Tag Archives: Early Writings

‘My Canada includes …’

The bumper sticker I often saw at the time of the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty is still in circulation. It reads, ‘My Canada includes Quebec.’ A generous sentiment, I think, and likely destined to fail. The French and English alike are weary of the status quo, by which I mean protracted rounds of federal-provincial wrangling, followed by solutions that don’t solve anything. They may one day conclude that separation is perhaps after all for the best. Nothing personal: it’s just that the time has come to try something a bit different.

The problem with the bumper sticker is that, decent though its outlook is, it doesn’t really describe the Canada in which most Canadians live. In what manners precisely does Your Canada include Quebec? The bumper sticker does not represent the social experiences of millions of Canadians who cannot name a Quebecois singer (Sorry, Celine Dion does not count), a Francophone author, or a Quebec provincial holiday. Anglophone Canadians complain of having French ‘crammed down their throat’ in school. Then there’s the political Canada, a motley parliament fadged together by means of the federal election. I wrote an article for ASH magazine at the time of the 1997 election in which I wrote the following:

…after reviewing the research data, Lucien Bouchard’s claim that ‘Canada is not a real country’ was beginning to make some sense to me. I’d thought it a ridiculous statement at first, but my discoveries got me wondering. The first surprise was a 1994 Maclean’s/CTV poll suggesting that only about 1/3 of Newfoundlanders think of themselves as ‘Canadian.’ Even the Quebec referendum yielded a higher number: just over 50%. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the West considers itself a nation apart, and if one doesn’t trust anecdotal evidence, there’s the 1997 election to consider. This election carved the political landscape into competing regional chunks, leaving Ottawa to pursue one of the few policies for which there seems to be a national consensus: decentralization. As the next referendum approaches, I try to imagine appropriate regional slogans for the inevitable bumper stickers. Here’s one: My Canada includes Bay Street, Parliament Hill, and parts of Montreal, notwithstanding. Here a brief newspaper quotation, there a statistic: together considered, the data suggest less a nation recreating itself for the next century than a conflict over who should get what, and more important, who shouldn’t. The national mood, perhaps not fully explained by the term ‘regionalism,’ seems to be rooted in an understanding that, in a world of diminishing expectations, looking out for Number One is only a good idea.

I wrote that paragraph less than two years ago, and so it would be premature to conclude it’s withstood the test of time. I’ll say instead it has withstood my suspicion that I was perhaps too pessimistic. Years ago, in preparation for some articles on contemporary Canadian politics that I was writing, I read several dozen books, dozens of articles, and scores of government documents. I read the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI), and those glossy publications of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). I read the Prime Minister’s after-dinner speeches, and the reports issued following the blue-ribbon trade missions of which we heard so much. I read Fraser Institute and C.D. Howe books. I read United Nations reports, from UNICEF to a publication called Transnational Corporations. I went through Statistics Canada data. I even consulted Royal Commission documents, Commons debates, Hansard, and on and on and on and on. Now, I’m not boring you with this list to establish my expertise and thus to place what I’m about to say beyond question. I want only to assert that all of these folks, working for the IMF and the World Bank and so on, have a pretty clear idea about what Canada includes. It would perhaps fit on a bumper sticker, too: “My Canada includes underexploited health and education markets.” I was trying to answer a very precise question in my research, What is this thing called Globalization into which we are rushing? After two years of effort I got a well-documented answer, too. Your political and economic leaders regard Canada as an ‘economy’ which needs to be made more ‘efficient.’ Globalization is a new name for laissez-faire capitalism. Theirs is one view of Canada, and the bumper stickers pose another. The problem for the Unity folks is that the bumper-sticker crowd isn’t running the country, the people Up There are. Don’t bother reading books about that; consider your experience and judge for yourself whether or not it’s so.

Here is a description of My Canada from Ontario’s 905 region, infamous as the Heartland of the 1995 Common Sense Revolution. This is where Mike Harris’s Progressive Conservative party won a decisive victory on a platform which pretty much ignored Quebec altogether. It was probably a wise strategy, but in any case I’m not interested here in politics. Remember, I am describing Canada as it really is, not as the My Canada folks wish it to be, or think it to be.

I live on the outskirts of Fort Erie, Ontario where I work as a writer. I’m writing a collection of stories set in a town that doesn’t look too “Canadian,” because we’ve all learned there’s a small market for that sort of thing. Some would regard me as part of the Culture Industry. Let’s talk, then, about culture. In Kingston I used to watch Canadian television and listen to Canadian radio because, unless one paid for cable, Canadian is about all you got. (As a consequence, most of those who can pay for cable do.) In Fort Erie there is only American television, and American radio dominates. Cable is not available in the rural area in which I live. Furthermore, Fort Erie – a city of 27,000 – has no movie theatre and no bookstores. The nearest stores offering these goods are in Buffalo. On the Canadian side I can easily find Canadian papers, full of American content and American spelling, and American books, magazines, rental videos, and music. I once found Canadian movies in the ‘foreign’ section of Jumbo Video, but the foreign section was long ago sacrificed to make room for a sprawling Disney section. I doubt you’re surprised; this is how Canadians are routinely treated by their fellow citizens. In other fields, science and technology for instances, it’s much the same. Canadian taxpayers subsidize education, but the notion of keeping Canadians here with good jobs is quite beyond. America offers the work and reaps the ample rewards of an investment paid for here. Then Canadians buy back the products of that investment at a handsome price. Don’t be surprised; it’s a very old matter which goes by the term Empire. Did you know that two of the original three Hollywood studios were established by expatriate Canadians? Not only does Canada let the Americans manage ‘their’ culture for profit; they supply the managers, at Canada’s expense. Sociologists call this a Brain Drain, which if you pay attention to metaphors makes you think back to NAFTA and all the glorious talk about the free flow of information and goods. Glorious talk aside, most people in the Culture Industry are unable to make a living in Canada, so many look in the States. Or, like me, they find work of another sort. Fort Erie’s prime real estate is American-owned, and the maintenance of these summer ‘cottages’ – far bigger than the houses local Canadians own – involves the labour of several workers. I am one of those workers.

These are the basic facts of Canada as I encounter them daily. It is a US-dominated country in which the Americans own the resources but hire the locals to keep things looking spiffy. When you get home from work you can eat American food, wear American clothes, and watch American entertainment. As for Quebec food, clothes, and entertainment, most people here would ask What the hell are those? 905 Canada doesn’t really include Quebec at all; indeed, it hardly even includes Canada. In 1998 there’s less political and economic substance to Confederation than even a decade ago, and the trend seems to me to be gaining momentum. Conrad Black owns most Canadian newspapers and lives in New York city, the centre of his universe; yesterday I read in his National Post a discussion of Thomas Courchene’s proposal that we establish a North American currency, the US dollar. Well, why not? Courchene, a Queen’s University economist, has on his side the facts that 80% of Canada’s exports go to the US and that Canadian society has undergone a decade-long project of social and economic ‘harmonization‘ with the States. The Canadian nationalists have bumper stickers backed up by Good Vibrations. I am not mocking them. I am merely pointing out that the North American Free Trade Agreement formalized Canada’s status as a milch-cow. The principal function of the federal government today is not ‘unity’; it is to make sure nothing gets between the bucket and the teat. Free Trade is about noble-sounding matters like National Treatment, Most Favoured Nation, and the elimination of non-tariff trade barriers. The goal, largely accomplished, is to get rid of socialist, interventionist government, and replace it with something that makes for a more efficient milking. The IMF now scrutinizes budgets – ’surveillance,’ the IMF people call it – and makes its displeasure felt if the fed gets out of line. So far Finance Minister Paul Martin has been a willing subject, and punishment has therefore been unnecessary. In public, federal leaders belong to the ‘My Canada includes Quebec’ club, and they’ve certainly handed out the goodies, but in private they are more of the school which believes ‘My Canada includes privatization, downsizing, and competition.’ You have to admit, it has a nice practical sound to it. Furthermore, it has practical results.

Confederation, I can’t help but notice, has the word federation in it. A federation gives one a federal government. And what does federal mean? Here is the definition offered by Chamber’s 20th Century Dictionary: “pertaining to or consisting of a treaty or covenant.” It’s an interesting definition, I think. A covenant has a distinct feeling about it; one imagines God and Moses breaking bread, while the lion and lamb frolic together in the distance. Covenants are mutual agreements that place the participants’ needs and interests foremost. Treaties are something altogether else. The word makes me think either of the many broken promises of Canada in their relations with indigenous people, or else it brings to mind those horrendous documents produced by the victors at the conclusion of a war. Germany was humiliated not by its defeat in WWI, but rather by the peace established in the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, to my mind the word treaty conjures the words ‘lies,’ and ‘deceit’. Someone invariably has, or achieves, a position of dominance where treaties are involved. Someone is usually screwed over. (Just ask Simon Reisman, the embittered Canadian negotiator of NAFTA who admitted Canada got screwed by the American government.) Where there are treaties and covenants, there must be people or agencies to keep them. This is one function of Canada’s federal government, to enforce agreements. I don’t know about you, but I myself have an opinion on whether Canada’s leaders are of the covenant-making or cynical treaty-making variety. The so-called New Economy arrived attended by the unmistakable feeling that Canada had lost a contest, and now must pay. The Federal government has downsized itself out of business and no longer does anything noticeable except hoard taxes and EI surpluses while telling citizens to pay more and learn to live with less. Public health care funding? Education? Social Welfare? Sorry, not anymore. It’s up to the provinces now, who in turn are dumping responsibilities and costs onto the municipalities, without giving them the resources. Perhaps by the time you read this, the municipalities will have entrusted health care ‘market’ to the efficient workings of American Health Maintenance Organizations, or HMOs. Government isn’t so inefficient after all. It’s Getting the Job Done.

My view, if you care to know and haven’t figured it out already, is that Canada is governed not by politicians, but by the lying makers of treaties. They screwed over the Indians, and now they’re busy screwing over Canadians. Behind it all are the financial markets, which in turn are governed by gamblers and robber barons. This form of governance goes on in the open and is sanctioned by the laws. There’s no need to introduce gnosticism, masonry, or a secret world conspiracy into the discussion. Anyone familiar with mercantilism will understand what the global economy is really all about. It’s about rigging the systems of trade and production and reaping the profits. There’s no place for east-west nation-building in a north-south trade regime. No one’s business interests are served by the break-up of Canada, but on the other hand the statist measures required by fiscal federalism (a term which covers federal-provincial cost- and tax-sharing arrangements) are out of fashion. Even if they weren’t, what more has the federal government left to offer Quebec? The answer, of course, is sovereignty. All of these – free trade, decentralization, downsizing, separatism – are centrifugal. They make a flight from the federal centre perhaps inevitable and certainly reasonable. As cynical as this sounds, confederation was a matter of expedience and self-interest. The provinces were in it for the goodies as much as for anything else. Well, Ottawa isn’t in the goodies business anymore. They have the international investor to please, and we know how the international investor loves austerity – not his own of course, but others’. The investors are doing nicely with the help of government, but the rest of us will have to take care of ourselves. The technical term for taking care of oneself, by the way, is independence.

Professor Courchene welcomes the new, decentralized, globally-competitive Canada. You could even say it was his idea. He’s a booster of the unimpeded free market and believes that the nation-state is, alas, obsolete. One man’s opinion, you may say, but Courchene is one of the most influential policy experts in Canada. He has literally written the book, at Ontario’s request, on intergovernmental relations. His approach to separatism is to render it redundant by turning Canada into a loosely-affiliated group of independent economies. The argument is, Make every province actually independent, both economically and politically, and you undercut the separatist cause of independence in law. That is the argument. It overlooks the fact that nationalism is at least as much about the symbols of nationhood as it is about the substance. Jacques Parizeau, I presume, wanted to be the Prime Minister of Quebec. Pomp and circumstance, Oui; Distinct Society, Non. The title ‘Premier of For-All-Intents-and-Purposes-Independent Quebec’ apparently did not interest him. Nonetheless, appeasement has a certain logic, and by a happy coincidence its decentralizing tendencies satisfied the conditions of the North American Free Trade Agreement as well. Under Courchene’s plan, which was adopted by Ottawa, the independent states of Canada would be governed by an agreement on internal trade (AIT). The unimpeded flow of goods, information, and capital would be the primary social and economic goals of Courchene’s, and Ottawa’s, Canada. This plan was published under the title Renewing the Federation.

Having endured a good lot of acronyms and barbarous phrases, are you ready for plain English? All the sound and fury about ‘renewing the federation’ arrives at this: empty the store, and maybe folks will stop trying to rob it. In other words, the only politically safe government in the 1990s – indeed the only good government – is thought to be no government at all. Ottawa will continue to collect incomes and to hand them over to bankers, bondholders, and Bombardier, but not much else will transpire directly between the feds and citizens. Most activists on the left have yet to grasp what this means for their infamous defence of an interventionist federal government. The fed is no longer in the business of social programs, but it is nonetheless busy. Ottawa’s Canada includes acronyms like the Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU), the World Trade Organization (WTO), and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI). Or, in plain English, the private economic interests of investors. It makes me wonder are there any good reasons today not to separate?

Needless to say, each Canadian sees the country differently. For some – those who derive the bulk of their income from investments, for instance – a decentralized, American-styled, free-market, individualistic Canada is an exciting, opportunity-filled prospect. I have expressed my suspicions, but I acknowledge also the attractiveness for many of the competing views. I could be wrong about the political system and about the leaders. I could be wrong about globalization. Most of all, I could be wrong about the future of Canada and Quebec. Regarding my assertion that Canada is ‘US-dominated,’ one could hardly think this a novel claim. Much of what I have stated is old and obvious. Some of it, such as the relevance of the IMF to Canadian politics, wants clarification and substance. Do I believe that Canada is under attack from malignant outside forces? No, I believe rather that Canada is open for business. I do not think that Canada is unique in the world, that it is somehow special, set apart from the other nations. The Canadian way of life is not invulnerable, and yet the threats are domestic. If anything brings Canada down, it will be the notions that democracy is a spectator sport, that citizenship is a piece of paper, that ordinary people are powerless, and that in any case ‘Canadianess’ magically shields one from the disasters which descend upon lesser nations. It is possible, even probable, that Quebec will one day leave Canada. It is possible that Canada as you know it will cease to exist. Perhaps it already has. My Canada, you see, includes these possibilities. [-November 1998.]

Of Youth and Age

T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem, The Waste Land, begins:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

I first read these lines in my early 20s and thought I understood them. But as it is in so many instances of literature, this poem seems commensurate with a certain age, the way Proust is an author for one’s forties and J.D. Salinger for the early teens. The meaning of this strange admixture of memory and desire which indeed comes about suddenly in Spring is not fully appreciated until one reaches an age where the crucial bit, “cruellest,” is actively felt. The opening of The Waste Land finds us somewhere between the youthful outlook of the Pastoral mode and the poetic resignation of Ecclesiastes: “the almond tree shall flourish, and the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail.” In that middle space desire persists, but memory indicates the direction in which you’re going, how far you’ve gone, and thus the inevitable matter of the diminishing return.

For me this late middle period, or if you prefer middle age, outlook is best illustrated not by allusion to Spring, but Fall. Here it is, the beginning of September, and it is a beautiful sunny day – Autumn is in the air – as the students return for another year of classes. I admit the whole thing makes me deeply nostalgic. But for what exactly? The facts of much of my years as a student were: tedious lectures, essays, term papers, exams, poverty. I know I do not miss any of these. And yet, when I walk alongside the residences and I get a glimpse inside, a part of me is absorbed into the scene and I want it all again. One month of actual student life, if not one day, would cure me of this, for I’m certain it would be an utterly depressing and irksome experience. But then, I am thirty-four years old and they are twenty. What I really want seems to be this: to be at a point in my life where discovery is a normal mode of experience, where everything is charged by a sort of blind, intense wonder.

