Convivium was a project of Cardus 2011‑2022, and is preserved here for archival purposes.
The ConversationThe Conversation

The Conversation

Rex Murphy answers questions his way at a Convivium event in Vancouver

Rex Murphy
22 minute read

Convivium: Rex and I had lunch a while ago to talk about this event and he said, "Don't tell me what you're going to ask. I want to be impromptu." I gave him a last chance before we got up here. I have some questions written down, but he doesn't know what they are. I actually started to tell him the first question and he said, "You ask what you want. I will answer as I wish." It reminded me of a tank commander saying to a pedestrian, "Walk wherever you want. I'm going forward."

Rex, thank you very much for coming, and thank you on behalf of Cardus, Convivium, myself and Father de Souza for your wonderful support for our project. I would point out that you still have not submitted that piece on the environment that you promised us back in October 2011 when we started.

Rex Murphy: It's growing.

C: In our liturgy, we say, "Let us proclaim the mystery of faith," which I think is a wonderful, resonant, deeply rich sentence. I think what we'd like to do today is explore a little bit the mystery of Mr. Murphy. Tell us who you are. We all know you from your writing. We all know you from your TV segments. I'd like people to leave here feeling that they know you...

RM: If they don't like me, they can just leave. [Laughter.]

C: Where do you see yourself fitting on the political spectrum? I don't mean in a partisan sense, but you've been described as a right-wing roundhead and a conservative apologist, and yet you have a background as a Liberal...

RM: Well, I want to do a couple things first, because I haven't been doing anything yet — and I will get to your question, but I cannot neglect that superlative eulogium that Father de Souza just gave [as an introduction] and I have to mention that's one of the finest forms that you're going to see, and strictly better than anything that's going to happen from now on in. [Laughter.] You've already got the best of this act.

Secondly, I want to say it, because he won't say it, which is one of the most useless expressions... I'm only here because this guy, I'm serious, is actually so damn nice. I'm not here for any other reason. It's because Peter asked me to be here and it's because I just like him that I'm here.

Thirdly, I want to throw a line over to Stockwell Day over there... This is a gentleman that, in his leadership and subsequent times, went into politics and didn't surrender his character at any point. I think that's worth acknowledging. I wanted to throw that out. [Applause.]

Now I'm about to get to the question, but there's still one more thing. I understand that this is a Cardus event, Convivium, and that it involves centrally, even though you may approach it tangentially, matters of faith, matters of religion, matters of good conduct, good deeds.

Yesterday, in this same city, more or less the anticlimax in advance of today's events, we had Hillary Clinton, who will be going through perdition and everlasting iniquity.

Now, going to Peter's question. I have never liked — and I can speak seriously about this in all candour. Oh yeah, one final thing. Every word you'll hear from me today has been piped into my ear from the lips of the captain of the Exxon Valdez. Be of no doubt. Be of no doubt. This is straight from the poop deck.

I've always had... it's a Newfoundland trait of my father. My father was an independent cuss. My grandfather was very independent. We're Irish. We're moody. We don't like groups. I rarely join any. I still won't. I have no partisan bias and I really, really don't. It's vanity. I'm not even making it a virtue. I'm too proud to join something else. I like to be independent, and I think the purpose of education, I mean real education — this will slide into this very easily — does only one thing: It fills you with a certain amount of knowledge and it trains your mind.

Your mind is the only possession, really, that you have. The mind that can discriminate, can evaluate, that can make contrast, that can make judgments, that can sweep over a certain range either historic or in another territory, and come to its own conclusions, is the only reason that we're here. Independence in that sense is the ultimate virtue, and it is the beginning of a kind of courage.

Education that isn't the slavering out of pre-cooked stews, of attitudes, but is the sharpening of the mind, an introduction to those things that have been thought and said, or the peaks of culture, or the energies of the exertions of people before us, those who sweated brows and broke their backs to build what we have.

If I am a fundamentalist, it's in one thing. I think we're born to exercise our own character, which is not just mind. It is mind and spirit, through training. It's no good having a flush of feelings and feeling good. It's a cold thing. We have a democracy. We have an independent slant on things. The thing I most despise in the current culture — and I use my words deliberately, I despise it — is the continuous genuflection to the opinion of your neighbour, this idea that you're afraid to find out what someone else might be thinking, and if it's not the same as what you are, then be quiet about it. This is the greatest surrender of all that we learned over so many sacrifices and so many generations.

