Convivium:
You're speaking at the Manning Centre Conference in Ottawa this month, and yet you promoted Pierre Trudeau on the CBC recently as one of our greatest Canadians. There are probably a lot of people at the Manning Conference who would not think of Pierre Trudeau as one of our greatest Canadians [laughs], just as many Trudeauites would not think of Preston Manning as someone they would spend the weekend with. How do you balance these opposites?

Rex Murphy:
Well, Mr. Manning asked me to show up there and I have a great amount of time for him personally, I really do. I think [Manning's] a first-rate character, always has been, and he put a lot into Canadian political life simply by his manner. It was his manner and style. If you think back, regardless of where you are on the spectrum, when he spoke in the House of Commons... he must be the only one who actually composed addresses on various policies and topics. Normally, I don't like to associate with politics of any particular stripe. But for Preston Manning I make an exception. To the larger question, I understand that if you have a lot of time for the ideas of Pierre Trudeau, you might find it difficult to say where you are on other politicians. Trudeau, I think, both by his intelligence and his kind of surly independence, had really admirable public traits. He had this ability to think and speak with directness. Sometimes he even offended people, but at least you weren't getting concealed bafflegab or talking points. His most famous line was 'Who speaks for Canada?' I love the idea that Trudeau pressed, and pressed very hard, for the things that bind us together; the things that give us common energy; the things that if something happens in Bonavista, a small town on the east coast of Newfoundland, it should mean something to someone in Victoria: that there's a Canadian underside. I mean, this is not the great phantom search for the Canadian identity, but there are things about this country that weld it together or should weld it together. And Trudeau was one of the ones who really emphasized that. So to go right back to your question, I don't see the melding of opposites or the occasional butting up against one another. Preston Manning or Pierre Trudeau, they're both Canadians, both serious men. And they have things to say. If you look at Manning for his civility and the way he conducts himself, and his seriousness, and Trudeau personifies an exuberant sense of independence, and I like that a lot.

C: It's true, isn't it, that we seem to have reached a point where it's just assumed that people who aren't tribe blue, tribe green, tribe red, ultimately have nothing whatever to say to one another?

RM: That's right. Not only that, but they dislike each other. Go on the Web. I'm a great reader of the Web. I love the Web. But when you get the hard partisans, left and right—by the way, no one has a moral upgrade on this point—the left-wing is as vicious as the right and vice-versa. And in America, it's reached the stage of caricature. The Americans are so divided, their politics becomes a kind of passing of the cudgels. But we have it here, too. I'm not a 'supporter' of Stephen Harper. But I find it astonishing that people who want to criticize him don't say 'You're wrong on Enbridge' or 'You're quite mistaken on your view of Iran.' Instead we hear, 'Stephen Harper is the greatest dictator we've ever had! This is our Arab Spring!' These are grotesque caricatures. Stephen Harper—at least from the outside, I don't know the man—is no more, no less than an ordinary Canadian person with more than ordinary capacity. Likewise, so is Michael Ignatieff. So was Jack Layton. Where do we get these hideous caricatures that turn us into a North Korean State in Harper's agenda? That's partisanship that reduces politics and deprives us of common energy toward common goals.

C: I sometimes wonder, too, whether it isn't in many ways a failure of memory.

RM: I'm very taken with the way you've just said that. The rational people, they've been to schools. They've been to universities, they've read books, and they have a sense of history. Are they so committed to this ludicrous rhetoric, that they're unwilling—in the privacy of their own heads—to realize that they're being fools? I know that's a hard word, but I can imagine only one person in ten thousand [believing] some of these ridiculous things. 'Oh, the Liberals are gonna deprive us of our liberties and set up a socialist state.' The dystopian nightmares that you get from the hard left about the religious element in Canada—does anybody really think that this country is headed for a theocracy? Think about that. By the way, that's a standard bogeyman on the hard left. Can they really believe this? I think they've be- come so enamoured of the wrestling match, or of the pugilism that masquerades as a kind of politics, that any opportunity to take a really heavy stick and overplay the particular moment's advantage is just too good to resist. To go to your original question, I know Trudeau would occasionally, in a kind of gamesmanship way, torment an opposition MP, but I don't think that he would reach the point of [belittling] an opponent. He would rather have a really good argument. Do you remember that great scene before the War Measures Act [was declared] where he stood up with the reporter for about 25 minutes on film and actually debated the Act spontaneously? That kind of openness we don't see anymore. He wasn't calling [then NDP leader] Tommy Douglas some vicious traitor for opposing it, which is the language we'd have today.