A college student is ignorant and entirely at the mercy of hormones, or desire. That is the whole point of being young. But one does not think about that under the spell of nostalgia; one thinks how marvellous it is to have pals gathered about, rather than scattered to the corners of the earth, as they now are. And one ponders how wonderful it was to fall in love for the first time – all while harbouring the conviction that college romance is uninspiring and pedantic, and we’d be better off without it.

Nostalgia is pure sentiment. That is why you can never quite argue yourself out of it. A good lie deeply felt is more useful than an unpleasant fact arrived at through vigorous examination supported by evidence. And the principal lie about college, perhaps even about youth, is that you are freer than you will ever be later on. What you in fact are, for the most part, is confused, naïve, excited, drunk, anxious about the future, tired, and horny. Above all, if you are a young man, horny. All of these remind you that you are at the mercy of mysterious (so it seems at the time) forces, the forces of April. That is what it means to be young. And of course part of the habit of youth is abandoning oneself to these things, because the future, one suspects, consists of stability, boredom, and convention.

Your youth teaches you, if you are paying attention, that it is good to be alive, and it is also messy and inconvenient and painful and absurd. The young accept and even exploit this recognition, and the old perhaps wish desire would relent and leave one well enough alone. Somewhere in between these, life is overtaken by professional and personal aspirations, all of which are organised around making of one’s living a structured, comfortable, and secure affair. And for a time you almost believe it is so – that life has something like predictability about it. A comic idea, when you come to look at it. Nonetheless, a middle aged adult is typically a person who has long ago stopped believing – stopped feeling – that the future is a domain of great promise and newness, whether or not this was ever the case. One gets on with it, and is rewarded for a short time with the illusion that we are more or less on a manageable and rational voyage. The seasons go round, now and then stirring memory and desire, and this too passes. The business of life carries on. [- September 2000]

Kingston, Ontario, in the 1990s

One’s lasting impression is of the old-world feel of the place, ivy growing on limestone and so on. The city, especially its gentrified regions, has a distinct charm. Kingston is Loyalist and wants you to know it: even the garbage cans bear a slogan, pro rege, lege, et grege [for king, for law, and for the people]. Throw a rock and the plaque you’ll hit reads, In this house Sir John A. Macdonald (or perhaps his sister-in-law, or brother) once lived. Walking in Sydenham Ward, among the portes cochère and the gothic churches, the North American feels somehow to have been transported to the Old World, which partly discloses the appeal of the place. For whatever else the Old World may be, it at least is not the same old same old. It is an anachronism which offers both to the conservative and progressive imaginations an escape from the Here and Now. Living in Kingston one learns that architecture is full of metaphor and allusion. The Old World is a mental construct which points us somewhere. That somewhere is by definition an anachronism, and anachronism is itself the dominant Kingston motif. Go to a pub, the Wellington for instance, and you’ll discover Mississaugans drinking Guinness and singing nostalgic Irish songs (Irish songs always mourn that which is lost, for obvious historical reasons). A handful will boast an Irish grandparent, but in any case what you have is a gathering of misplaced souls, and a textbook instance of Freudian cathexis.

Kingston represents nearly everything which is anathema to the contemporary technocrat. This is its chief merit among the artistic. It is not efficient (until about 1 month ago, tall buildings were prohibited), but rather is set out roughly on a human scale and to a good degree with human needs, and not the needs of the automobile, foremost in mind. Business is not its chief legacy, but instead it is dominated by the public sector. Its historical figures are all first and foremost politicians. There are, I think, more parks than shopping malls. Prior to the triumph of the Open For Business agendas of Messrs Harris and Chrètien, the hospitals, schools, and military college were principal employers. Since the triumph, our many prisons have become a growth industry – a warden told me once that the bank granted without further questions his mortgage when told his occupation – but like other public functions the prisons are likely to be privatised, large profits being virtually guaranteed. Only tourism rivals the public sector as a source of economic activity, but it’s questionable whether tourism isn’t in many ways simply an extension of the public sector. I’ve noted, for instance, that the Japanese adore having themselves photographed before our city hall, and not before the Chamber of Commerce. They are fascinated by our squirrels. It is noteworthy that these simple human facts elude our economic experts, who talk as if technology and the modern corporation were the only things that matter. As for private enterprise, it exists, but mostly on the small scale we’re told simply won’t do in the global economy. Kingston business, that is, locally-owned Kingston business, is Mom-and-Pop in scale, which means politicians will praise it as the hope of our future while undermining it at every opportunity.

Everyone who lives in Kingston is a part of a clique. Hugh MacLennan might well have written a book about the place called Many Solitudes. To the north, in what is known as the Heights, you will find many of Kingston’s GWA recipients. The Fruit Belt, still to the north but much closer to downtown, is mostly proletarian ‘townies,’ but elements of the middle class have been moving in. Sydenham Ward is upper-middle, or perhaps lower-upper class, but here also you will find student apartments and some middle class professionals. Going north-west of the downtown you’ll encounter everything from shoebox bungalows, built between the wars, to middle class Tudor houses, neo-colonial mansions, and neighbourhoods where residents sit shirtless on their porches, dining straight from the pot. But these people of course are not mixed up together, and I assume prefer not to be. Class affiliations are too deeply ingrained. The divisions are, appropriately enough, determined by Division Street, which runs roughly north-south, and Princess Street, which runs east-west. The Ghetto, in the south-east, is nastiest of all for sheer aesthetic ugliness – but it’s only student housing, Put-On ugliness, like a Hallowe’en costume. The Ghetto houses are shabby and sordid Victorian monstrosities, at least eight persons to each, and their studied dilapidation is a matter of great pride. I’m unable to say how the name, The Ghetto, has come about, but it is in any case an instance of camp. The idea is to pay homage to the working man, as he’s conceived by the middle classes, until graduation into the Real World. This imitation underscores the essential fact of Kingston life, that the classes barely encounter one another except in the imagination. If you are a student, it means by definition you never socialize with the Fruit Belt proletariat, and vice versa. Perhaps your paths cross. You may both find yourselves at 3 in the morning eating poutine at Bubba’s, but that’s about it. The middle class student will at most learn from Judith Thompson’s play, The Crackwalker, that the lower classes of Kingston enjoy Hockey Night in Canada and hanging-out at Lino’s. The upper classes of Kingston are invisible, as they are everywhere. I have only one personal anecdote concerning them, from my days as a hospital employee, and it involves the annual Hotel Dieu Hospital food drive, a butler, and a can of sardines. As for the so-called lower classes, they will probably never see up-close either Queen’s student life or Old Money society, which they mistakenly conflate. Many BMWs pass within feet of the ‘Hub’ subculture, where Division and Princess intersect, with neither party coming within a million miles of the other.

These of course are largely abstract socio-economic groupings, but there are other sorts of cliques, or perhaps sub-cliques, as well. There are the teenagers who occupy downtown Princess Street doorways, smoking cigarettes and panhandling. There’s nothing distinctively Kingstonian about them, but they are almost a part of the local architecture, like body-pierced gargoyles, one feels. There’s a women’s community which, if you’re part of it, you know intimately. Literally everyone knows everyone else, or has at least heard something specific of her. The culture is organised around Take Back the Night marches, women’s dances, and women-centred agencies like the Sexual Assault Crisis Centre of Kingston and Kingston Interval House. There’s a gay and lesbian community centred on Club 477. If you wish to be seen as a member of long-standing, as they do in the commercials for American Express credit cards, you’ll refer to the club as Robert’s, its former name. There are more narrowly political groups, each with its own history and culture and favoured enemy. (A favoured enemy is essential to group cohesion.) And no list would be complete without Kingston’s itinerant, the many homeless who are well-known by sight. But don’t they form a socio-economic group? No, I suspect they live outside such categories. They aren’t even a clique, being necessarily of a mostly solitary nature. I have heard some of their life stories, which no doubt are embellished if not made-up entire, but the only thing that makes them a distinct group (besides their poverty) is that they all have fallen outside the system. A few of them are clearly mad and you’ll hear it said for that reason ‘they shouldn’t be on the street’ (as if others should), but most are entirely sane. My first year in Kingston, 1990-1991, I read all of Beckett’s novels; his characters’ predilection for bicycles struck me as uncanny, for such people were, and are, a common Kingston sight. Why, I wondered, the bicycle? Why not a yo-yo or a pet? Years later I bought a bicycle myself, and it occurred to me that a bicycle gives one a compelling sense of momentum, which must be a great comfort if you sense your existence is pointless. It’s easier to feel you’re going somewhere on a bicycle. Beckett nowhere makes this explicit, but I doubt the fact escaped him. I’m thinking of one Kingston indigent who I often saw travelling about in a grand arc, like Haley’s comet, taking in not only the city but much of its environs. He collected bits of refuse which he then affixed to his bike, using other bits of refuse. It would have seemed mad if not for the fact that his acquisitiveness simply reminded me of my own. We are all busily engaged in the accumulation of stuff, and whether or not it’s junk is a matter of opinion. This is not however to trivialize deprivation by putting all consumption on a par. The principle characteristic-in-common among the homeless, as I’ve said, is their poverty, for which they are treated as criminals and swept from public view. Their consumption is judged non-economic and hence is subject to treatments alien to the better-off. I dwell on these people (they are always ‘those people’) because they are a highly visible feature of Kingston. No tourist is encouraged to consider them – quite the opposite, in fact – but they exist and speak volumes of the sort of place Kingston is. As a group with an almost exclusively public existence, they constitute a unique category of person. The poor are in a sense always with us, and yet we understand them least of all. On the topic of social groupings I could go on and on (religious affiliations, men’s clubs, Chamber of Commerce, artists’ groups, etc.), but the point is always the same. The members of these cliques rarely if ever interrelate, even in cases where a clear overlapping of interests would lead us to expect them to. This is perhaps typical of any city, but it’s remarkable given Kingston’s geographically-determined physical intimacy. Nowhere are so many solitudes packed into so little real estate.

The solitudes make generalisation about the character of Kingstonians difficult. Nonetheless, at first glance Kingston does at present appear to be a ‘progressive’ community. Progressive here designates a promotion of cultural and political diversity. The positive feature of multiple solitudes, at least in principle, is its advancement of tolerance. You can be anything you wish, and folks will leave you alone. This impression derives from the sheer variety of culture and lifestyle on display, most of it but not all organised for tourist consumption. It’s true that Kingston is more progressive than most Ontario cities, if we’re careful about what this means: many kinds of ‘ethnic’ restaurants, and a diverse set of goods in the stores. This is of course banal, but it does make an impression. A disproportionately large number of writers settle here because it appears to them that Kingston is cosmopolitan and hence ‘civilized’ – that is, it supports Bohemianism. Since many Canadian writers come from small towns and are in flight from orthodoxy and parochialism, this logical error is understandable. In a more narrowly-political sense of diversity, there is plenty of theatre and art which characterises itself as a ‘celebration of alternative lifestyles,’ meaning gay and lesbian. So support for diversity does appear to be part of the local character.

Behind the scenes however one should note Kingston’s managerial monoculture, its solidly Open-for-Business political ideology. To some there’s a contradiction here, but since diversity sells well, the contradiction can be easily resolved. Everything is judged according to the market, including heresy. Window dressing aside, Kingston’s character may be inferred from its current municipal government, elected in 1997. 16 of its 17 members are white males, almost unanimously conservative and middle class, and the lone female was acclaimed. Debate the significance of this if you will, but at least it’s clear that the city is run by the same sort of persons who advise the provincial Harris Tories, and this as the result of a democratic election. [-June 1998]

Milton Rogovin


The great photographer immersed himself in the poetry of simplicity and came to the surface with the net full of clear fish and flowers of profundity —Pablo Neruda, “The Islands and Rogovin,” Windows That Open Inward.

People all over are beautiful if given half a chance. I feel that people should have an opportunity to work and live decently …. — Cheryl Brutvan, “An Interview with Milton Rogovin,” The Forgotten Ones.

Milton Rogovin was born the 30th of December 1909 in New York. His parents owned a small store and sold draperies and yardgoods. Like many, they lost everything in the Depression. Rogovin saw devastating poverty, and as a result became politically active. Another decade would pass however before he’d discover photography. In the meantime, he attended Columbia University, where he studied Optometry, as his brother had done before him. In 1938 he moved to Buffalo and opened an optometry clinic on Chippewa street. He had come to Buffalo to be near the trade union people, but he would eventually discover much more.

I visit Rogovin at his house. It is simple and dignified, like the man himself. Daumier prints cover the dining room walls; more prints are spread across the table, waiting to be framed. A Navaho rug lies across the livingroom floor. The shelves are well-stocked with books: Picasso, Goya, Van Gogh. At one point, he reads to me from the memoirs of Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), the artist for whom he has the greatest respect. “If you want to know what I think about something,” he remarks as he draws aside the cover, “just look in the back of my books.” I can see he’s made copious notes. Finding the passage which he has enclosed in a bold ink rectangle, he reads words that could well describe his own feelings about his photography:

I should like to say something about my reputation for being a “socialist” artist, which clung to me from then on. Unquestionably my work at this time, as a result of the attitudes of my father and brother and of the whole literature of the period, was in the direction of socialism. But my real motive for choosing my subjects almost exclusively from the life of the workers was that only such subjects gave me in a simple and unqualified way what I felt to be beautiful. For me the Königsberg longshoremen had beauty; the Polish jimkes on their grain ships had beauty; the broad freedom of movement in the gestures of the common people had beauty. Middle-class people held no appeal for me at all. Bourgeois life as a whole seemed to me pedantic. The proletariat, on the other hand, had a grandness of manner, a breadth to their lives. Much later on, when I became acquainted with the difficulties and tragedies underlying proletarian life, when I met the women who came to my husband for help and so, incidentally, came to me, I was gripped by the full force of the proletarian’s fate. Unsolved problems such as prostitution and unemployment grieved and tormented me, and contributed to my feeling that I must keep on with my studies of the lower classes. And portraying them again and again opened a safety-valve for me; it made life bearable.

Rogovin once told Cheryl Brutvan in an interview, “I never could warm up to the middle class in photography.” Among the working classes, among the poor, among those who live on the street, he finds not only suffering but also dignity and beauty. And as the title of his book, The Forgotten Ones, suggests, he finds potential that is never acknowledged, never given an opportunity to flourish. His task is to document this forgotten potential, dignity and beauty. Accordingly, he considers himself a “social documentary photographer” and not an “artist,” though he’d rather dispense with labels altogether and concentrate on his mission—to tell the truth about the human condition. This concern with documenting human lives guides everything he does. He is not institutionally trained; he does things an academically-minded photographer would consider incorrect. His techniques have been developed ad hoc, to accommodate the challenges of photographing in a mine, in a factory, in a living room, in a foreign country. Even his choice of equipment often has a mundane rationale. Years ago he changed his camera after a number of people had asked what it was worth. How could he function, worrying his camera might be stolen?

Rogovin purchased his first camera in 1942, the year he was drafted, the year he married his wife, Anne. But even then he wasn’t a serious photographer. He took snapshots of family vacations and the like. Then in 1958 he was asked by a friend, a professor of music at Buffalo’s state college, to collaborate on a project. The professor would record music at store front churches; Rogovin would take pictures. After three months the music recordings were finished, and the professor moved on. But Rogovin had found his place, and so he continued to photograph at the churches a further three years. He had embarked on a path that would cross the Earth.