So to go right to your question, I'm not partisan. There are times I go to the Conservative side only because I see some tidal wave going the other way. If I see someone like Stephen Harper... I'm not a particular fan of Mr. Harper's and never, in any direct sense, could I claim to have met him.... And I can understand people really disliking his policies, disliking them intensely. But I do not understand how you can have this visceral hostility as if he's a cross between Attila the Hun and Lady Thatcher. I mean, it just isn't there.

If he was your neighbour, you'd figure he was a whore, a very intelligent one, but a whore. [Laughter.] But he's not. He's not some demonic figure as you would think if you read some of the Twitterocracy of this world. That is a lack of reason. And it passes for wisdom. This is insane.

Al Gore is coming here soon. Do you know — I'm going to throw it out — he was worshipped at the Academy Awards... Nobel Prizes... because he wants to save the world from catastrophic global warming. He bought a TV channel for 12 million bucks. I think they had 1,100 viewers. I have more when I hang my underwear out on the line. He sold it, recently, this year. This is not rumour. This is not gossip. He sold it for $500 million. He bought it for 12. He sold it to Qatar. It's a sheikdom, a dictatorship. It runs Al Jazeera, but it isn't allowed to be shown in its own country. [Gore] has, look it up, $100 million personal profit for the sale of an empty channel to the second highest oilproducing country on the damn globe. And they're inviting him to give TED Talks. This is irrational.

Anyone who now speaks about Al Gore is thrown into the same clump as — it's appalling... I'm being very serious — they actually haul out the word denier. Six million people, men, women and children, tortured by the most fanatic regime that ever existed, centred utterly on hate, and I have a difference with another human being about the temperature reading and I'm a denier?

So. I'm independent. I think.

C: Independent. Perhaps you could extrapolate a little on that word.... [Laughter.]

RM: I like where we live. I think we've built something in the country that requires defence, not apology. There have been many, many errors in this society, but no society is without many, many, many errors. Sitting in this room, in this city, you're at the pinnacle, admit it, of a civilization. Peter's holding an iPad that 15 years ago didn't exist. Fifty years ago, if he had shown up in some outport in Newfoundland with it, they'd have probably burned him at the stake.

The gallop of progress has been so vast.... When my mother had a child, she had it in her own house. I had a heart attack three years ago. It killed my father at the same age. They've done things to me I couldn't read about in science fiction when he was alive. We are at the pinnacle and we treat it so casually, and we let the spurious and the secondrate, the unthought through, the uncontested, peer opinion, slobbery science, intimidate us with their opinions. This is insane.

The argument that you can slam the people who are advocates of or allegiant to the predominant wisdom of the religion of Western civilization as if it was just dirt, I never got it.

My mother was a great Catholic, really great. I don't know where I am, but I know where the dark places lie. My mother was a human being, an excellent human being, first class human being. I won't see her slandered, even extraneously. She's no longer here. When did it become a licence to attack the centre of what built the thing we have? Really. You can only evacuate the values of a society if you intend the society to be thrown away.

If I have a regard for your movement, if I have regard for your ideas, it's because there's not a shyness among you, as people of belief, of saying, "I'm spiritual. I have a soul."

Did you ever listen to Beethoven? Or Bach? Or study great mathematicians? Or see an earnest man making an honest dollar and understanding the kind of integrity that comes from being just? There's beauty almost in all things, but we seem to degrade, push away, apologize.

I promised today not to give a talk. I'm a liar. I'll stop.

C: You're a man of words. You're a journalist of long standing. You began in politics but...

RM: I don't like to think I'm a journalist. I don't really. I like to say that I bear the same relation to journalism as a streetwalker does to the department of highways. [Laughter.]

C: I'm not sure there's a Canadian alive who would agree. Maybe a few, but none worth paying attention to. You once wrote a summary sentence, for me, anyway, of the media world. It was apropos of what passes for a sex scandal in Canada, now long forgotten. A minister had left...

