Margaret Atwood and the Lessons of Materialism

Recently, the Toronto cultural and intellectual elite have been roiled by an Admiral Road tempest: residents of the wealthy downtown neighborhood The Annex are up in arms over a proposed 8-story condo that would be in the vicinity of their backyards. The opponents of the condo include scions of the Weston and Eaton lineages, among the wealthiest families in Canada. Apparently, they do not want to look out at even a modest glass tower from their leafy enclaves. Yet the most notable complainant was Margaret Atwood, Canada’s most famed and accomplished novelist, who is recently enjoying a global surge in popularity thanks to the hit Hulu adaptation of her novel The Handmaiden’s Tale. Atwood joined her husband Graeme Gibson in writing letters to city councilors voicing their concerns over the new development.

After details of Atwood’s letter came to light, journalists, urbanists, and Toronto netizens quickly accused her of the worst kind of NIMBYism: standing in the way of much needed densification over largely aesthetic concerns. Atwood claimed that her opposition is rooted primarily in concern over six privately owned trees whose health may be effected by the development. Yet at a time when Toronto is facing a housing crisis of unprecedented magnitude, when even members of the upper-middle class cannot afford to buy homes (to say nothing of the working class), Atwood and her well-heeled neighbors’ tone-deaf opposition to a condo that city planners have recommended smacked of elitism of the worst kind.

The incident- which played out on Twitter as Atwood tried to publicly defend her position- made strikingly visible the festering class divisions that lay just beneath Toronto’s cosy self-image as a progressive and open city. Outrage over Atwood’s position was led by the urbanist Shawn Micallef, a public intellectual for the new digital era, who has risen to prominence without the traditional protections that writers of Atwood’s generation enjoyed: tenured academic posts, sinecures at newspapers with robust circulations, and a book industry with a large built-in market of readers.

Micallef’s exchanges with Atwood were defined by the underlying class ressentiment that separates their respective generations. Micaleff’s most biting comment pointed out how impossible it is for writers to gain the kind of upward social mobility Atwood’s career has provided her, symbolized in her supremely comfortable dwelling:

The term “@MargaretAtwood manse” crystallizes a generational divide between baby-boomers who got in when the going was good and millennials whose lives are defined by the gig economy. The fact that the exchange was between two of Toronto’s most prominent writers only added another layer of animosity, with Micallef at one point referencing the 7,000 dollar advance he received for his latest book when accused by Atwood of being in the developer’s pocket (to be contrasted, it goes without saying, with the healthy advances enjoyed by more senior members of the literary community).

As the printed word has come to mean less and less in our visual and digital age, Atwood stands as those rarest of beings: a millionaire writer able to focus exclusively on her creative work and social activism, in possession of wide cultural influence across the nation she has written in and about for decades. Atwood has yielded that influence for many worthy causes in recent years, most notably leading the opposition to former Toronto mayor Rob Ford’s proposed cuts to the Toronto library system. For this and many other stances, Atwood is seen as a paragon of moral virtue among progressives in Toronto, who of course pride themselves on setting an example of what virtuous political commitment is supposed to look like.

But when your creative and intellectual mentor reveals herself to be, well, normal, a baby boomer more interested in maintaining a quite neighborhood than in addressing a desperate housing shortage, how are you supposed to react?

When pressed on her elitism, Atwood insisted that while she may be a landed property-owner who enjoys a comfortable life, it is the millennials who ultimately have the upper-hand, because her death will come soon enough, while the long-durèe of the future belongs to them. The fact that it will be a significantly more impoverished future for most of their generation does not seem to register with Atwood. In the face of material penury, her argument goes, metaphysical attenuation will somehow even the scales:

 

While some commentators have already called for a truce to be drawn between Atwood and her urbanist detractors, Toronto would do well to dwell on this particular social clash. For rarely do you get to see society’s collective myths crumble so immediately before one’s very eyes. The myth that Toronto is actually an inclusive and progressive city cannot be sustained with the average home costing 921,000$. And contrary to what progressive readers may think, some of our most beloved authors are also financially savvy investors. They too have properties, portfolios, vested interests. Though their works may speak to visions of radical emancipation, they live in the sullied world of material calculation like all the rest of us. While their sympathies may lay with the downtrodden of the outer boroughs, they have downtown property whose resale value needs to be protected.

At one point in her Twitter forays, Atwood suggested that she alone is not responsible for housing cycles: a plea for her followers not to put the burden of the entire city’s inequality on her shoulders. She of course is absolutely right. She writes books for a living, and cannot merely wave her pen and set economic policy for the entire country. And unlike the Eatons or the Westons, she actually earned her money rather than relying on the donkeyed machinations of inheritance.

But in Canada’s most culturally self important city, illusions of moral rectitude are alive and well. Like all illusions, human behavior has a way of destroying them sooner or later. The Atwood-Micallef affair should remind us that, in the end, it is the hard-math of property ownership that gashes itself, ravine-like, across Toronto’s urban community. Toronto is a playground for Canada’s rich, a playground made all the more galling because of its penchant for convincing itself otherwise.

Let us speak less of creative classes, urban dynamism, and global influence; let us speak more of those who can own, those who do own, and those who can only hope to join their ranks through years of toil.

For it is the material, not the metaphysical, that defines our social life. Even for our most imaginative of creative leaders.

Mark McConaghy completed a PhD in Modern Chinese Literature from the University of Toronto’s East Asian Studies Department. He is currently a visiting scholar at Academia Sinica’s Institute for Chinese Literature and Philosophy in Taipei, Taiwan.

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