In the late 1950s he was still practicing optometry and could photograph only weekends. Besides the responsibilities of his work, he had three children to consider. In addition, Rogovin was politically active in the Black community, as he had been since the 1940s. His efforts caught the attention of the House Committee on Un-American activities, which targeted Rogovin in 1957. His name appeared in the papers. He was shunned by neighbours; his children were no longer visited by their friends; his income dropped immediately by one-half. The wounds have never healed, though in recent years he has been awarded an honorary doctorate by the local university. The recognition, he adds, is encouraging. “It helps,” he says.

As early as the 1960s Rogovin began to receive critical recognition. A number of the store front church photographs (accompanied with an introduction by W. E. B. Du Bois, an educator, writer and founder of the NAACP) was published in a 1962 issue of Aperture by an impressed editor, Minor White. In this same year, Rogovin travelled to Appalachia to photograph coal miners. He had been reading about the problems that they faced, and he wanted to document the hardships, to show outsiders what was happening. This would be the beginning of a world-wide trek. Milton and his wife Anne eventually lived among miners in France (1981), Scotland (1982) and Spain (1983); they would also travel many times to Mexico, and once to China (1986). A selection of the photographs which Rogovin took in these places was published in book form with the title The Forgotten Ones.

Rogovin says he is normally a shy person. But that changes when it comes to his photography. He is not afraid of being aggressive. Perhaps his most remarkable act was to write to the world-famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1967, asking if he were interested in collaborating on a book. I asked Rogovin what motivated him to do this. The poems, of course: he mentions “The United Fruit Company,” and then asks rhetorically, “Neruda had worked with other photographers and artists—why couldn’t he work with me?” Rogovin laughs when he tells this story; even he seems a bit surprised by his boldness—but there is no doubt that the letter paid off. Neruda replied on 13 November 1966 with a letter that begins, “your work is wonderful and I will be greatly honoured if we collaborate in any venture.” Collaborate they did, and the result was Windows That Open Inward: Images of Chile.

After leaving Chile Rogovin returned to Buffalo. He began in 1969 to photograph the people of the Lower West Side. At first some were suspicious (was he with the police? —the F.B.I.?). He photographed prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers. He met intelligent people whose lives had gone terribly wrong. He tells me a few stories about people he has met. He tells me of a man who lived in the shadow of an abandoned apartment building. “Why,” the man had once said, “can’t the city give us this building? I could teach people here how to do lathe work and other sorts of work. We could fix up this building and live in it. All we want is a job.” A job, Rogovin repeats, a job. The problem, overlooked in this time of welfare-bashing, is the lack of good jobs, and Rogovin’s experiences have convinced him that matters are only getting worse. Today, he reminds me, AT&T have announced they will fire thousands of workers as part of their “restructuring.” The topic turns to work.

In The Forgotten Ones there is a section entitled “Working People.” This group of photographs was begun in 1977, shortly after Rogovin read Bertolt Brecht’s poem, “A Worker Reads History.” He decided he wanted to show the people who do the gruelling physical work on which our society depends, work we don’t see depicted in the photographs of mainstream magazines—or anywhere in our media. Meanwhile, he had been gradually phasing out his optometry practice, from which he retired in 1976, after discussing with his family his desire to photograph full-time. Rogovin could no longer bear the distraction which optometry had become. Photography, he knew, was his calling. Having exhibited his work in Buffalo’s Albright-Knox gallery, he’d by this time established his credibility. He was able to get permission to go into Republic Steel. Once inside he pressed further, asking the workers he’d photographed if they would allow him to take pictures in their homes. He wanted to document the contrasting aspects of working people, to allow them to dress the way that they wanted to dress and to sit where they wanted to sit. He had learned quickly, in the Lower West Side, not to ask questions and not to make demands. He let people choose how they wanted to be photographed. And he was careful to keep a distance.

He returned to the Lower West Side in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s. He didn’t know the names of the people whose pictures he’d taken between 1969 and 1972, much less where they had gone; but he had the pictures. He showed them to the locals, and was told who had OD’d, who was in jail. Others, he was told, had moved or disappeared. Those he could find he again photographed, and in 1994 the resulting book Triptych was published by Norton.

Milton Rogovin wonders aloud, Is anyone listening? Is anyone listening to the silence of his photographs? If you study them for a while, they begin to speak; but you must pay attention. He finds the sometimes fruitless work of selling himself to booksellers, publishers and museums disheartening. Outside of Buffalo, his work is largely ignored. He recognises that his photography is good, and yet he must acknowledge that “good” does not guarantee an audience. And besides, the well-to-do don’t want to be reminded of those who are less fortunate. Poverty isn’t fun, and so it can’t compete with, say, the glossy colour images of People and Glamour (“I hate colour photography,” he says), or the saccharine banality of Trisha Romance. He’s never heard of Romance (a painter who has captivated the bourgeoisie), so we throw around a few more names and indulge our consternation. In the end though Rogovin is confident he has taken the right path, and he knows that there are a few people out there who are paying attention.

I have one last request of Milton Rogovin before I leave. He has told me of a book, a very special book, given to him by Neruda many years ago. “May I see it?” He goes to the shelves and carefully pulls out a large volume, 20 inches in height, perhaps more. Neruda has inscribed the book for Rogovin. I’m struck by the exuberance of the large green script, among which are whimsically-drawn green birds (“Neruda always wrote with a green pen,” he tells me). The book, Arte de Pajaros [Art of Birds], is a collection of poems. Beside each poem is a gorgeous illustration of birds, painted by friends of Neruda. It is a work of beauty and simplicity, and I look upon it with delight. Then I look out of the window, and see it is getting dark—it is time to go. [-June 1996]

Ontario Under the Harris Government

WHENEVER THE TOPIC turns to politics I am thoughtful of this aphorism, written by H.L. Mencken: “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” So far as I know, Premier Mike Harris has never offered his definition of democracy. Yet I imagine if he did offer it, it would come out something like that – dressed up perhaps, but not substantially different.

Democracy is one of those words, and there are many, whose meaning is inseparable from its speaker. I am led to understand, by the local MP, that democracy consists in sending a representative to Ottawa for 5 years because you fancy him brilliant and competent, hence able to act as a matter of course on your behalf. Labour leaders appear to define democracy in relation to their wages and benefits, which doubtless offers a scientific means of measuring precisely what quantity of democracy we’ve got at any given moment. My mock-favourite definition however comes from Samuel P. Huntington’s The Crisis of Democracy, and could fairly be called an ‘elite’ view. Here, democracy designates a general uppityness to be contained by government, that is, bankers, heads of state, and the CIA. In other words: Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and we must keep them from getting it.

The first thing to notice about these definitions is that they are all rather self-serving, and the last thing to notice is that they don’t get us very far on the road to a useful understanding of democracy. I begin with these considerations of democracy because what you think of Mike Harris is related to what you conceive democratic government to be. One’s definition of democracy involves a value judgement, and this value judgement extends not only to government in the abstract, but to particular governments as well. If you believe democratic government means higher wages for unionized workers, you’re not likely to be a Harris supporter. I do not claim this is impossible, only that it is not very likely. Democracy is not an object, and we do not regard it objectively. Even the commonplace definition, ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, only introduces more controversy. What do you mean by government? – representation, or direct rule? And so on and so on.

As the title of this essay suggests, I am not interested in democracy or government in themselves, but instead in Ontario under the Harris government. This is a specific topic, and calls for specific language. Already the debate has stagnated, one team asserting the Death of Democracy and the other, quite incongruously, retorting, If you think so, save it till the next election! (There are other teams as well, yelling from the sidelines.) They are speaking past one another, because they have incompatible assumptions. Is there anything to be said of Ontario under Harris which goes beyond this sorry state of affairs?

There are some remarkable facts about Mike Harris that are worthy of recollection. For instance his CV: Born in Toronto in 1945, briefly studied math and science at Waterloo Lutheran University (1 year), ski instructor, attended teacher’s college, public school teacher, Chair of Nipissing Board of Education, President of the Northern Ontario School Trustees Association, professional golfer and golf-shop manager, owner of a tourist resort and ski centre. What is remarkable about this? Only that it is not remarkable. It does not point in any direction. The next entry could as easily be accountant or hotel manager or disc jockey as it could politician. Harris is a Premier ex nihilo (or ‘deus ex machina’ if you prefer). He came from nowhere, unlike the majority of Canadian politicians, whose CVs, one feels, destined them to become leaders. This is the case with politicians as far apart in temperament, class, and ideology as Sir John A. MacDonald, Tommy Douglas, Preston Manning, and John Chrètien. Consider the CV of the man who Harris replaced, Bob Rae: Born in Ottawa in 1948, son of an ambassador, summer work as a Parliament guide in 1966, studied at U of T, involved in student politics, attended Oxford (Balliol) and again U of T (Law School), briefly practiced labour law before running first as a Federal NDP candidate (in 1978) and afterward as a Provincial NDP candidate. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is enough to establish the point: Harris is a different species of politician, even an anti-politician. This is the key to understanding the nature of his government and Ontario’s support for his agenda.

There is nothing inherently wrong or right with the route Mike Harris has taken to Queen’s Park. I have not put Harris beside Rae in order to disparage one or elevate the other. They differ, and Bob Rae is the more typical politician of the two. Harris has been often ridiculed, unfairly I think, for being little more than a jock. The revelation that his reading consists exclusively of Mr Silly and He Shoots, He Scores was attended by snobbish ridicule, but one should understand this is part of his appeal. If Bob Rae is a certain recognizable type of man, the ‘millionaire Socialist,’ so too is Harris a certain type of man. He is the man who comes riding into town to shake things up. Essential to this role is his status as an outsider. Indeed, what we are discussing here is an archetype. Harris is Perseus, come to slay Medusa, or John Wayne, come to set things right (or, more recently, William Munny of Unforgiven). For reasons that are easy enough to guess, the archetype is fondly regarded especially among the corporate elite, of whom ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlop is the most infamous example. To some the archetype is repellent, and it is interesting to read Rae’s memoirs and find him arguing against Harris, armed with Edmund Burke’s writings on the French Revolution. Rae’s principal grievance against Harris is not that he is too ‘conservative’, whatever that means, but that he doesn’t see the useful and positive aspects of the things he has set out to reform. Why? ‘Ideology’ is Rae’s answer; Harris has come riding into town, determined to impose his vision of justice.

This helps us to analyse Harris the ‘revolutionary,’ whose arrival for many was long overdue. What Ontario needs, according both to his supporters and detractors, is Change. At the bottom of this vague call for change is a generalized hostility toward bureaucracy in general and government in particular. Mike Harris appeals to that part of each of us that has patiently endured the irrationalities, injustices, and arbitrariness of the System. This is not a left vs. right nor rich vs. poor issue, but rather transcends political and class affiliations. We all know what it’s like to deal with ‘Big Government.’ Canadians have a shared sense that their governments are not working. This shared sense is a Common Sense in every meaning of the phrase. Every day an Ontarian tells his houseguests about the absurd encounter he’s just had with the bureaucrats, and they all shake their heads and commiserate because, as they say, they’ve been there too. It’s so obvious to us what’s wrong, why don’t the politicians get it? The answer is usually that they don’t get it because they’re ‘part of the system.’ If only someone like us, an outsider, could be in charge. That is the fantasy, and it’s revolutionary in the sense that the bureaucratic elite by definition are never one of us.

Change is the universal language. The working poor would like some things to change and so would the Canadian Bankers Association. Ontario voters swim in every direction, but cast a wide enough net, such as the promise of change, and you’ll catch them. The Harris government’s strategy tells us much about Ontario. Harris is not a reformer, he is a terminator. He is a politician against politicians, a governor against government, a public servant against public service. In no other career may you reasonably expect to succeed on the basis of your professed dislike of the profession. Who would hire a Doctor who promises to stamp out the practice of medicine? What would you make of a writer motivated by a dislike of books? Such things suggest that an odd psychology is at work. Does the public like Ontario, and perhaps even Ontarians, so little that they wish the White Horseman of the Apocalypse to pass through and give it to them good and hard? Rhetorically this is of course extreme, but one should be conscious of the fact that the year 2000 approaches. Fin de siècle mass psychology is not lightly to be dismissed. It infects everything, including the computer-programming profession. Today it would seem the end is at hand; only the means are disputed. Will it be the deficit or the debt? Inflation? Perhaps global warming or El Niño? Or will special interest groups, or international terrorism, or global competition, or AIDS, or the flesh-eating disease, destroy us all? And let us not forget the Quebec Separatists. And on and on and on and on. Nor does mass psychology yield to the so-called educated, who are busy churning out books with titles asserting ‘The End of’ – as in The End of Work and The End of History. Do such psychological conditions perhaps call forth a certain type of politician?

While I suspect the millennium informs the current political mood, I don’t feel it’s a satisfactory explanation of that mood. But the mood itself is unmistakable. We are anxious, cranky, impatient, frustrated, and restless. We have good reasons to be. Furthermore, where reasons have been lacking, Harris has been obliged to come to our assistance. We are oppressed, he has told us, by big government in the service of special interests, the latter meaning organized labour, women’s groups, environmentalists, misguided advocates of the poor and disabled, and welfare recipients. On the principle that a man declares himself by the enemies that he keeps, we can learn much from this litany. The chief thing to note is that each of the groups in this list represents a net social cost; these people seem always to be demanding, in popular parlance, a ‘handout.’ Labour wants wage increases, women’s groups want pay equity and funding for shelters, environmentalists want to curb production and to spend money on conservation, the disabled want more ramps, etc., etc. In their relation to government and society, they are demanders and dependants, like children. They are seen to take more than they contribute. No doubt these last 2 sentences are offensive. Nonetheless, it stands that Mike Harris is repulsed by what we may term ‘maternal relations,’ which is precisely how he construes the coddling welfare state. (In August 1995, he complained that mothers on welfare ‘do not work.’ Paula Todd was present and asked him what his mother did all day, but there was no answer.) Nor does he care for poverty because it is to him ugly and offensive, as, let’s be honest, it is to most if not all of us. Our instinctive reaction to the poor is to wish they were otherwise. Their principal effect is to bring out feelings in us we prefer not to have: especially anxiety and disgust. The function of political discourse is to exorcise these feelings and thereby make us feel things can change.

Since I’ve lived in a city with a good number of poor people, I will do as an example of the psychology I am describing. As I’m out walking a homeless man comes into view. I suspect he will want money. My first impulse is to cross the street, or at least move to the further edge of the sidewalk. It is not the money itself that is the issue. I avoid eye contact because he is a different species of being. (The street homeless are mostly male, by the way; women tend to flee into marriage and/or prostitution). His difference makes me suspect he may be dangerous, or mad, or both. In any case, I am sure he is not of my class, and this makes him offensive. He is dirty and no doubt smells bad, and anyway, the encounter would be terribly awkward because I could not possibly strike up a conversation with him. This latter detail sounds trivializing, but for the middle classes it is a devastating indictment, no less serious than physical repulsiveness. And so I pass. I am not finished with him, however, for now something else happens. I begin to wonder about his life story. What brought him to this? Where did things go wrong? Could it happen also to me? This is an unpleasant thought, so I flatter myself that, given his fortunes, I would nonetheless overcome. I even imagine myself, in a momentary fantasy, doing so. I embrace the myth of the self-made man, and I tell myself that he could better himself also, if only he made an effort. Notice that up close I find him unpleasant and pitiful, but from a safe distance I overcome the unpleasantness and the pity by means of a mental exercise. The principal function of the psychological twists and turns I have briefly described is to minimize my discomfort. I begin by feeling fear and disgust, but by the end I have convinced myself that he perhaps deserves his fate, or at least that my charity won’t make a difference. And I find solace in the conviction that he, and others like him, would cease to be a blight on our streets if they just made an effort.

