Nonfiction Novella

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part III: A Refugee at Home

Brock Eldon
September 18, 2023
Back in Canada and midway through his M.A. in literature at an elite university, Brock Eldon has almost fallen apart, bottoming out during fruitless therapy. He finds solace in trusted family, reviving his determination to return to campus and confront his tormentor. Things don’t go as planned, as woke professors roil the department in a slow-rolling intellectual coup while M.A. and PhD students virtually beg to be shielded from the world’s greatest literature. In the concluding installment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon’s conviction solidifies that wokism is little more than remixed radical Marxism and that, to survive, he simply must not give in. (Part I is here and Part II is here.)
Nonfiction Novella

Ground Zero in the Culture War, Part III: A Refugee at Home

Brock Eldon
September 18, 2023
Back in Canada and midway through his M.A. in literature at an elite university, Brock Eldon has almost fallen apart, bottoming out during fruitless therapy. He finds solace in trusted family, reviving his determination to return to campus and confront his tormentor. Things don’t go as planned, as woke professors roil the department in a slow-rolling intellectual coup while M.A. and PhD students virtually beg to be shielded from the world’s greatest literature. In the concluding installment of his nonfiction novella – published here for the first time – Eldon’s conviction solidifies that wokism is little more than remixed radical Marxism and that, to survive, he simply must not give in. (Part I is here and Part II is here.)
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XIV

I stayed in Québec City for five days completing an essay on Lord Byron’s Manfred at Université Laval, the purpose being to go someplace “foreign enough,” where at least my own language was not spoken.

After Québec City, I stopped off in Ottawa, where I visited my uncle and his partner Veronica. Both were retired, both former lifetime civil servants working for the federal government in the capital. I got to laugh about things for the first time in a long time with them then. Here was a family who knew exactly how things worked in the nation’s capital. They laughed about matters knowingly, glad they were retired.

“Well, I can tell you this much,” my uncle said, standing up from the table to help Veronica put away the dishes. “Based on what you’ve said? I don’t think I could do it.” Once the dishes were back in their cupboards, he returned to his seat on my right. As a guest, I’d been seated at the table’s head.

 “Here’s what I’d do,” he started again: “but – you’ve gotta’ remember – I’ve been a sheep my whole life, at least until the day I quit. But I got the job done, you know…Sure, right: you’re immersed in one of this country’s ‘Ivy League’ institutions, and it’s a looney bin. It’s intellectually corrupt at its core. You’re not wrong, but you’re young, too. It’s a bit of an ‘experience’ thing. Do you think any of those governmental departments are, or were ever any different?”

“Foreign enough”: Having hit rock-bottom, the author went to Québec to get out of the toxic university environment, then visited relatives in Ottawa. Here, Brock Eldon in Montreal. (Source of photo: Brock Eldon)

He paused, pulling on his cigarette, the ember blinking like a stoplight in the relative darkness of the room with the sudden sunset. “True, it wasn’t always like that, but…those days when you could express yourself freely? In this country? Long gone, kid. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I do not envy your generation. You’re in a whirlwind. That’s why I quit. No more,” he said, his intonation rising. “Nope, no more of that! You’re right to want to go back to Vietnam. You know that much. As for what you’re gonna’ do in the meantime? Or what you should do?” He laughed a full belly laugh and looked towards Veronica, shaking his head in disbelief.

 “Listen: just blow some smoke up their asses and tell ’em what they wanna’ hear…I’ve gotta’ say it, because I said it to Veronica when I picked you up from the station. I said to her: ‘Jesus, Veronica: I think this kid’s a little paranoid’…You seem better now though,” my uncle reassured me. “Now that you’ve been able to say your piece there’s a weight off your chest. Go back, I’d say, tell ’em want they wanna’ hear, and then get outta’ there. You’ll get tied to the whipping post if you stay, taking a stupid test with some AI robot named DIE who decides whether or not you’re a bigot, like you’re sayin’ – and then from there –” belching with all his belly before taking another sip – “from there, I’m tellin’ ya, I’d end in one of two ways: either they end up suing you, or you end up suing them. This stuff’s that deadly serious. You don’t want that. Up against an organization like your so-called ‘university’? That’s a David and Goliath story there. Is it even possible you’d win? I mean, it’s possible, but I’d say that’s highly unlikely as well. You’ve got to keep an eye out for number one,” he said, pointing to my chest with his cigarette, ash dangling with the duration of his talking. “Just get your piece of paper, tell ’em you’re gonna’ go back to Vietnam (not sticking around, not coming back for their sham of a PhD program), tell ’em they can come visit whenever they want if they wanna’ know why you did what you did.”