I think Canada is seeing more and more of this. It still isn't as bad as the States, but that's the way it is. I think they either have no history or they decide to ignore the promptings of their own minds. But you know, people are not buying it. We don't believe [political] voices anymore when they scream so loudly.

C: My sister went out for a number of years with a man who came from a family of eight children. Whenever he was at our dinner table, his voice would rise, and I finally asked him one day, 'Ken, why do you yell? There are only four people here.' And he said, 'Because I come from a family of eight children and you learn with your mother's milk that if your voice doesn't rise during conversation, nobody else can hear you.'

RM: Well, I'll agree with that to a point. When you hit the age of 25 and you're an adult, you don't need to shout anymore. I've been reading some of [British Whig writer Thomas Babbington] Macaulay's essays again, and his account of the Reform Bills and the Hastings and the British policies during the Raj, the great essays on Clive and Hastings and this kind of stuff. And you saw a great contest there. When we think of our particular time, everything now is foregrounded and exists almost with the scream of the headline and nothing else besides. If you know a reasonable sweep of literature and history and other things, it should enable you to put things in some sort of frame or context, and therefore de-energize the raw emotion of the moment and allow you to talk. We are an educated society. And I don't know why we're screaming all the time.

C: I know you appreciated [Convivium editor-inchief] Father de Souza's piece on the late Christopher Hitchens, which was contrary to a lot of the hero worship following his death. One of the things I was struck by in the aftermath of the obits and the plaudits for Hitchens was comparison of him with George Orwell. One of Orwell's greatest essays is called 'Revenge is Sour.' Hitchens never understood that. He thought cruelty was somehow, I don't know if it was to be celebrated, but part and parcel of legitimate debate. And I just find that astonishing that people don't recognize the distinction.

RM: Again, it's really the point. It really is. How far do you have to go, and how much licence do you allow yourself ? I understand, I think, as well as most people, the kind of delights in a certain kind of argument. I certainly like the deployment of language and invective and polemic, if it's done under a certain rubric. But there are standards, and there are models. You can be extremely strong, and don't have to dip into cruelties. And you don't have to dip into the wildest kind of framings. You really don't. And if you do trip over to that—I'm following your point—you walk away from what is serious. What I liked about Father de Souza's column was his calling out Hitchens on elements of his own writing. In the context of all of the eulogies that were out there, brave of him to do. There's bravery in saying the thing at the moment that others probably don't want to see. And I was very pleased that he did that. That's a form of honesty.

C: Turning to your place in Canadian letters and Canadian journalism, at the height of a now forgotten scandal involving a forgetful Tory cabinet minister and his robin-breasted girlfriend, you wrote in The Globe and Mail that "cleavage is catnip to an ever vigilant press," which I have memorized as the greatest eight-word summary of the sins of the media in the history of the trade.

RM: It's funny that you mention that one, but I noted over the weekend, I think I was going back to the days of the early seal hunt protest in the 1960s, when I was just beginning in this racket, you had Brigitte Bardot and the rest of them and all the reporters were star-struck. I mean the catnip was working 50 years ago, too, except now it's accelerated to such a degree it's disgusting, actually. I'm serious. Because we now have 5,000 channels available on our phone. Is there such a thing as a concentrated attention span? I go back to your point about forgetting history.

C: I wonder, just in terms of process, how you come up with lines like that—the perfect eight-word summary of the sins of the media. More seriously, what's your sense of how embedded that reflex for triviality is in the nature of modern media?