RM: Oh, yeah.

C: ...his cabinet briefs — you couldn't make it up — at his buxom girlfriend's place and it erupted into the scandal of the week or the month. You wrote this incredible sentence about it: "Cleavage is catnip to a vigilant press." [Laughter.] It was like Tiger Woods driving a billiard ball through a stained glass window for both its economy of language but also the way it just keeps spreading across the horizon, capturing the fundamental — I'll use the word idiocy — of so much that passes for journalism these days. I wonder, in regard to what you just said, are we doomed to a culture of triviality, driven by the media but also accepted by all of us as citizens, as consumers, as...

RM: No. No. Your own organization is proof that we are not. I really do think there are things more fundamental, believe it or not, than Twitter. Really. We all know the schools. I don't know how people forget this, and again I'm serious. I really don't know how they forget... And our schools might not now be what they should be, but they are schools. To take 12 years to graduate, to survive formation, acquire mental discipline, mental strength, tension, exposure to all that, exposure to thoughts, not trends, not attitudes.

We have many attitude factories that pretend they're schools, but schools are training. We also have colleges, universities. These are the great counterweights to trivia, if there is to be a counterweight to trivia. And our own discipline. We can't all just throw it out to external factors. Thomas Aquinas still lives. I read last night Walter Pater. I wouldn't recommend him for the morals, but it's 100 years ago. He's still there. He wrote wonderful essays.

What I'm saying is, there's this great counterweight to our minds and our characters, and also we have families. These are great counterweights, and when you have a faith, and if you're not apologizing about it or ashamed about it, the weight of intellection, shared intellection, in the faith. Not just the Christian faith. I mean hermeneutics, I presume, is a legacy of the Jewish faith, and therefore all of the stuff that I like to do as a hobby, you know, exegesis of the literary materials, is a gift from that other tradition.

We've also had that way in our own great analytic tradition. So while the media is out there, it is a tidal wave of gush, of trash, and in the main it is. I mean, if you watch the Academy Awards and walk away with even a neuron left in your brain, you're stronger than I am. This stuff is not even good tripe. I mean, it really isn't. Now, when you watch wrestling alligators, they call it prime-time television. When did this happen?

There's the other side of this. Flick the computer on and the Gutenberg Project makes every single classic available. Right now, I could quote an obscure line from Milton and if I type five words, not the first lines of the poem but dead centre, obscure, I could call up "Paradise Regained" with the snap of a finger and read it on an airplane. I mean, we have glories and opportunities at our fingertips. You could be living in Bona Vista and have better library services than if you were in Memorial University, right dead centre in the university library. This is all available to us now.

To go to the point, the thing that allies me, I think, temperamentally with what you guys are doing is you're trying to resubstantiate the strength of fidelity, the gifts that come from understanding and appreciating the invisible things. You know it's character. You know it's home, you know it's tradition, intellectual and cultural. You know it's the greater achievements.

Don't tell me that the urinal hanging in the art gallery is the same as the Sistine Chapel, because it isn't. Stop this. "‘What is truth?' said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer. Because Pilate's question was put to Truth itself, that deigned him no reply." We don't even ask the question anymore, and certainly if we ask it, we are jesting, because no one wants to hear it. But it's plain, it's simple, it's there, and it's been recognized for eons.

But in this new world, we change our minds about what's right and wrong six times a second. At the end of whatever day it is, you're afraid to name things anymore. But did you realize that when Mr. Putin wandered into Crimea, the American presidential office called it an "uncontested arrival"? When we had a cold spell — you never heard this word in your lives before — they called it a "polar vortex." And you actually said, "Oh yes, yes. It's the polar vortex."

Where in the name of God did you get that? It's winter. [Laughter and applause.] The entire continent is frozen. We have an ice age coming, folks, and Al Gore is coming down to give a TED Talk. That'll stop the sheep. We have become trivial. We don't test. We don't nurse the things that really should count. I find, and again I'm not a religious person in an emphatic way, but I mean it when I say, "I must read Biblically, or read Bibles, new and old." I'm reading it also as a form of...literature. It is so powerful.