 “I don’t read literature,” he closed. “I’ve only ever read the newspapers and they’ve pretty much turned to garbage. Veronica knows a lot about literature. I don’t know a single one of the authors you mentioned other than Shakespeare and maybe Jane Austen. I never read ’em (maybe in school, actually, but I forget). Anyhow, if ‘real literature’ is being written anywhere right now, I can assure you, it’s being written as far away from these universities and this ‘woke’ bullshit as possible.”

Only listening, I did not speak in this section of the conversation. Despite the hopelessness, bitterness and disquiet I had felt for so long, my concerns were finally validated.

XV

I must give full credit to my uncle and to Veronica for convincing me to assemble my arguments and present them to the sitting Head of Department in the most polite and respectful manner I could possibly manage, in order to spark a discussion among faculty members, I hoped.

It was the Eighteenth-Century Manuscripts professor I spoke to first. It was a relief knowing that she was Department Chair that year. I’d shown her that I was fully capable in her Fall Semester class. We got on well. She was doing research that Winter Semester, on a non-teaching load, preparing for a new book. I asked her a number of questions about her progress. It was fascinating: here was one of the very few true academic scholars left, I thought, taking in what she was trying to do with her book. I listened with rapt attention: her descriptions of her source materials were evocative, immediately informative, persuasive and detailed. I was not familiar with the plays of the writer she was focused on although, as she spoke, a picture of the man and his theatre did conjure itself.

I felt profound sadness, considering the contents of the argument I was about to lay out.

This was not going to go well for the true academics like her. She was firmly established, middle-aged, with tenure at the university. It did not threaten her income, but it would become a constant in her life for the many more years of her academic career, this political tension that came in discussion of any form of writing, that I felt she would grow especially sensitive to. It would take a lot out of her to conform.

I could observe and infer as much from her expression as I could from the slight quiver in the corner of her lips as the conversation turned to my concerns, as stated in my earlier message. I noticed that she jotted down notes as I spoke. At times, she struggled to hold back tears, though she always succeeded; I didn’t even try. I wept in the professor’s office that day.

“Just get your piece of paper, tell ’em you’re gonna’ go back to Vietnam, not sticking around, not coming back for their sham of a PhD program…”: The author didn’t follow his uncle’s advice, instead confronting his professors directly over their department’s radical Marxist indoctrination. (Source of photo: Brock Eldon)

“Call it feedback, I guess,” I pointed down towards her notebook. “I’m not here to throw anyone under the bus. I have a degree to finish. It’s just some feedback on the program that I think warrants some faculty attention.”

I’d printed out the selection of the department’s course offerings for that 2016-17 academic year, pointing out, in red asterisks, the nine of the 12 courses on offer that I could identify as radically Marxist based on their titles and attached course descriptions alone, all keywords likewise underlined in red.

I spoke about how I was taught, for instance, that there was “no such thing as biological sex” in the department’s M.A. program; that white, heterosexual European men were “oppressing people just by breathing”; genocidal undercurrents that came out in class and outside the classroom context. This went on for some time before I asked if she could deny the connection to radical Marxism. I could see from her tears, as we spoke, that she could not, and that I had, in fact, succeeded in this first conveyance of my message. The argument was sound. This was not indignation.

I was up in the charts by one. When I had met with the first of those brokers of power inside the university for the first time, I had come out on top.

It did not last long, the feeling of elation and release following that first meeting. I think it was about three days after that I went to my Fall Semester’s Indigenous Gender Studies professor’s office to speak with him, on the Department Chair’s recommendation, actually. The harm that I felt the festering ideology might do to young men especially prompted the suggestion, with the Indigenous Gender Studies professor’s focus on “gender” and “masculinity.”

I thought that it was only fair to give the professor a chance to chime in as well.

***

“Fuck.

I scolded myself for not recording that discussion for months – for years – afterwards: a constant reprimand. No, I’d told myself that there would be no recording. I would enter the discussion in good faith, without bias, with empathy and sensitivity, maintaining an open mind throughout. Perhaps my mind would be changed; perhaps we would meet somewhere in the middle.

Peace of mind could come.

