Monthly Archives: July 2011

Saturday Night at the Movies: “Videodrome”

With the recent centenary of Marshall McLuhan’s birth, it’s worth noting his presence in popular culture, a sustained example of which is David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. Brian O’Blivion, the film’s mad guru of physical transformation by way of electronic media, was inspired by McLuhan.

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We are on the brink of global economic crisis because the Republicans are now morally insane. If you want to understand why this is happening, check out the eight second clip above of Mitch McConnell (R-Ky) articulating the Republicans’ underlying agenda. This is not a slip of the tongue. He’s said it a number of times, as recently as last week.

Andrew Sullivan offers an endgame scenario, whose goal may be impeachment:

They did the last Democratic president; and they feel even more strongly that this one is illegitimate, depite his thumping majority in the last election. Here’s the scenario. The House GOP pushes for  completely unserious Boehner plan (including a balanced budget amendment) that they know will be vetoed; they then filibuster the Reid plan in the Senate, forcing Obama to invoke a 14th Amendment executive prerogative, which they will then turn around and impeach him for.

Far-fetched? I hope so. But every time you think you have reached the end of Republican extremism, they manage to move further out of the solar system. But it will take a huge effort by the propaganda machine on the right to make Obama’s decision not to default his fault, rather than the GOP’s. At this point, if the Reid plan cannot make it through the Senate on time or through the House at all, I’m beginning to believe that Obama should invoke this controversial power, given the extreme danger the stalemate is creating for both the US and the global economy, and challenge the courts to reverse it.

I suspect it would be popular among Independents. And allow Obama to regain the initiative over events dictated by a single faction in one party in one chamber whose fanaticism is only matched by their irresponsibility.

Jim Bronskill on Breaking the Frye/RCMP Story

I asked Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill about how he discovered the RCMP’s Frye file. His response:

I cover security and intelligence issues for the Canadian Press, and take special interest in the historical dimensions of the beat. As a result, I examine old RCMP security files to see what names crop up. In some cases, there are entirely separate files on those individuals. The dossiers — if kept for posterity and transferred to Library and Archives Canada — can be obtained through the Access to Information Act twenty years after a person’s death. It is a bit of a guessing game to determine which people the Mountie spies kept files on. But when you zero in on one, it can provide telling glimpses of state security practices and the tenor of the times.

That’s certainly true in this instance. Despite the distressing twenty percent of Canadians who think it was acceptable for the RCMP to spy on Frye, the commentators at the Globe & Mail‘s website do not share that view by a pretty considerable margin.

Some examples:

What sort of country spies on its best and brightest?


Tommy Douglas – now Northrop Frye?

Is that what we pay taxes for? – spying on Canadian leaders who openly and democraticaly oppose the economic and political elties?


And soon all Canadian’s will be spied on starting this fall – when the Cons bring in legislation requiring your Internet company to keep a record of all your online activity

… which will be accessible to the police WITHOUT warrant.

Scary stuff.

(Don’t criticize anyone too much!)


Here are a couple of people who are clearly twenty percenters:

Intelligence organizations can’t leave people off the radar just because they are intelligent. Many intelligent people are complete lunatics. The Norwegian sniper is a good example.


Never heard of him and I’m guessing the majority of Canadians haven’t either.


Frye on Privacy, Cont’d

“The whole appeal of Sherlock Holmes,” Frye writes, “was connected with his ability to notice ordinary details. Here again is the dialectic between the all-seeing eye of God & of the spy of the state with his ‘telescreen.'” In Anatomy of Criticism Frye links the telescreen with the “humiliation of being watched by a hostile or derisive eye,” a theme in the tragedies of such figures as Prometheus and Milton’s Samson.

I’m reminded of two stories from Frye’s early life, one more or less innocent, the other malicious.

When he was a student circuit rider on the Saskatchewan prairies, he reported that whenever his horse Katy “broke into a trot you had to stand straight up in the stirrups and let the saddle come up and caress your backside at intervals. I remember something that I found later in a Canadian critic, I think it was Elizabeth Waterson, who spoke of the prairies as the sense of immense space with no privacy. And I found that on top of Katy, who naturally stimulated one’s bladder very considerably. I realized that I couldn’t get off in that vast stretch of prairie because everybody was out with opera glasses, you see, watching the preacher on top of Katy. That was what people did. They all had spy glasses. They weren’t doing it with any malicious sense. It was just that their lives were rather devoid of incident, and naturally they liked to see who was going along. It wasn’t their fault.”

And now the sinister tale, recorded by Frye in one of his diaries:

“I often wonder about intuitive racial-stereotype thinking: a lot of it’s balls. For instance, there’s a big good-natured German in Moncton called Lichtenberg who had been a peaceful, thrifty, industrious contractor there for thirty years. For two wars the local Gestapo have cut their teeth on him: when the news is bad or they get tired of reading spy stories they’d go up and practise on him. Recently the Gestapo combed his whole house over, in response to some silly anonymous ‘tip,’ & one of them found two large knobs in a dark closet. ‘Aha!’ he said, stepped into the closet & gave one a twist, thinking of course it was a private transmitter set. It was an extra shower he’d installed. Incidentally, he’s a naturalized Canadian citizen, but married before that, so his wife, who belongs to one of the oldest Maritime families, is an enemy alien. Well, Dad’s friendship for Lichtenberg has come in for much unfavorable comment in that stinking little kraal Moncton, & the stinkers point out gleefully that ‘Frye’ is really a German name, & that I look just like a German. It’s a beautiful theory, only it just happens to be wrong.”