I do not believe any of this nonsense. I feel it, as I feel wishfully the world would be a better place if only people behaved differently. Such is the stuff of the Common Sense Revolution. Harris wishes sincerely that the special interests shall go away, for their own good, by behaving differently. And he will force them to behave differently if he must, because he is the tough-loving father who knows what is best. Please note I am not endorsing the current cliché that Mike Harris hates women. Rather, he is nostalgic for the mythical 1950s, when father’s common sense was unchallenged and brought to the home peace and prosperity. That the 1950s ‘worked’ is held to be self-evident. The ‘progressive agenda’ thereby is associated with dissolution of the family and the rot that naturally follows. Harris thus trivializes dissension not only because that is what leaders do, but because his familial model tells him the children should only be expected to make a fuss. The essential thing is to maintain your authority, because in this rests the cohesion of the family. The children will protest, and you may listen as a loving father when they do, but it would be irresponsible of you, and dangerous to the interests of the family, if you let them each run her own life as she saw fit. Your job, as father, is to guide them along and keep things together.

Extrapolate from this and you’ll have a coherent conception of democracy. It is a literally home-made and not elite view. Mike Harris mistrusts the scholar-expert and disparages political theory, while he respects the practical. His ideal person, as the Ontario cabinet indicates, dropped out of school before learning too much and made the first $1 million or inherited it by age 30. Regarding professional enemies, the career advocates for the poor for instance, he dislikes their ‘elitism,’ that is, their impractical university education. The idea of a business elite makes little sense to him because the corporate culture in which he lives has mythologized the drop-out. What matters is practical knowledge, preferably got in the School of Hard Knocks. The poor and their advocates are united in Harris’s mythology by a lack of practical (read ‘common’) sense, which alone keeps them from getting ahead in the world. People like them must be forced to swim, and then to swim in a certain direction, for their own good. Mike Harris’s conception of democracy is a paradox: manufactured populism. Consensus and cohesion are its touchstones, but not a consensus and cohesion brought about by active mediation between opposing views. Instead, consensus in his view is something into which the passive citizen ought to be delivered, like a child into its family. This is why Harris chose the metaphor of common sense. How could you possibly disagree with common sense? It is the definition of consensus and as natural for you as your family. Thus, the quintessential Harris challenge is not how to resolve competing interests, but what to do about the black sheep.

No one of these explanations – the family, millennium psychology, anti-government sentiment, masculinist archetypes – captures entirely the character of Ontario under Harris, but each captures something of it. Each tells us a bit about what we are. (By ‘we’ I mean ‘the Ontario public,’ which is of course an abstraction.) Harris is not the cause, but the expression, and when he is gone from public office Ontario will go on. Its character will change in some ways, but in many it will not. We will continue to argue about democracy, and most of us will talk past, rather than to, one another. We will insist that we know what we want, and we will elect folks to give it to us good and hard. [-June 1998]

A View from the Stadium: Politics and Sport

A common view among academic writers, and especially writers of the political left, is that professional sport constitutes a diversion from practical affairs. The consuming public, according to the Diversion Theory, is made stupid and docile by generous outlays of – one can feel the approach of the inevitable phrase from Juvenal – ‘bread and circuses.’ Here I must qualify the discussion with a distinction between sports as recreation and sports as business. The following essay does not consider sports from the view of the participant, but rather from the view of the spectator-consumer. Our topic, major-league spectator sports, is particular. My job in the following paragraphs will be to answer a question: what is the spectator getting these days from sports? Indirectly, however, I shall be attempting to investigate the relation of sports and politics as this relation is described in conventional theory.

Intellectuals, among whom are few sports fans, often give an unflattering answer to the question just posed: what is the spectator getting from sports? Here are some of Umberto Eco’s thoughts on the subject, from a 1980 essay called ‘Sports Chatter’ (published in an excellent book, Travels in Hyperreality):

And since chatter about sport gives the illusion of interest in sport, the notion of practicing sport becomes confused with that of talking sport; the chatterer thinks himself an athlete and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in sport. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for sports activities.

You’ve gathered that the sports fan gets from sports, among other things which Eco elsewhere identifies, the illusion that he or she is an athlete. I suspect that this aptly describes a portion of the sports audience. One weakness of Eco’s approach however is that it considers sports from the point of view of one who presumably has risen above the folly he describes. This strategy comes with limitations. I shall attempt to clarify the matter of limitations by transposing Eco’s paragraph into another subject: literature.

And since chatter about literature gives the illusion of interest in literature, the notion of practicing literature becomes confused with that of talking literature; the chatterer thinks himself a writer and is no longer aware that he doesn’t engage in literature. And similarly he isn’t aware that he could no longer engage in it, because the work he does, when he isn’t chattering, tires him and uses up both the physical energy and the time required for literary activities.

I doubt that Eco, or academics in general, would accept this transposed statement. For chatter about literature (or art, or politics, etc.) is precisely how critics show their interest; they furthermore do not suppose this interest an ‘illusion.’ Here we disclose the critical necessity of attempting to understand human behaviour by examining one’s own.

We should be suspicious of the view which reduces all interest in sports to a parody of civic participation. The view is widespread, especially among Marxists – who necessarily suppose that ‘politics’ is a universal human concern. The alternative is to suspect that perhaps The People don’t care much for political affairs, and from this to infer a possible lack of enthusiasm for Marxism itself, or whatever one is promoting. The fan of sport, therefore, must be revealed as expressing his or her political nature. The result is a denigration of the sport spectator, over whom the superior theorist casts a dark shadow. The duped sports fan gets excited, argues about the decisions of the leaders, debates the strengths and weaknesses of outcomes, and urges what ought to be done to improve things. All of this energy is political in nature, but unlike the efforts of the scholarly investigator, it is foolishly misdirected toward an inferior end. Worse, the fan’s behaviour is manipulated by commercial interests: hence, he is not accorded even the attributes of agency. You can see why this reasoning flatters the academic, whose own perspective apparently rises above that of the mob. Eco, who (I think) is not a Marxist, even uses the telling phrase “fake conscience.”

Academic chatter about sports tells us a good deal about the assumptions of academics; it tells us less about the assumptions of fans. Seen from the perspective of the sports fan, professional sports are not a diversion from a more substantial occupation (that is, electoral politics); they are a diversion from tedium and banality. ‘False consciousness’ was a concept invented by Marxists to explain the masses’ complicity in their oppression. At the heart of the concept is the proposition that the people support the ruling classes because they (the people, that is) haven’t got a proper, Marxist understanding of class relations. In other words, to know Marxism is to love it. Needless to say there are other explanations for the rejection of Marxism, most of which concern the character of people who call themselves Marxist. ‘False consciousness’ nonetheless was adopted by critics of various political persuasions as an explanation of mass-behaviour. It allowed one to believe, ‘The People do not submit to me because they do not understand me: they are ignorant.’ Furthermore, false consciousness renders urgent the crusade to enlighten the masses. Academic writing on popular culture often discloses this logic, especially when it concerns political matters from the perspective of the political left. The unpleasant fact for the left is that they often find the behaviour of their beloved masses repulsive. Thus, the masses must be irrational or misinformed, and hence capable of being reformed through the application of rational analysis. Eco does not strike me as the crusading sort, but many critics are missionaries in disguise.

The challenge for the academic, then, is to offer a rational explanation for a behaviour that is considered irrational. The favoured explanation of the academic is that mass behaviour is a distorted version of his or her own; hence, the sports fan is engaged in an irrational parody of a rational human activity. Yet the sports fan’s relation to sport is the same as the academic’s relation to his subject of study. Both relations are rational and gloriously useless. Both reward an intimate knowledge of the discipline’s history, techniques, and rules. Both involve skill, the pursuit of excellence, and above all competition – for a trophy, for jobs, or for scholarly eminence. The literary critic who cleverly discerns a feature of, say, Shakespeare’s genius implicitly puts himself in Shakespeare’s company. The idea is that it takes a certain degree of skill to discern and appreciate skill in others. One reveals his or her genius in the praise of the genius of others. On this foundation rests the reputation of scholars and sports commentators alike. Academics, like sports fans, affiliate themselves with the honoured tradition and are thereby honoured.

If an intellectual feels it necessary to hitch his efforts to High Public Purposes, then we may reasonably suspect that he feels insecure. His insecurity is probably apt, given the unenviable social status of most intellectuals. Sports fans, for their part, are comfortable with the inutility of their pursuits. Indeed, inutility is one of the chief merits of sport for the fan. Sport, we need not be reminded, is play. Politics, we have all learned, is crass; it is about little more than advancing one’s own agenda. At least one is able to enjoy sports, despite the commercialization, and to see in them something more than money- and power-grubbing. It is precisely the academic thesis that ‘everything is political’ which blinds many intellectuals to the positive value of sports and mass culture in general. Many fans see as clearly as the intellectual that sports are political (theirs is not a ‘false’ consciousness), but they choose sports nonetheless and manage to look beyond the politics. The sports themselves are felt by the fan to be good; when however there is no ‘sport in itself,’ but only a manifestation of the political, the rot appears wherever one cares to look. So it is fulfilling even for a casual fan to sit in the stadium and watch the game, while it’s a scandal for the theorist who sees only or mostly political theatre. Both sports and politics offer intellectual stimulation, abundant statistical data, debate, controversy, allies and enemies, and collective endeavour. The principal difference is this: sports do not leave you feeling only that people are vile.

Perhaps the previous line is too harsh. Nonetheless, I think, it makes my point. The public aspect of life, which includes the pundit’s analysis of it, is rather cynical. Professional sport may be the only public good able to command broad respect. We recognize that sport is a business, and that as such it is a private commodity as much as it is a public good. My point is that mass-produced spectator sports often succeed while politics often does not. By ‘often’ I mean that sports command a broader following than politics. I cannot prove this with numbers; it is a conjecture based upon my experience. Furthermore, my definition of success is the following: the ability to produce and substantiate both constructive attitudes and actions toward collective ends. Politics fails because contact with it produces, in many cases, the feeling that the world is filled with shits. It is perhaps healthy to avoid environments that support this feeling, and on this proposal I rest my claim that the sports fan is usually engaged in healthy behaviour. The word ‘usually’ allows for the sports fan who engages in chauvinistic displays of team boosterism, especially where these displays involve violence. Violence tells us something about the psychological condition of the individual fan, and it reminds us that spectator sports invoke deep feeling. But it is clear that deep feelings do not lead by necessity to predetermined acts. In any case, some of the feelings are themselves good – for instance, the sensation of being involved in the pursuit of a shared, worthy good, such as winning the championship. When is the last time politics made you feel something good?

Of course, I’m intellectualizing a feature of contemporary life which is transparent to ordinary folks. I suppose a good many fans would say they like sports because sports are action-packed, interesting, and full of compelling strategy. In other words, they no more feel their pleasure needs analysis and justification than do the critics theirs. Pleasure is pleasure. Nor is there only one sort of pleasure involved in any single field of interest. Sports offer the pleasures of watching, reading, learning, committing facts to memory, and discussing those facts with others. Unlike other forms of knowledge – knowledge of literature, for instance – sports knowledge also constitutes a lingua franca. Sports talk is the language of Common Humanity, and unlike talk of politics, it is usually jovial and at most mock-belligerent in nature. In short, sports yield a useful and engaging discourse among many ordinary, civilized people. And as any intellectual ought to understand, language itself is (among other things) a basic form of human recreation. [-January 1999]

In Bill Gates’s World (1998)

I am not sure exactly how much money Bill Gates is ‘worth’ as I write this sentence. His net worth is, I think, around $50 billion. In any case the number will have dropped or gone up a few hundred million by the end of this essay. And that surely is the basic fact of Bill Gates’s world: astonishing, unimaginable wealth. Everything else about him is a footnote. Just as poverty changes wholly a person’s life, so surely does opulence. What then is the meaning of such extraordinary riches?

An article on my desk tells me that Bill Gates will have to spend $145 every second of every hour of every day to exhaust his riches in 15 years. Elsewhere I read this: “…a new Lamborghini Diablo, which we think of as costing $250,000, would be 63 cents in Bill Gates dollars.” I won’t reproduce the formula behind this calculation, nor will I quote other such trivia, of which there are many. I wish only to note that these are typical of the many current efforts to explain what the world must look like to Bill Gates. I don’t think they succeed. They are quantitative efforts which understandably focus on the scale of his wealth, but what matters is the qualitative view. Yes, Bill Gates can afford to give every man, woman, and child in the world a $20 bill (or whatever); yes, he can buy 3 Boeing 747s as easily as I buy a soft drink; yes, he could purchase an entire small country. What he can do is however less important than what he is likely to do, and this in turn is less important than his reasons for doing it. Here we’ve entered the qualitative world.

Much is said about Bill Gates’s thirst for power, which is thought by some to be nothing short of absolute. The evidence given on behalf of this position is his alleged attempt to control the essential technologies of the information economy. Now, before we proceed, I ask you to imagine yourself a multi-billionaire. Do you seriously claim the thought of how this wealth enhances your power doesn’t occur? I’ve tried the experiment myself, and I’ve found within seconds it’s there: the thought of wealth as an enhancement of power. It’s true that the thoughts are small and far from the theme of world domination, but I’ve got to start somewhere. World domination is an advanced art. A few seconds into my new fortune I’m thinking about less grand things – travel, starting a business, personal freedom. These are all functions of power. My thoughts are of things I would like to do and be but which I cannot do and be under present circumstances. If this concern with power is demonic, and I do not myself believe it is, it’s nonetheless common.

True, most of us don’t set out to form global empires. Bill Gates is unusual, but only in relation to those of us in the non-global-empire-forming category. Put him next to another CEO and you’ll see he’s unexceptional. He’s employing the same logic, the same principles, and often the same tactics, toward the same ends. Only the quantity of his wealth and the industry he occupies distinguish him, and these are external features, accidents of history and timing. Had he chosen to run, say, a chain of barber shops, he would probably be less of a phenomenon. What if he were the 2nd most wealthy man, then what? He’d be Warren Buffet, of whom a relative speck is read by the general public. That Bill Gates chose to produce computer software made all the difference. If he hadn’t, someone else would be Bill Gates today, and we would be talking about him (it probably wouldn’t be a her, given the state of corporate culture). To understand the world of Bill Gates we have to consider not only the man, but the circumstances of the man. The essence of the capitalist, in other words, is capitalism.

Following the principle I’ve just articulated, one may be tempted to say that Bill Gates is the most successful practitioner of capitalism, and in this lies his essence. I’m not sure that this is so. I agree that he has been successful in business, and that for this success he deserves praise or blame, depending upon one’s point of view. He is not merely a creature of luck, though luck has played a part. So too has strategy; what else would we expect? Global empires don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t happen because of luck alone. They are built through a combination of hard work, planning, chicanery, deceit, ruthlessness, foresight, ambition, and cunning. The idea that capitalists succeed because they work hard to give the people what they want at a fair price is self-serving propaganda, like the view that the English Empire existed for the benefit of backward peoples. Indeed, most economic theories invented to flatter the rich are so much hogwash. This isn’t to say people engaged in business don’t believe them. Nonetheless they are hogwash. Even a cursory glance at history reveals the sine qua non of global-corporate profits, or in plain English, that which is necessary for ever-increasing corporate wealth. I’m speaking of course of economic imperialism, or the domination of the weak by the strong. Capitalism, as proponents like to point out, is for the strong.