***

“Yeah, but how is it radical Marxism?” he repeated a second time, scoffing, breaking from his icy silence only to retreat back into it. There was no attempt to engage. His silence was his shelter, the hollow he could slip into, and out from. Confronted with my argument, he retreated, then shot back: the same question, again and again. Mockingly this time, a third time it came: “Okay, but how is it radical Marxism?”

I’d just explained it. Not once; I’d explained it twice.

I looked at the open notebook in my lap, turning back to the page I’d started on, going through the stages of my argument again. I was frightened to the extent that the letters in front of me (slashed furiously into the notebook the final night when I was still in Ottawa) were swimming, empty signifiers. As I talked for the third time, the professor looked down to his fingernails, as if the dirt that was building up there was more important than talking to a former student again about his “course experience” within the program as a whole.

He laughed, rubbing two fingers over his thumb as I struggled to start over.

In his course alone, we could see identity politics at work in the intersectionalist “identity” of “indigeneity” and “gender,” simultaneously “deconstructing” both categories we were primarily focused on in the department, namely: race and gender. Meanwhile, those Indigenous peoples we were ostensibly concerned with were fixed, trapped, bolted to the blade of the monstrous plough, reduced to a mechanism for the capture of power inside our “institutions for higher knowledge.” It was unethical, to say the least, and I said as much.

Postmodern neo-Marxism, ushered in by Foucault and Derrida first in France, rising in our culture in collision with the Vietnamese conflict, had indeed “played a sleight of hand,” winning over academics and their students with their deceptive twist on the traditional Marxist agenda. Rather than talking directly about economics, we were talking about “minority groups” – though, as I insisted in both professors’ offices, the measurement of the inequality between groups remained economic. On the surface, we were talking about social justice for racial minorities and marginalized gender identities in our classes; beneath that was still the obvious fact that what we were talking about was the unequal distribution of wealth.

 “Yeah, but what does any of this have to do with ‘radical Marxism’?”

I asserted that the narrative was always the same, no matter what course you took. This was true for at least three-quarters of our classes on offer for M.A.s and PhDs. We were in a very influential position as a department, at least nationally. Was this the future we wanted for the field of literary studies? I didn’t think it was a particularly healthy foundation, this fixation on the white, heterosexual and (especially) Christian European male as the conveyer of all evil and sin throughout history. It resulted in an “oppressor”/“oppressed” formula mirroring that relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat explicit in Marx.

 “It’s the exact same rubric,” I said, palms sweating.

“But how is it radical Marxism?” Speaking with his Indigenous Gender Studies professor, the author reached a dead end trying to explain the obvious parallels between Marx’s class war and today’ social justice agenda, including that both are concerned with the unequal distribution of wealth. (Sources of cartoons (clockwise starting top-left): Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, New York, 1883; gilderlehrman.org; wolfsonianfiulibrary.wordpress.com; iranpoliticsclub.net; leftycartoon.ca)

For the Derrideans, language was nothing more than a “phallogocentric game.” All of human history, the entirety of human endeavour, was “written” by white men, solely for the benefit of white men. This basic, unidimensional theory was presented as self-evident truth across at least 80 percent of course listings. In the present, for those devotees to the French Deconstructionists (forced, even if their conscience urged them to halt, to continue, “saving face,” with PhD dissertations and an entire CV of publications behind them, wherein they assume that this theory would work in practice), it meant flipping the script. It meant the Cultural Revolution was come.

“Fuck the canon.”

The words had rung in my ears ever since that department-wide meeting in March. Even then – or especially then, in the Indigenous Gender Studies professor’s office – each time I recalled those words, it was like an unbearable scratching around of sharply pointed glass locked inside my skull.

***

I don’t remember how the conversation even ended. I put the books I’d brought with me back in my backpack, and as I left, descending the elevator to the ground floor, I shuddered as another of my near-hallucinations took hold over my perceptions. What I saw was a prophecy.

All of the buildings on campus were boarded up as I was leaving; some appeared to have been torched only the night before; there was still smoke from the previous night’s scorchings. In front of the Law School, a student, on his knees with a gun to the back of his head, pleaded with his former administrators, now his commanders. It was the same inside and outside the old Victorian houses as I passed through the main student residential district. Shots fired, ringing in my ears. Mass starvation, deprivation; bodies being burned.

Back home, I drank.