RM: You forget what you write two days later. But as for it being embedded, it's not something that's determined and cannot be avoided. It is extremely easy to go in that particular direction, and the path of least resistance is as true in nature as it is in television, entertainment or newspapers.

People can watch what they like. It's their choice. But I never thought I'd live to see the day when "reno porn"—people deciding what they're going do to their apartments—would be on nine shows on various television channels. The Housewives of Orange County, Jersey Shore, reality TV... I mean they've taken the word reality and stripped it of all meaning. They've slapped vulgarity on the screen and it's become this self-absorbed hypnosis of stupidity. Do we want to kill time? I don't think it's a metaphor anymore. If we're looking at some of the stuff to beguile our attention as we spin forward in time toward old age, the popular machinery of entertainment and information has really become severely warped. I think of people in really hard straits in the rest of the world, following disasters or living in tyranny or real poverty. If they look at how the West beguiles its time... You have reality shows pretending to be survival situations, and two thirds of the world goes to bed hungry every night. The mockery that's implicit in this. You can pay some ridiculous pop star 15 million bucks to do a 30 second commercial, when there are probably 15 million people who can't afford a tin of pop? The West is very careless in what it's throwing before the eyes of the rest of the world.

C: How do you think this happened?

RM: We have reached this pinnacle of abundance, because we do have abundance. We have luxury and surplus no others have ever had. And to what use do we put it? Are we getting smarter? Are we dedicating as much time to the cultivation of independent thought, the refining of instinct and learning? I'm saying abundance tempts people to throw away the core elements of a constituted life. Canada is careless, we're so isolated we seem exempt from historical wants and historical tensions. We don't have tyrannies, even our disasters by comparison to the rest of the world are tame. Politics might be occasionally ludicrous, but it's not malignant. We have resources beyond comparison. Do we really understand how much we have and are we applying our minds with great ferocity to making sure we protect it and extend it and use it best? I know these words were used by other people, and Neil Postman [author of Amusing Ourselves to Death] goes back a long while, but there's many since him. I don't know what the new machinery is but it's become extremely hollow, to the point where it should be worrisome. The envelope of consciousness within which we exist in the Western World, at least a third of it is a made-up media event. I really do wonder that the distractions that we provide for ourselves, the escape from real decision or thought, real scrutiny, analysis... the rigorous tools that education provides us with, do we just kind of scatter them all? Our politics should be much more serious because our minds should be stronger and better.

C: Terry Eagleton made the point so well in Reason, Faith and Revolution that the frivolousness you're talking about actually led to a gross miscalculation, not just by the impoverished of the world but by people like Osama Bin Laden who saw it as weakness to the point of cowardice, to the point of failure to be able to respond to an attack

RM: We've evacuated seriousness to such a degree that maybe we're sending the wrong signals, which doesn't, by the way, mitigate any of the malevolence that represents. But again, we owe it to ourselves to be conscious of what it is that we are, what it is that we do, and what it is that we project. And again, look at what's going on in the States. There's a good argument [going on] down there, whether the current government's approach to the governance of a nation in great financial crisis is the right one or the wrong one. But look at the system where they present that choice to the American public with these ludicrous extended primaries and the confusions and stuff. It is the greatest country in the world. The most significant. You wonder sometimes if any seriousness is allowed to break through. The great book that came out of the Obama election was called Game Change. Game. That's probably the key metaphor. Politics is a game, in other words. It's hollowed out of real sense and real purpose; it is about who wins, in the narrowest possible sense. And maybe again to curl back to the beginning here, maybe that's why any old stick will do; and if it is a game, it doesn't matter if I mean it or not, in a profound sense, as long as it achieves an effect. A game is an empty exercise, apart from manifesting the skill necessary to play it. We play a lot of games. And entertainment is another game. But I wonder what is it we're so furiously trying to distract ourselves from.

C: You actually began with a real academic hunger—you were at the University of Oxford. What caused the heavenly light of journalism to shine on you?