Here is what I imagine the world looks like to Bill Gates. He is a multi-billionaire, thanks to the computer. He lives in a high-tech house built into the side of a mountain. He wakes each morning beside his wife amidst the splendour made possible by the success of his empire. Is he optimistic about the future? Does he believe technology will better human lives? The context makes all the difference to the analysis. Around him, he sees what a wonderful thing the information economy is. You may talk if you wish about ‘technological downsizing’ and the supposed workerless, automated future. Bill Gates’s only contact with work (for surely someone else buys his groceries, does his laundry, and cooks his dinners) is in the software industry. Here the prospect is splendid. It simply isn’t true that there are no jobs. As for the unsubstantiated claims that Microsoft is out to control the technology of the future, there is again Bill Gates’s house as proof to the contrary. He wants only to make life easier. In order to do this he needs access to certain resources. It is that simple.

Needless to say I haven’t the personal experience of a billionaire, but I’d be surprised if Bill Gates didn’t see matters in the benevolent manner in which I’ve just presented them. The last thing I’d expect of a billionaire is that he should see himself as a rich, greedy, acquisitive monster. Neither however would I expect him to see things as a ‘non-billionaire,’ otherwise known as Everyone Else. We marvel at the wealth of Bill Gates, and it’s a cliché now when discussing him to say, ‘Imagine if you had $50 billion dollars!’ But here’s the intellectual exercise which truly fascinates me: try to imagine Bill Gates imagining what it’s like to live on $39,000 a year. This, by the way, is no arbitrary figure; it’s the 1998 median average gross wage-earnings of an American family as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. And unlike Bill Gates’s wealth, it is not subject to wild vicissitudes, though it’s been declining (when adjusted for inflation) since 1979. Could Bill Gates really get inside the American life as it’s lived by millions upon millions? Only with an extraordinary effort which he isn’t likely to make. Welcome to Bill Gates’s world.

But again, I said at the outset that what Bill Gates is likely to do is more important than what he’s likely not to do. Furthermore his reasons for doing so are of the greatest importance. And as I’ve suggested his reasons for what he does have everything to do with capitalism, the system which informs his behaviour and which makes it sensible. Here then is the essence of Bill Gates: he is, from the point of view of the average American, the antithesis of Everyman. He is Noman. From the point of view of the capitalist system however he is thoroughly ordinary, thoroughly representative. He hardly merits comment. He will follow the logic of the system and make the best company he can, best meaning biggest, most competitive, most influential, and most profitable. The function of capitalism, as Karl Marx noted, is to reach into every corner of the globe and transform nature into its own image. This means that Bill Gates will genuinely want us all to live in a world created by Microsoft, which, when you think about it, is how Bill Gates himself already lives. How could it be bad if he’s chosen it for himself?

There is no single, sufficient answer to this question. It is again a matter of personal context. This much however is clear: Bill Gates’s choice is not precisely the same as the choice of others. Although the Constitution does not make this explicit, a billionaire’s freedoms differ from those of the average folk, especially when freedom is conceived in market terms. It is furthermore a qualitative difference. Consider: you’ve probably already forgotten the little exercise I introduced near the beginning, the exercise in which you imagine yourself a billionaire. For Bill Gates this is not a game, but rather an unceasing, even banal, reality. His wealth, in short, places him not in a bigger or even much much bigger version of your world, but in another world altogether. What for you is a wild, unsustainable fantasy is for him no more extraordinary than putting on underpants. You are Bill Gates’s wild fantasy. He will forget you soon, if he thinks of you at all, and will continue with his reality, the ongoing creation of a global corporate empire. And he will do so not as an average American, whatever that is, but as an average billionaire capitalist who lives in a house in the side of a mountain. What does this mean for America? That is a question only time will answer. [-July 1998]

Of Roads and Rage

One of the great frustrations of modern life is its sanctions against rage. For instance: how often have you felt compelled to beat back satire, contempt, or disgust for the sake of being polite? Now try to imagine the opposite case. Or have you experienced this: when I was younger I couldn’t complete a job interview without submitting myself to the necessary cliché that ‘I love working with the public.’

In fact there is nothing less loveable than the public. Even to encounter it briefly, as on the subway, is for me intolerable. And yet we are discouraged from admitting this. The public mood, when it involves formal relations, is necessarily fake-friendly. This is not a condemnation of civility, which in any case is to be distinguished from the tedious convention of making everyone out to be a friend. I’ve noticed that waiters, for example, have been instructed by cynical managers to introduce themselves by name to customers. It was only a short step from here to the idle chatter in which cashiers now routinely attempt to engage their customers. No wonder the Europeans find North Americans so tiresome, so unremittingly and artificially nice.

So far I have described mere conventional manners, which may seem irrelevant to a discussion of rage. But the point I wish to establish is that the truth about human affairs is often unpleasant, thus the effort to suppress unpleasantness at any cost is also an effort to suppress the truth. To a degree, the suppression may be wise. I’m certain many of the world’s nice people hate their jobs and the obnoxious people they meet. I am also certain rage is a common emotion, especially concerning the public responses to the acts of politicians. Yet I would scarcely recommend we act on our rage willy-nilly, for instance by indulging in reactionary politics. The case I wish to make on behalf of rage is more complex than this, and perhaps says a good deal about the contemporary public and its discontents.

If you scratch a good number of Canadians today you discover, beneath the conventional niceness, a shirty reactionary. The easy abundance of “send in the army” comments on the CBC website, which accompanies articles on Aboriginal people, is a good example of latent hostilities waiting to be exploited by future politicians. Contemporary public life, meaning electoral politics and media, is characterized by the nourishing, and then manipulation, of base emotions. I have learned, to my great discomfort, that all around there are perfectly nice people who, upon the introduction of certain topics (welfare recipients, capital punishment, the war in Iraq), become quite hostile, as if you’d stabbed a finger into their genitals. They have carried around with them a deep-seated rage, a visceral hostility which is part indignation and part frustration. I have felt these things myself, almost on a daily basis. I have wanted momentarily to murder. I’ve noticed this feeling comes when I read the papers – and again I hasten to add that the media are themselves mostly reactionary, mostly in the business of fomenting and directing discontent. But as the saying goes, it takes two to dance; the public both shapes ‘the system’ and is in turn shaped by it. The whole thing works something like this: media-informed Canadians learn that the country is governed by duplicitous opportunists. Their faces are daily rubbed in the hypocrisy, injustice, violence, and corruption of their ‘betters.’ What do they do? Support the first duplicitous opportunist who has learned how to give voice to their rage. The whole thing is a sham, really, and they know it. But the truth about rage never gets out. All one hears about are the familiar suspects.

Consider ‘road rage.’ Here we have a useful analogy to the current political mood. The growth of the automobile industry is unsustainable. It’s making the cities ugly, crowded, dirty, and uninhabitable. Thanks to the efforts of lobbyists, sane and decent proposals for the organisation of living spaces were long ago defeated. Every year the city planners pave over more green space and further congest the streets with cars and their bad drivers. The arrangement of the world around the automobile now and then strikes the sane person as a species of madness. Everyone knows the problems exist, and yet they are given no practical and immediate forum in which to express usefully their frustration. What expression does exist is arbitrary and meaningless. Nonetheless it is a response to real conditions. The road rage therapist (and there is such a thing) is a sort of pundit who turns the whole matter into a simple failure of manners, clouding the discussion with sociological gas. Road rage, it turns out, is about everything except the road. Wouldn’t it be more healthy though to admit we may hate, for very good reasons, rush hour, crowds, smog, bad driving, traffic jams, concrete jungles, and commuting? At least then our rage would lead us to consider the plain observable facts of our experience, and perhaps to work together toward some decent changes.

This movement from private experience to a public dialogue and collective action would involve a form of human behaviour known as ‘politics.’ In some limited ways, it is true, there is democracy in Canada. Nonetheless I would suggest that the most significant fact of social life at the end of the 20th century is that most people, not only here but elsewhere, are deeply outraged by the public affairs of their country but entirely convinced there is nothing they can do about it. The system is evidently rigged, maybe beyond redemption. So the ordinary folk contain their private, and impotent, rage until a demagogue comes along and opens the bottle.

It is too easy to predict the rise of fascism, or some other such bugaboo. The right wing, currently the source of political momentum in Canada, has tapped into popular discontent; to date however it resembles the fascist right only in some details. Among the social-Darwinist intelligentsia, who promulgate right-wing ideology in the National Post and the Toronto Sun, virulent racism is regarded as déclassé. The acceptable targets of rage are feminists, welfare recipients, unions, and modern liberalism – in short, the advocates of ‘special interests’ generally. One finds among the intellectual right an instinctual deference to traditional authority, and a disgust with anything that suggests collectivist arrangements. This last point perhaps more than any other portends the future direction of Canada, a general withdraw from the public sphere and a return to 19th-century social arrangements. In other words: Leave social problems, and indeed society itself, to voluntary private philanthropy. This is the social background of laissez-faire capitalism, on behalf of which the right-wing has launched its moral crusade. To get there, however, it has been necessary first to turn the public against The Public.

The political left, which abhors individualist talk, underestimates the appeal of the ‘minding one’s own business’ approach. In today’s media-circus culture, the very idea comes as does a breath of fresh air. It is exhilarating. Society, a term which includes political and economic systems, is thought by many to be in a condition every bit as unsustainable as are the roads. Whether or not this perception is warranted is not the present concern; the point is, this notion informs government policy. On the private road of life, one may drive into the sunset, to where there are no feminists, no poor, no welfare sponges, and no teacher unions: in short, no undesirables. The right’s political goal is to rid the individual not only of social obligations, but of society itself – which, as Margaret Thatcher has said, doesn’t exist anyway. The goal has been attracting a good many supporters.

If my intuition, then, is correct, the future may be shaped as much by deep-seated rage as it is by anything else. This may seem to you needlessly dark. That it is perhaps so I concede. And yet there is surely something ‘unnatural’ and disturbing about the average Canadian life – a life under which rage subtends, rarely acknowledged, day after day, until something or someone suddenly brings it to the surface. [-July 1998, revised February 2010]

Homelessness Considered

Although regarded as extraordinary, homeless persons in general I find are in no way unusual. Every city has them, and it is only because no adequate effort has ever been made to ensure all people have a home. I am unable to say what might constitute an “adequate effort,” except by way of noting that the public’s money would be required, something which would be broadly objectionable, and of course might well end in failure. As I write this, the Ottawa-Carleton government seems to have made no co-ordinated effort to get the homeless out of sight.

I remember some years ago (in 1996) there was a sharp rise in the number of people pan-handling in downtown Kingston. This would have been shortly after the government of Ontario decided to ‘get tough’ on the crime of not having a house in which to live. For a period of about one year you could commonly find someone sleeping on the ground whenever you went into a public building at night – as I did to pick up my mail, for instance, or to get money from the ‘automated teller.’ All of a sudden they were gone (the homeless, I mean.) The Kingston solution, as best as I can infer, was to have people rounded up and sent elsewhere, that is, to other cities and towns with precisely the same attitudes and approach to the problem of homelessness. This practice was widespread enough that the phrase Beggar-thy-neighbour was applied to describe it. I expected something similar of Ottawa, but it may be that the scale of the problem has discouraged the effort. Or perhaps they have not yet got around to it.

In any case, homelessness would be a scandal if people cared. The gut feeling that The poor will always be with us induces resignation even in individuals who are of generous disposition. Then there is the human psychological tendency to see an individual misfortune as tragic, whereas apprehended in large quantities misfortune causes one to numb to the matter. There are so many living on the street that you take it for granted, the way you take for granted the certainty of crowded buses and noise and inconvenience. Anyone who dwells on the shame of it all is likely being hypocritical. There is no doubt that it is a terrible thing to be homeless, but the real obstacle to changing conditions has never been a general absence of pity. The greatest enemy to improvement is the idea that the solutions have all been tried, and look what happened.

What ‘successful’ persons rarely consider – for the thought is unbearable – is how precarious their own existence is. Hardly anyone under thirty-five is able to sustain what is today called a middle-class standard of living without assistance of some sort along the way, typically from family. In my own case, well into my adult years an objective description of my economic status, considering in isolation my income, was that I was poor. A ridiculous notion, for I lacked nothing essential. What stood between me and ruin? One might argue education and talent and effort, but the correct view is that the essential facts all concern good fortune. Even my education, talent, and effort all in the end are matters of circumstance beyond my control. For I had the good fortune to be healthy enough to make an effort, and I had the economic status I needed to get an education, and talent was given to me at birth.

Even to look for work requires an amount of economic security. You cannot improve your lot when your energy is going into the mere animal struggle for body survival. It was pure good fortune that I had a supportive family that could and would keep a roof over my head while I looked for work, and it was pure good fortune that I have the intelligence and skills I need to, as they say, compete in the global economy and succeed in what is after all a ruthless world. From this it follows that the lack of these things is a matter of bad fortune. Probably the chief difference then between a homeless person and a person who has a home is this: the former is alone in the world, and the latter is not. And yet the ‘pick yourself up’ speeches never stop and probably never will, even though they are as out-dated and irrelevant as bootstraps.

Concerning ‘panhandlers’ I’ve made a sort of catalogue of the actual people who you will find in Ottawa asking for change. As a point of fact, I should mention very few actually ask for change, preferring instead the convention of placing a hat or some such receptacle on the sidewalk.

· Two men regularly stand on either side of the Kent Street St Patrick Catholic Church entranceway before and after masses. They are not aggressive, but they appear to be exploiting either Catholic guilt or the vulnerability of worshippers about the time of mass. As a matter of scientific curiosity, I’ve wondered how the church folk measure up to a non-church crowd of passers-by. Does this strategy yield a better return?

· There is a man with a reddish beard at the Bank Street bus stop on Albert who I believe is the happiest man in Ottawa. He smiles at each passer-by and says hello. When I took the bus in from Nepean I got out of the bus early, at Bank, just to say hello to him. (It’s probably also relevant that to me he looks like a leprechaun.)

· On O’Connor Street, in front of the Druxy’s delicatessen, a man gives out photocopied newsletters which I presume he himself has made. They are full of odd bits and pieces of information. The last I read was about Schizophrenia. Sometimes he produces muck-raking articles on the government.

· There is a man with two dogs at the corner of Metcalfe and Albert. This is the busiest downtown intersection because all westbound buses stop here at all hours of the day. Many people take the time to talk to this man. He must have some clout to have got this corner.

· A man stands in front of the Ottawa public library with his cap in hand. He has very sad eyes. He reminds me of someone, but I don’t know who. In my imagination I see him dressed for winter. All you can see are his eyes.

I could go on, but you will already have noticed how innocuous, even banal, these descriptions are. These folks seem to have a routine from which they appear hardly to deviate, and most of them are no more aggressive than a lamp post. I’ve no doubt I am in danger only of the aggression of the ‘gainfully employed,’ and since I was nearly run over by one of them recently I can say this without irony.

As far as the style of panhandling goes, there are, as I’ve suggested, certain conventions. Some hold a cup, others put a newspaper on the pavement. Some make eye contact as you pass, others do not. But the principal convention of panhandling is the cap, apparel’s lowest common denominator and the contemporary symbol of Everyman. It is the chief tool of the trade. And panhandling is a trade, something done each day with the same inevitableness of rising for the office job. The principal difference is that the office of a homeless person affords no amenities, even of the most basic character.

As for the idea that a little job training will help … an intelligent person ought to question this idea. Job training for the homeless? Without a proper residence, everything else is near impossible. And while a job seems like the common sense route to a house, you’ve got to have a shower, some decent sleep, and a meal to undertake the considerable task of finding work. Homelessness sweeps away the foundation one needs for a ‘normal’ life to take shape. And in the case of panhandlers often mental problems are involved as well.