I dreamed that I was back in Hue. The bodies piled up atop me at the bottom of the mass grave until the light above had vanished, leaving only the darkness we suffocated in.

XVI

“I find this problematic.”

It was a recurring theme throughout the academic year, but it was most prominent in that final, Summer Semester class, where we were reading those authors I’d so idolized as a student of writing: Rimbaud and Baudelaire, whose works resonated with power and viscerality arguably even more so in the present than at the time of their publication; the poems were at least as vulnerable to censorship in summer 2017 as they were in the age of their publication in France and abroad.

“I find this problematic…”

Finally, after speaking with more than two faculty members, here was the only time I’d spoken out in a classroom with other students, the climax of my public confrontation with the department’s political programming. I had been spared; here was the outcome.

“But they’re just words on sheets of paper,” I said, trying to maintain my calm, turned to the poem we were supposedly “studying,” turning the book around to her and the members of my class. “These words…they’re just abstract symbols printed in ink,” I said, trying my best to laugh and remain calm. I sat up straight, crossed my legs, and held the book, marking the page with my finger.

She objected to verse after verse, most “triggered,” of course, by Baudelaire, of any of the authors we had studied to that point (though Malcom Lowry would give the French poet a run for his money). They were just words on a page – just words, but they mean so much to us. Even centuries later, to censor them? It was a regression.

If the same student had not been permitted on our previous course together to state that all white men were oppressing people just by breathing, I might not have pushed the point so far.

I continued: “What we’re doing in these seminars, all this talk about so-called ‘discursive violence.’ It’s just – I mean, what are we talking about when we’re talking about the ‘transdiscursive’? If we think that discourse must be demolished, then we have to come up with something outside of discourse. How do we render any of that comprehensible? What does the ‘transdiscursive’ look like? And why should we all be compelled to go along with it because a poem like this one offends some people? You find it ‘problematic’? Good!” I tried to smile, to lighten the blow of my speech. “Because that means we have a right to say things that may be problematic, because writers like Rimbaud and Baudelaire had the courage to say them first for us.”

“Linguistic offence”: The works of symbolist French poets Arthur Rimbaud (left) and Charles Baudelaire (right) are no safer from censorship today than they were in the 19th century. In the author’s view, they ought to be read and discussed openly, for they “possess the power to make us feel things.”

“Discursive violence is any piece of writing or speech that subordinates others in a process of classification, taxonomy,” the female student came back at me with. “It is possible to commit a linguistic offence, you know. You make it sound like free speech is all innocent.” In turn now, she turned the open pages of the book towards me: “It’s like he’s getting off on it. It’s sick—”

“So it’s a linguistic offence?”

“Yes! Obviously – it’s fucking offensive.”

“But that’s censorship. That’s where things begin to spiral. No: we can’t do that. It’s the evolution of language and the individual and broader civilizational health that’s at task. Free speech is how we build; it’s how we learn from our mistakes. If we censor works because they offend people—”

“Just because you have the right to talk about ‘freedom of speech’ doesn’t mean we have to listen to you,” the student spat back.

“You still find it ‘problematic’? Good. It means that our literature still has power. Now is the time for us to read these great works, which still possess the power to make us feel things.”

An attempt?

To not be a sheep, to not sit idly by, to remain human, because I want us to retain our humanity confronted with the circumstances we face.

We’re living in the middle of a culture war, aren’t we?

On the one hand, we have “causes”; on the other, “values.” We must all choose in our own turn.

It does not sit well with my conscience to sit idly by.

Ground Zero to Hanoi: Finding a refuge in Vietnam, the author rebuilt his life, began a career as a university lecturer, fell in love and started a family. Here, Eldon is on a beach in Vietnam with daughter Mai An. (Source of photo: Brock Eldon)

What are the “values”?

The Word as a vehicle for truth, and as an animating force – an acknowledgement of our capacity to strive, as individuals, and as cultures, towards the universal Good. It is our ability to think, to articulate, and to labour and to struggle towards our aims freely and without compulsion. This is what is at stake here. Nothing less.

“Hanoi to Ground Zero…Hanoi to Ground Zero…”

Over.

— 2018-2023

Editor’s note: Certain titles above have been altered to protect identities and individual privacy.

Brock Eldon teaches Foundations in Literature at RMIT University in Hanoi, where he lives with his wife and daughter. A graduate of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, he writes fiction and non-fiction and can be followed here on Substack.

Source of main image: Pexels.

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