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A Civil 2000 - Ian Coutts speaks with Mark Kingwell
"I think that the year 2000 is going to be the supercharged new year's eve of our lifetime." That's the angle that Mark Kingwell is taking on the start of the third millennium. "We will be taking stock in a variety of ways," he says, "ranging from the loony to the considered."

Getting a little nervous about the year 2000? Seeing glimmers on the horizon that give you pause? Sure, it's just a number, but there is definitely something in the air. Sports Illustrated now has a weekly column dedicated to detailing whatever millennial nuttiness has come the editors' way recently. And the cover of the final issue of Western Report for 1995 warned its readers that 1996 would be the last happy new year before millennial anxiety took over. Could Ted Byfield possibly be wrong?

On a more mundane level, corporations and government departments are worried about what will happen on December 31, 1999, when a lot of the calendars built into older mainframe computers default back to 1900, rather than clicking forward to 2000, causing unknown chaos.

Kingwell's Dreams of Millennium is one of the first in what promises to be a torrent of books. The closing days of past centuries have seen some strange outbreaks of behaviour-self-flagellation and so forth-that a millennium's end might just multiply by ten. Likening his book to a cross between Robert Hughes's Culture of Complaint and Douglas Coupland's Generation X, the publisher's blurb promises that it draws on pop culture, current events, and historical parallels to show how "millennial anxiety threatens to douse our faith in ourselves."

Probably any man who get an old chestnut like the end of the world compared to a pop culture bible like Generation X deserves some attention. Who is Mark Kingwell, and what is he thinking? I spoke to him to find out.

Readers of Saturday Night may recognize Kingwell's byline from his articles there, ranging in subject-matter from how to revitalize the NDP to societies' need for elites. He also sits on the editorial board of the literary quarterly Descant, to which he is a frequent contributor. He shows up a lot in the Globe and Mail's book pages, too. In style and content, his writings vary so much that, apart from his name, you'd probably never connect his work in Saturday Night or the Globe with that in Descant.

Then there is Mark Kingwell, the academic. Holder of a Ph.D. from Yale, he teaches political philosophy at the University of Toronto's Scarborough College, has published extensively in various philosophy journals, and is the author of a work of political theory, A Civil Tongue, published in 1995 to generally good reviews.

Reading it gives one an interesting insight into his thinking and what it is he's trying to do as a philosopher and a writer.

For Kingwell, and for the philosophers he follows, justice is found not in some pure abstract realm, but right here, in society, through dialogue. In pluralistic societies, people have conflicting opinions about what the good is and how to achieve it. The way we keep society moving along, the way we try to work out our differences, is through debate, a sort of extended public conversation. And in a move that seems thoroughly Canadian, Kingwell insists that for it to work, this dialogue must be civil. Calling on Amy Vanderbilt and Emily Post-a first in philosophy-to buttress his arguments, he asks those involved in the debate to treat their opponents "as if they were worthy of respect and understanding, keeping their private thoughts to themselves."

What we have here hearkens back to the Athenian agora: the citizens debate the issues of the day, in a civil fashion, and work out how they will live together. It's politics in its purest form. In the modern world, Kingwell characterizes this debate as "a conversation taking place on street corners and talk shows, in newspaper columns and lecture theatres, in town-hall meetings and candidates' debates."

According to him, this idea of a conversation applies to much of his own writing as well: "I think they are extensions of my view of what it is to have a society with a thriving political discourse."

He is quite a rare bird today, a "public intellectual". With the narrowing of academic life, fewer university teachers have the time or the inclination to write for a broader public, but in past years Canada was home to a number of people-Goldwin Smith, Northrop Frye, and George Grant come to mind-who fit the description. Trained scholars, they were willing to weigh in on topics that were important to people outside the university. Writing in a non-technical, jargon-free style, they used their intellects to cut through the bafflegab thrown up by politicians and the confusions of our unexamined day-to-day lives.

Kingwell says he is not consciously seeking inclusion in such company. But he acknowledges some such mixture of roles. "It's just something I've always done, right back to my undergraduate days, when I was editor of the Varsity [the University of Toronto's student paper] while I was writing philosophy essays. I don't go into it with sort of a sense that I'm an expert, so much as I'm interested in a lot of questions, and I hope people will be interested in my views." He adds, laughing, "So far this has been more or less the case."

What interests him these days is what he calls "millennial anxiety". The question is, are we feeling anxious yet? Talk of millennial anxiety is all very well, but it doesn't take much skepticism to brush aside such thoughts in so far as they relate to the year 2000-after all, the Western calendar is a purely human invention based on a guess about when Christ was born, a guess that turned out to be wrong. There's no reason to believe that the actual end of the world will fall neatly on to the last square of our 1999 calendar.