I know I am dwelling on this, but it’s only because I sometimes feel the needless, active stupidity of people is rather too much to take. You can hardly get away from the self-congratulation over the ‘new economy’ long enough to suggest some very old things are still with us, and in growing measure. [- December 2000]

Capitalism: For and Against

You’ve heard often and perhaps recently that socialism is defeated and that capitalism is therefore triumphant, as if economic history were a basketball match. Yet socialism, by which one today generally means Soviet Communism, fell for internal reasons. The anti-Communists predictably have taken the credit, in the manner of all chauvinists, but this raises certain questions: what about capitalism? – is it really triumphant? Should it be?

First we ought to clarify what is meant by capitalism. Capitalism here designates exclusive private ownership of productive property, such as factories and telecommunications infrastructure. Property may be thought of as the tools by which wealth is created, and private property as a form of ownership which places economic power and benefits in the hands of the individual as opposed to the state. This, of course, is the main distinction to be made between capitalism and socialism, both of which may be industrial and statist. Capitalism is the ideology of capital; it puts wealth, and not the demos or even the president, in charge.

Wealth as such does not have power. When the capitalist extols the rights of property, it is the rights of those who own the property he has in mind. At the bottom of capitalism you find the proposition, rarely stated, that the rich are specially suited to run things. The argument is almost never put so baldly because capitalists (of the American variety at least) tend to affect a democratic outlook. ‘Meritocracy,’ meaning the rule of the Best and Brightest, expresses the capitalist’s fond belief that America is a level playing field. The best and the brightest, after all, had to work their way up to the top. So the idea that the rich should run things is tempered by the observation that their wealth was fairly amassed, through their effort and according to the rules of the game. Bootstrap democracy distinguishes American ruling-class apology from its aristocratic relations.

Political ideologies are all based upon self-justifying fictions. Democracy flatters the common man, and capitalism flatters those with capital. In the end, someone must rule and someone must be ruled. The fictions qualify prevailing arrangements; rarely do they lead to them. It’s the arrangements themselves that concern us here and not the ideologies. Of the latter we need only note that rarely is one so good as his PR asserts, nor so wicked as claim his adversaries. In this instance, what is true of the capitalist is also true of capitalism. It produces, as does any economic and social system, mixed results. But though the results are mixed, they are not arbitrary. Capitalism establishes certain relationships and trends. The apologists recognise this when they attribute all successes to the Free Market. Their boasts would be meaningless if capitalism didn’t in fact produce a certain predictable kind of outcome.

What, then, is the outcome? Capitalism produces a society which is dynamic and varied. You will find the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. You will also find extraordinary energy and productive capacity, both of which are organised around effective demand rather than human need. The difference between the two tells us something essential about capitalism. Mere hunger is a human need, but a hungry person with money and the intention to spend it constitutes effective demand. Capitalism will satisfy hunger as demand while ignoring hunger as need. In other words, human needs as such are external to the capitalist system. It is the effective demand that is all-important. What matters are the production and distribution of effective demand-fulfilling consumer goods, and to this end the social, economic, and political systems of capitalist countries tend to be organised. I stress ‘tend’ because in most capitalist countries, including Canada and the US, capitalism competes with other ideologies like democracy. It is thereby limited. A pure-capitalist country (such a thing has never existed, but some so-called developing nations come close) would be indifferent to human need, need being an extra-economic matter.

This is an extraordinary fact of capitalism and thereby deserves careful qualification. I’m not suggesting that capitalism is actively cruel. The point is it is active only as capitalism, active only when it is engaged in exchanges of value and the accumulation of capital. Remove money from capitalism and capitalism is no more. The system collapses; it cannot feed the hungry or clothe the naked or put the unemployed to work. In a well-functioning capitalist economy need is translated into effective demand by paid work or credit. Even in the best of times, however, capitalism is unable to lift millions of people out of poverty; something else inevitably must do the job, and that is socialist democracy.

Here I have suddenly abandoned the term ‘socialism.’ That is because I wish to make a case for social democracy, by which I mean public ownership of public goods and the organisation of human activity around human need. This, I admit, is a weak definition, but it is not inane. We should get over the propagandist’s conception of all socialisms, including social democracy, as Big Brother, and so on. Of course, pure socialism (i.e. abolition of private property) has lead to Big Brother, and it is consequently quite impossible today to discuss statist socialism without considering some very unpleasant facts, such as that it has never worked well for ordinary people. And yet social democracy (as practiced in Norway, for instance) has not fallen, or collapsed, or whatever term you prefer. Indeed, it works quite well. As for Big Brother, let’s consider the capitalists’ fearful prate about ‘managed economies’ and how evil they are, then ask ourselves whether General Motors is not a huge bureaucracy with a centralised, vertically integrated, economy. No, socialist democracy is above all else the temperance of capitalist social relations. Temperance is necessary because the corporate form of governance gets us no closer to economic democracy than does Stalinism. It does however greatly facilitate the mobilisation of capital, which was one of its historic purposes. Nor was the corporation originally designed to suit capital, but rather social needs. Here we encounter both the strength and the Achilles’ heel of modern-contemporary capitalism, the corporation.

The corporation was in the beginning a restricted legal entity, granted specific rights and privileges by state governments. The earliest corporations were constituted to achieve specific public goals requiring extraordinary amounts of capital, such as canal or road construction. Once the project was completed, the corporation was dissolved. Incorporation enabled governments to amass large amounts of capital while protecting individual investors from any losses that may occur. In other words, the public corporation was a useful and necessary instrument for achieving public goals.

Gradually the corporation moved away from its traditional, public function. Investors began to use the corporation to deepen and extend their economic power. Ironically, the demise of the public corporation was hastened by the Jacksonian Democrats, who discerned in the corporation, perhaps correctly, the beginnings of excessive and tyrannical state power. Joined by groups representing wealthy private investors, the Jacksonians successfully advocated the retreat of the corporation from public activities. Corporations were gradually granted new private rights at the same time that they were relieved of public responsibilities. This trend culminated in the early-20th-century decision to grant corporations the rights of persons, specifically freedom of speech and of expression. Unlike persons, however, the corporation would be able to exist eternally, accumulating wealth and power generation after generation. Once a temporary institution with limited powers and a specific public mandate, the corporation became an eternal person with extraordinary economic power and a private mandate to maximise profits.

To date, this arrangement has been tolerated by the public. The increasing influence and even dominance of transnational corporations over the economic and social affairs of the world’s nation-states is nonetheless repugnant to many millions of people. The demos will not long allow corporate capital to practice laissez-faire cannibalism. At some point in the future, citizens will insist that economic arrangements bear a meaningful relation to basic human needs; in other words, they will rediscover economic and social democracy. If the term socialist democracy disturbs you, by all means call it something else. It will be impossible for the plutocrats to resist democracy indefinitely, though goodness knows they will as always try mightily. Once again, a bargain will be struck between capital and the people – but in all likelihood not until a painful, protracted historical lesson is yet again learned, that capitalism on its own does not work. [-August 1998]

The Secret Life of Work

Here are some general observations of the work that goes on in a modern city. To begin, everyone is in a hurry. Most people I’m guessing are engaged in some sort of bureaucratic enterprise, and the rest are downtown to serve them coffee. In the morning a pack of buses hurries about, now and then disgorging itself of suits and umbrellas and PDAs. Regarding the work itself I have the following thoughts.

One used to think of major industries when it came to jobs. For example, in small towns work meant the steel or auto plant. Is this still the case? Ottawa was known as Silicon Valley north and Nortel was a major employer. However, Government was a larger employer, even during the boom. So there are still only a few truly dominant employers, with one being undeniably at the front. The one-industry town is not completely obsolete.

Most of the folks running about at 8 am in Ottawa are white-collar workers. If you ask them what they do you will likely get a vague answer. It seems to me to come down to this: they move around bits of information.

In a nasty mood, when I am most doubtful concerning the busy-ness, I may draw certain conclusions. The first is that most of the middle class-people who earn over $30,000 a year-are economically superfluous. They are necessary as consumers but survive only through a combination of inertia, tenacity, political clout, and good fortune. I sometimes think that everything done by the professional classes will become automated, sooner than we suspect. The question I am addressing is What do people do?

I am not trying to glorify the Working Man, but I consider it a fact that the most low-paid, dirty, and unpleasant work is the most necessary. You must have food, sewers, buses, roads, toilets, clothing, and heat. Someone must kill your dinner and clean up afterward, and that someone is generally a person of the lower classes. They are hidden away from professional view, high up in the air, or deep in the belly of the earth. They are getting filthy to keep things nice. Nor have the working classes disappeared as technology advances. There are more technocrats than ever in a place like Ottawa, and I’ve noticed they like to eat, which means also they shit. So there is a person, probably a woman, who cleans the toilets at minimum wage. If she does not show up for work, it means things get rather unpleasant. But what happens when the $60,000-a-year professional does not show up? Something does not get photocopied and filed. For much of a professional’s time at work consists of throwing words and numbers into the bureaucracy’s maw and afterward writing reports about it, that is, producing more words and numbers. All of this takes time and effort; it is work.

I am aware that this is a jaundiced, probably unfair view. We need information and clerical services. However, the recent love affair with information needs some critical examination. The 2000s encouraged us to believe that information would be the commodity of the future. I am not trying to work up pity for the poor working folk at the expense of professionals. I am merely suggesting this was a superstitious notion. For what it is worth, I have noticed that the higher up one goes in the pay scale, the more one encounters the intangible and mysterious. No one at $80,000-a-year, or even $40,000, can say ‘I make buns’ or ‘I scrub the shit off toilets.’ Rather, they are ‘supervisors’ of ‘processes.’ They direct implementation of long-term strategic co-ordination. This sort of language is a bit like being given a Hubble Space Telescope snapshot in response to the question Where do you live? Look at the professional job description and you will see hardly any concrete nouns. Just as paintings came to look less and less like worldly objects as painters consciously liberated themselves from the work of representation (better done with the newly-invented camera), so too résumés lose reference to the physical world as professionals liberate themselves from the vulgar matter of physical labour. Abstraction is a perk of the educated. Only at $20,000 must you toil in the concrete, and in the porcelain too. [- July 1999, updated February 2010]

The Confessions of a University Drop-Out

During the years 1992-1998 I was a full-time Ph.D. student at Queen’s University at Kingston Ontario. It happened something like this. I had completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Brock University and a M.A. at Queen’s. The deepest recession since the 1930s, or so I was told, was setting in, and I was faced with bleak prospects. Like many of my contemporaries, I decided to drift further into graduate school. Call it laziness or inertia if you like. At the time it was the best option available, for reasons I’ll show later. And after all, I’d been told since age 4 that an education is the key to success, whatever that means.

I had graduated from high school during the recession of the 1980s, so the territory was familiar. I worked as a bartender, and had even less talent for this than I’d shown as a student. I would have been fired were it not for the fact my employers were kind and generous friends. Eventually I figured out I was going nowhere, and school represented itself as a strategy for improving my fortunes. In 1984 I returned to my education, applied myself for the first time, and completed grade 13. Had you asked me ‘What is the purpose of an education?’ when I was a high school graduate and a simpleton, I would have replied, ‘To get a Job!’ I didn’t care for school until my university sophomore year, when I came to realize that I believed learning for its own sake is a noble endeavour. I admit it is a selfish endeavour also, but then my purpose here is not self-glorification. My point is, I still believe that education is a noble endeavour. I suspect this is a minority opinion, and that most who go to university would find it a bit quaint. They are there for the job training, which is not the same thing, in my opinion, as an education.

You are doubtless eager to chastise me at this point. You suppose I am going to issue the commonplace laments about the University: that it does not educate, that it does not lead to a job, that it is ‘outdated,’ etc., etc. And you want to tell me, as if I’ve never heard it before, that I ought to have studied something useful. ‘Computers. Now there’s a degree! They’re dying for people who know about that.’ True, the market demand for English majors is relatively low, and yet I’ve never doubted that I have a useful degree. I also feel that I got an education, so there will be no laments forthcoming.

I was accepted at Brock University and began my English degree in the fall of 1985. Why did I choose an English major? I don’t recall my thinking, but I imagine I’d figured out by then that I had a knack for literature and an interest in writing. Indeed, I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of 8. My other principal interests were, and still are, biology, general science, and music. But English Literature it was. I chose my courses, bought my textbooks, and went off to class. Of those early years my memories are few but pleasant. I recall the pungent lectures of Michael Hornyansky and, incongruously, the Brock pub, Alphies Trough. The years went quickly, or so it seems in retrospect, and by 1988 I had decided I would pursue a graduate degree. Here I recall my reasons with clarity. I was a good student and loved nothing more than loitering in the company of history’s great and infamous minds.

I applied to Guelph University and Queen’s, and chose the latter after visiting Kingston in the winter of 1989. The trip I remember well because it was viciously cold and because I scored an apartment for the next fall at a house party my first night there. I saw little of the city, but fell in love with it because it was everything St. Catharines was not: intimate, communal, convenient. The students I met all lived within a few minutes’ walk of one another and within blocks of the university. I would discover later that this cliquish intimacy had its dangers, but at the time it felt marvellous – and I have to say that nostalgia for this college-dorm life is doubtless behind the success of Friends, Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and other such Peter-Pan let’s-never-grow-up TV shows.

I moved to 379 Alfred Street in Kingston on 24 August 1990 – I remember it well – and began my M.A. in September. It was a gruelling year, academically speaking, and personally difficult, but productive and rewarding. As I look back to 1985, when my education began in earnest, the markers of my life’s significant events and discoveries include entries like: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Penguin Classics, Either/Or volume I, Ulysses, Paul Fussell’s Bad, George Orwell’s essays, H.L. Mencken, and so on and so on. Every year brought with it a new set of discoveries, new vistas, a bigger imaginative world. I feel about these what others feel about Ebbetts Field, the moon landing, or the death of John F. Kennedy. You see, I can’t imagine my life without them. Beyond that, it seems almost pointless to try to put the matter into words. Either one understands, in which case the explanation is unnecessary, or one does not, in which case the explanation won’t help.

My involvement with the Ph.D. program began, ironically I now find, with money. One is required during his or her M.A. studies to apply to several funding agencies for Ph.D. assistance, even if there’s no certain intention to become a doctoral candidate. I therefore wrote a thesis proposal, filled out the forms, assembled a team (advisor, second reader, etc.), and posted the paperwork – a tedious task, and one which I expected to end up nowhere. To my surprise, I ended up with grants from every agency to which I’d applied. Imagine living on perhaps $400 or $500 a month (perhaps you don’t need to) and then suddenly being offered grants totalling about $30,000 a year to do something you find difficult but also rewarding and noble. Well, are you interested? Perhaps now you see why this was the best option.

