of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy and the finale of James Joyce’s Ulysses. For those of you who remember, that’s also the answer to the subtle little literary quiz that Bill Sisler left us with at the end of his presidential address last year—he exhorted us to use it as our mantra.
To say the least, I was stunned when Bob Faherty called me and asked if I would accept the honour of becoming the president of AAUP in its 65th year. Bob (who chairs a meeting better than anyone I have ever encountered) persuaded me that doing so would be an affirmation that member presses outside the US are an integral part of AAUP and that the nominating committee hoped I would bring a new more international perspective to the association.
I am acutely conscious that in succeeding Bill Sisler I am following one of the finest publishers working today. It is tough to follow a guy who combines profundity with self-deprecating wit—and if cornered has a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of subjects ranging from mediaeval Latin to early sixties R&B to call on.
I watched and listened very carefully as Bill addressed you last June because I knew that I was going to be up here today. When he came down from the stage, I congratulated Bill and thanked him for leaving me with a place to start. He just shrugged and said, “Nobody remembers what you say, only how long you take to say it.”
I am going try to remember that—but forgive me, if I am not a concise as Bill.
I have thought about Molly Bloom’s words more than a few times this past year when it has seemed that a resounding NO was more the order of things. In case anyone has failed to figure it out yet, I am Canadian. My country’s intellectual sport for the past 135 years has been the search for a national identity—all we have been able to agree on is that we are not American. As you can see, we are polite. We don’t carp that the inhabitants of the middle bit of the continent have taken the name “American” even though Canada covers by far the largest landmass in the Americas.
If Bob Faherty is right and this a good time for one of the “other Americans” to be standing here, it isn’t an easy one. The horror of the events of September 11 was gut-wrenching, unimaginable, unspeakable. Like everyone in this room, the exact time and place that I first saw those images is etched on my brain forever.
I was at my family’s summer place in eastern Ontario.
It has been my sanctuary since childhood.
It was a little after nine o’clock on a perfect morning with a clear sky. The lake was sparkling and perfectly cooling as my wife and I swam in the bay. As I climbed out of the water I said, “You know, I have never felt better in my life. I wish we could just stay here.” The phone rang and I ran to get it; my brother’s voice said, “Turn on the TV.”
Some people in this room were in New York or Washington that day. I can’t imagine what they experienced. The rest of us shared in that terrible television voyeurism—watching, then looking away because it was too awful to contemplate, leaving the room and being drawn back again. I feel differently about the world as a result of what I watched and heard that day. I find myself asking not “Why did that event matter so much?”, but “What is wrong with me that all the other conflict and death that has gone on in the world on a colossal scale in the last decade has meant so little to me?”
Your country—with mine trundling along obediently behind—is in an undeclared state of war with an array of undefined targets. It is a time when those of us who publish have to contemplate the inevitable conflict between those unhappy bedfellows, “truth” and “war.”
I have had a long and intimate relationship with the United States. Like the majority of Canadians I live less than 50 miles from the US border. Three of my father’s four brothers were Americans and the highlight of my childhood summers was a trip across the border to visit my prosperous relatives and to shop. As a child I could watch three US television stations but only one Canadian channel. I think it is safe to say that I know your country better than you know mine.
I probably know it better than I really want to because living beside the US is like trying to carry on a conversation in a small room with a television turned on—no matter how hard you try—you can’t entirely ignore it. Living next door to the most powerful entity in the history of the world is a bit awkward. We have a free trade treaty but whenever someone sneezes in Georgia it has an impact on a resource community in British Columbia. The universal healthcare system that two generations of Canadians have struggled to develop—the centrepiece of a caring society—was kept off the free trade table along with cultural industries when we negotiated that agreement a decade ago. But universal public health care seems destined to collapse under attack by supply side economists and free traders who believe that Canada has to become more like the US in order to be competitive. Canadian cultural industries—books, magazines, film, television, and music—account for a minuscule market share in their own country and without public policy interventions will have only a fraction of that, if they exist at all. US trade negotiators made it clear in the last round of WTO negotiations that they considered any exemption for cultural industries an affront to American interests.
I am almost as distrustful of nationalism as I am of religious fundamentalism, but like most Canadian publishers, I describe myself as a cultural nationalist. Is there is a contradiction in my being here? No. I have always felt comfortable in this very civilized company. I feel less comfortable about the role of the American State.
The momentum of American ambition is awesome; the power of American anger is a terrible thing. America lives with one set of illusions about itself, but the rest of the world notes cautiously that the only nation that has used an atomic weapon has never repudiated its first strike policy. For an outsider, the semiotics of your nationalism can be as discomforting as any other demonstration of fundamentalism. Looking in from the outside, we are anxious to find signs that someone is asking a few questions.
Many of my heroes are Americans. At 55, I find myself thinking back to my teens and early 20s. I think about the dissenters—those who challenged institutionalized racism or refused to have their ethics and identities submerged by the tidal surge of a nation marching to profit or war. King, Chavez, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, the Chicago Seven, Ralph Nader. On a more personal scale, other Americans were my heroes, too—kids my age who resisted by exiling themselves and becoming part of my community and my circle of friends. Some of their reputations have been tarnished severely 40 years on; it is hard to live up to the brave moments of youth. As I get older, I find myself being more forgiving.