Against this, we have to balance nagging worries that have real substance. The ozone layer protecting our collective home is thinning, and the globe is heating up as we pump more and more hydrocarbons into the atmosphere. In Canada and elsewhere, formerly solid nation-states seem to be coming unglued, often sliding into civil war or genocide. AIDS and the Ebola virus, diseases that really do seem like the work of a vindictive Jehovah, claim thousands of lives with no cure in sight. The end? Not really, but it's hard sometimes to see our way past times like these.

Dreams of Millennium tries to steer a course between skepticism and doomsaying. In conversation, Kingwell makes it clear that he does not believe that the end is nigh: "To be perfectly honest, I suspect that in 2005 things are going to be pretty much like they are now." What interests him is seeing behaviours in the modern world that his research tells him are present when people start thinking it's just about time for the trumpet to sound: in the stories of people claiming they've been kidnapped by aliens, in new-age fads, even in the glimmer of computer screens. Announcements of our impending doom have figured large in Western history, particularly during the Middle Ages. Kingwell, hoping to help save us from the chaos such beliefs have caused in the past, wants to draw our attention to these behaviours, to show that they were ill-founded. He belongs to a group that was probably also present during past millennial frenzies, but that history has ignored-the people who watched from the sidelines as everyone else went nuts and kept bellowing, "Calm down, calm down, the end is not nigh."

According to Kingwell, Dreams of Millennium first started to take shape while he was a graduate student at Yale. "I was living in New Haven, watching the whole wretched morality play of the 1980s, and the rise of the puritanism that the nineties were going to usher in. Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities had just come out, and that kind of got me thinking about the nineties as the last decade of the twentieth century." These thoughts spurred an article for the Globe and Mail "about seeing the poverty alongside the privilege-the privilege not just of money but also of education." He kept the idea in the back of his mind, and as the nineties wore on, "I found it coming into focus."

To create a framework for the book, he looked at what he calls "the classic texts of the millennial tradition: Revelation, the Sibylline Prophecy, the Book of Daniel." Written originally by oppressed Jews or persecuted early Christians, and foretelling the defeat of their oppressors and the triumph of the downtrodden, these works had very powerful resonance for the put-upon peasants of Western Europe. (Kingwell makes an interesting point here: in Revelation, the Millennium meant not the end of a thousand-year period of time, but the beginning of the thousand-year reign of Christ. This positive aspect of the Millennium has been largely lost.)

Building on these early works, Kingwell offers a sort of potted history of the end of the world. From the eleventh century onward, disease, war, and social unrest caused frequent outbreaks of millennial anxiety. The Second Coming was predicted a number of times (for 1033, 1260, 1284, 1492-in fact, for almost any year you'd care to name) and there was a parade of prophets and would-be messiahs (such as the charismatic Jan Bockelson, the self-declared "Messiah of the Last Days", who had fourteen teenage brides, and, when he took over the town of Münster in 1535, burned every book except the Bible). With time, Kingwell says, what to expect as the Millennium approached became quite specific. As he puts it, "The Millennium would see the rich and powerful punished, the poor and wretched exalted. Along the way, Church authority could be safely ignored and the efforts of scholars and other enlightened forces to curb the fevers of whipping and pogrom could be confidently interpreted and thus ignored as last-ditch attempts to protect privilege. Obscure hermits and monks were elevated to positions of enormous influence in the wink of an eye, sometimes without their full co-operation."

Kingwell says that all of these "shards of apocalypse", as he calls them, are present today, and most of the rest of Dreams of Millennium is dedicated to demonstrating this. We still search for prophets, for example. Perhaps not monks or hermits, but many of us want someone who'll draw a bead on the future for us. These can be new-age fortune-tellers who analyse handwriting or use computers to read our palms. Or for the more intellectually inclined, academics such as Thomas Homer Dixon, who works away in a basement at the University of Toronto grinding out predictions of the imminent collapse of Third World countries thanks to overpopulation and environmental degradation. Homer Dixon could work as a modern-day replacement for Savonarola, the fifteenth-century monk who warned Florence that the end was near, and organized the historical "bonfire of the vanities", where the citizens burned their opulent possessions to make their peace with God. Or there are the Net heads, those devotees of on-line service and modem, whose desire to merge into one giant interconnected web has echoes of the millennial Ranters, the seventeenth-century English sect who sought to become one with God.

One of the joys of Kingwell's writing is his ability, as he puts it, "to mix up my pitches. You come with the heater, then you come with a change up." In the chapter called "The Virtual Future", for instance, he works through a survey of most of the recent books on the Internet and the digital revolution. He then balances it with an interview with an expert, Arthur Kroker, a Concordia professor with some highly unorthodox ideas about the interaction between humans and machines. Other sections benefit from his reporting skills. His coverage of a leadership studies seminar, on the one hand, and a public meeting for people with UFO stories to tell, on the other, are closely observed and well recounted, highlighting the absurdity of psychobabbling leadership experts and the pathos of the people who, while claiming contact with extra-terrestrials, are obviously expressing a longing to be touched by something outside themselves.