I completed my required first year of courses, my second year of comprehensive and specialist examinations, and one of my languages (Latin). I still had one language examination to complete (French), and of course the thesis itself. The actual thesis, a scholarly argument of 200-400 pages, isn’t begun until year three, after the first year of courses and the second year of exams. In years three and four I read dozens and dozens of books and articles, hundreds I suppose, and made notes which filled several yellow 1½” ring binders. The actual writing, which began in year four, was protracted and felt often disgusting. There were days, many of them, I did anything to avoid my computer. The problem was I never quite knew what it was I wanted to say, or even why I should say it. My title page read “Autobiographical representations of the Indian, and the making of the self, in Eleanor Brass’s I Walk in Two Worlds, Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, and James Tyman’s Inside Out, by Wayne K. Spear, A thesis submitted to the Department of English Literature in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.” The argument, in a nutshell, was that our conception of ourselves is shaped by narrative conventions, social institutions, and cultural beliefs working in a complex and dynamic interrelation. I came up with some clever insights and a few marvellous paragraphs, but it occurred to me I could say everything I wanted in plain, ordinary English – in about 100 pages. Too bad for me the scholarly mode of writing is tortuous prose by the pound. I had another problem also, which is that my profound skepticism over my project kept creeping into the discussion. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of my Introduction: “There is a refrain among Native peoples with which I would like to begin this study. I have heard it spoken at academic conferences, and in that context it serves as a suitably dark suggestion both of the limitations and the effects of research and of knowledge. That refrain goes something as follows: ‘Indians have been studied to death.’” I may as well have added, from Ecclesiastes, ‘of book making there is no end, and great study is a weariness of the soul.’ This quotation is from memory and may be garbled, but no matter; it’s precisely how I felt about the work I was doing.

Stubborn as I am, I lingered in the thesis-writing stage for 4 years, convincing myself I would finish my dissertation. But in the end I had no incentive, other than being done, and it was making me quite miserable. Writing a thesis is a gruelling ordeal, which would not have been quite so bad had it served a purpose. I do not mind hard work, provided it has a purpose. Certainly I was no longer in it for the money. The government grants had run out in 1996, and again I was living a careful life. I was going on sheer determination, and not even my love of learning could help me now. You see, one learns little writing a thesis; it is a solitary, pedantic, technical exercise, a hoop through which one jumps on the way to becoming a professor. I had decided however that I didn’t want to become a professor. Then why was I sticking with this massive, rambling, pointless exercise called the dissertation? Because I’d made a commitment and had been given public money to do so. I rationalized the decision by telling myself a Ph.D. would give me more ‘options,’ which I think is another way of saying I could become a university professor. It turned out all English Ph.D. roads lead to teaching.

I’d had enough experience of the teaching profession to learn I wasn’t well suited to it. For 5 years I was a teaching assistant, and I realized that most students don’t really care for what they’re doing and are just trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. In other words, they’ve already learned the cynical art of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. Some of them have figured out what they need to pass and put in the minimum effort to get there. Others, god bless them, are good, decent people who never quite get it, no matter how hard you try to help them. As a result, I marked a good many papers littered with statements like the following:

…the wife [of Bath] tries to explain that men write about women’s being unreasonable, because men do not understand who women are, and then she likens women to Venus who stands for partying and spending money.

Most people have an image in their head of a fish stuck on the hook trying desperately but vainly to escape.

The English Romantic writers very often use their works to criticize and judge the society and people in which they live.

Additionally, Byron emphasizes the important role memory serves, as it enables man to remember all the intricacies of life, and at the same time, reminds us that our memory will always be with us from the moment we remember them.

Keats lost both of his parents and a brother before the age of fifteen. He had a chance and got his training as a doctor and could have made money, but chooses to make a living as a writer. He had a love of his life, but was too poor to marry her. One likes to assume this made his writing more positive.

The fact that there is no real inclination to believe that the speaker is actually surprised at the fact that she worships him leads the reader to believe that worship is what he expects. The belief that he believes that he deserves to be worshipped is pure arrogance.

Though hidden in the weather, Browning ironically describes an arrogant person…

A man who tries to weir a women through poetry will say that they are devoted the them and only them.

Social construction for each culture is unique and built on their knowledge of self and the culture in which they live.

It is obvious that Dante [Riordan, of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] would stand behind the church no matter what the outcome and fiercely believed that sinners should be published.

There is no darkness in Heart of Darkness, yet there is no light in the Heart of Darkness…

I used to find undergraduate essays written like this frustrating, but today I find them amusing and, I admit, touching. There was a time, you see, when I wrote like that too. The above quotations are the product, not of dim-witted oafs, but of the best and the brightest of our high schools. In any case, I think fondly of my former students, most of whom were pleasant and lovely folks, and I wish them all well. This, by the way, is the attitude you’ll find among truly good professors, of which I could never be one. Good professors haven’t any self-flattering illusions about academe, yet they have a deep respect for what the university in principle represents. Somehow, through what seems to me a magical process, good professors make a profound and positive difference in the lives of their students. Besides my limitations as a teacher, the other reason I left the university is the ugliness of its bureaucracies and its complete lack of purpose, at least in the case of the humanities. I worry it will only get harder to teach well, given the current love affair with privatization, technology, ‘efficiency,’ and the free-market.

In retrospect, there are two things I miss about university life. The first is the feeling one has on a university campus in September. It is a feeling of optimism, renewal, and of hope. I have never felt quite so alive as I did each September when I was at university. The second thing which I miss is good seminars, which were rare and thus exquisite. Why do I miss these things? I find the answer almost too unpleasant to state. Nonetheless, this must be said. Beyond the university campus, intellectual curiosity is quite near extinction. Imagination and critical intelligence atrophy in the workplace, where only the narrowest, functional mental tasks are required. This assumes, of course, that atrophy has not occurred already in the public schools. Most of us learn to put behind us the grand philosophical ideals of ‘the good life,’ if we’ve heard of them in the first place, and focus on more practical matters like getting a job. And of course ‘popular culture’ is there to captivate us also. I am not saying this is always the case, but that it is often the case I know for a fact, having observed it. Most of us go through life passively, as spectators. Nor am I inclined to scorn, as I was when I didn’t understand the efficiency with which the ‘real world’ grinds us into conformity. As I’m certain you’ve noticed, human arrangements in America are not organized around basic human needs for creativity and participation, or for spiritual and intellectual development. But in a university they are, at least to a greater degree than in the surrounding culture. That is chiefly why I miss the university.

Never mind the maudlin social commentary and the ‘thanks for the memories,’ you are saying. What about all that wasted taxpayer money? The thousands and thousands of dollars? What about that? Well, it goes without saying I lived very well for four years at taxpayers’ expense. I am not complaining; life was good then. It is not, as one of my professors used to say, ‘politic’ of me to state this publicly, but that is the fact. I will not pretend that the money went only to high-minded and charitable things. At the time I was awarded the grants I owned 2 bookshelves, one desk, one twin bed, one area rug, a computer, and about 800 books. By the end of my Ph.D. I had accumulated furniture, dishes, appliances, a new computer, and 1,000 more books. Anyone who knew me then will tell you I had it very good. I ate decent food and drank wine with dinner at least twice a week, but then I had done so even when my annual income never exceeded $6,000 a year, which was up until age 26. I shared a house with two others, and despite being well below the so-called ‘low income cut-off line,’ we wore decent clothes and had good meals every night. Were we poor? No, not really; the children of middle-class parents never truly are, so long as the possibility of support obtains. While a middle-class Queen’s student, I discovered that perfectly good clothing is sold by the Salvation Army, that a large bag of rice lasts for months, that healthy vegetables and simple sauces are cheaper than meats, that you can make a batch of wine yourself in your house at $2 a bottle, that when all else fails S&R will let you pay for groceries with your Visa – and Visa will let you pay the debt at $24/month and 18.5% interest. But as a middle-class adult I would probably not need these lessons for long. As it happened, my research grants meant that suddenly I had become rich.

I do not know what to make of all this. I only know what generally is made. An egregious example of fraud or waste is disclosed (I assume this is how my story would be regarded), and from this a program of revenge is launched. A handful of authenticated welfare cheats is generalized into a social class, hence everyone on welfare is a cheat. A failure or crimp in the system is found, so the system must – all of it! – go. A story in the news now often yields calls for major overhaul, comprehensive reform, sweeping legislation. I suspect something like this will happen with publicly-funded education, and indeed it is happening already. Stories like the one I’ve just told invoke jealousy and rage. I don’t mean to insult you with moralizing; jealousy and rage may perhaps be appropriate responses. There is, for instance, little support for the university among the working classes, and for good reasons. The university appeals to the middle classes and derives from them its political constituency. This fact is obscured by certain rationalizations which are felt to be true only by the middle classes – for example the idea that higher education is an established ‘right’ inextricably bound to the public good. If only that were so. [-October 1998]

Democracy Makes the Best Television

A university graduate, I have endured years of Theory. That is fine, yet were I given the opportunity I should like to teach in an inductive manner, beginning with observation. What follows are my notes toward a freshman course on Canadian Democracy, in which I consider not the Theory of Democracy, but instead the actual workings of democratic governance in Canada. The two, theory and practice, are no doubt related; one even resembles the other. There are however noteworthy distinctions to be made. Allow me to make them.

The professor often starts with a definition. How is the word democracy understood in actual practice? Well, every few years Canadians are expected to pick from among several choices a political leader. To this end, some TV commercials are produced and a few speeches are made. The politicians have learned to market themselves in the manner Procter and Gamble markets its soaps. Democracy in practice is Show folks the goods and let them select. At election time democracy is a practical affair. You can see physical evidence of an active citizenry. Between elections democracy is more an abstract, or institutional, matter. Having chosen leaders, the public lets the system do its work. Democracy is Parliament Debates and representational government. The people do not govern themselves directly, which would be ‘radical democracy,’ but instead they pick others to act on their behalf. Actual democracy is the result of compromises, between efficiency and equity, between authoritarianism and anarchy, and between idealism and realism. In theory democratic government bends to the will of the majority, who know what’s best. In practice things are much more complicated. Nonetheless, actual democracy does invite the common people to participate in the formation of governments. That is its essential empirical feature.

Are the common folk qualified to govern themselves? Here one finds controversy. There is a an argument against ‘radical’ democracy which begins from the observation that the average citizen is inadequately-informed. Modern society is complex and must therefore be run by intelligent and well-trained people. Democracy as a result ought to be restricted to popular elections. Let the people choose competent leaders, and let the leaders run the show. Indeed, existing democracy conforms to this theory. We should note however the argument’s flaws. Our experts make dreadful mistakes; educated experts are not specially qualified to promote the interests and needs of average citizens. Experts tend to be committed to expert opinion, academic theories, and the needs of people like themselves – that is, the élite. But there is a more basic misunderstanding. Democracy is not the theory that the people ought to govern themselves because they are wise, benevolent, and especially gifted. Perhaps the élite are smarter than average, or perhaps not. So what? Professional expertise is an élite obsession and has little to do with the theory of democracy. And what is the theory to which I refer? It is this: if folks bear rights and responsibilities, and if they govern their own affairs, the result will be a society of individuals more capable than before of self-government. In other words, intelligent, informed, and capable citizens are the end of democracy, and not its starting-point. The so-called élite view reverses cause and effect. Perhaps its not surprising that this is so. We should hardly expect the select to embrace a theory that threatens their exclusive and privileged state.

We shall need to isolate two features of democratic governance for further consideration. These are the selection of leaders and the representation of citizens, by no means simple facts. Citizens do choose politicians, and politicians do represent a constituency. Yet these need further clarification. For in practice there are complex webs of influence and manipulation which make governance messy. Governments respond to public opinion, but they seek to manipulate that opinion also. One should also understand that ‘public opinion’ is usually an abstraction inferred from polls, of which I shall have more to write. Does the public know what precisely they have chosen when they have supported a candidate? Do they even know for certain that they have supported a candidate? The relation of votes to a political program is, I suspect, less clear than pundits sometimes suppose. A vote may manifest many things: protest, misunderstanding, hope, ideological conviction, enthusiasm, or cynicism. As a result of low voter turn-out and a multiple party system, politicians are today put in office by a minority of voters, many of whom have only a vague understanding of the issues and a moderate commitment to the party elected. Elections tell you unequivocally who has won the race; why they have won and what is to be done about it are left to interpretation. This is actually-existing democracy.

An elected, representative government needs a base of support both to seize and hold political office. Governments must represent a constituency. The constituency itself is a matter of expedience, a necessity. It is not necessary however that governments represent ‘the people,’ only that they sell themselves to a sufficient number of consumers. Elections are today the sophisticated means by which a product is offered to a market. Success therefore depends upon successful marketing and successful fund-raising – marketing works but it is expensive. The structural conditions which inform modern election campaigns aren’t mysterious. Politicians must have votes and money. They must lodge the product in the minds of potential buyers. Gathering the votes is a tricky matter, but the techniques are rather plain and have been perfected over the years. Television ads, featuring a catch-phrase or an ‘angle,’ are a necessity. The ad agency will try to distinguish its product from the competition, employing to this end a variety of visual techniques. Psychologists, opinion polls, focus groups – in short, market-directed research – assist the product development. The essence of marketing, by the way, is Find out what will sell and then produce it. Will people be more likely to buy your product if the ad slogan is x, or y ? Would a brighter label help? Does the product image need to be updated? These are the questions which absorb the energy of the “best and brightest,” and their work does not come cheaply. Modern campaigns are after voting constituencies and paying constituencies. There are less votes to be had among the paying constituency (mostly corporate donors) and less money among the people. This is also an important feature of actually-existing democracy.

Consider this. The rabble will always dominate in a ‘pure’ democracy because there are more of them than there are élites. It is necessary for minorities who want their way to overcome the majority. The majority must either be conquered outright or subtly manipulated. In practice the only minority able to compete with the popular majority on anything approaching par are the rich. What billionaires lack in numbers of votes they make up for in numbers of dollars. Democracy in practice involves a competition between interests, between votes and money, between the organized and unorganized voter. Politicians cannot afford to alienate either votes or money, with the result that their public performances resemble a comical sort of balancing act. They must obediently serve wealth, which they need, and yet serve also the working man, who they need also. In practice, these constituencies often have competing interests. The working man wants curbs put along the avenues of the boss, but the boss wants deregulation. The worker wants better wages, but the boss wants ‘competitive industry.’ The working man wants to bring in the Red Book, and the boss wants to chase out the Red Menace, or some equivalent. Most of the contortions of political life can be explained in relation to these and other competing interests. Put in this unenviable position, what would you do? The professional lobbyists represent the people who donate the bulk of your funding, and who pay careful attention to the job you do. Most ordinary folks however have other things than politics on their mind: that is what makes them ordinary. So you appease the constituency that is looking over your shoulder and worry about the opinion polls a bit closer to the election, right?

The point I am trying to make is that the democracy Canadians actually have now is reasonable, practical, and even necessary – at least from the point of view of the people who have to make a living within it. If it doesn’t quite live up to the Theory of Democracy, well, that’s a problem for university professors. Besides, there is a good deal of decency to the form of democracy in which currently live. Canada is still a reasonable and tolerant country where dissension is allowed. Now and again there are anti-democratic displays, such as the treatment of the APEC protesters in British Columbia. Overall however Canada has a functioning democracy. Again, it is the character of Canada’s democracy that is under investigation.

I stated already that I would return to opinion polls. These are the principal technique by which the will of the people is divined. Opinion polls are apparently thought by some to be of great use. Politicians, I am led to believe, use them to interpret the public mood and thereby to decide upon ‘themes’ for upcoming speeches. Whether the intended use of the opinion poll is to facilitate democracy or manipulate it (or both, or neither), the actual effects of these devices are clear. As the poll industry grew, the media increasingly began to publish the silly things in their papers. At first they served a decorative function, usually appearing beside a column, in the form of a colourful graph. Then they became the news itself, so that it is now common to hear journalists discussing the polls as if they were the very voice of the people. There are reasons however to suspect the polls are something else. First, the character of a poll must be considered. How is it conducted? What questions are asked, and of what audience, under what conditions? Imagine that the Financial Post asked its subscribers the following question: ‘Dalton McGuinty opposes Mike Harris’ plan to modernize and improve the health care system. Given that Dalton McGuinty has no plans for health care of his own, would you consider voting for him?’ Then imagine the result showed up in the same newspaper as follows: ‘55% of Canadians said they will not vote for Dalton McGuinty in the upcoming election.’ Imagine the rest of the information is not provided; only this dubious ‘scientific’ conclusion appears. So 55% of Canadians reject McGuinty? No, not really. Analysis of the question itself, which clearly contains a good deal of misleading assertions, would reveal that respondents (are Financial Post subscribers representative Canadians?) reject an obstructionist politician with no ideas of his own. Maybe that’s your McGuinty. In any case, the poll hasn’t really measured public support for Dalton McGuinty. It is a lie.