RM: [Laughs] It didn't. It was pure accident. I don't take these things too seriously, and I take it there is a genuine passion in me, and I don't want to sound too precious about it, but it's true. It would be literature. It always came at me with great force. It still does. Literature and classical music. I don't think I have either the endurance or the power of mind of the real academic. University was—still is—one of the finest periods that I've ever encountered. Pure delight. I came from a place—a small town in Newfoundland—where there were not a hell of a lot of books and suddenly you're in this environment and the books are multiplied. But journalism just happened. I won't go into any biography because there's no point to it, but I stumbled into doing a small fill-in at some station somewhere, then ended up filling in for somebody else, and within about four or five months I was hired by the CBC down in Newfoundland and had a few stormy interviews, and that kind of made my name, if you will. And you end up using some of the skills, if I can be a little pretentious, that you pick up at university. You asked a little bit about writing a few minutes back—if you read, for example, the essays of Francis Bacon, these are the best lead sentences ever written. 'What is truth said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.' If you can find a better opening line than that, my friend, I'll turn over the whole game to you. But every essay has one of those. 'Men fear death like children fear to go into the dark.' It goes on and on and on. If you want to do commentary or write essays, all of the English speakers and English writers are there to kind of give you at least some fuel or at least something to aim at. And I think having some knowledge of both poetry and prose, from the 16th century to the 20th, would be where I would play it, that's part of your instrument also. As I was saying before, you want context? Well, that's why we have literature and history. To give us that. So journalism turns out to be a place where if you read a lot of either John Donne or Walter Pater, these are allowed to play out. Likewise, if I can advert to the kind of magazine you're doing, if you read Cardinal Newman for his clarity and beauty, there's something in there. I think Newman's idea of humanism and education and the idea of the university, that is, to my mind, extremely current.

C: One of the things that I have long maintained is that journalism has been severely damaged by the loss of the ability to begin at those kinds of beginnings—in a small town, small environment, where when you do a report on somebody, chances are very good you're going to meet them in the grocery store the next day.

RM: You hit it. I started in 1969 or 1970. I did commentary from the very beginning, but I also did interviews. I did a lot of political interviews for the supper hour show, five days a week. And if I went on—and by the way, you can say harder things in Newfoundland than you can say on national television up here today—and in the Newfoundland manner tore a cabinet minister apart, the next night you might be interviewing him. So you couldn't back off because 'oh God, I'm gonna meet him tomorrow so I'm gonna soften this up.' You have to be honest. But if you do it, it better be right. And, as you say, in the small-town environment... I remember going into a bank one morning and half the tellers came over to discuss what I had said the previous night. We had this half-hour [laughs] discussion of whether I asked the right questions or not. I mean, your feedback then—I hate that word—it was real. And you had to be real. I don't like the pack, and I don't like group journalism of any kind. Where you're giving opinions and stuff, you don't want to have fixed associations with various movements. I try to keep independent. But back in Newfoundland, they would call you up, and not just a politician. The person standing next to you when you're buying a loaf of bread would turn and say, 'That was a mess last night.' They did! It was good stuff by the way. Newfoundland's a great place to play.

C: And you have to take that seriously, because they're both your audience and your source.

RM: They are. I try to project... how does this blanket the entire audience? And I know the audiences may be narrowing, but if I say something on The National, I want it to have the same voltage for a person in St. John's as it does in Victoria. I think first of the public when I pick a topic. But you've always got to know the dynamic of communication. And I also know, despite the fact that I probably am more verbal than anything else, that a lot of communication is not verbal. Even on television or radio. They hear your voice, they hear the tone, and they decide whether this is a game being played or weather it's serious. People are extremely alert, not necessarily at an articulate level, but they get all the messages. And I've always been very alert to how deep the process of communication really is.

C: One of the first stories I ever covered as a newspaper reporter, in a small town in Alberta, was a pipe truck that killed five kids on a school bus. As I was getting out of the car at the scene, this news photographer who was born and raised in the town, he put his hand on my arm and said, 'Go slow, kid. Everybody knows everybody around here.'