I don't know when was the last time we read the wonderful, the magnificent, the rhetorical questions of Job, but I don't know where you get more power of expressiveness that the human mind somehow or other could find these tremendous images and questions. It is unbelievable the level of expressiveness. Even Milton, who is, outside of Shakespeare, the greatest mind in English literature, said the Hebrew melodies were his great source, meaning the Old Testament Psalms, the Song of Solomon, the great hymns, the sounds themselves and, of course, the great prophets.

And so...you want to watch Jerry Springer? I often think, you know, we have a short spell, all flesh is grass and it fades. There is so much there, why waste your time? Even if you can't do the things that these people can do, and most of us can't, we can at least immerse our spirits and we can defend the things that we have built.

There's my core. There's a core of power in our own approach to the things that our forefathers and mothers have done. This is the minute that we exist. We should be in some sort of rhapsody of thanksgiving that of all times and all places that we should exist, it should be here. Instead, we run around as if we have committed the depradations of centuries and somehow feel guilt, whatever that is in this context.

If you are saving someone from a heart attack, is that something to be guilty about? If you've got 100,000 people working on an oil project, are you supposed to apologize for it? Do you know what it means not to have work? I do. I know a hell of a lot of people who don't have work today. There's nothing more spiritually enervating aside from death than having no job. The smartasses who tell you that we're hurting the goddamn earth don't think of the poor man, woman, family that hasn't got a job. They laugh at his dignity and they grind up fundraisers under the guise of being.... That's the other thing: The Calvinism of the secular set is despicable.

I wanted to kind of mitigate my language here. [Laughter.]

C: You've done a wonderful job of that, Rex. Mitigation is your middle name: Rex Mitigation Murphy. You said over lunch yesterday — and this is the kind of thing that, when you have lunch with Rex, actually comes with the fish soup — that the only thing radical these days is defence of tradition.

RM: Oh, it is, absolutely. I don't think I'm wrong. If you really want to show courage, try standing up for Fundamentalist Christians. I am not one, by the way. But I don't want to see them mocked.

If you really want an example of this mass psychosis — and I know I'm going out on yet another limb — try to have a rational discussion about anthropogenic catastrophic global warming. These are the key terms. I'm not denying climate change. I grew up in Newfoundland. It's all climate change. There's never one single consecutive day of the same weather. I know climate change. But I don't believe Al Gore. Okay? Really! The grip that fantasy has had on people and the industry, the billions from government and others to support a positive that doesn't want to be tested. I know what science is. I know what procedures of scientific inquiry are. I know that one question kills any hypothesis if it can't stand. This is the only scientific hypothesis that's not supposed to be challenged. If it's hot, cold, dry, wet, June or December — it's all global warming.

Germany is bankrupting itself with solar panels. Dear God. Go to Alberta. Go to Ontario. They cancelled gas plants at a billion dollars a throw, even as they're putting mirrors on the top of [buildings] and, oh yeah, they're growing lettuce on the top of them here in Vancouver. If God wanted ferns on skyscrapers, he would've made them first.

Anyway. Sorry. I get easily carried away.

C: You mentioned yesterday that Al Gore, your friend Al Gore, has a house that uses as much electricity as Czechoslovakia. I couldn't find that fact on Google, but I did discover that Czechoslovakia doesn't exist anymore, and hasn't for several years.

RM: [Laughter.] Used to. As much as it used when it existed. It's a hell of a big house.

C: You have found yourself under attack over a speech you gave defending the oil industry's right to extract and sell the entirely legal product it uses to keep our society running. What I wanted to ask you is, there was a writer I read on the appropriately named yahoo.ca who said, "If it turns out Rex Murphy has been taking money from the oil industry that he defends on CBC, it will be a big scandal." How big a scandal is it and what are you doing about it?

RM: I'm not doing very much. I've spoken [publicly] ever since I was 16. I've spoken to nurses, doctors, farmers, fishermen, librarians, physicists...once by mistake to a gathering of proctologists. I've spoken to the news media, I've spoken to APEC, I've spoken to Negev dinners, I've spoken to Catholic associations. I've spoken to more teachers than anybody in this room. I spoke to 17,000 teachers in Saskatchewan alone.

I've spoken under fee because I was invited and I'm almost always — I don't care if this sounds like bragging — the keynote. No one ever says there's a problem with me talking to the proctologists or the teachers.

