L’ Affaire Potter (again).


As I write these lines, McGill University is reeling from the scrutiny that has been brought to bear upon it in the handling by its upper administration of what has come to be known as the “Potter Affair”. I think we could have come out of this crisis much better that we have done. I offer the following reflections, not because I think there is any way that the present situation can be made good – the well has been poisoned to far too great a degree for that – but in the hope that it might guide our institution, as well as others, through similar challenges.

First, let’s get a couple of matters out of the way. To begin with, yes, Andrew is a friend. He was my postdoctoral student many years ago at the Université de Montréal. Our life trajectories have not led to our having had that much contact since then, but we have been in regular touch.… Continue reading

L’affaire Potter

(Those who have been following the news will no doubt know that Andrew Potter, our co-blogger here on In Due Course, as well as my friend and sometime co-author, has been at the centre of not one, but two, recent scandals, the first when he published an unpopular column in Macleans, which he quickly came to regret, and the second when he stepped down from his position as Director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. Unsurprisingly, I have a few thoughts on the matter…)


The McGill administration appears to have sleepwalked into what is arguably the most egregious violation of academic freedom in this country in living memory. To see how outrageous it is, consider how it would look had it occurred to me. Suppose, for instance, that I wrote an opinion column called “10 things I hate about Toronto.” That actually wouldn’t be much of a stretch, because I hate Toronto, and it wouldn’t be hard to come up with a list of 10 things.… Continue reading

Sex education and the dilemmas of immigrant integration

Back when I lived in Montreal, there were about a dozen women in my neighbourhood – obviously recent immigrants – who had a strange hangup about dogs. Whenever I was out walking the dog, they would take great pains to avoid us, sometimes even crossing the street to walk on the other side. Once I came around a corner and startled one of these women, who when she saw the dog, literally screamed and ran away from us. At other times, if they were walking with their children, I would notice them covering their children’s eyes, so that they would not make eye contact with the dog.

Now I know there are some cultures where the thought of living with a dog is considered rather disgusting, but this seemed to go far beyond mere disgust, entering the realm of fear bordering on terror. So I asked a friend who studies this sort of thing what was up.… Continue reading

Price Point Public Policy

The Wal-Mart-ification of Public Services

Our childcare fantasies for this country are pocketbook politics at their most distorted.

Currently, monthly childcare fees at licensed non-profit centres can be as high as $1600/month. They vary widely depending on the geography and age of the child. The service is on par with rent and tend to bite new parents in the butt.

In response to steep fees (by the way, can we call it “tuition”?) it seems that many Canadians have decided that parents should pay about a quarter of the going rate while the rest of us generously pick up the tab. The thing is, no part of the $15/day childcare “movement” makes an effort to elaborate on the fine print of that bargain. Though market demand far exceeds the present supply of spaces, the current and would-be users of childcare services are pressing for a super discounted price. As presented, their appeal does not make sense.Continue reading

10 books that blew my mind

I’m in deep summer mode now, so blogging will be light for a while. Someone asked for this though, so here it is – a list of the books that have had the most influence on the way that I see things (or that deeply changed the way I see things, or that in some other way blew my tiny mind). I’m excluding the classics here, focusing just on books published post-WWII:

1. Jürgen Habermas, Legitimation Crisis

2. Jürgen Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action

3. Talcott Parsons, The Social System

4. David Gauthier, Morals by Agreement

5. John Roemer, A General Theory of Exploitation and Class

6. Robert Brandom, Making it Explicit

7. Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson, Culture and the Evolutionary Process

8. François Éwald, L’état providence

9. Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool

10. George Ainslie, Picoeconomics

These are also roughly chronological, in the order that I read them.… Continue reading

On the problem of normative sociology

Last week I did a post complaining about how journalists tend to use the undifferentiated term “political correctness” to describe a complex group of behaviours that one can find in contemporary academia. I was trying to make the case that “classic” political correctness – such as language policing – has been on the decline, but that there were other worrisome trends that continue. This week I would like to pursue the discussion, by talking about another slightly pernicious habit, which those of us who like to classify these things refer to as the problem of “normative sociology.”

The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one.… Continue reading

More on political correctness

So apparently I’m the go-to guy on political correctness now. I wrote an op-ed for the Ottawa Citizen that appeared today (“Why Canadian professors aren’t afraid of their students“). It all started because I get irritated by the number of occasions on which “universities” in general get bad press whenever something outrageous happens at an American college — particularly at a small liberal-arts college, which is a type of institution that barely exists in Canada (outside Nova Scotia). This is not to deny that there are problems at Canadian universities, it’s just that it would be nice to discuss these problems with reference to Canadian universities, rather than just imagining that everything happening in the United States must be happening here as well.

In any case, the narrative I’ve been trying to establish is that, here in Canada, all that “political correctness” craziness blew over a long time ago, leaving behind only serious people, focused on having serious conversations, trying to work out solutions to the pressing problems of the day.… Continue reading

Postscript to “me” studies

An old friend writes to me:

Your recent analysis of political correctness was particularly good in diagnosing the dynamics of how academic discourse in the “critical theory” vein so often ends up getting us for away from anything like the ideal of deliberation. But one line in that post really stuck in my craw:

“In mixed company, using a term like “ableist” provokes a lot of eyeball-rolling, and is generally recognized as a good way of ensuring that no one outside your own very small circle will take you seriously.”

Clearly, the objection made to your use of the word “crazy” on the jacket cover for Enlightenment 2.0 was idiotic. There is nothing ablest about using that term derisively. But what you actually say in the passage quoted put you dangerously close to the “jerk” category. As you know, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time following and even participating in disability studies.

Continue reading

The problem of “me” studies

One can still find journalists these days complaining about the problem of “political correctness” in universities, which always sounds old-fashioned and somewhat out-of-touch to me. I think of political correctness as something that reached its high-water mark sometime in the early 90’s and has been on the decline since then (at least among faculty – students are another issue). Part of the difference in perception may be due to a lack of precision in terminology. I find that people who are outside the academy tend to lump a lot of different stuff together under the heading of political correctness, whereas inside the universities we have different names for various different tendencies. So what I would like to discuss today is just one strand or tendency, that often gets described as political correctness, but that is more precisely known as the problem of “me” studies.

First though, just to explain what I mean by political correctness being on the decline: Often when journalists talk about this stuff, what they have in mind is old-fashioned language policing.… Continue reading

What Did Loyola Really Decide?

My first serious engagement in public policy matters occurred in 1997 when I was asked to join the Groupe de travail sur la place de la religion à l’école publique du Québec. Our mandate was to reflect on the place that religious teaching should have in Quebec’s public schools. Quebec was already in the process of eliminating religious school boards, but that administrative measure left untouched the content of religious teaching in Quebec’s public schools. Parents of a certain age will remember that for a number of years, they were required to tick off a box when signing their kids up for school indicating whether they wanted them to receive Catholic religious teaching, Protestant religious teaching, or non-confessional moral education.

That situation was clearly unstable. First, now that schools in the public system were no longer Catholic or Protestant, it required of each school that it provide three different kinds of course, a logistical nightmare for resource-strapped public schools.… Continue reading