Frye on Privacy

Thanks to Jim Bronskill of the Canadian Press, we now know that the RCMP kept a classified dossier on Frye between 1960 and 1972. Here he is on privacy and the free mind:

If certain tendencies within our civilization were to proceed unchecked, they would rapidly take us towards a society which, like that of a prison, would be both completely introverted and completely without privacy. The last stand of privacy has always been, traditionally, the inner mind. . . A society entirely controlled by slogans and exhortations would be introverted, because nobody would be saying anything; there would only be echo, and Echo was the mistress of Narcissus. It would also be without privacy because it would frustrate the effort of the healthy mind to develop a view of the world which is private but not introverted, accommodating itself to opposing views. (CW 11, 20)

RCMP Spied on Frye

The Canadian Press has turned up the RCMP’s covert dossier on Frye. The only reassuring thing about it is the comical stupidity of the investigators:

Canada’s intelligence service spied on renowned literary scholar Northrop Frye, closely eyeing his involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement, an academic forum on China and efforts to end apartheid in South Africa.

Newly released archival records show the RCMP Security Service relied on a secret informant to help compile a 142-page file on the esteemed University of Toronto professor, who died in 1991 at age 78.

Every inch the owlish, bespectacled academic, Frye seems an unlikely counter-intelligence target.

But the Mounties, wary of anyone deemed influential among the burgeoning New Left, amassed hundreds of thousands of files during the Cold War — monitoring key institutions such as universities, the media, churches and political organizations.

The scandal-ridden RCMP spy agency was disbanded in 1984 and replaced by the civilian Canadian Security Intelligence Service.

The Canadian Press obtained the intelligence dossier on Frye from Library and Archives Canada under the Access to Information Act. RCMP files on individuals can be disclosed only 20 years after the person’s death.

The material covers the years 1960 through 1972, after Frye had forged a reputation as one of the pre-eminent western intellectuals.

Several pages of the Frye file — though close to half a century old — were completely withheld from release because they contain personal information about others or material still deemed sensitive to Canada’s security.


The Mounties seemed to first take note of Frye in 1960, when he served as a sponsor of the Toronto Disarmament Committee. In 1963, the RCMP flagged Frye’s participation — along with luminaries including communications theorist Marshall McLuhan and political scientist C.B. Macpherson — in the planned Norwegian quarterly Co-existence.

A three-page March 1967 memo detailed Frye’s biographical details, relying on a secret source for information about his wife.

The investigator noted Frye “has come to our attention” on a number of occasions, including involvement in a letter questioning Canada’s complicity in the Vietnam conflict, and his role on the honourary board of an international educational forum — or “teach-in” — on China at the University of Toronto in 1966.

“Our source felt his participation gave the Teach-in a note of credibility,” says the RCMP memo.


The 1967 biographical memo, prepared by an RCMP constable, reveals that at least one thing stumped the spies.

“At the present time, we are unable to ascertain what the initial ‘H’ stands for in Frye’s name.”


Though he took a progressive stand on issues of the day, including the battle against racial segregation in South Africa, Frye expressed skepticism about the left-wing student movement flowering on campuses in the ’60s.

He told a convocation address in Wolfville, N.S., in 1969 that demonstrations would soon wither away, with little to show for the marches and placard-waving.

The next month he would write in a Toronto newspaper column, collected in his RCMP file, that many forms of social action, “on the campus and off it, are either purely symbolic or forms of private enterprise that show a touching belief in advertising and publicity stunts.”

(Photo: The Canadian Press)

Summer Hours

The Beach Boys, “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”

Sorry. This post should have gone up last Sunday on a timer, but I set it wrong. My disappearance was just some much-needed time off. After keeping the blog every day for two years, I was in need of a break — a getaway, as it turns out.

We’ll be posting intermittently rather than daily over the next little while, and perhaps take a full two weeks off in the middle of August.

That doesn’t mean there’s nothing going on behind the scenes. We’re giving our library and journal a major upgrade, which will make them more user-friendly. We think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

We will also be adding a new full-length work, a major addition to Frye scholarship. We know you’ll be pleasantly surprised by that too.

In the meantime, as we approach our second anniversary, we are asking for your feedback. This year is the lead up to the Frye centenary, and we of course are looking to make our own contribution, however modest. The first thing to do, therefore, is to find out how we might do it better. Your comments and suggestions are welcome.

Our readership is strong and we hope as we enter our third year it will get stronger. However, I’m assuming that a good portion of that readership has slipped into the wholesome recreations of summer. Enjoy. Peek in on us now and again, and we’ll see you fully up and running in September.

TGIF: “Mom Jeans”

In a recent column in The New Yorker, Susan Orlean wondered “why mom jeans?” She can provide the why. The how and the when, however, come, once again, from SNL, and the familiar cohort of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Rachel Dratch.