I've spoken God knows everywhere. I mean, every province, up north, you name it. By the way, most people take the speeches pretty good. At the end, not a single word of protest or criticism. I get invited to the Bennett Jones Forum, hosted by the biggest law firm in downtown Calgary. Two premiers are speaking, four heads of oil companies, and they ask me would I mind speaking on that panel. For money. I said, "My friend, you won't have to ask twice."

Here's my point: I go over there, and you know something? I'm telling you the truth — I really don't care if people believe it or not. I am telling you the truth, though. I wanted to go to say what I had to say more than to collect the really fat fee. Believe me. Because I have a real problem, and I still have it, and I spoke before that particular gathering on this same thing. I saw a Newfoundlander...Newfoundland had a fish crisis in 1991, '92, '93. When we closed down the East Shore Fishery, 31,000 people were out of work in a single day. Translate that to proportionate numbers in Ontario; it's 600,000 people.

Imagine if you picked up the Globe and Mail some morning — I hope you don't — and saw that 600,000 had been laid off in southern Ontario. We'd still be talking about it. Then, providentially or otherwise, an oil boom was going on in Alberta and people like my closest friend, destroyed by the three or four years that he didn't work, got divorced, gave his house to his wife — because we're fairly civilized down there and when they break up, they do those things — and was living in a basement, wife and family dispersed, hitting the damn video slot machines. He was 51.

You know something? I'll make the story real quick, but he stands for 30,000 and more. He upgraded himself. I gave him a ticket. I don't want to be personal here. He went to Calgary. Went up, way up north, past Edmonton. Took more training, took risks, went to Africa on the rigs, became a safety operator in Nigeria. Then he found work again. His wife returned. His son operates heavy equipment in Alberta with a Grade 11 education. The daughter is married to a farmer in Saskatchewan. My buddy is having, at 62 or 63, one of the finest periods of his life.

His integrity is renewed, his dignity, his family. Where did that come from? It came from the oil sands. You're going to apologize for it? That's what I said at the Bennett Jones Forum. That's the thing that's made me something of a target. Nothing more bold than to defend what is obvious. Anyone who apologizes and wants to say, "Oh, my God, here's a scar on the earth and National Geographic might take a bad picture," may they go to Hell.

My apt words here. Go to Pope John Paul II. What was his legacy injunction? Be not afraid. Well, in religious terms, it's a deeper form of courage. Okay? I accept that it is a deeper courage in religion. But I'm also saying in secular terms, you got something good. Why are you apologizing for it? Why are we apologizing for the oil? Where did we get this defensive attitude?

Newfoundland... Newfoundland suffered a rescue and so many people found honest work. I said that also in that speech. I said, "Working is better than not working. Dignity is better than no dignity. Being self-reliant is better than having a cheque given to you." Am I supposed to apologize for that? Do you think they instructed me? Have I got news for you. No.

C: My daughter, who I told you has a mad crush on Newfoundland, spent the summer there, and she thinks it's God's best place.

RM: She's wise beyond her years.

C: She's wise. She's the smartest one in the family. She was listening to you host Cross Country Checkup and she heard an elderly, or what sounded like an elderly, woman calling in who got a little lost in what she was trying to say. And my daughter said, her description of it, was that you responded to the woman as if she'd asked you for directions to the local bakery and you not only gave her directions but took her there by the arm and bought her a cup of tea and a scone. You took her along with, the word my daughter used to describe it was, courtesy...

RM: Oh, yes.

C: ...immense courtesy. Do we have that kind of courtesy anymore, not just in journalism but elsewhere? That kind of courtesy comes from a way of life. It comes from a particular way of being raised. It comes from a way of being formed. You were telling us earlier about how memorizing the Catechism helped you intellectually. Do we have a way of life that sustains that level of courtesy within our common life?

RM: Oh, no, no, no. This is part of the longer thread. Civility. It means civilization. This is why we work to build up harmonies, civilities. We build up common tasks among ourselves. We want to be able to go back and forth and both enjoy and contest each other's company and yet, within the folds of human exchange and human discipline. Civility.