American dissenters gave me hope then—and they continue to do so.
Only Americans can change US public policy; only Americans can police the world’s policeman.
American university presses give me great hope.
You too are dissenters, dissenters against the mainstream forces that are so inexorably dumbing down public discourse. When I watch the principled resistance of Doug Armato to an onslaught from the religious right, I know that you are still making heroes here.
One of the most insidious forces we face is convergence. Beyond the financial and political power that comes with the corporate side of convergence, there is something even more insidious—a kind of intellectual convergence. The temple of convergence is CNN, which has positioned itself as the official soundtrack to life on the planet. It provides the play-by-play for every major news event as well as for the minor ones it discovers to fill dead air time. Its interpretative simplification of events is an ever-present political force. The lines have blurred between entertainment and journalism. CNN is intricately linked spiritually as well as corporately to its cousins at AOL Time Warner. Their narrative techniques are the same; at times it seems that the fictional villains and the real ones are interchangeable. Violence is the principal leitmotif and we watch it again and again until numbed to it. Bad guys are bad because they are against us. And when they are really bad, the inevitable conclusion is that you need Rambo.
In the midst of the dark days last fall that were so dominated by that repetitive play-by-play, Books for Understanding was a beacon. For thinking Americans, there was somewhere to look to for real understanding of what lay behind September 11 and what might lie ahead. Thank you, Sandy Thatcher and Brenna McLaughlin, for the idea and for pulling it all together so quickly and so well—thank you, Peter Givler and the rest of the staff, for steering a straight course when your city was in turmoil and thank you, AAUP presses, for having already published that extraordinary body of rich complex interpretative books—without even a hint of opportunistic intent.
Most of our books are narrow and specialized. Sometimes we can broaden their potential audiences through good publishing, but often we can’t, and they are still important. They are demanding of the reader, they are complex. We should strive to avoid the obscure, but we should never apologize for the complex. Life is complex, and the forces that drive social life and international relations are rooted in that complexity. By the very nature of what we publish, whatever its political perspective, we are dissenters against the simplification of the CNNs—against the dumbing down of life.
Indulge me for a moment and consider this style sheet from the 20th century literary cannon:
It’s a beautiful thing, the destruction of words. Of course the great wastage is in the verbs and adjectives, but there are hundreds of nouns that can be got rid of as well. It isn’t only the synonyms; there are also the antonyms. After all, what justification is there for a word which is simply the opposite of some other word? A word contains its opposite in itself. Take ‘good,’ for instance. If you have a word like ‘good,’ what need is there for a word like ‘bad’? ‘Ungood’ will do just as well—better, because it’s an exact opposite, which the other
The speaker is Syme, the lexicographer who became a non-person—the book, 1984. Its author, Eric Blair (who wrote as George Orwell), was one of the greatest of all modern dissenters; next year will be the 100th anniversary of his birth. We have foolishly consigned this great work and its author to the intellectual remainder bin, but he has a lot to say to us today. It is stupidly convenient to think that his surveillance society was Russia and that the danger has passed along with the year 1984—I am sure Orwell would see the potential in a name like the Office of Homeland Security. And as for Newspeak—turn on your radio.
Some people think that dissent takes the form of a NO, but I’m with Molly Bloom, and Bill Sisler and John Lennon—I believe that it is a resounding YES.
There are two faces missing in this audience today—people who have been our publishing partners, our mentors, and our friends—deeply committed scholarly publishers and pillars of AAUP.
Naomi Pascal retired yesterday after almost 50 years as an scholarly editor. She was already a legend in this association and in the fields in which she worked as an editor when I came to my first AAUP meeting in 1990. She welcomed me, indulged my opinions, and was always eager to debate them. You honoured her with the first AAUP Constituency Award, and I suspect that she inspired it. Yesterday was Naomi’s last official day of work at the University of Washington Press. She has been an extraordinary presence in scholarly publishing for almost half a century. Almost all those years were spent as an editor at the University of Washington Press, where she was also Associate Director. Her work has given definition to the term “regional scholarly publishing.” With all of you, I wish her as much pleasure in her retirement as she has had in her work.
Peter Cannel was a brilliant, gentle man just coming into his prime as a publisher and leader when his life was so cruelly stolen. He died on May 18 at the age of 47 after a year-long struggle with brain cancer. Peter was trained as a biologist, receiving his PhD from CUNY and the American Museum of Natural History. He joined the Smithsonian Institution Press as a technical editor and quickly moved into science acquisitions. During 10 years in that role, he built an impressive list and was named Director in 1996, a time when the publishing operations of the Smithsonian were undergoing substantial changes. He put the press on a stable course and built a strong publishing team.
Peter was famous among his friends for his wonderful dry sense of humour. He loved the natural world and was a keen kayaker. He was also a highly accomplished birder and so passionate that he and his wife Amanda spent their honeymoon on an island off Maine studying Storm Petrels. Peter was devoted to his three children, Tom, Oliver, and Louisa, and it is particularly sad that he will not see Tom enter Yale this fall. Our community is richer for the time Peter spent with us. We send our deepest sympathy to Amanda, Tom, Oliver, and Louisa.
Peter—somewhere far out over the Atlantic, a Storm Petrel is flying just for you. We will miss you.