Best of all, Kingwell doesn't check his academic philosophy at the door when he sits down to write on popular subjects. "I have been trained as a philosopher," he says, "so it comes naturally for me to think my way into subjects that way." In his chapter on the body, "Our Bodies, Our Selves", a visit to a body-piercing and tattooing convention, a first-person meditation on his own body and a survey of recent writing on the significance of body-piercing are topped off with references to philosophy's approach to the traditional mind-body dichotomy that bring in Descartes and Gilbert Ryle. Kingwell also calls upon Martin Heidegger, Daniel Dennett, John Rawls, and the Canadian political theorist C. B. Macpherson to help illuminate points in the book. This is not simply showing off; the examples all help to expand upon his material and focus the discussion.

Even as one reads, however, a nagging skepticism grows. And not the just healthy doubt that Kingwell wants to inculcate, the understanding that the end is not nigh, that we've been through it all before, either. No, he may be pushing too far, overdoing the examples of millennial behaviour. The chapter on the body provides a good illustration. Tattooing and body-piercing are phenomena that seem fraught with significance. And catching sight of someone who looks literally punched full of holes can be an arresting experience. Also the pierced and the tattooed often seem to act as if their accessories alone made them significant. But are they? Popular culture over the last thirty years has thrown up movement after movement-hippies, punks-that seemed terribly important but had no great lasting effect. Could it be that, for all its visibility, there is much less to this new fascination with the body than meets the eye?

In conversation, Kingwell argues not. "Why is it fashion now? I'm suspicious of saying there's less to it than meets the eye, because why does popular culture take the shape it does? It's not merely arbitrary."

Fair enough, but the skepticism remains. As he himself makes clear, the mortification of the body in mediaeval times and this modern mortification are carried out for very different reasons. The modern one is an embellishment, an assertion of the physical in an alienating world. The flagellants of the Middle Ages were trying not to celebrate the body but to subdue it. That both are obsessions with the body does not make the modern body fixation an example of the same millennial frenzy that drove the earlier one.

There is a danger, once we start looking for patterns, that we'll find them, even where they don't exist. Kingwell himself refers to this as "fusion paranoia", and admits that it can be a problem. He is no paranoid, obviously, but Dreams of Millennium slips towards fusion. Sometimes, when he wants to find a connection between our times and the Middle Ages he is on rock-solid ground: David Koresh, for instance, could have taken Jan Bockelson's place in sixteenth-century Münster and no one would have been any the wiser. At other points, for example examining our current anti-intellectualism ("Gumpism," he calls it, after Tom Hanks's idiot savant), he helps us see ourselves in a new light. But Dreams of Millennium moves ever on, piling up example after example, and the more we read, the less we believe. For instance, how many people would really accept that The Simpsons is "virtual satire" that "folds us back in on ourselves in a way that makes meaning impossible."? Perhaps anticipating that his arguments aren't as forceful as they might be, Kingwell insists at a number of points that the anxieties he describes are real and that we all feel them at least some of the time. Clearer proof is needed.

There is no doubt that some of the despair, the end-of-the-world feeling that Kingwell talks about in Dreams of Millennium is present today. This book should be a praiseworthy addition to our civic dialogue. So why does it fall short?

Dreams of Millennium would work better if it were, paradoxically, both a little more and a little less ambitious. Early on, Kingwell says he wants it to be a report, meaning a broad survey, but by limiting it a little, he might have produced a work that got far more mileage. Reducing the book's dependency on popular culture might have helped. True, this is one of the selling hooks, and so much of our crazy vertigo-laden world today is shaped and created by pop culture, but its greater significance is often open to question. Why bother with Quentin Tarantino when there are real millennial nuts like Pat Buchanan running around? A book that sacrificed some trendiness, that didn't try to spread itself across so much of the landscape, might have made its point more forcefully. Fewer, stronger examples would have proven the existence of a more limited millennial anxiety more successfully, raising the intellectual tone at the same time.

A writer like Kingwell is worth his weight in gold. Readers need writers who have the sort of intellectual vigour best developed inside the university. (Although, unfortunately, he may soon find himself outside the university. Like so many young academics, he doesn't have tenure and what next year was going to bring didn't looking promising when we spoke.) Too much non-fiction writing in this country doesn't try very hard, falling back on the soggy pulp of unexamined opinions and interviews with friends over lunch in place of real thinking. A Kingwell can raise the tone of the public conversation. Let's hope he lifts it higher in future. l

Ian Coutts is an editor at Madison Press Books. Rather like Kingwell, he has diverse interests: he has co-written a weekly comic strip for a major daily newspaper, is a member of Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, and has two degrees in philosophy.


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