RM: I can understand. One of the strongest pieces, the best piece, I ever did—two fishermen lost their lives going out at Cape Broyle Harbour. That's 30-plus years ago now. We did a half-hour on it on the show, and talked to the widow, the father, the small town. And I can say this honestly: I knew that the whole of Newfoundland was watching when it went to air. We had put the word out, we had the story... and everybody knows everybody, right? And tragedy in Newfoundland is always emblematic, because there've been so many. When families lose father and husband, that's the news. As opposed to what the opposition critic said the other day or some dirty word in the House of Commons. And you understand finally what's important and what isn't. That's another thing about this stuff that I occasionally do. I really don't take what I say all that seriously. And I don't mind being batted back, but it's one of those moments when there's something real to be said, and you have four or five of them a year. Then you try to say something that actually moves things. They're rare moments, but as you just said: the small town, that kind of background journalists were allowed to get in.

C: And the message I took from that and developed over the years is that everybody understands—this is apropos of what you were saying about the nonverbal dimension—you have a job to do. But if you do it like an arse...

RM: Oh no, you're right on. Tact. More than anything else, tact. Respect for the audience. Not just saying it because everyone says it. Think about it first. I never walk into the personal lives of people. Go back and read all the old stuff that's there. You understand that there are certain boundaries, and this also applies to the general population. You don't do things so harshly or so vulgarly that you disrespect the people to whom you're talking. Communication, as I said, is not just the words. For example, on Checkup, we try to keep that as civil as is concordant with good discussion. And people realize now, they come on there and everyone's going to be reasonably respectful. You can have a great spread of opinion, and you can really say hard things, but overall the message is that the disagreements don't have to expand into some sort of row. Courtesy has a place in public discourse. I know that's an artful way of putting it, but it's true. And that's a long-term thing. Our audience is not small, so a program that doesn't scream and has respect for all its callers—at least I think we do—other people like that. They've picked up that message. They might not like me, or they might not like what I say, but on that particular program, it's people-driven, it's caller-driven, you see that civility standard. We do try to keep it within a range of mutual respect and some civility. That's a really good thing; and once you lose it, it's very difficult to get back.

C: You've hit the trifecta of Canadian journalism with the column in the Post, the commentary on The National and then Checkup. But I'm wondering, in terms of Checkup itself, you probably get 20 to 25 calls that actually make it to air...

RM: Yeah, we get a lot. The number who try to call is immense, but it is a produced program. And so, we have to have a certain geographical reach, that's understood. You can't have 10 calls from Halifax and nothing else. So it has to be spread across the country. If we've had three from one end of it, we're going to go with the other end. And we want the topic to expand through the two hours. So if there's a new point—we're not trying to balance—but if you [can] extend the discussion, then okay, we're going to put you up higher [in the queue]. We have 1,400 or 1,500 people trying to call on a dull day, and on really hot ones, it's reached at one point 52,000 or something. But from the very beginning, I said to myself: I know what call shows are. You get your 30 or 60 seconds... If they finally get through, let them talk. Let them say what they want to say. And if someone's a bit hesitant or a bit shy or whatever, that's fine. But I give them three or four or even five minutes. Which doesn't sound like much, but in the broadcast world, that's a lot of time.

C: You essentially interview 25 people a week on the show, taking them, in a Socratic sense, through the process of answering: 'What do you mean by that?'

RM: Exactly. That's exactly what they are: 25 interviews. And that's as good a description as I've ever heard. You've got to be very alert, and you have to continuously listen, you have to really listen.

C: You do the show—you travel with the show a lot—you do that many interviews a week... Do you get a sense that Canadians know our politics well?