I’ve invented an obvious example of distortion. Most polls are likely more careful than this, but one can’t be sure. Relevant information is lacking. Polls are more than ever used to mediate between the people and their governments, so this oversight, if that’s what it is, should be a matter of great interest. To the degree that democratic discourse is managed by pollsters and their inscrutable polls, it is esoteric and possibly even rigged. Who knows? This leads us to another astonishing feature of actually-existing democracy, that it is utterly dependent upon private commercial media for its existence. The only way citizens are able to exchange ideas and criticisms and proposals is through the media. True, anyone can start a newsletter or a local organization. But political discourse at the national level is another matter. Have you tried to get your viewpoint on the national news lately? No, you wouldn’t even think of it, it’s too absurd. How about the Globe and Mail? Of course not. We’re told that debate and dissension are vital, and that democracy is the exchange of ideas. The theory is that everyone has freedom of speech, and that the voice of the people will be heard by government. The reality is that most Canadians have never experienced the debate except as a member of an audience. ‘Freedom of speech’ means throwing something at the TV. Debate and dissension are the property of media industries, who extend the privilege to a handful of well-paid professional commentators, or rent it to commercial sponsors. The idea, which you’ll find familiar, is that the conditions of democracy are satisfied by the appointment of clever people to think and talk on the public’s behalf. The opinion polls operate on this assumption, and so do the commercial newspapers.

The experts never talk the way ‘ordinary people’ do, at least not in public. I don’t mean by this that the experts are less vulgar, or more erudite. Rather, they are obsessed with the procedure of politics rather than the application of policy to real life. How did the PM’s speech go? Did it ‘resonate’? How will it ‘play’ among the back-benchers? What do the polls say? Ordinary people don’t care so much about these things. They want to know What’s it got to do with me? But as I’ve argued, the function of ordinary people (that is, folks not paid to have an opinion) is to give the experts an audience which can then be sold to advertisers. And the function of advertisers is profits. All the theories about the sanctity of public debate amount to this, Democracy in the service of Profits. This may sound cynical, but it isn’t. Most people, including media owners, are sincere advocates of public debate. The problem is that real conditions are structured in a manner that makes not-for-profit public discourse nearly impossible. Once you reach the national level of public discourse, money talks – first and last and longest and loudest.

A description of actually existing democracy is beginning to take shape, and it looks something like this. A set of candidates with political ambitions study the public in a scientific manner to determine what sort of mood they are in. A product is put together to exploit that mood and is promoted at great expense. The whole affair is managed by one group of professionals while another looks on and jabbers. Most Canadians are obliged to act as an audience, until the crucial moment when they make their selection (or don’t). Opinion polls, interpreted by pundits, tell you what you’ve just chosen and why you’ve chosen it, and the discovery is presented, glossed, analysed, and debated by TV and newspaper ‘personalities’ hired for these purposes. In short, democracy is industry. After the election, Canadians are freed from even the suggestion of civic responsibility, while the civil servants tend to the necessary business at hand – holding onto power, voting on legislation, raising money, and coping with the demands of the several thousand career lobbyists that swarm centres of political power. The journalists tell the people (or don’t) what their elected leaders are up to, careful, if unsuccessfully, not to bore them or demand too much mental effort. Technical matters, like the content of bills or international treaties, make bad news; it’s better to focus on the sensational, or ‘human interest’ stories. The best news does not disturb the flow. It moves the audience along effortlessly from advertisement to advertisement. Inevitably a scandal will come along, perhaps about something trivial but emotion-charged, like the display of flags in the House of Commons. The editorials will rage, and the politicians will try to smooth things over or else to assign blame elsewhere. The system takes everyone’s interests into consideration: the interest of the leaders in their power, the interest of the papers in sales, the interests of advertisers in marketing, the interests of the pundits in their careers, and the interests of investors in the establishment. The process by which these interests are made secure is called democracy. Most Canadians know democracy as television. This is where the interests of citizens are taken into consideration. For the establishment works hard to ensure that democracy makes the best television. [-November 1998]

A Winter of Discontent: The Broadsheets vs The Tabloids

One may infer a few things about my writing career from the first publication – a poem entitled ‘Winter,’ which appeared in the Toronto Sun on 17 October 1976. I quote it in full.

I hate winter as you might know
I hate the wind, I hate the snow
You stand out there and you’ll be freezing
You’ll catch a cold, and you’ll start sneezing
I think the winter isn’t fun
It isn’t warm, there is no sun
You have to wear all of those clothes
But still you get a runny nose
You can’t go swimming in a pool
But still you have to go to school
You can’t go riding on a bike
And that’s what I think winter’s like.

A good bad poem, that. I’ll put aside the fact that Alexander Pope was writing Greek Pastorals at the same age, and concentrate on this poem’s chief merits – that it is clear, that it rhymes, that is has rhythm, and that it lacks artistic pretension. Isn’t that more than can be said of much contemporary poetry?

Now that I am older, I look back and see glimpses of my adult self in this work. I continue to dislike winter, and I am still a bad poet. There is more. Something of the curmudgeon is here, for I could have written a poem called ‘I Love Summer,’ but no, I just had to get my digs in against Winter. It’s a list of grievances, really, cleverly arranged to bring delight but still grumpy and discontented. Today’s Sun editorialists would no doubt label this the beginnings of a ‘liberal’ outlook. Isn’t that what Liberalism is? An endless list of grievances? My god, lighten up! Vote Tory!

This poem was written before I’d learned how to make my point with irony and humour. The ironist in me today is amused by the fact that it was the Toronto Sun which introduced me to the public. The truth is, I think the Sun is goofy. It is a daily trotting-out of murders, car accidents, child molestation and other perversities, fires, freaks, and mayhem. In other words, it is TV. (Christie Blatchford, who was a Sun columnist for 16 years, sketched the paper’s character nicely in an October 29, 1998 National Post article: “…the [Sun] loves, in no particular order, Tory government, breasts, more folks in jail, better controls on immigration, lower taxes, less red tape, fewer civil servants, a return to basics in education, and breasts.”) Then there are the advertisements, full page after full page of them. Even for a commercial newspaper, the Sun is excessive in its use of advertising. The sports coverage is passable and certainly better than what you’ll find at the Globe and Mail. Also, the Sun’s tabloid format is to be preferred to the cumbersome superabundance of the Toronto Star. (Really, do we need two Wheels sections?) Unlike the Star, the Sun can be read from end to end in an evening; it has a user-friendly Coles-Notes approach to daily events. There are other strengths of the paper, the chief being that it knows its audience well and never fails, pardon the pun, to deliver. Nonetheless, it is tabloid journalism, and unpretentiously so.

But to return to the subjective: the really goofy thing about the Sun, in my opinion, is its coverage of public affairs. Here is a description of the Sun I read the day I began this essay, 19 October 1998. On the cover the headline reads ‘It’s Flutie Day in Buffalo,’ below which there is a colour photograph of the quarterback and a small column, to the right, describing the Buffalo fans’ reaction to a 17-16 upset over Jacksonville. In the bottom right-hand corner one finds the words, ‘Pet pitbull savages owner, Page 4’ (the font is approximately 26 points). On the obverse, i.e. page two, there is an ad for the Sunday Sun featuring a model in a haute couture hourglass bathing suit – her curvaceous sides are nicely exposed from shoulder to hip – partly over which the words ‘Paris Fashion’ are imposed. The remaining upper-half of the page is given to an article describing Mike Harris’s plan to attract women voters in the upcoming provincial election. He is quoted as saying, “We do have a gender gap. We are not communicating clearly and directly with women.” A bit further on in the article, Social Services Minister Janet Ecker adds, “We need to do more. Women are pretty skeptical voters. It is important for women to understand what we are doing.” The ‘gender gap’ sounds like a Darwinian missing-link, and the assumption that women aren’t swarming to the Tories only because they don’t understand what the Tories are doing is conventional patronizing, but never mind. Another article, occupying the frame of the aforementioned, is headlined ‘The PC party, party, party!’ and compares the bashes of Conservative Members of Parliament and other various candidates. In case you’re interested, “The most popular parties were hosted by Management Board Chairman Chris Hodgson and federal Tory leadership candidate Brian Pallister.” The rest of the page is advertisements.

Page three features, of course, the Sunshine Girl: always nubile, always enjoys music, dancing, roller-blading, and volleyball, always has as her aspiration college and afterward bucketsfull of money. The Sunshine Girl is a generally tasteful and welcoming statement, an implicit manifesto; it says, ‘Relax, there are no liberals here. Help yourself to a can of beer.’ And once you’re comfortable in your armchair, contentedly drinking your beer, what is it you want? These, of course: ‘Pitbull rips owner’s throat,’ ‘2 teen girls rob, assault victim,’ ‘Hard-core TV freebie shocks mom,’ ‘How did granny die?’ and ‘Peek into you neighbour’s bedroom.’ Thus begins the News section, on pages 4 and 5.

I could go on, but what would be the point? The Toronto Sun is a niche paper, quite harmless really. According to the 1998 Canadian Global Almanac, it’s got the fourth largest daily newspaper circulation in Canada, after the Star, the Globe, and Le Journal de Montréal. It’s preaching to the converted, but I doubt it has converted them. The last recession, or tax hikes, or falling wages, or the Star, or a 1972 mugging, did that. No one I suspect is buying the Sun for in-depth analysis of the latest provincial budget, or of anything else. (They could, however, have read a recent article about Tory Finance Minister Ernie Eves’s new hairdo.) They’re buying it for the Sunshine Girl. They’re buying it so they can read something that doesn’t require them to think. Or they’re buying it for the reasons social democrats buy This Magazine and Canadian Forum: confirmation of their beliefs, further evidence that the enemy is evil, and reassurance that their side can win. Perhaps also they’re buying it for the sports coverage. The Sun needless to say is an openly right-wing publication, but its appeal cannot be boiled-down simply to ideology. It is the newspaper that – nudge nudge, wink wink – isn’t just news as usual. One may compare the appeal of the Sun to the 1995 appeal of its beloved Mr. Harris, who (nudge nudge) wasn’t just politics as usual.

News as usual, unfortunately, is a tiresome affair. Even the highbrow Newshour with Jim Lehrer is at bottom silly. Every night a suited, career Republican is trotted out to volley the issues with an apposite suited, career Democrat. The result is a moribund parody of democratic debate and a reminder of what Gore Vidal had in mind when he spoke of ‘the chattering classes.’ Alas, from here things only degenerate, or get better, depending upon your point of view. News, in the minds of many, means ‘gobs of vague irritating talk about something we can’t change in some place we’ve never heard of.’ What’s to be done? Well, if that’s how it’s got to be, let’s at least make the talk juicy, nudge nudge, know what I mean.

Conservatives in the 1970s began launching newspapers and other various media to reintroduce their values and ideas into the public domain. Even Sun columnists admit they were on the lunatic fringe in the beginning. Now some on the left, who’ve noticed the fringe beneath their feet, have begun saying it would be nice to have a national social-democratic – note the lower cases – answer to papers like the Sun. The feeling is that if newspapers are going to be enhanced political pamphlets, which apparently they now are, let’s at least broaden the spectrum beyond David Frum vs. Andrew Coyne. Let’s have a national left-wing newspaper. At this point however I’m mindful of something George Orwell wrote in a 1939 essay entitled ‘Boys Weeklies.’ Noting that boys’ magazines tend to have a conservative slant (something about militarism and the cult of the powerful leader), he asks, ‘Why is there no such thing as a boys’ left-wing paper?’ Orwell, a socialist, provides an answer which I think continues to be relevant:

At first glance such an idea merely makes one slightly sick. It is so horribly easy to imagine what a left-wing boys’ paper would be like, if it existed. I remember in 1920 or 1921 some optimistic person handing round Communist tracts among a crowd of public-school boys. The tract I received was of the question-and-answer kind:

Q. ‘Can a Boy Communist be a Boy Scout, Comrade?’
A. ‘No, Comrade.’
Q. ‘Why, Comrade?’
A. ‘Because, Comrade, a Boy Scout must salute the Union Jack, which is the symbol of tyranny and oppression,’ etc. etc.

Orwell goes on to suggest that a left-wing paper would probably be something like the passage above, and that “no normal boy would ever look at it.” I expect that in the case of a left-wing Canadian newspaper, something similar could be claimed: most Canadians would never read it. What incentive would there be? It would likely feature all the characteristics that make the political left mawkish to a majority of Canadians: humourless, preachy, self-righteous, jingoist, predictable, self-absorbed. The left is famous as the folks who take it upon themselves to tell you what’s wrong with everything you think, everything you do, and everything you want. Imagine a publication staffed by We-Know-Best school-marms, and you’ve got it.

Perhaps it’s useless to argue that a social-democratic newspaper could be interesting, entertaining, and best of all, a thumping good read. In theory, anything can happen; in reality, the political left is today a handful of ageing activists tenured at the CCPA Monitor. It is in many regards a secret society, labouring in obscurity to produce arcane works known only to the initiated. Probably more people read my bad 1976 poem in the Young Sun than have read, say, the most recent issue of Canadian Dimension – which advertises itself as ‘a magazine for people who want to change the world.’ Change the world? Here even the faithful are inclined to feel vague embarrassment. Anyway, it sounds awfully ponderous to most contemporary ears, rather like an invitation to help out with calculus homework. Even the NDP has given up on the 1960s and is busily repackaging itself as Nice Capitalism in time for the election. Whether the emphasis falls on the nice, or on the capitalism, is a moot point. Either way, the traditional list of socialist grievances has been shred, and the Open for Business sign is out being lacquered. The question for the left is, What’s left?

The short answer is Not Much. I’m tempted to argue that social democrats need not just a newspaper but a Sunshine Girl of their own as well, by which I mean an indication of some sort that, Yes, progressivism comes in styles other than Shrill and Reactive. The high ground doesn’t necessarily lead to the mountaintop; it can run through the market too. In any case, the market is where the action is. Nor does the high ground mean holier-than-thou. Part of the appeal of the ‘progressive newspaper’ is that it could offer the public an alternative to the prevailing murder-and-mayhem, anything-for-a-buck manner of presentation. Folks of all political persuasions tell me the current state of our airwaves and newspapers dismays them and that they would gladly welcome something different. Of course, there is a good measure of ordinary human hypocrisy in this, and it remains to be seen how many really do deplore the gutter. My point is that there’s always room in the culture for pukka journalism, ‘pukka’ being defined by Chambers 20th Century Dictionary as “out-and-out-good: thorough: complete: solidly built: settled: durable,” and so on. I’m not implying that there’s no good journalism at present in Canada, but only that there’s room for innovation. Conrad Black, who for decades has committed himself to the idea of a high-profile national conservative newspaper, realized his dream this week with the publication of the National Post. Today (29 October 1998) the third issue has come out. I have read all three, and I find there is a good deal in them to commend. Conrad Black, I’m sure, will have his critics – but give him credit. He has offered his alternative on behalf of conservatism. And to his critics he has always said: If you don’t like my newspapers, you are free to start your own. [-October 1998]