If Cross Country Checkup has a virtue, and I think it does, the only thing...it's not the topic of the week, it never is. Every now and then when there is a person like that elderly lady — I know the one you mean; I can hear the conversation in my mind — I don't care what she's talking about. I just love the fact that this woman is so damn good and she is so balanced, and so you let her go. There's more to that example than a million commentaries. There's more to just hearing a decent human voice saying things in a simple way, non-exciting things, and not doing some vulgar trick to gain advantage. She was just being herself.

Do you apologize for that? But there are industries, there are firms, and I keep coming back to that because I think a lot of people have brought it inside their own mentality, that somehow the thing that actually runs the civilization, it's the minerals and oil. Otherwise, we'd be back somewhere where we wouldn't want to be. I mean, you might not like the processes, but I'm sorry, everyone in this room, we all benefit from it.

The human qualities, they'll only thrive.

By the way, in journalism, no, no, journalism is gone, I think. I'm not an old man saying things because of that. Journalism has definitely gone off the path. The courtesies are not there. The love for language isn't there. I mean, the sheer joy in cleverness without vulgarity. Now it's concocted outrage. My little thing is as much, you know, the politics of the day, the ludicrous Sierra Club types. They are more politicians than the politicians. Someone puts up a sign that says "I'm an environmentalist." That's not a neutral description. That's an activist. He or she is just as much a politician as someone running for office, and I want scrutiny on them as I want scrutiny on the companies. If that's not fair, too bad.

C: There's something that I'm personally anxious to know and it begins with a reference you made to Mayor Rob Ford's difficulties. You said of an explanation he had given about his troubles: "If a sentence that you utter ends with the phrase ‘drunken stupor,' and you think that phrase lightens or lessens what you said at the beginning of the sentence, it is a sign that it might be time to give up on sentences altogether."

RM: Yes, I did.

C: When I heard you say that, stupidity and stupor and drunken antics aside, I thought of you as a man of sentences. You're a man to whom sentences genuinely matter, as we've seen today. They matter as much to you as they mattered to George Orwell or to Oscar Wilde or to....

RM: Well, they certainly matter. They matter a hell of a lot. My old man was unfortunate. He had a Grade 3 education. He lost his parents. He grew up in the Depression. He got a job in the woods. He worked hard all his life. I could see, when I finally grew up, that he realized he wasn't dumb or stupid. He realized he had a talent, but he had an amputation — and that's a good word for it — at the very beginning of his life. He wasn't bitter. I never heard a word of lament from the man's face. But he knew he had been excised from the great stem of what I can call civilization. He wouldn't speak like this. He kept it in himself. Not bitter, but how sad it must be, tragic. He came at the wrong time. There were no schools, especially in those days. He went through all his life knowing that 15 years later, or maybe in a different province even, he could have tasted literature himself.

If anything, you know, I'm kind of a delayed impulse action. I do love sentences. The best journalist we had in the modern ages, a journalist of faith, better than Orwell, is Malcolm Muggeridge. Chronicles of Wasted Time is so good, I've read it eight or nine times and I'd read it again.

C: Can you give me assurance, and I think probably everyone else in the room would like it, that you're not going to be giving up on sentences altogether any time soon?

RM: I don't know. Again, I don't like to be personal. I really don't. I don't overvalue what I do. It's okay. It's fun. It's better than work. I really don't think it's all that consequential, but I am a little bit despairing. I mean, I'm glad Father de Souza's here, because he says things in the National Post that I know the majority "ear" doesn't like to hear. But we should not be too concerned about our own opinions. There's so much secondhand opinion. I watched in disbelief when they built the great oil platforms. I looked at one as it was being built. Do you know what goes into constructing an offshore oil platform that then goes 200 miles up into the North Atlantic and stays there? The complexity, the level of intellectual and engineering and scientific achievement is what should impress us. Oil platforms are more complicated than the moon shot. They should be on the stamps.

But if you say "oil platform," oh my God, you've committed a crime. Here are my last sentences: Be independent because that's what God intended you to be. And if you don't like the idea of religion, you're in a democracy, that's what your country wants of you. Being free is not being able to walk back and forth. It's being able to think. And if we're not able to say what we think, what was all this about?

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