RM: On the local level, yes they do. I was once mixed up in some amount of politics for a couple of years, and I know that there are great delights in partisanship, too. There is useful function in partisanship, there really is. Great energies and morale and camaraderie. But when it gets extended too far, and when it becomes an enclosure, and it provokes stock response and reflex answers, then it's very negative. But people who are not in the camps, they're the smart ones. You can go to the supermarket, the coffee shop, the mall etc., and once you brush aside the formalities, people know. Communication again. I did a piece on The National before the election when the political parties put on their ads. Mr. Harper's wearing his sweater and his sweet-smile face and Mr. Ignatieff is talking in a different way. People recognize that, in the ads, none of the leaders are talking like they talk every other day. When you see them in Question Period or outside in the scrum, that is what they talk like. And then suddenly, on the ad, everybody's speaking in that hushed tone. Well, everybody—outside the politicians themselves and their camps—knows this is ludicrous. They don't buy it. And the intuition of people is extremely strong. Very strong. I think Canadians do know their own politics, but I believe because it's so much a property of the people who are in the game, that they have walked away from it as a mass. They will turn up at elections and they will summon their attention for a particular event, but it's not a cliché and it's not a stereotype to say that politics are less and less consequential and that more and more people are repulsed by it. We can't afford that.

C: In the last election, we saw an electoral change, and the Manning Centre folks have been producing data for a couple of years now showing that it's more than electoral, that there's a political and philosophical shift toward more conservative positions in Canada. Does that correspond to what you see and hear from Canadians? If so, is it a long-term shift or is it an electoral cycle shift?

RM: There always is that kind of pingpong element in politics. You have a certain bunch for a certain time, although there are exceptions: Bill Davis in Ontario, Smallwood in Newfoundland, there are others as well. There is that kind of action and reaction; the Newtonian balance of politics is always there. In Canada, I think there is a new arrangement. There will be patterns—I don't like the word paradigm—that fix on provinces or countries for either a generational or two-generational period. I think only now do we walk away from the shadows of 1945 and the six years before. That was a long, long period, and it's almost 80 years since epic upheaval. We seem to be in a period now, from China to the Middle East to America's debt and the European Union, where there's a lot of upheaval and we're waiting for the definition of the events that we are another form, another pattern. And while I don't think it's established yet and I don't know anything about the Manning Centre statistics, I do know that people are rearranging or rearticulating or redesigning their philosophies and their politics. There is something going on. I don't think we've got a fix on it, but what we used to think were the drivers of Canadian politics are not the drivers anymore. The world influences are much larger, people are much more conscious of them. Anyone with a computer is now filling him or herself with a much greater sense of the larger context than I think I would have had in 1970, say. That which is static is already gone, but this is still an emergent country, to a large degree. Immigration's obviously one part of that, but it's not the greatest of drivers even though everyone tries to tell you that. Time itself, modernity, cultural factors... there's a whole lot going on. There's a title of a good essay. There is a whole lot going on.

C: Given all that, is it still possible for Canadians to have faith in common life?

RM: Boy, do you hit it. The more that I do these things, and I do a reasonable amount of talks, it's the going back to common life, in all the richness of that word. It is the common life. It's the daily transactions. It's when you walk out of your house some morning and you nod at your neighbour, or in your office, when you meet for coffee. It's the accumulation of all these kinds of social transactions, the things you're not paying attention to, that constitute your life. The exceptions are the moments that we think of as the great memories. But the great moments are the exceptions. It is the common life. When the Americans had 9/11 and all those planes came down in Gander, it was a response of common life that gave them the three or four days of hospitality that for some of them, was one of the finest things they've ever experienced.

It didn't balance out the tragedy, that would be ludicrous, but there wasn't any planned government response. It was men and women who took other men and women into their houses and gave them clothes and fed them and gave them their cars and gave them boat rides. The great strands of this country exist at that level. It's under the politics. And you will find Liberals and Tories who are not professional Liberals and Tories... you meet them in Red Deer, Alta., or you meet them in Cape Broyle, Nfld. In the daily business, it's 'I'm going out hunting for moose' or 'I'm going out to check the farm later today.' That's life. Common life is life. I respect and understand the great claims for diversity, but let's not forget coherence, let's not forget continuities, let's not forget themes and commonness, the things we share. Our politics has to live up to the country that it seeks to administer.